Coming to Terms with Cairo

“Mmmuhm, mmmuhm,” the old woman said, blocking my exit through the bathroom door. Her withered hand reached out, cupped, begged.

“Mmmuhm.”

It was 2007, and my friend and I had just arrived in Cairo. It had been an exhausting day of travel that had begun multiple hours earlier at Dulles International Airport and had already seen us spend time walking around London and suffering through a turbulent ride over the Mediterranean. We were tired, jet-lagged, and ready for bed.

Immediately after touching down in Cairo, we waited in a long line–full of people with different standards of personal space–to collect our visa stamps. Then another line of smushed bodies, for customs. And then the baggage carousel, where hordes of people milled about and we waited and waited for the metal ribbon to start turning.

We popped into the bathroom near baggage, not sure how long baggage would take nor how long the drive to the hotel would be. As we walked in, an old woman unrolled a tube of toilet paper and handed us each a few pieces.

The first stall was a squat toilet and the first such device I had ever seen in person. “Oh, nooo,” I thought, my dainty inner monologue firmly shaped by Western sensibilities.

When I saw that the next stall held a “regular” toilet, I was relieved.

But there was still something wrong with it. Buttons and levers were splashed across the cistern like paint on a modern-art canvas.

Which was the right one? I heard my friend’s toilet flush and thought, “Well, if she can figure it out, so can I.” And so I pulled a lever at random.

It was the shower.

As water began dripping from the ceiling, and I stared bleary eyed at the sea of knobs before me, I thought I might hate Egypt.

Finally I found the right button and joined my friend at the sinks. The old woman from before was now standing close to us. We tidied up and began to walk out the door.

She slid in front of it, hand out. “Mmmuhm.”

We pressed on, not understanding.

She would not budge. “Mmmuhm.”

We had not found an ATM yet and had virtually no money on us. My friend fished around for an American bill and handed it to her.

The strange woman accepted the money, then reached her hand out to me. “Mmmuhm.”

“That’s for both of us,” my friend tried to tell her.

“Mmmuhm.”

“I don’t have anything,” I desperately added.

“Mmmuhm.”

Not knowing what else to do, we shoved past her and back into the baggage area. Worry set in that we had broken a social custom, that airport security would soon appear to whisk us away.

As we collected our luggage and boarded our bus, I felt a cold ball of terror coalescing in my stomach. Two weeks we had to be in this unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar toilets and people and manners. I spent the whole ride to our hotel regretting my decision to come and fervently wishing I could just go home.

It can be downright frightening to realize you’ve left your safety zone. Especially when you’re cashless, exhausted, and soaked in mystery shower water.

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Mondays in Maryland: Boordy Vineyards

It was Prohibition, but Philip Wagner was utterly enamored with wine.

His rented property just north of Baltimore happened to include the remains of a vineyard, and Wagner got to work revitalizing the untended vines. Soon he added his own plants, experimenting with varietals and learning what would grow best in the mid-Atlantic US. In 1933, he literally wrote the book on the subject–American Wines and How to Make Them.

Wagner worked as an international correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, and while on assignment abroad he discovered Vidal Blanc, a French hybrid tremendously disease resistant as well as ideally suited for the Maryland climate. His wife, Jocelyn, smuggled cuttings of the vines back into the US in her purse.

When the Wagners opened their winery to the public in 1945, it was the first commercial winery in the state of Maryland. They named it Boordy Vineyards–legend has it that the name “Boordy” came from a child’s mispronunciation of “Bordeaux.”

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In 1980, Boordy moved to Long Green Farm in central Maryland. A farm since the 1800s, Long Green is today part of the Maryland Environmental Trust, and the historic buildings on site are worth a tour.

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Operations have significantly grown over the years. Two Boordy vineyards in addition to those at Long Green provide the bulk of grapes, while other grapes are sourced from vineyards throughout the US.

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And what of the wine itself? Their three wine series–Landmark, Icons of Maryland, and Just for Fun–provide 18 different options at any given time. The reds in the Icons of Maryland line particularly shine with hints of berries and earthy richness–my favorite is the Diamondback Terrapin Petit Cab. For whites, their Rockfish blend of Seyval, Chardonnay, and Vidal is crisp with–a personal favorite–a savory bite of umami.

Picture of glass of wine from Boordy Vineyards in Maryland

Those who prefer something sweet can choose from the popular Just For Fun series with flavors ranging from spiced wassail to tango peach. The spiced wassail is rich and comforting warmed up on a cool winter evening.

Although often vacant on weekdays, the winery comes alive on weekends. Throughout the warmer months, patrons flock from the city to hear the popular summer concert series, during which lines often start forming more than three hours before the music begins.

Picture of the lawn at Boordy Vineyards in Maryland

This winter, visitors can look forward to traditional holiday music and winery tours as well as performances by The Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.

Summer concerts, Shakespearean performances, and nearly 20 wines–in 80 years, Boordy has grown from Philip’s private passion to a titan in the winery world.

Visiting the winery today–with its 18th-century buildings, rustic tasting room, and lively weekend crowds–is like watching history unfold. It’s both a peaceful retreat and a rowdy party, a hidden secret and the hottest spot in town.

If You Go
Boordy is at 12820 Long Green Pike in Hydes, a small community about 15 miles from Baltimore. The tasting room is open year-round and tours run daily at 2:00 and 3:30 PM. Check the website for information on holiday closures. Tastings are $5 for the traditional flight and $15 for the landmark series.

Mondays in Maryland: An Assassin Rests in Baltimore

It’s an unmarked stone sitting peacefully in the middle of suburbia. Hidden beneath it? The mortal remains of one of America’s most notorious assassins: John Wilkes Booth.

The Baltimore cemetery that houses Booth is built like a fortress. The entrance is an uninviting brick castle with an entryway just wide enough for a single car. Soaring 19th-century stone walls outline the boundary of the dead, topped with modern steel cables and razor blades.

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It is not in a good neighborhood. People cluster on the barren street corners, aimlessly sitting on the sidewalk in the middle of the day. Cop cars are on a constant crawl, burned-out units melt between current living spaces, and nearby sirens punctuate the sounds of city life.

It’s a different world inside the cemetery. Quiet, empty, and peaceful.

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After assassinating Abraham Lincoln in 1865, John Wilkes Booth fled from Washington, DC, through Maryland and into Virginia. The Southern sympathizer and his co-conspirators were discovered two weeks later hiding in a tobacco barn. Although the others surrendered, Booth refused and was ultimately shot to death.

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The Booth family was well-known in Maryland society. Their family burial plot in Baltimore contains elaborate, ostentatious memorials, marking their wealth and prestige for future generations.

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The assassin rests here. In life, he vehemently disagreed with the rest of his family, who did not share his treasonous beliefs. In death, he is remanded to the very edge of the family burial plot, with no other Booth grave touching his.

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His burial stone contain no official identification. Unofficially, it is covered in pennies left by cemetery visitors. Whether this is to commemorate Lincoln’s ultimate legacy or to celebrate his assassin is unclear. I choose to believe it is one final token of contempt for Booth’s revolting beliefs.

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Another final token of contempt is Baltimore itself. The city that surrounds Booth’s cemetery is predominantly African-American, with an African-American mayor (a woman, no less). Booth may have killed the great liberator, but he could not kill what Lincoln started.

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But this place feels too peaceful for Booth. Baltimore citizens continue to find a final resting spot within these stone walls, and I wonder what they think about spending eternity with a murderous traitor. I wonder what the people on the street corners outside think about their proximity to him, if they even realize such an infamous man is but a few steps away.

You may be wondering why I have not named the cemetery nor the part of Baltimore in which it resides. Per cemetery guidelines, I am not to specifically identify the location of my photographs. If you’re interested, you can easily Google the information–and if you live in this region, I hope that you pay it a visit.

Booth’s Baltimore grave is just one of a litany of strange facts about Maryland. I’ll explore the fascinating area each Monday in my new Mondays in Maryland feature–I hope you’ll join me!

Lindisfarne’s Fiery Dragons

This year came dreadful fore-warnings over the land of the Northumbrians, terrifying the people most woefully: these were immense sheets of light rushing through the air, and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons flying across the firmament.” – AD 793, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Lindisfarne (Holy Island) is a tidal island in northern England, inaccessible by land for part of the day. It is a desolate place: a flat rectangle with no trees nor tall buildings, floating in the cold, black North Sea, which stretches out east to the horizon. Built upon a volcanic outcrop—the island’s only noticeable land feature—is a 16th-century castle. The hollowed-out remains of a 12th-century priory languish nearby, the meat of the building long ago stripped away to instead flesh out the castle’s defenses.

Picture of the remains of the priory at Lindisfarne

Remains of the Lindisfarne Priory

It is this priory that I have come to see. The monastery was founded in AD 635 by Irish missionaries and later rebuilt by 12th-century monks from nearby Durham. Lindisfarne Priory was the (original) final resting place of St. Cuthbert, a 7th-century bishop of Northumbria (northeast England) and patron saint of the northeastern diocese. It is here that many miracles were said to have occurred, miracles which eventually catapulted Cuthbert to saint status. Holy Island was also the birthplace of the Lindisfarne Gospels, beautiful illuminated manuscripts that were translated on the page to Old English—making them the oldest-known English translation of the Christian gospels.

But Lindisfarne, despite all its spirituality, is also hiding a dark secret. In 793, a terrible scourge swept across Holy Island, the first of its sort anywhere in Western Europe: The Vikings arrived.

The Vikings plundered Lindisfarne with terrible ferocity. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles writes of “heathen men” overtaking the island with “rapine and slaughter.” A later account says the Vikings “trod the holy things under their polluted feet, they dug down the altars, and plundered all the treasures of the church. Some of the brethren they slew, some they carried off with them in chains, the greater number they stripped naked, insulted, and cast out of doors, and some they drowned in the sea.” The Christian world was horrified at the barbaric attack on such a holy place.

Picture of ruins, Lindisfarne Castle, and the North Sea

Ruins, Lindisfarne Castle, and the North Sea

Of course, the Lindisfarne raid was only the beginning. Soon the Vikings would become permanent residents of Northumbria and beyond, their customs melting into the Saxon world. Ironically enough, as the Danes converted to Christianity they took particular interest in the Cult of St. Cuthbert and began worshipping the patron saint of the land their forefathers had plundered.

But as I stand on the dark, rocky outcrop of Lindisfarne, a sharp wind whipping my hair into my cheeks, I am not thinking of the Viking’s eventual assimilation into Saxon life. I am thinking of the monks in AD 793, who looked out across the sea and saw dragons’ heads rising from the mist. I am thinking of the terror in those who watched the approaching dots of fire but who were trapped on a tidal island, the swelling water blocking their escape. I am thinking of men who dedicated their lives to God, only to witness the Apocalypse.

It’s more than a decade later, but the chilling memory of Lindisfarne haunts me to this day. I can trace my lineage back to the Vikings, as they moved from Norway and Sweden into Scotland. I wonder if I had ancestors at Lindisfarne. I wonder if the Viking blood in my veins comes from peaceful clans or from bloodthirsty attackers. I wonder what I would do if I looked across the water and saw dragons descending. I hope it’s a day that never comes.