(Home safe from Cairo, and then from my post-Cairo "hey! Let's drive around the upper midwest for a week!" jaunt through Michigan and Ontario. But this has been sitting on my phone since I got back, and I finally had a moment to put it up here. Hi!)
NOTE: this post contains reference to the getting travel-related food poisoning. Nothing squicky and no details (trust me, you don't want them), but if the mere idea is an issue, best scroll on by.
It was my first night in Cairo. I was jetlagged, exhausted, dehydrated, lost, confused, and about to get really, really sick, though I didn't know it. I ended up deciding to have knafeh for dinner, because I just didn't know anymore, and stumbled into a patisserie. After trying to order, and then being told to go take a seat and that a waiter would come, and then waiting for a table to open up, and then waiting for the waiter (probably all of this would have been easier if I weren't a mess), I managed to order a plate of knafeh
and a cup of tea. "Bidoun sukker," I said, and the waiter gave me a funny look. I'm an idiot, I realized--there's an idiomatic way to order your tea without sugar, which I had of course forgotten. And maybe bidoun wasn't even how you said 'without' in Egyptian dialect. God, why had I left my Arabic textbook in the US? It wasn't doing me any good there.
After a while, I got my knafeh and my tea. "Without sugar," the waiter said pleasantly, and I tried not to feel too stupid. The tea was too hot to drink for a long time, but, God, I needed it.
Two days later, I woke up at 9:15 and groaned. Of course, I had to get sick first thing in the morning this time. But I couldn't go all day without eating, and breakfast ended in fifteen minutes. I needed to put something in my stomach. I struggled into clothes and stumbled into the hotel restaurant at 9:32, feeling like an asshole.
The guy in the chef's hat who made omelettes was nowhere to be seen, but the girl who waited tables was around, and said "good morning!" to me cheerfully. I tried to smile back. Normally, this would be the point where I'd pile on the fuul and the boiled eggs and everything, but I decided to play it safe: orange juice, plain pita bread, plain yogurt, some honey to add to it. The waitress came to take my cup. (She'd learned, over my three mornings so far, that I wanted coffee with milk.) "Excuse me," I said. "Can I have tea this morning, instead?"
"Of course," she said, still cheerful, and walked away.
I struggled through some bread, and then a cup of tea appeared next to me. I looked at it. It had milk in it, already mixed. I blinked. No one, I mean no one, drinks tea with milk in the Middle East. God, they must keep a separate pot ready of milky tea for the aganib, because they know we like milk in our coffee and milk in our tea, strange as it is. My heart sank a little, because milky tea was the last
thing I wanted in that state. I wanted a nice, plain cup of black tea, boring and bitter and enough to settle my stomach.
But what could I say? I sipped at it, forced down my yogurt, and cursed cultural sensitivity.
Costa Coffee was like a giant suburban Starbucks, sprawled out on the side of Shari3 Gama3t Duwal 3arabi. (By the end of my two weeks, I knew just to call it Gama3t Duwal. I didn't yet.) It struck me as odd that these western-style restaurants took up so much space; in cities back home, they get crammed into the same tight quarters as everyone else. I got a seat--I had finally figured out that, in Cairo, you don't just go to the counter and order and then find your seat--and ordered tea and a croissant. I was feeling better than earlier that morning, but I still wanted to be soothed.
The tea arrived: a pot that must have held about two cups of hot water, a single Twining's English Breakfast teabag, and a latte cup to drink it from. I dropped the teabag in the pot, feeling resentful. When I make tea in a pot this size at home, I use three
teabags, not one. The water wasn't going to be hot enough, either, which meant the tea was going to be frightfully weak. I huffed to myself. This cup of tea was going to be wrong.
And then I thought about learning to make tea with the family who put me up in the West Bank when I was there. Boil a saucepan of water; add a fistful of fresh mint, and a fistful of white sugar. Take one tea bag, and dip it in, again, again, again, until the water looks like tea. Then it's done.
This tea, I realized, was an act of fusion. Take tea-making norms from one place, apply them to tea from another. If this had been a bag of Lipton Yellow Label, then it would have made sense. I'd been thrown by my own, anglophile notions of what a "proper" cup of tea was. (Warm the pot, four minutes, no more, one spoon for the pot, milk goes in the cup first.) No, this is perfect, really; this is tea that is both/neither, that follows no rules but its own.
The inscription on the saucer said "Italian about coffee." And English about tea, I expect, in exactly the same way.