Friday, October 23, 2009

On a roll...

I just walked to the flower shop in my neighborhood. I go there a couple of time a month, which is probably not as much as I should but enough to know the guys who work there. I try to speak a little bit of Arabic. They are always nice and fair.

Here, with much commerce, prices are not posted. The patron decides what the service or product is worth, says it fadal/i (here it is [m/f]), hands over the money, and walks away. If you underpay, there is a discussion, negotiation, or perhaps argument. This is the way that taxis, for example, function. I generally don’t have trouble with taxis because I know what the fares and rates should be. Today, at the flower stand, I got 15 roses to bring to friends who are having us over for dinner. I handed the florist 30LE (a 20 and a 10). He told me I overpaid, and handed me back 10LE. Wow! I don’t recall that every happening to me.

And then, things got better. I got asked directions in Arabic. I knew the place and street number and was able to answer correctly and coherently. Awesome.

So I am on a roll. And I think things are going to keep getting better...

What’s next?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Rocking Chair

This is a quick blog post about a recent purchase—a custom made rocking chair with foot stool. Egypt is know for wonderful mashrabiya woodworkers who design furniture and buildings. You see a lot of this stuff here, particularly in windows, and it is intricate and beautiful. (The classic example of this type of design in the photo is actually the footstool. The lattice design for windows is a traditional means of blocking out the sun while allowing air to circulate.) We wanted to buy a rocking chair so I went to a nearby shopping road where there is a series of woodworking shops and commissioned a rocking chair. I told them basically what I wanted including the color and a couple of weeks later it was ready. The price was 1,000 Egyptian pounds (or about $180US) for both pieces. They make nice screens (room dividers) that I would like to save some funds to purchase sometime.

Monday, October 12, 2009

More students

So, the student who starred in my previous blog post missed another appointment with me. No email. Not a surprise. He came to class and his cell phone rang. Twice! The second time, it interrupted a student oral presentation. I glared at him and said, “You’re kidding, right?” He actually tried to make some excuse. I shut him down pretty quickly so I have no idea what it was. Writing now I am a little curious as to what he would have come up with, but at the time I wanted his classmates to be able to continue their oral presentation of a Gary Snyder poem. The student was flustered by the phone and/or my reaction, and in reaching to turn it off, he dropped it on the floor and it fell apart into a bunch of pieces. Karma. (But I think he was probably able to put it back together.)

But, here is the other side of students. A former student from my African literature class in the spring came by my office to say hello. She brought me a book of poetry by Iman Mersal, a wonderful Egyptian poet who I introduced her to last term. My student got really into her work, which became the topic for her final paper. I had only read occasional anthologized poems that have been translated into English, but my student read everything in the original Arabic. When she came across a new English edition with brilliant translations by Khaled Mattawa (These Are Not Oranges, My Love), she got it for me.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Back to school; round 2

So we have finished the first week of the semester. Or at least the first post-Eid, post-H1N1 closure. My graduate students have been doing their thing, which was not a surprise. My undergraduates came back strong too, and that was a surprise to me. Perhaps I should be embarrassed by my modest expectations. These are mostly 16 and 17 year olds in their first semester of college. After only three class sessions, we were shut down so I kept in touch via email and by using some of the online course tools. They had handed in their first essay before the closure so I responded with comments and grades by email and required them to submit their second essay online. Almost all of them did it correctly and on time. Then for one first day back, they were to read a chapter of a book on art theory and write a short essay and most of them not only completed the assignment and did good jobs with it. Our discussions in class that day and again later in the week were pretty dynamic. The students had kept up with the reading.

In the class of 21, there is of course one student who missed the first three classes and shows up after the closure. He was on my email list and had access to the course website, but had done nothing to contact me or respond to my announcements. Initially I thought he was added late because sometimes the advisors do shady things, but he said he was registered by the deadline and got sick. OK. On this, his first day, a month after the first class meeting, and having missed the first three essays, he comes to class without a pen or paper. All he brought was his cell phone; I know, because it rang of course.

After class, he comes up and tells me how he is going to do all of the work by Thursday. I explain that he can’t do all of the work that quickly and that we need to make an appointment to meet to discuss exactly what he needs to do and when he can do it. We find a time for Wednesday. I also change the assignments for group projects in order to accommodate him. Finally, I tell him to always bring a pen and paper. He tells me he is a sophomore, so I explain that if first year students have no excuse for coming to class without a pen and paper, he certainly does not.

On Wednesday, he misses his appointment. I was not surprised. On Thursday in class, he had to borrow a pen and paper for the pop quiz (on which he did not answer a single question) occasioned by another student’s phone ringing. (On the syllabus, I explain that the penalty for a cell phone ringing is a pop quiz for the class.) And later he pulled out his cellphone which I did call him out on in front of the class. After class, he approached me to tell me how lost he is in the course. I asked about our missed appointment. He started to tell me that he had to do something really important at the same time. I explained that when you schedule an appointment that you are unable to honor, you notify the person via email. Then he said something about it being too late and he did not think I would have gotten the email. OK. This is not going well. We have made another appointment for this week.

This is all pretty typical stuff, as any teachers reading here will probably agree. I do find it also typical that I devote three paragraphs to one knucklehead and less than one to the rest of the class who come correct.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Buying ketchup in Cairo; or, economies of scale

In the US, when you go into the story to buy yogurt, you can buy an 8 oz. container for $1 or a 32 oz. container for $2.50. Or something like that. I am actually making this up in order to make the observation that when you buy a larger quantity of something in the US, the price per unit decreases. (Most yogurt is now in 6 oz. containers and the price varies wildly.) You save money by buying most things in large quantities. In many big US markets, the price tags on the shelves will often indicate the price per unit, so that consumers can easily understand that a 16 oz. jar of jelly is $0.19 per ounce, and an 8 oz. jar is $0.24 per ounce. There are exceptions. For example, when you buy fruits and vegetables by the weight, the price is fixed per pound. If you buy bananas for $0.60 per pound, it is $0.60 per pound whether you buy one-half of a pound or ten pounds.

Shift to Egypt. I have noticed at the local supermarkets that there are minimal benefits to buying products in larger quantities. An 8 oz. yogurt drink will cost 2.60LE and a 16 oz. will be 5LE. A 16 oz. bottle of ketchup costs 4.60LE and a 32 oz. bottle costs 9LE.

I am wondering what the reasons are for these different economies and think that it relates, in part, to lifestyle. With the growth of suburbs in the US, you have the development of Sam’s Club and the like. American consumers buy in quantities. Outside of large cities, they generally have cars and homes that can accommodate these sorts of purchases. Is this kind of consumption be driven by merchants or consumers? In an urban economy like Cairo’s, I imagine that it would not be an effective marketing strategy to push people to buy in bulk. Consumers are much more fixed and limited in what they can purchase and store. That may be changing here with the development of large suburban communities in the desert.

I have never been in a Sam’s Club, but I understand the idea is to buy a case of toilet paper which you can keep on hand and purchase at a discount. At our local supermarket, the largest pack of toilet paper has nine small rolls. Most people would not have the space to store all of these things.

Here, people shop for food much more frequently than in the US. You buy your fruits, vegetables, bread, meat, and fish fresh every day or every other day. You do not go shopping once per week, as we do in the US. People are used to purchasing fresh products on a regular basis so there is minimal incentive to buy larger quantities. A large bottle of ketchup, even though it does not spoil quickly, is really unnecessary because you go to the market frequently, it doesn’t save you money, home storage space is limited, and you probably have limited disposable income and could put that 4.40LE to good use in the time before you need more ketchup.