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Interview with Sam Welbeck – a British expat living in Cairo

Updated 17 Jun 2010

Picture of Sam Welbeck - Black and WhiteSam Welbeck is a blogger, freelance writer and producer who moved from London to Cairo with his wife and three children to slow down, sit still and spend more quality time with his family. 

Read more expat experiences of Egypt, and see the full Egypt Guide.

About Sam

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: I am originally from London, England.

Q: Where are you living now?

A: At present I live in Cairo, Egypt

Q: How long you have you lived in Cairo?

A: I have been living here for nearly two years – travelling back and forth to the UK for work but now I am permanently here.

Q: Did you move to Cairo with a spouse or children?

A: I moved to Cairo with my wife and three daughters.

Q: Why did you move to Cairo; what do you do?

A: I moved out of London for many reasons, the rising crime rate amongst young adults and children being just one of them. I also moved to get away from the cold and wet weather and to experience a slightly slower pace of life. In London I was working as an analyst in the city. I wanted to spend more quality time with my children, but I found London too expensive to work less hours. Now I find there is much more for a family to do together here in Cairo. I am working in publishing now and earning less, but I find I have more quality time and that, if spent well, the money can go further.

About Cairo

Q: What do you enjoy most about Cairo, how’s the quality of life?

A: The things I enjoy most about Cairo are the sunny weather and the many child-friendly places to visit. I also really love the fact that I can have a house cleaner for under £5 a day and the fact that I can order medicine or takeaway food or groceries to my house 24 hours a day.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?

A: Bread. Soft, white, thick slices of bread. I also miss my internet connection which was very fast and last of all my car. Cars here in Cairo are very expensive and I still have not been able to buy my own. In the UK my wife and I both had a car each and that made getting around every day much easier.

Q: Is Cairo safe?

A: Yes. I find Cairo much safer in many respects than London. There is a real community spirit here and everyone looks out for everyone else. If you here a noise, or a scream here you look out of your window and find everyone at their window or balcony too. In London, people tended to keep to themselves to avoid being caught up in anything.

About living in Cairo

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Cairo as an expat?

A: The most common places to live as an expat are Zamalek, Maadi and Mohandiseen. These are most affluent areas and have every amenity available at a short distance. However, in Mokattam, higher up in the mountain where I live, the air is much better and it’s less crowded. It really does depend on your preference.

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in Cairo?

A: Accommodation standards are generally less than what expats are used to - especially if coming from the West. However, it really does depend on where you live and how much you are willing to spend.

Q: What’s the cost of living in Cairo compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?

A: Generally the cost of living in Cairo less than London. However certain things will cost you much, much more. Household services and bills (maids, drivers, nannies, electricity, gas etc) are only a fraction of what you would pay in London and getting around by taxi or public transport is cheap and easy. However a new family saloon car, such as a Volkswagon Passat, will cost up to four times the amount you would pay in the UK due to heavy taxation. Grocery shopping can be the same. Although at first glance groceries seem cheaper, brand named foods and confectionaries are much more costly and meat and chicken is also expensive compared to London.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?

A: The Egyptians themselves are just like anyone else. There are good people and bad, friendly and not so friendly, but generally they are kind and helpful. There is a culture in Cairo of ‘bargaining’ which can be very frustrating for a foreigner as you often do not know whether you are paying way over the odds for anything. As the standard of living for average Egyptians is low in comparison to the West, locals often see expats as ‘rich’ and will usually try to get extra when making a deal. Beware the taxi drivers!

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Cairo?

A: Making friends is all too easy sometimes. It is hard to know when a local wants to be friends for what they think is the advantage of having an affluent friend or when a local wants to be friends genuinely. Making friends amongst the expat community is easy enough. There are many centres and groups who organise events for expats and generally expats tend to greet each other when out and about.

About working in Cairo

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit for Egypt?

A: I have not attempted to get a work visa myself because I work as a freelance writer online and therefore in a sense I still work in the UK. However I do know many expats who have managed to get work visas, most of which have been organised through the companies they work for without any problems.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in Cairo, is there plenty of work?

A: The economic situation in Cairo is not great. More than half of the population live under what we, in the international community, would consider the poverty line. Unlike the UK, there is no social benefit scheme. So if you are out of work, you are out of food. For expats work is available if you make an effort to network and seek work. There are plenty of schools looking for teaching staff and a native English speaker will nearly always find work, with or without the teaching qualifications normally needed in the UK. Besides teaching however, jobs are hard fought for and whilst expats will get the best jobs in most cases, there are few of these. Most jobs are applied for and taken before expats move out here and they tend to be in the financial or petroleum sector.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?

A: I have worked freelance here in Cairo and the attitude is very different from back home in London. There is a less formal attitude to work in the general sense. Some of the norms are different, like how men greet each other with kisses. This is something we never did in the city. However, the hierarchal relationships are a lot more profound. A manager is seen as very important and is treated more like a commander than a boss. Showing respect for those of a higher position or pay grade is very important here. There are tea makers in nearly every office, something again I am not used to.

Family and children in Cairo

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home?

A: My wife is of Egyptian origin, so she had no problems fitting in generally, and of course she can speak Arabic, the local language here, so communicating was easy. However, being a Londoner like me, she also had to adjust to the different ways of thinking here and to the different attitudes. Cairo has frustrated her many times since we have been here, but generally she has managed to adjust ok.

Q: Did your children settle in easily?

A: The children found it hard in the beginning. Children generally can be very mean when it comes to relationships and new people and school was a little tough at first. The children were also having to get used to the weather, language and food and for a child a lot of change can be daunting. Having said that, children are very adaptable and they were able to weigh the benefits and I think appreciated all the new things they were now able to do. They also really enjoy having me around more and having plenty more things that we can now do as a family.

Q: What are the schools like in Cairo any particular suggestions?

A: The schools vary greatly. For expats the best choices are international schools. National schools simply do not have the standard of education that an expat will be used to. International schools cost money though, and the cost is significant and can be anything from between £2000 to £12,000 per child depending on the school facilities and location. The education itself is good. The work my children are given to bring home is of a much higher standard and more difficult than they were getting in the UK. Children here are expected to do well and work is piled on (sometimes a little too much in my opinion). The more you are willing to pay for the school the more facilities you can expect to be available for your child. At some schools there are fully kitted gymnasiums, Olympic sized swimming pools, taekwondo dojos and full racing tracks, much more than you would expect in a UK school.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Egypt?

A: The healthcare is terrible generally. As an expat you would be advised to seek medical insurance. For most employees this is done through the company they work for, if not there are plenty of private schemes. Even with insurance there are few hospitals with the standards we are used to in the West. The good hospitals are clean and they have all the right equipment, but the service is lacking greatly and a sense of urgency is not always apparent. Ambulances exist but in a real emergency you are always advised to be driven to the nearest hospital.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?

A: To new expats I would offer this advice. You have left the place you came from to live here in Cairo. Do not try to find the place you came from in Cairo, instead embrace the change and you will enjoy your stay. Cairo has many faults. It is dusty, polluted, crowded and noisy.

Egyptians are proud and very entrepreneurial and will always seem to be scheming. There is often a lack of order, which will frustrate you and there are few institutions you can depend on to complain. However, this is one of the most wonderful places in the world to live. Cairo never sleeps, and offers the adventurous person so much to do and take in. It is a beautiful city with hidden historic treasures and postcard sceneries.

Before moving here visit here on holiday and get a feel for the place. Meet the locals and learn the language or you will never understand the customs. Understanding the way in which Egyptians think is the key to a successful stay in Egypt. Learning the language is the first step to this understanding.

Be patient with people but be firm in your communication. Do not be rude but do not be pushed around or coerced to buy. Be respectful of the religion here by not blatantly flouting the customs and rules and you will welcomed and treated well.

– Interviewed January 2010

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