Avventure o anche memorie personali e scolastiche
Caro Diego, lo so che ci siamo scambiati alcuni messaggi a fine scorso anno e vorrei mantenere la candela accesa di questa comunicazione e dunque vorrei mandarti un piccolo estratto del mio racconto dei miei primi anni con i Salesiani sia al Cairo. Il tutto comprende 220p di avventure e memorie personali e scolastiche, con foto allegate a fine di ogni periodo e “purtroppo” scritto in inglese.
In allegato troverai qualche pagina che ho estratto del mio periodo vissuto al Cairo. Ho mandato una copia del libro a D Caputa e fu lui stesso a suggerire di contattarti nella speranza di condividere la mia raccolta con i nostri ex-allievi; il racconto intero é di quasi 25Mb.
Allora, innanzitutto l’idea di scrivere il mio racconto é stato puramente un desiderio personale di raccogliere e mettere su carta gran parte delle mie esperienze vissute durante i miei primi vent’anni, per poi semmai poterlo condividere con persone a me care; e dunque non mi é mai passato per la mente l’idea di pubblicarlo finché non me lo aveva suggerito Don Caputa dopo averlo letto lui stesso.
Queste esperienze hanno avuto modo di inculcare in me tutta l’educazione e filosofia di cui sono estremamente fiero e riconoscente a tutti coloro che hanno partecipato al mio sviluppo personale. Man mano che scrivevo ho rivissuto tante avventure e come risultato, dopo tre anni di appunti e redazioni e revisioni, ho semplicemente deciso di stamparlo e mandare una copia a quel piccolo gruppo di persone che potrebbero gioire di questo racconto e rivivere queste memorie tramite il mio racconto.
Dunque, ho provato a spedirti per via elettronica il documento intero nel quale, dopo ogni periodo, avevo anche incluso delle bellissime foto scavate qua e la, purtroppo il documento era enorme, quasi 30Mb e dunque non partiva; allora ho dovuto ricopiare, eliminando le foto, solamente la parte scritta che troverai in allegato dal quale potrai estrarre quello che pensi sia pertinente e adeguato per pubblicare sul nostro sito.
Ps: quando é morto il nostro caro amico Ali Ghamloush, ho spedito a Youssef quel tratto del mio racconto dove parlo di lui e quanto fu importante durante l’ultimo periodo del mio soggiorno a Beirut.
La famiglia fu molto commossa dei ricordi e quanto aveva inciso su di noi….
My first twenty years, as I saw them…
This recount is simply a collection of memories that have marked and left forever a lasting impression on my life. With each main memory told, a secondary one would come to the surface, thus the three years it took me to organize and put some of them in writing in the simplest possible way. There is no specific chronology of these events, just a retelling of them by association, as they only relate to the subject in time, since they are all in function of the subsequent, cause and effect. The main purpose of all this collection is to express through them my profound and emotional nostalgia of these times and to passionately relive every moment, happy or sad, the same way I felt and experienced them in those days. Keep in mind that much of the commentary and opinions while retelling these events, are simply expressed with the feelings and the impressions I was experiencing during those days and not in retrospect.
While there are too many experiences to share in detail, other specific memories, events and situations were so unpleasant and quite painful to recall or to mention, which I thought best to leave them alone, therefore they were purposely omitted to protect the memory, the integrity, the reputation and the personal relationship that exists, in order to avoid tarnishing the image and the respect we all may have or had toward them…
Every single event here shared, has a special meaning for me: to each moment in time, there is a unique and particular smell associated to it, constantly reviving my memory thus reliving the experience in my mind: the school, the dorm, the shoe room, the refectory, the church, the classroom, the hallways, the stairwells, the fields, the trips, the games, the heat, the cold, the rain, the mountains, the desert, the streets, the beaches, the foods, the books, the kitchen, the music, the clothes, the friends, the loves, etc., all I have to do is close my eyes, take a deep breath, go back in time and visualize it all; each moment and each event still brings a smile to my face and fills my heart with appreciation and joy, which now I share with all my closest friends; and if by chance I offended someone with my tales, or misplaced faces or dates with events, please forgive me as it was not my intention, since they were drawn from memory. I merely wished to relive all these special moments with you that have carved a place in my heart and in my history and are forever indelible.
To my Yaya,
Who raised me and cared for me unconditionally and gave me the best memories a child could cherish…
To my mother:
Who through all the hardship and sacrifices, instilled discipline during my youth and gave me the moral base that made me the grateful person I am today…
To my sister:
My only best friend since the day she was born until the day I rest…
To my teachers at Don Bosco:
Who educated me and taught me civility, coexistence and tolerance with everyone…
I thank you all with love from the depth of my heart and soul, forever in your debt!
PART 1 (1957-’67)
Egypt, a magical and spiritual country with ancient history, filled with mystery and secrets, is located on the northeast coast of Africa. While only to the north it faces the Mediterranean Sea, it is surrounded by desert and sand. The largest and longest river in the continent, the Nile, traverses the entire country from the south all the way to the north where it dies with the widest delta in the Mediterranean Sea. During the rainy season, this river becomes unpredictable and quite dangerous, as it temporarily overflows and floods both banks and their adjacent zones making it also rich for cultivation and agriculture, which allows the population to thrive and develop on either side of it. Since ancient times, the Egyptians realized the powers and the gifts of this river, that once a year they used to sacrifice a child to the Nile in order to appease its ravaging flooding waters and spare the adjacent towns, its inhabitants and their crops. While the modern Egyptians retained the same beliefs, they still perform a similar processional ceremony on the Nile every year at the end of August but instead of a real person, they sacrifice a doll. Most cities in Egypt were built along the banks of the Nile, thriving with trade and becoming the centers for commerce and points of contact between Egypt and its surrounding countries. Ancient Romans, Greeks, Persians and many other conquering civilizations, recognized the strategic geographical location, the value and the potential for growth and development of this area. Many modern European countries such as England, Italy, Greece, France, and others, became obsessed with its mystique and wanted to colonize Egypt for multiple reasons. Many of them have settled there and built communities, some in Cairo, some in Alexandria, others in Port Said or Damietta, not only by choice but also by ancestral heritage. In most cities in northern Egypt, you have the Greek fish store, the Italian butcher, the French pastry shop, and their respective restaurants sprouting in various neighborhoods, offering a variety of culinary experiences to their local residents as well as for the visiting tourists. Even though Alexandria is the most culturally diverse city in Egypt, Cairo is the most densely populated city in the country, it is considered one of the oldest cities in the world and it is situated on the delta of the great Nile, just before it enters the Mediterranean Sea. The Italians, one of the many and largest foreign communities to settle in Cairo, had erected a beautiful hospital to accommodate the ill and the elderly from all nationalities, but mainly for patients from Italian descent and that’s where I was born, one late Saturday afternoon on June the 8th in 1957 around 5pm.
A hospital is not a place for anyone to visit let alone to live there. With its own private cemetery, adjacent to the main building, this hospital was like an oasis amidst all that congested city traffic and the constant incessant noise. People from all cultures came and sought out treatment at this hospital, while their friends and relatives gathered at the restaurant/cafe and marveled with its gardens, which functioned as a playground for us kids. There was so much greenery: trees, palms, bushes, flowers and garden paths where lovers can be alone surrounded by the natural beauty and families can reunite, while their loved ones were either recovering at the hospital or were fulltime residents at the modern hospice that was located at the back of the compound. One of my great aunts, on my grandmother’s side, was living her final years in that hospice, I don’t recall whether her name was Berthe or Armao. As an elderly widowed and as an Italian citizen, living there gave her the comfort of being close to her lost companion (her husband was buried in the hospital cemetery) and not feel culturally misplaced. Whenever we visited her, I loved to run and play in the gardens, spy on other people there, talk with the nuns of St. Vincent of Paul (French congregation) and the nuns of Maria Ausiliatrice (Italian congregation). These nuns were the generals and the backbone of that hospital’s staff and ran most operations and departments, from the kitchens to the janitorial, from the emergency to the gardening, especially when it came to service the recovery department, making sure all your needs were met and you were well taken care of, as if you were at home surrounded by family members.
I vividly remember that the trip to this hospital was an absolute nightmare or an adventure seen from a kid’s perspective! It was located in the middle of one of the oldest city quarters, a couple of “souks” (markets) were just a five-minute walk from there; traffic was impossible, and it would take at least one hour by car from anywhere in the city, anytime of the day. I remember being in a taxi on the way to the hospital and looking out the rear passenger window, I noticed this woman in a bright dress walking with her two children keeping pace with us for more than two kilometers and thinking to myself: “how fast is this lady walking?” With all the pedestrian traffic, the car traffic, the honking, the noise, the yelling, the heat, the dust, the soot and the smog, what a challenge to walk dragging two screaming kids and receive constant cat calls by many drivers, in a feeble attempt to get her attention or kill time and entertain themselves while stuck in traffic. Let’s not forget the passers-by: those that whistled or heckled her with lewd comments or with praises to the creator for giving them such a beautiful angel to walk among them; some of these men did a double take staring at her from top to bottom, front and back, while others who literally stopped in front of her blocking her path just to get a reaction: a slap or a smile or an insult from her; and let’s not forget the ones who were just standing there, reading the newspaper or having a cigarette and suddenly they began to walk closely behind her and persistently talking to her just to get her name or a smile out of her. But once you turned the corner from the main artery onto the two-lane street that lead to the hospital and you entered the gates of this majestic and magnificent building made of white marble, it was paradise lost, Shangrila! You instantly forgot the tribulations and the pain you just went through to get here, and you always made sure the trip was worth your while, so you prolonged your visit and stayed as long as you could. Going to this hospital always turned into a day trip.
For me it was like a trip to the zoo and to the botanical park at the same time; I have fond memories of this place, well, in a manner of speaking, considering the numerous visits I had to endure for my own medical interventions. First, I was born with a herniated groin, in fact many children born on that year, for some reason had a hernia from what I was told; then I got two stitches on the back of my head at the age of two for falling off our balcony; I was also taken in an ambulance because my mother spilled inadvertently boiling water on my head burning my scalp; and finally I had my tonsils pulled out and this was no picnic trip either, but the recovery period was heavenly, with such treats from Swiss chocolate to French pastries to Italian ice cream, from mango juice to sugar cane juice to “fitira” (the Egyptian crepe rolled, served hot and covered with honey, cinnamon and powder sugar), what more could a seven year old ask for? Well, funny you should ask this, how about a red Vespa or something cool on two wheels!!! That’s right. The Christmas Eve of 1964, my father took me to the back room of our apartment where “tante Arghiro” roomed with us, she was my grandmother’s best friend and an amazing seamstress. Her daughter Dina was also my mother’s best friend, they were like family removed. So, my father and I went to that room, we opened the latch and pushed the window outward facing the main street (no mosquito screens in those days) and he asked me to look up at the stars and make a wish to Santa Claus. Right at that moment, a shooting star was crossing the crisp clear night sky (I actually remember that!) and I thought: “yeah, I want a Vespa!!” I was only seven and a half years old…. Our family and cultural tradition was to open our gifts early morning December 25th. So, Christmas day arrives, my sister Beatrice (I called her Bice) and I were up very early and frantically I searched for a set of keys through all the small and large boxes that were wrapped in colorful paper, which were strategically placed under the tree, but I found nothing. Every small box I touched, I shook it hard to hear if there was any metal rattling or clanging. No sign of any type of keys, I remained puzzled with that look of shock and disbelief: so, what did I get? Here is what I got: a cheesy, flimsy, tacky Batman ensemble: the black vinyl mask, the winged vinyl wrist band, the black vinyl cape, the winged vinyl ankle straps and the vinyl fake utility or gadget plastic belt. Yes, that was one of the recently introduced new television shows with some animation every time Adam West slapped, kaboomed or kapowed someone. But what happened to my Vespa? Where is my wish? What am I to do with this crap? Well, needless to say, I was very disappointed and upset for a longtime. In the meantime, that was the period when my tonsils began to swell and flared up quite regularly. In those days, one of the remedies was to douse my throat with some kind of smelly black thick cream, which felt like the stuff they used for greasing cars, and tightly strapped my head to my jaw with a rag for hours or even days, which was supposed to squeeze and bring the swelling down, but nothing really happened. The pain was intolerable and many times it caused me to hallucinate and have recurring daydreams and nightmares. I still remember the dream: that I was lying down on the bed, with my head pinned staring at the ceiling and at the curtain rod in front of me and every time one of the rings would slide down the curtain rod, a jolting pain would go through my throat making me scream in agony. I had that dream countless times until one day it was decided that I had to be hospitalized and have my tonsils removed as soon as possible.
I am not certain how or who took me to the hospital, I do not recall the trip there, but I remember being in a large room of that beautiful Italian hospital with three other kids, all of them screaming and causing all kind of noise. My throat was so swollen I could not even talk nor swallow, so I sat quietly in my bed until the nun with the wingtip bonnet came to tell me in Italian, that very soon I would be having pastries and be just as rambunctious as these kids and I would be as good as new with a manly, deeper and stronger voice and I will be able to run in the garden. I remember being wheeled on a bed through the long corridors: looking at white ceilings, green walls and white marble floors and then finally entering a big green room where a handful of adults dressed in white, completely covered up except for their eyes, were waiting for me and staring at me like a scientific project or a lab experiment. There were no windows, there was a rectangular table in the middle of the room and immediately above it, this big circular flood light, like the search lights in a German prison or Stalag 13 from Hogan’s Heroes. They wheeled me near the center table and lifted me onto it. They asked me if I was afraid and to tell them my name and age. Then they asked if I liked masks, to which I replied that I have a stupid batman mask which they can have. So, they tell me that this mask is a special one and that it covers only my mouth just like fighter pilots or imagine as if I was going into space and that I can breathe through it like a cosmonaut and that once they put it on me, I should count up to my age and I will be up in space. I never made it to seven… When I slowly attempted to open my crusty eyes, I noticed my parents were standing next to the bed, but my lips were sealed shut. My grandmother was sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed praying, reciting her rosary. As I tried to open my mouth to say hi to my mother who was looking at me, I realized I could not move my tongue to say anything at all. That nun did not mention to me that I would be coming out of the operating room with harp cords all over inside my throat and mouth!!! How was I supposed to eat all those promised pastries? More lies… But the pain and the discomfort I was in gave me the upper hand. Both my parents were saying how proud they were of me, while my grandmother was cursing and threatening them, in between prayers, for putting me in that predicament. Then they asked me what my wish was for being so brave. That was the moment, I had them where I wanted! Here comes my Vespa!!! Sadly again, my dream was nowhere near to become a reality! The outcome of that semi verbal, hand signal haggling transaction would turn out to be a “Nasr”, to be more precise, the Egyptian cruising bicycle of the sixties: no gears, brakes on the pedals, handlebars like a Harley and thick tires, which today they call a mountain bike. Secretly, I always wanted one of them, but it seemed that in order to take possession of one of these bikes, I had to give up two huge glands in the back of my throat. In my opinion, the removal of such glands warrants a Vespa and not a bicycle! To this day, I still remember that nauseating smell of chloroform and how it felt like when they put me under with their famous space mask on my face, asking me to breathe deeply, to this day the smell still makes me dizzy. I saw the room spin at an incredible speed and my eyes rolled so far back it felt like they fell off from the back of my head; if Star Trek lingo was out then, I would have been drifting downward, spiraling at warp speed into a wormhole! The pain in the back of my throat when I regained my senses was unbearable; I could feel the strings crisscrossing in my throat like a harp or like that string game we used to play with our fingers. No bike was worth this much pain or discomfort, not even two “Nasr”!!!
My parents were so proud of me for putting up with such pain and yet they had no clue what it was like to have your tonsils out; they both had their set still in place. Why me? How come they didn’t have to go through this? Bike or no bike, I wanted everything to get back to the way it was, not to have to eat through a straw and pass my food through a web of rope! My grandmother understood, my “Yaya” (that’s how I called her) was the best. I remember she chased everyone out of the room, who caused that unpleasant mood I was in, and turned it into a cozy environment again, just the way she always made me feel: her favorite. Two weeks later I was the proud owner of a beautiful red “Nasr” and the center of the universe, that’s what I was or at least the center of our neighborhood. I would actually miss episodes of my favorite television shows: “Lost in Space” or “Land of the Giants” and go around the block or around the round-about endlessly, making friends as fast as I could make enemies because of this bike and I still have the scars to prove it.
We lived in new Cairo (Masr El Gidida), a district known as Heliopolis (a Greek word for Suncity). It was a sort of new development just on the peripheral of the old traditional city, new roads with many new buildings to accommodate the Egyptian upper class and the thousands of foreigners that moved in from all parts of Europe and relocated in the area. Everyone was looking for a new start, a new adventure, a better life in a cleaner environment, less congested, more modern and more spacious yet still staying close to the old, to the magic, to the mystique of this city and to its people and their history. We lived in an apartment on the ground floor of this huge white building that formed the juncture where a major street split into a “Y” intersection. The building was oval shaped, eight stories high and was closed in by a seven-foot concrete site wall. I guess the wall served to discourage the undesirables from any adventurous ideas and to give the ground floor tenants some sense of security and a sort of privacy from all the hustle and bustle coming from the streets. The only opening or access to the building was from the front, through a big gate which allowed entry onto a tiled courtyard. In this courtyard, there were four or six colossal pillars of perhaps ten feet in circumference, to support the protruding front of the building, shading part of the courtyard and sheltering the doorman from the scorching sun. Once through the courtyard, the only entrance to the building was a metal and glass double door which was always locked, and Ali would open the door for you only if he knew who you were and which floor you lived in; that was his only responsibility, which he took very seriously and performed it zealously. Once past the doorman, you were in an inclined hallway about forty or fifty feet long and ten or twelve feet wide, with steps that were seven to ten feet deep that led to the main stairwell which marked the center of the building. There were no elevators in this modern construction. The idea behind all this was to attract and lure young modern urban families to live in it and to discourage tenants with elderly family members (that didn’t work very well!). Each floor had only three apartments and their respective front doors faced each other in the hallway, which had the shape of the “bell” on the basketball court. Everybody’s front door was always open, never locked as we all knew each other and trusted that Ali would not let strangers in. If you needed to borrow some salt, oil or some spices from a neighbor who lived on another floor, you would be announcing yourself from the landing before you reached the last step of that floor; or you would open your kitchen window that gave onto another small inner shafted courtyard, which connected all the kitchens on your side of the building and yelled out your request from there. The problem with that approach was that, while the kids would be sent up or down with the spices requested, you ran the risk of being stuck on that window for quite some time, chatting with everyone else who heard you, or happened to be in the kitchen cooking and you most probably would end up by burning your lunch or dinner!
As I said before, our first apartment in this building was a two bedroom on the ground floor but I was told that too many calamities occurred in this apartment. In Cairo, most windows and balcony doors were always left opened, in order to create a draft and to minimize the dreadful and unbearable heat. Since we lived on the ground floor, this gave many stray animals easy access to shelter or food. It was a mystery to my Yaya how food would disappear from the table or from the kitchen counter. Within a few weeks, my mother discovered the culprit: it was a stray cat who was stealing the food and running out the balcony. My mother did not like cats very much and still doesn’t, but they were tolerated as they cleared the streets from rats and they were revered by the ancient Egyptians as the keepers of the underworld and the afterlife. The next time my mother saw that cat, it was walking along the perimeter wall of the building with its kittens and she decided to throw a bucket of water at all of them. My Yaya also suspected this cat of stealing food, as she had seen it lingering around too many times and sit there for too long of a period. In revenge, a few days later, as I was sleeping on the dining room table while my Yaya was sewing, the cat had entered my parent’s bedroom through the window and shredded the pillow and the sheets in my crib. Another time at age two, I was told that while my mother was in the kitchen preparing something, not sure what could that possibly be since she had no cooking talent at the time, I snuck up behind her and startled her so much that she tipped a scolding pot of hot water in the air and burned my entire scalp with it; another time, and this I remember, I had slowly pushed a high stool all the way to the balcony and stood on top of it in an attempt to catch the kitten that was sitting on the perimeter wall and I fell off the balcony, which caused two stitches on my head and the decision to move the family to a higher floor: the first floor! To this day, my father admitted that after that fall and everything else that had happened to me, he was convinced that I would be brain damaged with no significant amount intelligence left to speak of.
Within a year or so, soon after my sister Bice was born, we had to move to a bigger apartment on the first floor, also because my tante Arghiro moved in with us and she needed space for her sewing machine, you know, the famous classic “Singer” made in cast iron with a flip top table to bring up the machine, the spinning wheel on the side for manually operation and had a pedestal that swings with the action of your feet to spin the wheel and looked like a piece of furniture. I was almost four. My Yaya, tante Arghiro and I shared the large bedroom at the back of the apartment and past that room was another room in a triangular shape where we stored just about everything: trunks, books, extra folding bed, sewing machines, luggage, etc. and eventually a couple of years later from that room, I would make my Vespa wish. Bice slept in the master bedroom with my parents for the first couple of years. The master bedroom holds some traumatic memories for me: it was the only place where my parents, sometimes with my uncle’s help, would pin me down on the bed in order to administer the special medication treatment: iodine, eye drops, injections, warm oil with salt for ear aches and the infamous suppositories (yes, those suppositories were the extreme remedy and the answer for any type of ailment and my butt was always clenched thus squirting it back out, which caused more ass slapping!) In the master bedroom, my parents had a huge armoire and kept it locked at all times. That’s where my mother kept everything: her extensive personal jewelry, our jewelry, our piggy banks, cash allowance she received from my father; unripe mangoes or peaches wrapped in wool or in a paper bag to help accelerate their ripening process, etc. My piggy bank was in the shape of a Swiss mountain chalet made of hard plastic and the chimney on the roof was the slot where you dropped the coins. Every time I received a cash gift or wanted to drop a coin, I had to ask my mother to open the armoire and she would watch me drop the coin but not before I vehemently shook the chalet to hear the rattling sound of my savings and make sure everything was still there. Later on, when Bice got older, she was relocated to the other bedroom with us, while tante Arghiro moved further back into the storage room, giving her the freedom to sow and go to bed whenever she wanted. The building did not have any screens on the windows, I don’t think they even existed in those days, but all the windows and balconies had wooden shutters on the outside to protect from flying objects from the street and from the sun’s brightness. Every night, my parents would do a quick inspection to make sure nothing crawled or flew in. Very often you would be chasing lizards or huge cockroaches that snuck in, and that would create a state of panic and everyone would participate in the hunt. One night, as my mother was saying good night, she noticed a huge cockroach on the wall above my Yaya’s bed; she screamed in fear and everyone jumped on the other beds. My Yaya, with complete control, grabbed the broom and was getting ready to swat at it. After the first swing and a miss, that cockroach flew to another wall! That flight heightened the level of panic to Defcon four. My mother, my sister, tante Arghiro and I were on the beds screaming and pointing in all direction as that thing flew from wall to wall, completely confusing my Yaya, when suddenly it landed on my Yaya’s back of her nightgown. At that point, we all screamed even louder, and the roach ran down her back. My mother rushed off the bed, ripped the broom out of my Yaya’s hands and began hitting her on the back with such vigor, that my Yaya turned and pushed her away and asked if she intended to kill her or the roach. That thing dropped dead to the floor and got flushed down the toilet.
Little by little I began making friends with many kids in our neighborhood. There was this kid who lived on the 5thfloor of our building with his mother, his older brother and sister, we called him Scato (I think my grandmother gave him that nickname, which in Greek, it means “little turd” since he was really small for his age, and she always used that word for everything small). Scato was one year younger than me and we became best friends; while on the same floor opposite to our apartment, lived a single woman with her daughter, who was about a year older than me. One day while playing in the courtyard of the building with other kids, chasing each other between and behind the pillars, she pulled me aside and said to me: “if you show me yours, I’ll show you mine” and that was the first time I laid eyes on a young vagina…I was not expecting that discovery, scared and in a state of shock and panic, I quickly ran to look for Scato not sure what she meant to do with me. Since then, the three of us always played together. One day she asked Scato and I if we wanted to see what her mother looked like naked, to which we replied “yes, of course”. We went up to her apartment (remember the front doors were kept open and unlocked), we tiptoed past their living room toward the master bedroom and slowly approached the door and heard some strange noises that sounded like painful screaming between two humans; then she asked us if we wanted to peak through the keyhole and that’s when we fell from grace and right there our innocence left us forever! Scato was six, I was seven and the girl was eight (I just can’t remember her name). That man’s penis was enormous, but the girl explained that as we grow, so will the thing between our legs. That’s when we realized her mother was a prostitute and why my Yaya kept calling her: “The Scrofa” (the slut or in scientific terms, the female pig!). The days that followed, our games in the courtyard became a little more daring, risqué and more adult like: she dared us to kiss her, to touch her and she did the same to us. One day after we got caught by Ali playing these irreverent games, he yelled at us and chased us into the building threatening to tell our parents; so Scato suggested to go up to his apartment and play on the balcony. Well, on their balcony, and in those days, they were big sized, especially his balcony, there was a big twin bed, which they used as a lounging couch, we jumped on it and continued our touchy, pinchy, poky games under the big blanket. Of course, we started to laugh, giggle and shout, and that’s when Scato’s mother came out to see what was going on and we were busted again. Her religious cursing was so loud that we ran out of there like sinners from the movie The Ten Commandments and soon after the whole building was alerted of these shenanigans and the investigative parents discovered that the mother of that girl was a high-profile prostitute and eventually were evicted from the building, which was meant to be a family sanctuary and not a freelance brothel. Scato and I remained inseparable friends, like Batman and Robin, he was the only friend I shared and allowed to ride my red “Nasr”, even though he struggled to reach the pedals because he was really small, and the bike was too big for him. Whenever I rode it I could just push myself on one pedal and climb over like on a horse, but for Scato, I had to place the bike next to the curb, which gave him an extra foot, so he can climb over and place his foot on the highest pedal. One day, as we were playing in the courtyard, the loud sound of a plane in the sky stopped everyone as it flew above our building, it was flying very low and it struck the rooftop of the building across from ours with its landing gear. Everyone screamed and ran for cover. There wasn’t much damage but the people in that building were seriously shook up. While everyone was standing in the street watching the firemen making sure pieces of the building did not crumble, I met a young guy in his late teens, who lived in that building and as we talked he asked me if I liked board games, to which I responded of course, because we also played many board games at home such as Monopoly, checkers, snakes and ladders, Ludo, and other except for chess, so he offered to teach me how to play chess. Scato often accompanied me up to his apartment to watch us play and that is how I learned how to play chess. I believe that from this early experience, I tapped into and developed my analytical mind, always studying all the avenues and the potential outcome before committing myself to any situation, every day was a chess game for me.
If your grandmother lived with you, (like mine did and that’s why the city’s plan for young urban tenants did not work out as expected!), she would hardly ever go grocery shopping. Sometimes she would walk out to the balcony and yell out at a kid playing in the street and ask him to go to the Italian or Greek corner store and have them send the delivery boy to pick up an order of items she needed. The delivery boy would come running to the building and call out her name. She would come out to the balcony and throw a piece of paper with the list of items; then upon the kid’s return, she would lower a basket in which the money and the goods would exchange places; the transaction would be completed only after she would check the groceries to her satisfaction and only then she would send the boy onto his next delivery. Whenever I was at home and my Yaya needed anything right away, she would sometimes send me to the store to buy the items. Of course, the local grocer, they were called “bakkal”, seeing this foreign innocent boy, would try his best to trick me into buying a second-rate product or an expired one, until his curiosity would push him to ask who was I and for whom was I buying these items. Once my grandmother’s name was uttered, there was panic in the store; employees shouting at each other, blaming one another for trying to sell me the wrong product. The item was immediately exchanged for a better quality one and at a much better price. Nobody dared to mess with the wrath of my Yaya if she got bad stuff for twice the price; there would have been hell to pay!
Fridays were fish day! Only the fisherman would be allowed to come inside the building and solicit every apartment on every floor in a valiant attempt to sell his so-so fresh merchandize. He would carry as much variety of fish as he could and if he ran out of one type of fish, he would have to go back down to his cart, which he had left in the courtyard and bring it back up for a possible sale. So, if you lived on the first floor, you would have a wider selection of fish to choose from, and if you lived on the top floor of the building, your pickings were slim if any at all. But the fisherman was a smart man. He would go directly to the customer who knew the difference and the quality of fresh fish and whatever remained in the end was for the inexperienced buyer. Madame Delphina, my Yaya’s first name and that’s how she was known in the neighborhood, was his first and favorite customer and she was smarter than him. They would stand at the threshold of the front door and laugh and tell stories but once the inspection of the fish began, it was serious business; she wouldn’t take any crap from him and the dealings would go on for almost an hour. He would place the fresh fish on top and the somewhat frozen at the bottom; but she would inspect and analyze every single fish, one by one. And what I mean by frozen: is simply kept cool by a block of ice in a wooden box. I could hear her voice sometimes saying, in her immensely broken Arabic: “Enta haramy! Enta el samak bita’ enta moosh quayess, no…”, that his fish is not good and that he should be ashamed for his cheating ways; she would show him and compare the eyes and how some were red while others were white, which was not a good sign. I really think he enjoyed doing business with her for many reasons: first of all, her Arabic accent was the cutest; second, she would pick the contents of his basket apart and turn it upside down, third, she was a challenge, fourth, he would practice his half Greek with her and lastly, she was a buyer not just a shopper, you know, those people who just toss things upside down, who need to put their hands on everything but never buy anything. For example: the smelts, she’d pick them one little fish at the time, same for the clams and the mussels, she would dab some water on them and patiently wait to see if they are still alive (that meant fresh); she would check the ink sack of the octopus and the squids, if the sack was empty then it meant it was not as fresh, otherwise, sold! And most importantly she would buy 20% to 40% of his stock; for him the building was a gold mine and my grandmother was the richest vein of this mine, and if she was happy with his goods, she would make him some Turkish coffee, they would tell more stories and jokes, he would give her an extra fish for gratitude and give each other a rendezvous for next week with promises of fresher and special fish just for her! All this would take place in the hallway, at the front door of the apartment with the utmost respect and not once daring to cross the home threshold. After my grandmother’s transactions, he would go about the rest of the building, one floor at the time, one apartment at the time. My Yaya was one of a kind and he knew that.
In an attempt to alleviate the responsibilities of preparing the meals, house chores and help raising both my sister and I, my parents decided to hire a maid, her name was Mahroussa. She was barely in her twenties and was engaged to a soldier in the army. She was so impressed with our ability to learn languages and speak them with such ease (all of us spoke French, Italian, Greek and Arabic fluently). She loved the dynamics of our family members and the disposition toward our neighbors, she was enamored with our lifestyle and our culture. Mahroussa was a sweet person and quite innocent, voluptuous and very funny. I remember how she used to entertain and keep us busy, she used to catch cockroaches with her hands, she had no fear of them and they were big ones, some even had wings, I was so disgusted, and then she would drop them in the bathroom sink filled with water to see if they could swim, and whenever they reached the edge, she would pick them up by the antennas and bring them back to the middle. She also wanted to learn a language so desperately, Italian or English it did not matter to her but I didn’t know how to go about it, so we played records, and her favorite was “The Sound of Music”. We had this piece of furniture which was our music sound system; it was placed against the wall right between the balcony and next to my parents’ bedroom door and it looked like a living room buffet on four legs, subdivide into three sections: at either end were the two boxed speakers and the middle section was the actual radio with the frontal window dial for AM and short waves only, FM did not exist then and if it did, we didn’t know about it. On the top side of the center piece, you opened a lid and inside was the turntable with the control knobs for 45, 78 and 33 vinyl records; it had a metal gadget, like a train track barrier, in order to stack and hold the records on the center post and let them drop one record at a time, once the needle arm was retracted, without interruptions, we mostly played records and we had many. I recall every Saturday morning when we would turn the radio on, while chores were about to begin, we’d listen to an Israeli station and the first thing I heard was: Shabat Shalom! and immediately after that greeting they played awesome mixed music of jazz, rock or blues, etc. but it didn’t last all day, by noon they would sign off, so we would play our records and sing along with Julie Andrews and the kids, making up words (since neither of us spoke English), causing all kind of ruckus and dancing around in the apartment. Once she asked me if I had a special girl and if I knew how to kiss; she proposed to return the language favor and educate me in that area but instead of experimenting with me, she preferred using my cousin Giampiero, who was six years older than me, as she had a soft crush on him…of course he did not mind as his hands also roamed around her curvaceous body.
I recall one time, my Yaya was out for the morning making her neighborly visits, and recommended Mahroussa to keep an eye on all of us, my mother, my sister and I, and that she would return before the fisherman came by. That morning, the fisherman showed up to the building earlier than usual, with a wonderful surprise for Madame Delphina, but instead, my mother was the one who greeted him and said that she would accept that surprise on her behalf. Well, the surprise he had for Madame Delphina was live crabs as big as a man’s fist just brought in from the delta, about two dozen of them. My mother, in her infinite need to impress her mother with her improved cooking talent, thought she would surprise everyone and decided to cook them before my Yaya’s return home. So, she assigned to Mahroussa the responsibility of keeping an eye on us kids while she spent her morning in the kitchen. She filled the biggest pot we had with water and started to boil it. When the water reached its boiling point, she decided to dump the whole straw basket filled with medium size crabs into the pot, and that’s when all hell erupted: the crabs were alive (I guess my mother ignored or forgot that detail), and they started to crawl out of the pot and run amok from the kitchen out into the living room in all directions! My mother went crazy with panic, screaming with fear while we were playing on the sofa with Mahroussa. No one knew what to do or how to catch these creatures they were so fast. Now, my Yaya had told my father to come home for lunch as she was preparing a surprise for him and to our luck he just happened to walk in to see the best comedy scene in a long time: my mother standing on the coffee table screaming and pointing, while Mahroussa was holding both of us in a protective embrace (or scared more than me), we were standing on the sofa jumping, screaming and pointing at these creatures running amok and crawling all over the apartment. So, my father, cool as a cucumber, holding back his tears from laughter, takes his shirt off, grabs a hammer and starts cracking them one by one as they crawled and ran past him. Suddenly one crab jumped on his back from the armchair and my mother decided to come to the rescue: she grabbed a silver tray from the coffee table and started to beat the hell out of that crab which was clinging to my father’s tank top. She was hitting him so hard she almost gave him a concussion! You can never forget events like these and can never make this stuff up, it’s just too unbelievable.
Just as memorable was the day all our mattresses were serviced by a skilled artisan: he would undo the stiches, take apart the mattresses then remove the cotton they were stuffed with, which was beaten and re-fluffed by this man. This process needed to be performed every six months to loosen the compacted cotton in each mattress and there were 5 of them. The man would arrive very early in the morning and all the mattresses were lined up in the corridor: he would set himself up on the balcony with the help of his young son, take one mattress at the time, remove the stitching all around the edges that held it together and opened the canvas exposing the cotton. The tool he used to fluff up the cotton was some type of a bow, four feet long with a metal string; he would beat the cotton with a powerful rhythm that was hypnotizing and causing an incredible mess on the balcony floor, there was loose cotton everywhere. Once he was satisfied that the condition of the cotton was full and fluffy, he and his son would collect the entire lot and re-stuff the mattress evenly and then re-stitch it with a thick string that felt like a rope, using a needle as thick as a pencil. Each mattress would take about ninety minutes from beginning to end, but my parents had a queen size mattress, and this took longer even with the help of his son. It was amazing to watch this man covered in cotton, beating it non-stop, fluff flying everywhere in the air and on the floor. Looking back, I feel that this man and the service he provided, was pure art. I’m not sure if they still perform this process but I hope they do, if you consider the amount and the quality of cotton Egypt produces, why would you buy a new mattress instead of re-fluffing it up on a regular basis? I wonder how much he got paid for the skillful work he did…
My first twenty years, as I saw them…
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