“Have Suitcase, Will Travel.” Ultimately, the rewards of Foreign Service life outweigh the hardships of living abroad, and my husband, son, and I appreciate the opportunity to explore new countries. I always attempt to embrace transition by running toward it with arms open wide, but then start losing enthusiasm for the actual moving process, the difficult farewells, and the well-meaning conversations that end in “I could never live there. Good luck!”
“Handling these overseas moves should be getting easier,” I think to myself, preparing household shipments for a home I’ve never seen, tying up loose ends at work, and poring over exhausting checklists. Tears spring to my eyes, thinking of the long distance we’ll be from loved ones, while explaining to our precious, small boy why we are moving to yet a third country within 10 months, with the promise that he will see his disappearing toys soon, and meet new friends (again). I take some deep breaths, focus on being thankful, and read a quote often, sent by a dear friend and artist that says “Be at peace as you enter the waters of deep change and initiation.”
I know by now that there is a normal emotional pendulum for these big upheavals that swings from being filled with apprehension and feeling like falling apart, to being mentally positive and excited. We will find our footing in our new home, as we always do, as we discover wonderful people, places, and experiences that expand our life perspectives.
Flying into Cairo, the lavender light of dusk turns into a milky haze that blurs the ground from the sky. Disoriented with jet lag, we step off the plane onto the tarmac, inhaling heat and tasting dust.
The drive from the airport to our apartment is a bum-clenching experience. Vehicles of all kinds are inches from our car door, swerving and flowing in unison like a peloton of cyclists, all of them wildly honking, with complete disregard for lanes and traffic laws (such as not using headlights in the dark, as it’s believed turning them off saves battery). We pass a string of black billboards with strange pictures of horses made out of bright orange flames. Trucks piled high with sacks, leaning and lopsided, threaten to topple. Five people are stacked onto one moped like a circus trick. The driver comments that traffic here will “make you out of order and you must use eight eyes.” Three-wheeled tuk-tuks squeeze their way through the maze of congestion, alongside donkeys pulling drivers on crate-filled carts, adding to the frenzy that is a new bizarre beginning of a life in Egypt.
Life in Egypt. A few weeks in, we have adjusted to our time zone, figured out which stores have which ingredients in order to cook meals at home, met lovely people, joined the expat club, found a playground and a yoga class, have all fallen ill and recovered, and have navigated numerous new processes and ways to do things, such as understanding the role of our building doorman/”boab”, how to order take out delivery from an “otlob” mobile app and give them directions to where we live, and trying to use taxis using scant arabic (if Brad isn’t with me) and lots of hand signs..
Keeping your sense of humor is key while digesting these initial days in a brand new culture. Here are a few mishaps and observations:
- I can wake up and Windex the glass table on the balcony and 5 hours later, can literally write in the dust, which is fine like flour. Sweeping it is as futile as using a broom on a beach. And if you pet a cat, the puffs of dust actually rise up like a little cloud in a cartoon
- Good coffee and a delicious bakery in our neighborhood have been excellent for my morale. And the servers give Ramsay a free straw, which he puts in water and calls his “fancy drink.”
- At Carrefour grocery store, in the bathroom, I pushed the wrong button to the delight of my 4 year old, who was in stitches laughing as I soaked my shirt with the bidet. I wrung it out and continued to shop, sopping wet.
- “What happened! Are you ok? You look like you got run over by a motorbike!” – Comments from my husband after I exited a cab after using a very old, dusty seat belt that left a charcoal-black thick stripe across my white tunic, like a miss-America pageant ribbon.( “Wow! I bet no one has used that seat belt in decades” was the follow up comment).
- During yoga, there was a horrible, distressful sound. Inquiring afterward, the yoga studio owner explained the landlord next door was eschewing evil spirits by sacrificing a goat on the property. (And I thought we left black magic practices behind in Swaziland…)
- The idiosyncrasies of a new home- sometimes our shower pressure is fine, and other times, it’s like showering on a small boat, barely dripping. And if I even breathe on the dishwasher, it mysteriously turns on, locks, and won’t turn off until the cycle is complete. Then we had to call in the plumber when water started seeping out from under the cabinets and over my feet while washing the dinner dishes in the kitchen sink.
- Paid $40 for 2 bottles of Nivea sunscreen at the local pharmacy, then subsequently found the very same bottles for $3 each when I went to the commissary.
- Ramsay and I bought yummy deep-rose colored hibiscus ice cream, where Ramsay loudly inquired, “how in the world, Mama, does he eat with just one teeth?” We walked away quickly and I prayed the ice cream vendor didn’t understand English very well.
- We called a recommended Felucca (sailboat) ride guide named Haani, who reserved us a boat. We got directions to his dock, stepped out of the cab, met Haani, and got on the boat. Then got a call on my cell phone from Haani, wondering if we were stuck in traffic. Confused, I explained that we were on his boat. Except, we weren’t. We were on some other guy’s boat who just wanted the money, and had to turn around half an hour into our tour, to find the “real” Haani pacing like a wolf on the dock and yelling at our captain. Then the real Hanni started a real fist fight with the fake Haani, and we got the hell out of there fast. (But we loved the 30 minute sail on the NIle). Ramsay, Brad, and I ran down the sidewalk and hid inside a restaurant, then decided just to sit down and have dinner there.
And things we love already: the trees in our neighborhood, the gorgeous tangerine sunsets, the festive atmosphere, shops with Aladdin-looking lamps, the souks and markets, Egyptian food, the juxtaposition of complete dilapidation and stunning beauty on the same block, seeing artifacts from the 5th century A.D! Our little balcony, the wonderful crafts, the pretty weather, and everyone sleeping through the night again.
Until we meet again. Ma‘a as-salaama,