Sunday, January 3, 2010

Holiday bauble, beach, bar

Now it’s the New Year, and I wrote most of what follows a couple days ago. The ribbon of the blog is much longer, more intricately worked, and certainly more timely as it happens in my head.

On this last day of the old year, the skies are clear, the air is fresh, and the king is said to be in town—along with the president of France (my friend Céline’s husband, a Moroccan, said that Sarkozy loves Morocco—and Paul, cynically, wondered if it’s because he wants to be royalty, with all that pomp and privilege). The hundreds of Moroccan flags that the city flies when the king is in town—single green pentagram sailing on a red field—are flapping all along the boulevards, while police in buttoned navy blue and military men in fiercely-creased khakis, white spats and jaunty berets line the sunny streets. This morning we went out to buy New Year’s Eve champagne at a wine shop Céline had shown me—Nicolas, it turns out, is just one of a gargantuan chain, thirty stores in Paris alone. Sure enough, it’s stocked with all sorts of bubbly from the plebian to the sublime, ingredients for French aperitifs, real Port, all manner of wines both French and non, a single bottle of Kahlua, real Scotch in great profusion, myriad other spirits I associate only with stores at home (Johnnie Walker, for example) and a lone type of California red: Eagle Creek, which looked to my untrained eye like a Safeway sale-bin special.

The folks left yesterday and with them the buoyant feeling of the holidays. We’d switched apartments on the second day of their three-week visit and so only had known this new place with them in it. On the morning of the 29th we came back from the airport to empty silence, and in the last two days Hazel has struggled to regain some sort of equilibrium. She got very used to Grammy and Grampy as the new normal—and so did I. Both Paul and I were sick as dogs the first ten days of their visit—deep rattling cough, medieval-style phlegm, days of fever and general malaise. Welcome to Morocco, folks! Mom was up in the mornings with Hazel while I lounged in bed like a lady of leisure—this is what it must be to have live-in help! I am a Hollywood star! Albeit one on rest-cure with strict orders from her doctor to stay a-bed.

Their visit was a rainy one and Marrakech in the wet is stinky, splashy, mud-lucious. The sidewalk tiles, some of them, are loose in their beds, so even once the rain has dried you’re liable to get squirted with hidden murk if you judge wrong. (Those of you in your 20s will recall a video game called DanceDanceRevolution which came with a checkerboard-style mat that you danced on in concert with whatever was happening on the screen—these booby-trapped sidewalk tiles remind me, sort of). On Christmas Eve Day Paul and I, alone together (a rarity in the last four months), went out in the downpour to the Marjane, that Target-style superstore, to find the red tricycle from Santa. Hazel was sure that’s what “Santa Closet” was bringing her and we could hardly refuse, especially given our newly acquired first-floor access to the courtyard. The place was packed with Europeans on holiday (I don’t have a sense of how many ex-pats make Marrakech their home and we’re into the high season for tourism here)—buying bouches de Noel, lots of alcohol—and then there were plenty of people like us just kind of gaping at all the hoopla. The Islamic new year fell right around Christmas and the Gregorian calendar's new year, so drums and noisemakers and specially dedicated tables of nuts and dried fruits and candies joined the western-style decorations to make a jubilantly confusing array. The store was bedecked and bedazzled—an enormous glittering silver “tree” shellacked in baubles and festooned with sparkly garlands stood front and center amidst hundreds of hand-made drums and piles of fake wreaths, apparently without price tags—we watched as an irate customer was made to wait, her back a wall of silent fury as she sat at the end of the register while a stock-boy on rollerblades skated away to find the price, blithely immune to her torrent of feeling. Scrolls of tiny lights jostled for space with boxes and boxes of gold-wrapped Ferrero Rocher chocolates, and in a toy store across the parking lot a row of pint-sized red Santa suits (complete with detachable beards) waited at this late hour, forlorn. You can still find decorated trees here and there around town—at the Acima (western-style grocery store), in the flower-shop around the corner, and in the two enormous shop windows of the German-owned leather goods store down the street, catering almost exclusively to tourists. (The tour buses pull up and they all pile out.) Here, a couple weeks ago, Hazel and I stopped to watch the guy with the plumber’s smile in the process of decorating. (For those of you who do not know, a plumber’s smile is the butt-crack visible above someone’s pants as they’re squatting on the floor or bent over a job.) The process was well underway as we stood watching—piles of cotton wool massed all around several polar bears, globes lit from within glowed on their axes, lava-lamps burbled colorfully in slow motion, and what appeared to be cast-off wedding decorations in the form of dozens of tiny paired white doves (their twin beaks clamped onto two gold rings soldered together) fluttered down from above to land on the snow drifts. Hazel, in stage-whispered awe: “It’s gorgeous.” Then she wanted to climb up onto the narrow window ledge over the row of spikes meant to keep the birds away, and press her nose against the glittery sparkle-dom. What will we do if we ever find ourselves wading along 5th Avenue in December?

We went back to Essaouira for a few days in lieu of a trip to Fès—plans for a week’s apartment rental had fallen through and so we opted for a quick trip out to the ocean, in time to return for Christmas at home, abroad. So the folks got a chance to meet Sharon and Steve, the lovely owners of La Cantina, and we stayed in a really comfortable riad whose live-in owners we’d met the last time we were there. (They’re English too, and have a one-year old.) Rain gave way to one brilliant sun-filled and windy day, but otherwise the weather was thoroughly wet. The riad, with its singular design feature compromising any hope for dry, struggled to stave off the unrelenting rain. They’d rigged a series of plastic tarps over the central opening—the patchwork thwacked and flapped in the winds most of the three nights of our stay but did the job, not a drop down into the tile and wood interior. We did venture out in the rain, which kept most others inside, threading our way between puddles and along streets empty (mostly) of tourists. Hazel got to take a bath in the kitchen sink, kindness of Grammy (after having tearfully freaked out at the prospect of taking a shower, the only option the bathroom offered); she was read to night and day (Grammy’s countless trips through Dancing Granny and Dr. Seuss’s ABC). And the night we ate at La Petite Perle Hazel happily chomped her way through the biggest portion of chicken tagine (incredibly delicious) I’ve ever seen her manage. The surf churned with run-off from the storms (on our second night, lightning and thunder boomed and flashed down into the riad where we watched from the couch, iced glasses of white Russians in hand); waves the color of red chocolate heaved branches and plastic detritus up onto the storm-strewn beach. One afternoon while we all napped Paul went out to take a closer look—he said there were dozens of people combing through the junk, picking through what the storm had coughed up, carting away huge stumps.

You’d think with the folks here we’d manage to get out to take in Marrakech by night, but our untimely consumption by the plague kept us down—that and being happy to hang together at home. Even so, I did get out one time at Céline’s invitation to join her and two of her friends for a drink. We went to a place called Café Extra Blatt (I do not know why this is so or what it could mean) in Hivérnage, the swanky part of town where big hotels and watering holes for the moneyed cluster together with lavishly landscaped walled villas. Out front people braving the chill sat about on black wicker chairs beneath flickering torches, and inside you could see a back-lit bar, crowded, full tables and a sweep of blond wood floor. We hung around outside waiting for her two friends—a Belgian woman, psychologist, married to a Moroccan and a Moroccan woman, pharmacist, also married, with a girl Hazel’s age. (Can you believe I was wearing my mother’s black clogs?!! This must change. Céline was dressed in a little black blazer, jeans and black pointy-toed high-heel shoes, and each of her friends were stylish in their ways—tan suede trench and cashmere, a tangle of long ribbony necklaces with black bolero sweater. Meanwhile, I have one un-hip foot planted firmly back in Berkeley.) We eventually found the place Ghita had in mind—around the corner from the café proper, through a bouncer-blocked arched entryway, along a red carpet flanked by traditional-style Moroccan lanterns, over the wooden lip of an elaborately carved double doorway, up a grand sweep of bare-wood stairs flickering with an ascension of votive candles—and finally, at the top, we were ushered through a pair of gracefully rumpled deep red curtains by a woman with a tousled up-do and long legs wearing not very much. Down the rabbit hole of Sex in the City.

The room was dimly lit, high-ceilinged, throbbing with music cranked way up, arranged with high-backed leather couches that curved in toward low tables, clusters of bar stools at high glossy tables for four, votive candles in red glass on every surface, an elaborate mirror-backed bar lit by bands of vibrant purple light, a tiny unoccupied stage with drum kit, and dark little nooks with couches and tables in the far reaches of the room. We were the only group of women. At the end, after settling the bill, one of the black-clad slick-haired waiters swooped in to offer us another round of drinks (with appetizer) on the house, if only we’d stay. Are we that prized a clientele? But here’s what interests me most (aside from that passing moment of sexy nighttime bar scene)—we ended up talking about how gender is configured in Morocco, the ways in which anger rides close beneath the surface of the Moroccan psyche, the effects of colonialism.

Most of this declension of Moroccan society came from Ghita, raised in Marrakech—“I remember when you could get from one end of town to the other and pass through a single stoplight” (the city has changed in the 35 years she’s lived here). The conversation was all in French—so with the loud music, my sinuses stuffed like a Christmas turkey, the kir, and the speed with which Ghita and Hélène and Céline raced along through their sentences, I was hard pressed to catch all of it. Ghita said she and her brother were raised by parents who treated them both equally—each given the same education, the same freedoms, the same responsibilities—and that this kind of parity between genders is not typical. She said that her male colleagues in the pharmacy over-prescribe, prescribe beyond the limits of their own knowledge (at their patients’ peril) in order to hide ignorance, unwilling to admit fallibility. She said that Moroccans have “des complexes.” They worry about what their neighbors will think, what their family will think, and consequently are stuck—quick to be defensive, quick to anger, insecure. Céline, Hélène and Ghita all agreed that men here are macho and that the machismo comes from insecurity—a sometimes violent stance that compensates for genuine self-confidence. Later Céline talked about the need for better public education in Morocco—and she talked about the woman who helps her at home with cooking and cleaning and caring for her daughter. Khadija is lovely—warm, kind, intelligent, full of humor, an amazing cook (best couscous I’ve eaten, ever)—and at 28 she’s still illiterate. Céline said that a while back she employed another young woman, 22, again illiterate—it was her mother, Céline said incredulously, who’d forbade her going to school. Of course these stories are far more complicated than my casual slash of facts, but their slim outlines give shape to a wider constellation of issues that encompass many more lives than these two women’s and cannot be unique to Morocco.

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