Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Beet Salad and Better Days

Yesterday began looking like it was going to drag on unsatisfactorily, so I decided to be proactive. I went and picked up my passport newly stamped with my student visa (that strangely resembles my tourist visa but cost more money). Feeling a bit listless and not sure what to do with my time, I wandered to the Semiramis hotel and perused some of the shops before strolling to Tahrir Square, home of the Egyptian Museum and the Mogamma. There, I perched, put in my earbuds and people-watched for about half-an-hour with my iPod providing a soundtrack. Needing to get dinner before heading to teach English, I began heading back toward my apartment, hoping to find inspiration along the way. I began to get frustrated with the lack of options, but then I caught myself. My own negativity is a stumbling block to truly getting everything I can out of this experience, so I'm doing everything I can to keep it in check. My solution was to head to Taboula, near the law school, and get takeaway. So as not to annoy the waiter by hemming and hawing, I hurriedly picked three items without giving them too much thought and sat down to wait while my order was processed. 44 LE and twenty minutes or so later, I had my food and was off to the metro to trek up to Ain Shams. I got to the school early and chatted with Cynthia as I unpacked my dinner which turned out to consist of some delicious bamya (okra in spices and oil), beet salad, and some "sautéed" vegetables. The first two items were delicious. I hadn't even realized when I picked "Rocca salad" that there were beets in it. Getting excited about beets may seem a bit much, but I'm telling you, it's the little things! Unfortunately, there were problems at the school and Tito, whom I was supposed to give a mini-French lesson to didn't show. One of the students had gotten into a fight with an Egyptian earlier and the whole group was thus up in arms and in the street outside figuring out their next course of action rather than coming to class on time. Admirably, though, within a half an hour, most of my class had arrived and we went through our lesson as normal.
On the way back, a funny thing happened. As the metro is emptier later at night, I was able to find a place to sit. Next to me was an Egyptian guy about my age who, after a few stops, mustered the courage to ask me in Arabic where I was from. I indicated after answering the question in Arabic "Amreeka", I didn't really speak the language. He smiled understandingly and went on to tell me in English that he had been an Italian-Arabic translator and a tour guide, but was now doing military service. While we were conversing haltingly, struggling for words in one another's languages, a one-armed man with a box full of candy came by. This of course didn't faze me as people always go through this routine: they have trinkets or candy that they walk around the train car setting on people's laps before they can object and then they come back around asking for money. Prepared to return the candy, I was prevented by my new army friend who bought it for me. I laughed to myself at the whole scene and was genuinely thankful for the show of generosity.
My next stop was Horeyya to meet a couple of guys I met at the party I went to the other night. I wasn't feeling well, so I stopped home to drop off my bag and drink some water (my late grandmother's remedy for every ill) and marched onward to the café/bar/cultural institution. We ended up staying there for hours, our conversations ranging from personal to political and, later, including other characters--a Greek man who was born in Alexandria but forced to move to Athens as a young child by the political events of the Nasser era, an American student-turned-investment banker who's been in the country ten years, and a woman from Berlin who is in Egypt on vacation. The latter two and one of the guys I was with headed onto Odeon later where we ended up talking more politics as well as religion. Because Suzanne, the German, grew up in East Germany, her experience with religion was vastly different than our respective Roman Catholic, Episcopal, and Evangelical upbringings. We also talked about how foreign the concepts of atheism, agnosticism, or simply believing in God are in a country where your religion is put on your ID card if you're a citizen, or in your visa applications if you're an expat. You can only be a Muslim, Christian, or Jew here, and that last category is a bit iffy. If you don't fit neatly into one of these categories, tough luck. I made it home after 4 AM, but considered my evening quite well spent in light of the fact that my insomnia and the roosters would've kept me up until then anyway. Better to be out having stimulating discussion than in bed tossing and turning.
Today, I got an email from my host counselor apologizing for the effect his busyness has had on his helping me out during my stay here and saying that I was being switched to Omaima, the woman who attended the Rotary event I spoke of in my last entry. We'll see how all that goes, but it's frustrating, because I have the impression that they were inconvenienced by all the miscommunication too and I don't want them to feel there's any ill will toward them on my part.
Anyway, in less than an hour, I'm off to class and then to Zamalek for my friend Rania's birthday party. Unlike in past weeks, I have plans for every night of the week, part of my concerted effort to make the best of Egypt rather than letting things get the best of me.

Egypt halts gas exports to Israel
Underwater museum planned for Alexandria
More on the first female marriage registrar in Egypt

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