*Names have been omitted or changed as I did not ask permission from those involved to tell this story and some are no longer with us.
I sat on the edge of the car park outside the McDonalds in Heliopolis in Cairo, Egypt waiting for my boyfriend who was late. He was always late. Not just a little late; he would often turn up hours after we planned to meet, but usually it didn’t matter so much as I was in my apartment or somewhere I could amuse myself. It was hot; that dry, oppressive heat you get in the desert, but I was used to that by then.
I suddenly noticed my heart racing and my breath getting away from me. I looked down at the page I was writing on, one of those things I did to amuse myself while waiting, and it was filled with illegible scribbles, not the fully formed words I normally put down. The hairs on my arms stood at full right angles to my skin, and I thought I was most likely in a cold sweat as I was freezing to touch.
Holy crap! I was having a panic attack! Me! Right now! I had a friend from high school who had them, which is the only reason I knew what was happening.
I was fully hyperventilating now. Right, don’t panic. I knew that ship had sailed, but felt if I panicked at the prospect of the panic attack, it could amplify my physical symptoms even more, and I would be in real trouble.
I also looked down and tried not to draw attention to myself. This was a notoriously busy car park that didn’t attract too many foreigners, and I was a pasty-white, blond 24-year-old girl sitting on my own having a panic attack. My Arabic was getting better, but I really didn’t want to talk to anyone in any language, or move, except to get into my boyfriend’s car if he should ever arrive.
I tried to calm my racing brain, hoping it would signal to my body it could take control of it again. The shaking, sweating, and hyperventilating were not stopping anytime soon. They were off on a trip of their own I couldn’t seem to influence.
Was my bucket half full or half empty??
How the hell was I getting a panic attack? I thought I was one of the most balanced people I knew. This wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I then remembered an analogy someone told me about mental health once that suddenly now made sense.
They said mental health was like a bucket, and your sanity was like the water in it. Some people are born with a small amount of water in their bucket, and some with it filled right to the rim. If you add just a small amount of stress to the bucket, the person with the small amount of water will absorb it easily, but the one whose is already is filled to the rim will overflow.
The theory in the analogy is everyone’s bucket is capable of overflowing if you add enough stress to it. I remembered reading somewhere that for soldiers in war zones, two weeks in armed combat without a break will send even the most balanced, well trained soldier’s water well over the edge of their bucket.
That made sense. I had a tsunami of crazy piling up in my bucket I was calmly pretending I was handling, and this was my body’s way of telling me in fact no, I was not handling it, and no, I was not okay.
Of course I can just move to Egypt
A short time after arriving in Egypt, one of my networking meetings landed me a job with a local company with international interests. For whatever reason, I was adamant I didn’t want to teach English there, which is really one of the only jobs a foreigner can expect if just turning up in Egypt. Expat companies and expat roles hire outside Egypt and fly them in, because no one just turns up in Egypt looking for work. That would be crazy…
So when I sat in Mohammed’s office and he said he was going to a conference in Hamburg, Germany in a few days, and needed someone to write his speech and help him on the trip, I thought I had hit the jackpot. The wages would be less than expats, but more than locals which I could live with at that stage of my career because I was really interested in the experience.
I didn’t know much about Egypt before I went, but that didn’t matter, right? I lived in Japan, learned the language, and made a life for myself there twice, right? London was freezing, and also treated me well for a couple of years. I was SO ready to leave there, but not ready to move back to Australia. But I didn’t have to live in an English speaking country; I could make a life anywhere, right?
The tsunami of crazy begins…
During my nice degree in international business, they taught us to be culturally sensitive, and I hadn’t brushed up on Egyptian culture so was way out of my depth. Somehow I sat in my new boss’s office while he paraded staff member after staff member in front of me and screamed at them, all while on ongoing phone calls on at least three lines at once. Was this something cultural I was missing?
I found out later that no, this was not cultural, and yes, this guy was just an asshole, much like his junkie son who came into the business and I was expected to babysit. It was this junkie who would hire a company to assist developing materials for a conference we would attend in Genoa, Italy whose owner would shine a resplendent ray of sanity into this nut house, and eventually become that perennially late boyfriend.
In my few short months there, my revolting boss took my passport when I was in Hamburg; he repeatedly hit on me, and was so unbearable to be around, that on the afternoon I had off (for a doctor’s appointment; sure, if that doctor was female, well below graduation age, and definitely not in regulation uniform) I was so traumatised, I walked the streets of Hamburg looking for ANYONE normal looking I could have a NORMAL conversation with; he relegated me to a shitty hotel in Genoa, likely because I wouldn’t don such a doctor’s uniform I was similarly unqualified to wear whilst in Hamburg, where I was likely the only guest not paying by the hour, while my psycho boss and his junkie son stayed in a five star near the venue; I got in trouble for not agreeing to go find the junkie, who went missing for a few days, even though I probably knew where to find him given his promised land was likely down a street behind the train station very near my hotel; I had hotel staff in Port Said on the Suez Canal try to corner me in my hotel room to assault me; forget the father, I had all kinds of trouble with the junkie son both abroad and back in Egypt; the father asked for a report on the Genoa trip and I was so angry about it I was brutally honest, we had a massive bust up, and agreed to part ways; he decided he didn’t need to pay me wages owed, which I disagreed with; so I took some terrible advice, kept turning up to his office, and decided it was a good idea with all of my non-existent power and influence in Egypt, to threaten him with ruining his reputation with our mutual international contacts; I think my subconscious just came knocking to remind me where I was, who I was dealing with, and just how easy it would be for a man of his means and temperament in a place like this to teach me a lesson or even have me eliminated if I was too much of a nuisance given I was there with no protection so what the hell was I doing and oh my God I am having a panic attack in a busy car park and please no one come and try to help me because I really, really don’t want to talk to you and where the FUCK is my boyfriend?
“Holy shit, are you alright?”
By the time his car pulled up, my breathing was still erratic, but more manageable, as was my heart-rate, but I was still not in good shape. I sat down, put my bag on the floor, and turned to see him react when he clocked my sheet white complexion, and touched my freezing, turkey-skin arm.
“Holy shit, are you alright?” he asked.
“No, but can you just start driving?”
He put the car into gear and off we went. I started talking. Somehow I blurted out the most traumatic thing I ever did, which had nothing to do with anything in Egypt or my current predicament, but there it was.
“You don’t have to tell me this if you don’t want to,” he said, not long after I started.
“Apparently I do,” I replied.
I poured it all out and continued on, probably finally delving into my great uncertainty of why the hell was I in Egypt, and what the heck was I going to do next, because I was completely lost on all of that at that point.
I don’t know how long we drove around, but he listened patiently. He knew first hand about my work situation because he did that contract with us, and knew the junkie, who was a few years younger than him, from when he was a little boy in his neighbourhood. He was a not particularly devout Muslim, who hadn’t travelled much out of the Middle East, and my history, the way I lived and worked, and well, just about everything about me, were so far from his understanding or experience of what women did or were like. I had to hand it to the guy, he handled it pretty well.
He had to go to a family function that night he was outrageously late for (no surprises there!) but he didn’t want to leave me alone. I told him to drop me at one of the bars in town as my expat group was meeting there, and I was probably now in more of a state I could drop in.
Grab the popcorn, Claire’s here!
This expat group met every couple of weeks in different bars or restaurants around Cairo, and was a necessary part of my sanity retention at the time. They all either worked for aid agencies, mining or infrastructure companies, the military, embassies, non-government organisations (NGOs), or the occasional international school. All were happily there with their multinational or government protection on their nice contracts, and most were a bit older than me.
I was the only one who just turned up and got a job working as the only foreigner in a local company, so my stories of how my fortnight went were… different to theirs… I was some sort of horror show soap opera saga for some of them, and amused them with the many unlikely predicaments I found myself in. I really needed them because my day to day in Egyptian company randomness was so mind bending, I needed to at least occasionally be around people who understood MY culture and have a ‘normal’ conversation. I hadn’t told them about my boyfriend yet as it was quite new, and did they really need to know?
“I’ll get you a drink”
I went into the pub and walked up to John and Emma who were deep in conversation. Then they saw me.
“Holy crap Claire, are you alright?” John asked.
“Not really. I just had a panic attack. But I think I’m calming down a bit now,” I said.
“I’ll get you a drink,” John offered as I stood there uselessly, still sheet white with my hands noticeably shaking.
John was the chief organiser of the expat group and possibly the foreign social lynchpin of Cairo. He had this kick arse apartment and would throw awesome extravagant parties. He was funny, smart, clearly loved his job, and was a pleasure to hang out with. He became a good friend really quickly, as happens when you travel to new places without your normal networks.
Emma worked for an NGO and asked me to house-sit for her cats in her apartment in the centre of Cairo for a month in a couple of weeks’ time. I told them about my latest with the work crazies and my gear shift into trying to shake them down.
“You did WHAT?” John asked. “What the hell were you thinking?”
“Why do you think I had a panic attack?” I countered.
“We should go to Sharm el Sheikh again,” he said. “What are you guys doing next weekend?”
What a bloody fantastic idea! Not long after I first arrived I made the seven hour drive with John, Emma, and some others to this gorgeous seaside tourist town. John organised it all, and we stayed in these cute, cheap little shacks right on the beach. It was really beautiful. Just what the doctor ordered.
We’re going to Sharm el Sheikh!
John picked me up on the Friday afternoon outside my apartment. I was still a bit shellshocked and not really sure what I was doing with myself, but had extracted half of the money my crazy owed me, and was feeling much better than when we last met.
“Are we picking up Emma and the others, or meeting them there?” I asked.
While a seven hour drive, it is a much shorter one hour flight, so some preferred to do that. But Emma and the others couldn’t make it now, so it was just John and me. Of course we would catch up with his dive instructor friends again when we were there too which would be nice.
The seven hour drive was pleasant as it always was with John, then finally we arrived in Sharm el Sheik under the cover of darkness. We turned into what appeared to be a fancy resort; really fancy. I didn’t catch the name as we turned in because I wasn’t paying attention.
“Are we not staying at those little beach shacks this time?” I asked a little nervously given I wasn’t sure where my next pay cheque was coming from…
“Because it is just the two of us, I thought we would stay at the Four Seasons. My treat,” he said.
Oh shit. Did I just completely get this wrong? Does John LIKE me, like me? Fuck fuck fuck! Really?? What the hell am I going to do? I felt my stress levels rising again. I’m such an idiot! And none of them knew about my boyfriend. Shit.
We got out of the car, he popped the boot of the BMW and got out a wine cooler complete with champagne and champagne glasses. The staff would take care of the bags, we would go to the room and pop this one open. Yes. ‘Room’ was singular. Oldest trick in the book. Shit.
We walked to our private bungalow through the lush green gardens and it was really quite spectacular. He was really going all out. This was extreme, opulent luxury for this not particularly successful expat living in a desert city…
We sat and drank the champagne in our gorgeous new pad, both likely nervously wondering what would happen next. I should have just said something but I couldn’t. My bucket was still filled to the brim and I wasn’t able to face any of it. Maybe pretending it wasn’t happening would work out for the best? It was all I had.
At some point John suggested we go to bed.
“Okay,” I probably said, then jumped into the very far right side, fully clothed, very much with my back to the vast other side of the bed and its soon to be occupant, and promptly went to sleep.
A new dawn, a new day
The next day we got up and John commented on how quickly I went to sleep. I was very tired, I told him. He suggested we go to the pool. Fantastic idea.
We went down to the sprawling, lagoon style pool overlooking the ocean and found our spot. We stretched out on the his and hers chairs and very soon the friendly pool boy was at our side to take our order. A companion with a fancy spray bottle followed soon after.
“Do you care to be spritzed, Madam?” he asked.
“What?” I asked. I really had no idea what he was talking about, so I looked at John.
“He has a bottle of refrigerated scented water and he wants to know if he can spray us to cool us down,” John educated me.
Wasn’t that what the pool was for?
“Huh. Sure. Why not?”
And he ‘spritzed’ me with the cold droplets of awesomeness so I didn’t have to undignify myself by getting in the pool. This was next level.
Our cocktails arrived and after a few sips, John made another attempt at intimacy by touching my leg. I might have flinched, but I didn’t move. He decided to do what I clearly couldn’t.
“Look Claire,” he began. “There were two reasons I brought you here this weekend. The first is because I like you and I hoped you felt the same. But CLEARLY you are not falling for my OH so subtle advances…
“The second reason is because you have been through so much, and I thought you needed to relax and have a nice, stress free time. So let’s just forget about the first bit, go get a massage, catch up with the diving crew later, and relax.”
What an absolute legend. Instant draining of the bucket.
“Thank you. I’m so sorry, I just…”
“Hey, don’t worry about it. Let’s just relax and enjoy the rest of the weekend.”
And that is exactly what we did. Sharm el Sheikh is gorgeous. The Four Seasons was amazing. We had so much fun with the local dive instructors, and made it back to Cairo in two pieces.
That evening my boyfriend picked me up along with his friend who was lovely, but didn’t speak great English.
“How was your weekend?” he asked.
“You wouldn’t believe it…” I began, then started to tell him blow by blow everything that happened. He, like I, thought I was going away with a group of foreigners to some beach shacks.
“Stop talking!” he cried. “Just stop talking! I’m sure you didn’t do anything otherwise you wouldn’t be telling me all of this, but I just can’t hear this right now!”
Oh yeeeeeah. This was certainly not a conversation he would have with an Egyptian woman ever. Even if exactly that happened to her, she would NEVER tell her boyfriend or husband about it. It might be a bit hard to get one’s head around… And he wasn’t likely to be in the position to take me to the Four Seasons anytime soon. Perhaps I was being a bit insensitive… And his friend’s English wasn’t so good, but it was good enough; he was also likely wondering what the hell I was talking about…
My boyfriend got over it. We were, after all, falling hopelessly in love. I moved into Emma’s apartment where I discovered more Egyptian cats whose buckets rampantly overflowed. I got a call from an engineering company who heard about this blond Aussie cruising around Cairo who could speak Japanese who might be useful in some contract negotiations. Things were looking up!
For a bit…
Until next time!