Saturday, October 27, 2007

How the Hell did I End up in Kuwait?

I’ve been here almost a week. I didn’t really have any expectations before I arrived. I tried not to think about Kuwait or that I was planning to live here for a year. I try not to expect things. I try not to project myself into the future. I try not to build castles or dungeons in which to live out my rosy or gloomy ideas about the future. It’s a waste of energy. So often I get surprised and proved wrong.

Of course, it helped to keep my mind off the future that my life had been so interesting for the four months before I arrived No work to speak of, travelling across eleven countries from Greece to Egypt, seven of them new to me. Seeing a host of different places and cultures, meeting a range of agreeable, if not fascinating people; above all, imbibing an air of freedom and dignity, an air generated by a permanent sense of achievement and purpose; one uncorrupted, moreover, by any need to worry about my performance or reckon, however temporarily, with the need to make money or otherwise conform to the systems of our normally banal and over-processed lives.

Looking forward to a settled life in Kuwait, therefore, where I’d be teaching English once again was not something I particularly relished. Why choose the future when I could luxuriate in the present? If anything, my future felt like a rude imposter threatening my day. This had particularly been the case in July when I was still sheepishly, quarter-heartedly, resigned to going to Saudi Arabia, even though I knew I didn’t want to. But I preferred to ignore that than accept it. I must thank Craig, in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, for finally convincing me that I’d hate it. So I let the job offer dissolve into the sands.

Then, in early August, there was a three or four week period as I travelled across Turkey when I really had no idea about my future at all. Chugging over in my background were provisional enquiries about jobs in TEFL. But it was as if I launched these enquiries only because I felt I ought to. Genuine enthusiasm to find work was absent. On the other hand, I’d dribbled away savings before and had decided not to do so again. I knew I should work at some point in the next six months, preferably somewhere where the pay was good (relative to the world of TEFL, of course). But to all intents and purposes I was freely floating, liberated from the prospect of Saudi, nothing ahead of me but open skies. Actually, that felt really nice.

I finally accepted this Job in Kuwait on August 23rd after reading a sample contract and finding no significant problems, though holidays were not as generous as in Saudi, nor the pay for that matter. I told my employer I wanted to delay coming out until late September and he agreed. I still had some serious holidaying to do. I left things drift, not arranging a specific date to fly back to the UK since the company had said it would get back to me with the flight arrangements but hadn’t. So I left things slide through September as I concentrated on Syria and Lebanon. I’m not sure if I was actually supposing the job wouldn’t materialize, that I’d just carry on wandering, but maybe. By late September, still not having heard anything, I presumed (gladly) that this meant I wouldn’t any longer be expected to come out by the end of the month. I wrote to my employer about my flight and he replied: yes, things were still set for Oct 1st, though he hadn’t booked a flight yet since he didn’t know where I wanted to fly from. I explained that I couldn’t possibly get out on that date, and asked how long I could postpone for. By now I was thinking of possibly travelling until Christmas or for even longer. We compromised on October 18th, a date I realized I’d be happy with. As for where to fly from, I considered going direct from Amman or Cairo, without going home at all, to maximize my roamings. But according to my contract I’d not have any holiday for six months. I had stuff in Slovakia too, which I needed to send back to the UK. I’d toyed with getting it transported by courier service but that had seemed too expensive. So to see friends and family in both Slovakia and the UK, as well as for practical humdrum reasons (including collecting my laptop) I decided to fly to Kuwait from London, and so organised my flight there from Cairo via Slovakia.

My travels which had begun on the evening of June 28th, when I flew into Athens from Bratislava, finally ended on October 11th, 105 days later, when I flew back to Vienna.

Monday, October 22, 2007

British Airways or Free Crisps and a Pint of Bitter

Is there's anybody out there, anyone at all, who understand how justice attaches to British Airways' policy of deliberately overbooking seats? Surely there must be someone?

Apparently, many airlines do this. No doubt BA can hide behind the safety in numbers argument. But which airline started this practice, I wonder. And is that an excuse?

As it happened, I actually benefited from the scare that I received when told that despite having a seat on my night flight to Kuwait I would have to wait to learn if I had a seat on my night flight to Kuwait. First, I got a five pounds food voucher which I spent on two packets of highly fine crisps and a pint of bitter. Then, when I heard my seat was real, not an illusion that I'd been lied to about, I learnt I'd been upgraded to World Traveller Class, at which point I felt really pampered and privileged and looked forward to some serious luxury. Alas, World Traveller Class is nothing like the opulent first class I walked through to get reach it, but perhaps I got an inch or so extra arm breadth and some softer cushions.

Actually, by the time I boarded the plane I'd fully recovered from the initial shock of learning how British Airways' scandalous policy of injustice threatened to apply. I'd learnt, moreover, that they put the displaced up in a nice hotel and even give them cash compensation of up to 400 pounds(!?). Realising that in my specific circumstances I didn't really need to get to Kuwait immediately and learning that because the next flight wouldn't be for twenty four hours I'd have time to take a subsidised trip into London, possibly to see 'Control', I was actually hoping I'd be kicked off. Eventually it was with some real disappointment that I boarded the plane.

Still, that's no excuse, British Airways, to feel complacent about your deviousness. I might have really needed to get to Kuwait that night. 400 pounds, if that's what it is, and a glitzy hotel might meant nothing next to that. How exactly can you dare to play smug gambler with other peoples priorities, people you'd only pretended to sell a product to? Oh, I forgot. You are a big corporate beast and what is a piddling little consumer on economy class next to you.

Tired as hell from the previous nights excesses, I slept through most of the flight, missing BA's evening meal completely. Luckily, sleeping that much meant I missed a great deal of the intercom's announcements too. That was lucky. Never since being a small child have I felt an adult voice addressing me in quite the way that female voice did that night. If she'd had her way, moreover, I'd have kept my seatbelt on all night. I'd have become the fully trussed up baby she presumably wanted me to be, or is it imagined I already was? Customer service is one thing. I do, to be fair, appreciate how Britain comes in from the cold in this respect. But this was embarrassing. Too matronising and overprotective, almost interfering and imposing in its paranoid caution.

Ok, one can imagine it might have seemed nice. But how much was this motivated by a genuine concern for the passengers, how much related to the mere fear of being sued? How much was it linked, in other words, to an actual fear of the passengers? In that situation I grant, we, we the ever increasingly litigious opportunists that we are, play our part in creating the problem. And what is the problem? The development of a plastic culture of the banal triumphing everywhere, a synthetic, sanitised, artificial public world in which nothing can be allowed to happen that hasn't been pre-formatted; from which all eventualities that might possibly entail unfortunate economic consequences for the management have been removed, in which human relations are mediated and distilled through the prisms of a merely economic, profit driven relation. What we have become to each other is just money, or routes to money. And if pretending that we are massively concerned for each other's well-being is a route to that money, all well and good. Such is the world that we have chosen to live in. I trust we are satisfied with it.

Or maybe I was just grumpy and tired. Well I was that too.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

From Cairo to Heathrow via Slovakia, Suffolk, Manchester and Cambridge

My flight back to Vienna was as uneventful as flights invariably are, though it was nice to note the larger leg room that non-budget airlines provide. On my way through the terminals, in Cairo and Vienna, I chatted with a Croat man living in Cairo whose wife and family live in Trencin, Slovakia. It was clear from his grumbling that he didn’t have much of an opinion of Egyptian terminal organization, but he brightened up when I told him I knew Croatia and had been there. Later, we got onto the subject of the War, as one does (?). He told me how great a shock it was for him and for so many others in Croatia when hostilities broke out in the early 90s.

Then, to my surprise, he warned that similar bloodshed could break out between Scotland and England. Really, I asked? He said he’d met many Scots in Scotland speaking of their hatred of the English and referred to how the Scots will always support the other team whenever England play international matches. I’m not, to be honest, that knowledgeable about Scottish feelings towards the English; about whether cutting throats might be on the agenda between us. I think not. I certainly hope not. I’m suspecting, at least, that the border is relatively uncontested between us and that the urge to fight to secure borders in those crucible periods of time when new nation states are being formed, which was so central an urge in the former Yugoslavia, will not prove a problem in Britain. If, that is, Scotland indeed goes ahead one day and declares its independence. Personally I hope it doesn't, but that’s just me. I’m not Scottish anyway so 'what’s it got to do with you' is a fair enough reflection I grant. My Croat companion concluded that in all these disputes, in which he included Slovakia-Hungary, all it takes is for one crazy opportunist politician to unleash hell.

Getting back to Slovakia was highly weird in a reverse cultural shock kind of a way. Not leaving to an exotic destination but returning from one can be just as strange. I remember noticing the same buttoned up placidity of the highly orderly Slovak people when I returned from India. There's an almost ghostly hush compared to Egypt’s barely contained, highly interactive chaos. Westerners have such a more rigidly developed sense of the inviolability of private space in public. Is this, I’m wondering, a kind of internalized, ideological equivalent of the veil?

Our veil doesn’t need expression in clothing, but nevertheless one encounters and internalizes its imperatives everyday - that you must respect the privatized boundaries between strangers; not smiling too much at strangers, if ever, not walking too close to them (certainly not into them) to sell them things in the street or to get past them, or to just to say hello; not touching them, basically not speaking to them at all unless absolutely necessary. Is this why western men are already conditioned not to react spontaneously to the sight of female flesh sumptiously portrayed in public? Is this why Asian men, not having received such a particularly Western disciplining since childhood, find it harder to control themselves at the sight of what I suspect they deem the publicisation of what should be an only private ‘nakedness’.

Maybe I’m exaggerating the cultural differences. Maybe western calmness is also caused by factors like population density and lower poverty levels, which lead to less of a need for mutual proximity and, in consequence, mutual accommodation.

In Bratislava I got fairly drunk on Slovak and Czech beer two nights in a row. Apart from that, I was far too busy tying off the remaining loose ends of my Slovak life to do much else. Well, except talk to Geoff at considerable and expected length about the finer details of my recent journey since I left him in Tirana, Albania.

Finally getting back o Suffolk was very pleasant. Suffolk is one of those rare places in the UK that hasn’t changed much in thirty years, despite the radically glossy transformations of so much else in Britain. This is even more the case in its deepest darkest recesses, in one of which my Mother lives. Drinking my second pint of Real British Ale I did, however, discuss the new smoking ban with the landlord of our local. A non-smoker, he nonetheless reviles it as yet another instance of Britain’s love affair with petty, interfering officialdom. I was amazed that landlords get fined 2,000 pounds but smokers only 50 if smoking is witnessed. Is that fair? Is the landlord supposed to body search smokers when they enter to ensure no cigarettes might later be niftily illuminated at his expense? Another interesting thing he said was how it would be much better if the ban were regulated by the police, not the local councils. The police you can talk to and negotiate with, receive warnings from, basically interact with. It’s the bureaucracy of the report filing bureaucrat which sucks the blood out of life. In this matter, as in so many others no doubt.

It was very nice for my cousin and his Polish wife, my sister Rachel and brother Simon to pay me a visit. My brother and I got stuck in a field full of stinging nettles as we tried to break into one of our two fields from a country lane. All the while we continued our discussion of how I should somehow re-enter the world of Academia by doing a PHD; or maybe become a journalist. That had followed a theological conversation that revealed my brother's recent development of ideas about universal salvation far closer to mine. He said that he thought the idea I voiced in my early twenties, that I wanted to see the devil saved, was a very Christian one, and concluded, excellently I thought, that any Christian who does not at least want all people to be saved is not being properly Christian. Yeah, but that’s not the point, I reflected. Christians’ slavish love affair with a particular textual interpretation of their Holy Book is at least as important a problem as the fact that many Christians might actually like the idea of their enemies, or at least certain types of non-conformists, burning forever. After all, I’ve heard of Christians practically weeping with desire for everyone to be saved; but who then resolutely upbraid and remind themselves that, alas, the text of scripture doesn’t allow for this – and being utterly satisfied with the self-alienation this traditional stance towards interpretation reveals.

I ought to state here that I absolutely understand how weird all talk of salvation must sound to non-Christians. The thing is, for Christians, salvation is pretty key, and when I talk with my Christian brother, who's far more orthodox than I, it's often my Christian hat that I wear and Christian things that we discuss. About which I’m happy, since there aren’t that many Christians these days who want to talk about such things – or not amongst people I know, anyway. Amongst the Christians that are available, too many I find are either too rationalistic or deist effectively, or too fundamentalistic and judgemental. Bring on the Golden Mean, I say. Summarising our discussion of salvation,I concluded that Christianity needs, conceptually, to reconfigure what it means by salvation. The days of the stick are over. People will not be frightened any more into believing. They never should have been to begin with, though there’s no doubt that for a long time the fear weapon worked (in a dastardly shameful way and to the ruination of the Gospel). Now people just aren’t listening when Christian peddle fear and I don’t blame them, to be frank. Christianity, like Islam, is stuck in medieval modes of linguistic, conceptual expression that were wrongly conceived even at the time. Christianity clings to a litany of pernicious dualisms; the mind-body dualism, the gender dualism, the this life and the next life dualism, the heaven and hell dualism, the there-is-no-divine-relationship-with-humanity-except-though-Jesus dualism, which just clownifies the faith, so it seems, in the eyes of the secularly disposed. All of these dualisms, I believe, can be got rid of without the distinctiveness and vivid power of Christianity, which is the West’s ancestral cognitive and emotional heritage, being abandoned. A second Reformation then, and a proper one this time, please. In other words none of this clinging on to Augustine malarkey; and a rejection besides of the Constantinian compromise, whereby Christianity was diluted and in so many ways inverted into a Gospel of Condemnation, as a consequence of its marriage to the forces of secular Roman power.

Salvation is not about the next life. Salvation is about now, here on this planet, not tomorrow but today. And yes, there can be no salvation without palpable socio-political and economic consequences. How Christians work out the political application of Christianity is up to the reformers of the new reformation, but I trust it would not rest on yet another dualism, the left-right dualism. Obviously, the unending calls for social harmony and fairness between the peoples of the earth must be heard. I wonder if the phrases ‘social justice’ and ‘equality’, however, have not been too corrupted through overuse and Leninist application to be helpful. But obviously poverty, along with violence and war, are simple, obvious things that can’t be conceptualized or abstracted away. The main point is that the Kingdom of Heaven must come down-to-earth. It is not a place for only after death. This does not mean there is no life after death or no higher realm. It's just that it shouldn’t be a Christian’s ultimate focus, which should instead be this world, which is where he lives. Rather, the spiritual dimension, or ‘heaven’, is the place in which he is internally, by faith, grounded and moored inside himself while he lives. It is from where he derives his energy and inspiration, as he feels his connection to the divine. Then, as the mediator
of God’s love for the world, he is able to bring that love to earth, here and now. I don’t really like quoting scripture but the Lords’ prayer refers to this dynamic when it mentions ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven’.

Suffolk is indeed delightful, though I usually get itchy feet after about three days. I decided to head up to Manchester to see two friends. Reminded of the insane cost of public transport in the UK, I managed to get from Suffolk to Manchester for a princely 74.50 pounds return by buying a direct ticket through London and only travelling during the day. Just swan up to a railway station in the UK without researching the arcane options for escaping maximum financial punishment, and that is what you’ll receive and to a far worse tune than 74.50 pounds, too. Don’t expect, either, that a major town like Ipswich or Bury St.Edmunds will have a direct connection to another major town like Manchester. No, you have to go through the capital. It's very easy to see how the UK’s financially punitive transport system and its dearth of railways lines (compared to 60 years ago) have done marvellous wonders for the environment. After all, pushing people to use cars and buses is just the right policy isn’t it?

When I complain about the vicious cost of UK train travel people like springing to its defence by saying ‘Ooooohhhh..but isn’t it really cheap if you book ahead’. Firstly, why does booking ahead have any impact on how many people, and what particular person, sits on a train, or how many trains run? I’m a bit lost there. Are the train companies worried that if enough people don’t book ahead, it won’t be worthwhile running a particular service? Or are they trying to have an excuse to get more money from people who have no choice but to travel spontaneously. Secondly, a part of being a ‘free born Englishman’ is that I might, actually, not want to plan and regulate the finer movements of my private travel life weeks in advance, thank you very much.

The first friend I met in Manchester, Mark, told me how the police were running anti-terrorist checks on roads coming into Manchester. Apparently they run these every week. Spot checks on drivers who must prove their car is theirs, etc. I’d like to know how many bombs in how many cars they have discovered so far, as well as be reassured, in a way that I can’t be, that by not checking the cars they didn’t check they stopped other bombs from getting through. Well, because bombs haven’t gone off, obviously they have done a good job, it might be argued. But maybe that’s because there weren’t any bombs in the cars they didn’t check, not because they actually intercepted any in the ones they did. Which is why I want to know how many bombs they found.

Anyway, no doubt if people are happy with and made to feel safer because of these restrictions, what can be said? And no doubt they always might flukely find something, even though they might more probably not, despite their checks. Much better, of course, would be for people to just not bomb civilians in the first place. That might sound a bit obvious, but since when has the obvious been obvious?

Are we, as a race, a human race, educating enough people enough of the time about the wisdom and glory of not bombing civilians, or even better, not bombing anyone at all? That indeed is a question that many a Mullah, many a General might want to address.

It was nice to visit the Urbis museum. It had an interesting exhibition about the Hacienda club, a very famous nightclub/venue I’m pretty sure I visited during one of my drunken nights visiting student friends in 1990. Being somewhat Morrissey-centric as I am in my esteem for Manchester’s musical history, I was disappointed that there was nothing about him except for a reference to ‘The Smiths’. I’d hoped to see the film ‘Control’ about Ian Curtis but didn’t find the time. Just before my train back to London, I hoped to visit the People’s History Museum too, about working people’s life in the nineteenth century, but alas it was closed. I’d wondered whether there’d be any mention of Lever Bros (now Unilever), the company founded by my Great Great Great Uncle (if that’s the expression for my paternal Great Great Grandmother’s brother) since I'm interested in what it would say about the company’s relatively benign, philanthropic approach. My Great Great Grandfather, William Lever’s brother-in-law and friend, William Frederic Tillotson, who helped advertise Lever Bros products, also ran a company called Tillotsons and Sons (newspapers to begin with, later adding printing and packaging). I wondered whether it might also be mentioned too, though of course it’s not nearly as famous (and since 1971 hasn’t existed anyway). Anyway, both companies were far more Bolton and Birkenhead than Manchester, so maybe there’s nothing anyway.

After meeting up with Chris, an old friend from Slovakia with whom I stayed the night and who’s studying population transfers from the Ukraine, I headed back to London where, anticipating not having a drink for a while, given Kuwaiti dryness, I decided once again to open the flood gates. In consequence I got to sleep at 4am on the floor of my good friend Liz. Earlier I had spent time with her friends and a school friend of mine, Adam, singing Karaoke in one of the small, private booths you can now rent out. I’d thought that embarrassing yourself in front of utter strangers was an essential part of Karaoke’s charm but obviously not here, where capsuled exclusivity prevails. Still, it was a good laugh.

And so back to Suffolk, following a final greasy spoon breakfast nr Baker Street. The prospect of Kuwait still not totally in my mind, I made my tired, hung over way back to Suffolk before preparing for the trip to Heathrow. But first, en route, a quick visit to Cambridge with Mum to see Jenny, my older sister, who’s planning to move there soon with her family from France, of which she has grown tired. I still look upon Cambridge as my hometown and always say that Cambridge is where I’m from when people ask. So it will be really nice to have proper reasons to go back there again.