Sunday, July 29, 2007


We have spent four days at Agami.

This is up on the north coast - slightly Libya-wards of Alexandria. I have always thought Alexandria a magical name - along the lines of Mandalay and Samarkand and Isphahan. I like its Arabic form, Iskanderia, even better. I have always thought it a bit presumptuous to call places by their local names when speaking English - but I do it from time to time because I love the way Iskanderia rolls of my tongue. Egypt has some great place names - Zagazig is also high on my list.

The embassy has a villa at Agami. This sounds good too and evokes images of bougainvillea and cool breezes. Half of Cairo heads north in Summer and it is an unusual middle class family that does not have a favourite place to stay for a week to enjoy the cooler air and the sea. The reality is of course, that Alexandria and Agami immediately develop the traffic problems that are usual in Cairo - and suddenly Cairo is almost a delight to drive in - if you are not in a black and white taxi with a window that will not open and a driver who is chain smoking. Agami is an odd place - mostly below the poverty level apartment blocks without charm or even cleanliness. then right in the centre you have blocks of huge high walled villas. Right on the next corner from 'ours' is one owned by Omar Sharif.

Worse - the roads are a terrible mess and that is without summer traffic. There are always large flooded areas, and the worst traffic jam I have ever been stuck in was in Agami. That was because the local government had decided to dig up the roads to try to fix the water problems. We had heard it was better, but I was not sure I believed it - after two years in Egypt you start to doubt positive rumours.

We had originally planned to spend a full week at the villa. Usually people go just for the weekend, but it was our turn for the villa and Bob decided to make the most of it and add in the rest of the week on leave. We would go to Agami, he would relax, read a lot and make some notes for his next book, and I would sew.

A few weeks earlier I started to fret.

I have the world's best studio here. I have two huge rooms (OK - the air con in one has not worked now for nearly four months and I am utterly fed up but that is another story!). I have space, a large fabric stash, drawers full of threads, several machines, and design walls. I have trouble going up the three sets of stairs to my studio without leaving something I should have with me on the ground floor. How would I ever pack to go three hours away and have everything with me. Bob has a 'hard' car here and though the BMW is stunning and beautiful and elicits fervent sighs from men who sit in it - it has a very small boot because the walls around the passenger section are thick.

Here I have air conditioning - at least in one room of the studio, and in the bedroom, and in the study. I have internet access. In Agami there are ceiling fans in some rooms. I was on the point of backing out of the idea altogether one evening when Bob, apropos of nothing, looked up from his book and said "I am really looking forward to getting away to Agami and just relaxing."

Uh oh!

So - I said nothing then, just commented a few days later that I was worried about staying the whole week. It was a long way to food supplies when it was so hot, Bob is not allowed to drive the car and so we would have to walk for supplies, and it was very hot to do a lot of cooking. We compromised - go on Sunday, back on Wednesday. Barbecues, and some premade food by Ahmed!

All was well. the road was better and we had been told of a new way in which made it a doddle.

I have discovered that there is nothing sad about the long loose robes which Moslem women often swim in. I used a long cotton man's robe (a galabeyieh) one weekend when I realised I had left my swimsuit at a friend's house. It was stunning for swimming - almost more like being naked. It stayed down - which is more than a long nightie can manage in bed - and it moved softly around me well away from my body - drifting like long hair in the water. Best of all - on a really hot day I do no more when leaving the pool than dry my face. A long wet robe stays cool for hours even on a hot day.

That evening I pulled on a galabeyieh. I walked barefooted down the marble stairs to the garden and long tendrils of jasmine caught in my hair and dragged softly across my shoulders, scenting the warm air with their delicate lemony scent.

The pool is lit from beneath, and while the turquoise tiles are a fairly common pool colour during the day, at night they seem to deepen to a heavenly cobalt. The garden is fenced with tall - three storey tall - walls of white lattice, dredged heavily in uncouth sprawling and effusive bougainvillea. Most of it is magenta - deep and dark when small and first developing, but it has smaller areas of deep orange, a pink, and a pure white and best of all - a wild and stunning cerise - the most intense colour I have ever seen in this plant.

The pool has obviously been cleaned just for us. It must have been a few hours ago and already in the corners there are drifts of flowers. I move in down the ladder. The water is so warm that I can hardly feel the its surface as I go down the ladder, except that the skirts have started to move around my legs. Ripples spread around me as I sink into the water and barely moving my legs, drift towards the deep end. The flowers start to move out and around me. The occasional white one is like a skeleton leaf when back lit - pale and fragile like fine lace. Occasionally one flower drifts like a large moth from the tangles above the pool and floats very slowly down. Mostly down. With the evening breeze it might also go up, or sideways, and the flowers keep drifting - not like moths actually but like the feather that opens the movie of Forrest Gump. If you pick up a magenta flower from the surface of the water and pull it down under the surface, it changes to deep purple, almost indigo. True - even in the light of day.

I do a lap under water and come up with flowers in my hair. I feel like a flower child of the seventies in a long wet dress, and drugged with warmth and water.

OK - that was the best bit.

My idea of bliss is a swimming pool of my own. However, in the middle of summer in Egypt it is impossible to be in the water all day unless you want to be sunburnt. Bob's idea of a relaxing week is to read large tomes on the Middle East (unless he is deep in his current bedside reading which has been War and Peace for the last month) and he GRUNTS when I speak to him.

It was so HOT. It was almost as hot as Cairo at about 35 to Cairo's 38 - but much more humid - and Cairo has been up to 63 % humidity lately. I just dripped whenever I was dry - and of course I dripped when wet too. The only table that I could work on was in the dining room (one of the few rooms without a fan) and somehow, in the couple of months since we were last here, the table had magically changed from a standard rectangle to a strange octagonal shape with legs in the centre of the only straight bit that would actually take the weight of a sewing machine.

I have looming deadlines. However, I had bowed to the fact that I would never fit everything I wanted for the major pieces I am making into the car, and had brought little projects - baby quilts to be quilted and a larger one which I started with for a friend's little girl.

It kept falling off the table and drove me crazy. Bob moved the table for me - as I was too hot away from the fan - and I doggedly sewed, with the backs of chairs holding the quilt on the odd table.

Then we discovered the other major Agami drawback. I had spent a bit of time on the menu for the time there so I would reduce actual cooking to a minimum. Now I discovered that I actually was the menu, and my legs are covered with burning bites from pale and silent and ravenous mosquitoes.

Worse - I ate a surfeit of tiny sugary mangoes - so little that you can hold four in the palm of your hand. They are delectable, and Egyptians are so proud of them. It was hard to see why they would be worth the fuss till I ate one - then I realised. They are like the best of every different mango you could imagine. Pure fruit and sugar, honeyed and delicious. No fibres. No turpentine aftertaste, not even against the skin, so you can drag your teeth hard across it so scrape every golden scrap of flavour into you mouth. Best of all - the seeds are only about two millimetres thick - 1/8 inch for my friends in the US.

We also ate a lot of figs which are also just appearing on the market and are soft and rich and stunning. And little sugary grapes - heavy bunches of tiny golden yellow seedless ones, picked at the peak of sweetness and refrigerated so they touched your mouth with ice and then almost exploded on your tongue.

Both were a bad idea.

I am now suffering the inevitable punishments of too much soft fruit and one of the banes of Egypt. I am not brave enough to even leave the floors of my house with a bathroom on them - and taking Lomotil before I venture out of the house. I know - I have to see a doctor if the condition persists. I am still itching all over, and my deadlines are still looming.

Laugh and I will have to search you out and force feed you on mangoes and figs till we match.


Blogger Lindi said...

Sorry, Jenny, I laughed! But the mangoes and figs sound so delicious that I will bear my punishment quite happily.
I love the way you describe the pool experience. I imagined myself there in your stead and thoroughly enjoyed my swim. So sensous ...

10:40 am  
Blogger Ann said...

one of 'Murphy's" laws is
Never eat prunes when you are famished
perhaps the same applies to mangoes and figs!!.
First time on blogs and just love reading you stories.

7:34 pm  
Blogger QuiltingFitzy said...

Fresh fruit juice and loads of new tastes did me in in Venezuela. I swore never, ever again.

12:25 am  
Blogger Lisa Walton said...

You make even, what I expect, was a tortuous, frustrating week sound exotic and wonderful. Ok maybe not wonderful.

6:14 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rome and a contaminated bottle of drinking water. I was never so ill in my life. Totally missed the swimming, the island of Capri, and the Sistine Chapel, although I *was* praying... for death.
Then I was afraid for a spell that I might live.
You have my eternal sympathies, Jenny, but the swimming did sound lovely.

11:05 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You certainly do have a way with words Jenny. I loved the best bit. Even then I loved the worst bit too. I am sorry, I giggled!
You have my sympathies.

Dorothy NZ.

12:27 pm  
Blogger Jodyrose said...

Jenny, Love your words, your quilts are stunning! I have passed your link on to a dear friend of mine who is like you, a teacher and a fellow world traveler. I know she will enjoy it as well. If I had been with you, I would have had the fruit too, Is it such a sorry price to pay for such delicious minutes? Don't we all do the same as we slave at the gym to pay for those delicious minutes with chocolate? hehehe

12:02 am  

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