I was exhausted. My body ached as I roused myself hours and hours after closing my eyes. The lengthy journey through the desert and temples had worn me out, but it was delicious. I was ready for another day full of grand adventures, but on a somewhat smaller scale. I had not one intention of doing anything in particular, I was going to let the day be, as my inspiration, Amelia Edwards, once said, “The satisfaction of a purposeless curiosity.” I was ready and willing to let the day take me where it wanted to, I would float on a breeze of whimsy and enjoy myself. And I did. I was never truly unhappy in Egypt, reader. Perhaps I was melancholy and introspective, but I was never sad. The place is truly perfect for me. I can understand why others wouldn’t agree quite so much with the culture, the people, or the climate, but I luxuriated in it. I intend to do so for the rest of my natural life.I was the very last person to enter the breakfast room that morning, which was quite fine by me. I nodded at people I was on nodding terms with now. You don’t ever really do that in Europe or in America, but here in Egypt we are all bound together in a temporary community of exiles all subtly seeking some of our own normalcy without fully realizing it. One of the gentleman said good morning to me, and I recognized his as one of the gossiping regulars at the Lantern. Debbie dotes on him, even more than me, and I can’t quite figure him out. He’s flamboyantly gay, but not exceptionally attractive. He reminds me of one of Martha Stewart’s friends, Kevin Sharkey. Except he was younger and his voice was a good octave deeper. I wonder what he does? He talks a lot about different hotels when I eavesdrop. Maybe he’s some kind of tour guide or planner or something? I wouldn’t mind that job one bit. It’d rather suit me.
In blissful silence and contentment, I sipped several pots of Russian Earl Grey tea and nibbled on toast as I watched the palm trees sway through the massive windows. The staff was impeccably dressed and took care of us all with particularly keen attention, and for all the world, you wouldn’t realize that the place is probably about to declare bankruptcy and go under. I can’t believe it hasn’t done so already. How does it stay open? There’s nobody there, and yet the Winter Palace is kept up to perfect standards. I have noticed a few things this time that weren’t there the last time. The chandelier moulding is falling off. You’ll find the occasional gecko wandering around. And they no longer press the logo of the Winter Palace into the ashtrays that are placed around the lobby. That’s sad, but it’s hardly devastating. How long can they keep this up? If I were rich or retired, I’d move in right now, but that’s not to be for the moment. Someday. I’d buy that wonderful building that I built so many daydreams on if I could.
Someday I’ll live there. I say that in every post, don’t I? I have been thinking up a number of schemes to settle legally in Egypt. One of them will work out, I’m sure. Just need money. Damn that money. One of my ideas is actually beyond fabulous but I don’t really think it’s morally appropriate. I mean, it doesn’t hurt anybody. It actually helps quite a few, but…still…damn those morals.
With breakfast complete, I strolled through the hotel, looking at the nice recreations of ancient Egyptian artifacts, at the hotel’s historical mementos, and at the photographs of the wealthy and fabulously famous who have wandered the same halls. I was particularly enchanted by an espresso cup from about a century ago when the Winter Palace was just a baby hotel along the Nile. I wanted it. My soul craves that espresso set. My imagination started crafting scenarios about different ways to recreate them and different novel ideas where these tiny cups play a pivotal role.
Speaking of writing, these wanderings through the Winter Palace were wonderful research for a book I have in mind. I always have a book in mind. I have been working on and off recently about a woman called Muriel Valentine. She’s a retired educator who goes to Egypt for the good weather and finds herself stumbling over a number of corpses and tomb robbers. The Winter Palace is one of the main locations, so it’s important that I know the setting well. And, reader, I do!
The gardens were sumptuous in the rich August sunshine. It was intense and lovely, and I heartily enjoyed wandering around the pools and watching the birds in the aviary and thinking about trying shisha but then deciding against it but then thinking about trying it again but then thinking about trying it again. I’m still thinking about it. I mean I have inhaled a number of things, not sure why I didn’t do that. Next time. And there will always be a next time.
Sitting in the ballroom, I wrote a number of letters. I don’t think any of them have been delivered, yet, and I am getting the feeling that they never will arrive at their destinations. That’s a real shame, too, my cursive was exceedingly lovely that day.
I tried to relax, but reader, I don’t think I really know how. I couldn’t just lounge by the pool all day. I couldn’t watch television all day. I couldn’t just sit. It’s too foreign for me. I must be busy somehow. This was shockingly stressful for me because I want to be a socialite, one of those magnificently rich people that just skims off the lower classes and enjoys all the best life has to offer without a care in the world. They go to spas several times a week, they jet off in private jets, they know Middle Eastern royals, they buy Saint Laurent boots without crying, they live life. I live my life fairly well, but I don’t do any of that. I’ve never had a massage in my life, I get excited when my seat gets upgraded to economy plus, I’ve only met the king of Saudi Arabia’s private chef, and I nearly asphyxiated myself spending $155 on boots. It’s not quite the same, you know?
I slipped into my robe, ordered a salad, sat on the balcony, watched Arabic soap operas…it should have been fabulous, but reader, it was the most bored I have ever been in the entirety of my life. And I am not ever bored. I always tell the children that I work with, “Only boring people get bored.” If anything, I’m not boring. I’m unashamed to admit that I’m interesting, I’m no shrinking violet like society makes us want to be. I thrive on individuality and eccentricity. And unlike a lot of irksome people, I like to think that I do it with some amount of authenticity. I’m not pretentiously going out of my way to be exceptional. What a horrible paragraph, I apologize for making you read that. I guess I’m not really. Anyway, I was bored.
Feeling suffocated by the hard work of relaxation, I jumped into my clothes and dashed down the dusty Corniche to get to the Temple of Luxor. Inside the confines of the first ancient Egyptian temple I was ever blessed to visit, I finally was able to relax.I learned something important that day about myself and about life. And I think it’s something we all know instinctively, we just don’t admit it. Life is spent best doing what we love. I truly love ancient Egypt. It propels me into the day and across oceans and into forgotten museums and upon ignored books. If it wasn’t for my passion for this long dead society, I can’t imagine who I’d be or what I’d do. I can’t imagine the life I would lead without the Egyptological encounters I’ve had. I might be equally myself, but this is a version of me that is at its best. I like me most when I’m unbearably consumed by Egyptological fervor and archaeological passion.
And so, as I smiled beatifically on the engravings, pylons, and columns, I realized that I may have made a few mistakes in life. Every step we take takes us somewhere, after all, and I started to grow concerned that I was on a side path instead of the main trail. When I graduated from high school, perhaps I should not have gone directly to Le Cordon Bleu.
With that thought in mind, I sat at the bottom of a column and stared into the recently restored face of a statue. When I graduated, I realized that I should have gone directly to the University of Chicago or UCLA or even finagled a way to go to University College London. I should not have been so fanciful with my time, I should have gotten to the serious work of working. But the subtle smile of the pharaoh across the path mocked my seriousness.
I would never have been in that spot if I hadn’t made the choices I made. If I had never gone to Paris, god only knows what I would have become. The city molded me into the man I am today in ways that I am still discovering. I owe so much to France and to the culinary training I don’t use as often as I should. I needed that time in Paris, that easy access to the Louvre, to the Seine, to the streets of the Marais to be me and lead me in the right direction. So I didn’t take any missteps in life. It just has taken me longer to navigate the many multiple paths that seem to intersect my route. Nothing in life is simple, but it is confoundedly complex for me. That’s all right, though.
I wandered through the ruins and then down the sphinx-lined alley to watch the sunset. Unlike my last visit to the temple years prior, nobody bothered me.
Nobody catcalled me or tried to swindle me or do anything at all. They left me in blessed peace. I’m not sure why this should be, but the downward economy has really sullied the spirits of the touts. It’s an all right thing, though. So, I made my way to the end, and with a magnificent view of the temple, the sun sank in the west. The columns glowed gold in the reflection and as the artificial lights came up, the reliefs and paintings were easier to discern. So I went through the temple once again, deliriously happy. And it was absolutely a magical way to spend the evening.
But I was half starved, so I endeavored to find a new place for dinner. I felt like I was cheating on my beloved Debbie at the Lantern, but I knew I should try other places in the two weeks that I was in Luxor. So I pulled up TripAdvisor on my phone and mapped my way to Sofra, the highest rated place in town. I had followed them on Instagram ages ago, so I was really rather excited to finally visit and devour supremely cheap traditional food.
Sofra was not an easy place to find. It is on a street rarely frequented by tourists and looks rather like a somewhat decent residence in a slum. There wasn’t a soul around to greet me, and when one of the waiters finally saw me, he looked damned surprised that I was there at all. This amused me and I let him guide me to the upper patio, which was really the roof but surrounded by thick, decorative wooden windows. I felt rather like I was in the harem of the khedive in Cairo. All around were beautiful lights and gorgeous tiled tables and not a soul but me. That was quite all right. I still needed to think a lot about the things I had been thinking about.
Reader, I felt quite ashamed that I had ever doubted my past or thought of anything I’ve ever done as frivolous. Life is only what we make of it. Why make it miserable? Why not let yourself blossom? I have long said that the title of my autobiography will be Wake Me When the Crocus Blooms. That combination of words means a lot to me for a dozen reasons that I won’t get into until I write the book, but I often feel like that flower, finally coming out of the frosty soil, a dazzling thing that suddenly appears where it shouldn’t. Of course that is vain and pompous and self-aggrandizing, but that’s quite all right.
Mohammad, the waiter, took my order for fresh hummus, lentil soup, shakshuka, and mango juice with immense pleasure, and left me to look out the slats of the patio at the dim stars in the heavens, to listen to the trotting of donkeys on the street below, to relax in the breeze of a powerful fan. It was rather wonderful and I felt just right and I knew that I was doing the right thing. I was always doing the right thing.
The food was quite good, the service perfect, and the atmosphere just charming. I chatted with the only other patron that came up to the roof, a Canadian science teacher. We chatted about the differences and similarities between education in our nations, about what he should see in Luxor. I reprimanded him teasingly for only staying in that magical city for only two nights. You can’t do Luxor in a couple days. Too many people do, and they don’t get a chance to understand it like my beloved Victorian travelers. You must get in tune with the rhythms of Egyptian life, acquaint yourself with the locals, learn Arabic slang, eat things you’d never dream of, dare to take a sip of the water, wander the streets at night, get lost in the souk, get swindled by a tout, lose your breath at a statue, daydream about the pharaohs as the sun sinks into the hills, and just let life happen. Organized tours can never and will never offer this. You must explore all on your own and learn from your mistakes and smile at your successes.
Luxor is the most magical place I have ever visited, reader. And I know that you know this. I tell it to you on the regular, but I hope that my repetitions come off as honest, for they’re meant to be. Every day that I’m not in Luxor, I feel pangs of regret and longing. I have left part of myself in Luxor. It’s the same way in Paris. I exist there more fully than I do elsewhere.The bill was less than ten American dollars. I left a generous tip and then returned to the wild and raucous alleys and passages. As I slowly walked past Television Street, completely rhapsodizing my existence in ways that I rarely do, I stopped to grab a bottle of water and noticed a popcorn machine. Of course I bought some. It cost pennies. It was awful. I was in heaven.
Back in the Winter Palace, the staff beamed at me. And I know this all sounds exaggerated, but it isn’t, reader. The Egyptian people are so amazingly kind. And the staff of the hotel are all angels. I decided I didn’t want the night to end quite yet, so I slipped into the Royal Bar. It’s called the last outpost of the old British empire, which isn’t necessarily true, but it’s an enchantingly romantic sentiment. I ordered a gin martini, and sat on the old settees, flipped through some of the books on the shelves, admired the art, and was just so happy.
Bill paid, I wound through the gardens, took in great lungfuls of hot, desert air, and I think I floated back to my rooms overlooking the eternal Nile.