A day in Alexandria, first Mall trawl in 8 months.

My latest Alexandria visit involved the usual work chasing commitments, and some shopping for things I can’t get in Siwa, like contact lens solution and Habibi’s dry cat food. For the first time I visited one of the large malls, the City Centre Mall not far from the central bus station, and I will definitely be making it a part of future visits.

You can see from the mall branding, on its map brochure and in the image of the three women that is next to each entrance, they are targeting the aspirational, middle class, paler skinned customers (and probably tourists and expats living here). There was a picture begging to be taken while I waited for the Centre to open, but I hesitate to take photographs like this as it is likely to offend. While I waited, others joined me, including a dark skinned, possibly Nubian woman dressed traditionally, not Westernized as were the majority of the customers I saw during my visit to the mall. We exchanged looks of relief to be out of the sun and greeted each other. She stood directly in front of that image of the three young women, looked at it briefly and then turned her back to it; clearly it did not give her a sense of identification.

The mall brochure shows you the variety of stores which also fit that aspirational market. Lots of fashion and accessories stores including Zara, H&M, Debenhams, even Aussie labels Billabong and Quicksilver. There is a homewares store that resembles IKEA or Freedom, but being Egypt the products are much more bling – not a plain white plate in sight.

The resident supermarket Carrefour is a wonderful thing, a cross between our style of supermarket and the David Jones Food Hall, and open 9am to 1am. Given the press of customers, it cleverly displays all the week’s specials (except the electronics, which are in their own sections) in one aisle, so you know exactly where to head – follow the crowd.

Lots of choice and things I just can’t get in Siwa. I didn’t buy so much but spent a pleasant hour exploring and mentally noting what they have that I know I may need in future. Carrefour also has its own brand products so I am trying out the 100% cocoa and one of the coffee varieties. Large sections dedicated to cheeses, meats, fruit and veg, and a bakery which includes pastries from muffins to traditional Egyptian sweets by the kilo, a good selection of loose spices. My latest band name or book name idea – “A kilo of thyme” (say it aloud and think hours of the day, rather than the herb).

The over-commercialization of Christmas and Easter in Australia has got me on my soapbox every year for years now, but it appears Ramadan (next month) is in a similar situation here. Carrefour had a large area sectioned off and styled like a tent, with all the Ramadan essentials from dates to dried pomegranate and apricot, and people were buying up BIG. There are also Ramadan gift packages available, just like a Christmas hamper but including cooking oil, beans, rice and other Ramadan necessaries.

What I can only call “the Ramadan song” was played repeatedly over the store speakers. It sounded sweet and sentimental the first time I heard it, but after an hour of this each time it repeated I was mentally and sacrilegiously referring to it as “the bloody Ramadan song” – definitely no offence meant, because I say the same about “Silent Night” and the usual troop of songs that get played for a month before Christmas in Australia. Back in Aus I always thought: thank heavens there are no really traditional Easter songs or Mother’s Day and Father’s Day songs to drive crazy all the shop assistants who have to work for hours with this and all the customers like me who don’t find the constant seasons greetings enjoyable.

You would expect a large business like this would have better buying power than the tiny stores in Siwa and be able to pass that onto customers, but it appears this is not always the case. While some prices are substantially cheaper than in Siwa, there are items that are not; the two-bite sized halva I like to get for me (compact and delicious high energy food for travel or long walks) and to give the children sell for 75 piasters in Carrefour and only 50 in Siwa stores. The 25 piaster difference is only 5c Australian, but if you multiply by the hundred or so I probably buy in a year it adds up. It is little treats like these that are good to have stock of, especially with Ramadan celebrations looming when I need to have some small gifts for the neighbourhood kids (and there are between 3 and 12 in some families).

Carrefour stocks Whiskers dry food, so now Habibi can have one of the products she is used to, instead of the Italian dry food I found for her previously in Alexandria. Whiskers is also half the price, so I lugged four kilos home. Also got powdered milk. This is available in Siwa but much of it is in plastic containers and looks yellow and gluggy, so I haven’t bought it at all, suspecting even the milk in the cardboard boxes may also have suffered from heat or whatever has turned the powder in the plastic jars so nasty looking. This milk powder has come all the way from New Zealand, and is good to have as milk is expensive and until I get a fridge goes off too quickly, but I can make up a glass of powdered milk if guests drop in for coffee.

Next trip I will take the wheelie suitcase, leave it at Alexandria library storage for the day, and stop at the mall last thing before I go to the bus station, so I can really stock up. Carrefour also have me a chance to make price comparisons on basics like sheets, pillows, towels and cotton underwear that I may need in future, when the supplies I freighted over are used up.

Also in the mall I picked up a USB hub which I have been desperate to get. One of the flimsy USB ports on my netbook broke, so I was left with only two – one for the remote mouse and the other to connect one of my choices of internet USB, camera, phone or hard drive. This meant repeatedly unplugging and plugging in different devices and a multi step process every time I wanted to transfer a file. Now I can plug in four devices simultaneously, a real time and frustration saver.

One item on my shopping list was disappointingly unfulfilled. I need a second pair of pants to wear under calf length skirts, narrow legged rather than wide legged like the ones I have been wearing, which look strange under a skirt, the proportions are all wrong. Leggings I have plenty of but they are too hot and get sweaty, being synthetic and clinging. I searched all the mall stores but 90% of the pants were synthetic, useless for sweaty me in this heat, and the natural fibre pants were either badly cut or no small sizes available. Already I have to take in the waist on the black silk loose legged pants I have had so much wear from, because what started as the waistline has dropped due to my weight loss, and they are now really falling off my hips. When T. returns I will ask him to come to one of the Siwan tailors who make the men’s robes and loose pants. My Arabic won’t stretch to explaining what I want, so I will need his help.

As consolation for the pants falling off my wish list, I bought myself a little something – a heavily crystal decorated hair tie. I am mostly wearing my hair up now because of the heat, and a woman needs a bit of bling in Egypt. I have always had an aversion to scrunchies, blame some bad 1980s fashion visions, but this hair decoration is attached to a velvet scrunchie and it is actually a great innovation. Hair decorations attached to standard elastic are a pain when you have frizzy hair like mine. Maybe if I had smooth hair or used product (which I loathe) on it, the elastic would slip neatly around the decorative bit of the hair tie. But my hair catches in it, bunches up, hurts, and then some of my hair falls out when I remove the hair tie, and the knotted hair must be detached from the elastic. The scrunchie slips smoothly over my hair, over the decorative bit, no pulls or lost hair, and the decorative bit hides the actual scrunchie, so I can pretend it is not even there. All for the grand total of $4 Australian.

In the same accessories store I bought two pairs of sleeves, like leggings for the arms, to provide cover under a t-shirt or other short sleeve or ¾ length shirt. I have a synthetic pair bought years ago in Cairo, but they are hot and only reach just above the elbow, leaving exposed skin when worn with most of my shirts and so defeating their purpose. The sleeves I bought in Alex are cotton and reach almost to my arm pits – extra cover without sticking a full long sleeved t-shirt underneath, cooler to wear and easier to wash than a full garment. These were $2 Australian a pair, also less expensive than a full garment. I will try wearing them on my legs too; if they stay up when I walk, they should cover the gap between calf length skirts and ankles, but do away with the upper thighs and lower torso being covered, hot and sweaty. And on a more intellectual note, found “A Sultan In Palermo”,the fourth novel in Tariq Ali’s excellent Islam Quintet. These are a must read for all interested in history, and an extended family saga you will get caught up in even if you are not a history fan. I read the first three books some years ago, and this will be treasured evening reading.

So, aside from some work appointments and enjoying the city and sea views as always, and much longed for great cappucino and gelatti, this was a successful shopping visit to Alexandria. The Alexandrian young men remain as flirtatious as ever (mostly pleasantly), and the women are beautiful and dress so well, I enjoy just people watching on every visit.

Coming back on the bus I was joined by what must have been 90% of the Tourist Police officers usually resident in Siwa; they were returning from their break, and we had a lively chat. I had picked up the latest copy of Magaz magazine which features articles on the prospects for design after the Revolution, and I had an article in this issue on State of Design Festival, (Victoria, Australia) which I was surprised to see included as it was not Egyptian Revolution related. It was good be able to show the police as I need to have them as much on side as possible in case of future Visa or Residency hassles.

Also coming back, saw that Marsa Matruh was having a great night life at 1am, with many stores still open and people wandering about enjoying the cool of late evening / early morning. Peak season there because it is Egyptian tourist season for this beach town; Cairo and Alexandria are hot, and even though not as hot as Siwa they suffer, especially Cairo, with polluted air, so the Egyptians head for the North Coast and Marsa Matruh, or the Red Sea. I may do a one day visit soon, a four hour, $3 minibus trip each way, and stock up on some other bits and pieces, as well as have some hours at the beach.

I have just published my first small book of photographs of Siwa. You can view each page and order at:

I receive $5.00 from each copy sold, the rest is the cost of publication. Your purchases will help me continue living in beautiful Siwa Oasis, thank you.

Eventually I hope to publish a book of extracts from the blog, with more photographs, and another book of photographs from my Egyptian travels.

Inspirational cards and gifts featuring my photos of Egypt, Spain and Italy http://www.zazzle.com.au/mindseyeimages*

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