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Summer Vacation, Part Two

Well, we’re back in Cairo and immersed in school stuff already. Before things get too full-on, though, I’m going to write about the second part of our summer.

I already moaned in an earlier blog posting about Alitalia losing our bags, so I won’t dwell on that any longer. Our first night in Trieste wasn’t much fun—we had stayed late in the airport filing a report on our missing bags and spent that night in an airport hotel near the highway, so we didn’t get any sense of the surrounding area. We were all pretty wiped out and woke up late the next day, still jet-lagged from New York.

That’s where the adventure began. We took a taxi back to the airport so we could pick up our car and head to Slovenia to meet T’s oldest UNIS friend in Ljubljana, his grandmother’s home town. What a gem.  I had considered going to Venice that day, but a friend convinced me that I was missing an opportunity. Boy, was she right.

Ljubljana

Walk to school 005

Ljubljana

Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is gorgeous. We stayed in the center of town at a place called Hotel Slon, and the staff there couldn’t have been nicer. On our first night we meandered down to the pedestrian zone in the Three Bridges area, which is flanked by restaurants with outdoor seating. We had a terrific meal and, thanks to our attentive waiter, I sampled several delicious Slovenian wines.

Our friends arrived later that evening and the next day we all explored the city together. We walked through the downtown area and took a funicular up to the Ljubljana Castle, which provides stunning views over the city.

The following day we all caravaned to a nearby town called Postojna, which boasts the second-longest cave system in the country, and the only deep cave I’ve ever been in. We took a 90-minute tour, which includes a train ride that ferries you most of the way through the nearly 13 miles of caverns, and saw more stalagmites and stalactites than you can shake a stick at. Pretty cool.

We then drove down, still following one another, to Zadar, Croatia—about a 5-hour journey—where we caught a ferry to the mostly untouristed and idyllic island of Ugljan. No, the beaches are not sandy for the most part, but the water is so clean and so clear that it doesn’t matter. We would dive in off the dock near our house. The swimming was heavenly.

There’s a fairly developed fishing industry on the island and we were there for the annual fisherman festival, which consisted of a massive fair with entertainment by night and a parade of fishing boats serving booze and food by day. People were drinking and dancing. The adults remarked that there were no noticeable safety standards and that someone was bound to go overboard at some point. The kids noticed that the guys on the boat next to ours were mooning us.

Moon over the Adriatic

Moon over the Adriatic

We spent a lot of time on the water while we were in Ugljan, which always makes me happy. One day we chartered a boat to take us to the Kornati archipelago, a national park consisting of 140 islands. We docked at one and the captain and his wife cooked fish and pork chops over an open fire. It was one of the best meals we had while we were there.

Kornati cove

Kornati cove

On another evening we took the ferry back to Zadar, a charming little town that has served as a natural port since prehistoric times. Locals say that, while smaller, it’s prettier than Split. I’ve never been to Split so can’t compare, but Zadar is lovely. I’d happily go back. We only spent one evening there, most of which was taken up by a dinner at a restaurant with the slowest and worst service imaginable (though decent food and great views), so didn’t get to wander around much.

The most enchanting thing about Zadar was the sea organ. It’s an experimental instrument that involves pipes embedded into marble steps that lead down to the sea. When the water whooshes into them, they emit melodic tones. It is absolutely magical. The best time to go is at high tide, when the music is at its strongest. I’d go back just to hear that again, particularly off season when it isn’t so crowded.

At the end of our time in Ugljan our friends went off to Belgrade, where T’s friend’s grandfather is from, and we drove back to Trieste. It’s not on the well-beaten tourist path, but much like the rest of Italy, it is beautiful and has fantastic food. It’s right on the Adriatic Sea and has a canal running through it, so the light is stunning. Our last night there, the boys and I sat in a café on the canal and sipped aperitifs and watched the sun set. Sheer bliss. X took some fantastic photos—seems he has a great eye.

Trieste topped off a great summer, but we were delighted to get back to Cairo. Bring on year two!

X’S TRIESTE:

Xander's Trieste IMG_1229IMG_1205 Xander's Trieste

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Airline Fail

It’s the height of summer where we are but my head is already in Egypt and filled with back-to-school thoughts. We’re on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia, on a beautiful, untouristed island called Ugljan, but the boys’ school in Cairo started today and my inbox is filled with class lists and details meet-the-teacher nights.

This is our first time in Croatia, and it is stunning. There are few sandy beaches, but the water is so crystal clear that no one seems remotely bothered. We’re renting an apartment and have a little rocky shoreline near us but usually just jump off the dock at the bottom of the stairs leading to the beach. The water is so clear that you can see every rock on the bottom.

We flew through Rome into Trieste, Italy, which used to be part of Austria. I decided to try Alitalia, despite all the bad reports, because I thought surely they had to be overblown. How bad could a European airline be? We’d been flying Egypt Air for a year now and had found it perfectly acceptable. Alitalia couldn’t be worse than Egypt Air, could it?

Turns out, it could.

When I checked in in Cairo, the AlItalia desk agent basically told me I was going to lose my luggage in Rome because my connection was too tight—even though I had more than an hour between flights. I asked her if she could put priority tags on the bags so they’d have a fighting chance. Mercifully, she did, so I figured I would probably be ok.

The flight was fine, if not great. The kids hated the food, but in truth, it was fine, though the meal was skimpier than others we’ve had on flights between Egypt and Europe. We were in the last row, next to the bathroom, which was no fun, but someone has to sit there. There was zero in-flight entertainment, which I never watch anyway, but for the kids that was a real black mark. No in-flight magazine. But the kicker was that there were no barf bags. I remarked to myself on a flight recently that they seemed anachronistic and that I hadn’t seen anyone use one in ages, but this flight reminded me that when you need one, you NEED one. A poor little boy came running back to the bathroom with his hands clasped over his mouth and vomit running down the sides of his arms. Alitalia: Time to resupply your air sickness bags.

Our connection in Rome was fine, although you couldn’t say it went smoothly. We waited for a long time for the buses to take us from the plane to the terminal. There was a special security station we had to clear immediately upon disembarking from the buses, before we could even enter the terminal, but only one line, so the people who had tight connections were completely stressed. And once we’d made our way into the main part of the terminal, we had to clear the regular security checkpoint. After that, there was a long line for immigration, with no open EU channels. I made it to my gate with a few minutes to spare, but I had been speaking to a woman who, like me, was half Dutch and half Egyptian, and her flight to Amsterdam left 30 minutes before my flight. I don’t see how she could have made it.

The flight to Trieste went smoothly, and when we arrived at the tiny airport the suitcases began coming down the chute to the luggage conveyer almost right away. It wasn’t long before I saw the first of our two bags—albeit without any tags, let alone the priority tag. I was waiting with growing unease for our second piece of luggage when I saw an airport employee head for the conveyer belt’s off switch. Our second bag was nowhere to be seen, nor were those of about half the people on our flight.  My inquiries over the next few days—first from Lubjana, Slovenia, and then from Uglijan, Croatia, were fruitless and it was only six days later that I was informed that Alitalia baggage handlers were on strike—though the strike started days after our arrival.

Finally, more than a week later, I got a call saying the bag was at the airport in Trieste. We were due to return shortly, so I asked them to deliver it to the hotel where we’d be staying. We’re headed up to Trieste today, and hopefully will be reunited with our luggage.

Okay. This blog post turned out to be a rant about Alitalia and, meanwhile, I didn’t write at all about how lovely our vacation has been. I’ll do a trip report in a few days, after we’ve been to Trieste as well. Right now, I have a ferry to catch.

Summer Vacation, Part One

Planes seem to be the only place I can reliably blog from—right now I’m on a flight from LAX to JFK. The boys and I have been in the States for the month of July, first in NY and most recently in Laguna Beach, California, where my dad lives.

It was nice to be back but, once again, our time in the U.S. was far more hectic than I’d anticipated. I guess I should realize by now that that’s par for the course—there’s so much to be done while we’re here that we can’t do in Egypt. I was hoping to have more leisure time to socialize and see friends, but it didn’t work out that way.

Our time in New York was thrown into disarray for the most heartbreaking of reasons: a college friend and sorority sister of mine lost her battle with ovarian cancer just two days after I’d arrived in New York. She had been amazing throughout her fight, displaying a seemingly boundless strength. I had been fortunate enough to see her when I was in New York in February and again in May, and had been awed by her positive attitude. I don’t think I would have been able to stay as upbeat and optimistic as she did. She was truly inspiring. She left behind adorable twin girls who are just over a year and a half old. Their father took wonderful care of his wife throughout her illness, so they will be in good hands, but it’s a tragedy for her entire family.

We had a lovely Fourth of July weekend with close friends in Amagansett, and got to see other people out there with whom I always enjoy spending time. My only complaint is that it was too short. These visits are never long enough to really catch up.

We managed to see all the doctors and dentists and orthodontists that we needed to, and T even had an unexpected encounter with an oral surgeon that relieved him of three teeth. I’ve bought cat food and boys’ shoes and shampoo and medications and various kitchen supplies that I can’t get in Egypt. I still have a few more things to pick up on our last day in New York—placemats and chrome cleaner, among them. I haven’t quite reached the level of one Cairo expat friend who buys presents for the birthday parties that her kids attend throughout the year and the foods her kids miss in Egypt, but we are going back with a new Wii U for the boys.

I don’t want to make is sound like the trip was miserable. Yes, we ran a lot of errands, but I also got to see a few friends in New York and caught up with some old college and High School friends in California. It was great to reconnect with them after all these years. The boys each spent time with some of their best friends in New York, and in August we’re going to Croatia with the families of two of T’s closest friends from UNIS. We stay with a close friend of mine in New York, so get to spend quality time with her and her kids, and we had a visit with a friend who lives in India and his fabulous wife and kids. We saw my parents in California and hung out with the boys’ beloved tennis coach. There are just so many people we didn’t get a chance to see…

All in all, we had a lovely time. New York no longer feels like home to me, or to T, although X says it still does to him, but it is still the city I know best in the world and it’s nice to be there. Maybe even nicer now that I no longer live there and don’t care about the teapot tempests one gets caught up in there without realizing it. But I’m looking forward to getting back to Cairo and back to work. I’ve missed having time to write. One of these days I’ll get around to blogging about my amazing trip to Upper Egypt with a Coptic charity. Now, though, our plane is beginning its descent.

Migrations

I’m enshrouded in the fog of jet lag. I got back to Cairo a few days ago after spending a week in New York and Philadelphia for my 25th college reunion. It was fantastic fun and great to get a little break from Cairo.

I had a hard start back in Cairo. We have all the usual end-of-school year stuff to contend with but, as we’re learning, June has an added punch when you have kids in international school: the big goodbye. Both boys have close friends whose families are leaving Egypt when school lets out, so there has been a mad crush of farewell parties on top of the normal schedule of year-end concerts and plays and conferences.

A few days after I got back we threw a party at our house for one of X’s departing friends—this one returning home to China. Fortunately another mother helped and did the heavy lifting of cooking and baking. We’d recently bought a ping pong table from one of the many leaving families, which we had delivered the day before the party, so the kids were taken care of. We just pushed them outside and they played in the garden and had a ping pong tournament. I don’t know what I’m going to do when we’re back in an apartment without a yard. It makes entertaining the boys so much easier.

The glut of families moving on has given us the opportunity to further furnish the apartment. Right before I left I made a mad dash to get it in better shape for O’s parents, who came to visit while I was away. I had a carpenter come put shelves up (they’re falling down now, probably a function of our uneven walls as much as anything), had him build an extra closet and bought a little commode so there would be a bit more storage in the guest room. Oh, and we bought a big sideboard for the living room and moved the one there to the dining room so we have room for glasses and platters and the like.

But I still need more, so have been scouring the moving sales. It’s madness. There are two main Facebook pages where expats in my neighborhood post things for sale, one in English and the other in French. For a couple of days I would see something I liked, take a moment to consider it, and by the time I checked again it would be gone. When I looked more closely I saw that items go within minutes of being posted. Sherif, the carpenter, told me there are a couple of expats who buy everything and sell stuff on that they don’t want, and a few Egyptians who resell whatever they buy from the expats at a profit. So I’m getting aggressive. I did manage to score a lamp and a couple of rugs, which I have yet to pick up, but those were from a friend. By the time I get this place finished, we’ll be getting ready to move again and I’ll have to sell it all.

This is a big week on the political front. As I write this, people are lining up all over Egypt to vote in the presidential elections for General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.  Notice I didn’t just say “vote in the presidential elections.” No, pretty much everyone out there is voting for Sisi. Journalists tweeting from polling stations around Egypt have been hard pressed to find anyone voting for his opponent, Hamdeen Sabahi. One journalist reported finding a Sabahi voter, who was promptly set upon by the crowd upon admitting that he’d done so. Sisi won Egyptian hearts and minds when he pushed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi out of the presidential chair, and he won 95 percent of the expat vote, which took place last week.

Women line up to vote

Women line up to vote

Voting continues today, but the result is a foregone conclusion. The government is worried about the low turnout so declared today a holiday, but with temperatures hitting 108 the polling stations are largely empty. The news reports say that the election committee is going to fine anyone who didn’t go to vote. If you don’t hear from me for a while, assume I’ve gone underground to avoid prosecution.

UPDATE: The election committee reportedly declared a third day of voting. They are determined to get that turnout number up!

Spring Break!

We have boxes. Ninety-one of them, to be exact. What we don’t have is furniture, i.e. anywhere to put all the stuff in said boxes. Which means we have piles of books on the floor and heaps of clothes on the bed in the spare room. All you friends I invited to come visit? Hold off for a couple of weeks or so, unless you want to sleep on mounds of ski jackets. Not that you’ve all been pounding my door down… But fear not. I am finally motivated to deal with our furniture shortage. Somehow it didn’t feel so dire when we didn’t need any more than we had. A couch, beds, a desk—that seemed like enough until now.

Anyway…the boxes got here just in time. We had run out of cat food the day before. Yes, we have been shipping in cat food from New York all these months. (Just ask the few visitors we’ve had, or O’s work colleagues, who have all been kind enough to come bearing pouches of Weruva). Pathetic, I know, but we have the most finicky cats in the world (not that they particularly like the stuff we give them) and our vet in NY said that the grocery store brands that are available here are the nutritional equivalent of feeding our children Doritos all the time.

A friend of mine said when I was done unpacking I’d wonder how l lived without all my stuff. I’m having the opposite reaction. I’m wondering why I have it. I didn’t miss it at all (except maybe the kitchen supplies and the bedding), and now that it’s here I feel weighed down by it. It’s been an interesting experience. I didn’t bring any personal mementos—no photos, no letters, nothing at all that had any nostalgic value. I wasn’t conscious of their absence until the shipment came, but there was a lightness that came from not being tethered to the past. Even the books I’m unpacking, with their memories of where I was when I read them and what was happening in my life at the time, bring with them a certain heaviness.

Boxes!

Boxes!

The stuff arrived a couple of days after we got back from our spring break trip to a resort on the Red Sea called El Gouna. It’s a super-secure gated development about a 30-minute drive from Hurgada, and everything has been meticulously planned out. And I mean planned. There is little that is organic about it. Think Disney on the sea. O said it reminded him of Celebration, the Disney town in Florida. T also drew the Disney comparison. Having grown up on the beaches of Southern California, the uber-groomed vibe wasn’t my cup of tea (and the beaches aren’t particularly nice), but I can see why Egyptians love it. It is the absolute opposite of the rest of the country. Not a chaotic moment to be had.

And it is lovely. There’s a beautiful marina surrounded by restaurants, and a little downtown area with eateries serving some of the best meals we’ve eaten in Egypt (if you go, you must try the superlative Zia Amelia, which is run by a couple of Italians). We chose to go to Gouna for the sailing school. I am now convinced that sailing is best learned in childhood. I loved being on the water but ducking under the boom as we endlessly practiced tacking and jibing was exhausting. O and I both wound up with scraped knees; the boys, on the other hand, had no idea what we were complaining about. They barely had to bend to let the thing pass over their heads.065

We’ve had more adventures with urban wildlife, this time in the form of a baby mongoose that seems to be living somewhere in our back yard. We’ve tried to take a picture of it several times but it’s a bit camera shy. Very cute ,though.

We’ve been ever so slightly more mobile since O leased a car for work. During the week he has a driver who takes him to and from the office and I don’t have much access to it, but on the weekends we drive it around Maadi. Anyone who’s been to Cairo knows how utterly insane driving here is. There are essentially no rules, and those that do exist are unwritten and known only to the cognoscenti, which we most definitely are not. Driving here is so nuts that my father once got yelled at by a police officer for stopping at a red light. I keep wondering where that was. Where we live there are no traffic lights. We confine our driving to the Maadi bubble where it’s really not so difficult; still the car has made it easier for us to explore the outer reaches of our neighborhood.

The blackouts continue, but more randomly now. Sometimes we’ll have two in a day, then we’ll go a few days without one. It makes life exciting, never knowing what activity you’ll be unable to finish. I’m learning to cook in the dark, as long as dinner is already on the stove. I get most nervous when blow drying my hair. I live in fear of being left with a head of hair that’s half straight, half curly. It’d be tough to pull that off. The government promises the outages will get worse during the summer months. I think I might have to break down and get some emergency lighting for the kitchen. Then again, our favorite restaurant just started delivering. Maybe I don’t need to be able to see that stove after all.

Politically, it’s been more of the same. A few more university riots, a couple more bombs, a scattering of marches. Ongoing incidents of violence against Copts, and some tribal warfare in Aswan that left a couple of dozen people dead. It’s amazing what starts to feel normal. Then again, I guess that’s true everywhere. From here, it’s tough to understand how people in the U.S. go on as though nothing has happened after mass shooting after mass shooting.

That’s it for now. Off to unpack some more boxes.

 

 

Are Arab Bombs Deadlier than Irish Bombs?

After the frigid week I had in New York, the no-coat-needed weather of Cairo has been such a relief. We were thinking about taking the kids skiing during their break in April—and we still haven’t ruled it out—but a warm holiday is looking pretty appealing after spending a week in calf-deep slush.

It was good to come back to Cairo. I arrive at the airport with no trepidation at all anymore, which is somewhat ironic, given that it’s far more unstable than it was during the years I felt uncomfortable here. I think some of that is just about familiarity.

I also think that some of the worry my friends have for me, while entirely understandable in light of what they see on the news (and appreciated), has to do with a distrust of the Arab world. I had dinner with some friends in January who refused to accept my assertion that I was probably safer in our cloistered expat neighborhood in Cairo than we were in Tribeca. But there is no question; we live surrounded by security guards and police officers.

And yet, my friends in New York—who have never been here—feel firm in their conviction that we are not safe. The funny thing is, I didn’t get any of that concern from friends when I moved to London in the early 1990s, and the truth is I felt far less safe there. I was always antsy about IRA bombings and was really shaken by the one instance in which we had to evacuate a restaurant.

That feeling was based on fact. Statistically, I was in more danger there than I am here. During the 1990s, eight civilians were killed in London alone, and many more people were injured. Over the 30 years of the Troubles, at least 650 civilians were killed. The IRA set off bombs in pubs, department stores, shopping centers, subway stations and on busy roadways. There was no way to know what their target might be and when they might choose to strike. Yes, Egypt could still deteriorate that far, but it hasn’t yet. For the time being, I live with less anxiety about terrorism here than I did in London. I’m just careful about where I go. And at least here I know what kind of places to avoid.

None of that is to say I’m not worried about the turn things seem to be taking. I am, and I don’t understand why the government continues to focus on the Muslim Brotherhood and has said next to nothing about Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the Sinai-based terrorist group that has taken responsibility for nearly all the recent bombings. They keep trying to reassure tourists that they are still safe in Egypt. It seems to me visitors would glean far more comfort from the arrests of the perpetrators than they would from empty promises.

I admit, I expected my kids to be shaken by the bombings, but they aren’t worried at all. Their little world is so safe and secure that the danger feels far removed. T says he feels far more at ease here than he did in New York because there he worried about random violence, while here it is more predictable (no school or movie-theater shootings, for example). The school canceled a trip T’s grade was supposed to take to the Red Sea for security reasons, and his only reaction was disappointment. The boys continue to insist that they want to stay here longer than the planned two years. For now, though, I’m sticking to the timetable.

The trial of the Al Jazeera journalists and their 17 co-defendants (some of whom have complained of torture) started this week, and was then abruptly postponed until March 5. The whole thing is a joke, and a travesty. Other journalists who have worked with the Al Jazeera crew at news organizations such as CNN and NBC have attested to their professionalism, and the heads of some of the most prestigious news outlets in the world published an open letter criticizing the prosecutions. Frankly, I can’t figure out why the hell the government thinks prosecuting these people—some of whom have hardly spent any time in Egypt at all—is a good idea. Egypt is being ridiculed the world over and there is not a discerning mind out there that believes these guys are actually Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers.

Egypt today is unquestionably more repressive than the Soviet Union was during its final years, when I lived there. And at least there you knew the rules. Here no one seems to know what they are—including the people charged with enforcing them. Journalists have spent the past two months repeatedly asking if it is illegal to interview a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and no one in authority has yet to give a clear answer. What kind of government doesn’t know its own laws, and how on earth are people supposed to adhere to them if they don’t know what they are?

Things tick along slowly on the domestic front. We are the proud owners of a coffee table. It doesn’t match the TV console, which we will convert to a buffet in the dining room, but now we are left looking for a new TV console. It never ends. At least our dining room table is on its way over from New York. There’s one furniture decision I won’t have to make. Although I do think the chairs might need reupholstering…

aj5 aj6 aj3 aj2

Digging In

Our departure from New York became more definitive this week; I flew in on Monday night to move all our personal belongings to Cairo.

It was one hell of a week, and I am glad it’s behind me. I find moving emotionally draining at the best of times; this time I was dealing with it all alone and in terrible weather to boot. I was worried the movers wouldn’t be able to get there with all of the snow, but they managed. So now we’ve taken what we want from our apartment and our storage facility is empty. Our ties to New York are far more tenuous than they were a week ago.338

I’m not at all sure everything will get to us intact, but I don’t know that I really mind. I went to scope out the storage facility the day before the movers came, and was so overwhelmed that I was ready to just leave it all behind. We’ve been living without most of our things for nearly six months now and while there are a few items we could really use (duvets and pillows, for starters) we haven’t missed most of it. Still, I know how this goes, and when it gets to us we’ll be glad to have it and sad about the things that have inevitably broken in transit.

Moving out of storage

Moving out of storage

 

Empty

Empty

Or maybe not. Our perspective is a little different this time. I think being in Egypt, where the standard of living is so vastly different from anywhere else we’ve lived, has changed all of us and our relationships to material goods. We’ll see. I am looking forward to having a proper dining room table, though. When it will all get there is anyone’s guess. It’s scheduled to arrive in Alexandria at the end of March, but then has to clear customs and get shipped to Cairo. I have no idea how long that process will take.

I’m writing this once again from the lounge in CDG while I wait for a flight—this time back to Cairo. I can’t wait to get home, not least for the warm weather. New York was a frigid, slushy mess while I was there, which made the task of moving all the more grim.

Slush

Slush

Not that Cairo doesn’t have its own grim elements. Yesterday a bomb went off on a bus carrying tourists from Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, killing at least three people. The event was tragic in itself and ominous in what it portends. It’s the first bomb in the recent wave of violence that specifically targeted tourists; the previous attacks were directed against police and military forces. The fear is that this signals a new phase in the conflict between Islamists and the government.

Presidential elections are the next step in the roadmap, although a date has still not been set. Many Egyptians believe that General Sisi, who is the presumptive next president of Egypt despite having yet to declare his candidacy, will be able to bring about stability. I’d like to think so but I’m not at all sure it will be that simple, and one can only imagine that the cost of stability will be quite high in terms of human and civil rights.

Okay. Short post this time. I’m wiped out after the overnight flight and have some duty-free shopping to do.

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