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.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Christmas Bazaar Update

The last couple of days have been busy getting ready for the Christmas bazaar. On Sunday afternoon, after Bible study in the morning, I met Pam to go solicit more donations. She had been out that morning with Marge and was feeling discouraged: they hadn't received a single item. Most stores were closed. It hadn't occurred to us that lots of places are closed on Fridays and Sundays here, rather than all weekend. Looking around, I noticed all the locked-up shops. Pam and I agreed that the best thing to do would be to wait until today, then try again. But neither of us wanted the day to end with nothing to show for it, so we agreed to stop at Volume 1 (a book and office supply shop) and ask there and at the other shops on that block. We still ended up the day with nothing in our hands, but we did get one firm commitment and a couple of others who promised to ask the owner or manager. We agreed to come back by some of those shops "bokra," which was today.

Not long after I got home, I got a phone call from Pam. Our plans had been changed by executive order. Marge had arranged for us to go to the Wadi Degla Club, where the bazaar will be held, to see the spaces set aside for us. Because we had committed to going back to those particular stores today, though, I wanted to make sure we went. Pam agreed; we decided to stop by on the way back from the club.

So this afternoon--after staying very busy this morning with other commitments--I walked down to the church, where I met Nancy, the MWG treasurer. The two of us rode out to Wadi Degla together, where we joined the club manager and an Egyptian woman--I forget her name, that's awful of me--who is very involved in MWG. She was negotiating--very assertively--on the phone with the guy who rented us tables and chairs last year. I was proud of myself because I could understand about 25% of what she was saying. Pam, Marge, and Lidia joined us soon after we arrived.

The group of us talked some about how things worked last year and how they'll work this year. While we sat there, Marge received a phone call from a nice Cairo hotel--Halina dropped off a letter and made a request; they have an envelope waiting for us at the reception desk. We don't know yet if it'll be a free room or a free meal at their restaurant. I was given a pack of tickets to sell as the opportunity arises. (Shameless plug--those of you in Egypt who will be in town on 12 December 2008 and want something really fun and charitable to do between noon and 4pm, contact me--leave a comment if you don't know me personally--and we can make arrangements for you to buy a ticket from me. They're LE30 each.) Then we all went for a walk to see the different areas where we'd be.

The food vendors will set up on the tennis courts. They'll bring out long extension cords or generators or something to provide electricity. The product vendors will be on the soccer field, I think, or anyways, on a big grassy field near the tennis courts. The silent auction will be in an air conditioned (if we still need it by then) room. The room has four doors, but we'll probably only have two open for loss prevention reasons. The pillars in the room naturally divide it into three areas, with a fourth area created by a serving counter. (The room usually functions as a coffee shop.) We've got ideas about how to arrange the tables, but the final decision will wait until we know how much stuff we have.

Then Pam and I headed back into Maadi to make our stops for the day. On the way, Pam told me about her morning. She had gone out with Marge again, with some success. She had generous gift certificates to a restaurant that's popular among expats, a beautiful embroidered pillow sham, and a wooden box with metal (maybe bronze) overlay from an Indian home decor shop. She also received promises for items from other shops. At the shops we visited together, we received a nice duvet and two shams from one store, and two beautiful ceramic plates from another. We also were told by one manager that he had spoken with the owner and was pretty sure he'd donate; I'll go back on Wednesday while Pam has other commitments. We also stopped in at a shop that was closed yesterday; that shop's owner will be in tomorrow, so we'll go back then.

It's working out just like Marge said it would: we go, we go back, sometimes we get stuff then, sometimes we go back a third time. She said there will be fourth visits. We drop off letters if the decision-maker isn't there. Sometimes we're convinced the letter goes in the trash; sometimes it makes our next visit easier because the owner has read the letter and has decided already what to give. But things are happening. Pam was smiling today.