“Full House”

There is a little spot off Midan Victoria in Maadi that is an expat oasis. I can’t give out the name for fear of libel action from the management,  or collectively from it’s patrons so all names have been changed to protect the guilty. I am a member so I guess I fall into that guilty category too.

It’s a busy wee spot with no airs or graces and all the better for it.  The bar staff are mostly  Sudanese and quite simply the best in Cairo, you see the patrons of this fine establishment like to imbibe of the odd tipple, no scratch that, copious amounts, yet the staff manage to keep smiling no matter how crazy it gets, and it is these same patrons who give the place it’s unique character.

First off there is the “Forest Gump Brigade”.  Now I have never been to America and I thought Tom Hanks was portraying a fictional character in this movie, how wrong was I.  Now these guys  are easy to spot, baseball caps depicting various American sports teams, and if it is a big night they dress up and wear the caps the right way round.

For some reason they all have that southern drawl which i never believed could possibly be a real accent until now, and bodies pumped up from the gym. Their conversation can be somewhat limited and ping pong seems to be a serious subject. Fortunately I have little dealings with this group as I am usually there with my husband so they just nip over for a chat when he heads off to the loo. I think they may be there to chase women? Girls take note!

The second and by far the largest group are the golfing buddies. Now it may not be fair to dump all these guys together as they are an eclectic  bunch but there is a common bond. White feet. Yes it’s sad but true, and not a good look. They return from wherever they have been playing that day faces and forearms freshly pink and change out of their shoes to display white ankles with a very fetching tide mark. It’s at this point I would like to put forward a motion to the club management to ban this group from changing into flip flops. If the management took this motion on board it would significantly reduce the trauma induced by the combination of the white feet, curling toe nails and the sprinkling of hair wrapped around said toes on display.

Being a member of the Irish community I may be slightly slewed in my perception of the third group. This is made up off construction industry professionals and as is the case worldwide the Irish are represented in significant numbers. In fact Celts of all persuasion are highly visible, at the risk of leaving myself open to abuse I am tempted to include the Yorkshire brigade in this group as they  don’t appear to be members of the English contingent ( correct me if I’m wrong ). This group punches well above their weight, for although relatively small in number they are the loudest, most talkative  and quite possibly generate a disproportionate income per head in bar takings.

The next group are the teachers. Now I am not a great fan of teachers, bear in mind I am a catholic from Ireland so no more needs to be said. However these teachers are a completely different breed. Mostly they were backpackers in their previous life and intelligent ones at that. They figured out teaching let’s you continue traveling and get paid along the way. It is only the really smart ones who choose Egypt as they have it sussed that no where else has holidays like the Egyptians. Throw in the bird flu, swine flu, the revolution and the upcoming elections and they may manage to work 6 months out of 12.

On to the oil companies. This group includes representatives from Shell,  BP, Apache, Dana, BG etc and provides the comedic entertainment. Some of them overlap the previous categories especially the golfing buddies, and when combined with the Yorkshire element well let’s just say they could be on the stage. There is a certain Mr Fish (name changed to protect the guilty) who would give Peter Kay a run for his money.

Take note, a word of warning, be careful where you sit. If you choose to venture into this abode do not on your first visit sit at the tables on the right as you come through the door. These are reserved for distinguished members as is the first section of the bar on your left. There are no names on the seats but this section requires  speedy service and will not tolerate soft drink patrons interfering by distracting the bar staff on pointless time consuming missions.

Finally, there was a certain TV show in the eighties called  “Fraggle Rock ” for those of you old enough to remember, and for our younger viewers think the “Muppets”.  The  ambiance upon entering this exclusive venue leads you to believe you are on stage with these real life characters, and  when you leave you may well believe  you are a Muppet.

NOTES: This is a work of fiction any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely a coincidence. The author reserves the right to …blah blah and if you have not been to this secret venue then do so, bring the kids, there is an excellent play area, ice cream section, free wifi, pool tables, big screens for sporting events,  decent food and excellent service too.


Mission Impossible?

I have a dangerous mission ahead, of 007 proportions…………..fortunately, after a couple of years of trial and error I now believe I have a foolproof plan in place. The mission?…….. I’m heading to Carrefour for a big shop !

I know it’s only a supermarket but safety Precautions need to be taken. I have spent the morning rummaging through my husbands collection of shin pads, knee braces, ankle straps and elbow supports, (no he’s not kinky he plays rugby) I did consider the scrum cap but it wasn’t that flattering and even I think that may be a step too far.

The reason I need this protective armour  kit is to ensure that I return unscathed from the trolly wars battle. This is no ordinary supermarket, oh no, nor are you simply battling against the trolly, there are thousands of other shoppers to contend with, all of whom appear to have decided I am fair game for a bit of elbow digging, ankle crushing, toe stomping and other forms of torture that even Jason Bourne didn’t have to contend with.

The problems start with the trolly selection, obviously this is a common complaint worldwide, four wheels is always a good start point, you may laugh but this is not always an option that’s available. I also tend to go for the larger sized trollys not that I require it’s capacity but rather so it can act as a battering ram, unfortunately none are available with airbags just yet, maybe a patent pending!

Now the first aisle is easy it’s reserved for the special offers and is considerably wider than the rest but what do they do with all that cooking oil? It fascinates me to see buckets of it in everyones trolly, do they fry everything? On reflection I had fried cucumber yesterday and very tasty too, maybe I’ve been here too long.

Mum always taught me never to buy damaged tins, something about the metal rusting and infecting the contents, or something like that. Well I don’t know if there is a chain gang in the back store running a production line to create the dents but a “perfect” tin is pretty hard to find. So I just make do with the dented variety but I do draw the line and avoid the ones without labels.

The” free for all “section is the fruit and veg, and it’s here that the safety gear comes into play. Psyche your self up, bags in hand and head to the weigh in counter. You  see Egyptians don’t do queues, and if you hang back and hope some kindly soul will notice that you were in front of them and let you in well you could be there all day.

There is a knack to getting your produce weighed and it goes like this……….

  • After selecting your produce and placing in individual bags  DO NOT  tie or fold the bags,   leave them all open at the top to facilitate carrying all your bags in one hand
  • With your free hand pull your trolly along BEHIND you as you shuffle and elbow your way to the front of the mob. ( this is where the elbow supports come in) If your trolly is in front you will never get close enough to the scales.
  • DO NOT step back to allow someone out, someone will jump in in front of you, they will manage to squeeze out somehow.
  • On reaching the counter place your first bag on the scale, the assistant now needs to fold the bag to attach the label in case you might be tempted to squeeze in an extra onion.
  •  Crucially this buys you enough time to place your second bag on the scale and remove bag number one which is dumped behind you into the trolly.
  • Continue in this manor until all bags have been weighed. With this method no one can squeeze in with their bags as the scales are never empty….it works every time.

On to the checkout…..you must now be prepared to lose half of what you just spent the last hour looking for, why? Because the bar codes won’t work!  Throughout Cairo there appears to a multitude of people doing very specific tasks. One person to pack your bags another one to carry them etc etc but there appears to be a massive shortage of bar code checkers, it is at this point I usually lose the will to live.

I have witnessed lots of very heated and loud confrontations, hands waving,  kids screaming as mum/dad is shouting at the checkout operator    “NO I really really do need this chilli powder, and it is not OK if you just set it to the side cos you can’t find some one to check the price. I want chilli con carne for dinner so SORT IT OUT.” if a bar code checker does become available I think they head back to the manufacturer directly as there is no way they could possibly navigate those aisles without the full body kit.

Ok…I am suited and booted and raring to go, all pads are in place, and I have my list.  I even have my non-slip shoes on although they only work with limited effect around the fish section, the melted ice on the floor adds to the unique aroma that I now associate with complete and utter desperation ….wish me luck I’m off.

Citadel Shenanagins

Headed to the citadel today, fancied a wee bit of a tourist outing, as my hubby had never experienced this unique representation of Egyptian military history. Bad call. It was 41 degrees and very very sticky. Nonetheless, we persevered and managed to achieve a family outing that my daughter (14) will evidently remember as another traumatic event in her recollections of her teenage years, yip, scarred for life.

I had presented Peter, my hubby, with a very fancy Nikon something or other camera for his birthday, and nothing would do but he would prove his worth as David Bailey or some other artistic entrepreneurial force in the alternative photography field. 431 photos later, well, Megsie and I have had enough.

It all started rather well, welcoming smiles all round from the tourist police and vendors, they were happy to see some gullible white people approach ( we were the only non Egyptians visiting) but the smiles quickly deflated when we spoke in our pigeon Arabic and said we lived in Cairo. No, we don’t want a fez or Egyptology book, nor the key rings, or belly dancing outfits.

However, I had been to the citadel with a certain Mr Ford previously and had quite literally wet my pants with laughter ( well as you get older this is common ..no?) at the exhibits in the police museum. I simply can’t do it justice in describing the home made paper mâché displays, plastic toy soldiers and nail polish for blood in the battle re-enactment displays. Suffice to say Blue Peter wouldn’t have a look in.

This in itself was hilarious but it was the security you had to pass through to get in that really set the tone. No Cameras were allowed and you must present your passport at the door. Now I am not in the habit of carrying my passport around but fortunately I am a member of Cairo Rugby Club. And the relevance?.. Well I don’t know either but it was all the photographic ID I had in my purse and it is invaluable in Cairo.

Egyptians don’t really know what rugby is but with true Egyptian flamboyance it doesn’t really matter. If they see something they don’t understand, well they are not going to let you know they haven’t got a clue and definitely not if you are a woman. So I pulled out the card with great authority and the very serious, highly decorated officer duly noted the membership number on his handwritten log which I then countersigned to gain admittance.

Also with Mr Ford I had been to the prison section. This consists of a series of cells showing the interior of an inmates cell through the ages. It depicts cells from the middle ages through to the present day with the only discernible difference being the size of the ball and chain attached to the inmates ankle. Oh, and in the modern age they are allowed to read, the Koran obviously, I’m not sure if any other publications are permitted.
It occurred to me that a delegation from Maghaberry Prison should visit the modern day section and adopt some of the Egyptian methods on display. There are no x boxes here, nor sky TV and quite right too, and as a special bonus think of all the money that could be saved on mollycoddling these hoods who rob your granny and wreck havoc on decent peoples lives. We all need a rant now and then.

Anyway, due to the current climate all things police related were out of bounds so I didn’t get the chance to flourish my Cairo Rugby card again. This brings me back to
the traumatic experience of the teenage daughter. As we were restricted in our perusal of all things police related we, meaning my husband and I, not Megsie thought we may as well do a bit of planking. For those of you uninitiated is this minor craze it basically involves lying down on your tummy in odd places and taking a photo, yes not that cool but sure little amuses the innocent, and i know far less the fool.

Now Egyptians have a wonderful childlike innocence, they stare at you constantly, full frontal regardless of age, and point their finger rather in the way a 3 year old wide eyed will ask “mum what are those silly people doing” so we had a raggle taggle bunch of onlookers that were fascinated and they formed a posse on our tail cheering us on. There was no point subtly trying to shake them off they don’t do subtle.
So.. Much to megsies embarrassment we scouted canons, statues and a few tanks and aeroplanes to capture classy cultural memories of the day. There now exists photographic evidence of her cringe inducing parents that will allow her to complain in future years that she had a tough time growing up, and she viewed being sent to boarding school as a massive relief.

Next we headed into the military museum proper. Now in all fairness this is a fairly classy establishment in comparison to the police exhibits but only if you don’t read the explanatory signs alongside each display. The signs don’t tell lies, not in a propaganda sense, but they do leave out vitally important pieces of information that allow to leave with the impression the egyptian military have never lost a battle and the security of the universe, never just the world is dependent on them.

There is an enormous photograph say 12ft by 8ft of Mubarak and all his generals walking near Sadats monument. It is black and white and actually very cool, well, nothing would do but Pete (my better half) decided he wanted a picture of it and him So he could Photoshop himself in later. We spied one general who bore a passing resemblance to himself so after careful study of this particular generals gait he adopted his pose.

Now we still had the posse in tow and they were not impressed with this fascination with Mubarak so it required some decoy tactics, again involving Megsie poor child to
shake them off. After hiding behind pillars and quick stepping into position I managed to get the required stance in focus so here you go….

– the art of photoshop

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Aliens Built The Pyramids

Delivery for New Pyramid's under construction

Aliens built the pyramids…..My son mentioned this the other day just in passing.   Now when I say son don’t think a cute 4 or 5 year old he is 17, but obviously with a mothers bias still very cute.  He attends school here in Cairo and it really made me question the value we are getting for the fees we pay.

It is a commonly held belief here, within the expatriate community, that there is no way Egyptians built the pyramids, it’s  not possible, never in a million years, I work with Egyptians and they couldn’t organize a …. In a brewery, or words to that effect,  well I beg to differ.

Let me explain. I live in new Cairo, no not Katemeya our budget dosnt stretch to that, but in the 5th district, so basically I live on a building site. I see daily evidence that ONLY Egyptians could have built the pyramids.

There are buildings going up all around me, apartment blocks, shopping malls etc and with the exception of the concrete pump that sneaks out at night it is all done with hard labour and limited tools. I’m not really sure what the contents of the black plastic bag some workers  carry consists of, (the white plastic bag is for lunch) or if it is of tardis proportions, but they manage to wack a house up no bother.

I do know you need a sledge hammer and chisel of significant proportions but this is provided by the guys who sit along the roadside with their tools on display. Personally I think these items only come into play once they have realized something is not where it should be, and they move in as the wrecking crew.  Judging by the number of roadside navvies there are lots of things that are not where they should be.

Don’t be fooled by the younger workers with the laptop bags who you may assume to be architects or that most aspirational of egyptian professionals, an engineer, no these bags are for the richer tradesmen who are concealing their Makita or De Walt drills,(although not necessarily spelt in this format) The grinder owning brigade display their wares in a peacock like fashion on their shoulders.

So getting back to the pyramids, they are basically a large collection or similar sized stones stacked on top of each other, in a pre-jenga like fashion that allows gravity to do the work. Now the Egyptians are the best stackers I have ever seen. You see daily evidence of this on the ring road.
There are Chevrolet ( again not necessarily spelt in this order) pick ups with entire house contents piled in, or massive flat bed trucks with row upon row of cement bags stacked at an angle to counteract the bumps on the road, no cling wrapped pallets here its all done by hand, although sometimes they do stack too high forgetting about the low slung bridges they need to pass under. Planning ahead is not their strong suit.

These vehicles even come with their own forklifts on top. No, not real forklifts there are no pallets, or forklifts for that matter,  but that is the best term to describe the collection of bodies having a nap on top of the cargo, or often smoking a shisha as they travel to their destination and commence unloading.

So….if the contents of half a dozen black plastic bags, combined with  a small army of laborers can knock up a fully functioning (erm give me a bit of leeway here) modern air-conditioned building with all the bells and whistles, then I am in no doubt that ancient Egyptians built the pyramids, they may not have intended them to be this shape but hey they usually get it close enough.

Car Parking Etiquette

Friendly helperCairo has to be the cheapest place to park out of any of the worlds largest cities, but it comes at a price.  You can park on any road, anywhere your car fits. If it doesn’t fit then you can double park effectively blocking in the lucky drivers who managed to squeeze into the spot you’ve just missed. Of course if you double park there are two criteria that you must adhere to. Firstly you must remain in the vehicle, so this only works well if you have a passenger who is nipping out for a short errand. Alternatively you can abandon the car but only if you leave the handbrake off.

For those of you unfamiliar with the handbrake rule this is to facilitate the juggling around of any number of vehicles to allow a trapped driver to escape, rather like those games you played as a child where each piece of the puzzle had to be slid into position to form a picture. You can see it in evidence around the Grand Mall Maadi and on the outskirts of City Stars.  It is a very professional set up around the latter venue with small pieces of rubble (freely available on any Cairo street) gently placed behind each driver side front wheel to avoid any unplanned movement.

When you return your car will be somewhere in the vicinity of where you parked it, depending on the length of your absence. Now, in theory this system works well but it is dependent on the skill of the street parkers. Considering the average age of these guys is about 12 you can see there are hazards to this system that no risk assessments have covered.

The problems arise when some members of the street parking team need to attend to other duties. These duties could include fetching a cup of tea from other street vendors, listening to the football on the radio, or most importantly, heading off for a nap. You see you need at least three on the team at all times. Two to push the car and vitally one to stop it. The team member with the stopping duty is the one who seems to be most easily distracted by these other duties.

Inevitably this results in scuffs and scratches to your bumpers all of which are irrelevant in Egypt, and anyway the dents pop back out with a kettle of boiling water freely available from the previously mentioned street vendors. At this point I would like to offer some sage advice to any of you considering buying or changing your car, get a black one.

I know, I can hear you say NO WAY, they show the dust, attract the sun, need regular cleaning etc and the colour of choice for most expats is silver. You see silver hides the dust, reflects the heat but  the problem with silver is that it comes in various shades, so if you need to do a touch up on said scratches it is hard to get a match. Whereas black is black and the Manky Mall sorry, Grand Mall does an excellent line in black nail polish ( “Dior”  no less) for 2 le which works a treat.

Back to the street parkers, having returned from your errands you then proceed to examine the car for any new scuffs, dents or missing wing mirrors which they will have kindly retained for you, and pay the Baksheesh/parking fee. 1 le or 10p approx is the going rate for this kind service or if I’m feeling generous and wish to try out my pathetic Arabic I may engage in a little conversation and give them a cigarette or 2 but obviously not to the 12 year olds, I keep a supply of sweets for them they have no concept of Stranger Danger.

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Taste sensations.

I’m the eldest in a family of 5 children, a pretty average sized family in 1960’s Ireland, and we were like “steps of stairs” not much of a gap between us. There wasn’t a lot of work in Ireland in the late 60’s early 70’s the ” troubles” as they called them were kicking off so us Catholics in the North had to travel for work. My dad was away a lot of the time, so my mum was run ragged basically functioning as a single mum. 

We had no car so we walked everywhere or cycled if we could lay our hands on a bike, but grocery shopping was the bane of my mothers life. By the time I was about 8 I was the chief shopper for the house.  It was easier for her to send me to the shop rather than load up the pram ( no double buggies in those days) with the other three or four who couldn’t walk the distance. I loved it.

 Initially she would make me write the list out before I went. She would dictate and I would write because I couldn’t read her joined up writing at this stage, and off I’d go. I was a very good shopper, hunting out the bargains within the constraints  of the list, and improvising as I gained confidence. By the time I was 10 there were no lists   It was simply ” get something for the dinner for the next couple of days and we are out of washing powder”

I approach shopping in Cairo with the same mentality, don’t go with a list as you won’t find all the items, certainly not in one shop, simply head out with the remit to find something for dinner for the next couple of nights. Imported goods are ridiculously expensive so I stick with the local varieties which can lead to some interesting taste sensations, not all of them good. 

Temmys cereals are a case in point, with the exception of their granola which is excellent, don’t go there. I am sure they would be banned in the UK or any country that actually gave a toss about the health implications of additive and sugar overload. If you see your preferred imported brand then stock up as the next container load is likely to be stuck in Alexandria for a month or 2 resulting in multiple text messages announcing the news that weetabix is now in Alfa Market.

Stick with the seasonal fruit and veg and if you must have strawberrys in December then freeze them in May. A decent size freezer is a definite bonus but it is still reliant on a steady electric supply, so be prepared for a mid august feast of all those little treats you have salted away once everyone ratchets up their air conditioning and the inevitable power cuts come.

Wash all the fruit and veg very carefully particularly the lettuce as, according to my husband anyway,   it’s the lettuce that gets you with the pharohs revenge not the copious amount of beer required to wash it down.
Milk can produce quite heated debates within the expat community with the Dina farm variety being the brand of choice. Decent milk is vitally important as it can make the whole cereal experience much more enjoyable although not if taken in conjunction with the aforementioned Temmys. Milk is also vital for a decent cup of tea. Now Egyptians have it with mint and I am an avid fan of this also but some days I feel the need for a big mug of the builders brew variety. I like that deep orange, milky, high in sugar taste that reminds me of cold winter mornings where you have used the remains in the kettle to defrost the car windscreen.

There are now an increasing array of niche retailers catering to the tastes of the expat community. I must admit I do like to nip in to check what they have but with the exception of HP sauce and other odd bits and bobs I am not a fan. The quality of the products is much better but although I’m Irish and not a Scot I am just too tight to pay the prices. I am Happy with Seoudi for their bakery and fish section, metro for their deli counter, excellent hummus, and I have a friendly butcher there now who knows not to give me the bright red steaks that look pretty, but the dark brown ones hidden at the back that any discerning chef knows will melt in your mouth.

Pork, in all it’s forms is my favorite meat, not so much the roasts and gammon but that lower end of the pork market, sausages, bacon, and salami I simply love. Just thinking about it I’ve decided that pork deserves a whole section to itself, so goodbye for now

Picture Postcard

I was out on a fellucca the other night for a birthday party. I love these boats, tied up along the Corniche they are popular with tourists and locals alike. At this time of year it’s better to go in the evening, you can’t see very much but it’s cooler, and daylight removes the romantic rose tinted glasses that allow you to imagine you are cruising the Nile in style. In the evening you can gloss over the multilayered throws and mats that you sit on, and which you know are inhabited with remnants of the previous occupants food and the little creatures that chomp away on it.

We usually go from the Mubarak dock, but in post revolutionary Egypt this was not an option. The dock is still there but the framed photograph of Mubarak has been removed, as have most of the other photographs and signage that displayed anything with Mubaraks name. Personally I think this is a travesty, and I hope there are some in storage as the photographs would stand as an excellent testament to the skill of  air brushers, and the results that can be achieved with Photoshop.

Bearing in mind that Mubarak is 82 he seems not to have aged since 1963. In january a new poster appeared on the way to the airport depicting him standing alone in a vast field of grass up to his thighs. He was wearing his standard double breasted suit and tie, but no amount of gym work could have achieved the svelte waistline or obscenely broad shoulders on display.

He always appeared uniformly tanned and unlined, not a crows foot or a laughter line in sight, but this ultimately final publicity shot had taken it to a whole new level. He looked like Omar Sherriff in his hay day or even a current Bollywood hero, it was so saccharinely staged  showing him gently run his fingers through the blades of grass. Just  who dreamt this up, or what it was meant to depict, well only the marketing agency spin doctors can answer.

Back to the boat. Now it’s dark out there, you need some light so the car battery and dodgy wiring comes as standard, generally connected to a 25w bulb of the size that fits in your cooker hood. But our battery was having none of it, fortunately one of the birthday gifts was a substantial outdoor candle so we were sorted. Even better following some maneuvering with another boat we had the head fellucca captain jump on board with a new battery.

I don’t really know if that’s his official job title but it should be. He is picture postcard perfect, stands about 5 foot  tall, thin as a rake and is always in the same muddy coloured galabaya and white head scarf. I refer to him being picture postcard perfect as he is so tanned and wizened with the sun and wind he looks about 300 years old, he should appear on the front of those tourist postcards never mind the pyramids.

The captains time ravaged face, and hands ( nearly forgot about the hands) combined with the missing teeth stand as a chronicle of his life, you could walk in his wrinkles, whilst his laughter lines and permanently squinting eyes let you know he’s seen a lot , no airbrushing required  here….. what you see is what you get, maybe a lesson in there somewhere!