Every once in a while I get the distinct impression that everyone in the service industry in Cairo is actually playing dress-up, and in reality possess no qualifications for their jobs whatsoever. Asking a barista to make you a cappuccino often elicits the same response as if you asked an actor in a spacesuit to operate a rocket ship, or a doctor of philosophy to perform open-heart surgery. “Me?” they seem to say, “I guess … If you really think that’s a good idea … ”
For instance, today at one of the food places on campus I ordered a mocha. The coffee menu is fixed, and mochas are on it. The description is “a shot of espresso with gourmet chocolate, topped with skim milk.” After paying, I gave my receipt to the man behind the counter, always grateful that my blond hair attracts their attention; otherwise I would never get my coffee. Still, all of the employees move so lethargically that if the founder of Starbucks were dead he would be turning in his grave.
At first, the man tries to give me Cocoa Puffs. La, I specify with a smile, slowly reiterating “mocha,” all the while forcing a smile to remain on my face, as if waiting for a particularly slow child to finish reading a difficult passage of text. The “barista” proceeds in a painstakingly prolonged manner – almost as if he has never seen a coffee machine before and is figuring it out for the first time – to put two shots of espresso in a cup, unhurriedly sliding it over to me.
With a confused look I confirm that this is, in fact, just two shots of espresso, and seeing as I am the only customer slide it back with another smile for a bit of milk. By this point all six employees are trying to help the poor soul make my coffee, though it seems as though it is the job of at least three to simply watch me and gauge my reaction, hoping that my expressions will somehow guide them toward serving my order correctly.
Getting anything done in Cairo that requires the presence or aid of Egyptians necessitates a big smile and a kind attitude. The second you get bossy or annoyed, a la with a telemarketer, you are absolutely finished. This essay is in no way meant to be derogatory, but more of a “how to.” With enough charm, you can really get anything done, including buying a camel if that should please you, but the concept of lines and efficiency was not developed by Egyptians – it is normal that they, like Italians or Spaniards, value such a process much less. Just make sure you’re with a real doctor if you need an operation.