Friday, October 29, 2010

Photos of Egypt: The Roadside Produce Stand in Cairo

I always know which fruits and veggies are in season by watching the roadside stands in Cairo.

If you see donkey carts laden with guavas (like this one) lining the streets of Cairo, then you know that this is the best time to buy guavas - or whatever kind of fruit or vegetable you see.

I don't usually buy my produce from a stand like this. But you'll find carts like this all over Cairo, particularly in some of the more Egyptian areas.

In our part of town, carts like these drive up and down the streets with the driver yelling the name out for everyone to hear him. They sell all kinds of things like this in Egypt.

It's kind of like the Egyptian equivalent of our ice cream truck in the States.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What's So Different About Cooking Abroad?

Food is food, right? I mean, regardless of where you live you'll still find a way to make food and eat food, so why all the fuss about the challenges of cooking abroad?

Now picture your favorite food in your mind (for me it's this macaroni & cheese) and tell me... what would you do if your mom or grandmother or other favorite cook wasn't around to make your favorites?

Yup, I thought so. Guess you might have to learn to make it yourself, wouldn't you?

But it's true that cooking in Egypt is pretty much the same as cooking in the States. We get most things here. And if you can't make it at home, chances are that you can find an American restaurant somewhere in Cairo that will feed that urge.

For me, it's the best of the best that I make at home. I have yet to find a restaurant in Cairo that even serves macaroni & cheese. I tried a beef stroganoff dish once at a local restaurant only to find that it had a tomato sauce rather than a creamy sauce. And while there are several Italian restaurants that serve lasagna, I am still partial to the non-spicy, simple version we always made at home.

And I won't even BEGIN to try to tell you about the disaster somebody called a Thanksgiving turkey dinner that we foolishly tried one year here in Cairo!

So maybe my problem is that I'm a bit of a food snob. The imitations just won't do for me. I want to eat it the way I REMEMBER it!

For me, cooking abroad is more about the process of preparing to cook rather than anything else. Because the actual cooking is basically the same.

Let me elaborate...

Buying local or imported. The big difference between local and imported products in Egypt is the price. So, yes, there are a lot of things available in Egypt. But they certainly don't come cheap.

So when I choose to buy the imported version (that is - if there's actually a local version), there's usually a good reason why. For example, choosing imported red Cheddar over the local yellow Cheddar is all about the taste. Now I do use the local Cheddar in sliced form in grilled cheese sandwiches or in shredded form to top fajitas, but I do not - I repeat - do NOT use it for my macaroni and cheese. Only the sharp red Cheddar will do for homemade macaroni and cheese. I have tried the local Cheddar, and it failed the taste test miserably.

Making substitutions. I always tread carefully whenever I change a recipe in any way. Some substitutions work well and are barely noticeable, while others change the taste entirely and you're left with a completely different recipe.

For beef stroganoff, sour cream is typically used to create that cool, creamy taste we love so well. And sour cream is available in Egypt... sometimes. But did you know that plain yogurt is a perfect substitute for sour cream? I've gotten to where I almost always use plain yogurt for sour cream (even though it's available sometimes) because you can find yogurt in any little supermarket here in Egypt.

Adding seasonings. As I mentioned in Intro to My Cairo Kitchen: The Key to Successful Cooking Abroad, having a small supply of spices I brought from the States has been really helpful. I might be able to find some of these spices here, but there is no guarantee that a particular one will be available in stores here right when I need it. Plus I can never guarantee the freshness of what I do find.

The great news is that I can make many things from scratch just from using what I already have in my cabinet. Want fajitas? Make your own fajita seasoning! Want Italian dressing but don't want to pay an arm & a leg for it? Make your own! I have dried basil for our favorite Lemon Basil Grilled Chicken and dried oregano for Greek salad dressing. I have cinnamon for apple crisp and chili powder for homemade chili on that one cold day in January (hey, it's Cairo!)

So as you can see, cooking abroad is really about the pre-planning for me.

It's the reason why I bought mini muffin pans from the States on our last visit. And the reason why I restock my baking powder and baking soda every year I go home.

Because I like to cook, and I like to eat. And being able to cook the things that I like to eat makes me feel just a little more at home here.

So maybe it's not so different.

But it sure makes a difference to me.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Finding a Pediatrician in Egypt

Trying to find a doctor for our baby in Egypt was the first test of parenthood for us. We had the baby. We got him home safely. We followed every rule. We took every precaution.

And two weeks later he mysteriously developed a cough.

What were we to do now?

There is something about having a baby that brings everything to the surface. I realized really quickly what my priorities were.

Because this was the first real problem we had to solve together as parents. Now we were the sole care providers for one helpless little baby boy. Every decision mattered. For want of a better phrase, it was a "life and death situation."

We had to find a pediatrician.

And I couldn't hold onto all of my American ideals. And my husband couldn't hold onto all of his Egyptian traditions.

We had to find the balance.

Finding any kind of a doctor in Egypt can feel a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack. I sometimes think that there's a doctor on every corner here. And there seems to be a million doctors for any possible kind of ailment you can think of.

So how DO you find a pediatrician in Egypt?

Know thyself. You have to know what you want. You have to know what you don't want. This sounds simple but isn't always the easiest to determine. Sometimes you have to prioritize the wants and don't wants because there's no guarantee that you can get everything you want in one doctor.

  • We preferred a doctor with morning hours AND evening hours. A lot of doctors only work at night in Egypt (they spend their days working in the hospitals). 
  • We needed a doctor who spoke good English (as in, could speak English the entire time we were in his/her office). 
  • We didn't want to wait for the doctor in a small, crowded waiting room. We knew from experience that being that close to other sick kids with a newborn was not the way to go. 
  • We wanted a doctor who was prompt. It is not unusual in Egypt for your appointment to be at 7:00 PM and the doctor not show up until 7:30 or 8:00 PM.
  • We wanted a doctor close to home. Surely there was a decent pediatrician within 15 minutes driving from our house!

Know what's out there. I didn't know that there were basically 2 schools of thought in Egypt among pediatricians. The first school advocates the use of medicines, and the second discourages medicines and instead focuses on the building of the child's immune system. (Translation: the first school will give your 2-week-old baby antibiotics without even hearing that cough and the second school will rip you a new one for giving your baby antibiotics at just 2 weeks old.)

Recommendations from other doctors. I had a great OBGYN in Egypt who walked us through every crazy moment and survived my incessant questioning during my pregnancy with our son. So once we had the baby, our first question to him was - do you know any good pediatricians? He knew us, he knew what we needed, so he gave us some recommendations based on that.

Recommendations from other parents. I think this was the key in helping us make our final decision on a pediatrician. We got first-hand knowledge of how the doctor works, what his/her theories about medicine are, what kind of atmosphere he/she has in their office and waiting room, and what their working hours are... all without actually having to go see them first.

Trial and error. Time consuming. Nerve-wracking. A leap of faith. Because every time you go to a new pediatrician with a young baby they start from scratch. You don't transfer your records from the other doctor. You don't talk through the "what have you been doing so far" with your baby. They start from the beginning and go all the way through the process.

This is both good and bad.

Well, the good news is that we found a pediatrician we love. Our son likes him. We like him, his waiting room, his working hours, his receptionists, his theories on medicine (so far), his manner of dealing with us, and - most importantly - his way of caring for our son.

So for now, score 1 for Team Amir!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Life Lessons Learned from a Dan Brown Novel

Okay, I admit it. I am a fan of Dan Brown novels. His action-packed stories with a clue around every corner keep me on the edge of my seat, and I can hardly put them down until I turn the last page. In fact, I just finished his latest The Lost Symbol in record time - a miracle considering how much time I spend taking care of my son.

But it occurred to me the other day that living life in Egypt is a lot like a Dan Brown novel. There are definitely some distinct parallels to my life.

Aside from the part where you're racing against time to decipher ancient symbols to keep some crazy lunatic from killing you...

But I think you get my point.

It's the details that matter. Robert Langdon, Brown's hero in several books, is a professor who specializes in ancient symbology. He usually finds himself somewhere in the thick of things, brought onboard the investigation either by fate (as in wrong place, wrong time) or by connection (friend, colleague, past history, etc.). And, for me, the interesting part of the story is how he discovers clues from the smallest of details. 

Life in Egypt is kind of like this. It's the little things that matter. 
  • It's buying that shampoo and conditioner when I happen to see it in the store because I know that when I run out of shampoo, that most likely the conditioner that goes with the shampoo I want won't be available. 
  • It's remembering to tell my husband to get meat (beef) for us from the butcher on Wednesday or Saturday because every other day of the week it won't be fresh or available.
  • It's getting small bills from the bank so that I have them on hand because when I get out of that taxi, I'm gonna need a 5 LE note to give the driver because he's not going to have change.
I know it sounds silly that some things are so insignificant and yet so significant at the same time, but it's true.

The enemy is who you least expect it to be. Without giving anything away (in case you haven't read his books yet), I am always shocked to find out who the bad guy is in just about every one of Brown's books.

There are lots of things in Egypt that I already know will be hard for me. The heat, the dust, the traffic, the craziness during Ramadan, the trying to find clothes that fit me, the trying to find ingredients for holiday cooking, these things I already expect to give me problems... so I plan accordingly.

But the most difficult moments are the things that catch me by surprise. These are my *enemies* because I am not really ready to face them. 
  • It's when the electricity goes off after dark for the 4th day a row, and I'm stuck trying to entertain my son out on our balcony in the dark in the summer heat when what he really needs is to take his bath and go to bed.
  • It's when I can't find the diapers we always buy in either one of the pharmacies near our house so I have to pay almost twice the cost at the only place I can find them in town. 
  • It's when we send our bowab (doorman) to buy red Cheddar for us only to discover when I go to add it to the recipe that it's not the imported type but rather the Egyptian kind that tastes like foot.
  • It's planning your whole day around something that suddenly gets cancelled so you're left wondering how you're ever going to reschedule that and what on earth you're going to do with the rest of your day.
I know that you're thinking that I have some sort of optimistic, go-get-'em attitude that will kick in to save the day (and me) at these times. But alas I wouldn't call these my "shining star moments" where I rise to the occasion to kick some culture-shock butt. Nope, these are usually the times when I kind of cry to myself (and to my husband, of course) and skulk off to feel sorry for myself.

Chocolate does me a lot of good then.

You might break a few rules. Professor Langdon always seems to be running away from the authorities in these books, whether they're on the good side or bad.

I'm not saying that I'm not a law-abiding citizen in Egypt. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I DO break a few rules that I would NEVER break in the States.
  • I ride in a taxi with my son in my lap and not buckled into a carseat.
  • I jaywalk like it's goin' outta style. This is a matter of survival of the fittest (and fastest).
  • I have on numerous occasions ridden in a car going the wrong way down a one way street.
  • I cut in line - especially if I ever ride the Cairo metro. The key is to pretend that no one else is there.
  • I'll walk into a store with my cup of Starbucks coffee and ignore the security guy trying to tell me I can't.
You laugh, but I'm looking at this list and feeling a little repentant.

What would Robert Langdon do at a time like this? Probably break the rules now and ask for forgiveness later.

Definitely should make this my new motto in Egypt.

Well, there you have it. My life according to Dan Brown.

Can't wait for his next book... in like two or three years.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Photos of Egypt: What Causes a Cairo Traffic Jam?

You never know what's holding up traffic in Cairo until you reach the source.

It could be a car broken-down on the side of the road.

It could be a bottleneck of four lanes of traffic trying to fit onto a two-lane bridge.

Or it could be an accident and people are slowing down to gawk at the argument going on. Because even just a fender bender like this one is a great reason to yell and wave your arms around... and hold up traffic.

I guess maybe it makes them feel important.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Allure of Cairo

The allure of Cairo is in its contradictions. The modern and the ancient. The poor and the rich. The backwards next to the technologically advanced.

That a donkey cart is completely at home on the road alongside a Mercedes.

That one of the most peaceful places in Cairo is on a sailboat on the Nile in the middle of the city.

That the largest Coptic churches and mosques seem to come in pairs.

That the best bread in Cairo is made in open-air bakeries.

That even the poorest Egyptian can still afford a mobile phone.

That the oldest tourist bazaar in Cairo is right across the street from the one of the most conservative mosques in all of the Middle East.

That anything you want "today" is usually not available but it might possibly come "tomorrow."

That two lanes designated by white lines on any given road actually become three or four whenever there are cars on said road.

That the pollution of Cairo results in some of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen.

That some of the oldest mosques in Cairo have been built right into the fabric of Cairo, surrounded on all sides by streets, shops and apartment buildings.

That "Old Egypt" is actually Coptic Cairo.

That there are markets deep into the city where most foreigners never venture selling used books in English and secondhand Western-style clothing.

That the great bustling city of Cairo backs right up to the last surviving ancient wonder of the world.

That big trucks drive like they're the smallest of cars.

That it might take you an hour to drive what should take you only five minutes.

This is what I find the most fascinating about this city of 20 million people. It's the things that make me stop and scratch my head... and laugh and think to myself "that's SO Egypt."

The sights, the sounds, the smells - all a part of what they call "the mother of the world."

This is Cairo.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Connecting with Other Expat Moms

It can be lonely living overseas. So whether you're single or married with or without kids, having friends when you live abroad is vitally important even though finding them can sometimes be hard.

I mentioned in my post Recovering from Small World Syndrome that I found it difficult to connect with other expat moms in Egypt.

Here is why I thought this was important:

Having friends who understand the struggles of being an expat mom in Egypt. The other moms I already know in Egypt have been a great encouragement over this past year, and I hoped to find more.

Socialization for my son. My son hasn't had a lot of interaction with other babies his age. So it would be nice for him to make some friends too.

Networking. There are a lot of activities available for babies around Cairo, but they are not always well advertised. Most of these places rely on word-of-mouth. So finding things to do with my son has been a bit of a struggle.

My difficulty in finding other expat moms has been mostly a logistical problem. Everyone I knew who was involved in moms groups and activities for babies lived about an hour away across town in Cairo.

And for months my efforts to meet other moms on my side of town (Heliopolis) didn't meet with much success.

My problem seemed to be that since I didn't already have a community of expat friends that it was even more difficult to find them now that I had a baby.

Now the good news is that in the past month I have joined not one but two moms groups on our side of town! One is a startup playgroup and the other is a moms' Bible study/book discussion group.

I'll let you know how things go.

So here are a few things I have learned so far during this process of trying to connect with other expat moms:

Don't give up. It has taken me nearly 4 months to finally find some other moms who want to meet together once a week for a playgroup in Heliopolis. That was longer than I expected it to take, but now I wish I had started earlier. Now my son is close to a year old so he's starting to get pretty active so playgroup time is basically me following him around the room while trying to have a conversation with another mom at the same time.

Ask. Any new meetings we went to where there were expats I asked if they knew of any moms getting together. I sent out emails to Yahoo email groups I had joined for foreign women living in Egypt asking if there was interest in starting a playgroup in Heliopolis. It took a while to generate any kind of response but the important thing was to start small and not to set my expectations too high.

Go to where moms go. Someone suggested that I visit a local nursery or daycare center to meet other moms. And this was my next step, at least before I was contacted by another mom who wanted to put together a playgroup.

Now I had considered walking up and introducing myself to complete strangers I saw in the mall with children around my son's age. But I wasn't quite ready for that kind of extreme measures... yet.

Be friendly. I am not that sort of outgoing person who finds a friend around every corner. But things are different now with a little one because he is always smiling at everyone and they're always smiling back. It definitely gets me out of my comfort zone... in a good way.

Let someone help you. I met one expat mom who ran a nursery in Heliopolis. She gave my contact info to another mom who was also looking to start a playgroup. This kind of networking is important in Egypt. So find one mom who is connected to other moms and ask them to help you. Even if they have older kids they might be able to help steer you in the right direction.

Stay connected to expat communities. Whether it's meeting other moms with babies around my son's age for playgroups, attending moms support groups, or just finding out about anything baby-related in Cairo, I never realized until now how important it was to stay plugged into the local expat communities until now.

The good news is that right now I have joined 2 groups for moms. One is a playgroup that meets once a week in different homes. The other is a mother's Bible study/book discussion group associated with the local international church that also meets weekly.

And just after only a couple of weeks, I can already feel myself relax. It is tough being an expat mom feeling like you're kind of out there on your own. So having other moms around to talk to face-to-face is definitely a great thing.

Because if there's one thing I know about being an expat, it's that the journey is much more fun when you have people to share it with.

I think that's probably true about being a mom as well.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Intro to My Cairo Kitchen: The Key to Successful Cooking Abroad

First of all, welcome to my Cairo Kitchen! It is challenging enough to live a somewhat *normal* daily life in Egypt but now it's time to take a look at one of my greatest challenges in Egypt. 

And this is one that doesn't require me even to step outside my front door... All I have to do is step into my own kitchen.

For anyone who loves food, it is easy for us to idealize the food we remember from our childhood. For me, this includes product of many hours sitting in my grandmother's kitchen watching her cook anything from made-from-scratch biscuits & gravy to pipin' hot skillet cornbread to melt-in-your-mouth cooked apples. She made everything look easy.

And it wasn't just my grandma who made great food. Making homemade chocolate chip cookies was almost a weekly ritual in our house growing up. And every Christmas we always made a big batch of soft sugar cookies to the point where it wasn't Christmas without them.

I have loved to cook for years, even though I took a hiatus from cooking in college (something about years of eating dorm cafeteria food that keeps that cooking gene lying dormant) and in the years following it just wasn't worth the effort most of the time to cook meals for one person.

And then I moved to Egypt, and food took on a whole new meaning.

Since moving abroad 5 years ago, I have realized that my one great connection with home (that is, the States) is food. Yes, I love the people and the places, but cooking food like I remember from back home is one way for me to keep a part of that with me.

However, cooking abroad isn't always the easiest thing to do. But it's also not nearly as hard as you might think it is.

For me, the key to successful cooking abroad was all about being prepared. I was lucky in that when I moved to Egypt to get married and to live permanently abroad, it was the second time I had lived in Egypt. 

So I already had an idea of what was available in Egypt...and what wasn't.

But I know that in many cases one might not be familiar with the country he or she is moving to and may not even know anyone who lives there. In fact, you may move to a country where you're not sure about anything, like where you're living or where you're working, much less to worry about what kind of food you're going to cook once you get there.

So let me share a basic list of the kinds of things I brought with me when I moved abroad:

Cookbooks. I brought my favorite all-purpose cookbooks with me to Egypt: Better Homes & Gardens and Betty Crocker. Every time I go home to the States, I keep planning to bring more cookbooks back with me. But even though I have only two, I must say that these 2 basic cookbooks have served me well these past 5 years in Egypt.

Spices. I brought a small startup supply of spices with me from the States. This list included things like basil, oregano, Italian seasoning, nutmeg, thyme, cloves, cinnamon, chili powder, etc. It was hard to remember exactly what was available in Egypt, but I wanted to be sure that I had everything I needed to make all of my favorite American dishes.

Baking essentials. My baking stuff is sacred. On any given day I have all the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies in my kitchen. And if you like to bake, it's vital that you bring your own baking stuff when you move abroad. I brought things like baking powder, baking soda, cream of tartar, food coloring, sprinkles, vanilla & almond extracts, poppy seeds, etc. Sometimes local substitutes are available, but these require some experimentation before they can replace old favorites.

Specialty cooking/baking tools. I can't tell you what to bring or what not to bring, because it really depends on where you're going. In all honesty most of your basic pots and pans will most likely be available in various sizes anywhere around the world. However, some things may be either unavailable or take some time to find.

For example, I eventually found muffin pans here in Egypt, but I had already brought one with me from KY. Other items I have brought from the States include: measuring cups (liquids and solids), measuring spoons, spatulas, a Springform pan, cake pans, a pie plate, hot pads, a rolling pin, and cookie cutters.

It can be really easy to forget what ingredients we need to cook the food we love...or at least we might if we don't actually sit down and plan it out.

I challenge you on any given day (without planning in advance) to go to the store and buy just the things you need for exactly 1 meal, without making a list first.

Hard isn't it?

My husband doesn't like it when I go to the store without a list.

The problem with trying to do this when you live abroad is that sometimes what was available last week or last month has now been stuck in customs for the past few weeks or months so it is no longer available in stores.

So basically I get in the habit of stocking up on things when I DO find them in the stores here. And if I can, I stock up on things not readily available in Egypt when I go back to the States. Granted my decisions on what things to bring back with me from the States are based on several criteria such as weight, scarcity in Egypt, and overall importance in my kitchen. There are some exceptions, especially when it comes to holiday cooking and baking (holiday = Thanksgiving and Christmas).

I have to say that overall I think I can live quite happily cooking in my kitchen in Egypt for years to come. It sometimes means that I have to make things the hard way (as in "made from scratch" kind of hard) or have to get creative with my substitutions and recipe adaptations, but the goal in mind is always the same.

Good food that reminds me of home.

Because no matter where I am, there is nothing like biting into a warm chocolate chip cookie straight out of the oven or diving into a helping of homemade macaroni & cheese that can make all my troubles go away.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

An Insider's Guide to Egyptian Hospitality

If you want to see the real Egypt, then you have to see Egyptians at home. I would imagine that this is true anywhere in the world, that seeing someone in their own environment lets you to see who they really are.

This is definitely true in Egypt.

And after living in Egypt for a few years, I have realized that Egyptians are completely different when you visit them at home. Particularly the ladies, in the comfort and safety of their own home, will show you (if you're a woman, that is) a side of themselves that they cannot show in public.

In my early days in Egypt, however, I broke more than a few unspoken cultural rules regarding visiting dos and don'ts in Egypt. Luckily Egyptians are very forgiving when you're new in Egypt.

DO take a gift with you. The gift should match whatever the occasion is. If you're visiting a newly married couple, then it is appropriate to give a gift of money (in a closed envelope) and maybe something for their home. If you're visiting a family with a new baby, then bring a box of chocolates for the family and maybe something special for the baby as well.

If there is no particular reason or occasion for the visit, then bring anything from an Egyptian patisserie like a torte (cake) or a mix of Egyptian sweets like basbousa, baklava, or konafa. Sometimes I bake something homemade like cookies or brownies or buy a beautiful bouquet of flowers (especially during the Christian fasting times when they don't eat anything made with eggs or milk).

Just a note: if you bring something sweet don't be surprised if they just set it aside and serve you something else.

DO dress appropriately. Again, the dress should match the occasion. If you are visiting a family to offer your condolences when they've lost a loved one, all ladies should wear black. However, if you're visiting a newly married couple or new baby then avoid wearing black (shirt/blouse) altogether. Most people wear their Sunday best when going on a visit in Egypt, so keep that in mind as well.

DON'T leave too early. There is a certain unwritten code regarding how long to stay at an Egyptian's house, and I am by no means an expert. If you visit a family and just drink something hot or cold (and don't eat anything), then you can stay a shorter amount of time (30 minutes to 1 hour). However, if you eat a meal with the family, you should never get up from eating and leave immediately. Usually Egyptians like to sit and drink something hot together after a meal, so they might be a little hurt if you try to leave right after the meal. So wait at least 30 minutes before you get ready to leave after a meal.

DON'T leave right after someone else arrives. Even if you've been there for hours, it is not polite to leave immediately after another person arrives. So if this happens, the best thing to do is to just stay a while longer (15 minutes or so) before getting up to leave. I guess you don't want to leave the impression that you're leaving because that person arrived.

DO leave before it gets too late. Egyptians will always protest when you go to leave because that's the polite thing to do. But try not to overstay your welcome, especially on the first visit.

DON'T eat everything on your plate. There is some debate as to whether you should eat everything on your plate or not. But traditionally if you clean your plate, you will find Egyptians piling more food on before you can stop them because apparently a cleaned plate means you're still hungry. So eat well but leave just a little on your plate to show that you're full and don't need anymore food.

DON'T add salt to your food. I never knew until recently that it was considered impolite if you added salt to your food in Egypt. Apparently it means that the lady of the house didn't season the food properly (not something you want to imply).

DO return the favor (as in invite them to your house). It is a big deal to invite Egyptians over to your own home. And if you're the lady of the house, well, traditionally the invitation should come directly from you.

Here are a few other things to remember when inviting Egyptians over:
  1. If you're cooking a meal, it's better to have the food ready when everyone arrives. It's okay to not have it 100% ready when the people invited are close friends but generally it's a good rule of thumb to have it ready and just to keep it warm in the oven.
  2. Make sure you have plenty of food for everyone. If you go to an Egyptian's house, they will usually serve you more food than you could ever eat. This means that you should be sure to have more than enough when they come to visit as well.
  3. Be prepared to serve cold drinks and hot drinks. Regardless of the weather outside, Egyptians may want something cold to drink and a glass of water when they arrive (but especially when it's hot out) and something hot to drink while they're relaxing after eating a big meal.
  4. Serve drinks on a tray. Presentation is important in Egypt so embrace this by having pretty trays ready to serve even just one glass of something on a tray.
  5. If someone brings something sweet to eat when they arrive, you can either choose to serve it immediately or to set it aside and serve something else that you have already prepared.
  6. If it's the first time someone has come to your house, be prepared to give them a tour of your home.
  7. Even if someone visits you for just 5 minutes, you should offer them something to drink.
  8. Ask them several times if they want something to drink, and don't forget if they say no the first time that they're probably just being polite so you'll have to insist to get them to drink something.
Being from the South myself, I have to say that Egyptian hospitality puts Southern hospitality to shame. And even though it took me a while to get the hang of what to do when people come to visit, I have finally embraced my inner Southerner to enjoy hosting people in our home.

But like I said before, visiting Egyptians at home really is the best way to get to know them better.

And don't forget that homemade Egyptian food beats any Egyptian food you could buy in a restaurant any day!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Having a Baby Overseas

It was a real leap of faith to have a baby overseas. Well, the truth is that I'd never had a baby before so having a baby ANYWHERE would've been a leap of faith. Still, if someone had told me years ago that I would give birth to my first baby in Egypt, I would have laughed in their face.

It just sounds so preposterous, right?

But one thing I have learned over the years is to expect the unexpected and be ready for anything.

So let's face it, when you live abroad, far away from family and friends, and make another country your permanent home (at least for now) things just kind of fall into a rhythm after a while. And you being to think after a few years that things are good, things are normal, life just kind of moves along and not much changes.

You've got this living abroad thing down. You're an expert.

And then you find out you're going to have a baby.

And that's when you realize that you don't know anything. You don't know anything about doctors, about hospitals, about babies, about what babies need or eat or wear... You don't know anything about being pregnant and what you need to eat or wear and...

You definitely don't know anything about any of the above in Egypt.

And your mom is halfway around the world.

So is this the time I freak out? Is this where I throw in the towel and move home?

Let me tell you why I chose to have my baby in Egypt and not in the States.

My doctor was in Egypt. I had (have) a great doctor in Egypt. No matter where you are and what your medical condition is, having a great doctor makes all the difference.

My husband was in Egypt. Yes, if I'd had the baby in the States he would've been there. But it would've been stressful for me to be away from him waiting to have the baby (and waiting for him to come) and then stressful for him to be away from his work to be with me in the States.

My home was in Egypt. Call me crazy but I wanted to bring our newborn son home from the hospital to our house, not to a hotel room or a rented apartment. And I certainly didn't want to have to drag my sweet baby at that young age all the way across the big pond to get home.

I had never had a baby before. So I didn't have anything to compare the experience in Egypt to. I hadn't been in a hospital in the States for so long that I couldn't even remember what they looked like on the inside.

Once the decision was made to have the baby in Egypt, then we needed to buy all stuff a baby needed. We knew that since we were going to the States to visit at least once before the baby came that we could buy a lot of this from there. But most of the larger items (like furniture) had to be bought in Egypt.

Crib and changing table. We found a crib with a changing table top in a Mothercare store in Egypt.

Stroller/car seat. We borrowed a newborn stroller/car seat combo from some expat friends to use until our son was around 6 months old.

Glider chair. We bought a used glider chair and ottoman from another expat in Egypt.

Clothes, blankets, towels, and other misc baby stuff. Even though a lot of baby items are available in Egypt, we bought most of what we needed from the States because #1 we could because we were there and #2 usually the good stuff is cheaper there than in Egypt.

That moment when I realized that I was really having a baby and that I was having it in a foreign country hit me right about the second we set foot in the hospital. Before then, I was pretty much okay with the whole idea. My husband was with me the whole time I was in labor (it was a Friday evening), and we were in constant contact with my doctor.

Yes, it was a little nerve wracking to have a strange doctor examine me when we arrived at the hospital. But we needed to know how far along I was in labor. And once he determined that I was dilated enough to admit me into the hospital, the waiting began.

After several hours of monitoring my contractions and my baby's heartbeat, my doctor called and told us that if I wanted an epidural that this was the time to do it.

The epidural insertion process was the scariest for me out of everything. This was partially because my own doctor wasn't there yet, and also because my husband wasn't allowed in the room with me while they put it in. But the real problem was me. I had read too much about what could go wrong with an epidural so I was freaking out about how much it was going to hurt. But the doctor spoke English and talked me through every step before he did anything.

And so I survived.

Early the next morning, my doctor arrived at the hospital and evaluated our progress so far. And after a long discussion and explanation about where we should be and where we actually were, his recommendation was that we opt for an emergency c-section. Now I had really wanted a natural birth but I wanted a perfectly healthy baby more.

So we decided to go with the c-section.

I'm not sure how to describe the feeling of being aware and listening to what's going on while the doctors performed the c-section. I do remember that I was praying out loud the entire time and at this point I didn't care if they heard me or not.

But I can say that all kinds of emotions washed over me the first time I heard my baby cry. Relief, disbelief, amazement, overwhelming joy, and this strange pain in my neck from where I was straining so hard to try to see my son.

And of course they brought him over so that I could get a look before they took him out of the room.

When it was all said and done, I was wheeled out to recovery and suddenly looked up to see my husband standing over me all decked out in scrubs complete with face mask (I was a little surprised to see him because I knew he wasn't allowed back there but apparently they made an exception and let him come see me when it was all over).

And finally they rolled me back up to our room as I called my parents to tell them the good news. I have no idea what time it was in Kentucky but my mom answered the phone.

We cried.

Our stay at the hospital was around 48 hours. Recovery went well as soon as I realized that I had to actually ask for the pain killers once the epidural wore off.

But finally it was time and we bundled our little boy up and took him home. The drive home was surreal. I can still see us sitting in the car and waiting in Cairo traffic, me in the backseat with our son on the seat beside me.

I honestly can't remember anything after we arrived at home. All I know is that we were home at last with a perfect, healthy baby boy.

And that was all that mattered.

Our life had changed forever.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Working in Egypt

Me working as an office manager in Egypt
It's a challenge navigating the business world in Egypt as a foreigner. You're already an outsider, whether you speak the language or not. And no matter what you do or where you work, if the majority of the people around you are Egyptians - it will take some real time and effort to feel like you belong there.

I worked in Egypt for 3 1/2 years. I was an office manager for an Egyptian company for just over 2 1/2 years and worked as a supply chain specialist for an Egyptian/American company for just under a year.

Don't get me wrong, I loved working in Egypt. It allowed me a glimpse of a very different world here. But it also gave me a glimpse of a very different me.

Here is what I didn't know before I started working in Egypt.

Working in Egypt will teach you a lot about yourself. Something about being around the same people 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, that can bring out a side of you that you had never known before (both good and bad).

You find out what your *buttons* are. You can't spend that much time around people without them seeing the real you. So whatever my issues were, there was no way to hide them. So whether it was dealing with office politics, fighting to implement a system, or understanding how Egyptian managers should deal with subordinates - it was very easy to see that I had a lot to learn...and a lot to grow.

You learn what your strengths are. It didn't seem to matter what I thought I was good at. What mattered more was what my manager thought I was good at and what value I had as the only foreigner working in an Egyptian office. I never realized how creative I could be at solving problems, how crazy organized I was, or how extensive my *basic* computer skills were compared to the average Egyptian, until I began to work in Egypt. All these years I had taken for granted the privilege of being a native English speaker and how I was never intimidated by the words "I don't know."

You learn that being able to speak Arabic and speaking Arabic in an office are two very different things. Even though I spoke pretty good Arabic when I started, it still took me a while to learn the correct office vocabulary in Egypt. And speaking Arabic at work wasn't just about learning the vocabulary but rather learning the way of saying it so they'd understand not just the words but, more importantly, the meaning.

You learn that relationships are more important than everything else. This was one of the hardest lessons for me to learn. Because where I'm from, business doesn't get personal. Here there is a fine balance to walk between trying to get a job done and not losing the love of the people who work alongside you in the process. Respect was easy to get, it was getting their devotion and loyalty that was much harder.

You learn that understanding people in Arabic over the phone may be your greatest accomplishment ever. I can honestly say that the most difficult thing I ever had to do while working in Egypt was to answer the phone as a secretary for an Egyptian company. Now I take this skill for granted, but back when I was first starting out I dreaded every time that phone rang.

I know that working in an office in Egypt is probably a lot different than the types of jobs that many foreigners hold in Egypt. Teachers, for example, may have vastly different experience than I had just because the nature of their work is so different from what I was doing.

Still, even though I am taking a break from work now to care for my young son, I know that it was a privilege to get to work even for a little while in Egypt. Not only did it make me feel *normal* with a regular 9 to 5 job, but working side-by-side everyday with Egyptians also helped me to realize that they're just like us (Americans, that is).

And I think that made all the difference. It wasn't me against the world, against the culture here, against the lack of a system, or even against the people here.

I was just part of the family.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Language Barriers

Korba - Heliopolis in Cairo, Egypt
I never talked much to strangers before moving to Egypt. But I can't help talking to them now.

The longer I live in Egypt, the more I watch tourists. I have laughed before that I forget that I don't look like an Egyptian because I feel so much like one.

Until I feel some strange guy watching me.

But it's a kind of silly habit that I have picked up to watch tourists. I mean, I evaluate their outfits (particularly the women) to see how many cultural rules they have broken with those clothes. I look at their way of standing, walking, sitting,...

So basically I'm a gawker.

Of course, I'm not as blatant about it as the guys here can be. But still, behind my sunglasses I can basically glance just about anywhere and watch anything or anybody.

Just last week we were walking around in Korba, and I put my sneaky tourist-watching skills to good use.

Like any other big city, Cairo is broken up into different sections of town which, in turn, are broken up into smaller sections. Korba is a part of the grand old Heliopolis (the part of Cairo where we live) where there are many older buildings with high arched columns and balconies that loom over the sidewalks below. Even before I was married, I used to love to wander around Korba, checking the Metro Market grocery store for hard-to-find imported goods or stocking up on bubble wrap-lined big envelopes and spiral-bound notebooks from Everyman's, my favorite stationery shop in Cairo. The beautiful old architecture and feel of this particular street in Korba just draws me in.

So it's nice to bring my son here to go window shopping for a change when the weather is nice.

However, crossing the street in Korba is still one of those "taking your life in your own hands" kind of moments. So on this particular day, it took us a while to cross the street. There we were waiting for the exact moment where there'd be a large enough break in the traffic to let me safely wheel my son's stroller quickly across the one side of traffic, up and over the median, and then brave over the other side of traffic as well.

Let me just tell you that it takes some finesse...and just plain guts as well.

But given my carefully honed tourist-watching skills and sharp peripheral vision, I noticed an older foreigner couple over to my right leaning over and talking to a taxi driver. And it seemed me that they had been standing there a bit longer than usual.

I could tell that they were tourists. After living in Egypt for a while, you begin to develop a keen eye for what separates the tourists and expats in the streets of Cairo.

But for this couple, I would say the most telling sign that they were tourists was the way the woman was dressed.  She was probably in her late forties and dressed in a chic sleeveless dress that cut off at the knees - not something immodest from her home country - but not something you would lean way over in to talk to a taxi driver in Cairo. Doesn't leave much to the imagination for someone who's looking...and in Cairo, they are ALWAYS looking - even if everything is FULLY covered.

So even as I was in that split-second evaluating their clothes from the corner of my eye, I could tell that something was going on. And from my own experience, I knew that it was one of two situations:

Arguing over payment. This was one of those black-and-white Cairo taxis where you still have to haggle over the cost so it was quite likely that the driver was demanding more money than what the couple was willing to pay. This whole idea of haggling is a key part of the Cairo taxi experience (one I have happily left behind since I had my son by taking the newer, metered white taxis). But it can be very stressful for the newcomer and tourist in Cairo.

Asking for destination. Anywhere else, you would simply get in the taxi and then tell him where you want to go. Not so in Egypt. In Egypt, you have to kind of yell your destination out to them as they drive past. If they agree to take you, they then come to a screeching halt whereas everyone behind them also comes to a screeching halt...I'm sure you can guess what sometimes comes next. Again, very stressful situation for tourists.

Anyhow, the problem for tourists is that they usually don't speak Arabic. And while a few drivers will try to practice their broken English with tourists and expats alike, most of them aren't fluent by any means.

So after realizing that this couple wasn't getting anywhere with this taxi. I did the only thing my newfound nosiness (and tourist-watching skills) could help but doing. I asked them (the tourists) if they needed help.

I mean, it was the only compassionate thing to do. I have been in those same shoes where I couldn't communicate with drivers, and I have had to haggle my way out of paying triple the cost of a taxi ride a time or two (or fifty).

Once they finally heard me, the tourist couple turned to me in relief, and the lady opened her mouth...and spoke French to me.

At once all my good intentions went quickly down the drain!  I can't speak French. I mean, I could get by on the streets of Paris for the 6 months I was there 6 years ago, but certainly not enough to translate the French to Arabic!?! Or even enough to understand what they were saying.

But they were desperate. And I have lived overseas long enough to know that hand gestures and sparse words can go a long way in communicating. So somehow I got the general idea that they were trying to get to the Radisson Heliopolis hotel.

Now you must know that the Radisson hotel is very new.  I think it's less than 6 months old. And it just so happens to be in an unfamiliar area of our part of town that many taxi drivers don't know that well.

But I do.

So it was a lucky day for them because I knew exactly where they needed to go. And while I couldn't understand a lick of French I could most certainly explain where they wanted to go to the driver in Arabic without a problem.

So that was my good deed for the day.

Although it occurred to me later that maybe I should have told them how much to pay the taxi once they got there. Heaven only knows how much he told them to pay him! I've never seen a taxi driver sit there for 5 minutes trying to understand some tourists and where they want to go. They usually just put their hand up apologetically and drive off.

I bet he marked that price up 500% (not unusual in these types of situations).

I guess maybe it was his lucky day too.

Monday, October 04, 2010

My Baby Food Experience in Egypt

Finding baby food in a foreign country is no small task. Not only are you trying to decipher the language on the jar, but you're also trying to determine whether what's really on that label is what's really in the jar.

Because back home in the States, baby food companies are held accountable for what they put on their jar. If it says organic, it means organic. If it lists the ingredients as apples, water, and citric acid, well, you can trust that those are the exact ingredients in that jar.

Not so in Egypt.

Of course, I had never paid much attention to baby food in either Egypt or the States until I had a baby myself. So why would I care what was available or not?

But after looking around, I realized that there isn't much to choose from around here. There are maybe 3 or 4 companies that make a variety of baby cereals including rice, wheat with milk, mixed cereals with fruit, wheat with corn, vegetable soup cereal, and so on. But everywhere we looked there was only 1 brand of jarred baby food available - Hero. I had heard that stores used to carry the Gerber brand here but we couldn't find it anywhere. Even there were old Gerber baby food stands in stores that were now filled with Hero jars.

Not that we were in any hurry to feed our son solids. At the recommendation of our pediatrician, we waited until he was 6 months to introduce solids. And when he did turn 6 months, the pediatrician started us on a certain vegetable mix (carrots, sweet potatoes/potatoes, and kusa - basically Egyptian zucchini) rather than rice cereal.

These vegetables were not available in jarred form anywhere in Egypt.

So basically I was forced to make baby food in the end even if I hadn't really planned on it. Not that I minded, because every jar of Hero baby food that I could find had ingredients like sugar and corn starch listed (which are big no-nos to give infants in the States).

So the choice was clear.

When it came time to introduce solids, I did what I always do with any new milestone for our son - I researched the topic on the internet until my eyes watered from sitting in front of the computer screen for too long and my mind reeled with the overload of information.

It seemed like such a daunting task to try to make homemade baby food! I thought I would NEVER figure out how to make it, much less get my son to eat it. Everybody out there had different recommendations on which foods to start out with first, how to cook them, how to prepare them, whether to give purees or just pieces of food. I wasn't sure if he was eating solids because he NEEDED them or just for tasting.

Like I said, an overload of information.

But the good thing is that we found one of those baby food making machines here in Toys R Us. These machines basically let you steam the veggies or fruit and then flip the thing over and puree them right in the same container. That put my mind at ease because at least I knew I could make the food.

But how to store it? Was I going to have to make food every day? Could I freeze it?  Should I just make enough for 2 or 3 days and keep it in the refrigerator? What kind of containers did I need for that? How was I going to carry food around with me when we went out during the day?

Like I've said before, it's not so much that things AREN'T available in Egypt, but rather the finding of things and the putting it all together is what makes it so difficult. It takes more time and energy...LOTS more time and energy.

But this is where all that internet research paid off.  I knew I needed certain things, and once I found them it was all downhill from there.

Baby food making machine. I have a steamer and a blender/food processor so basically I didn't really need the machine. But after making baby food now for months, I can definitely say that this was worth the extra money we spent on it.

Ice cube trays. This was something we didn't already have. But I had read that if you made the baby food and then poured it into ice cube trays, that later you could pop the cubes out of the trays, seal them into freezer bags labeled with the contents and date, and then just take out what you need at night for the next day.

Muffin pans. When my son began eating more, I stopped freezing everything in ice cube trays and switched to freezing larger portions in muffin pans.

Small plastic bowls with tight-fitting lids. It took me a while to find the exact size I needed. But I have to say that once I found them, they made my life so much easier by allowing me to take homemade baby food anywhere (even on a plane). Also, now with my son eating more, once I got a few more bowls I began to freeze portions directly into the bowls (skipping the step of freezing in ice cube trays or muffin pans).

We do have Tupperware available in Egypt as well, and they have baby food products like bottles, sippy cups, bowls, and spoons. And there are a number of items available in pharmacies and places like Toys R Us, Spinney's, and Seif stores. So even if these things were a bit pricey, at least they would last until I could bring extras from the States the last couple of times home.

So all in all, I have to say that my experience with baby food in Egypt wasn't as bad as I expected. It was important to lay aside my own expectations of what I needed and just to focus on the end result desired - getting food for my baby (whether I made it or not).

And even this last time to the States and getting to see the wide variety of baby food items available there, I realized in coming home to Egypt that I was more capable of providing food for my son than I realized.  
  1. If I couldn't get a large variety of baby food in jars in Egypt, I still could make all different kinds of purees for him, even making ones similar to the ones he had liked in the States.
  2. If I couldn't buy those cute little applesauce cups in Egypt, I still could make homemade applesauce and freeze it directly into containers to feed him to eat out of. 
  3. If I couldn't buy cheese in convenient individual packs, I still could buy a huge chunk of Cheddar cheese, cut it up into small cubes, and pop a few into a sandwich bag to take with us when we went out (he LOVES cheese). 
  4. I could buy the individual containers of plain whole milk yogurt (something NOT available in the States).
  5. I could steam little pieces of veggies to give to him as finger foods.
Because there's no reason for me to make this process any more difficult by stressing over it and moaning about what we don't have available here in Egypt. Living in Egypt itself and getting around with a baby in Cairo is tough enough. 

It was time to look on the bright side. And time to get creative.
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