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

Friday, July 30, 2010

We're leaving on a jet plane (with tickets)

Our story left off with travel authorizations, but no tickets five days before travel.  We leave Monday, and Thursday was the cut-off date for arranging travel, so Brandon girded his loins for battle and headed up to the Carlson Wagon-lit office to get some tickets out of somebody.

We had researched options, and found a much earlier American flight out of JFK that would have reduced the layover from 8 1/2 hours to 2.  Additionally, I had found that the United flights from Frankfurt to Cairo that were 'full' in reality had 20+ open seats in Economy plus.  Travel in State is authorized for only economy (as of 2008; previously business class was for trips over 14 hours), and the only benefit of economy plus is 5 more inches of legroom.  So that should count as economy, right?

Brandon opened the encounter with asking about the AA flight.  Nope, he was told, no airline switching mid-stream - that increases the price and the TA is only for a specific amount of money.  What about those flights that have Economy Plus seats open?  No, those flights show no available seats (What is so popular about Germany this time of year?).  

"We're going to buy the Delta flight (with the 8 1/2 hour layover) at 3:30" the nice man finally told him.  "But my wife is flying alone with three children under the age of four, and an 8 1/2 hour layover in New York isn't going to be the easiest thing," he replied.  "And I am going to the US on a United flight.  Does this means that she and the children will be returning to Cairo on a separate flight from me, but on the same day?"  This finally gave the nice man pause.  Yes, that makes no sense for the children and I to be on a different flight and Brandon spending it all alone all of the way back to Cairo.  No sense at all.  Brandon then finished with the kicker "What do you suggest I should do?"

Finally the nice man relented and got on the phone with United.  He pointed out that I already had a reserved seat (how in the world did I have a reserved seat and the children not?  I shall never understand the magical world of travel agents), and this was a family so the children really should get on the same flight.  So after some wrangling and waiting and lots of tappity-tappity the tickets were purchased and our trip was saved.

And I am more firmly convinced that it is not the presidents, kings, potentates, or dictators that truly rule the world.  They can make proclamations, declare wars, appoint men of influence, but in the end it's the men and women with the power of tappity-tappity that have the true power in this world.  Hail the bureaucrats.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Plane tickets, the saga continues, or really really do you want these guys running our health care?

When I left you last, our TA was in accounting waiting for that final approval.  Or so we thought.  After consulting with a colleague, Brandon discovered that there was one last step following accounting.  And accounting hadn't done a thing for several days.  So last Wednesday he got in touch with accounting and discovered that the person who was supposed to approve the TA was... out of the office.  So it was re-routed and we received authorization to travel on Thursday night.  1 1/2 weeks before travel.

Now we are coming close on 4 days before travel and have no plane tickets.  That reservation that we thought had been held disappeared somehow and we have no reservation.  Well, we have a reservation from Cairo to Frankfurt, and DC to Raleigh, but none from Frankfurt to DC, and it's a long walk from one to the other.  Somehow all five flights from one to the other are full in Economy class.  I suppose it's a popular time of year to go from Germany to DC.

I am not one to get antsy about situations, but I confess that I am getting nervous.  Travel authorizations are for specific dates and so we can't simply move the travel to a date where seats are available - that would necessitate going through the entire TA process again which is what got us into this pickle in the first place.  And so, we wait, hoping that something will open up.  At this point, I'm even willing to consider a 8 1/2 hour layover in New York.  Well, almost.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Living in Cairo: The Weekend

When Islam began, they looked around and saw that the Jews had taken Saturday for their holy day, the Christians had taken Sunday for theirs, and so they took Friday, not wanting to share with anyone else.  That long ago, there was no concept of a weekend or workweek, and so nobody wondered how their weekend would line up with anyone else's.

And when that weekend finally arrived (most likely with the British), Sunday was dropped, Friday was added and Saturday kept.  Except if you're Saudi, and then they added Thursday before Friday and skipped Saturday and Sunday altogether.

As we're living in a Muslim country, our Sabbath is now on Friday and following the Sabbath, we have Saturday off.  This arrangement causes all sorts of complications, the most distressing being the inborn compulsion to call the second hour of church Sunday school.  Friday school doesn't quite roll of the tongue so easily, but it's not Sunday, and so what do you do?  I don't think that anyone has ever quite resolved the question, and so I got called to Primary and don't have to struggle with that issue any more.

In addition to the continual slips of the tongue the change of Sabbath causes - I once was told that a library book was due back on Sunday, and I had to ask if that was Sunday Sunday or Friday - it also causes scheduling issues.  Date night is a sacred tradition in our family, but there is no good night for it - Thursday is right after work and right before the Sabbath (and with three small children and Brandon MIA at meetings in the morning and perpetual 9:30 schedule is not a day to sleep in), Friday is the Sabbath, and Saturday is a work- and school-night.  

We just go out on Thursday, but everyone else in the community uses Friday for any and all major events.  Brandon tries to avoid going to any events, but there have been a few the he hasn't been able to avoid and once we had to even get a babysitter.  The DCM (second in command) here is LDS, and I can only imagine how much he has to attend.

However, there is something nice about having the Sabbath really be the Sabbath, and not a day of dreading the return to work and normal life.  I have grown quite fond of spending the evenings reading, playing games, or catching up on blogs.  Saturday is no longer a special day, the day we get ready for Sunday.  Instead it's a day we recover from Friday (depending on how the previous Friday went).  

However, just about the time I get used to calling the Sabbath Friday, and remember to prepare for it on Thursday and resign myself to never attending any Embassy balls, we'll move and have to readjust all over again.  Perhaps with all of the switching, I'll decide which option really is better.  But I think there's a third, superior option - Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

If you can't stand the heat...

It's been hot here lately.  But we do live in Cairo and it is July, after all.  Brandon said that July in Cairo is like December in Siberia, except you don't get any Christmas at the end.

Thankfully we have fairly good air conditioners and so have been relatively comfortable, the only major area of discomfort being the badly-air conditioned kitchen.  Following are some testaments to the heat of the kitchen.  The thermometer is recording the cold tap water temperature.

the butter is sitting in its own pool of melt

Generally the heat of our kitchen is just annoying, but last night I made some puff pastry desserts for a dinner party on Saturday.  One of the keys to good puff pastry-ing is cold.  The butter is distributed between tiny, tissue thin layers of flour (somewhere around 700) and so is itself very thin and very sensitive to heat.  If the butter gets too warm, the whole thing turns to mush, and mush doesn't stand up very well to being rolled out and cut.

Even at 8 at night, our granite counter attached to the masonry wall that leads outside transfers all of that lovely cairo heat to whatever it touches.  Pastry cold from the refrigerator softens and sticks to the counter with 30 seconds of it being placed there, and within two minutes is almost useless.

And so, that is why last night I was rolling out pastry amid partly-frozen bags of mango pulp, strawberry popsicle mix, frozen enchilada insides, a random carton of milk, and leftovers from a tart I made last summer.  Thank heaven for our full-size freezer that held all of the stuff.

The pastry worked out well enough, and if it didn't it will be too late Saturday anyway.  I'm not sure how those French did it without air conditioning and bags of frozen fruit.  Maybe it was only a winter thing?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Plane tickets

I am a planner.  I like to get out a calendar, look at dates, and schedule as far in advance as possible.  So, in March when I had to visit the Lufthansa office concerning my lost baggage, I stopped by the travel office to schedule our plane flights for this summer.  Earlier is always better - there are lots of seats available and the good flights aren't booked up yet.  

When the kind man behind the desk asked about travel authorizations, I assured him that my husband would get right on it.  And he did - about two months later in June after getting locked out of the e-travel (known colloquially as e-hell in the State ranks) services and having to reset his password.  

After sending in the initial TA in and having it approved by three people and then sent back by the the fourth to have it approved by three people and then sent back by the fourth again, and then having those three same people approve it again followed by the fourth, I thought we were finally going to have some tickets.  

That was 11 days ago, and I have watched the email traffic between this and that office about various flight options, ticket prices, cost constructions and other bureaucratic things until finally it went up to the final office (I hope) - Accounting.

Not a word have I heard (or read), and we are two weeks away from supposedly flying back to the States.  Theoretically our tickets are still on hold, but I'm not sure if our seats are assigned yet and seats are getting pretty few between (I know, I've checked) on our flights.  I'm looking forward to handing Kathleen or Sophia or Edwin or perhaps all three to some stranger and telling them good luck for the next 9 1/2 hours.  Unfortunately, I don't think anyone will let me get away with that, but here's hoping, right?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Living in Cairo: Meat

Once while given an option of dinner choices, I was asked whether I would like "meat" or "chicken."  I had always thought that chicken counted as "meat," but here in Cairo it must only count as a quasi-meat.  Despite the distinction, this post is about all forms of animal protein.

Most Cairenes buy their meat from a vendor who deals in animal protein and nothing else.  Technically, they could be called a butcher, but what kind of meat you want dictates who you go to for the said meat.  If you're looking for beef, you go to the beef man, and if you're looking for poultry (or rabbit), you go to the poultry man.

The poultry man lives a very noisy existence.  They're very easy to spot because the front of the store is filled with palm-frond rib cages containing various forms of poultry.  I've seen chickens, geese, ducks, a few turkeys, and pigeons.  Some also have rabbits.  Chickens often time will be tied to the top of a cage, and pigeons also can be found milling about atop another cage.  All are alive.

If I were looking for a chicken, I would go and pick out the one I wanted, and the poultry man would grab the bird by the wings (a very effective way to carry them as they can't peck you or try and fly away), take it in the back and kill it.  After killing the bird, he would plunge it into a pot of boiling water, and then pluck off the feathers.  The unwanted insides would go next after the carcass was drained of blood, and the useful ones would be stuck, along the rest of the chicken, into a plastic grocery bag.  After 10-15 minutes, I would have a chicken ready for cooking that had been alive a quarter of an hour ago.  Can't beat that for fresh.

If I wanted beef, I would go to a man that had a beef carcass hanging out in front of his store.  Some wrap them in wet cloth to keep the flies off, and some don't.  I've heard tales of cows (in more local areas than Maadi) being led live to the butcher shop and slaughtered right on the spot.  Evidently local children think it's great fun to stick their hands in the blood and smack red handprints over any hard surface available, including cars.

The beef man would ask me how much beef I wanted, and then go over to the cow and cut off the requested amount of beef from wherever they had gotten to for the last cut.  Egyptians have no roasting of meat in their cooking repertoire, and so cuts of meat are irrelevant.  Meat is either minced up for kofta and meat pastry, or boiled in a pot.  Filet mignon is not an option.  At some of the butchers in Maadi that cater to ex-pats, they have approximations of cuts, although they can be a little dicey.  A friend of mine told me once of a butcher who carefully cut the meat he had hacked off into the shape of the requested tenderloins.  

If I wanted lamb, I would go to a butcher that had lamb, and the lamb would get the same treatment - however many kilos of the stuff that you want, and the same price regardless of where it came from.  For Easter I sent Rere out for a nice leg of lamb for dinner.  She came back with something in a black bag, pleased with herself for the price, and I stuck it in the freezer.  Only after I had defrosted it, did I realize the reason for the bargain price - she had gotten the front leg of the lamb, not the big meaty back leg.  Fine for stewing, not so fine for roasting.

Thankfully for any adherent to Julia Child's, there is a final option: the Commissary.  They may not have as many cuts as your local grocer, but at least they're labeled and they're in the list provided by Julia.  All I have to do then is choose top or bottom round, find a vacuum-packed plastic covered chunk of frozen beef of the right weight, and have the check-out lady beep it along with the RitterSport chocolate and Lurpack butter.  Oh Commissary, how I love thee.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Take upon the image

Kathleen and Sophia have reached the age of play pretend.  Sophia probably wasn't on her own, but she has been pulled into the game by her older sister and has no choice in the matter.  The enjoy emulating whoever has caught their fancy most recently.  Kathleen enjoys being a pilot, and has driven her sister around on our couch arm as Ayman, the driver.  She dresses up in ballet skirts and is the noble prince saving his baby princess from the evil sorcerer von Rothbart.  After reading one of the Little Bear books, we all had a party at lunch and Kathleen was Emily, teddy was Lucy, Sophia was Little Bear, I was Owl and Edwin was Duck.

So I shouldn't have been surprised when I walked into the play room a few Fridays and found Kathleen 'nailing' her sister to the wall in a cruciform position.  The had watched The Testaments that day and evidently Sophia was chosen for the lead role.  After crucifying her sister, she 'buried' her in the play tent, and ran off to play.  

Sophia was happy to lay down on the provided pillow with her blanket and be dead for awhile.  After some time, she had enough, and sleepily got to her feet.  With a yawn, she mumbled, "I'm not dead anymore.  I'm resurrected."  I couldn't help at laugh at the outrageous words imperfectly coming from her infant mouth.  

"Why are you laughing?" she asked.  
"Because you're cute," I replied with a smile.
Indignant, she shot back, "Don't laugh at Jesus!  Why are you laughing at Jesus Christ?!?"

Chagrined, I stopped laughing.  Sophia flounced off, and I had to go tell the good news to Brandon.  Or something like that.

Jesus and the thief

Monday, July 12, 2010

Living in Cairo: Water

Cairo is like all other cities outside of first world: number one rule is don't drink the water.  Last time we were here, we just had cases of water delivered like most other ex-pats and most likely littered the desert with the empty bottles.  Now we have the benefit of a water filter in the kitchen.  As a result of this, Kathleen has acquired a skill that few of her American peers have: filling up cups from the water filter faucet.

We keep a bottle of water in the bathroom for drinks, but everyone brushes teeth with the tap water, and both Sophia and Kathleen may or may not have had a drink of bath water from time to time.  Edwin goes for it every bath.  I don't get to worried, however - we call it inoculation.

In addition to not drinking water from the tap, we also have to deal with a lesser-known hazard of third world water supplies: water pressure.  Most denizens of Cairo live in high-rise apartments.  The government isn't in the business of supplying water pressure, just the water itself.  And so most apartment buildings have cisterns on top that are filled with the building water pump. 

The problem with individual building pumps is that they can easily be shut off for some reason that is only known to... somebody.  We still haven't figured out who it is.  And when somebody decides to shut off the pump, they don't tell anyone else.  They also don't tell when they're going to turn it on again either. 

 I've had several morning showers where I've noticed a decrease in pressure and had to jump double quick to get the shower in before the water was shut off completely.  One notable morning, I noticed the water slowing, got in and got my hair damp before having to take the shower head off the wall and just settle for scrubbing off the morning run sweat and taking another shower later.  While getting dressed, I noticed that the tap was running somewhat promisingly and so got back in the shower and crouched in the tub while getting my hair mostly washed and mostly clean.  

To water the plants that day, I just left the tap on over a bucket and let the bucket fill as it wanted to, with the water shutting on and off at random.  I have a friend who keeps large jugs of water in all of her bathrooms to flush toilets when the water's being fidgety.

In addition to building water outages, there are also periodic and completely random neighborhood outages.  I've heard that they're announced over the loudspeaker at Friday prayers, but there aren't any mosques nearby and I'd be surprised if even the Egyptians understood anything coming from them.  

And so, you never know quite when you will and won't have water.  Every now and then, however,  circumstances line up just right and the water's out during dinner preparation time.  So I have no choice but to just order in.  Life is hard sometimes.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

I'm all they've got

During the summers here in Cairo, everyone leaves.  Some people leave permanently and some people just leave for awhile - usually for at least a month.  Which leaves the branch in an interesting position.  Despite the mass exodus there are still enough people that have to be talked to, taught, and accompanied.  In past summers, this problem has been dealt with by simply having two hours of church.  But this summer, 60 BYU students showed up to play substitute teacher and fill in for everyone else during their vacations.

This past Friday was the low point of branch attendance, with the families of small children almost being non-existent.  Almost.  Which is worse for me than not at all.  In the primary, the primary president, first counselor and secretary were all gone, while the second counselor had moved a month ago.  And that left me, the primary chorister, running the show for all four of the primary children, two of whom speak (and understand) questionable English.

And so Kathleen gave the talk to her three classmates and the two nursery children who came to bolster the numbers.  Kaji, with some help, gave the scripture, Miriam gave the opening prayer and Farajela, again with some help, gave the closing prayer.  Next week they're switching spots, and the following week they're switching again.

And for singing time and sharing time, we watched a movie.  It was about Jesus Christ, and that's the theme for the month, so who's to complain?  And who would they complain to, as I'm the only one here anyway?  Next week, however, the secretary will be back and I'll have to think of something for singing time - this time for five primary children.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Living in Cairo: Change

After living in this strange land for almost a year, I've gotten used to all of the odd and unusual aspects of Egypt.  All of those sights that would make any normal American stare don't even cause me to turn a hair.  But all of the strangeness is new to you, and so I'll share in (somewhat) weekly installments.  Enjoy.

Cairo (as are all third-world cities) is a strictly cash-based society.  Credit cards do exist (I think), and some places do take them, but for most every-day transactions, cash is king.  And so, every month, Brandon gets an enormous stack of money from the bank at the Embassy and brings it home for me to disperse to all of the people who think they deserve a chunk of it.

The problem with this scenario is twofold: 1. The money comes in 100 or 200 pound bills.  2. Change is against the local religion.  Try and give a 50 to the ticket man at the Metro?  He'll tell you to go start walking.  Go and try and change the 50 at a local snack stand, and he'll tell you that really that candy you wanted isn't that good anyway so don't bother with it.  And try and give it to a taxi driver for a 5-pound ride and he'll happily take it - but he won't give you anything back.

Any time someone comes to deliver anything - groceries, dry cleaning, food, medicine - they want a tip, and of course nobody gives change for a tip.  Or when you try and pay for dry cleaning with that same 50.

That leaves me with a large stack of 100 pound bills (exchange rate: 5.5 pounds to the dollar) and few people who want to give me change for them.  And so any time I have the opportunity to make change, I pull out the largest bill possible to pay for the most miniscule charge.  The desirability of a bill is in inverse proportion to its value, and so every time Brandon comes home from work, I fleece him for the all 1-pound coins he got in change at the metro.

One night at 9 o'clock we realized that the dry cleaners were bringing Brandon's much-needed suits for work the next day, and we had a 50-pound note for a 25-pound bill.  And so, not wanting to give a 25-pound tip, Brandon ran out of the house, found the closest store that was open, and hot-footed it home with change and a bag of frozen onion rings - that we have yet to eat.

However, I only just discovered that the CIB bank at the Embassy does give change, you just have to ask.  So last week while I was up for doctor's appointments, I marched up to the window and changed 1600 pounds into 20s, 10s, and 5s for a stack at least an inch thick.  I'd never gotten so choked up in my life to see money that was already mine.  I felt like I'd won the lottery.