Monday, 18 June 2012

Hic Habitat Felicitas

This is the first time I ever drafted a ramble for this little blog and decided against posting it. The attempt started as a high-brow and yet entertaining dissection of consumerism across cultures and became nothing more than a rant about hotel buffet dinners. Clearly there's much more to say than that, it having been a good few months since I last wrote anything here. And by 'good' I don't just mean in the rather derivative sense of 'that's a lot of time', but good with a genuine sense of 'life is good'. It is, really, and if any sort of revelling in small joys is going to provoke nausea, I can only suggest heading elsewhere for the next few hundred words.

I live near a store that sells everything. In Abu Dhabi, of course; in Sussex I live near a pub that serves pizza and a bus stop that infrequently provides anyone with anything, but out in the U.A.E. I can find nearly anything in the Aladdin's cave that operates nearby. It does always seem a lot closer than it actually is, and never do I feel hotter in Abu Dhabi than when I misjudge quite how far the storefront is and then end up sweating into the a/c and wondering whether I really needed some more deodorant - of course, by that point I always do need some more deodorant, and I may as well by a new shirt on the way back. But this time it was worth it. It was a friend's birthday, and I had foolishly asked her what she wanted.

Never asks a girl what she wants. She probably doesn't know. She may think she knows, but she probably doesn't. Typing 'she' just then I accidentally inserted an 'o' and wrote 'shoe', which actually is probably one half of what she thinks she wants. If intelligent design had meant girls to want shoes, they'd have four feet and be far less romantic. This girl didn't want shoes anyway, or romance. She wanted a pony. Now, though I did visit a stud farm on my tour of the seven Emirates, I didn't bring an Arabian mare back with me. I had only the dirhams in my wallet and not a stable in sight. But I did have this godsend of consumerism. One half-hour of searching later, I emerged clutching a small plastic vaguely equestrian figurine. Job done. I bought a girl a pony. And another girl shoes, but they were red and she really wanted them.

This other girl also taught me the Spanish for 'Batman'. Turns out they do just tend to say 'El Batman', which was something of a disappointment. I was hoping for 'Bat-Hombre' - I mean, try saying that like Christian Bale. Unfortunately for the rest of us, that's not even a literal translation into Spanish anyway - with that, Batman becomes 'El Hombre Murciélago', which doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, especially when you grew up speaking a language with a strong aversion to vowels. It also rather ruins the theme tune. ('Dunah dunah dunah dunah -  El Hombre Murciélago!') This summer's film is sadly far too dark and edgy for such a lighthearted jingle. It's called 'The Dark Knight Rises', or 'El Caballero De La Noche Asciende'. This then translates back into English as 'The Knight Of The Night Rises', or, even better, 'The Night Knight Rises'. I can only home Alfred tucks Bruce Wayne (Bruno Díaz!) in at bedtime with the words 'Night night, knight night'.

So what else have I learnt these past few months at the world's honours college? Oh - yes. Resort hotel buffet dinners. They're a tad excessive, but so is staying at the places that serve them in the first place for a university trip. My chosen institution is a place where 'restraint' got filed away behind 'racism' and ahead of 'robbery' in the list of things we really just don't do, and if we can hire a bouncy castle to commemorate half a year later something that happened by accident and was mostly just mildly inconvenient then why not. I mean, really, why not. People enjoy it. They do. If it makes you smile and not just because half the girls show up wearing dresses then go ahead and let's do it again.

This past semester certainly involved a few such extraordinary events. I was in New York for a weekend and debated for half an hour; I camped in a sandstorm and then, just a week or two later, in a rainstorm; I watched all of David Lynch's filmography (save The Straight Story and including all of Inland Empire); I volunteered at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair and taught kids how to program robots; I wrote about graffiti in a stairwell and on Facebook's new Timeline design; I confused two classes by appearing on the wrong end of our usual Abu Dhabi/New York video-conference; I stood up for more comedy, was surprised by a picnic and given a huge microphone-shaped cake all on the same weekend. Life is good, but plastic ponies and El Hombre Murciélago still give me more kicks than reeling off every detail of a five day trip around the U.A.E.

Maybe in my old age I just can't comprehend the bigger picture. I've just entered my third decade, and I'm not getting any younger, which is good because that would be unnatural and weird. Life doesn't really feel any different, but then It's early days yet, and I'm sure that's just what Elizabeth Windsor thought. And then - wham, bam, thank you ma'am. You've been reigning for sixty years and it's still raining. I was out there on the Mall for both the Jubilee concert and the procession the next day, and what a feeling it was to be British. I don't trust a lot in this country - I just paid £3.30 for a coffee and missed a connection after my train was delayed - but when Prince Charles stood up there I was genuinely proud to be part of this entertaining, endearing, endangered place. 

That's not even just because of Kate (or Pippa, for that matter), but the royal couple do more than make up for the weather and the expensive caffeine doses. Watching Charles, Camilla and the Queen go past on their carriage was certainly a vaguely reverential moment, but as Harry, Will and Kate trotted by, I was overcome. Quite honest here. There was an aura around them, and I just wanted nothing more than to be recognised, to be liked by them, just to know them at all… They just seemed the most gorgeous and wonderful people you'd ever see. If we are to have a royal family, I'm glad that glamour is part of it. Who needs Grace Kelly when you've got Kate Middleton as your princess. And Harry gave us a thumbs up.

Just before and just after the Jubilee I showed two dear friends around London, one of whom described the Shard, the latest addition to the London skyline, as much more like something you'd expect to see in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Of course, the Arab invasion of London has been much more subtle than that (why build a skyscraper when you can buy Harrods?), but I think the glitz and glamour of it all can be British in its own way. The pomp and circumstance of the Jubilee was our response of the bling absurdity of Jay-Z and Kanye West on Watch The Throne as we turned our eyes to our very own, though I would have liked to have made it to that concert. (A last minute decision in that regard had said friend, Shaquille O'Neal and I scrambling for tickets.) 

The highlight of British avant-garde glitz, Damien Hirst's For The Love Of God, is currently lurking at the Tate Modern. Approaching the display enclosure, the other friend didn't realise the piece was titled such and thought the Tate was simply asking visitors to 'turn off all mobiles for the love of God' and to 'deposit all large bags in the free cloakroom for the love of God'. A vernacular invasion. Font issues aside, the piece itself attracted a lot of controversy when it was first exhibited, as you can expect of a skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds. I'm glad the naysayers aren't in charge. It's beautiful. Perhaps more so than Kate. Exquisite. It's like the perfect pop song - deep and meaningful and yet gorgeous at the same time. But does it really need to take up the whole Turbine Hall this summer? Where's Anish Kapoor? What cultural criticism. Perhaps that's enough for one day. If I keep going I might have to deconstruct Prometheus, and no-one would enjoy that. I'll go read a book or something. Back soon. 

Monday, 19 March 2012

Synecdoche, Everywhere

Berlin, London, New York, Abu Dhabi, Amman. Three months and nary a blog post to be seen? 2012's been busy. We started the New Year in London. We had our own miniature fireworks, and we set them off outside, and there wasn't any trepidation or apprehension or even excitement about starting 2012. The past year took me through sixteen countries and wondering what next after the gap year. Here I am now, sitting in Abu Dhabi, pretty content with where that helter-skelter ride left me. It's Spring Break in these here parts - I flew back in from Jordan this afternoon, and leave tomorrow for a tour of the Emirates. This time last year I'd been to the UAE for a weekend, had recently returned to post-quake Japan and was wandering around Okinawa. I wasn't expecting the next 365 days.

The OED tells me a synecdoche is 'a part for a whole', and that's all I can manage. I'm condensing the past eighty days or so into a few paragraphs, and while I'm not quite attempting to Jules Verne you with having gone around the world in so many days, 2012 has been busy. Berlin was a sophisticate city with a past but facing the future. New York was the cold hustling bustling metropolis that reeks of opportunity it's always made out to be. Amman was on the verge of everything, tipping its falafel vendors towards its hip cafés and waiting to see what happens. And Abu Dhabi? I don't live there - I live in my university - and it's still not quite El Dorado or Narnia or even Hogwarts but it's close.

Berlin was with family. London was with friends. New York was with university. Amman was me flying solo, mostly. The first saw me - or didn't see me - eating in a restaurant in the pitch black, with only my sister for company and German chatter all around. We arrived in what felt like a fairly normal bar, until we looked at the menu full of riddles and met our blind waiter. He led us, hands on shoulders caterpillar-style into the darkness, where we found our seats and eventually our food when it arrived. I know people only say 'You get used to it' when referring to something you clearly don't, but eating in the dark became relatively normal quite quickly. You get desensitised to being desensitised. Scoop around the plate with fork and fingers, find the food and giggle all the way through to dessert.

We never made it to dessert on New Year's Eve. Friends made paella, which washed down with some nineteen-year-old, cupboard-stashed Becherovka, made for a mean culinary start to 2012. NYC doesn't give up easy though, and paying a dollar for a slice of pizza isn't bad when it's New York pie they're serving up. I was there for little under three weeks, studying under the previous director of the Met. I finally got to see the bowling alley under the Frick (I know, I know - pics or it didn't happen...), I watched the Upright Citizens Brigade for free two weeks in a row, and, of course, jumped around on the piano at FAO Schwarz, although not with quite as much aplomb as Tom Hanks. Though when have I ever managed something with quite as much aplomb as Tom Hanks.

And then back to Abu Dhabi. That sentence should never really sound mundane, but it's becoming part and parcel of how things run round here. And running they have been - a few weeks back had me out in Oman, running up and down hills in a desert valley having slept out on the beach the night before. And then blogging about it afterwards for my social media internship in the Athletics Dept. I cracked out the bow tie to host our last Open Mic night, which normally see me prancing about attempting a comedy set - this time I left it to the clothes to do the talking, but I will admit to attempting some freestyle rapping my fellow MC in front of the baying crowd. Finally a play too - having spent most of my time back at school wrapped up in the theatre, it was fun/exhausting/frustrating/amazing to get back into eight-hour rehearsals, line-learning and spending five hours every night with the same two dozen people.

I'm even coping with coastal biology - new semester means new courses. And travelling alone in Jordan. It rained, I barely speak the language - just enough to bemuse the taxi drivers, even the ones who want to talk Shakespeare and Poe with me - and it's hardly the world's most straightforward place. But that's all part of the fun. I made it down to Petra, which means I've ticked that off alongside Machu Picchu, the Great Wall of China, Rio's Christ Redeemer and Rome's Colosseum, leaving just Mexico and India to go on that basically made-up list of today's seven wonders of the world. It's hard to complain about that kind of life. Not that I'd even want to - when you're sitting drinking your Arabic coffee looking out over a Roman citadel with a whole city to explore the next day and a place to lay your head that night, you really have got it all. Or at least enough for now.