Day 39: Last Day (With Asides About Food)

I’m writing now from my sleepy hometown outside Antwerp, Belgium, but since I accounted for every other day in Egypt, I might as well document the last one.

I woke up early in my hostel on Midan Talat Harb (I can’t remember the name, but it was a very nice place, cheap and clean with two-pound Nescafes and a flexible check-out policy) and made sure all my junk was in order and ready to be packed up. I hadn’t really been able to sleep the night before, so as of dawn I was hanging out in the hostel’s breakfast room, futzing on my laptop on their open terrace and watching dowtown Cairo slowly wake up. One of my favorite city sites in Cairo was watching all the men line up around the breakfast vendors that park themselves every hundred feet or so along any major square or road. Their fare usually consists of hard boiled eggs, tamiyas, bread, a big tureen of dark anais-flavored water, another of coffee and maybe a pot of fuul. They all eat standing around the vendor, catching up and relaxing for a moment before heading off to whatever the rest of their days consist of. Since my breakfasts have always been included in the hostels and hotels I’ve been bouncing around in, I’ve rarely gone to join the breakfast lines, but I did love watching the morning ritual.

I realize that, in general, my musings here must have been a bit of a disappointment to my “foody” friends and family. Cairo boasts a wealth of gourmet restaurants, specializing in only the finest Middle Eastern cuisine. But guess what? I didn’t try any of them! Hah! Not a one! I’m sorry Mother, Sister, all of you who like nothing better than an immaculately cooked cut of meat paired with an inventive sauce, I’m so sorry. I know, I kept meaning to make this pilgrimage for you to one of Cairo’s much-touted establishments (and to take at least one picture of a glistening mezze platter, or tajine, or meat grill, or SOMETHING) but when it came down to it, the sacrifice of time and cash just never seemed worth it to me – better to toddle off and spend the hours and moolah to enter one more historic sight, take a belly dance class, or sip beers or mango juice while prying conversation out of my cafe-mates. I can probably count on one hand the total number of sit-down restos I dined at while in Egypt, and they were all out of necessity, not taste or promise of fine dining.  

No, instead, I became a connaisseur of the street food, as I’ve noted – always my first choice as a solo-diner.  Koshari is hands-down one of my favorite dishes of all time. It’s glorious. Once again, it consists of three kinds of pasta (spaghetti, elbow macaroni, thin fried Asian noodles), rice, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions, tomato sauce, garlicky vinegar and (if you can handle it – I can’t) hot pepper sauce. All served up in a single tupperware bowl to be eaten with a spoon, two Egyptian pounds for a “small,” five for a “large.” This was my dinner roughly five nights out of seven in Cairo, and I didn’t even get close to sick of it. Now that I’m back, I’m busy comparing online recipes for the garlicky vinegar sauce, and once I find the best one, will make the dish for myself. With the addition of some spinach or chopped-up broccoli or asparagus, I think I could live off of koshari for the rest of my days. Happily. And probably live to be a 100.

Ah, let’s get another glamor shot of my daily bread, shall we?

Another favorite was tamiya – the perfect snack to eat while walking down the street, either plain or in a sandwich. Tamiyas are basically Egyptian falafel, made with flat beans instead of chickpeas, breaded, seasoned, fried, and available at any time of day or night in Cairo for a few pounds for two.

Fuul was my most common lunch-time meal – just a basic flat bean soup with some salt and plenty of bread. It’s not an attractive dish, but it’ll keep you raring to go throughout the day:

And I also enjoyed my fair share of shwarmas (aka “gyros” or “durum”).

 As far as the fresh fruits and vegetables this street-diet afforded me, I must admit they were few and far between – my hotel breakfasts usually came with a large tray of sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, and that was the bulk of it for the day. Every day I gulped down at least one fresh-squeezed guava, mango or orange juice, usually with a little carrot thrown in for good measure, from one from one of the many stands pumping them out. Here’s the one nearest the Pharaoh Egypt Hotel in Mohandeseen:

 

My shwarmas often came with a little baggie of pickled carrots, so I ate those too, though I’m not sure how much nutritional value they could possibly have contained.

The best part about Cairo’s smorgasbord of street-food – aside from its ubiquity and affordability – is that it was always available. Always. I’m a bit of a night-owl myself – okay, that’s an understatement, when left to my own devices I become almost completely nocturnal. So it was pure heaven to be able to stay up late writing and reading and wandering around Cairo until four a.m. with the secure knowledge that a cheap and tasty meal was always available whenever I should desire it. Really, this insomniac setup was made for someone like me, and I can’t tell you how fast at home I felt after realizing that Cairo’s eateries basically never close. So far, this has been one of the biggest adjustments of being back in Belgium – actually having to deal with an established schedule for eating, knowing that if I don’t find dinner by 9 p.m. at the latest in this quiet suburb, I’ll just have to go without (to say nothing about everything being closed on Sunday here – ah, what pain! The thought of any eating establishment in Cairo – at least the ones I frequented – closing for an hour, let alone an entire day is unfathomable!).

Anyway, as I watched the early-morning vendors roll everything out, I felt the first of many pangs of sadness for what I would soon be leaving, for having to reenter a land where anyone who’s hungry at 6 a.m. had better have food in his kitchen. Bah!

I loitered on the terrace for awhile and then – a little groggy – went out for my last Cairene nap, in a tiny mosque whose name I never caught in one of the winding streets between Midan Talat Harb and Midan Tehrir.

I headed back to the hostel in the afternoon, showered and – after making sure with the very sweet hostel men that it was okay to leave my bags and junk in their lobby before leaving for the airport at 1 a.m. – headed to the metro. Ah, my last metro ride – uneventful, as they usually were, since – once again – Cairo’s women-only metro cars are perhaps the most relaxed spots I’ve found in the city. I got vaguely misty-eyed – some of my best times in Cairo were on the metro. 

I got off in Zamalek and met up with an expat friend (the Madame of the couple who hosted that ill-fated soiree that ended with my drunken rant about “that bitchy German”) at a bookstore there, and she took me around to some of the area’s more intriguing fair-trade craft stores. Zamalek is the closest Cairo comes to an “expat quarter” – it’s where all the Americans and Europeans I’ve met live and where most of the embassies are located, along with some pretty funky war-era “sporting clubs” for the foreigners to gather and eat bacon and drink hard liquor. Anyway, the area is verdant and affluent and beautiful, and I mostly ignored it during my time in Egypt, figuring I should do my best to keep things “authentic.” But on this last day I realized that was a mistake, as I discovered that Zamalek has just as much “character” and “color” and winding little streets and historical buildings and improbable shops and eateries as the rest of the city. The fact that there also exist here stop lights and trash cans certainly shouldn’t be a mark against the place!

We oohed and aahed over handmade pottery and embroidered cushions and finely-woven silk scarves for awhile, then headed on to a bakery that my friend recommended as having the best baklava in the city. I’d managed to avoid baklava my entire time in Egypt – not on purpose, just because it wasn’t on offer at any of the street stands I haunted. For my sweets, I stuck mostly to the carts selling endless varieties of semolina cake throughout the city, the best of which were in Islamic Cairo.

But I more than made up for this abstinence on my last day, after visiting the incomparable Mandarine Koueider – these people were serious about their baklava, and took obvious pride in their reputation. I found a picture of it online, though it doesn’t do justice to how enticing the place was, with its famed shelves of sticky delicacies and dapper, starched attendants waiting to pile the goodies high into paper boxes.

My friend and I picked up half a kilo (I KNOW!) of assorted baklava and, after a quick stop at the nearby “Drinkies” (the chain stores that are your best bet for beer and wine in Cairo) for some Stellas, headed back to her apartment and proceeded to get drunk with her boyfriend, who had just gotten home from his journo job.

I must have eaten 40 pieces of baklava – really, it felt that way, one for every day I’d missed. I was soon full with honey and pistachio and buttery crust, but I couldn’t stop until I’d tasted every single one… mmm.

My hosts had some other friends stop by, and I must report that one of them was That German Woman who was the source of my rage a few weeks ago. I’m happy to tell you that this meeting was much more enjoyable – I’m not sure if she was more relaxed or if I was, or both, but either way she turned out to be pretty fun. We all laughed and told funny Cairo stories and had a delightful evening, and even managed to touch on politics once or twice without any acrimony.

Finally, thoroughly soused, I bade my farewells and headed back to my hostel, where I think I masked my inebration enough to seem semi-respectable as I gathered my things and headed for the door. At the last minute, the hostel manager ran after me, saying he thought I’d agreed to take the hostel’s “private car” to the airport. I told him I’d never heard of such a thing and was planning to just get a cab on the street. He told me that the hostel’s service only cost 50 pounds. I told him that my guidebook advised paying a taxi 35 pounds. He told me he’d drop the hostel’s car price down to 40 pounds, and we had a deal.

However, I think the “private car” chauffeur (some poor exhausted-looking dude in a beaten-up station wagon) must have been a bit miffed at my bargaining (I can only assume that the driver swallowed the 10 pound difference and that the hostel got to keep their commission), because when we got to the airport he insisted that cars weren’t allowed into the terminal I needed and that I’d have to take a bus. I knew he was lying – I could see cars heading to my terminal – but he refused to take me any further and besides, at that point I was feeling a little guilty knowing that the hostel had screwed him. So I tipped him, heaved my bags out and took the free bus to the terminal with no problem.

And that was that. No problems getting out, no questions about my visa, nothing. I was almost disappointed. My flight took off at 4 a.m. as scheduled, and in the few hours it took us to get to Milan, Italy, my adventure in Egypt was over.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to see what I can do about getting myself back there. Insha’allah, Cairo hasn’t gotten rid of me that easily.

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2 Responses to “Day 39: Last Day (With Asides About Food)”

  1. lulu Says:

    So you’re missing Cairo, eh? Sounds like you had a wonderful last day, though, with the exception of the trip to the airport….but maybe that was a karmic reminder that nothing’s perfect. Thanks for the food bits — much appreciated, and I expect your personal renditions of fuul and koshari and the special vinegar when next we meet (sigh…). Meanwhile, don’t starve in Belgoland; they’ll NEVER “stoop” to round-the-clock food availability and of course it’s even harder in July and August when they randomly shut down their establishments for a month and set off on “vacanzie.” Delhaize awaits you, my girl. xox

  2. Rya Says:

    Hey darling,

    Sounds like you had an amazing time in Cairo. So wish you were here so you could have enjoyed this event at the museum: http://www.newmuseum.org/events/214. I just had a book dropped off on my desk about downtown Cairo by that artist — The Yacoubian Building — have you read it?

    Hope all is well and can’t wait to see you soon.
    Rya

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