Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Out and back

Life rattles on. The weather swung cold right at Eid, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Cold rain at night, chill sun during the day. We’d come back from Essaouira on Thursday—Thanksgiving morning—having left warm beach and mild air to return to the dust and exhaust of Marrakech. On the way home we passed truck after truck full of sheep for Saturday’s slaughter, central activity of Eid, celebration that marks God’s sparing of Abraham’s son Isaac in favor of the sacrifice of the ram. We saw plenty of rams being herded along the roadside and through tiny towns on our trip home. And on Wednesday, in Essaouira, two rams positioned like two cop cars at a donut shop—nose to tail and tail to nose snuggly wedged together into a bright blue handcart, feet bound. Paul saw scooters balancing driver, ram, and ram-wrangler. All of them seemed to look as sheep do, mostly just present.

The coast was beautiful—and heading out of Marrakech to get there felt just like taking the bus north out of Manhattan—where you slide by that brief sweep of posh Park Avenue that hugs the green heart of Central Park and then churn north through mile upon mile of projects, grey streets, tenements. I specifically choose that old-fashioned word because the squalor does feel like it ought to be from another era, black and white and demolished by now. The same with this city. It was deflating to head west out of town and watch the acres of red-walled poverty unfold. Laundry strung out windows, bare dirty feet in cracked plastic sandals resting on scooter pedals, broken windows in dilapidated buildings. Lots of empty buildings, new and old. There go the magical walled moments inside the Majorelle’s blue depths, the classic lines of the implacable Koutoubia, the crisp and buttery croissant at Café Amandine across the street from the 70s-retro-Euro-swank of the black and white Bab Hôtel. All the concentrated and beautiful culture at the center of Marrakech just collapsed. It was disquieting to pass out of the bubble. The contrasts are complete and exhausting and everywhere. Right in the middle of the surrounding stretch of poverty sits a new Marjane, the French we’ve-got-everything-for-cheap company not unlike WalMart. You get the picture. Then there’s a long wall of billboards picturing computer-generated architectural renderings of a new apartment complex promising that you can make your own little box “just like you like it”—literally, you could not see the end of this massive herd of buildings, one exactly like its neighbor. Who is going to live here? Marrakech already is filled with scores of the very same thing—empty new apartment buildings everywhere you look. Where will they come from? It was depressing, in a way.

Then we’re out into the countryside, mud-walled olive orchards and grapevines buttressed with caning rolling away from the two-laned road going west. We zip through a thoroughly modern interchange with entrance and exit ramps and European-style signage pointing to Casablanca, a flash of familiar. Then sparsely inhabited land gives way to a moonscape of rock and sand, interrupted briefly by the industrial sprawl of stacks and conical towers—an Italian-owned cement plant flashes by. They’ve blasted right through a huge hill, eaten half of it, and exposed its dazzling white parabolic profile. No vegetation whatsoever across the rocky plane to left and right. (Here is where Paul’s Spanish seat-mate throws up). Somewhere along the way I spot a white minaret tipped with bright red (odd, as I thought about it, like the cartoon idea of a cigarette)—this was the first white building since leaving Marrakech. Essaouira, of course, is dressed exclusively in white and blue. The taxis too. As we approach the coast the land begins to heave, juniper and argan trees turn the hills to dark green. We crest the last rise, make a hard turn, and there is the thick hazy ribbon of blue Atlantic, the flutter of white skirt that is Essaouira.

We spent four days in the old city—which dates from forever ago. Archeologists trace human habitation there to prehistoric times. A Carthaginian navigator set up a trading post in the 5th century BCE, then in a long parade across the centuries came the Portuguese, the Spanish, the English, the Dutch. No one quite managed to stay, except the Arabs from long ago and the French in the early 20th century—and Berbers who were there to begin with. Just this morning a waiter from the café next door reiterated what I’ve read elsewhere—Morocco is not like other Arab-speaking countries. Berber peoples make up 30-40 percent of the population. “I am Berber,” he says, affirming this reality. Orson Welles came to Essaouira in the mid-20th century to shoot scenes for his Othello. A park right off the ramparts is named for him. It contains a monument featuring a bas-relief bust now missing both its nose and its explanatory plaque. The single white marble plaque that’s left announces the date and the dedicator, in 1992 the future king. You get the feeling that whoever did the vandalizing wasn’t quite prepared to haul off a hunk of marble engraved with the future monarch’s name. Or maybe it didn’t pry off so easily? Or they were interested only in defacing the foreigner? Or who knows. Easy to project my own post-colonialist preoccupations.

The city is beautiful. Hazel capered on the beach, was knocked down by a wave (which took her down I think only because her diaper became so suddenly sodden and acted like an instant anchor), we ate the best Italian gelato since our arrival in Morocco, and we met Steve and Sharon, an English couple who run a Mexican restaurant tucked away in one of the folds of the old city. We ate there three times in the four days—and I found myself relaxing into the feel of banter with proprietors in our own language, loved listening to their accents (he is from Rotherham outside York), and delighted in my first cup of real Earl Grey since Berkeley. There’s not much Mexican about the place. They found after two weeks that mole and other time-consuming Mexican sauces were impossible given that it’s just the two of them behind the counter, and the ingredients are too sparse. But the signs were already made and they remain, improbably in Morocco, La Cantina. They serve their ‘Acapulco Chicken’ alongside scones with jam and cream, vegetarian stir-fry, and a really delicious chili-cheeseburger. Sharon, who is tall, blonde, immediately confiding in her tone and affectionate, said to me the first night, “People come in ‘ere and say, ‘This is the best Acapulco Chicken I’ve ever ‘ad—and I don even know what Acapulco Chicken ought to be!” I’m sure I’m being ridiculous in trying to get their accents. (Paul just told me it was Oliver Twist ‘enry ‘iggins English. Duly noted.) But it was such a delicious novelty to sit in their tiny warm place (candlelit at night) and chit chat about Jemaa el Fna and English football, Thailand (that’s where they go from January to March) and what Jamie Oliver has done to Steve’s hometown (turned on it the full tousled-blond wattage of his food fame combined with an affable insistence that Brits be more healthy in their eating).

I could go on about windy, sunny Essaouira: the riad with its breakfast on the blue and white terrace (I do love the beautifully assembled breakfast tray that someone else presents and takes away); the model-boat builder we met down a narrow side street (he does only three a year, all built by hand, all modeled after mid-19th century clipper ships—he’s done several versions of The Cutty Sark—all usually commissioned by a wealthy Frenchman, he said); the narrow cobbled lanes of the human-scaled old city and life lived elsewhere (a woman collects water in buckets at a public fountain, through an open door I glimpse what must be the neighborhood bread oven—a line of flame at the far end of an otherwise darkened room); the catch of the day laid out a couple feet from the rocky shore; breathtaking heaves of color-changing sea and brief high-arcing peaks of white spray; Hazel happy and naked in the sand.

Back in Marrakech we are changing apartments all of a sudden—same building, different floor. We’ll have outdoor access and romping room (albeit tiled and high-walled) just out the living room sliding glass doors. The bedrooms are smaller but the kitchen looks across a high counter into the living room, so there’ll be less opening and shutting of doors, less calling out between me and Paul What did you say? from one echo-y room to another. The place is also more generously furnished—good-bye sexy black leather banquette, hello faux-velvet matarba, a Moroccan-style narrow L-shaped couch with bolsters. We move Saturday. My folks come on Friday, so they’ll have one luxurious night in the queen size bed that the school delivered yesterday for Hazel’s room (she would have been the pint-size out-sized inhabitant of what amounts to a hotel room—mod black bed frame, mod black bed-side tables, mod black dresser drawers—an odd fit at best). And then the folks will get to choose between two twin beds in Hazel’s new petite room. A nice shift. She is on fire with their coming, jazzed about the new place, generally buzzing and taking forever to fall asleep at night. She is like her mother. She lies there in her quilt-and-blanket-festooned crib, asking me to “Think about the things" and wailing for more when I pitilessly leave the room.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Place, choice

I’ve been reading Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf, so it’s an odd contrast, the now of November 2009 and Woolf’s world of the first part of the 20th century—just as dramatic even if we weren’t in Marrakech, a place to which Woolf never would have traveled, or desired to. (Greece for her was it, as far as the exotic goes, and even then she was only ever interested in its celebrated and very familiar ancient history—not at all in the rather grimly perceived modern country. The only place I see her here is taking tea at the Grand Café de la Poste—inside its cool high-ceilinged central room, not flattened by the heat of the midday porch. To be fair, she did write self-consciously about her precluding and exclusionary focus.) But here’s what I’m latching onto, for the moment, in what Lee has to say: Woolf made conscious breaks with her parents’ generation, its social customs, its artistic forms, and certainly with its ponderous male thinkers (among them her famous father and his famous friends). She spent her writing life, or much of it, killing off the censorious voices both male and female from that storied past and instead inventing new voices, new fictional forms to fit the post-war world. Working through and around an illness she could not control, she made conscious choices.

Imagining Virginia Woolf’s world (the streets and shaded squares of London, the rough country of Sussex, the sea at Cornwall) has made me think about the places—physical and cerebral—where we choose to put ourselves, then how we’re changed or shaped by these places (where we go in the world, where we go in our heads), and to what extent we’re in control of the choices we’re ostensibly making. For obvious reasons, I’ve been thinking a great deal about place—we’re not in Berkeley anymore. And so I’ll pause for a second and count the ways in which this is true:

1) Our garbage bags are full of kitchen scraps (chicken bones, coffee grounds, milk cartons), aluminum beer cans, beer bottles, wine bottles, plastic Orangina bottles—in short, all the things the City of Berkeley recycles. Paul said that one of his kids said that there’s a recycling plant outside of Marrakech, but nobody recycles. The hated and ubiquitous plastic shopping bags, now banned in so many cities in the States (and all over Europe), are everywhere. Out at school a month ago, out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a whirling vortex high in the sky of what I thought were storks (common and beautiful here)—but instead were three or four white plastic bags caught in a swirling updraft and doing a troublingly graceful imitation high up against the blue in what by all rights ought to be the birds’ command.

2) I know I’ve observed this before, but it hasn’t ceased to amaze me. Scooters are routinely ridden by families of four: a baby in a white cloth sling hangs on its mother’s back far off the rear wheel, eyes closed in sweet sleepful ecstasy, then the mom barely manages to sit on the seat, then you can barely see a little kid sandwiched between her and the dad at the helm. No one is wearing a helmet. The scooter rides heavy and low. I pass through an odd moment of un-connection at the red light, looking out from the backseat window of the tin-can petit taxi, locking eyes briefly with the mom—both of us, as far as I can feel, expressionless.

3) It’s always sunny. There’s never any fog. Of course I’d miss the fog. I grew up in decidedly grey northeast Ohio. The nights are cool but the days heat up. When snow eventually falls in the Atlas, people say the days will cool down too, but so far there’s heat exclusively during daylight and only a breath of cool after dark. I miss the downshift out of summer, the arrival of the cool.

4) We bought three slices of fresh-tomato-on-filo-dough pizza and an enormous slice of tart (and the lady behind the counter handed Hazel a croissant just because)—this for $1.30.

5) Most cars are clean. There’s a street-level industry of car-washers, armies-strong, who work while the cars are parked. You would think the water-use profligate until you observe the method: modest cupfuls tossed from a bucket at just the right angle to wet the dust-coat, then application of elbow-grease with a rag, then wipe dry.

6) Cats are everywhere, none of them collared. They slink under cars and noisily enjoy a raw bloody morsel while hunched on the sidewalk or at curbside; they scoot in a flash down the dark marble passage to the parking garage (our building is swank); they troll beneath the tables at open-air cafés and disappear underneath studded metal gates on inscrutable errands. The white ones are grey. And one of the American kids in our building caught ringworm from an affectionate and hungry member of the motley gang who prowls the courtyard.

I’ll stop. I’m getting a little self-conscious at seeing only difference, and not just seeing.

And I’m getting there—these ideas have to do with travel as both an embrace of choice and a complete abnegation of all volition, a surrender—one that at certain times I loath with all the unfulfilled desire for a real and stable home (with a guest bedroom, and one that’s in a place where we plan to stay for a long time to come). Is this bad? I think of the times Hazel wakes early from her nap and I peel myself reluctantly off the couch and stand for two seconds cursing at the tile floor while I try to think of how to meaningfully fill the next couple hours before Paul’s triumphant return (cue trumpets and Camelot-style flags unfurling!—they play “Hop on Pop” and I rejoice in the luxury of partnership). So Hazel and I go out into the muted but still pressing heat of the afternoon. I’m tired. Dammit! How do you read and write and do-nothing and talk and drink a glass of wine and also get to sleep and also get up whenever it is that your 2-year old daughter decides to get up, in Hazel’s case usually before 7:00AM? I do not know—and find myself too often dragging my resistant ass out the door with my gung-ho girl, wondering how to do it differently. But then we happen by the group of guys at the scooter-park. They cheer (Salut, Hazen! they say her name like that, the l is an n) when they see her approaching, even as she sometimes turns and buries her head in my skirt. We chat all around for a moment—and inevitably the older gentleman sends us off (on our walk to somewhere) in a flurry of earnest gallantries—Que dieu vous garde, Madame. Elle est une ange, Madame, vraiment. Elle est une étoile. May God keep you, Madame. She is an angel, Madame, truly. She is a star.

It happened again Sunday mid-morning—heading out for a walk with no particular destination in mind. Paul had to work so Hazel and I went out, bound for who knows where. We walked down to Paul’s bus stop then crossed over for some salted peanuts from a stand down the way (for some reason they are enormous here—and sold in dedicated shops both in the souks and here in Guéliz). Right across from the nut-stand is a narrow construction site full of action: swinging buckets of wet cement, pulleys, wheelbarrows, the tumbling cement-mixer and all the men to work each station—like a page out of Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? come to life. We watched for a bit, Hazel’s attention rapt, and then turning to go we ran into a guy we’d seen before at the tiny store (the hanut) across from our apartment. We’d talked that last time months ago (Hazel is always the conversation-starter) about the fact that she’d learn French and Arabic quite easily at a crèche (French-style pre-school). He’d been in New York City, talked admiringly of its people from every corner of the globe, and we parted ways. (Happily, he did not buy her a lollipop or chocolate or potato chips, as was the case today coming back from the souks—I feel I need to protect her tiny frame from the constant buffeting of proffered junk food from here and there.) But Sunday he invited us to tea in his apartment. I don’t think we’d even properly introduced ourselves at this point. In the States I know I wouldn’t agree to such an easily offered invitation from a near-stranger; here it doesn’t seem so odd—this and he seems so genuinely kind. Guileless, as my cousin would say.

Tea was lovely in Abdelghani and his wife Nadia’s modest apartment, the late morning sun coming in over my shoulder through lace curtains. (They made their tea with home-dried verbena leaves instead of fresh mint and green tea—it was delicious.) He is a travel-guide, it turns out, and so the tea had a potential end in sight, but you get the feeling that the money to be made is much less interesting than the occasion for talk, for tea together, for connection. I know I need to feel this way, which probably gets in the way of a more cynical reading of the invitation, but even so, Hazel hopped happily from pouf to couch, sipped her tea with gusto, shared round her sack of salted peanuts, and ate a couple of mouthfuls of a crumbly confection (of sesame seeds, flour, honey, and cocoa, an acquired taste I’d say). Abdelghani showed photos from some of his trips—mountain villages, Sahara at sunset, tents gathered in a semi-circle. He had a couple of framed photos of Venice sitting on a cabinet—“I could not believe my eyes!” he said, forefinger pointing to first one, then the other. “I who grew up in the desert. You step out a door into the water!”

Today was Moroccan Independence Day, commemorating the day in 1956 that the Sultan returned from exile in Madagascar, restyled himself as King Mohammed V and instituted the constitutional monarchy that rules today. Paul had the day off and so we went into the souks and visited both Abdellah and Abderrahman. Trips into that buzzing and tightly woven life are not as fraught (or as hot) as they were in August, happily. All of us are at ease in a way almost unimaginable then. We didn’t take a map.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Red Tourist Bus, Cyber Parc, Jardin Majorelle (Part Deux)

Hazel and I played tourist this week, took the red bus tour of Marrakech, double-decker and open-roofed. Made it part way out ("I WANN TO GET OFF!!!") then had to take a petit taxi home -- but made a detour first to the Cyber Parc, this really lush green expanse of deeply shaded red-pebble pathways interspersed with huge-format photos from that enormous book, The Earth From Above. I neglected to take any photos of the photos in situ, but we did find the watery green oasis at the heart of the park. Next morning we went again to the Majorelle garden -- in the cool of morning is the best time to go, but even then the hordes had arrived and the sun was warm by the time we left.

Here is the crane whose ballast moved disquietingly above us as we passed beneath. Notice the hotel sign at right: "Guéliz" is the name of the French-built part of the city; Guéliz, I heard somewhere recently, is a bastardization of the French word for church, église -- because it was in this "new" part of town that the protestant church was built, circa 1912.

Looking back along Mohammed V -- a lone pedestrian waiting for his chance to continue across, La Koutoubia in the far smogged distance:

She's becoming a proficient shot. Hazel's thousandth self-portrait:

I'd have to look at a map to tell you where this was taken. Duh. A true tourist shot:

Olive trees bearing fruit we could have harvested had the bus broken down right there:

Cyber Parc green-tiled and fountain-splashing pools. There were four laid out in a grid. Hazel was taken in by the first and didn't budge.

Picture of splashed up-close cool:

Water, Dappled Light, Green Tile, Girl:

Ripples and right angles, concentration:

She is happy.

Next morning, back out into saturated color:

If I had the energy, I think Hazel would be happiest if we left the house each day at 8 and didn't get home till bath time. She loves to go "out and about" -- how she puts it with that particular emphasis and cadence all her own.

This post is turning into a Hazel-on-location shoot.

The view of the lily pond at the end of the tiled walkway pictured above:

Here is a cool corner perpetually in shadow (I love the polished concrete walkways throughout -- the reflected light magnifies and intensifies the abundant color). The building at left with the plaster-carved frieze-work is the graceful blue backside of the Islamic Collection at the Jardin Majorelle. A guide we talked with said the collection is to reopen in January, magnificent things to be on display.

We're about to drink thé à la menthe, the famed whiskey marrocain, its effects a tad closer to those of real whiskey now that I've realized a type of green tea, caffeinated green tea, is its key ingredient. Here I was blithely believing I was feeding Hazel a benign sweet herbal treat. Hmmm. She was happy to have her own menu, to wrap her fingers up in its pleasing elastic.

No one wonder she looks so jazzed. I need to revisit the management of her tea-love.

Plus windfall cookie! (Baby-doll slumps in the lap; I will never get used to the weirdness of the eye-blinking doll.)

Shoes off. Cool tile. We could have stayed all day.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

November day beneath the grey

This morning early (for us) we set out in search of Hillary Clinton, but belatedly learned that she had departed the famed La Mamounia hotel yesterday. I got us to the security checkpoint that, I learned, is in fact in place at all times, Secretaries of State in town or no. The man with the detached and formal air gave me a slip of white paper with the number of the hotel written in blue ball point, telling me that the only way to get through was with a reservation for dinner there. Hmm.. the folks will be in town in December... Instead we headed into the souks for our appointed rendezvous with Abderrahman. He'd invited us yesterday to come hang out at a riad owned by a Frenchwoman he knows (turns out too, his cousin works for her). We took our time getting there, walked and capered beneath the moody sky. Here Hazel measures herself against La Koutoubia.

We're inside already here and looking down into the central courtyard from the terrace. (Abderrahman took us through the winding ways of the souks, passing the Musée de Marrakech and a medersa just beside it, threading through the life of the Wednesday morning streets until we turned left down a tiny alley and then left again down another; he unlocked a black grillework door to access an intercom, spoke with his cousin, then unlocked the inner door.) At left above the fountain in deep red lettering are painted the words, in French and Arabic script: amitié, respect, sagesse -- friendship, respect, wisdom. We sat on one of the narrow couches in a small salon through the arch pictured at right, and began our tea. Among other things, we talked about the difference between the typical western domestic floor plan and the floor plan of the riad -- no windows to the outside for the most part, instead the central courtyard, the successive open-air balconies, the interior exposed to light and weather both. Abderrahman made a comparison and said that you are more at ease here -- there are no windows giving onto the outside world, thus no one peering in to make you feel self-conscious -- different from an apartment or a house in the west (or here, really too) where you can see right into your neighbor's living room and wonder what it is he has in his pouf. But in the riad, you can be and do as you wish, tranquillement. I was trying to draw some connection between western-style housing and the capitalist imperative to buy enough to keep up with your neighbor whose stuff you can see so clearly -- Paul, when I came home and recounted the story, offered another reading: How can I ever manage to see out except from the impossible and distorting height of my terrace?

Carved detail from one of the arches on the first floor:

Always the bougainvillea, I can't help myself. Especially on a grey day the color explodes:

A view from the pavilion on the lower level of the double terrace:

Looking back as we climb up to the upper terrace; pavilion at top left:

The feeling of climbing up out of the mostly narrow maze of streets below to take in the incomparable view from somebody's terrace above is quite extraordinary -- a felt experience, not just viewed. The air is different, the noise of crowing roosters and donkeys braying and scooters gunning is muffled by distance and perspective and innumerable walls; you want to stay and think and breathe before going down again. On a clear day, beyond would sit the great graceful hulk of the Atlas:

She really didn't want me to be taking pictures of her:

Thus the back of her head and my exaggeratedly stern aspect:

The pavilion, with tea things that Abderrahman brought up, walls covered in a garden mural, Hazel marching away from the omnipresent camera:

Hazel, it cannot be emphasized enough, LOVES the mint tea:

We stayed a good hour before Hazel was ready to scoot -- drinking tea, writing and drawing, jumping from stair to stair; we returned to Abderrahman's shop escorted by his cousin (she took a different route back -- hard to converse, hang onto Hazel, and look out for where we were in relation to where we'd been); ended up having lunch with him -- crisply fried sardines, spiced lentils, tomato salsa, fresh bread. I was trying unsuccessfully not to think about how much Paul would have enjoyed that meal.

Wanted to set out these photos before they got stale (like the bread here -- delicious in the moment, not-so very soon after -- but did I say how delicious in the moment?). Not that photos get stale, just that I lose the name of action if I wait to long. And there's a post percolating in here somewhere chronicling all the really good food we've encountered recently: birthday tagine, skewers of grilled chicken yesterday in the souks, and a home-cooked pan of penne vodka this past Monday made right here with the expertise of a culinary-institute-trained chef/out-of-work hedge-fund guy visiting one of the other teachers.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sunday night thoughts

I have sort of reached a place of lull, a kind of no-man’s land of drifting. This last week especially our talk has pendulum’d between staying beyond this first year and going home (in mid-July, which amounts to eleven months really, not a year), perhaps accounting for my not writing or feeling much like writing these last couple days. So here goes, just a hodge-podge of this’s and that’s of observation and thought.

My birthday this last week came and went on an aberrantly cool and cloudy day (reminiscent of dear old northeast Ohio); and the day too was unaccountably empty. I have to pause for a moment and try and describe to you how I hear the word “empty” right now. As I mentioned briefly in the last post, I think, Hazel has this routine that she goes through in varying forms—a cobbling together of several stock sentences, one version of which I captured in a tiny movie a couple weeks ago. She’s wearing my glasses, is otherwise naked, and throughout the following dialogue kind of rolls here and there, sits and sprawls on our orange bedspread, looking back to the camera lens every now and again to make her point. It goes like this: “I go to work,” she says energetically, hands to either side of the black glasses frame—placing extraordinary emphasis on the word work, drawing it out over several beats and almost completely losing the already shy “r” in there, and then nodding firmly at the end of this first statement as she arrives at the final “k”. Then she’ll say, almost whispering, “There were so many people,” shaking her head as if marveling at the sheer number and mass of them, again landing on the two p’s of people with a special emphasis of the 2-year old variety. Next she says, “Looked in my pocket—empty,” each consonant given its full percussive due. And that last word, empty, by itself like that, the terminus of both its own sentence and the scene she’s just rendered, just kind of hangs in space for a moment, an embodiment of the word itself. Looking steadily at the camera, she holds out both hands, palms upturned, to illustrate her point.

I think she picked up this idea of looking into your pocket and finding it empty from Ezra Jack Keats’ more-than-amazing picture book, The Snowy Day. In it, Peter packs a snowball “round and firm and put [it] in his pocket for tomorrow. Then he went into his warm house.” Needless to say, the snowball has melted by the time he checks his pocket before bed. “His pocket was empty,” Keats writes. I love how Hazel poaches and appropriates these snatches of stories. Isn’t that how found language and experience and storytelling happily cohabitate?

So anyway, the day was empty—grey, tending toward rain; we saw virtually no one till Paul came home in the early evening. What did I do all day? I call up this day in particular because it typifies a liminal space I fall into sometimes here, one that amounts to nowhere. We didn’t do much of anything at all particularly Marrakech-esque—no Jemaa el Fna, no Majorelle bleu—well, come to think of it, nothing but a trip next door to Café Amandine for croissants and thé à la menthe. A birthday treat for the both of us. Brief tangent—there’s a group of mostly young men who work the omnipresent scooter-parking and car-washing on our block. The young guys are joined often by an older gentleman who works at a car-parts place, also on the block—I say “older” in the sense that he’s balding and probably twice their age; he said one time that he’s 50. They hang out mid-morning and late-afternoon under the huge fig trees drinking mint tea and talking across the scooters, and whenever we walk by we stop and chat, bavarder, they coo at Hazel’s antics and generally adore her for a couple of lovely minutes. She eats it up—especially the mint tea, which they shared with us one Saturday afternoon. The elder statesmen is gallant, full-tummied, ever-gracious, once emphatically telling us not to eat the pizza from across the way—they drink too much there (he makes the international sign of bottle-to-mouth); another time he guides me to the boulangerie around the corner instead of the one we’ve liked and been going to almost since we got here (I like ours better! The guy there is so nice!). My point, getting there, is that the first time we drank mint tea with them (Hazel’s fave, second only to the olives), he said, Thé à la menthe? C'est le whisky marocain. And just yesterday when we talked he amended his earlier statement to add—pour les pauvres. Mint tea is Moroccan whiskey for the poor.

Back to our empty day: We didn’t go to the store to buy food or diapers or other necessaries. We didn’t explore a new part of town. We mooned about in the morning at home—did I do laundry? Did Hazel mash and press her red crumbling play-doh on the black coffeetable-top? We must have gone out, if only briefly across the street to buy milk or mandarins (now deliciously in-season)—and we did indeed have tea. She napped half-heartedly—and of course, I think my fault—this is so because we just didn’t get enough exercise, didn’t do much of anything this morning. She woke from her nap after only an hour and a half, a full hour short of the usual. What am I to do with the next two and a half hours till Paul comes home? Here you see the dilemma of the fish out of water—or rather the family uprooted. By no means unusual anywhere, but for me the empty time echoes (at least it did last week) with the remembered shouts and whoops and diminutive running, jumping, climbing bodies at the playground back at Live Oak Park in Berkeley, the buzz of the Cheeseboard in late afternoon, the calls across our shared driveway on Vine Street. How can I convey the simultaneous ache for home and our now-passionate, now-apathetic embrace of the new?

We took the stroller, Hazel alternately walking and riding, and made our meandering detour-filled way out Mohammed V to the Cyber-Parc, a lovely long swath of towering green over-spilling the brick and grill-work fence that holds it back from the sidewalk on the long block before arriving at La Koutoubia. (One section of fencing has been cut away to give space to a huge-trunked tree that lolls one enormous green nodding branch far out over the sidewalk.) The sky, grey and moving, threatened our whole walk out; we arrived at the park’s far brick steps that lead in from just beyond the old city wall—and Hazel refused to go in. Despite the name (which I’ve yet to find an explanation for) the garden from the street is delicious and green and inviting—red-gravel paths twine among well-tended olive, palm and locust trees; stone benches tuck themselves inside the deep shade; thick carpets of grass belie the scant six inches of yearly rainfall. When we’ve walked back from the souks in the evening over the last few weeks, really after dark, the garden emits—even from across the street where we’re usually walking—an exhalation of deeply cool, fresh air that is intoxicating. Your body feels it. The nights have been warm still, though my friend Natalie down the hall (married to a Moroccan—she too has a 2-year old) claims it’s never been so warm so late into the fall. Paul reminds me that in Boston, people would always say, “It’s never been this cold!” in a wild but predictable fit of amnesia that arrives with each successive winter. So we turn around and hail a petit taxi that I’ve been promising we’ll take home. The traffic has steadily increased in the forty-five minutes since we left home, but even so—this I find incredible!—a young woman on a bicycle pauses long enough—and it’s a long pause—to glance at Hazel as she and I make our way to the curb to cross over and catch our ride in the right direction. She’s cycling with a huge city bus about to pass on her left shoulder, in addition to all the rest of the madness, and she’s cycling and smiling at my girl. I have yet to wrap my mind around the bikes. And can I tell you one time we saw these kids—three kids maybe, all not more than 13—roller-blading, slaloming, slicing through the lanes and lights and the intense post-dark exhaust-choked melee of dozens and dozens of scooters and motorcycles, cars, buses, horse-drawn carriages, all jockeying for space and primacy. It was heart-stopping to see these small lithe bodies, obviously athletic, but fragile. Come on! No match for a car that doesn’t see you.

We got home, Paul did too (after an insane day of grades-and-comments due—I have so far refrained from writing about school for obvious reasons); we gathered ourselves up and caught another petit taxi to the Medina to meet Abderrahman at the appointed hour for tagine at his shop. The previous Saturday (when we finally managed to reconvene, after all the Marrakech mischief and such, and finally retrieved our rug), we’d been invited to join a visiting French family, the husband a long-time friend of Abderrahman’s, and come the following week for tagine. The day fell, because of Paul’s work schedule, on Wednesday, also my birthday…so we go.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sidewalk talk

I want to capture what it feels like to walk around this city. We’ve been here long enough that we (Hazel and I) have worn into our days certain patterns that make what was new and strange a month ago now seem like the humdrum of the everyday. The physicality of the streets and sidewalks is still striking—and I know I’ve referred to this in earlier posts—but it’s a daily lived negotiation of rough and smooth—you pick a path out of the maze. In some places the grooved tile, alternately of rose and sand (done in designs that are reminiscent of M.C. Escher) gives way to a broken jumble, an empty section that’s packed hard dirt, or disappears completely under a parked car, a pile of gravel or sand. I guess I’m stumbling over what I unthinkingly expect back in the States, but there it is. Walking home the other evening down a relatively quiet cross-street a restaurant bloomed briefly out of the dark and the uneven sidewalk—an impossibly tall flung-open front door and wide floor-to-ceiling windows showed a swank, sleek, elegant and empty space, a sweep of marble and towering thirties-era crystal chandeliers, curve of leather and several expectant suited emcees—it looked like a place Myrna Loy and William Powell might sit down for drink. Then back into the dark, the rubble underfoot, like I had dreamed up the whole vision. Shops meticulously wash clear their own stone stoops and sections of slick tile, but what’s not obviously connected to a business or apartment building, those lengths of geometry that follow a stretch of blank (or graffitied) wall seem to fall prey to whatever forces of entropy are at work. Early on when we first got here, in the intense oven-breath of mid-morning heat, wildly hot even at that hour, we were out walking on a busy street that feeds into Mohammed V. I was successively snapping digital frames and simultaneously watching the progress of someone in a wheel chair opposite us. He (she?) was moving along on the other side of the street, in the street, skirting a series of cafés whose chairs completely blocked the sidewalk, a sea of parked scooters, a set of curbs without handicap ramps, a construction site whose spilled detritus had devoured the sidewalk whole—and of course was moving in the flow of traffic to avoid all of it. It didn’t seem easy. Around the corner from our apartment the sidewalk to either side of a big hotel is blocked by scrollworked gates that effectively privatize that section and force you out into on-coming traffic, if you don’t feel like walking their arc of driveway, often blocked by a midnight blue Jaguar anyway. But on the wider boulevards there’s just more room for whatever else is happening besides you.

Construction is everywhere—from the five-story deep ochre-red pit that takes up an entire city block on Mohammed V to the half-finished luxury hotel that’s catty-corner from our building, to the other hotel gathering shape on the opposite corner (someone said this one is owned by somebody on the school’s board). Cranes tangle over rooftops and swing their burdens across dusty lots, cluttered sites in all stages of completion checkerboard the city, but the Théâtre Royale is an empty shell of unfinished grandeur.

We happened inside the other day—it sits magisterially across a busy fountained thoroughfare from the single enormous arched entrance of the train station, looking as if behind its sandstone façade and beneath its elongated dome roof hides all the tiled and carved glory that a royal structure ought. But it is in fact a shell. A couple times on earlier walks (back during Ramadan on quiet early evenings) we’d noticed especially the gorgeous arched glossy wooden shutters and doorways—and at that time of day the entire massive structure was lit with the soft golden fire of the setting sun, a spectacularly arresting vision. I caught site of a single shutter on an upper story window blowing gently in and out with whatever wind was playing at that height, like breath softly inhaling and exhaling, the kind of random movement you associate with some part of an unattended and maybe abandoned building. We’d heard from somewhere that the theater was never finished (guidebooks attest to this fact)—whoever was responsible ran out of money (does the King himself run out of money?).

And so it was. Last week walking by we saw a man in white khakis and white oxford shirt looking a lot like an official guide sitting on the front steps of the Théâtre Royale. We asked if we could look inside and he took us in. Enormous deep-pink marbled foyer, wrap-around double stair case lifting up and up, tile-work and high wooden archways in all directions. He said this entrance space is used for artisan showcases and as a gallery. He lead us through a soaring anteroom (open air, actually, onto which second and third story windows opened), back outside and on through a gated side-garden (empty tiled pool somehow supporting a gracefully bending papyrus plant, bedraggled beds of roses and bougainvillea in weed-choked beds), up a steep ramp to one of those beautiful shining wooden doors, over its lip and into an odd nowhere-space, an area between the backstage of the high-backed amphitheatre to our right and the vaulted, gutted, tiered space of the theater-proper to our left—echoing, empty, deathly still, airless, profoundly disturbing. A concrete-block and battleship-grey cement interior, three tiers of stacked balcony in the silent gloom and a wide stretch of empty cement on the sloping main level all looked down at a non-existent stage and a gaping pit where scenery would otherwise hang when not in use. Opposite all this raw space hung a huge expanse of dark curtain, while on the other side sat an open-air stage, its narrow boards cracked and sunken from exposure, facing curve after concentric curve of steeply rising cement seating, capacity one thousand, our guide said. A slice of deep blue dusk looked down into the performance space. Films, primarily, are what people come to see in the amphitheater—no acting company with any regard for its actors’ footing would mount a production on that outdoor stage, let alone a dance company. The interior space, of course, has never seen a production.

We had mint tea, orange juice, fresh fruit and croissants on Saturday with a Tunisian couple and two of their girls. Kaïs is a pilot and flies out of Marrakech for Royal Air Maroc; his wife was a lawyer before she had their three girls, all under age 4. The two older girls go to Paul’s school—that is the natural and original connection. He is lovely—we’d met him on the street in front of our apartment just after we got here as he corralled two of his girls (the third was then yet-to-be-born) and we promised to get together. I emailed weeks later, then he called weeks after that just as we’d returned from the doctor’s and gotten Hazel stable, but only just, while she was in the bath. And then we ran into him Friday night, again with the two older girls, and made a plan for Saturday morning. We met at Grand Café de la Poste, which occupies the enviably central location behind (huh!) the main post office right off Mohammed V. It’s the place guidebooks say you find a lot of Americans and ex-pats, and it does have the feel of what you might expect of a Moroccan café in the French style, from the Protectorate days of old. There are potted palms, dozens of votive candles flickering amidst the greenery by night, a forest of white canvas umbrellas shading the carefully arranged wicker seats and tables that cluster around the deeper shade of the wide porch. Inside, the décor is all whites and creams (tablecloths and lampshades), curves of black wood, brown leather club chairs—what colonial times would have called gracious and cool and civilized, and not unlike the idea of home.

We all seemed to gravitate to a secluded spot up the wide central flight of stairs—thick knotted rugs, glass-topped low tables and clanging brass ash-trays, stiff brown leather poufs, banquettes, and the thick twist of maroon tasseled velvet rope invitingly looped across the next flight of curving stairs—the girls treated it like a swing. We stayed three hours.

Eventually Paul and Kaïs fell into conversation about school and Souad and I talked about life in a Kingdom. It was gratifying to talk with someone who is both an insider, in the sense that she is a native French and Arabic speaker, but an outsider too—she is Tunisian. Without reservation she spoke about the poverty here, that narrow band of wealthy who see to their own affairs above all else, and the great mass of everyone else, uneducated, who live without a sense of the wider world, without the cool privilege of gardens and pools and air-conditioning, who live primarily in the streets. She said that three years ago she used to love that area in Jnane El Harti—the one with the two enormous cement dinosaurs that face each other, their expressions benign (they are herbivores after all), in an oval of sand that also sports several yellow swing sets. But now the swings themselves are gone, the broken chains hang limp, the dinosaurs, whose backs are traversed by a narrow path up and a short slick slide down, are filled with city-trash—used diapers, cigarette butts, candy-wrappers, probably condoms if you looked closely enough. When Hazel and I have been there, usually just before noon, gaggles of teenagers sit on the cement edge, shoving and laughing, kind of pawing at each other with that adolescent combination of abandon and restraint. Souad used the deterioration of that section of park as an example of how people just don't care about the greater good—and maybe more significant, are not educated enough to cultivate a sense of the importance of civic life. I brought up the empty Théâtre Royale as an example of this kind of civic neglect—Paul, later, says who has money for theater when you’re struggling to feed your family? I’ve puzzled over that disparity here—the unbounded love people have for children and the paucity of any sort of child-friendly space that you don’t have to pay to get into. Kids play in the street. There's an alley across the way from our apartment that churns with play—kids of all ages on bikes and trikes, in doorways and in the dirt and cement and gravel sweep that is both front yard and thoroughfare all at once.

What I mean is that you feel at every turn the uncomfortable rub of poverty with the ephemeral money of tourism—and the rush and buzz of all the industries that gather round that inconstant flame. (Paul reports that a lot of his students, when asked, have said they want to go into the hotel industry.) So there is the huge billboard, four stories tall, showcasing the improbable blonde with plunging purple neckline stretched across the façade of the Zara department store (a Spanish company, it fittingly shares a block with the McDonald’s), across the snarl of traffic from the Kentucky Fried Chicken, and across the street from the Grand Café de la Poste. I’m leaving out the arc of fancy stores (which includes a Levi’s that sells jeans for 1145 Dhs, roughly $150) and several other European-style cafés all within a one-minute walk from the dilapidated dinosaurs in the sand. To be fair, the Jnane El Harti, if you’re a grown (child-free) person with time on your hands and a good book, is a lovely place to sit—you’re in the company of palms and lantana and laurel, roses, stretches of well-watered rosemary-bordered lawn (not for walking or lounging on, however—this garden is very much in the manner of the French, not known for their creation of green space intended for foot-traffic: pelouse interdit!). Though an ice cream cone is cheap and really good, a pint of Häagen Dazs costs $8. It’s a city, like many others, but the poor seem poorer and more numerous, the wealthy fewer, more remote.

And I haven't even gotten to the plentiful and omnipresent donkey carts, hauling everything from cement bags to children's car-seats (these were stacked in a mountain of boxes that towered high as a semi), or the incredibly enormous and unlikely loads balanced on the backs of spindly scooters: a full-size wooden couch-frame, thousands of fresh eggs cushioned on dozens of wide cardboard pallets, two dog-house sized panniers of fresh mint, a family of four.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Getting here...

I've been meaning to post these photos since the beginningCleveland to JFK to Casablanca to Marrakech. Here is Hazel in CLE with her "pack-pack," kindness of Jennifer C-L. She was so excited to put it on, march about, take it off, put it on...

Mountains and mountains of things, and Paul forgot his ukulele back on Elm Street:

We say goodbye to the folks...

Waiting at JFK for the flight to Casablanca. Here Hazel takes what I think is her first self-portrait:

Reminiscing about the old before we encounter the new. Paul goes through a Berkeley photo-book (hurray, Little Farm! Yay, Eden and Saira!!) somewhere over the Atlantic:

Pure pleasure...

First photo on the ground in Morocco. We're on the tarmac about to wait 5 hours with no information until 5 minutes before departure for Marrakech. Hazel's still in her pajamas and the white muffling light makes the scene feel simultaneously like anywhere and nowhere. I remember looking around, hoping for a physical marker to make us feel like we were here. I love the way Hazel looks so present, despite the three flights in 18 hours and the 4 hours of sleep, and one flight still to go.

A departure from the mostly-Marrakech thoughts, and more a rumination on memory

At the end of the day waiting for the bus, standing in the warmth and the pebbly dust in the parking lot at school (yesterday was family day at ASM), I ended up briefly telling a circle of people about the mark of the tourist (see post from August 27, We go it alone). I hold out my clenched fist as illustration, the skin across the back of my hand stretched tight, the better to show off the seven or eight black hairs that refuse to return to their invisible blond former selves. Why is this? I have kept vigilant watch over my hands for more than half my life now. It was senior year of high school in Rennes, in the afternoon French Language class with Mme. Le Breton, that this awareness was born. She was emphatic, tall, possessed of the precise cadence and finely tuned pronunciation you’d expect from someone who makes the teaching of language their métier. It was always overly-warm in that classroom in the afternoon, the sun pouring in the warbly-paned floor-to-ceiling windows. Mme. wore countless silver bangles and several silver rings on either hand (significantly, we thought, she was divorced and wore no wedding band)—maybe her adornments threw a spotlight on my own hands, or French grammar drove me to inspect whatever was nearest. I remember holding out my writing hand, fingers splayed against the shiny dark faux-wood desktop, comparing it to the memory of my mother’s hands, thinking myself into some far future when my hands would have aged—how would they do so?

My point really is that the women circled around me yesterday were all at least ten years younger. I was conscious of my right hand being older than theirs. It would have been different if the circle had been, say, my students ten years ago at Reserve—but here everyone was faculty, ostensibly of the same group. A little (I know, a lot) self-conscious—but it has to do with the passage of time, the way memory informs the present, or can set up camp and make itself an unwelcome spectator. And I find myself grateful for the opportunity to unburden myself of the awareness, to tell on it. (Come to think of it, arm hair, hand hair does not grow out—the black has not slowly grown out to reveal the telltale blond roots—it’s an oddity of the body, no? This thought would be tucked away in a footnote if the blog could do that.)

That’s one of things that fascinates me right now: how comparatively little we brought with us (our rooms still echo) and how often all the endless rooms of memory seem to empty themselves out into the now. Hazel loves to look at pictures on my laptop, revels in the bellyshots of me before-she-was-born, the seventeen-second movie of her in the sand with Grammy and Paul at Rodeo Beach in Marin last July 3, and even the seventy seconds from two weeks ago: Hazel nakey except for my glasses perched on the teensy bridge of her nose rolling around on our bed while she explains how she “goes to work.” (We have a lamentably slow internet connection that makes uploading video thus-far impossible—I would have shared this clip by now if I could have.) The towels we brought were a gift from Paul a million years ago when we lived in Ohio, the nubby green and blue fish dishtowel from a summer in Vermont before we were married. All the things of the past (those few that we brought) are thrown into high relief against a present that shimmers unfamiliarity. We brought an orphan napkin, a single frayed rectangle of plaid cotton that, my mother informed me before we left, came from Tunisia circa 1972. I thought then that there was a certain symmetry in its return at least to the Maghreb, if not the exact country. And here of course is the crux of it all.

My folks lived in Tunisia for six years from 1968 to 1974, Dad for three years before that (Taylor then later for two). They have a remembered history that, over the thirty-five years since moving back to the States, has turned into the implacable bedrock of family legend. I grew up inside the stories from that place (buried beneath them?), and only arrived at my own version in 1997—and this only three weeks after Taylor had died. What a time to return to the place of my own birth, which was also the source, in many ways, of my family’s definition of itself. And if not definition then at least the place of galvanizing identity. So what are we doing here in Marrakech?

Last night Paul and I had a heated debate about the few pages of an introduction to a slim volume on post-colonialism. In the cooling-down aftermath of it all, I was realizing that part of the emotional understory of my side of the argument is that I’m not teaching this year, the third year of Hazel’s life and my third year away from the classroom—and that because of this time away (from the familiar and from the classroom too) I have the time to entertain these very thoughts, to tease them out for myself, time to read Reading Lolita in Tehran and then Henry James after that, and Edith Wharton’s account of her month-long 1917 trip, In Morocco, and now the slim volume on post-colonialism. I have time to “hold out judiciously at arms’ length” (thank you, Dylan Thomas) the whole of this family past and think about how I’ve fit myself into it—or decided to throw some of it off. I guess I mean that there’s a part of me (defensive, insecure) that’s very aware of not having my own classroom in which to work out these thoughts about the politics of literature and the world, that’s wallowing in the ambivalence of being with my girl most of the sometimes excruciatingly long! day—but that ultimately I am learning to be grateful for this time a part, even to relax into it. Does this mean I could only see any of this precisely because we have traveled away and are making a home elsewhere? Or because I’ve also chosen to write about it in a way that’s more formal than private musings? Though granted, this feels private enough. I feel a certain confessionary squeamishness myself.

I keep re-landing on the word precipitation—that any of it, all of these thoughts have precipitated because we are here.

Brian T. Edwards talks in his book Morocco Bound about the way in which westerners have, in a reductive way, written onto the unfamiliar landscape of Morocco (and the Maghreb in general) the familiar associations of home—The desert looks like the films we know, or The Berbers weave blankets like the natives of the American southwest, or Arabs as a race are noble like the American Indians—thus robbing this place and its people of an identity that is its own. He argues that many westerners have come here over the last century (he chooses the years between 1942 and 1973) with too firm a hold on where they’re from, unwilling to see people inside their own context. But how do you travel so light that you don’t bring with you an informing past? I find that impossible, and the project becomes a negotiation of the inevitable baggage of memory, a sifting through and salvaging what’s sterling, jettisoning the dead-weight. Easy to write about. Harold Bloom wrote in 1973 about the “anxiety of influence”, a term that figured largely (at least as I recall them now) in my college literature classes. Bloom codifies an entire universe of explanation for the way in which poets struggle with the weight and words and poetic worlds of those who have come before. I love the way Ezra Pound both speaks to this anxiety and sweeps it away. He calls up Walt Whitman, grandfather of the new and uniquely American voice, and essentially says in his poem A Pact, that even though I used to detest you, “Let there be commerce between us.” It’s a lovely invitation to influence, a settling reconciliation, an opening to what can come of such communion with the past. I suppose I’m talking about this kind of anxiety and this kind of graceful resolution.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Some photos from last Saturday

We headed into the souks last Saturday to take back the rug to Abderrahman and for a visit. Into the busy city. This first is of scaffolding going up in the late afternoon sun at Place Jemaa el Fna:

Too narrow a view, but here is the spice souk, the tiny plaza where even until the early 20th century slaves were still sold in Marrakech:

That slice of sky no photo can capture, the view from La Petite Boutique du Tapis:

Place Jemaa el Fna at night, looking toward the souks:

And inexplicably (to me), the McDonalds's on Mohammed V is a roiling mass of humanity at 7:30 on a Saturday evening. What the #@%*?!! What is the draw? Also, not able to capture on film but overwhelmingly present: the air at this hour is a thick soup of choking exhaust. You find yourself taking shallow ineffectual breaths, wondering how far still to walk on the way home, and wondering what damage you're doing to Hazel's little lungs. It's not a good thought, something we don't like to think about, but a factor in pondering how long we intend to spend here...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Marrakech Mischief

Hazel threw up all over our new rug. So even though Abderrahman had said to bring it back if it doesn't completely please (“People have brought rugs back from France!”), I think we’re keeping this one. I was alone with her at home (this was last Tuesday October 6), it was after her nap, and she calmly stepped away from the couch and onto the rug to be sick. I think it was a shock to her—first time her body had done this particular involuntary thing to her, though she seemed to take it all in stride (and then stepped in it). Over the next two hours she threw up another six times—nothing is more anxiety producing than to be with your sick child, partner is away, and no phone. Paul wasn’t due back for another hour and half, and when he did walk thought he door, the battle was well lost. My sponge couldn’t keep pace with Hazel’s tummy. I’d tried to clean the rug with fair to middling results (the colors began to bleed), but I was opting for clean over color. I got her in the tub and was washing the rug in the sink beside her, trying to manage both concerns (it’s a beautiful rug!). This worked until she was ready to get out, get dressed, sit back on the couch—and then start the cycle over again. Umm—wash, rinse, repeat? With Paul back (bringing with him the single mobile phone that works—note to self: activate the other one we brought), I called another American from the school (she’s been here eight years and is married to a Moroccan). Her recommendation was to go directly to the pediatrician. I made the mistake of calling the office first and was met with a surly and thoroughly unhelpful receptionist who wanted, at 5:45, to go home. I explain the situation, tout en francais, comme il faut—my French is not bad—and yet:

Receptionist: Flat, without affect. Unconcerned. Oh, you can come in tomorrow morning.

Me: Raging silent disbelief for a split-second. My daughter just threw up five times in the last hour and half—and you can’t help me?!

Receptionist: No.

Me: Barely containing myself but doing an admirable job, all things considered. Do you have any recommendations for where to go?!

Receptionist: Non. Au-revoir.

I was gobsmacked, as my friend Sravani says. I could not, could not believe that that’s what this woman had just said to me. Come in tomorrow?!! I was in tears (pointless angry ones) punching the tiny ‘off’ button on the mobile phone. Where’s a clunky rotary phone with its dead-weight receiver when you really need to slam the phone down? We ended up taking Hazel to a local private clinic and emergency room where—eventually—she was seen by a Paris-trained Moroccan pediatrician, all brisk efficiency, no-nonsense shushing when Hazel wailed at the shot in her bum. We’d waited a good twenty-five minutes in the incredibly high-ceilinged examination room, blinking around at the bright unrelentingly white, watching each other and Hazel and a couple black bugs on the white tile floor. Before that we'd waited at the buzzing front desk. I was nudged ahead in line by a really nice young woman after several people had just stepped up in front of me—clearly I am here with my sick daughter!!—but it was every patient for themselves. It's the same thing at the little grocery store across the street. No patient lines, just assertion. So the woman behind me, in gentle tones but insistent, pushed me on ahead and we got seen.

By then it was dark outside the barred windows of the examination room and the florescent lights only added to the general nausea. We hadn’t brought our phone, couldn’t remember the number when the nurse asked us for it as she’s entering Hazel into her graph-paper logbook. The weird name, the awkward address (no one seems to have heard of our street—but then, why should they have?), the taking of all this information without a phone number seemed to be an exercise in futility. Anyway. The two triage nurses (tiny, slim, both scarved—they just seemed so young—does this mean I'm turning 37 this month?)—they both leave and we wait, and wait, and wait. Hazel throws up again. By this time we’ve had enough time to really begin to panic, to feel disconnected, maybe even to be lost in the system. And it’s happened to me before! In New York City once (late afternoon, busy, a community clinic off Union Square), I waited for what seemed like hours in the airless examination room before I finally poked my head outside the door—Oh! There’s someone in there! I got a startled look from a nurse, and then the doctor came. They had forgotten me. So I step out into the hallway with Hazel on my hip (now in her last clean outfit), and walk, gingerly at first—but dammit, my girl just threw up for the umpteenth time! down a ways and peek into the next open door—one of the two nurses talks on the phone. She looks up at me, puts down the phone, slightly annoyed—“She just threw up again,” I’m trying to convey a meaning and urgency that maybe my French alone cannot convey. “Le docteur n’est pas encore la? Soyez patiente, madame.” The doctor’s not here yet? Be patient, ma’am. And she turns unmoved back to her phone.

It all works out. Time exhales once the doctor arrives and Hazel, aside from the few tears shed when receiving the shot, was brave throughout—and seems fairly unimpressed by the whole episode. She takes sickness like Paul does, with a minimum of fuss and not much energy squandered on the drama. We pay (320 Dhs, about $40), go around the corner with our prescription to one of the dozens of pharmacies, one to a block almost—get our three different potions for about $10 and then we’re home. (I find it interesting that on their prescription pads, doctors here advertise where they received their degree. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that in the States.) Hazel throws up the several huge gulps of briney water she has rushed down, she eats a bit, she (slowly!) drinks some more, then she is—to our great relief—asleep.

It turns out that the doctor is an aunt of one of Paul’s students. “I heard you saw my aunt last night,” he says to Paul the next day at school. “Short hair,” the kids says, further identifying her. The doctor did have close-cropped hair. It must take a certain amount of strength here to wear yourself differently like that. It’s the same kid whose uncle owns the artisinat around the corner where I bought Hazel’s pouf, and whose other uncle famously kidnapped us to go buy rugs at his glorious emporium. Marrakech, it turns out, is a small town.

Another small-town moment. We ran into Abderrahman on our Saturday morning walk to get groceries (see photos, previous post). Paul had said let’s go a different way, off the exhaust-clogged Yacoub el-Mansour, and so we followed our noses and the map, and just as I was dashing across the street to check out this language institute we stumbled upon (courses on offer in Arabic and English), Paul runs into Abderrahman on his way to pick up two of his daughters from their English lessons at the very same place. He of course knows the gentleman who runs the institute, in fact knew his father thirty years before when he first came to Morocco. We talk and laugh in the morning sun and sheer lovely happenstance of it, and tell the tale of the rug and Hazel. He says to bring in the rug, that he’ll clean it using a combination of sulfur and water and shampoo, sulfur to keep the color true.

24 hours after Hazel felt it, I did too (I was really sick—something is going around), Paul felt horrible 24 hours after that, and then felt better and now, for the last 24 hours, again horrible. We went to a doctor this morning—a German woman who the same American friend had recommended—she’s been here for years and years, has quite a good reputation and speaks English, good for Paul. “She’s very German,” says Paul as we’re walking away from the appointment. Dr. Michaelis had called me in at the end of the visit as she wrote out Paul’s prescription. Her manner, just like the pediatrician, is efficient, a bit gruff, but clear and firm. She scolds Paul for sitting up before she has given him leave to do so, tut-tuts at Hazel as she reaches out and touches the speculum which sits on a cart at Hazel's waist-level (EEK! There will be time enough for those later)—“Good thing she didn’t touch the other end,” the doctor says, not altogether grimly—there is humor there, a little anyway. But Paul has been sick for longer now than ever before, or for as long as he can remember. It is unnerving in a foreign place to be at the mercy of the mystery of your own body and of the medical culture at large. I think this same situation is true at home as well—but the familiar elides some of the uncertainty and smoothes over, at least in part, that yawning chasm of the unknown.

In the waiting room this morning a woman in full chador, clearly in some distress, had enough energy to smile warmly at Hazel, receive Hazel’s offering of several goldfish crackers, give her a kiss and a wave—many times over, while Paul lay on the couch. And then later a woman with a baby and an older girl and her husband came in—we talk, as you do over the heads of your children. She is an art teacher from Agadir (nearby), invited us to call her before we come to the city if we happen to be traveling there. And last night (before round-two of Marrakech Mischief descended on Paul) we happened into a really lovely conversation with a trio of men sitting outside a café. We’d gone out for pizza at a place we’d seen, again on the Saturday walk, and were tootling back through the dusk at Hazel’s pace. This means climbing up on café chairs one after the next, stopping to hide behind the telephone pole (“I’m hiding!” she shouts with glee), and generally taking an interest in her toes and the sand pile and the sky and the concrete wall all at once. This older guy, cane leaning on a nearby chair, calls out almost sharply, “Elle est mignonne, cette fille!” gesturing to Hazel, and moments later Paul is speaking in English to one of his neighbors, the man is maybe Paul’s age—they’re talking about the state of education in Morocco and the States, and I’m talking with a third guy about the tourist industry and travel in general (“There are tourists who travel with their eyes shut—these should stay home. Others travel with curiosity.”) I am generally terrible at recounting conversations verbatim and wish I had an NPR-issued tape recorder to catch even half of the remarkable conversations we’ve had with people. These moments bloom out of sheer proximity, eye contact, out of Hazel’s being the insouciant age she is. The man who spoke English (he teaches in an International Baccalaureate program outside of Marrakech) used one expression in particular that I’m now struggling to remember—how is it these gems slip by? It’ll come. Meanwhile, Marrakech Mischief still lives at our house. It’s about time for Hazel’s nap to be done, to look in on Paul. (And I have to credit my friend Martha for coining the term—her version is “intestinal mischief”—IM for short. The Marrakech version is a doozie.)