Psst, King Tut going cheap

Learn to keep mum when shopping in the mother country of civilisation.

‘Let me give you some advice for shopping in Egypt,” said the elderly Cleopatra on my second day in Egypt. She leaned in close, peered over the rim of her spectacles and raised a dagger-like finger. “If you’re not interested, say no. If you’re interested, say no. Then start talking.”

A year spent in Egypt and it’s still great advice. Cheaper than Morocco and even better value now our dollar is flexing its muscle, Egypt is hot news in 2010, with tour companies saying Aussies are flocking to the cultural craziness of Cairo for all the colour and oriental whimsies of Arabia-meets-Africa. And forget Britain, this is truly a nation of shopkeepers.

Click here to read more about shopping in Cairo from the Sun Herald.

Because you asked…

Well it’s been three weeks since I hit home after almost a year in Egypt. There’s a definite pattern in the questions I’ve been asked since I’ve been back, so let me run you through the answers (I probably should have done this weeks ago, which would have saved me sounding like a parrot).

Did you wear a headscarf? No. I’m Christian and I’m foreign. People don’t expect me to cover my hair. However, I did cover my knees and usually upper arms. Having said all that, in the chic nightclubs and private beaches, anything goes, from belly button rings to crop tops and miniskirts.

Were you scared living in Egypt as a lone woman? No. Cairo is an incredibly safe city. Like any place, there are some areas you don’t want to go (and not just women, but men, too!) – such as super-poor districts – but to get there, you’d really have to work hard: either take a cab or coax someone into to driving you. Hordes of drunks cruising the streets causing havoc are unheard of in Cairo. In fact, I attribute a large part of Cairo’s safety to the lack of alcohol in the country. Which brings me to the next question…

Could you drink alcohol? See Answer 1. Christian and foreign means alcohol is fine. However, wandering around drunk is very poor form. Some waiters were uncomfortable with serving women alcohol, but I am not quite sure why they were working in such establishments if they felt this way. Compared to average consumption in Australia, it was all severely curtailed. The local wine, friends, was generally dreadful, but alcopops, spirits and beer are in easy reach…24-hour delivery, if you really need it.

And what about pork? I think when you travel to places with different diets to your own, you either (a) obsess about the food you can’t eat – think Australians’ obsession with the thick, black, salty paste called Vegemite that we slather on our toast – or (b) you just forget about it. There was some pork floating around Cairo – most notably at the Italian Club and in an Italian-style café in Zamalek, but after Egypt knocked off all its pigs, ostensibly to prevent swine flu, neither love nor money would get you a slab of bacon. However, there were rumours going around the expat network recently there was a guy in Alexandria…

Work or holiday? Well, since my rich great-aunt died, I have spent my life on cruise ships and safari, without needing to work. That was sarcasm. Yes of course I worked, but Egypt being a far less expensive country to live in compared with Australia (no car registration, insurance, overpriced taxis and cheap, fresh food) meant I didn’t have to chain myself to a desk five days a week, and could instead travel to surrounding countries which I’m still publishing the stories for.

Did you learn any Arabic? Yes. Well, it was either learn Arabic or spend a year doing Marcel Marceau mime impersonations. While plenty of Egyptians told me I didn’t need to learn any Arabic, they are obviously delusional as to how much English is actually spoken in Egypt. And I think it’s pretty shoddy if you can’t at least say thanks. Also, if you can’t count, you’re just leaving yourself open to being fleeced (a nice way of saying ‘ripped off’).

So… were you fleeced? Of course. But then Egyptians are an indiscriminate bunch, and will try the same tricks on their fellow Egyptians. It’s just that as a foreigner, I’m obviously insanely wealthy and therefore fair game. The more Arabic I spoke, the less it happened.

Any essential travel things you would never go to Egypt without? An enormous cotton scarf. I bought an awesome one in Cairo and, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it has worked as a headscarf when entering mosques, to wrap up in freezing planes and um…. as an emergency towel. And Lonely Planet’s fantastic Egyptian phrasebook. I carried it every day. It is still recuperating from its year-long workout.

And finally, do you miss Egypt? Cairo’s a dirty, crazy city of 20 million people. The pollution is ridiculous, the noise intense, and you can stick out your finger and poke the energy. I miss it every day.

Wake up, Melbourne

What a morning to wake up to!

British designer Alexander McQueen dead. Flash floods in Melbourne. AC-DC rocking out in the stadium and then I open my email to find…the beautiful camel competitions is back on in the UAE.

How do you judge a camel beauty contest? BBC

I also loved this demure line in msn’s reporting on the AC/DC concert. Remember that Angus Young is now 53, and Brian Johnson another decade on: 

“And when he peeled off his shorts to reveal his AC/DC boxers in his trademark striptease in The Jack, women in the crowd reciprocated by lifting their shirts.”

Well…good morning Australia!

All Greek, all wonderful: Hellenic Republic

Melbourne really deserves its reputation as Australia’s food capital. The Melbourne Food & Wine Festival is on next weekend, an absolute extravaganza of things to put in your mouth, and yesterday, I cruised the gorgeous offerings of the Hellenic Republic.

You know I’ve been out of the scene for a year now, so I had to dredge back into my memories of this celebrity chef (glossy cookbooks sold at the door) who is so big on the Melbourne scene. But it all came back when I read the wine list, which had shiraz from Australia, sparkling wines from France and… a welter of wines from – not Greece – but the all-inclusive term, Hellenic Republic. Is the chef, George Calombaris a patriotic Cypriot? I asked, the light dawning. Of course he is.

The table was an extravaganza of food, much of it familiar to anyone who knows Middle Eastern cuisine, with dips such as melitzanosalata (roasted eggplant known elsewhere as baba ganough) and fabulous sagonaki (grilled haloumi cheese) served with baby figs poached in black pepper, but the stand-out was the taramasalata. You know, I’m not a fan of this fish-roe dip, but the table and the waiter egged me on. “Go on, it’s white!” As if I objected because of the traditional ikky pale pink colour of the supermarket version of the dip. Tasting of the ocean, subtle fish and lemon, it was awesome with the fresh Greek white we were drinking, Gaia ‘Notios’. Awesome, awesome, awesome.

The pita bread was hot, fresh and buttery, the lamb cooked on spit was perfect with the tzatziki (cucumber & yoghurt) but the star was a slow-cooked cassoulet of pork and black-eyed beans that the chef whipped up that morning. A perfect winter dish, though we weren’t quibbling on a summer’s afternoon.

There was Attika honey everywhere, from the poached figs to the loukoumathes (deep-fried Greek donuts covered in crushed walnuts) and even an ingredient in the chi-chi soap in the toilets. I’ll have to save up and cruise George’s other two restaurants, the Press Club and Maha, a Middle Eastern affair. Word is a fourth in the group, St Katherine’s, will open in October 2010.

Hellenic Republic, 434 Lygon St, Brunswick East VIC, (03) 9381 1222
Photos: Hellenic Republic

Old school, new kind of cool

Are you cheating on a blog if you re-publish your own print work? Maybe…maybe not. In any case, some of you reading might be (a) men and (b) heading to London with an empty suitcase, fat wallet and the need for a tux or upholstered champagne chest. Men, look no further…

As the song goes, “every girl’s crazy ’bout a sharp-dressed man ..” But perhaps you shouldn’t be singing ZZ Top when cruising central London’s best-dressed streets. Keep your focus tight: between the tube stations of Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus, where Regent Street has undergone a revival, with contemporary brands such as Ted Baker and an influx of US brands making a show among the traditional English names…

Click here to read the full story.

Horsing around a fishy tale

I’ve traded horses around the Pyramids for horses at the beach – this is a pic taken last winter here on the Mornington Peninsula, about an hour south of Melbourne.

The horses are some of Australia’s most famous racehorses, who are trained on the beach and in the water in the very early mornings, and those fins are dolphins.

The local newspaper ran a story quoting the riders as saying that the friendly dolphins even swim underneath the horses, who don’t seem to mind, and most trainers say the dolphins are good luck for a win on the track.

I love this story, even if the horses’ trainers are able to turn a beautiful moment into cash returns in the betting ring.
Photo: Bob McGaughay