Where to start? The news in brief, perhaps: one journey from Cairo to Alexandria, complete; one course in Arabic, started; one apartment, found.
The journey was uneventful, once I’d made it to the train. Cairo has a large railway station, which, if one believes what one reads on the internet, used to be a prime piece of architecture in the centre of the city. One can only say this on the basis of what is found on the internet, given that one can’t actually see the building. It’s covered in ply-board hoarding, as it undergoes a Mubarak-vintage vanity project restoration. And it has been for the past two years… I went there the day before I was due to travel, in order to buy the ticket. There are no signs in English, and initially I ended up in the Metro system. This was a mistake – but it was so clearly a mistake that I quickly left without attempting to ask directions. I found the ticket office by the other entrance, chose a window, and joined the queue. This was another mistake: but this time it took three people pushing in front of me whilst giving me strange looks (‘why is he just standing there?’) before I realised that I wasn’t in a queue (this appears to be a rather alien concept), and rather standing behind someone who was just having a conversation with the ticket man.
The next day I went with my bags to catch the train. Once again, the lack of signage proved problematic, but not nearly as problematic as the refurbishment itself. The core issue was that, though there were hoardings outside the building, inside there was no separation between the refurbishment work, and the passengers trying to get to their train. In my case, trying to get to my train with about 50 kg of luggage, passing over rubbish, sand, what appeared to be sewage, and some paving that the builder was desperately trying to lay neatly with passengers such as myself pulled up the stones as quickly as he could put them down. Once on the train, however, I was very comfortable, even if it did arrive an hour later than it was meant to! I was met in Alexandria by the friend of a friend (more on him later) who had allowed me to stay at his apartment while I looked for one for myself; I spent the next few days doing various vital things such as registering at the school, and starting lessons – the Arabic is, perhaps, the subject of another post.
Apartment hunting was something of an ordeal. The friend who met me at the station (H; he has a housemate, D, who had just moved in a week before I arrived) lives in a lovely, well-equipped three-bedroom affair, on the ground floor of a small apartment building dominated by the much larger buildings on either side. It’s location is perfect, apart from the proximity to a main road, and it has a brilliant landlady: all this for a total of 3000 L.E. (about £320) per month. I was told that I wouldn’t find anywhere of a similar standard, quite so cheap, but, thinking that my standards are not so high, set about trying to find things. What I thought was my first breakthrough came when Mr Saleh arrives with a French girl called J – who is looking for apartments - in tow. Mr Saleh is an agent, who found this apartment for H back in May. H is, perhaps understandably, somewhat confused as to what Mr Saleh is doing showing someone around his apartment. Mr Saleh: “You arrive at start of May”. He pauses expectantly, as if requiring independent verification for his statement. H agrees. Again: “You signed six month contracto. June, July…” (he counts off the months on his fingers) “…August, September, October, November. So you leave here at the start of November”. He makes the statement, and then again waits for confirmation. It isn’t forthcoming – H points out that this is a matter between him and his landlady. Mr Saleh disagrees, and insists that the now very embarrassed J looks round the apartment. She does so in a very cursory fashion, apologising to H as she peeps through the door of every room. Meanwhile, I take Mr Saleh’s number, stating that I am also looking for an apartment. He promises to call me the next day, and leaves with J still in tow.
He called and arranged for me to meet him after a couple of days. I duly did, and he took me to an office to get some keys for some apartments. Alas, the manager wasn’t there: “you come back tomorrow, 3 o’clock, he will be here then!” I protested that the arrangement had been 3 o’clock that day. I was put on to the phone to the manager: “I’m very sorry, but I am signing a contract with two Italian girls”. I expressed my view that this wasn’t a reasonable excuse. He tried to be conciliatory: “We will do any time that is convenient for you”. I suggested that later that day would be convenient. He isn’t free. We arranged to meet at 3 o’clock the next day, and I went home. When I arrived the next day, I expected to see a variety of apartments: instead, I was shown one, and it’s a building site. I was assured that it will be ready within ten days, but I’d seen enough, and went home.
A couple of days later, Mr Saleh calls again, and says that he has seven apartments to show me, so we arrange to meet on Thursday, the first day of my weekend, at 11. We didn’t see seven apartments, we saw three, all of them either too expensive, or both too expensive and too shabby – and I didn’t get home until 4…
At this stage I gave up, and arranged to stay in the apartment I was in already. I now think that this was the best decision I could have made – I have flatmates who have been in Alex for longer than I have, and I’m saving a lot of money by sharing the rent. It’s well located, and it has been established that the landlady is very good. So all’s well that ends well, and at least I know for next time not to be in such a hurry!