The Universal Teen

When I interviewed for this job back in January, they said, “This school teaches the children of Egypt’s future. Our students are the grandsons of presidents and the granddaughters of generals.”

Here they are!

I picked up right where I left off last year. Teaching teenagers is truly universal. My corny jokes translate perfectly and I have managed to adopt a solid new crop of amazing, funny, adorable, witty and wicked smart Juniors and Seniors. (You can spot the Seniors in their burgundy polos…and there’s nothing better to them than getting to shuck that school uniform for their last, best year.)

You’re looking at my Homeroom, my three Business Studies classes, and my one class of Freshmen history (see if you can spot the babies).

They all call me “Miss” and it’s a lot like hearing “Mom” 200,000 times a day

I am not exaggerating when I say I have four Nours, four Amirs, five Miriams, five Adhams, six Omars, and seven Youssefs. And…. are you ready for this?…. they all (girls and boys) have four names, some even have five. Birth name + (optional) middle name + father’s name + grandfather’s name + family name.

Take Ben’s names. If Ben were Egyptian, his name would be:

Benjamin (Fisher, optional) Robert William Quarles. His friends might call him Ben Robert but his school records might have Benjamin Fisher Robert or Benjamin William Quarles or Benjamin Robert Quarles or Benjamin Robert William, or he might decide all on his own that he wants to be called Ben William or Fish or Ben Robby and his poor teacher would have to create a flowchart on four different Excel spreadsheets to figure it all out.

It’s not acceptable here for the girls to do what American girls feel like they are expected to do, regarding hair and makeup and jewelry and such. The boys must be clean shaven every single day, but those curls are allowed to grow!…and they almost all – boys and girls – have thick, curly hair and dark, beautifullllllll eyes! Don’t let these pictures fool you…outside of school, they wear the same clothes and enjoy the same things American kids do. Trust me…I run into them at the mall on the weekends and I hardly recognize them sometimes.

They are so endearing in so many ways. The differences between my American kids and these Egyptian kids is often striking. But taken as a whole, their global similarities remain the number one reason I still do this job. I love them so much already!

Big Pharma

Friends, I have a cold. In Egypt. Like, what in the world?

The Good News: All of this medicine cost me $3.80 and it was delivered to my front door about five minutes after I ordered it over the phone. The packaging is not childproof (yessss!!) and the potency is high. Coolest thing is that ibuprofen comes in orange flavored BC Powder style.

The Bad News: This is what I have to maneuver. I don’t know – for sure – what is what, so my best bet is just to take a little bit of everything, go to bed and hope for the best, right?

Ben, Please bring our NyQuil shooters when you come.

Connected

I haven’t had WiFi or cable since I got to Egypt. (Anyone who says those are luxuries and not necessities needs to come here and sit in an empty apartment, stranded, with no car, for a few weekends.)

I click-clacked in my fancy shoes right in to my school this morning and asked as nicely as I could manage for someone to get my (*^%#) WiFi working. The IT guy got some emails from the hi-ups and found himself driving me -himself – to pick up my router. We were waiting in line, he’s quite huffy, and he has made it perfectly clear to me that he has been terribly inconvenienced. I didn’t care, but I stayed quiet, kept myself close by and let him do his job.

Well I guess I was standing too close to him in the line because he turned around, pointed his finger toward the nearest chair and said, “Sit.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Time froze for me as well. I needed to hit rewind in my mind so I could verify what I’d just heard. And in fact, the finger remained pointed towards the chair and he and I sort of just stared at each other, in another dimension of awareness, me figuring him out and, more importantly, him figuring me out.

Every conjugation of the F-word I’ve ever catalogued in my life came to mind, and then my hip met my right hand while my left hand flopped around and didn’t know what to do with itself.

I almost lost my religion right there in the Store, but I decided not to risk my WiFi.

I sat.

But I crossed my legs and that one top leg started bouncing with ferocity, and my side-eye coupled with my subdued “Mister, you have f***ed up” chuckles sent him a clear message that he’d just used up his one pass with me. I stayed calm by insisting to myself that he simply didn’t know the words for “Please have a seat.”

The installation was complicated and kept him very late, but for the rest of the evening he was absolutely delightful.

And now I have cable and internet, because we must pick our battles.

Teaching International

One of the first things people asked me when they learned that I was moving abroad to teach school was “Why would you leave the comforts of the United States to teach in a third world country?”

The answer is simple: America doesn’t pay its teachers enough for what we do, and many foreign countries do.

Let me preface this entire post by making it clear that I teach in a prestigious private school, not a public school. (I heard a rumor that tuition is $1000 a month.) The school has 2,000 students, grades K-12.

Anyway…

This is a picture of my 6-period day, here. First period is always Homeroom and I have been blessed with Seniors. This is the class where I check dress code, l deliver and collect important paperwork, we do the morning informative stuff and I bond socially with and mentor a very tight-knit group of college-bound kids. This is also the class where, on most days, half the kids are gone somewhere to prepare for special events, like any SGA or NHS club would. They do not get to enjoy these kinds of extra-curriculars as actual classes.

The remaining 5 periods of the day are all academic. I teach 5 classes, but no more than 4 on the same day. During my off-periods, I might be the substitute-on-call for teachers who are out and if that ever happens, I am expected to execute the day’s plans for that class, or at a minimum, keep the period as productive as possible. There is no pool of substitute babysitters.

Once every two weeks during one of my off-periods, I meet with my Department Head and* my Principal, to discuss whatever needs discussing.

I also serve a 20-minute duty during the daily breaks, but I don’t have to do this more than three times a week, and sometimes it’s just 2.

Any time not spent subbing-in or on duty, I am allowed to spend planning, and it is a refreshingly adequate amount of time, as you can see by all the blank spots, especially since the school provides every teacher with a laptop to carry.

My classroom is not “mine” in the familiar sense because there is a Classical Arabic Class whose teachers rotate into other classrooms who have an off-period. When Arabic is being taught in my classroom, I spend my planning in the library usually, but sometimes I go to the teacher break room and spend time with the other teachers on break during that period. Even when this happens, we are all busy working. (Indeed, I prefer the library.)

The school sends a bus around to our houses each day, all over the city, to gather up all the teachers who don’t or can’t drive, so I am never, ever late to school, and I never stay too late either.

We all come in through the front entrance of the school each day and sign in with an electronic name badge. If this doesn’t happen, five different people will be looking for you within the hour. If you lose your magnetic name badge, you can get a replacement but it will cost you a $2.75 donation to charity.

During the two daily 20-minute breaks, there are a few “yards” I can visit, which sell smoothies and ala carte items. A smoothie costs me 80 cents.

Like I said, my classroom is not nested and homey like I am used to. We are not provided boxes full of office supplies and I haven’t seen a DVD player since I left America. There’s no TV and my classroom furniture leaves me aching for the luxuries of Room 54. There is no carpet in this entire country I don’t think, which makes for a loud day, especially with 9th graders. Did I mention I teach two classes of 9th graders? It’s a first in my career. They’re adorable but, like I said, they are loud.

Anyway, the creature comforts are in short supply here, even at a prestigious school. When I come home for Christmas I will stock up on Whiteout, jumbo paperclips, Expo markers, good pens, and the notepads my department head back home always got for me. I was living in office supplies heaven back home and totally took it for granted.

But we have 8 copy machines. Some are color.

We stay an hour late every Monday for staff meetings. We have two Planning Days every semester, a week off in October, 2 1/2 weeks at Christmas and lots of random holidays (4 this semester, including Thanksgiving. THANKSGIVING! In Egypt!)

I have four bosses, in a highly enforced chain of command. My Department Head handles 99% of my problems, and he was the one who first made it a priority to enable me to call home and talk to Ben for the first time in two weeks after I first arrived, after my emotional breakdown in his classroom one day. The higher ups make sure the DHs are caring for their underlings. He moved planets around for me, much like my old Department Heads would’ve done.

Then there is the Head of Seniors, so I answer to her in matters relevant to that area. She knows them all and knows their families, so she usually has answers to my bizarre questions about the kids in my class. She’s like a guidance counselor I guess you could say, but she also teaches classes, just like I do.

My American School Principal is just that, and she handles parents. And handles them well, I might add.

Fridays and Saturdays are my weekend, so I work every Sunday. Yes, it’s weird.

The Boss, the woman who owns the school, is a highly respected icon of education in international school circles. Quick story about her. She makes it a point to provide Christian events and mark Christian holidays at this Egyptian school in the middle of a mostly-Muslim nation, because a small percentage of the students are Christian and a large portion of the teachers are as well. An example: “The Christmas Story” will be performed by the drama program at Christmas…. Baby Jesus and Silent Night and the whole shebang. Here, in Egypt! One year, a parent complained about this and her reaction was to encourage them to find another school if they didn’t like the way she did things at hers. My kind of woman. And my kind of boss.

For every foreigner she employs, she also gives a job to 9 Egyptians. This place is crawling with worker bees.

A Christmas Story… in school. In a Muslim country. Get your head around that. I will be beside myself with emotion after five months of being here, two weeks before I come home to enjoy Christmas with my family, in my country, I cry just writing about it. Why is this so hard in America?

We are discouraged from talking about our salaries publicly, because there are sometimes huge discrepancies in this system, for various reasons. I make much more than I made back home in the US, so you can figure out what ‘much’ probably is. All tax free.

75% is sent back to our US bank account and 25% is given to us to keep, in Egyptian pounds, which is more than enough to live on here. My rent is $8000 LE (Egyptian pounds) and its roughly $450 USD. Cable is $6 USD, Wifi is $83 USD for 100GB, Power is $27 USD, and I give the bawab (Houseman) $250 LE ($14 USD) to pay for water, maintain the grounds, take out my garbage and to be a handyman. (He even waters my plants. I came home last week with indoor trees that were not indoor trees at all and he scolded me in Arabic like husbands all over the world do when we’ve wasted our money, so he went back later that night and bartered for me to get the right trees. Then he repotted them all and brought them inside for me. A man around the house. Ahhhh.)

The other 75% comes back home and into an account I opened with Ben, to make college expenses convenient. We are about to see how responsible he is with money, aren’t we?

I do not have health insurance. What is offered at the school is through BUPA, which is international health insurance. It is honored everywhere in the world except for the United States. How about that? The good news is that an X-ray is $10 and a teeth cleaning is less than that. As such, I will continue to go without coverage, but will have to sell my soul to BCBS once again when Ben starts college at FAU. (Botox is $75 over here, ladies)

I miss driving. I miss Publix. And I miss Walgreens. I miss PegLegs oysters and Paradise American cheeseburgers. I miss my parents and my kid, so much. But taking all the good with all the bad, when I get home from work everyday, I’m not beat down like a dog and I don’t hate my job or the people running my school district, which is a new and refreshing feeling. I hope this information gives you the answers to some of your questions about my decision to come here. I think I did the right thing, and I am very happy, all things considered.

Miss you all!

Giza, for the First Time

It has taken me a few weeks now to figure out how I feel about seeing the Pyramids at Giza for the first time. It was quite a profound experience, in both a personal and a professional way, but the day was clouded with sadness over the realities of seeing the grimiest parts of a truly poor and destitute city from way too up close.

I joined a group of coworkers for a day trip to one of the most iconic of the Wonders of the Ancient World, anticipating many of the things a history teacher might anticipate: wonder, awe, dazzle, transfixion… What I did not anticipate was the failing health of the camels that are paraded to and fro all day long in the stifling heat, or the starving dogs lying in packs under every spare patch of shade that can be found, or the desperation of the vendors, begging for what equates to just change by American standards, certainly trying to provide for their families by selling pure junk. I couldn’t even enjoy myself because the parts of that scenery that don’t show up in pictures still remain within arms reach. All you have to do is turn around and face the other way, and there they are.

Camels for rent.

I picked up the important parts of the tour…how the individual rocks that built the pyramids were brought in one by one from Aswan, 80 miles away. This is a tremendous feat considering the size of just one rock. I would not have believed it unless I saw it with my own eyes.  Also remarkable was the precision with which each rock was cut. I saw a corner piece with 8 different angles, all cut from one single gigantic rock, and it fit – to the millimeter – into the angles of the rocks cut to sit next to, above and below it. Geometry that I cannot even get my brain around. We were told that compared to the heyday of the Egyptians, the grounds are a wasteland now, and they certainly appear so. This is an area that was once green with vegetation and veined with rivers and lakes. Now, it’s little more than a desert with a few spectacular landmarks dotting the barren horizon.

There’s more to see than the three main pyramids. Getting much less press are the other 100+ pyramids located nearby. Didn’t know that? I didn’t either, but I saw them. I also learned that of all the temples built by ancient civilizations, only the Egyptians gave their pyramids points at the top. All the other ones, especially the ones I am most familiar with in the Western Hemisphere, all have flat tops. That impressed me. The reason they had points? Well, this is the best part. There were once jewels placed at the tops of the pyramids and when the sun hit the apex at precisely the right (geometric) moment those gems cast a light that could be see from everywhere.  How spectacular that must have looked, five.. thousand.. years.. ago…

I also found myself feeling more in touch with my humanity, as I remembered an old friend back home who is battling an illness. I missed my family even more than usual that day, because it felt strange not to have those most familiar to me nearby on what was a very special day. Mostly, I felt gratitude. You wouldn’t have believed this was possible if you’d known me ten years ago.

We are so small, even though we get to do pretty big things sometimes.

 

 

Rethinking Stereotypes

The US Embassy in Cairo

I woke up this morning and checked Twitter to see about this surprise hurricane heading straight for all the people and things I love most in the world. Instead, Twitter was all aflutter with news of a suicide bomber who set himself off in front of the US Embassy in Cairo.

I am far, far removed from this. I live almost an hour outside of the city, and in an area that isn’t as politically and religiously charged, so the conversation about these scary events was much different than you think.

The Egyptians who spoke to me about this remind me of us, when we are talking about a school shooter, or a white kid who shoots up a black church, or any act of violence that tends to be spoken by one person but generalized to an entire population. It’s embarrassing to them, and not the kind of thing they want the rest of the world to think about them. Every Egyptian I’ve ever met has been kind, peace-loving and gentle. To me, this country has been over-the-top welcoming. I am sad that they are painted by the brush of a crazy person, and it hasn’t been my experience at all that this area of the world is anything but harmonious.

I was informed more than once that since this guy’s bomb was a dud, he will be punished far worse than what a martyred death would have given him. You’ll see that the regular people who were around when this happened didn’t wait for police to arrive. I like it.

So as I move on past this big “first,” my worries continue to be for you guys. I hope your power comes back on soon. And most importantly, please check with Ben and my parents and make sure my 13 sentimental Rubbermaid bins were taken off the floor of their garage, please. ❤️

First I Drink the Coffee, Then I Do The Things

I made it to a real grocery store yesterday (think along the lines of Grocery Outlet, not Publix) with my sweet neighbor friend who speaks both English and Arabic. I bought $1000 LE with of groceries, that’s Egyptian pounds, and it’s about $50. In Publix it would’ve been $150 worth. This coffee pot you see also cost me $1000 LE so you can see the value they place on cheap American electronics.

When I made my first pot of java this morning, I discovered that my coffee can had already been opened, the milk has already started to sour just slightly (or maybe it just tastes funky to me, which is highly likely) and yes, I used the milky-colored tap water. I don’t even recognize my high-maintenance self anymore.

What would Carrie Bradshaw do, I asked myself? She woulda rolled those dice and made that first, delicious pot of coffee, too, just like I did.

(Author’s Note: I’ve come all the way around about the milk. I can’t read the Arabic labels so I think what I am buying is not just milk but full cream milk, which tastes very rich compared to the skim milk I drink back home. Make no mistake though, the milk tastes like the melted vanilla ice cream at the bottom of a bowl you’ve scraped bare, and I am a big fan!)

American Food and Other Things

Faris, me and Saif, enjoying the best McDonalds junk food I’ve ever eaten!

After my luxurious stint in the 5-Star Cairo Intercontinental Hotel, I have come back down to earth and have spent the last few (jarring) days in my new but very empty apartment with no internet and only Arabic telenovellas on tv. I don’t have a car and so Uber is the only way for me to go anywhere.

So. Here’s how it went this past week:

I summoned an Uber a few days ago, in the phone app. Easy enough. When he arrived he knew where I wanted to go so that was no problem either. But when I got there (to the store to buy groceries), I had to ask him to wait for me because I didn’t know my home address to tell another Uber how to get home. And off we went.

I entered my question into Google translate in English and then let him read it in Arabic as we sped down the highway at 60 mph with no seatbelts on. I switched the keyboard to Arabic and he typed in his response. I played in back to myself in English and then switched the keyboard back to English so I could type him back my response, and so on and so on. Which is why I have discovered that going out and about to try to buy anything is not for me if I can help it.

Incidentally, when I got to the grocery store, it’s all in Arabic so I left with ketchup flavored bagels (that I thought were sundried tomato flavored) and some olives.

Tonight, after crying all day at work yesterday, (ie hangry) my sweet neighbor showed me all the apps to have food delivered… and they literally deliver everythingggg.

After four days of eating olives and bread for dinner, tonight it was McDonalds. This was the best Big Mac I have ever eaten, enjoyed with the new men in my life, Saif and Faris, the neighbor boys, who put The Power Rangers movie on the tv for us – IN ENGLISH, PRAISE THE GOOD LORD – and I had the best night I’ve had in over a week. 🇺🇸

A Call to Prayer

Classic, beautiful mosque steeples against a Cairo sunset.

At 4:30 am this morning in the pitch black, I woke up to my very first Muslim Call to Prayer. It’s not what I would describe as ‘fascinating’ when it’s dark outside, I’ll just tell ya. It’s a little scary to be honest, the chanting is low and melodic, almost ominous. But I will never forget that exact moment when I realized what it was, the beauty of what he must be saying. And I just stayed still to listen to it for a minute.

Today was my first day of work at my new school. I spent the day like you did: arranging desks and cleaning. Then I heard to Call to Prayer again. This happens five times a day. Imagine a world in which all people prayed five times a day. So I looked out my window. (Although it’s very hot in Egypt there is always a breeze so all of my windows were open and it was delightful.)

This is my view from my classroom, and when the Call to Pray came, I saw this. I imagined for a moment being back in class with my old students at home in America and I got the biggest case of the giggles, just imagining those guys hearing and seeing what I did at that moment. 

If you look, you’ll see our flag flying alongside both the Egyptian flag and the British flag. That’s what it feels like to be here…like I am bringing my world to be alongside someone else’s.

I sure love seeing those Stars and Stripes everyday. She peeks out and waves at me all the time.

Crib

My beautiful new apartment in Tagamoa 1, New Cairo

One of the most daunting and, later, frustrating experiences I encountered when I moved to Egypt was finding a new apartment. My employer initiated this process before I even left the United States, trying to make that difficult transition a bit smoother, but it’s never easy to commit to live somewhere sight unseen. My experience was no exception.

The apartment I originally chose turned out to be much too small, so my desire to keep looking launched me into a week-long apartment-hunting journey that left me exhausted and a little panicked, if I’m honest.

New Cairo City, Heliopolis and El Maadi are all different areas of the Cairo area, and I immediately noticed that there are big differences in the living accommodations offered in each.

Maadi was the farthest away from my new job, so the 45 minute drive each way immediately eliminated that city from my list of possibilities. I visited there later, however, and found a very walkable city, an area green with trees and vegetation, reminiscent of the New York or Chicago suburbs, closely connected to all sorts of restaurants, clubs and grocery stores. Perfect for people who don’t ever want to buy a car. The down side… it’s got the big city stench (garbage, fuel exhaust) and the big city traffic. The apartment buildings are tall and units can be spacious, so finding the perfect place will happen quickly, but you’ll pay a little more.

Heliopolis was promoted as “more vintage.” I saw two apartments in Heliopolis before I realized that, at least to me, vintage meant “a little run down.” It’s an older city and the rentals aren’t as modern. Heliopolis reminded my of the inner city apartments in 1970s American sitcoms. They’re very, very affordable, however, and it’s a green and walkable like Maadi. If price and convenience are most important to you, this might be your town.

New Cairo City is a new development, so the options are endless. The whole town is mostly unfinished construction. I did see a few slightly outdated places, for sure, but you’re much more likely to land yourself a newer place if you search here. I did. You might pay a little more too, but that’s not the general rule. It’s not walkable at all, so you will either need to learn to drive here, or get accustomed to using Uber. I found my apartment in Tagamoa 1, or District 1, in New Cairo, and I fell instantly in love with it. I wanted something small and easy to clean, so a one-bedroom was perfect. I wanted something new, and I got it…there was still plastic on the appliances and the mattress when I moved in. I wanted something cozy, and I found myself a little nook of a place, with a courtyard and shade trees. It felt too good to be true after seeing at least twenty other places. The best part was how I landed the deal, which is the story I shared below, posting it on my Facebook right after it happened.

***

Today… and I kid you not about this story… my ‘person’ was haggling in Arabic with my (future) landlord about my (brand spanking) new apartment, trying to get him to renegotiate the deposit, and as they fought back and forth (which is so uncomfortably and awkwardly loud, and very common), my person won and when I asked her HOW? she waved her arms all around and said “I told him ‘Look at her shoes!! Do you think she is going to wreck your stupid apartment?” …and (I know you think you know where this story is going but you don’t!) she said because my *white Keds* were so white he said “Ok if she takes such good care of her shoes she will take care of my flat.”

And just like that, me and my new white Keds have a brand new apartment!