Today was our first Friday back at the regular worship services at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox church. We came back to Egypt almost three weeks ago now, but due to special services because of Easter, plus our own trip to Portugal, we didn’t have a regular Friday until today.
We’ve seen some of our friends and others who know us during this time, but when we went to church today, it seemed that almost everyone we know from there showed up. The first friends we saw were across the balcony from us and Emma enjoyed waving to them. We met up with them a little later down at the villa where they were eating breakfast before Sunday school. We parted ways to take the kids to their respective classes and I sat with the girls a few minutes to get their snacks ready. Emma was asking me to stay with her for a few minutes, and I realized she might have trouble this morning after a couple months away from this environment. While I prepared their juice boxes, the teacher was welcoming us back, asking us if we traveled to America due to the Revolution, asking if we left because we were afraid, and probably multiple other questions that I didn’t quite understand due to the language. I answered as best as I could, assuring him that we weren’t afraid, but had a complicated visa situation, and then I ran into almost the same conversation as one of the female teachers passed me on my way out.
When I left the classroom and returned to the table where I had left the carseat, I found another friend I hadn’t yet seen since we’d been back. She greeted me warmly, commented on how Layla had grown, welcomed us back from our travels and asked how we were all doing. I only spoke with her a couple minutes before Emma came out from her class asking me to come back in and sit with them. I sat her on my lap a minute to talk to her, but this quickly turned dangerous as Layla, who was on my other knee, pulled a few strands of Emma’s hair out. Since she was already upset about the class, she immediately started crying. About that time, one of the nuns whom I’ve talked to a number of times, saw me and came to say hi. And of course, she asked what was wrong with Emma. At the same time, the teacher who brought her out to me asked what was wrong, and several kids were staring at her as she cried. I really couldn’t answer them all at once, nor was it super easy to explain to everyone standing around, so I just turned my attention to her. She told me she was scared and we talked about why. She didn’t really have a reason, but at 4 1/2, it’s hard to understand moving between cultures and what might make you feel uncomfortable for no obvious reason. We walked back into the classroom together, and I had to ask another little girl to switch seats so Emma could sit next to Hannah before I left again.
This time, Layla and I made it a little farther. I went around the corner of the building where the adult Sunday School class meets, and from what I understood, was planning a party today. Several people greeted me warmly when they saw me, welcomed me back from travels and asked how everyone was doing. They weren’t long conversations, but it was nice to be missed. A few minutes later, Emma showed up with her teacher. I agreed to sit in her class for five minutes before I returned to my own.
I sat there for a few minutes before yet another friend greeted me, welcomed me back to Egypt, asked how all of us were doing, and apologized for not calling to get together sometime, etc. I was beginning to feel like we maybe knew TOO many people here as we kept having the same conversation over and over again.
Once again I left the kids’ classroom and headed back to the adults’ classroom, but on my way out of the first room, I notice the box of chocolate-filled croissants that would be given to the kids at the completion of the class. I made a mental note to use that as my ultimatum for Emma if she chose to leave again. My tea was a drinkable temperature at this point, and as I started to drink, two things happened. First of all, a friend from class came to me to fill me in on the game we were currently playing. When she did, Layla reached for her, so she took Layla with her back to the front of the class. I had hoped I could get Layla to nap during this class, but could see that was not going to happen. Secondly, another friend, who is also a neighbor and had visited me a few times since we’d been back, walked into the class and greeted me warmly. I was feeling very popular! And only a couple minutes later, Emma was back, and this time, Hannah was with her. This time it didn’t take too long to convince them that they should return to class. I told them if they don’t stay until the end, they will not get cake. It worked; they went back and stayed until I picked them up.
Around 11am, the party ended and it was time to buy lunch, find a place to sit and pick up the girls. Jayson usually joins us at the villa around this time as church is also letting out, but it is a bit stressful at times especially because the tables and chairs are often filled by the time I come out of the class. And now that the weather is warmer, sitting in a shaded spot is a necessity. As I came out of class, I ran into Jayson coming into the villa, and he ran into some friends who started the conversation: “Welcome back, happy holidays, how are you, how are the girls, were you traveling, were you afraid, etc.” I left the car seat with him and took Layla to buy food and pick up the girls since they are in the same basic area. Fortunately the line was quite short since church got out a little early so I didn’t have to wait long to order and pay, but unfortunately, the usually ordinary food I ordered was apparently a specialty today and had to be made fresh. This meant a long wait. In the meantime, the girls finished class and I sent them out to find Jayson while I waited for the food. Hannah came back a few minutes later and said she hadn’t found him. I hoped that Emma had.
While waiting for the food, a friend who I had seen in the kids’ class came to say we could sit with them, and then she waited for the food with me. We finally got it and walked outside to find their table very close to the door. Right next to them was a couple we knew through mutual friends, and then it turned out the mutual friends were sitting there too. As we went to sit down, we realized we needed more chairs so my friend continued to bring chairs as our tables kind of grew into one big one. Jayson enjoyed a conversation with the husbands in the group while I handed out our falafel sandwiches to the girls and hung onto Layla. My friend was trying to get her 3 year old son to eat his sandwich, but he just kept running away. Fortunately, the villa is enclosed and pretty safe. That is, unless her son decides to run out the gate toward the street, which he did once.
It was as we were sitting here, girls eating, guys talking, kids running around, that I realized we had had a full morning of activity. It was stressful at times as Layla wouldn’t sleep and the girls wouldn’t stay in their class, but we were really starting to belong here. Maybe. We had been gone for over two months, and people noticed. Some people told me they tried to call my cell phone several times but it was shut off. People welcomed us back, and gave us a spot at their table. There have been weeks in the past when I couldn’t find a place to sit on a Friday. People were friendly, yes, some of them, at least, but not offering for us to share their table. Today, we were surrounded by friends on all sides, and sharing the table with three families. At times today it was overwhelming when people were approaching from all sides, and conversations repeated themselves, but in the end, it felt good.
We finished eating and the clock told us it was time to get to the next Sunday School class for the kids at the Evangelical Arabic church, so we tried to excuse ourselves. Our friends immediately offered us a ride despite the fact that we were five people, a double stroller, umbrella stroller, car seat and a couple bags! I doubted everything would fit in their car, and we were more than ready to walk the 15 minutes to the next church, but they insisted, and in the end, we all fit in their car. Belonging. If it means a place at the table and a ride home, we’re making big strides!