Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Fish Lights

If it is true that the first step in understanding a country is to smell it, then I am making some progress here.

Cairo is filled with many wonderful and exotic (to my nose) scents. Musky incense burning in the tiny, almost cave-like shops that dot the streets. Rich spices like cardamom, bay leaves, cinnamon, cumin and nutmeg simmering in a pots of koshari or baked into an infinite variety of plentiful phillo-based pastries. Fresh mint in mugs of sweet hot tea. Juicy oranges, ripe bananas and tiny local lemons at the corner market or peddled from a basket on a bicycle.

But mostly Cairo smells like dust. And, for our first week here, inexplicably of fish.

O, who must get his keen sense of smell from me, said it first while we made our inaugural tour through our new apartment. “Why does our hotel smell like fish?” (without our stuff and with Fifi making our beds, it does feel a bit like a hotel ...) Fair question, given that there was none now or recently in our apartment. Perhaps it wafted in from another flat or on the evening breeze that makes Cairo so pleasant during its brief winter? We turned off the lights and went to sleep and the fish smell blew away.

The next day, as I was reconfiguring furniture in our living room, the fish smell was suddenly there again. It hovered above the sofa so heavy that I actually removed the pillows and cushions expecting to find a fillet amongst the stray crumbs and loose change. Not finding a forgotten fish, I shut off the lights and moved on to something else.

And again, reading in the evening. Watching Disney shows with Greek subtitles from the satellite. The real and really stinky stench of fish making us ever queasier and more curious.

Several days later we met an American woman, the friend of a friend who had actually lived in our exact apartment two years earlier. We queried each other with the standard expat questions – where are you from, are you with an oil company or the embassy, how long have you been here, how long will you stay here, when did you get here, where do you live here? She immediately recognized our address as our mutual friend’s former apartment.

“Have you found the Fish Lights,” she asked? I apologized for not having much Arabic yet and asked her to explain these "fishlights" of which she spoke. “The sconces, in your living room, that smell like fish when you turn them on.” Apparently, she became acquainted with our ill-smelling illumination during a belly dancing class that my friend hosted weekly in our apartment’s large living room (or dance floor, as A now calls it). Mystery solved.

The Fish Lights are now permanently in the off position which, along with the enormous APO shipment of candles and reed diffusers I ordered before the case of the foul fish funk was closed, helps keep our place smelling fresh and clean.

With an ever-present back note of dust.

For more pictures, check out my Our Apartment set on Flickr.

/lkm in Cairo

Cecilia, You’re Breaking My Back

It’s no secret that one of the reasons I was so keen for The Husband to get an overseas assignment is so that I could take some time off of work to be with The Lads while they still want to be with me (most of the time), travel and pursue creative and other interests in service of my own mind, body and soul. Or, as my friend Joanne would say, it’s all about me!

Imagine my delight, then, at receiving the Christmas gift from The Husband of an in-home massage. I could tell you that because of the tragically depressed economy here, labor is absurdly inexpensive in Egypt. This is true, but this gift still feels outrageously decadent.

Cairo has a large population of Filipino immigrants, especially women, many of whom come to Egypt to find work in domestic jobs like nannies and housekeepers. Cecilia, my masseuse, is one of these women. Recommended by colleagues of The Husband, Cecilia arrived for my first massage mere days after my arrival in Cairo. The body does not lie; about 30 seconds into my massage, Cecilia fairly screamed – “Madame, you are full of stress.” Oh, Cecilia, you have no idea.

The poverty in Cairo is abject, and so, too, is the gap between the super wealthy and the poor. Here, it’s the 99.999999999%. Civil servants earn the equivalent of a few hundred U.S. dollars a month. Some professionals (doctors, lawyers, engineers…) accept domestic work for expats because the salaries are often higher. Many people work multiple jobs to support themselves and their families.

Painfully, I discovered Cecilia works her multiple jobs concurrently. Just as she had finally exposed a deep-rooted “node” in my lower back, her phone rang loudly. Without explanation or excuse, Cecilia took the call. While my throbbing node and I waited for Cecilia the masseuse, Cecilia the real estate agent made several appointments to show an apartment she was listing.

My limited previous experience with massage involves serene spa settings. Dim lights. Warm sheets. Aromatherapy. Pan flutes playing softly in the background. Not hearing about the features of a 3 bedroom, two bathroom flat for sale on a quiet part of Road 23 while waves of stabbing spasms pierced my back.

“Your node is very lucky for me! It is a lucky node,” she told me, alternating between making appointments to show the apartment (with an elevator!) and beating the stress out of me. This node felt anything but lucky to me.

Then it was over. “All done, Madame. You are very stressed. I should come twice a week,” Cecilia told me entrepreneurially. “ I also have maids. You need any maids?" No maids, shokran (thank you). Just a heating pad and some Advil. And maybe a break from the relaxing massages.

/lkm in Cairo

Monday, January 16, 2012

Arriving and Driving

O, A and I arrived in Cairo on January 30. Living on the East Coast of the United States, I’ve flown over bodies of water many many times. It was a wholly different experience flying over the desert, with only sand as far as the eye could see. While our approach didn’t give us our first glimpse of pyramids, we were treated to the amazing and strangely beautiful sight of the sun setting over the desert – a otherworldly view.

The Husband was able to meet us at the gate and we all were glad to see him again after a month apart, and not least of all for his help with our massive amounts of luggage.

The nearly one hour drive from the airport to Maadi during rush hour proved that The Husband's colorful stories about the Egyptian traffic and driving were not hyperbole. The road to Cairo was densely packed with all manner of conveyance, from the small, decrepit white vans (“microbuses”) that serve as a cheap, informal (and ride-at-your-own-risk) form of public transport for locals to enormous dust-covered SUVs to makeshift wooden carts pulled by malnourished donkeys.

I’m a veteran city driver, but nothing compares to the free-for-all that is Cairo traffic. Driving here is one big game of chicken whereby you arrive at your destination by sheer will and the grace of God. No lines in the road to mark lanes, no traffic lights to slow or halt the unending flow of vehicles, only roundabouts, occasional speed bumps and frequent road hazards (trees, rubble, trash, cats, dogs, people) to regulate the traffic. Stop signs, yield signs? Not a one, just hold your hand out the window in the universal gesture for stop and yell istanna (wait) with as much conviction as possible and, inshalla (hopefully), your opponent will abide.

White-knuckled and wiped out, we arrived safely at last to our new apartment. After meeting and handing over our luggage to our kind Boab (part building security and caretaker), Hamdi, we walked the four flights to our flat where we were welcomed warmly by Fifi, our already indispensable housekeeper, cook, translator, fixer, cultural ambassador, etc., and Tom’s own version of a Christmas tree.

/lkm in Cairo

Monday, January 2, 2012

Excess Baggage

Packing is one of my least favorite things in the world. What to bring for the trip, what to leave home. Who knows? So, I usually end up throwing everything in the bag to give myself maximum options when I arrive at my destination. That strategy has generally served me well for weekend getaways and summer vacations. Moving overseas for two years? Not so much.

Packing for our move was divided into four categories. In late November, we did an AIR SHIPMENT of about 1,000 pounds - which is not as much as it seems - of household goods that we would need immediately. This arrived right before New Year's, just a day ahead of me and The Lads. Top of the list of things I would need right away were my Mac, Bose, some clothes and shoes. Same for The Lads and The Husband, plus the DVD player and our Wii. All the best Egyptian cotton is exported, so we also had to repatriate our sheets and towels. The embassy hooked us up with some basic pots, pans, flatware, dishes, etc. until the rest of our household goods - everything from trashcans to soccer balls to wine glasses and shower curtains - will arrive by SEA SHIPMENT on the very slow boat to Cairo in late February or early March. Please cross your fingers for me for late February. I really miss those wine glasses.

Our apartment in Cairo is fully furnished in the finest government-issued furniture, so, with the exception of our king-sized marital bed and mattress (standard issue is queen, and The Husband and I long ago discovered that a big bed was one of the secrets of a long marriage), all of our furniture went into STORAGE.

The rest, The Lads and I CARRIED to Cairo ourselves in 7 pieces of luggage that just barely met the maximum size and weight (my father carefully weighed each bag and helped us strategically reallocate kilos) allowed by the airlines and a backpack each with enough DVDs, ipods, ipads, travel-sized games, neck pillows, eyemasks, earplugs and Christmas candy to keep ourselves entertained, cozy and hopped up on sugar for a trip to the moon and back.

Families fly Coach to their overseas postings. However - because in the frenzy of leaving my job, packing up and renting my house, preparing for Christmas, flying to Alabama to meet my new niece and nephew, and saying goodbye to family and friends I either put their plane tickets on the slow boat to Cairo or into long-term storage - our cats Kitty O'Shea and Banshee flew First Class. On my dime. Merry Christmas, kitties.

To break up the trip, O, A and I stopped over in Frankfurt. There, we got some much-needed, if off-hour sleep, then hit the town for some German culture (pretzels, K√§sekrainers and the purchasing and wearing of faux-alpine caps for the boys; a nice Pilsner for me), followed by more sleep, waking up at 3AM in the morning, hanging out in our Gem√ľtlichkeit robes and watching the highly inappropriate (or as O says, inappro-pro) for children Little Fockers until early morning breakfast at the hotel and back to the airport for our flight to Cairo.

Travel with us through my Flickr photostream - Cairo-A-Go-Go and Frankfurt photos sets.

/lkm in Cairo


I have always dreamed of living, for a while, the fabulous life of a diplomat’s wife overseas. In my fantasy, I jet set across Europe from my home base in romantic Rome, Vienna or Prague, conversing fluently with my impeccably groomed and well-mannered children in new languages as we take an extended field trip through foreign art, history and culture.

In reality, I find myself moving to Cairo where, for the next two years, The Husband will be working and I will be blissfully on an extended sabbatical. While hotter, dustier and ever so slightly less glamorous than I pictured, Egypt offers O, A, T and me the chance to travel, learn and experience a truly once in a lifetime adventure together at an historic time.

Though I fully expect to miss my family and friends terribly while I’m gone, various technologies promise to help me keep in touch and up-to-date (probably even better now that I am unemployed). And it will be just like I never left if you follow my riveting social stream now that I am back up and running from my undisclosed location on the Nile.

@Kelliemurfski on Blogspot, Twitter, Flickr and Instagram

/lkm in Cairo