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.

Batatis batatis

I live in a side street of a side street of a side street, in an area with very little high rise and even less traffic, and yet my street is really only quiet on Friday mornings. All other days I can tell the time by the sounds that come up to my third-floor apartment.

First it’s the vegetable guy with his younger brother and their horse-drawn vegetable cart. They have voices like I’ve only once heard before, in Yemen. Potatoes! Tomatoes! Cauliflowers! More potatoes! Even if you weren’t in the market for some fresh greens, you almost want to run down to get some just to get them to stop screaming.

An hour or so later, it’s an old man uttering a loud string of religious words, as per the holy book in his one hand, alternated with a cry about the lemons in his other hand. No one in my house has ever been able to really understand him – I’m not sure if he’s cursing or blessing us, or if that depends on whether or not he sells any lemons (if indeed they are for sale).

For a while it’s just the usual soundscape of dogs barking, cars honking, the whizzing of the neighbor’s water pump and the occasional clacking of horse or donkey hooves pulling carts with squeaky wheels. Sometimes, if the rest of the world is quiet enough, I can hear the little bells that decorate their bridles.

Then the old lady arrives. She’s probably not taller than a meter and a half, and takes her about 20 minutes to get from one end of the street to the other, all the while moaning and wailing incomprehensible ahhhs and ooohss. She carries towels over her right arm, of different sizes, and it may be that she sells them, too.

Fresh garlic vendor (picture taken in spring). Dokki, Giza/Cairo.

Fresh garlic vendor (picture taken in spring). Dokki, Giza/Cairo.

In the afternoon, the vegetable man and his brother reappear. This time, their voices often clash with those of the men on old cargo bikes who collect used goods like broken chairs, furniture and appliances, making their presence known by screaming ‘roba vecchia’ – the Italian term for ‘old stuff’, as far as I’ve understood (although many of them don’t seem to know what they’re saying either).

By now, it’s time for the children to come home. They’ll quietly do their homework on the hood of a parked car until it’s dark. Dark is when playtime starts. Their football teams battle until late at night, and I often go to sleep by the sound of their disputes about goals scored (or not).

I don’t mind the noise. I know the potato-guy will wake me up on time the next morning.

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.

Time for a chat

Dear Cairo,

We need to talk.

It’s been more than seven months since we first met and I fell head over heels for you, and quite frankly, I don’t know what happened to those seven months – that’s how quickly they passed. Sure, I’ve been meeting people and discovering places and getting involved in things left and right, but seven months? I could almost have produced a baby, is what I’m saying, and yet it feels like I barely blinked twice since my first arrival here.

Apartment complexes in Maadi. Just a few of them.

It’s one of the most baffling things about you, Cairo, the way you play with time. Not just with weeks and months and seasons, also with the general rhythm of life. There’s the possibility of going grocery shopping at 3am, rush hour starts at 10.15am, breakfast in the office is at 2pm, neighborhood kids are playing football in the street at midnight and then just when I thought everything was simply pushed back by a few hours there’s the vegetable seller praising his wares on his donkey cart at 7am and an 11pm invitation for a bike ride – at 5.30am the next morning. I guess things are a matter of possibility rather than routine; when there are this many people using a limited amount of space, a little flexibility in timing is useful so if at all possible, you pick a time when you expect the least amount of people to be doing the same thing you do. Now to figure out when are those times, that’s going to take me the next part of the year…

Pedestrian in Attaba, Downtown Cairo.

But time is not the only warped thing about you. Social connections are too. When I ask your inhabitants what they like most about you, most of them say “I never feel alone here.” And they are not referring to the lack of personal space and everybody putting their nose in everyone else’s business – no, they mean that you can go to any place, at any time, and find someone you know. For good or for bad, it seems impossible to be anonymous in this city of almost 20 million people, and I understand why they like that. Because should it happen that you find yourself at a party with *only* 2 people you know, you can strike up a conversation with a random friendly-looking stranger and by the end of the night be invited to a party of his friend a week later. And the best part is that these are not empty invitations extended out of a sense of obligation, but rather out of a genuine belief that life is best lived together with others. 

"Egypt, factory of men."

And that, dear Cairo, makes you my current favorite city to live in, despite all the shit that is heaped up on us from above (often excused and justified from below). It makes that I am persevering in my efforts to explore you, to understand you, to grasp you from all sides. Because you’re no easy city, what with the political situation and the power cuts and the insane heat and the dust and the harassment, but I think you’re worth it. If only because of the little boy I met at a demonstration: dirty face, 5 stitches on the side of his head, torn clothes, trying to sell me chewing gum. When I bent down and told him I had no money, he looked at me with big, sad eyes. “But then how are you going to eat?” he asked. When I said I had money, but hadn’t brought it with me, he gave me another serious look, pulled a note of 5 Egyptian pounds out of his pocket and offered it to me to buy lunch.

His situation reflects so much of what’s wrong with you, Cairo, and yet he’s your charm, and he redeems you.