September 2008

Some of us in this world come by our nerdiness naturally I think. There we were, sitting back and relaxing on Tiffany’s lovely terrace overlooking the Nile on a May evening, when Kaddee announced that she was having a prime birthday later that week. And without missing a beat, both Tiffany and I asked – “Which one?” We, or at any rate I, actually named possible numbers but to repeat them would be rude and could also, invite reciprocal revelations, and that’s not the point anyway. The point is that we immediately knew what Kaddee meant. While Suf, the fourth member of our bunch that afternoon did not have a clue what we were blathering about.

Now, it could be that our instant recognition of Kaddee’s allusion was tied to our own experience – both Tiff and I also hit primes this year, while Suf did not and so the subject was on our radars and not hers – but honestly I think that has little to do with anything. For one, it wasn’t until Kaddee mentioned it that I (after a hurried calculation in my head) even realized that I too had a prime birthday coming up. No, the only explanation I have, is that this world is made up of nerds and normal people, and that the demographic that day was skewed towards us, making the normal (in this case Sufia) feel left out.

So anyway, I hit my prime this year, a while ago, more than 2 months ago actually, since my birthday is 24th of July, and I’ve been meaning to write about it, but there seems to be a deep-seated, subconscious reluctance on my part ot mark the passage of my years on-line. And yet, since I had a rather marvelous (prime in fact), if low key, birthday, I think it deserves mention here.

What made it so marvelous? Well, I got to celebrate it with my Mom, something I’ve not done for some years now. The last time was in Bangalore in 2003. This time it was in Vienna and Amma had specially timed her visit to be there for my birthday, which was very nice. It was her first full day there and we went sightseeing to the Hofburg, and I introduced her to Cafe Sussi, which is where I had my birthday cake equivalent.

To return to the matter of primes, one of the folks who did catch my meaning instantly when I mentioned the word  in connection with birthdays was my once-and-always roomie Chris, another professional nerd. Not only that, he also proceeded to point out the double entendre within: that not only was the age a prime number, but also that I was in my prime. Bless his lovely heart, he also added a “you don’t look a day over x” line of comfort, where x = a previous prime number. Talk about making my year! As I’ve said many a time before to the good Dr. League, he really is in one of his own!


Tuesday night reminded my why, despite all the horrors Horus (or Allah) throws my way (and He has chucked several to us AUC-ians in the weeks since my return from Vienna), his gift of the Nile is so very precious in so many ways. Actually, for what has been the most historic river in the history of humankind, sustaining nearly 5000 years of civilization, the Nile may seem anticlimactic at first glance. It’s neither the widest river I’ve ever seen nor the swiftest, and yet there is truly something magical about it.

We’ve been suffering a massive heat wave since last week. Not unusual for Egypt in the early weeks of September I suppose, but very unwelcome for all that. It has been hot and dusty and with no reprieve even in the mornings and evenings, rendering my back porch unusable and resulting in the overuse of the air conditioners. (In fact that heat wave only broke yesterday for the first time). Soon after my return, Elissa and I had taken a felluca ride which was great as usual, but Tuesday night we (joined by Peter this time around) did one better, thanks to Elissa’s flash of inspiration. We decided to take our dinner and eat it aboard the little boat. Armed with a bags of mezzes and drinks picked up  from Tabula, we walked over the to docks, our tongues hanging out in doggy fashion from heat and thirst that even this short walk had induced.

Even as we descended the steps to the landing where the boats are moored we could feel the air get cooler. I swear it felt as though there was a 10-degree difference in the temperatures between the street and the middle of the river.The boat set sail, the city noises receded and voila! we were in heaven. We invited our kindly captain to join us, but he refused even a taste, no doubt replete from his iftaar, but the three of us were reasonably hungry and made short work of the food. Then came the really good part, as we  assumed various reclining positions on the cushioned seats of the boat, and slipped into different degrees of food coma, rocked there gently by that kindliest of all Umm’s (mothers), the river Nile. It was a gorgeous full moon night, and the sky was reasonably clear and I indulged in some sleepy stargazing, pointing out Venus to the others, before drifting off to a snooze. Sitting there, it’s easy to forget, at least for a while, the heat and bother and clutter and chaos and the miseries of commuting (another tale, another post) – namely, all the pesky details of daily life, and simply just be.

The fellucca has secured a permanent place in my top three list of favorite things about the Cairene lifestyle, the easy availability of fabulous mangoes during season – I buy a couple almost everyday from different fruit seller – holding the other undisputed spot, while the third spot (like the triplet codons in our DNA) is the changeable wobble position through which any of several things might temporarily take residence: my new apartment on some occasions, the Tut room at the Egyptian museum, Koshari, fresh squeezed fruit juices – notably mangoes or pomegranate, the glass shops with their wares glittering with all shades of the specturm, the grand door at Abu-El-Sid… and the list goes on. But felluccas and mangoes, respectively  representing the new and the familiar in my range of experiences, have no rivals. Next time I should try taking and eating mangoes aboard a felluca – not only is that a match made in heaven, it would be the most heavenly match.

“Neeraja, you have to come and see this place,” Michel told me over the phone on his and Louise’s last day in Vienna. “It’s as if Gaudi came to Vienna!”

Gaudi it was not, though some might deem it gaudy, but colorful it certainly was. The “it” in question being the Hundertwasserhaus, the realized product of the vision of one Austrian-born artist+architect who took on his name of Hundertwasser and later bestowed it upon his handiwork. Photos don’t do it enough justice actually – they simply don’t have the same impact of color and confused space that one gets from being there. In fact the only colorful pictures on this post were lifted from – dare i confess? – Wikipedia, and the photos from Louise Mom or myself are rather bleached. Which, by the way, is how he wanted it to be. So much so that he made a stipulation in his will that the colors etc would not be refreshed, restored or otherwise changed.

The profusion of colors is perhaps the tamest thing about Hundertwasserhaus, which according to various pieces of paperwork, is an apartment complex with 52 residential units (we’re not allowed to visit those), four offices, 16 private terraces, and three communal one, a garden (er.. a lawn more like) on the roof and 250 trees. Floors undulate, balconies seem precariously perched on crooked pillars, fountains fount, and trees and other members of the plant world are quite wont to peep out at you from unexpected places. All in all the effect is interesting to say the least, although I’m not certain I’d like to live in an apartment where a midnight trip to get a glass of water could trip me up.

The apartment complex was not Hundertwasser’s only legacy to Vienna. Not far from it, also in the third district, is an art gallery called Kunsthauswien, which bears many of the artistic and architechtural landmarks of the apartment complex. It is home to a permanent collection of the artist’s work and also exhibits various contemporary works. I didn’t make it there, but did get out to his third handiwork, the regional heating plant (incinerator) in Spittelau. On a bright Sunday morning Amma and I set out bright and early on the subway out to visit the Setagaya Japanese garden. The garden was calm and soothing and beautiful as all such gardens are, but our visit lasted about the fraction of the time it took us to get there. Much to our delight on reaching the end of the subway line, we discovered that the heating plant whose golden globe is visible from many vantage points in Vienna (and had hence aroused Amma’s curiosity) was within walking distance. So after the garden we walked over and around it and took some pictures. The plant still functions as an incinerator, only the outside is decorated in the style of the hundred waters! The colors and funky style appealed to Amma so much that she made it a point on her last but one day in Vienna to go over and check out the Hundertwasserhaus, in all its gaudy Gaudi-esque glory!

I like the word backblog – I’m not sure if she invented it, but I’ve lifted it from Tiffany (Dr. SciVorg on my links). This note is just to give credit where it’s due…

Anyway, I was reminded reading Tiffany’s pages on Italy that I’ve only really given an account of part of one day of my enchanted April. And since then I’ve had a rather enchanted June, July & August too, albeit in Vienna and if I’m not careful I’ll be backlogged on those chronicles as well! Not that anyone’s checking, but having begun this blog project I should do right by it.

To continue the saga where I left off, sated and mildly tipsy from Emilio’s vineyard as we were, Shraddha and I made our way to the village of Modigliana where we decided to take a break before heading on to our next scheduled destination – a cheese farm for tea/dessert. The very thought of food is actually what mandated our break. We were far too full to even consider downing another morsel (or sip come to think of it) before walking some of our previous meal off.

And so we did. Modigliana is a charming village in the Romagna region, and was on the way to our cheese farm. At the risk of repeating myself, it was not the birth place of the artist Modigliani but may have nevertheless been the source for his family name. Anyway the village has an old ruined castle atop a hill, which our trusty host Silvio had recommended we check out. To get to the castle ruins we actually had to cross a bridge over a moat. In other circumstances I might have found it too kitschy but here managed to charm me to my toes. Especially when reached to the top to find fenced in by the tower (which was crumbling and out of bounds) several black pigs. En route up there we were overtaken by a guy and his infant daughter on a scooter, who seemed pretty amazed to find a couple of Indian girls (amazingly to us in turn, he nailed our origins with his first guess) on his familiar route. And felt flattered too, I think, that we thought to stop there.

We finally made it to the cheese place well around 6 (I no longer remember). The sun was still up but not for much longer — it was definitely dark by the time we finished there but that was several hours later. The place is called Rio Monte and to call it a cheese farm is to do it a grave injustice.

Alberto and Ester preparing a fresh batch of ravvigiolo

Actually the Rio Monte is a full-fledged bed and breakfast, which boasts the rock star Steven Tyler (I think, and hope Alberto forgives me if I’m wrong) among its celebrity guests. And now us! You can read all about the place and people in their own words at their website. Here I include our firsthand experiences and take full responsibility for all mistakes of memory and mistranslation:

One of the first details that struck me about the place was the lovely old staircase leading up to the rooms of the B&B. Liked them so much that I not only photographed them but also made Matteo and Shraddha pose at the base. Speaking of Matteo, the (9?)-year son of Alberto and Ester, he was definitely the star of our evening there. Based solely on what he’d learned in school, for parents spoke nary a word of English, he proved an extremely competent translator. And a real darling all round. At the time we visited he had just been selected to represent his area in a national competition in mathematics. Matteo if you read this blog, please do post a comment or send a note and tell us how it went. We’d love to hear from you.

Alberto, Matteo’s dad is former trucker & member of the merchant marines (again I think) who a few years ago decided to settle down and take up dairy farming. Yet another character full of local vim and vigor with an enthusiasm for life and living that was heart-warming to see. He had done a fair bit of traveling in his youth, and has even been to Egypt though not with his family. When I suggested he make a return visit with Matteo and Ester his retort (in Italian) was he’d have to build an Ark (as in Noah) to be able to leave his farm! Shraddha could certainly attest to that statement as she had by then petted every pettable beast and talked to all the others. The menagerie included cows of at least two different breeds to contribute volume and milkfat (= taste) respectively to their cheeses, pigs, sheep, innumerable cats, a retired dog that had once been a prize-winning truffle hunter (Alberto showed us a photograph of Matteo with one of their best finds) and some chickens too? An ark was indeed required if this family was to cross the Mediteranean.

Chatting at sunset

Our repast here was necessarily smaller than lunch at Il Pratello and starred the aforementioned ravvigiolo. This fresh cheese is only made in small batches and involved curdling the milk without either boiling it or adding sour stuff, which gives a naturally sweet large curd. Yummy eaten with fruit or compotes (RioMonte makes and sells their own) as is customary, or as we did, with a sprinkling of that Italian staple of olive oil and salt. Along with some home cured ham and a gentle white wine we were replete and sated for the second time that day. But wait – then came the grand finale, a lovely rich homemade dark chocolate liqueur. This last product is not sold and only served to special guests (as I like to believe we were). Liquid gold couldn’t be more precious! We expressed our gratitude as best we could in their guest book, and then stood and chatted under the setting sun before finally taking our leave.

I’m back in Cairo and there’s no mistaking the fact. Heat and dust, grime and greys (skies and buildings when the latter aren’t brown) and pollution in its plurality (air and noise most noticable but other forms too) all attest to my location. The soles of my feet are black already (and I haven’t walked anywhere except on my own floors, my eyes are red and feel gritty, and there is the incessant loud droning of the unfinished symphony that is the contruction going on behind my building, and pumps of some sort on the side. Vienna seems like a distant world, a wonderful dream that I was not ready to wake up from, and I haven’t been back a full day yet.

But despite all my whining, its good to be back reconnecting with the Cairene comrades, trading summer stories and getting ready for the first iftaar. I have arrived on the first day of Ramadan to city full of fast-and-feasters. And hey, I’m back where the laundry bills won’t bankrupt me.

So while I’ve put this post into the horrors categories, it’s not quite the disaster I thought I’d be writing about – just some good old-fashioned complaining. But I believe the campus move has plenty of genuine tales to offer in the horror genre. More on that as the stories surface.

Meanwhile, Mae ‘salaama and Ramadan Karim everyone.