First of all, I apologize for being so stingy in my posts. I'll refrain from harping on my promise to be inconsistent, and simply state that I have been busy. Doing my homework. My grandfather should be proud. Highlights from the past two weeks include some lovely food (Lebanese and Indian were the best in Cairo), an interesting article from Talal Asad on law and civilization, an evening of Mad Men and dancing, a debate (in Arabic) about Egyptian presidential politics, and my first Arabic quiz. On that last item, thank you Middlebury, for keeping my test-taking skills up to par this summer.
Anyway, to return to the title, and therefore meat, of this post, at the end of Ramadan (yes, it was two weeks ago) a few friends and I went to Alexandria for the weekend. We took a very pleasant two-and-a-half hour train ride down to the coastal city, known as one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the ancient world.
At the end of Ramadan, there is a huge celebration called Eid Al-Futur. It's the conclusion to a month of fasting and penitence in the Muslim faith, and the party is three days long to make up for lost time. Lots of people go out of town, or out of the country, so Alexandria was a very popular place to be. We were able to rent a beautifully furnished apartment one block from the Mediterranean Sea (at a very reasonable rate), complete with kitchen.
On the first day, we decided to cook our own dinner, and after several adventures to find a grocery store, we put together the ingredients for chicken curry with rice, chocolate cake, and omelets for breakfast the next morning. The grocery ordeal took several hours, and after cooking and eating, we had intended to go out onto the Corniche (the boardwalk along the sea) but ended up conversing until early morning.
On Saturday, we were able to meet up with some friends of my family's from Middlebury, in Alexandria for the fall on a Fulbright. They lived about half an hour away by tram, in another beautiful apartment. Amy and Larry have since come to Cairo, and I was able to see them again. Hopefully we'll meet again; it's really nice to know other ex-pats. And just to prove I actually went along with my camera, here are the three Bryn Mawr girls on their balcony, which looks out on the large garden which accompanies the home of an international political exile (I wish I knew more of the story, but he's apparently quite the mystery).
Amy and Larry fed us brunch, including some Ramadan treats homemade by a friend of theirs, and lent us some fantastic walking tour maps, which we put to good use that afternoon. The only problem with visiting Alexandria during Eid is that everything is closed. Actually, this only really applies to the museums and other tourist attractions, but we were able to walk a lot, which was great fun, even though not having a man with us led to more attention than we probably wanted.
Our first stop was the new Library of Alexandria. The ancient version was destroyed long ago, but a recently constructed complex (unfortunately closed) holds office, books, art exhibits, and several thousand more books. And, of course, there is a bust of Alexander the Great on the plaza. He does, after all, share a name with the city.
Behind him, you can see the stage for a concert being set up. We aren't sure what kind of concert it was, but a crowd was already gathering when we were there. The actual library building is fantastically modern, with a shallow pool in the front, and walls carved all around with letters from every known alphabet.
Our next stop was the Roman Amphitheater, which was fun to walk around, though not well signed, so I lack almost any explanation for what it actually was. It appeared to be an active excavation site, so only part of it was open to the public. I was briefly reminded of exploring old castles with my siblings in Scotland, but these ruins were much sandier, much sunnier, and much drier.
We decided to give up on tourist attractions for the rest of the day, and instead took a self-guided walking tour of the Turkish Quarter, which up on the northwest side of the Corniche. It is one of the oldest parts of the city, and today, one of the poorest. It was amazing to see the difference between the Corniche, where you can walk down to beach, or stop in a cafe, or stay in a swanky hotel, and one block inland, where the streets are narrow, and crowded with people, and children ride flatbed donkey carts, and fish and fruit vendors set up in every intersection.
We were waved at and called to by men of all ages, but I'm getting better at reading when situations are dangerous and when they're merely unwanted. We saw some beautiful mosque exteriors, and felt as though we had finally made it out of the sheltered neighborhoods we frequent in Cairo.
Saturday evening held dinner at a local seafood restaurant, because you can't go to Alexandria and not eat fresh-caught fish. I had delicious shrimp, and tasted some of the best calamari I've ever had. We took a cab to the restaurant, only about six kilometers down the Corniche, from our apartment, but it took an hour and a half, because of all the traffic on the road. Have I mentioned that Egyptian traffic is a nightmare? Anyway, we decided to walk back along the sea, and stopped a few times in various cafes along the way. This is a very Egyptian tradition, for everyone, including small children. As we were making our way home, around three in the morning, I was amazed to see three-year-olds with at least six times as much energy as I had. I strongly suspect serious naps and sugar infusions are to blame.
Sunday morning we rose and after some pictures and a brief neighborhood walk, we headed to Misr Station to catch the train back to Cairo. The end of any vacation, however brief, and however close to the beginning of school, is always somewhat depressing, but really, can you blame us for being sad to leave this?
Real classes began on Monday, and they are the reason it has taken me so long to update. I'm looking forward to going back to Alex at some point, but our next break (two weeks from now) needs planning first. When I know my plans, I'll share them. I know travel stories are the most fun, but what else would you like to hear about? I've been here for a month (as of tomorrow!) and so I think I'm forgetting the little things I've had to adjust to. Please let me know what topics you'd like me to discuss, or if you have any questions I can try and answer. Logistical as well as philosophical themes are encouraged.