Expatriate Eccentricities

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Friday, April 15, 2005

So many times you leave a city or a town or even a cafe and you forever associate that place with a person you met there. Today at the early 20th century glass and wooden cased pharmacy on Talaat Harb square I ran into Ruth, the Scottish expat who's been living in my hotel for over 30 years. "Have ya been to the Marriott like I told ya?" she asked. I said I hadn't and she scrunched her faced as though I'd kicked her in the stomach, "I told ya it's fahn-TAHS-stick! --it's all that pasha architecture you love so, it used to be a pahlace! Walk me across the street so I can get some money, because we're goin' me and you to the Marriott!"

I've spoken to Ruth quite a bit everyday that I've been in Cairo. The one day I took breakfast in the dining room we ate together but normally we sit and chat in the lobby and watch the BBC. Aging expat spinsters who drop offensive commentary from the cuff while watching a news broadcast is something I can appreciate. I've also wondered more than once or twice if I'm not seeing my own future. The other day she scrunched her face and hunched forward and balked, "I don't know about this Charles and Camila wedding coming up! The mahn is hahvin' his cake and hay's eattin' too and by-golly-I-don't-like-it-I-can-tell-ya-that! He can't be king married to that one, oh-no-sir-it's-not-rrrrrright!" She slapped her knee for punctuation and cocked her head waiting for my approval and I agreed.

I came home late one night to find her in the lobby silhouetted by the old television. She looked and saw it was me then shook a pointed finger to the BBC. Raking her hands through her thick shock of white hair she bore a pained scowl, "Oh it's ghastly, really." It was my cue and I was quick to not disappoint, "What's that, Ruth?" She shook her head staring at the carpet then looked up flashing slits of her pale gray eyes and bounced as she spoke. "Oh it's the Pope! I'm such a protestant maybe that's what wrrrrong with me! I don't know but for the love of all that's sacrrred the Poles are prrrayin' for a miracle! They want the Lord not to let the poor man die. Let him die for God's sake the man's been all but dead for months now!!! They're mentally ill, they are! Aye, maybe I'm too much of a protestant I am! BUT! I'm not crazy I-can-tell-ya-that! First we had that deathwatch of the poor, poor girl in Florida and now we've got this one! It's-ghastly-it-is! They should just die get it over with! It's ghastly!"

I was dropping off my laundry at reception the next morning when I heard, "He's dead ya know!" "Oh yes, I heard last night before I went to bed" I told her. "Oh yes, it was terrrrible", she shook her head. "Terrible! They were out there crying in Krakow disappointed because the Lord let them down! Can-ya-imahgine-such-a-thing?!" Then with a rapidly rising lilt she threw her hands up, "These idiots wanted a miracle, I cahn't even STAHND it, I-tell-ya! I-cahn't-stand-it!" She squirmed and shook her head as I agreed with her saying, "You know what, Ruth? Those people are complete morons, and you wonder why there's so many Polish jokes for Christ's sake." She exploded, "AYE! They're drivin' me batty! I'm too much of a protestant, I reckon! OH!"

The next night before coming home I picked up some pastries for us. Ruth was already having her nightly cup of tea and then while telling me how she didn't really care for sweets told me, "Aye, but I do like a cake." I asked her, "So, Ruth is the Pope still dead?" She nodded slowly washing back the pastry with her Lipton's and placed the cup quickly back on the saucer. "Aye, indeed he is, and the Poles are still praying I'm afraid. Some of 'em are wantin' him to be made a SAINT! I-cahn't-stand-it!". She shook, then calmed herself and continued, "They bury him like a pharaoh ya know? AYE-they-do! They bury him in three caskets and they put a cloth o'er his head! No, they do you'll see! It's-all-pharaonic-I-tell-ya! They'll even put his staff in with him so that Saint Peter'll know who he's talkin' tah! I mean cahn ya stahnd it?"

When I returned from Luxor she had to hear all about it. "Now did ya see the light show like I told ya?" I said I hadn't since I'd already seen the one at the pyramids and didn't want to rush through everything. She'd about had enough of me at that point so I changed the subject, "Ruth, did ya see the pope's funeral?" Her face untangled and she lit up, "Aye, but I did see some of it! Some of it was fahn-TAHS-stick! but then they kept cutting over to Krakow and there were all those Poles cryin'! and the people outside of Saint Peter's we're acting all sad with tears pouring down their faces! Something must be wrong with me! ! cahn't stand it! The man had a full life what's to be sad for?! I'm sick of it! I've been watching the television all day for some information on that wedding I most certainly do not approve of. Have ya seen anything?" "As a matter of fact" I gloated, "I did and I think you'll be equally amazed that Camila almost looked like a human being!" Her eyes grew as big as demitasse cups and she pushed her lower lip forward, "Now THIS I've got tah see!"

I ran out and picked up a kofta sandwich and some rice pudding for myself and "anything that's not Egyptian" for Ruth. No sooner had the elevator door opened up than I heard her, "Oh, it's on come and look at 'er!" I walked in front of her to place the bag on the table as she shooed me aside almost mentally inside the television she was. She was scrutinizing and planning her words carefully it was clear. I hunched forward slowly and quietly opening the bag I awaited what gem she might toss my way. "You know, Christina I hate tah say it, Oh I do hate it so but yer right -- she almost looks human! Look at the hats! They're fahn-TAHS-stick!" We spent the rest of the evening discussing royals from England to Jordan and Ruth had an opinion on every single one of them.

After our serendipitous meeting at the pharmacy I walked her to the cash machine and we hailed a cab to take us to the Marriott. I let Ruth do the talking since she spoke Arabic and has been a Cairene for decades. "I wanted to be a tour guide ya know but they only let Egyptians do that -oooh I was crrrrrushed when they told me that!" For the next several hours we had lunch and then tea afterward, "at the Ramses because the view of the Nile is lovely." She was right, this Marriott was without a doubt the jewel in the crown of the hotel chain. She stomped on my words before I was finished, "Yer darn right 'tis! It's the whole bleeding tiara! Come on now I'm gonna show you where they first performed Aida!" We entered a grand ballroom with sweeping staircase as she explained, "The opera house wasn't ready yet so they performed it here." She bent forward and her face beamed, "I can't see Aida anymore myself. I saw it at Giza in front of the pyramids! Cahn ya imagine THAT?!" Her chin jutted and she dusted off her hands for emphasis, "And that my dear is that and it won't ever get better! Nope, never!" She colorfully edified throughout each ballroom and explained each portrait and in between she was greeted by staff and locals alike as though she were a dignitary.

We shared a cab ride back and parted ways as I still had some last minute errands to do before leaving. I came back hours later and there she was lit in the glow of the tube. "Are you going to eat here with me, Christina?" I apologized that I couldn't since I had to start packing and get ready for my flight. She nodded looking at the floor, "Aye, and don't forget that you have to eat at that Hotel Europa when you get to Prague, it's fahn-TAH-stick I tell ya." I assured her I would but said that I'd still see her before I left. I went upstairs and packed and repacked all the vintage caftans I'd bought into an extra duffel bag she'd given me. With about thrifty minutes to spare I went down and asked the front desk if Ruth was in her room. "Miss Ruth is already gone to bed" he told me. I had to say goodbye so I went and knocked gently hoping that she hadn't fallen asleep yet but she didn't answer. I hung my head low and shuffled back to the front desk and wrote her a note and handed it over to the receptionist.

I went back up to my room and opening up the French doors I stepped out onto my terrace to say goodbye to Cairo. I spread my arms across the balustrade of room number 47 and looked out and down as the speeding traffic and across at the green glowing minaret and sighed. We'd gotten off to a bad start, Cairo and I but I leave with affinity replacing the animosity. I closed the doors and gathered up my luggage and headed down the stairs. I paused by Ruth's door but didn't knock again. Surely she's said far too many goodbyes in her lifetime, I thought and I moved on. My car was waiting downstairs the clerk told me. The bellhop was putting my luggage in the boot of the taxi and I starred up at what I thought must be Ruth's room and said a soft goodbye and gave a little wave. I looked up as we rounded the statue of Talaat Harb until the skyline blotted out the Lotus Hotel and we sped off into the night toward Cairo International Airport.

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