An Italian in Cairo

I wrote a few small pieces about a ballet teacher I had when I was studying abroad in Cairo in college. I re-read them this weekend after probably years since I read through it last. I still think it’s the best writing I’ve done, which isn’t saying much. While there are a lot of issues, I think I like the last installment best. I’ve made some small edits to these pieces over the years, but they are for the most part as they were when I first wrote them:

I frantically ran up to my room and grabbed a box of chocolates and high-tailed it to my ballet teacher’s flat. It was two days before I was leaving Cairo and Madame Laurella was someone I had to say good-bye to.

I checked the mailboxes in her apartment lobby to make sure of her flat number. “RAIMONDO LAURELLA” stares back in solid black letters from one of the boxes. I wonder if madame ever considered changing the box’s namecard, as it’s been at least two decades since her father passed away.

She greeted me with her customary “Hello! How are youuuuuu?” drawing out the “u” sound. She takes my hand and into the dining room. Given that she’s the only diner who lives at the flat now, the majority of the dining table is covered with books, a few bowls of sweets and other detritus that don’t really have a specific home. There’s enough room for me and her, two plates of bread and a glass of mango juice.

Her dining room is decorated with paintings. I asked her about the portraits of a man and a woman. Those are her great-grandparents, who were still in Italy at that point (Madame’s grandfather was the person who established the Laurellas in Cairo). The portraits were done in the late 1880s. I wondered how much her dining room would rate on “Antiques Roadshow.” She pointed out which paints were done by her father, who she said always, always kept busy.

“Can you believe that? I don’t know how he was able to paint all those little details,” she proudly said, when she pointed out a landscape on a small fan-shaped canvas in the china cabinet.

***

After we finish our slices of corn bread, we stood outside on her balcony that looked out onto street and was hidden behind green leaves. Below us were the double parked cars, men shooting the breeze and children screaming and running.

The conversation bounced from topic to topic. The Spanish ballet company she saw at the opera house a few weeks ago. Her two-month stint in Minnesota. Her life in Cairo.

It’s the last topic that I’m always most intrigued by. After Nasser moved into power, a majority of Europeans in Egypt left the country, leaving behind now-crumbling art deco buildings, khedive-style towers and creme caramel. But she stayed in Cairo.

She pointed in front of her and told me how there was absolutely nothing between her apartment building and the coastline. At night, her parents and she could hear the music at a club that sat in Imbaba on the opposite coastline. Buildings and laden clotheslines now obscure the view.

Zamalek used to only be villas, a small market for food and Simonde’s for pastries and cappuccinos when she was growing up, she said.

Now it’s just noise and crowds, she says with an annoyed wave of her hand. She tells me about going to the northern tip of the island with her girl chums, pitching a tent and whiling her afternoons away playing house. That place is now the trendy lounge Sequoia, where rich Egyptians hang out and the staff charge an “Entertainment and music tax” for the blaring music and regular coal changes on the sheesha pipes.

Next, she tells me about an old opera house that used to be in Ataba, which is around Islamic Cairo. The old opera house wasn’t like the one that’s on Zamalek, she said. Without question, men wore tuxedos while women wore high pompadours and their finest jewels to a performance.

“I remember, when I went to France and I went to the Paris Opera House, I thought ‘Oh! The one at home is just like this!'” she reminisced, her blue eyes back in Paris or maybe in Ataba, looking up at the Opera House’s magnificent chandelier.

That explained the “Opera Square” down near Khan-el-Khalili. The memory of the old opera house remains only in name, probably forgotten by most of the Egyptian population. But it was burned down during the revolution in the 1950s.

“I was so angry that they burned the opera house down! I had to move my recital to the AUC auditorium!” she said angrily, with a shake of her fists.

One of the things comments like this make me wonder about is if she really likes Egypt or not.

After one lesson, she grimaced and told me, “Be careful of the Egyptians, they are not very friendly.”

The surprise on my face must’ve been very obvious, because she quickly added, “But there are still good ones out there.”

But even the good ones don’t seem to meet her expectations. One Egyptian female friend decided to don the hijab, a decision she vehemently disapproved of.

“She is so smart! Why would she do that?” she told me, aghast. “I hope she smartened up and got rid of it.”

***

The evening walks back to her flat were always punctuated with accented “Hello, Madame Laurella” from the Egyptian storekeepers and “Nubians” who she sometimes hired to help around the house. She always warbled back, “Hello, hello!”

I asked her if she wanted to move to Italy. I thought she would say “mais oui,” only the higher cost of living there prevents her from doing so.

“How could I leave Cairo? I lived here my entire life!” she replied. “And everyone knows me here and they’re so kind. They say, ‘Hello, Madame Laurella’ when they see me in the streets. They ask me if I need anything. The guards, if I just stand on the street, they come and help me across. They don’t do that in Rome.”

To a certain degree, I think she was able to preserve the old Cairo that she grew up with.

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