New York City – Big Apple Dreamin’

“I believe in New Yorkers. Whether they’ve ever questioned the dream in which they live, I wouldn’t know, because I won’t ever dare ask that question.”

— Dylan Thomas —

Earlier this year, an old friend who recently relocated to New York City dropped me an email with a simple request: “Do you mind dogsitting for us while we are out of town?”

As far as dreams coming true go, it doesn’t get any better than this: Two weeks in NYC, living in Upper West Side with Central Park on your doorstep, walking the streets of the Big Apple like a local (well sort of), getting the oppertunity to reconnect with friends from years ago while being kept company by the two most fabulous dogs ever… To top it all: It’s the year of my 40th birthday celebrations. A perfect gift.

To simply just ‘dipping my toes in the water’ has never worked for me. I’m an all or nothing kinda guy. Even though before my arrival I thought two weeks might be too long a time to spend in one city, my virgin eyes quickly realised that a lifetime would even be too short to explore and indulge all that NYC has to offer. It was part of my lucky fortune that my first visit to the Big Apple wasn’t just a touristy short city break.

It’s a cliché but it’s true. New York City is like the movies: yellow cabs, towering mirrored skyscrapers, steaming manholes, frantic tourists on Time Square and pizza slices. It’s very familiar and we’ve all seen it before — you can stay at home on a Saturday night and watch NCIS reruns and see it all… or not. This is why I didn’t bother visiting Lady Liberty or any other of the main tourist attractions — apart from the 911 Memorial and recently opened World Trade Centre Museum and after spending a very emotional morning at the 911 Memorial, I said to my friend: “Now it’s not just something that happened on television anymore.”

DownTown

It’s already been a month since my return to London, but I still dream about the Big Apple… almost every evening. There are countless moments and memories to savour. These are the ones that keep me smiling:

1. Friendly goes a long way: Rude. Aggressive. In your face. Opinionated. That’s New York, right? Not so much. Yes, the pace is fast and people are constantly rushing around to be ‘somewhere’. However, speak to a street vendor, NYPD police officer or anyone on the subway or in the streets and they will most likely respond in a friendly, polite (if not a bit upfront) way… even if it is just to say: “Sorry, I’ve gotta be somewhere”.

2. Gotta be somewhere: Seriously, people are always on a mission. If you have FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), you are going to suffer terribly — chances are that even if you’re busy with something absolutely awesome, you are definitely missing out on something equally amazing happening just around the corner.

The trick is, to be absorbed in the moment. Enjoy it, because soon you’ll be rushing, you know, to ‘somewhere’.

subway

3. Sleep?: If you find yourself in a city that really NEVER sleeps, 24 hour sleep-wake cycles cease to exist. Mine certainly did. FOMO? Perhaps. NYC is the only city in the world where I have woken up at 4am, knowing I will find homemade ice cream in a tiny parlour, bursting at the seams with punters, on a street corner in the East Village. Since the East Village stole my heart and since Odd Fellows’ ice cream was so darn irresistible, waking up at 4am was a joy… if not something to look forward to.

4. Get lost: The NYC subway works on a system of local and express trains. Local trains stop at all the stations. Express trains only stop at certain stations… Handy to know. A potential frustration (or blessing) if you don’t. Before I figured this out, I jumped on every train stopping at the platform. After being trapped in a hamster-wheel of express trains for about an hour, travelling back and forth between Houston Street and 103rd on the 1 line, I abandoned ship. Once above ground, I wandered around for a while, feeling a bit lost, until I found Christopher Street where the Stonewall Inn is — the birthplace of the Gay Rights Movement — where a few days later a friend and I danced and sang with a fierce drag queen, called Jaqui DuPrez.

A homecoming? I don’t know, but it certainly was a blessing.

Get lost, it’s great.

(Note: If you happen to drop in at the Stonewall Inn — and you should, if you wanna call yourself a proud gay man — don’t miss the upstairs area. It offers a bar mitzvah vibe, complete with multi-coloured flashing lights, a disco ball, velour curtains, leopard-print seating and, of course, a stage — though you’ll probably see more nudity than at your average Jewish coming-of-age ritual.)

ManWater

5. It’s a local thing: In London, when you travel from Zone 2 to Zone 3 it’s considered a day trip. In NYC, people travel the distance… no problem. If you wanna jump on the subway from 59th in Manhattan to find fresh organic tomatoes just off 125th in Harlem, then that’s what you do. Or if you want ice cream at 4am in the East Village, but you wake up in Upper West-side… no problem.

If you know what you want and know where to find, you go get it. No matter how ‘far’ it might be… After all, you gotta be somewhere. It’s a local thing.

6. The burden of ‘social class’ died a slow and painful death a long time ago: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere, It’s up to you, New York, New York”… Those lyrics state a fact not a romantic ideal. The American Dream paves the streets of NYC. It’s in the air and it’s contagious. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from (the Bronx or Bumblefuck), or how big or small your dream is, it’s possible to achieve… as long as you own it and make the effort, it can happen. People respect that.

Dream

7. Speak your mind: One particular hot and humid evening, a handsome young man came up to me while I was taking photographs: ‘Hi, my name is Taylor.’ ‘Hi Taylor, how are you?’All good, dude. You don’t happen to be hairy?’ ‘No, actually I’m not.’ ‘That’s cool, dude. You still have a lot working in your favour’… a compliment very well received.

If you don’t like something, say so. If you like what you see, declare it. Compromise is rarely an option.

8. Rules are rules (stake your claim): The first time I entered Central Park I noticed a big sign telling people not to smoke in the park, to pick up their dogs’ pooh, clean up after themselves and not to make fires.

Lo and behold, nobody smoked in the park, dog owners all carried blue pooh bags and they used them (unlike Paris where dog shit is a serious public health hazard), and there was no litter in sight or any barbecue fires… The same applies for rules anywhere else. New Yorkers like to know where the boundaries are.

Boy

9. If there is a law that will help you to break the law, use it: The First Amendment in the American Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peacefully assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. It’s a tricky one and probably one of the most argued laws in the world…

However, when booksellers on the sidewalks of NYC were told that by law they could not sell their books on the pavements anymore, The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) used the First Amendment to keep the booksellers on the streets. The ABFFE argued that removing the booksellers would be a form of censorship by imposing restrictions on promoting the free exchange of ideas (interpreted as freedom of speech), particularly those contained in books. The result: The booksellers are there to stay.

10. It has a big heart: Central Park is deceptively large. So it should be. It’s the heart of the city.

In the summer, there are baseball games between neighbourhood and borough leagues almost every day on all 26 baseball pitches — on Wednesdays you can catch the Broadway show cast members in the Broadway Show League at Heckscher Ballfields and the Great Lawn.

Runners, cyclists, yoga enthusiasts, buskers, artists, basketball and tennis players, and dog walkers all flock to the park any time of the day… and they don’t keep to themselves, they socialise and interact, even if you are a stranger.

I went for a run, twice around the Jackie Onassis Reservoir (5 km), every second day. On one of my runs — I must’ve slowed down a bit or looked like I have lost my will to continue — I heard a man behind me clapping his hands at a steady rhythm, encouraging me to pick up the pace: ‘Come on dude, you can do it.’ He joined my side and asked: ‘Wanna run with me for a stretch?

Random strangers connecting briefly in the heart of a magical city for a run around a pond named after one of the most iconic women of the past century. Who wouldn’t embrace a moment like that?

Ballerinagirl

11. It’s a dog’s life: You’d be hard pressed not to find at least one dog within 5 yards from you, in Central Park… Almost everybody has a dog. Dog owners are a clan and are almost as well-behaved as their pets when they stop for a brief ‘how are you’ until the dogs have finished sniffing each other out… and then on to the next canine friend and neighbour. It’s a polite but necessary ritual for both animals and humans.

If there is one thing true about NYC: The dogs have it good… and they know it.

12. Dog walking is a profession… and it pays well: Professional dog walkers are almost as iconic as New York’s yellow cabs and pizza slices (which, by the way, are delicious and an affordable way of eating out if you’re traveling on a shoestring).

There’s that one episode in Sex in The City, where Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) tries dog-walking to substitute her income… As expected, the aspiring author fails miserably.

Dan Fields (a dog walker I regularly bumped into), now he is a man you want to walk your dog. He has walked dogs his entire adult life… and at $25-$35 per dog, per walk, I can see why.

New York’s dogs live in apartments and need their walks at least twice a day. Walk 6 dogs at a time, twice daily… add a few regular clients to your list… You do the math. (Like I said, if you have a dream, New York will provide a way for you to achieve it.)

atnight

13. ‘Broadway’ is a religion and ‘Musical’ a second language: On the eve of the Tony Awards, I had lunch with friends at a fabulous French restaurant, Nice Matin, on the corner of Amsterdam and 79th.

It was a beautiful early-summer’s day and we sat outside to catch the sun and admire the talent on the streets. My friends gave me an enthusiastic breakdown of who they expected to dominate the Tony Awards ceremony… no doubt, Neil Patrick Harris and the cast and production team of ‘Hedwig’ were the main contenders. (They were right, of course.)

During a quiet moment in our conversation I eavesdropped on what the people around us in the restaurant and on the sidewalks were talking about: Broadway, musicals, theatre.

If you don’t follow this ‘religion’ or speak the language, you’re gonna feel left out.

14. On a different level: Waiting on the platform at West 4th, a man took position close me. He was what Londoner’s would a call a rough sleeper — a vagabond. Next thing, his deep, trembling Southern Baptist-style voice filled the subway station with a moving rendition of ‘Stand By Me’.

The buskers and street artists, each and every one I saw and heard, are on a different level. They provide the most beautiful and extraordinary soundtrack to the streets, parks, subways and sidewalks of NYC… take a moment, stand silent and listen to these angels, because they are indeed among us.

Busker

15. Time Square is impressive but forgettable: I’m not saying you shouldn’t go… but the typical tourist spots — Time Square, Lady Liberty and 5th Avenue etc. are forgettable… and like I said, you can always see these sites in HD at the movies.

Watching the boys from the ‘hood roughing it out on the basketball courts at West 4 Street Courts, walking along the Hudson River from 96th to 66th, drinking a locally brewed ale in a bar dating back to 1854 in the East Village, running in the rain with the morning joggers through Central Park, eating oysters and drinking wine for the bargain price of $9 in a quint restaurant in the West Village, or finding the perfect pizza slice in Brooklyn, sunbathing with the pretty boys on Christopher Pier overlooking the Hudson River and chatting to the locals in Christopher Park… that’s where you’ll find the magic of New York City.

16. You gotta have friends: The evening before I flew to NYC, I read an article about how the city is a tough place for singletons. The author of the article argued that even though everybody is outgoing, social and friendly, people tend to connect on a very platonic level. This means that for those wanting to build long-term relationships, things can get a bit tricky… ‘Gotta be somewhere’ seems to prevent people from making lasting connections.

This may or may not be true, I can’t say because I didn’t visit the Big Apple with the intention to find love. However, I did connect with people and I was well-aware that my interaction with almost everyone was platonic. After all, I was just traveling through… and they had to be ‘somehwere’. One thing is true though: In the Big Apple, where money literally makes the world go round, friends are the most precious commodity.

I was fortunate enough to know a few people in and around New York with whom I could share my experience. My best friend specially flew in from Denver to spend a few days with me… and when she left, the city just wasn’t the same — it had lost a tiny bit of its shimmer and charm. I can see how the city can be a very lonely place.

NYCstreet

As is true in Life, without someone by your side in NYC who can share that awesome moment when something amazing happens, to who you can say: ‘Damn, look at the heels on that girl’, or who you can show a secret spot you believe nobody else has ever discovered, or who can devour a few plates of Oysters with you and still crave seafood afterwards… on your own, the memories are worth nothing — we need people in our lives to share our journey and to remind us that we are loved.

Friends are the ones who invite you to dogsit for them (secretly knowing you will cherish the experience forever), they’re the ones who weep and shake when they see you for the first time in 15 years on a station platform in a place both of you never imagined you would meet, they’re the ones who are part of the fabric woven into your dreams and aspirations. They are the ones who know you and who see you.

Days before I flew to NYC, a friend in London said to me: “Whenever I am in new York, I feel as if I can achieve anything.”

It’s true. If you’ve never been (or even if you have) go take a bite from the Big Apple. Make it personal. Dare to taste the sweet satisfaction of a tiny bit of your dream coming true.

…Concrete jungle where dreams are made of, there’s nothing you can’t do when you’re in New York…

friends


Credits.
Images: © Francois Lubbe/ Little Red shoes
Text: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes

Must Have Memories From Paris…

5

In Paris, I really do like to try and do nothing… but that’s impossible.

— Christian Louboutin —

The picture of Paris I have in my head is one of an august courtesan who never fails to seduce me with her charms. Perhaps it’s a bit selfish and indulgent, but I prefer to visit The City of Light on my own… that’s the whole purpose of a secret love affair, isn’t it? ‘Secret’ is the operative word here and Paris has many. She never leaves me disappointed as she reveals new delicious little places, hidden in all her nooks and crannies, with each of my visits.

Cimetière du Père Lachaise, located in the 20th arrondissement (district), is the largest cemetery in Paris. With over 70,000 graves on 108 acres, it is one of the most famous cemeteries in the world and the final resting place for some of the greatest philosophers, artists, poets, writers and musicians the world has seen. In fact, the tombstones of Père Lachaise are a catalogue of historic genius and talent. It’s the one place in Paris that’s always on my list of things to do while I am there.

The cemetery itself is not so much a ‘secret’ because it’s visited by 1.5 million tourists every year. However, unless you take a special guided tour, you may never see the poignant memorials — found on the far-east side of the cemetery — for the tens of thousands of French Jews who were deported to Nazi death camps during WWII. Among the most striking of all these cenotaphs are the haunting memorials dedicated to those killed at the Neuengamme, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen Concentration camps. Even though their grotesque stature only hint at the magnitude of the atrocities committed by man against man, they left me with the heavy, sinking feeling that certain things cannot ever be undone.

Traveller’s tip: Due to its increasing popularity, the cemetery gets very busy and I’ve found that the most peaceful time is early on a Sunday morning, shortly after the gates open. This is a ‘working’ cemetery and many locals still visit the graves of family and loved-ones. Since the French are particularly passionate about food, sex and death, it’s only polite to respect their privacy.

Maps are available at the main entrance and you can also view an interactive map of the cemetery by visiting this link: Cimetière du Père Lachaise

Métro: Gambetta, Père Lachaise, Phillipe Auguste

Main entrance: Boulevard de Menilmontant

Rose of Pere Lachaise

Rose of Pere Lachaise

When Edith Piaf died in 1963, her last words were: “Every damn foolish thing you do in this life, you pay for.” It is rumoured that her husband, Théo Sarapo, secretly drove her body back to Paris, from her villa in Plascassier (Grasse), so that her fans would think she died in her hometown.

Even though the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Paris denied Piaf a funeral mass because of her ‘lifestyle’, her funeral procession drew tens of thousands of mourners onto the streets of Paris and the ceremony at the Cimetière du Père Lachaise was attended by more than 100,000 people. Many Parisians reminisce that it was the only time since the end of World War II that the traffic in Paris come to a complete standstill.

It’s rather ironic that this legendary singer, who supposedly was born under a gas street lamp on a policeman’s cloak and who epitomised French passion, melancholy and gutsy, street-savvy elegance, doesn’t have an official museum in Paris dedicated to her life.

However, not too far away from Cimetière du Père Lachaise, in the 11th district, you’ll find the unassuming Musée Édith Piaf — a true Parisian jewel that sensitively depicts the tragedies and hardships of her mythical life.

Musée Édith Piaf is a private museum and is maintained by Bernard Marchois, who met the newly discovered chanteuse, later endearingly known as La Môme Piaf (The Little Sparrow), when he was a teenager and became a lifelong fan. Marchois dedicated two rooms of his fourth-floor flat, in which he still lives, to Piaf’s memory and he is also solely responsible for the up keeping of  her grave.

The entrance to the museum is marked with a humble plaque, “Les Amis de Piaf,” on Rue Crespin du Gast. Entry is free and if you ask him, Monsieur Marchois will share an impressive wealth of knowledge about the life and times of Edith Piaf.

The Musée Édith Piaf has so far been one of my most personal experiences in Paris — partly because it is in a private home and because of the nature of the collection held by Monsieur Marchois. The space has a sense of intimacy not often achieved in a museum. Paintings and photos of the singer cover the walls and reading Piaf’s correspondence with family and friends scattered among her personal belongings, create a feeling that you are weaving through the memories of a life lived with a mercurial creative passion.

Since Piaf spent most of her life in the suburbs of Paris — sometimes earning a living performing on street corners and sometimes owning the most majestic apartments — the museum also paints a perfect and delicate picture of typical Parisian charisma and jeux de vie.

Traveller’s Tip: Monsieur Marchois’ love and passion for Piaf oozes out of him, which is why I recommend that you make a handsome donation to help him keep this precious memory alive. Consider this when you visit. And if you’re a real fan, why not take The Little Sparrow some flowers. I believe roses are always welcome.

The museum is open Monday through Wednesday 1pm – 6pm, by appointment only. Entry code to Museum provided upon confirmed appointment.

Métro: Menilmontant

Address: Rue Crespin du Gast, 75011 Paris, (00) 33 1 43 55 52 72

Street Lamps of Paris

Street Lamps of Paris

Paris works hard to keep its reputation as La Ville Lumière (The City of Light) and there’s no doubt in my mind that, much as they ‘hide’ in plain sight, the street lamps of Paris play a key role in the romantic mythology of this inspiring city.

The sobriquet “La Ville Lumière” is a name owned by Paris since the Age of Enlightenment, when it became famous as a centre of education and ideas. However, travellers later gave it a more literal meaning when the city centre became one of the first in the world to be lit at night.

Long before the dimly lit gas lamps intoxicated travellers, the first public lamp in Paris was the famous candle lantern that was placed in front of the Grand Chatelet, in 1318 — hardly a comparison to the city’s lights spectacular today. Public streets were illuminated in London, as early as 1417, by Sir Henry Barton, Mayor of London and Paris followed suit in 1524, when an order was issued to light up the streets. The early street lamps were makeshift tallow candles in iron-framed glass boxes, which were hung from ropes that stretched between houses across the narrow cobbled streets.

Later, the candles were replaced with oil lamps and to finance the ‘system’, householders had to pay a tax that covered both street cleaning and street lighting — taxe des boues et des lanternes. Some believe taxe des boues et des lanternes gave birth to modern-day property tax.

Hanging burning candles and oil lamps from ropes across streets had its logistical challenges. The lamps on ropes were easy targets for drunken troublemakers who pulled the ropes down and smashed the glass boxes as they trawled the streets at night — making them a costly fire and safety hazard.

In the beginning of the 16th century, Parisians were ordered to keep lamps and candles burning in the windows of all houses that faced the streets. An ordinance of Louis XIV, in 1667, increased the number of lamps in the streets and insisted that they should be lit — by an “allumeur de reverbère” (lamplighter) — from November 1 until March 1… even on bright moonlit nights.

The first gas lamps were placed in the Place du Carrousel in 1829. Haussmann’s redesign of Paris, between 1853 and 1870, included the installation of the first 14,000 gas street lamps. By 1870 these flat-flame gas lamps, giving a modest light of about 10 candle power, increased to 21,000. Haussmann’s gas lamps and wider streets improved the safety of the streets of Paris, which improved bourgeois convenience and social life. Shops now stayed open until 10pm and this transformed Parisian street life into a bustling nocturnal affair.

Over time, the gaslights began to blend into the cityscape and assimilate into the daily lives of the Parisians… one can only imagine how the faintly lit streets of Paris captivated the imagination of visitors to the city… a romance was born.

It is believed that the engineering brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière (developers of a motion picture camera, the cinematograph) instigated the conversion of Paris’s gas lamps to electricity.

Today, nearly 700 years after the first candle lantern lit up the Grand Chatelet, Paris is one of the most enchanting sights to feast your eyes on at night. Among many things, its street lamps have seen revolutions (when they were used as impromptu gallows for hangings), are featured in masterpieces like Renoir’s Moulin de la Galette, painted in 1876, and even witnessed the birth of Paris’ greatest songstress, Edith Piaf.

Imagine standing at the highest point in Paris, Mount of Martyrs (Montmartre), at La Basilique du Sacré Cœur, overlooking the city on a gorgeous clear evening and there are no twinkling lights illuminating the streets.

Invraisemblable!

The Sacré Cœur, with its majestic Apse Mosaic (one of the largest mosaics in the world), grand pipe organ (unanimously considered to be one of the most remarkable in Paris, France and Europe) and its famous 19 tonne bell, known as the “Savoyarde”, is no doubt an important landmark for religious pilgrims.

As much as this grandiose white-domed basilica is a sight every traveller should visit at least once when they are in Paris, the Sacré Cœur is not the reason why I frequent Montmartre… Onion soup and red wine is.

Le Botak Cafe

Le Botak Cafe lucky charm

Nestled at the foot of Montmartre, behind the Sacré Cœur, away from the traditional tourist route, is a small local hang-out — Le Botak Café. If you’re looking for a restaurant (though really, this is a bar at the very least and a street café at most) that is quintessentially Parisian, the picturesque Le Botak Café is where you will find it. The food is simple, rustic, honest (not Michelin starred) and prepared with care. The wine list is small but flirts with enough variety to even keep connoisseurs interested.

I had my first ever French Onion soup here, which I enjoyed with a glass of vin du Rhone and a warm fresh baguette. It was a particularly cold Sunday, close to the end of November. I was tired. In fact, I had not slept for 24 hours because Paris seduced me once again with all her charms and I spent the previous evening walking across the city — following the curves of the Seine from Port de Bir-Hakeim, getting lost in the decadent Marais district and ending up at Marché Richard Lenoir (the best fresh food Sunday market in the city). It happens… sometimes when I start, I cannot stop.

I enjoyed my garlicky, peppery, clear union soup and sweetish red wine so much, I still keep the bill for that meal in my wallet ’till today. It’s a lucky charm, ensuring that no matter where I eat in Paris, I will always enjoy my food. So far, I have not been disappointed.

Traveler’s Tip: Many artists like Salvador Dalí, Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh, had studios or worked around the community of Montmartre, which is why it is still known as the principal artistic centre of Paris.

So, don’t expect the staff at Le Botak Café to give you silver service. They can be temperamental and my suspicion is that they are all struggling artists. I’ve had mixed experiences here — sometimes being greeted with a smile and sometimes pooh-poohed. It’s a local hang-out after-all. Nonetheless, the place has a great atmosphere and is best appreciated as a ‘fly on the wall’… if you are a tourist, you stand no chance of infiltrating this unique and intimate inner circle… they know you are just passing through.

Aim to get a seat at the bar counter. Have the onion soup. Drink the wine and imagine Picasso dropping in for lunch… it’s Paris after all.

Métro: Chateau Rouge

Address: 1 Rue Paul Albert, 75018

Le Botak Cafe

Parisian charm…


Credits.
Images: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes
Text: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes

Source:

Nature, International Revue of Science, History of the Public Lighting of Paris,
Nature 132, 888-889 (09 December 1933) | doi:10.1038/132888c0


Egypt: A Bitter Sweet Symphony

10

He who cannot change the very fabric of his thoughts will never be able to change reality, and will never, therefore, make any progress.

– Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt (1970-1981) –

Egypt was one of the main players during the Arab Spring Uprising — the Arab Awakening — in January 2011, as protesters revolted against their former president, Hosni Mubarak’s, corrupt regime. It was a momentous revolution against police brutality, state of emergency laws, a lack of free elections and freedom of speech, corruption, high unemployment, food price inflation and low wages. In return, Egyptians wanted justice, a responsive non-military government and an active role in the management of their country’s resources.

Under pressure and in fear, Mubarak stepped down and turned all power over to the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Military Council). Sixteen months of political uncertainty followed and on 24 June 2012, the Egyptian State Election Commission announced that Islamist Mohammed Morsi — a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood — had won the presidential election.

For some, Mohammed Morsi’s presidency signalled the beginning of stability in the country, despite the Egyptian military establishment’s resistance to let go of  their control over many aspects of State administration, leaving Egyptian society still smouldering in political polarization.

Spice Boys of Aswan

Spice Boys of Aswan

Every country and every city of the world smells different. Holland smells of pancakes and fried sausages and England smells of biscuits and strawberry jam. Egypt smells of dates and dust.

I arrived in Egypt on 28 February 2013, 34 days after the second anniversary of the January 25 Revolution, which were marked by bloodshed as protesters clashed with security forces across the country. A mere two years after the Arab Awakening, frustrated with the current Islamist-dominated political scene, angry protesters attacked offices of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, and called for the fall of the newly elected Morsi government.

A few days before my departure from London, a friend who recently visited Egypt asked me “to be kind to the locals”. He explained that the revolution, recent shark attacks in the Red Sea, a spate of unfortunate hot air balloon accidents (one happened a day before our departure and killed 19 people) and the continuous media reports about the political unrest, have left the country’s once thriving tourist industry crippled.

As we touched down at Luxor International Airport, my friend’s words hit home. There was only one other airplane — a military aircraft — on the landing strip and the airport terminal was empty apart from being guarded by uniformed men with machine guns. By all accounts, it was a frightening and unsettling welcome.

Once we left the terminal, a rabble of boys ambushed us, asking for bakshees — a tip. Some tried  to sell papyrus sheets, bookmarks, trinkets and jewellery. Slightly bewildered, we made our way to our coach. Once inside, our tour guide explained that the locals meant no harm and were only trying to earn a bit of money. Ironically, the first thing the tour guide taught us to say was not “How are you?”  but “No thank you — Laa Shukran”. “If they persist, you can also say ‘Imshee’. This means ‘go away.”

Begging Boy

Begging Boy – “Bakshees! Bakshees!”

When we reached the banks of the Nile, the contrast between the luxurious cruise ship we were boarding and the street urchins covered in dust and grimy rags, begging by the docking bridge, were reminiscent of scenes from Oliver Twist.

“Bakshees! Bakshees!”

“Laa Shukran.”

“Bakshees! Bakshees!”

“Laa Shukran.”

“Bakshees!”

“Imshee.”

Unprepared for this predatory bother for money — known as ‘The Hassle’ — I battled with clarity of conscious during my two-week vacation, and tried to reconcile the grandeur of an ancient civilisation who built the most breath taking and majestic temples and tombs, with the cacophony and muddle of a country barely edging away from the cliffs of political divide and economic poverty.

Spice-Merchants

Unofficial tour guide Adam and two spice merchants

On the first evening, as I scouted the streets of Luxor, I met a young man called Adam, who told me that the people of Egypt are “happy”. “The revolution changed everything. Now we are free. Don’t believe what the television says. They only tell you one thing. You are safe here. We don’t fight. Muslim and Christians, everybody is happy. Don’t believe what you hear.”

Fruit

Fruit & Veg vendors

However, Adam also confessed that they were all struggling. He explained that, in comparison to the good old days, the streets and markets were empty of tourists. I can vouch for this. The 264-capacity hotel I stayed at during the second week of my visit accommodated a mere 60 guests at best. Very few of the photographs I took of the temples and sites show unwanted heads bobbing into the frames.

Scarf sellers

Scarf sellers walking the lock at Edfu

Since 90 per cent of Egyptians earn a living from tourism, the sharp downturn in tourist numbers explains why The Hassle is so intense — the insistent persistence from shop vendors, calech (horse carriage) jockeys and market merchants for you to spend money. People didn’t seem to be able to meet their most basic social and economic needs. One man pleaded with me to buy a piece of silver jewellery from him so that he could feed his family… Their livelihoods are at stake.

Luxor Street Scene

Luxor Street Scene

As a result, their eager and urgent salesmanship appears superficial and deceptive as they charm bewildered tourists with smiles and winks. “For you, we make special price now. Much cheaper. This is the only shop in Egypt you find this price, because you are my friend.” And then there is the aggression and indignation when you hesitate to part with your Egyptian Pounds (E£).

Felucca

Felucca – river boat – on the Nile, Aswan

In Aswan, which is a much larger city than Luxor, the atmosphere was more militant and aggressive. Here I witnessed political rallies in parks and on street corners. I sensed a discourse between the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis and non-Islamists. On my way back from the souk late one evening, a pack of five boys solicited me for money.

“Imshee. Imshee.”

When I resisted their pursuit, they pushed me into a back alley and tried to steal my camera and wallet. I managed to push my way back into the crowds and as I walked away from them, one screamed: “I am a good person. I have a good heart. Why you don’t give me money?”

74 Virgins

74 Virgins for Martyrs of the Islamic Cause – Graffiti in Asawn

In a country where Kings and Queens once likened themselves to gods, it’s difficult to understand how the Egyptians declined from such power and splendour to what appears to be a position of despair and hopelessness.

Ramsis II

Ramsis II at Abu Simbel

Egypt’s saving grace is its limpid beauty and enchanting mysticism: The River Nile, which has been a life force to millions of people for ten thousands of years, with its humble fisher men casting their nets in the water like a silent meditation, day-in and day-out; the simplicity of the farmers tending their sugarcane crops; the men and women who walk the streets like elegant scarecrows in their full-length pale blue, grey and white gallabiyyahs (dresses) and aemmes (headscarves); the peacefulness at dusk when the sun sets like a big fat silky apricot over the palm trees and minarets, while Muezzins cry their call to prayer in echoes across the valley. It’s holy and primal.

Fishermen

Fishermen heading home after a day on the River Nile

Once I returned to Luxor from my cruise on the Nile, I agreed to have dinner with Adam and his family at their home. Inside, the women were not allowed to sit on the same level as the men. Instead, they sat on the floor and didn’t make eye contact with me. With the little means they have, Adam’s mother went through great lengths to prepare a beautiful meal. And still, she wasn’t allowed to sit at the table with me, but ate her dinner in the kitchen with her two daughters and two granddaughters.

Aswan Souk

Woman following two steps behind her husband and son – Aswan Souk

In fact, I never saw any couples walk hand-in-hand in public. Islam specifically discourages dating, as single men and women are not supposed to be alone together if they are not related, which explains why women and girls grouped together in the streets and when accompanied by a man or a husband, they’d follow a few steps behind.

However, my observation was that this gender division is not tied to any specific religion. Adam, who is a Christian, explained the role of women to me in very simple terms: “The women don’t go out to work. They don’t make money. The men, we work. The woman, her place is at home, to cook and clean and look after the man and his children.

Girls in Luxor Streets

Young girls in Luxor Streets

Sexuality in ancient Egypt was far more liberal, open and untainted by guilt. Sex was an important part of life — from birth to death and rebirth. The gods themselves were earthy enough to copulate. The ancient Egyptians even believed in sex in the afterlife. Sex was not a taboo and Egyptian religion was filled with tales of adultery, incest, homosexuality and masturbation. Masculinity and femininity itself were strongly linked with the ability to conceive and bear children.

Dancing Girl

Dancing Girl

Back then, they had strong and exceptional female figures. The ancient Queen Hatshepsut was the first wife and Queen of Thutmose II, and when he died, she declared herself Pharaoh (a title always and only reserved for a man), denying the old king’s son, her stepson, his inheritance. Her rise to power went against all conventions and today, Queen Hatshepsut is more famous for having the audacity to portray herself as a man, than her reign during the golden age of Egypt’s 18th dynasty.

Temple of Queen Hatshepsut

The facade of the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut

She dressed herself as a king, even wearing a false beard so that the Egyptian people would accept her unprecedented behaviour. She had herself portrayed as a man with a male body, and a king’s headdress on all statues, and in paintings and carvings. Some writings even refer to her as a ‘him’ or ‘King Hatshepsut’. She ruled for 20 years and was a bold leader who brought peace and economic success to Egypt.

Hamlet

A primitive hamlet on the banks of the River Nile

Very little is known about Queen Hatshepsut. Some speculate that she was a hermaphrodite, which might explain why she got away with her cunning disguise as a man. Ancient scriptures and early historical accounts refer to her as either a ‘beautiful prince’ or a ‘handsome princess’. However, Hatshepsut did have a daughter, Nefrure, and must be considered to have been a true woman. The dilemma for Hatshepsut was not having a son. Although she tried for many years to produce a son through Senenmut, her favourite courtier, and probably other male relatives including her own father, it was to no avail.

Temple of Queen Hatshepsut

Temple of Queen Hatshepsut carved into the mountain of The Valley of the Queens

After Hatshepsut’s death, her stepson Thutmose III, removed her image from all temples, paintings and carvings as revenge for her shameless seizure of his royal sovereignty. However, as a final touché to gender roles and sexuality, and the royal lineage, this mysterious female cemented her place in Egyptian history by being the only female to be buried in The Valley Of The Kings.

Holding Hands

Men holding hands – a gentle display of brotherhood

Homosexuality on the other hand is still an ambiguous topic in Egypt today, despite the fact that they acknowledge men ‘like that’. Everywhere in the streets and markets, you see men holding hands and walking arm in arm. These are simply displays of affections. After dinner, Adam invited me to an Egyptian wedding where he pointed out a European man. “That is big fat man from French. He stays in Luxor many times. He is friend of everybody and has lots of money. He is a gay, but we don’t say nothing.” I looked at ‘big fat man from French’ where he sat surrounded by young boys and wondered if his friendship came at a cost?

Big Fat Man From French

Big Fat Man From French

Apart from ‘big fat man from French’, I saw no other references to being gay, not in the media, not in secret glances or innocent flirtations on the streets, no clubs or bars and most certainly not on television. In fact, I felt less closeted in my younger years before I came out, than what I did during my visit to Egypt. It was stifling and clastorphobic. I cannot imagine what life must be like for a gay Egyptian man.

Farther and Daughter

Farther and daughter at Egyptian wedding

When the bride finally arrived at her own wedding celebration, she looked horrified. Since this was clearly not a wedding of the affluent and rich, the families probably negotiated the marriage based on the dowry the groom was prepared to pay. I wonder what was her father’s price?

Egyptian Bride

Egyptian Bride

Only once the bride showed up were the women allowed to emerge from behind a carpet-screen that kept them separate from the men. The atmosphere among the crowd intensified with cheers and the firing of machine guns into the air — a display of being happy and feeling festive. This was my cue to return to the safety of my hotel.

Boy with his father at Egyptian wedding

Boy with his father at Egyptian wedding

I spent the last four days of my visit confounded to the grounds of the hotel. Egypt had overwhelmed me. I missed the freedom to walk around without being harassed for money. The face of poverty saddened me and I grew tired of saying “Laa Shukran.” The sound of the call to prayer became duplicitous because I realised that it harboured a darker side and an empty promise — something oppressive and confusing.

Malikah

Malikah — meaning “queen”. Adam’s three-year-old niece.

As I packed my bags to return to England, I looked at the spices that I sympathetically paid far too much for and the delicate perfume glass bottles I bargained down until I got a good price. I remembered the man in Aswan who chased me away and told me that I am not welcome with my camera and the street graffiti promising 74 virgins to martyrs who’d die for the Islamist Cause. I thought about the military convoy that escorted us through the Sahara and the grotesque and imposing temples at Abu Simbel; the presence of armed guards and soldiers everywhere and how the entire country came to a standstill during a fuel shortage. And my heart broke for Malikah — Adam’s three-year-old niece who I met at his house.

Adam boasted that Malikah (meaning “queen”) was the clever one in the family. “She will go far”, he said. But with a culture of keeping women at home and on the floor, the fact that Egyptian children only get a third of the schooling they need, I regrettably have serious doubts about beautiful Malikah reaching her full potential. I wanted to ask Adam for their address, to send Malikah books and clothes and money… a bit of charity to buy away my Western guilt.

Malikah and her cousin

Malikah and her cousin

Would my donations and gifts reach her? Or would it be sold off and confiscated to satisfy the needs of brothers, uncles and fathers? Do I give and turn a blind eye? Or do I pretend to be ignorant and do nothing? Is it really charity if I want to decide how my contribution must be used?

I left Egypt with many questions. Sadly, my fondest memories of the land of Pharaohs and Sphinxes are also the ones that still leave me aching. I don’t claim to understand the complexity of the problems and challenges the Egyptians are facing. Their lives are changing at a tremendous rate and in the aftermath of the revolution, it’s a wild and lawless place. The collapse of its economy is in my view the most dangerous, more so than religious division and political rifts. The most important test for those in power is to get Egyptians back to work, to enable them to earn enough and secure their daily bread and livelihood.

calesh

Calesh – horse and carriage – outside the Luxor Temple

Egypt is like an old man. One who can teach us many things, but one that is also set in his ways. Liberation can happen overnight, but effective and lasting change will take time. As long as they teach their children to continue to beg, borrow and steal, the freedoms they fought for will stay far beyond their grasp. I cannot help but to think that if they invest all their time and effort in educating their young, they might see the dawn of a new Egypt sooner than they think. Perhaps some of their former splendour might even return.

My comments may be rudimentary but are by no means unsympathetic. This much I’ve learned during my trip: Past glory is no insurance for future victory.

Walk like an Egyptian

Walk like an Egyptian


Credits:
Images – Property of Little Red Shoes,.
Text: FR Lubbe


A Jolly Good Time

2

In tomorrow’s world we must all work together as hard as ever, if we’re truly to be United Nations.

Queen Elizabeth II

I don’t know much about her, except that I once saw her at Waterloo Station when she was about to board the Eurostar to Paris. It was a close encounter but one that did not change my life much. She lives in a kick-ass palace and she comes out every now and then to take flowers from admirers and wave at adoring crowds, because as she once said herself: I have to be seen to be believed. She makes a damn good speech and if we’d sell all her jewelery it’s likely that we’ll be able to buy enough rations to feed a small African country for at least a decade.

She’s is the Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, and Saint Kitts and Nevis. She is 5′ 4″. Her nickname is Lillibet and she was the first British monarch to circumnavigate the globe in one trip.

I talk lightheartedly about Queen Elizabeth II, but the truth is the respect and love the British people feel for her, is almost palpable across the British Isles (and even in some countries all of the world) in the build-up to the Jubilee celebrations this coming weekend. On 3 June, London and the world will witness the ‘most extravagant royal pageant since 1662’. The River Thames will be flooded with over 1,000 vessels, including the royal barge. The cost? A whopping £13.3 million. Lucky there’s nothing else going on in London this year… Except for the Olympics.

However, it is also said the Jubilee will give a £924 million “uplift” to the leisure and tourism industry… much needed dolly-dosh in a time of austerity and recession. The Monarchy itself has been valued at £44 billion – making it one of the most valuable of British brands… So, why not sell it to the world and cut back on our deficit?

Banksy’s Jubilee Murial

Earlier this week, walking down the streets of Soho, it felt as if the Empire was enjoying a momentarily revival as Union Jack flags were hoisted and stringed across streets, alleys and snickets in preparation for the Jubilee festivities. Not a single shop window passed on the opportunity to decorate their windows and aisles with the red, white and blue. Britain is peacock and proud, and so they should be. Since 1952, this lady has been ruling the British Isles and the Common Wealth with a silent dignity no other monarch in the world has been able to match.

Elizabeth II certainly deserves this party. During the celebrations nearly 4,000 photographs of the river pageant will be taken every second. Some 332 million images of royal-themed events will be captured and more than 75 million will be shared on social media networks. In London 9,500 streets will be closed for street parties. It’s going to be a Royal Party in the true sense of the word.

I won’t be taking part in the festivities as I am in France and Belgium, but I was lucky to briefly soak up the excitement and anticipation in the streets of London two days before I left for France. I saw men, women and children walking proud and full of expectation and I thought to myself: When people come together in good spirit, much can be achieved. When we realise, collectively as a human race, how good life really is and we count our blessings even when times are tough and uncertain, we have so much more power to change our circumstances and the world around us.

So, when Queen Elizabeth said “Like all the best families, we have our share of eccentricities, of impetuous and wayward youngsters and of family disagreements”, I am almost certain she was not just talking about the Royal Family.

Happy 60th Anniversary, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, from the House of Windsor, Queen of England.

God Save The Queen

Union Jacks Lining The Streets Of London


Credits:
Images: FR Lubbe
Text: FR Lubbe