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.

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