Our first meeting had to be cancelled because Corine was terribly stuck in traffic, only five minutes from my house. Yeah, well, this is Egypt, things don’t go according to plan here, so we just planned a new meeting, a few days later, at her house.
Corine lives with her husband and two sons – they also have a daughter in the Netherlands – since almost two years in Cairo. It’s their first family posting and they’re living in a suburb of the city, about an hour from my house. At least, when you’re lucky and the traffic is easy, or it might take more than an hour and a half.
“What I’m doing all day?” Corine laughs. “Taking care for my family, doing the laundry, cook and get the groceries – that is a lot more time consuming than in the Netherlands. I’m very fortunate to have a cleaning lady and a gardener, because it’s a lot of work.” She points at the big garden we’re looking at from the terrace. Corine lives on a compound, in a big villa with a huge garden. Isn’t she living in a bubble?
“Some expats don’t get out of their compounds, but I think that’s a shame. That way you don’t see the country you’re living in. When we have guests visiting us we always take them to places in Egypt where life is completely different from that on the compound. Sometimes that’s confronting, also for me. And now and then I definitely feel guilty about all my blessings. Therefor I try to thank people when they’ve helped me with something, that sounds obvious, but doesn’t happen here enough, also Egyptians themselves don’t do it often.”
Corine tries to make sure that she doesn’t get stuck in a bubble. “I try to see as much from the ‘real’ Egypt as possible and drive around a lot. When I just arrived in Cairo, people told me: ‘You can’t drive yourself here, you really need to have a driver.’ So in the beginning we had an Egyptian driver who drove me everywhere. But after a while I got frustrated that he didn’t kept his word all the time and I experienced that the traffic in our area is fine, so I drive myself now. That gives so much sense of freedom, I really love it. And on the road happen strange things all the time.”
“On the road, the strangest thing I’ve seen was a lady behind the wheel breastfeeding a baby while she was driving and talking in the telephone she’d put in her headscarf.”
She drives everywhere in the city now. “At first I asked people to show me around and now I can get to any place. I find my way better and better because I’m driving myself. And sometimes unexpected things happen: all of sudden the navigation quits working, or you get stuck in a herd of sheep in the middle of Downtown – on your own. At a moment like this I start thinking: OK, and what next? But these kind of uncomfortable situations make sure you’ll become very stress resistant and solution minded.”
Corine is a venturous lady anyway, she doesn’t stress easily. “Probably that’s because of my husband’s work. In the Netherlands he was gone for longer periods at a time also in which I had to be father and mother combined and had to take care of everything in and around the house. Put some paintings on the wall, refilling the heaters – no problem, I’ll do it. Don’t be afraid to undertake something, everything will turn out to be fine. Maybe not as you’d planned, but then you just need a new plan. The other ladies of the military spouses club have this attitude as well. At first, I had some doubt about joining the club, but it turned out to be like a warm bath. We’re each other’s families here. Together we undertake a lot of plans, organise coffee mornings and help each other where necessary. And most importantly: no obligations. You don’t feel like joining today? That’s fine too.”
It sounds like she likes her life her quite a bit. Is it as she expected beforehand? “Sometimes it’s better than I’d thought, I’ve to say. I like to have adventures and here everything you do is a small adventure in itself. I really like that. But at the same time there are so many situations in which I could cry, out of frustration.”
“Sometimes it’s great here, and sometimes it’s so horrible that I think: what am I doing here?”
She shares some examples: “The culture is very different here from what I’m used to. I deepened my knowledge of the culture and still it amazes me. Especially being a Western woman: I’m not being taken serious at stores, restaurants or by people who come to fix something in the house. We just moved in this house when a work man refused to speak with me. I had to call my husband, he said. And our driver only started listening to me after my husband threatened with hiring a new driver. But the most bizarre thing ever was when we went to a restaurant. My husband and sons were welcomed like kings inside and I had to stay outside. There were a few dilapidated chairs: the women’s section… All of us were baffled and we left right away.”
“But also in other things you keep getting surprised and have to try to adjust. People want money for every ‘service’ they do for you, even when they really don’t do a thing. A short bank visit, getting the groceries, park the car: men trying to ‘help’ everywhere. It’s difficult to determine when you do give money and when you don’t.” I recognize this ongoing struggle: when do pay for a service you didn’t ask for and when did someone something for you that’s really useless so you don’t pay? “Yes, exactly. I absolutely understand that people create work in order to try to make a living, but sometimes it feels like they just try to take advantage of foreigners.”
We’re interrupted by the housekeeper who comes to say that the gardener arrived and that she’ll take the dogs inside.
“The gardener is afraid of dogs. Hilarious story by the way: we had just moved in when he angrily came asking what he’d done wrong, weren’t we satisfied with his work? I had no idea what he was talking about. It turned out that I had planted some new plants over the weekend and he thought that I’d hired a new gardener for that. It took a while to make clear that I just happen to love working in the garden.”
“Still, the gardener thinks it’s strange when I’m in the garden with a spade in my hand, but meanwhile he can laugh about it.”
Does Corine speak Arabic? “Just a few of the most important words, that’s all. I had the intent to learn it, but everyone speaks English here. At the school, the compound, the spouse club, in the stores – even when I looked something up in Arabic in advance, I’m answered in English.” She smiles. “I don’t speak English all the time, by the way, I berate in Dutch. Works perfectly fine. One time I was at a parking garage and had to pay 6 EGP. I gave the gate guy a 5 EGP note and a coin. He didn’t want to take it, the money was too dirty… I thought: yeah, bye, money is money, he’ll just has to take it. He got mad at me, behind me people started honking and my gestures to open the gate didn’t work. I thought: OK, and now? I started honking and cursing in Dutch and it worked, he opened the gate. My son looked at me, his jaw on the ground.”
The coming two years Corine will live in Egypte, so a possible next posting is not in the question yet, but what are her thoughts about that at this moment? “I’d definitely like to go on another posting. The adventure is awesome and I’m a venturous person, so yes, if something nice comes up, I’m up for it.”
While we’re talking, the time has flown and if I want to get home before rush hour starts, I have to go. Before I leave, I have one last question for Corine: does she have to deal with a lot of prejudices about her life as a ‘trophy wife’? Corine nods: “People think I’m doing nothing all day long. Someone even said to me: ‘For you, every day is a holiday.’ Luckily, for Christmas one of my friends came over from the Netherlands, spent an average day of my life with me and said just after noon already: ‘Gee, Corine, you’re even busier than you were in the Nederlands!’. There you have it, everything seems different from the outside.”