Beirut Bloopers

LIKE SQUEEZING A BITCH SPOT

I’m homesick and feeling a bit moany so I thought I’d come and have an emo dear diary moment on my cobwebby chunk of cyberspace. I’m on a comedown off a load of cheap vodka and knock-off Red Bull that I drank on Saturday night; I haunted my flat all of Sunday, then managed to perform this incredible kind-of self-dumping act, as I’d been seeing a guy for the past couple of weeks who it suddenly got awkward with. It was never going to last because we were cut from such different cloths; a bit like if Khaleesi in Game of Thrones had been packed off to marry Alan Partridge instead of Khal Drogo. I’m not sure who’s who in that scenario but what I’m getting at is that while he was fit and reasonably nice, we were from completely different universes and I was unable to act as awful and abrasive as I truly am around him and was constantly battling a bubbling desire to say something acerbic, so it was always going to have limited shelf life. Anyway I could tell he was done with it, and so preempted it with a kind of zen ‘good to know you’ sort of line over Facebook that made it sound mutual before hitting the brakes and brutally reversing over it by proceeding to make him explain exactly what had gone wrong. It was kind of like squeezing a bitch spot, you know, the bumpy ones under the surface of your skin, in that you know you shouldn’t because you’re just going to exacerbate it but in my frail and hungover condition I was unable to stop myself. Then went round the flat shouting ‘DUMPED!’ at disparate intervals before hiding in bed with the shutters closed drinking a mug of chicken stock.

It’s mainly, though, because it’s lovely and sunny in London and that’s when being there is really fucking great, as opposed to when I went back for Christmas and it was apocalyptically cold and rainy and windy all at once. But even that, I’ve started to romanticise. A Lebanese girl who worked for my last company moved to London for some sort of course, and came back to visit the office. ‘How’s London?’ somebody asked. ‘Cold and unfriendly,’ was her response, and I felt a warm swell of pride. Just how I remember it. But now, basically, I want to crack open a Magners and read the Sunday newspapers in Clissold Park because that’s the kind of bourgeois cunt I am, but here, there is no cider (!!), no Sunday newspapers (that I can read, anyway), and not even really any parks.

The other thing about Lebanon is that it’s so bloody miniature; it’s smaller than Wales and it only takes about two hours to get to any of the borders, which are all no-go areas anyway. And Beirut itself, it gets claustrophobic. Socially, you live in each other pockets – I suppose it doesn’t really need a metaphor, even, because all of my best friends pretty much live on the same street. Before you know it you’re in a kind of weird marriage with eight other people; throw into the mix that pretty much all of us are journalists and you can’t tell where personal ends and professional begins (although to be honest ‘professional’ is a pretty null word here anyway because a lot of the bosses are batshit and they forget to pay you and some of my lot recently nearly got knifed in their office, but that’s an entirely different, absolutely bonkers story). I guess by moving here, I’ve kind of done the reverse as many people who moved to London from small towns have done. I’m getting used to village life; if there were such things as postmen and milkmen here, I would be waving at them in my dressing gown and hair rollers. You basically encounter your entire Lebanese sexual history every Saturday night, and you’ve just got to learn to put up with it.

Anyway, I’m going home in July for two weeks, and I hope it’s as charmingly miserable and anonymous as can possibly be. If I know you, feel free to blank me on the street, I’ll get a kick out of it.

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY

People keep sending me similar blogs to Annoying Travel Bird but as tempting as it is to continue hurling super-sized portions of scorn in that direction, I’m a bit concerned about becoming a sort of Mary Whitehouse for the blogosphere, so I thought it best to steer clear. But I haven’t blogged in ages because I’m trying this new thing where I’m not massively indiscreet about everything in my life and as a result haven’t been able to think of anything interesting to write. I could talk about the ‘situation’ in the ‘region’ which seems to be ramping up quite a lot with bombs going off at an alarming frequency. But I’ve got an incredibly hazy picture of what’s happening politically in Lebanon, a sort of blurry watercolour, let’s say, and since it doesn’t affect my day-to-day life much, if at all, it would be both disingenuous and pointless of me to try to provide any sort of commentary. Still though, it was totally weird and bleak driving past one of the bombsites the other day. I’ve started to dream of bombs. Last year I had a dream about chemical weapons but it also featured the Sugababes which I think is probably a reasonable indication of how my brain is wired.

My friend Stefan did send me the link to this beautifully written article called ‘What Happens When You Live Abroad’, though, and given that in four days I’ll have been away for one whole year, I’d like to consider it, in a non-sweary-outburst way. The article is an honest appraisal of the life of an expat, and while I haven’t been away long enough to feel split down the middle like that writer does, it does capture what it’s like to be rootless. Unlike the baffling pseudo-positivity of the Girl Who Travels, parts of it are palpably wistful, and though it might strike anyone sat back in London cursing my irritatingly sun-spilled Instagram feed as surprising, they’re the bits that resonated with me most. It’s the “life has gone on without you” bit. When you boil it down it’s basically talking about FOMO; in fact it’s coming to terms with the fact that it’s worse than FOMO, you’re actually genuinely MO. The MO I’m referring to falls into two distinct categories: your friends and family, and your career. With my last couple of posts I became the momentary crusader for people with regular, 9-to-5 desk jobs back home but the irony, which eluded the shitheads in the comments section crowing that I was ‘jealous’ and ‘bitter’, is that I’m so far off any sense of stability myself. I’ve been doing a whole lot of enviable stuff, I guess, but I can’t get rid of the deeply ingrained feeling that I’m falling behind in terms of ‘normal’ expectations. People back home are in serious relationships, moving in together, talking mortgages, making serious headway with their careers. Jesus, a guy I used to be best mates with just won a bloody Brit award. I’m getting greedy. I want it all, at once. The Brit award too.

Another thing I found interesting in the article was this: ‘While it’s enormously refreshing and exhilarating to feel like you can be anyone you want to be and come without the baggage of your past, you realize just how much of “you” was based more on geographic location than anything else.’ It’s taken the cataclysmic social fail of my last job to make me realise what I’ve got to offer in both social and professional situations that I’ve had to separate from the “me” that feels very much tied up in London; the necessity to find, and if not to find, then invent, common ground with people who exist in a Venn galactically far away from my own. Somebody told me before I moved out here that I would learn a lot about myself, and while I scoffed at that due to an instinctive inclination to resist anything that might be construed as naff (we always give Stephanie grief when she says anything that we perceive to be ‘earnest’, which according to our bogside read ‘Watching the English’ is typically, well, English) I’ll admit that it’s turned out to be true in that my capacity for self-reliance was news to me. And this is totally naff, but ultimately, moving away has given me a much stronger sense of self. Plus I know like 30 words in Arabic now. Anyway, #introspectivemoment over now, and the blog should return to its normal, misanthropic form. After all, it hasn’t rained all winter, so we’re about to condemned to hell for the duration of the summer. Ask me again about my sense of self come August. @jphov

A SKIP FULL OF TOILETS

It might not have been translated into 20 different languages, but my previous post ended up going viral—so I’m a bit annoyed I wrote it so quickly and wasn’t more systematic about decimating the original blog, but the trackpad on my Mac was being a nightmare and so I was unable to edit properly and was drinking a glass of wine and shouting, ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’ at the computer, and simultaneously trying to help my flatmate move a king-sized bed into our apartment. But it’s out there now, and seems to have resonated with a large number of people who understood that the big problem with it, of course, was that for something that purported to be about open-mindedness, it was actually embarrassingly narrow-minded. It’s a narcissism that’s endemic amongst travellers, particularly those ‘travellers’ whose horizons pretty much only extend as far as the glorious white stretches of sand in South and South East Asia. Don’t get me wrong, Sri Lanka was the tits. Goa was a riot. But let’s not forget that when it comes to choosing the destination for one’s character-building, life-affirming experience that she was being so worthy about, it’s pretty telling that having a nice time at the beach seems to be the top of most people’s lists. If you’re so eager to let everyone know that your eyes are open, chances are, they’re probably not.

The irony of all this, of course, is that this is actually a travel blog. I just moan so much it’s become a kind of anti-travel blog, describing incidents such as on the weekend, when we took a 200-meter-long cable car ride over over a litter-strewn brook and a skip full of toilets. But seriously, as somebody who’s seeing a bit of the world myself right now, and is having a fantastic time doing so, I found the concept of somebody doing the same and actively seeking to make others feel bad about NOT doing it, really extraordinary. I could tell you that I also went to go see some incredible caves at the weekend (grand, atmospheric, Lord-of-the-Rings-y); that Lebanon’s stunningly beautiful in places, that I’ve had a totally mega year, or that a month in Sri Lanka blew my socks off. That’s all true, and feed me a mountain of gak and I might start chewing your ear off about it. But really, I’m an abrasive, cynical bastard, and I don’t think people need that naff stuff rammed down their throats.

So to conclude, this whole affair, I do think that to be able to see the world is an incredible thing. But if you do, don’t then be a dick about it afterwards. (One more thing, though: the stats on WordPress let you see who’s viewing what and where, and amongst a huge variety of countries, I saw it got read by a few people in Peru. I was really enjoying imagining some wanker in a hostel wearing a Navajo print knitted poncho reading it and getting all rowdy.) @jphov

APARTMENT HUNTING IN BEIRUT

Just before Christmas we moved into a new apartment. Basically it’s fucking great and we’re obsessed with it. Before arriving in Beirut, I spent most of my time feeling anxious about not finding work but as it happens, two jobs pretty much fell into my lap one after the other out here—it was the flat-hunting that was the hard part, and I’m currently on my fourth apartment. Back in London I  would envision myself drinking mint tea on an expansive balcony surveying a glorious view of the city, but what with the influx of Syrians (who now make up a quarter of the population) that hasn’t been easy to come by. And generally, wherever you live, or at least everywhere I’ve lived, there’s always something weird about it. This one, for instance, despite being a palace of dreams, has a window-less kitchen with a really low ceiling like that floor-between-floors in Being John Malkovich, and balcony so narrow that we have to sit in a line on it canoe-style, one behind the other.

Pip and Oliver put me up for two weeks when I first arrived, and I slept on a camp bed behind a plastic curtain in their kitchen. My habit of hanging my clothes on the curtain rope earned it the dubious nickname ‘The Favela’. I kept clothes in the food cupboard and lined up my toiletries on the windowsill. I’m pretty certain Lenny the dog used to sleep in my bed during the day and she would sexually harass me when I was naked after a shower. When it was flagged to some of the ‘expat community’ that there was a new boy in town in need of lodging, somebody joked that there was a cat lady who lived with her rasta son next door. Somehow, I actually ended up in there for a month. The cat lady was called Sonia: she was really old but had perfect English, and I’m a bit sad that I never really got to find out her story and why she ended up wearing nothing but velour pyjamas all day long with a cigarette permanently dangling from her greying lips. The house itself was really ghastly and squat-like—I suspect the kitchen hadn’t been cleaned in years, so I ate out for a month, before finding another apartment the day before next month’s rent was due. I disappeared overnight without ever saying goodbye to poor old Sonia, or even Zalfa the cat, a jolly creature who used to furiously leap around the furniture without touching the floor.

The next was in a large, airy apartment without any furniture in in Mar Mikhael, where I briefly became immersed in the thriving Lebanese lesbian (Lebsian?) community in Beirut thanks to befriending my gay American-Palestinian flatmate. I managed to flood the whole thing on my first night there by leaving the water running into the manual ‘Campomatic’ washing machine. I woke up at 5am with my mattress surrounded by water and spent the next four hours sweeping it out onto the balcony. Dan moved into it when he arrived and his room an actual hole in the wall. Before Christmas there was an unexpected power cut (I say unexpected without sarcasm as normally they are timed) and we sat in the dark around a candle on a crate all wearing lots of layers and it felt a bit like we were vagrants. After three months I moved out of that place as I quit my job and the rent was quite expensive, and the next place, well, if you’ve been following this blog you’ll know the woeful story. Freaky drawings on the wall. Love letters and diaries. No water for weeks. Shudder. I feel a paralysing draught of fear every time I walk past it.

When I made the decision to move away I had started to get very comfortable in London, spending my money on grown-up items like arty linen and furnishings. By moving out here it’s like I’ve slammed the brakes down and reversed in the other direction. That’s the thing with living out here—it’s almost like camping sometimes. You don’t want to spend money on making your house cosy as you know you’re only here temporarily. Since I’m such a rampant materialist this has been quite difficult for me; it’s as if I’m having to suppress an innate, primordial part of myself. My main weekend activity in London was shopping, especially junk shops and car boot sales. Here there’s a weekend market called Souk el Ahad which I still haven’t been to, although I think it’s less murano glass and Singer sewing machines and more packets of gross Chiclets gum and abused monkeys imprisoned in tiny cages. Sadface. So to get to the point, it’s a real relief to be living somewhere comfortable at long last. After last year’s hot water debacle the universe has thrown us a bone and we’ve got solar panel heaters which means we could quite literally be swimming in the stuff by the summer. God, water’s the best, isn’t it?

DAY TWELVE WITHOUT WATER

Never in my life have I wanted it to rain so much. The irony of having moved from England, where the sky shits it down beyond the telling of it, to sunnier climes, cruelly smarts. I try to vary the subject matter of each blog but the water shortage is the nightmare that keeps on giving, so think of this as a sequel to my previous post. Stephanie and I have moved past misery to a kind of insanity. If and when the water comes back we’ll probably discover that we won’t be able to deal with having it, a bit like those people that spend so long in prison that they can’t function in the outside world.

Although in truth, we do actually have scraps of cold water here and there. This morning there was even some in the shower. I managed to lather up one armpit before it ran out and the soap suds congealed on my torso. Today there is dry skin crusting in my moustache. I brushed my teeth in the bathroom of my Arabic school last week, and we’ve basically been eating out or ordering in the whole time so there’s no washing up to do. It’s almost like we’re Carrie Bradshaw, if Carrie had to brush her teeth in the Vogue toilets. Frankly, I am desperate to get back to London for Christmas, so I can luxuriate for two weeks and treat my parents’ house like a bloody hotel. I probably won’t even hug them upon arrival, I’ll rush past them and wrap my arms around their water tank instead. I’m going to leave the taps running wherever I go, just because I can. I’m also going to shower so much people will think that I’ve become obsessive compulsive. Three square showers a day. And baths for dessert. I’m going to spend the whole of Christmas Day in the shower. Boxing Day in the bath. Bath. Shower. Taps. Water. Water. Drip drop. Water.

Big up to my friends who are becoming accustomed to us turning up on their doorsteps with towels over our shoulders, wordlessly gesturing us towards the bathroom. I got chatting to a taxi driver the other day, and I told him about our situation, and he spent the ten minutes that followed trying to persuade me to come shower at his house which was quite weird, but maybe he’s an option I should be considering. He gave me his phone number.

HALLOWEEN AND RACISM

Last week we popped down to the party of a magazine called Brownbook, which is based in Dubai and where my friend John now works. John used to live in Beirut and we worked together and somehow managed to survive the hellish conditions in one piece. We were originally put in touch by a mutual friend when I first began sniffing around the idea of applying for a job in Beirut, and I can remember finding it pretty odd that along with sharing the same name, we had both been to the same university, were both gay, and prospectively were both going to work at the same company together in Lebanon, of all places. Upon arriving, we discovered that did not only we look eerily similar (tall, pale, skinny) with dandy-ish dress sense, we had EXACTLY THE SAME GLASSES. Not just a similar model. THE SAME. Anyway at first I think we were both a bit freaked out but soon enough we began to revel in it to the point that we became a bit insufferable to other people. We also realised we had a mutual knowledge of obscure pop culture (we had a long conversation about Pop Idol 2 contestant Jessica Garlick once) and generally liked all the same things. We talked about setting up a blog together entitled, ‘The Johns’ which we hopefully will do one day. Anyway, it was via John that we ended up at this party. I then got annoyed with the Brownbook staff when they said I didn’t actually look like John.

After we left the party we wandered over to Uruguay Street, which is in an area called Downtown—which was in full swing for Halloween, and even though it was only the 30th everyone was dressed up as zebras and cupcakes and blacked up domestic workers. Wait, what? A bit of background: there’s an awful lot of foreign domestic staff out here, 5% of the population in fact, who’ve predominately come over from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Ethiopia. The flat I live in at the moment has a ‘maid’s room’ which is a miserable mezzanine above the kitchen, which is an actual step down from a fucking garret. Anyway it’s easy enough to have a strong reaction to the incredibly visual class distinctions, a sort of depressingly retro ‘Upstairs/Downstairs’ vibe that British people are probably particularly sensitive to—there are whole shops dedicated to domestic workers’ uniforms; I inspected some of the tags once and the different styles have all got different names like the ‘Yara’. Do you know I saw a woman wearing an actual French maid’s uniform once? I mean, COME ON. Further to this you become familiar with everyday stories concerning racism, mistreatment, suicides, poor pay, and confiscated passports which are totally at odds with your original perception of Lebanon as this kind of liberal jolly in the Middle East, as Oliver’s article points out. I don’t know what sort of reaction those blacked up girls got on the streets from people here (it later went viral on Facebook), but in most other  ‘cosmopolitan cities’ they would have ended up in hospital with broken legs, I’m sure.

Weirdly both my offices have had maids who exist in the office all day long, which is a norm out here. In the last one the maid, Nadia, used to sit in the kitchen eating bread rolls in silence and staring at the wall and I swear it was the bleakest thing ever. Having said that, my office in London used to get pretty disgusting. There were mice and there was a phantom shitter who used to leave these EXPLOSIONS in the toilet. One time it was left in the cubicle in a large, transparent bag. Somebody obviously had a serious problem. We probably could have done with a live-in cleaner then.

WE FOUND AN OLD LOVE LETTER

The weekend just gone was mostly spent festering indoors. On Saturday night I went to the issue launch of a magazine called F/I/M/P, which is always worth a read—they once published an article detailing a comprehensive history of the Sugababes which really made me warm to it. The editors told me they had come across my blog and had enjoyed it, and I was so pleased I drank the bar dry to celebrate and ended up standing up out of the sunroof of my friend Timi’s car like Emma Watson in Perks of Being a Wallflower, except it was less mawkish and more drunk and embarrassing. Anyway I felt like total shit the next day so decided I wasn’t going to leave the house, so this is essentially a blog about not leaving the house. The house, incidentally, is unspeakably foul because we don’t have any water (not bottled water this time—half of Achrafieh is experiencing water shortages right now), so picture the scene: unwashable washing up festering in the sink, unflushable urine festering in the toilet, and Stephanie and I festering in bed together like crackwhores, eating tuna and watching the director’s cut of Amadeus and trying to ignore the glorious sunshine seeping through the blinds. English weather really accommodates bad hangovers; you don’t want to leave the house but it’s probably pissing it down outside anyway so staying in bed all day is fair game. Here it’s pathetic fallacy in reverse; the sunshine jeers at you as you huddle close to the fan trying not to puke.

Anyway, all that lurking inside brought an unexpected discovery. As if we were invalids that needed visitors, Oliver popped over with Lenny, the aforementioned lunatic dog, and decided to rifle through some papers left behind by Mysterious Ashlee. It was mostly boring stuff: bills, payslips (she earned $1,500 a month, in case you were interested) and then, astonishingly, a love letter. Written by Mysterious Ashlee, TO HER BOSS. WHO WAS/IS MARRIED.  ‘At first I wasn’t sure if you were interested in me or if I was just imagining it,’ it read, ‘but I didn’t want to assume anything because you’re still my boss and I wasn’t keen on making an ass of myself.’ Anyway the gist of it was a declaration of her feelings and suggesting in not so many words that he left his wife. Love letters are inherently naff, although this one had its own spin as it was clearly written by an academic and operated within an essay-style lexicon (e.g. ‘This brings me onto my next point’). You half-expected her to include a bibliography at the end. Then again, when she did attempt to move it onto an altogether more lyrical plain she wrote stuff like, ‘I can’t tell you how many times I’ve imagined touching your face and running my hand through your curls.’ Sort it out, love. Go on Thesaurus.com. It’s what I do. I can’t believe I’m laying waste to a stranger’s romantic writing style on the internet, but that’s what you get for leaving that sort of salacious material lying around. Extraordinarily, both Stephanie and Oliver worked out who the boss is question was (Beirut is small like that), and we wondered whether it was a first draft, or if it simply never got sent. It was all pretty casual, scrawled in a ballpoint pen on paper ripped from a ringbinder, but stationery-wise you’ve got to up your game if it’s a love letter, I reckon. We’ve put it up on the fridge for now but we’re thinking about getting it framed.

Afterwards, spurred on by the possibility of unearthing further scandal, I started clearing out her stuff from my monster wardrobe, and quite frankly, readers, if her boss turned her down in the end I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with all of her hideous clothes. There was something resembling a snood with armholes in there. I also found a greying, wartime-style bra at the back and threw it at Oliver. Oliver then made Lenny the dog wear it and we briefly pondered if there was anything weirder than us standing in this old apartment in Geitawi with Lenny the dog wearing Mysterious Ashlee’s old bra.

COMMUTE

My current commute to work has really shown me how autonomous you can be on public transport in London. You sit on the bus or cram onto the Tube or whatever and really everything else is out of focus. Here, I get a taxi to work, except it’s called a ‘service’ and you share it with strangers. You get in, everyone says hello to one another, and there you are, you and four people you’ve never met before and will indubitably never meet again all there squeezed into a car together, like an abbreviated episode of Come Dine With Me on wheels. The cab drivers are invariably insane, and more often than not will ask you intrusive personal questions (e.g. ‘Are you married?’ or ‘How much do you earn?’), and other times you’ll be shrinking away from a spittle-flecked lecture on Jesus and hellfire. One time one of them wound up the windows and sang Puccini to us and I swear to god it was like being in an Armando Iannucci sketch. I think what I’m getting at is that you can’t really switch off as such, which is totally grimbo if you’re a fan of personal space. I’ve thought about cycling but the driving here is so consummately retarded that I’d probably end up getting smooshed.

This week I’ve determined that we’re going to redecorate my flat, the reason being is because right now it is a veritable den of unorthodoxness, quirky except quirky in a sinister way. The apartment itself, despite many demented structural faults which has resulted in a window-less living room, is rather charming, largely due to the beautiful, old, traditionally tiled floors. But irritatingly the previous tenant, the mysterious Ashlee (can you be mysterious if your name is Ashlee?) has ruined much of the living space by drawing shit drawings on the walls. One of them is an alarming female nude, something between prehistoric cave art and a Gerald Scarfe caricature. She rubs shoulders with the Madonna—as in THE Madonna, since there’s also a lot of psychedelic Christian iconography blue-tacked to the walls which I suppose you could call kitsch if they in any way looked ironic, which at the moment they don’t. My bedroom is also weird. I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about the wardrobes here. All of the wardrobes that I’ve had in my rooms here have all been fucking enormous. They’re like walls, with chunky plated metal bases. Furniture beasts. I don’t know what the deal is, what the Lebanese can possibly keep in them—I’ve got a pretty extensive collection of clothes and it doesn’t even touch the sides of these things. The right-hand section is actually filled with Mysterious Ashlee’s possessions. Her sensible work blouses are hung up in there. The other day I used a towel that was in there and I felt a bit wrong, like she was dead or something.

In fact all of her old food is sitting in one of the kitchen cupboards as well; when you open the doors, moths fly out. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were birds living back there.

WHAT’S PALESTINE?

Last night I went to the launch of a series of infographics entitled ‘Visualising Palestine’ in Hamra. They introduced their research with a bit of a boring lecture which struggled to hold the audience’s attention (particularly that of my drunk, rambunctious flatmate, who began to loudly opine on Roald Dahl (?!) during it). At the end there was a Q&A session, and I told my friend Oliver that I was going to put up my hand and ask, ‘What’s up with Palestine?’ He laughed, but the problem was I was only half-joking. I did once read a Wikipedia page about Palestine, or at least some of it, but got distracted by somebody blowing those giant bubbles outside. So yeah, my knowledge of politics is negligible, which can be a bit embarrassing when you’re having drinks with a load of war correspondents. Having said that, when shit got real with Syria’s chemical weapons a few weeks ago, I was completely addicted to proper news, but now that’s all over (for now) I’m back to watching old Girls Aloud videos on YouTube. This  sort of initiative has got to be commended: making it easy for gormless people like me. They even printed some of the infographics on beer coasters, which is just so fabulously reductive. I’m going to get some, I think, then I can swig’n’learn. They’ve also got a fundraising thingumybob which you can find out more about here.

I’m writing this as every single one of my colleagues is sitting having lunch together. This happens every day. It’s been six weeks and I’m still cripplingly awkward with everybody at my new job, partly due to me being in my own office, and partly, speculatively, because I’m the only non-Lebanese. Seriously, working in a new country is hard. I’ve been told I’m typically English, both in character and in looks (if I grow a moustache I look like something out of World War I) and combined with my lion-like hair and bombastic dress sense I can tell many of them either think me a curiosity (there’s a pair of women who giggle like Japanese schoolgirls every time we have to interact) or totally snooty. The thing is, I’m not a crippingly awkward person. I’m naturally very sociable; IN FACT I’d go so far to say that I’m a people person. So yeah, lunch, everyone eats it together here. It’s totally ‘a thing’. I’ve done it a few times—diffidently approached the table where everyone’s sat where there’s never any room anyway, and sat as everyone chats in Arabic while I smile vacantly and nibble at my four-cheese baguette from Café Younes. I think they think I’m grumpy and shy when inside I’m bursting to talk about Glozelle and the cinnamon challenge or to send round hilarious cat meme emails. The whole thing is so fucking tragic. I’m one chintzy African bracelet short of eating my lunch in the loo.

It’s peculiar having these sorts of cultural teething issues eight months in, but suddenly not speaking Arabic seems a huge hindrance. This is why I’ve signed up to a two-term course, beginning next month. Marhaba! Problem is, once I’ve got the basics down, I’ll no longer have an excuse for being a total pariah.

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