We have the pleasure of introducing Alena Hadley tweeting @AlenasAdventure as our guest blogger today. Here, Alena tells us all about…
Trading in Supermarkets for Bazaars: Life in Egypt in the 1970s
On the morning of my first grade class’s show-and-tell day, my mom stuffed my backpack with memories from her and my dad’s life abroad. At school, my classmates and I sat in a circle on the carpet, eagerly watching each other show off various treasures usually reserved for home. My friends talked about their princess dolls, matchbox cars, and stuffed animals. When my turn came, I excitedly displayed my exotically dressed, wooden dolls, their faces painted every color of the rainbow. As I wrapped myself in a multi-colored scarf, I proudly announced, “My parents lived in Egypt,” completely comfortable with my non-American toys.
By then, my parents had long settled into life in the Midwestern United States. After their two-year stint in Cairo, they opted to leave the expat life behind and start a family back home. My father, a professor of economics, got a teaching job at the University of Dayton. Deemed by some to be the “most average” city in the country, Dayton promised a simple suburban life, perfect for raising the three children my parents planned on having.
But growing up, there were clues that my parents were anything but average. The decorations adorning the walls seemed straight from the pages of Aladdin. Story time involved tales of snakes in Hong Kong and camel rides along the base of the pyramids. Boxes in the attic encased heaps of photographs depicting a man in plaid pants with a long, bushy beard standing next to a woman donning a pixie haircut and bell-bottoms. Beneath their hippy get-ups, I could make out my father’s kind eyes and mother’s bright smile.
Part of the Baby Boomer generation, my parents came of age in the 1960s and actively embraced the progress spurred by the era’s radical figureheads. In the thick of the Civil Rights movement, my dad was arrested for peacefully protesting a department store’s firing of an African-American Santa Claus. My mom rode the tides of Second-Wave feminism, claiming her family’s first college degree and then upping the ante with an MBA. In 1969, my pacifist father registered for the Vietnam Draft Lottery and was identified as a 1-A-O, meaning he would agree to go to the front lines and serve as a medic.
By 1975 domestic turmoil had greatly subsided in the U.S., and my parents were ready for a new challenge. My dad had begun specialising in development economics and wanted the opportunity to do first-hand research in a developing country. His job search led him to The American University in Cairo, and by September of that year he and my mom were on a plane to Egypt.
Whereas their progressive lives in the U.S. had been catapulting them forward, my mom described their first few weeks abroad as feeling like a backwards time warp. My parents were forced to give up all of the American conveniences that they had become accustomed to. Without a television or a phone, they were instantly cut off from the world and the people that they had known. Though they could schedule times to use the university’s international telephone line, calls often dropped in the middle of conversations. Even the country’s postal system was unreliable; instead of sending letters directly to friends and family, they asked co-workers traveling frequently between the U.S. and Cairo to serve as their couriers.
Despite the lack of media and communication devices, my parents weren’t bored. Daily chores took significantly longer than they did in the States. Laundry was washed in the bathtub by hand, and grocery shopping had to be done daily because the refrigerator was too warm to keep out the cockroaches. The butcher provided poultry “au naturale,” meaning that mom had to learn how to behead and de-feather her purchased birds. Water had to boil for 17 minutes before it was drinkable, and food had to be carefully inspected to ensure it was clean and fresh. Needless to say, my parents had their hands full.
Though my mom and dad were busy, it wasn’t in the way that they were used to. When stripped of technology, life goes back to the basics. Without the TVs, radios, and telephones that they had come to rely on for entertainment and communication, my parents were able to meet the more relaxed pace of the Egyptian culture. In fact, they were literally forced to slow down; though my dad had been an avid runner throughout adulthood, when he tried to jog in Cairo, rabid dogs nipped at his heels. So, when the workday was done and the chores finished, my parents took nightly walks along the Nile, soaking in the grandeur and serenity of the river.
Like many expats, my parents found it difficult to assimilate to certain aspects of Egyptian life. Both mom and dad knew street Arabic but were unable to communicate with locals on a more intimate level. They wanted to learn more of the language, but also knew their time in the country was limited; they primarily focused their social energy on developing relationships with people in the university community. Still, they had a more diverse group of friends than could have been found in upstate New York, their last home before moving abroad. They mingled with Swedes, Indians, and French, as well as Egyptian co-workers and neighbors. One of their friends, the daughter of a Polish diplomat, was named Alina – she made such an impression that they decided to name their third child after her.
My parents gradually built a life in Cairo that became less about what they had lost and more about the ways in which the world was unfolding before them. They loved that Egypt was different from America in “almost every way imaginable,” and soaked in the newness of the architecture, art, people, and food. They were able to travel throughout the country, taking in the faded charm of Alexandria and the stately temples and tombs of Luxor. Longer holidays were spent in nearby Europe; they saw Paris for the first (and only) time together and, yearning for a contrast to their usual desert surroundings, relaxed in the lush, Austrian Alps.
With a new culture brought more open-mindedness and patience. Being “liberal” took on an entirely new meaning; they were now part of the ethnic and cultural minority and had a new perspective on the importance of accepting peoples’ differences. And when it was time to return to their “average” lives in the U.S., they brought their newly found tolerance and adventurous spirits with them, using what they had learned abroad to inform their next phase of life: parenting.
Tales of my parent’s voyages abroad certainly contributed to my unquenchable thirst for exploration. And as I relay those stories, I lament that I can’t travel to Cairo and experience first-hand the sights, sounds, and smells of my parents’ lives there. But the examples that they set are timeless and know no cultural boundaries, and I’ll carry them with me as I explore this amazing and diverse world.
About the author
Alena Hadley is a freelance travel writer. Her blog, Alena’s Adventures, features vacation stories, destination descriptions, and touring advice from the perspective of a 30-something, urban dwelling, cubicle rat who dreams of one day living the expat life.