Southampton seems quite an international city! Not that you run into people of different nationalities all the time (for some reason mainly Chinese) but a lot of programs and events are available to make internationals feel welcomed and less home sick.
In the welcome package from my halls of residence, I was given a flyer for an organization called Friends International that had announcements of several events during the term to get to know the English culture, history and most importantly people.
There was a culture course starting this Friday which seemed quite serious and therefore interesting to me J It was to take place on the last weekend before lectures start and thus seemed an opportunity not to be missed.
As the event was taking place at someone’s house, I thought that I shouldn't go there empty handed as it’s the habit in Egypt. So I stopped in the way and picked a pack of apple pies which looked delicious (and cheap...GBP 1 for 6 small pies!).
I reached the place easily, rang the door and was warmly greeted by our host and his lovely granddaughter. The first puzzle though was to get off my shoes or not! I’m personally used to taking off my shoes but I know people in the “West” usually don’t, however when I stepped into the house some were wearing their shoes and others not so I just asked our host who said “I’m putting my shoes on, usually our Chinese guests take them off, so whatever you like” and I chose the Chinese way J
The living room was very welcoming and very well-arranged to accommodate a moderate number of people. When Richard, our retired history teacher host, knew I’m Egyptian he showed my 3 glass pyramids which he brought when he visited Egypt with Margaret his wife and thankfully they had very good memories there!
Shortly after our very diverse group, with a lot of people from China and others from Italy, Netherlands, Vietnam, the USA, and Indonesia, chatted for a while I was surprised that dinner will be served. I was expecting a proper cup of English tea and may be some biscuits J
Before serving the dinner Margaret, who is probably 70 years old, came to me and leaned on her knees to ask if I’d like the vegetarian meal (she's probably made that guess as I’m wearing a hijab) and advised that I stand at the beginning of the queue because others who might not be vegetarian may find it nice and I end up with no dinner. I didn’t find it strange that they prepared a vegetarian meal as it’s an “international” event but I found it very thoughtful anyways.
Before eating, Richard very politely said that they’re a Christian family and so they are used to saying prayers before meals to thank God and ask for his blessings and called everyone to do what suits them and made clear that they needn't share at all in this ritual.
Finally and after a nice variety of traditional English desserts or puddings as they call them, Richard started telling us about how England became a nation focusing on King Alfred, the Great. It was a very amusing talk, with Richard’s sense of humor and funny comments every now and then about the English people. The talk included how Christianity was brought to England and it was obvious from Richard’s tone and words how proud he’s of his religion.
The night concluded with announcements about upcoming events by Friends International, including Christianity lessons delivered every Wednesday evening in Highfield church during which a meal will be served.
For the whole evening I couldn't resist the thought that they’re doing all this to invite people to Christianity and as someone who comes from a society deeply believing in conspiracy theory I thought of how free meals and tours are all part of it….well that was a joke!
They've shown respect to everyone present regardless of who they are, where they come from and what faith they have. Even if this is meant to invite people into Christianity, because they believe it’s the right way to God, I find that they’re entitled to and whoever is listening should always think for herself and decide what makes sense for her and what doesn't!
In the end they say it out loud on their website “We are a Christian charity, and offer our services to international students of any faith or none” and this touched on ground.
Next time I’ll tell you more about Winchester and its ancient cathedral (BTW every city whose name ends with “chester” means it was a Roman military base in the past ;).
Know more about Friends International here http://www.fisuk.org/soton/