So I said...

"There is a problem with my split pack AC unit.  It keeps making funning noises and the filter alarm is beeping"

And then the nice handimen from the consulate who help me fix broken things in my house lifted the front section of the air conditioning unit to reveal a giant cockroach.

A cockroach that was just hanging out in there waiting to be ejected in what would have been a cockroach life triumph: rocketing through the air unfettered, arms and legs waving goodbye to its well ventilated prison, then landing on my face during the night where it would be king of the hill until I awoke the next morning and removed my own face with a toxic cocktail of bleach and facewash.

Dear bugs,

It's on.
I brought traps.



Burrito Anyone?

Ok, we just unpacked our last shipment of Household Effects (It came in two shipments - why?  No idea) and the presence of an extreme quantity of refried beans and chili powder was clearly the act of a deranged shopper.  I thought perhaps it was a little excessive when I bought it back in April but this is really insanity.

My Kitchen looks like a bomb shelter with dry milk and canned food stacked above the cabinets.  I can't say I'm not very pleased that I will never run out of salsa... but we might have to start drinking it as a beverage to clean out some space for fresh food in there.

Looks like every party at chez nous from now on will include edibles from south of the border.  Er, quit a bit west of our border and then south I guess.  Before our Mexican food mandate The Husband and I actually held a little get together last week for his consular section.  To cope with the nerves I baked and cooked and dairy-ed away the day in preparation.  We had flatbread and veggies with hummus and tzaziki (all homemade) and at the end of the night we bellied up to a quadruple batch of my french vanilla ice-cream.  In between food stuffs we sandwiched a game of Monopoly Morocco in which I took on the persona of Donald Trump and shamefully forced good, kind folks out of their property.  Winning is not as fun as people think it is AND it is probably bad form for the hostess to demolish her guests.  I will be on my best behavior next time.

I'm generally a wimp when it comes to social things.  I love meeting strangers - and being a stranger for that matter - but the idea of social gatherings gives me the sweats.  Well, I should say has given me the sweats.  The party was fun and I felt so happy to be part of the sense of community that the foreign service life offers - and requires to be honest.

I look forward to many more such gatherings...where tiny tacos will undoubtably be served.         


Over the Hump

I always try to anticipate the un-anticipatable and as often happens with...well, the un-anticipatable I didn't expect to go through such an adjustment period here in Morocco.  I think I thought (and not without a good amount of hubris) "I've been to the Middle East, I've been to an Arab/Muslim country.   It will be just like old times!"

And in truth, many things are similar but the last few weeks we have been realizing the very different circumstances in which we find ourselves compared to previous travels.  All mostly good--like we have jobs and a non-cinderblock apartment--but different non the less.  When I told my Mom a few nights ago we had had a bit of relocation anxiety she said "Well good.  Then you are human."

BUT I'm glad to say that I think we are on the other side of the new place blues!  And not really even blues, just a slightly unsettled feeling.  I can't tell if the following activities have helped me get through this part of our transition or if they are the fruits of coming out the other side - but here are some things that have helped me feel at home in my home and in Casablanca over the past few days.

-I made french vanilla ice cream yesterday with a hand mixer and tupperware. mmmm mmmmm.  It would have gone perfectly with the fig tart I made last week come to think of it...  I've never been much of a treat maker, but those days they are a changin'.

- At the market yesterday a few of the venders recognized me from previous shopping trips and I was elated. The fish man taught me how to say "That's enough" in Arabic and then laughed at my terrible pronunciation.  It makes me feel like I'm putting down roots and establishing routines.

- I know several routes to and from work, the grocery stores, and various bakeries throughout the city.  I am getting to know the areas around where I live pretty well and that's a terrific feeling.

- I'm working on a project for the consulate which has kept me a little busier lately until my job starts.

- My French is improving.  I'm studying on my own a bit and I have class twice a week.  I successfully told a woman on the phone today, in french, that she had the wrong number and exchanged all the appropriate pleasantries to complete a conversation.  Small triumphs.

- I peeled and deveined fresh ocean shrimp today for the first time.  It's a little gross BUT so worth it!  Perks of living by the ocean.

In theory our last batch of house hold effects has found its way across the Atlantic and we should get it late this week or early next.  The Husband has sorely missed his guitar and after buying leather in Fez I am itchin' to make a book.  So shwia shwia as they say in Morocco (different than the shway shway of the Levant).      Little by little we are making this place our home and settling in.  


Fez Medina

The next morning our tour guide met us in the courtyard of the Riad.  Our tour guide's name was Farida, and as the name suggests, she was a woman.  In my (mostly observed) experience, the tour guide industry in Morocco is dominated by men.  Farida confirmed this fact for Fez at least when she said "there are only about 10 of us (women tour guides) in Fez".

I felt like Farida gave us insights into domestic life and a perspective that I don't think we would have gotten from a male tour guide.  She was gracious and informative and we were delighted to be protected from hustlers.  She was fasting, as some Muslim women do on days outside of Ramadan*, but insisted on showing us around almost three hours after our official tour ended (without any expectation of more money).  She was terrific.  In addition to a great our, I really liked the idea of supporting a woman in what is a male dominated profession in what could be considered a male dominated society.  I think we will ask about female tour guides in the future.

We started with the "newest" old section outside the Medina walls that was built in the 14th century and ended next to the oldest university in the world, Al-Kairouine built in 859.  Hopefully you'll get a sense of the history and artistry that Fez is known for through these pictures.

Al-Karaouine University - oldest in the world.  We weren't allowed
to enter because it is also a mosque, but they keep a big
door open so nosey poseys like myself can peek in.  
14th century door to one of the King's palaces
The Husband and our tour guide
Talaa K'bira - the main artery of the Fez Medina
That's for my Mom.  I know I'm not good about pictures of us...
Some of the streets are VERY narrow
Have you ever seen this? I hadn't.
I must have a giant cooking egg!
Beautifully restored Attarine Medersa  - once used as a place of study
and lodging for students. 
Amazing stucco work at Attarine Medersa
We saw how they make the tiny pieces of tile that will be worked into a pattern, cemented together
from the back, and then flipped over to reveal the beautiful mosaic.
We also saw ceramic pottery being made and painted.  Fez is known for its crafts that have endured the ages.  
Bou Inania Medersa
Bou Inania Medersa
Yay!  The Fez Chouara Tanneries.  These were first on my
brain when I thought about moving to Morocco.   

Tannery pots for dying leather.  They smell.  Part of the solution
 they soak the skins in is made with pidgin droppings.  
We ended the day, and our trip, on the terrace of our Riad overlooking the city.  Morocco and Algeria had a soccer match that night and after being booted from the Africa Cup of Nations by Algeria in March, Moroccans were looking forward to a rematch.  We didn't see the game, but we heard the unbelievably loud eruptions of cheering from the streets below and houses all across the city as Morocco scored 4 goals to defeat Algeria.  It was a good game evidently, and a wonderful trip.

*I didn't know that some Muslim women choose to fast outside of Ramadan.  Something about fasting on days of the week when the Heavens are more open?  I think I'm actually going to email Farida and ask her about it.  I'll post her answer here.  


A Little Night Music

After trudging around and then through the Fez Medina, we were starving.  Not noticing any restaurants or cafes around our riad we asked the manager where we might find a quick bite before the concert we had tickets for that night.  He gave us the card of a nearby restaurant and told us he would call someone to come and get us.  Many restaurants in the Medina are tucked away down alleys that tourists would never stumble upon - they are in restored riads or even sections of private homes.   It is not uncommon to need a guide or someone from the restaurant to come and fetch you.

Once fetched we traced our way through what was once the Jewish Quarter of the medina.  We ate in a large room that, we were told, was "Part of a private residence.  We live here!"  I had perhaps the best pastilla I've eaten to date and I've been salivating for it ever since.  It gave us a nice chance to catch our breath and check out the map in the hopes that our next trip through the medina would be more successful than our last.

We did, in fact, find our way out of the medina without a hitch - other than the fact we busted it uphill for about a mile and a half, just certain it would end once we turned the next corner.  The concert we attended was called "Leila and Majnun". (Jen - I thought of your Leila the whole time.)  You can read more about the ancient Islamic story the lyrics and orchestration were based on here and the performance itself here.  With 40 plus musicians from all over the world, several international soloist singing in Arabic, Urdu, Persian, Hindi, and Mongolian and breathtaking orchestration it knocked our socks off to say the least.  Check out throat singing Mongolian soloist Enkhajargal Dandarvaanchig (for real) here and Gombodorj Byambajargal, another soloist with a style I can't begin to describe, here.

The venue was a real treat too - between two giant gates of the royal palace entrance.  And the whole night flocks of starlings flew over us, coming back to their manmade nests for the night.  Fez's medina walls have small pockets carved into their exterior - from earlier renovation our guide told us the next day.  They have proved the perfect home for hundreds of starlings and other birds and at the night the sky is swarming with them.  Talk about The Birds.  It was a little spooky, but in the most awesome of ways.
And famous of almost famous, after the concert we saw the Queen!  Of Morocco!  Were were walking to leave when we saw a group of secret service looking men scurrying down a centrally located red carpet and everyone was clapping.  Sure enough, there she was in her pink and sequins.  We felt a bit sheepish to be so underdressed in our smelly travel clothes.

And lastly, perhaps in a cosmic way of making up for the pushy shebab who latched onto us earlier in the day, two perfectly amiable young boys led us from the gate back to our riad after our taxi let us out in an unmarked alleyway.            


Fez: On Being Had

Despite our best planning we almost missed the 1:50 train to Fez last weekend.  We snaked through the long ticket line then ran across the platform just in time to board, stow our bag, and take a seat before the train lurched forward.  I do not advise such a start to any trip - it sets you a bit on edge as you can imagine.

The first hour we spent calming down, reading our books, and talking about the weekend to come.  Last weekend marked the beginning of the annual Fez Sacred Music Festival for which we were very excited.  After our first stop we picked up more passengers and our empty cabin filled up: one business man, two teenage girls wearing all black and picking their way through a big mac, and a friendly older gentlemen who wedged in next to Max.

People are friendly in Morocco.  A few weeks ago we met a local student at a state department event who invited us back to her family home for cous cous.  The meal was wonderful and the company was even better.  We felt so welcomed and taken care of.  As we got into our car to drive away that night I could see the mother leaning out of one window to wave goodbye to us and the father in another window on the floor below leaned out to do the same.

But I also know that Morocco has a big tourist industry and "friendly" people are out there to try and get your money.  When the man next to Max struck up a conversation we weren't quite sure which kind of "friendly" he was.  He chatted with Max about all sorts of things and seemed harmless enough but then came

"Are you going to Fez?  I have a friend there who can show you around the city.  He is very old and has lived there forever.  He can take you around tomorrow.  Here he is"

And then he shoved his cell phone up to Max's ear.


So, I tried frantically to make eye signals to Max from across the cabin not to commit to anything (how one does that I'm not sure - but I was trying) but he was way ahead of me and thanked the guy for his kindness and now that we had his number we could call him if we were interested and thank you very much goodbye.

I had actually read about people who ride the trains on popular tourist routes in the hopes of luring tourist to different hotels or setting people up with their "friends" as "guides" out of the goodness of their hearts.    Police in Morocco have really tried to crack down on this "unofficial tour guide" business to the extent that, I read in the guide book, they will question Moroccans they see accompanying tourists in the medina (old city) of Fez and especially Marrakech in case they have forced their services as unwanted tour guide upon them.

So we successfully eschewed our friendly neighbor without shaming him-very important-and were left alone once we reached Fez.

After walking around the perimeter of the medina for some time we found Bab Boujloud  - our point of entry.  I wanted to walk through this main gate even though our Riad was at the other end of the city to "not waste another minute not seeing the sites just because it might be easier to find our riad by walking around the outside of the city"  - sometimes I'm full of it.  Friday was just such a time.  The Fez Medina has 900 plus streets.  You heard me right.  It is the largest car free city in the world and probably the most confusing.  The streets are mostly unmarked and when I asked locals (several of them) to point out where we were on a map they looked at it like it was from another planet, pardon the cliche.  They could lead us around with their eyes closed, but a map?  What's that?

A few paces into the Medina we were swarmed by a group of Shebab (young boys with nothing to do but hang around and pester) who insisted on helping us find our Riad (a riad is a restored Moroccan mansion where people rent rooms - very common here).  We successfully shook the first batch, but a second swarm wasn't far behind.  To try and ditch one persistent boy in particular we ducked into a carpet shop, hoping we wouldn't be forced into purchasing a rug in exchange for sanctuary.

The rug owner was actually very nice and after inquiring about the loom in the corner I was sat right down on the bench and taught how they make a certain type of Moroccan rug.  I am a maker of things myself and even though I was thrilled to be learning this new thing in the back of my mind I was thinking

Awe man.  What are they going to charge me for this?  Will I be forced into an ugly scene...brought on by trying to avoid another ugly scene? 

There is a bit of pay for play action that happens in Morocco, but probably everywhere to some extent.  In tourist areas everyone is very accustomed to "helping" or "showing" or "allowing their picture to be taken" and then demanding money.  It's a very stressful thing and everyone has to work out how they will handle it - we are still figuring it out.  Because I am cheap and a little bit chicken my tactic has been to just avoid those kinds of situations all together.  I almost never take pictures of people (that's for a few reasons though) and I almost never engage in the type of activities that are likely to put me in a position of having to exchange money for tourist type services.

Sure enough, when I was finished weaving a few knots - which was awesome - the innocent faced weaver looked up at me and made a motion for money.  Expecting this I pulled out 4 dirhams (not quite 50 cents) and gave it to her.  She was satisfied, I was satisfied and all was well.
I'm always on the look out to not be "had" and while I think that has kept us safe and maybe saved us some money, perhaps it's not always an affront to personal pride to pay a few pennies for experiences beyond looking through the window at something.  I think it's something we will have to negotiate over the years.  I want to maximize our experiences while never risking our safety or too much of our sense of control - illusion though it may be.  50 cents let me weave a row of knots in an actual Moroccan rug.  That seems reasonable.  But then there's the issue of running around town throwing money at people who can provide us with "authentic" experiences.  What's the best, most honest way to approach that as a traveler?  

Unfortunately, the shebab was not deterred by our detour and we did, finally, succumb to letting him take us to our Riad.  We paid him a small fee when we got to our destination and he looked at Max and said

"You insult me.  This is not enough."

Which, of course, it was.  It's a really terrible feeling not to be able to find your way somewhere and be beholden to someone for help who may or may not shake you down.  I think that has been one of the most stressful things about living in the Middle East: if you're not physically lost somewhere and have to depend on a punk kid to help you find your way, you are culturally and socially lost - depending on other people to help you navigate your way through day to day living.  Trying not to get had, while trying to have it all.

More on our wonderful trip to come!          


Stay Tuned

...to read about how this train ride
took us to this marvelous city.