Weekends in Cairo initially seem like weekends anywhere else: a two-day respite from the work week, a time for beach travel or languid lounging about in town, a raucous night out. But the most appealing factor of weekends here is, without question, breakfast.
I am an avid fan of breakfast. Dinner buffets are nice and a good ol’ turkey and cheese sandwich usually hits the spot for lunch, but all meals pale in comparison to breakfast. My overzealous attitude to a breakfast invitation is on par with my attitude toward other wonderful things like Daniel Craig, Dracula, and a good cheese. And prior to Egypt, I hadn’t found many people who shared this fanaticism for omelets, pancakes, and cold cereals. (At home, close friends of mine often skipped breakfast. Skipped breakfast! That’s as inconceivable to me as forgetting to put on underwear in the morning.) Years ago, I’d watch episodes of Sex and the City where Carrie and her loyal cohort would reliably meet on the weekends for brunch and discuss their latest conquests/shameful party moments/illnesses. I would think to myself, Why have I never done this?
At last, in Cairo, I’ve found my breakfast niche. A text from Loraine on a Friday morning can rouse me from sleep with more efficiency than my neighbor’s rooster. We vary our breakfast options: the bakery across the street or the classy, culinary Mecca behind the Sofitel. Recently, my friend Danny took me to MH for breakfast, an elite little joint that requires a membership (which I lack, he doesn’t), and I found myself in a wonderland of French toast, scrambled eggs, and fresh-squeezed orange juice.
But one of my favorite breakfast options is quickly becoming a more cozy venue: my friend Ian’s kitchen. Ian is my English running partner, but as long as curfew remains until 6am, our morning runs are on hold. (He seems devastated.) Though we have only made breakfast on two occasions including this morning, I’m finding that the experience is both palatable and educational. In many ways, it can be viewed as a sort of cultural exchange program.
When I first met Ian, he asked if an American pastime I enjoyed was attending “bon dances.” It took a few repeats to understand that he was saying “barn dances”, not the wilder, bonfire-encircling alternative.
“Do I need subtitles?” he’d asked me. The confusion did not stop there.
One thing I have come to realize about my English friends is that they speak an unfailingly proper version of English that paints the world in a completely new and elegant light. American English sounds crass and uncouth in contrast, a statement that would delight my English friends who haughtily claim that we Americans have corrupted the language. For example, when I asked Ian where the dishrag was so I could help him clean up, he regarded me with a mixture of horror and confusion until he realized what I meant and corrected me: “tea towel.” This morning when I arrived, he told me he’d spent the past twenty minutes “doing the washing up.”
“You’ve been washing yourself for twenty minutes?” I asked, perplexed.
“No, I’ve done the washing up.”
“So…you took a twenty minute shower?”
He cast me an exasperated look before showing me the immaculate kitchen and translating: washing up = cleaning the kitchen. I find that I like the posh way that British English reshapes the language. Americans get angry and start a fight while our trans-Atlantic neighbors become cross and have a row. I greet my friends with a casual “what’s up” while my English friends offer a considerably more thoughtful “You alright?” What’s more, English people have a difficult time with swear words – and in their place have devised adorably creative alternatives. Jamie had trouble saying a four-syllable expletive beginning with ‘M’, but “oh bugger” was an acceptable replacement. Instead of “stupid”, “idiot”, or “moron”, he chose Jim Henson-inspired words such as “numpty”, “muppet”, or “monkey.” Compliments, in turn, become equally adorable: one can be a “jammy sod” when something lucky happens, and Jamie once told me I was “only little” when referring to my size. (Once he went so far as to say I was “littler than a pile of hedgeclippings”, which was endearing until I imagined what a freakishly large pile he must be referring to if I were smaller than it.) Even the method of weighing things is more charming and rustic: “125 pounds” conjures images of dumbbells and lead while “9 stone” produces a pastoral portrait of rocks in a wheelbarrow.
Fortunately, breakfast food translates similarly in any language, and Ian is a deft egg-poacher and toast-maker. My role in the kitchen is limited to standing around and sipping coffee while Ian does everything else. This week, I attempted to pull my weight by making pancakes, but apparently even those are different across the pond.
“We don’t have any sugar for the pancakes!” Ian lamented at one point.
“You put sugar on your pancakes?”
“Yes, and lemon.”
“Those are crepes.”
“Oh…what are you making, then?”
“They look like this,” I said, pointing to the box. “Like cakes.”
“Oh. Ours are more yellow and brown, and much thinner.”
Well, bollocks. I tried.
Over breakfast, Ian also noted that I don’t hold my silverware properly and attempted to correct my apparently savage clutching of the fork and knife, suggesting that maybe in the future he could teach me dinner etiquette and other necessary graces, like walking around with a book on my head. I felt a sudden kinship with Eliza Doolittle.
After breakfast, in an attempt to gain further exposure to British culture, Ian selected an episode of the English version of Jerry Springer.
“If there’s a word you don’t understand…or you’re confused…or there’s a sound that doesn’t make sense, don’t be afraid to ask,” he assured me.
This episode of Jeremy Kyle, hosted by the eponymous Jeremy Kyle, focused on the theme “my baby’s father cheated on me with my ex-boyfriend.” Featuring a large 18-year-old with poor dental hygiene, the show attempted to uncover whether or not the ex-boyfriend was the father or whether it could possibly be her ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend of five days. Gasp! What was hilarious to me about this show was that, despite the grungy content, the host still maintained that unshakably clean and quaint British disposition, using polite tones and delicate diction. While the ex-boyfriends loudly criticized the 18-year-old mother’s performance in bed (“You have six inches between you!” she loudly retorted), Jeremy Kyle kindly asked them to “substantiate” and to act with less “temerity.” Frenzied chair fights were replaced by sensible post-episode counseling sessions with a provided therapist.
One segment of the episode strayed momentarily from the salacious storyline to emphasize the proper treatment of hotel accommodations:
“I could have had ten men in my room last night if I wanted to!” cried one woebegone lover.
“Did you have ten men in your room last night?” Jeremy Kyle calmly inquired. “Because the room we’ve provided only accommodates two.”
Nevertheless, the show ended on a heartwarming note, where a lie-detector test proved that a husband had in fact not cheated on his wife or even kissed another woman since they’d met, and that he’d only been hiding the surplus Viagra because he was embarrassed.
As we sipped our third cups of coffee, this one featuring Baileys, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps England isn’t so terrible a place to live. That through the perpetual cold and wet and fog lies a country where life is always pleasant, eggs are poached in convenient Poachies, and people hold their dining utensils with grace and dignity.