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Life on the Nile

We lived a surrealistic existence as we cruised down the River Nile — camels dotted here and there along the shoreline. The sun was bright and the foliage lush with palms and banana plants. Sounds of prayer filled the distant air as we passed the tiny mud brick villages.

“La Flâneuse du Nil” has been our sailing vessel, luxuriously equipped with seven well-appointed cabins, each with private bath and olive oil soaps. There were enough sofas on deck for each of us to lounge languorously to read, blog or chat among ourselves. Servants were there to cater to our every whim. Daily, clever sculptures were placed on our beds, created from our towels, clothing and toiletries, to amuse us upon return to our cabins.
It was our life on the Nile.

For three days we slowly cruised the calm waters, visited temples, read the hieroglyphics, heard the tales of gods and goddesses, kings and queens. The tiny villages along the river have been our backdrops while the dark-skinned villagers looked on, smiled, allowed us to take their photos and asked for “baksheesh” (tips) as their rewards.

Camels, goats, cattle and sheep were transported to the local market where the men in their “jalabias” (kaftans) and turbans bargained for the best prices while we tourists, looking out of place but benign, watched with awe. Two young sisters followed us from point to point among the animals and tents hawking their newly-crafted necklaces and gleamed with bright white perfect teeth hoping for a sale or just an earful our strange tongue.

It’s not beautiful or civilized in the same way as Paris, but Egypt has a very different kind of beauty and is profoundly civilized. The people are friendly, unsuspicious of us as they spontaneously call out “Obama!” with smiling faces…and we learn how this dark-skinned man has changed the opinion of America the world over.

The women are draped in modesty, some more than others. It isn’t all that foreign to those of us who live in France and see their religious and cultural habits on the streets of Paris. It’s impossible to know if they object or accept their station in life without question. We, in western dress, are so much more out of sync with the landscape, but appreciate our freedom.

Our guide throughout the cruise was a tall elegant Egyptian with very good English and western clothing, yet he said his fiancé is traditional and veiled. It doesn’t seem logical, but who are we to know the answer? He was handsome and well educated, knowledgeable in several languages and clearly well-cultured. There were so many questions we had but didn’t want to be probing or rude. Many of us on the trip are Jewish and were c

ircumspect about these origins, although dots of Yiddish punctuated our conversation. Every now and then I found a word or two in Hebrew escaped my lips quite naturally — being so close to Arabic: “shouk” for “souk” or “shalom” for “saalem” — would they notice? Or care?

The temples and monuments thousands of years old tell tales of this ancient civilization and their gods and goddesses. The hieroglyphics and carvings acted as records to be passed from one generation to another. It’s a language we’ve been learning as we visited each, similar but different and each poignant in its own way. The sights are overwhelming in scale and like nothing I’d ever seen before, but what has impressed me more is the landscape, the people and the culture.

The ship’s chef was accomplished, feeding us well with traditional cuisine three meals a day and we ate to exhaustion with every seating. The food was simple, but flavorful and hearty. There was always a rice dish, something of beans, salads of cucumbers and tomatoes, chicken, lamb or beef in well-spiced sauces, pita bread and fresh fruit. We were careful to drink only bottled water, but felt safe from foreign bacteria as long as we ate on the boat and not in the local restaurants…although that was tempting.

For Michael’s birthday celebration meal we dressed “formally,” opened bottles of champagne and wine we had brought from Paris, toasted to him, the success of the trip and the newfound friendships we were making along the way. When the ceremonial cake arrived at the table, so did the ship’s crew with drums in hand to create the beat, while chanting traditional songs and gathering us all in dance. It wasn’t all that different than a Jewish wedding…but we didn’t openly remark on it.

If you’d like to witness the dancing onboard La Flâneuse du Nil, click here:

If you can’t see the video in your email, click here.

One evening we moored to go ashore, sat around a fire, sang songs, danced and smoked apple-flavored tobacco from a “shisha” (also known as “hookah”) pipe with the natives from a neighboring village. At Edfu we took horse-drawn carriages to the temple and back. At Alkab we toured the abandoned tombs that most tour groups don’t see and aren’t even mentioned in my National Geographic guidebook to Egypt.

In between tours and meals, we communed or didn’t, reclining lazily on the large sofas and lounge chairs like complacent crocodiles on the shoreline of the Nile…or at least, that’s how I felt. We discussed life in general and our individual interests while questioning the wildlife that sailed past and soaked in the strong Egyptian sun.

The last night on the boat we docked at Esna, 55 kilometers south of Luxor to spend the night. A wedding celebration was creating quite a commotion on the main street along the quay, so four of us (all women) disembarked to see what was going on. One of our group is a tall blond of Dutch descent who fascinated the native Egyptians by her sheer looks alone. She became a bit of a “Pied Piper” taking photos as the children ran after her to become her subjects, so much so that the police came along to ask us to leave and the children to move on.

Saturday morning it was sad to say “so-long” to our crew on La Flâneuse then we took a van ride to Luxor and checked into the Sofitel Winter Palace — a hotel built in 1886 on the Nile banks in a tropical garden. I am writing you now from a balcony that overlooks the luscious gardens that have hosted royalties and celebrities throughout all these years. This is a peaceful refrain after having toured the immense Karnak Temple Complex in the intense heat of the midday sun — the Great Temple of Amen and a massive structure begun by Pharoah Amenhotep III (ca. 1391-1351 BC). There we saw one of the greatest obelisks in existence, weighing 328 tons and standing 29 meters tall.

A legend says that j2999ephine said to Napoleon before leaving to conquest Egypt in 1798, “If you go to Thebes, do send me a small obelisk.” True or false, the obelisk of Ramses II was erected in Paris at the Place de la Concorde.

From Wikipedia.org:

The center of the Place is occupied by a giant Egyptian obelisk decorated with hieroglyphics exalting the reign of the pharaoh Ramses II. It is one of two the Egyptian government gave to the French in the nineteenth century. The other one stayed in Egypt, too difficult and heavy to move to France with the technology at that time. In the 1990s, President François Mitterrand gave the second obelisk back to the Egyptians.

The obelisk once marked the entrance to the Luxor Temple. The Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Mehmet Ali, offered the 3,300-year-old Luxor Obelisk to France in 1829. The obelisk arrived in Paris on December 21, 1833. Three years later, on October 25, 1836, King Louis-Philippe had it placed in the center of Place de la Concorde, where a guillotine used to stand during the Revolution.

The obelisk, a red granite column, rises 23 meters (75 ft) high, including the base, and weighs over 250 metric tons (280 short tons). Given the technical limitations of the day, transporting it was no easy feat — on the pedestal are drawn diagrams explaining the machinery that were used fo
r
the transportation. The obelisk is flanked on both sides by fountains constructed at the time of its erection on the Place.

Tomorrow we head off early for the Valley of the Kings, but because of limited Internet access, the continuation of the story will come to you on Wednesday, November 11th — our day of re-entry into life on the Seine, leaving our life on the Nile well behind us.

Until then, and a la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds
Editor, Parler Paris

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P.S. Don’t forget that Parler Paris Après Midi will be held on November 17th (instead of the usual second Tuesday of the month) at the usual place and time. See www.parlerparis.com/apresmidi for more information and DO plan on joining us!

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