Sunday, July 31, 2005

If I Can't Be At Home

When my kids began looking at universities in North America, finding the right ethnic fit was important. After all, while they both look somewhat Mediterranean, they also look and speak like North Americans even though in many respects they aren't . One of my concerns was to find a place with as much going on as Cairo, since they'd grown up with the wonderful chaos of that city around them, but also with a relatively small undergraduate school for studies so that they wouldn't get swamped in classes of 600 students. Columbia University in New York City fit the bill, and luckily they had the grades to get in. Both of them took to life in the Big Apple with the same enjoyment that they'd had in the Big Mango, so life was good. I have to admit to a certain amount of concern initially over crime rates, safety on the streets and so on, but Rudy Giuliani did a great job of cleaning up New York. When I arrived in August 1999 to settle my son in, the city was almost unrecognisable to someone who had last visited in the early 80's.

Six years on, there isn't a year that I've missed spending some time in Manhattan checking up on kids. It has the same wonderful multicultural feeling as the first time. While some of the young people I knew fled their college placements in other parts of the country in fear in the wake of the September bombing, the Arab students in New York were not afraid. The strong mix of cultures here kept people from running off the rails. So I've been back here to spend some downtime with the daughter and have been enjoying myself immensely. What are the things I love about New York?

One of them is the fact that this city is alive 24/7, just like Cairo. I went to Vienna with my husband years ago for a conference and he was utterly horrified to find that outside of the main downtown area, you couldn't find an open restaurant after 9 pm. Cairenes are just thinking about going out at 9 pm and often don't leave the house until 10 or 11 pm. During the summer or Ramadan, the major portion of socialising is done after dark. Being 7 hours off time when I arrived, I saw some lovely sunrises out of the window when I woke up at 4 and 5 am, so I took a photo out of the window to the corner of Broadway and 125th to remember.

One of the hardest things to do in Cairo between the traffic and the condition of many of the sidewalks is to take a relaxing walk in the city. You are, literally, taking your life in your hands when you step off the sidewalk into the street anywhere in Cairo. There are some traffic lights but they don't always work, nor are they always obeyed. In Manhattan, however, they are there and they are obeyed. There are also wonderful broad clean sidewalks and walking all over the place is the way to do it. Although you might not think of Manhattan as a dog-friendly place, there are hundreds of dogs everywhere and peer pressure is such that the owners never venture out without plastic bags, with the result that the sidewalks are clean. Walking here is a joy, even if the concrete gets to my legs after a while. Can't help that, since most of my walking is done on dirt.

Downtown Manhattan doesn't have the broad shady streets of the upper west side, but it has enough going on to keep any stroller interested. I have my eyes checked each year at a Lenscrafters store on 5th and 45th because they have better equipment there than my doctors do in Egypt. Happily, my old-age blindness isn't progressing much further and this year I didn't even have to change my lenses. On the way to lunch with a friend, I was waiting for the lights to change on 42nd Street and this mounted cop stopped next to the curb. Lovely horse he had and very well trained. Wonder how it would do with a water buffalo or a water pump? I have a mare that I know I could ride through traffic like this, but I honestly don't know about some of the others. But it's not optimal riding terrain, after all.

Then there are the delicatessens. Oh, wonderful deli's of New York. They aren't the most economical places to shop, however, and luckily my daughter is within a short walk from a huge supermarket called Fairway at 125th near the river. This place is phenomenal. They must have every food in the world there. Cheeses that I've never even heard of. Spices from any cuisine you can imagine. Fresh chilis of all levels of heat and flavour. Fresh baked bread of any sort you might fancy. I went in with a friend to do some shopping when we were both hungry....big, big mistake. She now has a selection of six different ice creams and her husband was utterly delighted to find pots of olives in the fridge from about four different countries. Doing a holiday shopping in Fairway is a lot of fun.

Will I miss it when I go home? No. I love the excess here, the availability of Mexican beer, all the book and record stores, when I'm here, but I don't need all of that at home. I'm happy with my more limited choices...for one thing, it helps keep the budget under control. I have everything that I really need and then some. I'm also infinitely happier where the fruits and vegetables are cheaper than the potato chips and Coca Cola. The fact that food that is bad for you is cheaper than food that is good for you drives me crazy in the US. Between that and the portions (enormous!) in the restaurants, it's no wonder that there is concern over weight gain here.

I'm off to Egypt again on Wednesday evening. A few more days to spend with my daughter and various friends. Haven't done much shopping since I'm saving my money for building my paddocks and a house, but I did find an out-of-print book by the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy (Natural Energy and Vernacular Architecture) on the local architecture used to control heat in houses in North Africa. That is going to be very useful in planning the house. A few books and a couple of new riding helmets and we should be set. The afternoon that I arrive there is a gathering at Dany Barbare's stud and I promised that I would come to help her celebrate her horses with some visitors. I think that it will be good to be home.