It is a very small apartment in a compound on the North Coast around sixty kilometers west of Alexandria. I have had it for over twenty-three years and had renovated it completely five years ago. It is not on the ground floor; you walk up to it by a flight of nineteen steps. But I prefer that as it provides me with the privacy I like.
The last time my Mom and I went there was a couple of summers ago. My Mom had great difficulty walking up those nineteen steps and had to be carried up. She always used to enjoy ‘the chalet’ and especially the tiny terrace with the gardens it overlooks and the glimpses of the sea. She had a favorite place on the terrace where she sat every morning to drink her after breakfast cup of Turkish coffee.
Last summer we did not go. My reasons were numerous, we had the 30 June revolution, I wasn’t quite sure what security would be like on the road or even there at the compound. I wanted to stay at home to religiously follow the fate of Egypt that was being decided at that time. But mainly it was because I dreaded how I would be able to get my Mom up those stairs. Luckily she really was not keen about going, was taken up by all the country’s turmoil, and somehow the summer slipped by without our ever setting foot in Sahel (Coast).
This year I needed to go to Sahel to check on the chalet and to pay whatever I owed the compound for maintenance. Another first after the loss of my Mom six months ago, but one that needed doing. I kept procrastinating, trying to get any friend to come with me to give me courage to face the chalet this first time, but all plans fell through. Finally my friend and neighbor in the chalet downstairs encouraged me to go, as she would be there all week. On the spur of the moment I decided that I should go, delaying it kept making it more and more difficult. So I packed a small bag, took some food and early the next morning was off.
The drive there takes around a couple of hours if you adhere to the speed limit, which now I do. So I braced myself for a comfortable drive trying to shore up my courage for the first sight of the chalet, and all the memories it held for me. The drive was comfortable, considering that every time you drive on this highway it’s like playing Russian roulette, the way those crazy truck drivers barrel down on you without warning. But all went well and I kept seeing a great deal of work that had been done and improvements to the road. There is a landmark on that road that alerts me that I have completed two thirds of the way, when I reach it. That landmark is a little village called The Lion Village, and it has a huge poster of a snarling, pouncing … tiger! It always amuses me no end. It was still there, a bit faded, but still there.
When I finally got to the compound I was somewhat tired after the tension of driving through that circus for two hours, but finally I got in and found a parking spot near the chalet. A few weeks previously I had sent my houseboy to open it up and clean it. I had also told him to change the furniture around so I would find it different from the last time Mom and I were there. Still I felt a bit apprehensive opening the door and walking in for the first time, alone. But it wasn’t as bad as I expected. I found myself curious as to what he had done, and went through the three bedrooms, the living area and finally opened up the terrace to what felt like a different chalet. I was relieved. All my previous worry and apprehension came to naught. Thank God.
My friend and neighbor, with her husband, arrived a couple of hours after I did. We got in touch and decided to meet up to go watch the sun set at the beach in a couple of hours. That was when I took that picture.
The compound where the chalet is located lies a couple of kilometers from what used to be a village, but now boasts the status of a town, called El Hammam. Its translation is The Bath. Well, England also has one like it. It is made up of one long road on both sides of which have sprouted little shops that overflow with merchandise onto the pavement. These range from knick-knacks of every sort at extremely low prices, to high quality consumer goods like TV’s, washing machines and refrigerators. It is one of the must things to do whenever in Sahel: go visit El Hammam.
The next morning I had to settle my outstanding bill with the compound and managed to get things done and back to the chalet for a late lunch. But I agreed with my friend to go later on to visit El Hammam, where my main objective was to buy food plates for my dogs. I had previously bought from there a type of light stainless steel plate that had a rubber band on its lower outer rim that keeps it from sliding while a dog is eating. They come in different sizes; I was looking for the large size as my babies are now eating a good sized meal. These were usually found at those shops that have all sorts of goods displayed on long tables, with a unified price for each table, ranging from 2.5 pounds up to 25 pounds per item.
We got there and started browsing, getting side tracked by one useless thing after another, but we did manage to get some tiny, strong flashlights that could be helpful during the recurring power outages we have. After going through the whole store I could not find these plates, so I asked the owner if he had any. Here I described in detail what they looked like without telling him what they were for. This is a bit of a sensitive subject – acquisition and the pampering of dogs – in the Egyptian culture and with a certain class of people. So I was very carefully trying to avoid the reason I was looking for this particular kind of plate. After it took me ten minutes to describe the plate to the owner, he very simply asked me: “Do you mean a plate for feeding dogs?” I grinned sheepishly and admitted it. He grinned back and said no, they don’t carry that item anymore. It was a fluke when they did. It was brought in by mistake by one of their buyers, who liked the looks of them but did not know what they were for, and that they had a very hard time getting rid of their stock. I was very disappointed, and told him so. Then continued browsing with my friend.
A few minutes later the owner approached me and told me that he had been thinking and remembered that a young girl, a relative of his, had taken a few of those plates, before they knew exactly what they were for, as part of her trousseau! She might still have them, and that he will try to bring them in for me. I don’t know how I kept a straight face. Dog plates as part of a bridal trousseau! Only in Egypt!
He called her but unfortunately she had managed to offload them. It was disappointing, but at least it provided me with a few minutes of intense amusement, thinking of that trousseau and what other ‘treasures’ it might hold.
My few days at the chalet fell into a pattern where my friend was a constant companion, leaving me breathing space but not enough to turn to brooding. We spent these few days together, I in my chalet and she and her husband in theirs, but most of the time together.
I had a few uncomfortable minutes every once in a while. Once when opening a cupboard and smelling my Mom’s perfume as one of her jackets was hanging in there, another when I came upon a pair of her slippers in the bathroom, then her bathrobe. And once coming back from an outing and looking at the chalet from the parking lot and remembering always seeing my Mom’s distinctive head of silvery hair at her favorite corner on the terrace. Strangely enough, though there was pain with these recollections, yet there was also a warm feeling of contentment that I still have her with me, even though as just a memory.
Another hurdle, another challenge, another battle won, another fear conquered. On the outside I went “for a break” but actually it was another internal journey of self-discovery.
27 August 2014