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Limbo

It’s been two weeks since we arrived in Paris, and Tuesday felt like it marked the end of our transitional phase. Up until now our life here has felt somewhat dreamlike, but with the first day of orientation at the boys’ school today, reality has set in.

Aside from a few hours spent on campus, not much has changed in actual fact. We’re still in our temporary housing on what I have come to call Tourist Central. We’re renting a little flat right on the Rue de Rivoli, right next to the Place de la Concorde, and really, the only Parisians here are the ones working in the cafes. Actually, that’s true for pretty much the whole city during the month of August, but one feels it particularly acutely here. There are no real supermarkets and everything costs double what it would in a residential neighborhood. But we knew that coming in.

What was entirely unexpected was the ongoing serenade from the apartment upstairs. At least I think it was upstairs. Over the past two weeks I have become fascinated with the person who plays violin beautifully from morning to night. He (I have decided it’s a he) is incredible. This is no student. He plays amazing piece after amazing piece, with very little repetition. And it is serious, concert-level music he is playing.

At the suggestion of a friend, I decided I would write a note to let him know what peace and respite his playing has given me during this transitional and somewhat tumultuous period of my life, but after traipsing around the building and through the courtyard, I couldn’t figure out what apartment the music is coming from. The mystery just heightens the magic. I hope to someday find out who it is—and pay for the privilege of watching a performance. I have no doubt he (or she) is a professional.

The boys have been troupers, but I know that being unsettled the past couple of weeks has been hard on them. There’s been very little fun. We spent our first day here at the bank, and the next several days looking at apartments. We found one we liked and they seemed relieved once we started the negotiations, but then we found out the lease would be for less than a year and we’d have to do this all over again. I was so keen to give the boys some stability that I was willing to take the place anyway, but while waiting for various hitches with the rental agreement to be ironed out I found another apartment in the same neighborhood that works even better for us—and with a renewable lease. It’s still not finalized but I’m feeling hopeful.

The owner of the apartment very sweetly took me around the neighborhood and showed me all her favorite spots. Having a place of our own will be a big relief. Although I will miss the music. And there are still plenty of logistics to deal with: phones, sports registration, establishing residency, health care…all the fun tasks of starting life in a new city. Oh, and finding a job. Fortunately, the beauty of this city really does take the edge off, and our relocation agent has been a rock for me. I resisted hiring one but she has been a godsend. I will gladly pass her name along to anyone considering a move to Paris.

Going to orientation made the boys miss their Cairo friends even more than they already did. I’m traveling back to Egypt soon and am looking forward to seeing my friends there, so it’s a bit less painful for me. But I’m enjoying being out, too. Today I wore a short skirt (that wasn’t even particularly short) that I wouldn’t have been able to leave the house in in Cairo. It was entirely unremarkable here. There is a certain liberation in that.

Still, life in France has its own worries. Someone I know is planning a trip to Egypt and asked me if I thought it was safe. His message came the same day that the mass shooting on the Thalys train was averted. I couldn’t help thinking that, despite bombings and beheadings, in many ways we had been safer in Egypt than we were here. I’m not sure how long will be the case. There is by all appearances a growing insurgency there in spite of the increasingly repressive environment, but it has yet to become a real threat to ordinary civilians there. The same thing cannot be said for lone-wolf actors in Europe.

Lucky for me I don’t need to think about any of that. The fiddling is so lovely…

Paris. The City of Carbs.

We’re wrapping up our week in Paris. Tomorrow we get back on the train to Brussels, and from there we’ll catch a flight to Cairo.

We’ve had a great time here, although it was far from the usual tourist’s week in Paris. We didn’t do much by way of seeing the sights, although the boys did go down to the Jardins du Luxembourg and played some chess, which they thoroughly enjoyed. A nice man there let them use his chess pieces and gave them some tips.016e2400477d6c0128fd498b72d8eb9a8fcf5900ce

Instead, we were pretty focused on doing what needed to be done for the boys’ school application. I had a couple of meetings with friends of friends who have kids in the school. They all love it, and all warned me that it’s very difficult to get in to. The boys were nervous about their interview, but they did well. And they both loved the school. It looks like a warm and wonderful place. We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed.

But none of this is to say that our week wasn’t full of pleasure. We rented an apartment on the Canal Saint Martin and had a terrific time exploring the neighborhood. On our first day here we went for a run up the canal, and it was really enjoyable. The boys are hoping we wind up living in this neighborhood—the opportunity to bike and run along the canal was enticing to both of them.

Even more of a draw, though, were two award-winning bakeries within walking distance of the flat we were staying in, Du Pain et Des Idees and Liberte. We’d go out every morning and get a baguette and a selection of croissants and pastries from one of them, and then debate which was better. I think I ate more carbs this week than I have in the past three years combined, but goodness, were they delicious. We bought a baguette from an ordinary bakery on the way home one evening and the difference was remarkable.

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Our last night here we went to eat at L’Entrecote, a restaurant that serves only steak frites and has a delicious, secret sauce. We weren’t going to go because the french fries are cooked in peanut oil, and X is allergic to peanuts, but I had called the sister restaurant in New York before we left Cairo, and they told me they use refined peanut oil, which means the allergens have been neutralized. I wasn’t going to take them, but after an unsatisfying steak frites dinner the night before, X decided he couldn’t leave Paris without a crispy tray of fries, so he was willing to take the risk. Plus, at L’entrecote they give you refills, which was more than he could resist.

We got there and the line was down the block, so I asked one of the servers if they’d give me just a couple of fries so X could try them and see if he’d be okay. She did, and he was, and the boys ended up having their favorite meal of the week. It was the perfect end to a successful trip. It’s safe to say that both boys are now big Paris fans. They keep telling me that they hope they get into the school. So do I. We should hear in late January, and I’m sure we’ll all have our finger crossed until then.

But now we’re heading back to Egypt. We’re on the train to Brussels right now, and from there we’ll board our flight to Cairo. It’s a little disorienting shifting between such different worlds. I’m looking forward to going back and getting my mind off of Paris for a while. I want to make the most of the time we have left in Egypt.

 

Training It

Well, the boys and I are on a train from Brussels to Paris, with the lovely countryside whizzing past our window at this very moment. I didn’t get a chance to write on the plane (yes, I was sleeping), so I’m using the train ride instead. I love train travel in Europe. It’s so civilized and efficient. It’s a shame Amtrak can’t quite figure out how to do it right in the U.S.

The last few weeks in Cairo have been a blur. X was sick—twice, I was out for three days with a migraine and then a few days later caught X’s stomach bug. I just got back to normal early this week.

I’ve been loving Cairo. I’m completely comfortable moving around the city now and have really grown fond of the place. I wish we could stay another year or so, but I just don’t think it makes the most sense in terms of the boys’ academic timetables.

We’re getting out of the bubble more. We went to an interesting dinner party in the most incredible apartment I’ve seen thus far in Cairo. The building is right on the Nile and used to belong to a famous singer. Our hosts live in the penthouse apartment. They have a massive balcony that runs the length of the flat and has views all the way up and all the way down the river. The view is stunning.

The week before the dinner party we took the Nile Taxi—speedboats that zip you to various destinations up and down the river—with friends to Sequoia, an open-air restaurant on the tip of Zamalek, a residential island in the middle of the Nile. The restaurant is surrounded by water on three sides, and it’s striking. X took some nice photos. It feels good to be exploring more.

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Speaking of train travel, I’m hoping to get up to Alexandria with the boys in the next few weeks. It seems the best way to get there is the high-speed train (Spanish technology, if I’m not mistaken). It’s super fast—around two hours—and at less than $10 per ticket, enticingly inexpensive. I’ve never been to Alexandria and have always wanted to go. I’m reading Naguib Mahfouz’s “Miramar” right now, which is set in the seaside city, making a trip there all the more appealing.

The boys are having a good year so far. X loves his teacher and seems to be doing well in school. T has been working harder than ever and also joined the cross country team. With five practices a week, I was worried he wouldn’t be able to handle it, but he’s doing a great job of balancing that, his school work, and all his other activities. I probably shouldn’t be surprised. He turned 14 last weekend, so he’s a fully fledged teenager now.

That’s Egypt. But we’re on our way to Paris, where the boys have interviews at the school we’re applying to for next year. Fingers crossed. I feel a bit torn. There’s a lot that is appealing to me about a move to Paris, but I’ve also grown incredibly fond of Egypt. There’s so much about it that I will really miss: I love the climate, the monochromatic palate of dusty shades of beige and the sandy burning smell that permeates the city.

As frustrating as it can be, I love the insanity and the non-functionality of Egypt, and how Egyptians accept all of that as just the way life is. I love the levity and humor that infuses so much of life here. I know it sounds crazy to anyone who hasn’t lived here or somewhere like it, but I’m a little sad at the prospect of returning to a country that actually functions.  Overcoming the difficulties and challenges of life in Egypt is part of what makes it rewarding. I’m also afraid that when we move back to the developed world, we will get sucked back into the materialism and fake pressures. There’s something so liberating about living in a country where trends are essentially non-existent, where you feel lucky just to have food and clothing and the impetus to buy the latest this or eat the latest that isn’t a factor.

Having said all of that, we’re about 15 minutes away from the Gare do Nord, and I am so looking forward to our week in Paris and, yes, the great food and pretty clothes and all the trappings and ease of Western life. Color me conflicted.

Drama in the Bubble

School is in full swing and life here is getting back to normal. Our full routines aren’t in place yet—extracurriculars are still gearing up—but they’re getting there.

No longer the newbies, we’ve reached the stage where most things are familiar and we’re eager to venture out more, or at least I am. A big part of me wishes we could do a third year here, but it just doesn’t work with the kids’ school. I don’t want to move T during high school and, as much as I love it here, I’m not ready to commit to another four years in Cairo after this one.

The thought that this is our last year infuses everything I do. I’m trying to stay in the moment, but I find myself counting down lasts, as in, this is our last chance to do this or that, this is our last first day of school here, our last autumn here, you name it. And I’m thinking about our next destination more and more. I need to pull myself back and focus on where we are now. I do love it here.

Life is different in year two. We’re more comfortable moving around the city. We’re making changes in our daily life, including firing our gardener, who was terrible and was ripping us off on top of it. We’ve found a new one, an incredibly nice guy who has transformed our garden. He’s planted a bunch of jasmine in the plot in front of my office terrace, so when I go sit outside to drink my coffee or edit, I’m surrounded by its beautiful scent. I can already anticipate its Proustian effect.

We have new neighbors on either side of us, whom seem very nice, but we do miss our old ones. There’s a new, huge, restaurant that opened up across the street from us. I’m less than thrilled about it because it has a ton of outdoor seating and I’m worried about the noise. So far, the constant music has been annoying (though they do seem to have turned it down) and there’s a real clamor coming from kids play area. The Egyptian idea of bed time differs wildly from mine.

On a somewhat more positive note, there’s a new butcher shop in the neighborhood, and it is pristine. That’s a welcome addition. They have everything you could want and, best of all, they deliver.

I’m really enjoying the feeling of knowing my way around and am eager to explore the parts of Cairo I don’t know. I was wandering around my neighborhood this weekend further afield than I normally go and noticed how entirely at ease I now feel walking through the streets.

I’ve vowed to myself that I’ll be more social this year and make more of an effort to go to cultural events and to put myself in situations where I’m forced to speak Arabic. I called a local orphanage to see if the boys and I could volunteer there. The director said she’d call me back, but as I write this I realize I need to follow up with her.

I’ve also resolved to get the boys out and about more frequently. We’re running out of time to visit all the must-see sites in Egypt. I’m putting together a list so I can plan accordingly. We’re starting small: tomorrow we’re taking the Nile Taxi up the river to Zamalek with another family from the school.

Being away for the summer has allowed me the space to look at the city with fresh eyes—and remark upon its idiosyncrasies. My friends are always asking me about how life in Cairo differs from life in New York or elsewhere in the U.S., so I’ll share things as I notice them:

-Taxis: Whenever you walk down the street you will be honked at by every empty taxi that goes by. It’s terribly annoying and feels vaguely harassing. If I wanted a taxi, I’d be trying to hail one. It feels vaguely harassing.

UPDATE:

I was going to edit and post this (Friday) morning, but before I had a chance to, while I was working on something else, I heard a crazy din outside. That’s not so unusual—Egyptians are rather voluble—but it lasted for so long that I finally left my office and went to look out an upstairs window to see what was going on. A big yellow front loader was parked in front of Fire and Ice, the restaurant, blocking all the traffic on the street. It was surrounded by police. A man was in the basket, elevated in the air, and was shouting at the top of his lungs. All I could hear him saying was “you’re in Egypt, you’re in Egypt.”

photoOur bawab later told us that there had been so many complaints about the restaurant—hundreds, he said—that the police had shut the place down. They took down all the lights, all the speakers and removed all the patio furniture. The melee lasted for several hours.

I can’t say I’m disappointed, as being forced to listen to their music for 12 hours a day was making me a lunatic, but it does seem rather drastic. I would have been happy for the police just to remove the sound system, or to confine it to inside. Clearly someone around here has some serious juice with the local authorities.

Oh, Egypt. It’s one big soap opera.

A Day in the Life…..

When I was in New York in January, a friend told me that what she most wanted to read about on the blog was what my daily routine is like. So here goes:

There’s a lot about life here that’s very similar to my life in New York. I wake up and get the kids up and ready for school. When Oliver is around, he might do it. Breakfast is the same thing it was in New York: toast, or Weetabix or French Toast or eggs. One of the first things I did was get an espresso machine because there’s a dearth of good coffee here, so that’s part of my morning routine as well. Every time I go to New York I bring back bags of La Colombe, so I’m still drinking the same delicious stuff. I will be miserable when that eventually runs out.

The school is nearby and T’s classes start a little earlier than X’s, so he’ll often walk ahead. There’s only one street to cross between our house and the school, and on the way we pass at least four uniformed and undercover police officers and two school crossing/security guards, all of whom know us by name, so I don’t worry that he’s not safe.

One of us takes X five or 10 minutes later. There’s a massive security wall around the school and only people with passes can get through the rotating gate. Drop-off is pretty pleasant; they’re often blasting music in the morning, so people kind of dance to class, and the principals and sometimes the superintendent are outside greeting the students as they arrive. It’s all quite sweet.

After that my routine is pretty much the same as it was in New York. I sit down to write, and try to find time to read the papers and exercise. Both are tough. There’s a ton of Egyptian press, which I read in translation, and I try to keep up with the American papers as well.

On the exercise front, the CSA, the community center for expats, has a gym with treadmills and group classes. Occasionally I’ll go over there for a run, though I hate running inside. Sometimes I’ll go run at the boys’ school, but the track isn’t open to parents until after 5:30 p.m. so I’m usually too busy with them and their afterschool stuff by then.  There are also spin classes at the CSA, which I haven’t tried, and a Pilates studio, which I have and which is fantastic. There’s a yoga studio up the road that I haven’t been to but I know a lot of people who take classes there and like it. I’ll get there eventually.

The truth is, I’m still trying to pretend I can recreate my New York workout routine here, which I can’t. I miss running along the Hudson, so don’t run as much here. I haven’t found anything I like as much as the Core Fusion classes I used to take at Exhale, so I do one of their videos several times a week. And I tend to do my yoga at home as well. Eventually, though, I’m going to stop clinging to my old habits and develop a new routine. I had started swimming at the school once or twice a week when the weather was still warm, but it’s a little too chilly for that now.

I’m alone in the house until 1, when my housekeeper arrives. That’s another difference: she comes every day, whereas in New York we only had someone come once a week. Most expats in our neighborhood have daily help. For starters, it’s far more affordable here than it was in the U.S., but it’s also more necessary. Cairo is incredibly dusty and things get dirty very, very quickly. Streets are hosed down several times a day to keep the dust under control (making them muddy instead) and I’ve noticed our neighbors have their cars washed daily or close to it. And, as crazy as it sounds, it’s really helpful to have someone else who can answer the door. Everything here is done in person, so the doorbell rings constantly throughout the day.

I go back to pick up the boys from school at 3 or 4 depending on the day, and then deal with their various after-school activities, just like back in the U.S. We either cook something for dinner or order from one of the local restaurants (there’s an Italian restaurant, a Greek café and a rotisserie chicken place that are our regular haunts) or eat at the club where the boys play tennis. That part of life here is pretty boring and we’ve all discovered that we don’t particularly like Egyptian food.

The boys' favorite meal

The boys’ favorite meal

Similarities aside, there are plenty of things here that have become normal for me that I think would look strange to any of my Western friends. For starters, there’s the scene outside our house. There are always people in the street—the same people. There are the bawabs, the superintendent/doormen who live in every apartment building. There are the private security guards stationed at various points along the street, and the police men who constantly patrol. And then there are the drivers who spend most of their days just waiting around until they are needed.

We live on a small street that’s pretty quiet, but even here we get a lot going on that would seem out of place in New York. Like the bikya guy: several times a day a guy pulling a big wooden cart behind him walks through the neighborhood yelling “bikya, bikya.” He buys household junk. Or the zabbaleen, the garbage guys. Sometimes they come by to collect the trash in an open-backed pickup truck; other times they come in a little donkey-pulled cart. You still see donkey carts mixed in with traffic on a regular basis here, even on the highways.

And then there’s the poverty, which I still haven’t gotten used to. Two days last week there was a man dressed in a white robe with a white scarf wrapped around his head calling out to God in a hoarse voice while he shuffled slowly down the street. It was haunting and heartbreaking. A police officer later told me he was “magnoon” or crazy. There don’t seem to be a lot of services for the mentally ill here. There’s a paraplegic man we see wheeling himself through a busy intersection in the neighborhood who looks like he may also suffer from a mental illness. I’m always terrified he’s going to get run over. I saw him the other day stopped in the middle of busy traffic trying to lift his lifeless legs to put his feet back on the foot rests. It’s heartbreaking.

And the animals. There are at least a dozen wild cats that live on our street, and probably more. And packs of dogs. They’re not always here, but they can be scary when they are. One of them went for X the other day. Lately I’ve seen a litter of puppies frolicking around. They’re adorable—as long as they’re little. We hear packs of the big ones barking all night long.

One of our neighborhood feline friends.

One of our neighborhood feline friends.

Life in Cairo is lived on an entirely different timetable. Things happen much, much later here. I called a local orthodontist at 9 p.m. the other night just to see if I had the right telephone number. To my shock, someone answered the phone and gave me an appointment.  Another orthodontist (we’re still choosing…) called me at 10:40 on a Thursday night (the first night of the weekend; Friday and Saturday are the non-working days here), to give me an appointment for 7 p.m. that Saturday. I asked for the address and she told me to call at noon the day of my appointment and they would give it to me then. I ended up getting sick and when I called to cancel, they didn’t even have my name in the book.

This post is getting long, so I’m going to wrap up. I’ll try to be better about including all the quirky differences about life here in future posts. And feel free to ask questions—I’ll happily answer them.

Salaam.

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

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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.

Trials and Tricks and a Dearth of Treats

If you ask my children, this past week was a bust—at least on the Halloween haul front. It’s true, there wasn’t much candy to be had, but the local festivities were pretty great. There was a Halloween social in the middle school that T came home from perhaps more excited than I’ve ever seen him. He had been dancing all night and had lost his voice from screaming. He was elated.

I may have said this before, but I am continuously struck by it so will say it again: the middle school here is fantastic. The brilliance of it is that the emphasis is on making school fun. The kids are so happy to be there that they are open to the learning that comes with it. The teachers are terrific, and the administration has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about how middle schoolers work. There are only four classes a day, each well more than an hour long, with 20-minute breaks in between and, aside from (I think) three core classes, all the courses are electives, so the kids are fully engaged.

I wish I could heap such high praise on the elementary school. It’s fine, but not superlative. From what I can see (to be honest, I haven’t taken that close a look), it takes a less holistic approach to learning and puts more of a singular focus on academics—which is ironic, since the academics there, while surely sufficient, haven’t wowed me with their strength. And there isn’t the same emphasis and concern with a student’s individual learning style. Having said that, X is really happy there, he loves most of his teachers, and I’m sure he will get what he needs academically.

But who cares about academics when there’s Halloween candy to be had? Apparently the school usually has an adorable parade for the kids on Halloween, but for some reason it was cancelled this year. People were really upset about that, but since we had never seen it, we didn’t know what we were missing. On the weekend, the elementary school held a Halloween festival, with booths and games and food (although not enough candy for his taste). Again, people said it wasn’t nearly as good as it had been in years past, but we thought it was great fun. I couldn’t drag X out of there.

The reason I needed to get him out was because we were meeting our houseguest for dinner, @pfro. She was a fantastic first visitor, because she was fearless and traveled all over the country. She said she had a fabulous time. There are so few tourists right now that you can get first-class accommodation for a song, and the monuments and historic sites are all empty. She said everyone was very friendly and so happy to see an American tourist that they treated her like a rock star.

Yesterday was another no-school day, scheduled off for the Islamic New Year—although it seems that, because of the moon’s shenanigans, the holiday is actually today. The school, though, decided to stick to the plan and give the kids Monday off because it was the first day of deposed president Morsi’s trial. It was expected to be held close to the school/our house, and there were tons of demonstrations planned. We were warned stay close to home. As it turned out, our little corner was quiet, as it always it, but the wider area was, indeed, a mess. There was a massive demonstration on the Corniche, which is the part of the neighborhood that abuts the Nile, about a mile or two from here, and the ring road exits to Maadi were reportedly blocked off by demonstrators.

And the trial, you may ask? It was, perhaps predictably, adjourned until January, both because Morsi refused to wear the standard-issue white jumpsuit and because of the utter chaos in the courtroom caused by his 14 chanting co-defendants. And while there were clashes and teargas, I haven’t read that anyone was killed and the Brotherhood seems to have been unable to cause any significant problems, so that’s progress.

Things must be getting better here from the U.S. vantage point, because the big news in the past few days was that the Americans are coming back. Apparently the government has cleared their return. From what I hear, the first wave of them arrives this weekend. I’m sure many of those who enrolled their kids in school in the U.S. will wait until the semester break to return, but it seems that things are about to change around here. For most of the folks, that means life is getting back to normal, but the boys and I have no idea what to expect.

Here’s to still more transition…..

p.s. I realize that I didn’t take a single Halloween picture, but we friends took us hiking a couple of weeks ago in Wadi Degla, so I’m giving you a wadi picture instead. It was beautiful and there were tons of sea fossils. Amazing!

 

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