Another world

Other people’s words about … Cairo

Sunlight was streaming through the shutters. I peered down into the street where a cat was sunbathing on a parked car. Friday morning was always the most peaceful time of the week in Istanbul Street. The doorman’s wife sat on the kerb watching her ragged child play in the clouds of pollen and dust. [My weekend away from Cairo] seemed a world away, a movie I watched last year. Cairo is so encompassing that when you are there all other realities seem to fade away. I thought of Hatton Garden and it seemed surreal that at that very moment crowds of London commuters were heading to work in the rain. It felt impossible that the two places could exist at the same time.

From ‘Playing Cards in Cairo: Mint Tea, Tarneeb and Tales of the City
by Hugh Miles

Many years ago, in another life, I spent about six months living in Cairo. I had happened there by chance, at the suggestion of my boyfriend at the time, who spoke a smattering of Arabic. We lived in the centre of the city, away from the ex-pat community, in a dusty fourth-floor apartment with faded red velvet sofas that gave off great puffs of dust whenever one of us sat down on them. At night, when we switched on the lights in the darkened bedroom, there was the sound of a thousand cockroaches scuttling out of view. The view from the rickety balcony was of life on the street below: the storekeeper of the small general store where we bought bottled water, washing down his front doorstep with water and a broom; the ta’ameya man at his food stand, stirring his big metal spoon through a great dented tin bowl of smoking hot oil.

I left Cairo as I came to it — by chance, at someone else’s bidding. I knew even then that I would never go back. For those few months in Cairo, I had not lived as a tourist, as most Westerner visitors do. Not exactly. Not quite. Cairo was in me, and on me, in a very physical, a very literal, sense: its grime lay in thick strips of black beneath my fingernails; its dust coated my skin. The city had, for those few months, as Hugh Miles so succinctly puts it, encompassed me.

And so I left, and I did not go back.

I found some old photos from that time recently, ones I took with an old camera, in those pre-digital years. I don’t have a scanner and so in order to reproduce them here, I actually used my camera to rephotograph those photographs. This accounts for their odd, slightly removed, unreal aspect — for, as well as Cairo in these pictures, you can see the glare from my window right here in Australia, the bend in the photographic paper.

I was going to apologise for this, originally. And then it occurred to me that in fact, this aspect of distance and remove is exactly right. In this context, it is right.

And so, no apologies today — just a glimpse into another world, a very long way away from here and from now.

Leafless

Other people’s words about … winter light

The sun was like a moon in this country, and in its light I felt as if I was looking at everything through a pearl. It was cold and the trees had no leaves. I had never seen a leafless tree before.

from ‘Sleeping on Jupiter
by Anuradha Roy

I love this description by Anuradha Roy of a Northern Hemisphere winter, as seen through the eyes of a young Indian woman accustomed to living in the tropics. I remember feeling the same way myself when I left Australia in my twenties to travel through Britain, Europe and North America (and, later, elsewhere). For a year I lived and worked in Germany, as I’ve mentioned once before, in a small industrial town in Nordrhein-Westfalen, not far from Dortmund and Dusseldorf. To begin with, from November through to April, before my German was fluent enough for me to find another job, I worked in a factory.

Leafless tree on Gedville Street,
between the coast and the railway station

During those winter months in Germany, I rose each day just before six o’clock and walked through the dark streets of town to the station, where I caught a train and then a bus to the factory district. My shift started at around seven-thirty, but daylight didn’t filter through the glass panels of the workshop ceiling until well after nine-thirty. I left work at four o’clock — first back on the bus and then onto the train; then back on foot through the streets towards the fourth-floor apartment I shared with a German friend. By the time I reached the door that led from the street of our apartment building into the stairwell, the sky had darkened again.

I thought, as I shuttled from home to railway station to bus to factory and then back in reverse, that I might never see broad daylight again.

Dove in leafless tree

The trees that lined the street on which I lived during those months were European trees, native to the area, and so they were deciduous. Their leafless, bare branches formed stark silhouettes against the grey apartment buildings and the grey, clouded sky. It didn’t snow, but even in the few hours of daylight we were granted, the sun stayed hidden, a faded white ball in that streak of grey sky. Everything seemed cold and grey. I, too, felt cold and grey.

Leafless tree leaning into a house near Largs Bay School

Though Australia does have a few native deciduous trees, most native vegetation is evergreen. And so, even though the winters here in South Australia can at times feel very grey, most leafless trees — like the ones I photographed to accompany today’s post, all of which grow in the neighbourhood where I live — are imports from countries like Germany: cousins of those trees that lined the streets of the town where I worked all those years ago.

Leafless tree on the school oval
on Gedville Street

I’m a home-body these days. I love the Australian sun. I love the wide arch of sky and the shifting, glittering, restless ocean. I love the grey-green leaves of eucalypts, the drooping pods of acacia trees, the red bristles of bottlebrush flowers, the golden needles of the sheoaks. I couldn’t live anywhere else now. This is home to me.

Travelling brought me a lot of joy, though, and it taught me things I could never have learned if I’d stayed at home. My love for this place is a part of what my travels taught me, I think. Those bare-branched trees were a gift. They led me back home.

Even leafless trees don’t seem leafless here
when you look at them closely!

Roaming the world

Attending an appointment on the north side of the city recently,
I had some time to spare and went for a wander.
I turned off the main road into a courtyard …

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… and felt like I’d wandered into a city in some far-distant, foreign land.

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Narnia, perhaps.
(The lamp-post was there, but not the snow.)

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Or Paris?

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London, maybe.

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So what is the definition of ‘roam’, anyway?

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It means to ramble.
Wander.
Rove.

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I like the thought of rambling through my own home-town —

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— of exploring and finding new places.

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Of being at home in my own, exotic world.