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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.

Machinations

The kids’ school applications are finished and I’m headed to Cairo in a couple of weeks to look at houses. I’m going with my father because he is the best bargainer I have ever known and I am well aware that my lack of Arabic will mean I’ll wind up paying double what he would. He’s being kind enough to come with me and help me house hunt, even though he thinks I’m nuts to be taking the kids to Egypt. He called the other day while our Arabic teacher was here and asked the professor to talk me out of going.

He’s not the only one. I’ve been meeting with Copts in the New York area for a story I was reporting for the New York Times Metropolitan section, and the consensus seems to be that I’m out of my mind. The reaction when I tell people I’m moving ranges from utter disbelief to real concern. Which I appreciate. Truly. I just think that Egyptian Christians are—understandably—so fearful about what the rise of the Brotherhood means for them, that perhaps they lose sight of the parts of daily life in Egypt that continue normally. And I get it, believe me. I was terrified the one time I was harassed there and couldn’t wait to leave. As a Times reporter who lived in Cairo for ages said to me: “Do I think you’re okay moving to Cairo? Sure. If I was your Coptic aunt, would I tell you not to come? Absolutely.”

On the upside, the word of my move has been filtering out among our more international friends, many of whom know people working in various jobs in Cairo. Although I already have one or two friends there and a handful of acquaintances, it’s nice to know that there is a pool of people I’ll be able to get in touch with on arrival. I love that part of expat life—many of my closest friends are people I met while living overseas. And, according to our friends here, the people they know in Cairo still seem to be enjoying themselves, despite the instability.

The kids seem to be dealing with the move in different ways. T has a friend who was in Cairo over the break and went to see the school the boys will—hopefully—be going to. Apparently it was so amazing that he’s launched his own campaign to persuade his parents to move to Cairo, which has T feeling gung-ho about the whole thing—provided I find a house where he can put up a basketball hoop. X is still adamant that he doesn’t want to go, and is pretty anxious about it, but we’re learning that underneath that carefree and blustery exterior is a worried kid. So we’ll need to carefully manage him, but it looks as though he needs some extra attention and thought regardless of where we’re living. I’m still convinced that this will be an enriching experience for both of them.

Beginnings

A couple of months ago, I had an epiphany. “I think I need to move to Cairo,” I told my husband, Oliver, while squeezing Colgate onto my toothbrush.

Oliver thought the move makes perfect sense. Pretty much everyone I’ve told since has thought I am insane.

By way of background: I’ve been working on a book about Egypt’s Coptic community, the Orthodox Christian minority there, for nearly two years, visiting Egypt every six months or so. But the situation in Egypt is so fluid, and things are changing so quickly, it’s nearly impossible to report a book remotely. I felt I needed to be there. What’s more, tensions between Christians and Muslims, which have been heating up for years, have reached a boiling point. This is a critical time for Copts in Egypt—not to mention, Christians throughout the Middle East—and their story needs to be told.

I have personal reasons for wanting to go as well, which I’m leaving intentionally vague at this point. Suffice it to say that I’m at that clichéd place in life: mid-40s, a mother, with 20 years of marriage and a lot of sacrifices for my family under my belt. I decided it was time I made a move that would benefit my career, not just my husband’s.

First, though, I had to sell the idea to my two sons, 12 and 8. Egypt wasn’t quite as foreign to them as it might be to other New York City kids, because my father is Egyptian and I’ve taken the boys to visit his mother in Cairo, although our youngest was only two when he was there. Plus, they are space-starved Manhattan kids, so all I had to do was promise them we could live in a house or ground-floor apartment with a back yard where they could erect a basketball hoop. Once a place to play ball was on the table, I could have been suggesting a move to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan for all they cared.

That’s not to say they don’t have their concerns. They’re worried of course, about leaving their friends, and they catch news reports about the various riots and killings that are plaguing Egypt these days. Overall, though, they seem to accept our assurances that we will be living in the safety of the expat bubble and going to a well-secured school.

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