I love going to work in the morning.
Not only because I love my job, but because my trip there (only 20 minutes!) is always filled with interesting sightings and people. Whether an especially precarious load atop someone’s head on a bicycle, clothes waving in the wind or half-understood conversations with the neighborhood tawla champ or a fruit-seller, my walk is never dull. The short journey is always filled with waves, smiles and sabah el-khair (good morning).
As I become more comfortable with the sights and sounds, I increasingly notice how beautiful and unexpected things are around every corner.
I feel like I could walk this way my whole life, and something new would draw my attention each time.
Cutting through the alleys, I stall to gaze at an unexpected courtyard, a nursery? with flowers painted on the walls, men polishing elegant furniture, or knots of garlic or bright clothes catching the sunlight.
I talk about Cairo a lot to friends and family across the world. I want to convey my passion, the beauty, the community, the ‘differentness.’ But there’s only so much words can say.
So today, enjoy the walk with me!
I never expected to confront ice in Cairo.
Yet here I am at 11 a.m. On a Friday morning (equivalent to a U.S. Saturday) madly hacking away at a mound of it, filling up my sink with frozen chips and mopping up its watery remains from my kitchen floor.
It all started the very day I moved into my apartment. I couldn’t tell you the nature of the problem, but a couple men were standing around the kitchen do some repair work on our fridge.
After they left we (AJ, his friend and I) stood in the kitchen, examining a suspicious black rubber strip abandoned against the wall. It seemed to be the suction, which should keep the fridge properly shut. Predictably the fridge wasn’t quite sealing when we shut it.
AJ, having the advantage of speaking Arabic quite well and being male, sighed in disgust and said something about telling the landlord to hire new repair guys.
That was that. The fridge seemed to serve it’s purpose for me and I didn’t think much of it until a couple weeks later.
Karen and I were hanging in the kitchen, cooking dinner and chatting.
I thought AJ ate my chocolate, she said, and I was really annoyed because he used to eat it all the time.
And then I realized the ice ate it.
The ice in the fridge ate your chocolate?
Yeah, look, I can see it.
She opened the fridge and pointed to the back. A chunk of ice was growing from the top of our fridge and expanding outward. We could see the chocolate wrapper, helplessly enveloped in the thick cold block.
From that day on we watched the ice grow, putting big things in its path to slow it’s progress.
Both AJ and Karen left last week. (Karen back to Germany and AJ for three weeks in the States)
Before leaving AJ wisely advised me to stop buying food.
After Karen leaves, because she’s the one who has the most food in there, we’ll have to take care of that ice, he said.
He started explaining something about condensation, pressure and air flows, but interrupted himself.
You’re a smart girl. You know all that physics.
Sadly, AJ didn’t get the dates right.
Karen and AJ left the same day, leaving the ice and I the sole growing inhabitants in our flat.
Last night, over some delicious Eritrean food, airconditioner repairs (another humorous subject) came up.
“What about I refrigerator repairman? I think I need one,” I confessed. “Yesterday the ice ate some jelly.”
To my surprise my refrigerator saga was not quite as unique as I thought.
The same thing happened to my fridge in San Francisco, my legal director, Stephanie, said. Someone said their old fridge in Cairo used to do the same thing.
Apparently from NY, DC and Boston, I’ve lived a sheltered-fridge-life.
The advice: chip as much as you please away and let the rest melt.
As I hammer away at the block of ice, I close my eyes as cool chips fly in all directions. It’s really quite refreshing.
And who knows.
Maybe I’ll even get some chocolate out of the deal.
It was one of those lazy Saturday mornings when I didn’t have anywhere to be until 12:00pm. (The work week in Egypt is Sunday-Thursday).
I woke up around 9 a.m., had a delicious green breakfast, read and looked over Arabic for an hour.
Food somewhat digested, it felt like yoga time.
Every time I want to exercise at home (There are cheap men-only gyms down the street) I always face the same dilemma.
The space is in the living room but the air-conditioning is in my bedroom.
After doing a couple crowded vinaysas between my bed and window, I decided to take action.
If I rotated and moved my bed so it is under the window I would have room for my yoga matt between the foot of my bed and desk.
Deciding to trust my eyes, I gave my bed a shove toward it’s new home.
It didn’t budge.
I took off the mattress, under which I found wood planks. I removed those too.
A pile of old plastic suitcases, decaying taped boxes, an ab table and old projector greeted me.
Everything was coated in a layer of thick dust and moth balls.
I tried to push the bed-frame with the stuff inside.
It only slid slightly.
I removed the boxes and suitcases, one fell open to reveal a collection of shoes. I picked up a pair of cute red heels, clots of sand fell out, and the inside was filled with grime and mold. The more stuff I moved the more I found…a rusty old knife a tin filled with keys and a couple other metal things I couldn’t identify.
Things to the side I pushed the bed to its new window-front home.
Unfortunately the precarious wooden bed frame suffered on the journey.
The same thing happened to me last year, in an apartment I subletted in Washington DC.
But in DC it was a new Ikea frame where the parts snapped into place.
Now I was dealing with a heavy wooden frame, tired nails and a whole lot of junk jostling for space under the planks. I put the bed back together and was ready to call it a day.
The sideboard fell off and my mattress sunk ominously on the left side.
The fun continued a few hours later when a couple of my friends stopped by. The loose boards were soon thrown to the side as the guys explored the mounds of under-bed crap.
They were especially fascinated by boxes of bullets and old rusty knife.
They debated wether my landlord was a thief or in the military, as I claimed.
After a while they put the bed back together, in slightly better order than I had.
The only item that made the cut for staying above mattress was the ab rack.
After doing a couple obstacle-free vinyaysas this morning I went to Arabic class and checked my email.
“knives under your bed? really?” My Mom wrote. I’m all for it if you need to but I’m worried if you need to.”
She had seen a comment on my Facebook wall and didn’t have the context.
Funny that my Mom thought I needed to sleep with knives under my bed in Cairo? Crazy that she wasn’t more concerned? A failure of my blog there is cause for such concern? A success that she thinks it will all work out here? Awesome that she trusts me to use knives so well?
Ehh…there they will remain.
After all the kindness our Iraqi friends had show us, and maybe because we were so far from the U.S., Steph and I got an unexpected wind of patriotism.
We wanted to show Egypt how Americans celebrate Independence Day.
Without a BBQ in sight, we decided to cook up a feast at my apartment and bring it to Al-Azhar park–the greenest place I know in Cairo.
We drafted the menu in the micro-bus on our way home from the 6th of October.
Green salad, fruit salad, a pesto pasta, hummus, baba-ghanoush, bread, mashed potatoes, Lousi’s(a co-worker) got the fish, chocolate chip cookies and apple pie.
We’d get a Frisbee and toss that around too.
The morning of the 4th found me off to the market, stocking up on supplies for our cookathon.
Steph was bringing processed ingredients, like chocolate chips and salad dressing from the grocery store in Zamalek. I was picking the fresh stuff from the markets surrounding my place.
Fruit and veggies in hand, I confronted the challenge of pesto. We knew we probably couldn’t find basil, so anything green and fresh looking was a contestant.
“Aye ida?” (What’s this?) I asked a woman selling something, which looked green and rather fabulous.
The irony of learning Arabic is, as long as I have to ask what something is, I probably won’t understand the answer. This green plant, was clearly not in my vocabulary.
She told me it was, “helwa, helwa owi,” very great.
Off I went with it.
Back in my apartment we confronted another problem.
Hey Karen….do you know if the stove worked? I asked my roommate.
She hadn’t used it, AJ hadn’t either. We tried to light it with no luck.
Hey Louis, I called my coworker, can we come over and use your stove? You can cook the fish there too.
I just checked and there’s a sign on my stove, which says do not use.
You never used your stove? ( Did you ever go in your kitchen!?)
Oh boys, oh appliances in Cairo.
Steph is our legal director for good reason.
Why don’t you make them on the burner like pancakes? She suggested.
I poured a bit in a pot on top of the stove. The bottom began to burn, the middle wasn’t cooking.
I poured the rest of the batter in. I grabbed the spatula.
I mixed and cut until the batter was cooked and then pressed the thoroughly chocolately substance into a baking dish, which I put in the freezer.
Obviously we pre-empted and tasted a bit. We were all fans.
Meanwhile, Steph was busy playing with the leafy greens in the blender.
One was turnip the other, something extremely bitter.
We added limes sugar, cheese and tomatoes, mixed it into the pasta and fed it to my roommate AJ.
How do you like it?
He told us was delicious and tasted grassy.
By grassy do you mean fresh? Hmmm…
We dismantled our dishes into tubber-ware containers and headed off to the park.
To be continued as 4th part II
Lately it’s been easy getting caught up in the excitement of now and not take the time to jot moments down.
Work is busy–it’s a small office and the biggest limit to the work I do is my own time and commitment.
Outside of work, often with co-workers, has been busy too.
It is only about to get busier in the next couple days. Today I visited an Arabic language school and tomorrow morning, before work, I’ll try out a class.
There are times when I feel like a hopeless foreigner here. Earlier today a man told me I could follow him across the street today because he thought I was scared to cross. A man in the market tried to charge me double for a watermelon–a boy–presumably his son, laughed when he father named the price. And, I could live here my whole life and passerbys would still smile and say “Welcome to Egypt.”
Despite-maybe partly because of the accustomed normalcy of it, I feel comfortable and really happy here. The constant reminders I am a foreigner seem superficial–part of the same touristy view of Egypt I rejected long ago. Once the guy realized I didn’t need help crossing the street, he talked on and on to me in Arabic, his English was good but he could tell I wanted to practice.
My apartment is quirky and perfect. We have a picture of a dancer which lights up on the wall and a secret stuffed animal in a drawer under the TV (which currently doesn’t work). I’ve already blown out the fuse in the kitchen by plugging in my computer and learned the anatomy of toilet plumbing, thanks to ghetto strings which hold the contraption together and easily fall out of place. Our washing machine has a pipe not attached to anything. The dirty water cascades onto the floor, inevitably flooding AJ’s bathroom each time we want clean clothes.
Sayida Zenab mosque, lit up each night stands out like a carnival among the endless tan buildings. We have air-conditioners in our bedrooms but half the time I don’t t flick the switch.
Breeze blows through our vast windows keeping the apartment relatively comfortable, plus, I love the sound of the traffic, life on the street and call to prayer drifting up 12 stories.
I was going to fill in some of my adventures–a visit to Iraqi friends houses, a very international 4th of July, what it’s like being a woman in the streets–a take on the recent New York Times article.
That, however, will have to wait until another day. As usual, the moment has taken precendee over writing and it is far too late.
Walking out my door there are people everywhere. They’re buying shoes, eating kosheri and rice pudding with coconut. They’re buying handful sized portions of nuts for a pound and talking loudly in Arabic.
The street is filled with cars all beeping as they fight to get past and avoid hitting the plethora of bodies moving every which way.
My new roommate, AJ, is taking me for an introductory walk around neighborhood, Mounira. It’s a short walk from Tahrir Square–the center from downtown and on the border of one of Cairo’s poorest quarters.
There’s a market across the street. Food and home-stuff seems to be the loose theme of the place.
We make our way through stand after stand of fruits and vegetables, kitchen supplies, stands of flip flops and unidentifiable parts of bloody cows.
The prices are ridiculously low–4 guineas for a kilo of grapes or bananas, 1 or 2 for that much cucumbers.
AJ points out a stand only selling clothespin–probably a lucrative business since no one in Cairo seems to bother with dryers.
AJ knows boys in the streets, cafe owners and a guy who happens to drive by.
I stand out around here, he answers my question. You’ll know them soon too.
He has a “nut man” we visit and I buy the same seed the girl gave me at the soccer game weeks ago. I learn they’re called lips.
The juice man isn’t in. Next time.
I meet the Bowab-the guy who sits downstairs monitoring the building. AJ says he’s usually hard on new people the first couple weeks but he chills out, especially if you slip him 5 pounds ($1).
When I go out later alone he jabbers away in a lot of Arabic, of which I only get the gist.
I venture out to buy sheets for my bed and some fruit for the morning.
No one speaks English around here so I have fun trying to be understood.
If find some sheets in the market which are slightly less obnoxious than the rest. I decide to buy some fruit first.
When I come back the store with the ones I like is closed so I settle for some next store.
I’m not really sure what I’m buying but the man tells me there are two sheets, pillow cases and it’s big. It costs less than $6 American.
He asks me if I’m Italian and I tell him I’m American.
How many Americans do you know, I ask? He tells me 5,000. I’m not sure if he doesn’t understand, he’s joking or just trying to convey a lot, which I find hard to believe.
I walk home past the Sayeeda Zeinab Mosque where lights are flashing and many are loitering.
Earlier AJ pointed out our 12th floor window.
You moved in at a difficult time.
See those red blankets? That’s the beginning.
Over the next couple weeks supposedly up to 1 million people will converge in our cozy neighborhood for a Moulid of Sayeeda Zeinab, Prophet Muhamed’s granddaughter. Moulid means birthday and apparently Sayeeda’s is quite a popular one.
Where will they all stay? I asked.
The street alleys, etc AJ said.
Sufi dancing, great food and markets and tourists, who for once are Egyptians from other regions, not me?
I just went to take a picture of the sight from the living room window.
Another surprise greeted me.
First I noticed a bright one straight in front. I stuck my head out and looked up.
By standards elsewhere, they might not impress, but here is not those places.
I haven’t seen stars since Syria.