Returning Home

Returning home pulls strongly on my heart strings. Hugging Mama, breathing in her perfume and the familiar powdery scent of her makeup. Her lilting voice, bright blue eyes, and favorite pink lipstick. I love being in her house, which stirs up nostalgia; the feathery-soft, weathered jade green sofa, the French twin beds from my childhood room, family portraits proudly keeping watch on the walls. How the sunlight falls into the dining room, highlighting the grain patterns on the wooden table, gleaming brightly as it reflects off of the silver bowl filled with red apples.

Portrait of MaryDana Knight (Mama)

There is comfort in knowing these spaces intimately, remembering the nooks where the dust hides, dents my toes recognize on the hardwood floors and which photos are attached to the fridge with yellowing tape because their magnets fell off long ago. I swelled with happiness, watching Mama read, bake, and play hide-and-seek with my little boy Ramsay, who tells me that he loves how Gran “always looks a little fancy!”

I happily embrace in bear hugs with childhood friends, family, and treasured college roommates. Sharing meals in the south are a feast, an elevated experience. My belly stays so full, I feel like I’ve been dining for days on a cruise ship. During communal lunches at our cousins’ house, we take leftovers out of the refrigerator and make sandwiches, share watermelon and pull up more chairs around the the kitchen island as neighbors and friends drop by. Dinner tables are elegantly set with candelabras, crystal, fine china and linens. There are prayers and toasts and clinking of glasses. Candles burn lower with flickering light as stories unfold and laughter tumbles out with ease.     

Having coffee with Mama one morning, she brought out a cardboard box of memories. We perused family photographs from her childhood in the 1930’s: weddings, parties, prom photos. I take in the era’s details: big bows in girls’ hair, strands of pearls, lace collars, tweed coats, gloves, and fur stoles. Mama’s high school photo. Her as a little girl in Cuba at the Morro Castle.  She opens a 1944 newspaper to the front page. Fine print in the corner reads “Price-Four Cents.” The bold headline: “Allies Repel Savage Germany Attacks near Rome.” What Mama remembers most, with the innocence of a child at the onset of the war, is that her favorite radio program did not come on. 

Grandmother Mary VanBuren

In a black and white image, my grandmother looks festive on the SS Constitution ocean liner in the 1950’s. Next, we find a May 1965 Italian poster advertising “La Boheme, Citta di Marsala” with Mama’s name listed next to “Mimi” the lead soprano. At the bottom of  the box is a faded,curling photo on which”1913″ is handwritten on the back. My great-grandfather waves to us from the back seat of a Cadillac with a running board. Such rich history, so many stories. I even discovered that Mama played tennis with John Wayne’s wife and Daddy had drinks with him during their stay in Columbus, Georgia for the filming of The Green Berets in 1968. Who knew?!

There were so many moments and scenes where I reminded myself to really be present, especially while cherishing the souls, sights, and freedoms we miss so dearly in Cairo.   

  • American flags flying proudly under clear blue skies.
  • Beautiful green fields, manicured farm land and dense pine tree forests.
  • The slowness of summer, long shadows and a sun that doesn’t set until long after cocktail hour.
  • Close to midnight while quiet in bed, hearing the soulful sounds of distant freight trains.
  • The unmistakable sweet southern scent of gardenias and magnolias.
  • Squawking mocking birds, striking blue jays and popping red cardinals.
  • Plump squirrels landing heavily on branches that bow below their weight.
  • Statuesque antebellum houses, brick roads, and historic cottages.
  • Inviting porches and beautiful gardens with topiaries and statues.
  • Catching rain drops, the joy of puddles and calm of watching water trickle down windows.
  • Children blowing bubbles, spinning and falling onto the soft grass with squeals of delight.
  • The wonder and enthusiasm of sparklers and fireworks.
  • Building Legos, sidewalk chalk art, finger painting and rinsing off with the garden hose.
  • A joyful cycle of walking in bare feet, swimming pool play with friends, holding baby kittens, petting dogs, Slip n’ slide fun and soccer with cousins.
  • Real belly laughs and shouts of fun discovery as the boys run with nets to catch glowing fireflies.
  • Ice cream cones, playgrounds, music-making and make-believe.
  • Evening walks around the neighborhood, sitting on benches and having heart-to-hearts.
  • “Why do we go around the outside of the restaurant and not go in?” asks our 5 year old, who has never before experienced a drive-through, and refers to Wendy’s as “Lucy’s” for the rest of the trip.
  • BBQ, BLT’s and pimento cheese sandwiches.
  • While devouring the delicious buttery, sharp cheddar taste of Mama’s cheese straws, I savor the little sesame seeds sticking to my lips.
  • Enjoying delicious, grilled steaks for lunch at the Big Eddy Club, an experience translated by Ramsay in his imagination as “eating camel at the Spaghetti Club.”
  • Lingering by the Chattahoochee River, watching the sun set over the water and wishing I could stop time for just a little while.

I’m always delightfully surprised to make discoveries in a city I know so well: markets with live music and art, coffee shops, ambient restaurants and bakeries that have popped up while I’ve been gone. Modern playgrounds featuring water fountains, bongo drums and enormous chimes. Making new friends with a kindred spirit in yoga.

Getting ready to leave town, the hardship of goodbyes stirs up a mix of emotions; sadness and gladness. Many of Mama’s friends, whom I’ve known my whole life, are getting older. Will they be there the next time I come home?  I will miss family gatherings, holidays, birthdays, funerals, and celebrating those important life moments with people dear to me. Pushing these thoughts away, I breathe deeply and fight the tears. Putting on my sunglasses as armor, I say silent prayers at Publix grocery store while buying snacks for the trip back.  On the return flight to Cairo, I recall memories of a peaceful afternoon outdoors with friends. Although the heat was thick and muggy, the deck umbrella provided welcome shade as we sipped our wine. The cicadas’ loud, alternating crescendos echoed in the gorgeous quiet as small scurrying animals rustled through fallen leaves. I stared into the depths of the trees, mesmerized by the forest’s varied shades of green. Beautiful light streamed through the canopy.

Ramsay taps my arm on the plane to show me clouds and says “Mama, you seem hippo-tized.” I smile at him.  A surge of emotions pulls on my heart strings, missing home already, but grateful for such wonderful memories.

Peace and Light,

Tracy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Echoes of Egypt

I’ve been away from blogging for far too long. I have felt distracted and fuzzy-minded. Yearning in a city of 20 million people and a great deal of concrete to be surrounded by beauty, quiet, and to feel a connection with nature. Envisioning myself walking through a forest and breathing fresh air is a favorite meditation these days. Sometimes people assume that in the Foreign Service you lead a glamorous life, that it must always feel like being on vacation. There are those moments when it feels too good to be true, but honestly, most days, we are living our daily lives as we would in our “home countries,” trying to create a home and life that feels stable, healthy, and joyful.

My blog is my space for musings, art, and writing that is an extension of me. But I have felt overly-extended these last few months, so I cocooned inside and wished for inspiration to show up. It took a while.

What have I been up to all of this time? With Ramsay (now age 5) not enrolled in school for the first few months upon arrival to Egypt, we stayed busy learning, exploring, unpacking, and searching for new friends and kid-friendly places. Our household shipments arrived just in time to put up a Christmas tree, and Santa arrived on a camel, which was exciting, but it simply didn’t feel like home here. So, we focused on nesting, getting to know our new city, and traveling the country. Days began to run together.

When Ramsay started school in January, the homesickness kicked in for me. Things I missed most: my mother. My really good friends. Living in a house. Having a garden. Sidewalks for Ramsay to safely walk and ride his bike. Trees and rainy days. Wearing spaghetti-strapped tops and shorts and skirts in the heat without glares, without feeling naked.

I spent a lot of time making our home a safe, cozy refuge from the world outside and tried to find a space in the house that felt like my own. I kept pushing furniture around from room to room and eventually brought a big desk downstairs and put it right in front of the living room window.

To Brad’s credit, he never once groused about this.  As I unpacked boxes from Swaziland that we hadn’t seen in over a year, I pored over favorite art books and reread underlined quotes of novels. I enjoyed rereading journals and letters, seeking inspiration. Missing human connection, I jumped into yoga and school activities, attended coffees and embassy functions, seeking my tribe. I met some great women and started a book club. I filled my days in lots of ways, and although creativity was slowly stirring, I did not write. I simply digested what I was experiencing.

When faced with “How do you like Egypt?” I automatically respond with positive (and true) remarks, such as how I love the vibrant markets, the Islamic Art, and that Egyptians are extremely kind. To illustrate my point, I tell the story about going by boat to the Nubian Village in Aswan for lunch with Ramsay, but all of the restaurants were closed. Before we knew it, we were invited to eat with a family on their houseboat, where they cooked us chicken on a hot plate and made a yogurt cucumber salad on the side. That really happened.

Egypt is full of wonders and delights: rich history, mythology, temples and pyramids, camel rides, shows with whirling dervishes and soul-stirring drums, Red Sea snorkeling, and cruising on the Nile, to name just a few. But, in reality, it has been a long adjustment period for me. I do like it here, but it hasn’t been without struggle.

Adjusting to life here has also included sandpaper scratchiness in my throat upon wakening, related to weather forecasts that just read: DUST. Heat that sits on you like a heavy blanket and creates a sort of stupor. Morning pollution that clouds the ground white and causes illnesses from poor air quality. Being gripped by fear, grief, and disturbing emotions surrounding tragic, senseless terrorist bombings. And learning what it means to live under a dictatorship and in a country that has declared a State of Emergency  (heightened security measures, martial law, internet restriction and censorship). Additionally, being American in a predominantly Muslim country, under an administration that makes it sound like Americans don’t like them, has contributed to a big dip in morale that ripples through our community.  Long commutes in traffic and the gravity of Brad’s work here have also been hard.

I’ve been told in a joking manner by expats that instead of NEA standing for “Near Eastern Affairs” job assignments that NEA really stands for Never. Ever. Again. I laughed, but I don’t dislike it here. It just takes a lot of positives to counteract the tallies in the “cons” column some days. For a while, I was waking up, putting on invisible armor to steel myself for the crunch of chaotic traffic, noise, and pollution just to walk Ramsay to school. My personal mantra became “more wonder, less warrior.” 

My friend Vig made this for me. She’s over on WonderWorks Living at www.wonderworks.ie

I try to remember that I’m a temporary Cairene, and concentrate on embracing what Egypt has to offer while we are here. There are many magical days. Cairo is like a city of secret doors. Streets in our neighborhood don’t have long rows of shops, but rather hidden little nooks that are nestled inside of apartment buildings. Post-revolution, facades are a bit run down with hanging wires, cracks on walls and sidewalks, but you can see that Cairo was once a stunning beauty in a bygone era. Her shy charm emerges in flourishes of architectural details on lamp posts, balcony railings, and wrought iron gates that cast pretty shadows across the terracotta tiles of foyers. Heaps of popping magenta, orange, and yellow bougainvillea cascade over walls, and shady palm trees line the roads.   

Waking at sunrise to the muezzin reciting their soulful call to prayer. Feeling the spaciousness of standing inside of Ibn Tulum Mosque. Climbing a tower and seeing sweeping views of Cairo, its roof line full of pretty spires and minarets.

And there are those perfect evenings, sailing on a felucca with a gentle breeze at twilight, when the moon looks like a circle of frosted glass hanging in the woolen-lavender sky. The honey-rose sun sinks behind the horizon and twinkling city lights begin to shimmer. And we feel deeply grateful to have this experience.


Until next time, be safe, be well, and much abundance,

Tracy

 

From the Capital to Cairo

“Have Suitcase, Will Travel.” Ultimately, the rewards of Foreign Service life outweigh the hardships of living abroad, and my husband, son, and I appreciate the opportunity to explore new countries. I always attempt to embrace transition by running toward it with arms open wide, but then start losing enthusiasm for the actual moving process, the difficult farewells, and the well-meaning conversations that end in “I could never live there. Good luck!”

“Handling these overseas moves should be getting easier,” I think to myself, preparing household shipments for a home I’ve never seen, tying up loose ends at work, and poring over exhausting checklists. Tears spring to my eyes, thinking of the long distance we’ll be from loved ones, while explaining to our precious, small boy why we are moving to yet a third country within 10 months, with the promise that he will see his disappearing toys soon, and meet new friends (again). I take some deep breaths, focus on being thankful, and read a quote often, sent by a dear friend and artist that says “Be at peace as you enter the waters of deep change and initiation.”

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I know by now that there is a normal emotional pendulum for these big upheavals that swings from being filled with apprehension and feeling like falling apart, to being mentally positive and excited. We will find our footing in our new home, as we always do, as we discover wonderful people, places, and experiences that expand our life perspectives.


Flying into Cairo, the lavender light of dusk turns into a milky haze that blurs the ground from the sky.  Disoriented with jet lag, we step off the plane onto the tarmac, inhaling heat and tasting dust.

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The drive from the airport to our apartment is a bum-clenching experience. Vehicles of all kinds are inches from our car door, swerving and flowing in unison like a peloton of cyclists, all of them wildly honking, with complete disregard for lanes and traffic laws (such as not using headlights in the dark, as it’s believed turning them off saves battery). We pass a string of black billboards with strange pictures of horses made out of bright orange flames. Trucks piled high with sacks, leaning and lopsided, threaten to topple. Five people are stacked onto one moped like a circus trick. The driver comments that traffic here will “make you out of order and you must use eight eyes.” Three-wheeled tuk-tuks squeeze their way through the maze of congestion, alongside donkeys pulling drivers on crate-filled carts, adding to the  frenzy that is a new bizarre beginning of a life in Egypt.


Life in Egypt. A few weeks in, we have adjusted to our time zone, figured out which stores have which ingredients in order to cook meals at home, met lovely people, joined the expat club, found a playground and a yoga class, have all fallen ill and recovered, and have navigated numerous new processes and ways to do things, such as understanding the role of our building doorman/”boab”, how to order take out delivery from an “otlob” mobile app and give them directions to where we live, and trying to use taxis using scant arabic (if Brad isn’t with me) and lots of hand signs..

Keeping your sense of humor is key while digesting these initial days in a brand new culture. Here are a few mishaps and observations:

  • I can wake up and Windex the glass table on the balcony and 5 hours later, can literally write in the dust, which is fine like flour.  Sweeping it is as futile as using a broom on a beach. And if you pet a cat, the puffs of dust actually rise up like a little cloud in a cartoon
  • Good coffee and a delicious bakery in our neighborhood have been excellent for my morale. And the servers give Ramsay a free straw, which he puts in water and calls his “fancy drink.”
  • At Carrefour grocery store, in the bathroom, I pushed the wrong button to the delight of my 4 year old, who was in stitches laughing as I soaked my shirt with the bidet. I wrung it out and continued to shop, sopping wet.
  • “What happened! Are you ok? You look like you got run over by a motorbike!” – Comments from my husband after I exited a cab after using a very old, dusty seat belt that left a charcoal-black thick stripe across my white tunic, like a miss-America pageant ribbon.( “Wow! I bet no one has used that seat belt in decades” was the follow up comment).
  • During yoga, there was a horrible, distressful sound. Inquiring afterward, the yoga studio owner explained the landlord next door was eschewing evil spirits by sacrificing a goat on the property. (And I thought we left black magic practices behind in Swaziland…)
  • The idiosyncrasies of a new home- sometimes our shower pressure is fine, and other times, it’s like showering on a small boat, barely dripping. And if I even breathe on the dishwasher, it mysteriously turns on, locks, and won’t turn off until the cycle is complete. Then we had to call in the plumber when water started seeping out from under the cabinets and over my feet while washing the dinner dishes in the kitchen sink.
  • Paid $40 for 2 bottles of Nivea sunscreen at the local pharmacy, then subsequently found the very same bottles for $3 each when I went to the commissary. 
  • Ramsay and I bought yummy deep-rose colored hibiscus ice cream, where Ramsay loudly inquired, “how in the world, Mama, does he eat with just one teeth?”  We walked away quickly and I prayed the ice cream vendor didn’t understand English very well.
  • We called a recommended Felucca (sailboat) ride guide named Haani, who reserved us a boat. We got directions to his dock, stepped out of the cab, met Haani, and got on the boat. Then got a call on my cell phone from Haani, wondering if we were stuck in traffic. Confused, I explained that we were on his boat. Except, we weren’t. We were on some other guy’s boat who just wanted the money, and had to turn around half an hour into our tour, to find the “real” Haani pacing like a wolf on the dock and yelling at our captain. Then the real Hanni started a real fist fight with the fake Haani, and we got the hell out of there fast. (But we loved the 30 minute sail on the NIle). Ramsay, Brad, and I ran down the sidewalk and hid inside a restaurant, then decided just to sit down and have dinner there.

And things we love already: the trees in our neighborhood, the gorgeous tangerine sunsets, the festive atmosphere, shops with Aladdin-looking lamps, the souks and markets, Egyptian food, the juxtaposition of complete dilapidation and stunning beauty on the same block, seeing artifacts from the 5th century A.D!  Our little balcony, the wonderful crafts, the pretty weather, and everyone sleeping through the night again.

Until we meet again. Ma‘a as-salaama,

Tracy