My memory is either really horrible or I am fabulous at living in the moment because I don’t recall my first few weeks in Egypt. Maybe the challenge of integrating into a new culture blurs my memory.
That’s how it works with motherhood, too, you know. Those first few months (and sometimes years) of sleeplessness and crying and constant diaper crises create a stress-induced fog of amnesia. The only memories that surface are those truly unique moments: Liz’ first steps, that awful ER visit that required stitches to Ben’s head and the time Sam voluntarily gave up his pacifier when I told him it wasn’t good for his teeth.
Lest another pleasant day depart to the fog that is my memory, I catalog here a day in Cairo with friends, Jessica and Sandro.
We began by eating brunch in Maadi at Marney’s. The food is fresh and tasty—they specialize in waffles, both savory and sweet, but I’m mostly impressed that I can find good vegetarian options that don’t consist solely of pasta and green peppers.
Satisfied with my fresh orange juice and omelet, we set off in Sandro’s car for the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.
Driving in Cairo reminds me a bit of the video game Frogger on fast speed combined with Tetris. Of course, when I’m a pedestrian trying to cross a busy road the perspective is less of a metaphor and more of a back-brain, cortisol-inducing Darwinian exercise.
The only further thing I'm going to say about traffic in Cairo (because that could take up pages of comments and lots of swearing) is that these tri-wheelers make me laugh.
And this bicyclist is my hero.
I didn’t think too much of the parking garage underneath the plaza in front of the museum, but Sandro (Italian-Egyptian) and Jessica (Australian expat who has lived in Cairo for four years) could not stop exclaiming over the modernity of the automated parking attendant that dispensed a green chip that allowed the barrier to rise and the car to enter the depths. The fact of the underground garage was sufficient to delight Sandro, but he couldn't stop talking about the automated attendant.
Before we could enter the garage, though, German shepherds sniffed the car and men opened the trunk. I don’t even recall how many times my bag was searched. Maybe three? That--and metal detectors--are simply a part of life here. The only place in the USA where I am subjected to this kind of scrutiny is the airport—I still find it a bit unnerving.
Built in the 1860s, the architecture of the museum is amazing. The inside has suffered from years of use apparently without years of cleaning. I was sad to see the skylights at the top were obscured in dirt and the paint was peeling from many surfaces. However, the sheer volume and size of antiquities takes your breath away. Truly amazing carvings, statues, mummies, and masks. I viewed the Rosetta Stone in the British museum, but I saw far more physically impressive stone tablets here. It is hard to describe the magnificence of this collection. It is also highly accessible. You can touch it—I mean you aren’t supposed to--but everything is right there and it is hard not to. I refrained (except in one instance) but it was clear that not many others had the same forbearance.
We walked past the American University of Cairo (I longed to enter their beautiful campus but our day was already packed), to a breezy café, Oldish. I was delighted with their doors.
Beneath a palm tree, we enjoyed the open, fresh air and mango smoothies (except I had a watermelon one because I’m a Texas gal). We waited 45 minutes for French fries to satisfy our salt craving. I seem to always need salt here and fries are my conduit of choice.
Next was the outdoor marketplace that I would call a second-hand flea market. Enormous racks of clothes, blankets, pita bread, pretzels, shoes, purses fill the streets crowded with people, mopeds, cars, bicycles, push carts. I would have like to stop and shop but mostly we were swept along in the press of humanity. Afternoon is not the time to shop, and Jessica admitted she had never seen it so crowded.
Not tired enough to go home, we drove to Khan el-Khalili. This souq reminds me of the many walled castle-villages that I visited in Europe. The outer moat, the beautiful structures, and the stone streets lined with quaint shops. Compared to most of the rest of Cairo this place is pristine.
The Khan has been a marketplace since the 1300s but the current buildings were built mostly in the early 1500s. Although it is a touristic spot, much of the crowd appeared to be Egyptian. The man next to me at a shisha café, told me he worked for a toy company manufacturer. He apologized for the blowing smoke and asked where I was from. I told him Cairo (he he). But before you lived in Cairo—he asked. I told him Chicago and he said he’d been to the convention center there. Such a small world. He purchased a few songs from a musician who was walking by with an oud, which is a kind of a pear-shaped stringed instrument with three holes in the face.
The musician sang a few songs. A deep contentment settled in my belly while, borne upon an ancient language, soft music surrounded me. The cool evening breeze wafted through the darkening passage and my new friends drank sweet hot tea with mint as I sat inches from a soft-spoken man who welcomed me to his country.