Monday, October 24, 2016

Life in the Library

There is a blond toddler in a polka-dot dress standing in front of the elevator doors, making funny faces at her reflection.

Yesterday, a mother walked out of the elevator not bothering to look at her two-year-old who still stood inside with a cheeky grin on his face and my eyes widened as the door closed on the chubster.  By now, the mother had glanced behind and calling out his name (was it Alex?) she came back and repeatedly pressed the button.  It took a few seconds but the door opened again and there was the imp still smiling in the elevator.
The mother did not scold or grab the child’s arm; just muttered something I couldn’t hear and walked away again – this time the boy decided to follow after a moment of hesitation.

Although our house is right by the intersection, which means that often it feels like I’m next to a radio that somebody keeps changing the channels on, flitting from rap to pop to pop again, and the car noises right out of an auto-show – the three buildings adjacent to our home are: post office, funeral services and library.  Just in that order.

And almost every day, I give my life in Nottingham a semblance of routine by walking over, getting a 60 pence coffee from the machine downstairs and settling on the first floor at a table to work or write or search for jobs.

As much as I love books, I don’t always enjoy libraries.  They’re almost always too cold, too dim, too quiet and full of nervous students.

This one is nothing like that – the skylights and wide windows make it a bright place to be, even if it is cloudy outside.  Every Thursday morning the librarians are singing nursery rhymes and shaking some tinkly instruments.  Almost every other day, a group of teenagers gets told off for something or the other. 
The other day, this young girl flopped down on one of the couches with two of her friends.  She put her feet up on the small coffee table in front of her and pitched her chair back, her languid confidence and no-shit attitude making me more envious than disapproving.  They talked loudly for a while and then I’m not sure what it was, but one of the elderly librarians came up and shooed them away.  They walked off slowly, lazily, mimicking her scolding as they sauntered off.

Teenagers in groups seem to be doing everything but reading in the library –
For example this trio of 13 or so-year-olds in front of me.  Give you three guesses what they are up to – talking to each other; working on a puzzle; fiddling on their smart phones?

The library has a desk of computers that is almost always occupied by older people.  They do use Facebook quite a bit.  But generally, I think they are here looking for jobs.  I know because I eavesdrop on their conversations to become more knowledgeable.

And there is Wifi for anyone who wants to bring their own laptop and work at a nice Beech desk.

The best news is – it is free for all residents! All you need to do is sign up.  And you have access to the warm space and all these books and resources here.
Ah, developed countries.  Do they realize how cool these resources are?
It is really a community space.  People know each other’s names, the librarians help out to make photocopies or take out print outs, there is a space for artists to showcase their work for free, book readings and children’s story times makes it such a nice bright bustling center.

Once I’ve applied to a few jobs or reviewed scripts for my old job, I set about discreetly observing people and making up stories about them.

Here are a few short ones to share –
Belinda, with her short brown hair and large thick glasses, was collecting a lot of books.  She piled them on a table in front of me after an apologetic ‘are these bothering you?’, which I brushed aside with my sweetest smile and an ‘of course not!’.  From self-help guides to David Bowie’s life, it felt like she had a deep thirst for knowing something about everything.
The pile of books grew bigger.
“Do you want me to help you carry those downstairs?” I asked and she thanked me breathily, “oh I’m just finding some more and then maybe I’ll put some back, I’ll ask you when I’m ready!”
Sure thing, learned lady.

A few minutes later, the pile was only bigger.  I suppose she had decided not to cut down anyways.
I helped her carry some 27 books downstairs.
“You’ve got some intense reading to do this weekend,” I smiled at her and she blushed, “oh, yes, yes, I really enjoy reading …”

Belinda had a small square bag with wheels that she now piled the books into and with a stubby wave, she was off.
She crossed the road and stood by the bus stop, wondering if she had managed to get an even number of red books and an odd number of blue books like she was supposed to.  I guess I’ll just have to hope for the best, she told herself just as the bus rolled to a stop in front of her.
“Thank you, love,” the driver smiled at her as she tapped her card and then went to sit down, clutching her trolley tightly.

Belinda lived in a small one-bedroom apartment not too far from the library.  As she opened the door she heard the mews of her cats.
“Hello Lucy, hello Kramer,” she greeted the tabby cats that rubbed against her shoes as soon as she walked in.

The living room was dark save for the orange halos cast by her old lamps. 

She scuffed off her shoes and wheeled her bag into the center of the carpet where a few books already lay on the floor in three piles: red, blue and black.
Belinda started taking the newly issued ones out and putting them in their designated places.  Once the correct number of books had been collected in each stack, she smiled happily.

Getting up from the floor, she slowly made her way to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.
“Don’t worry my dears,” she told Lucy and Kramer who were following her. “I’ll build you your home after my cup of tea.  Imagine that.  A lovely little house made of books.  Isn’t that just like a fairytale?”

The woman in the red sweatshirt was there before me every day of the week.  She sat with her books on data analysis and management spread out around her laptop, next to her notes neatly scribbled and underlined in a pile by her thermos.  She sipped her drink from the thermos in its small cap and every now and then, she would get a coffee from the machine downstairs. 

I wondered about the orange pram that stood next to her.  Where is her child?

Nadya, who was in her late 30s, moved from Warsaw to Nottingham after her marriage dissolved two years ago.  She chose that particular city in England because her favorite aunt lived here.  She was her favorite because she agreed with everything Nadya said, and at this stage of her life, Nadya needed that more than anything.  Someone who nodded at her and patted her arm comfortingly.

Although she had studied art in college, Nadya decided a change of fields was in order.  I think data management will lead to better paying jobs, she had said and Aunt Missy had smiled and said, Yes dear.  I do think you’re right.

While Nadya prepared for her certification exam, she took on babysitting jobs because she needed to make some money to pay for food and such.  So she went around the neighborhood with her special walnut cake and introduced herself.  She had a worn out, trustworthy face and soon she had built up a clientele.

When Nadya started babysitting, she realized it was much easier to take care of families where there was an older sibling.  In such homes, she would have a serious conversation with the older child and stress the importance of ‘helping’ her.  This gave her time to spread out her books and get some work done.

And then Nadya had a better idea.

She visited a neighborhood two miles away, in Stapleford.  She would take Greta with her, the 9-year-old girl who lived two houses down and often skipped school to hang out with Nadya.  There, Nadya would study while Greta took care of the babies.  Pretty soon, Nadya felt comfortable enough to walk over to the community library and study in complete peace, managing her time efficiently to get all her studying done and then going back home just before the parents came.

“Time to go,” Nadya looked at her watch and got up to leave.  She packed away her books into the baby’s pram and with a quick smile, she went back to relieve Greta, tuck the baby in and get 40 quid from the grateful parents.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Let’s Try Not to Buy

I know why it doesn’t rain in Karachi that much – it’s because all the rainclouds are in England. 

I have yet to see a sky without clouds.  Even if the sun is out, giant fluffy white clouds are lounging about nearby, often closing in and darkening to send down a short spray of rain, just for fun, and then moving apart as if they had nothing to do with the shower.  There’s never a definite warm sunny day.  The rainclouds are always a head-turn away.

The weather is erratic.  But I do feel like it’s a special, magical moment when there is a quick spurt of rain while the sun continues to shine, and the rainbow that’s always there if you just take a moment to look for it.

It feels nice, kind of a peacemaking gesture from the gods, as if to say, we know it’s cold and overcast and it can get kinda gloomy, so here you go, a translucent arch of colours to brighten your day.I just have to remind myself to stop the grumbling for a minute and look up.

Thank goodness we bought umbrellas.  The £3 umbrellas are probably our best buys yet – that and the £60 washing machine we got from the pirate family.

The same washing machine that we installed with a minor flaw – ‘F-04’ the machine blinked at the end of its trial round.  Maybe that is code for end cycle in British English, I told myself stupidly and tried to open the door.  Locked tight.  And so I pressed the cancel button which is also inexplicably the ‘start’ button (I mean come on, that is one sadistic manufacturer) and started another cycle.
The button confusion explains one extra cycle but there is really no explanation for the next three cycles that started.  Just multiply stupidity and frustration by two because Fahad and I both intruded and somehow at 2 am, I woke to the sound of insistent beeping.  I went outside to find Fahad staring at a machine now full of soapy water sloshing in the drum.  ‘F-04’ means the water isn’t draining properly, Google told us the obvious.

The next morning we told the washing machine repair man we’ll check with him later when he told us it would cost – can you guess?  £60 to fix it, it’s really not a big deal! And then because we were going to London for the weekend we had to at least empty out the drum. Let’s just end the story on a positive note – the kitchen floor (where the washing machine lives) was given an incredibly good wash and mop.

It turned out the drain pipe has a small cork that you have to remove, kind of like the seal on a ketchup bottle you should peel off before you can squeeze the sauce out.  Anyways, that’s sorted out now and if you’re interested, it can take approximately seven hours to wash and semi-dry two people’s two-week laundry.

These days I am trying to figure out the balance between student life and but-we’re-so-much-older now life.  The see-saw is teetering more to the student side right now – the mirror we got still lies leaning against the wall rather than hung up by a nail that will definitely damage the rental walls, and the posters are not in frames but put up with blue tac.  I have long winding conversations with myself on but really, what do we really need?
The wise men and women have all said it – material things do not make us happy.  In fact, they make life cluttered and complicated.  If you have just five shirts, three sweaters, two jeans and two pairs of shoes – trust me, you’ll get dressed so much quicker. The fewer things you have, I realized when we moved into our apartment, the fewer things you need to store them in.

It’ll be an interesting experiment to find out how long we can survive with one saucepan and one frying pan, I had told myself when I was packing for England.  Well, not even a week because I bought one larger nonstick pot while picking up the essential red, yellow, brown spices from the Paki store. BUT after that, I have been surviving on three cooking utensils.
And we only have a four-unit cutlery set.
In a world without dishwashers, this is a blessing undisguised.  Since we only have a few dishes, we (and by we I mean I) can’t let them pile up in the basin because then we wouldn’t have anything to eat in.  So it is a win-win situation.

So far for two people we needed one narrow cupboard, a side-table drawer and a in-need-of-another-coat-of-paint desk to store all our belongings.  And the few straggling bags and leftover PJs simply hang over doorknobs and on top of a giant suitcase that we cannot seem to stuff into any corner.

With less stuff, it’s easier to restore order.  You cannot imagine the satisfaction I get from straightening the two brightly spiraled coasters on our bedroom window ledge and then staring at the perfectly angled clock, two perfume bottles, an orange picture frame and the two now correctly-positioned coasters: everything is in its rightful place and it is a beautiful peaceful sight.

You could say I have a problem and I would agree, but then everyone has a problem.  I would snidely point out that leaving a trail of dirty clothes in your wake and dropping ketchup all over your shirt is also a problem and we can stick to which is worse.

At the end of the day, sitting on my bed, if my pink postcard rests right in the middle of two stacks of books, it helps to remind me to draw a deep breath in.

The trick, of course, is to see how long one can lead an uncluttered life.  Because anyone who has moved homes (or even dorms!), knows that things have a habit of collecting.  We don’t realize just how much stuff we accumulate till we start to pack it all into cardboard, or maybe suitcases that have a 23 kg limit. 

It is smart to remind oneself to think before you buy (especially what with all these apps and online bargains and it’s so easy to pay, especially when you haven’t activated the SMS service your bank has…!).  Ask yourself: but do you need it? How badly do you want it? How often will you use it? And really, where will you keep it?

As for the little potted plants I pass by every day– I do have a place for them.  On the wide window ledge in the lounge, just above our ratty £5 sofa.  I mean, it’ll really liven the place up.  And I won’t have to pack them when we move – I’ll just leave ‘em for Steve, our next door neighbor (he thinks we’re the people who leave our trash bags on TOP of the apartment garbage bins but it really isn’t). 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Thank You, Cheers

I wanted to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich so I buttered the small frying pan (that I had brought all the way from Pakistan), and added the thick slices of bread and cheese – it was then that my eyes fell on the lid to a saucepan (the travelling companion to the frying pan) and a light bulb clicked above my head: the cheese will melt better if I cover the pan.  It will be grand.

So I popped the lid on the frying pan and it slid a little lower than it should have but it wasn’t a big deal.

Till I tried to lift it.  And try and pry as I could, the lid did not budge.  The bulb flickered and fused.

A broken knob and bent fork later, Fahad decided to step in.  Man to pan. 

He exited the apartment and a few minutes later, remerged, a huge grin on his face and the lid pried loose from its unsuitable marriage to the pan.  The edges of the pan were scraped and the scratches on its nonstick sides are not for the seriously OCDed, but I wasn’t complaining.  And of course the lid doesn’t have its black knob anymore. 
I can only imagine how my husband looked bent over next to the road, banging the frying pan on the sidewalk in the cool British evening. 

In other announcements – we have moved into our apartment.  It is located on Church Street and it used to be a tavern.  But rest assured, it looks nothing like a pub from the inside.  The reception has the world’s heaviest door that I need to lean with all my body weight to open, and our flat is on the ground floor.  Which means spying activities for me in the day and for others at night (so I must keep the blinds shut).

And there are plenty of sounds, even in a quiet town in Nottinghamshire – car enthusiasts zooming by with strange loud car sounds, R&B at 11:30 pm, loud renditions of Twinkle Twinkle Litte Star by a mother-son duo (yes, it was very cute) and the sputtering of heavy bikes that are peculiarly popular here.  In the morning I brush my hair by the window, looking at old couples wheeling their walkers slowly, cars stopping to let people cross the road and people always, always raising their hand in a thank you.

Which leads us to how polite everybody is in England. 

And the frequent use of the word ‘cheers’ in everyday conversation!  How did I not know this is how British people talk? My faith in popular media has been struck a blow.  I mean, we all know everything about the fish and chips and football and beer and Hyde Park and how the London Eye is really not worth the money because it is essentially an arthritic Ferris wheel … but I had no idea that people talk like this here:
“Orright then, thank you,”

“Sure, cheers mate.”

“See you later.”

It’s used as a ‘thank you’, ‘you’re welcome’ and ‘bye’.  For some reason I am very tickled by this.  I haven’t been able to incorporate it into my conversation though.  Not yet.
People have better manners on the road here than we do at the dinner table back in Pakistan.  Huge buses come to a screeching halt if you so much as put a toe out onto the pedestrian crossing.  And the other day, when Fahad and I were standing by the road to cross (there was no pedestrian crossing nearby in that suburban neighborhood) and cars zipped by one after the other, this jeep stopped a couple of yards away and flashed its headlights at us.
“It wants to mow us down!” my brain screamed till I realized this is the signal that they’re letting you cross.  Pardon my Karachi-bred mind for thinking that was the car’s version of a bull pawing the ground before it charged.

Of course, as a brown visitor in the country, we try to be as polite if not more so than everybody else.  Which means that we’re always saying either “excuse me, sorry” or “pardon me” or “thank you” while walking down grocery store aisles or skirting corners along the road.

And of course I miss home, and I miss Karachi.  I miss the brazen ownership that one can only experience in one’s own country – (and yes, I know it is a privilege for the majority in-power class but laying that aside for now), the comfort that makes us almost rude, because after all, this is mine, I can do what I want with it.

I like Nottingham.  It is big enough to have multiple kinds of cinemas and parks and there are festivals popping up now and then, but not crazy like London (which I still found to be less crazy and cleaner than New York).  Walking around in the city center you can hear different languages – Spanish, Arabic, English and snippets of Punjabi or Urdu/Hindi.  Just a minor digression – it is refreshing how the British college students do not use the word like in their conversations (except perhaps to say “I like your sweater”).  I did not realize this till the time we were sitting in the bus and there were two girls sitting behind us discussing some other girl’s boyfriend situation.  And as I eavesdropped automatically, I couldn’t place what was so familiar about the way they talked and how come I understood what they were saying so easily (because trust me, I have trouble understanding the British accent – “sorry, pardon me, what was that?”).  And then I realized! Aha! American accents! And the entire conversation was peppered with like, so then I was like did you really think that through, like don’t you know he already has a girlfriend, like come on…

Yes, Nottingham.  It’s nice.  Indian food seems to be the most popular, with Chinese next and Mexican third.  But more common than even fish and chips seems to be fried chicken.  And there is so much Halal food here! So I’m enjoying the diversity.  And I love walking around.  Especially now that we have moved out of our AirBnb where only one bus service went, at intervals of 40-50 minutes.  Every now and then I miss having a car – like yesterday when I walked to the Laundromat that was so much closer when I had walked there without a 2 kilo load of dirty clothes. My arms still ache but that says more about my fitness than anything else.

The adventures in Nottingham so far involve waiting for the bus, getting on the wrong bus, missing our stop and ending up five blocks further than we had planned, exploring the underground cave city that dates back to the 1600s, sitting in the sunlight in sweaters while little kids shrieked and ran through the fountains in T-shirts and eating creamy vanilla cones in a beautiful country park where the fields rolled away into the distance.
Anyways, there’s work to do now.  More later.