Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Travelogue, Continued in a Minor Key
Revisiting old haunts is a bittersweet experience at best; doing so in a country that has been through all that Egypt has in the past three years is only more so. We wandered around town a little yesterday, a day of Greatest Hits, finding some moments of reassurance and cheer, leavened though they were with dismay and even, occasionally, shock.
Some things survive unchanged, or nearly so. Above is one of Cairo's great places, the Promenade Café at the Gezira Marriott. The hotel's central pavilion was built to host a visit by the Empress Eugenie, and if the vast concrete wings added in more recent years don't quite live up the gilded splendor of the actual Palace, I have to say the whole place is looking remarkably well. In days gone by, my flat was just a stone's throw away, and we would start our long evenings out by gathering to watch le tout Caire pass. As you can see, it's a rather quieter place on a Monday afternoon, but even so we got in some excellent people-watching/eavesdropping, as our only neighbors were a superannuated trio, two long-time expats- an elderly Egyptologist with a voice like Harry Truman's and an acidulous British lady of great pretension and enormous disappointment ("India? Darling, it was horrible, horrible - three weeks of rice and curry, curry and rice, every day for three weeks. All the tigers in the world weren't worth that...") - and a silent, elegant Egyptian matron who presumably had had to put up with the both of them these 40 years or so.*
Sadly, though, some things are distinctly the worse for wear. Even those who love Cairo will never claim it as, at least in living memory, the cleanest of cities, and on that front revolution has not been kind. Graffiti mars the faded Belle Epoque buildings downtown - many now clearly on their last legs - and heaps of trash linger in corners and block the never-capacious pavements. We lunched at an old favorite that in Our Day would have been packed with tourists, locals, business people making deals and shoppers needing a break; yesterday we were one of four or five tables sprinkled around the venerable room, and the shambling old waiters were inordinately happy to have a party that remembered them in better days (there and in any number of shops of it was old home week - in how many cities would you be remembered with the eagerness of a Prodigal Son after a decade away?).
But the the real wrenching shock, I'm afraid, was the Egyptian Museum. During my Cairo years it was a rare week that I didn't visit, taking advantage of long evening hours to stop by as I walked home. Like the streets around it, it was never, God knows, a tidy place, and museologically it fell far short - with its lack of air conditioning, open windows, and Edwardian-era displays - of ideal. Still, it felt like a safe home for the treasures within, cared for if not exactly prized by a legion of cleaners and strolling guards. Today, though... oh, dear. It survived (which was not exactly a given more than once or twice during all the turmoil), but not a whole lot more. The dirt is indescribable, the neglect palpable. Cheap economy bulbs have been strung haphazardly where older fixtures have finally failed, or there is simply no light at all. A few staff sat around, looking alternately bored and disgruntled, and a very few, very wary-looking groups of tourists were led grimly around by guides who (as Mr. Muscato overheard) volubly despise the low-rent types who have replaced the prosperous retirees and others who once formed the bulk of the tourist trade. The great things remain, of course - the treasures of Tutankhamun and the magnificent statues, the portraits and the jewelry and the inconceivable sheer number of things - but it all feels terribly, terribly vulnerable and sad.
Even dinner on the Nile, at a veddy swank Asian boite on one of the moored boats that line the Zamalek side of the river, didn't entirely dispel the gloom. Our pal The Retired Tycoon remains remarkably upbeat about the situation ("oh, it will all get better in five or six years; maybe I'll even still be here to see it..."), but all the same he has upgraded his old Mercedes into a tank-like SUV after a near-miss with carjackers and was staying home today to take possession of a battery-powered generator to deal with the now-frequent rolling blackouts. There was a surreal air to the place, nearly empty, with its strong cocktails and tinkling jazz playing in the background, its excellent sushi and matchless view of the river rolling by outside. Across the river, the darkened outlines of hotels showed just how few visitors there are - there were more lights in the old Nile Hilton, vacant now and under open-ended renovation en route to becoming a Ritz-Carlton, than there were in the mother-lodes of the tourist trade, the Semiramis, Shepheard's, the new Kempinski, the glitzy Four Seasons...
We came home a little sobered, despite our host's generosity with his excellent vodka (one has one's own bottles set aside at regular haunts, don't you know). Today we continued with the final touches on our own flat (rather more modest than the RT's, but at least for the moment our neighborhood has been spared the blackouts) and puttering around. There is a lot to worry about in Egypt these days, but I suppose there always has been. While things sort themselves out - as many friends remain obdurately sure they will - we will have to concentrate on the best that remains and what hope there is. Even the Egyptian Museum has seen hard times before. When my parents visited in the early '70s, just as Soviet influence was waning, their guide brought his own Windex to wipe off the cases. That always struck me as comically unnecessary, but now I rather see his point. Pendulums swing, and things get better. In the meantime, despite all the carping - if you have any, any say in your own travel plans, do think about coming to Egypt. You have no idea how welcome you'll be.
* It was a vignette that resonated all the more when I learned today that this week marks the centennial of dear Miss Barbara Pym. This was a table of vintage Pymishness, all around.