Any non-Alexandrians who could be spotted walking up and down Port Said Avenue in Egypt's second capital and searching through the signs on small stores is probably looking to find Alban Swissra (Swiss Dairies) — the one-time grocery store turned fashionable eatery.
“Are you looking for Alban Swissra? If you are, you need to keep on the same street for another 10 minutes and it's there on your left,” said a shopkeeper on the busy street.
He liked the nodding smile and warned, “You might not find enough space now, because it is dinner time and it is always very busy.”
He was right. The old fashioned and slightly run down restaurant is overbooked, with Wadie, the owner, overseeing the operation and speeding up any delays.
The few tables — four or five — are flanked with numerous seats that are taken by giggling and vibrant young women and men who are all eating with enormous appetites, discussing books, seminars, and of course politics.
“We don’t put outdoors make-shift tables because of the cold weather and the rain. Do you wish to wait for a table, or wait for your turn for sandwiches? If it is a table you need, no less than half an hour, and if it is sandwiches then we are talking about 15 minutes,” the assistant says firmly before moving on to take a blue plastic bag of fresh-baked loafs and hand it to one of the tables.
Waiting for a table, however, is not at all a boring exercise at Alban Swissra, simply because wherever there are young people hanging out, there are interesting discussions.
“It is worth the wait,” a young man volunteered to say, reassuring us as we were trying to decide whether to stick around as we were both very hungry and somewhat cold.
Maher, as his name turned out to be, is a student of pharmacology, and his friend, Walid, is an art student. They have been coming to Alban Swissra for the past couple of years, not just because they love to indulge in the cheese swamped dishes, but also because they like the atmosphere.
“During the summer so many people come to visit Alexandria and they like to have the Alban Swissra experience. But as schools start, we regain our city and this place becomes our hub,” Maher commented.
As we were eventually seated in a shared table, Maher and Walid volunteered to help us order from a menu where everything is dipped in rich melted cheese.
“You have to try the fried potatoes with cheese and the sausage with cheese. You could also have eggs with cheese. But make sure not to overeat, because you cannot miss the dessert, where cream takes over from cheese,” Walid said.
They ordered on our behalf and the food came in small old fashioned frying pans.
As we dived in, we chatted about Alexandria. We told them about our memories of the city in the 1960s and up to the early 1980s and they nodded with short laughs and said they had heard the same stories from their parents.
An overdose of nostalgia is not the kind of thing the younger men – both about to graduate this year – subscribed to. They like Alexandria the way it is and they do not see the dilapidation.
As the four of us decided to order extra fries with cheese, and extra eggs with cheese, we agreed that one of the most delightful things that people of all generations like about Alexandria is the tram.
I told them about “Six Stories from the Tram,” in the book Alexandria’s Public Bus — which I had just read — by Asser Mattar.
Walid, who had read the book that was printed in 2010 by Dar Al-Ain, agreed. He particularly agreed that the tram is unlike public buses and "Al-Mashrou" (private run mini-buses). The tram in Alexandria is still put to good use by people of different walks of life.
“It is not the way it used to be when the book was issued, some five years ago, but still – yes,” he said.
I told him I thought the entire book was a very sentimental, if not nostalgic, account of life in Alexandria: “It shows you poverty and unfairness in a romantic way.”
“I really liked the account of the cynical and frustrated young man Himah whose father, a veteran warrior, died on one of the ships bringing workers back from the Gulf in the early 1990s,” I said.
“He felt that the citizen was worth nothing in the country and he was proven right, as he was killed by the police who decided to label him a terrorist,” I added, to the nod of Walid.
My companion looked around with a sense of unease and suggested we move on to dessert. Maher laughed and said, “Don’t worry, there are no informants here, and we are just discussing a book.”
We did order dessert: halwa with cream, honey with cream, jam with cream and chocolate spread with cream.
Walid and Maher insisted to treat us to the dinner and they gracefully agreed to join us for a long walk, where we talked more about Mattar’s book and disagreed about the comparison the author made between the tram of Alexandria and that of Heliopolis, with the latter portrayed as dull by comparison.
“But then again, the Heliopolis tram has been removed with a blow to the architectural history of the city,” I said, as we decided to get on the tram for a late evening ride.