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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Getting a Ride

Previous to moving to Egypt, my life in many aspects was quite simple. If I needed a carpet, I went and bought one. If I didn't like a piece of furniture, I took it to DI or listed it on Craigslist. If my faucet leaked, Brandon fixed it (or didn't). And if I needed to go to the airport, I called someone for a ride or just drove my car up there and, like the real adult I was, actually paid for long-term parking.

I leave for the US at 4:30 AM Tuesday morning (for those of you who were wondering, I took the Frankfurt route) and have to get from my apartment in Maadi to the airport about 30 minutes away. Previously this wouldn't have been a problem; we would have just called up a driver and arranged to have him pick us up and take us to the airport. Simple. All it took was money. Now, however, with two children, two car seats, two adults, a stroller, and four bags, those nice little Mitsubishi sedans that the private drivers pilot won't quite fit everything and everybody.

I was mentioning this fact several weeks ago to a friend, and she passed on the vital information that the Embassy provides transportation for any 'official' travel - and the Embassy has no small sedans in their fleet.

Armed with that knowledge, I did what every wife should do: I passed it on to Brandon and told him to take care of it. However, one week before our trip, Brandon still hadn't had time to ask the ten different people it took to find anything out.

Being a grown-up adult, I took matters into my own hands and, after telling the girls to be quiet because I was making phone calls, I started dialing numbers.

First I called the motor pool clerk. Oh, he told me, I needed to call the shuttle dispatcher. Then I called the shuttle dispatcher. No, no, he countered, I needed to call the travel office. Fighting the urge to give it up for another day, I called the travel office. We don't do that, I was told, you need to do that online. And how does one do that online? I asked. Well, we'll send you an email with instructions.

So, 30 minutes later I opened the email, followed the link, entered my magic code, and registered for the website. 30 minutes after that, I was told that the website had gotten my registration, but Cairo had to confirm it. So I waited. And waited. This morning (having called everyone yesterday morning), I called the travel office again. Oh, oh we'll get in touch with IT and they'll send you that email.

This afternoon, after no email, I called again. Oh yes, Mrs. Sherwood, there still hasn't been any email sent, but don't worry you still have until Monday to order the transportation. And how much notice do they need, I asked. 24 hours. Hm, Monday is too late then because I'm leaving at 4:30 AM, and that only gives you guys one more day to get things together.

I suppose in the end, maybe we can fit two adults, two children, two car seats, a double stroller and four bags in a Mitsubishi. Kathleen can always ride on top.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


With only a week to go before the girls and I head off the the US, I've been getting things ready. For those of you who aren't aware, my husband's employer 'strongly recommends' delivering babies in the US, which necessitates a little more planning than a regular birth. Due to airline restrictions, we have to leave Cairo six weeks before my due date, and due to governmental regulations, we can't return until Edwin and I are medically cleared and Edwin has a passport and a visa, another six weeks.

However, after having read about my friend's experience delivering a baby here recently in a 'nice' hospital in Cairo, I'm now more accepting of an 18-hour cross-global flight by myself with two small children. Perspective is a good thing.

Since Brandon is going to be a lone man for the next three months, I've been preparing some comforts for him to enjoy during our long absence. Before you start feeling sorry for Brandon, envisioning endless dinners of rice and long hours cleaning our spacious apartment, don't worry - I didn't leave him comfortless. Rere will be coming twice a week to clean, do the laundry, and cook for him so he'll be okay on the material end of things.

Rere, however, is Egyptian and will be cooking Egyptian food, so we've been making bread, English muffins, cookie dough, and marmalade for him to snack on. The marmalade, I must admit, is more for my jealous guarding of the precious mango jam than for an extreme concern for Brandon if he were to go jam-less. He does like marmalade, however, and so I think most of the mango jam should be safe.

I'm also packing and setting things in order for yet another uprooting (albeit temporary). Kathleen is excited about flying on an airplane - and one that includes breakfast! Sophia doesn't have a clear idea of what's going on, but is getting old enough to pick up on context clues. Every time I pull out a suitcase she starts screaming bloody murder. I'm not looking forward to the airport scene.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

We had no idea

Recently Kathleen got new nursery leaders. Or, to be more accurate, she finally got nursery leaders. Unlike most wards, the Cairo branch goes through turmoil every summer, losing about one third of its members, with the Primary usually suffering very heavily from loss of teachers and so the branch limps along as best as it can until everyone is finally settled down.

As a method of introduction, the husband in the nursery pair thought it funny to introduce himself AA-style. 'I'm Aden,' he told the mostly non-verbal children, 'and I've been off the bottle for 24 years.'

Kathleen was next. 'I- I- I'm Kathleen,' she continued in mimicry, 'and- and... I'm... still on the bottle.' With that pronouncement, she buried her head in her hands evidently in shame as the other children looked on in puzzlement and Aden's wife tried to stifle her guffaws.

We'll be putting her in rehab next week.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


As I child, I remember my mother being pregnant and one specific incident. One day (after having had a hard day I imagine), I remember her laying on the couch resting. She was so tired that she called my sister home from a friend's house to bring her a glass of water. At the time I remember thinking how lazy my mom was and couldn't she just get a glass of water herself?

I now repent of my bad thoughts. With a very, very long two months to go before the watermelon gets removed from my innards all I want to do all day is lay on that same couch and have Kathleen bring me drinks of water - only that she'd probably spill it on me. Instead I have to be content with having her pick up all of the things that I can't bear the thought of bending over for. Every night I strongly consider having cold cereal for dinner and my children are only saved from their fondest dream by guilty thoughts of nutrition.

I always forget this stage, or it seems less miserable when I'm not actually living it. But for now, two months is a long long time.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A little taste of grocery shopping

I've looked at my posts recently and realized that most of them concern more domestic matters and none of the hair-raising stories that some of you enjoyed during my first time in Cairo. Unfortunately for those who are looking for the more exotic side of my life, I have to tell you that really, there isn't one. Being a mother of two small children really is mostly the same no matter where you live - lots of breaking up of fights and telling people to sit down and eat their food.

However, there are some differences, so today I'll tell you about grocery shopping.

Just like in the US, there are various places I get my groceries: Carrefour (like a Super Wal-Mart, but French), the Commissary, and Rere. Every Sunday I give Rere a list of fresh fruits and vegetables that I need for the upcoming week, and on Wednesday she shows up with whatever I asked for (she also buys the eggs and aeesh [pita] bread). That's my favorite way to shop.

However, there are some things that one can't get on the local market or are cheaper at the Commissary - like all dairy products. Since our family drinks a lot of milk, I have to go to the Commissary every two weeks for milk as it costs about $2 a gallon less (and is a lot tastier) than Egyptian milk. While I'm there I pick up other things that are more expensive on the local market, like cold cereal, butter, cheese, ice cream, shampoo, and laundry detergent or I just can't get, like brown sugar, cream of tartar, powdered sugar and dryer sheets.

The Commissary, as some of you may remember, is in one of the ubiquitous walled compounds that all American facilities are in, and has restricted access. We don't have a car, and so I have to take other transportation to get there. Local black-and-white taxis aren't allowed so we use a private driver/taxi service that did something to allow them access to all of the compounds (baksheesh? who knows? I don't care as long as it works).

So, my trip to the Commissary starts by saying goodbye to the girls because I only go shopping on days that Rere comes (one of the perks of living in Egypt), after which I go four floors down, and say hello to the two or three bawabs hanging out in the entry to my building. I go outside where the car is waiting and get in with perhaps a brief greeting, perhaps not. The drivers are not very talkative.

Then I sit in the backseat and watch the cars swirl around me as the driver deftly maneuvers through traffic. We drive out of Maadi and under the Autostrade, past fields of trash and rubble, past the newspaper-sellers table with rocks holding down the newspapers, past a mosque, and past several sleeping guards. When we get to the compound, the car goes through the customary explosive-sweep, after which we drive through the compound and I get out at the door to the Commissary while the driver parks his car.

While in the Commissary I can pretend that I'm in a deserted small Safeway in the States (more often than not I'm the only person there) as I peruse the aisles looking for Malt-O-Meal cereal and Bounce laundry sheets. All of you know about that part of grocery shopping.

After paying for my groceries, I make sure to tip the baggers who then wheel a cart with the bags out to the car while the bagger and driver put the bags in the trunk. I'm still not quite sure what I'm supposed to do at this point. We take the same route home and the driver stops at the entrance of the building. I get out, and one of the bawabs (who we pay 50 pounds a month apiece to do this) helps the driver get the bags out of the trunk and into the elevator. I pay the driver, and then get into the elevator with the bawab and ride up to our floor where he helps me take the bags inside. And then I put the groceries away.

So, now you know about grocery shopping. I told you that my life isn't very exciting.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Yesterday four Egyptian men showed up at our apartment and completed one more step in making our house a home. When we moved into this apartment, I quickly declared that about 1/3 of the furniture would have to go. In preparation for its departure, I started piling up extra furniture in the future nursery and in extra spaces around the house.

And so yesterday, much to their dismay, the poor men had to figure out how to get: four mattresses, four box springs, four bed frames, four headboards, four 7-ft bookshelves, one entertainment center, one china cabinet, one curio cabinet, one 6-ft dresser, one night stand, three mirrors, one hall table, one desk, one chair, and four lamps down the elevator and into their waiting truck.

It took an hour to get the things out of our apartment, and then another hour to get it all downstairs and into the truck. The irony of course is that after we leave in two years they're just going to have to get it all back up here again.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Daddy's little girl

Brandon claims that there are times in every father's life where one's offspring spontaneously produces thoughts or ideas that makes one proud. Unfortunately those times are usually the ones that makes the mother cringe.

Today at breakfast, Kathleen was identifying letters on the milk carton (sometime I will take a picture of it for you) and she correctly identified a lower-case i. "And what does 'I' say?" I prompted, reinforcing the reading lessons we've begun recently.

"I says /i/, like in icky-icky putang!" she happily responded. Brandon beamed, his warm paternal heart glowing with joy at having instilled some of the 'knowledge' of the ages in his little girl's intellect. I promise, though, that she hasn't actually seen Monty Python - she only knows what her father has told her.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Ten days ago, I made a gamble: instead of diapers, I pulled out panties and put them on Sophia. She is old enough, I reasoned, to put two and two together and figure out that panties are not diapers and start using the little red potty we had gotten her.

I was wrong. After 10 days of wiping up messes from the floor (thank heaven 80% of the flooring in our house is stone), emphasizing and re-emphasizing where exactly business is supposed to be done, threatening, cajoling, and bribing, not much has changed except for Sophia's ability to hold it longer.

And so this morning I pulled the diapers out again. I've realized two things: some fights just aren't worth it and there are worse things than changing dirty cloth diapers.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


Recently, Brandon called his mother for her birthday. Long ago in a land far away, he picked up his phone, dialed ten numbers, and then sang her Happy Birthday.

Today he started at 6:15. First he dialed 8 numbers, then talked to somebody, dialed two more, and then was told that the number was invalid. So he tried again. Then I tried again. And again.

After waiting 30 minutes, he tried again, and then got to dial 10 more numbers, only to not have it work. He tried again, with the same result.

Not wanting to try the patience of the man who kept answering the phone after the initial 8 numbers, he waited an hour this time, and got all the way through 8 numbers, 2 numbers, 12 numbers, 10 numbers and 10 more numbers only to have it not work – again.

Then, it being his mother’s birthday after all, and being a boy who really loved his mother, he tried one last stinkin’ time. And this time, after punching buttons on the phone 43 times in the correct sequence, he heard his mother’s sweet melodious voice. And he wished her Happy Birthday.

Monday, October 5, 2009

So that's why they do it

This afternoon, after spending three hours traveling up to the Embassy and back in order to have the priveledge of providing a ‘sample’ and listen to Edwin’s heart beat, I decided to order in some dinner. I’m pregnant. I can do that sometimes.

So, I went to my trusty computer, turned it on, and then watched as the little spinning wheel just keep spinning and spinning and spinning. After nothing happened for awhile, I looked at the router. No magic green light for anything related to the internet. So I unplugged it and plugged it back in. Still no results. After a few more attempts, I had to face the reality: we had nothing coming to our house.

Usually in this situation, I wait to see how things develop. However, this time dinner was on the line, so we needed some action, and we needed it now. So I took a drastic step and called TE Data.

After a few menus, the man on the line told me that the problem was simple: we hadn’t paid our internet, which was due on the 24th. All we had to do was get somebody over to TE Data, pay some money, and wait for it to get turned back on.

At this point in the states, I would have said OK and sent Brandon racing over with some cash as soon as he got home. But I’m an expat now, and I live in Egypt. Things are different here. Instead, I told him he was wrong. We had paid already, and we had paid two months in advance. Yes, he told me, but our two months were up. No, I told him, that wasn’t right because we only got internet three weeks ago. No you don’t understand he told me, you can’t pay three months in advance, only two.

At this point, I entered my expat persona with full force: I started yelling. No! I told him, YOU don’t understand – we just paid three weeks ago!! We paid two months in advance!! The internet should be working!!

Then he told me to hold on a minute while he checked with billing. Full of apologies, he came back in a minute. ‘I’m so sorry madam, there was a mistake. We’ll have it back on in less than two hours.’

I should think so.

Diplomatic Privileges

I've always been impressed with the title 'diplomat.' It conjures images of men in dark power suits and leather attache cases deciding the fate of the world over stiff drinks in a very chic restaurant.

Then my husband became a diplomat, and the prestige of the word fell down a few notches - along with 'vice consul, third secretary.' I suppose that's probably true of most titles; they're much more impressive when they are attached to people that you don't personally know.

Along with our status of diplomat (yes, evidently I am one too because I have an official card from Egypt stating that I am a diplomat. Who knew you just had to marry the right guy?) comes the vaunted 'diplomatic immunity.' Although what exactly I'm immune from nobody has quite explained yet. I still get sick. I still have to pay the same taxi rates. I don't have a car so I can't run down pedestrians in the street. I can't really get away with stepping to the front of the line at the store while waving my card and declaring I'm a diplomat so I deserve to go first. Pretty much I'm just like everyone else (well except for the rent-free thing).

Recently, however, I discovered one of the perks of being a diplomat: diplomatic rates. This coming weekend is a long weekend thanks to our friend Christopher Columbus having discovered a whole new continent. This being the last long weekend before I leave Brandon a lone man for three months, I decided to arrange a trip to the closest beach, Ain Sokhna. Some friends had recommended the Movenpick resort based on a previous trip, so I gave them a call.

I asked for the resident rate, which the reservation desk claimed was an astounding 1500 pounds a night (I never trust anyone quoting me any prices). I like beaches and I like Brandon, but I couldn't quite justify that for one night, a beach, and a swimming pool. So then I tried a tactic the same friends suggested, I asked for the diplomatic rate.

Suddenly the price dropped to 850 pounds, a not-unreasonable price that includes taxes, breakfast, and dinner for a reportedly five-star resort. And plus I get the warm glow of unjustified pride that comes with asking for the 'diplomatic rate.' It almost makes me feel like a legitimate adult.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Last Saturday, Brandon and I decided to get out and go to Egypt. For those of you who are wondering ‘Don’t they live in Egypt?’ you are right, but not quite right. Although we live in Egypt – most people speak Arabic, I pay for things with Egyptian pounds, and everything takes 10 times longer to complete – we don’t actually spend much time in the Egypt that most Egyptians think of being their home.

In fact, if one lived in the compound, took the shuttle to work, shopped exclusively at the Commissary, and spent their weekend at Maadi house, they wouldn’t ever actually have to leave US-administered locations.

Brandon having had enough of US-administered locations, we decided to visit his friend Samir in Helwan. Last time we lived here, Brandon spent nearly every day, 4 or 5 hours a day, passing time with Samir in his family’s store, going on errands, or hanging out at their apartment. Brandon liked to refer to Samir as his 35 year-old Egyptian boyfriend.

So on Saturday for old times’ sake, we dressed up the girls, hiked over to the Metro, and headed down to Helwan, a very Egyptian area of Cairo. Both Brandon and I had made the trip before, but this time we had two little blonde girls with us which increased our foreigner profile dramatically.

Unfortunately for our trip, we had not factored in the Muslim holiday of Eid-Al-Fitr, the slam-bang finish to Ramadan which involves, of course, more eating. Samir’s store being a store, it is situated right in the middle of the shopping district of Helwan.

So Kathleen got to have a waist-level tour of vegetable stalls, countless stinky Egyptians, animals, fish stands, potholes full of slime and muck, and everything else that comes with third-world markets. I looked down at one point to see her covering her mouth while commenting ‘Something smells good. It smells like poop’ (she hasn’t figured out that ‘smell’ and ‘good’ don’t always have to be linked together). By the time we reached Samir’s store, Kathleen was about to go into social withdrawal.

Unfortunately for us, she didn’t and we had a very… nice… visit that was punctuated by warnings every five minutes to Kathleen about not touching anything and Sophia crying, as of course the visit took place in the middle of their nap.

Eventually we headed back to Samir’s place around 1:30 or 2 for ‘breakfast’ which the Kathleen wouldn’t touch and Sophia ate everything offered to her, including gargir, also known as arugula grown much larger and bitterer than it ever ought to have.

We finally used the girls incessant crying and whining to escape and straggled home around 4:30 – only six hours after we left. Make sure and come back – like tomorrow – Samir told us as we hustled out of his apartment. Hmm. We’ll have to see about that.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Mango Jam

Yesterday, Rere came through my door with two very heavy bags. In each bag was 10 pounds of mangoes. Yesterday afternoon after coming home from my doctor’s appointment, I set to work. Two hours later, my hands were cramped and aching, and my skin and fingernails were dyed yellow. When I went to bed, I was followed by the scent of mango that still hadn’t washed off.

However, I had four containers of pulp ready to make four batches of jam with. Seven bags of pulp were in my freezer, ready when the urge for mango jam or mango custard strikes me. My pioneer ancestors would be proud.

What would you do?

The other day I was given the choice between two very unpleasant options.

Option #1: Leave Cairo at 12:30 AM, get to New York at 6:15 AM, and then wait until 2:15 PM before catching a flight down to Raleigh.

Option #2: Leave Cairo at 4:30 AM, get to Frankfurt at 8 AM, leave at 11, get to DC at 2:30, leave at 4 and get to Raleigh at 5.

And I get to do this with two children by myself. So which particular slow death would you choose?