Two Weeks: “Do you believe it yet?”

Today, Monday, May 4, 2008, marks our two-week point in Cairo so far. Granted, we arrived at 9pm at night, but let’s not get too picky. As Ron said numerous times on the trip over here, and we keep remarking to each other periodically, “Do you believe it yet?”

Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. For the most part it’s sinking in, slowly. It certainly helps the sinking-process when I’m sitting in Arabic classes, or walking down the street, driving past donkey carts, wandering through any store other than the commissary, looking at signs, menus, etc., or staring at the Nile. I can’t say it feels like “home” yet, but we are still in temporary housing, so I think once we get our stuff, and Clifford and Max from Ohio (as you can see from the photo, they’ve tested the carriers and are ready for the journey), life will feel more “real.” At least life within our “home.” It may take longer for life outside to feel like “home” but that will come in time.

I do find that I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of our stuff. If everything goes as it should (which is often the qualifying phrase here), our first shipment will arrive in the next two weeks. This was full of mostly clothes, my cameras and lenses (except what I carried on the plane), we think all our DVDs (we can’t remember exactly where we put them), personal files, and some kitchen stuff. The remaining items should arrive about two months after the first shipment (bed, desk, couch, bookcases (though we really didn’t need these, I learned later), all kitchen-ware, bikes, books, etc.). Now, I did pack with the possibility in mind that we wouldn’t see either shipment for three months, as I’d heard that had happened to other people, but I’m hoping we’re one of the lucky ones… Our car should arrive in three months as well, as it’s coming by boat (chug, chug). It really is an amazing process, and we’re certainly aware of how lucky we are that we are allotted such a large shipment. There is a weight restriction, however, so depending on how much we acquire here, we may have to re-think what we bring back – computer books can be so heavy. ☺

As I mentioned, I started taking Arabic classes. I was lucky in that a week ago a new session started, so I was able to jump right in. I’m taking two classes, twice a week, Sunday and Tuesday mornings (five hours a week). They start at 8am, but I can’t really complain as all I have to do is get up and go down two flights. Hardly much of a commute. Though when I heard it started at 8am, I had that visceral undergrad reaction to an 8am class, but it’s really been fine. I have Colloquial Egyptian Arabic first, in which we’re learning basic greetings, conversations, etc. My name is… (Ismi Julia); Good morning, good morning (response)… (sabbaH ilxheer, sabbaH innuur); I live in… (ana sakna fi elMa’aadi). I’ll have you know that I just did all those from memory – I’m so impressed. ☺

After this class, in which I’m the only student, I come back upstairs, create my little flashcards, and then at 11am, return for my Modern Standard Arabic class. The reason for the break is that the teacher (ostazza Suheir) has a Colloquial II class between, which I am certainly not ready for. The MSA class has two students in it (I think it makes a huge difference for me having such small, or actually individual, classes – plus it’s the same teacher for both so things are consistent). In MSA we study standard Arabic, starting with the alphabet. Prior to these classes I’d look at the signs everywhere and just be boggled that anyone could see a word in amongst those beautiful fluid squiggles. However, after dutifully studying my letters (with my flash cards and a patient husband who’s willing to quiz me), I can actually pick out letters and sounds here and there.

There are technically only 28 official letters in the Arabic alphabet, however, as with all languages, there are “exceptions.” So there are an additional five “short vowel” symbols, which are dashes, circles or small squiggles, placed over or under the preceding consonant. And keep in mind that “preceding” is to the right, as it’s read from right to left – unless it’s numbers, as in license plates or prices, which are read left to right – got it? Clear as a Cairo sandstorm, I know. And finally (I think, though I’m only on class two), there are three additional symbols indicating double letters, or a slight catch in the voice (like a quick stop). No problem! Keep in mind that it’s been, well, decades, since I truly studied any language and that was German (in high school), Italian (in undergrad), and American Sign Language (for fun, ten years ago). And I never felt like any of it really stuck. Though I will say that it’s amazing what a 30+ year brain has wedged in its recesses. When I was first practicing my flashcards, and I’d come to a word such as “who” my brain would actually cycle through “wer” (German), “chi” (Italian), and the physical sign for who in ASL. This should be fun.

So like my sister-in-law Heather in Tokyo (who’s taking Japanese), nephew Max in Tokyo, and nephew Colin in New Jersey, I’m studying the alphabet. I was feeling fairly confident yesterday after learning my initial 28 letters, only to find out that these shapes I’d committed to memory, change, sometimes drastically, when they are attached to other letters – like in a word. Unlike English, which has printing and cursive, Arabic has only cursive. So letters attach themselves to each other all the time (bummer). So now I’m studying these new formations. I wonder if there’s an Egyptian Grover who can help me?

I am surprised at how much I’m enjoying my lessons and learning. My friend Perry, in Portugal, suggested that I start labeling things around the house as I learn their name in Arabic. Since she up and moved to a foreign country (Portugal, if you didn’t catch that) years ago and I remember receiving the sobbing calls in the first few months claiming that she’d never learn the language and feel like it was home, and then next time I saw her she had a hard time switching back to English, I figure she knows what she’s talking about. So our house has little pieces of paper taped everywhere. I’m just hoping they don’t get moved and I invert the word for book (kitaab) and table (tarabeeza) – though I don’t think it will cause an international incident. Egyptians are so friendly and helpful, they’d just laugh and correct me. Perry also suggested that I dive right in and start using what I’ve learned. Making mistakes is all part of the process. There’s something freeing about being in a place (city, country, continent – pick one) where no one knows you. Less pressure to be whom you think you should be.

I think we all (including Chuckles and Ricky, who routinely spend their days basking in their chairs in the sunroom like two old men on a porch), are very excited to be here and look forward to the adventures to come. As Ron keeps asking about everything from a walk down the street to dinner in a restaurant, “Is this bloggable?” And I happily reply, “Everything here is bloggable!”