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Archive for August, 2011

Our Second Week

Bibliotheca Alexandrina
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina was built near the site of the original Library at Alexandria. It is a beautiful building architecturally, picturesquely located along the coast. Its curved granite wall is covered by the letters of virtually all the world’s known alphabets. The complex includes a planetarium and a conference center. We became members, toured the library, and of course got our library cards. The fee for non-Egyptians is usually 320 Egyptian Pounds or about $54. Fortunately, for Egyptians and those with residency visas (me and Mary Ann), the fee is 30 pounds or about $5. They have free public WiFi, which makes it a wonderful place to just sit and work (or play) on line. For those who are interested, the BA web site is: http://www.bibalex.org/Home/Default_EN.aspx

Massive traffic jam
Our host invited us out for a quiet time of socializing at a club by the sea on the evening of the last Friday of Ramadan. Coincidentally, it was the night thought to be the best night in the year for prayer, the night when one’s prayers can count like those of one thousand other nights.  It was like the perfect storm of people being out and about in Alexandria. On our return home, at the time that most people were leaving the mosques, we were stuck in the worst traffic jam I have ever experienced. Absolute gridlock. Fortunately, the car had AC and there were street markets everywhere which we found fascinating to observe as we slowly crawled past. The driver was not so fortunate, because pedestrians share the roadways also, except for the major boulevards. At many points, there seemed to be no requirement to stay on one side of the street. Cars and pedestrians made their way as best they could, inching towards their destinations, horns honking almost continuously. We eventually did arrive at our apartment, but much later than anticipated
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New apartment
We moved into our own flat on Sunday, August 28. It is a few blocks from the water, on the sixth floor, with a balcony that includes views of a gardened villa, the Russian Consulate, and the Mediterranean. It’s fully furnished and air conditioned. It’s nice to have our own space. It’s about a 10 to 15 minute walk to the seaside. On our first afternoon, we explored the neighborhood to see what types of markets were available. While there are some larger, upscale shopping areas in the city, there are neighborhood markets everywhere. They all seem to be open late, midnight or so, but perhaps that’s due to Ramadan. We can buy pita bread, still warm, from the baker a few blocks away: 34cents (2 pounds) for four large pitas. Fruits, vegetables, cheese, nuts, and delicious homemade yogurt are all available from local vendors. Small corner stores provide the prepackaged necessities. If they don’t have want you want, you can ask them to order it and it will be there in a day or two. It appears that many of these places make deliveries, but we haven’t explored that option yet. We have noticed that McDonalds, like most of the little stores, has a stable of motor scooters for home delivery. We’ll find out next week how late the markets stay open after the Eid holidays. I’ve posted photos on Facebook and I’ll post some photos here; the sunsets from our balcony are phenomenal.

All quiet on Tuesday morning.
Ramadan ended Tuesday night and the next three days are holidays, plus Friday is, of course, the usual holy day of the week. This is a time for celebrating and visiting family. Since the streets were relatively empty, Abdelrahman and his family took us driving along the Corniche during the daylight hours to enjoy the scenery. This was such a contrast to the gridlock of a few nights earlier. We had our first falafel Tuesday from Gad, a place that Abdelrahman said makes the best falafel in Alexandria. It is a sandwich shop that does a brisk takeout business, although there may be a sit-down restaurant in the back. They were delicious. We will be going back.

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The Dean at the Faculty of Commerce welcomed us to Alexandria by providing a car and driver to enable us to sightsee in the city. Our first stop was the Alexandria National Museum. No photos were allowed, so no show and tell, but it provided an interesting history of the city including a number of artifacts that fishermen discovered in the waters just off shore in the Mediterranean.

Some reference to mad dogs and Englishmen would be appropriate for our mid-day, unshaded second stop, the small, but well-preserved, second century A.D. Roman theatre and auditoria.  One can still stand in the theatre’s “sweet spot” and appreciate the acoustical accuracy of its construction. There are also remains of a larger, expanded theater and Roman baths.  Alexandria’s fame is from its importance in the Greco-Roman era (the lighthouse and the library) as opposed to the more ancient Egyptian Pharaonic periods.

We then traveled along the Corniche, a broad boulevard that runs along the seacoast, to the Montazah, the grounds of the former palace of King Farouk (who was forced to abdicate after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.) The property includes an enormous garden and the former palace and hunting lodge. The garden is open to the public and provides ample shaded areas to escape from the sun. The former palace is currently a presidential residence; although I suppose that means it’s currently unoccupied. While you can take photos of the exterior and grounds of the palace, it is not open to the public. The former hunting lodge, however, has been converted into El Salamlek Palace Hotel & Casino, a luxury hotel renovated in a style reminiscent of the era of the former king.’

To cap off the day, I finally met with my congenial new colleagues at the Faculty of Commerce at Alexandria University.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Roman Theater and Auditoria Ruins in Alexandria

El Salamlek Palace Hotel and Casino

At El Salamlek Palace Hotel

Interesting Furniture in Hotel Lobby

Mary Ann in one of hotel restaurants

Hotel dinning room

Hotel beach area in Montazah Gardens

Montazah Gardens, Alexandria

Montazah Gardens, Alexandria

My New Office at Alexandria University

View from my ofice window: Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the Mediterranean

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Road Trip to Cairo

This title sounds like an old Bob Hope and Bing Crosby movie. Because I had business to transact in Cairo at the Binational Fulbright Commission office, we paid 400 Egyptian pounds to hire a private car and driver to take us there for the day. That’s about $67 and included gas. It’s 220 kilometers one way or about 137 miles. Round-trip train fare and taxis for the two of us would probably have run around 250 pounds. So we paid about $25 for door-to-door convenience – a deal in my estimation, especially when we considered how interesting we found the trip from Alex to Cairo and back.

The driver spoke some English and drove like Mario Andretti (do my references give my age away?). There weren’t many cars on the road that passed us and, while it was an eight-lane divided highway outside of Alexandria, the lane markers were perceived as just suggestions by the drivers. The car wove in and out of traffic constantly. We made one stop for morning coffee early in the trip, our first in a while, and enjoyed the fresh-cooked pastries that Omneya, the daughter of our host, had gotten up early to prepare for us. 

We drove through parts of the Nile delta early on; past water, marshes, and lush farmland, with a backdrop of many office buildings and petroleum refineries. I couldn’t help but recall the story of Moses and baskets in the bulrushes. Much of the rest of the trip was through a mix of industrial buildings – many still under construction, open sandy desert, and more farmland. There seemed to be an awful lot of construction along the way, which I found surprising given the uncertain political situation that Egyptians face. We caught our second glimpse of the three Giza pyramids, a hazy one in the distance, as we drove into Cairo.

A Fulbright driver and messenger drove us to a clinic for me to have tests done for my work visa. As we drove through Tahrir Square our two guides were eager to point out locations of interest: where the protesters were, where fires broke out, where snipers were firing from. They were very eager to share their experience and their hope for the future. They are very much aware that the whole world had been and still is watching.

Our first real culture shock experience came at the bank, where we learned that we would not be able to open a joint account. Apparently because of inheritance laws, spouses do not normally have full access to each others’ money. Male heirs receive half of their father’s money; female children get much less. Wives will, at most, get a quarter of the whole. Since we were depositing a check made out to me, this meant that we couldn’t open a joint account, nor could we get two ATM cards. We solved the problem, to some extent, by my giving Mary Ann my power-of-attorney, but that still leaves us with just one card. So, the one who has the card has easy access. The other must endure long waits (“take a number, please”) to make withdrawals in person, during the fairly short hours that the banks are open, at a branch location rather than at an ATM. Fortunately, our ATM cards for Wisconsin banks work almost everywhere, anyway. I’d like to personally thank the folks at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Credit Union who do not charge an ATM fee and whose cards are accepted anywhere in the world (not to be confused with the credit union currently in Reeve).

It took us most of the day to complete our business, so we returned to Alex when we were done. Exploring Cairo will have to wait until some later date.

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The First Few Days

As the airplane banked for final approach to Cairo International Airport, I looked out the window over Mary Ann’s shoulder and pointed excitedly, “…look, the pyramids.” This was it; we were finally landing in Egypt. Entering the arrival area of the terminal, we were met by a man holding a sign with my name on it; that was a first for me. He provided us with our entry visas and guided us through immigration and customs. After so long in transit and, of course, not speaking the language, this was a great relief. As planned, we reconnected with our AFS son Abdelrahman and took a van, courtesy of the Fulbright Commission, to the train station. A few hours later, his mother, Eman, picked us up at the station in Alexandria; after 32 hours in transit, we were finally at our destination.

We are clearly in a different culture. Periodically, loudspeakers carry the sound of daily prayers throughout the neighborhood. I can’t describe the variety of foods that were prepared for us for that first dinner, but my favorites were mahshi and katayef. Eman’s mahshi are grape leaves wrapped around a filling of rice, tomatoes, and onion. Katayef is a filled pastry made only during Ramadan, similar to our only baking cookies like pfeffernusse during Christmas.

Because of fasting during the day, the meal routine includes a first meal after sunset and another meal sometime in the wee hours of the morning, depending on how late one stays up.

We have mostly rested these last two days and have gotten to know Abdelrahman’s mother and sister better. We are also starting to learn a little Arabic.

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First Post

Well, we’re finally on our way. We flew out of Appleton at 7:00 AM this morning (Thursday, August 18, 2011).  We have a five hour layover in Atlanta; then on to Amsterdam and then Cairo. Abdelrahman, an AFS exchange student who stayed with us for the 2008 – 2009 school year is more or less traveling with us. After volunteering for AFS in D.C., he came to Oshkosh for a week. We are all traveling to Cairo today. While he is flying on a different airline from us, both flights are scheduled to arrive on Cairo at 2:05 PM. We will be taking the train to Alexandria and staying with his family for a few days.

I got an hour of sleep last night, but that’s an hour more than Mary Ann got. Last minute errands, trying to leave the house ship shape for the tenant, and, of course, packing kept us up most of the night. Right now, it just feels like traveling, it probably won’t feel really different until we land in Cairo.

Finally, a great big thank you to Suzette for going to the airport with us at 5:30 this morning so she could drive the car back. We owe her big time.

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