That First Day

31 Oct

On Monday I relived my first day in Cairo. Not emotionally. Jeez, I hope not to go through THAT emotional roller coaster again. At least not until we move to the next foreign country and start to panic. (Just kidding, LeAnn! I can hear your scream from across the world) No, I found myself back in all the places that I had gone to on that first day.

You may recall that after a night of crying and panic, Patrick and I went down to the university on that first day to get various things taken care of. I was moving through that day in a haze of jetlag, anxiety, disorientation, and that exhausted feeling that one gets when a lot of crying has taken place and is constantly threatening to take over at any moment.

Mondays are now my class days in which I have Children’s Book Illustration followed by Refugee Studies. It’s an all day schedule as art and grad classes are super long so I get to the university in the morning and take the Metro home after dinner. So I went in early on Monday with the intention of getting a few errands done before class.

My first item of business was getting an ID card. The card I had been issued that first day had expired and been confiscated by gruff security guards who were obviously on the alert for white pregnant terrorist-types trying to infiltrate the library. The St. Joe County Public Library had obviously alerted them to my abysmal book return record and lengthy list of fines.

I walked into the tiny ID office and was nearly knocked over with a sense of déjà vu. The same fluorescent lighting, the same guy at the computer, the same faded bad bad art on the wall behind the desk. I sat down to wait and was transported back to that first day. I saw myself coming in with Patrick, disheveled, pale, and wondering if anyone in this country spoke English and how difficult this process was going to be. I was wiping at the mini-tears that wouldn’t stop forming in the corners of my eyes while Patrick gave our information and passports. I remember staring at that bad art and thinking, at least that’s not just in our apartment, it’s everywhere. Then I thought maybe there was no beautiful art to be found in Egypt and I put my head down to calm my rising sense of panic. When it was my turn to take my ID picture, I tried my best to smile. The result is a washed out, greasy haired girl with a wavering smile and eyes that seem to scream “help me!”

Back in the present, the guy asked me a few questions and quickly got the information in the system. It went so much quicker and easier than I remembered and I found myself smiling and answering yes or no in Arabic. There was no panic, no tears, only amusement that whoever decorates for the university has terrible taste in wall prints. The guy asked if I wanted a new picture on my ID. I had planned on it but hesitated. I felt sorry for that wretched girl trapped in that first day panic and couldn’t bring myself to have her deleted. I said no and my new ID card was printed with nervous and scared First Day Girl staring at me from it. I stared back at her desperate face and thought “hang on, it gets better.”

I next went to the bank to pick up my ATM card. Dealing with banks here has been somewhat of an ordeal. I like to think of our first bank experience as our introduction to how Egyptian bureaucracy works. We had waited at the counter for over an hour while the men behind it demonstrated the art of ignoring people. It’s hard to describe how this works to Americans because we just assume the customer can clear their throat, say something, or even ask to speak with the manager. Here in Egyptian there is no “the customer is always right” and there’s certainly no culture of customer service. The bank guys, manager included, would occasionally glance up at the frustrated people and then disappear to shuffle papers around and drink their coffee. We were so angry and felt so helpless in these initial dealings. Monday though, I knew what to expect and walked straight to the desk and interrupted the clerk’s phone conversation to say I needed my ATM card. He looked up and indicated that I needed to fill out a form with my account number and various other information. I said no. I told him I didn’t have my account number because I had not been given it. I gave him my name and headed off his excuses by saying my card was here, my husband had seen it and I just needed them to give it to me, that was it. I must have learned the raised voice forceful tone of Egyptian business pretty well because he immediately went to a drawer, pulled out my card, held it up with a smile and brought it to me with a printout of my information. I was out of there in less than five minutes, a vast improvement on over an hour of rolling eyes, sighs, and quiet “excuse me’s.”

I only had a few minutes before class and I was starving so I popped into the McDonald’s in front of campus to get a quick bite. I ordered my McNuggets and sat down by the window to eat quickly. It was at this point that I realized I was reliving that first day. The ID office, the bank, and now I was at McDonald’s, where an alarmed husband once bought his panicked wife an ice cream cone and talked her down from jumping off a pyramid. I was even sitting at the same table we had been at. But the panic was gone, the resentment at all things Egyptian that caused me to demand we go to McDonald’s in the first place and not the local café next door, had disappeared.

I ate my McNuggets and headed off to class, thinking of how much had changed since that first day. I still had my moments of panic every now and then. I will admit to resenting Egyptian ways and people on occasion. But I no longer see this as an ordeal to get through, time that I was putting in until we could leave Egypt and things could go back to normal. I’ve actually started to feel at home, something that was inconceivable to the First Day Girl on my ID card. I gently tucked her into my purse after I left campus on Monday and popped into the local café next to McDonald’s to get my dinner before heading home.


2 Responses to “That First Day”

  1. Dre October 31, 2007 at 11:00 pm #

    Married less than three years and already you can anticipate your mother-in-law’s every thought – and hear her screams. If I had one request, it would be that you continue to “see this as an ordeal to get through, time that you are putting in until you can leave Egypt and things could go back to normal.” Do not, I repeat DO NOT!!! even think about starting to feel at home. You have two years. Period. End of discussion.

    I’m tremendously impressed, though, with how you’re learning to navigate the unnavigatable (is that a word? SpellCheck doesn’t think so.) Way to go, girl, at the bank! They won’t mess with you again! The word’s probably out in the ‘hood and at school to beware of the Redheads.

  2. becca November 4, 2007 at 5:57 pm #

    its so fun to see how you are changing and morphing into a professional world traveler, and blending right in with the Egyptians!! 🙂 I think its great that you saved Scared First Day Girl! I dont think I would be adapting as well as you guys are!

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