We wake up to another day of frigid temperatures in New York City. New York is much colder than Cologne! But we will not let a bit of cold weather deter us from our plans. My friends enjoy a breakfast of bagels and coffee. I eat cooked oatmeal, the same breakfast I always eat in the winter. We put on our long underwear and head out for Central Park. Central Park turns out to be my favorite part of the day, perhaps the highlight of the week, because of a couple of wonderful discoveries. We see lots of squirrels scurrying throgh the park, but one in particular catches our attention. It runs back and forth between the ground and its burrow in a hole in a tree. I love it – nature in New York! This squirrel knows nothing about rental prices in the city or gentrification. He lives the same lifestyle squirrels have been living for thousands of years, and it’s comforting for me to see this in Central Park.
The other discovery is a community of cardinals in the park. My last trip to New York City I saw a cardinal and thought it must be a rare occasion, because the only birds I usually notice are sparrows and robins. But here there must be twenty of them flitting around. What a wonderful aesthetic experience to see flecks of red hopping around the ground, then darting into the air and back down again!
On we march southwards, through the city. It is only noon, and my feet are already tired, and all we have seen is Central Park. We glimpse at the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center, and walk into St. Thomas Church and witness a wedding in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I love St. Thomas Church and walk in there almost every time I am in New York City. I once went to an unforgettable Christmas Eve choral service there. I love their boys’ choir and the liturgy of the service. But it is my first time in the St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I am not Catholic, so never found a need to be inside this church, but Patrick is. I am impressed by its size. Surely it must be the larget Catholic church in America, I think. It isn’t, but it is the largest in New York City. We walk past the New York Public Library. This is another place I have never set foot inside, but I have been told it is a worthy tourist attraction, its lobby so beautiful, you can rent it for weddings – for upwards of $60,000! https://www.nypl.org/space-rental/your-event
If only my Peter had seen this place, is the main thing I think, walking around the beautiful rooms with carved oak walls, golden molded ceilings and gorgeous masonry. This would have been heaven to my husband, who loved books – and maps – so much. He used to spend hours at a time, just studying maps. Once visiting friends in England, they drove us to visit a town none of us had been to, but they thought they knew the way. We would have gotten lost, had we followed their directions, but Peter assured us, he knew the way. He did, and they marveled at his sense of direction.
The NY public library has a room dedicated to maps. I mourn my husband as I marvel over the most amazing globes I have ever seen.
On we go, southwards on Fifth Avenue ever since Central Park. By now it is a bit late in the afternoon, and we are all feeling the effects of our long hike in our legs and feet. Now we are headed for our last destination, the Rooftop Bar at 25rd Street. A friend of mine in Germany told me about this place, not written up in the tourist guides, but known by many young people, including her son, who spent a semester at a language school near New York City. It turns out that there are several rooftop bars in New York, but this one seems to attract mostly young people. That’s what we see at this one at 230 Fifth Avenue. https://www.230-fifth.com/ The interesting thing about this place, to me, is the heated plastic igloos where you can sit and enjoy the view.
We drink a cup of hot chocolate for $10. We have to hurry, because the bar closes at 5 pm. The hefty price is worth it. We leave, inspired and strengthened for our return home. We have seen enough for the day.
Two hours later, friends of mine join us at our suite. We have a drink together, and head out again for dinner at Der Krung, a tiny Thai restaurant only New Yorkers would know about, it is so far west of Fifth Avenue. Because of its location and tiny size, the prices are reasonable. It’s fun exploring New York with New Yorkers. I enjoy introducing my German friends to friends from New York. I am in the middle, part of each culture. This must be symbolic of who I am. Am I a bridge between cultures?
Perhaps the two questions ex-pats ask themselves more than any other are, “Where is home?” And “What is home?” I certainly do. I recently heard a travel commercial today, trying to entice people to come to Denmark on vacation. They asked this very question, “Where is home?” For them, the answer was, home is where you feel secure and comfortable, and this is a state of mind. Therefore, presumably, you could travel to Denmark and be right at home.
I only have one major regret in life – I didn’t buy my apartment in New York City when I had the chance. My building was going coop, and I could have bought my studio apartment for $50,000. My father could have easily financed it for me too, but I didn’t want to owe him anything, so I never asked him. That apartment is now worth over $400,000, and there’s no way I could afford it, even it were available. If I had bought that apartment, I would have had my own abode in New York, the only place that has ever really felt like home. Or does it only feel like home when I return to visit, because nowhere else feels like it either? Because I got so sick of my entire life in New York City – twice, I only wanted to leave, and eventually did. But did I find home?
I don’t think of New York City as a place where I feel secure or even comfortable. But I do feel like I fit in. There’s room for everybody in New York! And there are eight hundred languages spoken there, making it the most ethnically diverse city on earth, according to the World Population Review. http://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/new-york-city-population/
I have an
inquisitive, curious nature, and I like to be involved in interesting
discussions. New York is discussion
paradise. People philosophize about
everything, and they’re really interested in what others think. Here, if you overhear someone talking about
something while waiting on line for your coffee (they say “on line” in NYC, not
“in line”), you can jump right into the conversation. People in New York are passionate about life
and all its details. You won’t find
passive bystanders here, but active participants engaged in conversation
wherever you go. They make eye contact
on the subway and smile at one another when they find something ironic or
amusing. Life is shared in New York.
There is so much to do in this city, I’m never bored. Home for me is not a place where I have to stay indoors to feel good. I can go outdoors and join the rest of the world in New York City any time I please. When I want to feel secure and comfortable, I can stay indoors and watch the same TV shows, cook the same foods, read the same books, or water the same plants I would anywhere else. But where else could I find such interesting people to invite over for dinner, if that was what I wanted to do? Where else could I sit in a café and enjoy such an intense discussion? That is the DNA of New York. Once New York gets into your blood, it’s like getting the hepatitis virus. My blood type is irretrievably changed after having lived there twice, for a total of ten years. I’m infected with the NYC virus. My blood type is NYC – both positive and negative.
And now here I am, returning to NYC – from Germany, my adopted country, with German friends. I was here a year ago after my sister’s funeral, where I attended the funeral of my friend’s father, and stayed with my sister. This time I have arranged to spend a week there as a tourist, spending very little time with family and friends. In fact, we will be staying in a time share apartment, just like many other tourists. Most Germans I know have never heard of a time share, something most Americans know about, so this is something of my culture I can share with my friends. How will this week be? How will New York feel to me, experiencing it again, but with Germans?
We – that is Johanna, Patrick, their son Timo and I – arrive at JFK airport on the bitterly cold afternoon of February 1. It is cold in Germany, but this cold is insane! Minus ten degrees Celsius and a huge wind chill factor. We can feel it walking off the plane into the terminal.
It takes an age to get through immigration, even for me, with the luck of going through the US citizen line. This time no one asks me any silly or loaded questions, simply welcoming me to the United States. When I arrived in Seattle, the agent leafed through my passport, noticed all the stamps from previous trips to Egypt and Turkey and asked in a friendly voice if I had family over there. It was only hours later that I realized this agent wasn’t merely making small talk with me. He was feeling me out to see if I was trying to smuggle some people from Muslim countries into the USA. That experience didn’t feel very welcoming. Today feels better, even though I’m separated from my friends, who aren’t allowed to go through the line with me.
I wait for over a half hour for my friends, wondering if they have somehow gotten through before me and are waiting for me somewhere. But no – immigration takes very long these days, especially if you’re not American.
We finally meet again, and leave the airport for the Airtrain, a monorail that circuits between the terminals and the Sutphin Boulevard subway stop on the E line, which is also the Long Island Railroad stop. I don’t know how to work the machines to get a ticket. I am just as much a tourist as my friends. We end up buying a ticket from a salesman at a kiosk, paying him a tip for the privilege of buying from him.
We enter the subway train and are immediately entertained by a performer who does incredible acrobatics on the train. I have seen performances like this many times in New York, so this feels familiar to me, and I know he expects about a dollar from each of us, which we gladly fork out to him. He leaves the car by forcing the door to the next car open, something that is strictly prohibited by the Transit Authority. But perhaps I am the only one who knows that, because everyone smiles, waving him a farewell as he leaves.
I had forgotten how long the ride is from the airport to 53rd Street and Lexington. Almost an hour long! New York is a huge city. We leave the train and I am disoriented and begin walking in the wrong direction until Johanna asks, “Aren’t we going in the wrong direction?” What is wrong with me? I have always been able to get around Manhattan. I just stand somewhere, figure out whether the Hudson River on my right or left is. If it’s on my right, I’m heading south. But this time I can’t figure out which side of me the Hudson is on.
Before we left Germany, I checked online where the nearest supermarket is. Morton Williams on 57th Street. I have never heard of Morton Williams. Another change in New York. There is also Whole Foods at Columbus Circle. I read about how Amazon bought them. When I lived in New York there was no such thing as Whole Foods.
Our suite is really nice! We will be living in more luxury than I have ever enjoyed in NewYork. I have a huge bed all to myself and my own bathroom. We have a microwave to heat food in, and a little drip coffee machine. I inquire and find that they renew the coffee supply each day, as they also do with dishwasher tabs. My time share is again proving itself worthy of the money I pay each year!
After checking into our suite and unpacking we head out for Morton Williams. I recognize Carnegie Hall on the way, and right across the street from there is Calvary Baptist Church, the church I belonged to when I last lived in New York. I scarcely recognize it now, a tiny structure sandwiched between two very high buildings. Normally, my trips to New York don’t take me to 57th Street or midtown Manhattan. No wonder everything seems so strange! But I am familiar with the choices available in a New York supermarket. We find everything we will need for breakfast tomorrow, when Timo will go out again and buy bagels. The bagels look really good. When it is time to pay, I am again overwhelmed. There are many cash registers with numbers. It seems you have to stand on line, like at the bank, and wait for the next available cash register. Some are unattended. Apparently you have to scan your own groceries and pay with a credit card. Can I do this? I can. I manage this as easily as if I had been doing this my entire life. I even ask for cash back, and get it. But only $50. Johanna and Patrick don’t know about cash back. I learned about cash back in Germany, where they even use the English word for this system of getting cash off your debit card when you pay for something with it.
Johanna and Patrick have a comfortable sofa bed they make up each day in the living room. Timo has a rollaway bed in the corner of the living room. We have a comfortable home for the week.
Prologue “What do you think you’ll do, now that Peter has gone?” My sister Jenna had flown halfway around the world, all the way from Australia to Germany, to keep me company, and to say her last good-byes to my husband Peter. I had done the same in reverse when her husband died. Our son and his wife arrived from their home in Korea in time to be with Papa for his final hours on this earth, and stayed for the burial. August 24, our wedding anniversary, was the day we said our final farewell to him. Now my kids were leaving, tearing another hole out of my heart. Why does my family have to choose homes impossibly far and fantastically expensive to reach?
My family of origin, which consisted of seven children, now down to six still living, is literally a micro-United Nations. We have all married or live with people from different cultures, races and countries. I went to Germany and married a German. There’s Australia, where Jenna and her family live. Japan, where my brother Simon lives with his Japanese wife and family. One brother is living in America, but with a woman from Bangladesh. My brother Jason, who also lives in America, married a Malaysian. Naila’s Sam is African American. Their son Blair longs to go back to Asia to live, where he went to music conservatory. Knowing my family, that is what he will end up doing. My son went to Korea to study, and met and married a lovely Korean girl, and settled down with her in Seoul.
Because my family is so spread apart, there are many places for me to go to. “Go on some long trips and visit all the people I love,” I answered. I had already been to Korea and Japan last summer, so I wouldn’t go there just now. I would go back to America, the land where I spent the first thirty-six years of my life.
I’ve been back “home” so many times over the years, but there are people dear to me whom I haven’t seen very often, some not in years, who live in America. Besides people, there are also places in America leaving holes in my heart, just like people. Places like New York City, where my soul seems to be drawn, like a magnet to its pole. The aching hole in my heart keeps finding reasons to go back to New York City and be filled again. There are a couple other places I love too. The Boundary Waters of Minnesota, too, where I was conceived and kept returning to, year after year during my childhood. The wild coast of Oregon, the State where my sister lives. She brings me back to the coast each time I visit her. Other places I’m not so familiar with, and there are still one or two others where friends live, but whose homes I have never seen. There is plenty for me to discover in the land of my birth. Where to go on this long trip back home?
My wonderful, strange friend “Serendipity” had already stepped in for me, months before I had any thoughts of going back to America. I had just come back from the States, where I attended both my sister’s funeral and that of my friend’s father. I wasn’t really looking to return to the States. But Serenditpity came in the form of a phone call a couple months after my return. My timeshare company wanted to know if there was some location my husband and I would like to travel to. “What? Didn’t you know? My husband had a massive stroke over three years ago and can’t travel!”
That was one of the biggest losses I have had to face since Peter’s stroke. He and I were such good travelers, and he was never as interesting or stimulating as when traveling. We fed off and nourished each other’s curiosity with our contrasting insights and information.
“Oh – I’m so sorry,” the voice on the other end said. After a pause, “Maybe YOU would like to get away somewhere. Is there anywhere you would love to travel to?” I couldn’t think of anywhere. All there was now was family, and I didn’t need a timeshare for that. A twinge of self-pity threatened to tug at a corner of my heart. Then, just as I was about to hang up in disappointment, I remembered New York City. “Well, there is New York City, but you never have any openings there.”
me just check,” the agent said.
“Ah, there is an opening at a hotel called The Manhattan Club for
the first week in February. Would you
like that? It is a suite that can sleep
“Yes!” I said, with no questions or doubts in my voice. So, months before Peter died, the seeds of a trip to the US were planted. I would be a tourist again in the city I spent ten years of my life in. As soon as Jenna asked her question about what I would do, I knew I would make a long trip out of this week in New York City. I also knew just how I would do it. I had already found friends, people who had supported Peter and me throughout Peter’s entire illness. These friends had recently asked if they could travel with me to New York City sometime. And the rest was there, sitting in front of my imagination like a trayful of goodies.
America seems to be slipping away from me, the longer I spend away from it. People watch TV differently. Now at least those of us with internet have Netflix and Prime, no matter what country we live in, but what do people in America watch? They eat different things too than they used to. What would I discover in the culinary landscape of America? New words keep creeping in, new expressions, new fads, new phobias. I am way out of touch with the bureaucratic side of America. I don’t have to deal with Obamacare or group health plans, thank God. But I wonder how other Americans deal with getting sick. How do they face longterm illness like I had just spent four years dealing with, as I became acquainted with the German system? By now, I know more about how Germans live than Americans, the people Germans keep asking me about. The longer I spend away, the less I know.
And then there’s the political scene. What on earth is going on in America, that a man like Trump can be President? How could the evangelical Christians ever support such a person? I consider myself an evangelical, but I sure don’t share any values with this man. Or at least, I don’t think so, but then we don’t get Fox TV in Germany. Still, I get enough information to ask how myself how Christians can explain their support for the current President and administration. It was time for a lengthy visit.
February is a strange month to travel, one would think. It’s dark and deathly cold. But nothing beats the winter blues like traveling, and where do many Americans travel to in the winter? To the South! It was clear to me that since the week of my timeshare stay in New York City was the first week in February, I would follow that week up by traveling to the three peope dear to me who live in the South. Everyone was excited at the idea of my coming, so I planned a trip lasting five to six weeks. I would not travel north this time to my brother in Minnesota. I had seen him last year at our sister’s funeral, and Minnesota is infamously cold and snowy in February. It would have to be the South – and New York, which is cold enough.
From New York I would fly down to Austin, Texas and visit my cousin and his wife. From there I would somehow get to Louisiana and visit an old friend from college. And I would travel by some unknown means from there to Tennessee to visit my brother Jason and family, who recently moved to Tennessee from California and were having some problems with their adjustment. Then I would travel back to New York City from Tennessee and have plenty of time for family and friends. I checked Google Maps. The distances between each of these places were quite far, but doable, either by renting a car or traveling by bus. Why not? I could take the Greyhound bus, just like Simon or Garfunkel does with Kathy in that song about being lost and looking for America. That kind of fits me, I thought. I feel lost too, and am looking for America.
there was Christmas to get through. One
piece of advice I got after Peter’s death was, “Whatever you do, don’t
spend this first Christmas alone. Go
visit someone in your family.”
By the end of October, the days were getting cold and the nights long. I sat in my living room, imagining Christmas. Would I buy a tree? No way! Why would I lug a tree from my car, spreading needles and scratching myself, spreading pine resin on my fingers, just for myself? The idea of decorating a tree and then sitting there all by myself to look at it made me so depressed, I knew I could not spend Christmas at home. I also missed my only other living sister Naila, who had not been able to come to the funeral. I hadn’t had much contact with her since we’d seen each other in Minnesota after our sister’s death the December before. Soon after her return home, a double whammy of bad news came to her. Both she and her husband had cancer! Naila ovarian and Sam prostate cancer. And both would need treatment. Naila went in for six months of chemotherapy, and Sam radiation therapy. Naila was told she needed to take time out from the world and go into a long hibernation of several months. She was too vulnerable to infections. She was also exhausted from chemotherapy. We wrote, but she didn’t want to share her burdens over the phone.
I risked phoning her on that long, cold night in October. Chemotherapy would soon be over and she was feeling stronger. Yes, she was up to talking now. “I miss you, Naila,” I said. “I wish I could just fly out there and see you for Christmas,” popped out of my mouth.
“Why don’t you do that?” she said. “We’d LOVE to have you! I just saw a commercial on TV from Condor Airlines. It looks like they have cheap, direct flights from Frankfurt to Portland.” Naila lives in Portland.
And so I
booked another flight – to Portland, Oregon, but it wasn’t direct. I’d have to fly to Seattle first.
In November, my dear friend Miriam from Seattle came to visit me for three weeks. Unable to come to be with me for the funeral, she offered to come and keep me company for three weeks. What a wonderful buffer that was from the pain of being alone! We went on a couple of short trips to nearby tourist sites, did Thanksgiving together, another hurdle I needed to somehow clamber over. We talked and cried nonstop for three weeks. And then, before I knew it, it was time to fly to the States.
Going to Oregon for Christmas was the perfect thing to do. Both my sister and her husband were feeling pretty good by the time I arrived. I was a caterpillar cocooned in familial warmth. My nephew Blair, living for the time being with his parents, is a fabulous cook and we were treated each evening to feasts. The Christmas tree was decorated when I arrived, and everything was as I remembered a Christmas or two in the past, spent with my sister. But there were stabs of pain, too. Remembering a Christmas and other visits to Oregon with Peter stung. He loved Oregon. We had sat on the living room couch, opening Christmas presents together. Now I had to sleep alone in the same bed we both had slept in on our many trips to Oregon. Mornings, we would gaze together at Mount Hood, sometimes peeking through our bedroom window, sometimes hiding from view.
Together we discovered a popular Oregon activity – tide-pooling. On several vacations at the beach we would head for the rock pools formed at low tide, identification book in hand, identifying and marveling over the sea stars and anemones. Sometimes we would see little crabs climbing miniature rock cliffs. We had enjoyed the seagulls and pounding waves together. Sam and Naila’s home is our son’s American home, and Oregon became our home away from home, after my parents had both passed away and their house was sold.
But there is comfort in shared sorrow. There is healing in pain that is shared. I felt warm and secure, spending Christmas with my family. The warmth spread over the pain like a balsam.
I had asked Naila if there were any choral concerts in Portland during the Christmas season we could go to. I love the Christmas concerts in Germany, and was singing in several myself with my choir and vocal ensemble. It would be nice to partake in some of the lovely things of Germany in Oregon, I thought. “There’s the Festival of Lights,” my sister said. “For two weeks or so before Christmas, an abbey in Portland puts up loads of Christmas lights and choirs come from far away to sing in the chapel. We could do that.”
We did that. We went out in Portland drizzle to see the lights and hear some music. That was perhaps my first truly touristic American experience this trip. The abbey gardens were giddy with lights of every color and shape, everywhere you looked – overwhelming after years of pristine white lights in Germany. Almost all the Germans I know consider colored lights to be garish.
stations, like stations of the cross, with recordings recounting the Christmas
story. The choir we heard wasn’t very
good, in my estimation, but at least they were singing Christmas music. And I was doing something Christmasy with my
sister, who a month before this could not have left the house.
I baked their favorite Christmas cookies for them. We went to church together, and we watched TV together. We discussed politics. Here my sister and I were of kindred minds. Her entire family and I felt alienation from the current political situation in Washington. I discovered something in this alienation that I hadn’t expected. Naila and Sam, also evangelical Christians, feel alienated from the political attitudes of almost all the people in their church. They say this sense of alienation is not unique to them. Evangelicals all over America feel politically estranged from other evangelicals, something that never existed before the last election. The estrangement is so severe that people even feel unable to talk about their opinions with one another.
So Naila keeps company with Rachel Maddock. “Let’s watch Rachel Maddock,” she said. “She explains it all better than anyone else.” We watched Rachel Maddock and fretted together. Here, even on the political level, we were able to share our feelings.
I did get sick while in Oregon. I came down with sinusitis and by New Year’s Day really needed to be treated badly. “I’ll take you to urgent care,” Naila said. I had to ask what urgent care was. Another new development since I have lived in the States. A pretty cool thing, actually. You can go there at any time, even on New Year’s Day and be treated, generally by a nurse practitioner. There is no such thing as a nurse practitioner in Germany, nor are there urgent care clinics. Naila’s urgent care clinic accepted my German insurance card, so all was well on that front. And with medication, my sinuses were also soon healed.
I had booked an airline ticket I could change. Perhaps, if all worked well, I could also visit Miriam in Seattle at the end of my trip.
Things did work out, and I rode the Amtrak train to Seattle in the New Year. Miriam greeted me at the train station, just as I had greeted her at the Cologne train station just two months before.
Miriam lives on a island off of Seattle, which to me has always sounded very romantic. I was so curious to see how she lives! Of course,you have to ride a ferry boat every time you go to the mainland, but the ride is only fifteen minutes. Miriam tells me that the wait can be up to an hour and a half, however! This island is lush with majestic pine forests and huge ferns.
There are so many forests, human settlement feels like something of a rarity. On this island, Miriam and her husband live close to nature. I thrilled to see an everyday occurrence for them – deer grazing in their garden. Beautiful blue birds and squirrels came to feast on peanuts Miriam’s husband feeds them every day.
This is America too, the America I love, just like the Oregon coast. Here I saw the Puget Sound, dotted with so many islands, so peaceful it reminded me of a lake in northern Minnesota. When I am out in nature in America, I feel in touch with myself, with my family, the animals and all the other people living in America. Peter had never been here before, so for the last part of my journey I felt less pain, enjoying this beautiful landscape with my friends.
Watching the Puget Sound in Washington with Miriam, I remembered also having stood a few days before on the Oregon Coast. There, in contrast to the still waters of the Sound, I had experienced the foaming, turbulent waves coming from the same ocean. Even more than the calm water, tamed by the many islands in the sound, it was the surf that touched me the most. The surf, pounding and crashing onto the rocks, transforming into dazzling waterfalls, calmed my soul.
I had gone for long walks along the beach each morning, allowing the constant movement of the waves to move my turbulent heart. I would stop and feast my eyes for minutes at a time, gazing at the powerful waves. I missed Peter, but also felt the peace of sensing that he was perhaps somehow standing there with me. Perhaps he was also able to see the perfect rainbow given to me one morning, a promise of happier days to come.
A breakfast of foul again. Since it’s Friday, most of the sisters are fasting, but some come down for tea. We share photos, and I learn new words like “husband”, “wife”, “son”, “sister”. All the sisters are telling me how much they’ll miss me. And I will miss them. Probably more than they could imagine.
In January I felt completely included in my Breakthrough group – a “secular” group. I don’t believe anymore there is any such thing as “secular”. We all have differing degrees of awareness of God within us, and differing degrees of openness to giving God room in our lives. At any rate, this is my first time to feel overwhelmingly loved in, and to wholeheartedly want to belong to a Christian community. I think I’ve been learning over the years to forgive the weaknesses, discrepancies and hypocrisies I’ve encountered among Christians. But I’ve been unable to wholeheartedly embrace Christian groups. Perhaps it’s my culture as an educated Westerner. We have to qualify everything. We’re always hedging! How much do we want to really own the things we say we believe in and cherish? Where do I really stand with my fellow Christians? Are they my brothers and sisters?
I’ve always said in the past that I wouldn’t want to belong to a community. All I’ve seen of communes and communities is either their breakdown because of relationship problems, or the abuse of authority. But this community is a group that seems to work. It’s a group of people I’ve felt completely accepted by, and they have healed broken pieces of my soul. This community amazes me with their frank, unabashed, shameless love of Jesus. Just as it’s natural for them to tell me they love me, they are unashamed to talk about their love for Jesus. In fact, their faces take on a radiant expression as soon as they start talking about Jesus. In this community, I find I’m not embarrassed to hear this. In fact, I want to grow in this. I want to be more shameless about what is important to me. I am moved in a deeper way than I ever imagined possible to be included in this group. I will savor this and let this feeling of inclusion grow in my heart.
The sisters and staff here are asking me when I’ll come back. I hope, from the bottom of my heart, that it will be next year.
I share my photos with Sister Maria. She corrects some of my misperceptions about things I’ve experienced. When we get to the picture of St. Mary that Sister Amina sewed, Sister Maria tells me amazing things about some apparitions of Mary that she herself has seen. I’ve written more about this in the section about the faith of the sisters. Sister Maria is smashing even more of my Protestant convictions. It is really true that the more you talk to people of other backgrounds and faiths, you will be changed by these encounters. I think those who are open will be changed positively by conversing openly with others of different backgrounds who are also open.
It’s time for you to leave,” says Sr. Maria, just as I’m about to show her the last of the photos. “I’m so sorry we couldn’t show you more of Cairo, but it wasn’t possible with the situation we have now.”
I’m not sure what she means by “situation”.
It’s not very safe here for you in Cairo right now,” she explains. “We are concerned.”
I leave with Rohmy and Sr. Monika for the airport just after noon. Outside each mosque we pass, the imam’s sermon is being broadcast. Outside one mosque, I see that the road is blocked by people sitting on mats they’ve laid on the dirt road. But each voice I hear sounds angry to me. It’s a little scary.
Some of the nights, when the call to worship wakes me up, I’ve been thinking that the voice of the caller sounds strident, perhaps even angry. But I’ve been wrong so many times, I would never venture to claim what the caller feels. But it is a strong, commanding voice, and it does frighten me a little. When I hear the sisters or Marsa singing Christian worship songs in Arabic as they work, it sounds cheerful, and it lifts my soul.
The other day after classes, Reda, Emed, the school director and I were sitting in the courtyard, talking. We heard the call to worship, and I said, “I think they and we are praying to the same God.” They responded by telling me that if a Muslim becomes a Christian, the family will try and kill that person.
“What about educated people? Dentists, doctors, teachers? Would they kill a son, for example, if he became a Christian? I ask.
“No, but they would certainly shun him, and there would be no more contact for the rest of his life. That’s why it’s so hard for a Muslim to become a Christian. There are, however, many Muslims who secretly follow Jesus.”
It’s hard for me to accept the idea that most adherents of a religion would shun or even kill their own children if they convert to another religion. The nice Muslims I’ve met on my other trips to Egypt and Turkey? It just doesn’t fit. But then, the Muslims I’ve talked to are open-minded people, people who I imagine hold similar beliefs to mine, people who also are changed when they open themselves to people of different backgrounds and beliefs. They wouldn’t shun their children if they converted, would they? The thought makes me shudder. Oh, well, leave it. I’m an outsider, with little personal knowledge of the Muslim world. I do know a lot more now about a certain Coptic community. These are my thoughts as we continue on to the airport.
Sister Monika asks if I’ve left the lyrics to the song “You Raise Me Up” in the dining room. I have. “Do you have the song with you?” she asks. “Could I hear it again?” I do. I take out my cell phone and play the song for Rohmy and her. I tell her about the Breakthrough group I went to in January and how healing that was for me. I tell her that being at the Salam Center has also been healing for me. She understands my English, and she smiles.
We arrive, and I have to part from my brother and sister in Christ. I only hope I can be as courageous as they are, in living my faith. I pray for their safety and for the safety of their community.
I go into the airport, greet the check-in agent in Arabic, and tell him I love Egypt. He smiles and says, “I hope we will see you here again.” I wander around the duty-free shops. My heart is burning with gratitude for this country, and for the community I’ve been living with for the past two weeks.
I buy a pair of earrings in one of the duty-free shops. On the receipt, the sales clerk signs her name “Mary”. I know that Muslims are also called “Mary”, but this clerk hasn’t covered her hair. I take a chance with this nice young woman.
“Are you a Copt?” I ask. Yes, she is. I tell her a little about what I’ve been doing for the past two weeks. I tell her my only regret is that the sisters were unable to find another CD from the Christian music group “Better Life” for me. I ask Mary, “Do you know this group?”
Her eyes light up. “Oh, yes! In my car I have a CD in my car I listen to and sing along with all the time on my way to and from work. I love them!”
“Do you think they might sell any of their CDs in the airport?” I doubt this very much, but I did once see CDs from the Australian Christian group “Hillsong” in the Melbourne duty-free shop.
“No, I’m sure they won’t have any. I wish so much I could help you. If I could, I’d go myself and get you a CD, but there aren’t any here.”
We finish our transaction. “God bless you,” she says to me.
At the gate I start talking to a mother and daughter. “Are you Copts?” I ask. They are. I tell them I’ve just spent two weeks with Coptic sisters. They are very interested. They tell me that the Coptic sisters in Egypt are well known for their good works and kind hearts.
I tell these women that I think the Copts are brave people.
“Yes, we are,” they say. “We’ve been through a lot.”
Remember the chicken I saw in the sink, about to be killed? It turns out they had to kill it because it had broken its leg. Mariem said there was no way they could have saved it. I feel better about eating this poor chicken now.
It hasn’t taken long for the chicken to become a topic of friendly joking. They laugh about my sadness, but they also understand. Sister Maria says she wouldn’t like to watch a chicken being killed either. Today we will eat it, in gratitude that it gave its life for us. And we will give our lives for others – we probably won’t die today, but we will have given our lives, which is also a sacrifice.
Today is party day. My last day, for tomorrow I fly back to Germany. I hand my clothes, now washed and dry, over to Marleen, and work one last day with the kindergarten kids. Bolla’s still hyperactive, his breath smelling smelling of Doritos, but Jameena has finally learned which direction to draw the half-circle in for the “d”.
Marleen’s daughter Alvera is visiting the school today, so I get to meet her, and we walk back together to the Salam Center.
Marleen and her daughter Alvera
I love walking back because I can see so much more than in the car, but this is only the second time I’ve been able to do that.
A street barricade/banner for a street wedding reception
This time we come to one of those cloth barricades in the road. On foot, we can walk through it and see why it is closing off the street. On the other side, the barricade is a festive banner, and the street is full of garlands and lampions. It’s a wedding, Marleen says. I take pictures. Someone sitting at the edge of the road, supervising the decoration, says “Welcome” to me. What a wonderful country this is!
A lot of meat is being sold today. Marleen tells me that poorer people have one or, if they can afford it, two meat days a week – Thursday and Sunday. Today is Thursday.
Today I’m back in plenty of time to visit the center for the intellectually disabled today. I walk into the center, unannounced, and find that not one of the workers here speaks English. When I say the name “Tesoni Maria”, though, it’s my entry ticket, and they offer me a chair. I sit down in a room of happy bedlam – two children today are celebrating their birthdays. Most of the children are sitting in chairs or wheelchairs along the edges of the room. I was once a social worker who worked with intellectually disabled children. I have never seen such a high staff/client ratio as what I see today. The room is swarming with women. It seems they’re waiting for something to start happening. Then I hear it – “Happy birthday to you…” in English, with an Arabic rhythm. Everyone starts clapping. At first the kids are pretty quiet, with only a few clapping. Someone walks around the room, painting faces. Before long, aides are twirling kids around in pirhouettes, dancing in line, holding kids and dancing with them. What happy havoc!
It’s party time! At Seeds of Hope, the intellectually disabled children’s center in the Salam Center hospital
I leave the room and explore the center a little. I hear more music, the kind adults might listen to. I find a room of teenagers who are also intellectually handicapped. One boy is dancing frenetically to Arab pop music. Some of the staff are also dancing.
One of the highlights of my first trip to Egypt was an evening dancing with the staff (male) of the ship on our Nile cruise. Today I get to dance with the women and kids. It’s wild, and I love it, even though I’m a bit embarrassed. I don’t really know how to dance at all. The women dance very sensually with each other. This time I’m dancing with Coptic women. They dance exactly the same way the Muslim men danced with me. Last night Reda, one of the teachers I work with, said to me, “The Egyptians are all one. And we have 4,000 years of unity.”
I love the unembarrassed sensuality of this dancing, but its overtness makes me, who was born with Baptist legalism in her blood, feel uneasy, as though I were transgressing some moral code. In the evening Sister Maria, Sister Malaka and I chat about the day, and I talk about the dancing. “It’s like at a wedding,” Sister Maria explains. And this physical expression is very important for the handicapped children. They need this outlet.” I ask if men and women in Egypt dance this way together. They look shocked at my question. “No, Coptic men and women never dance together. Muslims usually don’t either, but a few do.”
It’s party time for my classes with Reda, too. He has allowed me to plan the lessons for the day, and I’ve planned a song, “You Raise Me Up,” sung by Josh Groban. This song has a strong personal meaning for me. It was chosen and played for me when I was at a Breakthrough workshop in January this year, working through a personal crisis. My therapy group listened to this song with me, and laid their hands on my shoulders, head, and arms. I felt then, for the first time that I can remember, a truly cherished part of a group. It was an important time on my healing journey.
But, I quickly see that this song will not work for the fourth-graders. It’s much too difficult for them. No problem, I have another song in my smart phone, “I Will Love You Monday (365)”, by Aura Dione. I’ve used this song with my German students to teach them the days of the week. The fourth grade class here is now learning the days of the week. But an unanticipated emergency occurs. Faida, one of the kids, has cut his hand badly and needs medical treatment. Reda leaves with him for the pharmacy, and I am left alone with the classroom. I, who speak next to no Arabic. I can’t even say, “I don’t speak Arabic.” But I write the days of the week on the blackboard, and words like today, tomorrow, and yesterday. We get through it all just fine. One kid, Ibram, one of the brightest kids in the class, keeps asking me something I don’t understand. Finally, he simply walks over to the board and writes the words in Arabic with blue chalk.
Thankfully, Reda and Faida return, and we can go into the fun part of the lesson. But as soon as I play the music, the lesson threatens to disintegrate as the boys start dancing. “They’re acting like they’re at a wedding,” Reda says. But I play the song and point to the words on the board as they’re being sung.
I play “You Raise Me Up” for the fifth and sixth graders. I am amazed that my unruly fifth grade class sits quietly and listens to the song. One boy mimics playing the violin as Josh Groban sings the refrain and another acts like a schmaltz singer, but generally, the kids are amazingly receptive to the song. “Good, good,” they say afterwards. Nessma, the girl who is most disruptive, asks, “How old is Josh Groban?” I say, “Thirty-seven.” I’ve no idea if that is true, but Reda is thirty-seven, and I want her to get an idea of the age difference. “I hope he will wait for me to grow up, because I want to marry him,” she says.
The same thing happens with the sixth graders. They love the song. They are open to its emotionality. And that is precisely what I love about Egyptians. They are not afraid of their soft feelings. For them, saying, “I love you,” and “You’re beautiful” are as natural as saying, “I’m hungry.” I need this frank openness, this candor. Their openness opens me up, and they respond. The Egyptians seem to love me, and then I respond with love them, then they love me because I love them. I love these kids.
I add a game to the sixth grade song activity. I’ve cut out phrases from the song, and lay them out randomly on the table. They are to walk single-file around the table as the song is played, picking up the phrases they hear. The one who picks up the most pieces will get a prize. But they cheat! They pick up phrases out of turn, or grab them away from each other. Soon, it’s a wild free-for-all, with mad grabbing and ripping of papers. But I’m happy, because they loved the lesson.
The sisters seem to be absolutely serious about their faith, but I’ve never seen such a merry group of women. This confirms what I’ve always thought, that believers should, by nature, be cheerful.
The other day, when we’d had Sister Ologaya’s favorite dish, molokhaya, plus roast chicken and rice, she told me she was stuffed. She’d had molokhaya, two servings of rice, two pieces of pita bread and two bananas. “I’m getting fat!” she wailed, smiling.
“Do sisters worry about things like their looks?” I asked.
“Not usually. Sometimes there is a sister who is truly beautiful in the eyes of the world, but what we concentrate on is having Christ’s beauty grow in us. Then we are truly beautiful.”
She told me a couple of stories.
“A Muslim person was complaining to someone else about the luck of the Christians. ‘Why is it that it’s always the Christians who are the most beautiful – and also so rich?’ this person asked.” I supplied the answer.
“Because Jesus blesses His children. There is blessing in following Jesus.” She nodded her head, and went on to tell another story.
“Someone went to a wise man and asked him what the best religion is. The wise man answered, ‘I won’t tell you, but you go and find the people who are the kindest, the most loving, the most forgiving, the most honest, the most generous, the most cheerful, and the most patient of all those you meet. Find out what religion they are, and you will have your answer.’
“The man went and followed the wise man’s advice. Then he went to the wise man and said, ‘It is Christians who are the kindest, the most loving, the most forgiving, the most honest, the most generous, the most cheerful, and the most patient of all.’ ‘There you have your answer’, the wise man said.”
These are the qualities I find in the sisters here. I think I lack many of these qualities myself, but these are the qualities I want the most in the world. What a wonderful world this would be if we were all kind, loving, forgive, honest, generous, cheerful and patient. That’s why it is such a joy to find this group of Christians who really seem to live Christ-like lives. At least they strive to do that, just as I do, and I see many cheerful faces here.
There are aspects to their faith that I, a Protestant, find bewildering, but also intriguing. I’m incredibly attracted to their combination of joy and gentleness. The sisters and also the staff here all have warm, loving eyes. They have no difficulty looking long and lovingly into mine. That’s nice, but also a little embarrassing. Embarrassment about such things, though, is a feeling I would like to overcome. I wonder how much of this gazing into one’s eyes comes from their gazing into the eyes of the icons of their favorite saints. Sister Elleria is overjoyed to have a picture post card from me of Joan of Arc – so that she can look long and lovingly at her picture, receiving strength and inspiration from it.
Sister Maria tells me one day in an off-hand comment that she often thinks about what it was in Mary, the mother of Jesus that inspired God to choose her, of all women, to be Jesus’ mother. She thinks about Mary’s personal characteristics a lot.
Sister (Tesoni) Maria
But then, she’s named after Mary. Come to think of it, so am I. Marie is my middle name. Something for me to think about.
On my last day with the sisters, we look at the photos I’ve taken. We discuss a picture of Mary, and I ask her if the church I took this photo in is the church of St. Maria of Satoun. I show her a picture Reda has given me. “Yes”, she says, “this is St. Maria of Satoun, but that is not where you were. St. Maria of Satoun is the church where the holy Mother has appeared.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“She appeared to many, many people, many, many times. Even General Nasser saw her. Both Muslims and Christians saw her. She appeared especially often during the year before Mubarek was deposed. She looked like a real woman, standing on the roof of the church, with her arms outstretched, like you see in this picture. She looked so real, people climbed up onto the roof to tell her not to jump off, but then they found out that it was St. Maria.
“Many miracles happened through her. People were healed of diseases. She was very good for Egypt. We were all blessed by her appearances.”
“Did you see her?” I ask.
“Yes, but not there,” she replies.
I am dumbfounded. Sister Maria is a woman with her feet on the ground. She is not crazy, she’s not a dreamer, and she would not lie to me. But this is confounding some of the foundations of Protestant beliefs. Protestants have always criticized what they call excessive devotion, or even worship of Mary.
“You know, she also appeared here at the Center. About a year later. Not like at St. Maria of Satoun, but she appeared here many times too. Here she appeared as light, in the sky, above the Center. She had her arms outstretched, as she did in Satoun. I saw her, as did many others. People, Muslims too, would come to the Center looking for her, thinking she was staying here. She left a scent, a perfume like none other you have smelled. People thought it might be something from relics – you know, they perfume the relics.”
I had noticed that on the day Sister Marina showed me the relics of Santa Marina.
“We had a volunteer here at the time, a French woman. She was skeptical about all of this, so she was unable to see Mary, but she did smell the perfume.”
I wonder if I’d be able to see Mary if she appeared.
These revelations intrigue and puzzle me, but they don’t discomfit me. They leave me marveling. Now I understand why Reda gave me this picture, and also a lovely picture of Jesus. He obviously meant for me to contemplate them. That seems to be what Copts do. I will hang them on the wall near my bed and gaze at them, allowing the thoughts to come. I will not let embarrassment or judgmental thoughts about the taste of the artist stop me from it. I will welcome what comes.
Even though I understand barely a word of Arabic, I can see that these sisters know how to get down and have a good time! They laugh a lot at the dinner table, when Sister Maria allows conversation. They laugh and converse afterwards.
Sometimes I think they’re gossiping about some sister or other, but there doesn’t seem to be any bitterness among them. The sisters don’t all eat together. Some are off at various jobs, or not available, so you never know how many will be at the table.
For breakfast, served at around 8 am, we usually have pita bread and a couple kinds of cheese. One is a really strong, salty cheese. Nagette, who lives with the sisters, indicated to me that if she eats this cheese she throws up. I find it pretty unpleasant too. The other cheese is more like a creamy version of feta cheese. They tear off pieces of rucola, tear off a little bit of bread, a little cheese, and eat it all together. There are usually hard-boiled eggs from Mariem’s chickens on the table. The sisters drink black tea for breakfast. Sometimes they get foul – cooked fava beans – for breakfast, which they eat with pita bread. This is a real highlight for them. Then out come the limes, oil, tahini, cumin, and salt, which make foul a tasty meal.
An Egyptian breakfast, made just for me
Lunch, at 2 pm, is the highlight of the day. We have chicken about every other day or so. The sisters don’t eat pork. They don’t like it, Sister Maria tells me. Sometimes they eat is stewed beef. The sisters eat soups like a green bean soup or the famous molokhaya, to which they can add rice, or just pile some rice along with their chicken or other meat. The rice is always a combination of rice and vermicelli noodles. Once or twice we’ve had a meat-filled dish something like puff-pastry quiche. Sometimes, particularly on Fridays, the food is vegetarian. It can be a macaroni dish, or French fries. There is always fruit for dessert.
The evening meal, served somewhere between 8:30 and 9 pm, is usually the same as breakfast, but sometimes there is a raw vegetable like cucumbers or tomatoes. There is also usually plain yoghurt, served in glasses. Sister Ologaya, who directs the hospital during the day, makes the the yoghurt every evening from milk and a starter she buys at the market.
After the meal, the sisters collect their dishes and the leftover food and water pitchers, bringing it all into the kitchen. Then someone starts hand-washing the dishes, while someone else rinses and puts the dishes onto a drying rack hanging from the wall. A third person will put the dishes away. The first week I was here, I wasn’t allowed to help at all, but by now they let me help in the kitchen.
Marsa, the cook
Marsa, the cook, came to the convent as an orphan. I’m not sure how old she was at the time, but the sisters adopted her as their own sister. She is always smiling. Every day she has a new English phrase for me, with something in Arabic she wants me to learn. I love this beautiful, tender woman. She works very hard in the kitchen. For some reason I can’t discern, she doesn’t eat with the sisters. I know she is beloved by them. Still, they can be pretty hard on her when she neglects to do things they really want, like warming up their pita bread in the oven. Martha’s cheery statements she reads to me, messages like, “You are welcome here anytime! Please sit down.” are part of why I love this place.
This morning I wake up refreshed, having slept comparatively well last night. The extra blanket the sisters gave me really helped.
On the way to and from school I notice parents touching their children lovingly. Here, mothers always carry their babies in their arms. The roads are probably too bumpy anyway to push a stroller. I see a father with his arm wrapped around the shoulder of his son, about twelve. The son appears to have been crying. I love how these people are so open with their emotions! When they are sad, they cry. When they are angry, they also let that out. I’m not used to that, and when I see anger or irritation, I feel afraid. But what tenderness there is here! I love the way these children smile at me, looking long and warmly into my eyes. I feel almost washed away by this tenderness. Josuf, one of my sixth-graders, comes to me so eagerly when I ask him to come to the front of the classroom. Every time I praise him for a correct answer, his entire face lights up. It melts my heart. I see some of the girls looking at me with open adoration when I try and explain something. It embarrasses me, but also moves me profoundly. I’m sometimes overwhelmed by the number of kids who crowd around me, wanting to shake my hand and say hello. But I’m also deeply touched.
This morning we do our usual “ABC” song, “Head and Shoulders”, and “Jesus Loves Me”, plus writing the alphabet. Some of the kids are up to “W” by now. Kindergarten kids.
While Mariem waits for her mother and I wait for my driver, I help her with her English. She also looks at me adoringly after I praise her for her perfect rendition of, “Mona baked a cake”.
I ask Marleen, the school director, about the life of the garbage pickers. They have certain customers they travel to by donkey and pick up their garbage. It has to be in the area – they are not allowed to travel long distances with their donkeys, or they’ll get picked up by the police. They get paid to pick up the garbage. Once they’ve collected all the garbage, they bring it to the garbage area, where they sort it. Apparently the glass area is next to the school, because I always hear glass being sorted. Marleen says they sort it by color.
A father and son, presumably, sorting glass across the street from the school
They separate paper and cardboard, and also plastic. They also collect food waste. In the past, pigs that lived in the area ate the food waste, but the government has made raising pigs illegal, so I don’t know what happens to the food waste now. Does it go to the chickens? To the dogs running around loose in the streets? The zebaleen (garbage pickers) are able to sell some of what they collect, for a little money.
According to the British newspaper, the Guardian, the zebaleen do raise at least some pigs in the back of their houses. The article goes on to say, however, that with the swine flu scare in 2009, all the pigs in Cairo were killed. More than 300,000 pigs were killed in one day, reducing the income of the zebaleen, who raised these pigs to be sold, in half. In all the days I’ve been working in the school, I have never heard a sound from a pig, although I’ve heard plenty of chickens. My school is in the second largest garbage area of Cairo. I guess I’d have to get invited to a few homes to find out for sure. One thing I do know – these garbage pickers are really poor.
One thing about our evening chats – they’re stimulating, and sometimes downright confusing. I cherish all my conversations with Marleen, Reda and Emet, the afterschool director, who also presides over the Mahaba School. These are the only people I can talk about life outside the convent with. When Emet joins us, though, I have to rely on Reda’s translations. Emet speaks very little English. I think he understands a lot, though, because when Reda and I speak in the evenings and Emet is also there, he nods his head as though he understands us. With Emet, I get a third perspective on Egyptian life.
It seems that every time we talk, at one point the subject comes around to Obama and the Americans. “Sorry,” Reda says each time. “You are a wonderful person and I like Americans personally. But we don’t like your president.” Emet echoes his sentiment, as does Sister Maria and everybody I meet who mentions the name “Obama”. I tell Reda that I voted twice for Obama. The first time I was really excited about having him for President, but by the second time, I wasn’t sure whether President Obama and I shared the same values at all. After all, Guantanamo is still there, there’s more internet spying than there ever was after Bush signed the Patriot Act, America is still high-handed with other nations, and now my military uses anonymous drones to kill non-military “objects”. I don’t really know what Obama is trying to do when he talks about easing sanctions on Iran, when it seems obvious that the Iranians are hell-bent on developing their atomic bomb. I know the Israeli government is really afraid of this happening. If anything, it seems the world is a more dangerous place under Obama’s presidency than before. So I’ve got my questions.
“Why did Obama support Morsi?” Reda asks me.
“Because Morsi was elected democratically. We want to support democracy.”
“But he wasn’t elected democratically,” say Reda and Emet in unison. “Amed Shafik actually won the election. It was rigged.” It’s the first time I’ve heard this news, but I later find the same claim in the internet.
“Morsi supports terrorism! The Muslim Brotherhood is like Al Qaida – they’re terrorists! Why did Obama spend American money for the Muslim Brotherhood?”
“To promote democracy,” I answer.
“You are deceived,” they answer. “How can the Americans support a terrorist?” they ask. I want to say that my government wants to support a democratically elected leader, even if he may have some undemocrtic ideas. In a democracy, you don’t have a revolution every time someone who has different ideas than you are in power. You try and work together. You support the process, even if it isn’t a smooth one. But what do I know? My government has supported plenty of undemocratic tyrants in the past, and even helped to overthrow democratially elected leaders.
Reda tells me that he loves the military. “Egyptians love the military,” he adds. “Each time I run into one of the soldiers, I walk up and shake his hand. I tell him that we support the military.”
He goes on to say that what happened in July was not a military coup – it was the will of the people.
“We, the Egyptians, wanted no more of Morsi. Not just the Copts – the Muslims too. They want no more of the Muslim Brotherhood. Eighty per cent of the Egyptians are in favor of the military takeover.
“You should have seen the demonstrations!” he says. “Fourteen million Egyptians on the streets. I was there too.”
I seem to recall that about a year ago, everybody hated the military, especially those who favored democracy.
One evening I tell Reda about an article I read in the New York Times about a man named Tomahy. He’s never heard of Tomahy. “He is the new head of the intelligence service,” I say.
“It says in the article that Tomahy was responsible for the military killing about a thousand Islamists.”
“No, the military didn’t do that,” answers Reda. “Where are these thousand dead? These are lies. The American press is deceiving you.”
As with each other time I’ve been in Egypt, at some point I feel almost dizzy with disorientation. The version I hear about my government’s role in Egypt is diametrically opposed to what Egyptians tell me. Last time I was in Egypt, I heard that the young Americans and Germans working for nongovernemtal organizations were actually spies sent to foment agitation among the Egyptians. Now I’m hearing that Obama is a sponsor of terrorism. I wonder if it is possible to know the truth here. I think Egypt is a country rife with conspiracy theories about everything. But when I’m in Egypt, I start to wonder if the powers at be in the world aren’t indeed parties to conspiracy. Who is to know?
One thing about Obama and the US government that does disturb me deeply is all the internet spying that’s been going on, and their witch hunt for Edward Snowden. I tell this to Redy. He’s never heard about the internet spying. He’s never even heard of the name “Edward Snowden”. I wonder who is being misinformed.
“You think we are a divided country,” Reda says. “You Americans think the Muslims and the Christians are opposed to each other. But it’s not true. How old is America?”
I tell him the US declared independence from England in 1776.
“You see? Your democracy is only a little over 200 years old. Our country is over 4,000 years old, and we are united. I’m not sure whether your nation will survive. Ours will.”
At one point, Reda notices that I am visibly uncomfortable with our discussion. “Shall we talk about something else?” he asks. “This talk makes you unhappy. You shouldn’t be unhappy.” This immeasurably considerate thought delights me, but also throws me into further confusion. My own German-American son would never try to protect me from an unhappy discussion. I’m not even sure I’d be unhappy in such a discussion. I might be confused, but I’d be in the thick of a stimulating discussion. I’m not sure if I’d be any surer of the truth at the end, but there’d be a heck of a lot to think about. As there is now. I’m grateful for these discussions, because they show me what concerns the Copts and perhaps a lot more Egyptians, and it makes me a bit more hesitant to swallow everything I read in my own press.
It seems that, the older I get, the less sure I am about the truth of anything. It so often depends upon one’s perspective on things. I grew up in a dogmatic, in some ways fundamentalist Christian family and church. I was taught to tell the truth, and I was told in no uncertain terms what the truth was. Either I was on the side of their version of truth, or I was opposed. The militancy of these conservative Christians in their religion – and their politics – intimidated me so much, I believed I had to know where I stood on everything, and I had to be able to defend my position. If I was on the other side of an issue, I had to even trump their arguments, because I’d have to prove to them that they were wrong. Someone was always wrong and the other one right. This put me under a lot of pressure. Looking back, it was pressure I never asked for, and demands for me to hold positions on issues the others were concerned about.
This need for truth is deeply ingrained in me. I’m grateful for it, for the most part. I still try to tell the truth as much as I understand it, but I find it really difficult to discern what is true in some areas, particularly in politics.
My fellow Americans always seem so sure of themselves, whatever side of the issue they’re on, and whether they’re fundamentalists or die-hard liberals. I’m not sure those liberals are any more tolerant than the fundamentalists they love to mock. I’m not sure of a lot of things anymore. How glad I am not to have to work in politics, or in a job where I’d have to persuade people of my version of the truth. It feels good to know that my cut-and-dried job of teaching English suits me much better.
I decide to leave the conversation and go to dinner. I doubt I’ll never know whether Obama intends to support terrorists or not. I can’t imagine this reasonable, calm-sounding man could ever be on the side of terrorists. But I’m finally learning, late in life, that I don’t have to have a position on every issue. There are some things I don’t know, and that I don’t have to know. And that is a relief.
Life has fallen into a sort of rhythm by now. I set my alarm for 6:15 every morning. If I’ve slept poorly the night before, I need the alarm. If I’ve slept well, I wake up just before the alarm goes off. For the past couple of nights, I haven’t been sleeping so well. It’s getting colder at night, and my one sheet-blanket isn’t enough anymore. There is another blanket I’ve tried to use, but it stinks of ancient dust and dirt. I have to do something about that.
When I’ve had my morning coffee, had my time with God, done my exercises and gotten washed and dress, I head down for breakfast. Officially, breakfast is served at 8 am, but the time people actually eat varies some. We eat at a long table, which is covered with a plastic tablecloth. Sister Maria sits at the far end of the table, since she has the most seniority. I, the guest, in a position of honor, I suppose, sit across from her. The sisters seem to sit in rows according to their seniority. Those with the least seniority sit at the bottom end of the table, nearest the kitchen.
Convent dining room
A normal breakfast is pita bread, a flat bread slightly different from what they sell in Europe and the States, and more tasty, two kinds of cheese, both something like feta, rucola leaves, boiled eggs, and sometimes foul (sounds like fool when you say it), a delicious fava bean stew. The sisters only drink black tea, which I also drink down in the dining room, but I’m very grateful for my daily cup of coffee in my room.
Then I go off, usually with Rohmy, to the school next to the garbage dump, where I teach my kindergarten group. Later in the morning I return with Rohmy, whenever he manages to come and pick me up, and I buy water to drink, and then go to my room and write about the morning or the previous day.
Lunch is served at 2 pm in the convent dining room. We often have chicken for lunch, unless it is a Wednesday or Friday. These are fast days, and there is no meat. Most of the sisters fast from breakfast as well on these days.
We’ve had stewed beef once for lunch. Normally there is some sort of soup with the meat, either the slimy spinachy molokhia, or some sort of vegetable soup like green beans with homemade tomato broth. There is always delicious rice mixed with vermicelli, and always the flat bread. Dessert is always fruit – fresh guavas, pomegranates or bananas.
Then I’m free in the afternoon until 5 pm, when I go to teach again. I usually spend this time in the convent dining room, where there is wifi. I check and write emails and hang out with whichever sisters happen to be there. A couple of times they’ve asked to hear the CD I have downloaded into my laptop from the Egyptian Christian group “Better Life”. I love it when the sisters translate these lyrics for me, and we sometimes have good talks. Then I go back to my room and prepare my lesson.
At five o’clock I begin teaching with Reda – first the fourth graders for an hour, then the fifth graders and finally the sixth graders.
One of my evening classes. These are the sixth graders.
At the very beginning of the evening, we always pray in the classroom. Reda has taught me to stand facing east with the students, and we make the sign of the cross as we say “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. One God, Amen.” The same thing happens with the sixth graders at the end of the evening, at 8 pm. Then I pray in English, saying whatever I feel like saying, and the children recite after me. Then Reda and the children recite blessings together.
When the students write from the blackboard, it’s a lot quieter. But when the fifth graders are there, it is bedlam! I’ve been wondering why that is. For one thing, they shout every time you ask them to repeat something. I’ve started asking them to speak in a normal voice so I can understand what they’re saying, and also to protect my nerves. One day both Reda and I are tired. I, because I didn’t sleep well the night before. This weather change means my body is having to adapt, and that makes me tired. Reda is tired because he’s come down with a cold. He wasn’t dressed for the cooler weather.
We pretend to sleep at our desks, showing the students that both teachers are tired. I count the number of kids in class today – fifteen! No wonder it’s so noisy in there. There are only about nine fourth graders who come, and about five sixth graders.
The afternoon program, I learn, isn’t really a school. The kids all go to some school or other during the day, and come here in the evening for extra help.
Every evening after all the kids have left, Reda and I sit on a bench in the now-school, ex-hospital courtyard and talk about the lessons, or about our lives. He is such a gentleman, and wants to take care of his “mother”, Noreen. Every evening he buys me a juice, like mango or guava, and we sit on a bench, drink our juice, and talk. One evening I ask about the stream of people coming and going from the room next to the courtyard. The old, worn-out sign says “dental clinic”, but it is obviously no longer a dental clinic. I see computers in the room – and a constant flow of people. I also notice that some of those waiting to go into this room listen to us talk. They seem to understand at least some of what we are talking about. I ask him what this room is all about.
“These people want to go to America,” he says. “They’re getting help filling in the required emigration forms.” So many people want to leave Egypt! One man, sitting there with his entire family, tells me he has a degree in hotel management and tourism, but he can’t find a job anywhere – there are no tourists. He thinks he can find work – any work will be fine – in the United States.
I always leave Reda at 8:30 pm to go back to the convent for supper. There, we normally eat more bread and cheese, and often homemade yoghurt that Sister Ologaya has made. Once we had a hard macaroni dish, sort of like a pizza.
During one evening at supper, I ask Sr. Maria about those wanting to emigrate. She says there are large Coptic communities in the States, in New Jersey and California, for instance, that will help these people if they manage to emigrate.
We talk about Coptic lifestyle values. Reda has told me, for instance, that Copts don’t date. There is no premarital sex with either the Copts or the Muslims. Divorce is frowned upon. Egyptian society is conservative and strict. I tell her about the mores in Germany and in the States. This is what these Egyptians will encounter when they land in the States or in Europe somewhere. “I know, she says. It will be hard for the children.”
She tells me that among the Muslims, many are turning away from any faith at all. They had put their hopes in the Muslim Brotherhood, and found through the one-year experience with the Brotherhood that the Muslim Brotherhood were not interested in the common good of all. They have found the Brotherhoold to be just another corrupt political party.
Somehow the sisters find out that I’ve been cold, ever since the weather changed. Sister Monika finds a nice warm, clean blanket for me, and I walk back with my blanket to the hospital. Before I enter the building, however, I am always stopped by a loud “Hello!” It is Romero, one of the handicapped young men. As far as I can tell, he is only physicall handicapped, but quite intelligent. He sells cookies and chips outside to people going into the hospital to visit patients. He wants me to buy something. I don’t mind. I find the suppers boring, and I wouldn’t mind something sweet to eat before I go to bed. Sometimes I buy an Egyptian form of Oreo cookies. Or perhaps Twinkies. I haven’t had Twinkies since I was a kid! I find that I enjoy this bit of sweetness before I fall into bed. The night I carry the heavy blanket, I buy a Twinkie and then go to bed. I read from a Kindle book in my cell phone until my eyes droop. I sleep a deep, peaceful sleep.