Thursday, September 30, 2004

Time Travel

One of the facts of my life is that a little over four years ago I lost one of the most important people in it, my husband. We met as graduate students at the University of Waterloo in the 70's, and from the moment that we decided to be together even for an afternoon we were together, even when we weren't in the same place. The work that he chose meant that he traveled a lot, and our agreement regarding how we wanted our children raised meant that I was a full-time mother and often on my own in the early years. In fact, this problem was what lead to our moving to Egypt in the first place. When someone asked our three year old daughter where she lived and she answered "I live in Canada and my daddy lives in Egypt", I knew it was time to move.

When he died, the job of settling the affairs of his rather extensive business network fell to my by default. I realised that none of his brothers really understood what he had done, and he had no partners other than me. For a mother/journalist, it was a pretty horrific experience. I'd been there as he built his companies but I'd never worked with any of them, and I didn't particularly like many of the people who were working for him. Just learning who to trust and who not to trust (which turned out to be almost everyone) took me months at a time when what I should have been doing was just sorting out my grief and my children's needs. But it had to be done and I did it.

Remember swimming classes when you were little? At some point the instructor would tell the students to swim to the other side of the pool underwater and you would hyperventilate a bit, take a deep breath and take off unsure whether you would reach the wall before your breath ran out. Just before touching the tiles your lungs would ache, your eyes would see the sunlight above the water, and you would want more than anything in the universe just to be up there breathing. That's been my life for the past four years. But it's over now. The settlements are done, the companies are on their respective paths, and I can see to my life again.

During this time, my son and then my daughter were students at Columbia University in New York, and I tried to make it there for a visit each year. We traveled to California to touch base with my family who had produced the first of the new generation in the person of my neice Naya. But I didn't go to Toronto, which was where our family home was rented out to a succession of tenants and where some of my dearest friends lived. My children each made the pilgrimage alone from New York to stay with Neil and Elaine and heal a bit so that Toronto could again be part of their lives, but I didn't until last night.

I flew in late last night, marveling at the changes in the pattern of lights that was Toronto from the air. It's a lot bigger now and I didn't feel that I was coming home in any way. I made my way to The Annex where Neil and Elaine live, arriving just after Neil had arrived from his hockey practice. Funny thing about Canadians.... they like hockey so much that they will go play at the oddest hours of the night if they can get the ice time. It was heavenly to be wrapped once more in the warmth, comfort and love of my friends' home. We sat on the front porch in the chill night sipping whiskey, watching marauding racoons (They are so much bolder and complacent than they were when we lived here!) and catching up on the past four years, albeit rather gingerly. Then I was tucked under a down comforter to drift off to the quiet neighbourhood noises of Toronto.

No matter what I do, tears are so close to the surface here. Our children were born here. This is where they went to nursery school, where they learned to swim, where they played in the leaves that I would rake in huge piles from our yard. I remember so many happy times. Working three teaching jobs to make ends meet while I was pregnant with our son and meeting friends in the evenings at a favourite restaurant for dinner. Walks in the lovely parks of the city before the children were born and after they changed our lives. Going out for Chinese food on Spadina with infants and later toddlers who learned to love dumplings in the cradle. The city has grown and changed and so have we. I sold our home here. It was old and needing renovations that would have been hell to do at a distance. The children agreed because they didn't feel that it was home anymore. I still have my haven here in The Annex where I can sit on Elaine's deck to drink my tea and watch squirrels as we did so many mornings when our children were young. One of her daughters is still, like mine, in university, while the elder has finished, like my son. I'm going to try to persuade her to come visit me in Egypt this fall since she was studying in Europe and might as well make the trip while it's shorter.

Tomorrow I have to go to a storage room to go through things that we left behind when we first moved to Egypt. I can't imagine how I'm going to handle that. But it's time to move on to the sunlight.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Land of No Weather

I'm ready to go home now. I'm wet enough to last for another Egyptian year, I'm sure. The inhabitants of the eastern part of the US have had more than their share of rain this fall thanks to the efforts of hurricanes Frances, Ivan and now Jeanne. They have my sympathy and they can also have all that rain. I've had enough, thank you.

When I spoke to my daughter last week before flying out, she told me that they were "enjoying' cloudy skies, rain and chilly weather. Naturally, when I arrived it was sunny, bright and in the mid to high 20's, since I'd mostly packed sweaters. Oh well. I had some t-shirts along, so it all was manageable. That is until today. Today the tail end of Jeanne decided to visit the Big Apple and it began raining this morning. We had showers, drizzles and a bit of wind all day, but it wasn't so bad since after all, most of New York is indoors. But this evening we decided to venture into Chinatown for some Peking duck and when we emerged from our poultry orgy, we ran smack into a full gale. The winds were howling around corners, turning umbrellas inside out and driving the rain into parts of our bodies that we never expected to get wet. With the recent hikes in the prices of the Metro and the cabs in New York, we don't usually take a taxi here, but we made an exception tonight. I simply couldn't take getting any wetter.

We joke that Egypt appoints a weatherman about once every three hundred years or so. He accepts the job, walks outside to look around, and then announces that the weather will be sunny and the wind will come from the north for the most part. He then leaves since there will be no change in the weather for the next three hundred years. I can live with that sort of weather.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Big City Life

It's a grey cloudy Sunday in New York and the dorm that I'm staying in is utterly silent. Guess Sunday morning is sleep-in time around here. I arrived here on Friday afternoon and surrendered my brain to jet lag on arrival. Even though I'd stopped for a night's sleep in Vienna, my body had no idea at all of the time in New York. By 4 pm it was 11 pm in Cairo and my eyes were complaining but we kept them up for a few hours so that I could get into NYC time as quickly as possible. I hate waking up at 3 am with a body that says it's time to feed the birds even though the only birds around here are pigeons so fat and complacent that I almost stepped on the utterly flattened remains of one that had sat in the street long enough to get nailed by a truck. No sense of self preservation those birds! Not like our Egyptian pigeons who are their ancestors. Most of our pigeons belong to someone or are totally wild and act like it.

My body decided to play along and I slept until about 7 yesterday, when I got up and went for breakfast at my favourite breakfast place here, The Deluxe. It's just up the street from Tom's (famous from Seinfeld and Suzanne Vega and for its terrible service and worse food) which is for some people a favourite morning spot. The Deluxe has tables outside on the sidewalk for decent weather, which we had yesterday, and they make wonderful homefried potatoes to go with the omelets. I parked myself at one of the outside spots and watched the city wake up.

It was odd to sit and not see any donkey carts rattling up the streets but there haven't been any here for a while. As I sat sipping my coffee I noticed that Manhattan street theatre is about as good as Cairene. No wonder the kids loved it here for school. First note to myself was not to order tea in the US. I did at first and it was awful, having been made with water that wasn't hot enough. REAL tea drinking nations know that the temperature of the water is all important. I'd forgotten why it was that I learned to drink coffee here. At least the coffee was good.

At 8 am on a Saturday morning, they deliver beer here. More varieties of beer than we can remember in Egypt. Hmmm, another nice thing about New York. Most of them are rather hedonistic reasons. I watched two Spanish speaking young men wearing back braces flinging beer kegs out of a truck into the street, from which they were loaded onto hand trucks to move to the sidewalk. Good thing those kegs are strongly built because they really took a beating. Way back in the dark ages of my tenure in grad school I was a bar tender at the Grad Student Union at the University of Waterloo and I remember the amount of foam that kegs used to spew forth when they were first connected, and if the treatment of the kegs on Broadway were any example, now I know why.

Another interesting thought that came to me along with my raspberry jam and multigrain toast was just how heterogeneous the poplulation of Egypt is, even though locals assume that because they are "all Egyptians" it isn't heterogeneous. Manhattan is a wild mix, especially near Columbia University, but aside from the Asian population (which we also have, by the way) the people passing me on the street could have been the various flavours of Egyptian as well. The fact is that humans are simply becoming wonderfully mixed any more. After centuries of welcoming and absorbing travelers and invaders from various parts of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, Egyptians now appear in all sorts of colours, sizes, and shapes. People come and want to see "real Egyptians" and we always have to laugh. They are all "real Egyptians" but if they mean ancient Pharaonic type Egyptians, then maybe the citizens of Aswan or the now-displaced Nubians could qualify. Even so, the ancient Egyptians had Syrian, Phoenician, Cretan, Greek, Assyrian, name it, whoever traveled in those days...blood mixed in due to war captives being brought home as slaves or victors who occupied cities in Egypt, so what a "real Egyptian" would have been is anybody's guess.

Well, time to snag a shower before all the kids get up.