Breakfast at Alexandria

I promised more about Alexandria. Several days late, other than a truly spectacular seafood dinner at Abu Ashraf's the thing that has most lodged in my head is the oddity of our breakfast at the Windsor Palace Hotel.

We sat down for breakfast at a table with five seats, as there were no small tables left. Bob collected what he wanted quickly while I cruised an excellent buffet. When I returned he nodded quietly towards a plate with a single segment of orange on it, and a half cup of black coffee.

“She has been to the table twice and hasn’t yet acknowledged my existence.”

Then a gentleman sat down in the seat beside me. He didn't look at us.

In good Australian style I said ‘good morning’ and was ignored.

Then the lady (blond and slim enough to snap if she attempted to pullup her socks) came back with a half piece of burnt toast on her plate.

Bob waited till she was seated and very clearly and loudly said “good morning.”

She did not even look our way, but sat and gave all her attention to the man beside her.

Both began chatting loudly and very enthusiastically, with lots of nodding and ‘ja, ja’.

Bob said loudly “It is odd being ignored isn’t it?”

I nodded. The conversation had reached a rattling pace on the other side of the table. He was eating, she toyed with her half piece of burnt toast, then examined the segment of orange carefully, peeled off some stray white bits and put it back on her plate. She didn’t actually eat even one mouthful.

Bob said “I couldn’t keep up this level of conversation at the breakfast table.” He couldn’t either – he tends to move into business mode at breakfast, and ask me things like “What’s on your itinerary for today?”

He smiled across the table as the woman almost glanced our way, then her eyes skittered away like a frightened pony. She went back to talking with animation to her partner. It was all I could do not to just sit and stare, as it all felt so peculiar.

It reminded me of a time when I had dinner with an Austrian friend while living in Jordan. After the meal she rounded on me and accused me of terrible table manners, and said that was very bad for an Ambassador’s wife.

I was a bit non-plussed, and asked what I had done. She pointed out that while eating soup I had my left hand in my lap, not resting at the wrist on the table as it was supposed to be.

I pointed out that it seemed to me that hardly anyone had a wrist on the table, and she said “but they are not cultured, you are supposed to be.” I pointed out that I suspected that it was European manners, and was not known in Australia or Jordan and she said that she was glad she had told me so I could get it right in future.

Anyway, it suddenly occurred to me that this couple at the breakfast table was probably as appalled at our bad manners in acknowledging their existence, as we were appalled at theirs in not acknowledging us! Both of us were breeching etiquette according to our customs.

She ate nothing through a long breakfast, just reduced everything on her plate to very small pieces. We left without them ever even looking at us.


Desert Trip

Desert Trip
We were invited on a trip into the desert to visit a site known for its whale skeletons coming through the sand and rock in the site of an Eocene Sea.

It was led by Roger (pronounced Roget and perhaps even spelt that way) who runs these trips regularly for anyone interested. He has a large group of followers, and I think I wish to be one of his very best friends. He has an extraordinary knowledge and love of the desert.

He also cooked a superb lunch - whole marinated barbecue filets of beef, tender and succulent and done on small round portable pans.

Breakfast, where we met the travellers for the day, was on an outcrop just before we dropped down into the desert. Croissants, pastries, strawberries, coffee and orange juice were all laid out on the bonnet of a car while we stood and chatted and ate.

I have to do this in reverse - as the first email (this one) has to be sent last and the last one first so they line up in the blog as I want them to. It is a little complicated, so forgive any discrepancies. I have a blog fairy - my wonderful webmaster, Kate Andrews, who will
flitter in and make it all look like one email instead of lots, so it doesn't push everything else off the front page. (Done now! - Kt)

Breakfast view
The view, in the direction we had to go.

We had to cross large areas covered in stones, and a crust on the underlyng sand and gravel like creme brulee, firm enough to look at, but likely to break through to the softer sand below.
Here every track ever made by a vehicle remains like a ghost. Tyres push the gibbers aside, and the white sand is left gleaming through.

Desert outcrops on the way

Outcrops in the desert
Desert as far as the eye can see, sand and gravel, and occasional areas of gibbers - strange stones that look as if they have each been melted and spun into weird smooth shapes. These areas looked firm, but the gibbers float on softer sand under the surface crust, and it is easy to bog even here.

Through the desert
We followed the tracks of our leaders. Though they scar the desert now, a few good winds will remove them, and you would not find this place without compasses and a global positioning system.
The glitter you see to the sides of the small escarpment is all shells, from a long ago ocean floor. Oyster shells were bigger than two of my hands, mussles, bivalves I didn't recognise, great sheets of shining fossilised mother of pearl and smallet turret shells. All in amazingly perfect condition, and spilling in profusion down every hillock of sand.
The trip was astonishingly, breathtakingly beautiful.

No roads
No roads, and no tracks, and just the desert spread out before us. We drove down steep inclines to get down from the plateau, some of it hair-raising, and had to roar up sand dunes to get over them before we ran out of speed.

Waves rearing overhead
I thought it very appropriate that the area that was an Eocene Ocean should have great rearing waves, with beautiful water patterns on their sides.

Spectacular outcrops along the way

Fossilised mangrove roots at the whalebone site.

The laid out backbone, and the most solid fence.

Whale bones
I was fascinated by long lines of whale bones, left in the sand for people to look at. The bones are from an Eocene whale who swam in this ocean forty million years ago,but was able to come up to land as well. They are not a precursor of our modern whales.
I couldn't believe that the bones were just left for people to look at in the absolute understanding that they would not be stolen - how long would they last in Australia before they were souvenired? This area is a long way from towns, but is visited regularly, and the sites of skeletons are surrounded by a 'fence' of small sticks in the ground - about a metre apart.
I should have given you a scale - the big bones here are about eighteen inches long (for patchworkers who work imperial).

I thought this was a funny sign - motor boats was the last thing on our minds!

The lake in the desert
The drive home took us by a different route. We ran up sand dunes - fast, as even slowing down would have bogged us - we followed a long flat wadi to Fayoum, then after about an hour of desert driving hooked around on a very busy highway to Cairo. We passed this lake on the way - and it felt almost surreal lying there quietly in the desert. It is artificial, fed by the Nile via canal (like most of Egypt) and already had very large fish.


Photos as promised...

German Names at the German Memorial
German names at the German Memorial

The Gardener at the War Cemetery
The Gardener at the War Cemetery

Australian Graves at El Alamein
Australian graves at El Alamein

Farmer's Wife
Farmer's wife

Pigeon Houses in a Farmyard
Pigeon houses in a farmyard

Snow White???
Snow White???

Fishers in the Salt Marsh
Fishers in the Salt Marsh

The Cleaner at the Citadel
The cleaner at the Citadel

Floor Detail in the Alexandria Citadel
Floor detail in the Alexandria Citadel

I Like Boats
I like boats

Washing the Boxes for Fish, and Adopting the Picturesque
Washing the boxes for fish, and adopting the picturesque

Boats and Fishermen
Boats and fishermen

Fishing Boats
Fishing boats


Notes on Zamalek and a Little of Alexandria

This is a country where a Tic Tac is a salty cracker.

A shop with ‘Sanitary Products’ on the signboard sells plumbing equipment.

A taxi and driver will cost you about $5 Australian an hour. A bit more if you telephone one of the many drivers who have good English and take bookings.

A standard tip is one Egyptian pound – about twenty five cents.

The butcher’s has lots of meat – and they are all lumps of muscle just as they came off the animal. You point to the bits you want, they weigh it and print a label, then painstakingly remove all connective tissue and fat from it. Then they prepare it as you wish – cubed, sliced, ‘escallops’ or minced. I watched a lady hand over a large bunch of flat leafed parsley and a garlic bulb this morning, and they peeled the garlic – all of it – and then minced the parsley and garlic with her lump of meat in their mincer. It still wasn’t fine enough, so in it went again with a good sprinkling of black pepper, allspice and salt. Beef has one cost per kilo, veal another – regardless of the cut you ask for.

We have a school opposite. Someone told me, and I have no way of checking the veracity of the statement, that there are more than one hundred schools on Zamalek.

Another story (which might be apocryphal) says that a previous ruler decided that Zamalek was just too beautiful. We had green trees, and beautiful houses, and a comfortable way of life. So he established many schools, just to make things fairer. With schools and narrow streets come huge traffic problems. My street is impossible to move in just before school, and for about half an hour afterwards. The traffic is not entirely static, it moves in fits and starts as children pour out and find parents or drivers. The worst part is after school, because then the parents hoot for their children. If the children don’t come immediately they hoot for longer. If they are getting impatient (which seems to take about forty five seconds) they lean on the horn.

Multiply this by the twenty cars in front of my house (it is a big house) and the other twenty or so before and after who have been forced ahead down the street and don’t want to get out of it without their children, add in the occasional car stuck in the middle who just wants to get through in the queue, and keeps up a rhythmic and non stop toot, toot, toot, and it is a cacophony which can be hard to live with. It lasts about half an hour, then suddenly the peace is almost palpable.

Children arrive from about 7.30 to 8.00 am. At ten past eight, give or take a few minutes, the music starts. I love this part. The children are assembled outside in lines. There is a brisk and summoning piano which belts about a few minutes of happy martial music, and the children clap – tight close clapping – on every second line. Then they sing the national anthem. I must find out what the Arabic means but it is fervent, and tuneful and really enchanting.

I keep meaning to write about Alexandria, and never leaving quite enough time.

One small snippet though. Because of the death and funeral of a previous deputy Prime Minister, many of our appointments in Alexandria were changed at short notice. Security missed us for a couple of appointments, and then the chase cars arrived.

If you are thinking of a Canberra style of motorcade streaming efficiently down broad highways, let us start again. Think dense traffic, one way road systems, frequent essential U turns in order to get back onto another side of the road to make turns, and you will see some of the problems. In the one way roads there are often drivers who go the wrong way – because they will only take a moment! When they meet a car entering correctly before they get to the end, he backs up! This is utterly surprising – I cannot even imagine it happening in the Tuggeranong Hyperdrome Carpark. We would get abuse; they shrug, and let him through. Sometimes the car will more or less obey the law by keeping the vehicle pointing in the right direction – but go hell for leather backwards! Driving here is never boring.

Back to our chase cars. In dense and edging traffic, occasionally they were behind, occasionally in front. They had no way to contact us except by hand signals. The window winder of one of the cars was broken. So was the siren. If the driver wanted to get through he honked. If he wanted to direct traffic to the side of the road because we were getting too far behind him, one of the officers in the back opened the back door, leant out as far as he could, and indicated that cars behind him should pull over.

It was all surprising friendly and efficient. We had four officers, all fascinated that I would keep jumping out to take photos of strange things like fishermen and boats and the constant and beautiful pigeon houses – tall mud structures like domes, with decorative holes for pigeons to pop in and out, and wooden sticks sticking out here and there as landing perches.

On a previous trip to Cairo – years ago and during the first Gulf War – I asked in a restaurant, where the bathroom was. The waiter nodded at my ‘Wein hamman?’ and went rushing out the back. I assumed he was checking it was clean. Fifteen minutes later I wondered what he was doing, and he reappeared with a bowl of cooked pigeons. The Arabic for bathroom and pigeon is almost identical – hamaam and hamam – and he had misunderstood. He thought I had asked “where are the pigeons”?

Our hotel, The Windsor Palace, was beautiful – straight out of the movies of the last century – very ‘Death on the Nile’. High ceilings, cream walls with delicate plasterwork all around the walls picked out in gold leaf. We had a separate salon (you could not call it anything else) with parquetry flooring and Louis Farouk chairs.

Photos will follow.


Computers, Plagues and Baking

You haven't heard much lately as we have been having computer problems, followed by two days in Alexandria, followed by more computer problems. They are not significant and damaging, but we have been trying to network the computer we brought from home with the one here. We only have a modem connection here, and it has no modem (we had broadband and hadit purpose built), so this seemed a solution.

I tried initially to just plug in the telephone lead into the back of my laptop as that seemed an obvious solution since it has a modem. However - the connection seemed to have been glued in to the Embassy computer.

Nermeen (a lovely computer expert at the) managed to get it out with a sharp knife. She linked all the computers up but they wouldn't network. After three hours of muttering they decided we had the wrong lead - after trying every possible configuration, and using my laptop in the loop as well.

However, they then left. We had the plug in the laptop at that stage, couldn't plug into ours without a modem, and couldn't get the darned thing back into a too-small hole in the embassy one. So - I am on the laptop, on a very short telephone cable which means I am straddling the end of a wide chest of drawers to work. Ten minutes of this is a bit uncomfortable. Yes, I could work off line, and should, but there is a level of sheer inertia and laziness operating here.

So - at the moment emailing seems a chore and I haven't updated my blog in ages. We were also in Alexandria for two days – and almost stayed forever at Al Alamein. We had a very near miss from a large vehicle traveling at speed.

We are having, with the warmer weather, a plague of tiny insects. I keep remembering that those biblical plagues came from this region. They come to die in droves on every surface, especially wet ones. This includes coffee and tea and beverages, and the floors of showers. They look like tiny mosquitoes but I haven't been bitten yet, so don't think they are harmful. However, I have probably swallowed hundreds, so they might not think the same of me. In the light of our windows at night you can see what looks like swirling smoke - as they try to work out, with their tiny brains, how to get in. Any light on has a deep pile underneath an hour later – and all dead. I am glad I am not Buddhist.

I had a cooking disaster today - but more or less fixed it.

I made lemon bars for the diplomatic ladies visiting me today. I made the base (1/2 cup butter, 1/2 cup sugar, 2 cups flour, buzz in processor to fine crumbs) and pressed it into a buttered pan.

I lit the gas oven and retained most of my eyebrows.

I looked at the strange numbers on the sides of the dial and decided half way should do cakes.

I put the tray in the preheated oven Five minutes later smelt smoke and the edges were black.

No time (or butter) to make the next bit so I lifted out the black bits, scraped out the whole base and reversed it in slabs like pancakes, then patted it down firmly. It hadn't burnt too badly underneath, but I still had to bake a topping onto it!

I poured on topping (buzz 1/2 cup lemon juice, two cups sugar, 4 eggs, 1/4 cup flour and 1/2 tsp baking powder).

I baked it twenty five minutes (having cranked the oven right back after leaving it open for five minutes). I had added a tray of water below the tray to try to prevent belting heat from gas burning the bottom again. After twenty five minutes I still had liquid dough on top.

I turned it up a bit more, tentatively. After another twenty minutes it was puffed around edges and set in the middle and I deemed it cooked. I removed it from the oven.

Darkish brown bits of precooked and not-pressed-down-enough dough had floated up here and there and looked speckled - like a nice brown egg. The rest looked unappealingly custard-ish and pallid.

Recipe said 'dust with icing sugar'. Well, I could see why. Only problem is that I haven't found it here yet. What could I do to make it look appealing?

I melted sugar (as if it needed more?) to make a caramel, and drizzled swirls from a fork all over the top. It looked great – professional and interesting.

I decided (guests due about now) that I had better cut it while the toffee was hot.

HA! the toffee was hard but still bendy, and bent to the knife straight through all layers, like trying to cut through tough calamari floating on two inched of dip with the side of a cake fork.

The lemon topping looked surprisingly wet so I licked my finger after wiping some off the knife.

Disaster! It was still raw and tasted of flour.

Whole thing was dumped back into the oven for another fifteen minutes, turned up again, and then the doorbell rang.

My guests were due, so I decided to give them a long and voluble tour of the house while the cake baked and the toffee on top probably burned, and slicked my hair back as I went to open it.

It was three men and a very, very long ladder.

The whole thing progressed rapidly into what felt like an episode of Keystone Cops. They had come to hang my Desto Roll- two days early. The ladder was so long they had problems turning in my huge entrance hall. Then it turned out to be broken and they were all afraid to climb it – so out it went again.

Somewhere in the middle of all this my three ladies arrived to talk to me about running a quilting group under the aegis of the Women's Association of Cairo (think Cardin suits, REAL Hermes scarves and Prada bags). Actually, these ladies were not like that and were just delightful, but I had been nervous.

The slice cooked, the toffee softened after the second bout in the oven. It was soft and edible. Veronica managed to cut it (scissors through the now-softer toffee, then knife for the rest).

They all inspected the house and studio and quilts while the Keystone Cops played games on ladders - and failed to hang my desto roll. I could see someone dying when they showed me the process they intended to use – and stopped them, with frantic phone calls to an Embassy interpreter while my visitors admired the quilts. The men will come back when they have a longer ladder which is not broken.

I am of to have a drink with a friend! My legs feel as if I have done ten kilometers on a carthorse, thanks to this strange computer position.

More another day - and I haven’t even talked about Alexandria.