The views expressed in this blog are personal and not representative of the U.S. Government, etc etc etc.
Read at your own risk.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Stranger than Fiction

When Brandon joined the Foreign Service, and I learned that he was officially a 'diplomat,' visions of cocktail hours, embassy balls, and galas passed through my mind. With over a year of diplomatic life now under my belt, life has been similar to what I really knew diplomatic life would be like. Life is remarkably similar with three small children no matter where one lives or what one's husband does for work. A black silk cocktail dress that I bought upon Brandon's job offer still hung in my closet, with tags attached.

Until recently. Brandon's boss, the deputy consul-general, is leaving soon. As is usual in a tight-knit community of expatriates, various going-away parties have been thrown for her. So when Brandon sent an email detailing one that was being hosted by some friends at the Kempinski hotel, we RSVP'd and arranged for a babysitter.

I pulled out the dress, put on some impossibly high heels and my pearls, and we headed up to Garden City. Brandon told the cab driver the name of the hotel but he hadn't heard of it, so he drove us to the cross streets listed, and we got out at a building that could be a hotel. When we came to the front door and were asked our business, we named our quest, expecting to be directed to this or that ballroom.

Instead two gentlemen at the door warmly shook our hands and welcomed us both to the Kempinski hotel. What enthusiasm, I thought, the hotel must fairly new and have people to spare to welcome guests. When we were ushered into the entryway and given cold towels to wash our hands with upon entering the foyer, I realized that we were being hosted in the hotel entryway. I wondered what the other guests were doing; perhaps using the back entrance? This must be some party.

We soon found out that the party hosts were the hotel owners, and that the hotel itself was not yet open. After being served our non-alcoholic apple-ginger cocktails so happily fetched by a waiter, we found out that the party was also to include a tour of the hotel itself. Never one to turn down a tour of somewhere I'll never have the money to go myself, I happily followed the Ambassadors American and German up the stairs and dodged their security as we were ushered into The Blue.

Brandon and I waved off proffered glasses of white wine, and followed the confused crowd that soon found themselves with plates of beef carpaccio salad with balsalmic vinegar and parmesan cheese. Everyone found themselves a seat among the gleaming silver cutlery and Tiffany-blue chairs and enjoyed the elegance of a restaurant that would likely cost an Egyptian's month's wages to eat at.

After finishing our salads and making comments on the ability of decorators to make large bronzed chickens fit in a five-star hotel, we were herded out of The Blue into Osmanly. There, among the rich Turkish red walls, deep laquered seats, cut crystal glasses, and a new silverware pattern, we were given various dips and a red cocktail to accompany our Ottoman Turkish dishes.

Following that repast, we followed our guides around a few corners and into an elevator. The elevator carried us to the top floor, and out to the pool. We enjoyed a chocolate sorbet palate cleanser accompanied by champagne again (for some) and looked out over the lights dotting the Nile under a full moon.

Being used, at this point, to not knowing what was happening next, we found ourselves on the tenth floor with more gleaming silver, perfectly arranged flowers, and places set for dinner. Sherry was the proffered drink for this round, and to go with it lamb, braised leeks, and something small and mashed with an olive on top to the side. Upon finding that I didn't drink, the waiter practically danced away to find me a cocktail of mixed berries with mint to refresh instead.

Following the meltingly tender lamb and funny stories from the British School headmaster, we enjoyed dessert of various custards and mouses in small, chic glasses. The meal was closed by speeches, thanks, and an invitation to retire to the Jazz Club (with live jazz, of course) for cigars and Cognac.
At this point, Brandon and I (who had been expecting something entirely different and had planned to get in, get out, and get gone) looked at our watches to find the time closing in on 10:00 and declined both the cigars and Cognac.

On our way out, we were given a Kempinski hotel gift bag complete with commemorative ankh keychain. When the doorman found that we had come by taxi, he practically ran onto the Corniche to hail us one, and thanked Brandon for the kindness of his tip.

And then we came home and returned to real life where bums have to be wipes, noses noses, and dinner cooked.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Does Ketchup Come with That?

Recently, Brandon's brother put forth the opinion that Obama was to blame for the slow clean-up of the gulf oil spill, and that the government should have stepped in to 'fix everything.' Upon questioning, he admitted to socialist leanings.

Having spent over a year now in the fold of the federal government and coming from my recent experience of trying to arrange travel to the US for our summer visit, I would like to offer a scenario of how things would go if the well meaning, but incredibly inefficient government took over.

How it is done now:
1. Decide that you would like some McDonald's
2. Go to McDonald's, talk with the man in the speaker, and get your food.
3. Pay for it.

How it would be done by the government:
1. Decide that you would like to have some food in a week.
2. Fill out an online form requesting food. As the form has no clear instructions, ask friends, neighbors and family members how they filled out their form. Dial customer service, where you will get someone who has no idea what they're talking about. Don't forget to note the date and time you would like food.
3. Wait for your form to be checked over by four separate people.
4. Fill the form out again to correct the errors that the last person found.
5. Resubmit.
6. Receive an okay, and call the food scheduling office.
7. Speak to the office, and find out what restaurants they have a contract to work with.
8. Be given a choice of two meals that are in the contract.
9. Choose your meal.
10. Receive an authorization certifying that the government will pay for your food.
11. Go to McDonald's (if it's in the contract), and pick up your food. Make sure to pay for the food.
12. Submit a voucher online. Ask friends, relatives, and co-workers how to submit the voucher. Don't forget the receipt and three other proofs that you went to McDonald's and got the food.
13. Wait for your voucher to be checked over for four other people.
14. Have it returned for errors.
15. Resubmit.
16. Receive reimbursement for your hamburger.
17. If you would like ketchup, go back to step 1.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

I can't say I wasn't warned

Most of the time being the mother of three-under-four isn't that bad. With the aid of Rere, my house is always clean. I only ever have to go out with all three once a week, to church. Edwin kindly takes 2-3 naps a day, and goes to bed at 5.

But three problem with three is that, well there are three. If one has a bad day, at least the other two are pleasant. If two have a bad day, there's still one left to remind me that I really do love my children. But if all three children choose the very same day to lose all sense of decency and kindness, heaven help us all.

Sophia started off this morning by not drinking her milk. Yesterday morning she didn't drink her milk either, and I'd had enough of trying to use all methods known to motherkind to get a two year-old to drink-your-blasted-milk-why-don't-you. Screaming and yelling will work in a pinch.

Edwin has recently turned six months old. Both the girls turned nasty at six months, not ever pleased with anything and abandoning nice long naps in favor of short erratic unpredictable ones. Edwin decided to eschew his 2-3 hour nap this afternoon in favor of a much shorter 45-minute one. And he decided to do it 15 minutes after I fell asleep for my nap.

Kathleen and Sophia have swim lessons twice a week. Kathleen has had mixed feelings, but mostly positive after her initial screaming session. Today, she evidently felt nostalgic and spent 55 minutes of the 45-minute lesson crying. She even tried to gag for crying so hard.

Sophia is potty trained. Mostly. Every now and then she'll fail to stave off what is inevitable, and this afternoon failed in her efforts, creating a trail 15 feet long across the carpet and floor.

And Brandon, the girls' one bright hope for making it to bedtime safe and whole, just left from work. An hour late.

Mama said there would be days like this, and I knew what I was getting into. But that's cold comfort when the days themselves arrive in full glory. Thank heaven for bedtime.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Falsely Accused

Friday afternoon after dinner, Kathleen brought Brandon's mini Russian dictionary to the table with an apology. Sorry, she told Brandon, that it had gotten all wet. But how did it get wet, with the middle pages soaking and end pages dry?

Brandon stepped down to investigate, and found a large corner of the carpet by the bookshelves soaking also. The wet area was quite large, and we could find no source for the water. It wasn't likely to be seeping up out of the floor.

With no visible source, we quizzed the girls. Did either know what happened? Kathleen immediately claimed no part in the problem, but pointed the finger to her younger sister. Sophia, happy to claim the blame, admitted that yes, she had gotten the carpet wet. We asked her how, but she wasn't talking.

With a stern lecture about not putting water on carpets (thank heaven for stone floors), we put a fan on the spot, and finished cleaning up dinner. Sometime during the events, Sophia solved the mystery by explaining that she had wet the carpet with her watering can so that she could wash it. We explained that watering cans are only for watering plants, and thought nothing more of it.

Until Sunday morning, when I found the carpet wet, again. This time, there was a definite trail - from the wall. I checked the air conditioning closet to find 1 1/2 inches of water on the floor. After facilities came to check it out, there was only a drainage hose askew.

The next time I need a ready confession, I'll just ask Sophia for one. Not only is she willing, but she's creative, too

Sunday, June 20, 2010

You win some, you lose some

By many accounts, life with the State Department is pretty plush. Upon entering the Foreign Service, you are provided with housing which you don't pay for (provided you live overseas), a complete set of matching furniture for every room in the housing that you didn't pay for and don't pay for, upkeep on the housing that you don't pay for, access to a medical unit at post that you don't pay for, and flights back to the US once a year that... you don't pay for.

I enjoy not paying for all of those things. I enjoy the ---- dollars that go into my savings every month instead of into a mortgage payment or upkeep. I enjoy not having to decide whether we should see family or save the six thousand dollars it would take to do so. I enjoy having a seat for Edwin for our flights across the world to see the family. I enjoy, in between posts, having 4-6 weeks of additional vacation to see some more of that family.

However, there are always downsides to a free ride, or rather lunch. When my paid for housing doesn't have adequate air conditioning in the kitchen and my butter barely holds it shape and all chocolate has to be refrigerated because the temperature routinely hovers around 85 degrees, I am somewhat annoyed. Not enough to start paying my rent, but I don't like cooking dinner with sweat running down my back.

And if I might ask that perhaps an AC unit be put in the kitchen, or maybe just a fan, I do feel a tiny spark of frustration when I'm told that I'm free to have it put in - if I pay for it (and then enjoy it for the next 14 months until I leave and somebody else gets to enjoy it). Or if the bathrooms have nothing even resembling a vanity, I am once again welcome to have some custom cabinetry made at my own expense that I am then again welcome to leave for the next occupant.

Or when I'm scheduling flights (that I don't have to pay for) and I'm told that the flight that I have to take is one that only has three seats together and so I get to choose which one - the three year-old? the two year-old? the six month-old? gets to spend 9 1/2 hours on a separate row, I do heave a few large sighs.

But of course, I'm the only one heaving them for myself because everyone else in the normal working world has to shell out big bucks to have all of those things. And I'm grateful for the extra cash. But sometimes, just sometimes I'd like to have it be my choice that my kitchen isn't air conditioned - because hey, I don't like to pay high rent. Or I took that lousy flight because I'd rather use the money on something fun.

Of course those minor annoyances aren't enough to give up the perks. Just minor annoyances, that's all.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Dear Cairo,

I knew what you were when I decided to come here. I spent a whole summer in your sweaty embrace, living mostly air-conditioning free. I walked your streets in the melting sun. I rode your Metro on days that I couldn't touch to pole from your broiling, burning heat. I experienced sweat from places I never knew had sweat glands.

However, I am tired of your relentless, pounding sunshine that heats my cold water up to 100+ degrees straight out of the tap. I don't like your burning rays that scorch my child's feet on the blistering pool deck. The rattle of incessant air-conditioning forever echoes through my apartment. My ceiling fan has been on for at least a month straight. Brandon's birthday chocolates were melted in the box. The days of cool mornings and pleasant afternoons are a distant memory.

Cairo, it's only mid-June. I have three more months of your endless heat. I don't know if we can stay friends much longer. I just want you to know.


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Swimming Lessons

After watching all of the three year-olds at Maadi House swim like fishes last summer, I signed the girls up for swim lessons. Kathleen has always been resistant to trying new things, and so spent the first 45-minute session crying. The entire lesson. Thankfully she has calmed down and now only spends a few minutes each lesson crying.

Sophia, on the other hand, has to be kept from throwing herself off the steps at any available moment to come squirming through the water over to me.

And so we purchased two sets of child-sized goggles. Sophia for whatever reason decided that the best accessory to goggles was... nothing. I'm not sure how well that will go over in a Muslim country.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mamas, don't let your daughters grow up to marry Egyptians

For his birthday present from the Embassy last week, Brandon got to be duty officer. The week started out mildly enough, with our Thursday date night being interrupted by somebody who thought that being an AmCit would get him out of jail for illegal drug possession.

Friday Sabbath was concluded with flurry of phone calls between the US and our apartment. Somebody had come over here to marry a local a few weeks ago, and now her sister was calling from the States to have 'them' do something about the threat of physical violence her sister was hanging under. Evidently the woman's finger was in grave danger.

This morning, after getting to bed an hour late last night, we had the unexpected pleasure of a 3:45 AM phone call from someone else's mother concerned about her daughter. The daughter had married an Egyptian and he had disappeared. What should a poor mother do? She really didn't have the money to fly her daughter back to the States, and what would happen to the children? All were pertinent questions. For somebody else. And during normal daytime working hours.

And then 45 minutes later somebody else called about their daugher/sister/female relative who was in mortal danger from... you guessed it her Egyptian boyfriend.

As a final blessing upon a most unpleasant beginning to a long day, the water has been out since we woke up and shows no sign of returning any time soon.

So, to sum up: Don't let any female friends/neighbors/nieces/granddaughters/acquaintances/co-workers/daughters ever marry/date/be friends with/hang out with/talk to any Egyptian male (or other non-American). Relationships are difficult enough between two people of the same culture without throwing in all of the attendant baggage of a different culture.

And if you or someone you love goes ahead and makes that mistake, please remember that if you so feel the need to call the U.S. Embassy and get them to Do Something (which generally consists of loaning people money to return to the States; the Marines are only here to guard the Embassy, not you) please make note of time differences. Because that poor person that you're talking to at 3 AM might have a wife. And three kids. And all will suffer because of your or your loved one's stupidity.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sorry, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle

Recently while walking home with the girls, I came across some interesting road kill. I don't normally take pictures of dead animals (I would have made an exception, however, for the dog with the leg in its mouth), but I couldn't resist this picture. I've never yet seen any dead animals on the streets of Cairo, perhaps due to the large number of feral cats and dogs. Nobody, other than the flies however, was touching this one.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Sophia turns 2 and Brandon 32

Then we went to the pool where we met Brandon and had dinner at "The Restaurant." Afterwards we came home and sang Happy Birthday, opened presents,

and Brandon and I ate cake. So far for children's cake, we're 0 for 4. But truthfully, the cake which was something French and involved half a pound of chocolate, a pound of butter, and no flour at all, was not for Sophia anyway. After the attempted cake, we all had a dinner party with Sophia's presents (well, only she fit the dress).

For Brandon's birthday, we didn't have cake, but we did have three days of celebratory food. He had rice and milk (his request) for breakfast on Wednesday morning, Eggs Benedict for dinner that evening (again his request). Thursday night we went out to dinner and had ice cream. And today we had a full Southern dinner, complete with fried chicken, coleslaw, mashed potatoes, hushpuppies, and watermelon. While enjoying our tribute to Southern cookery, we mused that it was very likely that of all of the 80 million inhabitants in the country, we were the only ones enjoying such a repast. Those poor other 79,999,995 people.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

And just imagine the fare

This afternoon while walking home from church, Kathleen asked (for the hundredth time) why other people have a car and we don't. I patiently explained to her that we don't need a car - the only places we ever go are Maadi House, church, and the library and all are within a 4-block radius. Wouldn't it be silly, I asked her, to take a car to the pool?

I assured her, however, that when we lived in our next house, we too would have the long-coveted car. She wanted to know where it would be, and I explained to her that we don't know yet because Daddy hasn't gotten the list to choose from and 'the people' haven't told him where we're going.

'Oh,' she reasoned, 'have they not finished building our next new house yet?' I tried to explain to her about housing assignments but petered out, ending lamely with the facts that 1. it would be new to us and 2. it would be in another country.

'But where will Daddy work?' she asked plaintively.
'At the embassy,' I replied reassuringly. 'Daddy will still have a job.'
Not reassured at all, she looked at me with a worried expression.
'But if Daddy still works at the Embassy here, how long will that taxi ride take?!?!'

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Some time ago, friends invited us to go on a felucca ride on the Nile. Some of the group had guests in town who had never had the experience, so we made a party of it with koshary, popcorn, sodas, cookies, and of course, salt water taffy.

Nobody fell in, although I'm sure a few more of Brandon's hairs turned white watching the girls try and hang out over the water. Everybody enjoyed themselves; the children racing around boat en masse and the adults spending time with other adults while the children were amusing themselves. Brandon, who finds socialization enjoyable only rarely even admitted to having quite a nice time. We'll have to do it again.