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Dining with History

Autumn has come to Cairo.

Looking at all the glorious photos of fall foliage in the Northeast of the U.S., it feels a little silly saying that, but there’s been a little nip in the air. Sure, the daily highs are still in the mid-70s or low 80s, but at night it’s been dipping into the low 60s. That feels colder here than it sounds. Air conditioners are off and it’s too chilly to walk barefoot in the house. Last night on the way to dinner I left my sweater in the cab, and I regretted it the rest of the evening.

I’ve been following through on my resolution to get out of the bubble more, and last night’s dinner was part of that. Friends of a friend from New York were passing through Egypt on a three-month round-the-world trip, so we met up at a storied establishment in the heart of Belle Epoque Cairo called Café Riche. It opened in 1908 and has been a haunt of Cairo’s intellectuals ever since.

The whole vibe is very un-Cairo. With its wood-paneled walls; its faded black-and-white photos of Cairo’s most influential cultural figures; its scattered disarray of books, papers and random memorabilia; and the klatch of old men gabbing over steaming plates, Café Riche feels a bit like a cross between the Friar’s Club and Barney Greengrass, for those of you who know New York. The night we were there, it felt like almost everyone else in the restaurant was a regular.

Café Riche has been the backdrop of many a seminal event in Egyptian history. An assassination attempt on the Prime Minister was staged from its doorway in 1919 (he survived). That same year, revolutionaries used the basement as a secret meeting space from which they agitated for the overthrow of their British rulers, and in 1952 Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser plotted his own coup from the comfort of a Riche table, this one against King Farouk, who reportedly met his wife at the coffeehouse. And Egypt’s favorite songbird, Umm Kalthoum once held a concert there.

The days when famous writers such as Naguib Mahfouz could be found loitering over Turkish coffee are gone, but the tables are still populated with a cast of fascinating characters. We were having an entertaining conversation of our own at our table, but I would have loved to have been able to talk to some of the other guests. I have a hunch many of the same people would be there if I ever manage to make a repeat visit. That is definitely now on my to-do list.

I fear I may have to erase another item on that list, though. I’ve been wanting to go camping with the kids in the White Desert, which looks absolutely stunning. A while ago one of the embassies issued a warning about going there, and this week Egypt’s most active militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, swore allegiance to ISIS. That can’t be good. The desert may well be perfectly safe, but I’m going to watch this one play out for a while before I dust off my sleeping bag.

We never did make it up to Alexandria, and with the holidays coming up our weekends are pretty packed. It looks like we might have to wait until spring. That’s okay. There’s plenty to explore in Cairo in the meantime.

The Perfect Year-Two Week

Last week was a fantastic week—and exactly the kind that fuels my belief that one year in a foreign country is not enough. It was the kind of week that comes only after you really have your bearings in a place.

The fun started on Tuesday night, when I went to meet a friend for drinks at a rooftop bar in Dokki, a neighborhood across the river from downtown Cairo. I hailed a cab off the street to get there, and the driver didn’t speak a word of English. Nevertheless, we chatted—in Arabic—the whole way up. That marks a milestone for me, although in truth I didn’t understand half of what he said. Still, I spoke enough to be able to have a conversation entirely in Arabic, which felt great

The bar was lovely. It was on top of a hotel, but not one of the fancy Western hotels, so there were plenty of Egyptians in the mix, including a woman who was wearing hijab and smoking shisha and drinking beer. Talk about mixed signals.

I guess that’s to be expected, though. Mixed signals are everywhere here. I’ve been watching more Egyptian TV, and the more of “real” Egypt I’m exposed to, the more confusing this place becomes, especially around anything involving sexuality.

Take the advertisements. During one commercial break there were two ads. In the first, a woman peddling water coolers was dressed in head-to-toe white satin, including her hijab. In her snowy, sparkly dress she looked like a very modest bride, although as far as I could tell there was nothing bridal about the ad. I suppose she was meant to be the picture of purity. The second ad, on the other hand, was for a fruit soda of some sort, this time being peddled by a group of buff, shirtless young men and attractive bikini-clad women splashing around together on a beach—a scene you would never see in Egypt.

And then there was the show itself, Heba Regl el-Ghorab, which my Arabic teacher told me means Heba, Crow Legs (although articles about the show say it means “Unfortunate Heba”). It’s the Egyptian version of Ugly Betty. I watch it because I can understand more of the Arabic in it than on any other show, which still is only about half. Even if I understood every word, though, I’d still find it confounding.

The show is set in a fashion house, and the women dress like they would anywhere in the U.S. or Europe. They wear skirts that hit above the knee and sleeveless tops—clothes that certainly don’t resemble the attire of ordinary Egyptian women, even the most Westernized. If you go to a party here you’ll see sexy dresses, and women will often wear sleeveless tops if they’re not walking on the street, but you don’t tend to see a lot of short skirts.  I find it interesting that the media here doesn’t reflect the reality of daily life—not even the lives of the privileged. Yes, television in the U.S. is aspirational, but the idealized world depicted there still has some connection to reality. That’s much less the case here, at least from the little bit of television I’ve watched.

General attitudes about sex are no less confusing. There have been a few articles of late dealing with the topic (including this fascinating one by the New Yorker’s Peter Hessler), and they portray a country utterly obsessed. At the same time, I’ve never lived anywhere so repressed. It makes the evangelical community of my youth look downright libertine.  And yes, I realize that we’re looking at cause and effect, although you’d meet a lot of Egyptians here—probably even a majority—that would argue the opposite.

Anyway, I digress. Back to last week, which was topped by a magical night at the Cairo Opera House. The boys’ violin teacher had given us tickets to a concert by Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica chamber orchestra. I had seen him before and had been mesmerized by his skill, so was looking forward to seeing him perform again. I was happy the boys were going to hear such a virtuoso, and was hoping Kremer would inspire them in their own violin practice.

What I didn’t anticipate was how much fun the performance would be and how much the boys would enjoy it. The first piece was a movement of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” (Summer) with an incredible vibraphone solo. That was followed by Piazzolla’s “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,” a delightful and amusing set of four tango compositions (this according to Wikipedia) that incorporate themes from Vivaldi. Finally, after the intermission, we were treated to Philip Glass’ “The American Four Seasons,” which was accompanied by a beautiful avant-garde video, rendering the experience reminiscent of Koyaanisqatsi, which I happen to love.

The whole thing was profoundly moving—so much so that I was almost brought to tears. I say almost because it was impossible to entirely lose myself in the experience when half the audience was on their smartphones the whole time. The woman next to me was chatting until I glared at her, but throughout the concert hall you could see the glare of blue screens. A guy a few seats down was playing video games. Absolutely maddening. Like so much in Cairo. And yet, somehow that is part of its charm.

Routine Drama

We’ve been back in Cairo for just over a week and Paris already seems a lifetime away. I think adjusting to the difference in food was the toughest for all of us.

Not that we’re not happy to be back. We are, very much, but I’m glad the trip—as wonderful as it was—is behind us. Now we can focus on life here. I keep thinking about how little time we have left, but I came across a photo of the day our boxes arrived from New York and realized that was only six months ago. It feels like ages. So there’s plenty we can do and experience in the 10 or so months we have left. I’m looking forward to it.

We’re in the midst of a typically Cairene experience, and one we’ve had before. We’re in deep with another stray kitten. He’s adorable, but would have been impossible to ignore anyway, circling my front yard with the loudest and most incessant meow I’ve ever heard. I got the vet to come examine him, because I was worried he was going blind in one eye (you’ve gotta love a vet who makes house calls). He said the kitten, a little ginger fellow who the boys call Rocky and the gardener calls mesh mesh (apricot) was about 5 weeks old and has a type of herpes virus in his eye that is common in street cats, and gave me a prescription for drops. The vet also said that the non-stop mewling was an SOS call, and that Rocky must have lost his mother. Poor little guy.

We set up a little home for him in our laundry shed. There’s a pipe that he can go through to get in and out. So can the other two kittens I’ve been feeding, who are a few months older than Rocky. At first I was worried they were going to take his food from him, but they seem to have taken him under their wing. And not only for the good. The first couple of days Rocky stayed close to the house, but then we found him wandering down the street with one of the bigger kittens. They’re already taking our sweet little guy out on the town and teaching him the ways of the world. They grow up so fast these days.

Trouble is, now it’s been two days and he hasn’t come back. O swears he saw him at the house across the street, where they put out tons of food each day, and the bawab tells me the same thing. I hope they’re right. I just want to give him his eye medicine.

Things in Egypt continue as usual. Life continues to feel pretty normal, but there are tensions bubbling below the surface that seem destined to flare up at some point. There was a bombing downtown, and 12 people were injured. The bomb went off at midnight, so I suppose it could have been much worse.

The government continues to keep the Al Jazeera journalists and many activists in jail, and some of them are on a continued hunger strike. One young man, who has dual Egyptian-American citizenship, is seriously ill and it seems as though he could die soon. The government doesn’t seem inclined to do anything about it. So the military regime is back in full force.

On the other hand, Egypt does feel considerably more stable, although with the current levels of repression you have to wonder how long that can last. In any case, foreign companies are showing renewed interest in expanding here. There’s a delegation of US businesses set to come next month to explore opportunities for investment, and the word is that tourism is picking up. Egyptians, for the most part, are just happy to have a return to normalcy.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the as-yet-unscheduled parliamentary elections. I saw a news story today predicting that the new parliament will be dominated by military types; I see no reason to assume that won’t be the case.  There is still no party nearly as powerful and as organized as the Brotherhood was, so with them out of the picture Egypt is looking at a political vacuum.

CAT UPDATE:

After nearly two days with no Rocky sighting, I think I saw him across the street last night practicing climbing trees, although it was dark so I couldn’t be sure. The kitten I saw was with what appeared to be its mother, and when I approached him the mother growled at me. I tried to get a look at his eye. It seemed to be okay but I couldn’t really tell. Some locals had staged a TNR (trap, neuter, release) campaign recently, so it’s possible the mother got caught up in that and just found her way home.

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.

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

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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

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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