Monday, March 29, 2010

Tired in Fez

Paul said that when we stepped into the riad after our long afternoon of guided walking, Hazel leaned way over, touched her hands to the cool stone floor, then—letting out an “oooh-oof!”—said, “I’m strehhhh-t-tching.” Coming up she added, “Oooh, my back hurts.” Just like Paul after the bike commute home.

We walked by ourselves in the morning, walked with the extraordinary Hakim in the afternoon. (Paul tells me that the having-a-guide/chauffeur reminds him of that scene in Aravand Adiga’s The White Tiger—just as literary a reference, not quite so romantic, a little more attuned to the post-colonial world.) I hope we get a chance to come back. A day was short. And having a guide only serves to underscore just how much there is to know. And I wish I could type on into the night. Being a tourist is tiring. Tomorrow on to Chefchaouen—north into the Rif.

In another city

After one and a half (wait, two and a half) pees in her pants, one sort-of-late train, one bag of salt and vinegar potato chips and numerous other crumbly and lip-smacking snacks, four interesting fellow train-travelers (two French, two Moroccan) and a couple of hours of interesting conversations (more on this later), some contented silence, plus the undulating greens and distant peaks, the flashing striated silt-brown and deep marine-blue of the white-capped Atlantic, the mauve blush of row upon row of tiny fruit trees in gentle bloom, the rush of river beneath the moving train, and before all that the carpets of orange and scattered-yellow and poppy-red of the lush-lush green hills between Marrakech and Casablanca—it was a dramatic sun-splashed green plunge of a trip all the way into twilit Fez.

And today was another day—from Fez to Volubilis and its Roman ruins, briefly to Moulay Idriss (we drove through, that’s all), lunch in Meknès, home to the riad in Fez. We met a Canadian couple at the table beside ours at lunch that said (eye-brows raised congenially but a little doubtfully at Hazel), “How old is she?” and then, “How has it been traveling with her?” They’d left behind three boys, all under age 8, first time ever. Then, a little while later, Hazel peed in her pants. Our room at the riad is festooned with small socks and small undies, now clean and drying. The tagine was extraordinary (tenderest chicken, potatoes, and little half-moon’d carrots swimming together in richly-flavored juice)—especially delicious after a morning spent dustily climbing around Volubilis and following Hazel’s lead here and there among the yellow jackets and the roped-off mosaics, up the steeply-pitched stone steps and down the two thousand year-old cobbled ways. (The size of the city, its scale—the distance from one side of the road to another, the width of a doorway, the size of a room—felt intimate, human.)

It feels like we slip easily, in some ways, into the role we (Westerners) are meant to play here—or most often do. A guide drove us through our day. There was a moment (when we pulled over for the first time and Hazel headed straight up the flower-strewn hillside and I looked back down to Imad smoking and looking at the map and waiting for us to finish our moment) where in a flash I recalled the scene out of A Room With a View: the insouciantly innocent Miss Lucy Honeychurch goes back to ask the strapping Florentine guide if he might direct her to where, on the vast verdant hillside, the gentlemen might be picnicking. She finds him drawing deeply and sensually on his hand-rolled cigarette, supine in the sun. Today there was none of the sexual undertow of a Merchant-Ivory production, just the weird feeling of being guided. We’ve never done this before. I catch myself watching myself (watching us) navigate.

It’s a little ways into tomorrow—the day we are set to follow the Lonely Planet’s exhortation to just get lost in the Fez Medina. The guide we’d scheduled for the morning (who receives extraordinarily high billing from every corner) called to push back our rendez-vous into the afternoon. (We speculate, over chocolate and cookies and bourbon—Hazel asleep, that he must have had a higher-paying gig that wasn’t the doing-a-favor-for-a-friend variety, as in our case.) So first we get lost and then we get guided. The night sounds drifting in the window have quieted—earlier there’d been drum-beating and people smoking and talking beneath our single window; then the occasional passers-by, their footsteps on the cobbles keeping time to conversation; later a hand-cart rumbling on. Now nothing—darkness and real silence. Time for sleep to happen.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Sunday, March 21, 2010

In a spin

My head’s been in a spin the last couple weeks as the job search back home heats up. Hazel and I fly back to Boston for an interview in mid-April (Hazel gets to hang with Grammy) and so in a real way, more real than before, there’s that tension between here and there. There becomes next week, pretty soon. The Darija lessons got dropped a bit ago, as our months here wane—it’s an odd feeling to be on the other side, bumping along toward the trip home in June. My thoughts jangle with where we are, where we’re going, how we get there. I’ve talked a couple times about this brief return-visit with my friend Céline—she said, eyes full, shaking her head, it’s an amazing thing to go back to your own country. “You’ll see,” she said. She would know.

Meanwhile, the vernal equinox has come and gone and spring has settled into what feels a lot like an enthusiastic anticipation of summer. The mountains have disappeared behind a haze of heat and pollution—they’ve been gone now for a week. I miss the white shiver of them glimpsed down a street. When there, they’re reassuringly present. It feels a little like desertion now. I like the idea of them being accessibly visible—that if we did have roof access or a window high enough that gave in the right direction, or if I look down that particular side-street that our alley Ts into, I could take brief refuge in something dependably gargantuan, physical, reaching extraordinarily high but rooted to the same ground I walk on.

Ever since moving into this ground-floor apartment on the northeast corner of our building, at bedtime we get a full-on blast of music from the courtyard garden of the Italian restaurant next door. Wham! and Madonna’s early tunes, occasionally Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water,” and every now and again the deep tones of the incomparable Barry White. It’s an odd mash: the soundtrack from Hudson Junior High School's Spring Dance, circa 1987 (minus Barry White, unfortunately)—and the trim white plaster walls of our bedroom, its one window shuttered in the manner of the French, the little pair of matching wooden bedside tables fitted with curling iron-work, the two ornate lantern-style wall sconces, Hazel deeply gone in her almost-three-year-old sleep down the hall. Sometimes the juxtaposition is just funny, sometimes I just want to sleep. And today I found myself wondering how to interpret your country’s own sounds as received and re-mixed in foreign hands. It redefines how things can mean.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

On the flipside

In the rain and the half-light of dawn they left yesterday morning on the 07:00 train for Fez. A train in the rain! With snacks—olives and dates, apricots and salted peanuts, bread, cheese, chocolate. An exciting departure if you’re the one getting on the train. It was a sad good-bye, in its way. We packed more into those four days than we’ve managed in any given span of time during our entire stay here. On Saturday morning Paul drove us out to Essaouira in time to witness a tumultuous swing from rain to sun and luminous close of day—with nuss-nuss (Moroccan for espresso and steamed milk) at the dripping café, capering on the sunlit ramparts, wandering, talking. Then Sunday we drove from the coast back through Marrakech’s slow afternoon traffic and up to Imlil, hugging the base of the Atlas for a subtly jaw-dropping fifteen kilometers, completely grey-shrouded peaks to our left, the greening plain that Marrakech occupies dropping off to our right, undulating fields beneath us, scattered olive groves all around and the occasional Holstein, the occasional herd of sheep. From the ocean to the snow (and home down through the mountains in the dark) in one glorious green-edged, cloud-scaped swoop. Hazel was great in the car, exultant once we got to the mountains for a late-day hike through waning light and over rushing water. The clouds lifted, peep-show style, to reveal the snow-capped Atlas above us burnished (really! that's the word! overused, but still true) in sun, a glowing shoulder here, the very top there. They folded back together and we came down into town in the semi-dark for tajine and mint tea on the roof-top terrace of a little café, cinnamon-sugar dusted orange slices for dessert (this was the take-away taste for re-creation at home). The clouds parted again briefly and we caught sight of a snow-bound moonlit peak high above us, a world away in the dark. All against the sound of the river running and a group of people cheering every now and again further up the mountain. We walked all together into the Medina on Monday—again, seeing everything through the eyes of someone unfamiliar with these things that have become known to us, in their way. This sort of careening visit (nighttime toasts with delicious French crémant, good Moroccan white) makes me giddy. And a little sad on the flipside.

Friday, March 5, 2010


My sister-in-law and her husband are here for a few days. All of a sudden the immediate world shifts, just slightly. I’m aware that the year is winding down (a little more than three months left to us); the movement is minute, but palpable. They arrived on one of those beautiful evenings where the sky is blue-blue and the air sings. The city knows when you have visitors and pulls out a few stops. They arrived by train from Casablanca. They described rounding a curve to the sudden drama of the Atlas, the wide stretch of emerald green that climbs up to its feet.

I can almost feel what it will feel like after we’re home and this year is “the year we were in Morocco.” But I write out the name Morocco and I get a little tremor of the unfamiliar. Where have we been this year? Is it here? It feels kind of silly to affect such a sense of un-knowing after this many months, but it is just a few months, a collection of a handful of days. You think of your own life, childhood stretching back and back, the stories from your parents’ childhoods, your own college years (and years), the time spent here and there, in that job and this. These days here feel few.

The hollowed-out place the questions made fills in—the waiter at the café in the Jardin Majorelle this morning who lifts Hazel’s stroller up out from its tight boxed-in spot between a wall and several occupied tables, then sets it free beside me—he turns and smiles at me; the feel of this particular early spring heat laced thoroughly with grey exhaust; the view of the walking world from Abderrahman’s tiny shop; the pungent wall of horse-piss you walk through to get to the Jemaa El Fna; the sidewalk eye-contact—sometimes smiling, sometimes simply taking you in; the intimate jumble of rooster-crow and donkey-bray and scooter-beep and the calls to prayer from innumerable minarets from every direction as you stand with your eyes closed on a rooftop in the Medina. These things are the familiar—they are now. Having visitors makes this so, in a way.

The other night we met a guy on our hall, back from Los Angeles after eleven years. He’s from Casablanca. He came back to be closer to his parents, and at their request. His mother stood smiling in the door of the apartment. They’re in Marrakech on holiday. He spoke English with the most amazing accent—amazingly familiar, unfamiliar. “Umm—whatchamacallit,” he said at one point, hand to forehead, trying to think of I can’t-remember-what. He spoke like a Southern Californian, kind of slowly, smiling as he talked—and he is a Southern Californian, in addition to being Moroccan. Last year I would not have stopped for a moment to notice a man with that face speaking English with that particular inflection. I am noticing that I have become unhinged from what was familiar. Whose scientific principle accounts for the variable that is, in fact, the person conducting the experiment? Always in search of perspective, I guess, nothing completely true for ever and ever, everything shifting, unfamiliar—now suddenly familiar.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

On weather

A couple nights ago there was a cricket or a peeper or some sort of creature of the warm-weather-nighttime variety trilling away outside our bedroom window after dark. Last week’s cold rains left mild days of sunshine in their sloggy wake—and this past Saturday a discomfittingly hot wind from the south blew in. On our way to the souks we walked through the Cyber Parc—where the winds had blown down dozens of the huge Earth From Above images that parade through the park along red gravel paths like so many gigantic and breath-catching metal-framed hurdles. The photos are stunning anyway, even inside the covers of a coffee-table book, but in that over-large outdoor format they konk you over the head—which is what I was glad that didn’t actually do, since the wind continued to blow in great unexpected gusts.

We sat on the low brick wall that runs along most of the grid of paths and watched Hazel running to and fro across the gravel, scooping it, ruffling it, crawling in it, laying her white-shirted belly down to the gravely ground. For the first time since October, we made sure to sit in the shade. The hot wind found most people (Moroccans and those habituated) in down jackets and wool, hedging their bets, while the tourists bared as much skin as their sun-starved selves could manage. Which in some cases turned out to be a lot. Like San Francisco tourists—always optimistically shorts-clad in the shivery summer fog. More rain blew in just behind the hot wind, icy rain once again—so March begins, stormy and variable.