Monday, February 11, 2013

Dinner Banter

At dinner with a group of friends, a long narrow table in one of a handful of Italian restaurants in Riyadh.

“You seem, I don’t know, down,” says Noelle, from across the table. I slowly lift the apple juice beside me, pull the cocktail napkin from under it, and replace the glass on the naked surface.

“I’m mostly fine,” I reply, opening the napkin to its full extent. “It’s just that this city is starting to get to me, a little.”

“What’s the problem?”

Finding the centre of the napkin -- the convergence of the folds that remember the paper’s former size -- I fold one of the corners in to meet this cross, and say: “Nothing specific.” I crease the fold, being careful to keep the corner of the napkin unerringly centred. “And I think that’s just it.” I fold another corner to meet the first. “It’s just, shall we say, emotionally taxing, living in Riyadh.”

“Want to talk about it?”

“Well there’s nothing to really talk about, beyond abstractions and generalities.” I rotate the napkin for better access to the last two corners. “I’ve just begun to feel that this city is a bit of a drain on my, let’s say, good will.”

Noelle nods, says: “I know what you mean,” and stops, offering space in the silence for me to continue.

The four corners of the napkin now meeting in the centre, the delicate paper is half area it was a few moments ago. I start again, folding the new corners in to the centre once more. “May I offer an analogy?” I say, tilting my chin up between folds to make eye contact.

“Of course.”

“It feels a little like this: emotional health seems to me like a bucket, being filled at the top, and draining away at the bottom. For most people, this bucket is being drained -- just by the nature of life, of having to function in a world that isn’t a 1950’s sit-com -- drained at a fairly constant rate. Whether or not one’s life is easy, it is never completely uncomplicated. But at the same time, it’s being filled up -- by whatever happens, big-or-small, that serves to validate our unrequested existence.”

“That makes sense.”

“Good to hear.” I smile slightly. “Now here’s the issue: even though things happen that might drain this existential reservoir -- a death in the family, to offer an unimaginative example -- the fact is that, if we live in an environment which offers sufficent emotional fulfillment, we have enough in that reservoir to allow us to recover, and continue on with ourselves.”

I run my thumbnail gently along the last fold, creating a square only a quarter the area of the original.

“But Riyadh is different,” I go on, as I flip the napkin over. “Maybe other places in this country, like Jeddah or Dammam are as well, but Riyadh has a reputation that it certainly lives up to.” I fold the first corner of the shrinking napkin in to the centre once again. “Riyadh doesn’t seem to allow this tank to fill up as fast as it is draining. Maybe the problem is not that this city is hard to live in; maybe it’s not a matter of the city draining me, so much as it is the case that it doesn’t offer enough in return.”

The four corners folded in once again, the napkin now a fraction of its former size, I begin sequentially pinching the corners, pushing them towards, but not into, the centre. “All cities take energy to live in -- physical, yes, but emotional too. However, everywhere else I’ve ever been to, there is enough happening to keep that tank filled up: from the typical demeanor of the residents, to the ease of doing new things, to the catharsis of commuting without feeling that everyone else on the road has no regard for their own safety, and less for yours.”

The waiter has appeared in my peripheral vision, and begun clearing the table. “Basically, my tank, my lifetime reserve of goodwill, has been draining, over the past year-and-a-half, no faster than it did in New Zealand, or Moscow; but unlike those places, Riyadh doesn’t offer me enough in return.” The napkin is now folded such that there are four converging points on the top of its square shape, and eight points, in two layers, converged on the underside. I slip my thumb gently under a hidden corner, and lift it, curving the edge, around and above the top of the napkin. “Basically, this city takes away slightly faster than it gives back, and I’m beginning to feel the effects.”

“I know what you mean,” says Noelle. “And I’m impressed you lasted this long. I was feeling like this after only three months, and Sarah,” she says, gesturing to her right, “is going through the same thing now. It’s like, everything that happens feels like it’s because we’re in Riyadh. Even if it’s clearly not, it’s like you hit your thumb, and the first thing you say God I hate this city!

As she says this, I finish pulling the bottom flaps of the napkin around. Holding it out on the palm of my hand, I present a napkin-facsimile of a lotus, a petaled cup, which I lay on the table in front of us.

“Wow, that’s cool,” says Noelle.

And, with narrative precision, the waiter walks past, scoops up the paper lotus and absently balls his fist around it. We both look up as he drops the crumpled paper into an empty salad bowl on his tray; we silently return our gaze to the table in front of us as he continues along the table. “What were we saying about hating this city?” I say.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Back Home

If you have read even a minority of posts in this blog, you’ll see that I favour writing about my high-functioning awkwardness. You may have also noticed that there number of posts I’ve made over the time I’ve been writing has diminished linearly, to the point that it’s been over a year since I last posted.

I haven't finished my time overseas, though. Theses days I live in Saudi Arabia, teaching English as I did in Russia and Slovakia. Given how drastically different Saudi Arabia is from either New Zealand or Russia, you would expect that I would have plenty to write about from my typical, awkward perspective: the kind of perspective that had me confused buying bus tickets, repeatedly failing at basic household chores, and preemptively striking out with women

And there probably is lot to write about. The problem is that I have become desensitised to being confused. Where once I found food that I couldn’t identify fascinating and blog-worthy, these days I’ve taken to eating whatever is available without noticing how familiar it is; when I begin talking to someone, my default assumption is now that, even if I understand the language they’re speaking, I probably won’t have a clue what the hell they’re going on about; I’m perpetually under the assumption that, no matter what I set out to do, it will take longer than Iimagine.

But now I am back in New Zealand, at least for a few weeks. And here, in a country I hardly left for the first 23 years of my life, I am reconnecting with a lost sense of awkwardness.

Before I return to Saudi Arabia, I have to get a new visa from here in New Zealand. Saudi has a large number of migrant workers -- over 30% of the population, by some counts -- and all of them need a health check before they can get their visa. The trouble is, this health check is one-size-fits-all: Anyone coming from the developed world is still required to undergo the same checks as a migrant worker from rural Bangladesh. My docotor’s response to seeing the list of checks than needed to be carried out was one of bemusement. “I suppose you can probably get all of these tests done here in New Zealand.” He said. “But there are parasites here that you could only have if you lived in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Handing me three forms -- one a list of blood tests to be carried out, one for urine tests and a third for tests to be performed on a stool sample -- and two small, clear containers with lids that screwed on as firmly as I would hope, my doctor sent me along to the nearby medical testing lab. I soon found myself sitting in a small, windowless room, cluttered with shelves, cupboards, tubes and vials, with my arm extended in front of me, offering up the thin, delicate skin on the inside of my elbow. A uniformed lab technician unceremoniously thrust a long, thin needle into the pronounced vein in the centre of the elbow, and quickly but meticulously drew five vials of blood.

“As for the urine and feces samples,” he said. “If you can’t give them now, you can just come back tomorrow with them.”

I considered this for a moment. “I’ll have to do that for the stool sample, but I’m sure I could give you a urine sample now.”

“OK. The bathroom’s there, and you can just leave the sample on this tray,” he pointed, “when you’re finished.”

Then, at the reception desk. “Do you still need to give us any more samples?” said the receptionist.

“Yes. Of course, I gave a blood sample, and I was able to produce a urine sample on demand.”

“That’s good.”

“But I’ll still have to come back tomorrow with the stool sample.”

“That’s fine. Just be sure to take note of when you do it. And, if you bring it in first thing tomorrow morning, we can get it off to the lab straight away; that way you can get your results in just a couple of days.”

“Well,” I say, grinning. “Here’s hoping I have a bowel movement this evening”

There was a moment of tumble-weed silence, long enough for me to consider what I had just said to a complete stranger. The receptionist looked down at some papers on her desk and pretended to read what ever happened to be in front of her, as if to say I’m going to pretend that you didn’t say that. I looked down at my shoes, as if to reply I appreciate it.

Soon, I’ll be back in a country where people can’t understand the odd things I say. And I’m OK with that. 

Friday, June 3, 2011

How to Ward of Magic

France is the most visited country in the world – as many as 76 million people visit the country each year; the famous Louvre museum alone attracts 12 million annual visitors (most of them standing in front of the Mona Lisa, apparently). And, with tourists, come those who seek to exploit those tourists: to extricate from them money, by ignoring the standing conventions surrounding “honesty”, “egalitarianism” and “not being a dick”.

I’m not talking about “tourists prices”: charging more money because people who are visiting for only a finite period are more willing, and generally more able to pay more. That’s nothing more than free market economics. Just ask Milton Friedman.

No. I’m talking about pickpockets; I’m talking about people collecting money for a made-up charity; about people who charge money for one thing, by making the victim think it is something else entirely.

A favourite example of the latter in Paris requires nothing more than a couple of pieces of string and the promise of magic: a man walks up to an ostensible tourist holding a few lengths of wool tied in a slip-knot, saying something like “hold out your finger, it’s a magic trick”. If the tourist obliges, the magician slips the string over the finger, and rapidly braids it into a ring, such that it cannot be easily removed.

Now that he has gone to the trouble of making you such a beautiful ring, the tourist is honor-bound to pay for the service. Angry bartering ensues.

Most scammers know how to pick their target – they can usually tell who might be likely to fall for the scam, when someone might need only a little convincing to agree, and when someone saying “no” really means “fuck off”.

But not all. Walking up the hill to Basilique du Sacré Cœur, Matt and I are approached by one such string-wielding magician, who strides right into Matt’s path and delivers the standard opening line.

“Nah mate, I’m good.” Replies Matt, shoving his hands in his pocket and stepping sideways.

The ‘magician’ steps with him, continuing to block his path. “Come on. Very good magic trick.”

At this point I have moved a few feet ahead, as Matt steps back the other way. “I said no, OK?”

To this, our Parisian David Blane places his palm firmly on Matt’s chest, pushing him half a step backwards. “Hold out your finger! It is a magic trick.”

“Whoa buddy! I said no.”

Realising that this guy is the only con-artist in the world with less social intuition that Rain Man, I spin around, twisting at the waist, head cocked, voice low; meet the magician’s eye, and let fly with: “Hey! Back off, eh!” He looks at me with a shimmer of fear in his eye, steps aside, and hurries away...

No, wait. That’s not quite what happened. That story doesn't make me look nearly blundering enough...

I spin around, twisting at the waist, head cocked, voice low; meet the magician’s eye, half a hot dog in hand, the other half in my mouth, and let fly with with a loud mummer and a few soggy crumbs. Yes, what was probably the fourth aggressively assertive thing I have ever done, I ballsed up by talking with my mouth full. 

For whatever reason, though, the guy backed off. I’m pretty sure that he had already given up on Matt; but there is a part of me that chooses to believe that he took one look at me and thought “Wow. That guy is so bad-ass he doesn’t even need to bother with consonants.”

Saturday, January 22, 2011

How to Talk to the Homeless

I’m standing at a bus stop. A man, homeless, it appears, but well-presented, walks up to me and says something in Slovak. I shrug, and say “Neviem [dunno]”.

“Hovoreš Slovenčinu? [Do you speak Slovak?]” He says.

“Trochu [a little]” I reply, trying to make myself appear as unapproachable I can manage. This I do while battling my professionally cultivated habit of being as approachable as possible.

“Do you speak English?” he says, in very good English.

Bugger. He’ll never leave now. Think quick! 

“Yup.” I say. 

Crap. That probably didn’t work.

“Can I have two Euro?” he says. “I’m homeless.”

“You can have one,” I reply, fishing a small handful of coins out of my pocket, and separating two 50 cent coins from the pile. I don’t know what it says about my strength of character that my idea of getting rid of annoying beggers is to still give them money.

“Thank you,” he says. Here he presents his fist, extended at waist height. I look at it for a moment, then tap my fist against his. He smiles and says “You are a good man,” then promptly turns to the beautiful Slovak woman standing next to me.

Before he has finished saying his first word, she points to me with her head, and says “No. He already gave you,” in English.

“Oh,” he says. “Are you two...”

“Yes.” She says quickly.

He looks to me. I smile and nod. He looks back to the girl, then with a grin that says good job!, engages me in a congratulatory fist-bump, and walks away.

Now, if anyone every asks me “did you have any luck with Slovak women?”, I can say “Well, if a hot Slovačka pretending to be my girlfriend in order to avoid talking to a homeless guy counts, then I can confidently say: Yes.”

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Our Fate in Whose Hands?

A technologically advanced alien race, long liberated from its ancient, terrestrial existence, now travels through the galaxy, encountering less developed races as it goes. Whenever it comes across a planet inhabited with intelligent life, it challenges the inhabitants of that planet to justify their own continued existence, by assembling representatives from all over the planet, and questioning them on matters regarding their specie’s most salient shortcomings. If the delegates cannot convince the aliens that they are worth sparing – that their existence is not a detriment to the universe – the encountered species is eliminated, and the aliens move on.

On their travels, the voyaging aliens come across inhabitants on a relatively small, blue planet lying half way along the length of the Orion-Cygnus Arm of the Milky Way; and, as it has done countless times before, challenges the leaders of the planet to argue for their ongoing existence.

“Your species,” begin the aliens, “Have a tendency, what looks almost like a compulsion, to make use of the physical resources around you: water, minerals, wood, land area, even the air itself: as rapidly as possible, with no apparent regard for the finiteness of what is available, or with any consideration for what your fate will be when the things you rely on so heavily – reliance that are sometimes natural and sometimes borne of your own actions – expire. How can you justify the continuation of a species that lacks the foresight to consider the consequences that will be suffered by its own children?”

“In all the tens of thousands of years of our history,” responds one, “There was never a need to consider the expiration of resources in an absolute sense. In the past 100 years, our population has increased from 1.75 billion to almost 7 billion. Before then, there was never any need to consider the ‘end of resources’, because there was always somewhere else we could move or expand to, and the idea that there were enough of us to have a measurable impact on the world as a whole would have been bizarre and egocentric. A 4-fold jump in our population in less than 1 percent of our history as a species demands an enormous paradigm shift, and one that we are making far more quickly than it might immediately appear.”

“Yours is a species,” the aliens move on, “That, on the surface, seems to strive for inequality. Nearly half of your planet’s wealth is in the hands of 1 percent of your population, and, with perverse symmetry, 1 percent of the world’s wealth is spread among half of the world’s population. You cannot argue that this is due to a relatively sudden change in the way things are, because you have always had an inequality of wealth distribution within almost any given society in your history. Alarmingly, though, this system has developed into one that delivers money and power as direct rewards, not for contribution or responsibility, but simply to those with a talent for acquiring money and power.”

“You are right and wrong,” says another delegate. “We do not strive for inequality, per se. But it is in our nature to strive to excel. And what is excellence without relativity? That is, we, collectively, move forward on the backs of people who aspire to superseded their peers and predecessors – be that in science, art, or leadership. And, with excellence comes reward. You say that we have failed to develop a system that equates reward with contribution, and, as things stand, that is the case. But this is a result of the same paradigm shift as we discussed before – it is an misappropriation of something intrinsically human. We will always reward those individuals who stand out, as we have always done. The preceding century was marked by developments in technology, and capitalism, and those who most successfully reflected that development were duly rewarded. The problem is therefore what we consider marks an excellent individual: one who can accumulate wealth and power. But views will swing and change in time, as they always have done.”

“And, on the back of one paradigm shift comes another.” A new delegate pipes in. “As a century that was marked by an explosion of population and technology – and an associated exponential schism of inequality – has ended; so we have entered an age of information. Not information technology, in the sense of technological progress for its own sake, but, rather, diffusion of information as has never been available before. And, as we say, knowledge is power. Come and talk to us again in a generation’s time. I believe that our increasing dissemination of information will bring with it a greater equality of power, and, by proxy, wealth, in the coming decades.”

The aliens are silent for a moment. Then:

Paris Hilton’s My New BFF.”

After a pause, a member of the delegation says “excuse us. What did you say?”

Paris Hilton’s My New BFF,” repeats the alien. “The BFF stands for Best Friend Forever. It’s a reality television show on MTV, in which Paris Hilton issues challenges to a group of young men and women, and then eliminates one at the end of each episode. In addition to being insufferably derivative, the contestants are competing not for money, or a glamorous job, or the chance to see the world, but to become Paris Hilton’s friend – they are on the show in the hopes of winning the right to spend all of their time with Miss Hilton.”

“Now, it’s hardly fair...” one delegate begins.

“Of course, we would never base a judgement of a species on one individual,” interrupts the alien, “But when that individual is popular enough to have her own television show in which she is her own prize, we cannot help but harbour concerns regarding the viability and, frankly, worthiness of the species that allows her to be famous. Ongoingly famous, we might add; a flash-in-the-pan celebrity of this nature we could overlook, but the persistence of a starlet whose fame stems from nothing, as far as we can tell, gives us cause for concern.”

The room is silent for a moment, before the alien speaks again. “So, how can you justify that your species deserves to live, in light of Paris Hilton’s My New BFF, its second season, and two spin-off series?”

the room returns to silence.  

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Winter Visit

I would be lying if I wrote that I did as much sight-seeing as I wanted to while I was in Moscow. There's a certain complacency, a There's loads of time to do all the things I want to mentality that comes with living in a place for two years; a mentality that drains the enthusiasm for doing it all. 

Maybe if I had spent less time writing about the things I have done. . . No, that's a poor excuse. In two years I didn't even manage 60 updates, which is barely one every two weeks. And one of those was three words long (and still had a spelling mistake).

I did visit Lenin, though. Lenin's mausoleum must rate as the second biggest tourist trap in Moscow, after the Kremlin (which I have also visited). But it has the advantage that I can say "I visited Lenin's mausoleum", without having to explain what it was I actually did, which is more than can be said for the time I went to a banya. Although I will explain. Naturally.

To get to Lenin's Mausoleum, you first have to cross Red Square: 330m by 70m, it is physically and perceptually the centre of Moscow. One of the shorter edges accommodates Saint Basil's cathedral.Opposite that is the State Historical Museum -- a building that Phil described as looking like a cardboard cut-out -- which forces tourists entering the square to choose either going left around the building and through the Resurrection Gates, or right, and not through the Resurrection Gates. The better part of one of the longer sides of the square is taken up by the GUM department store, which is really more of a decorous mall than a department store, and the opposite side of the square is taken up by a wall of the Kremlin; and the Mausoleum in front of that.

The day of my visit was a cold one, and it was snowing. This will have a measure of significance soon, so remember it.

I met two friends, Masha and Phil, outside the mausoleum, at 11. Between Red Square and the mausoleum is a 2-foot high chain fence, put there to dissuade people from approaching the tomb via the shortest route, while not making it seem inaccessible (they have other means of doing that).

We looked at the Mausoleum. It was ten metres away, directly, and it would have taken little effort to step over the fence to reach it. However, to be allowed into the tomb, we first needed to walk through a metal detector, at the Museum-end of Red Square, then walk back towards the Mausoleum along the inside of the chain fence.

The square was clear of snow and ice, but we still scuttled, out of habit, down the length of the square. The road running between the Kremlin wall and the Museum was barricaded off, with the barrier cutting off direct access to the metal detectors and the entrance to the other side of the little fence. When we asked if we could simply step between two of the barriers, to save ourselves having to circumnavigate the museum, the answer was most bureaucratically "no." It seems that there is a need to have a single queue feeding the entrance, so as to facilitate processing the typically large number of people who come to visit the founder of the USSR. That seemed reasonable to me. I was a little put out, though, by the fact that no-one made any concessions for the fact that we were, literally, the only people there. Remember what I said about the weather? We were sent to the back of a queue that didn't exist.

Around the museum, through the Resurrection Gates (appropriately named: they were demolished by Stalin in 1931, and rebuilt in 1996). We got three-quarters around the building, looking at the metal detectors at the far end, and found ourselves in front of another temporary barrier. When we tried to go through the barrier, to follow the family of Korean tourists walking towards the entrance (the only other people we saw visiting the Tomb that day), the armed guard at the barrier told that we were trying to go through the wrong person-size gap in the fence. We had to ask her directly before she told us which one was the right gap.

Through the metal detectors at last, and we followed a path, demarcated by another chain fence -- this one less than a foot high -- that ran alongside and about two metres from the Kremlin Wall. Embedded into the wall were plaques to commemorate the great Russians of the Soviet era, yet, if honesty is to be invoked, the only name among them that I recognised was Yuri Gagarin. On the ground to the left were larger, stone plaques, commemorating dead soviets who, it would appear, were too significant to be commemorated with anything as flimsy as a sheet of steel.

The path turned at right-angles to run alongside the mausoleum, then at right-angles again, directing us inside the building and out of the cold.

A man dressed in an impractically formal military uniform, a picture of solemnity, stood just inside the door, at the convergence of a "T" intersection. He indicated to me to lift my hands out of my pockets, then, with his upper arm pressed against his side, pointed with his hand to indicate that we should take the left branch of the intersection. Never once did his mouth open.

We descended a short flight of stairs. At the bottom was a carbon copy of the first guard, complete with pursed lips and unblinking eyes. He did us the service of indicating with the bottom half of his left arm, that we should proceed through the right-angle turn, and continue down the stairs. While the first guard was performing a task that could just as easily be carried out by a piece of paper and some Blue-Tac, this second guard was achieving nothing more than pointing out that walking along an ongoing corridor is preferable to walking directly into a concrete wall.

One more functionally redundant guard later and the hallway opened out into the main chamber of the tomb.

On a raised platform in the centre of the room was Lenin himself. A flight of stairs of either side of the glass sarcophagus lead up to, and then down from, a platform that ran past Lenin's feet.

The  man didn't look at all real. Literally. Lenin's perpetual mummification requires regular immersion in some mystery cocktail every 18 months, a mix that includes paraffin wax as a principle ingredient. The stuff seems indelible, and leaves Lenin looking like he would be better suited as an exhibit in Madame Tussdale's.

Ten seconds later, at the most, and with no other tourists around, the guard standing on the platform silently ushered us along. Did he thing we were holding up the queue? Maybe excess viewing speeds up the decay process; maybe the guard was working to a pre-determined script, and had failed to notice that it made no difference. Whatever his reason, we were ushered post-haste, out the other side of the viewing room, past a few more ceremonially pointless guards, and into the winter air, to walk past a few more memorial plaques, before going to get coffee somewhere warm.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hello, Again

“Alright?”, said Greg, one of my new colleagues, as I walked into the office.

“Yup.” I replied.

He shot me a confused look. “I... it’s not really a question.”

“It’s not?”

“Not really. It just means ‘Hello’.” he told me.

“So, you just said ‘Hello’, and I replied by saying ‘Yes.’?”

“Yeah, I guess you did.”

The following morning I walked into the office, and past my new boss, Maria.

“Hi,” I said.

“Alright?” she answered.

I learnt about this yesterday. I said ‘Hello’, then she said ‘Hello’ . All debts are paid, and I’m just going to look silly if I say anything.

I looked at her, and her expression said in your own time...

“Um, good?”

“Well that’s good to hear.” She said. “You know where to find me if you have any questions.”

“So, when you said ‘alright?’, you were asking a question?”

“Well, yes. It’s a bit like ‘how’s it going?’.”

“Oh. K.”
Yesterday, I met my flatmate’s parents.

“Alright?” said her father.

“Does that just mean ‘Hello’?” I fired back. “Or was it a question? Should I just say ‘Hi, nice to meet you’, or would you like to know if I’m alright?”

The expression that flashed over his face told me that, one way or the other, I hadn’t said what I was expected to.

“Oh, either,” he laughed. “Whatever you feel like.”

I don’t know if I’m going to bother trying to learn Slovak after all; it doesn’t look like I have a firm grasp of the full range of English yet.