July 29, 2009

Plinky and the Brian: Pleasant Surpise

Today's Plinky prompt:

What city were you surprised to like?

The truth is that while there are a lot of places I haven't been, I have been to some interesting places. My answer to this question has a lot less to do with the city than it does with the circumstances surrounding my visit.

The short answer: Cairo. The longer answer is, well, the rest of this post, isn't it?

I started the job prior to the one I have now on August 29, 2001. About my third day or so there, one of my coworkers came up to me and said, "Listen: don't tell anyone because it's not official yet, but it looks like we might be going to Egypt in early October."

At the time he told me, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. But you can imagine that about a week and a half later, my thinking was a little bit different. It was more along the lines of, "You want me to go where, now?" and "Oh, hell no." Or something to that effect.

Now, for reasons not directly related to 9/11, the trip got postponed for a couple of months, resulting in one of the busiest Thanksgiving weekends of my life: I had Thanksgiving dinner, moved from one house to another, more or less dropped all my stuff in a pile, packed and left for two weeks overseas. All in the span of about three days. It was a little hectic, to say the least.

But even a couple of months later, there was quite a bit of trepidation about the trip. Remember: at that point, people weren't even flying between states in this country, let alone over there. And while I have a different perspective on it now, at the time I lumped Egypt into the category of the Middle East, which was not a place Americans were generally all that thrilled about heading. The people I traveled with joked about getting Canadian flags to sew onto our bags. We joked. Kind of.

But off we went, and everything was fine. Better than fine, actually. Cairo is pretty amazing, and we had a great visit. The pictures alone are worth having been there. I have a bunch of stories, many of which deserve (and may get) their own posts, but here are some highlights:

- The next time you get frustrated in DC traffic, just be glad you're not in Cairo. There are something on the order of 20 million people there (at least, that's what I was told; I've never bothered to fact-check), and it seems like they're all driving around at the same time. We landed at Cairo airport just after midnight, and as far as the traffic was concerned, it might as well have been rush hour. It was shocking. And there are no rules that I can determine, instead bumper advantage rules the day. Oh, and you might have to share the road with a donkey cart or two. With all of that, though, I never saw a single accident happen, and only one or two fender-benders after the fact. And despite the volume, things move fairly swiftly (or more swiftly than you'd expect, which is to say at all). But more than once we had to fold the mirrors in on the van to get through a very tight spot.

- We arrived during Ramadan, which was fascinating. All kinds of decorations covered the city, and we were fortunate enough to be invited to the iftar (fast-breaking dinner) at the office where our project took place. Really, really interesting on a host of levels. Plus, awesome food, which always helps. Bizarre lasting image from the evening: large, round Arabic men wearing fezzes, dancing around each other like it was a club. As strange as that may sound, there's no way what you're picturing is as weirdly comical as what actually happened. Trust me, I was there (with neither fez nor dancing, just so we're clear).

- Our hotel was on the Nile River, and you could see the Pyramids from my balcony. You can see the Pyramids from just about everywhere in Cairo, seeing has how Giza is a little closer to Cairo than Baltimore is to DC.

- We got rained on while we were there. This is not something that happens often. We asked one of our clients how often it rained, and he said, "I think it rained three times last year." So we witnessed (and felt) what could have been roughly 30% of Cairo's annual rainfall during our trip.

- I may or may not have eaten camel. I say that not to be cryptic, but because I'm not completely sure. But I think so. And it wasn't very good. Suffice it to say that during Ramadan in an Islamic country, the options for lunch are not what I would describe as plentiful and/or varied.

- Speaking of lunch, we did make an obligatory visit to McDonalds (which is not where the might-or-might-not-have-been-camel experience took place, just for the record). As much as they say that McDonalds is the same all over ther world, it's not the same in Egypt. But you can get McFalafel there, which I find amusing and kind of soul-hurting all at the same time. But what was amazing was the block that the McD's was on; it was a city block of nothing but American franchises. You had McD's, Hardee's, Radio Shack, and.... wait for it....

Little Ceasar's pizza. Because apparently, nobody in Egypt teaches history, either. I mean, seriously: if you're going to import Western junk food, fine. Just have some national pride, and I don't know, pick a company not named for someone who conquered your country. Papa John never ruled an empire; that's all I'm saying. One of my biggest regrets is not getting a picture of the place*. I got the Radio Shack but not Little Ceasar's. Next time I'm there, though...

- We got at least one apology about 9/11, from a cab driver, while we were over there.

- It was really sobering to see just how hard a country like Egypt was hit by the aftermath of the 9/11. Egypt has no oil, and its economy is very dependent on tourism. Well, while we were there, we saw virtually no tourists. The point was made very clear one night when we went to a local restaurant for dinner. It was a nice place, definitely at the higher end of the spectrum; one of the places on the list of Places To Eat you find one travel websites, etc. Had a great dinner, then went over to the bar and got into a conversation with the manager there. At some point we ended up talking about 9/11 (because how could you not?), and he pulled out his reservation book and opened it up, to give us an idea of the impact 9/11 had on a place like Cairo. He opened the book up to July/August, and every page, no kidding, was completely full. Huge parties, 60 or so people, several to a page, crowded the reservations. He then flipped ahead to November, and again all the pages were completely full of huge parties. The difference: virtually every one had been crossed out, canceled.

- Everyone should go to Cairo just to see the Khan al-Khalili, which I believe is the oldest marketplace in the world. It's beautiful, once you get past the overly-aggressive shopkeepers. But I will tell you another time about Magdi, who is reason enough to go there all by himself. But we went, and we haggled. Because that's what you do.

- We spent about 3 hours on horseback, riding around the Pyramids. And yes, it was exaclty as cool as it sounds. We had found a cab driver that we liked, so we held onto his number and called him whenever we needed something. Turned out he knew some guys who ran a stable in Giza, so he took us over there and got us fixed up with horses and a guide. It was truly amazing, and humbling, to be among that kind of history (and scale; the things are every bit as big as they look and then some), and the horse thing was just a great way to go about it. Much better than camel, I think, for long periods. Less spitting, and the jerking forward and back. Mostly, though, the spitting.

As I said, I have more stories, but I'll save them for another time. In the end, I'm glad I went, and was fortunate enough to make a second trip about six months later. I'd go back in a heartbeat, and I recommend it to anyone who's thinking about going.

And I have the number for a great cab driver, if you need it.

* Longtime readers of Arjewtino might find that story familiar, as it was the subject of a comment and photo-post on his blog a while back.

July 22, 2009

A Memorable Memorial

So it's been a family-oriented couple of weekends. This past weekend was a cousin's wedding on my Dad's side (very nice time, although getting there might be the subject of a different, far less positive post), and the weekend before was back up in Dagny's Land of Milk and Honey for the memorial service/party/gathering for Gramps.

It's one of those things where I feel like I should try to describe it, try to capture just a bit of the experience, while at the same time being at an almost total loss how to go about it. A simple recounting of details seems wholly insufficient, but we'll see how it goes.

It was simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking to be there. So many good stories, great memories shared, counterbalanced against the fact that it was going to be the next to last time I would probably ever set foot in that house. Lots of people who I was thrilled to see, but I would have just as soon had a completely different reason for us to get together. I could think of about a thousand that I would have preferred, with one more guest at the table. But such as it was, and has been throughout, it all went pretty much ideally. Under the circumstances.

I realize it might seem a little strange, to have a memorial service (I will continue to call it that, for lack of a better term; it wasn't a service per se, seeing as how there was no church and no religious aspect to it at all; but I'm not about to call it a party, so there we are) more than a month after his passing, but Mom and Dad wanted to give the various cousins a chance to make some travel arrangements, rather than all trying to rush down immediately. They wanted to be able to plan an opportunity for a small but significant number of people to get together, share stories, and celebrate the man that was my grandfather. And we did, and as people said during and afterwards, it was very him.

It was a very simple thing, held at the clubhouse in the community in which he lived, but there were some wonderful Gramps touches: his favorite local restaurant catered the event, my parents put together a few photo-boards of pictures from a wide variety of aspects of Gramps' life, and we had people who were both relatives and friends who knew him in different ways and on different levels. One amusing irony about it was that, while many of the friends from the community had known him nearly 25 years, they really only knew him as he was when he moved out of Brooklyn after my grandmother passed away, so there was this whole other aspect to him that they never knew (or at least, never experienced). So here I was, telling people who were 50-plus years my senior things they'd never heard about a man they'd known for almost as long as I've been alive. A little surreal, for all of us. But that was part of Mom's point: let people see and hear things that they may not have known, that helped make up who he was.

We had a little under 50 people there, in total, and it ended up being just about half and half family and friends. The food was great, and the conversation better. There were people there that I'd never met, or at least hadn't seen since Gramps' surprise 75th birthday party (at which I taught a room full of senior citizens the Electric Slide, but that's a whole different post), and cousins that I don't see nearly often enough. Plus one or two old family friends with whom I got to catch up after many, many years. I guess it's as close to the Irish wake you'd kind of expect, minus the large volumes of whiskey: mostly smiles and laughter. A tear or two, sure, but mostly good memories to share with good people.

The story sharing was the best, if perhaps the most difficult, part of the whole thing. Mom had asked people to, when they felt the inspiration, to share a story or memory about Gramps. It wasn't organized, just as people sat and talked amongst themselves, someone would get up and address the group with whatever they'd come up with.

From the beginning, before Mom even mentioned this part of the plan, I kind of expected that I'd end up saying something. It was quite a surprise, though, when mom specifically asked me to read the post I'd written about his passing, since it's more or less exactly the kind of thing she was looking for. I agreed, but we also agreed that something like that would probably not be good to open with, belonging more towards the end. My brother actually found a paper he'd written about Gramps back in 3rd grade, which along with every card we'd ever sent him, he had kept in the guest room of his house. So he read (paraphrased, more like) that as his memory, which kind of got the ball rolling. But it also sort of set the pattern, inasmuch as he got about thirty seconds in before having to pause and re-compose; something that would happen a few times throughout. I'll not get into all the stories, but suffice it to say that they were all funny and warm, much like the man himself.

And I pretty much went last. It was fitting, I guess, but I will say that it made for a much more difficult read than I had expected. I was convinced that after having written it and read it over, that I'd be able to make it pretty much all the way through. I made it about three lines in before my voice caught the first time. The first of several. I only actually stopped once, but I will admit that there are a couple of parts that I can't be sure that anyone heard clearly. But all in all, people seemed to appreciate it, and I was told more than once that I had done well. So I'll take it. Actually, my favorite part was the bit about the answering machine, because as I read the quote of his message, virtually every head in the room was nodding along and laughing. Everybody got it. That was pretty awesome.

I didn't read the whole thing, though. Knowing that I was going to be telling stories in front of a room full of people, I wanted to make sure that the stories I was telling were actually true. Turns out that a couple, which I had believed for a number of years, weren't. At least, not entirely. It was a really interesting conversation with my dad. As he said, it was the reality I was living in, and as such my parents didn't see a need to correct me, but there were some things that I just had wrong. So I didn't tell those parts (or I corrected them: the desks I mentioned? Gramps did those himself. I did tell that one. And he did quit drinking, but not for exactly the reason I had thought. I left that out entirely).

In the end, it was an entirely fitting tribute, and I have a hard time imagining a better way to have spent that time. And now, I make one more trip up there to pick up a few things, and pretty soon the house goes on the market. But it's all right. It was never really about the house; it was about the memories, about the stories.

And I've got plenty of those right here. A few more now than I used to.

July 9, 2009

The Darndest Things: Language Paranoia

As I've mentioned, many of my friends are now with kid (or with multiple kids), and those kids are the subject of some pretty funny stories, more often than not by virtue of the things that come out of untrained mouths. This is probably my second-favorite, of which I was reminded by Lisa's post about watching her mouth.

My friend and former coworker S and her husband have two boys (and now a cute little baby girl, congrats to them), the older of whom was in the early stages of stringing sentences together. As such, they were trying very hard to monitor their language, for fear of the kid picking up some unfortunate habits (which he did, at one point absorbing both the pronunciation and use of "Dammit," much to the amused chagrin of his parents as they saw the child bump his head against his crib and let fly with a diminutive "Dammit!"). But small slips aside, they had done very well.

Or so they thought.

Fast forward a bit to a family trip out and about, with the whole crew sitting at a traffic light. Husband is driving, S riding shotgun, kids strapped in in the back seat. All normal, until the older child's voice cuts through the silence.

"Mommy," he says, "that's a dumbfuck!"

S just about passes out, as you can imagine.

She looks at husband, agog. Husband looks at her, same. And exchange follows, mostly whisper-shouted,

"Did you...?"
"I didn't!"
"Well I certainly didn't...!"
"Well then where the...?!?"

For about ten very long seconds. All the while S is borderline frantic trying to figure out where on Earth their child had heard that kind of language.

Fortunately for her (and her sanity), the source of the problem becomes clear, and she gently corrects her little boy.

"No, no, honey, it's pronounced Dump. Truck."

And then she could breathe again.
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