I went to Egypt to see the treasured outpost of the Roman Empire. But, I also went because I wanted to see the traffic. Is that weird? Yes, and thank you. I had heard people say that the traffic in Cairo is the worst in the world. I have been in LA, Dhaka, Lima, Bogota, New Delhi, and NY traffic. Of all those places, I still vote that Dhaka has the worst traffic. Could Cairo take the crown?
Yes, it can. The reason is that the traffic in Cairo is lethal. Cairo is much bigger than Dhaka and there are many roads where one can gain a great amount of speed, thus making traffic accidents more likely to be lethal.
So, I would have to agree that Cairo has the worst traffic, but Dhaka has possibly the most interesting? In Dhaka one saw all kinds of things in traffic, from half a million rickshaws to elephants.
With those words, Augustus (as Octavian was known from 27 BCE) declared the Roman Empire’s conquest of Egypt. As I was considering the end of my Roman adventure, I felt like I needed to go to Egypt so see that important part of the Roman world. Although Rome is modern, it seems to live on as the Rome of 2,000 years ago. Back then, Alexandria was the Roman capital of Egypt. I hear that modern day Alexandria is a very mediterranean city. I did not go there. I went to Cairo.
Cairo reminded me a lot of Dhaka. But a scarier, more aggressive Dhaka. In Cairo, I could see how as a single woman, one would feel danger. I didn’t feel scared but I was also never alone. When my friend and I were in the souk, she wouldn’t let us go into the long narrow stalls because it was too dangerous. She made the vendors bring things out to the street for us to look at. Maybe I was more oblivious back then, but in Dhaka, I never felt that the men were too aggressive. They tended to want to take photos and stare but I was not too worried about getting mugged or molested. Maybe it’s my memory changing the reality or maybe I was more naive. I was also almost never alone in Dhaka.
The first day, my friend took me to the souk, the Khan el-Khalili market, as that was my wish. It was hot so that trip was fast. I got my postcards and we left. We ate lunch at a place in the souk. It is a very touristy place and my friend had to insist on some of the local dishes rather than the grilled meat platters being pushed on all the other tourists. I had the falafel which in Egypt is made with fava/broad bean rather than chickpea/garbanzo, and I had the baba ganoush, and the other dips. I liked the stretchy flat bread. There was always too much food and I could see that the Egyptians are extremely hospitable. The next day, we went to a cosmopolitan bakery in the Maadi and that was also nice. That neighborhood had the same dusty streets and dusty buildings of Dhaka.
The next day, the sun was out and the sky was a pale blue color. Sort of. Another Egyptian friend, Mohamed, a former colleague who had worked with me in Dhaka, and a colleague from that time picked me up with a driver for a day out. When my friend picked me up, he had to come in and have a bit of fruit and coffee. Hospitality is king. The day turned out to be like one of those days in Dhaka which went from 9 am to 11 pm. The driver was filled with facts and his English was good. I told him that he should be a guide. He said that he was! My friends had hired him for the day. We went to the Coptic Cairo (Old Cairo). On this street, there is a famous ruin from Roman occupation times, 2,000 years ago (30 BCE when Augustus conquered Egypt). The fort was built in Babylon and years later, the Hanging Church is built on top of the Roman fortress.
Finally, I had to see the pyramids. They recommended the ring road. The pyramids looked quite nice from the distance and from an air conditioned car. I remarked so. At one point, the guide slowed down so that I could get the ultimate photo of a lush green field, a camel and donkey under two palm trees, and in the distance, the only remaining wonder of the ancient world, the pyramids. For breakfast, around noon, we went to a place that my Egyptian friend chose. It was a place where they make “Egyptian pizza” or “fatayer” which is thin layers of dough with filling. One was with honey and others were savory. We had one with mozzarella, bell peppers, and thin slices of dried meat. Then we had another with smoked sausage. All beef. This dish is my favorite Egyptian food so far. The dough is fried in clarified butter and the pastry takes on the sheen of golden stain glass windows. Yummy.
Later in the day, Mohamed asked if we were ready for dinner. My other friend recommended “Hagooga” a local place. Very local. So new and local that even Mohamed had never been. We went around 6 pm and it was not to busy but most of the 40 tables inside were filled with families and others. Only Egyptians. We sat indoors. This restaurant was so local that even the locals ignored us, the only foreigners.
I got to try the famous “whisky” which is the salad dressing water from making the salad. We got the grilled meats, and other dips or “mezze” – not sure what it’s called in Egypt. I still preferred the breakfast pizza. At one point, Mohamed told me not to fill up on bread because we still had dessert. When were stepped outside, the courtyard was light with string lights and every table was filled with diners. There were twenty people waiting for tables. Another entertaining thing about Hagooga’s is that everything is branded with her smiling face and name. Even the brass lamps had her name stamped out.
Most of the local women I saw in Cairo had their hair covered. I asked if this was law and although it is not, they cover their hair. It is windy, sunny, and dusty in Cairo, so I could see why it would make sense to keep one’s head covered. My friend also told me that most of them go and have their hair washed once per week, so maybe that is another reason.
For dessert, we went into Rehab City, a gated city. It was like entering Miami. We went to an outdoor mall/market and Mohamed got us platters of sweets. I recognized baklava but I don’t know the names of the others. I teased Mohamed that this, the eating of dessert, was the most serious I had seen him all day. The weather was quite pleasant at this point and I can see why the Egyptians are night people. I also saw a chicken shawarma that was at least 200 pounds. After the sweets, Mohamed said that it was time for gelato. We protested but then he mentioned that they have mastic/mistica. I had to try it. I first tried mistica 20 years ago in Greece. In Greece, the mistica, a white honey like textured resin from a mediterranean bush, is served on a teaspoon in a glass of water. One licks a bit of the mistica off and sips a bit of water, each sweetening the other. This gelato was not like that.
Finally, the fun day out was over. Just like my tour of the ancient Roman empire, and Rome.
When I arrived in Rome in 2020, I started writing a monthly email about my daily life to my family and family of friends. These are some of my thoughts both from before and now, after, living in Rome.
But, first, a repeated word about “ciao” — from my first book. Ciao means “I am your slave” from the Venetian dialect “s-ciao” which got it from the Latin “sclavus.” This term was used for servants or for those of inferior status. It eventually became a sort of “at your service.” Mainly, the reason I will try not to use ciao all the time is that it’s only used by people who are known closely to each other. And I will be a stranger, at least for a while. The best phrase to use is, “buongiorno” or “buonaserra.” An even worse, or better, reason to not use ciao is that using ciao can be interpreted as flirtatious or bad manners. It was not used until the twentieth century, and even in this century, it can be offensive to some. So, what to say? “Salve, come va?” Means “Hi, how’s it going?” And that seems a good halfway formal phrase. “Salve” comes from the verb for “to be in good health.” When you take your leave, say, “Arrivederci.” Ciao is only used for people who know each other very well or are in the same peer group. I feel like I know Rome now. I can use it for Rome.
What I expected:
A friend asked, upon learning that I was moving to Rome, what I was most looking forward to. I’m looking forward to the artichokes, especially those that have an edible interior, the flowering zucchini, the pizza, the cheeses, and the pasta. I have to say that I’m not so excited about the fried rice balls. Don’t know why because I like fried food but I’m not sure that I like fried rice in that format. Maybe because I don’t like croquettes and these “arancini” are rice croquettes. I am looking forward to the famous fried cod place, Dar Filettaro a Santa Barbara. I’m looking forward to the fresh produce including the cucumbers, although not the squirting cucumber. This squirting cucumber, “ecballium elaterium,” is a strange fruit because when ready, the fruit which looks like a hairy testicle, squirts it’s seed in a mucilage stream at 60 miles per hour. This plant is poisonous as well as projectile.
I will not be trying the maggot cheese. I get this question a lot. I am not a daring eater for the sake of it. I was raised to try things at least once and to be polite if offered something. But, you will have to accept my apologies ahead of time, I’m not interested in eating maggots, pigeon brains, or other things that might be delicious and give me an erection to rival a redwood.
Life will not always be sweet. I came across the blog of someone who was leaving Italy and she explained that the main reasons were that she missed her family in Scotland, the cozy Christmas in snowy countries, and that there was no diversity in Florence. I see why she left. I usually do one or two articles per country about what I term “the realities” of daily life, and I will do that for Italy too. Mostly, on my blog, I stay on the upbeat side, and try to only show what is delightful.
To go exploring on food adventures was one of my goals. Of the things I wrote about in the first book, I did not achieve a Ph.D. on food nor a course in culinary arts. But, I did go on a few food tours. Of the list of things I planned to do, here are my results.
Take a Cooking with Nonna (granny) class put on by Walks Inside Rome.
Participate in olive oil tastings, including with The Italian Foodie Sisters. — But not with them. I did it with Johnny Madge, and that day may have been the best of the year. Read about it in it’s own chapter. — Done
Pilgrimage to the villa of Bramasole. The legend that was created by Frances Mayes’ book, Under the Tuscan Sun. — Sort of. I say done because I stayed in the hotel where the main character met her lover in Positano.
Pilgrimage to Genoa. It is one of those places I have heard so many stories about it, mainly from my Peruvian-Italian family when they tell their immigration story. — Done
Visit the town of Levanto. From an Italian-Peruvian, I got a list of places from her hometown of Levanto. She told me:
there is a beautiful walking/cycling route built on the old railway line that was in use between 1874 and 1971 by the sea (you can rent a bike). One of the best restaurants is L’Oasi by the main square Piazza Cavour; but there are many bars where you can have a great aperitivo, close to the beach (Casino, Piper bar, Bagni Nettuno, La Gritta). This is the official website on my town, www.visitlevanto.it.
Visit the island of Sardinia. As the travel show host Rudy Maxa said about Tahiti, there are not enough words to describe the blues of those waters.
Visit the Island of Ischia. It’s tiny and right off the coast. Of course, I hope to visit many of the other islands as well. — Done
Go on a foraging trip to pick wild greens. Or make my friends go on these while I take photos from the car.
Take a trip to the chocolate valley of Tuscany, home of Roberto Catinari, Luca Mannori, Paul de Bondt, and Amadei chocolates houses.
Take a gelato making lesson with Italy’s Best Rome. Again, my willing friends will probably take this class with me, while I will take photos… and taste.
Go on gelato tasting tours… although I may be making this one up. But not really. I think my gelato-mad friends and I will go out and make this up along the way. Then I’ll blog about it. — Done
Visit Puglia and the town of Monopoli. It looks bright and Adriatic blue like a sunny reflection of Greece across the water. — Done
Visit Ferrero, or the town where Nutella was created.
But, first on my list will be food tours with the mother-daughter team of Elizabeth and Sophie Minchilli. I plan to go on all of Sophie Minchilli’s six food tours. Then probably a customized one too. Plus, I’ll take classes with her mother, Elizabeth Minchilli, who started the business. — see the separate chapter on that. — Done
Mostly, I’ll wander slowly through Rome. I have no real bucket list. I don’t like the race to check places off a list. I have been on those frenzied tours where you can’t remember half of what you saw. I will try and enjoy the slow life and the simple things of daily life. Or at least I’ll try in between frenzied visits from friends. — Done
For my website, I will probably be trying 100 of something. Maybe cheese, maybe pasta, maybe those cream buns called maritozza. I look forward to sinking my teeth into them. — Done
So you see, I did not do it all. Italy is an endless array of things to do. Each town is cuter than the last. It would take many lifetimes to see it all.
But, I did learn a few things.
My favorite hack for getting milky coffee after 11 am — is to order a glass of hot milk and an espresso. Then combine them. This only works if they actually have any milk.
And, the funniest thing I learned in Italy was that all the time I thought people were telling me, “perfect/okay” = “ottimo” — they were actually saying, “a moment/wait” = “attimo.” I only realized this a few months ago and it makes me better understand all those times that I thought something was going according to MY plan, but it did not.
Almost any tourist destination has them. People who have holiday romances. In some places, they even make a sort of “living” off of the tourists. Those are Romeos. I’m also not sure that Italy has so many Romeos who live off of the tourists as there are so many other ways to make a living off of the tourists.
In Italy, a “lady’s man” is called a Casanova (Casanova was so much more than just a lover of women. He was passionate about food as well and had started writing a dictionary of cheeses.)
A Rodriguez is a different thing. In Spain, in the summer, the wives and families go off to the beach houses. The married men are back in Madrid as geographic bachelors… these men are are Rodriquezzes (not sure what the plural is). Also not sure if this goes on in Italy and if there is a name for them…
In Latin America and Spain, it is quite normal for a man to have two families, one with a woman he is married to and another with his mistress. Or if he is homosexual, a wife and a love.
I once asked an Italian about this. He said that it was too expensive to have two families. But, in Italy, I actually met quite a few Italian men who are faithful to their moms and their girlfriends.
Italy has a dropping birth rate and currently there are fewer Italians than tourists who visit each year (59 million versus 60 million, or so). This is not related to the romancing going on in Italy. It has to do with economics. Thirty percent of women lose their jobs after maternity leave. Most jobs are contracts only so people can’t afford to own their own apartment until they have a “permanent” job and then, often, the parents help with purchasing a place. Apparently, Italians do not want to have a child until they have a permanent job. Not a surprise.
One thing I will say about Italians is that they are great flirts as in they are charming and talkative. They call you “bella” or “bello” and it is nice to be called beautiful.
One could easily fall for an Italian. They talk so sweet and call you beautiful. But, aside from it all being talk, how do people date in Rome?
In the usual way. They meet at bars, at social events, at sporting events, and many use technology. Bumble, OkCupid, Tinder, Grinder, Facebook, Instagram, Meet, and many more. Tinder which was known for mainly hookups is now used for dating. Bumble is where the women make the first move.
In person and online, it dating is still a visual affair. Once someone sees someone that they like (a nice smile, and not too many sunglass photos — no duck face!), then they ask for “a coffee.”
I heard that people are quickly moving offline and to the “coffee” so they can see if there is any chemistry at all, quickly.
There is the stereotype of the Latin lover and for some that is true. I met an woman who, twenty years ago, moved to Italy to find a man. She did within three weeks. She found a friend who let her sleep on her floor while she set herself up in Rome. I guess she got tired of sleeping on the floor.