Village Saint-Martin

A new (school) year, a new adventure!

Back at the start of the summer, G. and I left Egypt behind, and after a couple of months spent gallivanting around Quebec (and a short trip to England for a friend’s wedding), here we are in Paris, a city we’ve each been to a few times as tourists but never had the chance to live in… until now.

I’m sure that our time here will abound in many culinary, cultural, and literary adventures as we get settled in and start exploring. In the meantime, here’s a short introduction to our new neighbourhood near the Canal Saint-Martin, in the 10e arrondissement.

In fact we came upon this neighbourhood entirely by chance–we had never visited it before. Within a few minutes of arriving, however, we knew that it was a perfect place for us. It’s a very young, vibrant neighbourhood with lots of shops, boutiques, grocery stores, cafés, and restaurants. Our street features a school, a lively terrace, and an amazing bakery. The entire street often smells of freshly baked brioche.

We’ve already fallen in love with the Parisian lifestyle–enjoying a drink on a sunny terrace, stopping at multiple shops and markets to buy our groceries–and we’re working hard to adapt our North American eating schedule to that of France, where diner isn’t served before 8pm, and often much later, and shops close for the afternoon.

Many people have told us that the 10e hasn’t always been as charming as it is now; twenty or thirty years ago, it was a lot less attractive. As with gentrification in so many other Western cities, the advent of “bobos” has brought with it third wave coffee shops, coworking spaces, and ridiculously niche boutiques, but it’s also pushed out diversity. However the neighbourhood still feels scruffy around the edges, and it’s a joy to see so many young people crowding along the canal to share some charcuterie, bread, and a bottle of wine at any time of day or night.

One thing that immediately made us fall in love with the tenth’s communal spirit is a local newspaper called Le Journal du Village Saint-Martin, which is published every season and has charming articles about local residents and businesses. For example, the most recent issue for the summer had an article about Chez Prune, one of the neighbourhood’s emblematic bistro’s, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer.

The team behind the journal also publishes a yearly Village Saint-Marting guidebook, which is beautifully illustrated by local artists and available for purchase in local shops. This handy little guide has already supplied us with many great addresses, and is a perfect starting point to begin exploring the neighbourhood and, eventually, make it really feel like home.

 

Al Sorat Farm

When I was doing research online on Adam Henein, the Egyptian sculptor who has a workshop and museum in Giza, I came across the blog of a Canadian woman who owns a farm south of Cairo, near the village of Abu Sir. I emailed her asking if we could visit the farm, and the next weekend we spent a Saturday at her place out in the country.

Maryanne Gabanni moved to Egypt with her Canadian/Egyptian husband and their two children in the 1980s. After her husband passed away, Gabanni bought the farm where she now lives. She employs local men to help her manage the farm, which has goats, horses, donkeys, a friendly water buffalo, and lots of fresh produce. It’s an amazing place, and it really feels like you’re out in the middle of nowhere even though it’s less than an hour’s drive south of downtown Cairo—we even took an Uber to get there.

One of the awesome things that Maryanne Gabbani does is organize weekly veterinary clinics in the surrounding villages. She brings in her team and some of her friends to offer treatment to animals, diagnose medical problems, give donkeys mosquito nets, provide shots and worming medicine, conduct some basic farrying, and more. I encourage you to check out her work on the Facebook page of her Rural Wellness Initiative. To my mind she’s a local hero.

We had a wonderful time on the farm, petting animals, playing with her numerous dogs, riding horses, and talking to Maryanne and her friends, who are passionate about animals and about Egypt. We even had a late, Egyptian-style lunch there, and it was definitely one of the best meals we’ve ever had in Egypt: fresh, tasty, local produce, beautifully prepared.

Maryanne Gabbani has it all figured out: she is living her best life out on that farm in the Egyptian countryside. Long may she enjoy it!

Adam Henein

It was a Zamalek gallery and carpet shop owner who first put us on the track of an Egyptian sculptor called Adam Henein. We stopped by the gallery shop in question and the owner invited us to sit down with him and have some tea and chocolates. He was a sweet, cultured man; he talked to us about a bunch of contemporary Egyptian artists.

“But Henein is incredible,” he said. “You have to visit his museum in Giza. It’s where his house and his workshop is, and now there’s a museum with his work. He sold a large boat sculpture in Qatar a few years ago for hundreds of thousands of dollars and he used the money to build this museum. He’s very old, in his 90s, now he just sits in his garden, contemplating his life and his work. You have to visit this museum.”

And so we went to the Adam Henein Museum, which in fact is just down the road from the Wissa Wassef Centre, a place we’d been to before. This stretch of road, next to a trash-filled canal and behind a fresh slab of concrete and red-brick apartment blocks, is apparently turning into Giza’s artistic hub!

We fell in love with Henein’s work from our first moments inside his museum. The first thing we realized is that he’s an artist in the true sense, comfortable in almost every medium. Although his sculptures (in bronze, wood, stone, and clay) dominate the museum, also shown are his paintings, charcoal drawings, drawings on papyrus, and even weaving.

But it’s Henein’s sculptures that I find especially moving, because they almost always reinterpret motifs from ancient Egyptian statuary—birds, standing or seated figures, crowns, obelisks—although Henein gives them contemporary twist with pure forms and neat lines. His human figures, with their straight backs, blank faces, softened features, and long robes unfurling like sails, are extremely moving.

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Outside there’s also a beautiful, grassy courtyard, dominated by a large granite boat, which recalls the gigantic wooden solar barge found buried near the pyramid of Khufu. Many of Henein’s works, especially animals such as donkeys and cats, huddle around it.

We came to this museum a few times, but the first time we visited we got to see the artist himself, who was being interviewed in the garden for a documentary. G. introduced herself and was lucky enough to shake his hand. He’s a monument of Egyptian art, and he deserves to be better known.

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My Favourite Restaurant in Egypt

You rarely see Egyptians eat. They have small breakfasts on the go, traditionally a ful medames (stewed beans) or falafel with some bread. Their biggest meal tends to be late in the afternoon, where they have salads, dips, bread, pickles, and some kind of saucy meat or vegetables. They’ll eat whatever is left over for dinner.

Egypt is not really a renowned culinary destination, but for truly exceptional meals the best is to stick with local food. I’ve read in a few places that the best place to eat in Egypt is in someone’s home, and short of that, the best meals I’ve had in Egypt are in a restaurant called Toutankhamon, on the west bank of Luxor in Upper Egypt.

It was an Egyptologist friend of ours who recommended this restaurant, and at first we were a bit put off by the touristy name and the décor: you eat on an empty terrace on the roof of the building. The only atmosphere is provided by the whirling fans overhead. At least there’s a nice view of the Nile.

Things get better when the owner comes to take your order: he’s exceptionally kind and welcoming. There’s no menu: you choose from whatever his wife made that day. This is an unfussy family business. The fresh lemon juice is delicious and not too sweet, exactly what you need after a hot dusty trundle down the Valley of the Kings.

Then the food arrives: salad, dips, fresh bread. Always a couple of vegetable dishes, such as spinach with chickpeas, or potatoes with tomato sauce, or ratatouille. G., who doesn’t eat meat, is always happy. The main is usually some kind of stewed meat, expertly spiced. I’ve tried duck à l’orange, a beef and vegetable stew, curried chicken with bananas and coconut, meatballs in tomato sauce. Everything is outstanding. It’s a joy to dip your bread in the flavoursome sauces and even the rice, served in a large earthenware dish and speckled with vermicelli, is tastier than expected. Desert—usually a piece of fruit or a bit of pastry—and coffee or tea are included.

We’ve been to Toutankhamon four times now and have never been disappointed. We always leave happy and bloated. Definitely one of our Egyptian highlights, and a “must” for any trip to Luxor.

Cairo’s Weasels

Although Cairo’s “informal” system of trash collection works surprisingly well—it’s managed, for the most part, by groups of copts who collect the trash and haul it off to “trash city,” where it is sorted and reused when possible (for example, organic waste is fed to animals)—it’s still not uncommon, even in the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods, for the streets and sidewalks to be littered with refuse, including food.

Therefore, it’s a real surprise that Cairo isn’t overrun with rats. Of course, there is no shortage of cats lounging about Cairo’s streets, but Cairenes should be thankful for another small mammal that keeps the rat and mouse population in check: the Egyptian weasel.

This mysterious animal is very small, with round ears, a fusiform body, and a short furry tale. They’re nocturnal animals that are very fast and can fit through tiny openings. In fact, the Egyptian weasel is so shy and hard to spot that it took us several months before we saw our first one, a little patch of brown fur darting underneath cars near Costa Coffee. At first, we didn’t even know what we’d seen. A squirrel? A rat? It took a bit of online searching to find out about Cairo’s underground population of mustela subpalmata, as they are known scientifically.

Now that G. and I know about the weasels, we’ve been lucky enough to glimpse one every few weeks. They usually come out at night, when they can be seen as they cross the street, darting under cars and disappearing in cracks almost as soon as we spot them. It’s virtually impossible to get a picture of them. The other morning we were lucky enough to see one almost head on, in full daylight, as we came out of a Vodafone shop. It sped across the street right in front of us and slipped away between the gratings of a garage gate.

Bonus content: Listen to artist Far Flown Falcon’s song about a weasel, recorded in a street of Fatimid Cairo!

Wissa Wassef

A short drive away from the pyramids in Giza, behind a block of informal apartment buildings on the canal road that leads south to Abu Sir, Saqqarah, and Dahshur, there is a humble enclave of peace called the Wissa Wassef Art Centre.

Ramses Wissa Wassef was a 20th century Egyptian architect. In 1951, he founded an art centre here in order to teach children from the surrounding villages how to develop their intrinsic artistic skills in crafts such as pottery and weaving. The skills they learned would also give them a means to make some additional money by selling their creations at the centre.

Today, the second generation of these children, now middle-aged men and women, still weave beautiful artworks out of cotton or wool, entirely by hand. These tapestries, which can be very large, are veritable paintings made of fabric—usually done without any preliminary plans or drawings.

The centre has a large gallery space, where visitors can also purchase the works on display. If you’re lucky, as we were a few times, you can also visit the workshops and see the men and women at work. It’s a humbling experience that will inevitably make you want to purchase one of their pieces.

It’s worth visiting the Wissa Wassef Centre even if it’s just to marvel at the beautiful architecture, which is made of traditional adobe bricks and rammed earth: lightly ascending staircases, soft angles, rounded archways, and delicate domes. But it’s hard to leave without buying a woven work of art once you’ve seen the artists at work.

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Cairo: The City Victorious

But sometimes – in April especially – the wind changes ominously. Brewing up from east or west, it sweeps the desert blustering into the city. Stifling hot and teased with whirlwinds, the sandstorms counterpoint the river, serving to remind Cairo that even as the water of life flowers through its centre, death lurks at the edges of the valley. Cairenes need reminding. The city’s ceaseless urban racket casts an amnesiac spell. It is easy to forget how close the utter empty silence of the desert lies.

Eager to learn more about Cairo’s history and to keep my Mamlouks straight from my Fatimids, I’ve been reading Max Rodenbeck’s Cairo: The City Victorious, which was published by the American University in Cairo Press back in 1998.

It’s an interesting book, and I’m glad I picked it up, although I found it a bit dense and couldn’t read much more than 10-20 pages at a time. There’s a lot of stories and information here, with some chapters following a more thematic approach, and others running through the chronology of Cairo, from its origins in the pre-historic city of Om (today located in the upscale suburb of Heliopolis) to the metropolis of 20+ million people it has now become. Rodenbeck is also lyrical at times, crafting the right phrase or finding the right metaphor to capture a smell, a sound, or a sight.

While I learned a lot reading Cairo: The City Victorious—it’s obvious that Rodenbeck adores the city and knows it very well—I think the book suffered a bit from a problem of personality. At times it read like a straight up “biography” of Cairo, encompassing large swathes of Egyptian history condensed into a few pages, while at others Rodenbeck couldn’t help but describe a few of his personal experiences in the city: meeting a workshop owner from a baladi neighbourhood, having dinner with a gossipy gin-sucking upper-class lady, encountering a Sufi mystic in a tent during a night festival. Yet Rodenbeck deals with scenes like these ones hastily. He offers the minimum of context before zooming back out into a broader social history of the city.

Max Rodenbeck is a correspondent for The Economist, and perhaps that’s why he appears to be so uncomfortable in the first-person mode. Yet the parts of the book where Rodenbeck swoops in on tangible moments gave me the strongest impressions. I would’ve loved for the author to make this book more personal, to offer more details about his own life and experiences in Cairo, while offering some of the historical material as background. Instead he seemed too intent on erasing himself from the story, unless when absolutely necessary.

This book was a bit of a missed opportunity for me, but it was still a very interesting read. And, yes, I can now tell apart the Fatimids apart from the Mamlouks.