Diary of an Egyptian abroad

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 It´s the first of January 2004, the beginning of a new year and for me the beginning of a new life as well. I´m moving to Germany to live there with my husband Shehab, who is doing post-graduate studies at the University in Cologne. So here we are at 9a.m. in the morning after having spent the last hours between airports and in the airplane. We are standing in the cold in front of our new home freezing and waiting for the woman (Irene) who is supposed to give us the keys to the apartment we rented through the internet without even seeing it.

It´s sooo cold (later we learn that this was the coldest day of the year) and no single soul is in the streets. Which is logical of course: Today is a holiday and everyone is probably still sleeping after having partied into the New Year. I look at all the bags beside me – one did not arrive, the one with the blankets in it, of course! The airline said they will send us the bag when/if it shows up. I feel like crying, my toes have turned to ice cubes and we don’t know what to do. Where is that woman?!? We try to call her but no one answers the phone. I try not to show my anger; Shehab looks cold and depressed enough. So we just keep on standing there surrounded by our bags and wait…and wait… I just keep thinking: Great, what a bad start this is. Maybe this is an omen. Everyone back home envies us for going to live in Germany, but right now I would have done anything to just go back home where it´s warm and familiar.

Finally, Irene arrives and gives us the keys. The apartment is in the second floor and the staircase is so narrow we have problems getting all our luggage up there. And then I get the first glimpse of our new home – now I’m really upset. It’s far from clean, and must have been inhabited by a somewhat eccentric musician. The walls are covered with music posters and the ceilings are all covered with hundreds of stars which light in the dark (even the bathroom!!!). It’s as cold as outside and Irene turns on the central heating for us. After she leaves I just take out some bed sheets which fortunately were in the bag with me and put them on the bed. Then I burst into tears. I’m hungry, thirsty and cold. Shehab tries to raise the heater but apparently he just switches it off by mistake as the room doesn’t get any warmer. He goes down to find us something to eat but of course the supermarkets are also closed. Then he finds a small kiosk where he buys orange juice and some biscuits. Without eating, he just falls to sleep but although I’m dead tired, I find no sleep. My teeth are chattering with cold although I still wear all my clothes and even the jacket.

So that’s it, we are here with only a few of our belongings and willstart a new life – and I start crying again…
Finding a New Apartment
Only the tent pitched by your own hands will stand.
(Arabic Proverb)
May 17th, 2004. Finally, we are in our new apartment! It took us so much effort and time to find one which we like and can afford. While looking around, I think back on how difficult it was to get here…
First there was the long search for the new apartment. We started to buy the local newspaper on Saturday mornings where they have the ads for rent, but every time we called to ask about one, it was already taken. Then we started to buy the Saturday issue the night before so we would be really early. Sometimes the flat was still available, but when we got there, a long queue had already formed and we never got farther then filling out the application. It was so similar to looking for a job: You had to fill out an application and then maybe you would get the chance of an interview with the owner. I always tried to wear something I would also wear for a job interview. We were so stressed because we had to get out of our current apartment as the owner was coming back from Australia and needed it for himself (the musician guy). 
In our despair, we put an ad in the newspaper: “Research &Teaching Assistant at the CologneUniversity and his wife are searching for a 2-3 Room apartment near the city center. Please call…”. And we did get some phone calls. One apartment in particular I fell in love with as soon as I entered it. But the owner – who did not realize we were foreigners on the phone – was far from helpful when he realized that we were not only foreigners but “Arabs” as well. He did not say a word to us while we looked around. When we were through, Shehab told him that we wanted to take it. He looked at us (with disgust?!) and told us that he has another prospective taker for his apartment (so why did he call us then?!?) and he cannot give it to us. I was really shocked at this open display of racism. We never experienced any discrimination in Cologne before; it’s a very cross-cultural city. Fortunately this was the exception and not the norm. We saw about 20 more apartments but it never worked out. Then there was the apartment we had to refuse after we saw it – the shower was in the middle of the living room and the toilet was outside between floors and you had to share it with the people living one floor under you. Thank god we weren’t that desperate!
When we had almost given up, we finally found OUR apartment! It was in need of renovation but it had two rooms and was big enough for us and very near to the city center. We bought wall paint and all types of brushes and I assured my husband that I knew what I was doing. I had been watching a show on German TV where they explain to you how to renovate your apartment by yourself and felt like quite an expert. And getting someone professional in Germany is really expensive. No, I was determined that we do it on our own.
It was a disaster!!! After we started painting the walls, the wallpaper just fell off on some parts and we could not put it back on. In the end we had to remove all the wallpaper in the whole apartment (which took us about a week) and then put new wallpaper and paint it. How we missed Egypt on those days! Beautiful Egypt with its na2asheen who take reasonable prices and do not ask for horrendous rates per square meter. When we had finished at last, I never wanted to touch a brush again in my life! We laid out a new carpet and could finally move in…
As I proudly look at our painted walls, my eyes fall on the mattress we are sleeping on. It’s the only piece of furniture we have. All our things are still in the bags and boxes. There is so much to do, but for now I’m just happy that I can finally throw away all these brushes…   
Buying the Furniture
Abroad to see wonders the traveler goes, and neglects the fine things which lie under his nose.
(German Saying)
June 4th, 2004. I miss Egypt so much! I’m sitting in the middle of about 30 cardboard boxes which have been delivered to us two hours ago by IKEA. Our furniture is here at last – or will be if we succeed in putting it all together. Right now I just feel like having to solve a big puzzle. My excitement when I received the delivery is totally gone by now. I’ve opened about half the boxes in search of something which looks easy to start with, but everything looks complicated somehow. Where are you, naggareen of Egypt! Again it’s all do-it-yourself stuff (no wonder Germany has problems with rising unemployment rates, I bet most of those are painters and joiners!).
When Shehab comes home from work he finds me still sitting in the middle of the mess I created. He starts to carefully read the instructions which I just glanced over, and we start by putting together our living-room table. It takes us about three hours (it should have taken only half an hour according to IKEA, but I guess they mean Non-Egyptians).The plan was to finish it all on one day but we decide to postpone the rest for the next day so we can ask for some help. Fortunately, we have made some friendships by now and hopefully they will help us with our furniture so we can enjoy it in this lifetime.
June 5th, 2004. Yippieeee!!! Two of our new friends came over today and helped us with the furniture. And I have to shamefully admit that we did all the rest of it together in the same time we needed for just that small table yesterday. But we got faster too, as it is actually always the same system and in the end we really had fun putting it all together. Practice makes perfect – how true!
As I’m sitting on the new sofa now I’m really proud that we were able to do all of this (with some help, of course). Finally I can unpack all our bags and boxes and put everything in its place. Only now do I start to feel at home, it makes such a difference when all your things are around you again and at their place…
June 7th, 2004. In order to celebrate we go out with our friends that helped us out with the furniture. We have dinner at a nice restaurant and they ask us about Egypt. I’m always so proud when people talk nicely about our country. But when they ask about some details (When was the tomb of Tutankhamun found?!), I realize that I don’t know enough about it really. My last visit to the EgyptianMuseum was years ago and the last time I was at the Pyramids was as a kid.
This is so wrong. I mean as Egyptians living abroad it’s our duty to know as much of our country as possible. We are somewhat ambassadors for Egypt. I feel a surge of “wataneya” going through me and I decide to go to the Egyptian museum on my next vacation to Cairo. It would be too embarrassing if a German would know more about my country than I do! It’s strange how we take the beautiful sights of Egypt for granted and don’t even notice them anymore, while others travel great distances just to see them once.
As the conversation continues, I ask them about the “Koelner Dom”, the biggest church in Cologne which Shehab and I visited two weeks ago. And I know more than they do!!! So I guess it’s the same everywhere, and now I can finally enjoy my food…
To be continued in the coming issues…
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