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Monday, January 31, 2011

Hello from Athens

As I type, Kathleen, Sophia and Edwin are all asleep and I am enjoying the Sofitel's free wireless; I never knew how much I missed the internet until it was shut off.

Brandon is at the Cairo airport, shuttling a mix of private American citizens and Embassy personnel onto various flights to various points throughout Europe.  We're in Athens, some went to Istanbul, some went to Bahrain, and perhaps some other places.  The rumor was that twelve planes were chartered to shuttle people out.  We were number four and arrived in Athens at 9:00 pm.  We got to our hotel at midnight.

We were all very much surprised about the evacuation, as evident by my post about the situation a few days ago, nobody thought that things would downgrade so quickly.  I wanted to stay very much, but we had some friends in the branch whose advice I trust very much strongly advise us to go, so we went.  I hoped until the very last minute that it would be called off and we could stay, but now we're here and there's no returning for thirty days.  Sometimes I catch myself thinking that perhaps it will all clear up and we can stay... but of course we're already gone.

I have a more detailed account for later, but right now I'm going to get some sleep, as it's already two in the morning.  We'll be in Athens until Wednesday, as there were no good flights until then and I'd rather spend an extra day in a hotel than ten hours in Frankfurt.

I'm strongly tempted to splurge on a babysitter and a massage after carrying fifty pounds of Edwin and backpack for most of the day today.  After all, what better use for the envelope of cash I was handed on my way out?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Current Events

Last night, I got a phone call from my mother-in-law.  They had been watching the news, and were we okay?  Earlier my father emailed me along the same lines.

When we were posted to Cairo, I didn't quite anticipate Egypt being in the news as often as it has been recently; my feeling was that it was a safe, stable country.  I guess I didn't look up how old Mubarak has become.  Or think about Tunisia's stability.  But living anywhere in the world is always a risky proposition because it takes very little to excite people.  And I suppose that Egyptians are just as welcome as anyone to try and do something about their situation.

Yesterday I asked Rere about the riots, and she shrugged her shoulders.  I don't care that much about what happens, she told me, I just want to make sure my family is safe and my life stays normal.  She told me that she didn't care much about politics - she doesn't vote, she doesn't talk about them; she wants to take care of her own corner of the world.  I asked her what she thought of the protesters and their desire to change the government.  She shook her head.  "You have to change here," she said while holding her fist to her heart, "nothing will make a difference until this is changed.  That will make the difference."

We are all doing fine here in Maadi.  While going out for a felucca ride Tuesday afternoon, we saw a fire truck (who knew?) and police vans with security forces in riot gear outside the local police station.  Other than that afternoon, I haven't gone out anyway and Maadi is a quiet part of town.

We just got a security message from the RSO about staying away from crowds, places where security forces are gathering, and mosques tomorrow.  Evidently there are some more protests planned.  Brandon is at work today, quite close to Tahrir Square where the largest demonstration took place.  He walks right through the area to get to the metro, which has also been disrupted because of the protesting.

I'm not overly worried about the coming days; we have plenty of food (even if it means we'll be eating a lot of dried beans), a large supply of water, and I doubt that protesters will be seeking out my apartment.

However, tensions have certainly been mounting over the last few months, and so I think that nobody quite knows where this will lead.  We'll keep you updated.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Living in Cairo: Dust

Once when I was at a friend's house, I saw a plaque on her wall.  'You are in the world's biggest sandbox,' it read, 'to dust or not to dust is up to you.'  When I look out my window, I see green everywhere and I often forget that the Nile Valley is a thin ribbon of life sandwiched by endless desert.  Across that desert often blows wind, and that wind always brings dust.

When I went to my parents' house this summer and my mother told me that, having no children home to sew chaos and destruction, she only cleaned some rooms once a month, I was shocked.  What about the dust?  Surely after a month, the floors would be coated, not to mention the mouldings, picture frames, lamps, tables, and furniture.  Then I remembered that North Carolina is not in the Sahara.

Rere comes twice a week, and twice a week she sweeps and mops and vacuums all of our 2500-plus square feet of flooring.  By the time she comes again, however, our feet are brown from the dust coating the floor.  On the days at the end of summer when a cool breeze finally comes and I open the windows, the dust can be seen spraying out from around the window to any surface nearby.  I once left French Cooking by an open window for half an hour and had to wipe off the open pages before putting it away.

In the outer courtyard of the Alabaster Mosque stands a very ornate clock, completely out of place.  The clock was a gift from the French in the mid-nineteenth century.  A few weeks after the clock's installation, the works froze.  When the clock case was opened, fine dust was found throughout.  The dust was cleaned and the clock put back in order.  A few weeks later, the same happened again.  This was repeated a few more times until the clock was given up, and now stands as a pretty ornament.

This dust coats every surface in Cairo, building up day after day until apartment buildings that were once white turn dusty brown and green foliage becomes muted.  Cairo is a desert, and so the dust has nothing to wash it away.

Until it rains.  Last week those rains came.  But the funny thing about rain here is that it never lasts long.  Most rain is a passing, chancy thing lasting thirty seconds.  Last week we had several very long spurts that lasted into five minutes.  We even got hail.  The girls were very puzzled.

After the rain, I looked out my windows to a fresh, green world.  I smelled clean(er) air, and the trees glowed.  Then I looked at my window.  The rain hadn't lasted quite long enough.  Dirty before, they were now caked with all of the dust the rain had washed off the walls.  Maybe I'll get them cleaned before we leave.  Maybe not.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

All Dressed Up and Nothing to Buy

This year my birthday fell on a Friday.  Sabbath birthdays are never any fun (and doubly not so when I am alone for the pre- and post-church madhouse), and so Brandon and I celebrated early.  The only benefit to my January birthday is Martin Luther King Day (or whatever it is being called right now).  The two are always around each other and every so often I have a holiday for my birthday.

When I was in school, this meant a day free from school.  Now that I'm a mother, my responsibilities aren't shrugged off so easily, but a holiday does mean a day free from work for Brandon which is better than nothing.

Since Monday is Sunday and Sunday is Friday but Saturday is always Saturday (unless you live in Saudi or Israel), we had Sunday off last week.  Rere comes on Sunday, so for my birthday I got to leave my children with Rere for the day while Brandon and I went shopping.

Egypt has many many things that I like to mock, but one thing they do very well is handicrafts, and I particularly enjoy the intricate, detailed, geometric handicrafts of this part of the world.  We haven't bought much yet, always postponing the commitment until later.  But with six months left, later is now.  And so away we went to the Khan al Khalili.

After much discussion on many occasions, we had decided to purchase a mashrabiya screen and silk carpet.  When I asked Brandon about price ceilings for the rug, he looked at me and calmly said "five thousands dollars."  I blanched.  Brandon never spends money, and cares nothing for possessions.  "Well," he continued, "if you're going to get a rug, you might as well get a rug."

And so fortified with avarice and a wild, heady determination for spendthrift-ness that I'd never had before in my life, we set off to make our credit cards melt with fervent heat.

The taxi dropped us off at the Khan, and we plunged in ready to play out the bargaining scenarios we'd acted out the previous night.  At first all was well when we strolled down the main tourist avenue.  But when we turned to corner, we met the blank stares of closed storefronts.  Another corner, and more storefronts with their steel doors pulled down.  We wound through alley after alley looking for somewhere, anywhere to spend the money burning a whole in our pockets.

Several hours later and thirteen dollars poorer, we left in defeat for an early dinner.  Where I ordered soup, main course, and dessert in retaliation.  It wasn't five thousand dollars, and it wouldn't look nice in our living room, but at least it had chocolate.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Six Months

We now have six months until Cairo is just a memory.  This past week Brandon was officially 'paneled,' which means that we're really going to Baku because there's no real reason that we shouldn't go and hey, why not?  Now that we're official, Brandon has been receiving all of the welcome information about Baku.  And now that we're official, Brandon has a long list of things to do before we leave Cairo.

One of the great things about the Foreign Service is the opportunity to live all around the world, and one of the hardest things about the Foreign Service is that we have to move so much.  Six months, in reality, is a very long time.  Our 'living' in Cairo the first time only lasted seven months, and that felt like an eternity.  But somehow switching over to 2011 has made our departure feel like it is just around the corner.

When I looked through the new Primary handbook at the songs to teach, I stopped after July because after July somebody else will be teaching the children songs.  Rere mentioned that Ramadan will start in August, and I realized that Ramadan won't affect me.  I pulled out my reserve bottle of Karo syrup last Friday, and was about to write Karo on my grocery list, but stopped.  Would I really use up two bottles of Karo syrup in six months?  I ordered winter clothes for the children, and had them sent to my mother because next winter we'll have a winter.

I have a tendency, when departure is imminent, to shut down every day life and not worry about anything because I'll be leaving so soon anyways, so who cares?  But six months is a long, long time to abandon all schedules and purposes.  It's hard to prepare to leave while pretending in your everyday life that life will not be blown apart to pieces in six short months.

And of course all I can see around me is the things that I won't miss - living the life of a shut-in, not having a car, not having a yard, not having seasons, and the people, people everywhere I go anytime I leave my house staring at me, staring at my children, and never leaving me alone.

But after I leave, I'll only remember the things that I won't have again - fresh aish from the bakery, strawberries all winter long, mangoes in the summer, swimming in October, and sunshine almost every day of the year.

This life is a strange one, when I think of my friends and family in the US who largely get to live where they want, as long as they would like.  I find much less attachment to place then I had growing up.  We live in Cairo now, but we'll live in Virginia soon, and following Virginia we'll live in Azerbaijan, and after that who knows.  The thought of never coming back doesn't sadden me as I will form a trail of places lived and never returned to.  As Rere is fond of saying, "But what can we do?  Such is the life."

Monday, January 17, 2011

For Kathleen's birthday in August, we gave her a pink leotard and ballet shoes.  This was not preparation for any ballet classes, but because she and Sophia enjoy watching Swan Lake and being ballerinas.

That present was the first manifestation of If She Has It I Want It Too.  Last Christmas, Sophia didn't care much what Kathleen got because the most popular present was a dollhouse that stayed at my parents when we left.  By Kathleen's birthday, however, Sophia had a strong idea of parity.

So for Christmas, a pink leotard showed up for Sophia.  She and Kathleen also were given beautiful, pouffy princess dresses, but the leotard was even better.  After months of having to ask Kathleen for permission to wear Kathleen's (which, to Kathleen's credit, was usually granted), Sophia finally had one of her own that she didn't have to ask anyone about.  And so every day, by some of point of the day, Sophia would usually end up in her leotard.

In addition to being fond of a pink leotard and going by Odette fifty percent of the time, Sophia is not a morning person.  And unfortunately for Sophia, part of the morning involves getting dressed.  Being two and being in possession of an opinion, Sophia enjoys using it whenever possible, especially when choosing clothes is involved.  By the time she is dressed and sitting at the table, she is usually crying or grumpy because there was no magic option that appeared out of thin air to satisfy her changeable two year-old whim.  But, such is life for a child.

This Sunday, I greeted Sophia with the usual question, in the vain hope of hurrying her along.  "What would you like to wear, sweetie?"

She stared at me, and a crafty look spread over her face.  "Ummm, may I wear my leotard?"

I'm a firm believer in wearing clothes at table.  Even if the girls want to run around in their underwear because they're 'being animals,' they have to get dressed for meals.  Everyone has their standards.  So I thought for a moment.  Leotards are about the most minimal level of clothing possible, but they are washable, and it would make her less grouchy.  I agreed.

Sophia was happy, breakfast was reasonable, and she never bothered to change to anything else for the rest of the day.  Monday morning the same question was asked, and again she showed up to breakfast in her pink leotard.  The only time it was removed Tuesday was to go to the park.  Wednesday was nothing but leotard, and Thursday was a repeat of Tuesday.

The leotard is, by now, quite filthy, but Sophia is happy.  And it saves me doing more laundry.  So I am, too.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Story Time

When I was a child, my father would read to us.  In the evening after dinner and homework, we would brush our teeth, wash our hands, change into our pajamas, and cuddle into my parents' big bed as my father led us into the world of literary wonder.  My first introduction to Tolkien was when he read us The Hobbit and I remember continuing my travels in Middle Earth through the Lord of the Rings saga.  The War of the Worlds scared us three little girls so much that it was stopped.  We asked my father to read Heidi to us after Worlds, but that was discontinued too after Heidi made the strangest asides that had nothing to do with the story.

That time is one of my most favorite memories, and probably the beginning of many nights spent reading instead of sleeping.

So this evening, after Edwin was put to bed, Brandon suggested that we get the girls ready for bed and he would read to them.  Kathleen is reading Little House in the Big Woods for her reading lesson, and she and Sophia have taken to it like any two little girls would.

And so after pajamas were donned and teeth brushed and blankies fetched, the girls cuddled into bed with Brandon for some more 'Laura and Mary,' as Sophia calls the book.  I left them to it, and snuck off for some time alone (with my freshly-charged laptop).  I never remember my mother taking part in the book-reading, and now I know why.

After half an hour of quiet, I suddenly heard Brandon's voice, followed by the girls giggling with hilarity.

"See Any UFOs? Not yet.  Well, keep your eyes open, they're bound to land here sometime. What will we do when they come?  See if we can sell mom and dad into slavery for a star cruiser."

I realized that the reading material had switched, and instead of great classic children's literature, they were now reading Calvin and Hobbes.  But I suppose that's what happens when Dad does the story reading.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Baking Disasters

My junior year of college, I moved into a ward halfway through the year.  I only knew one person and so every Sunday night I had Dessert Night.  All Sunday would be spent baking three pies/cakes/tarts and then everyone came over and ate them.  If I develop diabetes, I can trace it back to Dessert Night.

Guests would ask about how I was able to bake so many cakes and have them turn out.  To which I would always reply 'lots of ruined cakes.'

I'm now older than I was in college, and I've been baking during all of the intervening years, and so reason would suggest that perhaps the cakes don't get ruined anymore.  Reason, however, would be wrong.

Today Brandon asked for some sort of dessert.  As today was Fast Friday, I had been thinking about desserts, and had been wanting 'millionaire shortbread,' a concoction of layered shortbread, caramel, and chocolate.  The recipe calls for caramel made by boiling a can of sweetened condensed milk.  Last time I made the recipe (about halfway between dessert night and now), the caramel had been runny and squished out between the chocolate and shortbread when I bit it.

I'm always in search for the absolute best way to do anything, especially for my desserts.  And so I looked for a recipe for caramel made the old-fashioned way with a candy thermometer.  I boiled it to the 'firm ball' stage, spread it on the shortbread, cooled it, and finished with the chocolate.

After getting the girls ready for bed and rushing through scriptures, we all eagerly awaited our candy confection as the girls watched me get the knife out to neatly slice up our treat. I plunged in the knife.  It skidded through the chocolate.  I tried again.  It went in a quarter inch.  I put my shoulder into my work, and I heard a cracking sound.  I lifted out the first piece.

Out came crumbles of shortbread and shards of caramel.  Sophia greedily grabbed a piece and stuffed it into her mouth.  After chewing a few minutes, she began crying.  The caramel was stuck to her teeth and was hurting her cheek.  I tried a piece.  My jaws started hurting from the work, and I too was picking caramel from my teeth.

And so, the pan sits in the kitchen, with only a few small pieces taken out, a testament to the dangers of deviating from a recipe.  Two hours gone, and only sore jaws to show for it.  Sigh.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Beat your swords into... spitballs

A few days ago, I was getting some things done.  Kathleen swished into the room trailing Sophia.  She carried with her a pink, sparkly princess notebook Sophia had given Kathleen for Christmas.

"Mom," she began, "would you cut our swords out for us?"

I looked at my bejeweled princess daughter.  "Swords?"

"I drew some swords for Sophia and me.  We're going to use them to go cut up the bad guys.  Would you cut them out for me?"

I looked at the pink page she held out to me.  Seven or eight swords of various lengths and sizes were drawn on the page.  I got some scissors and cut them out.  When I handed Sophia her sword, she burst into tears.

"It's not as big as Kathleen's," she sobbed when I asked why she was so upset, "I want a big sword to kill the bad guys with!"

Kathleen obliged her with a bigger sword, I cut it out, and they ran off to kill the bad soldiers.

No more Old Testament stories for them.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Cautionary Tale Part II: Apple

Having tried the quick and easy route and failed miserably, I returned to Apple.  I repeated the story to another kind gentleman.  Was the store lying, or were warranty cases really frozen for the whole Middle East?  He had no record of such a thing happening, and while we were at it, he had no record of my earlier phone call with the gentleman who started the whole dog-and-pony show in the first place.

If there is one thing my mother has taught me, however, it is to keep track of documentation, and so I read him the date and case number of my previous phone call.  Oh yes, there it is.  Well, he was going to have to send me to the department that handles problems with power adapters for those 'older' (I suppose that 18 months should count as ancient in the computer world) laptops.  

But then he was going to have me talk with somebody else more... something.  And evidently younger, as J- sounded like he had skipped college in favor of working for Apple.  J- got the story again, and then was deeply sorry that he couldn't do anything for me - Apple can't do a thing without the original equipment being returned.  The best thing he could suggest was that I simply buy a new adapter.

There are many things I have learned while living here.  I can stare down oncoming cars to a standstill.  I can avoid looking anyone in the eye while in a crowded Metro car.  I have perfected the expat personal space bubble.  I know how to get delivery boys to my house within twenty minutes.  And I have gained The Voice.

When I very first came to Egypt and watched my compatriots interact with the locals, I was ashamed.  Whenever they talked, a demanding, irritated, high-pitched sound came from their mouth.  I could see the Egyptian cringing.  'Why was that necessary,' I wondered, 'if you treat people with kindness and respect, they'll be happy to do whatever you ask them to.'  Now, of course, I know why The Voice is necessary, although I try and be decent whenever possible.  However, there are times when decency gets you nowhere, and the only thing that will make any (especially when I am dealing with a man) difference is The Voice.

And so I used The Voice.  I opened with my usual phrase.  

"Excuse me?!?!  You want me to get the original power adapter back?!  What would you like me to do - have my husband take a gun down to iSpot and demand they return the power adapter?!?  It was YOUR customer service representative that TOLD ME to go down to this store!!  He GAVE me the number and address!!  Without his advice, I would have NEVER NEVER gone down to that store - I would have dealt with Apple directly.  I LIVE here, it is a third world country, NOTHING WORKS HERE!!!!!'

I stopped, wrung dry of invective and shaking.  Being nasty feels good for a few seconds, but really I don't like it.  

A stunned silence on the line was finally broken by J-, in a small voice telling me to hold while he talked to someone, anyone other than the crazy lady shouting at him from Egypt.  He returned after a few minutes, composed and relieved.  Apple would be happy to send me a new power adapter and they would be willing to waive the usual requirement of returning the defective equipment.  

After I hung up the phone and danced a victory dance, a small voice in the back of my head whispered that he was just telling me lies to get me off the phone.  Since the phone call, however, I've received several follow-up emails telling me that yes, the adapter really is coming in the mail.

And I believe them, mostly.  But part of me won't believe it until my laptop is fully charged and happily running budget numbers.  Living in Egypt has scarred me.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Cautionary Tale

A long, long time ago in October, the power cord for my laptop broke.  The laptop plug resides in the computer room, next to a very overloaded power transformer.  Near the power adapter are two rolling office chairs.  Occasionally the office chairs, while being pushed around by Kathleen or Sophia, rolled over the thin part of the cord.  Over time, the cord began failing and eventually it gave up the ghost entirely.

Without a power cord a laptop becomes a very expensive paperweight, and so I called Apple to make use of AppleCare.  The kind gentleman on the line, speaking a very pleasant Southern-accented English, said that he would be happy to mail me a new power adapter.

Then he asked me if I would be able to return the adapter through the APO system.  Yes, I told him, but the return trip usually takes about a month.  Well, that would be a problem, as Apple requires that the broken hardware be returned within 10 days to avoid being charged for the replacement.

What if I mailed the adapter to an address in the US, and had them complete the exchange?  I knew that that wouldn't work, as I would be without my laptop for six weeks at least.  Brandon and I had been a single-computer family for four years before we upgraded, but I've become spoiled and six weeks is a long time to be without my computer - and it has my Quicken files on it.

So he suggested I take the cord to an Apple authorized service provider in Egypt.  In fact, there was one in my neighborhood - New Maadi.  All I had to do was take the cord in, they would look up my records, and give me a new adapter.

I have lived in Egypt long enough to find out that locals have a very strange adherence to rules.  Most reasonable rules - driving within lines, driving on a specific side of the road, paying to get on the Metro trains, standing in lines - are completely ignored.  But strange, finicky book-rules are adhered to very strictly, to the exclusion of any common sense.  At the mall this week I found out that some doors are only for entering, not exiting.  Why?  Nobody can explain, but there's no way you're going to get out that door.

The computer and AppleCare plan are registered under Brandon's name, and so Brandon got to take the power cord to iSpot, the local Apple provider.  To his surprise, they looked up his information, confirmed that yes, he had AppleCare, and told him that they would call him when a replacement came in.  And not a piaster changed hands.

Meanwhile, some visitors came, and we were busy.  No phone calls came from iSpot, but that wasn't much of a surprise.  After our visitors left, Brandon called iSpot, figuring that a month would certainly be enough time to get something done.

Oh, they told him, iSpot only ships items to Apple twice a month, and the gentleman on the phone was unsure if our power adapter was in the lot shipped to Apple.  He would check on it and give us a call.  A few weeks went by.  Brandon called.  The computer wasn't working; call back in two days.  Another week.  They weren't sure where our records were; give them a day.

Finally he resorted to the only thing that gets anything in this country done: constant nagging.  One day they couldn't find the report, the next day they had to talk to Apple, and on the third day Apple had frozen all warranty cases in the Middle East.  And when would we know about our power adapter?  Who knows, insha'alla?