As with Sinai, I entered the great and ancient city of Alexandria by night, meaning that most of its sight were lost on me. The smell of sewage lingers, though.
Helmi, tired and pissed off at Cairo traffic making me two hours later than planned, was visiting his friend Rawan ( the mysterious R.One mentioned elsewhere), who lives there.
One lesson I will definitely take home from this is to take the bus to Alex direct and not bother with spontanous meeting-up schemes. The cab drive around Cairo that took me to Helmi cost me more than the bus ticket to Alex and back. And I got ripped off by the cabby, which is another story entirely.
The first bit of the city I experienced was the huge factory of the Four Seasons hotel mall, where people are mass fed, turning cheap food into cheaper money in unbelievable masses. The place is huge, modern, crowded and filled with an incredible din of conversation, consumerism and mass mastication.
You are also forbidden from doing anything... no sitting on the floor, no loitering, you even seem to be forbidden from leaving the place. The only activity you appear to be allowed to engage in is blatant public smoking.
of course they have all the trimmings and fittings of a modern western mall: MCD's Starbucks, Pizza Hut clash with the smell of the most expensive Shawerma sandwiches I have ever seen. Foreign fashion brands, of lesser quality than the local brands, but more expensive are everywhere. It even has this money-factory feel to it. The building itself is a giant monument to consumerism and luxury. Coming in from the sea, it is the first thing you will behold of Alexandria, like the lighthouse of ancient times, this unwelcome beacon of modern civilization.
From there, to Mahatet-el-Raml, a central tram station from what I could gather. What scared me there, apart from the omnipresent Mobinil and Vodafone Kiosks, is the erosion of Egyptian shops and cafes (Ahawi) in favour more globalized shops. The most prominent shop on the plaza is a giant KFC. it is heartening to see that same giant KFC relatively empty, to the advantage of the more traditional street vendors who have dominated Egyptian street life for centuries.
And finally, Oliver, and old school-friend of mine, the principal reason for my trip here. He has evolved, you might say, from a skater-boi and fellow hooligan and troublemaker, to a quiet and humorous teacher of the German language at the Goethe institute and the German Girls' school in Alexandria. In a way, he is following in his fathers' footsteps.
he lives in a flat, furnished and filled with all manner of kitsch and tack, together with his Italian flatmate. the view is not the best, but it does offer a more authentic look at Alexandria than a flat facing the sea would. It also takes place from a spacious balcony, where we spent the evening catching up and drinking beer in the best German fashion.
My impression is, that behind the veneer of the corniche, Alexandria is as dirty as any other Egyptian city, with smaller roads. It does seem to be much less congested than Cairo and the sea air brings with it a fresh breeze and blows most of the considerable pollution out of the city. According to natives, it lacks the relatively ample entertainment offered by its mammoth neighbour, Cairo. It is seemingly even more restricted in the choices it offer for food and drink.
A Cairene girl once told me " Entertainment here is going from one meal to the next, with a meal between them to entertain you..." So what is it like in Alex?
My longest memory of this town will have to be the bus station, where I spent the longest coherent time waiting for the bus back to Cairo. It is clean.
On the way back to Cairo, I notice that the desert road, as it was known in my youth, can no longer be called that. Over the last ten years, the road connecting Alexandria to Cairo, irrigation and development have turned what used to be a desert into a road bordered by trees, factories, farmland and newly-invigorated villages and settlements.
Also in evidence: MCDonalds again, competing with the traditional roadside kiosks, which in turn, have evolved into shops subsidized by mobile phone companies.
It is interesting to see the shift in roadside advertising. Long ago, the ads targeted the business traveller or truck driver. Now the focus appears to be on the Egyptian consumer, with money to spend on sweets, phones, shampoos, soft drinks. It also targets the wealthy. With many new gated communities being built alongside the road, huge and constant billboards advertising a quiet retreat from the stresses of Cairene life. The ads are hypnotic as you drive by them.
The road is also full of the sorry remains of brilliant ideas: Dried-out farms and concrete corpses of giant building projects never completed all around.