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.


Kathleen said...

I smiled at Lori's phrase, "Pirate Jesus."
Whose skull is at the foot of the cross? According to ancient tradition the first man, Adam, was buried at Golgotha ("Place of the Skull").
Christ, by his death, triumphs over the death-dealing sin of Adam.
The artist chose to make Adam's skull visible to convey a theological message.

Anonymous said...

(That niche in the wall indicates the direction of Mecca. The "action" is simply prayer.)