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.

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