I've Moved!

My new blog is called Reflections from a Global Nomad, in order to acknowledge that we no longer live in Maadi and that we are, in fact, global nomads, not staying in one place longer than two or three years. Please join me at http://DeborahReflections.blogspot.com

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Maadi Christmas Pictures

Back in the States, I'm accustomed to seeing red and green everywhere in December, as malls, homes, and businesses all decorate for Christmas. Here in Maadi . . . not quite so much. There were some places that were decorated: Maadi House, Condetti, and of course the insides of expats' homes. I didn't take pictures inside other people's homes--I didn't have my camera, and I'm not sure they'd want me posting pictures of their homes online anyway. Of course I didn't take my camera whenever we went to Maadi House or Condetti, so I can't share pictures of those decorations, pretty as they were, but I can share the pictures I took around the housing compound and out on Road 9. Enjoy!

First are some pictures of the inside of my apartment. This is the first year we decorated for Christmas, since it's the first year we actually stayed put for it. I wasn't sure last year how much space we'd have for decorations, so I didn't buy much. It turns out that it was a wise decision.

The tree was decorated only on the top half--and even then, we kept hearing rustling in the tree, a clink as the shatterproof ornament fell to the floor, and then certain adventurous kitties batting their bright and shiny ball around the floor. The kittens also are why the angel on top looks like she's about to fall off . . .

I had two strands of garland, which we used on top of the china cabinet and on the buffet. The stockings went on the china cabinet, along with a poinsettia from our neighbors. Unfortunately, my black thumb meant that we didn't get to enjoy the poinsettia on Christmas, but it was pretty while it lasted. (I promise, I did put up the bins you see beside the cabinet . . . I have got to start cleaning up before I take pictures . . .)

I put the Nativity Scene on the buffet. Baby Jesus and Joseph's lamp both enjoyed Christmas Day on display. That night, they both went back into protective custody in the drawer. They haven't made an appearance since. The kittens enjoy them too much.

My brother gave this University of Kentucky Santa to my husband, a UK alum, for Christmas . . . last year? Maybe the year before. Either way, my husband loves it, so it was displayed on our end table.

I used my Garagos plate to display some candles I bought here in Egypt. The set was displayed on my coffee table, although you can see that it got a little crowded . . . (and I say again, I really need to learn to clean up before I take pictures!)

I also put a fabric wreath on the door. It was purchased here in Egypt, at one of the Maadi Women's Guild meetings, from the Deaf Unit. The Deaf Unit is a charity that runs a vocational training center, where deaf people are taught to work with wood, metal, and sewing to make some very beautiful, high-quality furniture and home decor.

There also were some decorations outside around the compound. A few others put up wreaths, and someone put up a large inflatable snowman! There also was a poinsettia or two sitting outside doors.

Also, the housing office or the guards or someone decided to wish us all a Merry Christmas as we came off the elevators.

Out on Road 9, there weren't really decorations up for Christmas. However, there were a couple of shops that were selling Christmas trees and other decorations. Here are some trees that were available . . .

and here are a few more, as well as some garland strands.

I really wish I'd gotten pictures of Maadi House and Condetti. Maadi House was decorated nicely, and Condetti was beautiful. Oh, well, you've gotten to see a little bit of how it looks at Christmas in Maadi!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas in Cairo

This was Jeff's and my very first Christmas alone together. Usually, we travel to South Carolina, where most of our family lives, and spend Christmas there. It tends to be a bit hectic, with our families living 45 minutes apart and us negotiating when and where we'll spend time with all the people we want to see. It isn't uncommon for us to spend Christmas Eve evening in one place, Christmas morning and early afternoon in another, and then Christmas late afternoon and evening in yet another. I enjoy going home for Christmas, but I usually ended up needing a vacation from my holiday by the time we got back home.

This year was very different. We had about the same amount of time off work as usual, thanks to the peculiarities of embassy life. President Bush gave all government employees Friday off, but since our weekend is Friday and Saturday, Jeff got Wednesday instead. So he was off Wednesday for that, Thursday for Christmas, Friday and Saturday for the weekend. He took Sunday as a vacation day and then was off on Monday for Islamic New Year--it's nice to get both local and American holidays off work! Today is his first day back at work. We had the most laidback, relaxing Christmas I can remember.

On Wednesday, Christmas Eve, we relaxed at home most of the day. That evening, we went to the carol service at church. We had to bundle up a little; the weather finally got cool enough to wear a coat! I was thrilled with that; I love fall weather, and until recently, it had felt like summer and then late summer. Now it finally feels like fall. It was enough for me; it wouldn't have felt quite like Christmas if I hadn't needed a coat, but this was perfect Christmas weather, as far as I'm concerned. Jeff said it didn't feel cold enough for Christmas to him--he grew up with a white Christmas being a real possibility, after all--but I was fine with just needing a coat during our outdoor service.

The carol service was so nice! We sang some songs that must be traditional in the UK, but that I had never heard, before moving on to some that I knew. (Did you know, though, that "Silent Night" has two melodies? There's the one I've always heard and then another one that I heard for the first time a couple of weeks ago when we went caroling. It's nice, but . . . it just isn't quite right. We sang both versions during the carol service.) Toward the end of the service, the lights were dimmed and candles were lit. We've always missed the Christmas Eve services, usually because we were trying to cram in time with all our family members, so it was so nice on Christmas Eve to take a break and refocus our attention on the true meaning of Christmas!

After the service, we joined a couple of friends for a pig roast at the Maadi House. It was a buffet style meal, with all the roasted pig, vegetables, and pumpkin pie you could eat. Most people sat outside, but it was too chilly for that in our opinion, so we had a nice quiet meal inside. It was a nice time of relaxation and conversation with friends that we haven't really gotten to see much lately--they just got back from a trip to the States.

The next day, on Christmas morning, we slept late. Once we finally got up around 9 o'clock, I made sausage biscuits, and we ate way too much! After breakfast, it was time for gifts. In my family, we always did stockings last, but we decided to follow Jeff's tradition of doing stockings first. And Jeff agreed that we'll always do gift exchange on Christmas morning, like my family did it, instead of on Christmas Eve, like his family did. So we exchanged stockings and presents with each other and opened the gifts that were sent from home. We even gave the kittens gifts--so far we've given them one stocking that had nine small toys (we have another stocking just like it, but we're waiting until they start losing the toys before we open it), and we've given them some special treats that a friend brought from Germany.

After the gifts, I started trying to decide what time we should call our families. With the 7-hour time difference, there's a balance to be struck between late enough that they'll be awake and not still opening their own gifts and early enough that we're awake and they don't think we've forgotten them. I had just decided to wait a little longer, to make sure we didn't wake up anyone without kids or interrupt the gift-opening of those with kids, when our MagicJack phone rang. It was my mom! I talked to her for a while, then handed the phone over to Jeff, who eventually handed it back to me. Immediately after I hung up with her, the phone rang again--it was my brother. After we talked and hung up, I said something to Jeff about whether I should go ahead and call my sister and my father, when the phone rang yet again--it was my father. So we chatted for a little while, and then I called my sister. I had to leave a message for her, but that was okay since the connections hadn't been very good. It's been in and out ever since those three cables in the Mediterranean got cut a couple weeks ago, and Christmas Day wasn't a very good internet or VOIP day--I kept telling people to speak slowly and to repeat themselves because I couldn't understand them very well.

Jeff decided to wait a while before calling his family, in the hopes that the connection would improve. We spent the afternoon relaxing, with me reading and Jeff playing his new video game. I had planned to cook Jeff's favorite meal--his mom's meatloaf and baked macaroni and cheese--but we'd eaten so much at breakfast that we weren't hungry until late. So we ate pizza that night instead, and I cooked the meatloaf, mac & cheese, green beans, carrots, and mashed potatoes the next day.

My sister called me back late that evening, and the connection was good. We had a nice chat. Jeff tried to call home a little after that, but the outgoing connection had gotten a lot worse; the MagicJack wouldn't connect at all. He eventually used the cell phone for a brief call to his sister and mom, but he just sent emails to the others and said he'd try to call within a few days.

On Saturday, we went to a cookie social at some friends' place up in Zamalek. There were all sorts of cookies--buck eyes (peanut butter dipped in chocolate), ginger cookies, snowflake cookies, biscotti, "everything cookies," chocolate chip . . . you name it. We spent some time just hanging out and chatting, then watched a slide show of our friends' time in Egypt--they arrived in May, I think--and their recent trip to Italy. We were invited to go out to dinner after, but I was tired, and we'd eaten too many cookies to want dinner so soon, so we headed home instead.

We found a taxi to take us to Maadi but didn't agree to a price before we got in like we should have. We'd only gone a few feet when the driver started negotiating. He wanted LE50, but we didn't want to pay more than LE40. He kept pushing for 50, but I told him "Arba3een walla henna"--"Forty or here," meaning we'd get out while we still were in Zamalek and pay him very little for the short distance he'd taken us. His response, as expected, was "Mafiish moshkela, forty," although he tried to make me feel guilty for not paying fifty. I let him talk without responding. He and I both knew the price was fair or even a little high, or he wouldn't have agreed to it. By the time we got out in Maadi, he was smiling and complimenting my Arabic.

Yesterday was another lazy day at home. It also was our nephew's birthday, so Jeff called him last night. The connection finally was good, so he went ahead and made a couple more calls as well. It was nice for him to be able to chat with three of the four nephews--one is too young to talk on the phone--and with his sister, his mother, and his grandmother.

This morning, it was back to the grind for Jeff. But only for today and tomorrow--he's off on Thursday for our New Year, and then there's the weekend after. Ah, the joys of American and local holidays! Next week might be rough, when he has to work a full five days, but he'll survive.

Our first Christmas in Cairo was long, and relaxing, and very, very nice. We had considered trying to go home for Christmas next year, but due to a variety of reasons, we're going home earlier in the year instead. Although I miss my family at Christmas--and I know Jeff misses his, and our families miss us--I've enjoyed being able to start thinking about our own Christmas celebration and what traditions we want to start as a family. And of course, our family and friends are welcome to visit us next Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Carols

I got sick of Christmas carols years ago.

Yep, I admit it. When it comes to Christmas carols, I'm a total scrooge. Back home, the Christian radio stations that I listened to usually started playing Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving. At first, they'd sprinkle them in with the other songs, but as Christmas got closer and closer, it became all Christmas music all the time. Each time a Christmas song came on, I'd groan as soon as I recognized it, try to stick it out, give up after the first line or two, and change the station. Christmas was the only time of year when I would listen to secular radio stations more often than to Christian ones, because the secular stations didn't alter their programming as much.

Two years ago, I moved to Maryland and found a local Christian radio station, WGTS. I loved it, as I do most stations that play contemporary Christian music (I'm not such a fan of the old-time hymns, unless they're put to a contemporary beat). But as we approached Christmas, I started steeling myself to find a secular station, maybe a nice country one or one that played a bunch of '80s music. Imagine my surprise when the Christmas music started, and I didn't even notice for the first week! There were no groans, no toughing it out through a line or two, no urges to change the channel. Finally I realized the difference: unlike the stations I had listened to previously, WGTS really maintained its Christian focus during Christmas. Almost all of the Christmas songs it played were truly Christian songs--songs that reflected the true meaning of Christmas, not the secular, commercialized thing we've made it. There were a few secular carols played--an announcement from management candidly stated that some traditional carols that had no real Christian content were played so that people flipping through the dials looking for carols might just stop and stay for another song or two--but the real focus was on celebrating the birth of Jesus. There was lots of "Silent Night," "O Come O Come Emmanuel," and contemporary Christian songs that had Christmas themes. There were not so many renditions of "Jingle Bells" or "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." The traditional secular songs were present, but they were a fun supplement to, not a replacement for, songs that were about the Christmas I celebrate. And I found myself enjoying Christmas music again.

This year, in Egypt, I wasn't sure what to expect. Truth be told, I didn't even think about Christmas music until we started singing it at church in Advent celebrations. With my history, I had no reason to think about Christmas music unless it was to be thankful that "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" wouldn't be piped over the speakers at every store I visited! But then Jeff and I were invited to a neighbor's apartment for hors d'ouevres and a caroling performance. My neighbors' maid is a part of her church choir, and she wanted her choir to come caroling for her employers. Last year, the first year that this happened, my neighbors ended up embarrassed because they didn't understand what caroling meant to their maid; they thought it was a group of people going around, standing outside, singing a song or two, and then moving on, like it is back in the States. Oh, no, not with this group. Caroling meant the choir came to your home, set up in your living room, and delivered a 30-minute performance, complete with choir director and guitar. Last year, this big production occurred with an audience of three, and my neighbors felt a bit awkward and embarrassed that they hadn't gathered an appropriately large audience.

This year was very different. There were around 12 guests present, as well as my three neighbors (a married couple with one child). We all showed up around 6pm for drinks and hors d'ouevres, and the choir came at 7. They arranged themselves in the living room, while we guests set ourselves up in the dining room (two separate areas of one big room). The choir director introduced the group as the "Christ is Coming Choir," and the caroling began. I loved every minute of it! The songs were almost all Christian, as you would expect from a church choir, but there were fun, lively songs, too, not just the slow and sentimental ones. The singers' faces were lit up with joyful smiles. At times there was a little choreographed hand-waving, which was fun, too. In between songs, they quoted Scripture verses about Jesus, His birth, and His mission. Toward the end, the choir director talked about how Jesus is coming back, and how she hopes that we'll all be ready when that day comes--but there was no proselytizing, which is illegal here; it was all about what she believes and what she hopes. She sang "Maranatha," a song I'd never heard before but enjoyed immensely. (Maranatha is Aramaic for our Lord comes.) At the end of that song, the choir immediately went into "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," and then the concert was over.

After the choir left, our host and hostess expressed surprise at how overt the Christian message was. Apparently, last year, the performance involved more traditional carols and fewer Bible verses. I know at least one other person in the audience (aside from Jeff and me) goes to church regularly, but I don't think that most of the people there would describe themselves as devout Christians. So I can see where this unabashedly Christian performance could take them off guard. But to me, it was exactly what a performance of Christmas carols ought to be. It was a group of believers singing about their Savior at a time of year when we celebrate His birth. It actually made me consider downloading some Christmas music from iTunes.

Tonight, my life group is going caroling. There's this British woman who lives nearby. She's in her 80s and has lived in Egypt for decades. She doesn't get out of her house much, because she's blind--anyone who's tried to walk around in Maadi knows that it can be difficult to keep your footing even if you can see; I can't imagine trying to walk around here without being able to see traffic, the precise location of the curb, or that random pole in the middle of the sidewalk. One of the ladies in my life group visits her once a week or so, and the visits are greatly appreciated. So tonight, we're all going. I just hope that our performance is as uplifting for her as the Christ is Coming Choir's performance was for me.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Christmas Bazaar

Well, it's over (mostly). The 2009 Maadi Women's Guild Christmas Bazaar was held on Friday, 12 December, at Wadi Degla. Most of the silent auction items sold; many of the raffle winners were there to claim their prizes. Some weren't, necessitating phone calls to let them know they had won and to make arrangements for them to take possessions of their prizes. That part isn't over yet; I need to make some phone calls this afternoon. There's also a report to write and a few odds and ends to clean up--one of the donors wants me to let her know how much her donation went for in the auction, that type of thing. But the majority of the event is over.

It was a crazy two days. The day before the bazaar, we were supposed to be there from noon to 6pm to set up. It was good that we were supposed to be done by 6pm; Jeff had a rare office party, and both of us wanted to go (even aside from the knowledge that it would be good for office politics if we attended the boss's party). Jeff had taken the day off work to help, because I had been told that we would need men to help move the heavy stuff like tables. Then I was told that, no, the guy who's renting us the tables will deliver them and set them up. So Jeff had the day off, but he was able to do the commissary run and then relax. Pam and I had planned to be at Wadi Degla at noon, but I received a phone call around 11:15 from Pam, asking me to come to the church. Apparently people were meeting there to pull items from the storage cage and then going over together. She had been summoned to the church, but had to go back home to get something, so she asked that I go to the church to answer questions about what was needed. By the time I got there, everything was loaded and the trucks were pulling away, so it was just a matter of waiting for a ride.

Shortly after I arrived at Wadi Degla, it was time to unload the trucks that had come from the church--after a brief delay when the drivers were arrested (I never heard the reason, but they were released quickly). So we unloaded the various decorations, easels, and other random stuff, hauling it to a central location. We got some amused looks from the male soccer players who were practicing; upper class Arab women don't do manual labor of any type, and here you had all these Western women (upper class by definition!) hauling boxes and laughing while they did it. It didn't take too long to get things unloaded, and then we sat and chatted while we waited for the silent auction room to be swept out and for word on when the rented tables would arrive.

The room where the silent auction was going to be held is a coffee shop in real life, so it had tables and chairs that we had permission to use, but we had planned to use the rented tables instead. That plan changed instantly once I found out that the rented tables wouldn't be delivered until 5:30. So I'm not sure what the women responsible for setting up the other areas did, but Pam, Halina, and I got started rearranging the tables in the coffee shop so that we could use them to display our silent auction wares. After setting up the tables, we decorated them with white tablecloths and silvery-glittery-blue mesh, which was fashioned into bunting by Pam's skillful hand. We set up a couple of Christmas trees--with much laughing, since one of them was a broken down tree top that used an upside down laundry basket with a hole in it as its base; we had to break out the duck tape to make it stand even almost upright. We covered the unsightly base with a pretty red tree skirt and no one was the wiser--as long as no one touched it, because then it tipped over about 30 degrees. Then we made two large signs to hang outside the room, to let everyone know where we were. We decided to wait until the next morning to hang them up, to prevent anything from happening to them overnight. Our decorating done, we were ready to go home until the next morning, when we would hang the signs, display our items, and set up the bid sheets. It was around 4 or 4:30 at that point.

So we headed out, and Jeff and I made it to our party that night. It was fun, but we left a little early. We had to be up early for the bazaar. We planned to be at Wadi Degla by 9:30; that would give us 2 1/2 hours to finish setting up before the doors opened at noon. Unfortunately, we forgot to plan on just how long it would take us to load all the donated items into our SUV. We pulled up to the Wadi Degla gate around 10. Then we had to go through security and walk everything down to our room, with help from Pam, her husband Dan, and another volunteer. We had just gotten everything into our room and were beginning to unpack when we were told that we all had to go to the fenced area that would be the food court--it was time for guards with dogs to go through everything for a final security check. I paced and fumed and muttered and took deep breaths and tried to calm myself down by not thinking of all the work still to be done while trying to spot the security detail doing the inspection. For a long time, I was convinced that there was no security detail; there was not a dog in sight. Finally, though, they appeared and began a long, slow circuit of all the vendor tables.

At last, around 11, we were released from the food court. I was one of the first out and made a beeline for the silent auction room. Then it was a flurry of activity getting all the items displayed and the bid sheets out. We had to add a couple of tables--and use some chairs as tables--because we had so many items (over 80, possiby closer to 100). Finally, the items were set out, but I realized that we had not set the start prices yet. Marge had been telling me for weeks that she would do it, but in the short time between when the items were all collected and the start of the bazaar, she either had forgotten or had not had time. So Pam and I went through with pens, setting start prices almost at random. Neither of us knew what most of the items would retail for, and we didn't know if we should start really low and let prices work their way up or if we should start just under retail. So we just did the best we could on each item. We were still setting start prices when our first browsers came through the door.

By 12:15, we were finished with the start prices and setup. From then on, it was just a matter of answering questions, encouraging high bids, and keeping an eye on the smaller, more valuable items. Most of the time, I stationed myself right behind the pearl necklace, bracelet, and earrings that had been donated by Antwerpen Jewellers (they appraised at around $450--dollars, not pounds--total, if I remember correctly). Most of our other jewelry was on the same table, so I kept an eye on all of it and allowed Jeff, Pam, Dan, and a couple of other volunteers to handle the larger items. Dan and Jeff took turns going out to bring back food for themselves and for Pam and me. When we had another volunteer show up, I sent Pam out to roam around and shop. I hadn't brought extra money with me, expecting to be in the auction all day, and it's no fun to go shopping with no money.

While we were in the silent auction room, Halina set up a table outside to sell raffle tickets. We also had some local boys, residents of an orphanage, who walked around selling tickets. The raffle drawing was scheduled for 3:30pm, which unfortunately was the same time as the end of the silent auction. Somehow we were supposed to shoo everyone out of the auction, determine the winners, and bring them back into the room in small groups to pay and collect their prizes, while at the same time handing out raffle prizes to the winners whose names were drawn and announced over the loudspeaker by a local man. Since that wasn't going to work for us, we commandeered the loudspeaker to announce the winners of the silent auction at 3:30, thus denying its use for the raffle. We were almost done with the silent auction when Marge re-commandeered the loudspeaker and started announcing raffle winners. I told her bluntly that she was handling the raffle while we finished with the auction; if she wanted two things done simultaneously, she had to do one of them herself, because we couldn't do both. (Dan had had to leave early to prep for his office party that night, and Pam was about to have to leave, so we didn't really have volunteers to spare at this point.) Halina had mercy on Marge and handed out the raffle prizes while Jeff and I finished up with the auction.

Once all the prizes were handed out and all the auction money was collected, we handed over the money box to the treasurer. She was less upset than I expected when she realized that we had combined the auction and raffle money, which should have been kept separate. I think she understood that we didn't have much choice, since we only had one money box. (Apparently we started out the day with a second one, but it was re-appropriated to someone else who should have had one but didn't.) When I get around to organizing the bid sheets, I'll be able to tell from that the total amount brought in by the silent auction, so she can subtract that from the total raffle/auction amount if she wants separate amounts recorded. I'm not going to say total amounts here without authorization; I'm not sure how public the Guild's financial records are. It's a bit different here than similar organizations would be in the States.

Then Jeff, Halina, and I gathered the few items that didn't sell at the auction--most of them had received only one bid, and the winner wasn't there. Those items will be sold at Guild meetings over the next couple of months, with the money still going to the charities. We took down all the decorations and created two piles: one pile'o'stuff to go back into the storage cage at the church, and another pile'o'stuff to come home with me until I could contact the raffle winners and disperse those prizes. That's something I need to work on this afternoon.

So, the bazaar happened. The silent auction and raffle combined brought in more money this year than last year, probably because we had a larger total number of items. All our donors will be listed in the January issue of the Maadi Messenger, and I intend to list them here as well, but not today. There isn't enough distance between me and the bazaar yet. I've been putting off writing this blog, and especially writing my report. The bazaar was just more stressful than it had to be. Some of it was due to my inexperience, but some of it was due to . . . other factors. We pulled it off, but there were definitely some things that I think should change. I'm letting all the stress bleed away, and trying to let all the conflicting ideas in my head sort themselves out, before I try to put anything down on paper for my report. But now I'm off to make some phone calls--it's time to reclaim my den by getting the last of the raffle items out of there.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

And The Winner Is . . .

We have two different winners!

Our three judges made one choice, and our ten voters made another.

We'll start with the winner you all know (since it's right there on the poll at the side of your screen). Put your hands together for Jeff! His depiction of Cairo traffic resonated with someone out there. I can't say any more than that, since people didn't leave comments (shame on you!), but I guess that's enough. Congratulations to Jeff!

Now for the winner most of you didn't know . . . me! Luckily for me, the family tradition typically puts value on the complexity of what the ornament represents, so I had an advantage because of my whole "Egypt framed my life" narrative, and the fact that I was able to represent more than one thing on a single ornament.

All in all, though, I'd say that the First International Division did pretty well. Thanks for participating!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Garagos Adventure

I had an adventure yesterday.

While I was at the Maadi Women's Guild meeting, my old friend Pam and my new friend MJ invited me to come with them to a pottery and tapestry exhibition downtown that was being sponsored by the Canadian ambassador. The exhibition is being done "by the young artists of GARAGOS (Luxor)," according to the flier. Since Pam and MJ so kindly invited me, I had nothing else going on this afternoon, and Pam can tell you just how much I ooh and aah over the pottery around here, I decided to go. But I wasn't going to buy anything--just look and maybe see if Jeff wanted to go back with me if I saw anything I really liked.

Right after the meeting, we were off. First we took Pam's car, since she had driven it to the meeting. We parked it near the metro station, then walked over, bought tickets, and boarded the train. We stayed on through several stops, until we got to Mubarak station. That's where the real adventure began. We knew that the exhibition was being held at the Jesuit School at 151 Ramsis Street, and MJ had been told that it was near . . . some other street whose name I don't recall. So first we looked for signs pointing the way to that other street. We followed them in a nice winding pattern, up stairs, around corners, up more stairs, never quite getting to the exit of the underground metro station . . . and then I saw it: "Ramsis Street," right there on a sign on the wall. So then we started following those signs instead. Up some stairs, around some corners, up some more stairs . . . and then we started seeing exits, but no signs indicating if those were the Ramsis Street exits that we were, in fact, looking for. So we took one.

Up into the daylight at last! But where exactly were we? None of us knew. But wait! A map! So off we go to look at the map. While we were trying to get our bearings, a man in a uniform--it looked almost like a police uniform, but not quite; maybe it was a metro uniform--came up and offered to help. We tried telling him what we were looking for; we had been told to just ask for the Jesuit Center, and people would know. Nope. So then Pam pulled out the flyer, which has the same text printed in English, Arabic, and French. Voila! He read the Arabic and started telling us where to go. We didn't quite catch it all. MJ asked him to come with us to show us, and he agreed.

Following this man around downtown Cairo was an experience! He wandered out into huge, busy streets, put up his hand in the universal "stop" signal, and ignored the horns while he waited patiently for us to cross. We immediately crossed one busy street, then another. We walked a few more feet, then crossed another one . . . and another. We had come out of the metro station on the northwest side of a huge midan (traffic circle), and apparently we needed to be on the southeast side.

Once we were on the southeast side, he asked someone for directions. Apparently he didn't quite know exactly where we were going after all! After that, we turned north and we walked . . . and we walked some more . . . and a little bit more. And then he gestured at the high wall on our right as if to say "That's it! That's where you're going!" Eventually we came to a gate, where our guide said good-bye. We tried to give him some baksheesh (tip money) for his kindness in leading us, but he refused to accept anything at all, so we sent him off with cries of "Shokran'awi!" (thank you very much!) instead.

We showed our flier to the guard at the gate, and he gestured down a driveway and then said "shemel" (left). I could see two potential left turns easily, so I asked "Shemel henna walla henaak?" (left here or there?) His response: "A la tool, ba3deen shemel fi a3rebeyya" (straight, then left at the car). Easy enough. We walked down to the line of parked cars, turned left, and saw an open door with a "Garagos" sign. Perfect!

I was amazed when we walked in. There were tables set up around the walls, and more in the middle of the room. All of them were filled with pottery in blue and green. Almost all of them had either a fish or a chicken figure drawn on the pottery somewhere. There were bowls, casserole dishes, plates, vases, cups, tea pots, divided platters . . . you name it. There also were a few nativity sets (not blue or green, and no fish or chickens on those) and quite a few votive holders. Displayed on the walls above the tables were beautiful tapestries. All the prices were very reasonable. The tapestries were around LE150, the pottery ranged from LE7 to LE75. (I'm sure there were some that were more expensive than that, but the ones I looked at were in that range.)

So how did I do on my plan to look and not buy? Oh, I totally succeeded! I certainly did not buy a vase for LE75 and a plate for LE17. (And if you believe that, there's a bridge I'd like to sell you . . . but shhh! Don't tell my husband! He didn't even know I was going, much less that I might buy!)

I was not the only one to succumb. Pam bought a few small items, and MJ bought one large item and some smaller ones. She also bought a nice sturdy woven bag with handles to make it easier to carry than it was in the plastic bags they gave us. After a stop at the "W.C.," as they call "the facilities" here, we headed back home.

This time, we took a more direct route. Pam had noticed a pedestrian bridge over the busy Ramsis Street, just south of the Jesuit School. So we walked to it and used it to cross all the busy streets. In fact, we were able to stay on the bridge far enough that we came down some stairs and hit solid ground about ten feet from the metro entrance. We didn't cross a single street at street level! (Okay, maybe there was one small one, but if so, it wasn't worth remembering.) Much easier than our hike to the Jesuit School, although I'm still grateful for the guide; we'd've never found it on our own.

Then it was another saga in the metro station. We went down into the station and started following signs to the platform. Around a few corners, down some stairs, around another corner. Then the signs started getting more specific: we needed to follow the signs to Helwan. So then it was up some stairs, around a couple corners, up some more stairs, around a few corners, then maybe finally back down some stairs, around another corner, and finally! The platform! With a train pulling away. But no matter, the next train arrived mere moments later.

I felt like I was back on the DC metro at rush hour, pushing my way into the women's car, looking behind me to make sure Pam and MJ both made it on as well. Then we stood and held onto the poles. MJ eventually found a seat, which was good, since her bag was heavy. Pam and I were offered seats by kind Egyptian women--girls, really, they couldn't have been more than 17 years old--but we turned them down. Some of the women definitely seemed more tired than us; let them sit. The teenagers kept smiling at us. One asked us where we were getting off and made sure to tell us when we got near it. I had to teach Pam how to say "mafiish mesheckel" ("there're no problems," which is used to say "it's okay, it's all fine, no worries") because the girls were insisting that she should sit. I thought they were being sweet.

So we made it back to Maadi with a little extra walking but no problems. Pam came up to my apartment to hang out--she had to be at the dentist, near my place, within the hour, so there was no point in going across Maadi to her home. Instead, she laughed at me as I explained why the Christmas tree is only decorated on the top half, ran into the kitchen to rescue my bag'o'breakables from the curious kittens who had jumped up on the counter, came back to sit in the living room and then immediately hopped up to run back into the kitchen to rescue her purse from the curious kittens who again had jumped up on the counter, then chased Isis away from my root beer . . . eventually Pam distracted the kittens by dangling her keys from her purse strap. Then when she tried to leave, Isis wouldn't stop playing with her purse strap . . . then I accidentally stepped on Isis while walking Pam to the door . . . ah, life with kittens, it's a wonderful thing! The adventure never ends!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Family Tradition

Several years ago--I don't know when--my stepfather-in-law, Marty, started a family tradition with his children, Lisa and Scott. It since has expanded to include my mother-in-law, Maryanna; Lisa's husband, Kenny; Scott's girlfriend, Nikole; Nikole's young daughter, Natalia; and Jeff and myself. This tradition occurs every year on Thanksgiving day and is known as "The Ornie Competition" ("ornie" being short for "ornament," of course). Each member of the family makes or buys one Christmas ornament that is representative of his or her year. The family members draw numbers out of a hat, bowl, or cupped hand to determine the order in which they will present their ornaments and explain the ornament's significance and why it deserves to win the competition for the Best Ornament. Competition is fierce, and winners are remembered--at least by themselves--for years; one or two members of the family in particular claim to remember having won the competition each and every year since its inception (malleable memory is a wonderful thing).

In 2006, my husband and I visited over Thanksgiving for the first time. We joined in the festivities as well. That year, Jeff's ornament depicted the U. S. Capitol building with the Constitution behind it. It represented his job--he had started working for the U. S. government while still in college, and he continued to serve his country as a federal employee, although he had recently switched agencies. My ornament was a silver heart with the year and "Our First Christmas Together" or some such inscribed on it--Jeff and I had married earlier that year. As I recall, Jeff won that year's competition. Last year, in 2007, we again visited my mother-in-law for Thanksgiving. Jeff's ornament was a helicopter; mine was a train, to represent all the time I spent on the MARC and Metro trains commuting from Maryland to Washington, DC, and then going all over the city conducting background investigations for OPM. That year, we had a three-way tie, I think. My ornament tied with Kenny's plane (he had done a lot of traveling) and Lisa's artist's palette (she was making some major changes and viewed her life as a clean easel waiting to be painted upon).

Jeff and I had such fun during the Ornie Competition both years that we didn't want to miss it this year, even though there is this little detail of us being half a world away. So I mailed my homemade ornament to Arizona, Jeff had his web-purchased one sent to Arizona, and we set up a Skype conference call at 11pm on Thanksgiving Day. It was an interesting call, as my in-laws' computer didn't much feel like showing any pictures--theirs or ours--so they had no idea where they were pointing their camera. There were many statements like "Now we can see the window" and "Now I see someone's shoulder--I think it's, yes, it's Marty's shoulder. Pan left! No, your other left!"

Things also changed this year because we had so many entries that the decision was made that we'd never reach a consensus on the winner--last year's 3-way tie may have had something to do with that--so we changed the judging system. Three names were drawn out of a hat, and those three people became the judges. The lucky ones were Lisa, Kenny, and Nikole. But in any case, here are pictures of this year's entries . . .

We had three political ornaments this year to commemorate the historic nature of the U. S. presidential election. Marty, Kenny, and Scott all chose to go this route. Kenny's ornament reflects both the election and his Texas pride.

Marty freely admitted that he had a second ornament ready and waiting to be used instead of this one, had Jeff or I been chosen as one (or two!) of the judges. We're the conservative ones in the group; the others are all more liberal, so Marty stuck with the Obama one instead of pulling out McCain option.

Scott actually tried to cheat by presenting two ornaments--one Obama one and one in memorium of a friend who had died this year. I don't have a picture of the second one, so I'll stick with the first one he presented (which is the only legitimate one; duplicate entries are discarded--okay, I just made that rule up, but it ought to be the rule!). This one was a fairly ingenious, simple, homemade one--it's his voter registration card with an Obama sticker on it!

Lisa's entry was a tribute to her new company, which she named Popular. I think it's Popular Entertainment or some such; Lisa is a TV producer. Reality TV fans may have seen her name on the credits to The Bachelor and The Bachelorette; she was the executive producer for the first few seasons of those shows.

Maryanna's ornament was a tribute to her current job. Her plant is closing down next year, and she's decided to stay on with them until the end. Her ornament this year was hand-constructed out of materials relevant to her job as a purchaser at a plant that makes explosives.

Jeff's ornament was a depiction of Cairo traffic. This ornament is movable--the cars start out separated, but you hit a button, and they fly toward each other until they almost crash. It's pretty typical of Cairo cars, too.

This dog ornament was Natalia's entry. I'm not sure if she wouldn't explain it, or wouldn't explain it loudly enough for the webcam, but I have no idea what it represents, unless she either adopted or lost a dog this year.

The dove is Nikole's entry. I couldn't hear what she was saying, so maybe Maryanna will kindly leave a comment to explain both Natalia's and Nikole's entries? (Feel free to further explain any others as well.)

My entry requires multiple pictures and a longer explanation. My whole life this year was shaped by the knowledge that we were moving to Egypt. And everyone knows that the pyramid is the shape associated with Egypt. So just as Egypt formed the shape of my life, the pyramid had to be the shape of my ornament. But what about the sides? Well, so much happened this year that I decided that each side of my pyramid would represent something significant.

This side shows the Step Pyramid, representing Egypt itself. Since I already had the true pyramid shape reflected by the shape of the ornament itself, I chose the Step Pyramid as the picture to represent the country and our move here.

This side shows a picture of Isis, taken not long after we adopted her. Isis has brought much joy and love to my life. This is a typical pose for Isis--sitting regally and expecting to be adored. She knows exactly who she is--a cat, through and through--and she's not afraid to let you know who she is and what she wants.

This side shows a picture of Cleo--it's much clearer than it appears in this photo (I couldn't try too many times to get a good picture due to battery constraints). Cleo also has brought much joy, love, and laughter to my life. This pose is typical of her--play, play, play, all the time. She's our crazy kitten/monkey/fish/baby/U. S. Marine.

This final side of the ornament commemorates a very big accomplishment of this year--Jeff and I becoming debt free for the first time in our marriage. You can't make it out clearly, but it shows "Paid in Full" on my student loan, which was the last one we paid off.

So those were the entries this year. I know who won, and I know who I thought ought to have won. I also know who Cleo would have voted for--I just had to rescue Jeff's ornament because Cleo was trying to get a closer look. Which ornament would you have voted for? Leave me a comment or vote in the poll*--it closes on Wednesday, 17 December 2008, at 12:01 AM my time (at least I assume it's my time). I'll let you know who actually won after the polls close.

I can't enforce this, but please--only vote once!! (Those of you who know who won--don't ruin the fun, please!)

*Those of you getting this post by email--to vote in the poll, or to leave a comment, go to http://reflectionsfrommaadi.blogspot.com.

By the way, thanks to Maryanna for most of the pictures in this entry!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

My Heathen Kittens

Notice anything wrong with this picture?

I'll give you a hint: compare it to this picture.

Do you see it now? Yep, that's right . . . my nativity set is missing the baby Jesus. He was there when I left the house this afternoon, in His manger where He belongs. But He isn't there now.

I can't prove it, but I suspect Cleo. I found her playing with Joseph's lantern in the middle of the floor earlier today. Joseph now holds nothing in his hand; the lantern is in a drawer for safekeeping. It's way smaller than the baby Jesus. It didn't occur to me that He might be in danger, too.

I haven't found baby Jesus yet. I admit, I only searched for a couple of minutes because I just had to write about my heathen kitties . . . anyway, here's hoping we find the missing Savior.

You know, I thought Jesus was supposed to go missing for a little while at Easter, not at Christmas . . .