LUXOR: Life At The Palace

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Originally, I had planned to use my last day in Luxor luxuriating around the hotel. It’s a stunning place, in every way, and it has been for well over a hundred years. Old Hollywood royalty Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford — they were nearly the king and queen of Tinseltown — stayed here and so did Howard Carter — the discoverer of Tutankhamen’s tomb, of course. All the wealthy in England and socialites from all over with means came to spend the winter months at the Winter Palace. They’d wile away their days gossiping about each other, exploring the ancient ruins, walking through the gardens by moonlight, taking afternoon tea in one of the lavish rooms, and getting into all sorts of misadventures. The place is absolutely an institution and very important in the history of Egyptological culture.

And so, with all these thoughts in mind — not to mention the royalty and important dignitaries and writers and fictional characters that walked these hallowed halls — I set out to spend the day in relaxation and total self-absorption. Not that I don’t do that on most days, but that’s beside the point.

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I put together my most elegant ensemble and made my way down to breakfast. I must congratulate myself once again on my remarkable packing. With the few pieces I brought, I could dress for quite nearly any occasion. A glad discovery was that hair dryers work remarkably well for freshening up wrinkled clothing. I looked resplendent when I entered the restaurant in my crisp white shirt and khakis — rather like how I imagine an archaeologist with a sense of fashion would appear — and I think that the waitstaff was relieved to finally have somebody of this caliber to attend to.

As I’ve said before, Luxor is in the slumps. There are just no tourists to support the economy. Why else do you think I got a €500/night room for $40? They are absolutely desperate to keep money coming in to keep the place afloat. I’d be terrified of it shutting down — they’ve already had to shutter the Pavillon hotel until the guests return. Because they need to get business so badly, they are offering all-inclusive packages. These guests get all their meals and drinks for free. Well, not for free, it was part of the booking price, but they needn’t concern themselves with something so common as money. It’s a fabulous idea, but it tends to cultivate a certain kind of clientele. Especially when the prices are so laughably cheap. I think you can picture this sort of person. They’re crude and usually of the lower middle class, they have no perception of what to wear in certain places, they laugh crudely and talk too loud, they don’t respect decorum, they overindulge…not my crowd at all.

So, there I sat, looking beautiful sipping on a second pot of Russian Earl Grey tea as I and another tasteful couple eyed the assembled mess around us. We were willing to give the Australian family a pass — the patriarch of the family had the good sense to wear long pants with his t-shirt. Unfortunately, he looked alarmingly elegant when compared to the rest of the slobs. There were three different families from England and, reader, I don’t think I’ll ever get over the shock of seeing them. The worst offending family still makes me shudder as I think back on it. The man wore an oversized tank top that showed off his poorly developed arms and distasteful tribal tattoos. Instead of pants he wore swimming trunks. SWIMMING TRUNKS, reader! I think I gagged a bit. Flip flops were on his feet. I’ve never been more appalled. The woman across from him was no better. Her ensemble was acceptable to wear to a pool — maybe not on somebody with her shape, though — but it was inappropriate on every level at the formal breakfast room of the Winter Palace. She wore a sheer jumpsuit thing. I don’t even know what it was called. It was one piece with a tank top construction on top and shorts that barely covered her bits below. You could see straight through it to her pale flesh. The elderly Brits and I were horrified. I rather delighted in our superiority, of course.

I got to talking with them later. They’ve been coming to Luxor every summer for the past twenty years. They’d seen all there was to see and done all there was to do, but they loved coming to the Winter Palace so much that they continue and will surely do so until one or the other of them drops dead. Their words. They elaborated on the elegant crowd that the Palace used to cultivate and we all sighed wistfully as we looked over at the peasants with all their exposed flesh as they shoveled bread baskets in their mouths.

Aside from that, breakfast was lovely. I went down later than normal, and after a certain time, the service switches from buffet style to table service. I much preferred this. You order your eggs and your toast and whatever kind of freshly squeezed juice you like. A tiered tray is brought over heaping with cheese, fruits, and pastries. It’s a terribly elegant way to start the day and I’ll heartily miss it back home when I have to cook for myself. I don’t mind cooking, of course, I am a professionally trained pastry chef, an alumni of Paris’s famed Le Cordon Bleu, but I’ll always prefer somebody serving me. I was probably very rich in a past life. This incarnation has been a cruel joke as I’ve been forced to remember how good I used to have it. Le sigh…

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Even though I like to relax and love to partake of a glorious afternoon of hedonistic leisure, I really don’t know how to spend two days in relaxation. What are you supposed to do? If only I’d thought to bring a bathing suit with me, I could have gone down to the pool to sip fruity drinks and dip in once in a while. I was in no mood to get a sunburn, though, so I didn’t go looking for one. I wouldn’t even have known where to go procure a bathing suit. Is it like Europe where the men wear speedos? I could have packed a pair of them. I’ll stick them in my bag so I don’t forget next time. Or, I’ll do some research. That’s more sensible.

So, I went from reading my book to doing some writing to walking through the halls to flipping through the television channels to browsing the infuriatingly slow Internet. Time passed slowly and out of boredom, I developed a feeling of great starvation. I resisted the temptation to order a pizza from room service. Honestly, as I write this, though, I have no idea why I didn’t. Why not, you know?

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Oh, that reminds me, I also thought a lot about my next tattoo. I’ve long decided — since before getting my first one — that whenever I finally made it to Egypt I would get something on my person to signify this rather important occurrence. Initially, I thought some kind of pyramid design would be the thing for me, but after actually seeing the Pyramids, that idea fell into disfavor. I could get some more hieroglyphics, of course, but I already have some of them. I’m at a loss of what to do.

I thought perhaps my favorite quote, something I live by, would be appropriate. “If you don’t do it, you won’t have done it.” It fits the situation quite nicely, but it doesn’t really scream Egypt. I always say that to myself when I find myself in new or different or unpleasant situations. It’s quite a help. It comes from my favorite episode of Absolutely Fabulous where Eddy and Patsy take the Concorde from London to New York to photograph a door handle. As these wonderful characters pass by a piercing shop, Eddy considers getting one. Patsy responds with that quote I love so much. So, maybe I’ll figure out how to put that on me in an attractive way. The thought of selecting a font is enough to put me in an asylum, though; I’m rather obsessive about the right font.

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Anyway, I was starving to death. As I was staring mindlessly into the gardens from the back terrace, I bumped into those people I had met at breakfast. We chatted about restaurants and they highly recommended a place called The Lantern. It’s on the same road as Snob’s and I had noticed it when I was walking back to the Corniche, so I was fine with that. I returned to the lobby where I obsessively read every single review on TripAdvisor. When I finished about forty minutes later, I was drooling. The people were raving over it. The food in Luxor is far from world class, as I’ve sadly discovered, but the commentators said that this would redeem my beliefs in the city’s culinary scene.

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I decided to wait until sunset, though, before attempting to make my way. It’s impossible to fend off the caleche drivers by daylight and I was sick to death of them. Taxis don’t hassle you too much and the boats can’t sail under moonlight. Delighted by this plan, I sat up on the Nile Terrace shouting, “LA!” (no in Arabic) at all the assembled drivers below who were screaming for my business and enjoyed a tremendously beautiful view as the orange sun sank beneath the West Bank and bathed the hills in pink and gold. It was rather stunning, reader, and I couldn’t help but think of the ancient Pharaohs who must have watched the same thing. The desert never changes, you know. That same sun used to set in ancient Thebes and begin its journey through the underworld. I got a bit nostalgic for all my years spent reading about gods and goddesses and ancient demons.

Once darkness descended, I slipped off the terrace and onto the streets. I was pretty much successful and only had to fend off a few people. One of them was a cook from the hotel who seemed incredibly offended when I didn’t want to accompany him to the market. Egyptians have a very warm sense of hospitality, but at the same time, I haven’t met one who doesn’t have a motive. This makes it very difficult to trust people. I’m sure it would have been absolutely charming to visit the market with a native Egyptian, but I’m also sure that he had several “uncles” and “brothers” who ran shops that would give me good deals and guilt me into buying. At my earliest convenience, I shook him off and took off.

The restaurant wasn’t at all hard to find and when I pulled the door open, I could have collapsed in relief. Everywhere I go is deserted. I’m the only customer and it is so incredibly awkward to eat a meal when the waiter checks in on you every two bites and the chef watches you from the kitchen. I wasn’t in the mood for that at all, so I was so happy to see that there were several tables full!

I was taken to my seat by a man with a very familiar accent and then given the menu which had a page dedicated to vegetarians. The Lantern is a based on the traditional English pub, so I dared to ask, “Do you have gin and tonic?” When the answer was affirmative, I could have wept. I’m not an alcoholic, but I have a great fondness for gin. Muslims don’t really partake much of drink, so I haven’t had any since that strong liquor on the breakfast buffet in Athens.

I ordered a bowl of lentil soup and a cottage pie that used eggplant and mushroom instead of dead animals. (Why don’t we say aubergine in America?) As I was nibbling on some pita bread, I chatted with the man who had welcomed me so warmly to the restaurant. He and his wife own the restaurant and he is from, of all places, MINNESOTA. When he heard that I was from Iowa, we were immediately best friends and we chatted about how he ended up in Luxor. He is married to an Englishwoman who was in poor health. Who can blame her for suffering through the Minnesota winters? And so, they decided to haul up and move to Egypt. I admired their pluck. They have enough money coming in from retirement and whatnot that the restaurant’s operation is really just a hobby, so they don’t mind that business is slow. He was awfully charming and if I wasn’t so busy stuffing my face full of lentil soup, I would have asked impertinent questions about money that we Americans are so fond of. I might retire to Luxor. I could probably afford a nice house and a staff there.

The meal was excellent. It was comfort food, which I’ve needed after living off falafel and pasta. I wouldn’t go so far as to put The Lantern on the list of my top restaurants, but it is certainly one of the best, if not the best, in Luxor. The soup was rich and delicious. The pie was piping hot and very nice. Of course I ordered dessert — they had lemon meringue pie! It was absolutely stunning with a mountain of meringue on top.

As I was devouring my pie, I watched the next diner come in the front door. It was somebody I know! It was that woman who I had met at the airport in Cairo! We laughed about the coincidence and chatted for a little bit about our trips. She’s friends with the owners and she eats there most nights. I’ve discovered that there is a small but very close-knit community of regulars and expats in Luxor. Maybe I’ll be one of them someday? If I could get rid of the caleche drivers, which were truly the bane of my existence on this adventure — I could be quite content in Egypt. I like it hot and historical.

Stuffed to bursting, I waddled back to the hotel and prepared myself for another lazy day.

* * * * *

The next day was more of the same, except I didn’t leave the hotel once. It was quite glorious to keep contained to the hotel grounds. I absolutely understand why some people come to the hotel and only use the front door twice.

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I made arrangements for my trip to the airport, packed up my bags, and then spent the rest of my day in continued exploration of the gardens and halls. The Winter Palace is such a beautiful place, reader. I know that I have said it about a hundred times and I’ve shown you more than enough photographs to match my descriptions, but I don’t think you can fully understand unless you walk through all by yourself.

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The walls are palest yellow and in some places the plaster is slightly cracked. I love that. It shows a place has history. Too many hotels are sterile to the point that they feel like visiting a hospital. Not here, though. The hallways are wide enough to host a fancy dress ball and are littered with places to perch and chat with an acquaintance. There are cozy corners everywhere with dim lamps and excellent copies of ancient Egyptian statuary. The halls are lined with prints of old watercolors done by explorers and adventures of Egypt’s temples and monuments. The floor below is worn carpet of a rich and elegant pattern. Downstairs there are great lounges where you can imagine that at any moment a couple from Victorian times will walk through the door and share the latest gossip about Lady or Lord something or other. The Winter Palace is trapped in the past and I absolutely love it for that reason. There have been many complaints and urges to modernize the place, but I’m glad that they resist. There’s such soul and character in these halls. It would be akin to whitewashing the Mona Lisa if they ever attempted to make the hotel a 21st century hotel.

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The gardens are just as spectacular as the inside. There are lanes and paths to wander past beautiful palms and monstrously large plumerias. The more interesting plants are labelled, which is very helpful. There are statues and fountains and the pool is gorgeous.

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There is an aviary and many secluded places to sit and carry on a passionate affair with somebody below your social station. There is a patio for smoking shisha and a bar for sipping cocktails in the moonlight. Once the sun sets, the gardens transform again. Lights twinkle from every corner and there is such serenity there. The call to prayer will begin to sound and you’re transported to another world.

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This is a magical place and I can’t recommend it enough.

I ordered a massive amount of room service for dinner, but suddenly, I felt an unexpected pang of depression. I don’t know if you’ll agree, but getting everything you’ve ever wanted can sometimes be the saddest thing in the world.

I sat there and I thought to myself, “What will you do now? You have no daydreams left. You’ve wandered through the Sahara, touched the Pyramids at Giza, gazed into the long dead face of Tutankhamen, and sauntered through a vast number of temples. Will you still love this place with the nonsensical whimsy of a child this time next year? Or has this extinguished all of your Egyptological passions?”

That threw me for a loop and made me reflect rather extensively. Yes, I had done everything I had set out to do. I accomplished far more than I ever  dared to dream. I had seen places I thought I might never get to. The last question that my subconscious asked haunted me. Had it extinguished my passion? I’ve always assumed I’d end up an Egyptologist, you know? I’d work in a comfortable museum. For a moment I thought my dreams and ambitions were gone, but then they came rushing back with all the fervor I’ve always had. I’ll never be done with Egypt. My perceptions of this land have changed, clearly, but my love for its history and its art and all its wonderful intricacies will be with me forever.

You must understand, reader, that I’m not really made for the present. I think you’ve probably picked up on that, though. I make no secret of my anguish with modernity. And so, history is for me. The language of these ancient people for me. Studying their religion and understanding their culture is for me.

Beyond opening my eyes to life in a modern Arabic nation and finally getting firsthand experience with things I’d only seen in books, this trip opened up for me a thousand new paths. I still have a thousand things to do and see here. I still have to gaze up at the great stone visage of Ramses the Great at Abu Simbel. I need to wander through Abydos and see the temples. I need to join an archaeological dig. I need to research at the University of Chicago’s library in Luxor. I need to see every tomb and wander through every ruin. I need to make my own discoveries and write my own analyses. I need to make this place come alive for others.

That, I think, is my gift. Most people will never venture to Egypt for a myriad of reasons, but I can take them there with my words. I can’t thank you enough for coming with me on this trip. Some might call it the trip of a lifetime, but I’m only getting started.

Besides, I still have to tell you about the ridiculously tedious journey home.

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