Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Speaking tongues in Cairo

When Marc was 6 months old we moved to live in Cairo. Although we were happy in Budapest curiosity and opportunity enticed us to see another culture. We visited the city before making a decision and both agreed it had a certain charm to it and we liked the Middle Eastern hospitality and warmth.

In Cairo we had a spacious apartment on a shady island called Zamalek, but my life was curtailed by the traffic. The cars simply did not stop or follow rules. To cross a road you launched off the road holding out a pleading hand or asked a security guard to help stop the traffic. With a young child in a pushchair this seemed suicidal. We lived near a well-known country club called the Gezira Club. Once I had crossed the road I could access their children’s playground for five shekels, which I did most days. In the playground there were waiters wandered around taking orders and my English friend, Sybella, and I would order hot sweet tea and cakes while we pushed our toddlers on the swings. That seemed very civilized to me, although I winced seeing the kids running around doing deliveries with bare feet on the streets as I walked home.

Every day I went to the ‘supermarket’ which was crammed full and tiny. But the cashier would add on extra money every time and I was forced to learn Arabic swearwords to insult them into giving me the right money back. I felt like a walking target. On the other hand for a few coins a boy would carry all my shopping back home and after haggling in the market we could get a good bargain for a carpet or a kilogramme of fruit.

Taxi were a particular nightmare, rarely speaking English and looking for easy money. The passenger had to practically guide them to the destination and I often felt like taking the wheel myself. Payment was debatable and usually we would get out and throw the coins or few pounds at the driver, since we knew the local fares. This was everyday practice and I was exhausted having to stock up on small change and ‘drive’ the taxi around.

I started learning Arabic at the British Council as a way to learn some directions and shop. Marc was looked after by a Philippino maid called Rose, who also cleaned for us three times a week. She was an angel and worked hard to keep the Saharan dust out of the house. She chatted to Marc in Tagalog and sang him Filipino songs while she worked. Marc briefly went to a nursery there where they fussed over him in Arabic too.

When he began to babble at around nine months I was sure his ‘words’ were English and likewise Jacques heard French sounds! As Marc approached his first year we were delighted to see him making his first steps and uttering first real words……mama, papa, teddy, spoon, more! As first-time parents we were awed by his progress and stunned that he could even speak….

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