Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Maadi Christmas Pictures

Back in the States, I'm accustomed to seeing red and green everywhere in December, as malls, homes, and businesses all decorate for Christmas. Here in Maadi . . . not quite so much. There were some places that were decorated: Maadi House, Condetti, and of course the insides of expats' homes. I didn't take pictures inside other people's homes--I didn't have my camera, and I'm not sure they'd want me posting pictures of their homes online anyway. Of course I didn't take my camera whenever we went to Maadi House or Condetti, so I can't share pictures of those decorations, pretty as they were, but I can share the pictures I took around the housing compound and out on Road 9. Enjoy!

First are some pictures of the inside of my apartment. This is the first year we decorated for Christmas, since it's the first year we actually stayed put for it. I wasn't sure last year how much space we'd have for decorations, so I didn't buy much. It turns out that it was a wise decision.

The tree was decorated only on the top half--and even then, we kept hearing rustling in the tree, a clink as the shatterproof ornament fell to the floor, and then certain adventurous kitties batting their bright and shiny ball around the floor. The kittens also are why the angel on top looks like she's about to fall off . . .

I had two strands of garland, which we used on top of the china cabinet and on the buffet. The stockings went on the china cabinet, along with a poinsettia from our neighbors. Unfortunately, my black thumb meant that we didn't get to enjoy the poinsettia on Christmas, but it was pretty while it lasted. (I promise, I did put up the bins you see beside the cabinet . . . I have got to start cleaning up before I take pictures . . .)

I put the Nativity Scene on the buffet. Baby Jesus and Joseph's lamp both enjoyed Christmas Day on display. That night, they both went back into protective custody in the drawer. They haven't made an appearance since. The kittens enjoy them too much.

My brother gave this University of Kentucky Santa to my husband, a UK alum, for Christmas . . . last year? Maybe the year before. Either way, my husband loves it, so it was displayed on our end table.

I used my Garagos plate to display some candles I bought here in Egypt. The set was displayed on my coffee table, although you can see that it got a little crowded . . . (and I say again, I really need to learn to clean up before I take pictures!)

I also put a fabric wreath on the door. It was purchased here in Egypt, at one of the Maadi Women's Guild meetings, from the Deaf Unit. The Deaf Unit is a charity that runs a vocational training center, where deaf people are taught to work with wood, metal, and sewing to make some very beautiful, high-quality furniture and home decor.

There also were some decorations outside around the compound. A few others put up wreaths, and someone put up a large inflatable snowman! There also was a poinsettia or two sitting outside doors.

Also, the housing office or the guards or someone decided to wish us all a Merry Christmas as we came off the elevators.

Out on Road 9, there weren't really decorations up for Christmas. However, there were a couple of shops that were selling Christmas trees and other decorations. Here are some trees that were available . . .

and here are a few more, as well as some garland strands.

I really wish I'd gotten pictures of Maadi House and Condetti. Maadi House was decorated nicely, and Condetti was beautiful. Oh, well, you've gotten to see a little bit of how it looks at Christmas in Maadi!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas in Cairo

This was Jeff's and my very first Christmas alone together. Usually, we travel to South Carolina, where most of our family lives, and spend Christmas there. It tends to be a bit hectic, with our families living 45 minutes apart and us negotiating when and where we'll spend time with all the people we want to see. It isn't uncommon for us to spend Christmas Eve evening in one place, Christmas morning and early afternoon in another, and then Christmas late afternoon and evening in yet another. I enjoy going home for Christmas, but I usually ended up needing a vacation from my holiday by the time we got back home.

This year was very different. We had about the same amount of time off work as usual, thanks to the peculiarities of embassy life. President Bush gave all government employees Friday off, but since our weekend is Friday and Saturday, Jeff got Wednesday instead. So he was off Wednesday for that, Thursday for Christmas, Friday and Saturday for the weekend. He took Sunday as a vacation day and then was off on Monday for Islamic New Year--it's nice to get both local and American holidays off work! Today is his first day back at work. We had the most laidback, relaxing Christmas I can remember.

On Wednesday, Christmas Eve, we relaxed at home most of the day. That evening, we went to the carol service at church. We had to bundle up a little; the weather finally got cool enough to wear a coat! I was thrilled with that; I love fall weather, and until recently, it had felt like summer and then late summer. Now it finally feels like fall. It was enough for me; it wouldn't have felt quite like Christmas if I hadn't needed a coat, but this was perfect Christmas weather, as far as I'm concerned. Jeff said it didn't feel cold enough for Christmas to him--he grew up with a white Christmas being a real possibility, after all--but I was fine with just needing a coat during our outdoor service.

The carol service was so nice! We sang some songs that must be traditional in the UK, but that I had never heard, before moving on to some that I knew. (Did you know, though, that "Silent Night" has two melodies? There's the one I've always heard and then another one that I heard for the first time a couple of weeks ago when we went caroling. It's nice, but . . . it just isn't quite right. We sang both versions during the carol service.) Toward the end of the service, the lights were dimmed and candles were lit. We've always missed the Christmas Eve services, usually because we were trying to cram in time with all our family members, so it was so nice on Christmas Eve to take a break and refocus our attention on the true meaning of Christmas!

After the service, we joined a couple of friends for a pig roast at the Maadi House. It was a buffet style meal, with all the roasted pig, vegetables, and pumpkin pie you could eat. Most people sat outside, but it was too chilly for that in our opinion, so we had a nice quiet meal inside. It was a nice time of relaxation and conversation with friends that we haven't really gotten to see much lately--they just got back from a trip to the States.

The next day, on Christmas morning, we slept late. Once we finally got up around 9 o'clock, I made sausage biscuits, and we ate way too much! After breakfast, it was time for gifts. In my family, we always did stockings last, but we decided to follow Jeff's tradition of doing stockings first. And Jeff agreed that we'll always do gift exchange on Christmas morning, like my family did it, instead of on Christmas Eve, like his family did. So we exchanged stockings and presents with each other and opened the gifts that were sent from home. We even gave the kittens gifts--so far we've given them one stocking that had nine small toys (we have another stocking just like it, but we're waiting until they start losing the toys before we open it), and we've given them some special treats that a friend brought from Germany.

After the gifts, I started trying to decide what time we should call our families. With the 7-hour time difference, there's a balance to be struck between late enough that they'll be awake and not still opening their own gifts and early enough that we're awake and they don't think we've forgotten them. I had just decided to wait a little longer, to make sure we didn't wake up anyone without kids or interrupt the gift-opening of those with kids, when our MagicJack phone rang. It was my mom! I talked to her for a while, then handed the phone over to Jeff, who eventually handed it back to me. Immediately after I hung up with her, the phone rang again--it was my brother. After we talked and hung up, I said something to Jeff about whether I should go ahead and call my sister and my father, when the phone rang yet again--it was my father. So we chatted for a little while, and then I called my sister. I had to leave a message for her, but that was okay since the connections hadn't been very good. It's been in and out ever since those three cables in the Mediterranean got cut a couple weeks ago, and Christmas Day wasn't a very good internet or VOIP day--I kept telling people to speak slowly and to repeat themselves because I couldn't understand them very well.

Jeff decided to wait a while before calling his family, in the hopes that the connection would improve. We spent the afternoon relaxing, with me reading and Jeff playing his new video game. I had planned to cook Jeff's favorite meal--his mom's meatloaf and baked macaroni and cheese--but we'd eaten so much at breakfast that we weren't hungry until late. So we ate pizza that night instead, and I cooked the meatloaf, mac & cheese, green beans, carrots, and mashed potatoes the next day.

My sister called me back late that evening, and the connection was good. We had a nice chat. Jeff tried to call home a little after that, but the outgoing connection had gotten a lot worse; the MagicJack wouldn't connect at all. He eventually used the cell phone for a brief call to his sister and mom, but he just sent emails to the others and said he'd try to call within a few days.

On Saturday, we went to a cookie social at some friends' place up in Zamalek. There were all sorts of cookies--buck eyes (peanut butter dipped in chocolate), ginger cookies, snowflake cookies, biscotti, "everything cookies," chocolate chip . . . you name it. We spent some time just hanging out and chatting, then watched a slide show of our friends' time in Egypt--they arrived in May, I think--and their recent trip to Italy. We were invited to go out to dinner after, but I was tired, and we'd eaten too many cookies to want dinner so soon, so we headed home instead.

We found a taxi to take us to Maadi but didn't agree to a price before we got in like we should have. We'd only gone a few feet when the driver started negotiating. He wanted LE50, but we didn't want to pay more than LE40. He kept pushing for 50, but I told him "Arba3een walla henna"--"Forty or here," meaning we'd get out while we still were in Zamalek and pay him very little for the short distance he'd taken us. His response, as expected, was "Mafiish moshkela, forty," although he tried to make me feel guilty for not paying fifty. I let him talk without responding. He and I both knew the price was fair or even a little high, or he wouldn't have agreed to it. By the time we got out in Maadi, he was smiling and complimenting my Arabic.

Yesterday was another lazy day at home. It also was our nephew's birthday, so Jeff called him last night. The connection finally was good, so he went ahead and made a couple more calls as well. It was nice for him to be able to chat with three of the four nephews--one is too young to talk on the phone--and with his sister, his mother, and his grandmother.

This morning, it was back to the grind for Jeff. But only for today and tomorrow--he's off on Thursday for our New Year, and then there's the weekend after. Ah, the joys of American and local holidays! Next week might be rough, when he has to work a full five days, but he'll survive.

Our first Christmas in Cairo was long, and relaxing, and very, very nice. We had considered trying to go home for Christmas next year, but due to a variety of reasons, we're going home earlier in the year instead. Although I miss my family at Christmas--and I know Jeff misses his, and our families miss us--I've enjoyed being able to start thinking about our own Christmas celebration and what traditions we want to start as a family. And of course, our family and friends are welcome to visit us next Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Carols

I got sick of Christmas carols years ago.

Yep, I admit it. When it comes to Christmas carols, I'm a total scrooge. Back home, the Christian radio stations that I listened to usually started playing Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving. At first, they'd sprinkle them in with the other songs, but as Christmas got closer and closer, it became all Christmas music all the time. Each time a Christmas song came on, I'd groan as soon as I recognized it, try to stick it out, give up after the first line or two, and change the station. Christmas was the only time of year when I would listen to secular radio stations more often than to Christian ones, because the secular stations didn't alter their programming as much.

Two years ago, I moved to Maryland and found a local Christian radio station, WGTS. I loved it, as I do most stations that play contemporary Christian music (I'm not such a fan of the old-time hymns, unless they're put to a contemporary beat). But as we approached Christmas, I started steeling myself to find a secular station, maybe a nice country one or one that played a bunch of '80s music. Imagine my surprise when the Christmas music started, and I didn't even notice for the first week! There were no groans, no toughing it out through a line or two, no urges to change the channel. Finally I realized the difference: unlike the stations I had listened to previously, WGTS really maintained its Christian focus during Christmas. Almost all of the Christmas songs it played were truly Christian songs--songs that reflected the true meaning of Christmas, not the secular, commercialized thing we've made it. There were a few secular carols played--an announcement from management candidly stated that some traditional carols that had no real Christian content were played so that people flipping through the dials looking for carols might just stop and stay for another song or two--but the real focus was on celebrating the birth of Jesus. There was lots of "Silent Night," "O Come O Come Emmanuel," and contemporary Christian songs that had Christmas themes. There were not so many renditions of "Jingle Bells" or "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." The traditional secular songs were present, but they were a fun supplement to, not a replacement for, songs that were about the Christmas I celebrate. And I found myself enjoying Christmas music again.

This year, in Egypt, I wasn't sure what to expect. Truth be told, I didn't even think about Christmas music until we started singing it at church in Advent celebrations. With my history, I had no reason to think about Christmas music unless it was to be thankful that "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" wouldn't be piped over the speakers at every store I visited! But then Jeff and I were invited to a neighbor's apartment for hors d'ouevres and a caroling performance. My neighbors' maid is a part of her church choir, and she wanted her choir to come caroling for her employers. Last year, the first year that this happened, my neighbors ended up embarrassed because they didn't understand what caroling meant to their maid; they thought it was a group of people going around, standing outside, singing a song or two, and then moving on, like it is back in the States. Oh, no, not with this group. Caroling meant the choir came to your home, set up in your living room, and delivered a 30-minute performance, complete with choir director and guitar. Last year, this big production occurred with an audience of three, and my neighbors felt a bit awkward and embarrassed that they hadn't gathered an appropriately large audience.

This year was very different. There were around 12 guests present, as well as my three neighbors (a married couple with one child). We all showed up around 6pm for drinks and hors d'ouevres, and the choir came at 7. They arranged themselves in the living room, while we guests set ourselves up in the dining room (two separate areas of one big room). The choir director introduced the group as the "Christ is Coming Choir," and the caroling began. I loved every minute of it! The songs were almost all Christian, as you would expect from a church choir, but there were fun, lively songs, too, not just the slow and sentimental ones. The singers' faces were lit up with joyful smiles. At times there was a little choreographed hand-waving, which was fun, too. In between songs, they quoted Scripture verses about Jesus, His birth, and His mission. Toward the end, the choir director talked about how Jesus is coming back, and how she hopes that we'll all be ready when that day comes--but there was no proselytizing, which is illegal here; it was all about what she believes and what she hopes. She sang "Maranatha," a song I'd never heard before but enjoyed immensely. (Maranatha is Aramaic for our Lord comes.) At the end of that song, the choir immediately went into "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," and then the concert was over.

After the choir left, our host and hostess expressed surprise at how overt the Christian message was. Apparently, last year, the performance involved more traditional carols and fewer Bible verses. I know at least one other person in the audience (aside from Jeff and me) goes to church regularly, but I don't think that most of the people there would describe themselves as devout Christians. So I can see where this unabashedly Christian performance could take them off guard. But to me, it was exactly what a performance of Christmas carols ought to be. It was a group of believers singing about their Savior at a time of year when we celebrate His birth. It actually made me consider downloading some Christmas music from iTunes.

Tonight, my life group is going caroling. There's this British woman who lives nearby. She's in her 80s and has lived in Egypt for decades. She doesn't get out of her house much, because she's blind--anyone who's tried to walk around in Maadi knows that it can be difficult to keep your footing even if you can see; I can't imagine trying to walk around here without being able to see traffic, the precise location of the curb, or that random pole in the middle of the sidewalk. One of the ladies in my life group visits her once a week or so, and the visits are greatly appreciated. So tonight, we're all going. I just hope that our performance is as uplifting for her as the Christ is Coming Choir's performance was for me.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Christmas Bazaar

Well, it's over (mostly). The 2009 Maadi Women's Guild Christmas Bazaar was held on Friday, 12 December, at Wadi Degla. Most of the silent auction items sold; many of the raffle winners were there to claim their prizes. Some weren't, necessitating phone calls to let them know they had won and to make arrangements for them to take possessions of their prizes. That part isn't over yet; I need to make some phone calls this afternoon. There's also a report to write and a few odds and ends to clean up--one of the donors wants me to let her know how much her donation went for in the auction, that type of thing. But the majority of the event is over.

It was a crazy two days. The day before the bazaar, we were supposed to be there from noon to 6pm to set up. It was good that we were supposed to be done by 6pm; Jeff had a rare office party, and both of us wanted to go (even aside from the knowledge that it would be good for office politics if we attended the boss's party). Jeff had taken the day off work to help, because I had been told that we would need men to help move the heavy stuff like tables. Then I was told that, no, the guy who's renting us the tables will deliver them and set them up. So Jeff had the day off, but he was able to do the commissary run and then relax. Pam and I had planned to be at Wadi Degla at noon, but I received a phone call around 11:15 from Pam, asking me to come to the church. Apparently people were meeting there to pull items from the storage cage and then going over together. She had been summoned to the church, but had to go back home to get something, so she asked that I go to the church to answer questions about what was needed. By the time I got there, everything was loaded and the trucks were pulling away, so it was just a matter of waiting for a ride.

Shortly after I arrived at Wadi Degla, it was time to unload the trucks that had come from the church--after a brief delay when the drivers were arrested (I never heard the reason, but they were released quickly). So we unloaded the various decorations, easels, and other random stuff, hauling it to a central location. We got some amused looks from the male soccer players who were practicing; upper class Arab women don't do manual labor of any type, and here you had all these Western women (upper class by definition!) hauling boxes and laughing while they did it. It didn't take too long to get things unloaded, and then we sat and chatted while we waited for the silent auction room to be swept out and for word on when the rented tables would arrive.

The room where the silent auction was going to be held is a coffee shop in real life, so it had tables and chairs that we had permission to use, but we had planned to use the rented tables instead. That plan changed instantly once I found out that the rented tables wouldn't be delivered until 5:30. So I'm not sure what the women responsible for setting up the other areas did, but Pam, Halina, and I got started rearranging the tables in the coffee shop so that we could use them to display our silent auction wares. After setting up the tables, we decorated them with white tablecloths and silvery-glittery-blue mesh, which was fashioned into bunting by Pam's skillful hand. We set up a couple of Christmas trees--with much laughing, since one of them was a broken down tree top that used an upside down laundry basket with a hole in it as its base; we had to break out the duck tape to make it stand even almost upright. We covered the unsightly base with a pretty red tree skirt and no one was the wiser--as long as no one touched it, because then it tipped over about 30 degrees. Then we made two large signs to hang outside the room, to let everyone know where we were. We decided to wait until the next morning to hang them up, to prevent anything from happening to them overnight. Our decorating done, we were ready to go home until the next morning, when we would hang the signs, display our items, and set up the bid sheets. It was around 4 or 4:30 at that point.

So we headed out, and Jeff and I made it to our party that night. It was fun, but we left a little early. We had to be up early for the bazaar. We planned to be at Wadi Degla by 9:30; that would give us 2 1/2 hours to finish setting up before the doors opened at noon. Unfortunately, we forgot to plan on just how long it would take us to load all the donated items into our SUV. We pulled up to the Wadi Degla gate around 10. Then we had to go through security and walk everything down to our room, with help from Pam, her husband Dan, and another volunteer. We had just gotten everything into our room and were beginning to unpack when we were told that we all had to go to the fenced area that would be the food court--it was time for guards with dogs to go through everything for a final security check. I paced and fumed and muttered and took deep breaths and tried to calm myself down by not thinking of all the work still to be done while trying to spot the security detail doing the inspection. For a long time, I was convinced that there was no security detail; there was not a dog in sight. Finally, though, they appeared and began a long, slow circuit of all the vendor tables.

At last, around 11, we were released from the food court. I was one of the first out and made a beeline for the silent auction room. Then it was a flurry of activity getting all the items displayed and the bid sheets out. We had to add a couple of tables--and use some chairs as tables--because we had so many items (over 80, possiby closer to 100). Finally, the items were set out, but I realized that we had not set the start prices yet. Marge had been telling me for weeks that she would do it, but in the short time between when the items were all collected and the start of the bazaar, she either had forgotten or had not had time. So Pam and I went through with pens, setting start prices almost at random. Neither of us knew what most of the items would retail for, and we didn't know if we should start really low and let prices work their way up or if we should start just under retail. So we just did the best we could on each item. We were still setting start prices when our first browsers came through the door.

By 12:15, we were finished with the start prices and setup. From then on, it was just a matter of answering questions, encouraging high bids, and keeping an eye on the smaller, more valuable items. Most of the time, I stationed myself right behind the pearl necklace, bracelet, and earrings that had been donated by Antwerpen Jewellers (they appraised at around $450--dollars, not pounds--total, if I remember correctly). Most of our other jewelry was on the same table, so I kept an eye on all of it and allowed Jeff, Pam, Dan, and a couple of other volunteers to handle the larger items. Dan and Jeff took turns going out to bring back food for themselves and for Pam and me. When we had another volunteer show up, I sent Pam out to roam around and shop. I hadn't brought extra money with me, expecting to be in the auction all day, and it's no fun to go shopping with no money.

While we were in the silent auction room, Halina set up a table outside to sell raffle tickets. We also had some local boys, residents of an orphanage, who walked around selling tickets. The raffle drawing was scheduled for 3:30pm, which unfortunately was the same time as the end of the silent auction. Somehow we were supposed to shoo everyone out of the auction, determine the winners, and bring them back into the room in small groups to pay and collect their prizes, while at the same time handing out raffle prizes to the winners whose names were drawn and announced over the loudspeaker by a local man. Since that wasn't going to work for us, we commandeered the loudspeaker to announce the winners of the silent auction at 3:30, thus denying its use for the raffle. We were almost done with the silent auction when Marge re-commandeered the loudspeaker and started announcing raffle winners. I told her bluntly that she was handling the raffle while we finished with the auction; if she wanted two things done simultaneously, she had to do one of them herself, because we couldn't do both. (Dan had had to leave early to prep for his office party that night, and Pam was about to have to leave, so we didn't really have volunteers to spare at this point.) Halina had mercy on Marge and handed out the raffle prizes while Jeff and I finished up with the auction.

Once all the prizes were handed out and all the auction money was collected, we handed over the money box to the treasurer. She was less upset than I expected when she realized that we had combined the auction and raffle money, which should have been kept separate. I think she understood that we didn't have much choice, since we only had one money box. (Apparently we started out the day with a second one, but it was re-appropriated to someone else who should have had one but didn't.) When I get around to organizing the bid sheets, I'll be able to tell from that the total amount brought in by the silent auction, so she can subtract that from the total raffle/auction amount if she wants separate amounts recorded. I'm not going to say total amounts here without authorization; I'm not sure how public the Guild's financial records are. It's a bit different here than similar organizations would be in the States.

Then Jeff, Halina, and I gathered the few items that didn't sell at the auction--most of them had received only one bid, and the winner wasn't there. Those items will be sold at Guild meetings over the next couple of months, with the money still going to the charities. We took down all the decorations and created two piles: one pile'o'stuff to go back into the storage cage at the church, and another pile'o'stuff to come home with me until I could contact the raffle winners and disperse those prizes. That's something I need to work on this afternoon.

So, the bazaar happened. The silent auction and raffle combined brought in more money this year than last year, probably because we had a larger total number of items. All our donors will be listed in the January issue of the Maadi Messenger, and I intend to list them here as well, but not today. There isn't enough distance between me and the bazaar yet. I've been putting off writing this blog, and especially writing my report. The bazaar was just more stressful than it had to be. Some of it was due to my inexperience, but some of it was due to . . . other factors. We pulled it off, but there were definitely some things that I think should change. I'm letting all the stress bleed away, and trying to let all the conflicting ideas in my head sort themselves out, before I try to put anything down on paper for my report. But now I'm off to make some phone calls--it's time to reclaim my den by getting the last of the raffle items out of there.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

And The Winner Is . . .

We have two different winners!

Our three judges made one choice, and our ten voters made another.

We'll start with the winner you all know (since it's right there on the poll at the side of your screen). Put your hands together for Jeff! His depiction of Cairo traffic resonated with someone out there. I can't say any more than that, since people didn't leave comments (shame on you!), but I guess that's enough. Congratulations to Jeff!

Now for the winner most of you didn't know . . . me! Luckily for me, the family tradition typically puts value on the complexity of what the ornament represents, so I had an advantage because of my whole "Egypt framed my life" narrative, and the fact that I was able to represent more than one thing on a single ornament.

All in all, though, I'd say that the First International Division did pretty well. Thanks for participating!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Garagos Adventure

I had an adventure yesterday.

While I was at the Maadi Women's Guild meeting, my old friend Pam and my new friend MJ invited me to come with them to a pottery and tapestry exhibition downtown that was being sponsored by the Canadian ambassador. The exhibition is being done "by the young artists of GARAGOS (Luxor)," according to the flier. Since Pam and MJ so kindly invited me, I had nothing else going on this afternoon, and Pam can tell you just how much I ooh and aah over the pottery around here, I decided to go. But I wasn't going to buy anything--just look and maybe see if Jeff wanted to go back with me if I saw anything I really liked.

Right after the meeting, we were off. First we took Pam's car, since she had driven it to the meeting. We parked it near the metro station, then walked over, bought tickets, and boarded the train. We stayed on through several stops, until we got to Mubarak station. That's where the real adventure began. We knew that the exhibition was being held at the Jesuit School at 151 Ramsis Street, and MJ had been told that it was near . . . some other street whose name I don't recall. So first we looked for signs pointing the way to that other street. We followed them in a nice winding pattern, up stairs, around corners, up more stairs, never quite getting to the exit of the underground metro station . . . and then I saw it: "Ramsis Street," right there on a sign on the wall. So then we started following those signs instead. Up some stairs, around some corners, up some more stairs . . . and then we started seeing exits, but no signs indicating if those were the Ramsis Street exits that we were, in fact, looking for. So we took one.

Up into the daylight at last! But where exactly were we? None of us knew. But wait! A map! So off we go to look at the map. While we were trying to get our bearings, a man in a uniform--it looked almost like a police uniform, but not quite; maybe it was a metro uniform--came up and offered to help. We tried telling him what we were looking for; we had been told to just ask for the Jesuit Center, and people would know. Nope. So then Pam pulled out the flyer, which has the same text printed in English, Arabic, and French. Voila! He read the Arabic and started telling us where to go. We didn't quite catch it all. MJ asked him to come with us to show us, and he agreed.

Following this man around downtown Cairo was an experience! He wandered out into huge, busy streets, put up his hand in the universal "stop" signal, and ignored the horns while he waited patiently for us to cross. We immediately crossed one busy street, then another. We walked a few more feet, then crossed another one . . . and another. We had come out of the metro station on the northwest side of a huge midan (traffic circle), and apparently we needed to be on the southeast side.

Once we were on the southeast side, he asked someone for directions. Apparently he didn't quite know exactly where we were going after all! After that, we turned north and we walked . . . and we walked some more . . . and a little bit more. And then he gestured at the high wall on our right as if to say "That's it! That's where you're going!" Eventually we came to a gate, where our guide said good-bye. We tried to give him some baksheesh (tip money) for his kindness in leading us, but he refused to accept anything at all, so we sent him off with cries of "Shokran'awi!" (thank you very much!) instead.

We showed our flier to the guard at the gate, and he gestured down a driveway and then said "shemel" (left). I could see two potential left turns easily, so I asked "Shemel henna walla henaak?" (left here or there?) His response: "A la tool, ba3deen shemel fi a3rebeyya" (straight, then left at the car). Easy enough. We walked down to the line of parked cars, turned left, and saw an open door with a "Garagos" sign. Perfect!

I was amazed when we walked in. There were tables set up around the walls, and more in the middle of the room. All of them were filled with pottery in blue and green. Almost all of them had either a fish or a chicken figure drawn on the pottery somewhere. There were bowls, casserole dishes, plates, vases, cups, tea pots, divided platters . . . you name it. There also were a few nativity sets (not blue or green, and no fish or chickens on those) and quite a few votive holders. Displayed on the walls above the tables were beautiful tapestries. All the prices were very reasonable. The tapestries were around LE150, the pottery ranged from LE7 to LE75. (I'm sure there were some that were more expensive than that, but the ones I looked at were in that range.)

So how did I do on my plan to look and not buy? Oh, I totally succeeded! I certainly did not buy a vase for LE75 and a plate for LE17. (And if you believe that, there's a bridge I'd like to sell you . . . but shhh! Don't tell my husband! He didn't even know I was going, much less that I might buy!)

I was not the only one to succumb. Pam bought a few small items, and MJ bought one large item and some smaller ones. She also bought a nice sturdy woven bag with handles to make it easier to carry than it was in the plastic bags they gave us. After a stop at the "W.C.," as they call "the facilities" here, we headed back home.

This time, we took a more direct route. Pam had noticed a pedestrian bridge over the busy Ramsis Street, just south of the Jesuit School. So we walked to it and used it to cross all the busy streets. In fact, we were able to stay on the bridge far enough that we came down some stairs and hit solid ground about ten feet from the metro entrance. We didn't cross a single street at street level! (Okay, maybe there was one small one, but if so, it wasn't worth remembering.) Much easier than our hike to the Jesuit School, although I'm still grateful for the guide; we'd've never found it on our own.

Then it was another saga in the metro station. We went down into the station and started following signs to the platform. Around a few corners, down some stairs, around another corner. Then the signs started getting more specific: we needed to follow the signs to Helwan. So then it was up some stairs, around a couple corners, up some more stairs, around a few corners, then maybe finally back down some stairs, around another corner, and finally! The platform! With a train pulling away. But no matter, the next train arrived mere moments later.

I felt like I was back on the DC metro at rush hour, pushing my way into the women's car, looking behind me to make sure Pam and MJ both made it on as well. Then we stood and held onto the poles. MJ eventually found a seat, which was good, since her bag was heavy. Pam and I were offered seats by kind Egyptian women--girls, really, they couldn't have been more than 17 years old--but we turned them down. Some of the women definitely seemed more tired than us; let them sit. The teenagers kept smiling at us. One asked us where we were getting off and made sure to tell us when we got near it. I had to teach Pam how to say "mafiish mesheckel" ("there're no problems," which is used to say "it's okay, it's all fine, no worries") because the girls were insisting that she should sit. I thought they were being sweet.

So we made it back to Maadi with a little extra walking but no problems. Pam came up to my apartment to hang out--she had to be at the dentist, near my place, within the hour, so there was no point in going across Maadi to her home. Instead, she laughed at me as I explained why the Christmas tree is only decorated on the top half, ran into the kitchen to rescue my bag'o'breakables from the curious kittens who had jumped up on the counter, came back to sit in the living room and then immediately hopped up to run back into the kitchen to rescue her purse from the curious kittens who again had jumped up on the counter, then chased Isis away from my root beer . . . eventually Pam distracted the kittens by dangling her keys from her purse strap. Then when she tried to leave, Isis wouldn't stop playing with her purse strap . . . then I accidentally stepped on Isis while walking Pam to the door . . . ah, life with kittens, it's a wonderful thing! The adventure never ends!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Family Tradition

Several years ago--I don't know when--my stepfather-in-law, Marty, started a family tradition with his children. It since has expanded to include my mother-in-law, Maryanna; the husband of Marty's daughter; the girlfriend of Marty's son; the girlfriend's young daughter; and Jeff and myself. This tradition occurs every year on Thanksgiving day and is known as "The Ornie Competition" ("ornie" being short for "ornament," of course). Each member of the family makes or buys one Christmas ornament that is representative of his or her year. The family members draw numbers out of a hat, bowl, or cupped hand to determine the order in which they will present their ornaments and explain the ornament's significance and why it deserves to win the competition for the Best Ornament. Competition is fierce, and winners are remembered--at least by themselves--for years; one or two members of the family in particular claim to remember having won the competition each and every year since its inception (malleable memory is a wonderful thing).

In 2006, my husband and I visited over Thanksgiving for the first time. We joined in the festivities as well. That year, Jeff's ornament depicted the U. S. Capitol building with the Constitution behind it. It represented his job--he had started working for the U. S. government while still in college, and he continued to serve his country as a federal employee, although he had recently switched agencies. My ornament was a silver heart with the year and "Our First Christmas Together" or some such inscribed on it--Jeff and I had married earlier that year. As I recall, Jeff won that year's competition. Last year, in 2007, we again visited my mother-in-law for Thanksgiving. Jeff's ornament was a helicopter; mine was a train, to represent all the time I spent on the MARC and Metro trains commuting from Maryland to Washington, DC, and then going all over the city conducting background investigations for OPM. That year, we had a three-way tie, I think. My ornament tied with a plane ornament from Marty's son-in-law (he had done a lot of traveling) and the artist's palette from Marty's daughter (she was making some major changes and viewed her life as a clean easel waiting to be painted upon).

Jeff and I had such fun during the Ornie Competition both years that we didn't want to miss it this year, even though there is this little detail of us being half a world away. So I mailed my homemade ornament to Arizona, Jeff had his web-purchased one sent to Arizona, and we set up a Skype conference call at 11pm on Thanksgiving Day. It was an interesting call, as my in-laws' computer didn't much feel like showing any pictures--theirs or ours--so they had no idea where they were pointing their camera. There were many statements like "Now we can see the window" and "Now I see someone's shoulder--I think it's, yes, it's Marty's shoulder. Pan left! No, your other left!"

Things also changed this year because we had so many entries that the decision was made that we'd never reach a consensus on the winner--last year's 3-way tie may have had something to do with that--so we changed the judging system. Three names were drawn out of a hat, and those three people became the judges. But in any case, here are pictures of this year's entries . . .

We had three political ornaments this year to commemorate the historic nature of the U. S. presidential election. Marty, his son-in-law, and his son all chose to go this route. The son-in-law's ornament reflects both the election and his Texas pride.

Marty freely admitted that he had a second ornament ready and waiting to be used instead of this one, had Jeff or I been chosen as one (or two!) of the judges. We're the conservative ones in the group; the others are all more liberal, so Marty stuck with the Obama one instead of pulling out McCain option.

Marty's son actually tried to cheat by presenting two ornaments--one Obama one and one in memorium of a friend who had died this year. I don't have a picture of the second one, so I'll stick with the first one he presented (which is the only legitimate one; duplicate entries are discarded--okay, I just made that rule up, but it ought to be the rule!). This one was a fairly ingenious, simple, homemade one--it's his voter registration card with an Obama sticker on it!

Marty's daughter's entry was a tribute to her new company; she is a TV producer.

Maryanna's ornament was a tribute to her current job. Her plant is closing down next year, and she's decided to stay on with them until the end. Her ornament this year was hand-constructed out of materials relevant to her job as a purchaser at a plant that makes explosives.

Jeff's ornament was a depiction of Cairo traffic. This ornament is movable--the cars start out separated, but you hit a button, and they fly toward each other until they almost crash. It's pretty typical of Cairo cars, too.

This dog ornament was the child's entry. I'm not sure if she wouldn't explain it, or wouldn't explain it loudly enough for the webcam, but I have no idea what it represents, unless she either adopted or lost a dog this year.

The dove is the entry of the son's girlfriend, the child's mother. I couldn't hear what she was saying, so maybe Maryanna will kindly leave a comment to explain both mother's and daughter's entries? (Feel free to further explain any others as well.)

My entry requires multiple pictures and a longer explanation. My whole life this year was shaped by the knowledge that we were moving to Egypt. And everyone knows that the pyramid is the shape associated with Egypt. So just as Egypt formed the shape of my life, the pyramid had to be the shape of my ornament. But what about the sides? Well, so much happened this year that I decided that each side of my pyramid would represent something significant.

This side shows the Step Pyramid, representing Egypt itself. Since I already had the true pyramid shape reflected by the shape of the ornament itself, I chose the Step Pyramid as the picture to represent the country and our move here.

This side shows a picture of Isis, taken not long after we adopted her. Isis has brought much joy and love to my life. This is a typical pose for Isis--sitting regally and expecting to be adored. She knows exactly who she is--a cat, through and through--and she's not afraid to let you know who she is and what she wants.

This side shows a picture of Cleo--it's much clearer than it appears in this photo (I couldn't try too many times to get a good picture due to battery constraints). Cleo also has brought much joy, love, and laughter to my life. This pose is typical of her--play, play, play, all the time. She's our crazy kitten/monkey/fish/baby/U. S. Marine.

This final side of the ornament commemorates a very big accomplishment of this year--Jeff and I becoming debt free for the first time in our marriage. You can't make it out clearly, but it shows "Paid in Full" on my student loan, which was the last one we paid off.

So those were the entries this year. I know who won, and I know who I thought ought to have won. I also know who Cleo would have voted for--I just had to rescue Jeff's ornament because Cleo was trying to get a closer look. Which ornament would you have voted for? Leave me a comment or vote in the poll*--it closes on Wednesday, 17 December 2008, at 12:01 AM my time (at least I assume it's my time). I'll let you know who actually won after the polls close.

I can't enforce this, but please--only vote once!! (Those of you who know who won--don't ruin the fun, please!)

*Those of you getting this post by email--to vote in the poll, or to leave a comment, go to

By the way, thanks to Maryanna for most of the pictures in this entry!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

My Heathen Kittens

Notice anything wrong with this picture?

I'll give you a hint: compare it to this picture.

Do you see it now? Yep, that's right . . . my nativity set is missing the baby Jesus. He was there when I left the house this afternoon, in His manger where He belongs. But He isn't there now.

I can't prove it, but I suspect Cleo. I found her playing with Joseph's lantern in the middle of the floor earlier today. Joseph now holds nothing in his hand; the lantern is in a drawer for safekeeping. It's way smaller than the baby Jesus. It didn't occur to me that He might be in danger, too.

I haven't found baby Jesus yet. I admit, I only searched for a couple of minutes because I just had to write about my heathen kitties . . . anyway, here's hoping we find the missing Savior.

You know, I thought Jesus was supposed to go missing for a little while at Easter, not at Christmas . . .

Saturday, November 29, 2008

An International Thanksgiving

Well, it's over. My first international Thanksgiving has come and gone, leaving me exhausted but pleased with how everything turned out in the end. Jeff and I celebrated this American holiday with 4 other Americans, 4 South Africans, 4 Nigerians, and 1 Indian. A truly international Thanksgiving!

During our first Thanksgiving away from our families, Jeff and I decided that we were going to host a more-or-less traditional American Thanksgiving potluck dinner for our life group. Everyone in our life group was invited, but several were traveling or attending office dinners instead, so there were supposed to be 10 of us total. Then we discovered that two expected arrivals were stuck in the U. S. a little longer than expected and wouldn't be able to join us after all, dropping the total to 8, with two of them being children. So what did I do once the guest list dropped to the point where I'd actually have matching forks for everyone (I have 12 china place settings but only 8 flatware settings, although we also have another set that Jeff used before we married)? I--through Jeff--invited four more people! Yes, it makes perfect sense to me, too. We invited our friend and neighbor, along with his daughter (his wife is traveling), and another couple that we met through the embassy, bringing the total to 12.

We decided to host the dinner the day after Thanksgiving, in deference to the fact that Thanksgiving is not an Egyptian or international holiday, and not all of our guests would be off work on Thursday. I've been thinking about and preparing mentally for the dinner for a few weeks now, but I started the real preparations on Wednesday. I went to this great handicraft shop called Markaz and bought two tablecloths: one for the table itself, and one smaller one that I could fold and turn into a runner for the buffet. Each one came with matching cloth napkins, so I ended up with 10 of those. I got home and pulled out the large tablecloth just to make sure it fit the table like I thought it would. Lo and behold, it was too small. I was sure the size I purchased should have worked, so I got out the tape measure and discovered that the package had been mislabeled; the tablecloth was a smaller size than I had purchased. I called the shop, expecting to be told to bring it back and exchange it for the larger size, but I had forgotten that I'm in Egypt now. The shopowner was incredibly apologetic, remembered exactly who I was and what I had purchased, asked for my address, and told me the "boy" would be there in 90 minutes or less with my tablecloth. Every shop here has a "boy," actually a grown man, who can deliver anything you want to buy. The "boy" is deployed at the drop of a hat if there's a problem that was the shop's fault. The customer must not be inconvenienced in any way! With the problem of the too-small tablecloth solved, I washed the tablecloths so they'd be ready for Friday. When the washer was done, I threw them in the dryer and went to bed.

On Thursday morning, I pulled the tablecloths out of the dryer and decided to check the fit again, since the saleslady had told me they would shrink when washed (they're 100% cotton). Lo and behold, the new larger tablecloth now fit the table just like the smaller one that I had sent back the previous day--it had shrunk a good foot in length! Now, this wasn't the shop's fault. They had told me it would shrink; I had underestimated just how much it would shrink. So I announced to my husband that we needed to buy another tablecloth, on top of all the other things I needed to do that day. We decided to look at a shop on Road 9 to see if there were any tablecloths there that would complement the runner for the buffet (it shrank too, but now it fits perfectly rather than being a little too big, so that was a good thing) rather than going all the way across Maadi back to Markaz to get a bigger one that was exactly the same. I had to go out to Road 9 anyway to pick up a donation for the bazaar and to drop off some complimentary tickets for a big donor.

So out we went to Road 9. We went to the home linen shop and found a tablecloth that matched the runner in color, but was a more formal material with a fancy design on it. It was the same size as the other one was originally, but we were promised that it wouldn't shrink, so we bought it. It came with 12 napkins, so now we have 22 cloth napkins, one large tablecloth that fits the table with the leaf in it, one smaller tablecloth that fits the table without the leaf in it, and one really small tablecloth that, when folded, works well as a runner for the buffet.

After that, we went to a shop where we picked up a gift certificate for the bazaar, then to another shop where I expected to just drop off the comp tickets and leave. But again, I forgot that I'm in Egypt now. You don't just run those quick little errands. The shopowner offers you a seat, which you must accept. Then you chat. And chat some more. The shopowner offers you tea, which you also should accept--although if you're a foreigner and you don't accept it, that's okay with the shopowners who are more world-wise, as this one was. This particular shopowner wanted to know how to cook a turkey. His wife wants to cook one for the upcoming eid, but Egyptian turkeys are dry, so he thinks he can get an American one either from a specialty shop or from a contact at the commissary (I don't want to know who that contact is, because it isn't allowed), but his wife doesn't know how to cook an American turkey, which is far larger than an Egyptian one. So I'm going to write down how you cook turkey--as soon as I figure it out--and give him the recipe. After a long discussion about turkey, Thanksgiving, and how the southern U. S. isn't the same as the big cities of the northeast and the western coast, Jeff and I left the shop.

On the way home, we had to stop at another shop to buy some more glasses. I had realized that the glasses we already had were a set of 10, and one of them broke years ago, so we only had 9 glasses. Twelve diners and 9 glasses is not a good combination, so we bought a new set of 12.

So we finally got home around 1:30 p.m. I made a quick lunch for Jeff and myself, then started on the cooking for Friday. I was making my mom's sweet potato casserole, a new cornbread dressing recipe I found on, crescent rolls, pecan pie, and pumpkin pie. The guests were bringing the rest--including the turkey. Both the sweet potatoes and the cornbread could be prepped the day before and just baked the day of, so that's what I was working on.

I started with the dressing. Before too long, I realized that I had forgotten to buy a key ingredient: buttermilk. I sent Jeff down to Metro market to see if they had any (the commissary was closed), and he reported back that they had nothing that looked remotely like buttermilk. So, in a panic, I called Pam. "Is there anyplace other than the commissary where I can get buttermilk?" A thoughtful pause . . . "No." My mental response: What?! But I need buttermilk! I can't wait until the commissary opens tomorrow, this stuff has to chill for 8 hours before you can bake it! There has to be buttermilk. Then Pam said "But you should look in the Women's Guild cookbook. There's a list of substitutions in the front." I grabbed the cookbook and started flipping pages--and there it was. To make something approximating buttermilk, use one tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice, then add enough regular milk to make a cup. I thanked Pam profusely and then went on with my preparations, with Jeff helping by dicing five cups of vegetables for me. (I'm a slow chopper; dicing that much onion and celery would have taken more time than I had.) With a break for church, the dressing and sweet potatoes both were chilling in the refrigerator by about 10:45 p.m.

The timing was just right for a video conference with my mother-in-law, her husband, and their family. There's a Thanksgiving tradition that we started participating in two years ago, and we didn't want to miss it just because we're on a different continent. But I'll blog about that separately. After the video conference, it was finally time to go to bed.

On Friday morning, with Jeff's help, I cleaned the public areas of the apartment, then started baking the sweet potatoes, dressing, pie, and crescent rolls. After a phone call to my mother--"Mom, the topping for the sweet potatoes is soupy. Is that normal?"--everything was ready but the dressing. Our first guests arrived while it was still in the oven. It was the couple we met through the embassy, and let me tell you, they were lifesavers! They brought appetizers--complete with serving dishes, because as I was told, "I remember when I was young and just starting out. I had no serving pieces at all, so I loved it when people brought serving pieces for the food they brought." She was right--I loved it, because I have very few serving pieces. She also helped me determine when the dressing should come out of the oven, because it never did turn "golden brown." Apparently the oven rack was too high or some such.

After that, it was a steady stream of arrivals. I also got a surprise when one guest--whom I had not realized was married--showed up with a wife and two kids. Yes, that meant I didn't have enough plates or glasses, but I pulled out salad plates and juice glasses for the five kids in attendance, so no one was the wiser. I think everyone had a good time. The kids chased each other around the house, provoking concern from the mothers, but none from me. Kitten-proofing the house is remarkably like child-proofing the house! There was lots of conversation as we all sat wherever we wanted--the table only seats 8, even extended, so we were on the couch, the loveseat, a couple of arm chairs, the recliner, the office chair, and around the dining room table. All of the food was really good. The salad was tasty, the turkey was juicy and flavorful, the green bean casserole tasted way too good to be vegetables, the dressing was so good it surprised me, and Mom's sweet potatoes received raving reviews (the topping hardened as it cooled, just like Mom said it would). Lawrence had provided soft drinks and juices, exotic (to me) ones like guava--yum. The dessert that Vijay brought was delicious. The pecan pie was okay. The pumpkin pie never set, so none of the guests knew it even existed.

After most of the guests left, the final couple--the same ones who had arrived early--stayed behind. I tried to get them to leave the cleanup for me (they were guests, after all), but there was no way that was happening. So while the men were in the dining room chatting about embassy life--the old hand imparting wisdom to the new guy--we women were doing the dishes and chatting in the kitchen. In that case, the experienced cook and hostess was imparting wisdom to the one who's never entertained and who only recently started cooking at all--before that, it was delivery and frozen or boxed meals only.

After everyone had left, Jeff and I tried to coax the kittens out of the bedroom, where they had been confined during the festivities. Isis came out and did a little exploring of the living room even before our last guests left, but poor Cleo . . . when I came into the bedroom after everyone had left, she ran away from me and hid under the bed. She finally let me pet her, and even pick her up, but the second I stepped out of the bedroom, she panicked. She clawed to get down, then ran back into the bedroom. All the noise and people and unfamiliar smells from the living room had scared her. The bedroom was her safe zone. She eventually came out and realized that her home is safe again. She's currently grooming herself on her blanket on top of the media center, perfectly content with Isis asleep beside her.

So that was our first international Thanksgiving. It was an adventure--a bit stressful, but a lot of fun. I don't think I'll be ready to host another such event by Christmas, but we'll see about next year.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Street Cleaning

Yesterday, I attended a street-cleaning event organized by the Maadi Environmental Rangers (MER). The MER is a group of women, mostly Egyptian women who have lived in Maadi for most or all of their lives, who are committed to bringing Maadi back to its former beauty. Apparently, Maadi was established by a group of four families and was governed by a set of rules designed to make Maadi a haven just outside of the craziness of Cairo. Each piece of property had a villa, a garden, and a wall. Outside the wall, there was a hedge and then a green area, or small lawn, next to the sidewalk.

Nirvana, one of the ladies in the MER, told me about how Maadi was run when she was growing up here: a private company, Sherka Maadi, ran the city. There were strictly-enforced regulations about cleanliness and water use. The presence of rubbish on the streets led to immediate fines; the wasting of water by allowing it to spill onto the sidewalks and roads also resulted in a fine. Trees were trimmed annually, so they provided beauty and shade, but did not interfere with use of sidewalks, which was common in those days.

Now, when walking through Maadi, rubbish is a common sight; I barely notice it anymore. Water frequently runs freely over the sidewalks and roads, as lawns and gardens are over-watered. Many sidewalks are un-useable, partially because of disrepair, but often because the trees and shrubs are so overgrown that there simply isn't room for a person to walk on them. The mission of the Maadi Environmental Rangers is to change all of that.

The Rangers have been on a long, slow campaign for change in Maadi. As with many projects for social change, they have found it wise to start with children in the schools. At first, they educated teachers and students about the importance of cleanliness in their classrooms. Then it expanded to the other areas of the school grounds. Now, the campaign is expanding to the streets around the schools. Eventually, the campaign will encompass all of Maadi.

One interesting subtext to this campaign is the reaction of the municipality and the company it has hired to clean Maadi. The current mayor of Maadi is new; he's been in office less than a year. His predecessor, however, signed a 20-year contract with a company that has not been diligent in fulfilling its obligations. The new mayor supports the MER's efforts and has begun imposing fines on the company in accordance with the contract. So far, there have been 28 fines of LE500 (roughly $100) each. The company cleaned some of the targeted area the day before yesterday's event, possibly because both the media and the mayor planned to be in attendance.

Yesterday's event was held around two public schools: Hadaek el Maadi el Qawmiya and Hadaek el Maadi el Tagribeyya. Twenty students from each school participated, ten from grades 4 and 5, and ten from grades 6 through 9. The students were divided into groups of three: most groups had two older students and one younger one, although some groups consisted of one adult volunteer and two younger students. Each group received a broom, a shovel, and a trash bag. Each student also received a t-shirt, gloves, and a mask.

The event ran from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Students from Hadaek el Maadi el Qawmiyah arrived when expected and were put to work on Road 82, Road 5, and Share' al-Sadd al-'Ali. Students from Hadaek el Maadi el Tagribeyya arrived about an hour late; there were inoculations they had to receive that morning. When they arrived, they were put to work on Road 82 and Road 3. The mayor arrived shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, I was photographing children near Road 5, and the mayor was speaking near Road 3, so I didn't know he was there until he was done. But I did get some pictures of him, and one of the organizers introduced me to him briefly. I wasn't expecting it; I was flustered enough that I even forgot to say "Forsa saida" (Happy opportunity, i.e., nice to meet you). Instead, I said the English equivalent, and Maggie translated.

I stayed until around 12:30 p.m., roaming around, taking pictures, and talking to a few of the children and adult volunteers. The children mostly said "hello" and that they love Maadi. They were more interested in asking me questions--"Where are you from? Do you know (insert name here)? He is from America too"--than in telling me what they thought of the clean up. But they loved smiling for the camera! The adults were eager to tell me about how beautiful Maadi used to be, how they want it to be that way again, and how important it is to teach the children--and their parents--about throwing trash away properly. I also met three newspaper journalists who were doing the same things I was doing--two of them young Americans working for English-language papers--and I saw three sets of TV journalists, although I didn't interact with them.

So why was I there, talking to people and taking pictures? It's simple: Debbie Nell, the editor of the Maadi Messenger, asked me to be there. She wants an article for the Messenger, but she had other obligations and couldn't go herself. So I was being a reporter for the first time in my life. I felt a little lost as far as what I was supposed to be doing, as evidenced by the fact that I missed the mayor's arrival, but the American journalists were encouraging. They told me who the mayor was; I didn't even notice him at first, because his bodyguard was dressed in a suit, too, and looked more imposing. I think I did too much photo-taking and not enough talking and listening, though. I probably should have interviewed people. I was lucky to see a couple of ladies that I've met through the Guild; they approached me and gave me information about what was going on. It'll be interesting modifying this blog post into something that passes for an acceptable "reporter-esque" article for the Messenger.

So, about those pictures--here are some more of my favorites. The rest of them are posted here.

Here are before/during/after shots of the corner of Road 5 and Road 82:

Here are some other random photos of kids, other volunteers, and the streets of Maadi:

But now, it's time for me to go. All this talk about cleaning has reminded me of something: just how badly I need to clean my own home!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Maybe Next Year

I've mentioned a few times in this blog that Jeff and I have been preparing to go to the Marine Ball, to be held tonight in Zamalek. Well, it turns out that we won't be going after all.

Jeff is sick. He was off work on Tuesday for Veterans Day, and he took Wednesday and Thursday as well, just because he has the leave and he was ready for a break. It was the perfect opportunity to make it a 5-day weekend. But on Tuesday, he suddenly got very tired, just half an hour before we were to leave for life group. He took a short nap and then felt well enough to go not only to life group, but then to play basketball afterward. On Wednesday, he started complaining of a mild case of . . . digestive problems . . . as well as achy muscles. Due to some medicine he took, the digestive issues were better yesterday, although he was still tired and achy. He was able to go to church last night with no real problem, other than being tired enough to gratefully accept a friend's offer of a ride home rather than walking like we normally would have done. But this morning, when he woke up around 10 (late even for him nowadays), he was miserable. He was still exhausted, his muscles and joints ached, and he had more . . . digestive problems, opposite the problems he had on Wednesday.

So we discussed it and decided to call some friends of ours. These friends go to the Marine Ball every year but were unable to get tickets this year. We had offered to get tickets for them when we got ours--embassy families were allowed to buy one pair of tickets for themselves plus one extra pair before they were offered for sale to the larger community--but these friends felt bad about the group that they normally go with, so they decided to wait and try to get enough for their whole group. That didn't work out, so they ended up regretting their decision not to take us up on our offer. But now they're going after all . . . I hope they like the steak dinner option, since that's what they're having . . . (when purchasing tickets, you had to pick your main course for dinner: a choice of steak, fish, maybe something else, and a vegetarian option).

On the one hand, it's disappointing not to be able to go to the ball this year. On the other hand, I'm actually a little relieved. I've been ambivalent about going.

On the one hand, it's a way to support the Marines, and everyone says it's a really good time.

On the other hand, I was really nervous about my appearance. I kind of felt like a little girl getting ready to play dress-up. The seamstress added a detail to my dress (the picture I showed her wasn't that great; it looked like the detail was there even though it wasn't) that I wasn't sure of at first and have decided that I don't like so much, and the straps I had her add take away from the dress more than I thought they would. They made it feel more like my junior bridesmaid's dress rather than the grown-up bridesmaid's dress. As of this morning, I still hadn't decided what to do with my hair--wearing it down seemed too casual and young, but I can't put it up well myself and I haven't done the research to find a good hairdresser here yet. Also, I usually don't wear makeup, because I hate how it feels on my face, and I haven't even gotten around to checking to see if my makeup (1) made it here from the States rather than being thrown away there and (2) is still in date and not clumpy or anything. So I was feeling a bit insecure about my appearance and I'm relieved to not be worrying about whether or not I'm going to make a fool of myself and embarrass Jeff (not that he'd ever tell me if I embarrassed him).

We've agreed with our friends that we'll go to the ball together next year--at least we will if the wehesh* choice of Obama doesn't cost their company their contract. By then, I'll make sure to have taken care of the makeup and hair details. I'll also have more time to decide on a dress style and be certain that I'll feel comfortable in it.

As for Jeff, he's sleeping on the couch now. He said that there was a bug going around the office not too long ago, and he thinks he got it, but his body wouldn't give in until he felt free to relax. If he isn't better by Sunday, he's going to visit the medical unit at the embassy.

*I love being able to use the word wehesh. It's really just the Arabic (masculine) word for bad--the feminine form is wehsha, and the plural is wehshiin--but it somehow seems to fit the meaning better than the English word.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Lunch at Condetti

Today I had lunch at the best-kept secret in Maadi: Condetti Restaurant and Cafe (named after a street in Rome). I heard about it from the owners themselves, when they signed the contract to be a food vendor at the Christmas bazaar a few weeks ago. The two owners had to meet with Marge, who happened to be with Pam and myself at the time. So all five of us were there for the contract signing. During the conversation that day, the owners made it clear that they wanted to treat the three of us to lunch one day so that we could experience the food and service firsthand and tell all our friends about it, if it was good. And let me tell you: IT'S GOOD.

Pam drove Marge and me over. We had a little difficulty finding it, but that's primarily because none of us are familiar with the part of Maadi to the west of the metro tracks, where Condetti is located. Once we found Road 6, it was easy to spot the sign pointing to the side street (Road 82) on which the restaurant is located. We parked around the block and walked to the restaurant, as parking is not the most abundant commodity anywhere in Maadi.

As we walked onto the charming porch, the door opened as if by magic. Of course, we soon saw the exceptionally polite young man in the snazzy uniform who had opened said door, but we were distracted almost immediately. The inside of the restaurant was gorgeous. There were comfortable seats around unique tables--the tabletops were glass, but they covered different compartments in the dark tables. On our corner booth table, one section had brightly colored beads showing through the glass, while another had leaves. I'm not sure what was in the other two sections, but the overall effect was very classy and upscale. Shania Twain's song "That Don't Impress Me Much" was playing quietly over the speakers--loud enough to hear, but not so loud as to interfere with conversation at all. Although it was a good song, it did not reflect our current experience--we were very impressed.

Very shortly after our arrival, we were greeted by one of the owners. He took our orders personally and relayed them to the waiter, although he amplified the orders a bit. I had ordered a club sandwich; Marge ordered an onion soup and a spring roll appetizer; and Pam ordered pea soup and a seafood salad. By the time we left our table, we had had those things, plus a bread basket, an extra bread loaf, a chicken caesar salad, and lasagna.

The bread basket arrived first. It was filled with different sorts of bread; there's no way I can identify what kinds. I first took a small triangular roll, which was delicious; then I had a darker round one--also delicious. Then the owner requested specifically that we try the multigrain loaf, which is new (he's deciding whether or not to keep it). It was without doubt the best bread I've had in a long time, if ever. Then he also pointed out a round roll with seeds on it, which also is new and therefore a special priority for him. It was not as good as the loaf, but still tasty.

While we were enjoying the plethora of bread, the soups arrived. Both received raving reviews. Then the salads arrived. Pam ate seafood salad; Marge ate chicken caesar; I tried a little of both. Both were good, but the chicken caesar was outstanding. There was something unusual about the dressing; I can't put my finger on it, but it was delicious.

Then the entrees arrived: my sandwich and Marge's spring roll appetizer. At this point, we already were full--even though we hadn't finished the salads. Maybe half of each salad was gone, but we were stuffed. So Marge ate one or two spring rolls and I ate one of the four sections of my sandwich, as well as the huge black olive attached to it (I love olives). The sandwich was very good, and Marge also had good reports on the spring rolls.

Then the lasagna arrived. We each had just a bite or two of it, because we had eaten so much already but the owner wanted our feedback. It was amazingly good. Stuffed as I was, I could have finished off that lasagna just because it was so good. Marge saved me from gorging myself by asking to have the food boxed up to go. She won't be hungry tonight and therefore won't cook, so her husband gets the rest of the lasagna and the caesar salad for dinner. I brought home my sandwich. Pam brought home the seafood salad . . . and there was something else in her bag, too, maybe the rest of Marge's spring rolls. Or maybe Pam ended up with the lasagna and Marge got the spring rolls. I'm not sure.

Then someone said something about wanting a smoke. There were ash trays on the table, as there are in every restaurant in Egypt, but since Pam had mentioned that I don't smoke, the owner suggested we go outside on the patio where the breeze would help diffuse the smoke. The smokers would have coffee and a smoke; I would have creme brulee. I came off on the better end of that deal; although the smokers did end up sharing a creme brulee, I had my own. And I ate it, too, every bite. It was light and sweet and very yummy.

As you can tell, I was impressed with everything about the restaurant. I particularly was impressed with the generosity of the owner. When Marge asked about the possibility of us ordering multigrain bread loaves for an upcoming Maadi Women's Guild meeting, he readily agreed and even gave a discounted price. We promised to make sure everyone knows where the bread came from.

The owner also showed us a review from the Maadi Messenger that was done back in May, I think, after the restaurant opened in April. There was one negative thing said about the restaurant in the review--that the diner was charged for the bread basket even though it was brought to the table as if it were included--and the owner wanted to make sure we knew that he listened to that criticism and made changes accordingly. Now, the price of the bread basket is listed on the menu, and the bread isn't brought unless it's ordered. He practically begged us to criticize something so he could make it right, but none of us could find anything to criticize.

The food, the service, the atmosphere . . . it was all wonderful. I would recommend this restaurant to anyone living in or visiting the Maadi area. It's located at 10 Road 82, just off Road 6. According to the business card, there's also a Condetti in Dokki at 33 Oman Street. It's also on Otlob, if you prefer delivery to eating out. Oh, and while I was perusing the menu, I took a look at the prices as well. They're a little more than you would pay for Egyptian food, but this food is primarily Italian with a little bit of everything else available, too, so you would expect to pay a little more for this than for Egyptian. And the serving sizes were huge, even if we hadn't ended up with multiple entrees per person, so it's well worth it.