The flight to their destination went smoothly and only a couple of hours after landing, the uncle and nephew duo were safely checked into their hotel. The weather was much hotter than either one had expected, which was reflective of the region, but both of them were fine with this. Gerald never minded the heat and after the rainy periods on campus, Phoenix was glad to get some sun.
The very next day, ready and prepared, the two of them joined a number of others gathered at the city’s library, the management of which had graciously agreed to allow the conference to take place within its walls.
For once, Phoenix felt out of place. For starters, most of the attendees were noticeably older than him, with a pronounced air of being experts in their fields. Phoenix wondered if they thought he was only here because his uncle brought him along, which technically was true. He wouldn’t even have heard about the event if not for Uncle Gerald. While he knew he always put great effort into his articles, which were frequently complimented by readers, he didn’t feel like his achievements could compare to people who have spent years in the media, marketing, and business industries, the way most of those gathered did.
Despite that, he paid attention to the things discussed at the conference. He was hearing interesting and useful things, even if he didn’t necessarily agree with all of them.
Like the points the current speaker was making, for one.
The man, who was introduced as one of the leading textile exporters and manufacturers, made several points about how the implementation of social media in every aspect of business was hurting many businesses ran by older owners. He lamented the fact that it was so necessary to keep up an online presence to truly stay in the business.
Phoenix heard his point and understood why someone would be unhappy about the technological integration in everything – technology could be complex to understand at times. But at the same time, what did he want to do about it? Technology had been integrating into the world steadily for many years now and the reason for that was that technology, overall, made running a business easier, not harder. While Phoenix understood that it was often difficult to learn new skills as one got older, knowing them was well worth the effort in the long run.
“Of course, the argument many make is that to fully implement new skills into the business world, we should hire more from the younger generation of professionals. However, my experience with many such ‘professionals’ has been less than wonderful, as many of them tend to have much fewer skills than their initial presentation would have you think and their work ethic is, in many ways, lacking,” Aharon Alfarsi, the speaker, concluded.
“Is this guy for real?” Phoenix whispered to his uncle, who quietly chuckled.
“As real as you and I, my boy. He’s not the only one with such an attitude towards younger professionals, I’m afraid – in our home country, as well.”
“The majority of the young people I know have an amazing work ethic. Look at Millie, look at Jeanne,” Phoenix whispered back.
“I apologize,” a young man next to them smiled sadly. “My father is rather set in his ways and doesn’t always realize his words can rub people the wrong way.”
“He’s your father?” Phoenix gave a closer look to the man, who didn’t look much older than him, now that he thought of it. “I’m sorry you had to hear us speak poorly of him.”
The young man chuckled quietly, trying not to attract his father’s attention, “It’s quite alright – it’s hardly the first time. I’m Amon by the way.”
The two of them also introduced themselves. Around this time, Aharon, who didn’t notice the exchange between his son and the foreigners, finished his speech, after making a few more conservatively-minded statements.
“Thank you, dear listeners. Allow me to pass the mic on to Consuelo, who I know is eager to give her speech on modern communications.”
Phoenix tried hard not to let his cringing show to the other attendees, even as he noticed the man’s own son looking just as uncomfortable. What Aharon did went against everything they taught him in his communications classes. This was not how you welcomed a new speaker to the podium – the right protocol was to step back and stand towards the back as the new speaker took “the stage.” But Aharon practically barreled past the woman as he got off the podium. The second, and worse, offense was referring to her by her first name, without even mentioning her proper titles. Consuelo de Constanzas was one of the leading experts in the field of modern communication and Phoenix was a little star-struck when he saw her among the attendees. To simply call her “Consuelo” during a professional meeting was nothing short of an affront.
Luckily, the woman truly was a master of communication (and obviously, diplomacy), because she only smiled sweetly and took the mic, warmly greeting the crowd. The crowd, Phoenix noticed, had much more excitement to see Mrs. De Constanzas and to hear what she had to say than what they did for Mr. Alfarsi.
De Constanzas went into detail about the improvements that have been achieved through the use of various communication programs, especially the ability to host virtual classes for kids who normally lived too far away from conventional schools. This led to an increase in literacy around the world, as well as an increase in access to information on medicine and other much-needed services for people who were previously at mercy of circumstances.
The crowd was highly interested to hear about subsidies that a recent fund had created for providing internet reach to remote villages, which further increased success of the programs. Overall, the rest of the confidence went in a swimming manner.
As the conference ended, the attendees left the conference breaking off into groups, further discussing the matters they found more interesting.
Phoenix wasn’t sure if he was expected to talk to anyone, but he found Uncle Gerald already deeply involved in conversation with Amon, who was highly interested to hear about Hidden Springs and the media in their country. Before he could join them, he found himself pulled into a conversation with Aharon himself.
“Quite the turnout, wasn’t it?” the man asked. “So many people, I’m kind of surprised they all showed up.”
“Why? Look at them, they’re still talking about everything from the conference,” Phoenix pointed at the other attendees. “I guess professionals enjoy the company of other professionals, even if they have to fly out to another country to enjoy it.”
“That is quite true, young man. And it’s a good change from them loitering in the markets, leaving junk everywhere. I don’t understand, is it so difficult to throw away cans into the nearest trashcan?”
Well, Phoenix thought. It looked like he and Aharon had something in common, at least – they both hated littering.
“It’s not difficult,” he agreed. “They just don’t have the common sense to do it. And because of that behavior, even the nice tourists get bad rep across the world.”
“You are right!” Aharon exclaimed. “So what do you do? There aren’t too many young people at this conference.”
“I write for Uncle Gerald’s newspaper,” Phoenix answered truthfully. “Not as seriously and professionally as some of those present, but one day…”
“That’s a good way of thinking. One must always set personal goals for reaching,” Aharon nodded in approval. “I’m hoping Amon over there would develop some of that mindset, but he’s still getting there.”
Around this time, Uncle Gerald and the young man in question finished their conversation and joined them.
“We were just talking about how, despite this being a multi-national conference, we can all communicate in the same language,” Amon explained.
“Yes, the same foreign language,” Aharon lamented. “But I must admit English does make communication with my overseas partners easier.”
“And you know more than one language, which is lovely,” Gerald complimented. “I tried to learn a bit of Arabic once, but I failed miserably. And you – why there’s barely any detectable Moroccan accent when you speak it.”
“Well, I wouldn’t have a Moroccan accent,” Aharon chuckled. “Egyptian, maybe – that’s where we’re from, you see.”
“We moved here about five years ago,” Amon explained. “Dad was expanding the business and it was better done here.”
“Oh, Egypt!” Gerald smiled. “Lovely country. My wife and I have been thinking about visiting. She just loves Egyptian food, especially falafel. But she says she can never get the consistency right when she cooks it.”
“Our food is quite delicious. You should visit my home and try some,” Aharon invited.
This was a fairly normal thing for an Egyptian person to say to someone, Phoenix knew. This didn’t actually mean they were invited anywhere.
“Oh, I’m sorry, but we can’t really,” Gerald smiled, also knowing local customs. “But thank you for the offer.”
“No, no, I insist,” Aharon reaffirmed. “You two seem like very focused and interesting individuals and I’d love to continue chatting in a more comfortable environment. If you aren’t too busy, how does 5 in the evening sound?”
Phoenix and Gerald exchanged a look. They knew the invitation was real if it was repeated.
“Alright, Mr. Alfarsi. We will be there,” Uncle Gerald accepted.
As the father and son departed, Phoenix and his uncle walked to the park across the street from the library. It had a lovely pool with fountains and must’ve been popular with the tourists. Luckily, there weren’t too many here today.
“So…” Phoenix started.
“So, we’re going to be visiting the man and his family,” Gerald stated.
“I just feel like our acquaintance with him did a total 180. First we’re saying that his statements are wrong, then we’re all buddy-buddy with him? And he just invited us home, after barely meeting us!”
“He’s Egyptian,” Gerald shrugged. “It is fairly common to invite friends home over there, especially foreign friends. A good way to show hospitality, show off their home and family… But you already know all this.”
“I do, it’s just fairly wild to be experiencing it all,” Phoenix explained. “I hope his wife won’t be upset about unexpected visitors.”
“Not unexpected. He’ll tell her we’re coming,” Gerald chuckled. “Don’t worry.”
“Sorry, I just have this weird feeling about this visit,” Phoenix explained. “But also, I’m kind of excited. We’re going to meet a real Egyptian family, in Morocco. I have so many questions about their life both here and there.”
“I know, dear. Well, we should stop by the market and buy some nice pastries to take there with us. It’s the polite thing to do.”
The arrival of the evening found the two of them at the door of the Alfarsi household, a modest abode which Phoenix didn’t quite expect from someone who had a profitable textile business. Then again, some people didn’t like to overspend, even if they could afford to. This was something Phoenix could agree with.
Inside, they were greeted by Aharon and his family: his wife Chione, son Amon, who they’ve met earlier, and his daughter Layla. The family was delighted with the big box of artisan chocolates Gerald had chosen as a housewarming gift and invited both of them to the table.
While Phoenix had tried some Eastern foods before, the foods prepared by Chione Alfarsi were absolutely exquisite and Phoenix knew he’d be craving them once he got home. He made sure to compliment her cooking, which Chione accepted with a knowing smile.
During the dinner, Aharon continued the conversation with them. Topics of travel and education came up.
“Education is important,” Aharon nodded. “I can agree with that statement. I just wish young people wouldn’t let education be the only thing in their heads.”
“It’s hard, though,” Phoenix pointed out. “I just finished my freshman year, but let me tell you, if you don’t keep your head in the game 24/7, there’s a good chance of not passing some of the classes.” He almost mentioned failing his first semester, but figured a person like Aharon would judge him poorly for it. “And many of my classmates, myself included, feel like the subjects have increased in difficulty.”
“That very well may be,” Gerald agreed. “Time passes, people learn more things, and pass on more and more of them to the next generation. As a result, you guys have to learn a lot!”
“And as it goes, the learning takes up the time that could be spent on other things that are no less important. Why, if I had my head in a book 24/7, I probably would never have noticed Chione and wouldn’t have had the family I have now!” Aharon laughed.
His wife smiled and teased him, “Oh, I think you would’ve noticed me anyways, dear. I remember how you were in those days.”
“I was, oh, I was!” Aharon chuckled. “It’s true, I did have a bit of a wild eye in my younger days. Speaking of the young, nice of you to finally join us, Anippe.”
The youngest member of the family, his other daughter, just smiled and nodded, quietly sitting down by her father and getting some food of her own.
“Sorry,” she explained. “I had to turn off the computer and you know how long it takes these days.”
Phoenix thought she had a very pleasant voice, but also that she sounded tired. From the look of her, she was about his age. If she was a student, he understood why she was tired all too well.
“You and that computer,” Aharon shook his head in annoyance, but quickly changed the subject. “How’s the food? Please, have some more. There’s some dessert, too. You know, it was nice to meet you two. I was afraid everyone at that conference will be boring and stuffy, but you aren’t in the slightest. What’s life like in your home country? We see plenty on TV, sure, but we all know movies aren’t always true to reality.”
The rest of the dinner passed with them talking about popular misconceptions about both of their countries. To his surprise, Phoenix found himself warming up to Aharon. Yes, he was old fashioned and set in his ways, but just because he found family and traditions more important that some other things didn’t make him any worse than any of his professors. The guy sure knew how to have a good time.
At the end, Phoenix wanted to help with the dishes, but Chione quickly calmed him down and refused his offer. She and Anippe quickly cleared the table and he was about to head out to where Uncle Gerald was talking with Aharon and Amon, when Layla all but ran into him.
“My apologies, I hope I didn’t step on you,” he quickly apologized.
“None needed. I don’t mind being close to you,” she informed him in a low voice. The way she looked at him left no doubts as to whether she was flirting with him or just being nice. She was definitely flirting.
Somehow, Phoenix got a feeling he wasn’t the first nor the last person to receive attention from her.
“Oh, totally. Well, thanks again for the dinner. It was delicious. I didn’t expect to meet such a welcoming family on my first day here!” he chuckled, making sure to put some distance between them. If there was anyone Layla reminded him of, it was Morgan from high school, and he was hardly eager to repeat that experience, especially in a foreign country.
“I like you too. I could show you and your uncle around town sometime, if you’d like,” she offered, holding eye contact. “Or maybe just you, if he’d rather rest at the hotel.”
“Thanks for the offer, but I doubt we’ll have much time,” he excused himself as politely as possible, almost stumbling out of the dining room and into the kitchen.
Was that his imagination, or did Layla totally try to grab his butt when they bumped into one another? No, definitely not his imagination.
He was wondering how to get to his uncle without bumping into her again when he heard quiet snickering behind him. Turning around, he saw Anippe doing her best to stifle laughter.
“I’m sorry to intrude here like this,” he quickly apologized. From his impression, Anippe didn’t seem like the most sociable person around and he didn’t want to impose.
“It’s alright,” she laughed. “I see you’ve met our Layla.”
“I’m sorry if she made you uncomfortable,” the young woman apologized on her sister’s behalf. “Poor Adam never had a chance when she turned her wiles on him.”
“Her husband. Not that she much cares she has one,” Anippe explained. “I think she likes having him around for the status of being married. Which is all too bad – he’s really quite a nice guy.”
“What about you?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m not married. I just finished school,” she explained. “And no, I don’t think schooling is a waste of time, unlike some people.”
And there it was. Clearly, father and daughter disagreed on this matter.
“What about you?” she asked him. “You’re in college, aren’t you? This is so cool.”
“It’s not bad. Lots of work, but I like it, for the most part. And my friends are there with me.”
“It sounds fun. And you get to learn all this really amazing stuff.” Her tone was wistful
Once more, Phoenix found himself admiring the sound of her voice. It sounded like honey to his ears. And something about her eyes was so enchanting…
“Phoenix! Where are you?” Uncle Gerald was calling him from the hallway. Looking at the clock, Phoenix realized the hour was late.
“I guess you should go. Jet lag can be awful for someone your uncle’s age. And you must be tired as well,” she told him. “It was nice meeting you.”
“I can say the same.”
After taking leave of the Alfarsis, the two of them hailed the first cab that would take them back to the hotel. Anippe wasn’t joking about the jet lag. Phoenix found his eyes growing heavy the moment he got into bed, and sleep came to him in moments.
As he fell asleep, all he could think of was the nice young woman with a honey-like voice.