Friday, August 22, 2014

I'VE LOST TRACK OF THE DAYS: Marhaba Week - and the curtain is poised to rise

This morning I don my sunglasses, pop my iPhone in my purse, and head out for a stroll around campus. The first year students are trickling in today, but by tomorrow they will be here in force for Marhaba Week, a week of orientation for them and their parents to this new campus and the city of Abu Dhabi. Marhaba means "welcome" in Arabic. There have been four Marhaba Weeks in NYUAD's short history, but this coming one, which starts Monday, will be the first on the new Saadiyat Island campus. After years of planning and building and no small number of growing pains, THE day is almost here, it feels like the day before Opening Night to me.

I can't help it. It's because of my recent years associated with actors and the stage in NYC that when I think of this experience at NYUAD the metaphor that naturally comes to me is "theatre". For me this beautiful new campus is an enormous stage. The sets are the classrooms, the library, the arts center with its three performance spaces, the research center, the conference center, the dorms, the dining venues and even the Starbucks kiosks (let us not forget them!). The "set designers" and builders have been busy all Summer putting the finishing touches on everything in the residence halls, the administrative offices and the classrooms. Lastly the final props are being put in place: desks and chairs in the classrooms (I can see them through the ground-level windows), banners welcoming the students, plants in entry ways, and even welcome mats. 

Now all we need are the players - the students and faculty - and tomorrow they arrive in force.

I head down the elevator in my apartment building and am ready to go out the front door when I hesitate. I walk over to the Children's Play Room, hold my card key to the lock and enter. Lily, a Director in the Office of the Vice Chancellor, had stopped into IKEA a few times and picked up toys which I'd placed about the room a few weeks ago. I take a few minutes to straighten up and move the little elephant sit-upons so that they look like they are playing with the toys. I don't know if the children will notice when they come in, but it amuses me to add this touch of whimsy to the room.

"What are you waiting for? Come on in!"

"What's happening outside?"

When I open the door to the outside the hot air and humidity envelope me, but my sun glasses do not immediately fog up. Good, the humidity is relatively low today, emphasis on the relatively. I glance at the plexiglass on the light wells protruding from the shrubbery. When Doug and I came home last night from dinner at a local restaurant I observed a crew of workers washing them, and today they do indeed sparkle. 

My apartment building, the West Apartments, is to the right. The entrances to all residences are on the High Line level (shown). Below the walkways and gardens throughout the campus are classrooms, offices and meeting rooms. To bring in natural light to these interior spaces the architects designed light wells such as this one to the left. They are open at the top, so birds fly down to the trees in the courtyards below. A very nice touch in my humble opinion.

I walk along the High Line and come upon workers doing last-minute fixes - tiles lifted on the walkways so they can access electrical cables; off-loading materials into The Campus Center where the future and much-anticipated Markeplace is still under construction. As I stroll along the winding path I admire the plants and shrubs which have matured considerably since I moved in just 2-1/2 months ago. In another lifetime I would have been a Landscape Designer, so I appreciate that the plantings are not just visually attractive but that species were selected to provide a lovely and soothing rustling sound when the breezes blow. And there is always a breeze blowing. The shrubs and trees also attract birds, and I delight in observing small flocks flitting from tree to tree and hopping along on the lawn. 

For some reason the phrase "shimmering in the heat" floats into my consciousness, so I walk until I come to a place where I can peer between the buildings to the city in the distance. Sand and turquoise water separates the campus from downtown Abu Dhabi, and the skyline is blurred in the humid haze. They definitely do not shimmer. I decide "simmer in the heat" is a better phrase for this part of the world, at least during the Summer months.

Several staircases lead down to ground level, and I always opt for these rather than the elevators - part of my stay-in-shape agenda. I step down onto the Central Plaze under towering palms brought here from Egypt. Stands have been placed here with "Marhaba Week" and "Marhaba 2014" on them. I see a small crew washing windows, and a small sidewalk cleaner is busily humming its way along the main entrance.

The main entrance to the campus sweeps up from the street and is flanked by two cascading water features. I am so tempted to put my toes in there, but I am sure the water will be anything but refreshing. I stroll down the walk toward the newly-opened Welcome Center which sports a veritable forest of banners out front. There is no missing it, which is the point. I pull out my iPhone to take a photo and the guard moves to step out of frame. I walk up to him, extend my hand and introduce myself and ask if I can take his picture.  His name is Stephen, and he is happy to tell me about the Welcome Center and his role there. Students are already arriving, he says. 

Stephen in front of the Welcome Center

I walk across the entrance to the new campus bookstore and pull on the door. It is locked, and I am not surprised. I'd hoped for a peek, but I imagine they are scurrying to get the place ready to open this coming week. This book store will be considerably larger than the one on the interim downtown campus, so I am excited to see what it will have to offer. 

I didn't bring any water with me today, so with the heat starting to get to me, I decide to walk to the Campus West Restaurant. I know it is not yet open for lunch, but the Starbucks kiosk operates all day. 

I do love my iced skim mocha, hold the whip.

The campus is still quiet, and it's not yet lunch time, so the West Campus Restaurant is mostly empty. I walk up to the Starbucks kiosk near the front door and order my iced coffee. Over the Summer the barristas have learned to mix the drinks, so in no time it is ready and I plunk down my fourteen dirhams.

14 dirhams ($3.81) will buy you a Starbucks iced mocha. 

I've seen this barrista before, but I've never really chatted with her, so I introduce myself and ask her name. "Memory" she replies. "Memory. I've never heard that name before. It's just beautiful" I say, and her face lights up. The people who work on this campus are so nice and friendly. They come from all over the world, and when asked they love to tell you about their home country and what brings them here. This may sound corny but I think it's really true - I get such a sense of pride from these people. Each in their own way feels like they're part of the team bringing this campus together. To return to my theatre metaphor, they feel that they're part of the ensemble, and they very much are.

I walk out the door and decide to head back to the apartment but not by the most direct route. I walk up a staircase, past some student residences, and through the gardens in front of the West Apartments. A flutter of wings catches my attention, and as I draw closer I see the shiny white patches that identify this small flock as white-cheeked bulbuls. I pull out my iPhone, but I cannot get close enough to take a photo before they flit off. Indian House Sparrows, pigeons, and common mynas are always present, but the bulbuls are a bit more shy. 

I pull open the front door to my lobby and step into the cold. After walking outside it is a shock to come inside. I see a new guard at the front desk, and since I've been on a roll meeting new people on campus I stop, extend my hand, and introduce myself. His name is Collin. I remark that I imagine a lot more people have been passing through the lobby recently as staff returns to campus, and he says yes, but that I am the first person to stop and say hello. He says most people just walk by, and he is so clearly happy that I've stopped and said hello that I resolve to be even more intentional about greeting people, not just here but wherever I am. 

I sit now at my desk and mull over the morning's walk. I feel very calm, much like I do the day before Opening Night. When the work's been done, and the stage is set, then you can take that deep breath and be ready for when the curtain goes up. 

To be continued.....