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.