Thursday, December 28, 2006

PhD Student's Vacation

(Click to enlarge.)

This is so true. This is a PhD student talking to his supervisor before going on vacation. You always think you're going to get work done when you go home, and you even set aside work specifically for the plane. But something happens the minute you board, and all your study plans get left behind on the tarmac. I brought two books with me to Kuwait. One really thick one, and one relatively thin one but it's in Arabic (so will probably take me longer to read). I borrowed both from my supervisor before I traveled (without any specific deadline to return them), and I thought they would be good to read while in Kuwait. Second week into my trip, and they are both sitting on my desk untouched. I better get cracking.

On the subject of books, I was pretty impressed with the Middle East collection at Virgin. You would never expect Virgin Megastore to carry some of the books they have, and it made me wonder who is doing their ordering. I was impressed to see a copy of Ilan Pappe's brand new book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, and also an important book called Saudi Arabia in the Balance: Political Economy, Society, Foreign Affairs, which I bought. I've never bought a book from Virgin that wasn't design oriented, let alone one that I would have otherwise bought from Foyles or Waterstone's in London. It made me happy. I hope they keep it up.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Donuts = Religion?!

The other night P and I stopped in for coffee and donuts at Dunkin Donuts in Salmiya. At the back they have a big bulletin board where people can "express themselves" - draw, say how much they love DD, sign their names, etc. Basically, it's a space for people to just have fun and mess about, and it's obvious most of the people who were signing it were kids and teenagers. P and I had fun looking at it from our table and giggling at some of the endearing attempts to write in English. ("I like DD restrunt. It's the best dounts factory at all." Bless your heart.) It was all innocent fun, and it's a cute idea on DD's part.

And then suddenly, my eyes fell on this:

Why? Why right there in the middle of a "Hamad-loves-Dunkin- Donuts" collage? What does religion have to do with donuts? Out of all the things you could have said, that's what you decided to write? Sorry, I mean to preach? It's just donuts for crying out loud! What, did you think the little kids were having too much fun stuffing their faces with glazed munchkins and scribbling their names on a wall that you thought it would lead them straight to hell if they didn't remember to stop and thank God for these donuts that He has so graciously bestowed upon us? Go preach in your own space, not in this corner of the world that is dedicated to donuts and chocolate sprinkles. God must have been looking down on her at that moment saying: "My word, lady, would you give it a rest?!"

This was originally a much longer post, in which I was critically assessing several other similar overly-religious-ziyada-3alluzoom trends I've seen in Kuwait lately, but my friends told me if I post it I could get into trouble so I won't. I hate the fact that I feel compelled to self-censor. I know I can post whatever I want, and many other bloggers do post their views on Kuwaiti politics and religion, but I'm still chicken to do it in this kind of a venue. I guess I feel much bolder and braver when I write and publish academically.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Travel Frenzy

I am an anxious traveler. Surprise surprise. I am one of those people that likes to get to the airport at least three hours early, if not more. And I fret about it from the night before (even when the flight is the following night). I like to be as organized as possible before arriving in the terminal. To me, it's like a war zone, and precision is key. I check in online the night before and have my confirmation printed out and ready. That way, I go straight to the Fast Bag Drop, drop off my luggage, and get done with the whole ordeal quickly and painlessly. And then I have plenty of time to do some last minute shopping, or to sit at the new café in Terminal 4 (can't remember what it's called - where McDonald's used to be), have a sandwich, and read. And then I can calmly stroll over to the gate for boarding, which is usually 20 minutes away. Why be rushed and crazed when you can be on time and calm?

But lately, Heathrow is causing me way too much anxiety. When I came home in November, they had turned the Fast Bag Drop into a regular counter, so even though I'd already checked in online and only needed to drop my luggage, I had to queue for two hours. Then another hour in the security queue. I had checked in online, got to the airport three hours early - basically did everything right - and yet I still had to run to the gate. I hadn't eaten all day so I barely had time to pick up a sandwich from Pret a Manger on the way to eat on the plane. And of course, some TK chick-chicks ended up delaying the whole flight anyway because they were too busy shopping to hear the boarding call.

Anyway. It is now 3:30pm and my taxi is picking me up at 5pm. I'm feeling anxious because my towels are still in the dryer and so I haven't taken a shower yet. But everything else is done (other than taking out the trash and turning off the boiler). I usually take the Heathrow Express but this time I had to settle for a taxi because, yes ladies and gentlement, I have two, count them...two, suitcases! I haven't traveled with two suitcases since I first moved to London. But I overdid it on the Christmas shopping this year. And a lot of the stuff was just bulky. So now my whole airport precision plans have gone to the dogs. Now I'm freaked out about having to pay excess baggage. I called British Airways - on flights to Kuwait, they charge £16 per extra kilo past the permissible 23kg. I have a whole extra suitcase (albeit a small one), and I think it's at least 10-15 extra kilos - I'm not exactly sure because I don't have a scale and I have absolutely no conception of weight. But if it is, then that's £160-240 in excess baggage! That is just insane. I'm going to have to beg and plead. I'll play the Christmas card ("it's all presents for my family who I barely get to see"), and possibly the PhD student card ("I'm going to do field research and had to bring my books"). I'm also worried they will have the Fast Bag Drop be a normal queue again, in which case I might just kill someone.

I am traveling for three weeks with two suitcases. Oh God, I am such a TK.

Update: I got to the airport at 5:30 because my taxi arrived 15 minutes early. The airport was the most crowded I have ever seen it, and pure chaos. They have had a big tent area built up outside the main terminal 4 building for the past couple of months but I'd never seen it used before. Well last night we had to stand in the tent as a kind of holding area as they checked in each flight one at a time (didn't matter if you'd been waiting 3 hours for your flight or you just arrived - you were treated the same). I was standing there for about 2 1/2 hours, despite the fact that I (and many others) had checked in online. Anyway, by 8pm they finally announced our flight to Kuwait (we were the last remaining in the tent), and then we were allowed to enter the terminal building and stand in the actual check-in queue there. I was third in line amongst the Kuwait passengers, but we were way at the back of everyone else. Luckily they started tagging our luggage and processing boarding passes from the back of the line where we were (so they were basically working from both ends of the line), so I only had to wait there for about 10 minutes. Then they had us take our luggage to what was a real Fast Bag Drop, where they weren't checking weight or anything. So basically, I didn't pay squat. Woo hoo! Had enough time to have a light dinner, go to the toilet, walk over to the gate, and sit and chat with a friend.

Then of course I found out that the majority of the Kuwait passengers just waltzed into the airport at around 8pm (when our plane was due to leave at 9:45, but was of course an hour delayed) and never even saw the tent. They went straight to the check-in queue. Am I doing the wrong thing by being so responsible and organized and arriving early? Maybe I should be one of those last minute passengers who frantically gets to shove up to the front of the queue and quickly checks in. That's gonna be me from now on.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Hassles and Magic of Christmas

Doing Christmas tree lights is an OCD perfectionist's worst nightmare. Ever since I was a kid I would feel tense and uncomfortable as I watched my older sisters and mother getting the lights up before we could start decorating the tree. When I lived alone in the States I only had a small tree because I would leave for vacation so early in December that it didn't really matter. So I never had to worry about the lights myself. Last year in London was the first time I ever had a medium-sized tree of my own to decorate in my flat. But I actually found a tree in Cargo Homestore that came with the lights pre-attached to it, which was perfect because it meant I wouldn't have to worry about doing the lights myself. Just put the tree together, plug it in, and - hey presto! - the lights would come on, all perfectly placed around the tree. It was an OCD's dream come true.

But alas, nothing gold can stay. This year I unpacked my Christmas tree, put the whole thing together, plugged it in, and tragedy struck. Two whole rows of lights weren't working. I tried playing electrician for about an hour but all I did was end up turning off one more whole row of lights. Finally, I gave up. I decided I would have to remove the pre-sets, buy a new string of lights, and just do my best.

Well, removing the lights turned out to be much more of a hassle than I'd bargained for. Imagine 200 twinkle lights, each and every one attached to the branches of the tree with two of those little green clips you see on my coffee table in the picture. What you see here is nothing - there were hundreds of those little clips by the time I was done. I keep finding random ones scattered around my flat. Anyway, it took me about two hours, lots of frustration, and a few scratches on my hands to get them all off.

Then the next day I bought a new set of lights and decided that I could do this - how hard could it be? Holy crap. First of all, it wasn't just a simple string of lights - one row of wire with lights attached. No, the thing was split into two parallel rows - imagine one long row, folded in half, with the two ends meeting together at the plug. That's what it was like. How on earth do you string those around a tree? I'd only ever watched my sisters and Mom doing the single row one when I was a kid (although they had to use two full strings to cover our whole tree, which was always huge because we'd buy a real one).

Suffice it to say, it took me ages. I won't go into the details because only those of you with OCD will understand - the rest will just think I'm nuts. I finally managed to get the string all around the tree after about two hours (with a 20 minute break in between). Then of course, it was another hour as I sat on the couch and analyzed the distribution of the lights and kept fine-tuning it.

I hate this disease.

Anyway, once that was done, I finally got to decorate it. It felt kind of pathetic doing it all alone. I even downloaded some of the Christmas songs we used to listen to when we were kids while decorating the tree (OK OK, I'll admit it, it was the Boney M. Christmas album). But once it was done, I made myself a mug of hot chocolate, lit up some candles, played some Bach fugues, and I felt warm and peaceful. Well worth the hassle. As I sat there looking at the tree I remembered my lovely mother. She always added the finishing touch to the tree when we were done - the tinsle. My mother made Christmas - and life - magical, and even though she is no longer with us to celebrate it, the magic she brought to it is still inside me and my sisters and Dad. Nothing in life has ever beat that feeling of Christmas morning when we were kids - that absolute pure family joy. So, even though I'm 27, Christmas will always make me feel like a kid again.

I'm having some friends over on Wednesday evening for some warm Christmassy drinks which I cannot describe here, gingerbread men, a chocolate yule log cake, and I'm tempted to get mince pies because I've never had them and just cannot possibly imagine what they're like. Everyone will go home with a candy cane off the tree. I love this season.

(If anyone points out the gap in lights on the bottom left part of the tree in this picture, I'll deck you. Pun intended. Get it, get it? Deck the halls? Anyway, it only looks that way in the picture. It's fine in real life...Raine.)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Innocent Christmas

Best marketing-cum-charity campaign ever. Innocent smoothies are being sold with these little woolen hats for Christmas. It's part of a campaign known as "supergran": the hats were made by volunteers and for every drink bought with a hat on, 50p goes to Age Concern, a charity that assists the elderly in the winter. Read more about it here.

The whole idea is just wonderful. When I saw them all in a row at Sainsbury's, each with a different style and colour hat, I nearly flipped. Yet another reason to adore Innocent. The one on the left is my favourite flavour, and the one on the right is a yummy holiday "guest smoothie". Sometimes people just know how to do things right.

P.S. Speaking of doing things right, my MA results came out this Friday. I am happy to say I got a Distinction (highest classification).