Stories from Afar & Up Close

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Approximate living

First weeks on Lesvos, furnishing my new apartment in Mytilini.

I order a mattress of 140x200cm. The one that is delivered is 140x190. I call the company.
"No problem madam, 190 or 200, it's all the same."
"Uh, not really, I'm almost 190 and I don't want my feet sticking out of the bed."
"Ok, if you want we will send one that is 200cm."

I buy a second-hand fridge from the real estate agent, who showed me a small, clean, white fridge and said the one for sale was practically the same. The one that is delivered is black and incredibly dirty.
"This is not exactly like the one you showed me. It's a different color. And dirty."
"No problem, black, white, it's all the same. But if you don't want it I have another one."

The one that is delivered is white and clean, but almost as tall as me and about one meter wide. A family of twelve could store enough food in it for a week.
"Uh, this is not exactly like the one you showed me either. It's gigantic."
"Ok no problem, big, small, it's all the same. But if you don't want it, I'll take it with me."

I'm in a textile shop, looking for bedsheets. I ask for a fitted sheet of 140x200.
"Ok, I have 90x190."
"Uh, that's not exactly 140x200."
"No problem, I have what you're looking for. Here, take this one, it's 150x205."

Greece and I, we're going to need some time to agree on shapes and sizes.



I'm having a cup of tea at an 'ahwa (coffeeshop) in Ismailiya. As expected, all other customers are Egyptian men.

The guy of the koshk next door starts cleaning the street, voicing his opinions on life and all it entails in no uncertain terms, entertaining all of us in the process. Until the 'ahwa owner comes out.

"Shut up, will you? The lady speaks Arabic!"

The koshk guy looks at me and asks in Arabic "Is that true?"
I nod.
"Do you speak Arabic?"
I nod.
"And you understand all the swear words I just used?"
I nod again. The 'ahwa bursts out in collective laughter.
"Alright," he says, "I better start swearing in Italian then!"



Act I – At the clothing store
I’m trying on a fancy dress to wear to a wedding. The zipper (as always) is in the back, but the 16-year old salesgirl is there to help. It gets stuck, so a colleague of the same age comes over to help. Eventually there are three girls pulling and squeezing until it’s closed. After an approving look in the mirror, I try to open it on my own.

“No, no, just leave it, I’ll open it!”
“But I have to be able to open it myself, otherwise how am I going to put it on and take it off?”
“Just ask someone to close it for you.”
“I can’t, I… eh, live alone.”
“You… what? No, just ask anyone in the house to close it for you.”
“There is no one in my house. My flatmate travelled so I am alone.”
“There’s no one to close your dress.”
“No one.”
“No one?”
“No one.”

Salesgirl number one whispers to number two “there is no one in her house to close the zipper.” Salesgirl number two whispers to number three “she’s all alone, there’s no one to close the zipper.”

I turn around to find all three of them staring at me with a mix of pity and disbelief. No one in the house to close your dress, have you ever heard of that? I tell them I’ll ask the neighbor to do it. With a sigh of relief they sell me the dress.


Act II – In the women’s car of the metro
Rush hour on the metro, I’m standing in the women’s car where everyone is pressed up against each other. Only the short lady next to me keeps backing away, forcing space between our bodies that isn’t really available on such a packed train. Every few seconds I catch her looking at me, puzzled.
Suddenly she starts laughing.

“I thought you were a guy! Oh goodness, I really thought you were a man. It’s the hair, you know! You should go to another hairdresser, this one really did a bad job. I was convinced you were a man! There’s one in Mohandisseen, he’s really good, he’ll know how to fix it. Yeah, he’ll fix it. Haha! I can’t believe it, I was sure you are a guy!”


Act III – At the Sudanese restaurant
With a friend, hungry.

“Hi, we’d like one bamiya and two salata aswads please.”
“I’m sorry, there is no salata aswad at the moment.”
“You’re out completely or it’s currently being made?”
“It will take a long time to be ready.”
“How long?”
“About 30 minutes.”
“That’s ok, we’ll wait. We’ll have the bamiya now and the salata aswad later.”

“I’m not sure he remembers that we wanted salata aswad. Let’s check.”
“Hi, it’s been about an hour, do you think it will take much longer for the salata aswad to be ready?”
“Well… I wasn’t telling you anything wrong before… but it will be another 20 minutes or so.”
“Ok, no problem, we’ll wait”

“It’s been 30 minutes again. I’m going to the kitchen to ask.”
“Hi, we’re still waiting for our salata aswad… do you think it will be done soon?”
“Well… you know… it’s a bit different… just a bit.”
“Just a little bit longer, then?”
“A little bit, a little bit.”

“It’s been almost two hours since the first try… shall we ask once more?”

“I’m sorry, there is no salata aswad. But we have spinach, if you’d like?“

Egypt, Umm al-Kafkawiyya...

Saturday morning, at Kasr el Aini hospital in Garden City, Cairo.

(In Arabic) “I would like to see a doctor.” Woman at the door: “3rd floor”.

First two elevators don’t work. Third one around the back does. Long hallways with old, dirty tiles. Follow the red arrow to the Out Patient Clinic. End up in Radiology. Follow the black arrow to Neurology. End up in Out Patient Clinic. See hallways full of people in niqaabs and gallabiyas. Realize that this is probably not the hospital my friend recommended. But I’m here and it hurts, so let’s keep going.

Room with a secretary and eight other people trying to give her paper slips in different colors.

“I would like to see a doctor.” “Room to the left, pay first.” In the room to the left. “I would like to see a doctor.” “What for?” Shit, forgot to look up the word for kidney. Point at my back. “Your back?” “No, inside.” “Your stomach.” “No, the other side.” Why can I only remember the word for liver? Shall I try that? No. Turn around, walk into the hallway. Cry. Receive an sms from a friend; “Everything ok? You need anything?” “Yes, the word for kidney!” “Kelya, plural kela.”

Back to the room to the left. “I would like to see a doctor for my kidneys.” Pay 75 pounds. Get a pink paper on which I have to write my own name in Arabic. Back to the room with the secretary. My name is entered in a big book. A nurse takes me by the hand, walks me to the end of the hallway, sits me down between all the other people and tells me to wait. Many people come and go in the room that says ‘kela’. Forty minutes pass. Lady to my right who smiled at me twice suddenly pushes me through the door when two guys come out. Friendly doctor who speaks English diagnoses a kidney infection. Writes down seven lab tests/ultrasounds she wants me to have done. Prescribes insanely strong antibiotics.

Laboratory is on the 1st floor. Walk down. Find the reception, hand over the paper. Get a white paper. Across the hall to the cashier. Pay 92 pounds. Get a green paper. “Go to the computer.” Guy behind the computer gives me my original paper with some stickers and my name transliterated from Arabic back into English. Across the hall for the sampling room. “We need urine.” Find the toilet, get blocked by cleaning lady. “This is for men. The other door is for women.” Door has a sign that says ‘Way Out.’
Go back to the room across the hall. Get blood samples done.

Back to the 3rd floor for the ultrasounds. Follow the purple arrow, end up in Out Patient Clinic again. Sent to the other side of the building. Told to wait in the waiting room. After 20 minutes, ask a nurse what’s happening. “We don’t do ultrasounds on Saturday. Go to the 8th floor.” Back to the elevators. “These elevators only go to the 7th floor. Go down to 1st, then back up to 8th.” Switch elevators on the 1st floor. Up to the 8th floor, surgery and maternity ward. “Are you fasting?” “No.” “You need to fast for 6 hours or we don’t do an abdominal ultrasound. Go to the 3rd floor, they’ll do it.” No one at the 3rd floor anymore. Go down to the 1st floor, follow black arrow to Exit, end up in Mosque. Turn around, follow arrow to Surgery, find yourself in the main hallway.

Walk out. Get prescription filled at a nearby pharmacy. Go home. Spend the rest of the day in bed dreaming of Kafka.

Tiresome conversations with taxi drivers, part 823

Taxi driver: So why do Dutch people hate Germans? Is it because they have a female president?
Me: Wait... what?!?
Taxi driver: Yeah well you know. Because she's a woman! She's supposed to get married and have children! And how can she lead the country when she has to take care of the children!?!
Me: What about women who don't want to have children?
Taxi driver: All women want to have children.
Me: Not all women do. So what can women do if they don't want children?
Taxi driver: That doesn't exist. All men want to make money, and all women want to have children. In the end, all women want nice things, and soft things, and babies. Deep down inside all women want children.
Me: (staring out the window)
Taxi driver: It doesn't mean they are not strong, on the contrary. If I carry my baby boy, I get tired after ten minutes. But women have special muscles in their underarms so they are strong enough to carry children for hours.
Me: I think that is not true.
Taxi driver: Maybe people from outside don't know this. But all Egyptians know this is true.

Welcome to Egypt, where women have special baby-carrying underarm muscles.