Monday, November 29, 2010

Finding Baby Items in Egypt

Last week I mentioned that my son just turned 1 year old recently. And while having a baby in Egypt has been one of the greatest blessings for me here, I have often found it a challenge to find the things I need for him here.

Yes, I know I've been home to Kentucky twice in the past year so what am I complaining about?

Well, I can't buy EVERYTHING in the States. Some things just don't last long enough to warrant them valuable enough to bring back to Egypt from America.

That and they won't fit in a suitcase. (I know, I tried)

But seriously, in case you're wondering yourself about where to get things for a baby in Cairo. Because there are a lot of things available here, but sometimes you just have to look where you least expect things to be to find them.

Here's a rundown of some everyday baby items you might be looking for:

Diapers. Supermarkets, pharmacies, and Seif stores (City Stars, Maadi, Giza). My personal favorite is the Pampers brand (Premium Care, white package, imported from Saudi Arabia)

Diaper wipes. Supermarkets, pharmacies, Seif stores (City Stars, Maadi, Giza), and Mothercare stores (City Stars, Maadi, 6 October). I stick with the Pampers brand. My 2nd choice is Johnson & Johnson.

Antibacterial wipes. Supermarkets, some pharmacies. I use these to wipe down a table or a highchair before I put my son's food out on it. I like the Wet Ones brand (you can find the individual travel packs).

Shampoo, conditioner, baby wash. Supermarkets, pharmacies. Just about everyone carries the Johnson & Johnson brand which is supposed to be tear-free. Honestly what we use is a Johnson & Johnson head-to-toe baby wash brought from the States (it's not available yet in Egypt). We did use a Sanosan (blue bottle) bath and shampoo combo wash when our son was first born that was okay.

Diaper rash cream. Larger pharmacies. You might have to look around for this because it comes and goes. Mine is from the States because 1 jar lasts forever. My advice is if you can't have someone bring you some and you're nervous about diaper rash, you can use a small amount of olive oil until you can find some here.

Bottles, nipples, breast pumps, sterilizers. Toys R' Us (Babies R' Us section in the back) carries the hands-down best selection in Egypt. Mothercare may have a few things and you might find bottles in a Seif store or various pharmacies. But the prices at Toys R' Us are better. I recommend the Avent (Philips) brand.

Bibs. Mothercare probably has the best selection I've seen all the way up to toddler-age. A lot of ours are from the States. Sometimes you can find them where they sell baby clothes.

Teething rings. Toys R' Us, Mothercare, Seif stores, some pharmacies. Toys R' Us carries the Avent brand which has different teething rings for different stages. I bought my son a teething rattle from the Seif store that he loved.

Teething gels. I have not seen this here in Egypt. You might check in a larger pharmacy first. Ours is from the States.

Baby brush, nail clippers, droppers. Mothercare had sets including these items. Ours is from the States. You might find these individually in a pharmacy.

Baby bathtub. Cheap and available just about anywhere (try Spinney's or Carrefour for cheaper ones, Toys R' Us/Mothercare/Hallmark store for a Fisher Price or other name brand). If you have a little baby that needs a support, I'd go with the Fisher Price brand. We bought a little white *chair* that fit inside a regular baby bathtub that held our son at an angle so that we could wash him without having to hold him in our arms. It was pretty reasonably priced from Mothercare.

Baby monitor. Toys R' Us and Seif stores are the only places I've seen these so far. Check if they'll work okay in your home, these cement walls are terrible for reception in Egypt.

Bouncy chair. Most toy stores will carry bouncy chairs in Egypt, just sometimes they sell out pretty fast. I hardly ever see them at Toys R' Us. Check Kams stores and Love & Care stores. I recommend the Fisher Price brand.

Baby swing. Expensive and bulky but if you insist to buy one, you might want to price them first before you make a decision. I've seen them at Toys R' Us, Kams, Mothercare (occasionally), Hallmark store, and Premaman (City Stars) store.

Highchair. Do yourself a favor and wait to buy this until they're several months old. We bought our Graco brand highchair at Toys R' Us and we love it. I've seen them at Premaman (City Stars) and Seif stores, as well as Mothercare.

Crib. You need to evaluate your safety priorities before you make this decision. Safety was #1 for me and I wanted a crib built on an international standard. Larger Egyptian toy stores carry cribs sometimes. You can also have one made to your specifications by a carpenter (just check on the mattress size first). Ours is from the Mothercare store.

Mattress. Be careful to buy a mattress where you buy the crib. Dimensions will vary greatly in Egypt and I'm not even sure what is available from a regular mattress store.

Mattress pad. I have never seen these in Egypt. Mine are from the States.

Changing table. I have seen very few changing tables in Egypt. We bought a changing table topper at Mothercare for our son's crib which was (and is still) a lifesaver.

Pack n' play, playyard. Toys R' Us, Seif store, Kams store, Love & Care store, Premaman, and sometimes Mothercare. A bit pricy in Egypt. We don't own one (yet).

Stroller. Toys R' Us, Mothercare, Premaman, Seif stores, Kams store, and Love & Care store. Ours is from the States.

Sheets. Sheets for cribs seem to be a novel idea because I've not really seen them anywhere except Mothercare in Egypt. But take care at Mothercare because what I know as a "crib" is really a "cot" so be careful before you buy something. Another option (which is what we've done for almost all of our sheets) is to take the dimensions of the mattress and had someone make sheets for us. There are many shops that sell bedding & towels that might perform this service for you if you ask. This is cheaper and made to order - can't beat that.

Baby towels & washcloths. Special towels for baby? Someone gave us a set for our newborn boy that included some sort of hooded towel that was from Egypt, but I'm not sure where they bought it. I think you might ask in the same type of shop as the sheets above where to get these. Washcloths (for anyone) don't really exist in Egypt. Most of the ones I've seen for adults are small towels which are not really suited for washing your face with. What we have at home are mostly what my husband has received on an airplane or snagged from a hotel.

Onesies. White, short-sleeved, snapped one-piece typically worn by babies as an under-layer. I buy the Gerber brand from the States, but I have bought them here from Ladybird (Toys R' Us brand) and Mothercare. I've seen them also at Spinney's (might check Carrefour as well).

Sleepers. Long-sleeved, footed, snap-up or zippered one-piece typically worn by younger babies to sleep in. Most of mine are from the States (Carter's, Just One You, Okie Dokie brands) but I have had to buy some here as well (sizing can be tricky with a new baby). I've seen these at Mothercare, H&M, United Colors of Benetton, and just about any other store that carries baby clothes.

Shirts, pants, socks, jackets, coats. There are a lot of baby clothes stores in Cairo. Sometimes they have sales with some good deals and/or clearance prices. I've bought random shirts and pants for our son this way to supplement what I've bought in the States. I cannot vouch for the quality of the local Egyptian made items because I haven't had to buy any yet. Most of our stuff from Egypt was bought on sale from stores like H&M (bought some great jeans & overalls there), Mothercare (his coat is from there), United Colors of Benetton (they had a great clearance sale back last summer for winter items), and a few things from the Ladybird section of Toys R' Us.

Shoes. If you're looking for newborn baby shoes, just keep your eye out in stores that sell baby clothes because sometimes they have accessories like shoes as well. There is a section in City Stars on the 4th floor around the corner from the Food Court that has a bunch of kids stores, including 3 or 4 stores dedicated to shoes for kids. You can find shoes in Mothercare. My main concern now with a 1-year-old who will walk soon is finding flexible soles that are easy to get on and off.

Fever-reducer/pain reliever. Try Infant Panadol.
Cold/cough (under 2). Try a saline rinse like Physiomer (with Baby comfort tip). For anything stronger, I recommend you get a doctor's opinion first.

I find shopping for clothes for any age (including myself) in Egypt a bit of a challenge. This is true especially if you have something specific in mind (which I usually do). I want to buy things that are good quality and are not going to fall apart the first time (or 2nd or 3rd time) I wash something. Make sure you check the washing instructions before you buy anything because I've learned this lesson the hard way by buying something that said don't dry in the dryer (what?!) and I did anyways.

But if you keep your eyes out for things and make a note when you see them at a certain place, this will help you later on when you're in a jam and need something quickly.

Is there anything missing from the list above?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

Hello everyone!

My turkey's in the oven... the pecan pie and corn casserole are made and ready to go... the green beans are washed & snapped and ready to rock n' roll! And I'm about to get up here and finish up the sweet potato casserole.

Friends are coming over later today for a great celebration! What a day!

Who says you can't celebrate Thanksgiving when you live overseas?!

Just a quick note to say that you may have noticed that nothing new was posted yesterday (I usually post Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). Well, with my son just turning one (his big birthday party is tomorrow) and Thanksgiving preparations yesterday and Thanksgiving today, I've decided to take a few days off.

Don't worry, we'll be back next week!

Stay tuned for the next installment of the Wonder Years, Part 4: Dealing with Culture Shock as well as another Mama Monday...

And Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"Egypt Ramblings" Featured on Pocket Cultures

Egypt Ramblings was featured today on the Pocket Cultures website. Pocket Cultures is a unique site that highlights all kinds of different topics from countries around the world. Their mission statement as an organization says it all "We aim to increase intercultural awareness by helping people of the world to see the other point of view and think beyond stereotypes."

And I have to say that I have read many great articles there that are written by real people who know the country they're writing about. I've found them both entertaining and enlightening. And there are many blogs (like mine) that are showcased on the site - a perfect way to add to your travel reading!

So whether you are an expat or just dream of traveling anywhere in the world, this is definitely a site to add to your must-read list.

Best of luck to Liz and her team at Pocket Cultures!

Monday, November 22, 2010

My First Year as an Expat Mom

One year as a new mom in Egypt was vastly different from all my other years in Egypt. Once upon a time I was free to go where I wanted, do what I wanted, and be who I wanted to be pretty much anytime I felt like it.

Well, I guess that's still pretty much true today. It just looks and feels a little different.

Because I'm a mom now.

My son just turned 1 year old yesterday. And people here say that the first year is the most difficult. Do they say that where you're at too? I don't know that I have much to compare this to, but I think I'd believe that statement.

I've realized that there's so much to learn when you become a new mom overseas. It's a very exciting time. There's so much to experience and discover about the world around you and about yourself as well.

In Egypt, I've had to relearn how to do a few things, like how to take a taxi and how to eat out. There are many places I love that aren't very kid-friendly and others I never tried that are great with kids.

Becoming a mother changes your priorities. It has to. Not everything changes and not everything should. The simple truth is that you look at the world differently now.

Unfortunately I wasn't blogging when I gave birth to my son last year. And I kind of wish that I had been so that I could have recorded what was going through my mind at the time.

All I know is that I was overwhelmed. I felt like we had been given this precious gift, and I didn't even begin to know how to take care of him. It was easy to feel a little lost with my family around, especially my mom (although my parents arrived 2 weeks later). And though we were surrounded by all the love of my husband's entire family and church, that was a bit overwhelming in itself... albeit in a good way.

And even after reading so much about what to do and how to be a mother, now it was time for the real thing.

None of this fake it till you make it stuff would do.

These lessons learned helped me survive my first year as an expat mom:

You can never read too much. Reading isn't just about books (although they're important too if you can get them). I have discovered the Internet to be a world of resources for a mom living abroad. It's your own virtual community of helpers to walk you through this time.

Know your limitations but don't be bound by them. Limitations can be physical, mental, and emotional. Some women, for example, have the "baby blues" after having a baby. Others may be incapacitated for a while after having a c-section. You might be overcome with homesickness after giving birth. This is okay and it's completely normal. Just don't let it cripple you from living a normal life now.

Find a pediatrician that you can trust your baby's life with. I know that seems a bit extreme. But living overseas makes us parents very sensitive when it comes to our children's needs. We don't want them to suffer because we've made the choice to live overseas. So when it comes to finding a doctor for your child, it's important for you to be comfortable with that person (and your child as well). We spent a lot of time with our ped this past year so the effort spent making this all-important decision was well worth it, let me tell you.

Go home if you can. Traveling with a baby seems like such an impossible thing to do. Trust me, if I can do it, you can too. My parents came to Egypt last year for the first time when our son was born. It was special to have them here, but it was also nice to go home and introduce my son to my brothers and my grandmother. Plus I got to stock up on baby stuff while I was there.

Know where to buy baby stuff. Sure it was nice to go home and bring a bunch of stuff back to Egypt for our son. But I still know where to get this stuff here as well, because you never know when you'll need something in a pinch.

For example, last week my son lost a shoe as we were fighting the Eid crowd to get into our favorite mall in Cairo (don't ask, it's a loong story). The problem is that he doesn't keep his socks on unless he has shoes on - so I needed some shoes pronto. Luckily I had already scoped out some places for baby shoes so I went right up and bought him a pair right then and there. Problem solved!

Make friends with other expat moms. Don't be a loner. Get out there. Finding other moms to talk to was a life saver for me. And mix it up a bit. Find some moms like you (nationality, beliefs, situation - i.e. married to an Egyptian, etc.) and find some babies like your child (boy or girl, age, etc.) But don't just stick to that. Take advantage of living overseas alongside people of all different backgrounds. You'll appreciate the mix of people, and you won't be so disappointed when they're unavailable to hang out with you. And don't forget that moms of older kids have years of experience to share as well.

Take some time for you. I cannot stress how important this has been for me. Being a stay-at-home mom for the past year has meant that my whole world revolves around my little one. But it's important to keep some perspective and an identity outside of being a mom.

Set reasonable expectations for yourself. I have learned that it's okay to have high standards but not to be too disappointed when things don't work out the way you planned. The best thing to do is simply give yourself a break.

I know that I am a different mom than perhaps I would have been had I given birth and been living in the States these past 12 months. Living abroad these past 7+ years has always been an adventure. Some days are good and some bad, that's just life.

Being a mom now just makes things interesting.

Friday, November 19, 2010

10 Tips for Surviving a Cairo Taxi Ride

You booked your ticket to Egypt. You made the long trip across the pond. You get off the plane in Cairo in a daze and finally make it through passport control, pick up your luggage, and come out of the terminal into the dry, dusty heat.

A guy walks up to you and says to you "taxi?" You nod your head and follow him. Bags get stowed in the trunk, on the taxi roof, or (if you're REALLY lucky) shoved in beside you in the backseat.

Now what?

Prepare for the ride of your life.

Traffic in Cairo is not for the faint of heart. At any moment you will be able to reach out of the taxi window and touch the car next to you. Limited personal space is just a fact of life in Egypt, and it is no different out on the roads.

The best thing you can do now is just to sit back and enjoy the ride.

I can still remember my early days in Cairo, trying to get from place to place without getting completely lost because (1) I didn't pronounce my destination correctly and (2) the driver didn't hear me right or (3) the person he stopped to ask directions from really had no idea how to get to your destination but he wasn't about to say that and sent us off on a wild goose chase instead.

It was terrifying then, and it still makes me catch my breath every once in a while.

That's what makes Cairo so fascinating.

But don't worry these 10 things that will help you survive a taxi ride in Cairo:

1. Take only white taxis with meters. If you've never been to Egypt before, you may not know the different between the old black-and-white taxis and the new white taxis. Here is the main difference between the two: Black-and-white taxis will charge you whatever they want to charge you. White taxis will charge you according to the meter (just make sure they don't start the meter before you get in.)

2. Know the landmarks around your destination. Street address and maps were fine before you arrived in Egypt. As far as Egyptians are concerned, they're just as well thrown in the trash here. You will have better luck arriving at your destination safely if you can send the driver in the direction of the nearest big landmark. Landmarks include major intersections, famous mosques, specific parts of town or a main street in that part of town. Your best bet is to ask someone (preferably an English-speaking Egyptian) how they would tell a taxi driver to get there.

3. If possible, take an Arabic speaker with you. Granted some taxi drivers may actually be able to speak some English but very few are truly fluent. If you can't get the driver to understand you, get someone who can explain it to him in Arabic and you're home free. And it certainly helps if you can pick up a little *taxi* Arabic yourself because there is no guarantee that even if they speak broken English to you that they'll understand you when you respond.

4. Work your way up to long rides across town. Depending on how long you plan to be in Cairo, the best way to get to know your way around Cairo is to walk. Once you get a feel for the area, it might be easier for you to explain it to a taxi driver later (especially when you're trying to get home.) If you're only in Egypt for a short time, I definitely recommend hiring a driver for the day (preferably English-speaking) so that you don't have to worry about getting into multiple taxis from place to place.

5. Don't catch a taxi that's been sitting there waiting. They usually want to charge you much more for a ride that it's really worth so don't feel bad for walking right past him or even ignoring him completely. You're much better off getting in a taxi that's just driving by rather than one that has been sitting there for a while.

6. Don't expect the driver to have change. This is true just about anywhere in Egypt. So if you don't have change, I recommend that you give him a little extra (max 5 pounds extra) or have him stop by one of those kiosks on the side of the road to see if they have change.

7. Know that taxi drivers usually work in just one part of town. This means that if your destination is across town they may be less familiar with that area than in their own. One solution to this problem is to take two taxis, one to get across Cairo to the part of town you're going to and then another *local* taxi to get to your final destination.

8. If you're a lady, sit in the backseat. Guys can ride up front with the driver (if they so choose.) But trust me, when they start to weave in and out of cars like they learned to drive by playing Play Station, you'll appreciate the distance between you and the back of the car in front of you that first time you come screeching to a halt.

9. There is no law against ignoring the driver if he wants to chat. There's no law against talking to the driver, but do only what you feel comfortable doing. Sometimes taxi drivers act like you got in their car just for them to practice their broken English. Ladies, please don't give them your name. You can make polite conversation with a driver as long as he doesn't get personal with his questions.

10. When in doubt, get out. Well, don't get out in the middle of nowhere. But, seriously, once you get in a taxi there is no obligation for you to stay in it. You might disagree with the driver on his requested fare. Or you might not feel comfortable with some of the questions he's asking or the way he's staring at you in his rearview mirror. You may be terrified at the way he whips in and out around the other cars. These are all valid reasons for you to ask the driver to stop and let you out. No explanation is required (unless you're like me and you want him to know that what he wants you to pay is outRAGEous).

The Cairo taxi experience is something to remember for the rest of your life.

But it doesn't have to be scary or overwhelming. Trust me, I've been taking taxis in Cairo since 2002. Some things don't change, even as other things do. They may have given all those black-and-white taxi drivers new white cars and a meter, but it doesn't change who they've been all these years.

They still drive like maniacs.

They still want you to yell out your destination to them as they drive past. It gives them the option to decide if they want to pretend that they can't hear you or see you... or not.

They still play hard-to-get for certain destinations (they'll raise their hand to say no) mostly in order to get you to pay a little extra.

They still need to be watched like a hawk. Maybe my blond hair and blue eyes somehow means *stupid* or *gullible* because they still try to overcharge me by keeping their meters running from a previous fare or just *forgetting* to turn it on altogether.

So sorry to disappoint them... this foreigner is neither *stupid* NOR *gullible*. I have lived here too long to be either.

Sometimes I wish they would all just go away.

But then again, what would Cairo be without its taxis?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Wonder Years, Part 3: Seeing the Sights of Cairo

My first few weeks in Cairo went by very fast. I was meeting people, starting Arabic language school, and struggling to find my way around my neighborhood.

What did I care whether I'd seen the Pyramids or the Nile River yet?

Fast forward to 3 weeks later when I saw the Nile River for the first time. It was like I couldn't catch my breath for a minute.

I was awestruck.

And then it hit me. I was in Egypt. I was 4,000 miles away from everyone I loved.

And I was alone.

It's important to allow yourself to be a tourist in Egypt. Whether you'll be here for 6 months or 6 years, you need to take time to see the sights of Cairo. Don't get so busy and miss out on the honeymoon period of being in Egypt.

Trust me, culture shock will kick in before you know it.

Here's a list of all the must-sees in Cairo:

The Pyramids & the Sphynx. These sit right on the edge of Cairo. You'll need to arrange transportation to get there (or at least if you plan on getting back from them in one piece). Plus you'll need a ride to get out to where you can take the perfect panorama shot of the Pyramids.

Take time to check out the Boat Museum. Trust me you'll appreciate the break from the hot sun. And you'll have fun sliding around in the shoe bags they make you wear.
My first time to the Pyramids was about one month after I arrived in Cairo. It wasn't nearly as impressive as I'd expected it to be, maybe because for that entire month I'd been building it up in my mind. The most surprising thing about the Pyramids for me was how they backed right up to the city. I DID get to ride my first camel on that day too, and I would definitely recommend this. Although don't let the guy swindle you out of extra money by refusing to take you back until you pay up.
The Egyptian Museum. This is right smack dab in the center of downtown a stone's throw from the Nile. You can't miss this. It houses the King Tut exhibit. Honestly it feels a bit like more like walking through a warehouse than a museum, so you might need a tour guide to talk you through the exhibits. Otherwise you might get lost in there.
I honestly can't remember my first time to the Egyptian Museum. It's just a short walk from the Mubarak Metro station so perhaps I went sooner than I remember. I want to go one time with a tour guide because there is so much stuff inside that isn't labeled well. The best part is definitely the King Tut exhibit - the one section that is both air-conditioned and properly marked.
The Citadel. The most striking part of the Citadel is the Mohamed Ali mosque with its shiny domes overlooking the city. But don't forget to visit the Mameluk mosque as well (green domes off to the side) that is very unique with its pillars taken from centuries of buildings (including ones from ancient Egypt, Christian, and Jewish origin).
Oh, the Citadel! I remember what I was wearing the first time I went to the Citadel - a great big long black sweater! It was chilly because it was January. I think the Citadel gives you a great view especially of the old part of the city. I was fascinated by the inside of the Mohamed Ali mosque. And we had fun counting all the different pillars we could find in the Mameluke mosque. 
Coptic Cairo. Hop off the Cairo metro into one of the oldest parts of Cairo. Here is the Hanging Church built over Roman water towers. And if you're brave enough to stoop down into the older parts of Coptic Cairo, you may even find an ancient Jewish synagogue.
Coptic Cairo is just off the Metro as well. They call it "Old Egypt" in Arabic. I loved how you have to climb down on certain streets to get to where you want to go. It made me realize how this city has been built up (quite literally) over centuries of city before. And the ceiling in the Hanging Church looks just like the inside of a boat - it was really amazing to see!
The Cave Church. You'll need to arrange for transportation to reach this. Both fascinating and awesome is this church built right into the mountain. The story goes that God split the mountain for this church, but let someone there tell the story for you because I can't remember all the details.

Don't forget to visit the Recycling Center in the Garbage City while you're there to get some unique gifts to take back home made from recycled fabric and paper.
A church built into the side of a mountain?! The sheer magnitude of the place took my breath away! I didn't realize until a later visit that there are other halls and meeting rooms around to the right of the main seating area - so make sure you go around to see these. They are even more amazing than the big one because they're built into actual caves in the mountain. There are some amazing rock sculptures out around the parking lot as well that make this well worth the trip.
The Khan El-Khalili. This famous old tourist bazaar is built right into the fabric of Cairo. You'll need your best bargaining skills on hand to get some really good deals. Just remember that the key to bargaining is being able to walk away at any time.

Take a break from the heat to have lunch at the Naguib Mahfouz cafe. You can also visit both the Hussein and the Al-Azhar mosques (although ladies you will need to bring a scarf to cover your head and bare arms) while you're there.
I usually go to the Khan El-Khalili about once a year. Now I have a number of shops that I frequent and the owners give me a good deal not just because I come regularly but I also bring others to their shops. You can't really get all this stuff in one place for the prices you'll find down in there anywhere else in Cairo.
Al-Azhar Park. The best time to visit this park is just before the sun goes down. You'll get a chance to walk around one of the few large green spaces in Egypt and to watch a glorious Cairo sunset over the old part of the city and the Citadel.
Al-Azhar Park did not exist when I first came to Cairo. For many years that area was just a big trash heap that overlooked the Khan El-Khalili area. Now they've turned it into one of the largest green spaces in Cairo. We love to go to the Citadel View restaurant for dinner. It's the perfect place to bring guests who are in Egypt for the first time.
The Nile River. Take a walk along the Corniche. Ride on a sailboat (felucca.) Walk over the bridge to the other side. Any way you can experience the Nile is well worth the time spent.
You can't really be in Egypt without seeing the Nile. It almost seems silly to even list it here as one of the *sights* of Cairo. But since I waited 3 weeks to see this, I figured it's better to encourage you to see it as soon as you can!
The Revolving Restaurant. For an extra special occasion, the best view of the city (and perhaps the most expensive) is this restaurant at the top of the Grand Hyatt Cairo. It takes 2 hours to make a complete revolution, which makes for a very nice evening. Be aware that formal attire is required and no children under 12 are allowed in the restaurant.
My first time to the Revolving Restaurant was when my husband proposed to me the day before I left Egypt to go home. I can't say that I remember much about that night, but I do remember a later visit on our anniversary recently. The Grand Hyatt sits right on the Nile in the center of town so as you turn, you see all of Cairo around you. It has definitely made for some very special evenings for us.
City Stars. Perhaps the largest mall in the Middle East, this is definitely a sight to see. If you spend a longer time in Cairo, you'll find this to be a nice break from the streets of Cairo.
City Stars is new in Cairo as well. I don't think it's more than 5 or 6 years old. I love to take first timers to Cairo to City Stars. It seems so different to have such a modern place in a city like Cairo! But now it is a home away from home for me (especially since it's about 10 minutes from our house).
What is my advice for seeing the sights of Cairo?
  1. Plan according to the time you have available. If you're in Cairo for a while, you can spread these out over time. I still say you should visit at least the Pyramids and see the Nile River within your first month in Cairo (or as soon as you can manage it).
  2. Don't overdo it in one day. I don't think one could see all the sights of Cairo in less than 3 days. Give yourself some time to enjoy each place and try not to plan more than 2 sites in one day.
  3. Plan trips according to location. For example, I like to do the Pyramids in the morning, lunch downtown and then the Egyptian Museum in the afternoon. You don't know how much time you'll waste sitting in traffic at the oddest of times.
  4. If you can, take a tour guide with you. Get a recommendation for one from another expat friend. There are many tour guides who don't work through a company, although they can still get you good deals and arrange for transportation.
  5. If you're a student, ask about student tickets. This can save you a bunch of money.
Don't forget to check out the rest of this series:

The Wonder Years is a series about Erin's first 2 years in Cairo before she met and married her Egyptian husband. Stay tuned for more about her adventures in Egypt the first time around.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Expecting Expat Mom's Buying Guide: For Baby

I never realized how many things a baby needed until I got pregnant. When it came time to shop in Egypt for our little one on the way, I soon realized that I basically knew nothing about what our baby needed.

And somehow my husband seemed to think that I was the expert. It was as if by becoming pregnant that apparently I also knew everything else there was to know about babies too.

Yeah, not so much.

The first time I went baby shopping, I was with my sister in the States. We were walking into Target and I looked at her and said "I'm not really sure what I'm doing here." So much for that vote of confidence, right?

So it wasn't just the living in Egypt that made buying for baby a challenge. I would haved face this problem anywhere.

And so would you.

So what did I do? Well I DID have access to the Internet. So essentially even if I didn't know everything there was to know about babies... I knew someone who did (or who could at least point me in the right direction.)

Not sure how to search the Internet? Here's what you do. Go to Google and type in the words "what a newborn needs."

You might get a list of sites like this:
Baby Checklist
Basic Baby Needs
Products You Don't Need to Buy for Newborns

But the biggest problem when you live overseas isn't knowing what you need for baby, it's knowing how to get it. If you do a bit of legwork in and around town wherever you live, you might find more than you think. Talk to locals. See where they buy baby stuff. Check it out and see if the quality is up to par for you. There actually might be a lot more stuff off your list available where you live than you think, it's just a matter of finding it.

And being willing to pay that much for it.

Because if living where you live is anything like how it is in Egypt - you might find that while a lot of stuff is available that it gets pretty expensive. So once you determine whether the things you *need* for baby are available where you are, if you find it you'll have to decide if you're willing to spend that much money for it or not.

If not you've somehow got to figure out how to get it elsewhere. You can either buy it online and have it shipped to you - that is if you've got a reliable postal service where you live. Or you can have someone buy it for you and bring it in for you in their suitcase (this works if you have family coming to visit or know someone who's coming from there soon).

Or you can go get it yourself.

I'll admit that most of my baby stuff was bought in the States.

Over the years, I have worked out a very effective system for buying stuff in the U.S. when I go home. I usually pack enough clothes for about 3 days. Then I fill the rest of my suitcase mostly with gifts for family and friends. And my pillow.

So while I'm in the States, I simply wear what I buy there and this fills my suitcase coming home.

The only downside I've found to buying baby stuff in America and bringing it back to Egypt is that it's very difficult to know exactly how much to bring back with me. So it is easy to overbuy.

Here are a few tips for buying baby stuff to bring back overseas with you.  

1. Consider what you have available overseas. And whether you want to buy it there. Just because it's available in Egypt doesn't necessarily mean that I want to buy it here. I find that even things that ARE available in Egypt tend to be quite a bit more expensive than the equivalent in the States.

This is why we've bought so much from the States.

But it's nice too to at least know what you have when you're in a pinch and you need that next size in something unexpected. Plus I like to be able to mix things up a bit now that my son is older. So since in Egypt we have lots of cute outfits (shirts and pants) that go on sale at random times, I'll stock up more on basic tees and jeans when we're back in the States because these are harder to find in Egypt (and more expensive.)

2. Consider what you don't have available overseas. If you can print off a baby checklist you find online and look around for things you need, you might find a lot more available where you're at than you realized. However, at the same time it's possible that some *key* items you need are hard to find where you live (or worse, not available at all.)

In Egypt, for example, hooded towels and cotton blankets were almost impossible to find. You might look one day and find them and then return the next day to find that they're sold out. And often they won't get any more in for weeks or months or never.

3. Make yourself a list. I'll admit as a new mom that a credit card in one hand and an empty shopping cart in the other do not make a good combination. Without a list, you might get home and find that you bought 20 onesies all in one size and never even remembered to buy those cloth bibs you needed.

I'm not saying you can't allow yourself to deviate from the list, just realize that pregnancy makes you a bit forgetful. Trust me, your husband will thank you for it later. And you'll probably thank yourself too.

4. Buy different brands. Different brands are different sizes. It doesn't matter that it says "newborn" or "0-3 months" on the label. You might find that the "newborn" in one size is bigger than the "0-3 months" in another brand.

This is a good thing. You'll thank yourself later when you have the next *size* available in your baby's clothes drawer. Babies grow fast. I usually buy 3-4 of one brand and then 3-4 in another.

I'm not saying don't buy something cute because you've already bought 4 other outfits in that brand. But I AM saying that you shouldn't buy out the entire line of Carter's in your baby's size. Buy some Carter's, some Gerber, some Okie-Dokie, and some Old Navy (for example).

5. Take advantage of end-of-the-season and clearance sales. Whenever I go into a new store, I always go straight to the clearance rack. I might find a really cute pair of jeans at the front of the store for $15 dollars. Or I might find an equally cute pair of jeans on the clearance rack for $3.99.

Trust me, cute is cute no matter what the price tag.

Buying ahead for baby can be tricky, but it's also pretty important when you live overseas. However, estimating exactly which size to buy that heavy winter coat in for next year may be next to impossible. So tread carefully when buying summer clothes for next year or stocking up on warm winter necessities for the future.

6. Evaluate and adjust as needed. The worst thing you can do when buying stuff for baby to bring back overseas is to leave everything in bags until the day before you leave. Take the stuff out, fold it and arrange according to sizes. I even start to pack stuff immediately to make sure I didn't overbuy according to our baggage limits.

I realize that not everyone is able to go home to buy baby stuff before they have their baby. But many people have family come to visit when babies are born. And there is also the option of buying things online and having them shipped to you.

Larger baby items presented the biggest problem for me. You can buy clothes and other smaller baby items till the cows come home, but you can't lug a crib on the plane with you.

I knew from my reading that experts recommended that cribs and car seats be bought new. Anything else could be either borrow or bought used.

We bought our crib new in Egypt. My husband and I shopped around for Egyptian cribs but after looking in a couple of stores, we very happily shelled out a larger than usual amount of money for a crib from the Mothercare store.

You can't put a price tag on your baby's safety.

One thing to know is that a lot of expats get rid of baby stuff when they leave a country. So if you're in an expat community, keep your eyes open for people who have younger kids who are leaving to go home or to another assignment. This is a great way to get used baby stuff.

I bought my glider this way from an American lady who moved back to the States.

My advice is to enjoy this process. Don't let yourself get stressed out about the do's and don'ts. When it gets to be too much for you, take a break. Take some of those little outfits out, take off the tags, and fold them slowly. Imagine your baby in them. You'll get through this. And before you know it your little one will be right beside you.

You might even long for these days again.

If you've been pregnant or had a baby overseas, how did you get the stuff you needed for baby? What is your advice for what to buy (and how to buy it) for baby?

Don't forget to check out The Expecting Expat Mom's Buying Guide: For Mama.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Holiday Cooking Overseas: A Thanksgiving Feast

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year. I think that this is mostly because it's all about the food. Yes, I'm thankful for all the blessings in my life. But I am always thankful when it's time to dig into my plate of food as well.

Remember how I told you that food makes me feel closer to home? Thanksgiving is definitely one of these times.

I love the holiday season in general. I love the food; I love the songs and the decorations. And the longer I live abroad the more important this time of year becomes.

And now that we're a family of 3 and not just 2 anymore, this changes the whole ballgame. Now I want my son to understand what the holidays are all about as well.

I love sharing Thanksgiving with people of all nationalities. Thanksgiving seems to be mostly a North American holiday (celebrated by Americans and Canadians). But I think that having a holiday that's all about giving thanks to God is just something too great to pass on the opportunity of sharing it with others.

It is interesting, however, to try explain what Thanksgiving is all about to those who have never heard of it before. They usually understand the idea although, perhaps, they may not like the food that much. One year I made an entire Thanksgiving meal for some Egyptians, and as an afterthought I made a lasagna as a second meat (it's usually customary to have 2 types of meat at a meal here).

They ate the lasagna.

But there are lots of people, Egyptians or not, who really enjoy Thanksgiving as it is.

I have realized that celebrating the holidays while living abroad is all about what YOU decide you want to celebrate and how you want to celebrate it. If I waited for someone else to make Thanksgiving special for me, then I might miss out on one of my absolute favorite meals of the year.

So I do it myself - if I can. And I share it with others too.

Putting together a Thanksgiving meal is kind of like creating a work of art. My grandfather was an artist, and I always say that cooking makes me an artist at heart as well.

Turkey. Turkey is central to the whole Thanksgiving meal. But I do believe in keeping my turkey as simple as possible. So my one tried and true recipe for roasted turkey is an easy herb rub mixed with olive oil.

Turkeys are fairly common in Egypt, although finding a large, plump bird can be a little challenging. But when I ask my husband to bring me a turkey, he always manages to find me one. He's my hero.

Stuffing. Can't have turkey without stuffing! In past years, I have taken it easy and brought stuffing mix home from the USA for Thanksgiving. This last time home, however, I completely forgot to buy it so it will have to be the homemade version this year.

Stuffing is pretty easy to make. Actually the hardest ingredient to find in Egypt is surprising - it's celery. Local celery is available in Egypt, but it's small and doesn't have big stalks like the celery in the States. Big celery is available from time to time but not always. I sure hope we can find it this year.

Mashed potatoes. Love 'em or hate 'em, you can't have Thanksgiving without them. Potatoes, butter, and milk... all available in Egypt. At last, something easy here.

Turkey gravy. Thanksgiving is the one time of year when I put gravy on my mashed potatoes. I never realized until recently how simple it was to make turkey gravy. All it takes is a little turkey drippings, flour and some chicken stock. Voila! The only thing I hate about this is having to wait until the very last moment to make it. Oh, well.

Sweet potato casserole. I grew up eating yams and marshmallows every Thanksgiving. But a few years ago, I tried a sweet potato casserole recipe on a whim. Pureed sweet potatoes topped with a brown sugar pecan crust. All I can say is YUM!

Luckily sweet potatoes are easy to find in Egypt. The problem ingredient actually is pecans. I have seen imported pecans here a couple of times, but usually I bring my pecans back from the States. We'll see what will happen this year because I don't hav any in my freezer right now.

Corn casserole. We never ate anything like corn casserole when I was growing up. And I honestly can't  tell you how or why I started making a corn casserole every year. This is basically a simple concoction of canned sweet corn, shredded cheddar, diced onion, and my own secret cream of mushroom soup substitute topped with a butter cracker crust.

The hardest ingredient to find in Egypt for this are the Ritz crackers. You can usually find these in several of the bigger grocery stores in Egypt. But sometimes they just aren't there when you need them. I'll keep my fingers crossed for now.

Green beans. Green beans serve a single purpose in my Thanksgiving meal. We Americans love our casseroles at Thanksgiving but I know from experience that some people (like my poor husband) don't want to eat all casseroles as side dishes. So I usually stir fry a bunch of green beans up with sauteed onions. Fast, simple, effective.

Dessert. As much as I love sweets, I have so much trouble making a decision on what to make for dessert at Thanksgiving. I am partial to pecan pie myself, although finding pecans and corn syrup present a bit of a problem in Egypt. Plus there's that *small* problem of making a homemade pie crust. Unfortunately I'm not a big fan of pumpkin pie unless someone else brings it.

I'm actually leaning towards making some sort of apple crumble this year. I tried making one a couple of months ago, and I think some sliced apples and a crispy oat crust topped with some vanilla ice cream just might hit the spot.

So I guess you can see that I'm looking forward to Thanksgiving this year.

Just a little bit.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Wonder Years, Part 2: Learning to Speak Arabic

I often get asked by Egyptians about how hard it was to learn to speak Arabic. I'm not always very sure why people ask me this. Are they trying to be funny? Do they REALLY want to know? Are they completely oblivious to how terribly difficult it is to learn Arabic?

I think perhaps they're just curious to see my reaction. So you can understand why I almost always pause before answering. And how I answer usually depends on what mood I'm in.

If I'm feeling like everything is right with the world, then I'll just sigh and smile and say "el hamdellah" (Praise God in Arabic.)

If it's just been one of those days when I'd like to crawl up under a rock and hide, my response is more of a snort and a "hard, very hard" (in Arabic, of course.)

I'd say that learning to speak Arabic was perhaps one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my entire life. I know what you're thinking... them's big words girlie. Don't worry, I'll stand by that statement.

I arrived in Cairo in 2002 without knowing a single word in Arabic. And, yes, I really did plan it that way. I figured that it would be better to learn the right language the right way on the ground in Egypt.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I did buy a book called Beginner's Arabic Script while I was still back in the States. It was supposed to help me teach myself how to read and write Arabic. Yeah, a whole HECK of a lotta good that was gonna do for me in Egypt!

I didn't realize that it was all about the talkin'. Talkin', talkin', and then some more!

So what made learning Arabic so difficult for me? I'm not saying that learning Arabic is impossible. I am saying that it's different and probably more difficult to learn than say learning something like Spanish or French which is more similar to English.

1. It's not just one language. Arabic is one of those unique languages where the spoken language is completely different from the written language. There's even a different name for each one. And most of the time, the spoken language doesn't even really have a written form.

So you have to make a choice. Do you learn ameya (colloquial) or foos-ha (formal) or MSA (Modern Standard Arabic)?

2. The letters are different. English, French, Spanish, German, and all of the other Romantic languages all use mostly the same letters. But Arabic script was unlike anything I'd ever seen. And each letter looks different whether it's at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. Talk about confusing!

3. You read and write from right to left in Arabic. They read and write *backwards* (for me, at least) in Egypt. Books are read with the binding on the right (not on the left like in English). This took a little getting used to.

4. Figuring out how to make language learning work with my personality. A lot of my friends who were here studying Arabic all seemed to be natural language learners. They were fearless and friendly to everyone they met. They'd talk about this girl they'd met on the Metro and that lady they's spent hours talking to.

I was not like that at all. I think that if I hadn't been absolutely convinced that I was supposed to be in Egypt that I would have been on that plane home so fast, well, the dust wouldn't have had time to settle.

I'm not very outgoing. I've always been a bit introverted. In an unfamiliar situation, I usually tend to clamp my mouth shut and huddle over by the wall rather than to burst loudly onto the scene. I was afraid of failure. My solution for this was to do nothing, because if you don't try then you don't fail.

So after a few months in Egypt, I still was afraid to open my mouth to speak. I was afraid to make mistakes. It was all up in my head but I couldn't seem to get it out of my mouth fast enough to form sentences or even to communicate the simplest of ideas.

In short I felt like a big, fat failure.

I'd look at myself compared to my friends and think that I'd never get this language thing down. I cried from the frustration of it all.

But after a while I began to realize that I couldn't compare myself to other people. My personality was completely different than theirs. I had to make this work for me in my own way. What worked for them wasn't going to necessarily work for me.

If I didn't feel comfortable talking to random strangers on the metro to practice my Arabic, this was okay. I needed someone like the girl down at the stationary shop down the road who I saw on a regular basis to practice my Arabic with. I would go in once a week or so and spend 30 minutes sitting down and chatting with her in Arabic. I asked my language helper to help me do specific things, like to help me know how to pick up my mail from the post office.

It took me a while to find my rhythm. But eventually it came almost naturally to speak because now I was speaking with friends, familiar faces who weren't going to laugh at me if I made a mistake. Maybe I didn't have the biggest circle of friends who spoke Arabic, but the few I had were special and long-lasting friendships.

Here is what I know about learning a foreign language:

You're gonna make mistakes. You'll probably say it wrong at least 100 times before you say it right. Don't freak out. Everybody does this. You are just like everybody else. Nobody can be perfect from Day 1.

You'll probably mix some words up. You might say "cat" for "room" and "room" for "cat" (oh, sorry, maybe that was me.) It's confusing because sometimes words sound the same even though they're actually completely different.

You might mispronounce letters. Arabic has some sounds in there that do not exist in the English language. Some of them seem almost unnatural, like the "gh" sound that comes from the back of your throat. And others may come out forced. For example, there are 2 "h" sounds in Arabic. One has air behind it and the other one doesn't. I still sometimes put too much *umph* behind the one with the air behind it. It gets a few strange looks from time to time, but it works for me.

You may embarrass yourself just a little. This was what I was most terrified of (note the bit above about being afraid of failure.) Somehow when you get a word wrong it seems like it always manages to mean something bad. And while no one ever told me that I made this kind of mistake, I did get a few laughs which was almost as bad.

You'll learn to laugh at yourself. Or at least I hope you do. Because if you don't already have a good sense of humor, learning a foreign language will teach you that pretty quick. I've never laughed so hard as I did when I realized that I substituted the word "lettuce" (khas) for "shame" (ikhs) without realizing what I was saying. To this day my husband and I say khas aleek (lettuce on you) instead of ikhs aleek (shame on you - but in a teasing way).

All of the above are very normal. Anybody who learns a foreign language - especially in the country that speaks it - is going to go through this.

That certainly makes me feel better, don't you agree?

What is my advice for anyone wanting to learn to speak Arabic?
  1. Study Arabic in an Arabic-speaking country. 
  2. Learn the colloquial dialect. You might want to learn to read and write as well but consider this a second language.
  3. Speak with native Arabic speakers as much as you can. You cannot learn correct pronunciation without hearing how native speakers pronounce it.
  4. Don't just study in a classroom. If you can find a language helper, use one. Get out and talk to everyday people out on the streets. Schedule in Arabic speaking time (i.e. 15 minutes buying fruit in Arabic, 30 minutes talking to a guy or girl working in a local shop, etc.)
  5. Learn about culture while you learn Arabic. So much of the vocabulary in Arabic revolves around the culture. For example, you can just learn the correct vocabulary words for family (father, mother, brother, sister, etc.) or you can learn this same vocabulary while learning about the roles of each one in the family and the responsibilities of each one.
  6. Buy an English-Arabic dictionary. I highly recommend the Elias Pocket Dictionary with Arabic-to-English and English-to-Arabic in one book. Sometimes it's nice to just be able to look up the exact word you mean and show it to the Arabic speaker (as long as they read).
  7. Participate in a cultural immersion experience. In other words, go spend two weeks living with an Arabic-speaking family (preferably who don't speak much English). This will radically improve your Arabic.
  8. Don't compare yourself to anyone else. Some people have a natural knack for learning languages. And some (like me) are slow starters who may eventually surpass others who pick up some phrases and vocabulary very early on. You just have to discover what works for you and do it.
  9. Learn to laugh at yourself. Enjoy the language learning experience and don't be so afraid of making mistakes. 
  10. Practice, practice, practice. You can't learn to speak Arabic if all you do is study it and never actually speak it. Use the little you have to get a little more. That's the real secret to learning Arabic successfully.
Don't forget to check out the rest of this series:
The Wonder Years, Part 1: Arriving in Cairo
The Wonder Years, Part 3: Seeing the Sights of Cairo
The Wonder Years, Part 4: Dealing with Culture Shock
The Wonder Years, Part 5: Making Egyptian Friends
    The Wonder Years is a series about Erin's first 2 years in Cairo before she met and married her Egyptian husband. Stay tuned for more about her adventures in Egypt the first time around.

    Monday, November 08, 2010

    The Expecting Expat Mom's Buying Guide: For Mama

    Knowing what to buy when you're pregnant with your first child is a daunting task no matter where you are in the world. But living abroad away from all of those familiar faces and places can make buying for you and for baby seem altogether impossible on your own in a foreign country.

    I know. I felt the same way.

    When I was pregnant last year with our son, Cairo became a very different place for me. There was so much that I didn't know about pregnancy or babies. And I'd been here for over 4 years, so all those old insecurities came flooding back. I didn't know where to buy maternity clothes; I didn't know where to get baby items - the reasonably priced, good quality ones - in Egypt.

    And I didn't know what I needed for me and baby in the first place.

    The first thing I did when I found out I was pregnant was to go out and buy a pregnancy book in English. Reading was like balm for the soul for me during this time. I was more freaked out by the not knowing than anything else.

    So I devoured information from anywhere I could get it. I bought books. I got on websites like Baby Center and What to Expect. I signed up for weekly emails about my pregnancy progress.

    And if you're anything like me, this overload of information will somehow comfort you. I realized that I was stronger, more competent, and more informed of a woman than I thought I was. I could survive having a baby overseas in a foreign country by myself.

    It was just the self-doubt that was holding me back.

    Buying maternity clothes abroad. The first few months of pregnancy went fairly well for me. I was tired all the time, but I was still wearing all my normal clothes. However, after those first 3 or 4 months it was clear that my belly was outgrowing my pants.

    Maternity clothes are available in Egypt but they're expensive. And a lot of basic items like plain t-shirts and pants or jeans aren't so easy to find. A lot of what's available is trendy and won't work with what's already in your closet.

    I bought something online called a Tummy Sleeve that I would definitely recommend all expecting moms to get. It's basically a stretchy band that fits comfortably over your belly. Make sure you get one made specifically for pregnant women because it's made to support but not to constrict. This really helped me stretch an extra few weeks out of my regular pants by leaving them unzipped with the belly band stretched down over the front.

    My advice for buying maternity clothes in a foreign country? Well, it depends on the foreign country you're in (sorry). Buy sparingly. And be smart about what you buy. You'd be surprised at how far just 1 or 2 pairs of pants will take you. Buy basic items (like a pair of black pants) that will work with what you already have at home.

    If you can buy things online (like we can in the States), be careful about sizes. Depending on your weight gain (and I'm not just talking about your belly area), you may get larger in some areas earlier than you expect. So make sure you buy a few items the next size up.

    And it can be tempting to buy lots of stuff (because it's just SO cute), but try to minimize what you buy as much as you can (after all you'll only be wearing these clothes for around a year).

    If you go home to your home country while you're pregnant. If you can, I would definitely recommend that you go home to stock up on some stuff before baby comes. Or if family is coming to visit from home, have them bring some of this stuff with them when they come.

    One thing to remember about buying maternity clothes is that you'll be wearing them into your baby's first few months. Just because you had the baby doesn't make that belly go away overnight. So make sure you buy a few pairs of pants that don't have the full panel built into them (these get really baggy real fast as you start to lose the weight) as well as something like the Tummy Sleeve for when you begin to fit into your old pants (but can't quite button that button up yet.)

    A few other things I picked up in the States that made a big difference for me (after I had the baby) were nursing bras and nursing tanks. Focus on soft, comfortable, breathable items that support well and allow easy access. And remember that night-time support is just as important as the daytime.

    One great investment I made was in a nursing cover. Now the good ones in the States are around $35-40 but this was well worth the cost. I'm serious, you will need this and once you learn to use it, it will make nursing your baby anywhere so much easier (i.e. on a plane, at home w/guests around, out in public, etc.)

    Look for nursing covers online or in specialty stores in your local area. If you search for "nursing cover" online and go to a website, find a store close to you. You won't find these in Target or Babies R' Us (not the really wide ones with the pretty designs). Just call the store before you go because they may not carry them anymore.

    And don't forget the prenatal vitamins. You will want to continue to take these well into your baby's first year so bring enough with you (if you can) for several months.

    What to splurge on. The most expensive item I bought for myself was a good quality diaper bag. I know it sounds crazy but I didn't have a good one when our son was born. And let me tell you it was a real hassle trying to get everything I needed into the cheap bag I had picked up at Target. Now I love Target, but not for buying diaper bags.

    This might be the last thing on your mind, but this is what you'll be carrying around all day every day for at least a year. So live a little and consider it an early (or late) birthday or Christmas present to yourself. You deserve it!

    I bought mine from Skip Hop and I highly recommend this one. My main problem was that I didn't like carrying around a "diaper bag." This one solves that problem because it doesn't even look like one (but has all the amenities and more inside). I have space for my stuff and for baby's too. And I think I'll have a hard time separating from it once I no longer need a diaper bag.

    The Quick List
    • Pregnancy book(s)
    • A Tummy Sleeve (or similar item)
    • Maternity clothes
    • Nursing bras and tanks
    • Nursing cover
    • Prenatal vitamins
    • A good diaper bag
    This may just be a starting point for what you need to buy for yourself if you are pregnant and living abroad. You may have more available where you live abroad, or you may have less available so you'll have to get a little more creative to get the things you need.

    A note about shipping items. If people want to send you things, especially clothes, through the mail they need to make sure they remove all tags before shipping. Customs fees on clothing can often be a subjective thing so you may end up spending just as much or more on customs fees as the cost of the clothes themselves. And honestly in a place like Egypt, I'm not always sure that I'll get everything that gets shipped to me.

    It is a good idea to use companies like DHL or UPS (this is coming from the U.S.) this is better because they're more reliable. DHL Egypt's Easy Shop service where you can buy stuff online, ship it to a U.S. address that they give you, and then have them ship it directly to you in Egypt. It can be a bit expensive, but like I said, more reliable. I have heard that Aramex offers a similar service. We have used the DHL service with excellent results so I can definitely recommend it.

    Buying for yourself when you're pregnant doesn't have to be so stressful. Just remember that women all over the world have given birth to children so even if you're a little out of your comfort zone, there is probably someone local who can help you through this time. And you don't have to buy all of this stuff brand-new. You may find someone who's had a baby recently who will let you borrow clothes or may even give them to you.

    Stay tuned next week for The Expecting Expat Mom's Buying Guide: For Baby.

    If you've been pregnant or had a baby overseas, how did you find the things you need? Is there anything missing from the list above?

    Friday, November 05, 2010

    Ladies Only, Cleopatra-Style

    Women in Egypt really know how to take care of themselves. They keep their eyebrows tidy and perfectly arched. They regularly get their toenails re-painted. And they're usually sporting a sleek, smooth hairdo done recently at their local hair salon as well.

    Sure wish some of that would rub off on me!

    I mean, we can't all be Cleopatra but at least we can make some effort, right?

    If you read my Ladies Only post, you know that I recently discovered a ladies-only coiffure very close to our house in Cairo.

    Last week, I was long overdue for another visit to get my eyebrows and toenails done. But we had a wedding to attend later on so there was no delaying the inevitable. So my son and I headed off down the street to brave the ladies-only coiffure once more.

    Last time we arrived there was just one other lady in the place getting her hair done. This time we weren't quite so lucky. We walked in the door, and the place was so packed that I literally couldn't get the stroller in the door. I had to fold it up just for us to be able to open the door and squeeze in.

    Ever gotten that feeling that you've walked into a place that maybe you shouldn't have? I still seem to be a novelty at times in Egypt. You get used to the staring from the men on the street (or at least you get used to ignoring it to the point where you're blissfully unaware at how much they're staring at you). But I still get a little disconcerted when Egyptian women stare.

    I can only imagine the thoughts going through their heads.

    Somehow in seconds I manage to run down through every possible reason as to why they're staring. Is my shirt pulled down far enough? Is everything buttoned up properly? I know that they're only staring out of curiosity but I always get this feeling that I have somehow broken some imaginary cultural rule and that this is why they're staring so hard at me.

    I'm thinking that I have somehow done something wrong.

    And they're probably just looking at my green eyes and thinking "oh wow she has pretty eyes." Or they're curious as to why someone with *blond* hair like mine would wear it curly (they hate that I like my hair curly rather than sleek and smooth and straight).

    But this never occurs to me. I still think somehow I've done something wrong.

    So you can say that I was really tempted to just turn on my heels and walk right back out the door with all those eyes on me. Luckily I had enough sense to stay put (although not quite enough sense to greet them - as is more culturally appropriate). I think I must have looked a bit like a deer caught in the headlights, because finally a girl I recognized squeezed through the crowd and greeted me.

    I must have looked greatly relieved to see a familiar face.

    My son was unusually quiet. He's usually pretty responsive to people. He's just under a year old, and this was his first time coming with me to the salon. You'd think I'd be worried about what to do with him while I got all gussied up. I guess I'd imagined that some sweet girl would sweep him away to keep him occupied while I was being worked on.

    Dream again!

    Fortunately, he did sit rather still in my lap for most of the hour or so that we were there. I think that he, like me, was a little overwhelmed by all those eyes on him. He's usually pretty good in a crowd, but not when they're not doing anything but staring.

    I ended up somehow in a regular chair against the wall behind the door, laid back so the lady could work on my eyebrows. Let's just say it wasn't the most comfortable of positions. After a few minutes, I begged her for a break because my poor neck was really starting to ache.

    One interesting thing about this being a ladies only salon, though, is that all of the women had their hair uncovered. Women are only required to veil when an unrelated man is present. So in such a case - like in a ladies only coiffure - they will take off their veils.

    It is amazing to me to see how much care the women here who cover their hair take regarding, in particular, the color of their hair. I mean, who gets to see their hair anyways? Many of these ladies have dyed their hair blond or put crazy highlights in their hair. It seems a little strange to me, but I guess they still know what it looks like under their veils. So maybe they just get tired of looking at the same black hair all the time.

    Another thing that I hadn't noticed last time about the girls working in the salon is how young they all seemed to be. The girl who was soaking my feet couldn't have been older than 14. She looked awfully young to be working. And most of the ladies didn't seem to be much older than mid-20s.

    But I guess that working is mostly the luxury of single ladies in Egypt. Once women get married here, they usually begin to have children almost immediately. So unless they have enough money to pay for daycare (or family nearby to watch kids), most women stay at home for, well, the rest of their lives. Married women with children who work usually come from more wealthy families in Egypt, and even then many of them will leave their jobs when they have children.

    That would at least explain why so many of these ladies were young and single (no wedding ring on their left hand to signify marriage nor on their right hand to signify engagement).

    Something else interesting about coiffures (ladies-only or not) in Egypt is the sort of hierarchy that exists regarding the jobs people do within the coiffure. For example, there is someone who cuts hair. He or she doesn't wash the hair. He or she doesn't dry the hair. He or she doesn't clean up the mess after cutting the hair. All he or she does is the actual cutting of the hair. Everything else is someone else's job.

    The same thing goes when you get a pedicure done. The person who paints your nails doesn't soak your feet or sand down your feet or trim your nails, all they do is put the nail polish on your toes.

    I don't really mind the whole hierarchy thing. It costs me a little more money because I have to tip every single person who touches me. But then again, who wants their eyebrows plucked by someone who has had their hands all over someone else's feet? Not me, that's for sure.

    I am planning to go more regularly to the coiffure here. Every time I go, I get such a kick out of the experience (even the bad ones) that I think it would be fun to start to get to know the ladies there. And there are very few places where you can just sit in the midst of a crowd of only Egyptian ladies. I like to just sit there and let their conversations kind of sweep over me. I think it's a world that Egyptian men never catch a glimpse of, not that they'd ever want to.

    Hopefully, though, next time it won't be so crowded.

    And hopefully even if it is I will be able to remember to open my mouth to speak and say hello when I walk in the door.

    And hopefully someone I know will be there in case I don't.

    'Cause I'll probably forget. Nothing like a bunch of eyes on you to make you forget even your own name.

    Wednesday, November 03, 2010

    The Wonder Years, Part 1: Arriving in Cairo

    Arriving at the Cairo Int'l Airport at night
    Cairo hits most people like a brick wall when they first arrive. Maybe it's just the dry heat that sweeps over you the moment you exit the airport terminal. Or maybe it's just the way this city attacks every one of your senses almost immediately.

    Sometimes I wish I could bottle it up and take a jar home with me so that people could get a small taste of what every day is like for us here.

    There is a lot to take in for a newcomer to Cairo. I should know, I had a very interesting first 6 months in Cairo where I bumbled my way around the city and mumbled my way through the language.

    Here are a few things that you have to deal with once you arrive in Cairo...

    Arriving at the Cairo airport. Nowadays most international flights arrive into the brand-new Terminal 3. You walk right off the plane into the terminal (rather than taking a bus from the plane to the terminal). There are bathrooms before passport control. And once you buy your tourist visa and get in line, they're pretty good at keeping the lines moving.

    It wasn't quite so nice and inviting just 8 years ago when I arrived for the first time into Cairo. Although the *new* Terminal 2 in 2002 did allow passengers to walk right off the plane into the terminal, it was a hike to get to passport control. I followed my instructions and bought my tourist visa only to get stuck near the back of the line, where the wait felt like hours. 

    I had four large bags, 2 of which were hard-sided cases I'd bought in the automotive dept at Walmart. It took a long time for all four of them to come out. And then there was the issue of getting them home.

    Walking around the neighborhood. The best thing to do when you first arrive in Cairo is just to take a walk around the neighborhood. Find out where the closest little supermarket is. Look for the nearest fruit and vegetable stands. Check out the nearby pharmacy and stationary shops.

    I was pretty lucky in that we had a little shopping area just around the corner from our flat. Well, by shopping area, I really mean an open air bread bakery, several fruit and veggie stands, a small pharmacy and a couple of little supermarkets. Granted these were all right behind a big mosque where there always seemed to be men coming and going (which I avoided at all costs).

    But all in all, our neighborhood wasn't too bad. Most of what we needed was within walking distance from our flat. I can only imagine what would have happened if nothing was close by, and I'd had to take a taxi to go get what I needed.

    Getting used to your flat. It takes some time to adjust to living in a city and to learn the nuances of renting a flat in Egypt. Things that we take for granted in other parts of the world just don't work the same or may not even exist here. 

    Air-conditioning, for example, is a privilege and not a right in Egypt. So you won't find a flat with central air (or heating) in Egypt. Mostly what you'll find are window units in the bedrooms and *maybe* in the living room. I have yet to see an air conditioner in a kitchen in Egypt. You learn really quickly to invest in a couple of fans (if your landlord doesn't provide any).

    Climbing stairs is also just a fact of life in Egypt. When I first moved to Cairo, we lived on the 4th floor walk up with no elevator in our building. This means we walked up four flights of stairs to get to our flat. And just because you have an elevator doesn't mean that it's always working.

    Good water pressure is a luxury in Cairo. The farther your flat is from the ground, well, the worse your water pressure is. We were on the 4th floor of a 6-story building so our water pressure was terrible. It took me double the time to take a shower because the water just barely trickled out of the shower head.

    *Furnished* flats in Cairo can often leave much to be desired. I sometimes think the landlords clean out their own houses and give you all the mismatched, run-down things they can find. Couches can be downright uncomfortable. Mattresses can sag way down in the middle or be as hard as rocks. Pots and pans may have seen better years. It's pretty simple to just buy a few smaller things to make your flat more homey feeling. For people who plan to live in Cairo long-term, bigger investments may need to be made to make your flat feel more like a home.

    Learning how to use transportation. The good thing is that public transportation is available everywhere in Cairo. There are taxis, microbuses (vans), minibuses (little buses), autobeses (big buses), neighborhood trams (if you live in Heliopolis), and the Cairo metro.

    There is one little problem that if you don't speak much Arabic, well, they don't speak much English. And definitely you should stick to taxis (who go from Point A to Point B directly) and the metro, rather than braving the complicated systems of the buses. I've heard that the trams can be a lot of fun, as long as you're not in a hurry to get anywhere fast.

    So not only do you have to learn how to catch a taxi, but you also have to know how to say the name of the place you want to go correctly (or else you might end up at the wrong destination). One time the taxi took me to the Meridian hotel instead of Merryland Park because he misunderstood what I said (although I still stand by the fact that I said it correctly and he just only heard what he wanted to hear). Because you'll pay for the extra time that he takes driving you to the wrong destination.

    Oh and you also have to know how much you need to pay. Once upon a time there were only these black-and-white taxis in Cairo that often required you to haggle with the driver beforehand (especially for longer distances) over the price. Nowadays there are these sleek, new white taxis with meters (hallelujah!) where you just get in and pay according to the meter when you get out.

    Learning a little Arabic. You have to learn a little, use it a lot, and then try to learn a little more using the little you already have. But you can't really live in Egypt without at least picking up a little Arabic.

    I'll be talking about my journey in learning to speak Arabic in Part 2 of this series. But for now, let me just say that it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

    What is my advice for anyone coming to Cairo or just arrived?
    1. Study Egyptian Arabic, even just a little will help you get by.
    2. Go sightseeing in Cairo as soon as possible (i.e. the Pyramids, the Sphynx, the Egyptian Museum, the Nile). Allow yourself to be a tourist as least for one day.
    3. Find an expat community to be a part of. Trust me on this, you can't do this alone.
    4. Make Egyptian friends (preferably of the same gender). Let them teach you about their country.
    5. Get out of the house. Go walking around your neighborhood. Take the Metro downtown. Go to the mall. Join a gym.
    6. Do something familiar. Eat McDonald's. Bake a cake. Go see a movie. Hang out with an expat friend (preferably of the same gender and nationality).
    7. Stay in contact with people back home. Use Skype, email, Facebook, etc.
    8. Write it down. Whatever you're experiencing now will be lessons learned later.
    9. Get a mobile phone. You really can't live without one in Cairo.
    The Wonder Years is a series about Erin's first 2 years in Cairo before she met and married her Egyptian husband. Stay tuned for more about her adventures in Egypt the first time around.

    Don't forget to check out the rest of The Wonder Years series.
    The Wonder Years, Part 2: Learning to Speak Arabic
    The Wonder Years, Part 3: Seeing the Sights of Cairo
    The Wonder Years, Part 4: Dealing with Culture Shock
    The Wonder Years, Part 5: Making Egyptian Friends

    Monday, November 01, 2010

    How Becoming a Mother Changed My Life as an Expat

    Nobody told me how much one little baby would change my life in Egypt. Before our son was born last year, life for me here was good. I was busy. I spoke the language. I understood the culture. I liked living in Cairo. This was home.

    But somehow I always felt a little bit like an outsider. I could never quite put my finger on exactly why. I wasn't unwelcome, quite the opposite in fact. It was just this sense that there was a sort of wall there, separating me from really connecting with people.

    My problem wasn't that I didn't stand out here. I have blond(ish) hair and blue-green eyes so there's no way I can get by in Egypt without getting noticed at least a little.

    But they pretty much left me alone. I dressed appropriately. I acted appropriately. I didn't smile too much. I didn't make too much eye contact. I didn't give out my name.

    It was the same when my husband and I went out together. We frequent a lot of the same restaurants and coffee shops. And sometimes people remembered us, and sometimes they didn't.

    It didn't matter much to us anyways. We weren't exactly vying for first place in the "look at me" contest. We were perfectly happy being almost invisible.

    Quite a few things changed when our son was born last year. Some things I expected and others I did not.

    People remembered us. Like I said before some people remembered us, well, sometimes. But now people almost always remember us. Well, at least they remember my son. He has one of those faces.

    People were friendlier. I'm talking about strangers here. Taxi drivers, people in front of us in line, people behind us in line, the guy behind the counter, people walking past... Basically people anywhere and everywhere were talking to us. Egyptians just can't get enough of babies.

    I had to become friendlier. I was never unfriendly before; I just wasn't very outgoing. Before having a baby, I pretty much kept to myself and usually spoke when spoken to. But my son is friendly. At a young age, he began to smile at strangers. And they in turn smiled back. They oohed and they aahed, and I was left to smile in return. People wanted to know his name and how old he was. What was I to do, ignore them?

    Making a personal connection with people was easier. This was true particularly with other expats. When you don't have kids you have to rely on common interests and experiences for that personal connection with people, but after you have kids just having kids was a common interest and a common experience.

    It was true too among our Egyptian family and friends. While I had been welcomed and accepted by my husband's family and friends, having a child really opened the door to conversations. I could talk to them all day about my son. They wanted to know what he was eating, how he was sleeping, what he was doing, etc.

    Transportation got tricky. I used to be able to hop in a taxi and go just about anywhere I wanted. Now I'm lugging a child around in a stroller with a diaper bag on my shoulder and all of that has to fit somehow into a taxi as well. And then there's the problem if getting across town when my son needs to be in a car seat.

    Grocery shopping became an adventure. Ever tried navigating a stroller through a crowded grocery store? In Egypt it can be downright dangerous.

    Going home to the States was no longer an option, it was a necessity. Now there were grandparents to consider. There were things we needed for baby that weren't available in Egypt.

    Now I knew that becoming a mom would make things different. I knew that life in Egypt would never be the same.

    I just never realized how much.

    Life in Egypt is still good for me. I love my new life as a mother. It took a little time adjusting. Some things were easy and some were not. That's life in Cairo. Things here can change in a heartbeat.

    But after all, isn't a little change good?
    Related Posts with Thumbnails