Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Crazies, Christians, Opera, and Retreat

It was the summer of 2002 when Chad and I pulled into San Diego. We had just finished driving three days with a loaded pick-up truck and I was looking to ditch some boxes of books and other teaching materials at the school I was going to be working at. We pulled into the school’s parking lot and walked through the front doors. This would be my first encounter with Karla, the school’s first line of defense aka the front desk lady who had hair with its’ own zip code. We must have looked pretty disheveled and smelled even worse when we walked up to her desk. Karla kindly inquired “may I help you” coupled with the “I’m sorry the homeless shelter is down the street” look. In my road weary half-dazed state, I introduced myself and asked if I could unload some boxes in my classroom. At that moment I sure she was thinking that the school must have been pretty desperate to have hired me. I realized that she was quick witted and a master at rolling off biting comments. I replied appropriately and we struck a chord.

You know the rest of the story, Karla and I became instant friends and have been close ever since. Although she will deny this; but we both have a knack for attracting those on the fringe of society. I have often stated and my friends can vouch for this; if there is a room with a million people in it and there is one crazy in the mix, they will sniff me out like a bloodhound. I’m the cheese to their wine if you know what I mean. It was quite the rare weekend here in Alex; my weirdo scent must have been off the charts as I managed to pull a couple out of the woodwork.

Going surfing Thursday afternoon was in order. I gathered my board, wetsuit, and towel and caught a taxi to the beach. Within a few minutes of paddling out to the waves, the sounds of a loud and consistent whistle caught my attention. It was at a free beach, so I knew I wasn’t in violation of paying so I ignored him for the first five minutes occasionally glancing back to the shore watching the guy frantically jumping up and down waving me in. His body language and yelling grew more intense, so maybe it’s something serious, I caught a wave to shore to inquire. When I stepped out of the water he got into my face hollering and making hand gestures, I didn’t know what he was saying so I just calmly talked gibberish and named the four food groups. A crowd swelled around us and a hairy old man stepped between us and those two got into a heated debate. The old man turned in my direction and ordered me back into the water while the other man stomped off kicking sand.

There wasn’t much wave action so I called it an early session. When I came back to shore the yeller approached me and shouted “WHAT YOUR NAME!?” I tried not to engage hoping he would get the hint that I just wanted to change and leave. Knowing that I didn’t speak Arabic was his cue to start giving me unsolicited lessons which would entail the surrounding environment and unsuspecting participants. Initially the props were simple: sand, ocean, building, boy, girl…then he started to pull in people to teach me vocabulary for clothing and accessories. In the middle of learning the word for belt, he spotted a pair of teenage girls sharing a bag of popcorn and dragged them into the circle. He reached into their bag for a handful of popcorn and grabbed my hand dumping kernels into my palm. I learned how to say “I want to eat popcorn.” Several of embarrassed beachgoers attempted to stop his antics without much success. I finished changing and started to make my way towards the Corniche. He shouted out “WHERE YOU GO?” It dawned on me that I was being rude so I reciprocated his free lessons by showing him variations of high-fives and fist bumps. He was stoked; chalk this cultural sharing event as a win-win.

Port of Alexandria-Had a tout follow me, he wanted to work on his Enghish since he is in college getting a degree in tourism. I enjoyed his company.

Greek Orthodox Church

The wave report for Friday morning sounded promising and as a precaution to reduce the risk of a repeated incident from the day before, I sought another location. Sadly my kryptonite to ward off unwanted guests remained ineffective. I was joined in the water by a younger male in his twenties who also called out in typical Egyptian fashion “what your name” as he swam towards me. We chatted for a while until he wanted the both of us to get out of the water because he was too cold for him. I had no idea we were together! I mistakenly thought the cold had chased him off until I saw him patiently waiting on the beach for me to finish my session. After I changed, day two free Arabic lessons started. Maybe this is a cultural misunderstanding, but I think he ordered me to follow him down the beach; it was no big deal since I was heading in the same direction. When it came time for us to separate he asked for my number and wanted to set up another time to rendezvous and I politely replied with an open ended “I’ll be seeing you around.” My answer wasn’t concrete enough and he demanded that I gave him a specific time and place. I didn’t know what to say, I reached to shake his hand and he responded by shrugging his shoulders and asked “What you want for me?”

Ana made plans to hang out with our friend Mona for a fancy Friday afternoon lunch and my mission to go buy cheese and bacon from the butcher. As a general rule, where there is a church, alcohol and pork are sure to be nearby. Monaco, the butcher shop is in the heart of Mansheya between a Greek Orthodox Church and Saint Catherine Cathedral. I had a few minutes to explore the surrounding area before Monaco re-opened for evening hours. While I was snapping photos the groundskeeper of the adjacent Saint Catherine School invited me in for a personal tour of the classrooms and the ruins of a former church on the second level. The one-legged man explained the history of the building and the school. The classrooms exemplify the term “no frills” as most were only furnished with desks and a chalkboard, the office did have one computer. The groundskeeper wearing a smile pointed to a group of boys playing soccer in the court yard and said “Christain!”

The innards.

Everyone likes loose wires hanging from walls.

The organ has seen better Sundays.

Where's the flair?

Not even a clock for the kids to look at.

Sayed Darwish Theatre

The dalily gathering along the Corniche

Sunset over Mansheya

Also noteworthy was Thursday’s night concert at the Russian Cultural Center. Our own Dr. Greg Leet (music teacher, composer, conductor) and the 1st grade assistant Nona Killgore (Armenian-Russian trained Opera singer) filled the room for over an hour with beautiful classical music. Parts of the center are currently under renovation to restore this amazing historic building, it’s always a joy to see an event there. Ana and I along with Lianne ended the evening at the 11th grade dance grooving to what the kids are listening to these days.

On Saturday we had a full-day retreat at one of the board member’s house (the parents to one of my students) located 45 minutes outside the city towards the desert. It would be fair to say that the ground’s of the property is like having a personal country club. I believe the hired help outnumbers family members. It was landscaped perfectly and I can understand why they would never want to leave home.

Just think there is dirt, dust and trash outside the gates.

A sitting area for you and 20 of your closest friends!

The front of the house.

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