30 April 2008

Last Week, in List Form

Moving forward! Now that I've finished writing about what happened a week and a half ago, I can write about last week's adventures.

Last week I had the lovely privilege of going to Nantes ($10 of train ride away) for a medical visit. The main purpose of this is to determine if people applying for residency have tuberculosis, before they're given permission to stay in France. There are, naturally, a few problems with their system:
1) I'm already here.
2) If I had TB, I would have been spreading it all over Europe for the past... oh... eight months.
3) I already have my residency card.
4) I leave France in a month, Europe in seven weeks. Glad to see that their system allows students to jump through diplomatic hoops in such a timely fashion.

Nevertheless, I decided I should go anyway, just to be a good foreigner. They wanted me to bring a bunch of things:
1) My passport. Check!
2) My temporary residency card. They took that when they gave me the fancy laminated one. Good enough: check!
3) The letter in which they told me all this stuff. Check!
4) My recent chest x-rays. I'd never had any done. No check.
5) My glasses. Check!
6) Records of recent hospitalization. I've never been hospitalized. Check!
7) My immunization records. Uh oh. A few problems here: first, I have only a cheaty form of immunization records, since my files were lost when the doctor's office went bankrupt (or something like that) and we have the dates that we could piece together, plus recent information. I don't have a way of receiving faxes, so my mom e-mailed me the dates and I wrote them down on a piece of paper. Half-hearted "check?"

I had decided to put some faith in my navigational abilities, and take pretty much the last train that would get me to Nantes on time. However, I missed the bus and nearly missed this train. The bus system was in total disarray last week (and is now in only partial disarray) because:
1) They changed all the bus routes in the downtown area.
2) Consequently, all the schedules have changed.
3) The bus drivers are rarely on time anyway.
4) Last week the elementary schools were on vacation, so the Saturday schedules were in effect instead of the weekday schedule.
I knew about numbers one and two, and three is a given, but four was a surprise. So I missed the bus, ended up speed-walking from the bus stop to the train station, and getting to the platform with about one minute to spare.

In Nantes, I got to the medical place with time to spare. I thought I was quite early, since when I got there (half an hour before my 1:30 appointment) there were already several people waiting. But it turned out that they were really really early: as in, one was an hour early and one was two hours early. Asian exchange students are hard core. Seriously, go visit the castle or something, why show up so early?
Anyway, the medical visit followed the following format:
1) Sit in waiting room for one minute.
2) Go talk with doctor. Chat for fifteen minutes or so about travel, language, linguistics, and the cerebral advantages of being multilingual. Recommend books to each other.
3) Talk about medical stuff with the doctor. Confirm that you've been immunized for everything you should have been (he doesn't even need to see the dates, phew!), answer lots of yes/no questions. Get blood pressure taken.
4) Go get a chest x-ray.
5) Go have vision tested and say that you don't need a lecture on safe sex.
6) Get chest x-ray back from doctor, who confirms that you don't have tuberculosis.
7) Collect some official looking documents, then go on your merry way!
It was completely pleasant. I got some great book recommendations, and a souvenir chest x-ray. I'm supposed to keep it just in case I need it, but I'm not exactly sure how this will be practical: you're not supposed to roll them, or fold them, or keep them in a hot place (like my backpack when I'm traveling) or a cold place (like the baggage hold of a plane). And the thing is gigantic, it's about fifteen by twenty inches. I think it would make a cool book cover, if my doctor doesn't want it.

I took an earlier train back to Angers than I'd expected, and had some time to go eat lunch before going to class. After class was the international dinner. Those are always fun! I made samoas, which are the Girl Scout cookie also known as Caramel Delites. They're very easy to make, though it takes a good amount of time.
1) Melt about a pound of chewy caramels in the microwave with about three tablespoons of milk. Stir every thirty seconds or so to keep it from burning or growing feet or something... not sure what would happen. Just stir.
2) Mix in a cup or so of shredded coconut.
3) Using a plastic knife, spread a layer of this mixture on top of relatively thin vanilla cookies. You could make them, or just buy them. (I used relatively small cookies, and made 80.)
4) Melt about three bars of dark chocolate in the microwave.
5) Put spoonfuls of the melted chocolate onto parchment paper, then put a cookie on top. This is an easy way to coat the bottom of the cookie in chocolate without getting really messy-- the alternative is to dip the cookies into the chocolate, but that's tricky and messy and wastes chocolate.
6) Put your leftover chocolate into a piping bag (or a plastic bag with the corner snipped off-- snip only a tiny bit!) and pipe a zig zag of chocolate over the cookies. You may need to melt more chocolate, depending on how many cookies you're making.
7) Let the cookies sit until the chocolate is solid and the caramel feels sticky, but not goopy. It doesn't hurt to leave them overnight before you box them up.
I'd expected to be bringing home leftovers, since I brought 75 cookies to the international dinner (about 40 people there), but they all got eaten.
Since this was the last dinner, there was a raffle, and I won a cookbook! I know it's not something you can have a talent for, but I'm good at raffles. It's a neat cookbook, I'm looking forward to making some of the recipes!

The rest of the week was eventful too, since on Friday I left to go to Germany for the weekend. The tale of that adventure will come soon. With more photos than lists :)
This week has been busy too, but not in the "write about" kind of way. I have some sort of laryngitis/cold/flu/allergies sickness, which has been really annoying. Monday I had my Dutch exam, and it went decently. Today I had my French exam, and it went abysmally. I studied in the wrong direction. At least everyone says they did badly, perhaps my mediocrity was average!

1) affection and
2) smiles,

28 April 2008

Egyptian Culture and Stuff

A guide to Egyptian cultural stuff for the typical Westerner who doesn't know much more than what's in the newspaper:

The kind of Arabic they teach in foreign universities, the kind found in the Koran, is called fusha. It's completely different from the regional dialects, including Egyptian Arabic. They're sort of mutually intelligible. Sort of. You see, the idea is that God (a.k.a. Allah) dictated the Koran to Muhammed, and he dictated it in fusha. Therefore, fusha is God's language, and it's the only form of Arabic that can be written. The dialects are seen as a sort of dirty language, a corrupted form of the divine tongue. It must be horrible to think that your native language is wrong!

Arabic Numbers
It's funny, because we use a set of numerals (0, 1, 2, 3, etc.) that we call "Arabic numerals." But the Arabs use a different set, the Arabic-Indic numerals.

Just like there are churches around every corner in Europe, there are mosques all over the place in Egypt. Most have several domes, and they all have minarets, which are really big towers. The call to prayer happens five times a day, where speakers on the minarets let everyone know that it's time to drop everything and pray. It's really really loud, since the speakers blast from every direction. When we were at the pyramids, quite far away from Cairo and moderately far away from downtown Giza, we could hear it.

Most women have their heads covered. And they do get treated a lot better than women who are unveiled! Those who have "hard-core veils" (not the technical term) that cover everything but their eyes, or everything including their eyes, are almost revered. Technically, the veil is supposed to be optional, a personal choice. In practice, rich people may choose not to wear it, but anybody who isn't loaded will cover up.
Lori and I carried scarves (and long-sleeved shirts) so that we could go into mosques if we wanted to, but we were uncovered. Which was a little awkward, even though it was totally natural for us.

Class issues:
You find "classes" like beggars, workers, middle-class folk and rich people in any country. But in Egypt, you marry within your social class, and it plays a bigger role in life than we'd like to think it should.

The Status of Women:
While I was chatting with some of Lori's friends, they explained a bit about the problems with women's rights in Egypt. A woman becomes an adult at 21, but she can't travel (among other things) without her father's permission until she's 25. When she gets married, her husband is her legal guardian, and she has the rights of a child again. At 45, she regains the rights of an adult.
A man can divorce his wife without much problem, but it's a challenge for a woman to divorce her husband, even though she has this right in the Koran. In Egypt, a woman has only been legally allowed to divorce her husband for about five years. However, he'll get custody of the children, and their home, and she has virtually no power to change it.

It was quite hot! While I was there, it was around 90°F every day. It did, however, get chilly at night-- into the 70°s, which is enough of a change that it made it seem quite cold. Egypt has a short rainy season in November and December (the beginning of the short winter), and it may rain once or twice the rest of the year. In the desert, it doesn't rain at all.

Prices are much lower than in Western (strange term, since Egypt is in the same time zone as Europe) countries. However, this corresponds to much lower wages. Museums meant for Westerners seem reasonably priced, but when you think that a museum ticket could buy ten koshri dinners, that puts it into perspective. There was recently a scandal because bread prices tripled: what seems a pittance by European/American standards became unreachable for poor Egyptians.

The day I arrived in Egypt, the New York Times came out with an article about how noisy Cairo is. And every bit of it is true: people really do yell to talk to each other, from a mixture of speaking over the noise and having poorer hearing. Cars really do honk all the time and the call to prayer really is deafening. The normal volume of life in Cairo is like standing fifteen feet away from a freight train... all the time.

Traffic and Horns:
Traffic is fascinating and terrifying. Lane markers, if present, are ignored. A four lane street easily fits six cars across. Even at moderately high speeds, traffic is close to bumper-to-bumper. There seems to be no rule about who gets the right of way: taxis, private cars, buses, bikes, carts pulled by donkeys or horses, and pedestrians all fill the streets and fight to get to their destination. There are few crosswalks, so people dash across the street whenever they see an opportunity.
Horns are the general traffic signal. Since you pass from an infinitesimal distance, cars behind you wouldn't be able to see the signal. Therefore, horns do the job. Two or three honks generally indicates that you're about to change lanes or pass, but it could just warn other drivers that you're going to speed up, or warn a pedestrian of your presence, or serve as a wave for some reason... the list goes on. Single honks seem to be more of a method of letting people know of your presence, even if there's no need to. Most drivers (I am not making this up) honk at regular intervals, just as a matter of course. The short honks are usually about thirty seconds in between, and happen regardless of how many other cars are on the street. Imagine anything you do in a car: turn signal, speed up, slow down, change lanes... everything is accompanied by a honk in Egypt. I wish I were exaggerating, but I'm not.

I asked myself if Cairo is dirty or not, and I'm stuck. It's dirty in a way, because of the desert dust that covers everything. However, the waste control is excellent, and the streets aren't dirty in that sense. The exteriors of buildings are also kept clean. So it's a dirty city, but it's an inherent "dirtiness" that comes from the environment, one that can't really be controlled.

Cairo is a city where, if you see a "no smoking" sign, you'll likely see someone smoking next to it. There are very few non-smoking places, because it seems that all Egyptians smoke about two packs of cigarettes a day. As an Egyptian girl told me, "The city is so polluted, smoking doesn't change anything. At least this way it's my choice to put it in my lungs!" Our taxi drivers often chain smoked as they drove, and some offered us cigarettes.

Where are you from?
I mixed things up: sometimes I told people I was from France, sometimes I said I was from America. People usually reacted positively, especially once I confirmed that I liked Egypt and that it was my first time there. People were happy to have a chance to practice some English (I only found one who spoke French, and he seemed happy as well). The strangest thing, though, is what Egyptian vendors and taxi drivers and tourist police and... well, everyone... seems to think is a very funny joke. They ask you where you're from, and when you say America, they respond, "Welcome to Alaska!" It was barely funny the first time, and I heard it at least five or six times in my short stay. I wonder where it came from!

Sand and Rocks:
Sand is all over the place. And yellow.
Egyptian rocks are incredibly porous. Like a magnification of normal porous rocks, with fist-sized holes throughout the spongy-style rock.

Speaking of rocks, it's not actually certain that the pyramids were built by slaves, as most people think. Anthropologists think that that was a myth perpetuated by the Ancient Greeks. There are workers' cemeteries and records that suggest that the workforce was about half skilled laborers, and half unskilled, but paid, workers.

I'd mentioned before that you can sort of tell how much money is worth in a country based on how big of coins or how small of bills they have. Switzerland was frightening because coins worth five dollars are pocket change. In Egypt, there are bills worth five cents. That's encouraging. You get a lot more for your money in Egypt.

Gas prices:
I wanted to convert the current gas prices into dollars per gallon, but all the stations we passed had blank signs. They just don't post the prices on their signs, I suppose. Perhaps that means that gas is cheap enough not to care about, but perhaps it's just not usual to advertise the price on a big sign.

Stray cats galore, horses and donkeys still used for labor in the city, and a relatively small number of pigeons.

Cairo smells like a mixture of things: cigarette smoke, car exhaust, spices from things cooking, body odor since it's hot. Like all smells, once it's been noticed, it seems to disappear. They're not particularly pleasant smells, but they're somehow not unpleasant.

Pyramid Innards
Some people were curious if I went inside a pyramid: I didn't. I'm six feet tall, and the passages are half my height. Crawling around short tunnels packed with tourists didn't seem too appealing. Besides, only a limited number of people are allowed in the Great Pyramid each day, and that's the one that would be most comfortable to walk around in!

A Final Image:
The Egyptian Museum is to your right, a modern building made of rose-colored brick. Behind you is a busy street, full of honking taxis. Street vendors have their wares spread out on blankets on the wide sidewalks: most sell kitchy souvenirs like pyramid statues, but one sells wind-up toys and another sells hair trinkets. Three patches of bright green grass turn this cement area into a sort of oasis. The grass on one patch is short, on one it is long, and the third is in the process of being cut: a man sits in the middle, methodically pulling up handfuls of grass. Behind him, the grass looks neatly trimmed; he slides to his left to continue hand-trimming the lawn. He is halfway done with this patch.

That's Cairo.

21 April 2008

Ancient Egypt, Modern Cairo, and Alexandria

Ancient Egypt

Friday Lori and I got up pretty early and got a taxi to the pyramids at Giza. Giza is surprisingly close to Cairo: it only took about twenty minutes to get there, since the roads are deserted on Friday mornings, when everybody goes to mosque. Here are a bunch of photos of the pyramids!

This is the Great Pyramid. It's really really enormous. Its blocks come up to my waist.

This is the corner of the Great Pyramid, plus the Second Pyramid (it's the one which still has some of the limestone casing left on top) and the Third Pyramid. If you can see an itty bitty pyramid beyond that, that's the fourth.

This picture shows just how close Cairo is to the open desert. You can see, and hear, Cairo to the left, but to the right there's nothing but sand.

Here are the Second and Third pyramids, and the teensy little fourth one.

Here am I on a camel... this one gets a story. When you go to the pyramids, you are frequently ambushed by people trying to sell you things. And you try your best to ignore them or get them to leave you alone. The more successful ones surround you, and present what they're selling as "gifts" so that they can then inform you that you're being rude by refusing. I should have just given in to being rude, but I wasn't forceful enough. So after they wrapped my head in a scarf (twice, because I tried to take it off the first time), they put me on a camel. The camel was sitting down, so I expected to be able to escape easily. But then they made the camel stand up and that plan flew out the window. Riding a camel isn't unlike riding a horse, except that camels are significantly taller. Lori says that camels are more uncomfortable, but my legs are longer so that helped. Once I got down, they of course wanted money. They had techniques for this too: I offered thirty pounds, and they acted insulted. The camel man said that he would give me change from a 100-pound bill (a bit less than $20) but then refused once he had put it into his pocket. I ended up getting ten pounds "change." I was incredibly pissed. And naturally, this bad experience is as vivid in my mind as the good experience of seeing the pyramids. Which makes me even more angry. But it's the past, and can't be changed, and at least I have a picture of me on a camel in front of the Great Pyramid:

The Third Pyramid is still a destination for tourists, but where there were hundreds by the two big ones, there were handfuls by the third. It's still huge, even though it's not as big as the popular ones. Here it is!

And here's the back of the Second Pyramid, miraculously free of tourists:

I made Lori hike to the fourth pyramid with me, since I felt bad for it. It's hardly noticeable from where the tourists are, and it would feel very neglected and left out if it were anthropomorphized. Good thing there's no International Pyramidal Union, or it would probably lose its pyramid status.
Once you get close, you see that there are more pyramids! The fifth is very short (in comparison) and shows more traits of a step-pyramid than the big guys, and the sixth is clearly a step-pyramid. Here are the three poor, neglected pyramids:

This photo is good for size comparison: compare me, approximately six feet tall, with the stones making up the fourth pyramid:

Here's the fourth pyramid and the Cairo skyline:

And here are the four pyramids in the other direction: the big from perspective fourth pyramid, the Third, the Second with its casing, and the Great Pyramid looking deceptively smaller.

Here are Lori and me in front of the pyramids. Woohoo!

And finally, here is the noseless Sphinx, seen here with the Second Pyramid.

Here it is with the two big ones.

I still can't believe I saw the Pyramids... I was really there! I'd dreamt of this since I was little, but never really thought it would happen. But it did! They're amazing.

Modern Cairo

In the afternoon, Lori and I met up with her friend Sarah (the one who isn't her flatmate) and we went to City Stars, which is the rich "suburban" mall. It's air-conditioned, mostly smoke-free, shiny and clean, and enormous: like, as big as Mall of America, not just merely as big as Woodfield. We got ice cream (I congratulate whoever came up with mint cookies and cream ice cream... wow. The best of both worlds.) and walked around the mall for a good, long time. I found a messenger bag to replace my former carry-on, which has been all around the world with me and has the hole and weak spots to prove it. It had gotten to the point where I carry a spare bag just in case my messenger bag dies while I'm en route somewhere, and needed to be replaced. Its replacement is a little bit small, but it's nice, and it was on sale quite cheap. (And I can now add after traveling with it... the lining is terrible quality and already needs to be patched. But that's not too annoying.) We stopped at Starbucks to get Lori some coffee, and I got a mini apple pie, just because I could. Starbucks scales its prices to be closer to Egyptian standards, so it was only two dollars. In America, the only thing you can get for two dollars at Starbucks is... a cup of air, probably.

We ate dinner at a Lebanese restaurant, which was really good. I got orzo soup and "oriental duck," which was excellent. Lori got hummus as usual, and lentil soup. Sarah got pigeons. A lot like a cross between beef and chicken, whereas duck is like a cross between lamb and chicken. (On a side note: when you imagine a cross between a lamb and chicken, do you imagine a lamb with wings like Lori did, or a wooly bird like I do?) We got two desserts to share: Om Ali, which is some sort of dough baked with cream, and Mahalabeya, which is a cool custard type dessert with nuts and dried fruit on top. Both were good, but way too sweet for my taste.

After a bit more wandering, we headed home. Then followed a night of six hours of very restless sleep (my lack of sleep will become a separate story line, don't worry...) and our trip to...

Saturday we woke up really really early and headed to the train station and thence to Alexandria. We got first class tickets, since they're not much more than second class... and still cheaper than trains in most other countries! The train was pretty nice, and we managed to sleep for part of the 2.5 hour train ride. Once we arrived, we walked a bit away from the train station so that taxi prices would go down, and got a cab to the Catacombs. Recently a donkey fell down a deep hole in Alexandria and discovered the catacombs, which are really awesome. They date from the Roman era, and are a fascinating mixture of Roman, Egyptian, and Greek art and architecture. In most cases, they can't tell who was buried there, but the most impressively carved tomb seems to have been that of a Roman couple. There are very Greek motifs in there, but the most striking things were the statues of Anubis-- the jackal-headed Egyptian god, dressed like a Roman legionary! In some places, there were remnants of frescos on the walls, there were several columns still standing, and lots of empty graves. Mummies didn't last very long in warm, moist Alexandria. The catacombs are also connected to another underground tomb, which has brick arches and other interesting features. The two weren't originally connected, but some grave robbers accidentally linked two tunnels.

Outside the catacombs, you're allowed to take pictures. Here's Lori adding an Egyptian component to the Greek/Roman style tomb:

Our next stop was the fort, which stands on the spot where the Lighthouse/Pharos of Alexandria used to be. It was one of the original seven wonders of the world, but was destroyed several centuries ago. The fort, however, is quite beautiful. And it's on the Mediterranean, which is also really pretty.

We aimed for the entrance to the fort, but missed... and ended up in the fish museum, which has really cheesy dioramas of fish in the Mediterranean. I liked the whale skeleton, and I really liked the expression on the face of this enormous papier mâché fish, pictured here with Lori:

We walked from the fort to the Fish Market, which is a fancy fish restaurant on the shore. We got salad: a bowl of vegetables and some fresh bread to dip in a collection of seven types of hummus and other dips, plus two plates of Egyptian pickles. That alone would have been plenty for a meal, but since we were in fresh-fish land, I got calamari as well. It was fresh and light and delicious. In Egypt, the type of bread you get is a little like pita, though lighter and puffier. It's fun to deflate and delicious.
Here is the fort, seen across a boat filled bit of Mediterranean:

Next stop was the library, which is built on the site of the ancient library, another of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. The library that's standing now is ultra modern, and beautiful. I love books.

There was a rare books section, which was really neat. I particularly liked the display of margins, where they showed some of the most impressive margin-graffiti in their collection. There was also an exhibit on an Egyptian film maker with lots of pictures of costumes he designed, and one on the history of Alexandria, which was interesting in a boring sort of way... interesting, but not enough to want to read labels on pictures. We walked around the literature section for a bit, and were surprised to find quite a bit of what we consider to be "teen crap fiction." However, it was pretty tempting... so Lori picked out a Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel, and I picked a Sweet Valley High book (could it get any worse? No.) and we spent an hour reading, sixth-grade style. Then I spun around the historical Alexandria bit of the museum before we left, which was really neat. They had stuff from all the religions which Egypt has been home to (Egyptian polytheism, Roman and Greek polytheism, Coptic Christianity, Islam), neat statues, and two beautiful mosaics from the original Library of Alexandria. I was amazed at how well everything was preserved: if you picture a Roman statue, you probably don't picture one with all of its limbs and facial features, and your image of a Greek vase probably isn't uncracked and likely doesn't have all of its decoration intact. Egypt must be the ideal environment for keeping things pretty over the millennia.
Here's a neat modern sculpture at the library:

The train back to Cairo was less uneventful than we would have liked... we were fortunate enough to be sitting right behind a family with three crying children. Two of them screamed (literally) for an hour (literally). Their parents weren't handling the situation well, either, which annoyed me. Finally they cried themselves to sleep, and I got about five minutes of sleep.
Back at Lori's apartment, I packed and we chatted with Lori's flatmate Sarah, who has awesome adventures.

At one, my taxi (a fancy metered taxi) arrived to take me to the airport. Traffic was light, so it didn't take long. The driver spoke pretty good English, and we chatted a little. I learned that Egyptians drive through the streets honking for marriages, just like Americans and the French do. The airport isn't bad, but the organization for check-in was horrible. There were only a few desks open, and I was in line for more than an hour. I got through passport control and security just after boarding had started, so I didn't have much time to find 70 pounds worth of stuff to buy in the duty-free shops... I ended up buying four big chocolate bars, which is perfect since chocolate gives me migraines. I got milk chocolate though, so it probably won't be too bad. I met some pretty nice people in the airport and the plane, which was nice. I usually give people the silent treatment, since nine times out of ten I'm seated next to someone who flirts with me or tries to convert me or something. I got almost two hours of sleep on the plane before they cruelly woke us up for a too-sweet carb-filled breakfast that I didn't really want.

I had three hours in the airport in Rome, and it was an uncomfortable three hours. I tried really hard to stay awake for an hour, then tried to find a comfortable position to sleep in for an hour. They have really hard seats with fixed armrests (so no lying down), and really hard floors. I dozed for a while in a corner, but ended up with more cramps than extra energy. Then I dozed in the chairs for a while, and woke up to discover that they'd changed my gate. I hate it when they do that. So I walked to the new gate, which luckily wasn't far away. On this flight, I read the French Sunday newspaper, and then slept for about an hour. So, at this point, we're counting about nine hours of bad sleep over Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I wasn't in too good of shape. After arriving in Paris, I panicked slightly about my bag, but luckily I had just picked the wrong return belt-- there were two flights coming in from Rome, neither of which had my flight number since it was an Air France flight that Alitalia put me on. I got terrible pizza for lunch, then sat around staying awake until I got onto the (late) train. Then I crashed, and slept for two and a half hours. I ate some pasta for dinner at home, then slept for eleven hours... which brings me to today, Monday. I'm functioning slightly better now that I've taken a nap, but I'm still pretty tired.

Tomorrow (or at least quite soon) I'm going to post about non-"stuff we did" topics from Egypt, the more cultural observations. If you have any questions or curiosities, post comments and I'll explain anything you'd like to know! It's a fascinating place.

17 April 2008

A-Z of Egyptian Stuff, plus food and shopping!

Wednesday Lori dropped me off at the Egyptian Museum before she headed off to class.

The museum is enormous, and has only Egyptian stuff. It's not like the British Museum, which has fun things from all over the world: this is a haven for people who like Ancient Egypt and mummies. I had a few hours, so I read all the signs and learned neat things. Once my brain started hazing over from information overload, I played the alphabet game (find interesting things that start with every letter of the alphabet, in alphabetical order-- I usually get stuck at Q, but I finished it this time). Here's an A-Z of the Egyptian Museum.
A is for amulets: there was a whole room full of them! Most showed gods, but some were symbols (like an eye) or animals (like crocodiles).
B is for baboons: people used to keep them as pets. Some people had their baboons mummified with them when they died.
C is for chariots: they're really nifty! The wheels were really far away from the standing thingie though, that surprised me. In movies the wheels are usually pretty tight, but they were really about two feet away on each side.
D is for Daggers: they didn't look like a fun way to die.
E is for Eyes: eyes in Egyptian art are really classy.
F if for finger covers: mummies had a tendency to lose their fingernails, so they would often have little rings or gold fingers put on to keep them intact.
G is for gridlines: sometimes the artists used gridlines for their carving and forgot to get rid of them when the art part was done.
H is for hair: priests wore headdresses covered in really curly hair, some of the mummies were wearing wigs, some had their hair bleached from the chemicals...
I is for Inscriptions: hieroglyphs everywhere! They're really pretty, I think.
J is for jewelry: most was simple beadwork, but there were some substantial breastplates made of brass, and the like. Egyptian rings are often not continuous circles, they have a break so that they can be resized.
K is for kings: I saw lots of dead kings. One of the Ramses was apparently killed by his harem. They think it was poison. One guy was killed in a war, and he has a huge split in his skull.
L is for layers: important people didn't get one single coffin, they got lots.
M is for mummies: I saw lots of those: royal mummies, animal mummies, souvenir-type mummies (from ancient Egyptian tourist traps... see V is for votives), mummies of average rich people...
N is for noses, or the lack thereof: Noses are fragile, and sometimes mummies lost them. Sometimes, they got accidentally knocked off when the mummies were rewrapped.
O is for Osiris: he and Isis were quite important, so he's pictured a lot.
P is for people: there was a room full of little statues of people, kind of like dolls. There were bakers, and butchers, and builders, and other professions. Little vignettes of ancient Egyptian city life.
Q is for queens: I saw several! In the (shrunken but surprisingly well-preserved) flesh.
R is for remnants: there was a room full of bits of parchments, with both texts and pictures. Very pretty stuff.
S is for shoes: they wore flip-flops!!
T is for Tutenkhamun's gold head: it's really shiny. It may seem to be in perfect shape when you look at pictures, but some of the stones are missing on the back.
U is for underworld art: people had copies of the Book of the Dead in their tombs (kind of like manuals for the gods, should they forget where the soul was supposed to go), and special decorated shrouds and stuff.
V is for votives and fake ones: votives were little mummies of animals that tourists could buy to offer to the gods. They'd want to get well-done ones, because apparently, as long as the mummy lasted, your prayer would last. However, lots of the votives sold were fakes: either just a little piece of the animal, or no animal remains at all. Sneaky! However, the votives did obviously last a really long time, so those prayers are in good shape.
W is for wood: lots of the coffins were made of wood, many were in stone of some sort. The wood ones got painted prettily, and the stone ones were usually carved.
X is for x-rays: they find out about how the people died from x-rays, and figure out which votives were real with x-rays. Luckily there was one displayed, otherwise I would have gotten stuck at X!
Y is for yellowed papyrus scrolls: I'm amazed at how well it lasted! They're ancient. And books were all scrolls, so they can display a whole book unrolled across a wall.
Z if for the word "zeal" in the phrase "Overzealous use of this mixture [baking soda and salt which was stuffed into peoples heads to preserve them] caused her cheeks to explode." OK, so this is sort of cheating... but the sentence was just so awesome. If it makes you feel any better, I did see Zillions of tourists, and some Zeroes, and a parking Zone. And zoom lenses.

Outside the museum, you're allowed to take pictures, so here's one of some hieroglyphed columns:

After Lori had another class (I hung out with her friends and had watermelon juice... my new favorite drink) we went out for koshari with her friend Sarah. Koshari is a mixture of little round noodles, little pieces of spaghetti, rice, lentils, fried onions, chickpeas, and tomato sauce. It may not sound appetizing, but somehow it's delicious. I honestly don't like any of the ingredients alone, but together it's good.

We got fitir for dessert, which is fried dough a little like a crêpe, covered in sugar. It was delicious too, although fried dough covered in sugar can't fail to be tasty! The best part of all is that this completely Egyptian meal cost... less than a dollar. Cool.

After dinner, we met up with Lori's flatmate Sarah (yes, another Sarah) and her friend Walid, who's a real Egyptian and is also a man. That's important, because we were heading to the Khan al-Khalili, which is an enormous outdoor market. Having a man with us meant that we wouldn't be harassed and that we wouldn't be cheated, and he could help haggle when necessary. It really was great to have him there, and the market is absolutely amazing. I didn't buy too much: only a scarf (shiny green), some beads, and two pairs of earrings. One is made with lapis and turquoise and looks like lotuses, and the other is really long and dangly and has purple stones. Both are silver. The beads were the biggest purchase by volume: it was smart, because for about ten dollars I got about a hundred dollars' worth of beads (literally). However, this means that my suitcase will have about fifteen pounds of beads in it. So I'm torn between "really intelligent purchase" and "Kel, you're an idiot." Lori bought some shoes, a couple scarves, a dagger for her boyfriend, a tunic, and a talking camel for her Grandma, who likes cheesy souvenirs. Walid and the Sarahs bought some things as well, but I don't really remember what. Here's a picture of the one of the market streets, packed with people and things to buy. I think my camera lens was dusty...

And here's the cutest thing I've seen in a long time: in one of the spice shops, there was a cat asleep in one of the bins with her four kittens:

And here's a really big mosque, with the typical "Allah" in neon.

Egypt is a lot of fun :)

16 April 2008

A Day in Geneva and a Day in Cairo!!

Saturday night was an uncomfortable overnight train ride from Angers to Lyon... I woke up every time the train stopped, every time I got uncomfortable, every time it got too hot, every time someone snored... not a good night's sleep. It was somewhat scary too: in Russia, the bunks in sleeper cars at least have a bar. In France, they have a vertical seatbelt type thing connecting to the ceiling about two feet from one end of the bed, which wouldn't do much if you were to fall. I tried to stick close to the wall and keep one hand on the belt, just in case.
The train ride from Lyon to Geneva, however, I was awake. And the view was amazing! I have never seen such a beautiful sunrise. Of course, pictures don't do it justice, but I did my best. Watching the sun rise over the Alps was truly magical.

Geneva itself was an adventure. I managed to find my hotel without mishap, which is amazing considering the fact that I couldn't find the street signs, I was just judging distances based on what Google Maps had shown me the day before. Geneva is ridiculously expensive: I got the cheapest single the internet could find for me, and it was by far the most expensive hotel room I have stayed in (about $130 for one night... ouch). After I checked in, I went to the grocery store in the train station (since everything is closed on Sundays) and got a sandwich, some milk, and a few apples for lunch. I ate in a park, then went to a lovely Mass at the basilica, which is next to the train station. I found it completely by chance, I had been expecting to search all morning for a Catholic church in Calvinist Geneva.

I did end up with two long searches, however. My two "destinations" for the day were the cathedral (which is a protestant cathedral) and the modern art museum, since I like those. And naturally, I got lost on the way to both. The hotel had given me a tiny little map of the city center, which had unlabeled gray shapes for the main attractions. Most of the streets were listed. I aimed in the right direction, but overshot the cathedral. Once I figured that out, I aimed for the museum, and missed. I found one of the large parks it was near, but after searching the entire area, there was no sign of the other park. So I got on a tram (the hotel also gave me a one day transport pass) and headed back towards the cathedral, which I then successfully found! It's at the top of a hill, is big, and looks a lot like a short basilica with cathedral spires on it:

I wanted to climb up to the towers, but the cathedral didn't take credit cards, so I had to find an ATM. That was a huge challenge. The nearest one was, naturally, at the bottom of the hill I'd just climbed. Plus about four blocks. Finally I found one, and I got the minimum amount possible, fifty francs. Fifty dollars. Back up the hill (I really hoped the climb to the towers would be worth it) and I paid for my ticket. I was surprised to get a five franc coin in return: you can tell how much money is worth in different countries by how big their coins go. Having a coin worth five dollars means that everything will be ridiculously expensive. (Whereas, in Egypt, there are bills worth about ten cents. Much more encouraging!)

Anyway, I climbed up the stairs to the towers, and luckily this is far from being the tallest cathedral I've climbed. I was barely winded at the top: it was the views that were breathtaking. Here is an all-in-one shot: you can see the spire of the cathedral, the city of Geneva, Lake Geneva, some Alps, and the famous "Jet d'eau," (Jet of water) which is a 150 meter high jet of water. I don't think it has any purpose whatsoever; it's just artistic.

Here's a picture that shows some taller Alps. I love mountains, they're my favorite type of scenery.

I walked down the other side of the hill from the cathedral, passing by chance the city hall, some old cannon, and a few mosaics. This brought me back to one of the two large parks, and I resolved to try once again to find the modern art. I stopped for a few minutes at a market on a large rocky area that looked like a dead parking lot with a few patches of grass, then set off to look for the second park, which is a block away from the museum. I wandered around for about an hour, got way off the edge of my map, and finally figured out where the second park was... it was the large patch of pavement where the market was. The map showed it as green, which it certainly was not. So frustrating, but at least I was able to find the museum!

"Find the museum." Right. So, I found the street, found the museum in a back alley, and found the entrance. There were signs everywhere pointing me to the fourth floor to get tickets, so I went to the fourth floor. The man at the desk told me that the exhibitions were free that day, and that I had to go down to the ground floor and turn left. No problem. Downstairs, I found the exhibition, and was pointed up a rickety staircase. Where I found about four installations, all freaky rather than humorous... creepy videos and large cushions with fangs and things of that nature. I did like one of the installations, which was a set of huge amps connected to screens. It was interactive, and visitors are allowed to twiddle the knobs to change the color shown on the screen, the pitch played along with it, and the frequency of the color/pitch pulse. There were five screens to play with. I'm not sure if I think that's "art."

There was a photography exhibition too, some really weird murals taken in a time-lapse mosaic type way... I don't fully understand it. When I was leaving, the lady who had given me brochures and explained about the artist asked what I thought, and the best I could come up with was, "It was impressive. Very... um... profound." I'm sure it is, to someone. This was the least impressive modern art museum I've ever been to.

After visiting the museum, I rode a random tram line until I got bored, then rode it back and walked back towards the hotel. I got some food for a hodge-podge dinner at the hotel, then went and watched TV until the early evening, when I went to sleep. After all, I had to get up around five on Monday morning to begin my journey to Egypt!

Italy in the Middle
The Geneva airport had a lot of stores, which was good: I had 23 francs left to spend (I would have lost half of it if I exchanged it for Euros) so I bought a fancy pen and a magnet. The magnet has a Swiss cow on it. My first flight of the day was to Milan, and it wasn't too bad. I had a four hour layover in Milan, which was enjoyable since I had brought Harry Potter with me. I got pizza and gelato for lunch, and even spoke a bit of Italian with people. Examples:
- Pizza con pesto, per favore."
- One slice?
- Si.
- Two eighty, please... thanks.
- Grazie! Ciao.
- Voglio un gelato grande menta, per favore.
- Big?
- Si... Signore, non è menta, è melone...
- Oh, sorry, I am stupid. Here is mint, you are right... Two Euros, please.
- Ho cinquanta, scusi.
- It's fine, here's your change.
- Grazie, Ciao.
I spoke Italian with them, they spoke English with me. Go figure.

Cairo, Day 1
The flight to Cairo wasn't bad, although I did feel kind of rude for attempting to ignore the guy sitting next to me, who was the type to bring very little to do, hoping to chat or sleep. I wanted to read the last ten chapters of my book. Luckily, the guy sitting on his other side was talkative, so they occupied each other. I read, slept, and then borrowed the other guy's Dutch newspaper to see what I could understand. He seemed somewhat surprised when I politely asked, "Mag ik uw krant lezen?" even though I'd been speaking French to the guy next to me and English when I got my orange juice. I love days where I get to speak four different languages :)

The airport in Cairo feels like a different world. Lots of women in hijabs and men in long robes, fifty degrees hotter than Switzerland (literally), and Arabic everywhere. Tourists have to buy a visa from one of the banks (before passport control), and it's a simple process that involves little more than standing in lines and handing over ten Euros. They even let you stick the visa in your own passport, which surprised me. Usually visas feel a lot more formal than this does. The customs people only checked men's bags, so I was waved through. I soon met up with Lori, and it was a cheerful reunion: we went to high school together, and although we'd seen each other once or twice since graduating, it had been more than a year since we'd last gotten together. She's studying abroad this semester at the American University Cairo, so she speaks some Arabic and knows Cairo quite well: she's an invaluable guide.

The taxi ride was interesting: Egyptians ignore lane markings, don't use turn signals, and honk extremely frequently. They change lanes by darting into small openings, and honk as a way of warning. It was bizarre. My first impressions were that there are a lot of mosques, lots of sand-colored buildings, and lots of honking. At Lori's apartment, we ordered Chinese food for dinner (don't judge, we're eating Egyptian food on this trip too!) and chatted for a long time.

Cairo, Day 2
Here's a sign that amused me:

Tuesday, we headed out to explore the Old Cairo, a.k.a. Coptic Cairo. It's a neighborhood of twisty streets that are almost like tunnels, full of little Christian churches and chapels, a few graveyards, and a synagogue. The synagogue was beautiful, unlike anything I'd ever seen. (Probably because I'd never been in a synagogue...) Most of the churches had icons rather than decorated walls or stained glass, and it seems like almost all of them were dedicated to Saint George!

One of the most important churches is found in the middle of an impressive looking cemetery. There were lots of large crypts such as this:

This particular church is so important because it is (supposedly) built on the site where the Holy Family lived when they took refuge in Egypt. So assuming that they got the location right, I walked on the same ground where Jesus did when he was a toddler. That's pretty awesome!

One of the, perhaps, lesser-noticed characteristics of this church is the crucifix icon, which shows Jesus over a distinctive skull and crossbones. Lori calls it the "Pirate Jesus." Easy to see why!

Nearby is the enormous Hanging Church, which is a round church dedicated to, surprise surprise, St. George. I saw more icons of St. George today than I'd seen in my entire life, and I've been to England! He really is all over the place. The church is different partially because it's round, rather than rectangular like most churches, and partially because it represents a metamorphosis in style: rather than having only icons for decoration, there are paintings on the wall and some stained glass windows. I'm not sure why it's called the "Hanging Church," though.

Our next stop was an indoor suq (market) which had good quality hand-crafted goods. I bought a pretty mug for myself, and a wooden Egyptian board game for my brother. Lori found some all-natural soaps and rose water, and I almost bought some jewelry but restrained myself. Then we went to the big mosque, which is the biggest mosque in Egypt and the third biggest mosque in the entire world. It's huge!

Lori and I were dressed appropriately: we had long sleeves and ankle-length skirts, and had covered our heads with scarves, but for some reason they still gave us tacky looking green robes to cover ourselves, and they insisted on holding our shoes for us (we'd wanted to carry them so that we wouldn't have to pay them). We agreed to have a guide, who told us about the history of the mosque and pointed out the important parts. Niches like this, along the back wall, are where the action happens.

Here you can see some of the big, open space, the courtyard in the middle, and more of the open space on the other side. A lot of people come for the five daily prayers, but there are always people around just sitting to pray, relax, or read.

In the afternoon, Lori and I went to her university to hang out for a while (and I fell in love with watermelon juice), and I sat around with her friends while she went to Arabic class. Then we both went to her choir practice, and the director let me sing, which was fun. Her choir has twice the enthusiasm of my French university's choir.
For dinner, we wanted to go to a relatively fancy Lebanese restaurant in the neighborhood, called Taboula. It's quite popular, so the earliest reservation we could get was 10:30. To tide us over, we ordered McFlurrys from McDonalds... delivery. Everyone delivers in Cairo. The restaurant was worth the wait, though! We all got hummus, and I ordered a plate of mixed pickles (the picked eggplant, zucchini, and carrots were awesome, the olives were normal, and the cauliflower and garlic were neon pink for some reason). Sara (one of Lori's flatmates) got a chicken dish, and I ordered lamb. There was fresh bread and cheese for everyone. It was a delicious, and incredibly filling, meal.

So that's that, my first day in Cairo! 97°, lots of culture, lots of fun.

12 April 2008

Stuff 'n Things

[Technically, I suppose, that "'n" should be written "'n'" but it would look funny. Not quite as funny as "'n,'" (but perhaps I should have put the comma thusly: "'n',") however.]

So stuff has happened lately. And things, too.
- I made homemade Samoas (those Girl Scout cookies that are covered in caramel and coconut and chocolate... delicious).
- I registered for classes for the Fall semester, and I'm really excited about my schedule. It's going to be a lot of fun.
- I went to a movie (Bienvenue chez les ch'tis) and it was hilarious. My new favorite French movie. I like it when non-American countries make feel good movies with happy endings. And it cracks me up when they then say, "What eez thees! Zee movie 'as airned millions of 'uros! Ay vonder how zis eez possibul..." Duh, you made a movie people could enjoy as well as respect.
- I think I might have dislocated one of my toes... it's happened before: it seems to move badly in the socket until I tug it around a bit, and then it ends up sore and bruised for a couple of days. No idea how, but this is about the third time that it's happened. It's the fourth toe on my right foot, so it's not one of the really important toes either... mystery.
- Natalie (who's from Scotland) bought my bike (since I never ride it and hers got stolen) and we spent a while chatting and it was great fun.
- I marinated a chicken leg in soy sauce and spices, and cooked it, and filled my kitchen with smoke, but it was delicious.
- I went shopping all over downtown looking for a present for Lori, and I found one.
- I bought sunscreen, which was very expensive but came with a free cheapo backpack. It cost about $18 for a small bottle. I'll figure out something to do with the backpack.
- I packed my suitcase.

So why, you may wonder, did I need a present for Lori, sunscreen, and a packed suitcase? Because tonight I'm leaving for Geneva, and Monday I'm flying from the Geneva airport to Cairo to see Lori!!! Today's post was written indoors, with rain and wind and clouds outside. The next one... sun and sand and Egyptians. I'm so excited!

05 April 2008

Quavers and Minims and Crotchets... oh my!

Well, my plan was "do laundry Saturday, it can be put off one more day." But then last night, choir practice was started off with, "If anyone's interested, there's a master class in Nantes tomorrow with a famous English choir director, and we'll carpool if you're interested in coming." Well, of course I was interesting in coming!

Today five of us (me wearing my last clean shirt, of course) set off for Nantes, which is about an hour's drive away. The drive is really pretty, especially since everything's in bloom now. But I was absolutely shocked by how expensive it is to drive in France. Not only is gas more expensive (I converted the 1.35 Euros per liter to $2.16 per liter, which is about $7.50 a gallon!) but the toll was 7.60 Euros! That's more than ten dollars each way. Ridiculous. As we were chatting about driving laws and prices and such, Anne Emmanuelle told me that her drivers' ed is costing about a thousand Euros. $1,600 for drivers' ed?!? That seems crazy to me. But they don't have a "wait until you're 18 and learn from Mom option" like we do in the States. We also shared blonde/Belgian/Russian jokes, which was fun. Do you know why Belgians (apparently) bend over constantly when they do their shopping? They're looking for low prices.

The master class was really fun. The director's name is Ralph Allwood, and he's the director of music at Eton College. He spoke mostly in English, with interpretation when necessary. He spoke about the history of English choral music and composers, and to illustrate it he worked with us on a handful of pieces. The people from our choir sang as well as everyone else, which is good. Especially since they'd practiced the music before and we were sight-reading!

What I the linguist found most interesting though (since the music was a bit below my level) was when he said the word "quaver" in passing, referring to an eighth note. I went up to him afterwards and asked what all the notes were called, since I'd never head this set of names. Here is a note-name guide, in American English, British English (with pronunciation when I think it's necessary), and French (with (pretty much) literal translation):
whole note---breve (breeeve)---ronde (round)
half note---minim---blanche (white)
quarter note---crotchet (crotch-et)---noir (black)
eighth note---quaver---croche (hooked)
sixteenth note---demi-quaver---double croche (double hooked)
Isn't that neat?? He thinks that the American system makes a lot more sense, and I agree. But what fun Scrabble words those are!

In other news, it's going to be impossible for me to write my paper in a mere 500 words. I'm going to try to keep it under 1000 though! However, about 50% of the words in written French are function words (helping verbs, pronouns, and so on) so in a way, I'll be right on target.

04 April 2008


It feels ridiculous to be writing this post, since the previous one was about how hard-working I am once every few months. Today, however, I have surpassed myself... in procrastination. How is it that it's taken me seven hours to skim ten pages of a book? My notes on those ten pages are an impressive four lines. I'm putting off doing laundry until tomorrow (I have one shirt left, why not?) and I haven't really done anything much. (I did, as you can see, play around with a new blog template!) However, I have three full days to work on the 500-word paper, and I'm confident that I'll get around to it in time!

Stuff has happened though. All of Monday and most of Tuesday, there was a team of electricians in the house making things better. The shower part of my bathroom now has its own light, I have new light fixtures, and a couple new outlets. The rest of the house also got new outlets and updated fixtures and such. I even have a modern looking fuse box, instead of the crazy one I had before. It's nice. But Monday and Tuesday evenings I did repeat Spring cleaning to get rid of the dust.

Wednesday, I regretted not having my camera with me. This is the second time I've seen an ancient nun riding by on an old motorbike. The bottom of her veil waving in the wind, held on by the enormous helmet. WHY didn't I have my camera either time??

Thursday I learned something strange in translation class. The English pronounce "Parisian" like this: puh-riz-ee-an. As an American, I find that odd. My pronunciation follows phonetic rules. Theirs is a bit odd. However, England usually pronounced place names and related words a bit weirdly (kuh-SO-vo?? It's KOH-so-vo!) so I'll just continue being bemused.

And today, noticing that I have about 95% of a bottle of oil, which I'll never need to use all of before I leave, I decided to try frying something. I had a zucchini, so it won the "what should I fry?" contest. Now, about that time, my internet connection was lost, so I couldn't look up recipes. I once saw Paula Dean fry stuff though, so I had a slight idea of how to go about it. I sliced the zucchini into thick slices (to minimize the fried:healthy ratio), let it sweat for a while, dredged it in flour (I love that verb!), dipped it in egg yolk and lime juice (for fun), then dipped that in a mixture of flour and spices. Then I put it into the hot oil, flipped the slices after a minute or so, and cooked the other side. Drained for a minute on paper towels... and it was DELICIOUS! Of course, I'll probably never do it again, since it's fried. I wouldn't be surprised if this was both the first and last time I fry anything. But they were good.

And the final thing I should mention is that France's weather is surprisingly predictable. February was rainy and cold. Literally on the first day of March, it turned rainy and mild. On April first, the sun came out and it's been beautiful ever since. I'm told that May is even nicer, so I'm expecting another abrupt chance on the first of May. We'll see!

Happy April, everyone!

(And if you're looking for something to do, check out my other blog.)