Swapping Netflix for the Nile

The writer in Egypt. Lucy Bailey

I went home to the UK, but everywhere I looked, there was Egypt. 

I throw my bags into the white taxi and sit in the front seat. The taxi driver, smiling at me, asks where I'm going.

“Home,” I reply. "To the UK." 

“Well, you always have a home in Egypt. You know, we have a saying: 'Once you drink from the Nile, you always return.' Egypt will miss you.”

And I knew I would miss Egypt.

I've always found the flight home from Cairo emotional, but fortunately this time I'm wearing a facemask, so I can hide the hot tears that start to flow as soon as I sit down.

All roads lead to Egypt

Five months later, I'm back in the UK. Outside my window, snow is falling. I’m scrolling through my laptop, desperately trying to find something to watch on Netflix.

I initially returned to the UK after spending the entire pandemic in Egypt. There, I taught English for the British Council, leaving and starting a job as part of the animation team in a posh five-star resort in Hurghada, before collapsing and ending up in hospital.

Honestly, I needed a rest, but I didn’t intend to spend quite so long in my parents’ house.

The funny thing is, I also wanted some time to consider if I actually wanted to go back to Egypt. I have wonderful memories of my friends and students (Egyptians have hands-down the best sense of humour), the glorious beaches, generous hospitality, Om Ali and shay bil nea nea (a creamy desert and tea with mint), the beat of the sun on my neck, and sweating my way through belly dance classes. But after two and half years, part of you wonders if maybe it’s time to move on. Teachers of English as a foreign language are known for travelling to as many countries as possible.

Yet, since being home and working temporary teaching jobs, it has been impossible to leave Egypt behind.

Even on a recent trip to Ukraine to teach English, Egypt was there. As I was stood in Krakow, nervously waiting for the bus to Chernitvsi, I met my new colleague who, as it turned out, lived in Heliopolis (a suburb of Cairo) for six years. Instantly, they started speaking Arabic to me. And the online school I started working for? The founder grew up in Zamalek, another district of Cairo. Their father was Egyptian, and responsible for setting up one of the first international schools in Egypt.

Over the last few months, I’ve come to realize, all roads lead back to Egypt.

Dancing my way forward

So, in January I return. I live in central Cairo (technically Giza), one road away from the corniche on the bank of the Nile. I will be teaching for the British Council online, working with students across the world, as well as teaching private lessons to Egyptian students.

I also have some other unfinished business: I haven’t yet visited Siwa and the salt lakes; I miss my adoptive family in Aswan; and I still need to finish my lessons with one of the legends of the '90s belly dance scene.

The latter is something I've weirdly been doing as a hobby since the age of 12, and a secret dream I've harboured from that time. I didn't go to Egypt for this reason (I went for my friends there), but if destiny happens to exist, this feels like it. From my first lessons, my teachers told me, "this dance is in your blood." 

And so, having spent the last five months listening to British comedians talking about their failures or “lessons,” the general advice is to give any dream two years of full commitment and see what happens. Over the next year, I will throw myself into the world of belly dancing. Before I left Egypt, I’d already performed my first professional gigs. Now, it’s time to see where it takes me, and have a ton of fun on the way.

I also really want to master Egyptian Arabic. The British are known for our shameful grasp of foreign languages. I can read and write (albeit at the pace of a child, although I’d argue they could probably read faster than me), but I have a long way to go in terms of grammar and vocabulary. It’s a beautiful language but languages are not my natural forte and it takes a patient teacher and a lot of repetition.

I hope over the coming months I can share some of my experience and the colourful tales of modern Cairo, some advice about working and travelling in Egypt, as well as the best places to eat, drink, visit and learn about the culture, most of which are well and truly off the well beaten tourist trail.

Don’t expect much about the pyramids; this blog is more about the best pottery classes, music venues and impromptu traditional dance events in the desert.

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Lucy Bailey

Lucy is a British travel writer, artist and teacher who’s lived and worked in Spain, Italy, Ukraine and Sierra Leone. She’s currently living in Cairo, Egypt where she combines her love of travelling with learning colloquial Arabic and belly dancing. She’s written a play about her travels, "How to Run Away," which was awarded the New Wave theatre writing grant and will be performed at the Bloomsbury Festival, London in 2023. Follow her on Instagram @lucy_bellydance.

Website: www.thebellydancingbackpacker.co.uk

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