G-Verbs to Watch Girls Go By

In increasing order of intensity:

1 Glimpse

Best done over a newspaper. Detection unlikely.

2 Glance

Still casual. Check she’s not actually a fella, then move on.

3 Goggle

Eye-contact territory, be careful. You can always pretend you thought she was someone else.

4 Gaze

Seduce her with your penetrating stare!

5 Gawp

Five seconds til she slaps you.

Too Much

There’s too much going on.

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How many websites, how many lists, how many directories, how many databases am I on? If I could just hit delete somehow, just fade from the page, erase myself and come back another day, when I’ve arrived somewhere else.

Once, the only thing to think about was whatever was right in front of us. Now we are surrounded: top and bottom, left and right, in front and behind and we can’t remember what we’re supposed to be thinking about.

Everything is silently monitoring, shifting behind the scenes, priming for our attention – Now! Today!

I sit here at the table, with music playing, another person in the next room – but I just know there’s a website somewhere trying to contact me, trying to tell me about where to put my last three pennies, somewhere there’s a call centre that’s just coming to my name on the list and needs to ask me how my house is doing for glazing, somewhere there’s a postman walking up my drive, knocking on the door, throwing demands on my doorstep, asking, whining, pleading.

And I’m complicit: the more I get involved, the more I get involved.

The last thing I expected was this.

Cairo: Selected Parks of Zamelek

Further north from Opera are the grounds of the Zamalek club, open only to members, the sly and the persistent. But my favourite garden in these parts is the Aquarium Garden Grotto. The grotto is a fantastical place, whose aquarium has long since dried up, leaving its friendly bridge to curve over nothing more than a tiled hole in the ground.

The centrepiece of the garden (in Arabic, a hadeeqa) is an artificial hill, which soars (if one uses one’s imagination) above the grime of the city. Better still, is the grotto that has been carved out of the plastic hill. But the main attraction for the lovers who gather here is the shade provided by tall palms, on the grass beneath which they can hold hands, talk and pick at lunch.

Not so peaceful is the corner devoted to the young of Zamalek. A collection of recreational furniture clamours for their attention and their squeals and screams carry far beyond the high fences.

For the Khedival sum of two Egyptian pounds, you can gain entry to a more tranquil hadeeqa a little further along the Corniche el-Nil. Here the palms trees block out Cairo’s hot and high-rise buildings, while fountains thrum out a cooling rhythm amid carefully-tended beds, where marble cobras rear up with impotent anger at the flowers.

That extra guinea buys me something else, too. Benches: nice, wooden benches, scattered around the gardens, as you would hope. The Aquarium Garden Grotto is all very whimsical, but its benches are arranged in a circular sort of formation, so that the two sexes can eyeball each another. It’s a little confrontational for my liking.

Another bonus of this hadeeqa is its coffee shop. Before I get a chance to sit down properly, an urgent waiter in a bow tie is upon me. After we share the necessarily florid greetings, he reveals his purpose:
“You sit down; you drink. Coffee, tea, orange…”
“Ah – no, thank you,” I say, politely.
“Yes – you drink. Coffee, tea, orange…”
“Ah – yes, very kind – but no, thank you.”
“Yes, yes. This – ” he (rather improbably) indicates the bench – “coffee shop. You drink.”
As far as I could see, this was a bench. “But I’ve already paid to come in here!”
“Yes for – ” and he mimes the act of walking with his index and middle fingers.
“No – that’s ridiculous!”
“Yes – you must drink!”

Besides the fact that I’m not thirsty, I am footsore and I don’t want to give up my comfortable bench. I look around, somewhat desperately, for some help breaking this rather awkward impasse. But no one is watching us. Everyone else in the garden seems to be in a couple, arm-in-arm on the benches, gazing into each other’s eyes… Oh – there’s the answer!

“But the other people,” I say, triumphantly, “they don’t have drinks!”
And it’s true: arm-in-arm, none have the threatened tea, coffee, orange (which, in any case, strikes me as a slightly distasteful combination).
“Yes they have!” he says, with unlikely optimism.
“No! Look – no one has a drink.”
Suddenly, the waiter smiles and gives me a high-five, walking away, laughing.

If you know how to stand your ground, Egypt is a fun place. Now, having won that round, I think I will just have a little walk around, after all.

I walked there in January 2009. I wonder what it would feel like now.

Haute Cuisine in Sarajevo

A restaurant in Sarajevo. My friend is interrogating a waiter about his establishment’s unhelpful menu.

“…and what’s in this – the Sultan Bey soup?”
“That’s lambs brains fried in offal fat.”
“And this one?”
“Sheep liver with beef.”
“Er, what about this one?”
“Chicken with two types of ham.”
“And this… Tahamoa?”
“No meat.”

My friend pauses to take this information on board. Then he resumes his attack.

“What exactly is in the ‘fishy fillet’?”
“Thanks. I’ll have that.”

The waiter leaves.

You know, for a city that makes such a big thing about how disgusting the food was during the siege, they don’t seem to have celebrated a return to haute cuisine.

I was in Sarajevo in summer 2007. I loved it.

Sarajevo gives thanks to the UN

“We needed two things: arms and food. So the UN gave us malaria tablets and condoms – well they had promised to ‘protect’ us! We felt very safe.

“The food they sent us was varied. Sometimes it was left-overs from the Vietnam war – cans of food twenty years out of date. Sometimes it was pork – in a city where half the population is Muslim. But most often it was this can of beef called icar. This was the most disgusting thing imaginable. When I ask my grandfather if he would ever eat icar again, he says:

If there is another siege, I would rather die than eat icar.

“One of the first things the UN did was to put an arms embago on both sides of the conflict. This was very fair: the Serbs had the former Yugoslav army, the fourth largest fighting force in Europe, fit for fifty years of war; and the Bosnian army did not yet exist – it was made up of ex-policemen and criminals, the few people who had weapons.

“So we had to smuggle weapons into the city, against the wishes of the UN. In this, we got a lot of help from Colombian drug cartels. They did more to help save Sarajevo than the UN. There is always talk that we should build a monument to acknowledge their aid.

“There is a monument to the UN. It is a sculpture and the plaque on the sculpture reads:

In grateful acknowledgement of the humanitarian aid provided by the United Nations. We will never forget.

And the sculpture? It is in the shape of a can of icar.”

Icar Bosnia
Yummy icar!

I travelled to Sarajevo in the summer of 2007. I heard these stories from the people there.