Mr. Toad’s Wild (Shopping) Ride

Checklist: water, granola bar, comfortable shoes, sunblock, three times as much cash as you think you’ll need, more water and a sense of adventure. Now you’re ready for the big time: shopping with our friend Francine.

Going shopping anywhere in Cairo with Francine is akin to hopping on board (the now defunct) Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney with one exception, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride ends. Francine is a shopper like none I’ve encountered before. Cairo is her shopping mall, and after visiting Cairo countless times over the last twenty years, she knows it well. And even better, it knows her.

If ever the adage, “It helps to know someone,” had a place it’s in the Khan. Shopkeepers exit their stalls with arms spread wide and smiles spread wider when they see Francine coming. (I’ve seen it happen. In fact, I’ve been practically run over by the over-excited shopkeeper.) There’s a collective sigh that families will eat now that Francine’s back in Cairo. It’s like Norm walking in to Cheers, but with a thousand times more enthusiasm because Francine is generosity personified and she buys gifts by the truckload, which makes her very memorable to any shopkeeper lucky enough to catch her eye. And as a “friend of Francine,” we are privy to get the “Miss Francine price” on everything, hence the need for more money than you think you’ll need, because with prices dropping everywhere, you are now able to buy a lot more… somehow there’s logic in that.

In addition to lower prices and lots of introductions everywhere (plus free tea, water, soda), there’s always the added element of the unknown. The last few times I’ve had the priviledge of attending one of her shopping outings, we’ve ended up with an armed guard, arguing with a marble/granite seller in the middle of an industrial complex, and having to chug five glasses of ice-cold fresh fruit juice. Thinking back, I’d swear it was all a hazing ritual.

Our first outing was to Nadim, a locally famous furniture manufacturer. They make everything by hand, but don’t do custom work. They make beautiful coffee tables in mashrabiya with a metal tray insert:

As well as gorgeous wooden inlay:

The work they do is phenomenal and the group of us that went were given a tour of their entire factory, including watching a guy painstakingly making an enormous carpet by hand.

Another trip found us on marble outings. Francine had ordered some mosaic table tops, so we went with her to pick them up in an area adjacent to the City of the Dead. I would certainly never have just “found” these places, so I appreciated the introduction (not that I could ever find them again… it was a bit like Narnia, but with lots of dust).

Someone in our group this day mentioned another marble complex out in Maadi, so following the whim (which is typical of these trips) we jetted out to Maadi to the industrial marble zone with well over 100 sellers. They had marble from all over the world in big stacks like slices of Goliath’s cheese. It was really amazing.

We got the prices for some, including cutting and edging costs, and said we’d be back. A few weeks later I returned with Francine to place some orders, but suddenly the prices more than doubled. The whole ordeal turned into a fiasco, with us climbing back in the van at one point ready to leave and being chased by the seller begging us not to leave. It was like buying a car in the U.S., with calls to “the boss” and offers and counteroffers. All ridiculous and exhausting. As painful as I found it, Francine said it was nothing compared to some situations she’d been in. Knowing Francine, and knowing Egypt, I have a feeling this is a massive understatement.

Ironically Mohammed, the embassy driver who was carting us around that day, had just had his floors done in marble and asked if we wanted to meet the guy he used. He’d been watching the ordeal we went through with the other guys and was livid, so we appreciated his referral. He took us to the guy he used, and again, without a guide to the underworld of Cairo’s specialty shops, we’d never find 90% of them. These prices were much closer to the first ones we’d heard, though the selection was less.

By the time we’d finished there, we were shot, done, kaput. On the way home, Mohammed said he wanted to treat us to one of his favorite juice bars for all the hassle we’d been through. He pulled up to the corner of a street in downtown, jumped out with the van running and within a minute he was knocking on the van door. I opened the door to find him holding out a little silver tray with five large glasses of ice-cold fresh fruit juice in an array of colors. He explained that he didn’t know what we’d like, so he got us a sampling. (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that most “samplings” are just a taste, not a full order.) I took the tray and gently placed it on the floor of the van. He closed the door and told us to enjoy them. The catch here was that we had to return the glasses.

The communal-glass concept is common in the juice bars or with the tea-guys wandering around the city. However, it’s not something we expats are overly thrilled with, but in this case, considering his generosity, we overlooked it and just kept our fingers crossed that there wouldn’t be any residual effects… intestinally. So, the assortment included orange juice, coconut, melon, karkaday (hibiscus – which is quickly becoming one of my favorite ones here), and tamarind. Francine quickly grabbed the orange, and clutched it like a three-year-old with a Buzz Lightyear doll. No sharing.

It was at this point that I realized we had a slight problem. In addition to having to guzzle five glasses of juice I also remembered that Francine doesn’t like fruit. Nor anything directly derived from fruit. So, while she was gripping the closest thing to Kool-Aid or Tang she could find, I was staring at four large glasses of juice. “They’re all yours,” she said smiling. Gee, thanks. I did get her to at least taste the other four, then I chugged the coconut one (yum!), chugged at a slightly slower pace the melon one (equally yum, but cold and getting full now), and sipped at the remaining two. There was no way I could finish them with our driver waiting. “Could we pour it outside?” Francine asked. Not really possible being parked on the crowded corner in front of the juice bar. So I had a flash of Dip Wife brilliance, or at least minor problem-solving ability, and took my half-empty large water bottle, which was full of Crystal Light orange-strawberry mix (yum yum!), and carefully poured the remaining two glasses into it.

Francine managed to finish her measely one glass of juice, so we were able to return the glasses and tray as requested. Luckily we weren’t far from home by this point, so we made it back without further incident and I enjoyed my exotic fruity concoction for the next few days; at a delightfully leisurely pace.

Our most recent shopping escapade found three of us in yet another diplomatic van (this is important for later repercussions), with our favorite driver Mohammed, heading to Khan el Khalili. Typically we just head to the Khan in a cab, but Francine needed the van to cart her gargantuan fuul pot to the Crazy Brothers for repairs. Having a giant-sized copper pot rolling around in the back of the van as we drove along the Cairo streets only added to the joy of typical traffic.

A fuul pot is essentially a spherical copper pot with a narrow short neck and opening from which to scoop out the fuul beans with a ladle. Most of them have a stand that they rest on, and when actually used there are hot coals placed underneath for cooking purposes. They come in a huge range of sizes, some small enough to fit in your hand (souvenir-type) up to the size of Francine’s, which is more than three feet tall.

She had pre-arranged with the Crazy Brothers (they’re the store that specializes in copper, tin, metals, antique bits and pieces) to meet the van and have someone carry in the extremely heavy pot. When she called we overheard, “I’m sending down my nephew to meet you. You’ll know him. He looks like me; short.”

Following the bombing at the Khan in late February, security has tightened, however Francine was able to convince the security police to let us drive the diplomatic van into the Khan to make it easier to drop off the pot. However, the caveat was that they thought we were “somebody” and therefore insisted that we have an armed escort during our Khan shopping. Enter Tamar, with his brown suit and tie, bemused smile, and semi-automatic.

While we were getting all the introductions and dragging the ridiculously large pot out of the van, I saw a man approaching who looked a lot like one of the Crazy Brothers. The only difference was that we were expecting some strapping young nephew, and this guy was a good twenty years past “strapping” and he was also about a mere 18 inches taller than the pot itself, and yet with the slightest of grunts he hefted it onto his back and started off through the crowds.

We thanked our driver Mohammed and scuttled off after the pot (which was all we could see bobbing above the crowds). As we hurried along one of us muttered aloud as to whether we could lose our armed escort amongst the throngs, so we scuttled a little faster. But as we turned the corner that lead to the Crazy Brothers’ store, Tamar was right behind us. I practically bumped into Francine, who had stopped at the bottom of the narrow stone staircase that lead up to the store. She was staring intently at the nephew lugging the pot up the stairs. “I’m just picturing an Indiana Jones-type moment but with a fuul pot instead of a boulder,” she said. So we waited until it had safely rounded the corner at the top.

Once we’d hung out with the Crazy Brothers a little, perused their treasure and trinket troves (see photos above) and dealt with the dented pot, we moved on and started our shopping trip. Tamar dutifully followed us through every jewelery and silver shop, through papyrus, glass, t-shirt, camel saddle (they make neat little benches) and even the wooden doll shop.

Where there was space, he would park himself in the corner with the newspaper. I think he found us quite amusing. Francine knew lots of nook and cranny spots, places I didn’t even know were there, so it was a lot of fun. And with Tamar along, she decided to expand her knowledge and started going down unknown alleys, until we found ourselves mistakenly in an ablution area for men who were getting ready to pray (we quickly turned around and scuttled back to the closest jewelry store). After a few hours, and lots of goodies, Tamar led us out to the taxis and bid us farewell. Probably not his typical day, but then again, not our’s either.

So I do hope our years in Cairo will include many more “Wild Rides with Francine,” though depending on the success rate, I just may have to get a job to support them.