Skip to content

Archive for

Holiday Cheer

Phew! I am always so relieved when Christmas is behind us. Usually we have a crush of holidays in December—X’s birthday, Sinterklaas, Christmas, Orthodox Christmas, New Year’s Eve. By the time my birthday rolls around in January I’m too exhausted to want to do anything. This year, though, we’re down to two holidays—Christmas and New Year’s Eve, and we’ve already made it through one.

T opening presentsChristmas was nice. O came in from NY—he’s here for good now—and brought all the presents with him.The boys were so happy. We had a mellow day, and just cooked dinner at home. The next day we drove to Ain Sokhna, a resort on the Red Sea about a 90 minute drive from Cairo, with two other families who have kids in X’s class, one from South Sudan and one from Bangladesh. It was quite the cultural mélange.

The weather in Ain Sokhna was about the same as in Cairo—in the low 60s, but somehow on the beach it felt much warmer. The kids had a blast playing in the sand—they made a giant sand castle—and it was warm enough for me to swim in the sea, although not for too long. Still, it was a great getaway. I think we’ll go back pretty regularly. The roads are good, it’s an easy drive and it’s such a nice break from Cairo that I imagine we’ll go at least a few times a year.Sand Castles

I’ve been running around Cairo doing interviews for the book, which is always exhausting. I had a meeting yesterday in a neighborhood called Shubra, which is about as far north of downtown as I am south. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper the whole way up there, and the entire round trip, interview included, took nearly five hours. It’s hard to get much done when a single meeting can take up your whole day.

Still, I’ve been venturing out of our little bubble pretty regularly. I’m going a bit stir crazy down here. We met a friend of X’s at the Gezira Club last week, which was lovely. They have absolutely everything there—playgrounds, restaurants, tennis, squash, gymnastics, soccer, golf….you name it. I was hoping to do some shopping while we were up in Zamalek but, once again, traffic was so bad that just getting there took it out of us.

Now that O is here there’s a new round of annoying banalities to be dealt with, and they’re even harder this go around. I’m an Egyptian citizen so, by comparison, was able to do things with relative ease. He tried to get an Egyptian cell phone number yesterday and couldn’t because he’s currently here on a tourist visa. They told him he would have to establish residency or get a letter from his employer to be able to get anything other than a prepaid phone. I can’t wait to see what happens when he tries to open a bank account or get added to mine.

I am becoming increasingly exercised about the position of women in Egyptian society. The sexism is everywhere, and so corrosive. I make weekly objections to both of my Arabic tutors about their curricula (which neither of them is responsible for, but who else am I going to complain to?). The rich men are always married to beautiful women and the poor men have fat, ugly wives. Today we were learning vocabulary around one’s daily routine. The man got up, ate breakfast, got dressed and went to work. The woman woke up, fed her family, cleaned the house and then visited with her friends.

But the truth is, the women in Egypt are as responsible for the state of affairs as men are. When I complained to my teacher today, he told me that he talks about this issue with his colleague at the university. His female colleagues just want to get married—to pretty much anyone. And these are women pursuing graduate degrees. I’ve noticed this here before. The women believe it is their duty to cook and clean and take care of their husbands. Men are held responsible for very little. The old attitudes hold and traditional gender roles are entrenched. Until the women themselves push back against them, nothing will change.

Things are going downhill on the political front. There have been several bombings over the past week and there is no reason to think we’ve seen the end of that. The government crackdown on the Brotherhood is more repressive than anything I saw when I was living in the Soviet Union. It’s gotten so nuts that they’re now arresting journalists for reporting on the Brotherhood. These new policies seem destined to backfire.

But the boys and I are about to have a temporary reprieve. We’re flying to NY in a few days and will be there for a week. We’re all looking forward to seeing our friends and being able to enjoy a city that functions for a while. I just hope it’s not too cold.

Advertisements

Milestones and Mail

Momentous Moment: We finally made it to the pyramids this week, and we lived to tell the tale. X, who had been the most nervous of all, got off to a shaky start when, as we were climbing up the ramp inside the Great Pyramid, he started worrying that it might collapse on us, but once we were in the burial chamber on the top he was fine. When it was all done he decided he loved the experience, and he was the only one of us who was up for a camel ride. Now I can tick one of the many must-sees off my list. Phew!

The boys had a great last few days of school. Big parties and lots of fun, and Santa rode in on a camel. What more could a Cairo kid want? Yesterday we went out and got our tree. We were running out of time. The boys didn’t really want one but I insisted. T watched “No Impact Man” in his global affairs class and is worried about our carbon footprint, so we wound up getting a live tree. It’s not a fir and can hardly hold ornaments, but it’s cute and hopefully we’ll be able to keep it alive. T is skeptical; understandably so, given my track record with plants and fish, and our gardener has managed to turn our back lawn into mud so he’s unlikely to be much help.

Our tree

Speaking of my gardener…he sweetly delivered a little fenugreek plant to me the other day. It has the name “Joyce” taped on it. I’m expecting an angry visit from the first grader whose science project I stole any day now.

The past few days have been a crush of playdates and sitting in traffic and getting ready for Christmas. Speaking of which, I miraculously got a holiday card from my friend who just moved to London, in record time, no less. And they say the mail here doesn’t work. She was the one who had asked me all those questions, which I hadn’t finished answering (and by the way, I’m happy to answer any other questions), so here goes:

What’s it like at the market or supermarket and what do you generally cook for dinner?

Ugh. Food shopping here is no fun. T said the other day that he misses Whole Foods and I am right there with him. The meat in Egypt is enough to make anyone turn vegetarian. The local markets are fine—but just fine. They’re like New York bodegas.  There are a couple of bigger stores that are supposed to be nicer, but they’re too far for me to get to easily. One of them has an online shopping service and the meat and fish are pretty good quality, so I tend to get a weekly delivery from there and supplement with stuff from the local bodega-type shop. My housekeeper cooks for us once a week (more if I’m out) and we eat twice a week at the club where T takes his tennis lesson. In between I end up making a lot of pasta, salmon and chicken.

Do you think like an Egyptian or an American abroad and how much do you truly identify with your roots?

 What I realize being here is how much I am the classic “third-culture kid.” I never really saw myself as an Egyptian-American in New York because all the Egyptian-Americans I met there were immigrants who spoke fluent Arabic, which I do not. Plus, my mother is Dutch, which complicates things even further. But I was at a party here a few weeks ago where almost everyone was like me. They were Egyptians, full or half, who had grown up abroad or partly abroad or in a lot of different countries. Many of the uber cosmopolitan Egyptians, even those who were raised up here but went to American schools, don’t speak much more Arabic than I do, or at least they aren’t fluent. I find I identify a bit with the Egyptians, a bit with the Dutch (I have become friendly with several of the Dutch mothers at the boys’ school) and a bit with the Americans, but not fully with any of them. I think my kids—and yours, London friend—will be in the same boat.

 What do you miss and what are you happy being away from? Are you homesick? Could you stay longer than your projected stay of a few years?? So many questions! 

I don’t know that I miss anything about New York, per se, in that I never have moments that I’m sad about the absence of things. I see pictures and I get nostalgic about the quality of the light, and when I order sushi here I remember how much better it was there. I miss Amazon and Whole Foods and good dry cleaners and other conveniences, but those are really little things for me, and not having them is also part of the challenge of life here, which is what makes it fun. Oh, I do miss running along the Hudson River. A lot.

I’m glad to have a break from the self-importance of New York, which you completely lose sight of when you’re there. I’m glad my kids are getting a different view of their place in the world. In New York they, particularly X, were aware of how much more money people around us had than we did; now they are keenly aware of how privileged we are from a global perspective. That lesson alone was worth the time spent here. T had learned that earning $7,000 a year puts a person in the global consumer class, and the boys were commenting on how much more than that everyone they know in New York earns. They know people here—people they see and interact with every day and whose homes they have been in (our gardener, our bawab, etc.)—who don’t earn that much. They see Western consumption and consumerism in a very different light now. Which isn’t to say they are immune to their lure—but they are more aware of it and how much they have in relation to other people in the world.

And there isn’t the same following of trends and fashions here, even among the super wealthy. It’s nice to be away from that.  There are a lot of other things that you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about when you live in the U.S. that look absolutely nuts when you’re here—at least to me—like the lack of gun control. Every time I pick up a newspaper it seems as though someone has walked into a hospital or a school and opened fire, and there’s hardly a response. The insanity of that is starker from here

I look forward to seeing my friends when we go back to New York and I wish they would ALL come visit, but I can’t say I’m homesick. I could easily stay longer here, aside from the restriction of T going to High School, which I don’t think I want him to do here. But I equally can’t see myself wanting to move back to New York in a year and a half. X was saying he thought we should move to India for two years (his best friend from NY is about to move there) and then to Italy for two years, and then somewhere else. If nothing else, the past year has taught me that life is full of tricks. I’m not trying to plan at this point. We’re here for another year and a half, and possibly a year beyond that. Where we wind up after that is anyone’s guess. It’s a big, big world.

Wacky Weather

I was emailing with a good friend who recently moved to London, and we were remarking on how different our lives are at the moment. I was saying that while we love it here, when I was in Amsterdam a couple of months ago I realized that I was completely relaxed there in a way I never am here. I’d forgotten what it was like to be able to go anywhere, anytime and not have to worry about curfews (which we no longer have to do) or running into a Muslim Brotherhood demonstration, or just getting into trouble because of the language barrier. Just taking a taxi can be stressful because most of the drivers who hail from other parts of Cairo don’t know their way around our neighborhood, and with my pathetically limited Arabic I have a hard time directing them. I have to study more.

As an aside, I also noticed when we were in Amsterdam that X had forgotten how to cross the street. There are no traffic lights in our neighborhood so crossing the street can be a challenge. If you can’t find a gap in traffic, you have to brazenly walk out into the street and hope someone will stop. We have found women rarely will—I guess they have enough BS to put up with in this male-dominated society that when they get behind the wheel of a car they don’t want to take any guff from anyone. X has developed the habit, as have I, of putting one hand up, policeman style, in the hopes that drivers will see that as a sign not to run us over. So far, it’s worked. But when we first got to Amsterdam, X would just step into traffic and hold his hand up. He’d forgotten there were such things as crosswalks.

While we’re on the topic, I might as well mention that there are virtually no sidewalks here, either, so you wind up walking in the middle of the street. A friend of mine told me that someone she knows was back in the U.S. walking Cairo style. A police officer asked him why he was walking in the street. He said: “Where do you expect me to walk?” Apparently, he shared X’s organized traffic amnesia.

Anyway…back to my friend in London. She had a bunch of questions about what day-to-day life is like here, and asked me to write about them in the blog. So here goes, one by one:

Would love to know if you meet up with friends for coffee and while doing so, what you’re looking at or overhearing.

I do meet up with friends for coffee. There’s only one place whose coffee I like, Café Greco. They have two outposts, one on Road 9, which is the main shopping street in my neighborhood, but it’s on the other end of it so I don’t get over there too often. The other one is in the Community Services Association, which is kind of a hub for expats. They run welcome programs and tours and have classes and a gym and a library and a little store and pretty much anything else a foreigner in Egypt would want. And a Café Greco, which is where I get my coffee when I’m not brewing the La Colombe that O ferries over from New York for me.

The conversation is pretty much what you would find in a NY coffee shop. Post drop off, it’s mommy chat. Later on you’ll see business meetings. People meet for lunch. They talk politics. I’d estimate at least half the people I see there are Egyptian. I know some of the memberships—the video library, for instance—are limited to people with foreign passports, but I don’t know about general admission. It’s possible all the Egyptians I see there have second passports. Whoever they are, they’re a pretty cosmopolitan bunch. And everything there, from menus to posters to the monthly magazine, is in English.

Okay, this is post getting to be long. I am going to save the rest of her questions for the next one so I can do them justice.  On the home front, well, we had a lovely Thanksgiving at a friend’s house. It was perhaps the most American Thanksgiving I have ever had. The food all came from the club affiliated with the U.S. Embassy here, so the turkey was, I’m sure, Butterball and the fixings were as traditional as can be. The desserts were made by an Egyptian-British woman, but I must say they may well have been the best damn apple and pumpkin pies I have ever had.

We are working on a Christmas tree. That’s trickier. We’re deciding between the fake tree and the little live tree that isn’t really a fir and the branches are too flimsy to hold ornaments. It’s a tossup. I’m hoping to get the boys to decide this weekend. If we manage to get out of the house. I canceled our planned trip to the pyramids today (yes, I was trying again) because it is so cold here that it was snowing in parts of Cairo. I figured it’s no fun riding camels in the freezing rain, and the monuments aren’t going anywhere. The weather is going bonkers here. Yesterday we had a rainbow, which I was told was rare in Egypt. Today, snow, reportedly for the first time in more than 100 years. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

I didn't take this but it was too good not to share.

I didn’t take this but it is too good not to share.

We had a little domestic drama this week. T was in his room when all of a sudden the light fixture came crashing down out of the ceiling. There was glass everywhere, and he kept yelling that it could have killed him. Maybe it could have. So I got a new electrician in—this one recommended by the lovely manager of the aforementioned American club—and he checked all the fixtures in the house. Apparently none of them is safe. But he didn’t have time to finish, so he’s coming back Saturday. I’m going to ask him to take a look at the still-electrocuting dishwasher, too. Maybe we can finally fix that thing.

Celebrations

Poor O. He got here Friday and I have handed off all the tasks that I find too annoying to do. He spent three hours on the phone today with our Internet provider, trying to get our service sorted out. As it stands, you can’t have more than one device online at a time.

But it hasn’t been all terrible for him. I managed to get the couch delivered the night before he arrived, so at least he had somewhere comfortable to sit when he got here. And the day after he arrived we had X’s birthday party, which was apparently a great success. We had a ginormous bouncy slide that the kids had a blast on. I’m not sure why. I went down it once and it brought back all those school science lessons about friction. I’m still nursing burns.

Sliding Xander

055026

I had a fun week the week before O got here. Very social, including a book party at a trendy restaurant in Zamalek. It seemed all of Cairo was there—at least all of chic Cairo. I took a Nile Taxi up with a friend and bunch of her friends—basically a speed boat on the river, but a great way to travel because you avoid all the traffic, plus it’s lovely. There were passed hors d’oeuvres and pomegranate margaritas or martinis or cosmopolitans—I had too many of them to remember exactly what they were. It was a hip as any New York party, with one massive difference: the smoke. The place was so thick with cigarette smoke that the only thing to do was light up yourself. It felt like the healthiest option, a way of equalizing internal and external toxicity.

The MB marches had become a regular occurrence in our neighborhood until the passage of the protest law. The kids found them scary, but mostly they were just loud. They came and went pretty quickly, though.  There hasn’t been one in a week or so, maybe because of the harsh implementation of the new law prohibiting protests without prior notice.

Things feel pretty settled, really, as long as you’re not put off by armed soldiers on the streets. I drove out to City Stars in Heliopolis the other day, right by the Rabaa Mosque, and the street was lined with soldiers and army vehicles.  There’s an underlying tension, as though things could blow any minute, but for the most part life has returned to normal in Cairo. Foreign countries have eased their travel restrictions and the U.S. Embassy families are returning.

On the home front, we have sad news. Samy the fish died. X was disconsolate for an hour or so. He wanted to have a proper burial for the little guy, until he saw his sinking corpse in the fishbowl. “Just flush him,” he told me. I think he’s done being a fish owner for the time being. Too much heartbreak.

T has not one but two big pieces of news. First, he was chosen to be one of nine students who will be participating in an improv festival in Munich this February. On top of that, he was the overall winner of the Middle School writing contest, and won a generous gift certificate to Diwan, Cairo’s best chain of bookstores. He’s thrilled about both.

%d bloggers like this: