Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Back to Normal

We've been hosting an ex-student of mine from Singapore on his first visit to the UK, to attend a Medieval Literature conference in Leeds.

I had to turn down his original request to stay for eight days. He was with us for three days before and one day after the conference. Our flat is small, and the spare room doubles as a study. A combined bathroom and loo don't help, but that wasn't too bad.

I didn't have to paint the bedroom beforehand - that was my choice, but we're having a home-swap with my nephew in August so it seemed a good idea. His kids will be sleeping in it and it hasn't been painted in the twelve years we've been here. I managed to reassemble my desk in the main bedroom and apart from Roy complaining of the clutter it minimised the inconvenience as I could access my laptop and files.

I enjoyed sight-seeing part although alarm bells rang when Jiajun emailed to say he preferred to be escorted around. As it was I'd had to do all the Internet research about National Express coach times and costs, ditto trains from Birmingahm to Stratford as he was going there on the way.
I decided on day 2 after pointing out Admiralty arch as we stood in Traflagar Square the day before, that could find Buckingham Palace and go to the Changing of the Guard on his own. Shame the Tour de France interfered and he had to go when he came back from Leeds. I enjoyed the Sacred Texts exhibition at the British Library, with Jemima Khan's wedding dress in the 'customs and traditions' section - maybe she was still married when the exhibtion was at the planning stage. There was an interesting little video showing how to apply gold leaf to a manuscript, and the books themselves - Islamic, Judaic and Christian, shone out from the cases.

I enjoyed the out-of-town trips best. Jiajun reminded me that the big Singapore hobby is window shopping in malls, but we couldn't fit in a visit to Bluewater and he had to make do with the one in Lewisham. When I'd asked what he wanted to do in London otherwise he named the the tomb of the Black Prince andthe seaside. As a Singaporean living in Calgary - about which he complained vociferously - he says he feels landlocked. I was at a loss, until a wise friend told me I could do both on the same day, so Roy, Jiajun and I went by car first to Canterbury, because I found out that's where the tomb of the Black Prince is, and then on to Whitstable. Canterbury was crowded as the Tour de France team was expected! We had lunch in a fourteenth century inn called The Three Tuns. Jiajun said he didn't think he'd have the roast dinner because he didn't have a sweet tooth, which was a diplomatic way of saying he didn't want meat and dessert on the same plate, When I explained about Yorkshire pudding it was OK.

I chose Whitstable because it was a short detour on the way back to London, but we didn't get there until around 4pm. It was a hot day and I enjoyed a paddle in the sea at with Jiajun, picking my way gingerly over the shingle. It's a pleasant spot, with tall black fish-smoking sheds as a backdrop to the hundreds of small boats above the water line. The beach shelves quite steeply where we were, near the harbour, and is divided into fifty fot wide sections by wooden breakwaters. Roy was really happy because we arrived just as the stall holders halved the price of oysters. 25p each for the fine big specimens was quite a treat. Not for me, because I don't like them, but maybe I'll gve them a try in future. 'Surely, Sheila, we can afford to come down and stay overnight one weekend.'

What with eating-out expenses, even at cheap places like pubs and the local fish and chippie it's been costly, especially as Jiajun is on such a tight budget. I bought his his travel cards for London and although arriving Gatwick in the rush hour meant I couldn't meet him I drove him back there to save him the train fare. Going to the theatre was out of the question, but fortunately he hadn't asked. We settled for Harry Potter at West India Quay.

It was interesting to hear Jiajun's plans for his future in academia - he hates teaching so will try to minimise that in any future post. He's thirty and faces another year to qualify for PhD candidacy and then another four on the PhD itself - some aspect of medieval literature- but can't face living in Calgary so long, where, he says it snows in nine months of the year and people stay indoors.
After a while I began to think the academic life makes people very inward-looking and removed from the outside world, but maybe he's always been a bit that way. He kept in touch over the years mainly by writing about films. He was cheerful enough and kept up a stream of highspeed chat which is typical of Singaporeans. He works a couple of days at a pharmacy - he brought me some nice body lotion as a present- and some further hours as a research assistant at the university.