Trini Abroad - Escape from Egypt
By Natalie Williams
From the word go, hopes and expectations were running high.
The scene was set for fun and bacchanal, sweet lime and a good old reunion of friends and family.
Countless Trinidadians and international travellers with strong Caribbean ties were assembling in the autumnal English countryside for the ultimate party - the wedding of two young people in love and eager to start life together.
The United Nations would have been proud of the ethnic and cultural mix of the dearly beloved and gathered together.
On a more personal note, I was taking a break from the chaos that is daily life in Cairo, where I have been living.
I was looking forward to some much needed peace and quiet: a week without security alerts, no traffic gridlock with non-stop car horns.
My new home city of Cairo has a population of 18 million, so need I say more?
Things had been getting pretty dicey in other ways.
In fact, days before my departure for England, I experienced the worst culinary scenario since moving to Egypt - a country known for good cuisine, fresh food, juices and Middle Eastern-influenced ingredients. This is what happened.
At lunch with my dear friend Carolyne, I was talking avidly about all the exhibitions, cultural happenings and open-air markets that I intended to soak up on this trip to London.
Salads arrived (yes, yes...I was dieting before the wedding) and we both took turns liberally drizzling (OK, drowning) the fresh greens, tomatoes and feta cheese with fruity olive oil, followed by the dark flowing liquid we assumed was the traditional balsamic vinegar that tends to decorate restaurant tables.
"Carolyne? I can see you well into this salad, eh, but what happen to this balsamic vinegar?" my palate balked at its taste.
"Hmmmm. Yeah, I was thinking something funny 'bout this vinegar...."
Across the table from each other in one of Zamalek's trendiest hang-out spots, we tried to understand what was going here.
The dark liquid turned out to be soy sauce - the brown, salty stuff made from fermented soybeans used for Oriental dim sum and noodles.
But then the cheeky waitress, in a tone that suggested we were stupid ladies who lunch, spent the next eight minutes trying to convince us that Egyptians and foreigners – wait, no: everybody, she informed us, always dressed their Greek salads with salty soy sauce.
And, worse - her “telling-off” was delivered with attitude, that something was wrong with us for wanting lemon juice instead or any vinegar the kitchen deigned to send out.
I felt it was time to get out of Cairo. For a bit.
So next day I was gleefully heading back to England, where I would be seeing my beloved God-daughter after a seven-year gap, as she lives in Calgary, Canada.
My reunion with Carly, her parents and her two gorgeous sisters was emotional and beautiful and just what my soul needed.
I am happy to report that the lass is growing into a well-rounded, funny, beautiful young lady with fashion flair and a thirst for adventure.
She is observably a teenager who has mastered the art of having patience for old people (not the writer, of course) who ask boring questions such as "How is school going?"
Mercifully, the UK weather was sunny and fantastic, with blue skies and a lovely autumnal breeze.
Gone were the clouds and rain that epitomise English weather, while the countryside was stunning in full bloom.
England in bloom
You must agree, dear reader, that no one does formal landscaping for country weddings like the English. And what better for their cash-strapped gentry than a grand old manor-house-turned-wedding-venue.
But, in my humble opinion, the quintessential West Indian traveller is a thing of the past. Why do I say that?
Folks, let me tell you that my beloved Caribbean friends and family who flew 13 hours from the region to converge on this posh country mansion “forgot they contents”, as Trini comedian Sprangalang would say. Literally.
Somewhere along the line, my people’s priorities got screwed up.
They completely forgot to courier to me in England all those great indigenous foods and ingredients - tamarind balls, red mango, home-made pepper sauce, Tobago beanie balls, sugar cakes, phoulorie - that one naturally assumes every right-thinking Trinidadian automatically packs into their suitcases as a matter of course.
They came bearing no Caribbean goodies and foodie gifts!
And in my books, the dangerously low stocks of home-made pepper sauce in my refrigerator in Cairo constituted a genuine humanitarian crisis.
Quest for Trini food
You have to understand that I have had tamarind balls slipped to me while at Westminster Abbey in the close presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, listening to the great and good deliver speeches on Commonwealth Day.
Folks, I have had red mango given to me minutes before shaking hands with dignitaries and VIPs.
And to this day, I swear I remain the only Master’s student in London ever to have had a bake-and-shark fish sandwich airmailed from Trinidad.
Those were the good old days when my Caribbean “peeps” knew the real purpose behind jetting halfway across the world to teeter on high heels on the finest English lawns.
But these folks travelling all the way from the Caribbean to England for this wedding didn't even have a Calypso tune as their mobile phone ring tone, for goodness sake.
No one seemed to appreciate that the hell of a year I have had since moving to Cairo – what with all the bloodshed from civil uprisings, Muslim revolutions, disputed military coup, curfews, state of emergencies, restricted movement, horrific deaths and traffic gridlocks – warranted some sort of juicy reward from home.
Caribbean food spree in London
Instead, every man-jack travelled from the islands loaded with foolish goods: out came the digital cameras, Blackberrys, smart phones, iPads, iPods, Gucci, vintage, faux furs, leaving this “Trini in Egypt” well frustrated as the entire weekend passed without so much as a salt prune produced from the dozens of laden suitcases.
So what was this Trini girl to do? In the words of Ray Charles, we “hit the road, Jack”.
The very next day, with mere hours to spare before everyone boarded international flights back to various destinations, my son and I took the whole gang of foreign visitors tout de suite to London – large suitcases in tow – to seek out the foodie heaven that is Portobello Road and the closest thing these days to West Indian-influenced street life and street food.
It was bliss.
We squeezed out every minute of fun, food and frolicking to be had at this infamous, vibrant Notting Hill market. Chatting to vendors, scouring vintage shops and sampling street eats all along its two-mile stretch built unforgettable memories.
My goddaughter and her mum almost missed their flight to Canada, but we didn't care, selfishly plotting that it would mean building even more memories in fabulous London.
And an unmissable pleasure was yet to be enjoyed: an evening at the Royal Festival Hall in celebration of the life of that phenomenal woman Dr Maya Angelou, shared with brilliant performers on stage (the likes of Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, with whom the teen and I had a lovely chat) and deeply appreciative friends and family in the audience, including my own cousin Dr Margaret Busby who scripted the entire event, and whose birthday there was also time to celebrate in style.
It was a fantastic event and one I would have flown in from Egypt just to experience.
All in all, between the joyous optimism of a marriage ceremony, and the uplifting memorial to a cultural icon, it was a trip that made me reflect on life and love, and on the things and spontaneous decisions that make our lives worth living.
I headed back to Cairo with more than a few reasons to be cheerful and revived.
Carly, Maya, and top of the list was being reunited with my own darling husband, the Wise One.
Journalist and children's writer Natalie Williams has been writing for Caribbean Intelligence© about life on the move in Europe and Africa. For more from Caribbean people abroad, check out these pages.