So, ever since I discovered podcasts, This American Life has become an essential part of my week (Thank God for Tune-in Radio’s 24-hour This American Life station). So, as an homage, I thought I’d write a three-part blog about my adjustment to life in Cairo…so here it goes.
From W-IDEO Cairo, it’s This Egyptian Life. This month on my blog, I have three stories which peek into the world of an American just trying to fit into a Cairo lifestyle: the excitements, the adjustments, the smells.
Act 1: I Miss My Drip Coffee
My mom is from Panamá. There, coffee is a way of life. It’s so good and so strong, that you really only need one cup to start your day. So I blame the Midwestern American half of my genes for the fact that I didn’t discover coffee until my senior year at Purdue, where the caffeine helped me power through Philosophy papers and exams. All I really needed was a drop of milk and a sprinkle of cinnamon and I was hooked.
Today it’s more like 1/3 a mug of skim milk, topped off with fresh brewed drip coffee and one packet of Splenda. PRO TIP: If you put the skim and Splenda in the mug first, when you pour the coffee in, it all mixes without having to dirty a spoon – smart! As for the cinnamon, it’s a nice treat when it’s around.
As an adult, the start of my day depends on it. That first sip in the morning – before talking to anyone, before being asked to do anything – is the taste of Heaven. I relish it. And I like bigger mugs so that morning moment of awakening can be stretched as long as possible before the day just becomes to needy to ignore.
Discovery #1: Nescafe is a POOR substitute for real coffee. No amount of sugar and milk can mask the fact that dehydrated “coffee”-flavored nibblets dissolved in hot water can never compete with fresh ground, dark-roasted coffee beans slowly filter-brewed through the trickle of boiling Rocky Mountain water.
I’ve had to adjust my happiness. Egyptians just aren’t coffee people. Tea is the name of the game here. For anyone who hasn’t experienced it firsthand, the typical Egyptian way of preparing tea involves putting black tea with fresh sprigs of mint and a ton of sugar in a small glass. For us, in the Priory, (where the very mission depends on blending in and encountering the culture) breakfast involves first choosing from one of six jars: black tea, mint tea, anise tea, hibiscus tea, chamomile tea (all of which are Lipton products) or Nescafe. You fill and set the electric water kettle, pick your mug, and decide which tea will best pair with your cereal or bread or fruit or yogurt or whatever else you are having. As much as I enjoy tea, every morning I pick Nescafe, hoping it will somehow transcend disappointment and satisfy my coffee longing.
There is a bit of real coffee relief in the day, which falls in the same tradition as the Turkish…small sips of unfiltered, concentrated “espresso,” boiled on the stove in the a tradition only grandmothers have truly mastered. The coffee is also seasoned with cardamom and sugar, and we take it right after the midday meal. This little respite is a nice break, and the coffee is truly comforting. We sit in the garden, digest, and chat until it’s time to go back to the office or to our room for a siesta.
Since starting classes at Dar Comboni, however, we don’t return to the priory until 2:00 or 2:30pm. And even that depends on traffic and whether or not the bus ever shows up, which means we always miss the afternoon coffee break whenever we have class. And the Egyptian school provides only tea or Nescafe in the break room–or rather, the “tea room” as they call it.
Normally, I don’t get real coffee except on Saturday and Sunday. So you can image just how excited I was when, on a Friday excursion to CityStars (a gigantic mall where only the upper classes can really afford to hang out) I saw the blissful green and white glow of the Starbucks Siren seducing me home.
I know this is a minor thing, and I don’t intend it as a complaint. But it’s the little things like drip coffee that remind me just how AMERICAN I am. And missing them everyday makes feeling at home here in Cairo a little more difficult. In the United States, these things can easily pass you by. They are so small, so ordinary. Still, when you do recognize them, you become a little more self-aware and a little more connected with your identity, whether as an American, as a Midwesterner or as Catholic for that matter.
This small ache in my heart is one part missing home and one part pride in better knowing who I am.
I miss my drip coffee.