Word by Word

Creating myself one word at a time.

Butcher Shop

Zamalek Skyline

The skyline from my flat balcony. In the lower right corner you’ll spy a part of an embassy. Photo by Courtney Marquez

Picture it. The Nile River serenely floats through the middle of Cairo. Sitting in the middle of the Nile is an island called Zamalek. It is the home of small embassies, short lanes with four-story buildings and many small restaurants—including the best schwarma stand ever. Along with the gelato shop and an amazing Italian joint, there are also small shops, bakeries, produce stands and tea shops.

In short, it is a corner of the world where neighbors know each other and you quickly befriend the nearest bakery owner. Beautiful and not at all what you normally see in pictures of Cairo, Egypt. My flat on Hasan Assam overlooked the backyard of the Spanish Embassy where they threw some swanky parties. We’d watch them from the balcony.

It also happened to be home to an unforgettable moment between me and a cockroach the size of a small dog. But, I’ll get to that in just a few moments.

Within two weeks of arriving in Cairo, my flat mates and I arranged for a weekly delivery of toilet paper and water—you know, the essentials. They deliver anything you want in Cairo. The gelato shop down the alley from my flat would even bring over a cone of the most delicious hazelnut gelato when we had the craving. The lack of delivery of such important items in the U.S. is quite disappointing.

Ice cream and toilet paper aside, each of us in the flat would shop every few days for the items we wanted. And shopping in Cairo was different from the massive buildings in the U.S. where everything you might need, or not, is under one roof.

I had a normal bakery where I would get these delicious loaves of bread baked freshly each morning. There was a produce stand two blocks over where I got my eggplant and cucumber. There was a very small corner store with feta cheese, milk, cookies and other items you might need. There was also a butcher stand, but I didn’t visit it very often. I wasn’t one for watching my chicken butchered right in front of me.

Breakfast each morning, in my flat, was a small roll of bread with feta cheese and sliced cucumber. And on more than one occasion, you would find three of us in the small kitchen scorching the skin of a beautiful eggplant to make homemade babganoush.

Now, the cockroach story.

Within two months, weekly shopping was no big deal. Just part of a normal routine. But, when I started I was very aware of my otherness. My Western clothes. My Western attitude. And it drew the attention of the neighborhood residents.

Butcher Shop

One of the many neighborhood butcher shops in Cairo.                    Photo by Courtney Marquez.

One bright day, about ten in the morning, I was strolling alone up Ahmed Sabry where my normal shops were located. I had two loaves of bread fresh from the bakery in my bag. Men sat on crates in their flowing robes. You could hear the newscasts coming from the tea shop as cabs flew up the street. The songs of Amr Diab floated from stopped cars.

As I walked past a produce stand, on the way to my market for feta cheese, I noticed a very large cockroach sitting below a stand of cabbage. Now, I don’t know what went through that large bug’s tiny brain, but as I walked past in my khaki pants and spiffy black bowling shoes he shot out from the stand and up the leg of my pant.

Yes, he went up my pant leg. I’ll give you a minute to process that.

There I was in the middle of a busy Cairo street with many eyes on me and I knew instinctively that I couldn’t scream and flail. I also knew I couldn’t, you know, take off my pants in the road. There were laws and all.

I did the only thing I knew I could do. I threw my hand down on my thigh and took the chance that I might smoosh this large and very rude monster. The thought of where that giant monster might go if I missed propelled my arm down with a force I didn’t know I had in me.

Well, Isis or Osiris was looking down on me that day because I hit him. I hit him good.

Fresh laundry

Laundry hanging from the back of our flat and overlooking Zamalek. Photo by Courtney Marquez.

Did the men at the produce stand see what happened? I didn’t stick around to find out. I walked with great speed home to my flat three blocks away. I then proceeded to scrub the skin from my thigh and burn my pants. Well, not really. I only had so many pairs of pants with me. But, they got the hot water rinse in our small washing machine.

The moral of the story? Don’t trust the cockroaches in Cairo.

I’d love to hear your stories of moments of panic while traveling. Have you ever had a run in with a rogue cockroach? Or maybe some other situation that seemed impossible?

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