Good News for Jealous Friends: Culture Shock in Egypt — By Jennifer Shipp
Africa Egypt North Africa

Good News for Jealous Friends: Culture Shock in Egypt — By Jennifer Shipp

This is the protective covering on the elevator doors in our apartment. Nobody ever bothered to remove it completely so it looks perptually unfinished.
This is the protective covering on the elevator doors in our apartment. Nobody ever bothered to remove it completely so it looks perptually unfinished.

Today, someone asked me why Americans have pets. And I had to come up with a reason. And then I had to then try to explain it in Arabic. When I got home, John asked me why I’ve seemed so pissy over the past few days (being male, he thinks it has something to do with him). I was in the shower, trying to warm myself after having spent the morning in a classroom that lacks heating (we just keep our coats on if it’s below 60 degrees). He was talking to me while I was taking a shower instead of at a better time because there is no better time for us to talk.

“I’m sick of eating dates as my default snack. And I’m tired of weighing my fruits and vegetables in the produce department instead of at checkout.” I said. “I don’t know why I’m pissy. I haven’t had a chance to wonder about that yet.”

So he left me to think about it and instead we met up in the kitchen to discuss the day and prepare mashi.

Yep. This is culture shock. That time in a trip when I realize how pampered I am as an American and as a person. It’s a time when I start to feel exhausted by little things like how the water keeps turning off unpredictably in the middle of the day and occasionally at night. The rain in Cairo has disrupted all kinds of things and running water just happens to be one of them. Our washing machine was mid-cycle today when our water turned off, so it groaned painfully for about half an hour in rebellion before I noticed it and now it’s holding our clothes hostage. I miss our cars. I miss how clean they are and how easy it is to get in the car and drive to the grocery store. I yearn for little things like the metal serration on the box of aluminum foil that makes it easy to rip off a clean sheet. I miss buying pre-washed potatoes.

And I miss our pets. But when asked today about why we, as Americans have them, it occurred to

We don't push too hard on these buttons because the whole wall moves when we push on it.
We don’t push too hard on these buttons because the whole wall moves when we push on it.

me that it’s probably because pets aren’t allowed on the streets in the United States. Here in Egypt, there’s an abundance of cats everywhere. The people feed them at the park or at the university. But Muslims don’t take animals in off the streets and keep them as pets because they view them as unclean. They believe bad angels might come into their houses along with the pets. I hadn’t known this until our young university friend clued me in. I explained how Americans can go adopt the street animals from shelters, but how if no one adopts a particular one, we kill it. She grimaced at this. And I came home feeling weirded-out by how strange normal things like Fancy Feast or dog pillows can seem out-of-context.

Another one of our heaters broke in our apartment yesterday and so we had to go buy yet another space heater to take the edge off the cold nights. This morning, a lightbulb exploded within a foot of my face. The Call to Prayer keeps waking me up in the morning. There’s mud everywhere because Cairo streets are not built to convey rainwater into gutters and sewers and our biggest goal today as we walked from here to there is not to be splashed by cars as they drive by.

And we can’t find any tortilla chips. Anywhere. When we first got here, a grocery store called Seoudi (say-oo-dee) stocked Tostitos and we all decided that, with a constant supply of Tostitos we could definitely survive here for 8 weeks, but now, though we’ve searched everywhere, we can’t find any more of them. This is a serious deal for us. It’s the kind of deal-breaker that could cause a nervous breakdown at this stage in the game. We have two weeks here left without chips (unless we find some). Today, I pacified myself with rice cakes and jelly as a Tostito-like snack-treat, but believe me, it wasn’t the same.

Right now I’m sitting on our folded up travel yoga mat on the floor in front of our new space heater trying to warm myself. It’s been unnaturally cold and rainy here in Cairo for the past three days and since we walk everywhere and sit for hours in chilly environments, I’ve been constantly cold. When we’re at the apartment, I like to soak up the heat if I can. But the yoga mat isn’t luxurious. I have to push the original condition of these floors out of my memory to sit here. I’ve mopped the black and white tiles a few times to try to de-stigmatize them but still, we wear our flip flops everywhere inside the apartment, even in the shower (the distance between our skin and the ceramic tub is mostly symbolic, but it helps psychologically). Only the cold and the lure of the space heater was able to coax me to become more intimate with the barren tiles. I sit on the yoga mat, with my computer perched on my flip flops at an angle. It’s not exactly like having an office but I try not to think about it.

We religiously remove our shoes at the door to keep our floors clean inside the apartment. So every morning as we get ready to step out the door, we take turns stepping out of our flip flops and into our shoes with great care so that the flip flops stay in the germ-free zone and the shoes don’t contaminate it. This may seem over-cautious, but last year we came home with parasites so we’re not taking our chances. The process is tiring and I’m weary of it.

After we put on our shoes and lock the door, we walk down 14 flights of stairs because the elevator only works if you get in on the first floor. And the elevators are truly scary. Inside the walls are spongy. When you push on them, they move like cardboard. The protective covering has been only partially removed from the mirrored walls. It looks like little kids may have peeled away at it in moments of boredom, so haphazard is the appearance. We’ve taken the elevator at times and gone all the way to the 14th floor only to reach the top and go right back down to the bottom because the doors didn’t ever open.

So we take the stairs about 75% of the time. On the way down the stairs, I keep track of which floor we’re on. On the 8th floor, there’s a cable strung across the ceiling that could strangle us if we didn’t see it. We duck underneath it as we eat a breakfast carry-out fruit (apples or bananas) on our way. Two floors down from that is where someone vomited and the *splat *splat of it has slowly worn away (we step over it). On the next floor there’s a dribble of something brown and oily from a trash can. Sometimes the begging cats will score a chicken leg and the barren remains of it will be left on the stairwell. On the 4th floor, there’s a gasterenterologist available two doors from the stairwell. On the next floor down, there’s an “Education Center”. The stairwell is unimaginably grotesque the entire way except for one day a few weeks ago when it was obviously mopped. I remember from our time in Egypt last year that communal spaces like this are often in hideous condition and so I expected it, but I don’t think I’d ever get used to it.

Our apartment is nice enough, but there are some oddities that keep us wondering. Like why they put a vanity mirror light in the bathroom such that the fixture itself goes through the mirror (right where our faces would reflect back at us when we’re standing upright). Why not put the fixture up above the mirror? Wouldn’t that make more sense? (It was this bathroom lightbulb that exploded just above my head this morning as I was luckily crouching underneath it).

And there are several electrical switches in every room. John has been fiddling with the whole system trying to figure it out. Some of them obviously control the lights, but the others are Mystery Switches. Last night John had some kind of breakthrough regarding the electrical system and he was really excited about it, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. I nodded encouragingly and said, “Good, Honey! Good!” and then pulled the covers up and went to sleep.

At 5:00 AM-ish I woke up to the Call To Prayer (as I do every morning).

And we have cockroaches.

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