Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Great Egyptian Debate

The other day I witnessed a classic Egyptian moment, one I'll call "The Great Egyptian Debate."

I was just minding my own business sipping my decaf Caramel Latte with skim milk at our neighborhood Gloria Jean's when suddenly I heard a loud ruckus going on behind me. The 2 veiled young ladies sitting beside us were going crazy.

I was slightly shocked.

Let me tell you why.

Proper veiled Egyptian ladies (young and old) do not generally act this way. They do NOT practically run around in circles. They do not play keep-away (that childhood game where one person tries at any cost to keep something away from the other.) And they usually don't talk in such loud voices.

Well, rules were made to be broken, right?

Now once I got over my initial shock, I quickly realized exactly what was going on.

Yep, they were fighting over who got to pay the bill.

Now this is not the type of scene that you would generally see among any American young ladies of the same age. We Americans are very fair in all things, including when it comes to paying the bill. We dutifully split the bill down to the penny, with each person paying his or her half.

This is not quite how it works in Egypt.

Well, okay sometimes it works this way. People out for lunch with a colleague may pay for their meal separately. Or sometimes younger crowds will separate out the bill so that every person pays for himself.

But usually paying the bill (or "check" or "tab") in Egypt is a bit more complicated than that. There are even a few unspoken rules regarding this issue.

The person who invites pays. Inviting is a very important thing in the culture here. Basically if it's your idea, you picked the place, you picked the time,..that means you invited. Therefore you pay. And there seems to be an art to inviting as well, as in if that person invited one time, then the other person invites next time.

In the business world in Egypt, inviting people for business dinners seems to be pretty important. My husband is forever inviting people out to dinner (different, mind you, than business lunches with colleagues) and being invited. That's just how building business relationships in Egypt works.

You NEVER split the bill. Splitting the bill is definitely a Western concept. For as long as I have gone out to eat with Egyptians or had coffee, ice cream, or what have you I have never seen Egyptians split the bill. Usually one person pays.  

You always fight to pay the bill. Okay, according to my husband, this doesn't work this way with business dinners. But when you're out with friends, it means that even if you were NOT the one to pay you should at least offer to pay the bill. Many times this means a rush to grab the bill when it arrives or the adamant protesting of the other party (even if they weren't the ones to invite). Sometimes it isn't clear who the "inviting" person is so then an all out brawl might ensue until the most determined person wins.

Men pay. Praise God that chivalry isn't dead in Egypt.

Call me crazy but I find it slightly amusing to watch the little "paying the bill" displays like the one I witnessed the other day.

Because I'm just sitting there doing my thing. I'm sitting in a nice Western-style cafe with all kinds of nicely dressed people around me. It's clean and cool. There is some sort of English music playing, sometimes the range being anything from Norah Jones to Jamiroquai to Josh Grobin's Christmas hits (they don't seem to know or care that they're playing Christmas music in the heat of summer). I'm sipping on a Starbucks-like coffee drink (no Starbucks yet within walking distance from our house).

So for a moment I forget that I'm really in Egypt. I mean, the difference right now is minimum. The experience is very similar to one I would have in any coffee shop in the States.

Then the ruckus.

And I am reminded, once again, that appearances can be deceiving.

Yep, I'm still in Egypt.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Recovering From Small World Syndrome

My world has gotten smaller the past couple of weeks. Coming back from the States has brought me back to the type of lifestyle I led just after my son crossed the three-month threshold.

But let's be clear about two things first:

I don't live in a particularly small world. After all this IS Cairo, a city home to around 20 million people.

I am NOT small-minded. Yes, I am that girl from small-town USA who fell in love with a non-American and moved halfway across the world to marry him.

The fact is that with a 10-month-old intent on discovering every nook and cranny in our house, well, his immediate safety has become my whole world.

And I really mean my WHOLE WORLD...

My son is into everything these days. From the moment he slid out of my lap after nursing that first day back from the States last week, he was off and running.  At least, if you could call crawling at that pace running.  

In the living room. This means leaving baby-sized hand prints on our TV or pulling everything out of the two drawers underneath it. He's already broken the stain-glassed window lamp that I brought back from Yemen. Yep, that's irreplaceable (as in, I will NOT be going back through what I went through the first time to get to Yemen to replace it). 

In the master bedroom. He is daily demolishing the tower of shoe boxes my husband has lovingly collected over the past six months or so. I vaguely remember warning him (my husband, that is) that just this sort of thing would happen the moment our son started to crawl.  

How great to feels to be sooo right!  

(Pause a moment...breathe...take another deep breath and save your son quickly from chewing on the foam inside of said boxes that might cut off his air supply)

In baby's room. Well, I have basically eliminated anything dangerous or off-limits on the floor. So right now the only things there are his 3-rings and an over-sized Goofy we received as a gift when he was a newborn. Let's just say that they are neither (1) a deterrent nor (2) a distraction from his take-over-the-house schemes - which basically includes exploring anything and everything OTHER than that which was so obviously placed there for his use.

Let's face it, they make look young and helpless and stupid. But they get smart REAL fast.

So as you can see my world looks really small right now from the outside, but somehow it still manages to fill up my days.

But I still long for more...

It has been a challenge since becoming a mom to know how to broaden my world without sacrificing the time with my son and the attention he needs to get through the day. I mean, I want to put him and his needs first, but there is still a longing in my heart for connection with other people and some sort of social life outside our home.

And I think this is normal. After all, we as human beings were not meant to live this life alone but rather in groups and in communities. 

But shouldn't I still be able to interact with the world or contribute to it in some way? Yes, I know that living in a smaller world now than I have been used to in the past makes this more difficult. And I am more than happy being a SAHM and have no desire right now to return to work. That is enough for me, usually.

But don't we ALL want to make a big impact on the world?

We want to achieve something great, regardless of whether we're a mother or not. And the fact is that sometimes being a mom makes us put those dreams and that world on hold. It's part of the sacrifice we make when we become moms, at least for a little while.  It's hard to venture off to conquer the world when you have a newborn at home that must be fed every 1 1/2 to 2 hours.  That's just the reality in which we live.

But how can we manage it? How can we successfully be a part of a world outside our front door without risking the futures of our little ones?

For me, this means starting small. There are a few things I try to do to make my small world a bit bigger.

1. Get out of the house every day.  A friend of mine told me this early on (maybe even while I was still pregnant) so it has always been my goal to not spend any day entirely cooped up in the house with my son. My expectations for this are pretty low, because whether we just get out with the stroller for a walk around the neighborhood, take a trip to the nearby mall, or something more adventurous like visit our friends across town, it all meets the basic goal of getting out.

2. Stay in regular contact with family. Skype and Internet telephone are my best allies in accomplishing this.  We have a Magic Jack hooked up to our computer 24/7 and it does wonders to being able to call the States regularly.  It also means that because it is always on that they can call us here too (very nice feature).  We reserve Skype for video calling, the perfect way for first-time grandparents to get a glimpse of their young grandson.  It's not quite the same as face-to-face, but it's definitely the best substitute for now.

3. Connect with other moms. I didn't have a lot of friends in Egypt before I had my son, but now I realize why they're so important.  You certainly can't do this alone, or if you do, it can get really lonely sometimes.  It IS possible to connect with moms online at sites like Circle of Moms and Baby Center's Community (especially the groups for your child's birth month). But honestly speaking it is no substitute for face-to-face relationships. I have met some moms through Yahoo groups for foreign women in Egypt and even tried to put together a playgroup earlier this year.  Yeah, we met once (but I DO have a couple of ladies who want to keep it going...we'll see how that goes). And I found out last month just before we went to the States about a Mom & Tots group associated with the international church on our side of town so now that we are back on Egyptian time I think we'll manage to make that meeting this week (instead of sleeping through it like last week).

4. Do something for me. I blog. I read a new book. I download the latest episode of my favorite TV show and watch it during one of his naps. It's not much but it keeps me sane.

5. Do something for someone else. This is still a work in progress for me (as in I'm not really doing it now but it's my goal to be doing this.) For a while I was baking once a month for a Sudanese school here, quite a challenge I must say with a baby less than 6 months old but definitely something I'm glad now that I was able to do. I think with my son getting close to a year old that I could definitely do more with this...more to come later.

So that's it.  That's what I do to get over what I call "Small World Syndrome."  It's not a bad thing and certainly not contagious (at least I don't think so).  It's just a way of finding some part of myself that hasn't been lost in becoming a mother. It's not conquering the world or anything like that, but it makes my life, well, more livable.
And regardless of how small a world this may seem, I will still just try to enjoy every moment with my son. I will sit down on the floor with him and teach him how to play "let's roll the ball." I will sit down on that step in our living room and guard it so that he doesn't fall headfirst down it, teaching him gently to turn around and go down the step feet first...a million times. I will sing song after song for him just to watch him bob his head up and down to the music. We will go for walks together around our neighborhood and catch a taxi to wander around the local mall.

And when he finally gets tired and takes a nap, I will take care of me. I will eat. I will take a shower. I will read a chapter in that book I've been saving for weeks. I will sit down and write a bit about whatever is rolling around in my mind.

Because even if my world seems a little small right now, it's bound to get a little bigger any moment.

Because I want to contribute something to the world that IS out there somewhere.

Because it can be difficult to feel so isolated at times in this little world of mine.

And, well, because I just plain like to do it.

Who needs any other reason?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Expat Goin' Home (The Other Way)

Every time I leave the States to return to Egypt, I do so with mixed feelings.

It's hard to pack up your bags, kiss your family and friends goodbye, and get on that airplane bound for another country. And no matter how many times I do it, it doesn't get any easier.

Home is a very loose term that I use for basically anywhere I feel like calling home at the moment. It could be our flat in Cairo or my parents' house in KY or the hotel room where we're staying. I am not by any means trying to downplay the significance of *coming home* or *going home* but rather how I sometimes say the word home to mean a variety of places.

I think maybe I need to expand my vocabulary, what do you think?

Because basically I am in effect leaving home while going home at the same time. Boy is that confusing or what?!

So by leaving home, I am leaving many beloved people and things behind. Again.

Family members are always the hardest to say goodbye to, especially now that there is a grandchild (my son) on my side of the family. It has been so special this time to be with them while my son is at such a tender age where he learns something new practically every day. And since we were in the States for almost a month, it was kind of nice being around enough to kind of feel like it was "normal" to see them every day. We could just swing by my grandmother's for a bit while we waited to go meet someone. We could show up unannounced at my parents' house without having to call first. I could have late night chats with my sister while we play endless rounds of Super Mario World.  It was just another day.  And it was nice.

On a lighter note, I think I'll miss simply the ease of being in the States. It's easy to drive anywhere not just because I have a car (albeit a rental) but also because everything is so accessible. I can go through the drive-thru for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if I want to. I can easily find a parking spot in just about any place I choose to go. Need to go shopping? Well, the sky is the limit because I have any number of grocery stores within a 10 mile radius from where we're staying! And I can't even begin to describe the mass amounts of ready-made products available in every grocery store in the USA.

Yes, I will definitely miss things being more easy.  And don't you know that we Americans are all about making things more easy!

So like I said before, I have mixed feelings about going home to Egypt. And it's not just about leaving the States, but rather how in some ways that in leaving the States (as in, NOT being in the States) it will be more difficult to be back in Egypt.  Like I've said on many occasions, I do LOVE Egypt.  But after being in America for a month, it will be easy to remember all the things I'm missing out on. Luckily after a while the feeling kind of dies down, especially as I am reminded of all the things I love so much about living in Egypt.

Hence the hard part of leaving home. I'm not trying to have a pity party here, just trying to give an honest perspective on how an expat feels when they go home to their home country for a visit and then have to go back home to their country of residence.

But Egypt is our home, as in where we live. And even though I take my pillow everywhere with me, it always fits best on my own bed in Egypt. It will be nice to be in my own kitchen again, where I know where everything is and I have everything I need (well, practically everything I need which is actually available in Egypt).  It will be good to see our Egyptian family, friends and church again - and for them to see how much my son has grown in the month we have been gone. And I know that I have a sweet little lady that comes to clean several times a week (which means I don't have to) and that if I'm hungry, I can just call McDonald's to deliver me a double cheeseburger combo with a Coke and a hot fudge sundae any day of the week at just about any time of day.

So it's good to be going home as well.

No, wait, it's GREAT to be going home!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Surviving Eastbound Jetlag

I would give anything to be this woman right now.

I wish I could say that coming home to Egypt was easy.  But right now I am dealing with a baby who was wide awake at one o'clock in the morning.  And the fact is that it isn't easy.  Not easy for me and not easy for him.

And not just because of my son being unable to sleep.  It's me too.  I just can't sleep.

So then when I finally do fall asleep, I sleep like the dead until mid-morning where I suddenly wake up in a panic thinking that the entire day has gone by without me even realizing it.

For some reason this time adjusting back to Egyptian time has been really tough.  I'm not sure why.  Maybe it's because we arrived in Egypt at 4:30 AM, went home and went straight to bed as if it was the end of the day instead of the beginning of one.  So since then we (at least my son and I) have been off a little.  Time-wise, that is.

So in case you've never experienced it for yourself, let me paint you a picture of what jet lag feels like...

You feel like a zombie at 4:00 in the morning because you can't close your eyes.  Your mind sees the darkness and thinks, I should really be asleep.  You close your eyes and instead of feeling the calmness of the silence, you suddenly feel itchy all over... and DYING of thirst... and your mind is racing a mile a minute with all the things you need to do.

Then when you DO fall asleep, it is way later than you should be falling asleep so technically you should only be sleeping for a fraction of the time you will actually sleep.  And then you end up sleeping more than you should have in the first place!

The solution?

Well with regards to my son, I am denying him that second nap so that he will be sleepy enough to sleep through the night when I finally put him down for bed.  But for myself, I seem to have broken all the rules.

Eastbound jet lag has definitely been tougher than westbound jet lag this time.

Here's the thing about westbound jet lag.  You arrive sometime in the afternoon (that's just how it works with flights from Europe) so the sun is still up.  There is something about sunlight during the middle of the day that helps you adjust quicker.  So when we arrived to KY this time, my son and I took a lot of daylight walks (as in, walks during the daylight.)  And we were busy too, another thing that helps you recover quickly from the time change.  Apparently going right into a schedule actually helps you to adjust quicker because you really don't have much of a choice in the matter regarding getting up and going about your day.

My husband is finding this 100% true because while we came back to Egypt to sit and relax at home, he was up early every morning going to work.  I think he was more exhausted in the beginning, but now he is already fully adjusted while we are still struggling to fall asleep at night.

But I have a few ideas in mind that I hope will work:
1. Go to bed at a consistent time every night.
2. Get up at the same time every morning.
3. Get up and get ready for the day (shower, breakfast, etc.) immediately.
4. Get out of the house early in the day (during the brightest sunlight hours).

Wow!  That list will take a LOT of discipline and even more umph to get me through the day ("umph" is my more technical, more accurate word for energy) than I realized...

Maybe it would be easier to just go take a nap now.

After all, I earned it.  What with all that hard work I just put into writing this post...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Glimpse at My Life: 5 Years Married Today

My husband and I have been married five years today.

I wish that I could share with you the wisest of wisdom that I have learned over the past five years.  But unfortunately most of the lessons I have learned I have unlearned and relearned...and so forth.

Here are a few things I know a little better than I did five years ago...

Being right isn't always all you think it's going to be.  I like being right.  I don't like being wrong.  I think it's just human nature that we don't want to admit that we're wrong.  But I am *learning* that admitting that I'm wrong doesn't make me a bad person and it doesn't make me weak.  But being right still makes me feel REAL good!

It's best to pick your battles.  Yep, that is true.  I am *learning* when to open my mouth and when to keep it closed.  Keep in mind that the rules are different here in Egypt than they are in the States (although, if I had followed this rule back in the States the same way we do most of the time here, well, I might not have gotten into so much trouble back then.)

A battle can never be won if you fight it in public.  Drama drama drama...I really do hate drama.  Don't get me wrong I was the queen of drama back in the day but not as much now.  Actually now I can use the threat of drama as a way of closing the subject...not that I would actually follow through (or if I did then the regret would be HUGE and the apologies LONG).

Family comes first.  Priorities are a tricky thing.  When in doubt, family comes first.  Well, that's all I'll say about that.

My husband is my best friend.  My husband and I make a great team.  Period.

Marriage is a picture of how God loves us.  I have learned so much about faith and trust in the Lord that I never knew before being married to my husband.  And forgiveness...

I am sure that there are many more things to add to this list but this is all that comes to mind right now.

Now on to the next 5 years Lord willing!

Monday, September 20, 2010

14 Tips for How to Fly International with Baby

Repeat after me...flying with a baby is not easy... flying with a baby is not easy... flying with a baby is not easy.

See!  The rest was all downhill from there.

Sometimes I think it would be great if I could hear what my son has to say about flying 4,000 miles to go see Granma and Gramps and then flying 4,000 miles to go back home to Egypt.  And not once but twice in one year!

Okay, maybe not.

But alas I can only share with you from MY perspective!

My son is now almost 10 months old and, yes, we have been to the States twice in his short life.  Once when he was 4 months old and once when he was 9 months old.  Each time we stayed about a month, so this means that we returned when he was almost 5 months old the first time and then almost 10 months old the second.

Maybe that will help you keep in mind exactly where I am coming from...

You want to know what I think about taking international flights with my son?  Well all I can say is what worked for us...every baby is different and one baby on a certain day will be different than the same baby on another day.

Doing the research.  I went crazy the first time we went to the States trying to find good information out there on the internet about tips for flying international with a baby.  And it seemed to me that there wasn't a lot of information out there, and that what was out there wasn't very helpful.  Plus it seemed to be duplicated, as in cut and pasted into several websites.  Yeah, not helpful at all.  I looked up "how to survive jet lag with baby" and "best travel toys for baby," along with many other topics.  One site I can definitely recommend with lots of great information is Delicious Baby.  (Don't be fooled by the name that makes it sound like they're serving up baby for dinner.)  I tried to be pretty creative with my information pool, checking out the big sites like What to Expect and Baby Center and then reading up on people's blogs for their personal experiences.

Not trying to rush it.  When they tell you, give yourself plenty of time...give yourself plenty of time.  Especially if you're traveling with baby alone.  My husband was with us one way each time we traveled.  It was great to have the extra hands when he was there and I just tried to make do when he wasn't.  But I did NOT try to do too much in too little time.  Well, maybe just once.  We were running a little late the first time coming back from the States and although we still had enough time to get to the gate, it was very stressful to be so rushed.  I have heard a lot of horror stories about missing a flight or just barely making one because you miscalculated the time it would take you to check-in, get through security (which I'll warn you takes twice as long with baby), and get to your gate.  And that's just on the American side!  You'll still have to go through passport control too once you get to the international terminal.  No one needs that extra stress before you even get on the plane!

Getting a bassinet.  When our son was under 6 months and under the required weight and length requirements, I found that this was the best way to go.  There is no need to get a seat for a baby when he or she is that little, because you have to hold them when you're taking off and landing anyways and they're more likely to sleep more when they're younger (especially during those overnight flights).  Don't make the same mistake we did by waiting to request a bassinet the day before we left.  You'll have to check again at the airport the day before you fly with your airline (do this in person, not over the phone) to make sure they have put you in that seat.  But there is no guarantee that you're the only people requesting a bassinet on that flight (and it's possible that there may not be enough to go around).  We flew one long flight without a bassinet because they didn't have enough and we weren't first in line to get one.

Buying baby a seat.  Once our baby was over the required weight and length requirements for a bassinet, the whole playing field changed.  Although we did not decide to take our car seat with us (you really have to think through the logistics of getting that around the airport terminal) but rather just laid our son out to sleep in the extra seat between us, I can't say how thankful we were that we paid that extra money for it later.  I know, it's WAY expensive to pay that much for a seat...but trust me you will thank yourself later for it.  Besides I found that my 9 (and almost 10) month old was quite content to sit in his seat *buckled* in with the seatbelt playing like he was in a stroller or something.  I am hoping to buy a CARE harness which allows you to kind of mimic the way your child is buckled into a car seat with its unique harness straps that attach directly to the airplane seat (I know my son will soon outgrow the laying down in the seat way of sleeping on a plane).

Buying a bottle of water and a sandwich in the airport.  I know it's expensive.  I know it seems like a waste of money.  But I found that I was less stressed about the idea of getting something to drink and something to eat (for me) on the plane once I knew I had these tucked away in my bag.  Plus you can just get the flight attendant to refill your bottle when you need it.

Apologizing often, thanking profusely.  I really did try to apologize as much as I could.  And I said thank you over and over whenever someone helped me.  I think the people around us were being disturbed by my baby even more than I realized it.  You kind of get in your own world when it's just you and your baby, so the rest of the world (yes, even the nice old man sitting next to you) may not exist to you.  But they are not oblivious to the squeaking of that toy or the pull-pull-pull on the back of the seat in front of you, the numerous times you wake them up to go change baby, and the elaborate measures you have to take to get baby to eat or sleep.  So whether it's that perky flight attendant or the tired passenger beside you, I would say err on the overkill of saying I'm sorry or thank you TOO much (rather than not enough).

Taking a stroller.  I admit it, we tried and failed to use a baby carrier one way rather than taking a stroller.  Maybe if you were used to using a baby carrier instead of a stroller, then perhaps you could go with the baby carrier.  When I came back to Egypt the first time by myself from the States, I had a diaper bag on the stroller and a backpack on my back and we did GREAT!  The only downside was that I had to hand it over at the gate so I was left to haul baby, backpack, and diaper bag for the 5+ minutes it took for me to get down the aisle to my seat.  Not too bad, though, I think.

Opting for the longer layover.   I think that this would really depend on where exactly you're going.  We had to fly from the States to Europe and then on to Egypt, so for us making that long layover in Europe longer (as in, we took the later flight rather than the earlier one) made all the difference.  In case you didn't know, those airport hotels often have rooms for day use at a slightly discounted rate.  So if you have a longer layover, I would definitely try that.  Trust me you will thank yourself later for being able put your baby down for a long nap in a crib and taking a much needed shower and nap yourself after staying awake on that long overnight flight.

Being selfish when scheduling flights.  By selfish, I mean, selfish for me myself (not including baby).  Let me tell you why.  If you're anything like me, I have trouble sleeping on a plane anyways so there was no way I was ever going to sleep on a flight by myself with my baby.  So I just assumed that I wouldn't be able to sleep on the plane and planned accordingly.  All that stuff out there about planning your route according to baby's needs, well they must be talking about domestic flights (in the States) because there's not much of a choice when it comes to international flights.

Thinking about when to change baby's diaper.  Case in point...if baby has wet diaper but not poopy, then wait that extra 45 minutes to change it just before you board the plane.  Change the diaper in time before the plane lands to allow for that extra time needed to get through passport control (there is no guarantee that you'll find a restroom w/a changing table before then).  Watch for those drink carts because once they're down the aisle you might be stuck in your seat (or in the bathroom) for a while.  I often used changing my son as an activity as well because the change of scenery sometimes did the trick when my son started to get a little fussy.

Not pre-boarding every time.  Nobody requires you to get on that plane early.  I did this both ways.  One time my son had just gotten up from a nap so I waited as long as I could before getting on the plane.  The only downside to this was that there was no space in the bin directly above our seats for the carry-ons.  I did consider sending my husband on ahead to board the plane to solve this problem but we ended up both going early anyways.

Not waiting in line.  I must admit that I was shy to step up to the front of the line the first time we went to board the plane with our baby.  So I stood for 20 minutes in line with our son in my arms until I could hardly lift my arms up anymore.  Never again.  Let me give you my advice.  Cut, push, shove, etc...all with a sweet apologetic smile on your face, but the airline guy at the front of the line may not see you so don't wait for him to motion you forward.  It doesn't hurt to ask.  They know you need more time and more help - so don't try to be a hero.  The passenger in the seat beside you will thank you for it later.

Getting the gate check ticket for the stroller immediately.  We were usually way early at our gate (as in before it opened or even before a person was there), but I almost always jumped up the moment I saw someone come to the counter so that they could give me a gate check ticket for the stroller.  I cannot stress how important this is.  If I had waited, I would have been in line with the people flying standby or who hadn't gotten their boarding passes yet...or worse I would have been holding up the entire line of people trying to get on the plane by waiting until boarding time.  Trust me on this, don't wait.

Staying as positive as possible.  Whatever happened I tried to smile through it all.  I was tired, grumpy, sick of having to take care of my son when I needed to take care of myself...this is normal, natural, and just like anyone else who has braved taking their child on an airplane.  But nothing will make your experience with traveling with baby worse than if you get upset or stressed or overreact.  Don't take things personal and just give yourself a chance to breathe.  If you're traveling with another person, let them take your baby for a while to give you a break.  If you're traveling alone, maybe ask a flight attendant if they can hold your baby for a few minutes while you take a breather (or that sweet old lady who keeps smiling at your baby).

Would I do it again?  Definitely.  Always.  No regrets whatsoever.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Re-Entry: Coming Back to Cairo

It didn't take long for the fact that we were back in Egypt to sink in.  Don't get me wrong, I love Egypt.  But there are things that I very much do not like.  I mean, I can handle them one at a time, spaced out with plenty of time in between - that much I can handle.  But if I have to deal with them in multiples or back-to-back...well, that's just a spastic culture shock moment waiting to happen.

And I certainly don't like them at 4 o'clock in the morning when we arrive at the Cairo airport.

Cairo has a beautiful new airport terminal.  I mean, this baby is state-of-the-art.  It's only a few years old and has so much more space, nice duty-free shopping, more space to lounge around in while waiting for your flight, more options for pre-flight eating (necessary in my opinion to tide you over for those itty bitty airplane meals)...yaddah yaddah yaddah...

But like my husband and I were saying...you can put this beautiful new international terminal in Cairo but you can't change the fact that it's still in Egypt.  You might be able to walk right off the plane into the terminal, but you'll still have to carry your 9-month-old the 10+ minutes it takes to walk all the way down those beautiful looong terminal halls until you reach passport control.  You still might have to fill out your arrival card in 30 seconds because they didn't have the English arrival cards on your flight (I know, I know, it was 30 seconds because we had our 9-month-old baby in our arms therefore they took pity on us and let us go through the short line).  And don't you know that when you finally get down to baggage claim, well, you might as well dig your heels in for the long haul because you'll most likely be waiting a while to get all your luggage.  

Now call me crazy but our luggage was sitting in the Frankfurt airport for over 14 hours.  So how on earth did our five bags manage to come out so spaced out?!  I mean, we got one bag and then another, and then we waited.  We got another bag and then waited, and finally came the last two.  At one point the carousel door where the luggage comes up actually closed and half the plane was still standing around waiting for luggage!  I was about to get worried until my husband pointed out that we didn't need to get worried when so many other people were still waiting for their luggage too.

The whole luggage waiting experience was interesting to say the least.  I was exhausted after carrying our son through the airport in my arms so I rushed to the nearest seat to sit down, moving only to get a closer seat to where my husband was guarding the two trolleys with all our duty-free chocolate from Germany while trying to keep an eye out for our luggage.  Right behind us at the next carousel over was a flight arriving from Saudi Arabia.  

I am not sure how to describe how the people arriving on the flight from Saudi Arabia differed from the people arriving from Germany.  It's kind of like a high school reunion in the back hills of KY where half of your graduating class moved to the big city where they come back in their tailored clothing in hues of black & gray, whereas the rest of them stayed in hick-town KY where they proceeded to go around barefoot, have babies before they received their diplomas, and just in general scream out "I'm a redneck" on the back of their wife-beater shirts (either quite literally or just figuratively).  
Okay, so maybe that analogy left you quite speechless and maybe even MORE confused as to what on earth I was getting at.  

Let me enlighten you...

Passengers on the flight from Germany were dressed in typical Western-style clothing.  By Western-style clothing (in case you don't already know), I mean your typical jeans, slacks, etc paired with any kind of shirt, jacket or sweater.  

Now the passengers on the flight from Saudi Arabia were apparently coming in from completing the Haj (Muslim pilgrimage) so most of the men AND women were dressed in long white gallibeyas (kind of like a wide loose dress-like garment).  The women were all veiled (heads covered only, not the face) and most of the men had their head wrapped as well.  

The luggage arriving for both flights was quite different as well...

The carousel for the Frankfurt flight was filled with sleek luggage while the one for the Saudi Arabian flight was either smaller duffle bag-type bags paired with enormous rice bags (up to 1/2 the size of a car) filled to the brim and wrapped in twine.

So while this diverse landscape was sinking in, the noise in this huge room had reached a dull roar.  So not only was I tired, grumpy, arms aching from carrying my son, I am assailed on every side by the very things that could send me into a downward spiral of culture shock.

Never was I so happy to see my husband pull our last bag off the carousel and onto our luggage cart!

Welcome to Egypt, right?  Again.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Getting Around With an Infant in Cairo

Getting around in Cairo with an infant is tricky.  For any new mom, your highest priority is your child's safety.  And Egypt doesn't exactly get an A+ in road safety, and you can basically get away with practically anything around here, whether it's holding a sleeping baby in your arms as you ride side-saddle on the back of your husband's motorcycle or just holding your child in your arms while you drive a car.  But sometimes it's just the logistics of accomplishing such a task in itself that pose problems at times.  

I must admit that for the fearless Cairo-residing expat that I had become over the years, that I was reluctant -  even fearful - to get out with our son in the first place.  Please understand that I was a first-time mom and since my son was born in late November, we were never quite sure how the *cold* weather would affect him.  So even though the weather doesn't really get that chilly in Egypt back in December, we were still worried about him getting cold.  Any excursion outside the house usually involved multiple layers of clothing and blankets in an effort to keep him as warm as possible, which also made proper buckling of the car seat rather difficult.    

And unfortunately even to this day we have only one car in Egypt.  This car is my husband's, and he has to use it all day at work.  So basically this means I am #1 left to walk around in our neighborhood to get what I need from the local supermarket or pharmacy, #2 have to call for delivery from any place in our area of Cairo for whatever I need, #3 take a taxi to wherever I need to go, or #4 occasionally my husband sends me the car with a driver (usually if I need to go across town).

So until our son was 3 months old, I didn't really get out that much.  I think looking back it was more of a personal choice to not get out more.  He had never gotten used to the stroller because it was simply too cold for us to feel comfortable using it.  I tried a couple of baby carriers but until he had any kind of head control, he always looked uncomfortable in that sort of thing.  And by the time he had any kind of head control, he was unwilling to be cooped up in a carrier (catch 22 situation, that's for sure).  So I would wait each week until Friday to get things done because my husband has Fridays off and then we could drive anywhere in our car.

But once he hit 3 months, something just clicked for me.  There was one particular day I just decided that this was the day we were going to start going out every day for a daily walk in the stroller.  It didn't really matter where we went, just getting out was the goal.  Our first walk was maybe 10 minutes out around the block a couple of times and back.  Then gradually we were able to walk farther down from the house up to 30 minutes or so.  Eventually I got to where I was able to walk down with him, and then sit in the local coffee shop for a bit before heading back home.  This was my little life of luxury back then.    

I also decided at 3 months that it was time to begin braving the taxis.  If I have not already made clear that traffic in Cairo is a leap of faith, well, that's just what it is.  And when you see Egyptians driving around with their baby in their arms and young toddlers hanging out the back windows of their cars, basic U.S. safety procedures seem a bit like overkill here.  However, since we had one of those car seat/stroller ensembles (borrowed from a friend) that let me buckle his car seat (without the base) into the taxi as long as it had seat belts out for me to use - this made me (and my husband) feel a bit safer about taking him out in a taxi.  Occasionally there were no seat belts in the taxi (or they were shoved so far under the seat that it would take surgery to remove them) and I was forced to kind of wedge his seat in between the front and back seats and hold on for dear life until we reached our destination.  Like I said, a leap of faith.

After a while, I kind of got used to this routine.  I could go just about anywhere in Cairo with him.  He was quite the taxi rider by the time he was 4 months old, and then we went to the States for a visit.  

A month later when we got back from KY, we retired the car seat/stroller combo in favor of a rear-facing Britax car seat.  And he was also upgraded to a lightweight full-size stroller w/three wheels.  We loved the new car seat.  And the new stroller was a hit as well.  Our son liked being able to face out towards the world while we walked around.  And it was so much easier to use the new stroller; it was lighter, easier to fold up, smaller in size overall, and just all around easier to push.  However, with the new car seat and stroller, this also meant was that I could no longer buckle my son into the taxi when we went for longer rides.  I had to balance him on my lap in the taxi (or hang on for dear life is more like it).  So no more taxi rides across town. 

Luckily we gradually adjusted - just like you always have to do in a foreign country.  I can still get just about anywhere on our side of town in Cairo with my son.  I just kind of say a little prayer every time I hop in a taxi, and chide the driver slightly if I feel he is driving recklessly (aka at breakneck speed and/or in a "I learned to drive on Play Station" kind of way).  

Trust me a little bit of chiding from me in Arabic goes a long way...

And now my husband and I have reached a kind of understanding that if I need to go across town that he will send me the car with a driver.  So far this has worked pretty well.  I certainly appreciate the ease of using our car seat in our own car rather than even thinking of trying to risk it going across town with our son in my lap.  I think you just have to draw the line somewhere.

Now you may be asking why I do not drive.  Well, that's mostly due to a lack of second car...and a husband that worries.  But I think for now we'll just keep on keeping on.  

Just like anything else in Cairo, the best thing to do is just to take one day at a time.  I don't think I can ever say this enough.  It's the story of my life.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

My Love Affair With Febreze

I'll let you in on a little secret.  No matter how eloquently I describe my love for Egypt and all things Egyptian, the fact of the matter is that my love for Egypt boils down to exactly two things:  #1 the ability to have anything and everything delivered in Cairo and #2 the ability to afford someone to clean my house several times a week.

Okay so I love my husband and all that jazz that comes with being married to him...

But seriously, I was thanking God with every breath tonight as I was on my hands and knees cleaning the bathroom floor that we have someone who does this for us back home.  Yes, ON MY HANDS AND KNEES!

Did I mention that my knees hurt and my back hurt and suddenly parts of my body that I didn't know existed began to ache?  All that in a matter of five minutes.  I know, I'm spoiled rotten in Egypt.

And loving every minute of it!

But it also got me thinking about how much I love Febreze.  You know back in the day when Febreze first came out with that odor eating spray that you were supposed to spray directly on the guilty item (or at least that's how I remember it), well I was the one who was spraying it all over my house, not on any particular item but straight into the air - just like we weren't supposed to do.  And I know that I must not have been the only one using it in the wrong way because they eventually came out with an air freshener too.  Smart people.

Oh so you know how Apple users are described as being fiercely loyal to the brand?  Even in the light of the recent iPhone 4 antenna fiasco, Apple users worldwide are gushing about the new iPhone, the iPad, basically all things Apple.

That's kind of how I feel about Febreze.  Except that instead of costing me hundreds of dollars, it only costs me maybe $5 at most.  I think I am definitely getting a better bang for my buck, don't you?    

Maybe I went a little overboard this time in KY regarding the Febreze issue.  I mean, I always buy Febreze whenever we come stateside, even those times when we stayed in a hotel I figured that a little Febreze would make it seem more homey.  I actually packed the rest of it in my suitcase and took it back to Egypt the last time we were here.  It's sitting right now under my bathroom sink for those really *desperate* moments where nothing but Febreze will do.

Anyhow, so I went to the store when we got here and came back with Febreze (of course), along with dryer sheets with Febreze, garbage bags with Febreze, and bathroom cleaner with Febreze.  And I kid you not, I was not in anyway planning that.  It was all about trying to make a decision between one thing and another, and regardless of the price, I went with the Febreze one every time.

As a side note, I definitely think that Febreze should hire me to think up new things to pair Febreze with.  Can you imagine if they made Febreze shower gel...or Febreze hand soap...or tissues that smelled like Febreze?

So add that to the list of reasons why I like to wander around Target (or Walmart) the moment I step off the plane in Kentucky.

And Sour Patch Kids.

And Oatmeal Squares cereal (I should tell you sometime about my obsession with cereal).

And Simply Orange orange juice...and now Simply Lemonade lemonade (I don't really understand if that's a brand or a description or both - hence the listing of orange and lemonade twice).

And...well, I won't give ALL my secrets away now.

Time to go spray some more Febreze!  I wonder what they put in this stuff.  

Monday, September 06, 2010

Expat Mum Expectations

It's about time I shared a little about being an expat mom.  Living in Cairo was one thing as a single and then another as a married person and now still another thing entirely as a mother.  I think regardless of where you live, you want the best for your children.  You want them to have every opportunity; you want them to have the ones you never got to have.  It doesn't really matter what country you're from or what country you live in now.

So I guess I'm like every other mom.

The problem is that as a new expat mom living in Egypt, one has also to come to terms with her own expectations of what is best for her child.  

And what the reality is.

The reality is simply that not everything that is available back home in the States is available in Egypt.  You start to look for jarred baby food only to realize that only one brand of jarred baby food exists in Egypt.  You try a number of different kinds of diapers and wipes, even though you may not be able to read the packages (they might be in any language like Turkish or Russian, French or Arabic).  You look for baby clothes similar to what you'd find back home only to find that #1 baby clothes are either a fraction of the cost (and a fraction of the quality) or #2 baby clothes are about the same quality (and double or triple the cost).  When your newborn develops a cough at only two weeks old, you go to not one but two pediatricians only to find that he or she is prescribing antibiotics for your child (a BIG no-no in America for a baby that young) for that cough even without actually hearing the cough.  You go for almost 3 months without leaving your house more than twice a week when your husband is home with the car.  So you never see your friends because, well, you're not sure if you can brave the traffic now that you have a little one because what seemed exciting when you were single and childless now just seems stupid and terrifying.

So, yes, the thought that you might be a failure as a mother trying to raise her children overseas crosses your mind.

And then you wake up one morning with this feeling that...well, if you don't just do something that you might scream.  You HAVE to get out of the house.  You HAVE to get your son used to the stroller because you've forgotten what the world looks like outside during the day.  You are FINALLY able to get more than 4 hours of sleep at night and you begin to feel like a person again.  You start to cook again because you're tired of spaghetti and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches (and Chinese take-out or pizza).

And then you realize everything is going to be okay.

You'll slowly become a part of the world again.  You'll feel like a human again, taking part in normal everyday activities (okay maybe not normal back home, but it's a start to do what's normal in Egypt).  You don't care so much about how your hair looks or if your makeup is perfect, but you can at least enjoy your child and each and every moment with him.

It won't always be easy.  That's just the reality of the world in which we live.  The simplest of tasks can sometimes take more time and effort here.

This is my life.  I take one day at a time.  And I stop to breathe in the moments when I can.  I dream big for my son, myself, and our family as a whole.  But I still give myself the benefit of the doubt and remember that I am just me.  Sometimes just getting through the day is enough.

And sometimes something extraordinary happens.

He smiles at me unexpectedly.  He leans forward in the stroller with his face to the wind while we take a walk.  He learns to sit up by himself.  He raises his hands up to reach for me.  I wake up in the morning to the sound of him singing in his bed.

I am a mom.  I am an expat.  

This is my normal ordinary extraordinary life.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

The Rental Car That Couldn't

Yes, MORE car drama.  Today was a lesson in Murphy's Law.  Just when I thought I had come to terms with yesterday's "almost rode off in someone else's car" fiasco, something even bigger and more dramatic happened.

Everything was fine this morning.  We got up and got ready and went off to church like any other day.  No problems with the car.

But suddenly after sitting and waiting to get out of the church parking lot for 10-15 minutes (it's a BIG church), the moment I accelerated to get out onto the main road...well, the car just putt-putt-putted.  It was fine at 10 mph but once I tried to accelerate it putted and putted in vain.  Now I am no car mechanic but I would guess that the automatic transmission failed.

This isn't the first problem I've had with this car.  Okay, well I wouldn't call it a *problem* per say but it was definitely a sign that someone wasn't maintaining the car very well.  There wasn't any windshield wiper fluid in the car.  Who knows if there was any oil in the car?  And certainly no surprise that the automatic transmission would go out...I mean, seriously, the expectations were getting pretty low here.

So what was I to do?  Luckily I was not alone on the side of the road with my 9-month-old son asleep in the backseat.  My youngest brother was there at least for moral support.  He's 14 but still...moral support.

Luckily I made the split-second decision NOT to get on the freeway and chance it to make it home.  But I also decided in that moment that instead of sitting on the side of the road that I would try to putt-putt my way down to the nearest gas station.  We get to the gas station and I tried to gather my thoughts and figure out what to do.

We were actually on our way to meet my family.  So I sit there trying to call my parents.  I call Mom...no answer.  I call Mom again...still no answer (her phone was on silent after being in church).  So I call Dad...no answer and phone is clearly off.  I call Mom again...no answer.  Hmm...

This is definitely when I moved into *mom mode*.  The only way I can describe *mom mode* is that moment when you suddenly realize that with your infant son in the backseat and 14-year-old brother in the passenger seat beside you that freaking out is not an option.  So you have to breathe deep, collect your thoughts, and solve the problem before you.  Now YOU'RE the mommy...so it's about time you act like one. 

It finally dawns on me that the people I should be calling were the rental car people.  So we get out the rental agreement and I call their 24-hour roadside assistance number.  And I have to say that it only took one hour from the first time I spoke to them for the tow truck with my new car to arrive.  So not bad considering I just had to sit for one hour at a gas station where there was no changing table in the ladies' room to change my son's diaper when he woke up from his nap in the backseat (another story...another time).

By this time we have finally gotten a hold of my parents, and they are on their way back to us.  Once they arrive, it's just a matter of switching the car seat over to their car and sending my son home with them while my dad and I waited for the new car.

All in all it was less painful than one would imagine.  I'm not sure if it was the going into *mom mode* or the "I've lived abroad in Egypt for the past 5+ years so this is NOTHING" that helped me not freak out...although having family right there to help was more likely the thing that made it easier.  I was never so glad that we were in KY as I was at that exact moment when the car just wouldn't go and I knew I could call someone to help.

Crazy thing is that they brought me the exact make and model car that died on me.  At first I was a bit relieved to see the exact same car, even down to the color.  Now sitting here I am not so sure that was such a good idea.  I feel like somehow the same thing could happen to the same car.

Just wait till tomorrow.  Maybe I'll have more car drama then.

Oh please no!

Saturday, September 04, 2010

A Rental Car Crazy Moment

Today I walked out into the parking lot and almost got into the wrong car.  Yes, it looked just like the one I am renting here in KY.  Same color...same model...same car

Except for the Camels cigarettes in the door.  And the missing car seat in the back seat.

But the door opened.  And I almost sat down in the driver's seat.  I wonder now what would I have done next.

Somehow I think this is something that would only happen to me...in Kentucky.  No it wouldn't happen to me in someplace exotic like...well, Europe or maybe even Egypt.  No, it has to happen in normal old Louisville, KY.

The funny thing is that when I realized that that wasn't my car I looked over to the next row of cars in front of me.  And saw another couple walking around my car.

So now I didn't feel so stupid.  I mean, now I had people to share my stupidity with.  Now I realized that perhaps this was why the car door opened on the other car when I *pushed* the remote entry on my key.  They pushed it.  My stupid key didn't open some stranger's car door.


So I did the only logical thing one could do in this type of situation.  I mean, seriously, this was too perfect of a moment to share by myself.  I walked right up to them and laughed, saying "I think I just did the exact same thing to your car."

It's amazing how doing something equally stupid instantly bonds people.  I stood there for several minutes with complete strangers with nothing in common except for the fact that we were driving basically the same car.  And that we had just done the same stupid thing like almost get in the other person's car.

I think I pinched myself later, thinking I had just dreamed up the incident.

But I can still see myself looking down at that box of cigarettes in the door of their car, thinking...Oh no, my key just opened up the door of someone else's car.  What if they drove off in my car? (Yes and they just HAPPENED to leave their identical make and model car in its place)

I have a feeling that for the next couple of weeks I will hesitate before I get into my car again.

Wouldn't you?

Friday, September 03, 2010

A Pet Lover in Exile

If you are a pet lover, you can only imagine the heartbreak of having to move halfway across the world...and having to leave all pets behind.

The one thing that has get gets more and more difficult about living abroad is not being able to have pets.  And though many foreigners in Egypt have dogs or cats, I consider myself a true pet lover so I refuse to subject a poor little puppy or kitty to an apartment with very little access to any kind of green space.  These smaller spaces that we have grown accustomed to in Cairo are just not enough to keep pets healthy and happy in.

So this means that when I come home to visit family, I am also coming to visit the dogs as well.

I think for most of us who had dogs and cats as pets when we were little, it can be difficult to adjust to not having the little buggers around when you move away.  I mean, where else can you get that kind of undying, devoted love?  I grew up always having pets around and somehow life seemed a little less bright when they weren't around.  I could sit for long hours reading with one hand on the book and the other hand stroking the head of one or two dogs (their heads always managed to be in just the perfect position under my hand at just the right time).  You never felt lonely with those eyes and that soft head always nearby.

And there's always that feeling when you come home to visit and the dogs remember you.  I remember back in college we had an old dog who was blind and deaf, but somehow she managed to recognize me apparently from my scent.  And in my family this was something sacred because the animals really are part of the family.

Unfortunately time passes and they do pass with time.  My family has lost several beloved pets over the past year and it is sad to come home and not find them there to greet me.

My son has apparently inherited this love of animals.  I have been amazed to see that he is completely unafraid of the dogs and other animals he has been in contact with.  In Egypt so many people are downright afraid of dogs (in particular) so I was concerned that he might have picked up this fear of dogs.  But no worries, he is just as much of a dog lover as his mother is!

I'm still trying to figure out if we can ever get a dog or cat in Egypt.  But unfortunately apartment living isn't very conducive to keeping pets happy.

So we will have to continue to keep coming to visit family as much as we can so that we can visit the dogs as well...

Or we can come visit the dogs so that we can visit the family as well...

You choose.
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