Sunday 13 September 2020

Chapter 10 - Alexandria, Monday 27 February, 1990

It is strange to be back in Pastroudis, the famous Pastroudis, drinking their coffee, eating their murderously sweet cakes.  And it was a strange feeling to leave behind Upper Egypt, to surge up the Nile, from the depths of Africa through Cairo and then on to the Mediterranean.  The whole land flashes by you - mostly by night, admittedly - as a drowning man's life is supposed to flash by him.  It was strange too the sense of undoing everything that we had done, retracing our steps and going back to the beginning.  In some ways it was quite apt.  Alexandria is so different, so 'other', that it needs to be separated from rest of the experience of Egypt in some way.

I remember the first time I came here from the south.  On the way back from Aswan I stopped off at a place called Assyut, the largest town in Upper Egypt.  That had been quite an experience.  I had left Aswan before dawn, about 4 am.  The platform deserted, the train pretty quiet.  And this was no upmarket sleeper like the one we took down to Luxor, and took back today.  The restaurant car was pretty disgusting - and as for the toilets....

One problem I had was finding when I had arrived.  The timetable was hopeless - the train was clearly hours late - and since I can't read Arabic, I had no idea which of the small featureless towns we pulled in to was Assyut.  I didn't mind too much, I recall, because it was such an Eden outside - the lush greenery, the typical Nile scenes, the cruise ships keeping pace with us to our left.

I finally arrived at Assyut at dusk.  A beautiful apricot-coloured sunset greeted me as I left the station.  But suddenly I felt very alone: this was no genteel tourist trap.  No touts rushed out to offer me their special taxis.  There were no signs in English - at all.  I had no room booked in any hotel - and indeed was unsure what hotels there were.  And all around me the real Egypt churned - people and bikes everywhere, cars and old buses charging around, people running across the railway tracks as if they weren't there.

When I did finally find a taxi it turned out even the word 'hotel' was unknown here.  Trying 'Hotel Badr' - supposedly the best accommodation in town - produced only a response of 'Cleopatra?'.  Eventually I found the Arabic word for hotel - 'fondook' - which together with the name 'Badr' finally got me there.  When I went in, the receptionist - who mercifully spoke a little English - was surprised and almost suspicious to see a lone tourist.  He was also very unsure about whether he had a room for the three nights I wanted - I was hoping to visit some local sites - but I had no choice except to take whatever he had for however long.  I later discovered the hotel was full of Swedes, blonde faceless people chattering away in their sing-song tongue.  Egypt seemed a strange place for this most Scandinavian of races.

In the end I did stay there three days, in that odd hotel with its black reflective glass and mirrors everywhere - mostly cracked - like some huge nightclub stranded halfway up the Nile.  I left for Alexandria very early, an amazing mackerel sky outside, tinged by red, turning into huge rucks of cloud fired pink and orange - perhaps the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen.  Opposite, the three neon signs of Badr Hotel - which turned out to be next to the station, but the other side from where I had emerged - flickered in a totally random but hypnotic way.  And the muezzin doing his business through the cold air.  Very cold air - and the train an hour late.

Why do I remember all this now?  Perhaps because those days in Assyut represented the least touristic that I have ever spent in Egypt.  Apart from the Swedish party who filled up the hotel briefly before moving on, I was the only Westerner I saw in the whole city.  Otherwise it was just pure, squalid but lively Egypt.  Perhaps I remember it too for the dead man I saw there - just lying by the railway crossing next to the station, with a crowd standing around, gawping rudely at this sad bundle of bones and rags.  Perhaps too because then as now I found Alexandria a different land, hard to relate to the rest of Egypt.  It felt so Mediterranean - I half expected to see signs in Greek everywhere, not Arabic.  Although apparently only a shadow of its former self, it is still very cosmopolitan.  With places like this Pastroudis, the epitome of that lost world - I suppose, though of course I never saw it.  Pity about the car horns - as utterly deafening as ever, and quite ruining the civilised, calming effect of sitting outside here.

We arrived in Alexandria just before 2 pm, and went straight to our hotel.  The Metropole is very much a part of this image of faded splendour that I have of Alexandria.  It certainly has more atmosphere than the stuffy and overpriced Hotel Cecil.  A meal in the hotel, then out for a walk along the corniche.  Sounds rather splendid 'a walk along the corniche': the reality is less impressive.  A dusty, littered path beside roaring honking traffic.  The once-elegant villas along the sea-front now decaying and crumbling - though it still has a certain seaside air about it.

Reminds of the time I was in Eastbourne with Janet - one of our cheapie holidays - and we walked along the seafront.  There too were a number of rather run-down seafront houses - people going abroad for their breaks, rather than to the south coast as they did in yesteryears - including one really dilapidated hotel complete with 'keep out' and 'danger' notices.  I remember it in particular because of its name, still dimly visible in faded and crackling paint: Hotel Albion.  Not something I could ever use in one of my books, though - nobody would ever believe its crude  symbolism.

Then back along the corniche - I mean you can't even really sit down anywhere - the seats are in the central reservation between the two carriageways of the road - very pleasant.  And so to here where the sublimely aloof maître d' serves us with old-world superciliousness.

I'm ensconced now in my favourite spot, at the front of the hotel in the small lounge with the absurdly rococo chandelier, its gilt long ago turned treacle colour, watching the world go by as I drink a cup of tea and nibble some biscuits.  It is dark outside.  The others are resting before dinner in an hour or so.  Beautiful spot here.  Because you enter the hotel up some steps, the basic floor level is above the street.  So staring out through the window you see the pedestrians perfectly, but they tend not to look up at you - you can understand why potentates stick themselves on elevated podiums for their subjects to be intimidated by.

So from here I can watch and ogle the world shamelessly, doing nothing except eating, drinking, looking - the archetypal tourist activities.  I think I am becoming passive in my old age.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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