During my first week in Egypt some of my coworkers and I went to a nail salon that came highly recommended. It’s for women only, is fairly cheap, and is located in the popular shopping area known as Downtown in New Cairo. So, Angelica, Lindsey, and I gave it a go one afternoon.
We arrived eager to get our nails done, only to be told that there was no one available to do our nails. Not to be deterred, we made three appointments for later in the afternoon. I only wanted a pedicure, while Lindsey and Angelica wanted manis and pedis.
After a quick meal at a nearby Cilantro we came back to the nail salon at the proposed time. The ladies still weren’t quite ready so we sat on the (uncomfortable) sofa in the corner and took in our surroundings. We chatted about random things, and at one point, the young girl sitting with us on the couch joined in our conversation.
This was startling at first, because we had all assumed that she didn’t speak English. Turns out she speaks fluent English without an accent. We had made an assumption based on her appearance: dark skinned, wearing a long sleeve shirt, long pants, and a head scarf. Well, we learned not to do that again. We chatted with the young lady (she was about 16) about all sorts of things, but mostly about some of the odd cultural differences we had encountered already.
Finally, one of the women became available, and seeing as I was the one without a seat, I got to go first. What followed was a pedicure much like any other pedicure I’ve had in my life. My feet were washed, scrubbed, oiled, and my nails clipped, filed and strengthened with goo. The woman who worked on my feet was very nice, but didn’t speak a word of English. That’s only fair, since I spoke exactly one word of Egyptian: Shokran (thank you). When she was done with my feet, except for polish, was when the miscommunication happened:
I wasn’t expecting to get my pedicure first, so I hadn’t chosen a color and I couldn’t really tell when the pedicure was officially over. Was she getting more goop?, would she pick a color for me? As the girl finished with my feet, she gathered up her supplies and came to sit on a stool next to my chair. I must have looked confused because she smiled gently and gestured towards my hands. Ah, she wants to give me a manicure, I thought, … but I don’t want a manicure. I tried my best to explain that it was not I, but my friends, Angelica and Lindsey, who wanted both a mani and a pedi; but the message didn’t seem to sink in. The attendant reached for my hands still smiling, and instinctively, I pulled my hands to my chest, protecting my unpolished nails. “No, thank you, I don’t want a manicure; they do.”
We still weren’t understanding each other, and the attendant reached for my hands again. “No, no. Thank you but I don’t want a manicure.” I said, pleadingly as I leaned back hugging my nails to my chest.
The attendant thought this gesture and my body language were hilarious. I’m sure it seemed that way, too. Here I was, acting like she was going to hold me down and paint my nails (heaven forbid) when it was a simple miscommunication. The attendant turned around to tell her co-worker and the Egyptian woman sitting in the client chair next to me. They found it quite funny too, especially when my attendant and I reenacted it for comedic effect. The only way I knew what they were giggling about was my attendants exaggerated portrayal of my shrinking into my chair, looking scared.
Eventually, I got a chance to pick a color (scarlet) and the girl painted my toenails patiently. But, I caught a few sly glances and knowing smiles as my ignorance of Arabic and failure to communicate effectively fueled the local gossip fire.