Tag Archives: cairo

Today I Wear Underpants

This photo is only half staged.

Warning: much exaggerated complaining followed by lighthearted ending. Use this information well.

It’s the last week of school and I am a disheveled shadow of a human. My aspirations of being fluent in Arabic have turned into the desire to live through the final day of my program, which is today.  Monday was not good. I woke up eight minutes before class feeling like death incarnate and rushed out of the house pen-less and still wearing my bed hair.

I had ten minutes to prepare for a presentation that was 20% of my grade. Luckily for me, I decided earlier this semester  that I don’t believe in grades. I ate 14 raw almonds for breakfast during class and afterwards wolfed down a falafel sandwich before taking a four hour nap, waking up just in time to skype with mother who silently judged me for my apparent sloth.

I felt defeated as usual here in Cairo, and I’ve come to realize that this city has utterly wiped me out and used me like a plaything.

My program ends today and I return to the states in a mere 2 weeks. I should be happy, but ahead of me looms a formidable job hunt in one of the most expensive cities in the world. This life-consuming job hunt must take place in the same month that I plan and attend a bachelorette party, a bridal shower, an afterglow brunch (ew), a  boyfriend’s visit, and a family vacation in which I’ll be forced to leave my mountain grove and actually socialize.

I’m looking from a place of exhaustion forward to months of exhaustion with no apparent end.  I’m staring from a position of defeat towards a future me curled on the ground with HR representatives kicking me in the stomach while chewing up my resume and spitting it at me. Things look grim.

In times like this, I can only do one thing. I take out my planner and write down the secret that will give me the strength to go on and conquer my fears and climb the mountains and brush the hair. At the very top of my to-do list I write “wear underwear.”

Can two words change a life? Yes.

After donning my underthings, I cross off the first task on my to-do list and breathe deeply while I look at the twenty things I have left, my rear end carefully caressed by a familiar pair of unmentionables. Yes, today is my day. I’m beginning the rest of my life and I’m wearing underpants.

You, world, may be tough and you may have well dressed people who don’t want to hire me and you may have chatty cousins that distract me from the book I want to read but I, dear world, am wearing underpants and anything is possible.

Who wears the underpants? I DO! Who’s not afraid? I’M NOT! Who’s going to stop crying and leave her mother’s closet today? ME!


P.S. Things really aren’t that bad. I’m going on vacation to Ethiopia today. Yay!

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I Hope My Family Likes Their Piles of Dirt

This one’s for Dad.

My year in Cairo is winding down, coming to a close, kicking the bucket, hiding in the dumpster, etc. Throughout the past year, I was careful to avoid purchasing any gifts for my family, keeping my tradition of delaying present buying  until “later,” which usually translates into “3 hours before my flight when I can only spend $2 on each gift and end up buying everyone decorative paper weights and nun figurines.”

But this time it’s going to be different, especially because the last time I went home, in December, I got desperate and gave my family Digestives and Hobnobs for Christmas. I might as well have put five packages of Chips Ahoy! under the tree. This semester I vowed to do better.

I began my gift hunting early, seeking something that would embody my Cairo experience in a way that my family would both appreciate and enjoy. After looking through all of the boutiques in Zamalek and perusing the stalls of Khan al-Khalili, I realized that these stores sold  worthless knickknacks that lacked the essence of Cairo and were inauthentic pieces of pre-trash.

That’s when I stumbled on the idea of getting each member of my family their very own piles of Cairo dirt, a fun substance that we eat, breathe, and live every moment of our Cairo existence. My family could use the piles as office, home, and lawn decoration and the dirt can also be used as weed killer, teenager-repellent, and an acceptable replacement for some spices.

I wandered through the city, looking for piles of dirt that I felt represented my family. I found one with some horse poop in it and thought of my mom because her sister loves horses, and right near there I found one with an animal bone in it and thought instantly of my brother. Just days ago, I was walking to the supermarket and saw one that had a syringe stuck in it and knew I’d found the perfect pile for my sisters (they love sharing things.) And then finally, I found one with a Twinkie wrapper sticking out of it, and it was as if Dad spoke to me and said, “This pile of dirt is for me, Emily.”

I filled up a jar for each family member so they can place their mini-pile anywhere they want (in the bathroom! the kitchen! the shower!) and think of me and Cairo every time they look at it. The idea might be a little cheesy, but I’m a sentimental gal and I do sentimental things.  I can’t wait to see the look on their faces–they’re going to be so surprised!

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The Cairo Expatriate: A Rare Breed

The loons are in the center

It is my personal theory that people who want to live in the Middle East are mentally unbalanced. Most humans do not willingly exchange their comfort and familiarity at home for discomfort and alienation abroad. Therefore, those that do make this trade probably feel ill at ease in their own culture and are likely insane. Indeed, most of the expatriates I’ve met suffer from heightened social awkwardness, an awful family from which they have fled, disgust with their culture, feelings of isolation at home, various kinds of guilt, and/or bad breath. Not surprisingly, the severity of the mental imbalance and personal issues is multiplied tenfold when it comes to long term expats in Cairo, a city of bad food, crowds, and some of the worst pollution in the world. If living here appeals to you, something is wrong.

My suspicion that Cairo expatriates are a bunch of eccentric loons was validated last night at an AUC event. As I gazed around the lounge of the Cairo Windsor Hotel, decorated with desert animal antlers and a Boston College pennant, I realized I had found myself in a kind of expatriate birdcage. Each party attendee was odd in some way, much like an exotic bird with its own story and quirks, the kind of strange pet that is hard to love and misunderstood by outsiders. The more I observed, the more I felt an ornithologist examining the fantastic plumage and social behavior of rare and valuable species.

Some expatriates have come for business, others to hunt mummies, and still others—the most pathetic ones—study Arabic. Some expats have been here for decades, growing stranger with the years and watching as new crops of expatriates come and go, while others come just for a year or two while they’re trying to figure things out. Each one hates Cairo in a way, though many of them also love it because in this city they’ve found a place among freaks like them.

New blood comes in and refreshes the stock every now and then, but still it runs strange. At expatriate parties, I often have to be prepared for bizarre amounts of eye contact, awkward introductions, unorthodox worldviews, and hazardous dance moves.

To be honest, I fit right in.

The best part is that Cairo is a place for everyone else, for those that didn’t fit in back home and want to start anew in a place where the cost of living is cheap and everyone recognizes you from the facebook pictures of a friend’s friend’s party.It’s a weird mix, but on the bright side, even boring people are a little interesting. We welcome you if you want to come, but prepare to get strange.

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7 Indicators of a Great Start to the Semester

No pen=no doodle. 😦

1. You forget the pen you were sure you recalled and proceed to not record anything for the entire day except for when you borrow that one guy’s pencil. You even regret doing that because the lead is really light and a pain to write with but you remember that beggars can’t be choosers.

2. You spend a large amount of class time debating whether the classrooms feel most like a coffin, grave, cistern, or well. You decide that the grave motif resonates the most because of how you feel about the course itself and the room’s stark lack of natural light, but ultimately you throw out all your choices and settle on describing it as a morgue: stale and lifeless.

3. After staring at the wall for most of your first class, you rush downstairs when it ends to go to the bathroom/escape. Later on you see the teacher from that class who asks you whether anything is wrong. The prospect of taking classes for the next 4 months in the morgue makes you want to curl up and die but there’s nothing she can do so you keep your mouth shut.

4. On your way into the university, you look at the bottle of water you just purchased and wish it were whiskey. You close your eyes and wish for it to turn into whiskey. When you open them, it is still water, which you drink because you hope will cure your massive headache.

5. Having shivered most of the day, you exit your unheated classroom building and find that the air of the city in which you reside has been rendered brown and unbreathable from dust kicked up by the massive gusts of wind. This would make great stuff for a song about witches coming down chimneys, you think to  yourself.

6. The best part of the day was when you learned that your first class might be 15 minutes shorter than originally scheduled. The worst part of the day was when you had to sit through the entire hour and thirty minutes because they hadn’t decided on a time length yet.

7. You’re looking forward to the fact that the only girl’s bathroom is about a 1.5 minute walk away, which will be good for breaks from class over the next four months. If you time it right, you might be able to miss hours of class.

It’s going to be a wonderful semester!

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On Your Mark. Get Set. Fear!

Milk: Gotta Have It for Coffee

Cairo, Egypt.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011: A million man protest is scheduled for 4 o’clock pm. During our classes and breaks we watch tv and discuss what is going on or eavesdrop to other’s conversations. Life, for the most part, continues as normal. At 1 pm, the director of our program knocks on the classroom door. This is unusual.

She pokes her head in and calmly states that there is a city-wide curfew beginning at 3 pm, that classes were ending early, and that everyone should go home after stopping by the grocery store and stocking up on ramen noodles.

Did I freak out? No. Did I leave more quickly than usual, make an urgent phone call to my roommate, and then speed walk to find a taxi after not taking time to say goodbye to my fellow students? Yes.

All I could think about was getting to the grocery store. I was almost out of coffee. And milk, we needed milk. I could probably buy a few cartons of milk, and then ration them if I needed to. Yes. I need milk. How could I drink coffee without milk? What if there’s no milk? I have to get milk.

This sick internal dialogue was accompanied by terrifying images of ravaged supermarkets, bare shelves poking out everywhere and not a drop of milk to be had for the roaming groups of latecomers who pick over the off brand mayonnaises and weird canned meats others have left behind. I simply knew we would get to the store and find there was no milk left, the shelves on which it was usually stocked completely empty, only the dust revealing that anything had ever been there. And then what would I do? In order to calm myself down, I made a contingency plan: “ I might have to drink coffee without milk and that’s fine.” But it didn’t feel fine. It felt awful.

We took a taxi home and didn’t even stop by our apartment before heading to the corner store to get the necessities. Unlike the wasted aisles in my day-terror, the store seemed quite normal. I didn’t have to elbow any portly twelve year olds to get the last roll of Choco-Biscuits, and there were no flocks of mothers screaming at each other and their children while fighting over the last bag of rice. I bought two cartons of milk  (the long-lasting kind), and refrained from buying another. I was just so relieved it was there. I began to suspect the other people didn’t know about the curfew. They weren’t going to have any milk later on if they didn’t get smart. They also might be arrested for violating curfew.

We, on the other hand, went home and unpacked our groceries and prepared for a movie marathon complete with coffee and choco-biscuits. Curious, I checked the news to see what it said about the curfew. Interestingly enough, it said nothing.

I poked around a little more, searching in English and Arabic Western and Egyptian news sources, and found zilch. And then I went to the Twitter and searched “curfew.” Bingo. I discovered a slew of tweets deriding the curfew and alternatively begging others not to spread ridiculous rumors or mocking them for doing so.

Thus we found the curfew was, in fact, not real. I was glad I’d resisted buying 3 cartons of milk because then I would have really felt foolish. The lesson? Be careful about spreading rumors, including this one.

P.S. I am not one of the American students that was arrested. I’m not writing this from jail. They were all dudes anyways.

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