Welcome to another edition of Expat Tales, where you meet some of the many interesting expats living around the world, and hear their top tips for life as an expat.
This edition we’re chatting with Dee Nowak, a freelance writer, photographer and blogger living in Cairo, Egypt. I’ve followed Dee’s blog for a while now so I was thrilled when she said she’d do an interview for Expat Tales. She shares her experiences about life as an expat in Egypt, as well as plenty of tips on what to do in Cairo and beyond.
Name: Dee Nowak
Originally from: Poland, but grew up in the U.S.
Now living in: Cairo, Egypt
What brought you to Cairo/Egypt?
When I was living in Warsaw, in my native Poland, I often travelled to Egypt on vacation, especially in the winters when all those months in Europe without sun just got too much for me. I got to know Cairo and made some friends.
Years later, when I got laid off from my job in Warsaw, I decided to apply for an internship at a press agency in Cairo. After that I did some freelance work and got hired full-time at an English-language magazine. I’ve been living in Cairo for nearly 7 years now.
Is this your first expat experience?
I once lived for a year in Britain, where I worked as an English teacher.
Cairo is my second expat experience. Though I don’t know if I’m technically an expat. I’m married now to an Egyptian and I’ve settled down with no serious thoughts of going back to Europe or the States. That makes me an immigrant for now, though I’m not ruling out retirement somewhere outside Cairo, preferably on the coast!
What do you do for a living?
I used to be a journalist for many years, but I left that behind to do my own thing. I’m now a travel blogger and freelance writer and photographer. I also do occasional social media work for a major hotel in downtown Cairo.
How easy is it to live in Cairo? Is it easy to get a visa to live in Egypt?
It’s easy to get a three-month tourist visa when you arrive at the airport in Cairo. After that, you re-apply every few months for an extension if you want to stay longer. Because I’m married, I have Egyptian residency that also allows me to work legally.
How easy is it to live in Cairo? That depends on the person. I’ve known people who’ve stayed here for a few months and couldn’t wait to get back home. They couldn’t handle the traffic, or the bureaucracy, or the frustration of the language barrier. I’ve heard expats complain about issues ranging from sexism in the workplace to the difficulty of finding peanut butter.
And I’ve known people who’ve lived here for years and they’re thriving. They have large circles of friends, they’ve picked up a bit of Arabic, they enjoy the weather and travel to the beach and they love getting to know the culture.
For me it’s been somewhere in between. I struggled in my first years here… I couldn’t handle the taxi drivers and didn’t even know where I was going (this was before Uber came along), I didn’t know where to buy a stapler or avocados, and I didn’t have many people to ask. Still today, the traffic is frustrating especially when a simple errand takes half a day. And the humidity is really bad in the summer. I mostly stay in under the AC, and I prefer going out in the evenings when it’s a bit cooler.
But things have gotten easier over the years. I now have a small group of friends, and a book club and a writers’ circle where I attend regular meetings and get to talk with like-minded people. I know the shopping malls, and where to order groceries or a latte online when I feel like it.
I love the low cost of living, which makes life so much easier when you’re a freelancer.
And of course, as a travel blogger, I love the sea, the mountains, the desert, the ancient temples, the downtown cafes, and all the other off-the-beaten-path places I’ve gotten to explore that few tour groups go to. I have almost infinite options when it comes to content for travel stories.
What’s the cost of living like in Cairo?
Unfurnished studio flats are about 3,000 Egyptian pounds (US$180), and larger furnished flats start off around 7,000 Egyptian pounds (US$430).
Internet starts at 120 Egyptian pounds a month (US$7), while a typical meal out will be around 200 Egyptian pounds (US$12) per person.
What are your favourite spots in Cairo and Egypt more broadly? Where do you always take visitors?
Visitors always want to see the pyramids, so that’s where we always go. Aside from that, the old Khan el Khalili market in Cairo is great at night for shopping and dinner amid historic mosques and Ottoman-era homes. A ride in a felucca is great in the evening, especially when it’s hot, and you can rent them by the hour and bring friends along for music and dancing.
I try to get visitors to see some of modern Cairo as well, to have an espresso at a hipster cafe, or see an Egyptian rock band play a rooftop concert. Many people are often surprised that the city has modern trappings like skyscrapers and Starbucks, and it’s a shame that few people get a well-rounded image of the city.
My favourite spots are off the beaten path, and I love finding quiet parks and quirky museums. I love wandering around Zamalek and visiting my favourite bookshops and cafes there, or having a beer on the rooftop with a Nile view. I also love boat rides on the river with friends.
I’ve been on an ancient Egyptian kick lately so it’s been great to have the Egyptian Museum within easy reach, and it’s now open in the evenings, too, which is a good way to beat the crowds.
Outside of Cairo, I love Fayoum because it’s got so much incredible nature that’s not more than a couple hours by car from Cairo (if you leave early). Wadi el Hitan (the Valley of the Whales) is also an incredible spot to visit on a day trip from Cairo. It used to be under water and there’s a museum in the middle of the desert where you can view whale skeletons and fossils.
The most memorable trip I’ve taken in Egypt was a few days’ felucca sail from Aswan towards Luxor. We passed little villages and enjoyed the peace and quiet as the desert hills, farm fields and palm trees as we floated by. We visited a hut where fishermen lived, and a Nubian village with brightly painted houses. There were bonfires and dancing at night and our guide got some local Nubian musicians to play for us. It was magical. I really love that slow way of travel over a speedboat.
Is there anything you don’t like about living in Cairo?
The summers can be really long, hot and humid. You’ll go out to pick up some groceries, and you’ll come home drenched and dying for a shower.
I don’t have problems with transportation now that I use Careem (a ride-hailing app that’s owned by Uber). But traffic can be a real hassle, especially if you live in the suburbs and want to meet friends on the other side of town. Sometimes you just get lazy… Most of my friends, now that I think of it, live in east Cairo like me. It’s so much easier to meet up on weekends when you’re only 20 minutes away.
Any advice for anyone considering living in Cairo/Egypt?
If you’re planning a move, then do it before you’re ready. Because you won’t ever be ready, and things will never go as planned no matter how much you scheme. Though this is my advice for anything you do in life, really.
Be patient and build a network of friends. This isn’t always easy, because expats (especially teachers) tend to come and go with the seasons here, but good friends are invaluable if you want a fun – and smooth – expat experience. There are lots of groups on Facebook for expats in Cairo, too.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned as an expat?
I’ve learned that the world has still a long way to go towards understanding the Arab world, and that sadly there are still as many misconceptions as ever. Despite the fact this region has been in the news for decades, we still hear the same old stories that only reinforce the stereotypes.
I think some people don’t even want to challenge their stereotypes because it takes humility to realise you were wrong. And sometimes it’s comforting to believe that your country is special and the rest of the world is foreign, irrational and dangerous.
What’s the best thing about being an expat?
I’m not trapped by my culture or a certain way of doing things or a worldview. I’m already strange to many people back home, as a Polish-American who has chosen to live in Cairo. So, there’s a certain freedom that comes with not really fitting in or belonging anywhere. When friends and family have seen me move across the world, I think my other lifestyle choices (like not having kids, not having Netflix) are less shocking.
What do you miss most about home?
My family. And from my life in the U.S., I miss good Mexican food. From Poland, I miss the parks and watching seasons change.
Where can people find you?
My blog is Vanilla Papers, and I’m on Facebook and Twitter, and on Instagram. If you’re planning a visit to Cairo, I just wrote a guide to my favourite 12 hidden gems. You can get it free when you sign up for my monthly newsletter.