Hosting Visitors in Cairo

5 Feb

About a month ago, Shaun and I got a chance to be the hosts for some VIP guests, our friends Dustin and Lexia. It was great to be able to be the host and show them around Cairo. It forced us to get out and see some sights and it gave us the chance to take a step back and see the city through the eyes of a vacationer. And on top of it, we got to hang out with good friends, drink turkish coffee, smoke shisha, and eat good Egyptian food all weekend! Plus, Lexia did our engagement photos, and they turned out amazing, obviously. She is so talented.

The first day, we decided to tour Islamic Cairo. We left late in the morning and headed to the Citadel, a fortress with mosques and museums located up on a hill on the edge of Cairo. Shaun and I had never been to the Citadel before, and it was great to finally see. The Mohammed Ali Mosque was very impressive with all the hanging lanterns and the bright red carpets.

Since Lexia didn’t have her shoulders covered, and we forgot to bring pashminas, she had to rent this fashionable galabeya from the door ladies for 5 pounds. Look how pretty!

Then, we ventured over to the area where the prisoners were kept. The prison was locked but there was a peep-hole to look through to see the barracks.

We then stopped by the Army museum before heading out. I have to say, much of the Citadel was in ruins. Even in the M ohamed Ali mosque, many of the lanterns were not functioning, or dirty or broken. But, the Army museum was impeccable. It is obvious where the priorities for funding lie. (note: I have no idea where all the funding comes from but presumably there is government/tax funding of some sort.) While the Army proudly displayed giant tanks, planes and missiles in a neatly trimmed garden, the much more historical mosques were falling apart. The outright display of military power and funding was unnerving, especially knowing that the US pumps a lot of aid into the Egyptian military. Overall, I was not over joyed with the Military museum and we decided not to go in. (note: this is the most political I’ll ever get on this blog. Promise.)

After our quick tour of the citadel, we walked about 30 minutes to Ibn Tulum Mosque. This was quite an interesting walk. We picked up two followers along the way. One kind young Egyptian student who from what we could gather just wanted to practice his English on us – 4 very obvious westerners. The other was less benign. With his broken English we were able to gather that he wanted to get Lexia or my phone numbers. There is a small possibility he was also trying to sell us drugs. We had our perspective male partners with us, so we felt safe. Thus, the second straggler was more of an annoyance than anything. After we toured the mosque and they were still following us, I turned to them and said “Khalas! Chokrun!” (We’re finished, thanks!) in the most smiley way possible. They both got the point and left.

Shaun trying to get help from one of our fans.

We took a cab from the mosque to Al Azhar park. I have been there once before with Shaun. This park is a beautiful area of green in the city which can feel quite brown most days. It was built on top of an old trash dump, and it offers magnificent views of Cairo from the hill where it sits. We decided to grab dinner there at the Citadel view restaurant as the sun was going down. And, true to the name, we enjoyed a great view of the Citadel from afar as it lit up in the night sky. The food at the Citadel View was delicious and the service was also very good. It is one of my favorite restaurants in Cairo, hence why we decided to bring our guests there.

Delicious Food!

After we were stuffed from dinner, we took a cab over to the Khan El Khalili for some shopping. As I’ve mentioned before, I love the Khan. I decided it is my favorite place in Cairo. For some reason, the hassle of the shop keepers does not bother me at all there. Maybe it is because they have more comical sales pitches? – “Welcome to Egypt. How can I take your money today?” “I have what you are looking for!” – or maybe it is because they are less pushy? Or maybe it is because there are so many beautiful handicrafts to distract me from them? It is likely a combination of all that. Anyway, I love the Khan, and I was happy to show our friends my favorite place in the city. After a bit of shopping, we sat down at El Fishawy, the oldest (700 years old!) cafe in the Khan. At first, we were bombarded with people trying to sell us things and other beggars, and we were getting pretty frustrated. But, we figured out that if we just continued with our conversation as normal, they walked away pretty quickly. Now, this was hard to do, especially to the young girls or moms with babies, but it was our strategy and we stuck to it. It worked for us.

We ordered an apple flavored shisha and some turkish coffee. We sat and talked there for probably 2 or so hours! It was the most fun I had the entire weekend of their visit. Sitting there, in my favorite place, drinking and smoking and getting to know Dustin and Lexia so much better than I had before. 🙂 Also, we got to practice blowing smoke rings and that is always fun.

We finished 2 shishas, 6 turkish coffees and 2 mint teas. But, before we could continue shopping, I had to relieve myself of all that liquid! I found a restroom just around the corner, and upon walking in I saw a few men facing urinals. Thinking I had gone into the wrong room, I immediately turned around and left. I could hold it, I thought. But, a few minutes later I went back unable to hold it. An elderly man met me at the door this time and ushered me past the men. He gave me a door handle and some tissues. The door handle was the lock for the stall. You needed it to open the door from either side. Very clever. I did my thing and gave the man a few pounds as he ushered me again past the men. In a country that is so conservative with PDA and clothing, I really never expected to see a unisex bathroom, especially in the center of Islamic Cairo. Obviously, I was wrong.

We did some more shopping, and the boys gave Lexia and I a hard time for not being better at haggling. I am awful at it. The problem is, I usually really want whatever I am trying to buy and so I have a hard time sticking to a low price. Also, a lot of times the prices seem completely reasonable. For example, Lexia and I found these adorable sequined slippers and we had the shopkeepers running all over the Khan trying to get them in the right size and color. After about 20 minutes of trying on all the different options, the men bagged up the two pairs of shoes we finally chose and gave them to us. Crap. We forgot to ask how much they cost. Yet, somehow they were all packaged up and in our hands! We had no negotiating power.  They cost 50 pounds. That’s less than 10 bucks. For shoes! I still haven’t heard the end of that. Apparently, I should have offered 25 and stuck to that. Whatever. The guy got 50 pounds and I got shoes. Win. Win.

*All photos by Lexia Frank. Please ask before taking!

I’ll post more about our trip to the pyramids later. It was much more enjoyable this time!

Siwa: An Egyptian Oasis Part II

6 Dec

After the desert safari, we went to a camp site closer to our hotel for supper. The food was VERY good. Siwans do a lot of underground cooking, and we got to see our chicken being buried for cooking. A man had dug a hole in the sand about 3 feet deep and there were hot coals at the bottom of the hole. Over the coals, a grill was laid. He then took whole chickens (which had been marinating in a mixture of broth and vegetables) and laid them on to the grill. Then, he put a lid over all the chickens and packed the hole full with sand. About an hour later we had moist, tasty chicken to eat! They employ this same method for cooking Aish (flat bread) and it makes the bread taste amazing. Much better than any of the Aish I’ve had in Cairo.

Once we were sufficiently full from supper, Youssif brought us home to our hotel where I promptly fell asleep….at 9:30. Don’t judge. I was on vacation!

The next day, we decided to relax at the hotel until about 3 in the afternoon. Us ladies attempted to do some yoga, thinking the very peaceful surroundings of the desert would be completely zen and amazing, but we underestimated the power of the flies! I am not sure why our hotel had so many little pesky flies, but they were annoying! With about 20 flies crawling all over my skin, I had zero ability to “get my zen on”.

After our ill-attempted yoga, we ventured out to see some more of Siwa town. We took a tuk tuk to the Oracle of Amun, a temple that is about 3000 years old. Think about that. Three THOUSAND years! Just one of many old things for Egyptians, but absolutely amazing to me as an American. There weren’t many signs about explaining the history of the oracle site, so I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking at. But, it was still pretty amazing and offered some great views of the Oasis.

From the Oracle, we walked through a forest of palm trees to get to Cleopatra’s Bath – a hot spring allegedly visited by famous Cleopatra. The hot spring was….well, just another spring. BUT, the walk through the palm tree forest was amazing! I have never seen so many palm trees! And, we took some time to stop and eat some fresh dates off the trees. They were delicious. 🙂

We had dinner that night at a hotel restaurant named Kenooz that we were told was “the best restaurant in Egypt”…. The food was ok, but nothing compared to the lunch from our first day. And, the waiter was rude and  forgot to order a few people’s food. After we waited for an hour or more for all the food to finally arrive, the waiter informed us we could not order desert because “the kitchen closes at 10”. It was 9:30…. You can’t win them all, I suppose.

On our last day, we rented bikes again, and we went to Gebel Al Mawt, a stone mound with many ancient tombs built into the mound. Unfortunately, the poor souls buried here have all been dug up and removed from their tombs. So, aside from some holes in the sides of the mound, there wasn’t a ton to see. But again, this mound offered yet more 360 degree views of the Oasis. After visiting the tombs, we went back to Albabenshal, the site of our first days’ lunch for another late lunch. Again, the food was delicious!

After our late lunch, we biked out to Fatnas island, an island on one of the lakes in Siwa that has fantastic views of the sunset. When we arrived to the island, we were the only group of people on the entire island. Between the palm trees, the olive trees, and the wild flamingos, I felt like we were on a deserted island a la Gilligan’s Island. The small cafe on the edge of the island was *SO* ideal. We ordered some fresh lemon-mint juice (yum!), whipped out the cards for a game of Euchre and soaked in the views.

The sky was amazing that night. It made it difficult to leave. Luckily, our bus trip home was much less eventful than the first one and we were back home in Cairo by 6AM the next day.

Overall, Siwa was the coolest thing I have done so far in Egypt. The people there were so friendly and accomodating, the air was fresh, the food amazing and the views spectacular. If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend it! One thing I didn’t get to do that I really wanted to do was have tea with some of the local Siwan women. Siwan women have a very interesting way of life, and I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for just a few hours! But, since I did not get a chance to have tea with them, I bought a book about Siwan women (Siwan Women Unveiled – unfortunately I can’t find a place to link to it) instead. I read it all on the drive home. Very interesting. I recommend it! It’s a quick read.

In other news, Shaun and I are heading the Mt. Sinai this weekend to do some camping with the Bedoins and take in the sunrise from the summit of the mountain where Moses received the ten commandments from God. We’ll also make a little visit to the burning bush. Sometimes, I really can’t believe this is my life….

Siwa: An Egyptian Oasis

11 Nov

Last weekend, Egyptians celebrated Eid Al Adha; A Muslim holiday that commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son for God. Of course, God intervened and supplied a sheep for sacrificing instead at the last minute. Thus, on these two days, Muslims around the world slaughter a sheep (or a goat or a cow) and give to a portion of the meat to the less fortunate, a portion to their families and feast on the rest.

With all that feasting and celebrating it is easy to forget the real meaning of this holiday, which of course is two days off work making a nice long 4 day weekend with which to travel. 🙂

Shaun and I packed up our sweatshirts and swimsuits and headed to Siwa with a group of about 10 other people; mostly other expats. Siwa, as it happens, is a very difficult destination to get to. There is no airport there, and they only built a paved road to the town within the last 30 years. The only way to get there from Cairo is by making the 10 hour desert drive via bus or car.

We decided to take public transport because A: a one-way ticket cost about $12 and B: the bus was scheduled to go over night, giving us maximum use of our time off.

So, we arrived at the bus station at 7:15 pm, with guarded optimism. We knew the quality of the public buses in Egypt were, um, sub par and that the desert roads are a bit…in need of repair, but what was the worst that could happen?

$12, 15 hours, and several panic attacks later, we arrived in Siwa….

To make a long story short: Our first bus filled with smoke, veered of the road and eventually broke down on the side of the road about 3 hours outside of Cairo. An hour later, a new bus showed up, but with very limited capacity, meaning we were forced to ride standing up in the aisle. 10 minutes after that, at a pit stop in the middle of nowhere, I realized I had left my purse (passport, camera, and cash) on the broken down bus 10 miles back! (You know that feeling of losing your purse? It’s like immediate, intense, all-consuming panic? Yeah).  Thanks to the fluent Arabic speakers in our group, Shaun was able to hop in a random pick up truck to make the journey back to the first bus while the rest of us worked to stall the second bus from leaving. After some heated words between one of the passengers and the bus driver, Shaun finally arrived, my purse in hand, and we continued for another hour and a half in the over-filled second bus. At 4:30 AM, we arrived at the bus station halfway between Siwa and Cairo. We were told to get off the bus and wait for a new one to take us the rest of the way. Everyone we asked assured us the bus was coming in 30 minutes, even when we asked 30 minutes later. Just as we started to lose all hope and began negotiating a rate for a driver, the “new” bus arrived! New to us but definitely not new to the world. This bus looked questionable at best. (wish I would have taken a picture) But, regardless, it got us the rest of the way to Siwa without issue and we arrived at our final destination no worse for the wear.

Once in Siwa, we got right to soaking up every minute of hard-earned rest and relaxation. We spent the morning of the first day recuperating (swimming in the hotel pool and/or reading). Then, we rented some bicycles and rode into town for a late lunch in the center of the town of Siwa. This lunch was amazing. The restaurant is built in the ruins of the city center, and had great views and even better food.

Historically, Siwans built their homes and businesses from a combination of sand, salt and water. It’s beautiful and completely eco-friendly but doesn’t hold up well on the off chance that the town gets a torrential down-pour, which is what turned the city center into ruins years ago.

Our late lunch extended into the sunset, and we soaked in the amazing views of the Oasis while eating chocolate cake with date syrup filling (the Siwan take on chocolate molten cake) and drinking Turkish coffee.

After lunch, we did some shopping in the craft market while our friend Amr wheeled and dealed with about three different companies, getting us the best price for a desert safari the next day! We met our soon to be tour guide, Youssif, had some Siwan tea, and then headed back to our hotel for dinner and a camp fire.

The second day was spent on a desert safari. This was, by far, the coolest thing we did on the trip and definitely my favorite thing I have done so far in Egypt. Two old Land Cruisers came to our hotel to bring us on a day-long adventure through The Great Sand Sea. Our itinerary included stops at a saltwater lake, a fresh water lake and a hot spring with plenty of time in between to enjoy the sand dunes in the car, on foot and on sand boards!

Shaun fishing at the fresh water lake in the middle of the desert

Learning a Siwan dance from Youssif at the Salt water lake

A few people running down a sand dune in The Great Sand Sea. My new favorite pass time!

Attempting to sand board, but mostly just sinking into the sand

This desert is what you picture when you think of a desert. Endless beautiful white-sand dunes. There is nothing like it, and the pictures just don’t do it justice.

Our driver, Ibrihim, has been driving through the desert for over 25 years, and his driving skills are impressive! We were ripping up, down and sideways through the dunes with ease. He would often slow down on the top of a sand dune holding the car in an inverse position as we all squealed with fear. Then, he would let go of the breaks and send us sliding down the dune as he cackled a sinister laugh obviously taking great joy in our fear. It was like being on a 60 kilometer roller coaster with no lines and no creepy carnies. Just. Amazing.

Ibrihim and Youssif made great tour guides. They were joking around with us all day. It was obvious they love what they do.



At one point, Ibrihim pulled Shaun aside to tell him that he should eat 7 dates every morning to….uh….make him “very good”. At which point he winked, and said “Trust me. I have eight kids. I know.”

I could go on and on talking about how great this day was, but I have already made this post too long. More on Siwa later!


Pobody’s Nerfect

31 Oct

So, it’s been a while. Sorry about that.

Shaun and I made a journey to the USA after Spain for his sister’s wedding and to catch up with friends and family. It was so nice to see everyone, and Christy’s wedding was fun and prettyyy…

Being at Christy’s wedding obviously made me think of me and Shaun’s wedding. I was making mental notes left and right.

“Photo Booth = Cool. See if it fits in budget.”
“Toasts – tell people in advance if you want them to make a toast. Figure out who will be making toasts and when.”
“Cocktail hour music. Figure it out.”
“Blue and orange are pretty together.” 
“Love is the Thing. It needs to be about love.”

And, being in the trenches of wedding arts and crafts hour the nights leading up to the wedding got the whole Truelove clan whipped up into a frenzy of nuptial discussions.

“What kind of food are we going to have at our wedding?”
“What will our colors be?”
“Do we want a photo booth?”
“What about a popcorn machine?”
“Will the caterer be bringing their own tables or do we need to provide those?”
“What kind of dresses are the girls going to wear?”
“Will we have a slide show?”
“Who will be making toasts?”
“Who will be invited to the rehearsal dinner?”

After 14 total days in the USA and approximately 1,400 converstations about The Wedding and 14,000 incoherent thoughts in my own head about The Wedding, I have decided I no longer like planning The Wedding.

In fact, Shaun and I have recently flirted with the idea of a surprise-we’re-home-for-christmas-and-we’re-having-our-wedding-at-the-courthouse-tomorrow type of affair. The conversation went like this:

Me: We could just do it at the Madison courthouse on like the 27th and then go over to the Great Dane afterwards for dinner and drinks. Most people take that week off work anyway.
Shaun: The Great Dane isn’t big enough.
Me: There wouldn’t be many people there since it would be so last minute.
Shaun: True.
Silent Pause
Me: But our families would be so sad if they couldn’t make it.
Silent Pause
Shaun: But, they’d probably get over it.
Me: True
Silent Pause
Me: I am not seriously considering this, you know. We already spent money on the barn and the hotel block.
Shaun: Ok.
….A week later….
Me: I looked into it, and we’d really only be out a couple grand if we did the courthouse thing…

I think about “the courthouse thing” the way I think about buying a pair of $1000 Christian Loubouton shoes. Not going to happen, but damn aren’t they pretty? Let’s fawn over pictures and think about what dresses I would wear them with.

I want! I want! I waaaaant!

Anyhow, I guess the point is this. When I first got engaged, I was SO EXCITED to plan a wedding. All The Pretty Things! But now, the excitement about The Wedding is gone, and all I really want to do is marry Shaun. And be married to him. And end all the conversations and thoughts and expectations that come along with The Wedding.

But, this is what wedding planning is about. The challenge of navigating all those expectations from all those different people and finding a way to fight the good fight where it matters and go with the flow where it doesn’t and come out the other end with all the family and friendly bonds still holding tight. Here we go.

Spanish Series Part IV: What I would do differently

9 Oct

Overall, my trip to Spain was AMAZING. I got to see amazing buildings, clean streets (a big change from Cairo) and shared many laughs and experiences with my fiance. But, there are a few things that I would do differently if I did it again. As a point of reference, here was our itinerary for our 10 day trip:

  • Barcelona (4 days)
  • Train from Barcelona to Sitges (just outside of Barcelona) (1 day)
  • Train back to Barcelona then to Valencia/Bunol (2 days)
  • Ferry to Ibiza (3 days)

Book all tickets in advance

We booked hotels for almost every night in advance, and we obviously had to book our plane tickets in advance. But, we didn’t book any train or ferry tickets to get from one city to the next at all before our trip. We assumed it wouldn’t be a big issue to just show up at the train station/ferry port and buy some on the spot. This was not a good idea. I am not sure what it is like the rest of the year, but when we were in Spain, many people were following our exact itinerary because so many people go to La Tomatina (more on that later) outside of Valencia. So, pretty much every train, plane and automobile was sold out.

Thus, when we showed up at the train station to get our tickets to Valencia from Barcelona, the only tickets left werye for first class, costing us a hefty 70 euros a piece. Ouch! Later, when it was time to take the ferry to Ibiza, we spent almost an entire morning searching for tickets online, calling the port, and then finally cabbing (not cheap) to two different ports before we finally got the last two (first class) tickets on the last ferry to Ibiza. These tickets cost us 100 euros a piece!

To put this into perspective, when I was looking online at the tickets before the trip, the train was 30 each and the ferry was 50. So, we spent more than double of what we would have had we just booked the damn tickets in advance. You live, you learn.

Passed on La Tomatina

Tomatina, if you have never heard of it before, is a city-wide tomato fight in a little town called Bunol outside of Valencia. Sounds like fun, right? When I heard this, I had visions of people all over the city hiding behind corners and throwing tomatoes at their friends guerrilla style; like a paintball fight but without guns and with much less painful bullets. This is not at all what it was like. Here is what my experience was like:

I have no idea how many people were crammed into the narrow streets of Bunol for the tomato fight, but suffice to say there was not an inch of space between any two bodies. Ok, so everyone is crammed in like sardines, including the three people in my group. At this point, the tomato fight is not scheduled to start for another 2 hours! People are drunk and getting restless. So, anxious to throw tomatoes but with no tomatoes in sight, people start throwing whatever they can find. Shoes, tied up shirts soaked in Sangria, bottles, whatever. I get smacked in the face with a wet sangria t-shirt. It hurts; I’m upset.

Now, people start moshing. The entire crowd starts moving back and forth and every which way, and I kept accidentally losing control of where I was standing and stepping all over some poor girl’s bare feet (why wasn’t she wearing shoes?). An hour and a half to go to the tomato fight. Things are getting out of control. I start losing it a bit, because I really REALLY hate mosh pits. I’ve had some bad experiences in high school. So, we move back out of the crowd and into an open area where everyone is having a water fight. I’ll welcome the water for a bit of space.

We people watch from the water fight for the next hour and half or so, and all is well. Finally, we hear a crack in the air (a firework or something) signalling the beginning of the tomato fight! People on a roof near us unload probably 100 boxes of tomatoes onto the crowd, but it’s not enough to really get into a fight with. We got two or three of them here and there. Then, there are no more tomatoes for about 10 minutes. Finally, a dump truck comes rolling up the street, and there are people standing in the back throwing tomatoes out to the crowd. But, we moved back away from the crowd, remember? Thus, we only get two or three tomatoes again. And, same thing happens with the next truck, and each truck after that. Then, the crack goes off again and the tomato fight is over.

And we all look at each other. “Was that it?!” Yes, yes it was.

There were beer tents and DJs on the nearby streets afterwards, so we enjoyed that. But, it wasn’t fun enough to make it worth it. We talked to a few people who were down in the thick of the crowds near the beginning of the truck route (we were at the end). They said they were up to their knees in tomatoes down there. And, since there were no bathrooms anywhere, people were peeing into the tomato gunk. Then everyone was throwing the gunk at each other. Gross! I am glad we weren’t down there.

(For fear of ruining our camera, we did not take any pictures at La Tomatina. You can see other people’s pictures here).

Stayed in Barcelona longer

As I said before, Barcelona is an amazing city, and I think we would have been happy to stay there for the full 10 days. If I got a chance to re-do the itinerary, I probably would have spent 5 or 6 days in Barcelona, then 2 days in Ibiza and then come home making a 7 or 8 day trip. 10 days was a bit too long for our pocketbooks.

Fun in Barcelona (Las Ramblas)

More Fun in Barcelona (eating delicious tapas)

Generally made more plans

For some reason, we embarked on our trip to Spain without planning a lot of activities. As my girlfriends can attest, this is not usually how I operate on vacation.  When we went to San Diego for a vacation a few years ago, I had almost hour of every day scheduled out. I like to over plan my vacations so that even if we don’t follow the plan exactly, there is still a plan to fall back on offering plenty of things to do and places to see. I am not sure why I didn’t do this for Spain? I suppose I wanted to “fly by the seat of my pants” like a backpacker. But, 10 days is not enough time to travel around aimlessly. Now I know.

Spanish Series Part III: Cooking Class, Barcelona

22 Sep

Shaun and I took a cooking class in Barcelona with Cook And Taste and it was great! The place where they have the actual class is in the Gothic Quarter, which is the old town part of Barcelona. The streets are all very narrow with beautiful stone buildings around every corner. At night, the whole area is lit up and just beautiful.

Once we got there, there was a little mix up. The class was full already! And, we were only 5 minutes late. Why was everyone there already? They were definitely not running on Egyptian time. It turned out that one group of people showed up without actually ever getting confirmation of their booking. Apparently the place is very popular and they sell out for every class (of which there are two a day), and they often have people on a waiting list. Once we figured out who showed up sans-invite (and the chef gave them a little public shaming), the chef just added a few more chairs and we were set to go!

The menu for the evening was gazpacho (basically cold tomato soup) with hazelnut pesto and shaved Parmesan, tomato bread, potato omelets, seafood paella and Catalonia creme. All very Spanish. All very delicious! The way  it worked was each course was prepared by 2-4 volunteers, and everyone volunteered at least once. Shaun and I made the tomato bread and potato omelets. The chef gave us a TON of tips about cooking. He taught us how to chop veggies in half the time it normally takes me (I am still practicing that one) and he taught us about how to peel tomatoes by dropping them in boiling water for a few seconds then moving them over to ice water.

For the tomato bread, we used special tomatoes called hanging tomatoes. The reasons why they are special is because a. you can hang them (still on the vine) in a dark room and they stay fresh all winter long and b. you can cut a tomato in half and press the flesh of the tomato on to the bread until only the skin remains in your hand. It makes paste that easily! I was, and still am, very impressed by these tomatoes. I must find out where I can purchase them. They are only native in Spain, but I am sure they are grown elsewhere.

Once I was done volunteering, I helped myself to one of the many bottles of red wine open on the table. I was happy to drink and watch for the remainder of the class. Shaun did the flipping of the massive omelets, and he did such a great job on the first one that everyone cheered! The second omelet flip was not as impressive, but still turned out great in the end. 🙂

By the time it was time to cook the Paella, I was a couple glasses of wine deep and it all seemed very complicated. There were lots of rules about what goes in when, when to stop stirring, when to add the saffron, when to turn up the heat and turn it back down etc. Add to that the fact that you need a special pan and heating device, and I don’t think I’ll be attempting paella on my own any time soon. But, it did taste VERY good!  I will definitely make the tomato bread again and the potato omelets. They were both very simple and very tasty. I might even attempt the Catalonia creme if I can get my hands on a blow torch!

After all was said and done, the class took about 5 hours, and we came out the other end a lot more knowledge, a little buzz and a full belly. Definitely worth the 60 euros! I highly recommend it to any one visiting Barcelona!

Spanish Series Part II: Segrada Familia, Barcelona

11 Sep

Barcelona is a great city. I encourage anyone considering a trip to Spain to make sure Barcelona is on the agenda for at least 2 or 3 days. We spent 3 days in Barcelona but I could have easily spent all 10 days there. There is so much going on, and while we were there at the end of August, the weather was perfect. And, since the hotel we stayed in (Hosteria Grau) was right off Las Ramblas, we walked pretty much everywhere except to Segrada Familia and Parque Guell. But, both of those places were simple to get to on the train and bus respectively.

Out of all the things we did and saw in Barcelona, Segrada Familia was my favorite. It is a MASSIVE church/cathedral designed by Gaudi.

Segrada Familia soaring over Barcelona - view from Parque Guell

We saw a lot of Gaudi architecture in Barcelona at Parque Guell and a night at his old house, Casa Batllo. I am not typically one who is impressed by architecture, but this isn’t so much architecture as it is art. It’s creative, ornate, based on nature and fascinating.

Gaudi building at Parque Guell

To say Segrada Familia is intricate is SUCH an understatement. They began building this place in the 1800s and IT IS STILL BEING BUILT! Over 120 years later! When I heard this originally, I just thought it sounded like an Egyptian project. Many buildings here are fully functional and used but never actually finished. You see the steel poles sticking out of the roof like they are going to add a couple more stories any day now….but they never do. Apparently, there is a tax loop hole that allows the owner of a building that is still “under construction” to evade property taxes. So, I assumed Segrada Familia had some sort of similar situation.

But, once I got in and took a look around, I was not surprised the place is still being constructed. In fact, I cannot fathom the amount of time and effort it will take to complete it. Every detail in every nook and cranny is so intricate and ornate. Add to that, the sheer size of the place. It already soars high above the skyline, and the tallest steeple is yet to be added! The tallest steeple is going to be TWICE the height of any of the other steeples (of which, there are currently only 8 but will eventually be 18).

As I walked into the church, I looked up and saw the choir lofts that were built to hold up to 1500 singers. I imagined walking in on Easter Sunday morning and hearing 1500 voices singing Halleluiah down upon me and it was impossible not to get goosebumps.

Then, I walked to the Nativity facade, and I was overcome with Christmas cheer – right there in the middle of all those tourists in the August sun. I imagined walking through those doors all lit up by a Christmas vigil for midnight mass, and I thought – “I need to come here for that some day.” The nativity facade was by far my favorite of the three facades. I could stare at it for hours, and I would still probably be missing some amazing detail.

Nativity Facade

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

The Nativity

Then, I walked back in and sat where the congregation will some day sit if it is ever completed. When I looked up, I saw all the pillars that are designed to represent trees in a forest with the light shining in through the leaves, and I thought, “Man, my dad would love this place!”

I could probably ramble on and on about all the amazing things in Segrada Familia (like the purposely un-designed Glory facade. Gaudi purposely left it for future generations to design and leave their mark). But, words do not do it justice. Just go see it. It made me proud to be Catholic. And, honestly, that is a pretty rare feeling for me.

Spanish Series Part I: Party Party Party in IBIZA!

6 Sep

I just returned from a 10 day holiday in Spain with my love. I’ve decided I am going to write 4 posts about it. 3 posts for each of my favorite things we did, starting with Ibiza. And, one post devoted to what I would have done differently on our trip. Now I’ve said it, so I have to do it.

Our itinerary in Spain started with 4 days in Barcelona, a day in Sitges just outside of Barcelona, 2 days in Valencia/Bunol for Tomatina, and the last 3 days in Ibiza.

Hokay, so, Ibiza. I had more fun in one night in Ibiza than I thought was possible. We were there for 3 nights, but since the clubs are expensive and our pockets were nearly empty by this point in the trip, we decided to just have one big night out at the club. And it was big. And so. much. fun.

Before going out that night, we rented bicycles and rode around Ibiza all day. We saw the beaches and an old castle on a big hill overlooking the island. But, we weren’t impressed. The sites did not compare to anything we saw in Barcelona, and the vibe of the place reminded Shaun of a city like Acapulco or Cancun. “Why is everyone so in love with this place?” We talked about it over a dinner of cheese and crackers bought from the grocery store across the street from our hotel. Did I mention Europe is expensive?

After our gourmet meal, we took a late evening nap. This reminded me of college. Nap at 8, up at 10, out at midnight or later. In Ibiza, the clubs don’t open until midnight, and they don’t get really going until 2 or 3 in the morning, so the nap was vital.

We had several club options, and we chose to get tickets to Es Paradis because they were having their weekly “Fiesta Del Agua” – Water Party. Now, at first, this sounded eerily familiar to a foam party, which I have a life rule of avoiding. (Other life rules include avoiding dark allies, and never under any circumstances, taking nude photos). These rules are in place to protect my safety and dignity, and they have served me well. But, we looked up youtube videos of this Fiesta del Agua to see what all the fuss was about, and it looked like a lot of fun (and not anything like the foam parties I’ve seen on MTV’s spring break).

So, after some cheap whiskey, a shot of espresso, and a disco bus ride over to San Antonio, we were ready to party party party!

When we arrived, we decided to stop at the bar across the street for a beer. There were people there painting faces, and Shaun convinced me (though it didn’t take much convincing) to get my face painted. When in Ibiza….

My night in Ibiza in one picture - a little glittery, a little blury, and a whole lotta fun

The face painting gal told us the water party doesn’t even start until 5 AM. At this point, it was nearing 2. She told us the club across the street was giving free passes, so we stopped in there for a bit to “kill time.”

The “free pass” club was Eden, and it was FUN. There was a lot of entertainment (provided by both the club itself and its patrons). And, we got two BOGO drink tickets, so the beers were cheap.

Let me stop right now and say that I am by no means a “clubber”. In fact, I typically hate clubs. The music is too loud and the place is too crowded, and I much prefer to hear what my friends are saying than dance too close to a bunch of strangers. But, the clubs in Ibiza (at least the ones I went to) were not like that at all. The music was loud, but not too loud the club was full but not crowded, and the entertainment was exactly that – entertaining.

entertainment from the patrons of Eden

So, we are in this free/pre club, and we are having a blast dancing and people watching. “If this is just the free/pre club, I am definitely excited for the main event!” I am thinking.

So, around 4, we leave the free/pre party and stop for another espresso and a beer at the bar. We cross the street and we are in Paradise on Earth – that’s what the Spanish title of the club translates to in English.

This club also had impressive entertainment. And good music. But, we came for the water 😉

At exactly 5, the water came. They played singing in the rain, and water came rushing on to the dance floor both from the ceiling and open ended pipes in the stairs leading down to the dance floor. It was incredible. And not gross at all. We danced in the water until we were soaked to the bone. They played fun music to dance in water to – like We Will Rock You. Everyone was stomping and clapping and splashing. Like I said – so. much. fun.

At 6AM, we left the club and headed back to the hotel. We were some of the first to leave…

I woke up at 11 starving. I was flabbergasted when I heard McDonald’s still abides by the “breakfast ends at 10:30” rule in Ibiza. I really thought they would get a loop hole. Oh well, the Big Mac tasted just as good as any breakfast burrito. After my belly was full, it was back to bed for pretty much the rest of the afternoon.

What a great night.

Cairo Traffic

20 Aug

Cairo’s traffic, along with the associated air pollution, was one of the first things that hit me as soon as I arrived; it let me know I was definitely in a different world. Now, more than 2 months later, I have grown somewhat used to the craziness that is traffic here. So, here is what you can expect to experience on the roads if you come to visit (or you know, are just curious).

  • There are sometimes lines on the road, but they generally don’t mean anything. If the road is painted with 3 lanes of traffic, there will be around 6 lanes during high traffic hours, but with everyone weaving all over the place, it’s hard to count.
  • Due to the aforementioned lack of lanes, there are not any shoulders to pull over onto when a car breaks down. Thus, a single fender bender or break down, or you know a car stopped to chat to someone on the side of the road can cause lots of extra traffic slow downs.
  • Headlights are only used to flash at someone when you want them to move or want to let them know you are there.
  • If you get the nose of your car in front of someone else, then you have the right of way. (Maybe that’s why this EgyptAir plane tried to nudge out on the runway at JFK? I kid. I kid.)
  • There are not really any crosswalks/stop lights. Crossing the street is like a real life game of Frogger.
  • Egyptians honk their horn when they want other cars to move or when they want them to stay where they are. They also honk to express anger or to get a pedestrian into a cab. Often times, they honk for no apparent reason at all. The streets are very noisy.
  • There are no parking meters or parking tickets. Thus, people often double park on the side of the road.
  • It is not uncommon to see a young family riding on a motor bike (none of them wearing helmets, of course) with the dad in front, mom side-saddling on the back and the baby in her lap.
  • Friday, being the holy day of the week, is the best day to travel long distances as there are much fewer cars on the road.
  • I’ve seen one car so far (that I noticed) that did not have a single dent or scratch on it. It was a Z4 BMW. So, I am guessing the owner of that car just spends the money to get the scratches and dents removed. Pretty much every car on the road has some “character”.

So, there you go, all you need to know about Cairo’s traffic. Luckily, Shaun and I take cabs everywhere, so we don’t have to drive in it.

The Guys of the Neighborhood

8 Aug

Cairo is starting to feel like home to me now. Zamalek feels like ‘my’ neighborhood, like a place where I “know” everyone.  I use the term “know” loosely. I definitely don’t know everyone the way I knew everyone in Fort Recovery – I mean I don’t think I will ever know as much about my neighbor’s job/kids/wife/husband/grandparents/lives as I did growing up in a town of 1500 people. But I digress.

I “know” the people in Zamalek by a combination of their face and job/street location. I don’t know their names for the most part, nor do they know mine. I am sure they just think of me as the blonde girl that lives in that-building-over-there.

Take, for example, the Baraka Guy. He is the Baraka guy that has a beard and feeds that stray cat while he cooks up the best tasting shawarma sandwich a girl could ask for. There’s the Convenience Store Guy. He is actually a 12ish year old kid who runs the convenience store down the street in the evenings (I actually do know his name – it’s Abdu). There’s the Ironing Guy who also doubles as the translator guy. There’s the bowab guy (door man) for our building, and the bowabs for the buildings around us.  There’s the ironing guy’s delivery guy, the veggie store guy, and the guy who sits on our corner doing nothing. Then, there’s the guy who runs trays of  tea to all the other guys. Lots and lots of guys. They are always there, right in the same place, everyday. See? Home.

Oh, and there’s that guy who always sits next to me on the couch (like he is right now) and puts up with me wanting to watch illegally downloaded episodes of Big Brother all the time. He’s always there too. Right next to me. Every night. I like that guy.