Thursday, July 30, 2009

July Roundup

You must be asking yourself, who is this person blogging and what have they done with the real Eureka? I certainly have been asking myself that this week; I have posted 4 times in 8 days and have gone out past 3 AM on three consecutive weeknights. THREE CONSECUTIVE WEEKNIGHTS. I went to a wedding on Monday, Tamarai on Tuesday (where Doolittle's latest boyfriend, who I had not met, and is apparently quite the Casanova so has been with his fair share of hotties, declared me the hottest girl in the club that night. SCORE! Ladies, MAC's Russian Red will turn your kitten into a vixen. True story), and Tooth's house for a party on Wednesday. I am so awesome that Barney Stinson wants to be me.

I rarely go out on weeknights because I really love me my sleep. And because I'm a lazy ass who can't be bothered to make the effort required to clean up for a night out after a whole day being Pranjib the Back Office Formatting Bitch. But I had a good time this week. Maybe 3 AM x 3 weeknights with meetings the next morning was a little extreme but I'm not complaining. I can sleep off the exhaustion tonight.

So, July came and went on Eurekaisms with no mention of summer activities. However, do not be fooled into thinking the Eureka clan did nothing. We, as always, went to our beloved city of London from July 5th to 17th. Beloved because it is not Cairo and it is free. We spent two weeks enjoying rain, bad shopping and awkward (although admittedly less so) Grandpa and wife time. We also paid 20 kgs in overweight luggage and almost had a heart attack because I thought I forgot my mother's passport on the dining room table in Wimbledon when I'd just handed it to her 1 minute prior to my hyperventilation. But we'll get to that.

This year Tinkerbell did not keep me entertained with her fashion escapades and picnics in the park. Insert sad face here. But I did get to spend some quality time with the MILF, Bloft and (ugh) Space Cadet (who is now 16 and a major tool), which was great. The FILF decided not to come as he is "over London". His loss, our MILF's gain in relaxation.

Now, because we live in an area of the world surrounded by scorching desert sands and insanely high temperatures, we were probably the only people in all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (as well as the rest of Ireland) to be thrilled by the disappearance of the heat wave they enjoyed during the first week of July. We had two weeks of gorgeous British rain, followed by the occasional and always poorly photographed rainbow, as sort of seen if you squint really hard here:

Two weeks went by much too quickly and without any interesting stories this time around. No, I did not break my foot again chasing after a bus. I didn't spot any interesting celebrities. I was only hit on once by a middle-aged Marks & Spencer's Food Hall cashier who stared at me mouth agape and declared me "beautiful". He kept asking me a bazillion questions about myself. He was very sweet and I was very flattered, but that isn't the most ideal way to be referred to as "beautiful". Maybe if he were Karl Lagerfeld looking for a new muse.

The only dramatic point was, as I noted, our return journey. We knew we were in trouble with regard to our luggage weight because we had one fewer suitcase to distribute all our junk in. Btu we were not expect 20 kilograms of excess baggage. Which we had to pay for. And spent 20 minutes negotiating with a highly uncooperative Lufthansa representative. Apparently, Lufthansa has a no-nonsense from cheap economy class who bought their tickets with lousy Swiss miles passengers policy which meant that we got the figurative finger from the strict German establishment. My mother even turned on her 36-time Academy Award nominated waterworks to no avail. Bitch was COLD, man!

And to top it all off, the 20 kgs were AFTER the lovely counter lady knocked off a few kilos because she remembered serving us the year before. She hooked us up last year, too. But that was before the new policy. This year she couldn't outright lie about our overweight issues. This year, she had to 'fess up and call us FAT.

All of this was after the initial moment of pure deer-in-your-headlights panic I experienced when I thought I'd forgotten my mother's passport. My hands were shaking so hard that I couldn't even hold the remaining 6 passports (yes, a total of 7 passports for 4 people. We are a multinational group.) and boarding cards. Everything was being jolted out like I was sitting on a jackhammer. I was blasting air out of my mouth the way women in labour who are straining to push the goddamn baby out trying to keep myself calm. Who FORGETS handing someone a passport? Evidently, I do.

Anyway, once we pried the money out of my mother's iron-clad fists to get the bags through, we had to RUN to get our VAT done and then RUN back with the VAT suitcase, relabel the Heavy labels with a slightly lower weight on each to save the poor counter lady's job. We gave her chocolate for good measure. We're polite like that. Royal blood and what not. Then, we had to RUN some more to cash the VAT receipts. One of the receipts had to be mailed, so I then had to RUUUUUUNNNNN across the airport to find a mailbox. With 20 minutes left to takeoff because we wasted an hour paying dearly for our collective shopping addictions.

Finally, after a torturous process to the gate, we boarded our plane to Frankfurt. The plane was late taking off, meaning we only had 20 minutes to locate and reach our connecting flight to Cairo. And we had a mute three-year-old who would not stop making 'ehhhhh'nig noises to get her point across to her mother. Poor girl and all but OH MY GOD. Yes, I am a bitch. You already know this.

Arriving at Frankfurt to a pleasant surprise: our gate was in the same room as where we disembarked. SCORE. Payment? THE MOST TURBULENT PLANE RIDE BACK IN THE HISTORY OF PLANE RIDES. And that's saying something as we are very well versed in near-death plane experiences. Remember the BA flight that tumbled 30,000 feet? Yeah, that was a Eureka family bearing flight. We finally made it to Cairo's new terminal at 3:45 AM. Got through that idiotic swine flu patrol and waited for our luggage.

And waited.

And waited.

Our bags were the last bags off that plane. It took three lifetimes. That entire trip back must have shaved 6 years off my life expectancy. I'm already at a 9-year disadvantage for being a leftie. I now have 15 fewer years to live. But, I have a fabulous new coat to show for it. Well worth it! I told you I was a shopping whore.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Christmas in July

Common knowledge: when it’s hot outside, you’ll find all sorts scrambling for shelter in the strangest places. You’ll find the bum from a few blocks down sitting at the bar a mere two stools away from that gorgeous young mother who runs past my bistro every day during the morning inventory check. He’s closer than he ever dreamed he’d get and he’s so jarred by her proximity that you can see his hands shake as they clasp his beer bottle. She’ll never notice him, even though she’s run past him every morning for the last three years.

Today is one of those unbearably hot July days when the roaches scramble out of the floorboards in search of cooler ground. My guys in the kitchen are already uncomfortable, even before the lunchtime rush. I whisper a silent prayer, begging that the central cooling doesn’t conk out today.

It’s noon when the first gaggle comes in, looking for a cool escape and quick refreshments. Now, the bistro is a pretty pricey establishment, but on days like this people are willing to pay more than they should for a breath of cool air and freshly cut basilica. I take their orders and turn to seat the man who just strolled in. I’ve seen him before and know his type well. He’s wearing an obviously expensive beige tailored suit with Italian loafers and a loud tie. He pulls out a cigar and clips it on my pristine floor. This is not going to be a pleasant experience for either of us, I can tell you that.

“Good day, sir and welcome to the Piazza Napolitano, how may I…”

“Give me the table at the back,” he cuts me off without giving me a second glance. Two can play that game.

“That table is not available sir; allow me to seat you by the window.” Surprisingly, he doesn’t put up a fight and follows me as he puffs away at his cigar. I hand him a menu and bring him his drink. Followed by another and another.

An hour’s worth of drinks passes with no appetizer and no entrée ordered. The owner looks at me to say lets get this guy moving; there are hungrier people to seat. It is hot with the room nearing full capacity. The collective body heat is not helping. But this guy hasn’t even broken into a glow even with all the drinking and the suit. Finally, he summons me over.

“Waiter, do you know what this is?” He pulls out another cigar and lets me look at the ring.

“It is a Romeo y Julieta, sir. A fine Cuban cigar. Exquisite choice.” This guy is not just playing rich.

“Do you know what that means?” He continues before I can think of a response. “It means I enjoy life and can afford its finer things. I am loaded and I know what’s good.”

This man is a lighter weight than his girth portrays. The heat is getting to him.

“But y’know something? Sometimes it isn’t as easy as it seems, this high life thing. I mean, take a day like this doozy as an example. You look around you as you sit back in your nice air-conditioned car, with the chauffer and the tinted windows and you wonder what made those poor schmucks outside sweltering their eyes out of their skulls while waiting for their bus any different to you. Why’d they get the shitty hand and I get the royal flush?”

He looks out the window and points to a homeless man sitting on the curb across the street.

“I mean, look at that guy in the beat up shirt and the stained pants. That man’s walking around with a hole in his shirt. A hole in our day and age, when the guy sitting across from you is a billionaire. What makes the billionaire any better? Why him and not stained shirt guy?”

The restaurant gets quieter as people turn to see who is yelling. I stand still with my mouth ajar. I’ve dealt with my fair share of drunks in this business, but I’m stunned by this sudden outburst.

“And to top it all off, not only does the billionaire here have to wonder about all this shit I’m relaying to you right now, all this existential crap I’m spewing; he further has to feel guilty and responsible for all the disparity and destitution in the world. He has to feel like he owes them something. Damn Rich Man’s Burden.”

He shakes his head and pauses a beat before closing with a ringer:

“Poor bastards.”

I say the one thing that might soothe him.

“May I interest you in the specials, sir?”

“No. Get me the check.”

He pays his bill and walks out. As I clear his table I notice the second cigar lying under the napkin.

You see all sorts in the bussing tables business. You see even more on a hot day. At least this one ended with a free Cuban. I’ll take one of those any day if it means Christmas in July.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

I may not mention books often here, but once upon a time I was a voracious reader (or as my parents like to say: I don't read books, I devour them). Nowadays, I don't read nearly as often as I'd like to. Part of it is lack of time, part of it is a lack of desire to abandon the easier world of shows and devote said time to the more tasking effort of reading, part of it is disillusionment with the quality of today's books and another with the importance of the classics: how can a book be this praised yet this boring? But every once in a while, I still get completely sucked into the world unfolding on the pages of a particularly good novel. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz is one such book.

As the title implies, the story revolves around Oscar, a young second generation Dominican-American and his family: his beautiful elder sister Lola, their hard downtrodden mother Hypatia "Belicia" Cabral, and their ancestral past. Narrated by Oscar’s college roommate and Lola’s sometimes boyfriend Yunior, the book chronicles Oscar’s family’s multigenerational misfortune as they are plagued by a particularly strong fukú, or evil eye type curse.

I won’t delve into the plot as that defeats the purpose of recommending a book. Obviously, the title gives the ending away, but for once the ending is mostly an end to the means. And what a means it is! Díaz’s style is charmingly, hilariously heartwarming; you fall in love with every broken, imperfect character and root for them to make it. A character-driven writer in a character-driven novel, he is a Dominican David Foster Wallace with gangster rap flavourings and a Trekkie thrown in for good measure, breaking down just about every expectation or stereotype that must exist about who and what should constitute such labels.

He also does that with his deliberate juxtaposition of two polar personalities: Oscar and Yunior. Both are Dominican-Americans with dominant matriarchs and lustful tendencies. Both are aspiring writers. But that is where the similarities end. Oscar is overweight, a dork with a thesaurus for a tongue, a loser, a hermit and a virgin – even though he desperately tries to lose that latter title. Yunior is a gangster player, a typical Dominican culo-chaser and as academically unmotivated as they come. Throwing such characters together is Díaz’s way of throwing the spotlight on how being Dominican, or black, or white, or Asian or Arab does not mean you need to think, act, speak, or believe a certain way. It is his way of tackling conformity, stereotypes and ethno-racial expectations. The novel is rife with similar multicultural points. It should have been required reading for the Tochni course I mentioned in my last post, as it would have made several pertinent arguments without touching too many American or Arab nerves.

Surprisingly, Oscar’s story is probably the weakest story in the novel. Díaz’s brilliance comes in his portrayal of the women in Oscar’s family. He depicts the Dominican woman beautifully. All three major female characters are strong in both will and body, loyal, steadfast, stubborn and gorgeous. A subtle comedic note is the fact that Oscar’s sister, Lola, puts their mother through the same hell as Beli put her own matriarch, La Inca, through. Karma can be a bitch, can’t it.

However, it has to be said that in several parts of the book, it feels more like a Sparknotes version of events rather than the actual novel. More books like this and we won’t need Sparknotes for lit classes anymore.

Parts of the novel are set during Oscar’s grandfather’s lifetime under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo who is, in true Latin American form, a Saddam Hussein meets Ghaddafi meets Hitler tyrannical philanderer. Díaz provides the reader with very funny footnotes throughout the historical sections of the novel to keep the reader informed on the often-gruesome history of the Dominican Republic. Many of the stories hit home, as this could have very easily been an Arab ‘president’. Who hasn’t heard of someone mysteriously disappearing after being dragged off by the secret police?

Díaz’s sentences average 75% English 25% Spanish, but you won’t need a translator handy to catch his drift. I might get around to looking some of it up just for the comedic appreciation aspect, but I didn’t need to to understand what he was going on about. It again reminds me of Egypt; most of us speak in that sort of Arablish reminiscent to the Spanglish he uses.

Even though the ending was merely an end to the means, I wish it weren’t. Díaz’s biggest flaw here was fizzling out towards the end. He may have been too attached to Oscar (who very much resembles Ignatius J. Reilly form A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole) to let him go, but I think he did his otherwise brilliant first novel a disservice by ending it as nonchalantly as he did. It felt like the Sparknotes of the CliffsNotes, and even the luminously written final paragraph couldn’t make up for a rushed or underdeveloped ending.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Racism, Identities and Diamond Studded Bikinis

Back in the summer of 2005, I went to Tochni, Cyprus as part of a UW, AUB and AUC group course on American and Arab Identities in Tension. The premise was to group 30 or so young adults in one tiny village for two weeks to discuss how much Americans and Arabs hate each other. Sort of like I'm A Celebrity without the Z-list fame and fortune status and no cameras documenting our every ass scratch. 

According to our professors, we were by far the most tension-filled, kamikaze samurai fighter, bitchslap till kingdom come group ever to go to Tochni. The natives still run and hide under rocks whenever they hear our names. Or so it is rumoured. I've seen my fair share of Gucci corner drama, but this course was ridiculous. Imagine Lindsey Lohan and Sam Ronson in a death match and throw in some Chuck Norris roundhousing on crack. Then add some major rich Arab attitude and country/mother-dissing. That doesn't even cover the good mornings. What should have been a learning experience about the 'Other' turned into two weeks of the Americans hating on the Egyptians for being rich and the Egyptians (15 poli sci students) really laying it hard on the Americans for Bush's shitty foreign policy. I wrote a 12-page paper on the drama and barely covered it.

Snippets of spiteful negativity include:

 

-       An American boy to me: "are those real diamonds on your bikini?" 
Me: "no, why would you think that?
Boy: "I figured since you’re wearing a Rolex and everything’s designer, your bikini would have real diamonds on it as well"

-      Another American: "I don't hate you because you're you, I hate you because you're Egyptian"

-      American-Mexican girl: "I work two jobs and pay taxes for my country to send you Aid. That's why you have the Gucci bags and I don't”

-       The Egyptians weren’t much nicer. We called them everything from world terrorists to trailer trash. We took to flaunting our wealth because it bothered them. We spoke Arabic and laughed loudly because they thought we were making fun of them. We interrupted them, used our mobile phones and did everything we could to make them rue the day they crossed our paths.

Basically, rather than use our two weeks to learn about the ‘Other’ and maintain a constructive and wound-healing discourse, we fucked with each other’s heads. And that finally brings me to the point of this story. The other day I received a message from one of the quieter and more misunderstood American boys in our course asking me some questions about racism and what I got out of our two weeks in Tochni. Apparently, the way things played out still bothered him. One of the questions he asked was “Do you feel like you BETTER understood the problems between the American identity and the Arab identity because of our seminar? If so, how?”

I responded with what I think is at the root of so many problems in our global society: because of our preconceived notions or expectations of the ‘Other’, we did not create the space to understand the truths behind our and the ‘Other’’s identities. Essentially, our ingrained racism – be it conscious or otherwise – barred us from even trying to dialogue.

I felt that because of the personal conflicts that arose in our course, we had little time to discuss the conflicts stemming from our country-based collective identities. The majority of our time was spent bickering over personal differences, which shed a negative light on both the American and the Arab identities. I believe this is rooted in the conflicting course descriptions provided by the respective professors. The Egyptians and Lebanese came as they were told this was a political course, as was also reflected in the assigned readings. The Americans were told this was a sociological course, and so were not emotionally, mentally or academically prepared for in-depth political discourse. Because each side came expecting different things, the communication that needed to occur broke down because it could really begin.

 

This premature breakdown in communication is a problem not just for the Tochini course participants, but in how every forum for debate is set up. Expectations or preconceived notions or any sort of racist perception of the ‘Other’ stop us from listening. They stop us from accepting. They stop us from really trying.

 

I’m not saying that it is humanly possible for one to clear one’s mind from all preconceived ideas of the ‘Other’. But it is important for us to be aware of these thoughts and to try to work past them. I know I learnt that the hard way. Even though we all ended up having a blast on that trip, we didn’t achieve as much as we could have if we’d just kept a more open mind. Maybe my talking it out with the quiet American might help make amends for our indiscretions in 2005. 

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