Wednesday, October 31, 2007

How to renew your student visa

1. Make an appointment with the Immigration offices. It will cost you more, but this way, you will think, at least it's all over in one day, and you'll have more control over this disempowering experience. You will be wrong: to illustrate this point, your first appointment will be cancelled with no reason and you will have to change your plans to get a new one.

2. Take the train fron London Bridge station going to Croydon. Do not expect to see the bridge or the river; instead expect concrete landscape, the constant downpour of text and numbers on huge screens, the confusion of loudspeaker announcements. As the train pulls out, look right and see a medium-size bill board:

Legal Shop Online: Write your will for just £9.99

Wonder for a brief moment about the morbid nature of the commuting experience, and then look back to see if the sign was really there, only too late, it's gone.

3. Upon arrival to Croydon, walk out of the train station and turn right. Notice a drunk man lying unconscious on the right hand side, his bottle next to him, his bottom exposed. Notice another man pull out his mobile phone and, laughing, he takes a picture of the drunk man. Look to the grey skies, and turn right again, to Wellselly road.

4. Proceed through 1960s land: an eight-lane road with high rise buildings on both sides. Shopping malls, hotels. It's grim, and it could be anywhere. Since you had been to the UK for a while you know it usually doesn't look like this. Notice the space exploration theme: first you pass Apollo house, and then, your destination, the concrete-blocks-protected Lunar House.

5. From here on you will have to follow the winding path of the bureaucratic maze, that is at the heart of the British State's system of control. Where other countries put armed police, here they use ribbon-separated queues and a convoluted system of lifts (Did you sit on the red or blue seats? Red? Then it'll be the third lift on your left). This cluttered order through chaos was once the secret of ruling a third of the planet.

6. As you wait for your appointment, you will find yourself too nervous to go over your draft chapters. Instead, stare at the screens. Short informative clips are provided, to teach you to Save Energy at home! Keep distance while driving! Don't leave your baby in the bath by herself! Don't forget the cooker on! In addition, you can learn about the history of Croydon - home of Nestle UK, and the London's first airport - and about the facilities: a "multifaith reflection room", baby changing rooms, and a pay phone (all mobile phones must be switched off).

7. Finally your ticket number will be called out. You will sit on a plastic chair, slightly far from the counter. A glass wall separates between you and your interviewer, and you will have to lean forward, uncomfortably, and shout for her to hear, and for other people behind you in the hall to hear as well: shout your current employment status. Shout that you hope to complete this degree by next September. That you had recently moved house. That your brother brings you money when he comes to visit, twice a year. That you are going through divorce.
'Passport and application form please!'

Your interviewer will most likely not be of a white English background. The immigration service seems to be the most ethnically- and racially- diverse public service in the UK, and this is no accident. The children of the colonies are now the zealous guardians of the former Empire.

8. Do not ask you interviewer: How does it feel to have people's futures in your hands, in application forms and passport photos, in bank statements and letters of proof? How does it feel to have the power to join lovers and break families, to give hope and to shatter dreams? You will be too wise to ask her. Instead, fix your gaze on the red button next to the interviewer's microphone. The button says PANIC ATTACK, in crafted lettering that you will not be able to define in exact terms.

9. The interview is over, and now you have two more hours to wait for your passport. Wander round and read the signs in the hallway, and in the corridor, encouraging you to leave feedback if you are 'unhappy with our service'. Yes, the people deciding your future are providing a service, and you are a customer. This place, the headquarters of population control, is no more than a 'Public Enquiry Bureau'.

Fill in one of the feedback forms. Under 'other suggestions' write:
A World Without Borders.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

homework: pillage three coastal villages

A notice in my college:

The Class will not be taking place today.
Please make sure you have completed your assignment for the seminar meeting.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Dissertation Blitz

I was supposed to be in Tel Aviv right now, but the Home Office thought differently. They bungled my visa extension application and I had to stay. Instead, I am watching the days grow short as I am waging the last battle of this five-year-phd-plan. Comrades, if all works according to plan this will be nearly over in three weeks. So, from morning to early hours, it's thesis time, no weekends, no procrastination. Some of us may not survive the campaign, but the greater good will benefit. How exactly, I am not sure.

At the meantime, I am leaving college in late hours and find my dinner on the way to the tube. Last week I was looking through the trash of a cafe-branch in Holborn as a man in a suit and tie stopped by and joined the picking. 'Anything in there today?' he said. 'Well you know they mess it up so people can't take anything, taking sandwiches out of their packaging' I said 'but there's always some exceptions'. I handed him a tomato-and-brie baguette (still in its wrapping). 'No thanks' he said. 'It's for my neighbour, an old woman, I bring her food on my way home. The baguette is too hard for her teeth.'

He also was suspicious of a salmon sandwich. I told him I never got ill from food I found in the rubbish, not once in five years. I can't say the same about food I paid for in restaurants!

Friday, October 19, 2007

oiling the wheels

In October 2001, the price of a barrel of petroleum was 19 dollars.

Yesterday it reached 90 dollars.

It hasn't even made the headlines. I'm looking at a few news websites. Yes, it's there, somewhere at the bottom. But that's because it hasn't translated to petrol prices yet, and because we haven't looked back to realize how far we've gone from the cliff edge.

Capitalism is all about playing the roadrunner. You're safe as long as you don't look down; just keep running, and the wind you'll make will help your fellow roadrunners to hover onwards. There are however moments when people look down. They can't help it. It's inevitable. Humans are curious creatures. Like the story of Lot's wife or Orpheus. They know it's not going to bring good but they look back. I wonder how close we are to the moment of sudden awareness - low-energy light bulb! - TING! - we've founded an entire civilization on the basis of a non-renewable energy source!! and it's not going to last much longer!! What are we going to do??

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

hidden, stolen friend

This is Hoa Hakananai'a, which means 'hidden or stolen friend'. Appropriate as it is now far away from his Easter Island home, in the British Museum. You can their official description here. Note how they carefully mention that the islanders helped to carry to poor heavy thing to the HMS Topaze boat that took it to Blighty. God knows what the British Empire would have done without the kind hospitality of strangers.

He's one of my favourite items in the Museum, which I rarely visit despite the fact it is very close to my college. This morning I decided to say hello to my hidden friend on my way to work. After passing through the loud courtyard I found him sulking amongst other pacific specimens. As usual I tried to imitate his face, which came very easily.

The text beneath 'the hidden or stolen friend' insists he is a statement about leadership and authority, but I think their guess is as good as mine. Any reading of this face would be a modern projection; for me he suggests vulnerability and the difficulty of holding your chin up. His small arms are holding his body tightly, almost in fear that he might fall off the pedestal. I would like to put my arms around him, but the text beneath also says please do not touch.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Never be too eager

Rule #1 of the finding and losing economy: wish, don't plan.

Sometimes you decide that today, you're going to find your dinner. You check one sandwich shop and find nothing, but instead of relenting, you insist: you know there is food out there, good food, carefully packed, hiding in black bin liners and is going to waste. What was an evening stroll, a break from the tedium of sitting in front of the computer, becomes a mission. You visit your favourite skipping places one after the other, Cafe branches and sushi takeaways, and find only disappointment. Here you arrive too early and there too late. Finally you realize: you have become too confident, too determined, too calculated. You take off your imaginary hat and buy some chips.

Skipping doesn't go well with planning. When you plan, you shut your eyes to whatever the street has to offer. Skipping works best when you wish for things, in a casual way. Like, wouldn't it be great to find a small gas oven. And then, two days later, you find one. It happens all the time.

The idea that your diet is not for you to decide is of course strange . In our society, food, like most things, is presumed to be a matter of consumer choice. When eating out, you decide: Vietnamese or Turkish, a soup or a sandwich. People plan dinner according to what they would like to eat; they then go to the shop and buy the ingredients. The unavailability of an item is met with a slight disbelief. The relation between seasons and food seems a faint childhood memory, and is used by the supermarkets exactly in this way; nostalgia is a great marketing tool. But these 'seasonal vegetable' signs only confirm that a relation between nature and food is an exception, not the rule.

Finding your food involves a different approach. Like a hunter-gatherer, you set out for an adventure. You might find plenty, or nothing. You may be in the mood for aubergines, but you come back with a sack of peppers. Seasons do not exist in the bins more than they exist in the shops; but at least you have no illusion of 'choice'. The power to choose is, no doubt, a privilege, which is not easy to give up. But it does not compare with the sweet taste of the unexpected, like the container of Parmesan cheese I found the other week.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Skipping and hopping

From the kitchen window I see the rubbish bins of the estate. Always overflowing, and usually surrounded by more rubbish. Stuff you can always find on the streets. Like ironing boards. Laundry racks. Broken plastic containers. Clothes hangers. Prams. Mattresses. Stuff that gets broken and then has no use. The dead plastic skin shed by mass-consumption society. In a city of affluence, even the poor can afford to throw away.

Among the rubbish zoo mattresses are especially miserable creatures. Cheaply made and easily thrown out, mostly for a reason, although I have found good futons on the street (but left them there). A day or two outside and a reasonabley good mattress becomes a sad soggy piece of filth.

On Sunday there were two mattresses outside the bins. For some hours they laid there sadly, but then they were reclaimed by the kids as trampoline. They were led by an extremely eager 6-year-old girl, who kept encouraging the rest. The miracle of staying up there in the air! It looked like the springs were in good shape. I followed them from the kitchen window and thought about the dump as East London's multicultural melting pot, where children of all colours and backgrounds meet, halleluja. There aren't many places to play around the estate, with most of the place taken up by car parking.

The next day I looked out of the window to find the bins empty again.