Long, long ago and in a land far, far away – Egypt, to be precise – the Slade family spent a Christmas away from home. It was – different. The Resident Engineer was working on a project there and we went along as extra baggage: wife, eight-year old, six-year old and 12 month-old. It was fun and weird and unforgettable. (Pic is of us in front of the Step Pyramid at Sakkara)
Initially it was only supposed to be for six months but we ended up living there for almost a year, long enough for the Big Two to go to the Cairo American College, which was also unforgettable. They both acquired Deep South accents as most of their classmates were ‘oilies’, in other words, the offspring of oil executives from Mississipi and Alabama and places like that. There weren’t that many Brits there so it was a truly international world of new friends for all of us.
When it came to choosing a school we could have sent them to a British one in Cairo itself but the problem there was that the school week was Monday to Friday, while the Engineer worked six days a week with Friday off. Cue the American school that fitted in with the local custom and whose week went Sunday to Thursday, so we had a 3rd Grader and a 1st Grader and we spent far more time around the school than we’d expected. The reason was that it acted as a centre for the expat community and held film viewings under a tented canopy and, best of all, parents were allowed access to the school library.
We had arrived in August when the heat was so intense I thought they’d left the engine running on the plane because the air was thrumming and by Christmas we were happily involved with various activities. The company paid for a maid(!) in the mornings and she taught the baby to speak Arabic, with the result that we’d be surrounded by laughing Egyptians when they chucked her under the chin and were squeaked at indignantly – in Arabic.
There had been anxious questions (from the 6 year old but not so many from her worldly-wise older brother) about whether Father Christmas would find us and whether he would cope with a flat roof on a block of flats and no chimney. He did, of course, though some of his presents had a distinctly local flavour, notably the sit-on camel that the baby received.
I rode my bike down to the village to look at Christmas trees (baby strapped in her wicker baby chair on the back)and found a man proudly selling trees made from a broom handle with green fuzzy spikes sticking out at the sides. I was quite taken with the idea but an American neighbour had a spare fake tree which she insisted we should keep and which did sterling service for years until the daughters made me chuck it out. Christmas pudding was easy, I’d packed one when we set out, but the rest of Christmas dinner was an improvised meal, shared by an American family and one of the Engineer’s colleagues, a young bachelor. (Pic is NIcky and two little girls at the Papyrus Institute in Cairo – always dragging the poor kids out to educational things and never been allowed to forget it!)
A month or so earlier we’d had a dinner party and served duck, which had proved slightly traumatic. It had come as a shock to find that we had to choose our ducks from a quacking flock and by Christmas the eight-year old hadn’t forgiven me for not letting him see the ducks being – er ‘prepared’ in the market by their vendor wielding an axe. When it came to turkeys I was ready and made sure the dear, blood-thirsty little hooligan was out of the way.
The least welcome present we had that Christmas was chicken-pox, brought home from school by the eldest and generously donated to his sisters by New Year’s Eve. Luckily the friends who shared Christmas dinner with us had either had it (the adults) or in the case of the two visiting children, were probably going to get it anyway.
It was a strange and wonderful interlude in our lives and the elder children remember it quite clearly. Sadly, the youngest only remembers odd snippets – like the kitchen doors being blue, and nothing at all about being carried up inside the Great Pyramid by her father. (I disgraced myself that time by becoming claustrophobic in there and making a break for freedom!) We’ve never been back, though the eldest went to Egypt on his honeymoon and the middle one did a trip almost twenty years ago. I’d like to think we’d go back but probably not while that part of the world is still in turmoil, sadly.
Anyway, in other news: my most recent publisher, Robert Hale Ltd, has ceased trading as a publisher so my agent has just taken my latest book and plans to look for a home for it in the new year. If nobody wants it, I suspect I’ll think about self-publishing, but it’s in the lap of the gods for the moment.
Have a great Christmas and a Happy New Year with love from Nicky and the Engineer! (And the scary-looking Brady Bunch-style kids with a giant doll and chicken pox spots to match Liv’s rose-dotted pyjamas)