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Monday, November 29, 2010


The other day, Brandon and I took the children to Maadi House to play.  Before we could go, however, Kathleen got herself all gussied up for her public appearance.

None of these items, I would like to say, were purchased by me.  This is what happens when I let her make choices.

Friday, November 26, 2010


This year, for the first time, Brandon and I cooked an entire Thanksgiving dinner by ourselves and for ourselves.  A very generous branch member invited the entire branch to his home for Thanksgiving dinner yesterday.  We considered going, but he lives quite a while a way, the hour was around Edwin's bedtime, and any (any) public event that involves our children increases my personal stress by at least 33 percent and Brandon's a minimum of 500.

So instead I went to the Commissary and bought my very first Thanksgiving turkey.  Two years ago we were given a turkey and cooked it with Brandon's siblings, but this year was the first time I personally bought and paid for thirteen pounds of Butterball frozen young turkey.

My tentative plan was to invite another family with children of comparable age, but after having house guests for nearly three weeks, we thought we'd enjoy some family time together.  And by the time I thought about making invitations, all of their supplies were already bought.

Having now spent some time cooking involved dinners, I started cooking on Wednesday, getting the cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, rolls, and stuffing ingredients out of the way.  We slept in Thursday morning, and then finished up the pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, gravy, and of course turkey.  

While were cooking pies, Kathleen was being cooked herself by Sophia in their own oven.

Eventually the turkey was finished and carved.

And we all sat down in our elegant dining room (thank you, Drexel Heritage and State) to enjoy enough food for at least three times the people we had.  Probably more as the girls decided that Thanksgiving dinner wasn't worth all of the time we'd spent cooking it and they would have rather had crackers and soda.  Edwin enjoyed all of it, however.

Having now cooked an entire Thanksgiving dinner solely for my family, I have no great desire to do it again, at least until everyone is older.  The children didn't care about the food, we spent most of the day cooking and cleaning, and everyone was grumpy by the end.  I'm strongly considering Chinese takeout for Christmas.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


When I was pregnant with Sophia, only 21 months after delivering Kathleen, I usually got two responses when people understood how close they were.  Either they wondered/asked if Sophia was a surprise or told me how fast friends the girls would be.

Personally I hoped that the latter would come true and eagerly awaited the advent of
Kathleen's new best friend that wasn't me.  When Sophia joined our family, Kathleen was mildly interested, but didn't see much appeal to her new sister.  Sophia was entertaining sometimes, but nothing close to a playmate especially as I was much more interesting.

Once Kathleen learned to talk, I was vastly preferable as the answer to all of her questions and Sophia a mere annoyance.  After we moved to Cairo and Sophia learned to walk, the two were twin satellites in my orbit.  Upon our return following Edwin's birth, the relationship grew antipathetic and Kathleen started violently shoving Sophia upon little or no provocation.

Recently, with the consistent application of firm punishment to any physical violence, the girls have become friends.  Kathleen is old enough to be quite imaginative and direct play, and Sophia is old enough to understand Kathleen's directions and be a willing participant in whatever scheme Kathleen has recently thought up.

One day, after finding some ribbons to act as a leash, Sophia became Bow-Wow (or Puppy Surprise) the puppy and Kathleen The Owner.  Our prayers for several days included gratitude for The Owner's puppy and parents to teach The Owner how to take care of the puppy.  Once during a prayer I mistakenly referred to Sophia by her given name, and she indignantly shouted me down mid-prayer "I'm not Sophia!! I'm Bow-Wow!!"  I corrected myself and finished the prayer without profaning my petition with laughter.

When my Aunt Bonnie was recently in Cairo for a visit, Kathleen commandeered her into role-playing.  We had watched Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang a few weeks before, and so that afternoon we were all characters from the movie.  Sophia was Jemimah, Kathleen was The Father, I was Truly Scrumptious, Edwin was the Child Catcher and with nobody else left, Aunt Bonnie was Jeremy.  She had a difficult time remembering to call her great-niece Kathleen father and was chastised repeatedly for the offenses.

When the girls hover about me like flies, I can use their newfound cooperative creativity to find some other amusement other than my company.  Presently they are stinky bears who are valiantly trying to take baths to get the stink that just won't come off.  Every time they ask me, I seem to still smell the stink and send them back for another round of bathing.

So all of you mothers of young children close together, take heart.  One day your children will also become friends.  And then you can have some sanity, if only in three-minute snatches while the bears are bathing.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Traveling to Egypt on a Diplomatic (or Official) Passport

This week Brandon has been on duty.  He has gotten a very busy duty week, as we have four days of vacation this week and he will have to take anything that normally would be sent to the ACS section during working hours.  Duty week is always interesting (for me) and usually involves less sleep than a regular week.

Most of me is unhappy to hear the phone ring at two in the morning, but the part of me that covertly reads tabloids in the check-out line is excited to hear what ridiculous thing American citizens abroad have been up to lately.  A whole website should be devoted to the calls that come in.  Brandon's mantra when the children are doing dangerous things is "never become a duty call in your own district."

Last night, after a busy day of touring with my aunt and uncle,  Brandon's phone rang.  On the line was a man who was in the airport with his wife and four children, aged eleven to five.  They were coming to Egypt for a week-long holiday from their overseas post and were being held up at passport control.

Brandon asked what the problem was, and the man said that he was unable to get the necessary visa to enter Egypt because he and his family are traveling on diplomatic passports.  To enter Egypt, travelers only have to purchase a visa in the airport right before going through passport control.  It's simple, it's easy, and it only costs fifteen dollars.  When we were having trouble with Edwin's passport last year, that's how he got in the country.

A tourist visa, however, only works for tourist passports.  Diplomatic passports require diplomatic visas, which can only be obtained from the Egyptian embassy in whatever country the traveler is coming from.  Most countries don't have this stipulation, and I know veterans of the FS who have never owned tourists passports.  I've never run into a problem, and neither has Brandon.

However, Egypt feels that their diplomats are treated unfairly in the US, and so our diplomats and official travelers are subject to the same rule.

So this poor man, his wife, and his children are in the airport awaiting a return flight after having spent a night in the airport and perhaps having to spend another night in the airport because of full flights due to Eid.  Last night as we laid down in our soft, comfortable bed and went to sleep, I thought of this poor family stuck in an uncomfortable, dirty airport with their holiday ruined and money wasted.  All because of a difference in passports.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


When I moved overseas, there were many things I knew I would miss about the US.  There's just no equivalent for Target, and parking lots are a particular speciality of the United States.  I don't have family within five thousand miles, and parks here are just as mythical as parking lots.

One thing I knew I wasn't going to miss, however, was Halloween.  Perhaps I inherited this dislike from my mother.  As a child we never had Halloween decorations aside from the obligatory pumpkins, and our most elaborate costumes were designed and constructed by my father.  For whatever reason, I don't care that much for Halloween.  And I was happy to live in a country where this holiday could just slide right by, unnoticed.

And then we went to play group a few weeks back.  One friend who is my polar opposite in crafts (she does them, she does them well, and she's creative) had a Halloween-themed morning at her house where we decorated pumpkins, made marshmallow ghosts, dressed up in costumes, danced to Halloween music, and were presented with ribbon-wrapped pumpkin playdough as we left.

I didn't make much of the morning, hoping I could deflect Kathleen's questions just like I did the ones about where babies come from.  Unfortunately, she was more interested in Halloween because it's a holiday.  And holiday always means fun.

A few days after the play group, she sidled up to me and attempted to ask with a nonchalant air, "Mom, is Halloween a holiday for kids?"

I didn't have the heart to lie, and told her that yes, Halloween is a holiday for kids.  Excited, she asked, "Can we go to Halloween?"  We had a friend who was hosting a party so I reluctantly told her that sure, we could go to Halloween.

Luckily another friend with a daughter Kathleen's age had a princess costume that Kathleen could borrow, and I figured that Sophia could go in Kathleen's her leotard, ballet skirt, and ballet slippers.  At least three hours every day leading up to Halloween was spent in costumes, and Kathleen counted down each day until we could go to Halloween.

At last Saturday dawned, and following their naps, we got everyone ready to go to Halloween.  The princess costume had been swapped back and forth all week, and Sophia was totally and utterly dismayed to find out that Kathleen was the one to wear the princess costume and she was stuck with a leotard, skirt and ballet slippers instead of light-up princess shoes.

I felt for her, also being a second child with unwanted costumes fobbed off on my while my older sister got to be the princess.

However, there was only one princess costume and it fit Kathleen.  Despite Brandon's threats of staying home, we all went with a dubious Sophia in tow.

As soon as the girls were introduced to the game of trick-or-treating through the hallway, Sophia didn't care what her costume was and all was right with the world.

Hopefully we can convince the girls that Halloween was a one-time deal, but I think that they get smarter as they get older and the genie has been let out of the bottle.  Thank heaven we already did away with Santa Claus.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Living in Cairo: Taxis

If I'm not going somewhere well known or somewhere I know the way to, I'll take the last option: a taxi.  Taxi drivers in Egypt spend their lives frequenting busy streets in search of a fare.  We live a few blocks from two different busy streets, and so finding a taxi is as simple as walking to Bur Said or Midan Nahda and waiting for the right taxi to go by.

Formerly, there was only one option for taxis: black-and-white.  I remember one taxi ride where the car was so old that it had no window handles, no seat belts, all of the interior paneling was gone, and it never broke twenty-five miles and hour the entire ride.  The driver was also driving barefoot.

Black-and-white taxis are amazing examples of Egyptian maintenance: just enough to keep the forty- or fifty-year old cars running, but not much more.  The drivers also take whatever opportunity they can to personalize their taxis; no rearview mirror is without some twenty baubles hanging off it, and my favorite dashboard decoration is what looks like synthetic sheep pelt dyed pink covering the entire dashboard of the car.  Just a few days ago I saw a minibus driver with at least twenty hanging ornaments dangling from my windshield.  I only regret not having a camera on my phone when I'm being driven through the streets of Cairo.

The black-and-white taxis, at one point forty years ago, had meters.  The meters ceased to mean anything about thirty-seven years ago.  Now there is a system that is know by everyone except tourists, and the drivers work hard to keep it that way.  

Before entering the taxi, one tells the driver where the destination is.  If he doesn't know where that is he 1. says okay, and then starts asking everyone else driving around him how to get there 2. declines the passenger 3. asks the passenger if they know how to get there.

After sorting out the destination, the passenger gets in the back seat, if they are female, or the front if they are male and feeling sociable.  Otherwise the male sits in the back also.  The driver goes to the destination.  The speed of this depends on step number one.  I remember riding with a driver once who didn't know where the Pyramids were and we spent a lot of time driving through garbage-heaped roads asking directions.  If he had just asked me, I could have told him myself.

After arriving at the destination, the passenger disembarks and hands money through the window to the driver.  Depending on what fare he received versus what he thought he should receive, the nationality of the passenger, the time of day, the condition of the apartment that was the destination, the number of passengers in the taxi, the conversation engaged in within the taxi, how busy the road is that the destination is in, and perhaps how close it is to prayer time, the driver will argue the fare.

At this point, the passenger will either 1. haggle 2. give the driver more money 3. walk away.  I favor the third option.  Brandon favors the second.  When we were in Cairo previously as students, I was tight with our money and paid the barest fare I thought I could get away with.  Now that a pound or two makes no difference to me, I'm happy to pay a generous fare, make the driver happy, and avoid haggling.

Now, however, there is another option: the checkered cab.  These cabs have been introduced within the last few years and are natural-gas vehicles.  They have seatbelts (although often the buckle has been cut out of the seat), power windows, the original upholstery, air conditioning, and most importantly, meters.

Not only do they have meters, but the drivers generally don't quibble over the fare.  And if you tip them a pound or two, they drive off with a smile.  

Which is why whenever humanly possible, I ride checkered cabs.  Most of the anxiety of riding in taxis is gone when you know that there will be no argument and you're paying the same fare as an Egyptian.

Now if only they could take that idea and apply it to shopping.