MaryAnne: Living in Egypt
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Cairo, etc.
I’m Canadian, having been born in southern California and moved to British Columbia in the early 70’s for university. I liked Canada so much that I took citizenship and stayed, I thought forever. However in grad school I met my Egyptian/Sudanese husband and after living in Toronto for a number of years we moved to Alexandria with our two kids in 1988. We moved again to Maadi in 1993 and I bought some land near the pyramids of Abu Sir for my farm in 2005 after my husband had died unexpectedly and my children were attending university in the US. I have no intention of moving anywhere ever again and totally enjoy my village life and my work teaching about farming and taking people out for horseback tours of the area.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
I started my first blog in 2003 after becoming extremely frustrated trying to find accurate information about daily life in Egypt on the internet. Many of my riding friends in the US and Europe were having problems understanding how I could live in such a “dangerous place” as they understood it from the normal media. I decided that if I couldn’t find information about living here as an expat, I could put it there and I began writing Living In Egypt. In 2004 I began writing a riding and horsekeeping blog called Turn Right At The Sarcophagus and in 2009 I was invited to participate in the Daily Photo blog group with Cairo/Giza Daily Photo. The aim of all my blogs is to add to the knowledge of my readers about the aspects of Egyptian life that don’t appear on television or in the normal media.
Tell us about the ways your new life in Cairo differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
I was one of those lucky people who eased into life in Egypt. When we moved here I’d been visiting Egypt with my husband and later my children for eleven years. I’d had a chance to learn a bit of the language and culture and to have an idea about the city where we moved. To be honest, I had more culture shock moving from Alexandria to Cairo than from Toronto to Alexandria. When we moved to Alexandria we began a family tradition of only having staff who spoke Arabic, which was a huge force in getting us all fluent in the language. The first year was a bit rough but it was worth it. To be honest, I don’t miss my life in North America at all. For the first eight years here we didn’t go back to North America for visits and holidays were spent in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean exploring the area. It was more of a culture shock to visit North America with my children while they were looking at locations for university.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Cairo? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
As I mentioned before, the move from Alexandria to Cairo was more difficult than the move from Toronto to Alexandria. I grew up in a small town in California of 3 thousand people and dealing with 15 million was pretty daunting. I was used to driving myself everywhere and that was impossible in Cairo. I’d been living 5 minutes from my horses in Alex and now I was over an hour away. But I’m not sure that there really is much you can do to prepare for the reality of Cairo. I spoke Arabic already and was good at finding connections and friends, many of them the parents of my children’s friends. We had moved to Maadi where my children were attending school so I didn’t have to deal with horrible commutes and the community is very supportive.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
Learning Arabic isn’t the easiest thing in the world and I probably did it the hard way. I had a small phrase book when I moved to Alexandria and every morning I would sit down, figure out what I needed to do and look up words that I might need, which I would write down in a notebook. One day I needed to buy electricians’ tape so I looked up the words for electricity and tape, figuring that should get me what I needed. I went to a little electrical store near our home and tried out my words. Not so good. Over the period of about an hour, the shopkeeper had pulled out virtually every object connected with either electricity or tape, but none of them were exactly right. Meanwhile, a crowd large enough to attract the attention of the traffic police had gathered around us, with everyone offering suggestions. Even the cop got into it and not long after, the shopkeeper pulled out a roll of electricians’ tape.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Cairo?
- Learn Arabic even if it’s just a little bit. Life is so much more interesting when you understand what people are saying to you.
- Keep your sense of humor handy. Life in Cairo is absurd, amusing, frustrating, confusing and hectic. Egyptians admire what they call light blood…the ability to laugh at the craziness of life.
- Don’t be afraid. Approach your time in Egypt as an adventure and enjoy it as such. Adventures have their ups and downs, just as life here does.
How is the expat community in Cairo? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
I fall into a particular segment of the expat community in that my ties are here rather than abroad. I married into the culture and my life is here. I have a lot of expat friends who are similarly tied to Egypt and a lot of Egyptian friends. I work with “normal” expats who are here temporarily and feel that home is somewhere else. They come to my farm for horseback riding or lessons or to have a place where kids can run around and play with animals in a safe environment. One of the hardest parts of living with expats is the way that they move away after a few years, but with the internet and social media like Facebook it’s much easier to stay in touch. This is a huge benefit.
How would you summarize your expat life in Cairo in a single, catchy sentence?
I’m in it for the long haul.