A Malaysian, Armenian, Syrian and a Saudi
I’VE been here at Nottingham University for five days now and I have a few things to say: Cold weather makes red bumps appear on my face; certain English people are incredibly rude, and I’m going to lose weight with all the walking I’ve been doing.
Arriving on an overcast and rainy day last Tuesday, we were dumped at the “Accommodation” office where we filled out forms and received the keys to our flat. I’m with Amir, who is from Malaysia, only 28 years old, extremely small and a Muslim convert from Hinduism. He works for the Malaysian Human Rights Commission which is only five years old. Along with us in the mini-bus ride up from Heathrow Airport are two Africans: Esther, a jolly Kenyan, who is a lawyer by training and a women’s rights activist; and Everest, a lawyer with the attorney-general’s office in Ghana.
We are all handed bedding packs that contain a duvet, duvet cover, a bottom sheet and a pillowcase. Directions to our various dorms are not forthcoming. When we ask the little old ladies behind the counter for help, they promptly hand us yellow maps of the campus that are highly abstract, i.e. are practically useless. Mo, our course coordinator, goes off with Esther, so Amir and I struggle with our heaps of luggage and set off to find Hawthornes, our dorm. The pelting rain is freezing and when I ask a Chinese student whether she knows where our building is, she just gives us a blank look. At this point, we are dragging our wheeled suitcases through puddles of water and mud. Finally, I ask a cute English guy for directions and he takes us to our dorm.
But our troubles don’t end there. A maze of doors leaves us confused as to which is our flat. When we finally schlep our bags up to the second floor and enter our small apartment we can’t tell which doors are our bedroom doors. I must say that the British are obsessed with doors. We stand in our narrow hallway in which a total of eight doors (not including the front door) stand before us. It’s like we’ve stepped into a loony bin. Amir finds his room and unlocks the door: The bed is already made-up and a duvet is on it! I can’t find any room with the number 2 on it. We return to the Accommodation office and inform them of the situation. A housing man returns with us and unlocks one of the eight mysterious doors at the end of our hallway to reveal a room that is double the size of Amir’s. I have hit the jackpot by getting what is normally the tutor’s room.
Later that night our other two flatmates arrive: A Syrian judge and an Armenian constitutional law expert who is his country’s representative to the European Court of Human Rights. Both are Christian, wear gold crucifixes around their necks, are extremely hairy and go “running” in the morning together. I say “running” as it usually lasts only five minutes and then both return huffing and puffing to the flat. You see, both have pot bellies and are obviously totally out of shape. “I had chest pains,” the judge told me the first morning he went jogging, his hand making a slicing motion over his heart.
But all is not well in Hawthornes. As soon as the two latecomers arrive and realize that we will all be sharing the same bathroom and kitchen, they begin whining and moaning. “I can live like this for three weeks, but not for three months,” the Armenian tells me.
I don’t mind since there are two sinks in the bathroom and both the bathtub-cum-shower and the toilet are in separate little rooms that open up into the main bathroom. That way, in theory at least, all four of us can use the bathroom at once: Two of us at the sinks brushing our teeth away, one taking a bath and the fourth on the crapper.
In any event, all the papers that they gave us before we arrived clearly stated that we would be sharing a bathroom and kitchen, so it really should not have been too much of a surprise. Even so, they complain to Mo, who tells us the university has run out of accommodation with ensuite bathrooms. So it seems we will have to make do with what we have.
‘I Came for a Holiday, Not to Work’
On Thursday, our first day of induction ceremonies, we are handed several books and reading lists. Many of our Chevening fellows audibly complain about the large amount of reading that we are being assigned, even though we are not going to have to sit for exams or write any papers while we are here.
Miss Drama Queen, who is a lawyer from India, declares: “I came here for a vacation, not to work! I haven’t had a break in four years.” Why anyone in their right mind would think that three months on a fellowship at a university could be conceived as a vacation is beyond me.
But she is not alone. Astana, another co-fellow, who works for the Malaysian foreign ministry, seems to think that the whole purpose of her being here is so that she can pop down to London every weekend to stay with her sister who lives there. But then she attended the six-week session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland, a few years ago as part of the Malaysian delegation, and she knows the difference between the Second and Third Committees of the UN General Assembly in New York.
“DO you have any nationalistic music,” Mr. Armenia asks me one night as we eat Arabic pastries around our small kitchen table with the Syrian judge.
“Yes!” I want to blurt out, “I have Madonna, the patron goddess of all gay men,” as the sounds of I Love New York are audibly wafting in from my laptop in my bedroom. But instead, I say “no, sorry I don’t.”
He plays horrible, nationalistic Armenian music that is heavy on the violins and sounds like Soviet-era patriotic music. One night he keeps playing it so much that I nearly ask him to stop it as it is so nerve-wracking.
ON Saturday a group of us take the number 5 bus into Nottingham to the Broadmarsh Shopping Center. The plan is to do some much-needed shopping for essentials like plastic clothes hangers for my shirts and Kate Bush’s new album Aerial, and to visit the famous castle of Nottingham.
I personally don’t want to visit the castle as it seems to have been extremely “Disneyfied” in order to appeal to the largest number of tourists, but say nothing in order not to spoil their enthusiasm.
We hop off at the end of the line, which is the Nottingham bus station. There is no sign of the shopping center so I decide to ask an off-duty bus driver for directions. He tells us gruffly that it’s ahead to our left. Miss Grumpy, who is also Armenian and already a teacher’s pet, commits the mistake of asking him another question and he explodes in anger: “Can’t you see I’m in the middle of a conversation!!”
We are all so stunned by this outburst of English anger and rudeness that no one says anything. Miss Grumpy apologizes and we move on.
They say that Nottingham is provincial but I can’t believe it until at HMV, the music chain store, the cashier is thrown when I pay with a traveler’s check worth 100 pounds. She has to call over an assistant manager who vaguely recognizes what it is, and who for a split-second wonders out load whether I get change. “I should hope so!” I feel like sputtering, especially since my bill is only 15 pounds.
We all regroup at 1 p.m. at the “Everything for a Pound” shop, which unsurprisingly proves a big hit with most of the fellows. I decline their invitation to go walking through the city’s streets as it’s gray and drizzly. I hop on the number 5 bus and head back to Hawthornes.