Lost and Gained

Like I said in my last post, I have not had as much trouble adjusting to Egypt as I expected to originally. I haven’t had any long, intense bouts of homesickness yet, but there have been brief moments, for example, when the Wi-Fi at the Medina entered its fourth straight week of simply not being present, when I have briefly thought of things I miss about everyday life in America. This morning was one of those moments, due to my actual need for Internet that simply didn’t exist, but since I found this lovely cafe with a very friendly staff and a view of the sea I am feeling much better now (don’t worry!). Since I have a deep attachment (obviously and inevitably) to my life in America, but am also learning to appreciate the differences of my daily life in Egypt, I choose to look at this as a list of things I have lost and the corresponding thing I have gained. Of course, what should be first on this list is something I discussed at length in my last post, so I have not included it here, but it would read: Lost: The assumption that things will generally work as intended or events will begin on time, Gained: A more carefree and calmer approach to daily life. That is still probably the thing I appreciate most about my life in Egypt. However, there are plenty of others, and here are just a few.

1. Lost: Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Gained: Bassem Youssef

So far, this is one of the things I miss most (not totally sure what that says about me). I do love my political satire, and I have very rarely missed an episode of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report since starting college. Between the language pledge and the very, very crappy and unpredictable Internet, I have not gotten to watch them at all since arriving in Egypt. To make matters worse, Jon Stewart is going to be in Durham in March, and my whole family will be going without his biggest fan! Lucky for me though, there is a counterpart here in Egypt, and slowly but surely I am beginning to understand him. His name is Bassem Youssef, and if you are a religious devotee of The Daily Show like I am, you will have seen him interviewed last summer. He really is extremely funny, and he consciously structured his show after the Daily Show, so it is quite a fitting substitute. I found a few YouTube channels online that subtitle full episodes in English, but it takes them quite a while so I was stuck with episodes from November and December, and quite recently they broke into January. Now that I have gotten a bit more used to his voice, as long as he sticks to political topics where my vocabulary is a bit more extensive (thanks Al Kitaab!), I can normally understand the main idea the first time around without subtitles. I am now watching more recent episodes once they get posted on the show’s official YouTube channel (and once I find a decent Internet connection) and I tend to watch them about three times in a row. It is still a struggle but it is definitely much easier than it was a month ago. Certainly, in a post (or possibly ongoing) revolutionary state, there is room for political satire, and he very freely expresses his opinion. If you want to see an example, this is a brief clip of his show from December 21, 2012 (be sure to turn on captions in the bottom right hand corner to see what he is saying in English!). This particular clip is serious rather than funny, but I think it shows the strength of the program’s writing and his willingness to tackle any subject.

2. Lost: Snow, Gained: A Mediterranean coastline

Now I know snow is supposed to be a pain for New Englanders (yes, I sometimes call myself a New Englander/Mainer after just two years there…), but I have to say that all the blizzard pictures up on Facebook and the Bowdoin website made me pretty jealous of the ability to go build an igloo outside. I love playing in the snow, and sometimes there is nothing like a good old blizzard to make you feel like a five year old again. I did genuinely miss having an actual winter as I looked through the pictures of Bowdoin as a winter wonderland. But I have to say that the weather here is pretty incredible, and whenever I miss the snow too much I can always walk the two blocks down to the Corniche and stare out at the Mediterranean for a while. Different, to be sure, but it makes a decent replacement.

3. Lost: The ability to casually cross the street, Gained: Adventure every time I cross the Street

Now Brunswick is by far the easiest place in the world to cross the street. I remember visiting Bowdoin for the first time, and standing on a corner with my mother in downtown Brunswick debating whether or not we were going to cross the street, and noticing that a car was waiting calmly and patiently for us to make our decision before he drove past us. That is not the way Egyptian driving works. Egyptian driving is one of the least comprehensible phenomena I have ever witnessed. There clearly seem to be rules of conduct, as Egyptians all seem to be driving in the same manner, but I have yet to figure out exactly what they are. I have decided that it definitely seems to be a competition, and if you let a pedestrian cross in front of you or let another vehicle in front of you for any reason whatsoever, you have lost. On top of that mentality, they have dispensed with any idea of lanes. Cars tend to drive in a zigzag pattern in order to win whatever race they are currently engaged in, and I have commonly seen five or six cars across the width of what ought to be a three lane road from an American perspective. When we were walking through Cairo we came across a few gridlock situations where I legitimately could not conceive of the intended traffic pattern as cars seemed scattered about randomly, facing in all sorts of directions, and no one could move. Every morning on my walk to class, I have to cross a pretty large intersection, and it is always an adventure. The whole first week I would basically hold my breath and run across when I thought I saw a gap, which of course is not quite the Egyptian way (though this was by no means the only thing giving me away as a foreigner, so I wasn’t overly concerned about it). I have gotten fairly used to this now, and have discovered that fortunately the cars here do in fact seem averse to the idea of actually running a pedestrian over. Nonetheless, it is a great way to be sure you are nice and awake before your first class of the day.

4. Lost: All my Thorne and Moulton favorites (Looking at you, Chicken Tortilla Soup), Gained: Koshary

We polar bears are pretty fond of our dining. I doubt many college students studying abroad commonly note missing their cafeteria food, but to be honest Thorne and Moulton are pretty lovely. Fortunately, Egypt has its very own comfort food, and unfortunately I am quite addicted to it. Koshary is a dish very specific to Egypt that essentially mixes all the carbs you can throw into a bowl together and adds some spices and garlic sauce–basically a dish custom designed for me. Though different restaurants differ in sauces and a few ingredients, usually Koshary consists of macaroni, lentils, chick peas, fried onions, sometimes some rice, sometimes a second kind of pasta, and then a spicy red sauce and a delicious garlicy sauce. It fills you up in no time flat, and makes sure your breath smells absolutely terrible, but oh my goodness is it delicious comfort food sometimes. Also, there is a nearish place where you can get a bowl of this deliciousness for 4 guinea, or about 60 cents, yes please! (Note: I am planning to do a longer food post soon, so Koshary will probably show up there too, but it had to go in this list as well).

My first bowl of Koshary (back during orientation)

My first bowl of Koshary (back during orientation)

5. Lost: Feeling like a moderately intelligent person when I speak to anyone, Gained: The feeling of Extreme Triumph when A New Person Understands What I am Saying in Arabic

Arabic is hard, honestly. There is simply no way around that. I do feel like I am improving quite quickly in terms of being able to understand what is being said to me, but my ability to appropriately and quickly respond in dialect is still lagging a bit. Earlier today my friend and I arrived at a cafe and had the hardest time trying to ask the waiter what their hours were (though since it turned out this cafe is 24-hour, perhaps the question simply confused him). I have a few conversations like that almost every day, where someone hears something completely different than what I am actually trying to say, and when they start speaking to me in competent English it makes me feel like such an idiot sometimes. However, most days, I do get at least one conversation in where I both understand what I am being told and asked, and the other person understands what I am trying to say. My ability to hold a conversation with Salah (the cheery shopkeeper from an earlier post who is one of my favorite people in Egypt) is one of the easiest ways to turn a difficult day around. Fortunately he is around the corner from my dorm, so if I need to lift my spirits I can almost always make an excuse to go purchase a water bottle from him. It is even better whenever I am talking to someone from the first time if they respond with “Oh, you speak Arabic?” with a mixture of shock and delight. I quickly temper their expectations by saying “A little,” but that doesn’t lessen my joy at being understood by someone new for the first time. There is something about being in a completely new environment that opens you up to appreciating the little things, and that is honestly a really pleasant outlook to have on life.

Till next time!

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