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Posts tagged ‘Kids’

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.

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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.

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.

Logistics

My dad arrives in New York today. He’ll spend a few days here with the kids before we leave for Cairo (via a couple of days in Paris). I’m looking forward to ticking a few more things off the to-do list.

In the past week I spoke to someone at the Community Services Association in Maadi, the neighborhood where we plan to live. The CSA is a community center for expats and the person I talked with told me that they would be a great resource for me in my house hunt. A lot of people find places through word of mouth, she explained. I plan on making them one of my first stops.

I’ve also been in touch with a couple of brokers, so I’ve got that side of things covered as well. It’s still a little tough to know exactly what price range to look in because we don’t know if Oliver will be coming or not, but I figure that, at the very least, I’ll get a feel for the marketplace.

I’ve got an appointment with the admissions director at the school we want the kids to go to. I’m looking forward to seeing it. I keep meeting people who went there and rave about it. Last weekend I was getting my hair cut and telling my stylist about our move. A guy who works in the salon and overheard our conversation told me he’d gone to that school for a few years when he was a kid and he considered them some of the best of his life. I also managed to talk to the former headmaster, who now runs the school a friend’s kids go to here in New York, and he assured me that the academics are strong.

Unfortunately, it seems we’re going during a big vacation week, so several of the people I’d like to see are going to be out of town. On the upside, we arrive in Cairo the day before Orthodox Easter, so we’ll be able to celebrate with the family. I always like being there for the big Coptic holidays. Even though the rituals are foreign to me, they’re so beautiful that I love being able to watch them. And I’m looking forward to seeing my grandmother, who rarely leaves the house and is lonely. I’m happy the kids will have the chance to get to know her.

We showed the apartment here in NYC to a neighborhood parent today, and it looks like he wants to sublet it with the furniture, so that’ll make packing up much easier than it otherwise would have been. There are still a lot of unanswered questions, but it feels as though things are moving forward. I’m starting to feel the time pressure, though. I’m planning on moving in a little over three months and as of this moment we have no house, no school and no jobs. We have yet to sort out the logistics of getting our stuff out of the place here and into a place there, and deal with whatever visas we need and all the paperwork of transporting the cats. I’m hoping that by the time I get back from Cairo I’ll have resolution on some of these things.

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