Green Eggs and Ham

My housemates will vouch for me when I say that my cooking last year was sporadic, if improvisational at best. But I genuinely never thought I’d see the day when I sat down to dine on a dish of green scrambled eggs. 

Of all the little aspects of day-to-day life in the Middle East, it surprises me that groceries that are some of the most fiddly things to come by. Not for want of availability – there’s plenty of fruit shops – but compared to other amenities, fruit and vegetables are annoyingly expensive. So far the only good deal we’ve come across are the watermelons: £1 a throw for a mammoth refresher that has kept at least five of us going for days. Oranges, quite unlike Morocco, are pricey and bitter. I guess it’s a seasonal thing, and it’s an established fact that Jordan has a serious water shortage crisis on its hands. So why the watermelons…? On the plus side, bread and hummus are cheap, and a falafel wrap at the local falafel joint is about 45p; a neat filler in the hours between iftar and suhuur when we would-be fasters are struggling to stay focused on the Arabic homework we’ve been set. Fasting and then studying for four hours in a row is intense: how these folks manage it is beyond me. I’d do it too, but I have the same issue with it as I do with going up for communion; that is, it’s little more than a gesture if I don’t really believe, and aping others without any heart strikes me as more than a little insincere. But what do I know?

Back to the green eggs and ham. So in the absence of fairly priced fruit and vegetables, our foodstuffs are a little lean for the time being. After last night’s almost tasteless scrambled egg attempt, Andrew had an unusual brainwave and threw in not just an overzealous garnish of salt but also the contents of two thyme tea bags. The salt levels may have been enough to give the Dead Sea a run for its money, but the thyme was a good move. At least it tasted of something this time around. The cutlery looks like it was last used to fish something out of the gutter, so we stuck to using the bread as a primitive fork. Between that, the kettle that turns itself on and off every five seconds and the building site next door, it’s hard to say we’ve got a good deal. But rolling out of bed in the morning to class in the building next door is pretty jammy, I’ll give you that.

Another hour of techno-assisted vocab busting and it’ll be time for suhuur. At half a dinar a throw, I’m game for another falafel wrap. Between them and the utter majesty that is Habiiba Confectionary, it’ll be a bitter war between my stomach and my teeth. The vegetable relief force better not be too long in coming. BB x

(Spoiler Alert: the meal below, scrambled eggs and okra, was our suhuur version and infinitely better. The aforementioned dish was literally green)

  

‘Just speak English, I’m a busy man’

The Iftar party’s over in Doors. The tabla drummers and the Sufi dervish in his suit of lights – a very literal take on the toreador’s kit – did their show at half past ten, cavorting through the tables for half an hour, handing out three of four birthday cakes before wrapping up. The clientele, Amman’s glamorous mid-20s, are sat around tables bubbling away at shisha. Moodlit by strategically placed dimmer bulbs and fairy lights, it’s really rather magical. And talk about glamorous! These profiles are to die for. My Semitic nose obsession is on red alert. As for all these dark eyes and black tumbling locks… Somebody lock me up before I break my one year abroad rule.

Ok, ok, I was only kidding. I’m not about to declare my undying love for one of these Jordanian beauties tonight. Not when we’re still struggling to get to grips with the local dialect, which is supposed to be similar to Classical Arabic, but falls depressingly short of what I’d call a family resemblance. We made it out to a night at Doors on Eloise’s suggestion in order to try to practice that complex ‘Amia, and here we are watching Andrew sink further and further into a state of shisha-induced nirvana. There’s this glazed look of bemused superiority in his eyes as he takes another puff from the pipe. ‘Which one would you eat first?’ he asks, twirling the pipe nonchalantly between his fingers. He’s talking, of course, about the potions in Alice in Wonderland. Of course. I think I’ll give the shisha a miss tonight. 

Eloise turned up at ours earlier just five minutes after we’d got back to the apartment with our shopping. She’s had a rough time of it on the homestay front: she got lost on the way home and had to find her way back to the house in the dark alone, only to find her family on their way out for the night, without the dinner they’d promised her. Between that and their attempts to either speak to her in English or batter her with lightspeed ‘amia, she’s drawn the short straw. It could just be teething problems, of course, but that’s still an expensive dental bill at the end of the day. Scrambled eggs, kunafa and a couple of teas later and we’re on the road to recovery, but a conversation with a local is still proving hard to come by. We tried asking one of the waiters for the wifi password in Arabic. He just shot us an exasperated look and told us to speak English. He clearly didn’t have the time to deal with time-wasting travelers like us. Ila liqaa! BB x

  

Labyrinth of Mirrors

I doubt I’ve ever felt so relieved by the prospect of a cold shower as I did when I half strode, half stumbled in beleaguered triumph over the threshold of my apartment last night. Over the course of twenty-four hours I think Andrew and I clocked about twenty-five kilometres of wandering, at least ten of which on the return journey from Amman’s infinitely busier town centre. The taxi ride in cost five dinar and took five minutes. Walking back was free – and it took just over two hours, dodging some of the most reckless drivers I’ve ever seen. The rule of the road seems to be one of ‘who dares wins’; naturally, this applies to both the cabbie and the pedestrian, an endangered species in its own right. Sometimes you’ve simply got to throw caution to the wind and run for it at the nearest opening, or else you’ll be waiting at the curb all night. Nobody’s about to stop for you unless you walk out in front of them.
Amman is, by all accounts, enormous. Unfathomably so for a country bumpkin like me. It sprawls across the hills for mile after dusty mile, a myriad identical sandy high rise blocks giving it height. Each street looks uncannily alike, and you can’t even use the minarets, lit up in green neon and rising above the chaos like radio masts, for landmarks, as there’s so many of them. Apparently there are post offices everywhere, but in the twenty five kilometres we covered today, we never saw so much a sign of one. The city folk were singularly unhelpful on that front, neither knowing nor caring where a post office could be found, let alone the quasi-mythical Ali Baba language school. After nearly four hours of burning alive under the midday sun in search of the place we sought refuge in an Internet cafe on the northern edge of town, only to find, to our disbelief, that a post office, market and Ali Baba itself were all within a stone’s throw of our apartment. Sod’s Law.

So, not exactly a stellar first impression of Amman. A handful of smiles amidst the faceless tide, but not quite as friendly as, say, Taroudant. Still, orientation today was a breeze and we have our first class tomorrow – together. Team Durham forever. At last, some structure in the chaos of city life. I never thought I’d see the day. BB x

Khaled and Maha Continued

Our apartment comes with a TV with more channels than you can shake a stick at. After rifling through news, sports and ad channels of varying intelligibility – near impossible to downright incomprehensible – we stumbled across a soap that had just started. To give you an insight into the beauty that is an Arabic soap, I’ll sum it up for you.
Roll credits. Boy meets girl. Girl draws portrait of boy. Boy buys flowers for girl. Boy proposes. Wedding. Boy meets mother-in-law. Fat bloke sits in corner crying and scoffing baklava. Boy and girl sign marital documents.

End credits. Boy and girl, after two minutes of vignetted, smile-drowned credits, are filing for a divorce. And all because the boy’s chubby buddy invited himself and two hookers to the guy’s house whilst his wife was out. And all this happened in just under four minutes in total. Part of me cheerily wants to believe that this is the rest of the infamous al-Kitaab Khaled/Maha saga, the other would dearly like to know what in blazes is going on. Everybody speaks at the speed of a bullet train. Everybody, that is, except the titular estranged lovers, who do a lot of the old staring mournfully at each other without so much as a word in edgeways.

Well, it’s just gone a quarter past ten here in our apartment (that’s eight o’clock English time). Sleeping wasn’t easy; not only does this city never sleep, but the room’s been steadily heating up since sunrise. Being just off the main road doesn’t help either. At least it’s vaguely central! After leaving the girls with their drivers at the airport for presumably the last time until class on Sunday, we were driven to our apartment by the surliest of the three cabbies. Andrew tried some Arabic on him but it was a very one-way conversation. But he got us to the front door in the end, and that’s all that matters. It’s a good deal better than what I was expecting, but then again I’ve been living in a £200 pound per month property in Durham: my standards, as you might imagine, aren’t exactly sky-high.

We’re taking it easy this morning. There’s a fair few things that need doing before classes begin tomorrow: namely, finding the nearest bank, post office, market, cafe and, of course, Ali Baba International Language Institute itself, which is supposed to be right next door, apparently. Unfortunately we’re right above a fast food sprawl: McDonalds, KFC, Burger King et al. glaring red and yellow right outside my window. We found a marginally more authentic shawarma joint to take suhuur this morning, but it wasn’t as simple as asking for Combo 8. It didn’t help that our non-conversational taxi driver told us that suhuur was at ‘thantayn wa nos’ – whatever that’s supposed to mean. Ending up going for breakfast at two thirty am on a level guess, by which point most establishments were shutting up shop. Lost in translation again, and this time in a language I’m supposed to understand. Bummer.

If we could find a functioning wifi hotspot as well, that would also be pretty grand, so you can actually start reading these posts. Between getting this iGizmo on Thursday and arriving in Amman, I’ve yet to find anywhere with reliable internet. Here’s to success on that front at least. B’saHa. BB x

Admirals and Army Knives

Dosvedanya! I’m writing to you from 1500 feet above the Ukraine, where the sun is shining and the sea of clouds below is literally just that: a sea. It looks like choppy water. And this is also the first post from my new iPad, courtesy of Durham’s International Office. Three words into this post and it’s actually trying to predict every word I write next with little to no prompt. Give this gizmo a couple of weeks and it’ll have my writing style memorised so well that it’ll be writing these entries for me. Scary stuff.

Back to the present! It’s been a most interesting adventure already. No hitches at Gatwick, which isn’t exactly a first, although there was a little trouble over Andrew’s Swiss Army knife, which he’d left in his hand luggage. For some reason they allowed him to keep it, though sadly it didn’t survive the less forgiving Ukrainian customs. I should explain, there hasn’t been a sudden change of plan – our flight to Jordan involves a layover at Borispol-Kiev. We – that is, the five Arabists that make up the British Council team – are all heading for Amman together, though how things will pan out at the other end remains to be seen (you’ll be reading this in retrospect, naturally, as there’s no wifi on the plane). Looking around, we’re also definitely the ethnic minority on this flight. I’m hearing snatches of Arabic conversation on all sides. It’s great – and just a taste of what’s to come.
But it wasn’t an Arab with whom I had my first encounter, but an admiral from Odessa. He needn’t have shown me his credentials (needless to say he did and did so with boyish pride), the many colours pinned to his uniform and a large golden badge in the shape of a star were hard to miss. He didn’t speak much English and my Russian is limited to the few words I picked up from Fiddler on the Roof, but he was eager to try, and told me in limited words (and unlimited hand gestures) about his time as Chief Officer of a Soviet submarine crew, traveling the world over from Venice to Swansea, Calcutta, Djakarta, Los Angeles and beyond. He even told me a tale of a 75k fish he’d caught once, but that might just have got lost in translation somewhere down the line. Kind of sad to see him go, really.

It’s getting dark outside. Just a sliver of light on the horizon. When last I checked we were somewhere over the Black Sea, but it’s too dark to see now. I’m only a little concerned about the technicalities at the other end; namely, getting a Jordanian visa, some local currency, and finding wherever it is we’re supposed to be living in for the next few months. Que sera sera, inshallah etc. At the end of the day, at least I’m not alone. And that’s probably the most encouraging thing.

Oh hang ten – here comes food!

Mm-mm. That certainly filled a corner. Not sure whether the ham salad was such a good idea on a flight bound for Jordan in the first week of Ramadan, though. See you In Amman! BB x

   

A Distinct Lack of Bluebirds

Two days until touchdown in Jordan. Officially speaking, that means my Year Abroad starts in earnest on Friday. Two words for that: country fudge. That sure came around fast. Two months in the Middle East yawning before me. A grey yawn rather than a black one, in that I don’t really know what to expect. I’ve done a bit of long-distance travel in Uganda and seen my fair share of Arab cities in Morocco – loved Fes, found Marrakesh over-hyped and absolutely loathed Casablanca – so I’m in the dark as regards Amman.

I’ve had loads of helpful suggestions from friends, friends of friends and their sixth-cousin-once-removed on what to see and do in the city, but if I’m honest, I’ve only skim-read most of them. Just once, I’d like to go somewhere without knowing the place inside out and back to front. That, of course, is more often than not down to copious procrastination, which requires you to have a lot of time on your hands; something which, for once, I don’t really have. Diving blindfolded, basically. It’s not the safest way to do it, but since when was the Middle East ever truly safe? (…nope, I’m not expecting you to follow that logic. I struggle with it sometimes) Of course, it’d feel a lot safer with all this outstanding admin tied up, over and done with, but I’m still wading through that. With a little luck, I’ll have most of it resolved by tomorrow evening. Fingers, as ever, well and truly crossed.

Fields of Gold

Fields of Gold

It’s good to be back in West Sussex again. I needed that two-day soujourn at home to see Dad and the bro – and the cats, one less than last time – but two days is barely long enough to settle in. It was more seeing like a snapshot of life back home: Dad out for work before eight, bro up and about on his bike a couple of hours later. I guess what I needed most of all was that long walk home along the cliffs. I’d forgotten just how long a walk it is: finding your way from Dover Priory station almost all the way to Walmer is a two hour effort at least. It’d be a lot faster if you could just walk along the road, of course, but the last time I tried that a police car ended up taking me the rest of the distance, with no shortage of suspicious glances. Never again. Besides, when the weather’s as fine as it was, the clifftops is the place to be on a summer’s afternoon.

Blue Skies over the White Cliffs of Dover

Blue Skies over the White Cliffs of Dover

No place to be alone, though. In two hours and ten minutes of walking I never saw another lonely soul on the cliffs. But then, that’s nothing new. No shortage of families and lovestruck couples, however. And why not? It’s a stunning backdrop, once you get away from the noisy port down below. It was a little too hazy to see France clearly, but you could just about make out the shoreline on the horizon. Some of my companions – the ones who (wisely) stuck to their guns and studied French – are already working over there. I’ll be heading that way, too; only, a few thousand kilometres further. If only that flight could stretch just a little further and land me in Yemen. Bah, cut the middle man, just drop me somewhere in the Ethiopian Highlands. Gap Yah alert, but I’m having major Africa withdrawal symptoms right now. If I didn’t have this morbid disdain for cities, I might well have made a beeline for SOAS over Durham. Perhaps.

DSC03969

No regrets, though! There’ll be another time, I’m sure. In the meantime I’d better get packing, form-filling and brushing up on the Arabic; al-Kitaab’s gone neglected for over a month now. And then, and only then, will I try to decide between Ethiopia, South Africa and Cameroon as the next grand adventure… BB x

Permit Number A38

All this admin will be the death of me. It’s by far the most difficult task of the entire Year Abroad and I’ve hardly even started. Throw into the mix that I’ll be out of the country in five days’ time and it just gets even more needlessly complicated. Erasmus, ICPC and Placement Agreement forms… They’re all well and good, but it’s the little complications they entail that screw over the whole business. Scanned copies of hand-signed signatures, for one. Only one file allowed per application, for another. Try a passport-sized photograph that must be signed by a relevant public official from a list of possible professions, excluding teachers, lecturers or just about any other convenient notary. My parents are both music teachers. Whilst our family scope is (in this case alone) fortunately minimal, the rest of the social circle I’ve grown up in is filled almost entirely with musicians, artists and other ‘vagrants’ of that nature; those not deemed in a ‘reliable’ position for affirming my identity. That, and they must have known you for at least two years in order to confirm you are who you say you are.

Then you need a chequebook to pay for the whole shebang which, unfortunately, I have not had in my possession for almost five years now. Another unnecessary complication. Admin just makes me go to pieces. As I said, it’s not the idea of it, but the little tasks that make the whole thing nearly impossible. And because there’s that shred of possibility, it makes it all the more exhausting. Oh, and did I mention a deadline? I didn’t need to. It was obvious. Never mind the fact that my application gave details and addresses of two previous teaching positions, the government still needs proof that I’m safe around children. Which is fair enough, I suppose, but it doesn’t half drive me up the wall in frustration. Oh, I’m going to look back on all of this in a few years’ time and laugh, I guess, but right now I’m screaming.

There’s worse: this is only the beginning. At the end of the day, all this is British administration. Spanish administration is notoriously impossible to navigate. It’s almost as bad as the French passion for paperwork, and of course, it’ll all be in Spanish. And I’ve all of this to look forward to! Asterix and Obelix, I feel your pain… BB x