I’ve blogged a lot about, and talked a lot about, and had a lot of feelings about how moving to Egypt has been remarkably humbling because of the fact that I have such a hard time doing anything without assistance. Among my first and most persistent recorded utterings is the phrase, “do it myself,” and this is a philosophy I’ve lived by for twenty-two-and-a-half years (minus however long it took me to learn to say it). But it’s not a philosophy that works exceptionally well when you are plopped down into an enormous city with minimal knowledge of the language and no friends. Fortunately, I was plopped into 6A, which came with a trusty flatmate to get me back on my feet.
Rosie has been unreservedly welcoming and a proverbial fount of knowledge/wisdom throughout my first three months in Zamalek. She leaves today for her homeland, New Zealand, so as my farewell tribute, I present a not-so-definitive, nor complete, but significant, list of lessons I’ve learned from my favorite Kiwi.
- Where to get good coffee in Egypt. Much to my mother’s dismay, I developed a significant coffee habit in college, partly because I just really like holding warm beverages and believe in the (placebo?) effect of caffeine as an energizer. When I started language class in Cairo, I was dismayed to learn our “food & drink” Arabic vocabulary list translated “coffee” as “” Getting over jet lag unassisted was highly unpleasant. But when I moved in with Rosie, I noted with great joy a sign in the kitchen: “coffee is always a good idea.” It turns out you can order whole beans to be delivered (delivered!) to your door. Rosie had the grinder, the french press, and the know-how, and many a morning we crossed the courtyard to the office holding matching mugs that the guards jokingly referred to as “zeer,” the name of Upper Egyptian water jars about the size of a three-year-old child.
- How to get good sleep in Zamalek. Possibly an ironic follow-up to finding good coffee in Cairo, but be that as it may—our flat faces 26th July Street, one of the busiest byways in the city, and, like New York, Cairo never sleeps. I’ve been awake at all hours of the night and heard traffic. Not just traffic. Aggressive honking and backfiring motorbikes. (There aren’t a lot of enforced road rules in Egypt, so inter-vehicle communication is a must.) Rosie has contributed two key provisions to my beauty sleep: silicone earplugs and “rooibos o’” I don’t drink rooibos, actually, because unless its a latte, cinnamon teas weird me out. But I follow the parallel nightly ritual of chamomile & spearmint tea before bed. Incidentally, I’ve developed a corresponding ritual I like to call “the three a.m. pit stop.”
- How to re-light the hot water heater. This thing is the bane of my existence. Our water is heated by gas, what is more or less an open flame behind a white lid, which means that it’s either frigid or scalding. I showered at a friend’s in Maadi and talked for ten full minutes about how much I adored her electric water heater, which allowed me to enjoy a shower that was pleasantly hot for more than the three seconds of transition between “Arctic Ocean” and “boiling potatoes.” If you try to fuss with the water heater in order to achieve a more optimal temperature, you may well manage to turn it off entirely, in which case you will need to hold in the gas and use a match to reignite the flame. I’m a little worried that I will not be able to do this without Rosie’s assistance, and will be condemned to 1. Ice baths or 2. Smelling terrible because I refuse to take #1.
- How to tell Egyptian time. “Khamsa dee-ay,” five minutes, is an Egyptian colloquialism designating a period of time equal to but not less than half an hour. If someone tells you they’ll be ready in five minutes, you will have more than enough time to do any one of the following: answer six emails, clean your office, copy edit a proposal, make three minor changes to the website, buy your vegetables from the stand two blocks east of the cathedral, or ask for and drink a “cappushtino” (Nescafe + sugar + frothed milk)—the specialty of Nahed, who cleans as well as organizes refreshments for the bishop’s wing of the building. We have, in the last three months, drunk so much “cappushtino” that the director of the diocese outlawed Nescafe for being too large a budget item—so we bought our own.
- How to welcome strangers. I can’t pretend to do this with more than a semblance of the unassuming grace that Rosie displays, but I’ve been challenged again and again by her openhearted hospitality. I can’t say I would have been delighted to have a gawky twenty-two-year-old show up on my doorstep in the midst of my good-byes, but Rosie welcomed me into her home and her office and her church and her life, inviting me to social events, explaining the political situation, listening to me process Egypt and counseling patience and wisdom and translating from Arabic when necessary. She bakes warm bread regularly. She offers me coffee and brings the mug to me. She never complains when the Nutella or ice cream suddenly disappears. She has been a mentor and friend, and I’m so very thankful for that.
Mark, one of my colleagues, thanked me for writing a video script in the effusive Egyptian style by declaring that I would have crowns in heaven. I don’t think that small task earned me any—in fact, I’m not confident you can earn crowns in heaven—but I’ll petition God that Rosie get them, mostly for her other deeds of righteousness, but also for taking good care of the clueless, quirky American who showed up on her doorstep two and a half months ago.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.