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Feline Distractions

We are slowly putting in place the trappings of a normal life.

I accomplished a fair amount last week on the domestic front, although I don’t have much to show for it yet. I ordered a couch and commissioned a carpenter to make loft beds for the kids. The couch should take three weeks and the beds about a month.

X's bed will be a version of this.

X’s bed will be a version of this.

T is getting a variation of this bed.

T is getting a variation of this bed.

The logistics of getting things done in Cairo haven’t gotten any less convoluted. The good news is, they still amuse me most of the time instead of driving me crazy. Living in the Soviet Union was good preparation for life in Egypt. It’s the same level of inanity, but at least here the people preventing you from accomplishing your goal for no apparent reason do so with a smile and are, for the most part, unarmed.

Sorting things out with officialdom or the various customer service departments involves, not surprisingly, spending a lot of time on hold. I’m always bemused when the agent gets back on the phone and issues the standard lost-in-translation line: “I’m so sorry for being late.”

One of the many companies whose hold music I had the pleasure of listening to this week was Etisalat, my cell phone service provider. In fact, I dealt with them on two separate issues. The first one was to address the many text messages I’d received in Arabic. I had no idea if they were warning me that my service was about to be turned off or what other dire notice they might contain. So I called the English-language customer service line, told the representative I was getting text messages in Arabic and asked her if she knew what information the company might be trying to relay.

“Your texts are set to be delivered in English,” she said.

“I know, but you are sending me texts in Arabic,” I replied.

“Well, we have it set to English.”

“Yes. That’s the problem. They’re still in Arabic.”

“What do they say?” she asked, still not fully grasping the issue.

“I don’t know,” I answered, trying not to get exasperated. “That’s what I’m trying to find out. They’re in Arabic and I can’t read Arabic.”

“Well, we have it set to English.”

And so on. I eventually gave up.

I had a similar encounter over my bill. I received a text message—this one in English—warning me that my service would be disconnected if I didn’t pay my bill in three days.  So I went to the bank—one of the acceptable places to pay one’s bill—and they told me I needed to go to the Etisalat store. I didn’t bother to ask why. Only the store near me had closed, the nice man at the bank warned me. So I called customer service to find out if that was true, and the agent told me I had an account surplus and should ignore the text they sent me telling me I owed them money. Go figure.  I am sure my phone will be turned off any day now.

Dealing with the bank has also been an adventure. I had to apply to get an account, then wait five days to see if I would be approved. I got a call saying I had been and was given a rather dubious-seeming account number on the phone. Very few digits. I was given no paperwork, no nothing. An ATM card required a separate application. Someone will supposedly come to my house to deliver my PIN code, and another person will come to deliver my ATM card. Likewise a checkbook and a password for the online banking system. The craziest thing is that the checkbooks allow you to write checks in any currency—you just specify which one you want next to the amount.

Finally, we get to matters feline. The missing kittens turned up across the street. Their mother had moved them to a bigger, fancier villa with a swimming pool. I can’t blame her, really.

But no sooner did we figure out where they were than we found a teeny tiny little guy—he couldn’t have been more than a month old—whose mother didn’t seem to be taking care of him. So we spent five days giving him kitten milk and kitten food and basically falling in love. And then, one day, he was gone.

I asked the bawab across the street where the kitten went and he just kept saying “Korean woman, Korean woman.” There’s a big building up the street that a bunch of Korean families with young children live in. I’m hoping one of them adopted him. I miss him, but I think it’s probably for the best. He didn’t look healthy and needed some serious veterinary care. And with our two cats, I wasn’t going to be able to let him come live with us in the house. I was already wondering how he’d survive when we left.

I keep waiting for the inevitable crash of homesickness, but while the boys talk about missing their friends in New York and want to talk to them on the phone as much as possible, they continue to love their new school. T told me this weekend that he thinks being here has made him more appreciative of what he has. Even if that’s all he gets out of his time in Cairo, it will have been time well spent.

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Gaining Speed

The pace of life here is starting to pick up. The kids are in school full-force; T’s after school activities started this past week and X’s start this week. I’m working more, exploring more and socializing more. Still no more furniture, though. I’m determined to remedy that tomorrow.

The boys continue to love school. T had a school social this week. He’s becoming increasingly independent. On Thursday X didn’t have classes because of parent conferences, so T went to school by himself. He left early in the morning, stayed afterward for sports practice, and the social was at 6 p.m. that evening so he hung around for that. I didn’t see him until 8 p.m. that night. He had a blast. He’s loving how much more independence he gets here.

I spent the morning exploring Road 9—our neighborhood’s main shopping road—with X. We started out at Lucille’s, a restaurant famous among expats for their breakfasts and burgers (okay, I detoured to Café Greco for a good cappuccino first…), then meandered up the street. We found what looked like a fantastic bakery and a cupcake store that wouldn’t be out of place in New York. I stumbled upon Saad Silver, the new outpost of the small chain of silver stores where my family has been shoppingfor years. I went in and introduced myself, and I happened to be carrying a key chain I bought from their store decades ago. The owner claimed to remember my parents, and promised me great prices. They have beautiful stuff.

That afternoon I met with X’s teacher for my parent conference. He seems to be adjusting remarkably well. I continue to be impressed by the school and at how much fun they manage to make everything for the kids.

When I was coming back home I heard what sounded like a cat massacre. I didn’t think too much of it, because with all the wild cats in the streets there’s always a lot fighting going on. Still, it was the most intense cat screaming I’d heard so far, and it sounded like it was in our next door neighbor’s yard. This morning when we woke up, our wild kittens were nowhere to be seen. I put some food out for them—I’d done that yesterday and they’d gobbled it all up—but as of this writing at 9:30 p.m. I have yet to see a kitten and the food is still all there. I have all the garden lights on and keep peering out the back windows, but there is no sign of them. I fear the worst.

I went on my first-ever felucca ride this week, organized by the school for new parents. It was beautiful. I can’t wait to take one with the boys.

A Nile Beauty

A Nile Beauty

We spent much of today with an old friend from NY who’s living here now. She has an adorable little boy who X got along with well. They don’t live particularly close to us, but I hope we manage to see them regularly. Tomorrow I am determined to decide upon a couch—particularly now that I have managed to open a bank account, which involves a somewhat complicated and abstruse approval process.  Then the boys have some sort of sporting day at school, so we’re likely to be there for much of the afternoon.

We continue to be infested by ants. Tiny little black ones and big giant light brown ones. The black ones are fast little suckers who will swarm any stray crumb within moments of its deposit on a floor or counter top, and can get in to anything (including sealed Ritz crackers and cat food, we learned the hard way). Supposedly, they are seasonal. We also have giant golden-brown ants. They are bold and undeterrable and seem to live in the walls. A nightmare. I’m worried about spraying because of the cats and, without knowing what kind of ants they are, I’m concerned that I’ll do something to make things worse.

The dishwasher and sink continue to shock. The boys refuse to put plates in the dishwasher at this point. The electrician is supposed to come Sunday morning. And then I am meeting with the country representative from Medecins du Monde to learn more about what they’re doing here (I’m on the U.S. board). And on Monday—hold on to your hats—I am venturing outside of the Maadi bubble into downtown Cairo for a meeting and then lunch with a friend of a friend of a friend. I grow ever bolder…

On the political front, well….the government/army crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and militants in Sinai continues, as do the attacks on army troops in Sinai. The tougher the army gets, the more popular they seem to be. Houses all over Maadi sport Egyptian flags; one taxi driver told me that they are displayed in a show of support for the army overthrow of Morsi.

There certainly does seem to be a feeling of nationalism pervading the country. One Coptic leader I spoke to said Christians have been careful not to turn to outsiders for help in light of all the recent church burnings, because they want to emphasize their solidarity with all the other anti-Morsi Egyptians, of any religion. There is an emphasis here these days on Egyptian identity and a bit of an insider vs. outsider attitude—which creates a quandary for a government that is also trying to lure back tourists who are, by definition, not Egyptian.

 

A Typical Weekend in the Bubble

Saturday night. The end of our weekend. The boys go back to school tomorrow, and afterschool activities start this week, which we’re all looking forward to. T is going to be doing soccer and flag football, which we both find a bit amusing. He’s come to Cairo to learn how to play American sports. X is going to be taking cooking and baking.

Weekends here are relaxing, at least for now, despite the errand running. Fridays we have to stay close to home because of all the demonstrations and the early curfew. I know this is a bit perverse, but I enjoy our Fridays all the more for their limitations. Yesterday, for example, the boys watched a movie on iTunes while I slept in. Then I got up, we tidied up a bit, walked over to the CSA where I could get a decent coffee and the boys had an early lunch. We walked home and I read a little, wrote a little, and took a nap. Then we went over to the school were I swam laps, X played basketball in the pool and T played soccer on the field with some boys he knows. I sat on the bleachers and read a little more as the sun set. Glorious, really.

Afterwards, we wandered over to one of the local grocery stores that caters to expats. X was thrilled to find Double Stuff Oreos—something that, as far as I knew, he’d never set eyes on in the U.S. Like a good Egyptian, I slipped the produce guy and the meat guy each a little cash so they’d pick out the best stuff for me. Before I knew it the produce guy was going through my baskets checking out everything I’d bought to make sure it was all up to snuff. He got one of the shop hands to swap out a few items for me.

While we were checking out I started talking to the manager as part of my personal crusade to persuade one—any—of the stores here to carry Greek yogurt. The boys were chatting to him and as a gesture of what he undoubtedly saw as kindness he gave the kids a big bottle of Coke. They were laughing, because they knew I wouldn’t offend him by saying them they couldn’t have it. So there was soda at home that evening.  The boys, needless to say, were thrilled.

Saturday morning we spent moving the furniture I’d bought from departing expats into the house. I am now the proud owner of a desk, a bed, a chair and a rug. It’s all terribly exciting. We had an encounter picking up the furniture, though, that is best described as awkward. A friend’s housekeeper here had recommended a friend of hers—let’s calls her Penny—whom we tried out for a week. She wasn’t great so we told her we were going to try someone else the following week. (Which we did, and she was terrific.) Penny was not pleased.

When I was buying the furniture from the outgoing Brits, they told me they were leaving that day but I could meet their housekeeper “Penny” on Saturday. I mentioned I’d just tried and not hired someone of the same name. “Oh, ours is fantastic,” they told me. So I figured it couldn’t possibly be the same person. But when we rang the bell to pick up the bed and desk on Saturday morning, who do you think answered the door? Of course, it was the same woman we’d let go only a week before. Just my luck.

When we were done moving furniture, Marco took us for breakfast to a tameya (Egyptain falafel) stand under a bridge, where we ate street food like real Egyptians. Even more exciting than the new furniture, really. Then home to set everything up, more napping, some of FaceTiming with NY friends on Theo’s part and dinner at a delicious new Greek restaurant with newly made friends. All in all, a terrific weekend.

Finally, we have more additions to our menagerie. Kittens. They’re not ours, really, and I will do everything in my power to keep it that way, but there’s a cat who seems to claim our back yard as her home who has adorable offspring. Three or four of them, as far as I can tell. The boys want me to buy food for her.

And, oh. The dishwasher continues to give us little electric shocks from time to time. As does the kitchen sink. And possibly the running water. I’ve put the bawab on the case.

That’s life in our bubble. Outside of the neighborhood things remain less than idyllic. There was an attempt on the interior minister’s life on Thursday when a bomb detonated near his convoy, and on Saturday an improvised hand grenade went off in a police station. These are new developments in Egypt and no one knows quite what to make of them yet.

The Aggravation of Appliances

Ah, Cairo life. We’ve been back nearly a week and logistics continue to take up most of our time. Let me back up for a minute and say I’m loving it here. I love the challenge of penetrating a new culture. I love getting to know a new neighborhood. And making new friends. I am the happiest I’ve been in a long time.

But, gosh, nothing is easy here.

Somehow, none of it is bothering me—yet. Not the power outages, not the lack of furniture, not even the army of ants we’re sharing the villa with. None of it—except maybe the time our Internet went out shortly after we got it switched on—after four separate trips to the store and hours of hours on the phone with customer service (on Oliver’s part). The little adjusting-to-life-in-Cairo brochure they give you at the Community Services Association, a great resource for expat and the source of the closest drinkable cappuccino, warns that one should expect to only achieve a third of what sets out to do each day. Given our experience here, that seems ambitious.

Oliver has been great. The week the boys and I were gallivanting in Italy, he was trying to put the house together, all with a 7 p.m. curfew in place and a strict directive not to leave the neighborhood because it was potentially too dangerous further afield. Internet access was at the top of his list. I think he made two visits to the provider’s offices while we were gone, maybe three. When we came home he told me he’d been promised it would be switched on that day.

Fantastic. Only when I went to plug in the router I realized we didn’t have a modem. The next day, while I was out, Oliver got back on the phone with customer service. He spent two hours—maybe longer—on the phone with them. No one bothered to ask if he had a modem.

So the next day he went back to the store. Of course you need a modem, they told him. But they wouldn’t sell him one because he didn’t have a copy of his passport with him. So he went to three other stores. Curfew was nearing. No modem. He had to go back again to the Internet place the following day.

Finally we had Internet. But then the landline got knocked out. So we got back on the phone to customer service—I did, this time—and answered a litany of inane questions, such as, “What browser are you using?” and “Do you have the cord plugged in?” I did not have Oliver’s patience and, after irrelevant question #20 or so, asked for a supervisor. The supervisor told me that the problem was with Egypt Telecom, but not to worry, they would take care of it. An hour later we had no phone line and no working Internet. Welcome to Cairo.

I had read accounts of people being left in our situation for months on end, but Oliver got on the phone with customer service and in a few hours we were up and running. So, aside from the occasional lapse in service, we have Internet in the house, which means our Vonage works, which means our old 212 number works and is a local call from the US.

It’s not just getting wired that’s a challenge. The stove was delivered a few days ago but the delivery guys didn’t put the legs on or assemble the hobs. Oliver deciphered the Arabic numbers on what he thought was the receipt and had some very stern words for the guy on the other end telling him he had to send his crew back to finish the job. About 10 minutes later he got a confused call from the man we bought the boys’ mattresses from telling Oliver he didn’t understand what it was we wanted put together. Oops. So we asked the bawab (a doorman/super), who told Oliver that the delivery people don’t do that, the gas company does it when they come hook up the stove. Of course.

The dishwasher has been equally difficult to get working, but this appliance came with a dose of violence. The Zanussi guy didn’t come until a good week after he was supposed to. I couldn’t understand exactly what he was trying to tell me when he was here, so once again I turned to the bawab. There was some kerfuffle over a missing bag of dishwasher salt. I don’t fully understand what happened, but I heard the bawab telling him there would be no tip for him.

Zanussi guy left in a huff—supposedly finished with the job—and I went to pick up the boys from school. I heard some yelling when I got to the end of the street, and turned around in time to see Zanussi man jump the bawab. The two of them were in the middle of a full-on brawl when two local security guards jumped in and pulled them apart. High drama.

We checked in with the bawab when we got home. He was okay, apart from a torn shirt, but he had taken a sharp fist to the left eye. To top it all off? Zanussi guy didn’t even secure the hose, so water squirts all over whenever you run the dishwasher, and if you touch the metal door on the inside, you get little electric shocks.

And yet….the boys think their new school is the best ever and tell anyone who asks that they are enjoying Egypt, so it’s tough for me to get too ruffled about any of these little things when, so far, the transition has been such an easy one for all of us.

And oh….we have a new member of our household. Meet Samy.

Our latest addition.

Our latest addition.

My Interview with Richard French, on Richard French Live

From August 16

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