april, 2004

Fri Apr 2 13:33:31 CEST 2004

The reason people take vacations, I suppose is to have a chance to not only remove themselves from their daily routine (which for me, at nine months out of college, is not as clockwork as it must be after thirty years of the same thing, God forbid), but also to put themselves in an environment that forces them either to think about things differently, and/or to think about different things. Or may be that's why they study abroad, or move to other countries. Maybe the ideal vacation destination, for some, is one in which you don't have to think at all.

I could see Egypt being ideal for both philosophies. To the idle vacationer, it's possible to stay at one of the two Hiltons, three Sheratons, or Four Seasons on the Nile, pay prices inflated to the ones they're used to at home, eat American fast food, and see the sights in the Egyptian Museum, at Giza, and in Luxor while only dealing with Cairo proper as a city in which you might pay three dollars to cross town in a rickety cab (and that would be at foreigner prices ... how convenient that the Arabs have their own numerals, and can therefore write two different prices on one sign -- if prices are posted at all!).

Somewhere in the middle is Mom's Cairene existence. She lives with a Muslim woman who (to my utter bafflement, until the Six Days' War was explained to me) wouldn't wear Israeli underwear; speaks the local colloquial well enough to be mistaken for Egyptian on short occasions (quite a feat, given the color of her skin!); and, in short, leads relatively the same existence as roommate Maha (minus the hijab).

On the other extreme is Paul -- I mean Khalid, at least here -- who's living with a family in Abu Sir, a village not far from Giza. Mom refuses to disclose the date she was first at the pyramids, but recalls that then, they were separated from Cairo by an expanse of desert. Now Sharia al-Ahram ("Pyramids Road") stretches from downtown, through the tourist-trappy town of Giza, all the way to the base of the mountainous sand dune on top of which the Sphinx presides over its six-thousand-year-old charges. Tour buses can go even further.

Abu Sir lies south of Giza, which is already southwest of Cairo. It borders Saqqara, a village and archaeological site with even older pyramids than the ones at Giza, though smaller and more crudely formed (ranging from "step" to "crap" -- just an old, vaguely geometrical pile of stones), through which Paul and I tramped with Kaazu, a Japanese guy living with another family in Abu Sir, the daughter of which giggled and served us a mountain of rice and sweet delicious tomato sauce upon our return from the desert. It's the third world like I've never experienced before, straight out of National Geographic: unpaved dirt roads on which travel almost exclusively donkeys and the odd camel; barefoot women with enormous cabbages balanced on their heads, the leaves of which are stuffed and rolled for Thursday and Friday dinners; filthy children in colorful Westernish rags with huge dark eyes staring at the foreigners and shouting "hallo!"; older men in the floor-length galabiyas, heads wrapped in white cloth against the heat more often than not; undecorated cement houses with mats on the floor and tapped gerry-cans of gas on which to cook... Khalid, by living here with Abu Ahmed and family, is perhaps immersing himself more fully than Mom. He drinks sugar cane juice from the ubiquitous juice holes-in-the-wall that even Maha doesn't touch; takes the minibuses (falling-apart old vans) with no doors and even less of a system of organization or schedule to and from work in Cairo every day. Walking out to the family's farm, ten minutes on dirt roads to sit on a mat and pillows stretched over the stoop of a cement house, watch the children bring the water buffalo in, the women ride clover-laden donkeys down the path, and sip sugary mint tea (fresh mint, mind you), we passed a scene that fit my postcard-Platonic ideal of Egypt: the sun setting behind a palm tree or two, a pyramid (of Abu Sir -- somewhere between those of Saqqara and the Giza ones in antiquity and craftsmanship) in the distance. Mosquitos nonwithstanding, the whole town's existence is the Arab pastoral ideal.

It's fascinating, and very cool, that Mom and Paul/Khalid are getting to know the Egyptian (and, by extension, Arab) culture in this way. While I'm not ready to trade in my comfortable DC lifestyle for it, it's been great to visit (and enticing linguistically!) -- and to have a week no think about different things, and to think differently about the world.

Wed Apr 14 19:02:55 EDT 2004

I'm kind of contemplating running another marathon. Not sure this is a good idea -- my knees didn't love the training last time -- but that was in the winter, and the mid-sixties, low-seventies in New Orleans seemed to be worth as much as months of physical therapy, and all the tape Navine could put on me. The training for this one (by which I mean either the biggest local one -- the Marine Corps marathon -- or the Dublin Marathon) would be in the summer, with warm weather. God-awful early times, too: short weekend runs start at six; long runs at five. Russell points out that that's because it gets so damn hot later in the day ... but that would mean no wine with Friday night dinners, as opposed to the glass or two I could get away with before a nine-AM run. There's also the financial commitment, $1000 if I'm to do it again through Whitman-Walker (which is the discounted alumni price) ...

In Zürich two Saturdays ago, stopping over my way back from Cairo, while Martin and I waited to hop on one of the eight million streetcars, I noticed posters on the public transportation Haltestelle (if that's even the word in the still-unintelligible Schwitzer Dootch) announcing that the roads would be closed from 8:30 till 13:30 the following day to clear the course for the city's second annual marathon. I perked up -- I had my running things with me, insoles and all, just in case Paul and I had found time to go running in the desert by Abu Sir (we hadn't -- too hot that day, and who wants to run on sand?!). But not only had registration passed, but they'd instituted a five-hour time limit! No way could I do a marathon cold after a month's indolence, and shave forty-five minutes off my time in the bargain. And the stickler Swiss didn't even have a half-marathon (which I would have done cold, no problem), or a 10K. Bastards.

So, instead of a spontaneous marathon, Sunday morning a week and a half ago meant sleeping in. More touch-of-a-button cappuccini from Martin's new coffee machine, bread, emmenthaler, fig jam I'd brought in from Egypt; time to hang out uncomplicatedly before flying back state-side. Saturday had been equally as lovely -- one of the few clear-skied days in Zürich, and the Swiss were all out perambulating their babies in high-design mesh strollers; biking through the streets with bread in their baskets. I gleefully procured a new watch band for my Swatch and all the little kariert (quadrille) notebooks I'll ever need; he declared an upper limit of 1 on per-annum shopping sprees; we wandered -- uncomplicatedtly, unencumbered, with such positive lightness of being -- next to the Zürichsee -- so different than previous quay-side Spaziergangen! -- and had an unmetaphysical cake and Apfelkuchen (me; him beer) in an outdoor café, sharing a table with a woman dressed all in hot pink.

Back now from my transcontitental itinerations, it appears I need to keep moving. Maybe just physically -- another marathon? at least a bit of running in the now-light afternoons? -- or maybe on a bit grander scale. If vacations make one think, this one certainly did me -- the African part, about the gross differences in lifestyles and values; culture; the European part, about the similarities. And my burning Europhilia, yet to be sated on any reasonable scale. (I wonder about how to quell that ... as Philip looked at the west coast and Claire sniffed the air, parallel doors start sliding in my head, alternate geographies, and I recall Martin's recent exhortation of there being endless possibilities...)

Sun Apr 25 21:54:43 EDT 2004

I missed the cherry blossoms on the Hill. One of the few selling points of the city, they come out in April, pink blossoms coating trees, and, like in Japan, a festival is held. The Run Against Bushers colonized the Cherry Blossom 10K this year -- or so I heard; I was in Cairo.

I love the whole flowers-on-trees thing. Petals on branches never fail to stop me dead in my tracks, staring in wonder up at the brief phenomenon of spring, in a way that little else regularly does -- the first snow of winter the only serious annual contender. In the same way that I must stop mid-sentence if I need to concentrate on a phrase of music in the background, or can become distracted from the conversation around me by the flavor of my tea or béarnaise sauce, so is it imperative to my well-being as an aesthete that I let the blossoms astound me at least for one week during the spring -- or that I interact with it, as I used to shake flowers onto my and Martin's heads on the arboreal walk to campus from ML. (One of the qualities, ironically, that Colin initially pinpointed as something he liked about me; now, I think it's joined the list of "insurmountable differences.")

Really, there are still a few pink petals clinging to the trees yet. Enough to coat the sidewalk in carpets between here and the 7-Eleven. But I'm a bit disappointed to have missed one of the few things I was looking forward to in DC ... from time to time, I need to be reminded that I like it here. Which I may or may not.

Pink may be absent from the trees, but not from the Mall -- this morning and afternoon, around a million women and men poured in from all over the country to protest the way the current administration has been dealing with women's health, and to scream for reproductive rights. The biggest protest that's ever been held on the Mall, and so overdue! So many people! So galvanizing; so optimistic. I marched with the Swat alum Philly contingent, having almost entirely populated the fiesta-esque party (queso but no cascarones) Claire and I threw the night before. Seven hundred Madisonians were among the protesters, as I was told by one of the women in a Wisconsin t-shirt I accosted. Buzzed hair; scarves; mothers; daughters; grandmothers; hippies; conservatives; women of all shapes and sizes and colors and creeds ... reïnforced my desire to buzz my hair off, à la 10th grade, once my stylist absconds from my current salon. These women were also a welcome change from the K Street aesthetic of tailored suits, high heels, long hair in an unobtrusive style, and blazers I see parading through this city every day. Perhaps my own damn fault for having office space downtown, but if working for a tech startup doesn't get me my recommended daily allowance of alternative haircuts, not much in this town will.

Watching the pink-t-shirted Madisonians go by, I was struck by a sudden desire to move back to where I grew up, buzz my hair, and not interact with monomaniacal science policy wonks every day. (Not like we did anyhow.) Perfect weather; long winters; politics liberal like the day is long; feminists as far as the eye can see. (Another problematic "difference," that pesky feminism.) Or at least Philly, where the little coffeehouses and twentysomething hipsters -- so conspicuously absent here -- might fill that void, at least temporarily.

But maybe I'll wait till next year, just so I can see the cherry blossoms once.

Wed Apr 28 15:56:54 EDT 2004

Spiegel came into work this afternoon grinning at my newly-shorn head, and asked "Is it cold?" Yes! Russell prepared me for the sensation of breeze on my scalp, but hitting it for the first time on the walk from the elevator bank of his building to his car, I jumped around excitedly with each tingle. It's a great summer haircut, or lack-thereof-cut -- but of course as soon as I decided to do it, the temperatures took an unseasonable dip colder.

There I was at lunch, huddled up over last night's homemade lentil soup and my first loaf of cracked-whet bread, and hot tea, losing even more heat through my head than I remember being possible.

The cut itself, I don't regret. Connie called yesterday afternoon to cancel my second haircut appointment in two weeks, and to inform me that she was going to go be a mortgage broker(!). I'd been holding out for one more cute haircut, but after breaking in a stylist over the past eight months, I don't feel like doing it again. And really, even last weekend I was ready to be done with hair for a while. While at Swat, there had been the question in my brain of Next Year (what if i get a respectable job? I'll have to have a respectable haircut!); now, there's no excuse. No haircuts, no hairdryers, no hair product, no maintenance, no expense.

I suppose people reïnvent themselves in the spring, or at least with a change of seasons. No use letting a pile of eventuallys pile up; time to buzz my hair like I've been meaning to (1/8"!), join the quartet I've been wanting to, bake the bread I've been intending to, sign up for the second marathon like I've been talking about. All of which I've done since Monday.

Tonight I think I'd rather just go dancing / There'll be time enough for rocking when we're old ...

all this ©nori heikkinen, April 2004

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