Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Autumn

“I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” 
― Henry David Thoreau

It has been several months since I last wrote; Summer passed by all too frantically and quickly (with amazing travels in Greece and the Balkans, a month of cat-sitting in Istanbul and a too-short trip back home to Calgary), my latest teaching job began suddenly in mid-August, and I am currently settled into a new life back in old familiar Istanbul.


It is strange that a city that once took hold of me in its exoticism should feel at all familiar - the twisty, hilly streets of Beyoglu and its bars and lokantas; the ferries crossing the Bosphorus and my own specific favourite seat (bottom level of the older boats, outside, feet outstretched on the rail hanging over the edge); the yellow dolmus buses and their various routes; the gorgeous Ottoman mosques and minarets; the colourful street markets laden with figs and eggplants; the neon MIGRO's signs on every corner; the Gratis make-up shops; the everpresent simit vendors and their circles of sesame bread eaten on early mornings, with a small cup of strong tea (cay). Of course I did live here for 6 magical months back in 2013, so obviously there us familiarity from that experience, but this time around, things are a bit...different.

I am now working a full-time, respectable, stable teaching job that pays well. I have a clean, comfortable and relatively new apartment in a quiet and peaceful residential area a half hour service bus ride from my school. I now know the Asian side intimately, from Kazasker to Bagdat Caddesi to Uskudar. For all intents and purposes, I should be exponentially happier than I was back in 2013, when I barely had enough money for a pint of Efes, and lived primarly off of vegetarian Cig Kofte and lentil soup - as my kitchen was routinely occupied by 4 Syrian refugees- and I slept on a narrow steel bed that looked like it once belonged in a psychiatric hospital, in an apartment in an area of Istanbul best known for its glue sniffers and thieves.

My sheets now are clean and matching their pillows, my bedroom decorated with soft Ikea lighting and a full, organized closet- that I add new pieces to on an somewhat alarming basis (this city has always been excellent for shopping). I am extremely comfortable, middle class and for the time being, things seem to be playing out fairly well (minus the early mornings, absurd Turkish bureaucracies and my wild and untameable grade 3 classes which routinely make me question my chosen profession), yet it seems I have some unshakeable melancholia. Perhaps it is the usual Autumn seasonal effective malady, or perhaps it is just that I am a person who thrives off of chaos, struggle and instability, and whereas in Cairo every day involved a feeling of complete alienation and chaos, here I can melt quietly into the background, be mistaken for a Turk most days, and just go about my life in a quiet, humdrum sort of way.



Which isn't my preferred way or mode of living. Like the hanged man in the Tarot thrown into comfortable Ace of Cups surroundings, the normalcy and routine of being a respectable teacher in a city that can at times feel not much different than Canada, can be...dare I say it... boring? I don't mean to complain or reek of privilege: Every weekend that I take the ferry across the grey, moody waters of the Bosphorous, and throw pieces of Borek to lucky seagulls, or every Saturday evening that I sit on a rooftop and gaze at this wonderous cities endless markets and minarets, I feel gratitude and the shrewd evidence of my luck. I know that I am living a life that to outsiders must seem enviable, (I almost envy myself), but it isn't always easy, this nomadic life I have chosen - especially when you aren't indulging in romantic travel spoils, but rather are tethered to work, order and routine employment. I would be lying if I said I didn't miss my homeland; Autumn is a time of year that passes by all too quickly in Calgary, but it has always been my favourite season - buying pumpkins at Safeway, walking the Bow river and seeing the leaves change colour, the first snowfalls and of course, getting dressed to kill on North America's favourite holiday, Halloween.

Within the normal workday it seems I sometimes forget why I am really here, and why I gave up my homeland; the normalcy and stability that I currently find myself in is a struggle against my ethos of bohemian artistic wild rebellion. I make drawings between lessons and write poetry on napkins to strive to stay inspired. I am fierce in my desire to make my weekends count, to smell that salty air mixed with decaying bricks, the air that first made me fall in love with this amazing city, that stoked the coals of my soul in a way that both elated and terrified me; it is true that nothing has ever been the same since. I seek out corners of chaos in the backstreets of Kucukpazar, trying to find unique cactuses amongst the bric-a-brac to keep me and my partner company in our cozy home nest. I spot a mysterious Jewish cemetery from a taxi ride in the morning and return later that day exhausted after school, to take pictures of the stars of David peeking through the high and wired fence. I try to force myself to look up, around, and in all corners, to keep my eyes fresh, enthused and always, always seeking.

As my idol Patti Smith writes in her upcoming book 'M Train' (that I recently ordered from the local English bookshop):

“The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there,”

Perhaps my heart is just so used to being transformed by constant change and delirious experience, that I just need to learn to see the beauty again, in the small things. I look forward to seeing my first Istanbul snowfall, planning adventures for my winter holidays, and always, to the next cup of Turkish tea. Perhaps I am nostalgic for the past, if only because upon reflection, it seems my heart was being constantly transformed, and now I seem to be existing in some sort of denouement. I know that life is a series of peaks and valleys and plateaus; I ought not be melancholic, as all parts are crucial to the landscape. 









Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Istanbul Chronicles

Today, as I walked across the Galata bridge (that Istanbul institution linking Eminonu's pier with the up-and-coming hip district of Karakoy -and up the hill, the bridge's namesake, the beautiful Galata tower), I noticed a fashionable young mother in acid-wash skinnies, holding her kindergarden-aged sons hand. Behind her, a man held what appeared to be an identical twin brothers hand. Both boys were wide eyed, wore glasses, and immediately I recognized them as two twin boys who I used to teach at the preschool I worked at in Istanbul, in 2013. These two twin boys, now grown into actual little upright walking humans, were mere 18 month old toddlers when I used to spend the lunch hours spooning rice and peas into their chubby smiling mouths. Even then, one of them wore red glasses, attached to his head with a snug headband, that he would always find a way to tear loose, leaving his tiny lenses in random spots around the garden, crawling in the playroom, dropping them in a bucket of germy dirty lego. Both boys were adorable and two of my favourite kids at that school, and it was a surreal sight, to randomly recognize them 2 years later, in this city of 20 million people, walking on a bridge full of fisherman and simit-sellers, squinting in the afternoon sun.

When these sorts of unlikely coincidences or chance occurrences occur, an average logical person might take notice, smile and move on - but I always tend to think about the more esoteric meaning. One theory is that these little coincidences are a trace evidence of our destiny, or more poetically, "fates fingerprint". Just a little seemingly meaningless sign that we our on the correct path, fulfilling our destiny as we are meant to. Whether I believe that or not, I havent fully decided, but I definitely feel like Istanbul, in particular, has opened its doors to me in a most spectacular and cosmically wonderous way.

Here then, for my own reading pleasure and perhaps others who are interested, are my Istanbul chronicles:

Istanbul #1. September 2010.
My first trip to this gorgeous, continent spanning city, was a quick jaunt after visiting Rome with a friend, on my first European holiday. We flew into Sabiha Gokcen airport on a budget flight, where I had checked my friends luggage under my name (as he had not paid prior for luggage, and my backpack was light enough to be considered carry-on), and, unbeknownst to me, he had a certain illicit substance in his bag, that he had neglected to consider or mention. I shan't get into details, but suffice to say, I will never check anyone's luggage under my name ever again, and I am grateful that there were no parallels in my arrival, to any scene out of "Midnight Express". I spent the entire 5 days in Sultanehmets touristic bliss, experiencing my first call-to-prayer, my first tastes of borek and Turkish tea, red lentil corba soup with lemon, my first glimpse into Islamic culture, Sufism, Dervishes, the Ottoman legacy, glittering minarets and bazaars, and, for lack of a better word the "the Middle East". It completely changed my life, and became an obsession and fascination that carries over into my life, right until the present day.

Istanbul # 2. August 2011
After experiencing Istanbuls majesty the year prior, and instigated by a rather painful and dramatic relationship breakup, I decided to throw all manner of caution to the wind, quit my job, and plan a 4 month Middle East extravangaza, which coincidentally coincided with the arrival of the regime shattering and chaotic "Arab Spring". I began my solo journey in Cairo on May 5th, touching down to a government-less country, a frenetic and inspiring Tahrir Square, and slowly made my way overland through Jordan, Syria, Northern Iraq, Turkey, and finally ending in Istanbul. By the time I arrived in Istanbul I was tanned for the first time since elementary school, dizzy with amazing delirious experiences, fully addicted to sheesha, and I had nary a penny left in the bank account. So, I took to working in a hostel full of cats, to earn my bed and breakfast, and enjoyed a few weeks before my flight was due to head back to Canada. I visited the Basilica Cistern for the first time, got to know Cihangirs cafes and Taxim's bars - I call this completing my beginner's Istanbul diploma.

Istanbul # 3. April 2012
Once again, I found myself penniless and somewhat distraught in the city of my dreams, after an au-pair gig in Morocco went sideways (read: fired), and my brother and I had spent a few lovely weeks draining my bankaccount sightseeing in Marrakech, Rabat, Essouria and Chefchaoen. He and I then arrived to Istanbul via cheap Air Arabia flights, and slept for free in the basement of the aformentioned Stray Cats Hostel, as I showed him all the sights and sounds of Istanbul on a budget. Due to rather fortunate coincidence (notice that word again?), another friend from Calgary happened to be in Istanbul at that same time, doing an artists residency near the Galata tower, and many evenings were spent drinking Efes on the sidewalk, enjoying the simple cheap pleasures of the city in the springtime.

Istanbul # 4. April - Oct 2013.
After a few months spent on another adventure (this time Lebanon, Ethiopia and 2 months in Iran), I arrived in Istanbul with a few hundred bucks left and an intent to try my hand at actually living in this city which seems to have left its gilded hooks upon my soul. I rented a room in Cihangir, and swiftly took task at finding a job - which ended up being a month or so back at the hostel, then a variety of very laughable private English lessons in coffeeshops, (where I had no clue what I was doing beyond drinking iced mochas), and eventually, a job at a preschool (where I was eventually fired for being unmotivated and chronically ill with teargas related Asthma). As luck would have it, my arrival in Istanbul this time would coincide with the Gezi park uprisings, and my various apartments were located right in the middle of the action. It was a pretty wild and exciting time, though after my lungs gave up on me, I gave up on being the beacon of resistance, and spent more time exploring the crumbling historical Golden horn regions, shopping the Dolapdere and Tarlabasi markets, and eating cig kofte by the sea. Eventually, when it became clear I had no job, i had spent the last of my liras on tattoos, and things appeared to be rather bleak, I ran back to Canada, for a somewhat soul-crushing winter and desk job, that propelled me to eventually teach in glorious Cairo for a year.

Which brings us up to date:

Istanbul # 5. June 2015. 
The Future is unwritten. Or....is it?



Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Memories of the Sphinx

It's nearing the end of April here in Cairo, and with that, the end of the school term, and the soon-to-be-near end of my (first) teaching contract at Sakkara school. While it makes the "end" and subsequent "goodbyes" that much easier knowing that I will gladly be re-hired for next year if I choose to stay (with a raise, woo!), I cannot help but be whistful and nostalgic when remembering the past amazing 8 months. I am already anxious about the idea of leaving, but as we all know, once you have drunk from the waters of the Nile, you are destined to return - and after my Nile felucca boat experience last October, I am fairly certain I may have literally drank that actual water.

My first memory involving Egypt, or my idea of Egypt, goes back to when I was in preschool - it is, in fact, one of my earliest, formative memories. This was the 1980's, and if you grew up in the 1980's you should be familiar with the Atari 2600 videogame console - the height of home entertainment fair with its 2 bit graphics and classic games like 'Donkey Kong' and 'Super Mario" lighting up many an orange-shag-carpeted rumpus room. One of my favourite games, or the game I remember most from then (even though I was barely old enough to hold a joystick), was called "Riddle of the Sphinx". It involved a fairly complex (for the time), plot of guiding oneself through a bright white desert platform, through palm trees and camels, past dangerous Scorpions and replenishing oasis', gaining special abilities through contact with Pharaonic deities Isis and Anubis, to eventually "solve" the riddle of the Sphinx. I remember being a preschooler transfixed by this game, and heartbroken when eventually the cartridge was somehow lost as we moved to a new duplex. This memory of the game (as well as another -purchased one boxing day at the local 'Consumers Distributing' - entitled "Desert Falcon", which involved navigating ones bird through the desert), never left me, and as absurd as it might sound, has contributed to the pull and claim that Egypt (and deserts and the whole "Middle East", in general), has over me.

I am part of the generation raised on video games and thriller movies, snapshots of faraway places and snippets of information on the backs of cereal boxes, T-shirts and commercial advertisements, so the idea that a video game instilled in me my first glimpse of wanderlust, doesn't seem entirely inappropriate. 21'st century mystics aren't solely of the pen and paper kind - fate and spirituality and little glittering traces of God can be found in neon packaging and bad graphics, not only leather bound scrolls or religious texts. As I grew older, my travel interests became more specific and substantial, but the first divine sparks of inspiration were most definitely laid by that video game, in the little apartment block, long long ago.

Last weekend I visited the Cairo-famous Citystars mall, a monstrous, giganta-mall structure with several Cinemas (including the VIP theater where you can lounge on lazy-boy chairs and have waiters bring you spring rolls and cappuccinos), 7 levels of shops, 2 food courts (where I go to get my Dairy Queen fix), and, keeping the thread of Egyptian specific tradition alive, full of smoky sheesha cafes and prayer rooms outside the lavatories. It sometimes pains me to think of how much time I have spent in  malls here in Cairo, but whereas in North America the mall is a place to buy things, in Cairo its a full day family outing, and more of an entertainment ritual, and I have actually really enjoyed my mall days. Anyways, as we drove our long taxi ride there, we passed over the City of the Dead - that infamous zone of ancient cemeteries and mosques, occupied by Cairo's poorest who live literally in Mausoleums, amongst the dead. As we careened and waived in and out of traffic on the overpass, the glistening mid-day heat wavering overhead, palm trees breaking up the dusty yellow skyline of minarets and crumbling bricks and arched roofs...I remembered that video game, and all my thoughts as a child: What would this fantastic legendary place called Egypt, be like?

I cannot believe that I have lived in that place, Egypt, the mythical setting of that video game, for the past year. Pollution and malls and everyday life have not dulled or obscured the magic of this experience; Even if I have never solved the riddle of the Sphinx, even if several thousand years have passed since Anubis lurked in the corners of the desert and even if ol' Sphinx face herself, (or as she is know in Arabic  أبو الهولAbū al-Haul, "The terrifying one"), is now situated in the midst of the ramshackle suburb of Giza. I grew up in the barren cold Canadian Prairies, in small apartments and bunkbeds shared with my brother; Egypt was something video games were made about, and fantastical movies and television programs, and maybe, if you were lucky, some place that rich people visited on African Safaris. I had a friend in high school who lived in a big house in the suburbs, full of expensive furniture and a backyard hot tub; "My mother bought this chair in Egypt", my friend had said, and I remember praying in my head that I would at least one day make it outside the giant vastness of Canada.

So here I am, musing and remembering, after a year spent in Cairo - or 'Al-Qahira, mother of the world', as she is known in these parts. It has been an unforgettable experience, and I am so glad I jumped at the chance last summer, when I was hired for this job at the last minute. I have learned how to become an actual teacher, I have seen it through to the end (something I have trouble doing, being the spontaneous and restless person I am), I have had the joy of family and friends visiting me here to share the adventure, and most importantly, I have gotten to experience Cairo on a much deeper level than my first visit here as a backpacker, 4 years ago. Cairo is not a city that is prone to love at first sight; beyond the impressive tourist bubble, the reality here can be frustrating, gritty, challenging if not heartbreaking. But to those willing to spend enough time, and persist, the magic and mystery weaves itself into daily life: The weekly routines of grocery shopping and buying astoundingly cheap fresh produce; goodmorning hello's to the resident street cats and dogs; feeding animals at the Giza Zoo; late nights in smoky downtown Bellydance clubs; shaking your own moneymaker at bellydance lessons; lazing on the couch with the AC blasting and watching the birds outside, drinking endless cups of instant nescafe coffee; sitting in a cafe during a powercut, eating bites of chocolate cake in the dark; 1001 nights of Syrian shawarma; the ladies balancing boxes on their heads, selling fresh parsley on street corners; the evening neighbourhood lemon man yelling up to the balconies; the many nights spent at the rooftop bar in Zamalek; watching the hazy orange and yellow sunsets in Al Azhar park... all the sightseeing and living ordinary daily life in between. It's been an amazing time, and I am so grateful.












 



Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Baladi Lady

Baladi  (Arabic بلدىbaladī; relative-adjective "of town", "local", "rural", comparable to English "folk" with a lower-class connotation)

Can refer to an Egyptian musical style, the folk style of Egyptian Bellydance (Raqs Baladi), or its rhythm, which is frequently used in Baladi music.

In Arabic, the word 'Baladi' does not only apply to music and dance, and can also apply to many other things that are considered native, rural, rustic or traditional - for example 'Baladi bread'. It is also applied to kinds of food and mostly to fruits and vegetables.


I have not written a proper entry on here in ages, so I suppose before I get into a discussion of the aforementioned 'Baladi' I will give a brief synopsis of the past few month of life in Cairo.

After a short and sweet winter, I had the pleasure of my brother visiting me, during my 3 week school term break at the end of January. We spent several days sightseeing in Cairo, and also took a  short jaunt to Luxor, where my brother got a pleasant taste of the sweet Pharaoh life, and I also met up with my friend Sharon, from Istanbul. Many shawarmas were had, many dusty taxi rides driven, and perhaps a few too many rip-offs in between, but such is life in Egypt. We also made a beautiful pilgrimage together to The Holy Land, which came at a rather auspicious time, as a long-lost cousin had recently got in touch with me, asking various questions about my Mother's supposed 'secret' ancestry - which, to make a short story of it, suggests that I may in fact be a teensy bit Jewish (which seems entirely logical given my propensity for all things philosophical, artistic, intellectual and persecuted). With this new found possibility at the back of my mind, Jerusalem certainly didn't disappoint, and it was an absolutely stunning, "life changing" experience for me - though how many times can one use the word "life changing", without sounding like a total tosser? Regardless, despite the judgements that I received at the hands of several friends, for visiting the oppressive Zionist entity, I am happy I went.  I have said it 100 times, but I will say it again: Judaism is older than Israel (Older than Islam and Christianity too, but who's counting?), and Jerusalem's history predates all this nonsense as well - my interest in Israel has nothing to do with Netanyahus idiocy and horrifying political policies anymore than my visit to Iran was a congratulatory fist-pump to the Ayatollahs last public execution, book-burning and stoning debacle.

February began with a new term, and the pleasant arrival of spring -I must say that living in a country where the season of spring is more than a 2 week tease of slushy rain, is quite lovely. Somewhere in the past 2 months, the flatmate and I also joined the gym next door (Which, unbeknownst to me, I had been living next door to THIS WHOLE TIME), and so I have gotten my already considerably orientalized booty (lots of stairs in our school are to blame for this), into somewhat better shape. The Kardashian of Kairo, according to some. Besides this, the only important development I can really think of has been me finding my foothold in the world of Egyptian Baladi bars.

As the definition above says, the term Baladi has a rather broad and seemingly bizarre meaning: used to concurrently describe bellydancers, and to talk about bread. The thread tying these differing nouns together is the rather disparaging tone of "Baladi", it being used to denote something being "of the street", authentic, and basically crass -the opposite of a fancy french croissant or stuffy high class ballet performance hall. As anyone who knows me knows, this is basically my ethos and artistic values, incarnate. Baladi bars, as they are known, litter downtown Cairo, and are hidden amongst the tiny alleys and crooked streets. Usually identified by a flickering Stella sign, the smell of sheesha, decrepit wooden and/or cheap plastic chairs, unattractive and/or marginalized looking clientele, and possibly raucous music leaking out its front door, I naturally had to make a home for myself at Cairo's granddaddy of Baladi Bars, the infamous downtown hole-in-the-wall that is Horreya.

El Horreya (meaning "freedom", in Arabic), has for decades been a living room-like bar where leftist intellectuals, artists, poets, filmmakers, writers, expats and locals young-and-old, gather to socialise and drink cheap Stella under bad florescent lighting. Located on a busy street close to Tahrir Square, Horreya's yellow painted walls are peeling, the vaulted ceilings plume with smoke, the vintage beer signs are rusted, bullet holes litter the windows, strange graffiti abounds ("See God, take Acid" being one such example), and the bathrooms are an abomination. Still, nothing comes as close to encapsulating all that I love about Cairo's energy and genuine friendliness as the surly waiter who literally hands you beer after beer without even asking, or the random people who you are sat with, offer you cigarettes and spark up random conversations on an average buzzing Thursday evening. I have seen hijabed women sitting with their fathers, drunken unemployed men offering pringles and backstreet boys tunes on their Ipod's headphones, old men playing chess, young expat journalists trying to impress each other, students blowing off steam, bearded hipsters posing, and stray 
teachers such as myself all contributing to the diversity that is Horreya. Revolutions come and go, bad governments come and go, rules, regulations and extremist fervour attempt to squash creativity and life, Empires around us fall and crumble - but thankfully, little seems to change at Horreya. It has become my religious activity - these Thursday night adventures downtown, and they always begin at Horreya, where I can be myself, free of judgement or pretension. Long live the Baladi bar!







Monday, January 5, 2015

365

Like a breath of unexpectedly chilly morning Cairo air, another new year is upon us; stumbling into 2015, I am 5 days shy of when I intended to write this -a recap of the past year and all the trials and tribulations that another spin around this sun, chaotically spun off.

2014 saw me go from the rather low starting point of being without a job, sleeping on my Dad's couch- to the high point of returning to teach English in magnificent crumbling Cairo. In between these two extremes there was a lot of food, drink, self loathing and self congratulation, but it's nothing to write home about - besides the fact that I finally saw a Joshua tree in person, and also managed to exercise my dormant inner groupie, meeting the inimitable Nick Cave. All in all, I feel satisfied that despite 2014's best attempts to silence and still me into Calgary-bound submission, I managed to honour my ever-present inner nomadic spirit and fled my hometown once again -just in time for the dreaded winter, no less. I also finally figured out the art of being a half-decent English teacher, and have settled nicely into the routines and daily life of living in Egypt- which brings us to now, January, and a shiny (at least, underneath all that desert dust), brand new year.

New years resolutions are something best talked about over New Years Day brunch - carelessly with a mouth full of poached egg, in between celebrity gossip and several mimosas. Does anybody ever take them seriously? We all know that the very concept of an unpleasant forced commitment (especially made after a night of heavy drinking), is doomed to fail. So why do we torture ourselves with the idea of these home improvements and grotesque makeovers? Lose 10 pounds, eat healthier, join a gym, stick to a budget, spend less time on Facebook; if there ever was a djinn of new years resolutions, you can be sure that little devil is laughing his ass off on your shoulder, tossing a pinch of glittery new ears confetti in your face, gleefully blowing a noisemaker at your impending future failures.

And yet, this year began differently for me; alone, in bed, sick at midnight with a mysterious 2 day stomach bug. As I tossed and turned in feverish agony, to the sounds of Cairo's abundant fireworks exploding outside, feeling outcast and forlorn and like a total loser, I thought that perhaps this unlikely beginning to the year might bode well for a new type of new years resolution: One of radical self acceptance.

Hear me out: By "radical self acceptance", I don't mean resting on complacency and a refusal for any self improvement, but rather a gentle illumination of ones true self. A stark examination of ones true character traits, flaws and all, and a decided conscious decision of how to maintain that authenticity, to ever better evolve into our best version of ourselves. Sound convoluted and absurd? Good. I am being authentic already! But seriously -if you truly like smoking sheesha every day, if you like eating Mcdonalds once a week, if you like watching bad reality T.V., if you like taking selfies while doing yoga, if you like the you that is embodied by these habits and behaviors, then I say, uphold them!! If you imagine yourself in a film and don't like what you see, this person you are...then change it. Be honest about who you are, what values and beliefs define you, and who you aspire to be. That's it, that's all. Maybe it's the Cairo spirit guiding me in this direction (a city where people don't even view any of the aforementioned habits in a negative light, whatsoever), or maybe its just that the older I get, the less I aspire to be someone better or different or perfect, wanting to simply BE happy, as is, the best version of myself that I am.

Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to your dark parts and your flaws, because as both Leonard Cohen AND Lady Gaga have alluded to: The wound is the place where the light enters you (though Lady Gaga took it one step further and quot-ably sang, "If you don't have shadows you aren't in the light").

I really don't know what else to say. Happy 2015 folks - may your year be full of profound lyrical quotes, and may you all stay in the light.




Sunday, December 7, 2014

Simple things


"I love those who do not know how to live, except by going under, for they are those who cross over.” 

― Friedrich Nietzsche 


I have always wanted to believe in the power of simplicity. The art of minimalism and going without, of cutting away all that is unnecessary in life, to reduce mental clutter, emotional baggage - not to mention a rejection of the capitalist mantra that most North Americans grow up with: Bigger, better, faster, more.

The smell of fresh air, a cold glass of water, an empty road to walk; these simple pleasures are probably the closest I have to a "must have" list, the things I simply couldn't live without (All of which are in short supply here in Cairo, I might add). I am not a fan of unneeded fancy gadgets or shiny technology and have always hated the disposable nature of contemporary culture - buy a computer and then replace it every 3 three years. I detest the idea of waste, and of landfills piling up with our self-created garbage. Keep it simple, Less is more - these are motto's that I always fall back to.

And yet, despite my best zen and hippie aspirations, it seems that nothing in my life is ever truly simple. Perhaps the austere nature of simplicity is completely at odds with my artistic personality - intense, reflective, inquisitive, talkative, decorative and obsessive. I have accumulated a veritable treasure trove of artifacts from the past 5 years of travels (scarves, postcards, antiques, books, objects and ephemera), sitting in reused apple boxes back home in Canada, awaiting the day I ever settle down. If I could paint a wall, I would never choose simplistic white. Stencils of gold stars would more likely border a deep rich red or forest green, with layers of paper and cloth draped haphazardly about, hiding any and all semblance of minimalism. If I have a coffee table in front of me, rest assured it is covered in half-empty mugs, notebooks and papers. My ideal house resembles more a museum, than a functional quiet place of living. Embellishment and detail are what always draw me in - "the more the merrier", anything-goes philosophy of every shabby-chic decorator from here to Soho.

What then, am I to expect of my life, as it naturally echos my philosophies and creative persona? The very nature of an honest Artist is that life reflects art and vice-versa. Perhaps life will always be somewhat complicated for me, because that is who I am at my core - a complex, conflicted, person who attracts similar intense souls, similar difficult situations. Love might be simple, as the best feelings and emotions are - irrefutable nuggets of resoluteness and purity  - but the world they inhabit, the place where love has to live, always seems fraught with uncertainty and difficulty and patience waiting to be tested.

I can admire the Buddha all I want, in his serenity and peace under the Bodhee tree, but in actuality my spirit will always be more like that of a tormented wayward disciple - torn between palm lined paths, toting amulets and talismans from various journeys and beliefs that I stole along the way.

So this is life: a complicated, wonderful beast of a place. And I don't think I'd have it any other way.







Tuesday, November 4, 2014

DIY Thai Tom oh-so-yum

On my first visit to Cairo three years ago, I ate little more than greasy late night shawarma, stale falafels, laughing cow cheese cubes and Turkish coffee.  Whether it was due to only frequenting cheap-o backpacker friendly cafes in the downtown, being too out-of-my-mind excited to even eat properly at all -or just that I had no clue of really where to go- I am happy to say that my diet this time around living in Cairo, has been a vast improvement.

Living in the somewhat out-of-touch expat populated suburb of Maadi has its advantages; within a 3 blocks radius of my house I can find a Greek cafe, two Italian restaurants, two Lebanese (one casual and cheap, the other a really classy delicious space perfect for special occasions), several as-yet-to-be-visited Chinese shops, a Sushi joint (haven't taken that plunge just yet - the thought of raw sashimi in a city where I have to sterilize my parsley with vinegar keeps me skeptical), an upmarket American place appropriately called "Craves" (for when the spoiled expat craves nachos, grilled cheese sammiches and maybe a good burger for his poor homesick stomach), a great cheap Egyptian kitchen, a biker-frequented bagel shop, many coffee shops -and more. Of course this doesnt include all the food that is available by phone - a quick trip to elmenus.com and one can order nearly anything and everything to be delivered to ones home, from delicious Mexican burritos to boxes of Syrian shawarma platters bursting with enough grease and garlic sauce to satiate even the most stoned or hungover lazy munch-a-holic.

The one thing then, that is missing from this whole situation, has been my beloved Vietnamese Pho - Cairo's Vietnamese population is apparently next to nil, though there are rumours of a supposed "Chinatown" lurking somewhere, which perhaps might lead me closer to the ellusive phantom steaming bowl. Second to Pho might be a good bowl of Thai Tom Yum - that intoxicating spicy dish fragrant with lemongrass, ginger, garlic, cilantro and other shrimpy soupy goodness (also the perfect antidote to Cairos smog and general related chronic nasal congestion).

Yet my attempts to find a decent Thai restaurant in Cairo have left me feeling like a dead Pharaoh without his funerary mask - incomplete and lacking. The first Thai discovery came via the aforementioned takeout, whereupon on our soup was delivered like a goldfish in a plastic bag. A few floating shrimps in a clear broth for exorbitant (by Cairo standards), prices. This past weekend another attempt at chasing the Thai dragon was made, by me, the flatmate and our hungry respective dates. After a long and arduous taxi ride to the Nile island of Zamalek, (and approximately 30 more minutes of walking like lost hunters through a chaotic and forbidding Thai-less land), we found the place - only to be served another sad bowl of clear salty liquid with nothing whatsoever "Thai" about it, and a main course than is best remembered for the fact that the rice portion was shaped cleverly like dear old Cheop's resting place.

See? Cute and all but WHERE is my Tom Yum???

After all this Thai teasing - and the lack of anything satisfying- I thought it perhaps best to just take the bull by the horns, search out the ingredients and in the DIY spirit that has always (and always will) guide my life, just make it myself. If I can find the stuff here to make it in Cairo, you have no excuse!!

Enjoy.

DIY Thai Tom Oh-so-yum

1 Onion
2 cloves garlic
1 stalk lemongrass
1 handful cilantro
chunk of ginger chopped into peices
2 thai red chili peppers, seeds removed and chopped into large chunks (or more depending how suicidal you feel)
2 carrots thinly sliced into rounds 
2 scallions cut into longer slices like they do in Thai food
1 can mushrooms
1 cup coconut milk
1 tablespoon green curry paste (they sell amazing Thai paste here for 2 bucks!)
1 teaspoon Sambal Olneok or whatever that hot chili stuff is called (stoked to find this here for cheap)
few squirts Shiracha hot sauce
A litre or so of water
1 cube soup stock
2 spoons fish sauce
spoonful soy sauce
package of Thai stick noodles
Shrimp if you have them (I couldn't find any for decent prices that didn't look like they might give me Gastro-Intestinal nightmares)

First , chop everything up - Get your flatmate to pour you a drink while you do this.Then saute the onions and garlic in a little oil until soft. Add the spice paste and mush it with the onions and garlic, add the ginger and lemongrass, then add the coconut milk, then basically everything else -except the noodles and shrimp. Let it cook for about 10 minutes while you boil water to cook the noodles (they will cook very fast, so watch it!). Add the shrimp near the end because shrimp are little (there's a reason they are called shrimp), and cook it a few minutes. Add the noodles and a bit more cilantro and then taste to make sure its spiccccy hot, (add more Sambal Chili bits if its not hot enough), then eat and drink and be merry with the fact that you probably are eating the best Thai Tom Yum soup in town.

thai things


Steaming pot of awesome

Bowls of happiness


Friday, October 24, 2014

Dusty Rose-Tinted lenses of Wonder

Lately I have been watching numerous episodes of 'The Wonder Years' here in Cairo, thanks to my flatmate Tressa and her 1 terabyte external hard-drive full of downloaded entertainment -and also the fact that my productivity in marking student quizzes seems increased by watching something at the same time.

In case anyone isn't familiar with 'The Wonder Years', this television show from the 1980's was about a young boy's coming of age in the late 1960's. It starred child actor Fred Savage and featured a lot of great vintage music as well as voice-overs, teenage melodrama and him licking his lips in angst. The funny thing about 'The Wonder Years' is that when I watch it, I am overwhelmed with nostalgia - not only for the fact that I grew up as a kid watching this show about a boy growing up, but nostalgia for what my parents must have felt watching a show about growing up in the 1960's, when they themselves grew up then.

I am not sure of the word for empathetic or collective nostalgia, or if it is a phenomenon for anyone else besides me, but I have always been obsessed with other people's stories, lives, and pasts - to the point where I will actually feel nostalgia for something that I myself didn't experience, if I observe others experiencing the glaze of memory in some shared revery or moment. Thinking about this got me to thinking about perception in general, and the concept of objectivity - or perhaps more specifically, objective reality.

Every morning Sunday through Thursday,  I am picked up at 7 am in a minibus and driven to work. This drive might be quite possibly the ugliest drive I have ever experienced on a regular basis; dusty morning pollution coagulating the arteries of the Cairo suburb of Maadi; Rusty petrol trucks leaking their toxic liquids onto the road as we careen around another roundabout and dodge mangy street dogs, fruitcarts, and brave jaywalkers in uncomfortable-looking suits, attempting to make their way across the freeway, to catch their own particular minibus to work. Unfinished buildings line the roads; rebar and bricks piled and left to burn in the sun beside heaps of cement block and disposed garbage and plastic bags. It's a frantic chaotic mess of a morning, so far removed from anything resembling beauty - I close my eyes as the breeze (and dust and dirt) hits my face through the open window; Other teachers crammed in next to me sip their coffees and discuss the days gossip; the driver curses in Arabic while pressing heavily on the horn, and our sweaty minibus exercises its breaks to avoid hitting a overtly confident motorcyclist.

This is one lens of Cairo - the lens of commuting to work in a 20 million person Metropolis that just happens to exist in the middle of the desert. It is the Cairo of dust and smog and uncountable numbers of satellite dishes on rooftops. It is the Cairo of ugliness and decay and general urban disaster. It is the Cairo my Dad referred to years ago when I mentioned wanting to travel to Egypt - "Cairo is the world's largest up-ended ashtray". 

But then there is the lens of Cairo seen in beauty -in fragments of awe and perfection. It is the kaleidoscopic view found in the old Islamic quarter at sunset, standing on the roof of a mosque, watching a man on another rooftop tend to his pigeon coop. It is observing him feed them, as others circle in the air, dancing through the dozens of minarets and the late afternoon haze. It is the feeling of gratitude and inspiration at such a beautiful skyline that makes you want to call a pigeon a dove. The sound of the call to prayer, sung by someone who can actually sing, the morning light on my balcony, shards of sunshine through the hibiscus tree. It is in unknown alleys and unexplored streets, in rooftop bars that never close and plates of free mezze eaten with friends  It is in the seemingly overt presence of chance and fate; every day I feel like absolutely anything could happen - whether it's meeting a fascinating old man in my neighbourhood who runs an artist studio and wants to help me print a book, or getting hit by a truck - It's all there, good, bad and everything in between.

I suppose this is the case for everyone - that our reality is determined more by the lens that which we see things, not by any measure of truth or actuality. Cairo -like all places I have lived and visited- isn't a place on a map, or defined by any precise objective reality, but rather in the momentary lens that I happen to be viewing it through. Just as I will never know what it was like to experience the 1960's firsthand, I will perhaps never know 'real Cairo' - because such a thing doesn't tangibly exist except to those who experience it, or observe. Cairo unfolds as I imagine it, and I ascribe subjective meaning and importance to things because of my choice of lens. I would like to think that this doesn't invalidate my comments, or that my life here as a transient observer isn't somehow less legitimate. Maybe this is what all writers do; elevate the subjective and ignore the concept of objectivity entirely.

The Pigeon keeper on his rooftop exists eternally now, as does every other nuance and subtlety that I have ever happened to notice - immortalized in my memory, my mind mummified in wonder and delight.










Monday, October 13, 2014

I Yam Thankful for Soup

It is dinner time in Cairo - breakfast time in 9 hours behind Calgary, Alberta, Canada. When I sit down to relax with an end-of-the-day Stella beer, you people are all sipping on morning coffees

Today is also Thanksgiving Day in Canada, an Autumn holiday that I actually don't really honestly remember the logistics of -beyond Turkey, Cranberries and pumpkin pie. I do know that American Thanksgiving happens a full month later (and Canadians just have to be different, don't they?) around the time of that other quintessentially American holiday - The Superbowl. Everyone with any knowledge of American History knows that American Thanksgiving has received a fair bit of justly given bad press in the past 20 or so years, for being a neo-Colonial celebration of the near-genocide of the Native Peoples of the America's. What exactly the pilgrims were 'giving thanks' for might never be proven, but we can suppose with some certainty it wasn't the existence of pumpkin spice loaf and lattes.

The celebration of Thanksgiving then -either American or Canadian- might be a somewhat uncomfortable if not downright blasphemous holiday. Canadian Thanksgiving actually also falls on American Columbus Day, which is a celebration of the explorer's supposed "discovery" of the new world in 1492; Nevermind the fact that there were millions of people already inhabiting this place before his arrival (or the fact that explorers from Kingdoms in Muslim Spain, Mali, and The Ottomans are thought to have actually landed in America way before Columbus), any day off from work is a good day in my mind, and being thankful for things never hurt anybody.

As a kid Thanksgiving to me meant nothing more than celebrating the wonderful season of Autumn; the time of year for rusty coloured crunchy piles of leaves, for raking them together and stuffing them in giant orange bags; first morning frosts on the way to school, new corduroy pants and fuzzy sweaters; the smell of things baking as the sun begins to set earlier in the evening, and a pre-cursor to the most glorious of all the fall holidays - Halloween. Being a born and bred city girl, the term "harvest" never meant much beyond picking out a giant pumpkin from a Safeway Bin, but the romance of the season persists: I love Fall. This love grew out of my childhood all the way into Adulthood and eventually gave way to an appreciation of the death of summer, the season of renewal, solitude and cozying up for the ever-dreaded winter.

I am currently living in a country where neither Thanksgiving, nor Halloween are celebrated- beyond perhaps the occasional party frequented by ex-pats. I am in a city where the season of Autumn doesn't actually exist at all - Cairo has 2 seasons, Summer and Winter, and in the spirit of being thankful, I will state that neither requires the use of Ugg boots, longjohns, a snowsuit, or such homely concepts as a 'neckwarmer'.

Despite this, I do miss Canadian thanksgiving, my family and friends and all the roasted-root-vegetable glory of the season; In its honour tonight I cooked a big pot of vaguely Autumn appropriate harvest-y soup.

Here is the recipe:

Easy-peasy Autumn-esque Red Lentil and Yam soup for giving thanks

1 cup Red Lentils
Olive oil
1 onion
3 cloves garlic
2 potatoes
2 yams
2 carrots
1 cube stock mix
3 tablespoons tomato paste (or pasta sauce or whatever you happen to have handy)
cumin, curry powder, salt and pepper
half a yellow or red pepper chopped small
Lemon

First, get a bowl to rinse and soak the lentils, changing the water a few times and throwing away any debris, stones, spiders, chunks of gold etc etc.  While the lentils take a bath, chop your veggies - onions and garlic small, potatos and other root vegetables a little bigger. (Think small cubes). Don't cut yourself , knives are sharp. Saute the onions and garlic in some olive oil until they begin to look soft and yummy and squishy, adding spices as desired. Try not to drop too many stray pieces of onion on the floor ; the ants love onions and who knows what carnage you might wake up to tomorrow morning. Drain the lentils from their murky tubwater, and add alongside the rest of the veggies and 3/4 of a litre of bottled water (or tap water if you live in a place where tap water doesn't taste like a stagnant pool after a kid pees in it). Add the tomato paste and stock cube and bring everything to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer. Put a lid on it (this is the part where you can crack a beer and dance around the kitchen singing "if you like it then you shoulda put a liddddd on it", like Beyonce - or maybe thats just me), and go on facebook for 15 minutes. Come back, stir your soup, then go back on Facebook for another 15 minutes (nothing has changed, but check it anyways). Go back to the kitchen and check the soup - Is it mushy? Taste it. Yummy? Good. Turn off heat and grab a lemon to squeeze in the bowl, and maybe some bread and butter too. Eat and congratulate yourself once again on a meal well done, and maybe give thanks that it was so delicious.



Get back to your roots
Simmer down

Success!

Basic soup parts


Tressa is most thankful for my soup

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Pasta with Eggplants

Let me first tell you what I was planning to write about:

I had planned to write a succinct and clever post about the Eid Feast of the sacrifice and subsequent 5 days off from school, my trip to the Sinai peninsula, about the numerous checkpoints on the road, about the horrifying filthy bus stations of middle-of-nowhere Egypt, about the unfortunate early morning flat tire in the middle of the supposed insurgent littered desert, about the truck of black-clad AK-47 wielding men who showed up as I stretched out my stiff morning shoulders in a scant tanktop at the side of the road - and me bursting out in maniacal laughter imagining them to be Islamic militants (actually it was the Egyptian army showing up to protect us from just that). I wanted to write in depth about all of these things, about lazing on the beach with Saudi Arabia in the distance, about the death of Tourism in the wonderful hippie town of Dahab, about anything and everything not related to my all-consuming job of teaching English, (which seems to infiltrate every other conversation and is making me feel very boring)..but as I am currently in the midst of cooking up a mean pot of pasta, I have decided instead to just post a recipe.

Enjoy.

Julia's vaguely Turkish-style Spaghetti with Eggplants
(Aka. The Vegetarian pasta dish that people who eat meat will actually enjoy)

3 small eggplants, sliced thinly and cut into half-rounds (peeled if you live in Cairo)
2 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
1 onion chopped up
Small jar tomato sauce (here we have Kraft brand "Pasta sauce" - it's decent actually)
Cumin, curry powder, salt, pepper, oregano
Olive oil for cooking
Bag of pasta, whatever shape tickles your fancy
Feta cheese
Yogurt
Several beers

First, saute them onions in some better quality olive oil till they are nice and soft; add the garlic and spices and continue to saute. Fry until your kitchen smells good, while swiggin' a beer and killing ants on your kitchen counter. Then add a little more oil and the sliced eggplants. Cook on med-high heat until the eggplants start to look soft and have absorbed some spicy goodness. Add more oil and cumin as needed. After about 10 minutes things should be looking semi-cooked; add the tomato sauce and some water so it doesn't stick. Cook on low heat while you light another burner on the gas stove, (carefully throwing the used match in the sink ya hear?) Boil water for the pasta, adding some salt to disguise the taste of the chlorine. Sit on the couch and begin writing on your blog, then get up to check the pasta, then sit down again get up again, get annoyed at the mundane task of cooking; tell your room-mate that you hate cooking and that life is too short to spend hovering over a pot of steaming liquids. Get up again, maybe now the pasta is done. Drain pasta and top with sauce, some small spoonfuls of Istanbul style feta, and some yogurt and salt,pepper, hot sauce etc as needed. Eat it fast, while drinking beer -start to sweat a little. Feel momentarily pretty good about this cooking thing. Fall on the couch while your roomate does dishes.

Success.

Disinfected Produce


bubbling pot of goodness


Arabic Pastas

Olive oil, ISIS brand spices

finished plates ready to be devoured

Mmmm carbs

Sriracha sauce for all

Hurray for timer shots!

Watch out for those pesky kitchen ants!