For some, world travel can be overwhelming; the massive differences between where you’re from and where you’re visiting can set you on edge. The humorous, botched conversations with cab drivers quickly move from laughable to I’m-going-to-burst-a-vein-I’m-so-furious in a matter of days. The excitement of being in a place where it’s perfectly okay to hit pedestrians with your car or socially acceptable to follow women down the sidewalk muttering comeons in Italian quickly wears off, and many people find themselves pining for the good ol’ days where a comfy sofa and a TV screen provided you with the fullest travel experience you ever wanted.
But, for all the world-weary, homesick travelers, there is something that most places have in common, something that will make you feel right at home, like you haven’t left your own city streets: pigeons.
Pigeons are a universal symbol, for what I’m not sure. They’re ubiquitous, omnipresent, and simply everywhere. Can’t find an adapter for that tricky European outlet? I bet you can find a pigeon. Missing your favorite dive bar back home and the cozy corner cafe? Hang out in the town square and you’ll be sure to spot a pigeon, just like you might back at home.
In my world travels – where I’ve rarely felt homesick and pigeon-spotting would be the last thing to cure it – I’ve documented pigeons on every continent:
“Wait a second,” you’re probably saying. “I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something different about that pigeon.”
The Cairo pigeon is a different breed; it does not congregate with its peers around landmark fountains or happily munch on seeds strewn about outdoor plazas. The Cairo pigeon is a delicacy, and if you’re traveling in Egypt, you have to eat it.
I try my best to sample everything everywhere I go; I’ll try Turkish Delight and baklava, strukle, mate, antecucho, and cow tongue. Eating is part of the experience. So to say I’ve lived in Cairo for almost six months now and haven’t tried the tasty, urban bird is shameful.
The closest I’ve come to a pigeon, really, was one afternoon in Jaipur when Bre and I were lounging on the rooftop and I was struggling to open my beach umbrella. After a failed attempt, I scattered a flock of pigeons with the thing and let it sit, dilapidated, overhead, barely blocking sunlight. It was then that we realized there had been a casualty: a pigeon lay flopping on the ground. Bre, humanitarian and animal-lover, dropped to her knees and stroked its feathery body until it died a minute later. Devastated – not exaggerating -, Bre was reduced to tears and stood sobbing on the balcony. I wasn’t sure what to do.
Luckily, a German couple lay basking beside us and the woman nudged her boyfriend and pointed at the dead bird. Efficient as Germans always are, he immediately rose, strode to the garbage can, removed the ash trays from the top and used them to lift the dead bird and deposit it into the bin as if he threw away dead animals all the time. This was too much for Bre, who went back to the hotel room and called her fiance for moral support. It took me some time to regain my calm, as I was torn between nervous laughter and horror that I’d killed an animal in the country where everything has a soul and swatting a fly is a crime of serious offense.
Anyway, here I am in Egypt, in February. My friend Moustafa, the rare kind of Egyptian man who speaks with an Irish accent (he spent a year in Dublin), suggested we try pigeon at this somewhat touristy joint in Maadi called Abou El Sid. To say I was happy about this is an understatement. Simon came over beforehand and we happily trekked over to meet Moustafa and co. at the restaurant.
Let me preface this by saying that it was a work night, and I am rubbish on work nights; Simon and I decided we’d leave by 9, which left a generous hour or so for the pigeon to be cooked and to arrive on my plate to be consumed.
Let it be said that what takes twenty minutes to prepare in the western world takes a good hour or so in Egypt. With eagerness only comparable to that of a child about to smear melting chocolate all over his face, I awaited my pigeon. As we sat and the appetizers covered the table, I rubbed my hands together in anticipation. It would be so tasty, and stuffed with rice, I thought, and golden brown, and I would even try the bones, because that’s what Egyptians do, or so I’ve been told. (When in Rome, eh?)
Everyone finished eating the appetizers, and I realized it was five past nine. My heart sank.
“Cancel yer pigeon, Nicole,” Simon advised. “It’s too late.”
Yawning and disappointed, I nodded, agreeing with him. At that moment, our waiter emerged with – you guessed it – my pigeon. At this point, I was struggling to keep my eyes open, and even the warm aroma of the cooked bird wasn’t enough to render me wakeful.
“Take it round back and wrap it,” Simon told the waiter. Moustafa repeated the request in Arabic, and the waiter nodded, retreating to the kitchen with my pigeon.
“Now just look,” Simon continued. “It’s gonna take another half hour for them to put it in a box. How do you say, ‘Put my pigeon in a box’ in Arabic?”
Begrudgingly, I realized Simon was right. The man and the pigeon had vanished into the kitchen, and we were left tapping our fingers and eyeing our empty beer glasses impatiently.
“Yeh can’t do anything right around here,” Simon went on, and I nodded. I just wanted my pigeon. I knew an hour wasn’t a reasonable time to expect the pigeon to arrive, but I was hungry, and I was looking forward to eating it in the cab and then going to sleep.
It was half past nine when Simon put on his coat.
“Ah, I’m leaving.”
“I want to go, too,” I announced. “I just want my pigeon, though. I want the pigeon.”
“You want the pigeon? I’ll go to the kitchen and get it.”
A few others at the table stared at him in disbelief, but I’ve known Simon long enough to know that this wasn’t a threat, and it was perfectly normal. He rose and strode straight into the kitchen to the astonishment of everyone at the table and two employees who, upon seeing him, dropped what they were doing and dashed in after him.
We all eyed the door, itching with anticipation, and a minute later, Simon emerged with a bag and a triumphant smile.
“Got yer pigeon, let’s go.”
We went, and I spent the entire ride home lifting the foil lid and eyeing the pigeon curiously, as if it might fly out of its tin at any minute.
Was it worth it, you ask?
I have no idea. The pigeon has been cooling in my refrigerator since I brought it home. I’ve been unable to bring myself to put it in the oven because the experience doesn’t seem as exciting or authentic anymore. There’s nothing wonderful about reheating an untouched pigeon in your oven and quietly eating it alone.
So I impatiently await my next opportunity to try stuffed pigeon, after which I will blog in detail about every bite.
Pigeon – 1
Nicole – 1 (I can’t overlook the pigeon-killing incident in India, try as I might.)