Expat Pettiness

Some who know me well, may claim that, at times, I have been known to be, well, judgmental. This is one of those times. Now, I’d like to couch it in terms of being observational, rather than critical, and since it’s my post, I will do just that.

It all began yesterday. In my dip-wife doings, I started with lugging some packages to the embassy via taxi (I had sent Ron in earlier on the shuttle with the larger, heavier box). As usual, I told the taxi driver I wanted to go to the “Shebard ala Corniche” ("Shepheard Hotel on the Corniche," versus another entrance). Due to security, taxis can’t get directly up to the embassy, so this is one of the convenient spots to be dropped off at to walk in. Since Zamalek is an island with essentially one one-way road circling it, I expressed concern when my driver headed off on a bridge over to Mohandiseen, on the wrong side of the island! He essentially told me not to worry, so I waited warily to see what he was going to do. Once I realized his intent, I was quite impressed. Due to the one-way road issue, the part near the Opera House and lion bridge can get quite backed up, but my driver was avoiding that whole mess by exiting on this other bridge, then using the off-ramps and on-ramps to get himself back up on the same bridge going the opposite way. I took a few brain-seconds to compose a very simple, two-word sentence, and said, “Inta shaTir!” He looked in the rear-view mirror and smiled. And I knew that smile. It was the same smile I use when someone is speaking to me and I don’t know what they’re saying. Damn it, I blew it. So I sat and thought and realized my mistake. In this case, as in others, my limited two-years of Italian taken at the University of Cincinnati twenty years ago (gasp!) leads me to place the emphasis on words at the end. Subsequently, I’ve learned that in Arabic, when in doubt, place it at the beginning. So I mustered my courage and said, again, “Inta SHAtir.” And he beamed and said “Shokran, shokran!” I have no idea what I said the first time, but at least I didn’t offend him and the second, I said, “You are clever!”

So he dropped me off and I walked in to the embassy with my packages and down to the post office. I cannot emphasize the sheer luxury of having access to an APO – not only for shipping in, but shipping out. Yeah! It was allegedly open at 9am and I was half-an-hour early, but luckily the door wasn’t locked, so I quietly snuck in and started filling out the customs forms. At 9am, Ron came down with the final heavy box and I shipped everything off without incident.

Next was class, which I muddled through. My fellow classmate has been out the last two weeks as her parents were visiting, so in addition to missing her company, I really felt the strain on my brain as I was suddenly the sole student. So for the entire class I was reading Arabic, replying in Arabic and just trying to absorb, retain, spit-out and comprehend. I’ll be very glad when she’s back next week. As much as I enjoy the class and learning, I still am woefully lax in my homework – why is that?

After class, I went to wait for the commissary shuttle van. They run this every week for those who don’t have a car or don’t want to drive (the environmental and highly-intelligent crowd, I guess). Going to the commissary has become quite the hassle, so Ron and I have decided to attempt a full shopping every two weeks, with a supplementary fresh fruits and veggies and other sundries run by me on the shuttle on alternate weeks. This was my first shuttle run. After dropping off the folk who were just going from the embassy to their homes in Maadi, it was just me and one other woman who were commissary bound. We chatted idly, as you do in these expat groupings with strangers, and once we reached the commissary we split up and did our shopping. One exciting find was that the case, yes case, of MorningStar Crumbles (delicious meat-free “hamburger”) that I had ordered was in. Yeah!! (Along with the APO privileges, the commissary is another luxury – especially for me, although my experiments in cooking with raw tofu have been improving.)

So I finished my shopping first, got it loaded up in the van and then read and waited for her to finish. It wasn’t long before she was loaded up and we were heading back to Maadi to drop her off. During this time we chatted about living in Egypt and then restaurants, and I mentioned the good Indian food at the Mena House in Giza and this prompted her to say that she was very excited about the big trip she was planning when her daughter was on her next school break. Typically, when expats mention trips they talk about Luxor, or Aswan, or Sharm el-Sheikh, or even Alexandria. “We’re going to go to Hard Rock,” she said. I don’t think I said anything as my brain whirred around trying to think if I’d heard of a famous Pharaonic rock outcropping or something, but when she continued and said that they needed to add the Egyptian teddy bear to their Hard Rock Café collection, I understood, sadly. Now, I’m not knocking Hard Rock, or their international federation of teddy bears, but what I found particularly sad about this whole exchange was the fact that going downtown, to an American restaurant, was their “big outing” in Cairo. And it only got worse.

We found that both our husbands love computers, and she said she typically got a new one every two years. I asked whether this was a mandate, or could she request something else? But she said she really needed it because she was an online gamer and found that her video card couldn’t keep up with the latest advances. Now, I’ve been known to play a few rounds of some free Internet puzzle games, but I know very little about these complex online role-playing or fantasy-killing games. I asked if it was something like “Sims” but she said no, she was a superhero and what she really liked about it was that she could play with other Americans and listen to American music (there’s a radio station associated with it). This is all great. I know of plenty expats who do everything they can to avoid interacting with any locals or getting even a spot of local culture on them; and if that’s your choice, that’s fine. But when she added that she also liked being an ambassador for Egypt and telling other gamers what it’s like here, I just tried to keep the sound of my eyes rolling to a minimal clatter.

I’ve only met a few people like this, but I always find it … amusing (see, not judgmental at all). Typically these are folk who are very excited about living abroad and want to share that excitement with others, through blogs (ahem, yes I see the irony here) or chats or what have you. The issue I have, is that they often don’t leave their homes. Or if they do, they certainly don’t leave their expat neighborhoods. So sharing their local culture might range from American movie night at the Maadi House to shopping for Velveeta at the commissary or … teddy bears at Hard Rock Café. But I guess I have to realize that there’s a place for everyone. Although, I guess this explains why I never run into other expats “exploring Cairo,” I mean, admittedly I have not visited the Hard Rock. Yet.

As an added bit of fun, when I told Ron about this he of course zeroed in on the superhero game. I couldn’t remember the name she had told me, but when Ron asked if I thought it was “Spore” I admitted that it sounded right. “Is it a superhero game?” I asked. “I think they’re more like deities, and kinda blobby.” Gosh, Cairo is an amazing city. I had absolutely no idea that I was riding along with a genuine blobby deity. See, life is about keeping your eyes open. Now I have to go and see if I, too, want to join the blobby deity scene. When next you see me, I may be purple with five arms and wings.