Friday, November 17, 2017

Notes from the Road

We're here. Well, not there, actually, in the sense of this snap - our own cosy flat is distinctly more modest - but in dear old Cairo.

The modest edifice above is a nearby hotel, where we've taken a temporary gym membership so that I can continue being a model heart patient and, I'll admit, avail ourselves of the really quite luxe spa facilities. As you can see, it's in a common local style that might be best described as Louis Farouk Goes Pharaonic. I keep expecting someone to either sing "Celeste Aida" or troop some elephants through. Instead, the lobby café buzzes with solemn businessmen and alarmingly large groups of Asian tourists congregate near the patient sphinxes, waiting for their tour of the Pyramids or trip to the souq. We just go through and I get on the treadmill, which seems terribly pedestrian (as it were) in comparison, but if I go on eating and drinking the way we've been since touchdown on Monday, it's something I'll have to spend a great deal of time doing.

Our first few days have passed very pleasantly indeed - lots of puttering around doing errands for various things needed in the flat, getting in some groceries (more of which below), generally checking up on the neighborhood (mostly in good form, if as chaotic as ever), and seeing a very nice variety of old friends. One evening we went all the way across to the far side of the city, out beyond the Pyramids, to one chum's new villa in a very swank compound (a little swathe of Dubai dropped in the desert, and incongruous it is, too), and another we dined with our pal The Retired Tycoon at a restaurant in my old neighborhood that's been around forever and a day (as have, I believe, a good many of the patrons - I felt positively juvenile). Mr. Muscato has caught up on all the local delicacies he's been missing, and I've been investigating the local wine situation (limited, but drinkable, on the whole).

Today himself has gone off to see the family, and I had an adventure, of sorts. There's a regular Friday morning group that meets in downtown Cairo and takes long walks, and I was invited to join them. We puttered through the crowded backalleys and sidestreets of several neighborhoods (Boulaq, Shubra, and Ramsis among them), enjoying the relative calm of Friday morning, checking out the various centuries of crumbling architecture, and taking in the local color, of which there was a lot - herds of light-footed goats, donkey carts, sellers of bread and hibiscus juice and batteries and pretty much anything else one would want, workshops where men were making everything from baskets to generators, and over it all the constant noise and buzz of a city that really deserves Manhattan's moniker, for it never does, fully, sleep. We ended up at a tumbledown two-star hotel not far from the train station that has a handkerchief-sized roof garden and serves ice-cold beer, washed down with sandwiches of local bread (pita of a sort, but fluffier and denser and far, far more delicious) and the paste of fava beans, onion, peppers, and various spices known as ful, bought from a cart en route.

The group was a nice mix - some expats, a few Egyptians, students, retired people. I chatted for a long stretch with an older Swedish woman who's lived here for over thirty years, as well as a very earnest pair of archaeologist-in-training from New Zealand. They're learning Arabic, and I have to say that beginner's Arabic in a thick Auckland accent is not for the faint of heart.

Now I'm sitting in the fading late afternoon light; the call to prayer is sounding (fortunately, in the middle distance; I don't envy anyone living directly adjacent to a mosque, for the speakers are blaring and harsh). On the radio (via the satellite TV), I'm listening to the classical-music station broadcast from our old Sultanate in the Sandlands, with a series of Baroque masterworks almost holding their own against the muezzin. Since I'm on my own, shortly I'll head to the kitchen and do a little cooking (and perhaps further investigate the local oenoculture).

The grocery situation is far, far better than it was when I lived here fifteen or so years ago. We have a hypermarket within walking distance in one direction, and just a slightly longer walk in another there's a little oasis called Oskar, a (comparative) miracle of tidiness and order that has excellent produce, lots of interesting European products, and even sections offering both pork and alcohol.

I didn't take many pictures on today's walk - it seems intrusive in the traditional neighborhoods, and I was really too busy just looking - but anywhere one goes, Egypt is very definitely a festival of people-watching.  I did take a quick snap as we finished up at Oskar, for our things were run up by a man who could be a Fayoum portrait come to life, and on top of that, he had the most ravishing eyelashes this side of Miss Elizabeth Taylor, a genuine double set and black as ink:

If the contest still existed, he would very much be my nominee for 2017 International Checker of the Year.

Once you've finished ogling the lashes, please note the extreme healthiness of our purchases. I'll admit, however, that out of the frame is a very large bag of Mr. Muscato's favorite local quaff, a punishingly sweet pineapple soda called Fayrouz. It's actually not bad with vodka, I once discovered, but is otherwise not a taste one should rush to acquire.

So that's where things stand.


  1. "A taste of the exotic"? Yes, please! Jx

    [PS I'd be at that supermarket every day...]

    1. Dropping change, or crawling under the sir, are an internationally known quantity.

  2. I'm glad you're having a lovely time. Are all the expats concerned about Trump? They should be.

    1. People I've talked to seem to alternate between a kind of bitter amusement and genuine horror. Of course, all the U.S. news is so bonkers at the moment that there's plenty of both amusement and horror on all fronts.

  3. Tut, Tut and all. Have a wonderful and SAFE trip.