The Fruitcake King of Riyadh
It was a normal logical Friday (Wednesday) at the hospital. The work day had ended, and the net result of 9 hours physical presence in the cardiac surgery suites had been 4 chapters read of some lop-eared paperback Jack Vance fantasy novel (Lyonesse?), several more of a contemporary history of the convict remittance men of Australia, assorted interludes of nose-picking, and much butt shifting in the unfriendly chairs provided the invasive lab staff. Birgit, our Finnish nurse, was out the door and on her way to Spain for some much needed R&R brain-cell recharging, and Brenda, the Heart Surgery Nurse Bitch-Goddess of Riyadh (our other, US born nurse), was seated on her throne in the adjacent cath lab office, painting her nails (and doubtless sharpening her ferrety little teeth, between whacks with a paintbrush at her talons).
It had been a psychologically exhausting week, dealing with all the last minute preparative changes in our routines required by the new heart surgery program's pending inauguration. True to form, absolutely nothing of substantive practicality had been accomplished on a functional level to prepare the way for the heart program, and now that the new Cleveland Clinic cardiac surgeon was on board, kicking butt and lighting fires under inertially long-dead nether extremities, the entire burden for planning, preparing and equipping a whole two years of interventional cardiovascular operations (in support of the big name heart plumbers) had been dumped on our poor, long suffering medical director, Dr. Shams El-Youseff. Naturally enough, in the absence of both a cath lab supervisor (whose contract was still pending approval for granting him married status), and a department secretary (who simply wasn't justified, so it was felt by the powers that be in administration), the atmospheric excrement which had been visited upon Dr. Shams El-Youseff (fellow, University of Cairo Medical Institute) was deposited on us, in turn, and we had had quite enough sharing of his near manic frustration.
Dougiue, our temporary cath lab darkroom tech was sitting in the control room having a lively animated conversation with himself as I entered our suite of rooms with a small number of letters and a package. Dougiue's habit of talking to himself was bothersome, a nervous habit stemming partly from his lack of comfort with English, and partly from his lack of confidence in himself. One of the other Filipinos who had one time shared a room with him had told me, when I chanced to grotch about this characteristic of Donguie's, that Dougiue had once awakened out of a dead sleep at 2AM and gotten up to spend the rest of two hours repairing a VCR that had been frustrating his attempts to fix it, chatting merrily with himself all the while until the unit was operating again. He had then gone promptly back to bed and slept till the alarm went off, a few hours later.
Dougiue had a great ability to state and restate not just the obvious, but to put simple observations of concrete reality into stunningly redundant utterances: "The paper is white." Or: "We are sitting here." Eh? Uh-huh! Yes, we are, Dougiue. Thank you for sharing that with us. Go figure!
Anyway, the end of the week was at hand. The day was ending and I had not just a few letters to read, but the long-awaited Christmas surprise package which my Great Aunt had told me almost a month ago was in the mail (it was now the second week of January and no package had arrived until today). Birgit smiled when I put one of the letters in her hand, her eyes telling me that she envied the package I was holding (even though she hadn’t a clue as to what it contained, of course). Brenda, now possessed of scarlet red claws, glanced up to cast a withering glance in my direction as I entered her sanctum sanctorium (the heart surgery nursing office) before going back to her latest self-help psychotherapeutic book, "How to Use Friends and Infuriate Just About everyone Else." I paused to reflect on her stone cold affect--Ms. International Sour Grapes of 1994. What a pity that she possessed such a night/day, Jekel/Hyde personality. The really irritating part of it was that you never knew which one of these two faces of this female Janus you would be dealing with: the pleasant, intelligent and personable woman of 47 with a body like Salma Hayek, or the frosty, insecure and permanently PMS'd girl of nearly 5 decades who feared the ineradicable aging lines which cracked the cosmetic glaze on her face despite her daily repairs? Coming to work each day was a little like playing some sort of lottery game in which the odds were 50-50 that you'd be having to cope with Ken Kesey's Big Nurse character, reincarnated in our cardiac suites in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, from the second you walked in the door. Great fun, of course...if you have latently abundant and pathologically masochistic proclivities.
Nigel, the great big Black American cardiac tech, always gave her a peculiarly comfortable look whenever he swung through the scrub room doors each morning. [It wasn’t until nearly 10 years later that I learned he had been banging her through the floorboards just about every night, after work! Whoda thunkit?]
I was simply glad to be heading out of the hospital and ‘home’, even if it meant two days of enforced idleness at the villa, searching for ways of remaining stimulated in a land where stimulation, at its most exciting highpoint, consists of watching a person walk by from nowhere in particular to no place special.
At 5 o'clock I headed for the door, along with all the other expatriate lemmings who worked in this 500+ bed facility, taking my CARE package with me, unopened. Walking down the corridor, clad in my usual outfit of old scrub bottoms from Highland General Hospital (Oakland, California) and a blue work shirt, I took note of the envious and curious glances at the package; a parcel from home was always a peak-experience of the week for anyone working 8000 miles from the States.
My Great Aunt had told me to expect a Christmas package, but little else, intending it to be a surprise arriving in time for the holidays. Predictably, due to the convoluted customs peculiarities of the Saudi Post Awfuls, it had arrived two weeks too late for the holiday, but what the heck? That was status quo for the Saudi postal system, especially during the Christian holiday season when it seemed to us the Saudis almost took fiendish joy in delaying gifts from home to us.
Putting the package in my daypack, and fitting the full coverage fiberglass helmet on my head, I unlocked my mountain bike and started the 5 kilometer ride back to the residence compound. It was a great winter day in the Kingdom--no wind, blue skies, fading sunlight, but overall a gentle, balmy and just marvelously neutral interlude spacing apart the usual weeks of unendingly strong, dusty Shemal desert winds. The helmet I had picked up in Switzerland at a bike shop in Thun, where my lifelong fascination with protective headgear had drawn me towards it like a sand-flea to a camel. It was expensive, having been originally designed for down-hill ski racing, but had since been adopted to both bicycles and hang-gliders, where full face but feather-light protection was highly desirable. I had spotted it in a Swiss bike shop, while looking for some sort of helmet, for my bike back in the Kingdom, and intuitively felt that it would be expensive.
It was. About 275 Swiss Francs worth of protection, but having an abnormally large head size (60 cm), I felt reasonably certain that it couldn't possibly be my size (my experience in Europe has always been that the typical European hat size is somewhere in the mid-50s, prompting eternal speculation about why Europeans all seemed to have such tiny heads). It wasn't. Gulp! In fact, it was exactly my size--a 60 cm helmet (Corresponds to US Large/Extra Large). Reminding myself that a head is priceless, and therefore worth any cost to protect, I paid the man, brought my new helmet back from leave and was now riding around the hospital compound wearing it and doubtless creating quite a stir among casual passers-by. In a land where it seemed as if the locals had all been dropped on their heads as babies, it was bemusing to see a bicyclist who was this serious about protecting his head (considering all the other possible mortal hazards that awaited anyone on a bicycle in the Kingdom).
One thing about wearing this high-tech helmet, it almost forced me to affect a riding style suitable to the “go for the Olympic gold” look it afforded. I quickly found myself unable to ride anywhere without crouching full over in a racer's manner and maintaining a fast-pumping pace--no matter whether it was the daily run from housing to the hospital, or a 2 minute race from the villa to the nearby market outlet. The effect it had on one was sort of like putting on black lycra running tights to jog around the block--you may be slow as a spavined mare, but by God, you feel fast just wearing those things. So it is with the helmet. Chuck Yeager on a mountain bike. Sir Colin Campbell on a ten-speed. Hmm.
One of the problems one encounters in the Kingdom is a lack of opportunity for exercise, since Saudi custom and tradition requires full garbing of the male and female body for the sake of modesty, whether or not you are running a marathon, or simply shopping. One must create one's own exercise routines to maintain some semblance of fitness in this land where girth is considered a visible form of wealth and power, and eating is the major indoor sport. I had decided on a three pronged attack on the tendency to put on weight. And at the ripe old age of 49, it was no longer a luxury but a downright vital imperative. The mountain bike was my first line of fat-defense. I rode it to and from the hospital each day, a round trip of about 8 km--the trip to work on a slight decline, and the trip back at day's end on a slight incline. On a good day, without headwinds, the maximum speed possible on the to-work leg was about 25 mph. Naturally, this was a good pace, requiring some effort, and I would arrive at the hospital's security gate gasping like an asthmatic from the effort, but somewhat proud of my dogged efforts to push myself. The trip back home, at day's end, was usually in the face of a slight headwind, since the local winds--never slack for long--run uphill in the early morning, and downhill in the late afternoon.
My second prong of exercise maintenance came later in the evening, after I had had a chance to sit down and watch the evening's BBC World Service TV broadcast. This was about a half hour's work-out with weights which our villa was amply provided with, thanks to a bequest of pig iron and a bench or two, left by previous expats who had once lived in our villa but since gone EOC (End Of Contract). The weight work involved about 8 sets of 10 reps each of 12 different exercises, all designed to put most of the muscle groups through a fairly healthy toning-up process.
As a life-long late bloomer, I have always discovered the benefits of nearly every good thing somewhat later than most of my peers and weight work has been no exception to this life-long rule. Instead of getting into this as a kid, like most of my little football jock friends at the time, I didn't discover the benefits of resistance toning in this manner until my first contract in the Kingdom, some 10 years ago. Working out with weights had helped me keep my mental agility then, and I had since found it to have a multitude of benefits for the hog-tied, culturally sequestered, and socially isolated expatriate. Among them were (aside from the purely physical toning effects necessary to keep muscle groups from withering away from disuse) the value which such exercise has in helping to keep the mental cobwebs from fogging up the cerebrum. There is nothing, I had discovered, quite as good as hard-earned physical fatigue garnered through undergoing challenging muscular exercise for reducing the many stresses and strains of expatriate life. Instead of pestiferously talking the ears off my flat-mates, or punching out the lights of the nearest especially irritating flat-mate, I had found that working out hard served to expiate the tension and undam the pools of vitriolic venom which are the usual product of maintaining western scientific & technological systems while being subject to the controling administrative constraints of archaically stringent Arabian social and religious customs.
As it was, I didn't kid myself into thinking that my repetitive sets of exercises with 40 kgs of pig iron was going to make me end up looking like a certain imperfectly pumped-up Austrian Governor of California, but it wasn't bulking that I was after, simply toning, and it was muscular work that an otherwise sedentary lifestyle demands of a near-50 year old proletarian wage-slave, if said prole wants to stay healthy as old age encroaches.
And so, every evening at about 7PM I would roust myself out of my chair in front of The Tube, put on my shorts and spend a half hour justifying the daily Snickers candy bar that my sweet tooth habit demanded. Carried out over a long period of months, the conditioning work usually provided a nice firm tone to a body which was otherwise a bit ectomorphic and prone to putting on weight in the wrong places when the opposite condition obtained. Back in the States my daily routine would never leave me enough time to indulge in this vital exercise; over here, with nothing but time to burn, it merely required determination and will power to stick to the program.
The final prong of my three-way attack on middle-age physical slackness was running. Sometimes, after the weight work, I would go out and run a lap or two around the compound, depending on the state of my psychic energy charge. A single lap was about 1.7 miles and two complete circuits almost 3.4 miles. The running was an on-again-off-again thing, unfortunately, since I just don't seem to have the willingness to subject my body to as much stress as I would like to. I recall being embarrassed to find that over a ten year period, my per-mile-time-out-of-three-run had dropped from about 6 to about 7 minutes. Back in 1982, I would make the 3.2 mile circuit around Oakland's Lake Merritt during my lunch hour (at Highland Hospital) in slightly under 6 minutes per mile, and it is mortifying to find that somewhere in that 10+ years, I seemed to have lost almost a whole minute of running capability. This must be the initial crack in the doorway to doom, surely? Sigh!
All of this helped me gear up to running the occasional half-marathon on weekends, and every now and then competing in what passed for local triathlons (using the hospital’s Olympic size pool). It was enough ambition, I felt, for a nearly 50 year old expat to entertain. The occasional runs with the Riyadh ‘Third Herd’ Hash House Harriers also helped, but that was more social than serious conditioning.
At any rate, this was still a lot more than most people my age engaged in at this verge of the 5th decade of life, therefore I ought to have been half-way satisfied with myself in this matter, I suppose.
So there I was, pumping my way back to the villa, package in pack, stopping at the local compound market (operated by Tamimi Safeway Store of Riyadh) to pick up the obligatory three baguettes of French bread before winding back up the track to the trail's end at villa 26. It was an especially beautiful sunset with long dark shadows of purple shot through by the golden highlights of the western setting sun and I couldn't help but think about the beauty of such a scene, despite the usual burden of stresses and concerns that I was still carrying in one of the little rooms in my head. It made me reflect on how vital and meaningful the long pull home is, both in reality and figuratively. It isn't the destination that makes life meaningful, of course, but the journey to it....simple truth that exudes no special cachet of mysterious wisdom about it, yet it is something that we nonetheless overlook on our daily scramble to get somewhere (that usually ends up being in an all-fire hurry to go nowhere meaningful).
And so, with a bit of the glorious splendor of the desert sunset squirreled away in my brain, keeping company with the awful gripes and bitter lemons of the week's work in that little mental storage chamber mentioned earlier, I finally rounded the last bend of the road home and ended the trek home by hoisting my bike up the steps to the door. As I kicked it open, I took note of Sam & Gino, the two scruffy trees that barely managed to stay alive, wearily flanking the doorway in their 5 gallon pots. Stuck in Sam's pot is a piece of broom pole, atop which has been taped a child's tricycle goose-horn and a sign that said "Honk twice if you love Jesus; three times if you don't. Don’t honk at all if you love Mohammed!" There was also a sign bearing the name ‘W.B.Saunders, Esq’ above the doorway, but with that sort of weirdness at the door’s threshhold you'd almost find yourself expecting to see a ghutrah-wearing Winnie the Pooh sitting under the shaded carport, scratching his balls in the time-honored Bedouin manner and using Eeyore’s tail as a fly whisk.
Die-hard heathen that I am, I honked three times, and entered. The house was empty. So much the better, of course, as I off-loaded the pack, parked the bike in the utility room, and regained my breath. In the living room, Art had left the Christmas tree lights on (despite the fact that even New Year’s was now little more than a two week old memory) and it made a fairly incongruous sight. Art, a gay Canadian, was the villa Christmas freak, and in a land where the Christian holidays are officially outlawed, took great delight in decorating the place like some English hooker's idea of an old fashioned holiday home. There was tinsel everywhere, ornaments hung all over the place, blinking lights on the tree, and even a cardboard cutout of a woman scantily clad in an exercise leotard, holding weights as she built up her pecs, propped up at the top of the tree where an angel is normally found. A blinking red light had been placed cutely between her legs, as if to warn of a perpetual case of PMS in process, and someone had given her a giant black mustache for good measure.
Two horribly kitschy wax candles molded in the form of Rudolf the Red Nosed Water Buffalo and Frosty the Snow Person sat weirdly on top of the TV and even the large portrait of HRH King Fahad (Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques) on the wall opposite featured some last minute seasonal decoration--the incongruity of which His Bigness in all likelihood would have resented, had he known of or been able to see it.
I finally turned my attention to the package, being able to wait no longer. Inside, in addition to another package of Chinese style hot spicy jerked beef, three packages of Wasabe dosed roasted green peas, and a large packet of Japanese rice crackers, was......GASP!......a FRUITCAKE!
After my amazement subsided a bit, I recalled that I had told my Great Auntie once about my fondness for fruitcakes--just once, many years ago! And she had remembered this, sending me one for the holidays. What a memory!
Now I will admit, right up front and without any apologies, that I am a self-confessed fruitcake appreciator of the first water. Most everyone I know utters groans of disgust at the mere mention of a fruitcake, but not I. I love the things, especially the dark, southern style ones like those made by Claxton's of Virginia.
You see, the story is this: when I was a kid, I hated just about everything that was supposed to be good for me. A typical, healthy, red-blooded American child's reaction, naturalment. That hatred included just about everything that I had never tried--another normal kid response. But each year, my mother received in the post a large, dark Claxton's fruitcake, just loaded with all those little candied fruit gizmos and everything. This 'gift' was from some relatives in Falls Church, Virginia, whose family went back so far that it probably preceded George Washington's and half those of the members of the First Continental Congress. In fact our family had probably been picnicking on Plymouth shore when the Mayflower just about got holed on its infamous rock....that sort of old family.
For some reason or another, the mere presence of that damn Claxton's fruitcake each and every year started to work some mysterious spell on me. Osmotic? Electromagnetic? Who knows? At any rate, at first it was just a dark, rummy confectionery presence under the tree that lurked strangely in the shadows of the lower most boughs, somewhere on the far side of the crib and manger scene that was part of our tree tradition. After a few years of this, however, my curiosity started to get the better part of my childish curiosity and one year I finally yielded to an impulse to actively investigate the dark gooey stuff, rather than just observe it skulking between The Three Kings and the plaster manger scene. I didn't get past breaking the package open and poking at it with a stick then, but the next year, I actually broke off a small piece of the congealed mass of fruitcake to taste it, seeking to confirm my suspicions that it was just as horrible and yucky as it looked. I don't recall my immediate impressions upon conducting this experiment at the time, but whatever the result, it seems that I was hopelessly doomed to cultivate an actual affinity for fruitcake from that fateful point onwards.
The Claxton's fruitcakes, meanwhile, kept arriving each Christmas with the punctuality of the Old Faithful geyser’s hourly spouting in Yellowstone National Park. I vaguely remember starting to nibble small bits of the things, and gradually, as the years passed and I grew up, I was amazed to find that I had somehow grown to like dark southern-style fruitcake. As fate would have it, just about this time, my relative who sent the fruitcakes died, and the Claxton's fruitcake Christmas gift which we had become so used to getting each year, stopped arriving as suddenly as Ford ended its production of the Edsel.
From that time to this, I have been one of those unfortunate people who harbor an insatiable craving for something that they just cannot seem to ever come across. While the rest of the world is pissing and moaning about how much they hate fruitcakes, taking great delight in fact out of making the bad-mouthing of fruitcake a favorite national pastime, here I was sans fruitcake.....not even a poor, small one from Alpha Beta's auto-bakery rack. Alas, alas! Alas, that is, until the parcel arrived.
Understandably (what’s NOT to understand?—fruitcake is GOD!), when I found an actual, honest-to-God fruitcake in the Christmas package from my Great Auntie, I was ecstatic. It wasn't a Claxton's, and in fact it was a 'blonde' fruitcake (not a bad one, actually, although I am usually as not fond of the lighter fruitcakes), but by Mohammed's beard, it was a gen-u-ine holiday fruitcake!
Fortunately, no one in the villa--neither weird Art the Christmas freak, nor Wild Colonial Boy Wilyam, or even Yorkshire Pudding Doug (DG, Esquire)--cared a whit for fruitcake. I therefore did not even have to hide it or stick it in the darkest, most remote corner of the mossy green reefer we park our spoilable food in, in hopes that it wouldn't be noticed. I could keep it right there in plain sight and no one--I could count on it--would even come within five feet of it! [Fruitcake is, as you may not be aware, impervious to just about every natural destructive force in the universe. I’d bet that not even a direct hit with a MIRV war-headed nuclear missile would have harmed a particle of its big, dark mass of congealed goo. In fact, it is rumored that such is the ageless ability of fruitcake to endure the ravages of time, the ancient Egyptians used it to embalm royal kings.]
Yeah, yeah....it was weird. Here it was almost three weeks after Christmas had ended and I was lost in a sort of fruitcake revelry of total fantasy over the thought of having a real fruitcake. Here in the darkest recesses of the God-obsessed desert I could leisurely devour it much like I imagined a primitive savage might, taking his time to slowly torture an enemy before ripping his heart out and eating it with gusto and savory sauce.
Finally, though, after getting a grip on these fantastic flights of gustatory imagination, I got out the butcher knife, opened the fruitcake's package up and sliced off a one inch thick hunk of the luscious stuff. With this in my hand and a fruit-jar of water in the other, I entered the living room of our villa. All thoughts of Brenda the Rude Cardiac Surgery Bitch Goddess were successfully stowed below decks and I sat down on my own upholstered throne (a decrepit old divan) in front of the satellite down-linked Evil Eye. For the brief time it took to munch my way through that first slab of the gooey, fruity stuff, I was indeed the Fruitcake King of Villa 26. His Royal Fruity Highness in repose, after refection.
God it was great! The fruitcake only lasted three days, too. Now, Saudi Arabia is known for doing strange things to the most resolute of us Western expats, but this particular affliction I brought over there with me. As a sat there, munching contentedly away, I recall thinking to myself, “Next year I just gotta get my hands on a real Claxton's Dark Southern Style”.
And you know?...I did!