Sunday, June 19, 2022


You can’t get Egyptian money in the United States. What I mean is, you can’t order any bills through the bank or a currency service, you have to wait until you get there to exchange currency. This causes a little bit of a problem because you need cash in Egypt–lots of it, in small 10 or 20 Egyptian pound notes–otherwise you can’t get much done in a place run by baksheesh.

Tipping arouses strong feelings in America. We are a freedom-loving people, resentful of  authority and happily married to capitalism so just tell us what it costs and we’ll either buy it or we won’t. Don’t try to extort more from us. A purchase isn’t a nuanced dance of negotiation, it’s a black-and-white contract where you have what I want and if I want it bad enough I’ll pay you the agreed upon purchase price. Don’t come back with your hand out, telling me the deal wasn’t enough.

Regardless of whether you call it a well-deserved bonus for a job well done or panhandling, tipping is everywhere in the States so that when I travel to other places and find that they generally don’t have the same tipping customs I do a dance of joy because the vacation just got that much easier. To know there’s no expectation of more once you’ve paid the tab or got out of the taxi is a relief . . . but not in Egypt.

Tips are expected for everything. Cabbies, waiters, doormen, concierge, airport personnel, bathroom cleaners, docents, that guy on the street who gives you directions . . . it does not end.

We were in Edfu, forced to take a carriage from the pier to the temple of Horemheb, as provided and previously agreed upon by the cruise director. As we left our boat we were told that it was customary to tip the carriage driver with about 10 pounds. Putting aside the experience of careening through the streets of Edfu behind a slathering, cantering horse with a driver who would twist in his seat to smile sycophantically and repeat “America number one!” Putting that aside, when we were done we did as had been suggested and handed the driver a bill. By this time Andrew had learned the art of folding money into a tight package in the palm of his right hand so that he could shake hands and say, “Thank you very much” then stealthily discharge the money like a spy making a hand off of nuclear secrets on microfilm. 

Bad news though, this apparently wasn’t enough and the driver got angry, discharging his own stream of abuse at us as we fled for the pier. He felt cheated, we felt cheated, it was an exchange that left everyone unhappy.

We were in the Cairo airport waiting for our flight to Frankfurt and completely out of Egyptian cash–and we’d timed it that way since you can’t exchange it once you leave, if you recall.

Sitting in the waiting area at the gate Andrew needed to use the restroom. An airport worker with a large cleaning cart was hanging around listlessly and, when Andrew emerged from the bathroom, angrily demanded a tip. I watched it go down and as Andrew returned to his seat I braced myself for more confrontation. The only thing we had going for us was that the worker was in a predicament: if he left his post to chase Andrew down he’d miss the others coming out. How much was it worth to run down the American?

Egypt takes its tipping so seriously it’s developed a whole new system around it: baksheesh, which is really just tipping on steroids and it doesn’t help that to Egyptians, we Americans look like a pile of money on two legs. The United States is some vague thing that represents money and privilege and we Americans are easy to spot (or hear). But then, Egypt has been hit hard in recent years and tourists have been a trickle of what they once were before the Arab Spring and Mosi arrived on the scene. Add to that COVID and the country is desperate for tourists and will do everything they can to present a pleasant and safety-conscious face to the world, begging the West to return and bring money with them.

So besides wanting to keep Americans extra protected, able to tell stories back home about how wonderfully safe and accommodating Egypt is, the police generally don’t want us to go home complaining about being hassled for bribes. And then it also helps to feign ignorance with an appropriate, “No habla Anglais” shrug when someone approaches you with his hand out because for all their audacity, the transaction has to be done on the sly or it looks bad.

We had hired a cab to take us from our hotel in Cairo to a building in Maadi where we’d attend church. We scheduled the pickup with plenty of time and because of the traffic around the hotel lobby we decided to walk out 100 yards to meet our driver at the entrance. We loaded into the van and settled ourselves and were approached by a white-uniformed police officer who gestured to Hassan to roll down his window. Serious discussion ensued though I didn’t pay that much attention–I’ve learned that I’m terrible at properly interpreting emotions through the intonations of language so I tuned most of it out until it ran on longer than was normal. Soon papers were being passed through the open window and more discussion followed and Hassan seemed rather sheepish and submissive.

What was going on? The officer walked away to his booth to examine the papers and Hassan turned around in his seat.

“If they ask you, you are Australians.”


That didn’t sit well with my father, who quickly pointed out that he’d made it a habit never to lie to the police and my attorney husband instantly agreed. Me? I was ready to throw a shrimp on the barby with a hardy “G’day!”

In the end it took us ten or so minutes to get them to let us go, by which time Dad was convinced they had it in for Americans and that we should stick to the story of being “from Alaska” because even most Americans couldn’t locate that on a map and it would preserve our integrity, but it turns out that it was actually the opposite

Hassan—or rather our friend Aton who owned the van—hadn’t filed his paperwork properly. The government likes to know exactly where Americans are being shuttled, not for sinister reasons but out of an abundance of caution. Who wants to tangle with the Americans if some of their kind should happen to get themselves into trouble somewhere? Keep track of them and keep them safe. Aton had been lazy and didn’t want to file and the police were ticked that he’d cut corners. I imagine some baksheesh solved the problem because we were soon on our way.

We were in the Cairo airport halfway through the trip, traveling to Luxor, when we had to go through the security metal detectors. We were behind what appeared to be a wealthy Egyptian man of about 65, wearing a djellaba and accompanied by his son who looked to be a young professional. We put our things on the conveyor belt and waited our turn, watching the bags closely in case someone should try something.

It only caught my attention after the third time that the old man couldn’t get through the detector. The security people kept sending him through and I wondered what was setting off the machine. Then, on the fourth try I saw the man reach into his pocket and pull out a wad of bills. He handed a few over to the security guards and walked through without a hitch. 

“Did you see that?” I hissed at Andrew, “They just shook him down!”

Knowing it was our turn I wondered what we could expect. With the commotion the old guy had caused we took advantage of things and slipped through, reaching for our bags on the other side. A guard at my shoulder stopped me.

“Boarding pass!” he said firmly. A big red flag, because you can’t get your domestic boarding passes before you get to the airport, you have to get them once you’re inside and at the airline check-in desk. But I’m sure he knew that, we were only at the front entrance. I thought quickly.

“They’re in my bag,” I said, wanting to get to my bags as soon as I could and buying for time.

Stuff was still going on with the old man and his son and  it was enough of a distraction that I made it to my bag and had it ready to wheel off a second later. Andrew was right behind me.

“Grab your stuff quick!” I whispered. “I think they’re going to want money.”

And quick enough, we got through and were off before they realized it. I figured if anyone questioned us I could play stupid as if I didn’t know what was going on, which is what Dad did when he and Mom came through right behind us. Security tried to hassle him a bit but he’s big and imposing and pretty much shrugged them off as if he didn’t understand. About that time a police officer wandered by and saw what was happening, dressing down airport security and letting us through without further incident.

But that’s business as usual in Egypt. The Egyptian gentleman didn’t seem particularly surprised or ruffled by the experience. Prepared, you might say. But then life there seems to nod to those things outside of one’s control, exemplified in the phrase inshallah--God willing. You hear it everywhere, sometimes simply as punctuation.

“What are you studying at university?” 

“Mathematics, inshallah.

“Is your daughter still seeing Abdul?”

“Yes, they’re to be married after Ramadan, inshallah.

“I’ve got to get to the dry cleaners after work. Inshallah.” 

To Americans baksheesh is a graft, a bribe, and we’re galled by the audacity and corruption but in Egypt it’s de rigueur–part of the economic structure–so why fight it? 

“Did you enjoy your trip? How was Egypt?”

 “We loved it! It’s a great place to visit. Inshallah.

Dramatis Personae

I stepped out of the cool, dimly lit mosque of Muhammed Ali into the heavy sun soaking the terrace above the dusty buildings of Cairo. Coated in a dull shade of ochre and dirt that had thickened through the rainless years, each structure blended into its neighbor in the layers of smog that obscured our view of Giza to the south. We were at the silver-domed Citadel, or Salah al-Din Al-AYoubi, where the medieval nemesis of Richard the Lionheart had built a fortress to protect Cairo from the crusaders.

We’d taken our shoes off to enter, passing trios of visitors sitting cross-legged on the red carpet and propped against the support columns as they listened to droning guides, and exited the other side onto the terrace where the light blinded me. At the stone railing, with the dusty mudbrick city as a muted backdrop, stood a full-bearded blond European in brilliant white linen--from skull cap to kaftan. This Viking stood with his arms stretched to the sky and his face tipped upward as he swayed in the breeze that fluttered his garment. A second man sat observing while a third, wearing a shoulder-mounted camera, filmed the scene.

He was a Belgian rapper making a music video and, in my opinion, doing a smashing job.  

Andrew and I came to Egypt at the end of COVID, convincing Mom and Dad to join us, and while I snapped a lot of pictures of pyramids and obelisks, it was the people that I took home as my treasured souvenirs. There was Cathy Jones, the manic United Airlines ticket agent, with her gravely voice and thin, straight hair that blocked her face so that she peaked out at the world from between two blond and frayed curtains. She shook like an emaciated Led Zepplin groupie dying for a cigarette as we convinced her to move us to a better connecting flight. 

There was the scatty British expat with prep-school English that we met in Luxor. He’d lived his life working for the British government in Romania and was either too arrogant to be bothered with being polite or (as I gave him the benefit of the doubt) too absent-minded to notice his rudeness. At least he looked old enough to pass for absent-minded, with his thinning gray hair and comfortable paunch. Dressed in business casual with rolled back sleeves and carrying an old laptop and books, he dithered about where to sit in the reading room of the Winter Palace Hotel, trying to claim every available spot, until he finally dropped his laptop and knocked the battery out with a clatter. He hadn’t a clue as to what he’d done or how to fix it until Dad, extending remarkable courtesy and forbearance, picked things up and replaced the battery with a smile, saying , “That should do the trick, looks like there wasn’t any damage!”

This apparently meant that our new friend was honor-bound to remain with Dad for life because he was then held hostage, forced to listen to a stream of opinions on everything from the weather to the Empire to America. Lord Expat was not a fan of the Colonies, though he’d never visited.

Then there was Maurice. 

Andrew and I had decided to take a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the sites of Luxor and were sitting in a boat, being ferried across the Nile to the launch site on the west bank. Across from us were two men, both black and each carrying a box of pastries and a cup of coffee from the hotel. One was completely enormous, with so much muscle and meat that his biceps and quadriceps threatened to erupt from his white v-neck t-shirt and linen pants. He topped it off with a jaunty fedora and the whole effect was so dapper–he looked terrific. His companion wore the traditional djellaba and skullcap in white and was about half the size of the other guy–that is to say, normal size.

I would have bet my life they were American. “Hi!” I said, “Where are you from?”

Big Guy looked up from his phone and said, “San Francisco.”

“Oh! What do you do there?”

He glanced at his friend and said, “I’m in broadcasting.”

I tucked that away, thinking, Hmmm–that’s vague enough to be suspicious.

“Where are you from?”

Interesting tangent: Dad is nervous enough about international travel that he swears it’s unsafe to openly admit being an American—better to let them think you’re a Canadian or something—and when people abroad ask the inevitable question, “Where you from?” He always says, “Alaska.” 

Truthful. To the point. Just like Dad. He banks on the hope that other populations are as ignorant about geography as the average American (most of whom wouldn’t be able to place Alaska). However, in an odd twist of fate, the local slang for Luxor is Alaska. Which meant that when my completely oblivious yet honest American father tried his standard answer on the Egyptians they’d smiled as if to say, “Yea, pull the other one.” Or sometimes they’d say, “Welcome home” with a sarcastic smile–Egyptians love a good joke.

But Andrew and I like to live on the edge so we always answer with a cheerful, “Alaska!”

“Alaska??” he said, sitting up straighter, “That’s two!

He paused, thinking, then said, “Hey wait--do you know Mel?”

I stared back, running through the likely scenarios and finally realizing that Big Guy had somehow met Dad, which I would have thought unlikely if I hadn’t known my Dad so well. We’d been here not yet 24 hours and already Dad was a person of interest. Who knew what would come next?

“Yea, that’s my dad,” I said tentatively.

“You’re Mel’s daughter?” And Big Guy smiled an all-teeth smile. “He’s so cool!

I pictured my wonderful, 74 year-old father. Melvin. The one who can burp “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” who loves Consumer Reports and Craigslist, who survived the World’s Worst Attack of Kidney Stones and lived to tell the tale (over and over and over), and who recently bought a new pair of shoes that have a spring-loaded heel so that you don’t have to use a shoe-horn to put them on, combining two of his greatest loves: gadgets and footwear.  I looked at Andrew and he knew what I was thinking. Are we talking about the same Mel here?

“Thanks?” I said.

“You must have been the kid in high school who had the cool dad and all your friends were jealous because your dad was so cool!”

There was that word again. I pondered this view of my dad. Again, I point out that he’s extraordinarily wonderful–both as a person and as a father–but cool? That word had never come up. It’s okay, I’m not cool either. But here was this massive human being talking to me, who had waves of coolness coming off him, who seemed to have a unique opinion of things. Is it possible to become cool just because someone who is cool declares it to be so? I chewed on this.

All through this interview Cool Guy #2 didn’t say much but when we reached our destination we all got out and were soon floating over the Valley of the Kings and Djeser-Djesu as the sun rose over the white boundary of the Nile where all  life in Egypt converged in green rows of agriculture on either side of the river. Once finished, we headed back to the hotel along with the pilot and crew and we talked together easily, completely awake, as compared to our pre-dawn trip out.

“It must be nice that you’re nearly done for the day, what with the heat,” I said to our pilot, Hassan. It was Ramadan and working during the heat of the day was brutal. 

He smiled. “No, I’ll go deliver a baby.”

“You mean like a doctor? You’re a doctor?

“I’m a gyna, a gyna . . .” 

“A gynecologist? An obstetrician?” 

“Yes!” That was the word he was looking for. His English was excellent, but “gynecologist” was a tough one.

“So you fly balloons in the morning, and then you go deliver babies during the day?”

He nodded. What a crazy place. Ballooning had been a family business but he’d gone to medical school, had a wife and two children, and now claimed to deliver as many as 60 babies a day. I found this last part hard to believe, even with the high Egyptian birth rate, but even if there were 60 births per week we are still talking about some serious reproduction going on.

Hassan pointed to Omar, another of the pilots. “He’s a–” again, looking for the vocabulary, “A doctor but for the mouth.”

“He’s a dentist?” I said, thinking that by now it made complete sense.

“Yes, and he works with computers,” he said, pointing to another crewmember. 

“A programmer?” Of course he was a programmer. Of course. 

Once back at the hotel and enjoying our breakfast of chocolate crepes, strawberry juice, cucumbers, and domiati we met up with Mom and Dad who were just getting going. 

“You’re not going to believe this,” I said, sitting heavily down in the upholstered chair. And I began to explain the encounter with our fellow Americans.

“Oh yea,” Dad said, with not a bit of surprise and without looking up from his phone as he scrolled through the morning news, his reader glasses slid far down to the end of his nose. “Maurice.”


“You know who he is right?” Dad was patient with my ignorance and still hadn’t looked up but Mom was now interested in the happenings. This was news to her apparently too.

“He’s Maurice Jones-Drew. He was a running back for the Jacksonville Jaguars–well, he played first for UCLA and was All-American. He can do 40 yards in 4.3. Now he works for the NFL Network.”

Broadcasting–of course! I knew it sounded suspicious. And Dad knew this guy? Maybe Maurice was more right than I’d originally thought. 

Dad talks with everyone. Completely everyone and whenever he can. He approaches strangers and starts up conversations without hesitation, he coos at babies and tells little girls in frilly dresses how pretty they look. He jokes with other men about being married (though he’s been happily married for 50 years), makes dad jokes like they’re going out of style, and is unapologetically and enthusiastically the American Tourist wherever he goes. You might think he’d try to blend in, with his talk about being from Alaska, but he’s not and he doesn’t. He is a huge personality and a strong presence wherever he goes and people are usually intrigued by him and respond in a variety of ways. By the end of one day with Mom and Dad in Amalfi, our guide Salvatore swore, “I’m-a going-a to-a getta a tattoo-a of-a your-a face, Mel, to putta on-a my-a backa!”) No lie. 

Apparently Dad had met Maurice in the reading room at the hotel and had struck up a conversation  as he was wont to do. Maurice had noticed Dad’s enormous blue BYU ring (Dad’s hands are massive and the ring is the size of a pipe fitting) and, seeing the Y, asked if he’d gone to Yale.

“Ha! No! BYU!” Dad said proudly and after the initial introductions he’d launched into a strong opinion about BYU’s quarterback, Zach Wilson, who in the 2nd round had gone to the Jets. Apparently Maurice had just been covering the draft for the NFL Network and was impressed with Dad’s comments–did I mention that Dad’s wild about sports? He’ll say he only likes BYU football and the Braves, but I’ve never found a sport he wasn’t up on. One time I slyly tried to find a sport about which he couldn’t carry on a conversation. I failed. He may not like a sport, but he can recite the major players, stats, and latest pertinent controversies in a way that would make Google jealous.

Maurice had been thoroughly impressed with Dad’s reasoning about why the Jets are an excellent place for Wilson, to the point that I wouldn’t have been that surprised to hear that Dad would be appearing next week as the NFL Network’s surprise guest commentator with his new best buddy, MJD. 

Dad is cool. Who knew? 

Eleanor and Enrique were (respectively) French and Mexican octogenarians who’d been living together for 20 years and owned the premier company for luxury dahabiya cruises on the Nile. If questioned about the uniqueness of their lives, Eleanor would shrug with the haughty, effortless elegance of the French, her deep eyes carelessly glancing around her as if to say, “But of course.”

She held court on the upper deck, sitting in the shade wearing her flowing robes and large turquoise rings on her wrinkled hands that had been mellowed to a golden brown. She was normally short, but in her rattan chair propped high with cushions she seemed much taller and sat very straight, gazing back and forth as she oversaw the crew loading the last items at Esna for the week’s sail up the Nile to Aswan. 

Enrique, who spoke four languages besides his native Spanish, had a large and boney, angular face with sunken eyes and large teeth. His  jet-dyed hair was tied with a dirty bandana and he wore a light blue djellaba decorated with small coffee stains. He refused to wear shoes and whenever he was on land and things got particularly toasty he’d scamper from shade to shade to protect his feet, with his staff in one hand and his black hair and robes flapping. He smiled easily and enjoyed conversation with the guests and quickly found Dad to be a willing companion. Moving quickly between the two boats as we prepared to sail, he checked this and that, introduced himself to people, and looked as if he felt the same amazement and wonder as we did though he’d been sailing between Esna and Aswan for 10 years.

Together the couple managed a weekly group of 20 tourists for each boat and while Enrique oversaw the shore excursions, Eleanor seemed to be in charge of organizing guests. We’d originally booked the only two panoramic rooms on the Assouan, Nour el Nil’s oldest and least expensive ship, but when it came time to sail we were upgraded to the Agatha, the newest of the fleet. Due to COVID there were only 9 of 20 spots booked and only two ships sailing that week. The other, the Adelaide, was also at half capacity. Eleanor had moved and grouped guests, knowing through experience and her continental je ne sais quoi where each party would be most comfortable. 

We arrived to find the other guests aboard the Agatha were five Millennial Parisiennes: Elsa, Joanna, Rafael, Jordan, and . . . Kevin  (“Eet was a veery popular name when I was born–from Home Alone.”)

As we sat together for our initial lunch we began the customary chatter and introductions.

“Where are you from?”

“Paris,” said Elsa, the slim one who looked as if she could have passed for Audrey Hepburn with her dark-eyed, gamine face surrounded by a stylish pixie cut.

“What do you do there?”

“We produce social media content for the fashion houses’ Asian markets. Kevin and Joanna work together. Rafael has his own company. Right now I am making a short stop-action film for Lacoste.” Her voice was soft and despite her quiet confidence I sensed she was careful with her English, speaking as correctly as she could as if she were stepping on stones across a creek.

She pulled out her laptop and was happy to share the unscored film that was nearly ready. 

Not having heard properly, Dad spoke up, “Who do you work for?”

“Oh many companies . . . Yves St. Laurent, Jean-Paul Gautier, Dior, Armani. . . .”

“Who’s that?” He asked, turning to Mom. So much for being cool. 

But I was impressed. Awed even. On the Cool Scale, this felt even a few points ahead of our brush with the NFL.

Relationships among the Gallic group were ambiguous but Rafael and Elsa seemed to be a couple, though in a very low-key, comfortable with each other’s bodies kind of way. Joanna, taller and blond with Dutch blood, a straight neck, and a long stride, seemed to prefer listening and she worked with Kevin who was the most talkative and friendly/confident of the group. Tanned, manicured, and well-traveled, Kevin spoke the best English and claimed a Norwegian boyfriend back home in Paris–though if you’d told me that he and Elsa were together I wouldn’t have thought twice, given their intimacy. Jordan, who seemed to be the youngest and barely out of his teens, held back in a deferential way from the others. He had a high, pubescent voice, with a conspiratorial tone that could be easily heard over the others when he spoke. He was thin and hunched with an effeminate slouch, but was friendly and smiled easily.

They spent most of the week trading off the hammock, scrolling through their feeds, flipping through the latest issues of Vogue while lounging on the low couches along the deck and taking a bracing swim whenever the boat docked along the banks (all except Jordan who had a fear of water). They fit every stereotype Americans could conjure about the French–fashionable, aloof, sophisticated, and casually relaxed on principles of public nudity.

If nothing else, they were fun to watch and even more fun to talk with. We’d usually spend breakfast at separate tables prepared on deck by the crew, then come together for a joint lunch and dinner, though they often ate dinner later than we did. At first the conversation was safe, flowing through the shallow currents of “Where are you from?” “What do you do?” “What is the job like?” and “Where else have you been?” but then, as Mom and I spent our days painting while the river and reeds slipped past, they became curious and wanted to see what we were doing and began to praise and exclaim over my amateurish attempts to capture the beauty I saw.

“I would love to learn to paint!” Elsa said with sincerity though I’d seen her animation and already thought her exceptionally talented.

Kevin pulled up pictures of a friend’s work who created scarf motifs for Hermes. Yes Hermes. “Would you ever consider collaborating?” he asked and I choked a little on the “Whiskey Egyptian” that our steward Hassan had kept me supplied with since we’d set sail. Huh, collaborate. That’s cute. But regardless of the legitimacy of their ridiculous praise, I loved them for it.

But by the third day we’d all become accustomed to each other enough to feel some solidarity when it came to the other boat, which followed 100 meters downstream in our wake. During the day we might stop at a local highlight–say, the temple to Horus at Edfu, or the tombs and quarry of Gebel el-Silsilah, or the temple to Sobek and Horus at Kom Ombo–and on shore we’d mingle with the passengers from the Adelaide.

There was a stocky family of four from Montana who seemed remarkably red around the necks in their tank tops and baseball caps. The young boys were remarkably well-behaved, given the hours they were required to spend listening as our enthusiastic guide determined that his four-year degree in Egyptology would not be wasted. I was so bored I usually ditched the group to explore on my own and was grateful there was someone left listening to take one for the team.

Then there were the Norwegian thong-bearers. I wouldn’t point out such crass points of interest as their selection of underwear if it weren’t for the fact that they were so blatantly meant to be seen. Though to be fair, they had the figures to pull it off.

And rounding out the manifest was a French family consisting of a haughty, divorced mother and three teenage children: an older, curvy brunette of 18 working on the theme of “Tight and Revealing,” her younger blond sister of 16 in a mini skirt and Doc Martens, and then a brother of perhaps 15. He was at that stage where his upper lip was fuzzy and soft, his voice crackly, and his hairless legs scrawny in their basketball shorts as he awkwardly shifted from leg to leg, listening to our guide’s lectures.

At Edfu the woman stood erect in her wide-brimmed hat and large sunglasses, observing the world surreptitiously with deliberate ambivalence, and the three children hung on one another as bored teens might do. At the next glance the girls were entwined in each other’s arms, soon followed by the older one laying herself on the boy’s chest as if she were face-down on a massage table ready for a rubdown.

I had my own sunglasses and noticed the disturbing intimacy right away, and a So that’s how it is in their family! registered briefly in my thoughts. Things didn’t get any better with each shore excursion. They touched and caressed and kissed, laying their faces on each other’s chest while the mother stared into the middle distance with ennui.

At the end of the week the passengers of the Agatha came again together for our noon meal of freshly caught perch and at the far end of the table the conversation in animated French grew louder, emphasized by bursts of laughter. I focused carefully to follow the French and Else, seeing my concentration, leaned over and said, “They’re talking about the other boat!”

“The other passengers?”

“Yes, they are saying how glad they are that they are on this boat and not on the Adelaide.”

Which is something Andrew, Mom, Dad, and I had reflected on frequently during our quiet moments together but I wouldn’t have been confident enough to assume that our Parisian friends felt the same way in our poor company.

“Really?” I said, “We’ve said the same thing! The other boat seems so. . . .” I wasn’t sure how to politely finish.

“Strange? The boyfriend and girl are all over each other.” Her tone implied some disgust.

“Boyfriend? I thought that was a brother.”

“Ah, no. That is the boyfriend of the older girl. The mother and younger girl have one of the large rooms to themselves. She reserved the other large room for the other daughter and her boyfriend.”

“That’s her boyfriend?” I said again, wondering if I had missed seeing another passenger. That skinny kid with the baggy shorts? With that fully formed sexy one? 

“Wow,” was all I could think to say. “I’d seen them all being creepy with each other but I thought that was just a French thing. Something cultural.”

“That is not a ‘French thing’!” Elsa retorted. “That is strange even in France!”

I laughed and said, “Well it just makes me even more glad we’re here with you instead of over there. Eleanor must have been watching us closely that first day, making sure that our rooms and companions were going to match up.”

I thought of her sitting regally in her chair, watching us all interacting that first day on the deck. She must have known exactly which of us should be together and which should be on the Adelaide. By the last night, when the crew announced after dinner that there would be dancing, then pushed back the tables and pulled out the drums and pipes, it forced even Dad to get decked out with bells and let loose with the moves. The night was so full of the fun and romance of a week on the Nile filled with pleasant company, and the men were suddenly no longer waiters and valets but musicians and dancers with amazing rhythm that we had no choice but to join in.

Most people would have put the two American groups together and then paired the French as well, but not Eleanor, she somehow knew exactly who would mix well. Though a cynic would say that the job wasn’t as hard as all that–she just took the odd jobs and stuck them on one boat and left the rest of us to ourselves. Or vice versa perhaps–who's to say who the irregulars are anyway? But regardless, she was a pretty good psychologist.

Sunday, June 05, 2022

What's the Worst that Could Happen?

We’d invited Mom and Dad to come to Egypt with us, thinking that it was time they traveled again. They’d been all over the world but the difficulties of caring for aging parents and then COVID had brought their thrill seeking to a halt.

“What’s the worst that can happen Dad?” I said, coming over to the house to make my case in person. “We’ve all been vaccinated–the biggest worry is that you’d get COVID and have to deal with an Egyptian hospital, but you’ve got the shot. That’s off the table. You haven’t got any more risk now than you would in a normal year.”

“But there are so many travel restrictions. We’ve got to get tested to get back home. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

I puzzled at the strangeness of this. Dad had raised six kids and been a leading businessman in the community since the 1970s. He’d always understood calculated risks and was an imposing figure to most people. In any room he was the dominant persona and I’ve often joked that he’d preside at his own funeral. Something about COVID had made a dent in that armor. He needed this trip.

“There are places all over Cairo for speed testing, tailored for travel. You can get your test and be ready to go. And let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that you can’t get your test results in time–it would be no different than if you missed a flight. People miss flights all the time and seem to survive. What’s the worst that could happen? You have to push your flight back a day and end up spending another night on the Nile at a 5-star hotel? I can think of worse fates.”

There was a pause as he pondered this. “I’ll think about it tonight and get back to you.”

The next day he called back and with the same tone as if he’d been holding a press conference to announce a new trade policy or a presidential pardon he said, “Your mother and I have decided to join you in Egypt.”

My elation lasted until it was time to leave. With all my cockiness about how easy it would be, I was now all nerves as Andrew and I boarded the plane for Seattle. Eating had been a little iffy that morning and I tried to convince myself that international travel always has its unknowns, and Egypt would just be another unknown until we knew it. Take a deep breath, when you’re back home again after a great trip you’ll be living on these memories. It’ll all be fine.

It was 5:15pm when Andrew and I landed in Chicago to connect to Frankfurt, while Mom and Dad would be coming from Virginia and going through Paris. We took our time during our layover, working out a few issues with our bags being checked through and making sure we had all our boarding passes before heading toward the Lufthansa gate. Andrew ran to the nearby bathroom, taking his time to freshen up in between legs and I stopped to grab some hamburgers. With about 45 minutes to departure and knowing that they’d soon be boarding, I decided to wait for Andrew in the boarding area and handed the gate attendant my papers. She took one look at my negative COVID test printout and said, “I’m sorry, you cannot board with this test. It’s too old” and handed the paper back.

She was so calm about it, as if that was all there was to be said. I wasn’t sure I’d actually heard her right. What? I’d been meticulous in every detail, had checked everything. 

“But no!” I protested, thinking she couldn’t read, “Look, it’s negative. Egypt requires a negative test within 96 hours of entry–this works!”

“I’m sorry, but Germany requires a test within 48 hours.

“But we’re not going to Germany, we’re going to Egypt! Germany is just a layover!”

“It doesn’t matter, even if you’re only in the airport a test is required.”

The horror sank throughout my body. I’d researched everything, looked at every website, every embassy, checked up and down, had jumped through every hoop, and no one told me this! 

“Well,” she said nonchalantly, looking at her watch, “If you hurry, you can leave the airport, go across the street, go to the rapid test station there and then come back. You can still make the flight.”

I looked at my own watch and I did not believe her for a second. It was my first time at O’Hare and I had no idea where “just across the street” was and if it’s like any other airport there was absolutely no hope. No hope. Lost. Gone. Dead.

She handed me a sheet of paper with a huge QRC code on it and some vague writing about a testing center “just across the street” from the terminal near the bus station. Andrew returned from the restrooms in time to see me snatch the paper and turn, launching into a sprint down the terminal.

“Where are you going??” he yelled, running after me.

“Come on!” I shouted over my shoulder, “Follow me! We’ve got to get a COVID test!”

It’s to his credit that he followed–what faith to run after an obviously insane person–and soon we were both sweating in streams as our bags jostled up and down against our backs. We wove between people with an “I’m sorry!” or “Excuse me!” worthy of an episode of The Amazing Race and it was lucky in a way that we had a long run ahead of us because it gave me time to collect my thoughts.

There was no way we were going to get the test and make the flight. No way. But we were going to have to get a test if we wanted to make any kind of a flight later on. If they were able to rebook us we’d still need that test so we might as well give it everything we could.

Every once in a while I’d hear Andrew protest with “We’re never going to make it!” though said more to himself than to me. It was obvious that I wasn’t stopping to reason things out, he was carried along by the momentum of my panic. I was angry, I was shocked, and I was terrified, but I was also praying hard something like, “I know I’ve done a lot of dumb things, and I know this is somehow my fault. You’ve helped me out of scrapes before when I didn’t deserve it, if you can find it in your heart to reach down one more time . . . .”

When we stepped onto the pavement outside the airport there were three lanes of traffic directed by an airport worker. We stood, waiting with all the other pedestrians, impatient for the uppity pseudo-cop to notice us and stop the flow for us to pass, but he didn’t even glance at us as he slouched, hands in pockets. A minute went by and then I’d waited long enough. I stepped out into the slow-moving cars with my hand up as if I were one of the Avengers and could control objects with my mind. I worked my way through the three lanes before he really noticed me and then I was off, sprinting once again to my unknown destination with him shouting after me, “I’m gonna have to report you!”

“You’ll have to catch me first,” I thought, betting that he’d rather not have to move, as I rounded the corner of the parking garage and headed for what I hoped was the mysterious bus terminal referenced on the paper I still clutched. Andrew had watched this all go down, certain that I was going to die or be arrested or shot, and had worked his way along the curb until he’d found the crosswalk and made it through the break in traffic that my jaywalking had created to join me. The paper said something about a Hilton and I could see a hotel sticking up 100 yards further down.

I saw a folding standup sign advertising a walk-in COVID test center and I jerked open the doors in relief. Far down the terminal was a small group of people and I made for them.

“We need to get our COVID test right away!” I panted, “Is there any chance we could cut in line and do it now? Our flight leaves in . . .” I glanced at my watch, “Twenty minutes!”

They were remarkably nice about it; in hindsight I’m impressed at their willingness to move aside and let two very sweaty people jump in line.

“You’ll need to scan this QRC,” the man in charge drawled, “Then fill out the forms.” Why was he talking so slowly? It was nightmarish how slow he seemed to be moving.

I fumbled with my phone, trying to scan a huge wall poster that refused to be scanned, before giving up and heading straight to the url.

“My phone battery died!” Andrew moaned, remembering that his phone had gone dead just as we’d landed.

As I worked my way through the awkward six signature pages, filling out fields, then going back to fill out more fields that I’d accidentally skipped or filled out incorrectly, then having to redo it all when the page refused to load, I was sure that I was going to have an aneurysm. No one could live through pressure like that and live. But I finally got my application submitted and then went back to work on Andrew’s.

Five minutes later they were calling us up and swabbing our brains with a lot less compassion than they might have had, and with a nod and a thanks we grabbed our bags and dashed to the doors.

Once outside it was even more confusion as I faced what I’d known was going to happen: how do you get back into an airport quickly, let alone through security and to the gate? We weren’t at the main entrance, there were no signs, and you know how security is. If we didn’t choose the right way in, we’d get dead-ended and have to return outside.

We started running toward the terminal, retracing our steps but avoiding the angry fake traffic cop, and stopping every so often to grab a stranger and scream, “Which way to the terminal??”

We made our way up escalators, down corridors, past the checkpoints and down to security where I knew we were going to lose the whole game. No way could we get through O’Hare’s security, even with our PRE passes, in time. But remarkably there were few people going through and the ones who were there let us blaze ahead and we got through–luckily without TSA thinking that we had to be dangerous with the crazed look and freak-out panic we were displaying. 

I kept checking the countdown on my watch. Twenty minutes, fifteen, ten–everyone knows they close the gate on international flights well before a departure–how soon would it be closed? Would they hold it for us? There was no hope. But there we were, back at the Lufthansa gate with the same German woman who looked up and smiled at us as we streaked in, reentering the atmosphere in flames.

“You made it,” she said calmly, smiling. “I told you you could.” 

Though I did detect a note of surprise in the subtext.

I wanted to point out that she’d said we might make it, but I didn’t care. 

“Have you got your test results?” 

“They haven’t come through the email yet.”

“They will. Just wait over here please,” and she directed us to stand to the side. Not that anyone else was coming, the flight was scheduled to leave in five minutes.

Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. Why wouldn’t it come through? Then it was there, bold and beautiful in my inbox. I jumped up to show her.

“Did you get them?”

“Right here,” I said, extending the phone toward her.

She didn’t even look at it but took our passports and put a light blue dot sticker on the back. “You’re fine to board. And that was it. I still had the bag of hamburgers, clutched in my hand without realizing it and soaked through with grease on the bottom. 

When we dropped into our seats I thought about Mom and Dad. They were connecting through Paris–did France have the same rules? I’d guided Mom and Dad through the bureaucratic process of getting their papers and tests but had obviously overlooked some important things. Would they get stuck too? They were coming from the east coast, maybe their tests were within that window.

I couldn’t worry about it. 

When we met up the next morning in Cairo, the four of us sat together for breakfast on the terrace of the Sofitel Cairo el Gezirah with fresh squeezed orange juice and pastries. 

“How did your flight go?” I asked them, taking it as a good sign that they were actually there with us.

“Oh it was wonderful! It all went so well, just like a charm,” Dad said. “How was yours?”