Sunday, September 19, 2010

Random observations

Where one may smoke is restricted in Germany and England: but people smoke everywhere else, way too much. 
  • But their liquor laws -- seemingly drink anywhere you like -- facilitate that, it seems. I was having dinner in Berlin, in a reasonably nice Italian restaurant. The table opposite me ordered a carafe of wine. After sitting for just a few minutes, one of them poured her glass of wine to the brim, stood up with her friend and they went outside for a smoke, glass in hand. Not so strange, I suppose, but there was something incongruent about it: it's not as if there was a specific area to stand outside. The need to smoke just appeared so overwhelming.
British people are getting fat. Ironically, although not unique to here, that's because so many things are so expensive. London really is expensive these days. Four pounds for a one-way tube ticket in a single zone. Use of a front loading washing machine, four pounds. Movies run up to twelve pounds-fifty. (The exchange rate is around $1.60 to the pound). Beer, on the other hand, is a relative bargain: three and a half pounds for a pint at a decent place in the middle of London (and that's not for Carlsberg either).
  • Of course, it's not just the beer that is making people fat here and elsewhere: it's the entire system of farm subsidies and the world-wide agricultural economic system that makes crops which are the core of high calorie but low nutritional value (soy, corn and the like) cheap -- and that keeps junk food a bargain. (There are several books about this as discussed in the context of the local food movement which, while it is put forth as a remedy for the obesity crisis, is also pointed out to be an upper/middle class privilege since such are the only people who can afford to eat it).
Soy (and wheat) products, of course, can be healthy. A new type of restaurant has appeared in London since my last visit (only a year ago): all-you-can-eat Chinese-Thai vegan buffets. Six pounds-fifty at night, five pounds-fifty for lunch. Gluten and tofu in numerous forms and combination. Incredible! Some things looked uncertain -- like the imitation crab (I think it was): it reminded me of the dish listed as vegetarian on the menu of another restaurant I went to in Berlin that had scampi with it (they were able to not include the flesh and reduced the price too!). I couldn't bring myself to eat that white and red, fishy-looking object, but I did enjoy lots of seaweed.
  • Walking back from my gorging on the buffet I passed another all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. In a sign of the times, that one advertised itself loudly as having "REAL MEAT". I must go back there and get a picture of that.
England is not really European. My colleague Claire has a purse she wears as a small backpack. I always figured it was something from France. I noticed a group of about 15 (German-speaking) women out for dinner in Berlin, all of them carrying them, so it has obviously spread to there. I've yet to see anyone with such an accessory here in London. 

Strawberry Belgian wheat beer (Früli I think it was called) is very sweet -- but delicious.

"Sunday Trading laws" still exist in London: (all) shops can open on Sundays but only certain kinds can actually sell you anything before noon. Bookshops are in the category of "can't sell" as the woman on the PA system in Foyles announced in an officious voice.

Monday, September 13, 2010

On the road again

I’m thinking I should change the name of my blog to "Rippin’ Rambles" since I only ever seem to update it when I am traveling. Be that as it may, I’m on the road again, so to speak, so here I am: London terminal 1 Star Alliance lounge after an “executive class” flight over from Vancouver. I used my upgrade coupon this time to gain my reclining seat and fancy meals – definitely a great reward for airline loyalty. The thrill of the lounges is wearing off, though. Vancouver’s international departure lounge was small, busy and nothing special at all. This one is better – and some good food is to be had (vegetable pakora, onion bhaji, vegetable samosa – all fresh and hot) and a different range of magazines may be secured for reading later in my hotel, but still, basically, it’s just about as uncomfortable as anywhere else to have to spend 4 hours waiting for my connecting flight to Berlin.

Flights are an opportunity to see films that I wouldn’t normally get to watch: I usually try to pick a quirky Canadian or foreign one. This time’s was a gem again: Bruce McDonald (directing) and Don McKellar (writing) "This Movie is Broken" Called a “rock show romance” it’s really just an amazing concert flick with a thin (and captivating) narrative spun around it. I also listened to the record of the band that appears in the film – Broken Social Scene – which was on the plane entertainment system as well, but it was nowhere near as good as the live show that had such an amazing range (and energy) of performers on stage.

More later...

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Counting down, stepping out

Today is my last day by which I will go by the name Dean. The end of the term of my appointment became a topic of conscious reality about one year ago now, with the first inklings of a process to find my successor. Since then, it's been a process of "counting down", accentuated by the "countdown" meter here on my blog. And now that meter reads "zero" (even though there are still 12 hours left as I write this). The counting down process has been an interesting one, sometimes having it seem to be a period that was lasting an eternity that I couldn't wait to end, and at other times a period of great consternation, wondering what it would mean for me when it really did arrive.

I realized earlier this month one incredibly great thing it would mean: no more Mr. Neat and Tidy! For ten years now I have been dressing up in button shirts and (lightly) pressed pants pretty much every working day and I've been keeping my beard neatly trimmed in order to fit the requirements of the job. Finally, no more! Now I can relax and adopt a more natural look and feel about my person. I recognize, of course, that such an observation might strike some people as, well, rather absurd, but there you have it. I suppose that most people would not view me as having put much effort at all into looking neat and tidy, but for me, it has been part of the persona I have had to create at least for myself so that I could see myself in the role of "leader". On occasion, that even went to extremes (for me). Early on in my role, there was a University event held that was announced to require formal wear, black tie optional. That was a real crisis for me and I have been forever thankful that no other such events, as best as I can recall (or at least to which I have been invited!), have required that. At the time I did go out and buy a suit and some shiny black shoes -- which I have even worn on a few other occasions over the years (frequently provoking comments from colleagues and family members). I suppose I will continue to own that suit  -- and not pass it on to Big Brothers which is where many of my collared shirts and pants-that-require-ironing are going, as soon as the next pick-up call comes) -- but I do have my doubts about how many times it will emerge from the back corner of our closet.

So, I now get to step out of that particular role and recreate myself. One perceptive colleague noted one aspect of this already: I would go from being Andrew to being Andy upon leaving my office.That may be, although I think I may still be inclined to introduce myself more formally on most occasions. And its probably true of the shirts too -- I'll likely hold on to a few MEC ones because they are pretty comfortable when you come down to it. It is other sorts of changes that are more difficult to apply the principles of strategic planning to. Will I be willing to give up checking my email incessantly and responding reasonably quickly? Will I no longer concern myself with the "fate of the humanities" or the level of government funding to post-secondary education? And will I give up caring about the aspirations and concerns of the many fine people I have worked with over the past ten years?

It's unlikely that any of those questions will really be answered in the negative. But ultimately, recreating myself does mean setting new priorities. And perhaps that's the biggest challenge of this moment of coming to the end of my term. How to decide on those priorities? Of course I do want to kayak aimlessly, backpack endlessly, and run that damn marathon, and each of those things will find its place and its level of engagement. And I have lots of obligations (especially in the next six months) on the academic side. It's become more a long-term issue to reflect upon, I think, that takes me back to where I started a few moments ago: the countdown. I'm now on leave: 2 years of it. 24 months. 731 days (it's a lucky thing 2012 is a leap year according to my reckoning). Those too will tick by as quickly, if not even more quickly (obviously!), as the past 10 years (120 months, 3652 days) have.

Countering those sorts of thoughts must be the absolutely truthful assertion that I am incredibly lucky: to have a career I enjoy such a lot in which I get privileges well beyond what most people ever enjoy. So, it's really a matter of making sure I make the most of that privilege. A little less planning about what has to be done next will help a lot.

Monday, May 24, 2010

First impressions are important

I arrived in Cairo and managed the entry process no problem; I was glad that I had obtained my visa in advance because that certainly seemed to simplify the process. No questions asked, no money to pay. I was met by Muhammad who announced that he was my driver for the 3 hour trip to Alexandria. It was clear right from the start that just because we were heading out at 1 a.m. did not mean the streets would be vacant and all would be smooth sailing. During the next three hours I experienced Egyptian driving to its fullest down the desert highway, although I tried to avert my eyes from the road so I couldn’t see what was happening. I thought it wise that Muhammad’s car has some sort of annoying alarm that went off whenever he hit 120 km/hr (which it did frequently – but it did assure me that he was awake when he immediately slowed down every time). It was clear, too, that not everyone had that same limitation, despite the posted speed limits, the absence of taillights on a disconcerting large number of cars and trucks, and the tendency of people to  park on the inside lane of the highway. Given the way the road was constructed, it seems likely that  it was constantly under the process of development, with us sometimes enjoying four lanes of well-paved road followed by speed bumps and  then a stretch of two-lane corduroy.

When we started our trip from the airport, Muhammad decided to have the radio (I think) tuned to Qur’an recitations. When we left the bedlam of Cairo he changed the station, seemingly to a talk show, but then I caught some of the conversation and realized that this was a religious program, an insight confirmed when it too transitioned into recitation. I quite enjoy listening to the Qur’an recited so no problem there, but I did come to appreciate that this surely was the modern Egyptian equivalent to the St. Christopher medallion of my own childhood car rides, as well as protection that was sorely needed, not only in the environs of Cairo itself but probably on every road in Egypt. What can I say? I got to my hotel safely.

The first impressions of Alexandria -- informed mainly by the view from my hotel-on-the-beach but also from a short walk -- appears to be composed of a narrow strip of poorly constructed (with lots in that Mediterranean-style partially constructed state) and ugly apartment buildings right along the Corniche. I found it somewhat oppressive to walk along the street, the noise of the traffic reverberating against the tall structures and seemingly pushing me into the sea. Not that such a fate would be so bad because the water looked quite appealing with some nice waves to make kayaking just interesting enough.

What has been commonly reported – and what is certainly quite different from when I was in Egypt in the 1980s – is that most of the women walking down the street are hijabis, although, as anyone can determine through casual observation, there clearly is a lot more to the phenomenon than simply increased religiosity. That most of the younger women manage to cover their hair but, at the same time, fit into incredibly tight jeans as well as form-fitting tops definitely conveys a strong fashion sense than is jarring to Canadian assumptions, to say the least. Who would have thought that hair could be understood as an apparent major marker of sexual appeal? (I suppose the story of Samson might be read that way…). Wearing a hijab here is also clearly a class thing: one only needs to compare those who are staying in this hotel to those who are working in it to appreciate that wearing a hijab in Egypt should likely be understood as an urban statement of sophistication.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lounging around

I have almost 7 hours to wile away in Heathrow, waiting for my flight to Cairo. So, I'm in the lounge again, trying to resist eating too much and just having lots of tea and coffee. Given that beer, wine and hard liquor are available just for the taking, it surprises me somewhat that there don't seem to be many people taking serious advantage of it. But that's good because it does mean that the lounge is a nice, quiet place to hang out, certainly better than in general departure area -- and undoubtedly calmer than the bedlam that awaits me in the Cairo airport.

It's a gorgeous day here -- totally sunny (no sign of ash-filled air) and a temperature of 21 degrees or so. But airports, of course, are places from which you can only look outside and not venture out, so it seems something of a waste to see blue sky but not be able to enjoy it. I haven't been in Terminal 5 before but it feels little different from the other cavernous buildings here to which I have become accustomed from previous trips. A bit more glass and more industrial in design, perhaps, but the stores are the same and the available goods identical -- I'd be hard pushed to find anything worthy of taking home as a souvenir from here. One unique thing I did notice was a Gordon Ramsey restaurant "Plane Food". That hardly seems like a winning name to me although I acknowledge its pun-ish character.

I do like puns and other plays with language. To pass the time here, I have checked out the available reading material in the lounge. It's not as interesting a selection as in the Air Canada lounges (maybe because most of it is just "too British" for my tastes these days) but I did come across a cartoon that played nicely on the cliche of "Happiness comes from living today like it's the last day of your life". It had the character saying "I'm dying, I'm dying -- funny, I don't feel any overwhelming sense of happiness." That reminded me of a cartoon in my office that has a man pointing at his cat sitting next to a litter box, saying: "Never, ever, think outside the box". I like both of those because they emphasize the ridiculousness of taking things literally -- or, more precisely, it makes me ponder the fact that it's seldom that we really use language in a literal way, that fundamentally all language is metaphorical because words are not, by themselves, the "things" we are talking about. But, of course, lots of people like to claim they are dealing with things "literally" but really they are just making a rhetorical move in order to claim authority for their own interpretation while dismissing the validity of everyone else's. But literalism can produce some amusement -- although I'm not sure Gordon Ramsey's will prove commercially wise. Maybe there's something in that to ponder too.

Hmmm. No word yet on how I might be getting home from Cairo. No pun or play there.

PS: I forgot to mention that I only watched one film between Vancouver and London: it was (naturally, if you think about it) “Up in the Air” – not that I’m being displaced from my position at work, but rather because my strong desire to accumulate points so as to access these lounges dominates everything!!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Slogging down to Egypt

A friend (and colleague) suggested that those of us who have blogs but rarely seem to manage to update them should call the genre "slogs" rather than "blogs". Given that the only occasion I seem to write "creatively" these days is when I'm travelling, I should, by all rights, be able to produce something during my current expedition. Still, it may prove a "slog" anyway, but perhaps for unexpected reasons.

I'm off to Alexandria to participate in a conference at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. I think I'm one of four "keynotes" but I'm not really feeling up to that billing. I may try to keep a low profile. I haven't lectured much in the Muslim world during my career -- in the mid-80s in India (okay, so I'm even having to take a broad definition of the "Muslim" world) and once in Carthage in the mid-90s. The latter, a gathering celebrating an esteemed French colleague to which I was honoured to be invited, was a difficult event due to my inability to lecture in either Arabic or French (I was told by a young man afterwards that it was very "impolite" of me to have used English). This gathering in Alexandria is definitely in English (and Arabic, I imagine) so that's not so much the issue this time as it is that I will be talking about the Qur'an from a historical and scholarly perspective (which is what I was asked to do). I am uncertain how it will be received. Watch this space for an update in a few days!

But that's hardly the biggest issue facing me about this trip, although I admit it is a rather mundane factor that's currently troubling me. I'm flying British Airways (and enjoying the BA Lounge while I write this -- unlimited booze [not that I'm drinking] and snacks) and there just happens to be a cabin-crew strike starting 40 minutes before I land in Cairo. Okay, so maybe they will be charitable and prepare the plane for landing before we get there, but I can only imagine that the crew will be grumpy at best (surly at worst, let's hope) not only as we get to Cairo but likely on the way to Heathrow too. I've already been told not to expect my special meal. But again, that's only a minor issue, really. It's more the fact that my return flights have already been cancelled due to the strike. So, I'm flying to Cairo not really knowing how or when I will get back. My hosts booked my tickets (Business class, if you must know; thus the lounge) and it seems they must make the necessary adjustments. And that can't be done until Sunday -- when I'll already be in London.

So, like I say, this could be a slog. But it might just provide some time for writing.