Further Notes on Cyprus

We took a few trips outside Limassol to see archaeological sites and beaches. We were always told where we were going rather late in the game, with little information about anything and no real time to look them up (especially after I ran out of mobile data).

The first weekend, I went with a few students to Amathous, an archaeological site about 20 minutes east of our apartment (reachable by the beach road bus, #30). Entry was €2.50 (the standard for all archaeological sites there), and a series of informational placards gave us details about Cyprus’ being the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite, and the history of Aphrodite worship in the area, featuring images of Aphrodite figures from many eras. A second set of placards described the excavation by a French team in the 1960s-70s. The site itself was a large city, the extent of which could be seen from the Acropolis set on a hill above town. It had a well-preserved agora, a central road leading into town, and domestic areas built towards the hill. The Acropolis had the remains of medium-size temple with some absolutely massive stone vases, and in addition to the town, we could see the submerged remains of the ancient port. On the way down, I had the realization that the site was presented in a very midcentury manner: all the information was architectural, with no details on the people who lived there (or even the artifacts). Very “observe the wonders the ancients built!” without considering who built them or why. In light of the port, I’d expect there to be extensive evidence of overseas trade, but that wasn’t even mentioned.

Our first group trip was to Paphos, an hour to the west. The first archaeological site was the Tomb of the Kings, a Hellenistic-era mortuary site. The tombs consist of natural rock superstructures with chambers carved into them, and sometimes columns and other architectural features. It had a splendid view overlooking the sea and could be described as “low-budget Petra”. I can’t really tell you anything else, because of the paucity of information available at the site. After the tenth rock-cut tomb with a basic sign indicating its number and an architectural drawing, I decided I was hot and bored. Who were these people? The entrance sign stated they were actually wealthy people rather than kings, but where was the evidence? Were they buried with grave goods? Jewelry? Were the tombs reused over the years? Were they covered over at any point?

Next we went to the old port to have lunch and see Old Town Paphos, another site. I mistakenly decided to eat lunch first and to visit the castle (really more of a small fortress which is currently hosting a photographic exhibition), leaving only half an hour to see Old Town. It turns out that this site, while still just as low-info as the previous two, had massive mansions built by Roman governors with really impressive mosaics. The houses were destroyed in an earthquake, preserving the floors. One house built around a central courtyard had mosaics in almost every room, with realistic human and animal figures depicting scenes from mythology and complex geometric patterns. It was still a shame that there was no indication what any of the rooms were (usually judged by their location and what artifacts were found in them), as Roman homes often used mosaic themes to echo a room’s purpose. Having more description beyond the artistic/aesthetic would really make the ancient world come alive. I know site managers with the bottom line in mind will argue that people are already visiting the site and enjoying it for its great preservation and stunning views. The site has a 4-star rating on Google. But: wouldn’t it be nice if those visitors actually knew what they were looking at, and left with a greater understanding of the place of Cyprus in the Roman world? Or had an insight into the ancient mind?

On the way home, we stopped at Aphrodite’s Rock, a beach with rocky towers within swimming distance of the shore. One of them, purported to be the place Aphrodite was born from the seafoam (Zeus’ sperm), is said to have the power to unite people with their true love if they swim around it. I have a strong inclination that this is a tourist attraction and a modern (heteronormative, traditionally romantic) belief; in Greek the same feature is called Roman Rock. Anyway, I like a challenge and the water looked amazingly inviting after a long day in the sun, so I swam around it declaring “I can have many true loves of any gender!” There was also a much bigger rock that we saw people jumping off of. It took some effort to clamber out of the water and up the side; only once I got to the top did I find out that the other side had a much easier way up. I also remembered that I’m actually quite scared of jumping from heights and had to have three students swim around and coax me into jumping.

In the first few weeks, I was connected to some local performance artists through my friend Sara in London. Elena and her partner Emmidio, after finding out that I was in their town and friendless, collected me and took me to a concert in Nicosia, the capital. It was an evening of dedicated to Cyprus’ first electronic artist, and his pieces were recreated both using synthesizers and by a string quartet. I’d never before thought of electronic music as something that could be recreated live note-by-note, and this was absolutely fascinating. The performance was in an Ottoman-era courtyard, and as the sun set the music was accompanied by bats swooping and cats scampering. Elena also invited me to a music festival she was hosting at a reservoir in the mountains. It was an evening of ambient electronic music called The Gathering, featuring an opening didgeridoo meditation, visualizer art projected onto white sheets, and pillows on the sloping edge of a ravine so we could lie down while listening. (My favorite! No need to dance for hours!) The second night (and apparently third and fourth) was a rave, but I couldn’t stay for that long. The day after, I went to the Cyprus Archaeological Museum in Nicosia, which was much larger than it appeared from the outside. It was presented in the “cultural-historical” framework, investigating cultural change through the successive waves of seafaring inhabitants. The star exhibits were a recreation of a tomb containing over 1000 statues of gods and an impressive jewelry collection showing stylistic change over the centuries.

Our second trip was to the north side. Since 1974, Cyprus has been divided into north (east) and south (west); the north calls itself the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, but the south doesn’t quite agree. In between is the green zone, where nobody can live because it’s contested. I’m by no means an expert on the division, but basically as the British were leaving, the two ethnic groups on Cyprus (Greeks and Turks) had to decide what to do. Some Greek Cypriots supported a return to Greek authority, others supported self-rule. Cyprus was an independent country encompassing the entire island from 1960-1974, when Turkish forces invaded, a coup was staged, and war broke out. At the end of it, the country was divided roughly in half; currently, the north is economically depressed but has the good beaches, and the south has just made it out of poverty in the last 15 years. A friend of Elena’s told me that only recently have people been able to eat meat regularly, within her lifetime – meat being an indicator of wealth, as it costs more and uses more resources to produce. Anyway, we drove up to the border and handed in all our passports. Ten minutes went by. Twenty. Xenia got back on the bus and informed us there was a problem – three “unusual stamps” on our passports, from Somalia, Qatar, and Jordan. I am completely convinced, based on my experience with border crossings, that the people who work there take the job because they get to exert supreme authority with no actual regard for rules. I’ve had border guards confiscate food (but only snack food) because it was “not allowed”, had an entire car searched, and been held because they didn’t like the look of us. Turkey has diplomatic relations with Jordan and Qatar, so there’s no way those were an actual reason to stop us. Their goal seemed to be getting us to hire a “guide” to escort us around. So we had to wait a while for our guide to come and meet us. It turns out she was a lovely older lady called Jancal, a social worker who had recently trained as a guide.

We first stopped at the archaeological site of Salamis, another Hellenistic-Roman site. It had a colonnaded road to the sea, a rebuilt theatre, and a huge bath complex adjacent to the agora. Seriously, you could’ve fit 40 people into the caldarium. Much respect for that bath. Also near the agora was a 20-seater latrine. Still no site interpretation. Next we went to Famagusta (Ammachoustos), another port city with Venetian walls and a building called Othello’s Castle. While there wasn’t a real Othello, Shakespeare based the character on the Venetian ruler XXX, and in subsequent centuries the castle was renamed after the fictional equivalent. The town has streets of warehouses that are now tourist shops and a tasty Turkish patisserie where we had goat milk ice cream that was strangely impervious to melting. The street looked familiar, and I recalled that the 1964 film “Exodus” had been filmed there – a re-watch online showed the same street, but filled with British army vehicles, boxes of produce, and fish. The town also has a Gothic church converted into a mosque, with gorgeous asymmetrical stone cutouts in place of windows, allowing a filtering of light and a cool breeze. Finally, we went to the beach at Famagusta. Before we got off the bus, Xenia warned us: “The west side has barbed wire going into the ocean. This is the green zone. Beyond it are abandoned apartments. Do not take pictures, do no go near, do not try to cross the border, or you will be shot. Have fun!” These are the buildings that had to be evacuated in the war, and they have not yet been cleared as they’re in no-man’s land. There’s about a mile of beachfront condos with peeling paint, windows blown out, left to the elements – apparently one of the few people to get clearance to visit was the author or “The Earth Without Us”, for research purposes.

Our third excursion, also to the north, was to the Castle of St Hilarion and Kyrenia. This time we drove through the border at Nicosia and had no problems. On the south face of the mountains just north of the city are massive flags made of painted rocks – one of the Turkish flag and one of the TRNC flag – clearly visible from the city, just so you know what’s what. As the bus climbed higher into the mountains, my sinuses felt worse and worse. We reached the pinnacle of a mountain overlooking the sea with St Hilarion perched on top and had an hour to explore. It was built in Lusignan and Venetian times, and is stretched over the ridge of a few mountaintops. While attempting to maintain the necessary bits to indicate “castle” – keep, quarters, kitchens, courtyard, walls – it struggles to maintain them all in the usual post-medieval order due to the terrain, making it a fascinating obstacle course of stairs and narrow, angled chambers and steep cliffs (for the closest imaginable fictional representation, it’s the Aerie in Game of Thrones). We saw a goat inside at one point. We drove down the mountain to Kyrenia Castle, which was more of a portside fortress, with sloping ramps for troops rolling cannons and a moat and drawbridge. There wasn’t much information about the castle, but we had a good walk around the walls and then ice cream outside.

Finally, the last weekend my friend Cynthia was in town and we went to visit the archaeological site of Kourion. It was also easy to get to by public bus (the #16B from Limassol Bus Station), although we forgot to push the stop button and were dropped off at the beach instead. After realizing our mistake (and having beach lunch) we began the hike uphill to the site. I decided it’d be quicker to hitchhike instead of walking in the hot sun, so I stuck out my thumb and were soon picked up by some beach visitors going home, who graciously dropped us off at the top of the hill (maybe a 2km walk). The whole site, spanning the Hellenistic to Byzantine periods, is on a hill overlooking the sea and some dramatic cliffs. The reconstructed theatre is still in use, and can seat up to XXX for performances of music and traditional Greek drama. The site has a few well-preserved houses and mosaics, the best-interpreted of which was destroyed by an earthquake, killing the family inside and their donkey. It is an unfortunate fact of archaeology that the fastest devastation leaves us with the best picture of ancient life. Afterwards, thoroughly sun-blasted, we walked back down to the beach to cool our feet and wait for the bus.

Overall, the sites in Cyprus suffered from a lack of interpretation. While there must be differences in finds and interpretation between Amathous, Salamis, and Kourion, as it stands the only difference presented is the scenery. I’d be hard pressed to tell you why each of them is special and worth a visit. I did feel like Cyprus lacks a strong identity, both in archaeology and in my daily interaction with culture. In Greece, Egypt, and Israel, (the latter two of which you can see on a clear day!) you know where you are. They are proud of their heritage, and sites are presented thoroughly, if idiosyncratically. Cyprus has an interesting archaeological history as it’s in the middle of a number of Mediterranean cultures, and obviously has strong feelings about land and heritage. But I didn’t get a sense of what Cyprus is all about. I’m not sure if this was a result of my not moving in the right circles, talking to the right people, having so little free time to explore, so much Western influence (almost all the mall shops and restaurants were American or British brands), or the inevitable tourist tat takeover. I did find the Cypriots (and immigrants to Cyprus) I talked to friendly, giving, open, and argumentative. But unlike Greece, where every other sentence is about how great Greece is, nobody was really stressing what Cyprus has going for it.

Finally, I didn’t get to talk to many people about the north. Compared to other divided places I’ve been, nobody really piped up about it. I found a few posters and graffiti in Nicosia indicating that the north is an occupation, not a legitimate country, but I wasn’t expecting the plaque in the departure hall of Larnaca airport. It was a piece of wall art from the Nicosia airport, abandoned since 1974, with an interactive display of photos of the airport. It was nothing special, really – another modernist architectural piece from the early 60s – but the display mourned its loss, remarking that “the north part of Cyprus still remains under impermanent Turkish occupation.” Perhaps there’s an undercurrent I didn’t pick up on.


Fatbergs and the apocalypse

Yesterday, Tim Adams at the Guardian wrote one of the most fantastic pieces of local news I’ve read recently. It’s about the fatberg under Whitechapel. If you’ve never heard of a fatberg, it’s the horrifying sewer equivalent of an arterial blockage. Instead of fat clogging one’s arteries, a mixture of wet wipes flushed down the toilet and grease washed down the drain unite in the sewers into a massive blob, with other detritus (used condoms, hypodermic needles, rubbish) and occasional small creatures going along for the ride. There have been a few around London, causing millions of pounds of damage. The article gives this one a number of catchy nicknames – the Whitechapel Behemoth, the East End Mammoth, the Leviathan – and brings in the history of Bazalgette’s sewer works, social history, and the fact that part of it has been conserved and will be in a Museum of London exhibit (called Fatberg!), opening February 9. This led me down so many paths of thought. First: just go read the article. Adams should win some kind of prize for such engaging writing.

One of the reasons this feels like a distinctly London story, is the horrible history of the city and its effluent, a history that until recently seemed happily confined to the past. Prior to autumn 2016, the last time we looked so hard at sewage was during the Great Stink of 1858, when a combination of a hot and dry summer and the practice of discharging the raw sewage of a fast-growing population directly into the Thames, turned the river brown and saw sewage 10ft-deep at the river’s margins. MPs were forced to debate in Parliament with handkerchiefs over their faces. Cholera and typhoid were epidemic. Like the burghers of Hamelin menaced by rats, the government charged the director of metropolitan works, Joseph Bazalgette, with solving the problem. With 318 million bricks and over the course of 16 years he did just that.

Second, he brings up one of my favorite tropes (sub-tropes?): the idea that the apocalypse is best represented by or in London. This is a trope frequently played with in the weird fiction of China Mieville (UnLunDun, London’s Overthrow), Will Self (The Book of Dave), and Neil Gaiman (Neverwhere). The city is often its own character, growing, heaving, digesting. Mieville lectured on cities – London in particular – as palimpsests of history, dark places where occasionally you can see clarity scratching through and enlightening one tiny moment. In this case, the fatberg has covered all the bases, becoming a metonym for London itself. It has grown underground, a vulgar beast composed of waste typical of the modern era, and pressed itself into our lives. The fact that it’s going on display completes its cycle. The fatberg, a chthonic monster, has found its way into the light and has made all of the disgusting practices of modern life (particularly those we shy away from, not just sex and drugs and excrement, but overuse of resources and inability to care about our environmental impact) clear to us. Not only clear, but enshrined in a temple of culture. Yes, this is the apocalypse – not the one we imagined, with fiery rain and four horsemen, but the one in which we reckon with the disasters of our own making, right in the heart of the city.

Third, I should mention that the urban relationship with fat goes deeper, and the history of Les Innocents Cemetery in Paris is worth mentioning. Just as London had a Great Stink, so did the Les Halles neighborhood, but theirs was caused by a buildup of human bodies not-quite-buried in the cemetery. There were too many bodies stacked too deep to decompose properly and so they rotted in the ground (which wasn’t dirt at that point, just more bodies) into a mass of bones and adipocere. There was a city-wide effort in 1786 to relocate the bones into ancient mine shafts, which are now the Paris Catacombs. The remaining fat was reportedly used to make soap and candles. Yes, like in Fight Club.

Fourth, it drew a link to another recent article on dystopias, beginning with the wonderful phrase:

This is not the dystopia we were promised.

You thought it would be like Black Mirror, right? With a fascist state and complete surveillance and biohacking. It’s not, though. This dystopia is fatbergs, and fatbergs are us. The fatberg is a perfect representation of the horror and fascination of modern urban life. We live in excess, we waste, and a team of flushers that, in an ideal world, would be mechanized and WALL-E like, are very real human beings have to go and shovel it out by hand while clothed in Hazmat suits. And it’s in a museum.*


*(I should make it clear that I am so excited that’s it’s going into MOL and I will be one of the first to see it.)

UPDATE: Here’s an article from the MOL asking “how do you solve a problem like the fatberg?”

It’s an especially difficult challenge for us as conservators, because we have to protect not just the fatberg, but also ourselves and our visitors. The fatberg in its current state is an extremely hazardous material, teeming with bacteria and releasing small amounts of toxic gases. Given the amount of rubbish that people pump into London’s sewage system, we can’t know exactly what sort of dangers are lurking within the ‘berg. The sample of fatberg we’ve taken might contain hypodermic needles, condoms, or sanitary materials, and are certainly capable of spreading disease.

Museum Review: Cape Town

I recently visited Cape Town and, as is my responsibility as a museum enthusiast, tried to visit as many museums and historical sites as possible. This was slightly difficult as it was the December holiday period, and many museums were closed. They all listed dates of closure on their websites, but in actuality they were closed for more days than listed: the excuse given by locals was that because Christmas was on a Sunday, everybody took the next two days off instead of just one day. (OK, sure.)

First, Kirstenbosch Gardens. The last time I was there I was less than ten years old, barely as tall as the agapanthus. It’s a really wonderful botanic garden showing the extensive variety of plants from the Table Mountain fynbos region and further north – the Namibian desert plants were quite spectacular. The fynbos is a unique ecosystem of tremendous biodiversity adapted to an arid environment. I hiked up Table Mountain four times, and each route had remarkably different vegetation specifically adapted for local shade, wind, and rain runoff. Kirstenbosch has a “boomslang”, or canopy walk, for visitors to admire the treetop flora and fauna; if we’d actually seen some fauna it would have been awesome, but it was not to be.

Next I visited the South African Museum. Most of the museums in Cape Town are part of an organization called Iziko, which sets standard prices and presumably consolidates direction and curation. All the Iziko museums were 30 rand; student entry was 15, but only if one has an ISIC card. I decided the difference in price, which worked out to just over a dollar, was not enough to buy an international student card, and I’d rather the meager (for me) entry go to funding the museum. The SA Museum is your average natural history museum – not particularly impressive compared to the NHM or AMNH, but similar in scope, with halls of taxidermy and a multi-story gallery of whale skeletons. They really shone in the exhibit on rock art, though: it had some of the most culturally-aware interpretation I’ve seen, and really thoughtful placards featuring quotes from interviews about traditional San medicine and rock art meaning. Additionally, the introduction to the ethnographic gallery should be used in every museum that still has displays of (non-white) traditional practices, although they could have used more explanation on the collection of body casts (but perhaps I’m still on a rant from Museum of the Normal). Sadly, the museums suffer from a severe lack of funding. In many rooms, the lights were out, the walls had leaks and mold, and one case contained a dead lizard that was definitely not meant to be there.

Across the Company’s Garden, originally planted by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to feed their merchants when Cape Town was a re-supply point on the route to the Far East, is the Slave Lodge, which was the original prison for slaves working for the VOC or the city. The temporary exhibit in the entry was about Tweede Nuwe Jaar, Cape Town’s carnival celebrated on January 2nd. The permanent exhibit about slavery, including a long video (most of the museums had a 15+ minute introductory video), a reproduction slave ship segment, and a hall of remembrance, were devastating. Interestingly, most of the slaves brought to Cape Town were Malay and Indonesian rather than West African, the latter being brought to the Americas rather than further south. Many of them were given names based on the month they arrived, and a photographic exhibit featured 12 interviewees whose surnames are months, making a calendar of sorts. Local Khoekhoe individuals were not enslaved, but were pressed into indentured servitude. The first half of the first floor of the museum was very informative. The second half was about the struggle to end apartheid, with another video and large placards. However, I felt that these seemed to be more evocative than informative, and the focus on oral history without artifacts (or with replica artifacts and a prison cell) was not very effective for me as basically a tourist with little knowledge of events like the Sharpeville massacre. The second floor was an odd mix of ancient Egyptian artifacts and 20th-century African and European domestic objects (silverware, pottery, jewellery) with little to link it to the history on the first floor. There was a marvellous temporary exhibit of ishishweshwe, an African fabric traditionally printed in blue. I realized that the first skirt I ever sewed was with ishishweshwe from Durban.

The Bo-Kaap Museum celebrates Cape Malay history in a house in the Bo-Kaap neighborhood, where all the houses are painted different colors as a sign of independence. Once again, it began with a rather long video interviewing local residents about their relationship to the area, which – as an area close to the city center – is gentrifying. The museum is only four rooms, one of which had the video and one of which was a historic kitchen with no placards. There were also tours of the neighborhood, which we didn’t take as they felt a bit poverty-tourism.


The Bo-Kaap neighborhood

I really enjoyed the Maritime Centre. This museum doesn’t have very many objects, and despite being smack in the middle of the waterfront, it seems to not get much foot traffic; my mom and I were the only visitors then. It’s about Cape Town’s history as a port, first for trade and then for transport. My parents told me about riding passenger lines around the coast, and the museum even had a scale model of the ship they took! There’s also a maritime library, which seems like an invaluable resource. I’m rather obsessed with ships and trains, so I’m pleased I found out about this one.

Finally, we went to the Castle of Good Hope. Constructed in 1666, this was the second fort built to guard the harbor, and as far as I know it has never been attacked. I was a bit disappointed by the lack of information. I probably found out more about the castle’s history from the website than from the actual site visit. Many areas were closed for restoration, but we did go into the second-in-command’s house, stocked with original Dutch-imported furniture, and the prison, which had amazing historic graffiti. It was a nice day to walk along the castle walls and pretend to guard the city (though not the harbor, because there’s been significant land reclamation in the last 350 years), but it probably would have been more informative to take the tour.

Scattered around the Cape, particularly the shore and places of natural beauty, are placards with information about geology or history. I was pleased to learn about the stratigraphy of the rock beaches and the rock dassies and warnings about baboon behavior, but was left distressed after learning that Jan van Riebeeck parked his ships in the middle of a Khoekhoe grazing route, forever disrupting their herding strategies and forcing them into lives of servitude. Very much “we put a flag on it.


View from near Judas Peak

September 28 Link Roundup

A giant inflatable duck in Glasgow takes a journey!

The Museum of London discusses how they select objects for a handling table.

Faking your own death: a flowchart.

More on the ethics of driverless cars, although this time with a data-sharing argument.

Small talk should be banned and new social conventions for deep conversation should replace it, argues this dinner party host:

By establishing a common rule for behaviour we created an environment with a new set of social norms that redefined peoples’ best interests. And everyone was happier. As added proof, two dates came out of the evening. Perhaps meaningful conversation also makes us more attractive?

A horrifying photo and accompanying essay about the Belgian practice of cutting off the hands of rubber workers who didn’t meet their quota.

My colleague Gabe Moshenska has a content warning for his class on archaeology of warfare, and the Daily Mail is deeply unhappy about it.

The Americas are now measles-free! That doesn’t mean we can stop vaccinating any time soon, though — international travel could bring it back and harm those who can’t have vaccines.

Jigsaw shows all of Google’s awesome projects, including some that help re-route internet users in restrictive countries, protect journalists from hacks, and which Syrian officials support which side in the conflict.

I’m off to PrimTech this weekend – it’s UCL’s award-winning course for first-year archaeology students to learn bushcraft, pottery-making, flint-knapping, yurt-building, wood-working, etc. I’m teaching foraging and hoping not to make anyone too ill; on the menu this year (based on last year’s reconnaissance) are hawthorn ketchup, nettle stir-fry, and rosehip syrup. I think this is the most en-dashes I’ve ever used in one paragraph!

Teaching kids not to eat under-ripe berries.

Teaching kids not to eat under-ripe berries.


October 11, 2011

Cairo: A B-student

Everything you’ve heard about Egypt is half-true, more than true, or a complete lie. I guess it’s cliché to say that a desert country is like a mirage, but I feel like that’s the most apt simile: things I read in the news, things I heard from archaeologists, and things I read in my guidebook are either entirely misleading or underwhelming in their descriptions. Or perhaps it’s like the three blind men describing an elephant. One sees the pyramids and says it’s a land of mystic and ancient beauty, one sees the vendors and says it’s full of hassling Arabs, and one sees the revolution and calls it a land of democratic promise offset by fifty years of tyranny. It’s none of these, and all of these, and more besides.

I arrived in Cairo on Wednesday night. The airport was absolutely gorgeous – made of granite so polished that a “CAUTION WET FLOOR” sign would not save you a broken back in the slightest. I have tried to dress conservatively, but I was still one of many women with uncovered hair and trousers. I was met by a hired driver named Isem, who took me on one of the scariest drives of my life. Cairo Airport is surrounded by a few kilometers of desert before you reach the main highway. Suddenly we were going close to 200 km/h with absolutely no warning before a giant traffic jam appeared. We sat in traffic for a good 20 minutes before coming to the funnel point: Isem pointed right and said, “accident.” Three cars had collided and were upside down at 20-meter intervals. This seemed to have occurred hours ago, as they were all moved off the road and only a few people were standing by with some police, the injured presumably having been removed from the scene. Yes: this was a four-lane traffic jam of rubberneckers. Practically as soon as Isem had made his diagnosis, we were back at 200, no lessons learned.

Cairo is a huge city, much bigger than I expected. A quarter of the Arab population lives in Egypt, and most of Egypt lives in Cairo, a city of 20 million. The friends with whom I was staying, Ramya and Alex, live in a district called Maadi about a 20-minute drive from “downtown”, although I was never clear where we were on a map as the city doesn’t readily provide them. Wednesday night they took me out for late dinner to have kushary, which is Cairo’s favorite fast food. Kushary is a mixture of short pasta tubes, rice, vermicelli, lentils, chickpeas, and crisped onions over which one pours tomato sauce and can add optional lemon-vinegar or chili sauce. A large bowl costs 7 Egyptian pounds (about $1.17). It was delicious.

Thursday Ramya and Alex had to work, so I had hired a guide to see the Egyptian Museum. We took the highway, which appeared to have no painted lines, and turned off onto a street we shared with taxis, minivans, a selection of Japanese sedans, and donkey carts. I thought at first the donkey cart was a single, lone donkey, lost in a sea of vehicles; I was mistaken. It is clearly an official mode of transit, and they always get right of way because they stop slower. I noticed a number of things about Egyptian cars besides that they’re mostly Japanese (Toyota, Daihatsu, Honda, and the like, not a Chevy to be seen): they’re all old and filthy. I’d place 90% of the cars on the road as pre-1990, and I doubt any have been washed since then. (Considering their age, the engines must be kept remarkably clean in order to run.) Everything in the city builds up a layer of grime from the pollution, which hangs over the city like a ratty blanket, and the encroaching desert. If you sweep, it just comes back the next day. Anyway, the one very popular non-Japanese car is actually a Soviet model, the Fiat Lada. All old-style Cairo taxis are Ladas, which ceased production in 1979. In addition to the taxis, which are painted white with a blue stripe, there are thousands of privately owned Ladas in all colors and states of repair. Actually, I’m pretty sure I saw a Yugo as well, but I can’t be sure. Additionally, some people try to soup up their Ladas or Hondas or whatever by adding an Audi decal right above the real logo. This isn’t fooling anyone, but is a good explanation for what happened to the decal stolen off my dad’s BMW a few years ago. Later I saw a truck with “Kaweseki” painted on it in the exact style of the Kawasaki name. Really, though – if you’re going to pick a brand to fake, why not just go for Ferrari? Low ambitions in that field, apparently.

My guide in the Egyptian Museum (also known as the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, The Egypt Museum, and the Cairo Museum, depending whom you ask) was Mohammed, a nice young guy who studied hieroglyphics. We saw the first floor, all statuary, first. The objects most worthy of note are the Narmer palette, an Old Kingdom piece of carved green schist with scenes of Narmer defeating his enemies, and a wooden statue of a priest with eyes that follow you. Seriously. Every Egyptian statue I’ve seen has painted or carved eyes. This one had irises made of polished stone, sort of a glass marble effect. They looked completely normal until Mohammed shined his cell phone’s light on them and then it was CREEPY. Upstairs were the mummy galleries, which required an extra ticket. They were really well preserved, and all the famous ones – Hatshepsut, Ramses II, all the other Ramses, etc. They displayed them very respectfully, with only the heads and feet shown – sort of a nap-time mummy. The room was cool and dim, and each mummy was in a temp-checked glass case on a pedestal with a small informational plaque.  For the most part, they all had hair, ears, nails, and eyelids; it was quite a darling habit of the New Kingdom that they wrapped each mummy toe individually instead of all together. (If anyone is interested, ancient Egyptians all had the second toe longer than the first.) Another room contained animal mummies, the most impressive of which was a 4-meter Nile crocodile. This was found with babies in its mouth – they live in there until they’re big enough not to be eaten if they swim independently – so they think it’s a female. Accompanying it was a tiny mummy baby croc, no bigger than a house lizard.

Two wings of the second floor were filled with things from the tomb of Tutankhamun. To put it in perspective: the Egyptian Museum is maybe ¾ the size of the British Museum’s main buildings, laid out in a square with a central courtyard. Two entire sides of the square had Tut stuff. Sadly, some of it was looted in the January revolution, at which Mohammed shook his head sadly. (“National treasures,” he says. “Some of my favorite objects.”) There was Tut’s walking sticks and Tut’s thrones and Tut’s senet board; Tut’s jewelry and Tut’s statuettes and Tut’s makeup palettes. A textile gallery displayed Tut’s shirts, dresses, shawls, socks, gloves, and underwear (yes, underwear). There was Tut’s sedan chair and his umbrella. Then there were four huge gold rooms – rooms! – that nested inside each other, the innermost of which held his coffin. Having seen these and having seen the actual tomb, I’m really unsure how they actually fit inside, as it’s rather small. Or, on the modern end, how they got them out! There was a room with additional security where they kept all the “special” things, which you may have seen in the “Tut’s Tomb” traveling exhibition. I saw it at the Field Museum – his sarcophagus, and the famous gold and lapis lazuli mask, and all the jewellery and amulets. The most interesting thing there, though, was a collection of gift shop boxes from the Met along with a sign saying “These objects repatriated from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York March 2011.” A few pieces of jewellery were haphazardly strewn about. But really? Still in boxes? From the gift shop?

Speaking of which, the Egyptian Museum no longer has a gift shop. It was looted in January and never reopened. Apparently a lot of jewellery was stolen, so it would be expensive to replace it all.

For lunch, Mohammed asked where I wanted to eat. When I said I wanted Egyptian food, he was slightly confused. He thought there was some place over by the Nile… clearly this was not a question many tourists ask, as they seem happy enough to sit in the museum café, which charges exorbitant prices for bottled water and American-style food. I asked if he liked kushary, and his face lit up. “You like kushary! I will take you to Kushary al-Tahrir!” Then I learned how to cross the street, Cairo-style. He grabbed my hand, placing me downstream of the traffic. We waited for a decent break in the first lane, then ambled across to the second. A car went by, then another, then finally we moved slowly to the third, making eye contact with each driver, then finally scuttled to the other side. We had to do this three more times to circle Tahrir Square to get to the restaurant. Apparently it’s less like in the US, where a quick run does the trick, but more like a river crossing downstream of a pack of mother hippos. They can run at you terribly fast unless you stare them down and show no fear. After lunch we went to the Hanging Gardens, the oldest Coptic church in Cairo. The Coptic church is most like Greek Orthodox, with lots and lots of icons against an iconostasis, and heavy fumes of incense. Everything was beautiful inside – this country does inlaid wood like Britain does model Big Bens. There was not a single surface without excessive pearl and ivory inlays. The church seated probably 100 people, and there happened to be a service going on. They were chanting, probably in Coptic – actually the language of Ptolemaic Egypt written with mostly Greek letters.

Afterwards, we went to the oldest mosque in Africa, built in 642. This was so soon after the hejira that Ramya couldn’t believe it until I showed her the guidebook. It was very peaceful, with an open marble courtyard surrounded by prayer areas on four sides and an inlaid Qublah. It was not the most beautiful of mosques, but I guess being really old counts for a lot. I later learned this is the “unofficial” mosque of the Muslim Brotherhood. Outside, I had my first experience with the tissue salesmen. Ramya had warned me: this country has a weird obsession with tissues. Everybody loves tissues. Toilet paper in public bathrooms is not common, and paper towels are almost impossible to find, but tissues are available en masse. Beggars sell tissue packs in little trays outside mosques, on the side of the street, and in the middle of roads, like the sock salesman at the corner of Garfield and the Dan Ryan. If you sneeze, people come at you with tissues. I asked Mohammed why they weren’t selling cigarettes or bottled water, and he replied, “Not everybody smokes, and if you are fasting you can not have water… everyone can use tissues.” Which I guess is as good an answer as any. And people buy them too, not like the dude’s socks for sale. Speaking of which, I expected a lot more people to be smoking. True, there was smoking in restaurants, but it wasn’t like everyone was lighting up every second, as Anna led me to believe. In fact, the only people I actually saw smoking were French tourists, unless you count the hookahs.

Now, another thing I expected was that all men would wear galabiyas (sort of like a floor-length tunic-robe) and all women would wear hijabs (that’s the one wrapped around the hair and chin). How utterly wrong of me. Women generally dressed conservatively – shoulders covered, and long skirt or pants – but many had uncovered hair. Many more had a stylish hijab and wore a skintight long-sleeve shirt under a regular shirt and pants. Fewer wore a chador, sort of like the veil in Persepolis, and a small but visible minority wore a burkha, complete with black gloves, only the eyes showing; these are only the types of veils I know the names of, but the variety is endless. However, all women, no matter they were wearing, matched impeccably. You know how hard it is to match a bag and shoes to a dress? How about matching a bag, shoes, hijab, and fancy scarf? And then women going out on Saturday night – imagine a regular long, strapless party gown, but super sparkly. Now, under it is a white sparkly skintight shirt. And a white hijab with fluffy flowery decorations, bits of lace stuck in to make shapes, and white face powder. It’s practically Marie Antoinette. Somehow, despite the pollution, everyone manages to have beautiful skin. Men, too, have a dress code of sorts. Many men – maybe 30% of those I saw – wear the galabiya in brown, grey, tan, dark blue, or other colors in the Eddie Bauer mens’ collection with leather sandals. The rest all wear colorful collared shirts. Older mean wear short-sleeve collared shirts with slacks; young men wear short- or long-sleeve collared shirts with jeans or dress pants. They all seem to wear nice shoes. Another thing clearly noticeable is their impeccable grooming (maybe the tissues are related to this?). Short, manicured nails are a necessity for “a certain class” – that is, anyone above laborers, who still had nice nails for the most part. Egyptians have fabulous dark hair, in some state of curl from a light wave to ringlet curls; the “Sammy Davis Jr.” hairstyle seems to be popular. All hair must be gelled and styled. Moustaches are big, both in size and popularity. The “Freddie Mercury” was seen on a number of individuals. They must trim and brush their moustaches daily, as I did not see a single facial hair out of place, no matter the apparent class. Speaking of which, Ramya and Alex pointed out that Egypt is one of the few places we (collectively) have seen in which the laboring class is the same ethnicity as the middle and upper classes, however one wishes to divide them. Egyptians come in all shapes and colors, from European-light to Sudanese-dark. (I actually think they’re united by beautiful hair.) There are Egyptians of all skin tones driving donkey carts and driving taxis and riding in the backseat of hired cars. I don’t know what this says for national unity, but it’s certainly interesting to notice the variety, as I’m sure everyone pictures a stereotypical Arab when you hear the word “Egyptian”. Ramya has also seen six albino Egyptians, once when she was with me.

Another note on Cairo: as I drove along the highway with Isem, I noticed that many buildings were in a state of near-completion. They were brick, with people clearly occupying the lower levels, but the top would just be left open. There were piles of rebar and brick sitting around, waiting to be used; one building even had wallpaper on it top level, but no roof. It’s as if someone plans to build an 8-story apartment building, gets to level 6, and gives up, like when I play video games. The kushary restaurant we went to the first night was entirely made of white polished marble, from the walls down to the outdoor patio. It was beautiful. But at the edges, the marble wasn’t cut to form a proper curb but rather kind of chiseled off, like they had gotten to the last day of work and just went “eh” *shoulder shrug*. The city is full of gorgeous colonial buildings badly in need of a wash. They aren’t short of water as they get it all from downstream, but each and every building is in dire need of a good hosing. Streets in Garden City, the district with stately homes and foreign embassies, has trash littering every block. Nice neighborhoods are interspersed with piles of construction dirt and equipment, and sidewalks (when they exist) are in complete disrepair. You can’t even blame the revolution for decreasing governance or building standards, as this stuff was clearly a problem before. But that’s the thing: it isn’t enough of a problem to fix. What we decided is thus: Cairo is a smart B-student. Clearly it has potential. It has such a good history, and it has all the skills to succeed. Maybe it has problems at home, maybe it’s afraid to apply itself, maybe it’s just too darn lazy. But it needs to get its act together to really be world-class.

Coming up: Street markets, camels, and Luxor!

June 30, 2010

More Norway

After the busy day seeing Håkon’s Hall et cetera, we woke up very early to take a fjord tour. We took a train to a bus (which went down a road with an 18% grade) to a boat, which led us slowly around a fjord. The weather was terrible – rainy and chill the whole day. The fjord was beautiful though – they are steep glacial valleys (my favorite kind) and can be a mile deep. On the sides are small towns, some inaccessible by roads. They all apparently have medieval stave churches, a style of building unique to Norway, but unfrtunately they all seemed to be hiding behind other buildings. The boat dropped us off in Flåm, a tiny town pretty much used only by tourists. We had a surprisingly decent lunch despite the lack of options, and then took pictures with a large troll holding a Norwegian flag. The next leg of the journey was a historic train up the steep mountain, with a stop at a huge waterfall with a singing troll, sort of a Norwegian siren with long braids. That train took us to another train, which took us back to Bergen. There we had delicious Vietnamese for dinner, followed by the best carrot cake I’ve ever had.

Saturday we went to some shops and then the Bryggen tour, which gave us a guided tour through Bergen’s historic fishing town. It was an important trade center in the Hanseatic League, and life there was so terrible they had to give the apprentices tests of strength before they could join on. The current Bryggen was built immediately after the fire in 1702, with each building in exactly the same location as the ones that had been destroyed. They areconstantly being repaired, as the salt content of the bay has changed with the construction of something or other, and now the foundations (basically, boats filled with shoes and sunk) are rotting away. The buildings now sit at funny angles, leaning into each other and over the paths between them. It’s really adorable. On the tour we learned all about life then, the Hanseatic League (which I knew pretty much nothing about before), and the later fish trade. The Hanseatic Museum even has 150-year-old salt cod hanging from the ceiling for luck.

For lunch we went to a hot dog stand called Kong Oscar’s Pølsar, where they had the most impressive sausage menu I’ve ever seen. I had a reindeer dog, 150 grams, which stuck out from the bun on both sides. The meat was gamey and smokey, but it needed more toppings than just fried onions and ketchup. Afterwards, we left for Copenhagen.

Going home tomorrow – will try to update more before then.

June 27, 2010

Norway: “It was amazing when we rode dugout canoes and got to meet the Amazonian natives.”

(Actual quote from someone on a National Geographic tour. ACTUAL QUOTE.)

We are now in Copenhagen after a visit to Bergen, Norway. I will attempt to write about Bergen as quickly as I can on this shared computer which other guests are waiting to use.

Bergen’s airport is teeny-tiny. One would guess, then, that Bergen is similarly small, but it is bigger than one expects. It actually had a fair number of museums, which we didn’t get to see because they are only open from 10-4, and there are only so many you can do in that time. (We did four today from 10-5, heh heh.)

On Torsday we started out at the medieval king’s hall, Håkon’s Hall (built by Håkon Håkonsson, which sounds more like a cough than real words). It was buuilt in 1260, and has since burned down a few times and was blown up by a stray German ammunition ship in WWII. It was quite large insuide, and is currently used for local government functions. Afterwards we saw Rosencrantz Tower, which was remodeled over the last eight centuries but is still quite drafty with terribly steep stairs. Bergen was famously raining all day Thursday.

Friday we took a fjord tour, which I will write about later as these people are very patiently waiting.


June 22, 2010

Sweden: “If you had a pay laundromat, someone would make a lot of money!”

(Actual quote from a real Swede.)

[Unfortunately, the internet crashed before I was able to post yesterday’s combined entry, so I’ll try to recall as much as possible and make it a triple entry.]

It seems the Swedish penchant for politeness can also be witnessed in their driving: if you even think about crossing a street, the cars will stop. Bicycles are justly and effectively treated as semi-vehicles and semi-pedestrians. They have separate lanes, but cross with the pedestrian crossing signal, and rush hour is full of commuter bikes. They all wear helmets and carry their bags in bike baskets. The locking mechanism for many bikes is just a number-code entry clamp on the back wheel, so it isn’t big or bulky. Very efficient.

Most people are also very conscious of litter. There is very little litter in the city – no heaping piles of garbage, and I saw a man drop a tiny candy wrapper, notice 15 feet later, and go back and pick it up. People will go out of their way to find a trash can. Outside the local Konsum (the grocery chain – I bought a reusable bag that says “I look good and make a difference”) is a set of five different recycling bins; people will stand outside sorting their recycling.

Today was also a marvelous day, 70s and sunny, and Swedes were all outside lounging in public parks and picnicking. Apparently picnicking and camping are the national pastimes, and most restaurants will pack up a lunch for you to eat outside. We would eat outside here, but the deck is tiny. Part of the Swedish design ethos seems to involve doing the most with a very small space (with various palaces as exceptions); we saw some vacation homes today not much bigger than this apartment despite being situated on private islands.

Anyway, on to the actual events.

On Sunday we started at the Vasa Museum, which was sincerely one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. In 1628, the Vasa, the brand-new flagship of the Swedish navy, sunk after 20 minutes of sailing. During its construction, the master shipbuilder died AND the king decided to add a second gundeck. The cause of the sinking, apparently, was too little  ballast – with the new deck, the ship was too tall, requiring more ballast, but the hold (designed for a smaller ship) couldn’t fit any more. Out of 100 men on board, approximately half died. Additionally, the ship was also loaded with cargo, which also sunk. Quite unfortunate for the Swedes, not to mention embarrassing.

Fortunately for pretty much everyone in the last 50 years, the salinity of the sea in Stockholm’s harbor is perfect for preservation of organics. In 1956,  a researcher in a rowboat with a homemade core sampler found the Vasa by himself and then enlisted a salvage company and the Swedish navy to dredge it up. Over the next few years, they were able to move it up to shallower water and then into an indoor space where it could be cleaned and prepared for preservation. The videos of it are amazing – every handful revealed something new and amazingly preserved. (Think Titanic but older, better preserved, and more awesome.) You don’t have to wonder, huh, what’s that hunk of metal? because everything was so well-preserved. They even found the bones of sailors still wearing leather boots and hats.

Anyway, after the salvage and conservation with propylene glycol, they moved it to the current hangar-like museum, which is HUGE. Let me tell you that even after watching movies like Master and Commander and seeing all those other historic boats – slave ships in the US and the Jesus boat in Israel – I had no idea how big this would be. It’s 68 meters long, and the stern rises 45 feet above sea level (and there’s at least that much below). The museum was probably as high as a 15-story building (it had 7 museum-height floors), and the signs instructed us to imagine that the top two-thirds of the masts were there, as they were not recovered. The outside of the building had fake masts to replicate how tall it was. Seriously, two decks of cannons (not including the light cannon on the top deck). Additionally, all the detail was preserved – carvings along the sides of Roman emperors, lions, and cherubs, and even buckets on the bow for sailors to go to the bathroom. It was pretty impressive. (See vasamuseet.se for pictures)

Afterwards, we went to Skansen, the world’s first open-air museum (1891). This is pretty much Sweden’s Disneyworld – except that all of the buildings are real historic homes and shops from all over Sweden, disassembled and reassembled timber by timber on the site of the World’s Fair. I could have spent days here. We saw farmsteads, manors, craft shops demonstrating old techniques, a Sami camp, a country church, reindeer, elk/moose, wolves, wild boar piglets, and more. My favorite was a minute house for farmers – it had one 8×10 room for the family to cook/sleep/huddle in, a room for the animals, and a room for storage, all about four feet tall on the inside. The roof was sodded, which kept it warmer in the winter. This reminded me of my favorite story from the Book of Virtues, in which a man hoists his cow up on to the roof and then is pulled up the chimney when the cow falls off. Neither Dad nor I could remember what the virtue presented in the story was, only that it was hilarious. Another (larger) house had a skylight – clearly the penchant for skylights in this country started early.

Monday we ended up buying a combination ticket (save 60kr!) to the palace, so we saw the Tre Kronor Museum, Gustav III’s sculpture collection, and the Treasury. The Tre Kronor Museum housed information from the original palace on the site from the Middle Ages. Construction began in the 1200s (by Birger Jarl, I believe), and was added to over the next four hundred years. In the early 1680s, they decided that the palace needed to be modernized in a Renaissance style (the Renaissance hit late here). Unfortunately, that palace burned down in 1697, leaving only the medieval north tower remaining (hah!), and was promptly rebuilt to be even more Renaissancey. The museum went under the new palace and into the North Tower, and was on a suspended wooden walkway so we could see cobbled streets and things underneath. There were various showcases of things they’d found in excavation, the best being a pair of medieval shoes. I really have no idea how they walked on cobblestones all the time in those leather shoes – it’s unpleasant even in my Campers.

In the Treasury we saw the crown jewels, which were shiny but not as impressive as the chest that formerly held them, which had 29 elaborate locking mechanisms.

Today (finally) after some confusion [see endnote] we went to the Nobel Museum. Apparently it is not common knowledge that the Nobel Prizes are awarded in Stockholm, as Alfred Nobel was Swedish. The museum had small banners of each Nobel winner that circulated around a track in the ceiling, and exhibits about the life of Alfred Nobel, the inception of the prize, and various Nobel winners. Although housed in a historic building, the exhibits all featured LCD monitors and digital art, and it was Exploratorium-esque inside. Nobel made his fortune with his inventions of nitroglycerin-based dynamite, explosive gun cotton, silent explosives, and other things that go boom (or don’t). He apparently thought that people were too good to use dynamite in war, which makes him both extraordinarily hopeful and extremely naïve. Since he had no children, he decided to further his interests in science and peace by bequeathing his fortune yearly to individuals or groups who made advances in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. The museum featured some personal objects from a few of the winners including Amartya Sen’s bicycle and Hemingway’s letter opener. It also had the most helpful and interesting shop clerk, who told Dad that the top he was playing with would not spin forever as it violated the second law of thermodynamics. He also gave book recommendations – the shop had all of the works of the Nobel Literature Prize winners as well as one called “What to Do When Your Spouse Wins a Nobel” (written by the wife of a 1998 winner). I bought one about how science is misused in the media.

After that we attempted to go to the medieval museum, but decided that we only had time for one more today, so went to the Halwyll Palace. This palace was somewhere between a mansion and a true palace; it housed the Count and Countess von Halwyll, one of seven of their homes. One must take it for granted that a king and queen are rich. I mean, royal palaces are just huge. But this… the Countess told an architect to build her a house, and build her one he did. The piano arrived but it didn’t match the drawing room so they just had an artist come in and made new parquet siding for it, tralala. Each room just kept getting bigger and bigger and grander and grander. They had an attic, but needed the space so they turned it into an art gallery and bowling alley. They had five guest bedrooms all in row, and three whole rooms to store their china. They had a car, a horse and carriage, and a sled (instead of a carriage for winter). It was unbelievable and fantastic. There were also items belonging to the family around the house – gloves, dresses, guns, shoes – and the tour guides were dressed as maids and butlers from the early 20th century. More interestingly, the Countess had planned from the start that she would give her house to the state as a museum, so every single thing was numbered and catalogued. Spoons in cases said “Gr III: F.n.2” and matched an entry in a ledger. Sofas, pots and pans, the carriage, even the designer piano all had numbers. Also, Stockholm apparently got into the running-water game a bit late, and the family was reluctant to give up their “earth closets” in favor of flushing toilets. Every night the “night soil man” would come by to empty the buckets from the earth closets, and to encourage him – in addition to a salary – they left out a dram of whiskey.

In the afternoon we took a boat tour of the archipelago. Apparently 70% of Swedes own boats, and many have houses on these little islands. Occasionally the islands are very small, with only one house on them; it would be nice to have a private island, I think, but not very useful for most of the year, as the sea freezes. I wonder if they have to skate to get to their homes.

For dinner we brought food home from the Ostermalm Saluhall, sort of like the Swedish Dean and Deluca’s. We got Swedish meatballs, potatoes and onions, and fresh bread.

Swedish meatball count: 12.5

Best Swedish names so far: Gunnar, Jerker, Birger Jarls

[endnote: Swedes, like the Greeks, are allergic to work. Shops are open 10-6 on weekdays and close early on Saturdays. Often they are closed on Sundays and often on Mondays. Sometimes they close early or don’t open at all for no reason. Museums tend to be open 10-5, unless they are open 12-4. Or not at all Sundays and Thursdays. Restaurants are open from 11-1 and 5-10, but can close unexpectedly. Sunday is restaurant blackout day, and occasional Mondays and Thursdays. But at least they all get pensions and free healthcare.)