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Thursday, 8 April 2010

Reminiscences of a Byegone Age

I sit in my apartment here in Hurghada in Egypt and suddenly I hear the noise of a spanner being banged against the side of a gas cylinder and a voice shouting. I look down from my balcony and there's the small pick up loaded with gas cylinders for domestic cookers. A man sits on the cylinders rattling his spanner and shouting to let us all know he's arrived so we can signal him if we need to exchange an empty cylinder for a full one. He'll even bring the new cylinder up 4 flights of stairs for us for a small consideration.

An hour later there's a more musical call and I look out to see another pick up. This one has half the back covered like a chest and a man standing in the back. Someone stops him and buys olives, pickles and other items from him.

Another visitor is the man with the pick up laden with houseplants. Then there's the man with all the carpets (as in large rugs), and the guy who sells the wrapped candy floss and balloons for the children.

Seeing these people coming regularly to my area started me thinking about years ago back in England when I was a child.

I wonder how many of us remember the weekly visit of the Corona man or, for that matter, remember what Corona was and the flavours it came it. I know our week was regulated by the mobile shops that visited the street where I lived in Bristol. One day we had the mobile fish monger, another the butcher, then there was the fruit and veg man, the mobile library, the paraffin man and, of course, Mr Corona. In addition, during the summer, there was the regular visit from the ice cream van and the milkman called every day early to leave us our milk and again around lunch time on Saturday for his money.

This was a time before supermarkets. About a 10 to 15 minute walk from where I lived was a row of shops (still there although the stops have changed). One of these was a grocer's shop (as in grocery and no green grocery – green grocery was across the road) and I became a school friend of the manager's daughter. They had a big flat roof over the shop storage area that we used to play on. Shops were small and offered personal service. There was none of this grab a bag and help yourself business back then. You asked for what you wanted and had a conversation with the shopkeeper who would become a friend.

I remember in those days going on holidays. We didn't have a car so my uncle would lend my dad his car for a couple of weeks so we could go to exotic locations like Margate or Bournemouth in B&Bs. We didn't need to lock our house while we were away because the neighbours on either side would be popping in often while we were gone to make sure everything was OK. When we got back they would have prepared a meal for us. Naturally we would do the same for them when they went on holiday.

This was a time when you knew all your neighbours. IF you had a car, and not many people did, it didn't matter if you forgot to lock it or you left the keys in – it would still be there when you next needed it just as you had left it. Now, of course, in an era where most people do have a car you'd find either a burnt out shell jacked up on bricks or no car at all if you left it with the keys in for more than 30 seconds.

There was a lot about life that was downright inconvenient compared to today. For example, it is just SO much easier and quicker to go to the local hypermarket now and get absolutely everything from knickers to motor oil along with the food and drink. But somehow it was more comforting back then. I wouldn't dare leave my house unlocked even for a few seconds now, I don't know any of my local shopkeepers, don't get to have a conversation with anyone in the hypermarket and most people don't know their neighbours at all (I'm lucky enough to have wonderful neighbours who have become firm friends. Perhaps it helps that in the UK I live at the end of a cul de sac).

We seem to have traded comfort and community for speed and convenience in our lives. Possibly because most people work now whereas before women tended to stay at home with the children and had time to visit several shops just to get a day's groceries. After all, not everyone had a fridge back then although most houses had a larder (a small cupboard lined with marble [if you were rich] or stone with marble shelves and a small window to keep food cool). This was a time when there were only 2 houses with television in the street where we lived. I was 10 before we had a television in our house and when I tell people this they act amazed and question me endlessly about what on earth we found to do with no TV. They seem to find it strange that families actually sat and talked to each other, played board games or cards together, and read books.

Egypt right now is still in the comfort and community mode but you can already see things moving along in the same direction. In Hurghada we now have a very large (by local standards) 'hypermarket' and shopping is certainly becoming a more European experience. Even in the 2 1/2 years I've been here it has changed. About 2 years ago a Metro opened in Hurghada (there are 3 branches of Metro now) bringing the European shopping concept, on a small scale, to Hurghada for the first time. Now at least 2 of the larger Egyptian supermarkets are following this model and Spinney recently opened their 'hypermarket' on the edge of the town.

At the moment we still have a very friendly and open community where everyone knows everyone else and people look after each other. I do hope it stays that way and the society here doesn't move the same way it has in Europe where people only look out for themselves.

So for now I enjoy the noise from the mobile sellers and the colour they bring to our daily lives. I reminisce remembering a quieter and more trusting age.

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