Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Finally, some photos

Now that I've gotten some sleep I'm ready to show you where we were. Don't be discouraged: only 35 pictures here! I can't always get the words completely lined up with the photos, but you'll figure it out.

Our apartment was a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower, and I spent a long time examining its construction. So beautifully intricate! How could those Parisians have been up in arms about the ugliness of the tower when it was built?

Here's a photo of Adame, the woman from Mali who invited us to her home for a Sunday dinner when we were in Paris.

And now the centerpiece of our vacation, the pool and veranda of the house in Casablanca. Now you'll understand why we had such a hard time tearing ourselves away from it!

There was beautiful detail everywhere, such as the brick wall near the pool with the decorative arches set into the bricks:

Rick often read in the sunshine -- buck naked -- and I usually read on the veranda in the shade of the bougainvilleas.

Our dinners, dressed in either nothing or in bathing suits, were also on the veranda.

So imagine you're living in this luxury, and you go to the supermarket. This is what you would pass on the way. We saw many slums of this nature, with walls and roofs of cobbled-together scrap material.

Working for six years, day and night, thousands of workers and artists built the Mosque Hassan II in Casablanca, the third largest in the world, large enough for 25,000 worshippers inside and another 80,000 on the plaza outside. Obviously, bigger was better.

Then we went to Marrakesh. The first photo shows the plaza which is transformed in the evenings into a huge open-air restaurant with hundreds of cooking facilities and tables set up.

Al Jedida is a town south of Casablanca. The first photo shows Al Jedida: the old town within the medieval walls but updated with electricity wires and satellite dishes. The second photo shows Rick as a Tuareg Arab, a fighter in the sands of the Sahara, with a jelaba and a scarf that wraps around your head to form a turban or, in case of sandstorm, over your face.

Along the roadside to Safi farther south were many produce stands. This one, selling squash, was especially beautiful.

The town of Safi is known for its pottery. This man is sitting on a stool in a hole dug into the ground with canvas around his waist, working the turntable with his feet. He is making a tagine, the terracotta stew dish I wrote about in the blog earlier. Once he finished the top you see here, he cut it off and then made the bottom: a perfect fit.

The Atlantic ocean surf is very strong at Essaouira, farther south from Safi, and the mist it throws up makes an extraordinary light.

Dozens of boys dove for fun into the water at the harbor in Essaouira, and later on that evening we had a traditionally Moroccan meal to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary.

Driving back to Casablanca, here are some of the people we passed on the road.

We were fascinated by the low, flat-roofed walled compounds made of mud brick and the haystacks .

And then we went to Fez. Taking the back roads we passed miles of rolling hills, golden with wheat and full of olive trees.

In Fez the souk, or market, was a labyrinth of alleys. It was Ramadan, and everyone was thinking about and buying food for that evening.

This was taken in a 900-year-old restaurant in Fez.

On the way back to Casablanca, Rick couldn't stand the idea of being on the other side of the Atlantic and not going into it.

Back in Paris, here's the garden of the Rodin Museum with a statue of The Thinker.

And here we are with Zhou and Roswitha, the Chinese couple we met in a park near the Rodin Museum.

A wonderful trip. I hope you've enjoyed the blog!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The last blog

With great difficulty we tore ourselves away from the pool in Casablanca on Friday and flew to Paris. We were quickly and painfully introduced to the horrendous exchange rate: because we got there too late to take the bus from the airport, we had to take a taxi: $85. Welcome back to France.

On Saturday, after a late start, we went to the Rodin Museum, a poorly maintained and arranged place. The building must have been glorious in its heyday: it was terrific learning that not only Rodin lived there but other artists such as Rilke, Isadora Duncan, and Jean Cocteau did too. In a park we fell into conversation with an interesting couple. Zhou (Chinese) and Rosewitha (Austrian) live in a town near Shanghai where he is a professor and a poet and she is an artist. They met when she got a scholarship to study art there and stayed to complete her masters and Ph.D. We talked about politics a little; he said that yes, he does have to be careful about what he writes. They looked to be about 40 and she's lived there for 15 years. We had a marvelous conversation, mostly in English, for about an hour, and talked about the possibility of doing a home exchange with them in the future. Wouldn't it be something else if that worked out??

On Sunday we took a walk along the Seine near our apartment, and got into a conversation with a woman walking her dog. Naturally, Rick got on the ground to play with the dog. We remain struck by the fact that the French seem so unfriendly unless and until you make an overture, in which case they respond beautifully. We took the bus to Sainte Chapelle, one of my favorite places in Paris, then wandered around Odéon and wound up at the Luxembourg Gardens, where I had never been. I loved seeing so many people enjoy themselves in the sunshine. This being France, however, a person with a uniform rousted Rick off the grass and onto a chair: lying down on the grass with your book is not allowed. On the other hand, at a bus stop we had a lovely conversation (which again we started) with two women, old friends who have an annual visit with each other since one lives in the south. We find that these contacts with people are our favorite experiences and wish there were more of them.

There were several interesting differences from when I was in Paris last, many years ago. The French seem to be as environment- and health-conscious as Americans, a big surprise. All over Paris there are stands of bicycles to borrow: you need a magnetic card to pass over the electronic reader to take one out of its stand and to pay for it, and you can return it to any other location. We saw hundreds of people using these bikes. Here in Seattle Smart Cars are rare but in Paris they're ubiquitous, very sensible when parking is at such a premium. I was thrilled that they've banished smoking from indoor locations: I remember gagging over the Gauloise cigarette smoke everywhere.

I also found that I had a different reaction to the physical reality of Paris than I did many years ago. While the apartment buildings are still ravishing with their mansard roofs and window boxes, the grandiosity of the monuments, the glorified heroism, the outsize scale of the monuments and the spaces around them struck me now as irritating while before I found them impressive. All this bragging, all this calling attention to France's glorious military and aristocratic past felt like protesting too much. The gardens which seemed to me to be well kept years ago now seemed overly controlled. Obviously this says much more about me over the years than about Paris.

We had a guidebook and could have gone to a restaurant for our last night of the trip but honestly were too lazy to take the Métro there and seek it out, so we had dinner where we found ourselves. Pretty mediocre food for about $55: the food on Air France was better. Home to pack and left Monday morning.

I've had a month of speaking and reading French and have taken much joy in seeing some of my earlier fluency return. I apologize for this last post: I'm impossibly jet-lagged and am operating on fumes now, but it was a superb trip and I hope you've enjoyed reading this blog.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

And one more thing

On the way home we took the side roads along the Atlantic. Rick couldn't stand the idea of being at the Atlantic in North Africa without going into the ocean, so we found a beach and he stripped to his underpants. From a distance, at least, it looked like a bathing suit. I sat on a lava rock and watched him. As a New York girl who spent summers going to the beach, I can't tell you how odd it is to see the sun going down over the Atlantic! The surf was high and strong but Rick, fish that he is, was in his element. A wonderful day.

Trip to Fez

On Tuesday we went to Fez.

The autoroute goes north (well, more like northwest) along the Atlantic, then we left it to take side roads inland. We drove through the cities of Rabat and Kenitra, both choked with traffic. I have figured out the rule of the road here, no matter what the law says. It's simple: if you want to go in a direction and there's room there for your car (or bike or motorbike) at least approximately in that vicinity, then you just go. The first one to get there wins the space. Picture a left turn where cars don't line up to turn left, but swing around to the right of the car waiting to turn, and then others go to the right of that one until you have a thick knot of half a dozen cars waiting to turn left. Naturally, the one that makes the left turn first isn't necessarily the one waiting there longest: it's the one who sees an open space and takes it first. This is either enraging or funny. I'm at the point where it's funny.

North of Casablanca, as opposed to south where we were before, has enough of a different climate to permit many more shrubs and trees, particularly eucalyptus. Unlike the south, there were no rocks in the soil. The "route nationale" we took was gorgeous, especially when we got to about 50 km from Fez. Not a tree, but smooth, gentle fertile hills covered with olive groves and brilliantly golden fields from which wheat had already been harvested: wheat for cous-cous, probably. It looked like Napa Valley, said Rick. It also looks like the hills between Spokane and Pullman in eastern Washington, but far more golden. Every inch of land was taken up with growing things. It was a long trip, though: 7 hours to go only about 300 km, but much of that was the city traffic in Rabat and Kenitra.

Fez is a big city, about a million people, although many live in "la ville nouvelle," the new (= French) city outside the walls. The main part is the medina, or old city. Both of these parts are enclosed in thick walls, as are all the medinas of the towns we've visited so far. The third part of the city is known as the Jewish quarter, because the Jewish population lived there. Now it's more shops, and the Jews have moved to the new part of the city, to Casablanca, or to other countries. I have not picked up any animosity at all to Jews, by the way, although I've been on the lookout for it. Fez is over 1,200 years old, founded in 789.

In the morning we took a "petit taxi" to the medina. Every city has its own system of petits taxis, but each city has its own color for them. They are ubiquitous, cheap, and not air-conditioned, the latter an important factor with weather in the 90s. The market, or souk, is the oldest in the Arab world. The souk is huge: about 1 by 2 miles of labyrinthine alleys lined with shops and old buildings where many thousands of people live. I was told there are 9,400 lanes in the medina. No cars, thank goodness, but hand-wheeled carts with goods piled high, donkeys with goods in saddlebags, and thousands of pedestrians shopping or browsing.

We saw people manufacturing tambourines, weaving cloth on a hand loom, skinning leather (we also went into a courtyard where the fur was removed first from the hides: smelled awful!) and making beautiful designs on brass. We went into a restaurant just to look. The tables were in a courtyard three stories high, but each story was 12 to 15 feet high, with railings around the sides. The ceiling seemed to be 50 feet high, in cedar beams. Everywhere you looked was decorated with mosaics in different patterns, intricately carved cedar, and similarly carved masonry, a riot of patterns and colors. At the entry was a mosaic-lined fountain presumably for rinsing your hands before you eat.

It is Ramadan, as I've said before, and as was true in Casablanca in Fez people thronged around the food stalls piled high with every kind of food imaginable. There were chicken sellers who tied a foot of each live chicken with a line of string so it couldn't wander away: you can buy the chicken for your dinner live. Or pigeon, or duck. On the other hand, you can buy it already dead and carved, but there is no ice for preservation. Hygiene, such as it is, is maintained with the seller swishing the flies off the meat. There are hindquarters of lamb and beef hanging out in the open and attracting flies, and plates of different kinds of fish. Oh well, it's cooked before it's eaten ...

Every few hours you hear the muezzins calling from the mosques through very loud loudspeakers, and afterwards you get glimpses of men praying in rooms off the alleys, lined up with their backsides in the air.

Driving back we saw, as we had coming from the south, many dozens of people selling produce at the sides of the road. The prosperous ones had makeshift stands with roofs for shade, but most filled four or five buckets with figs or grapes or prickly pears and set the buckets out perpendicularly to the road. Another 50 meters, another row of buckets. Times 20. There were fields full of ripening melons and grapes. We bought a yellow melon ("melon jaune" in French) which for a reason I don't know is almost always painted with a circle in red paint around the stem end. That's for tonight's dessert.

Tomorrow we fly to Paris and home on Monday. It could be that the last post to this blog will be from Camano Island when I get home next week, since I didn't find a cyber cafe near the apartment in Paris. It will take me a while to process everything we've seen and experienced! It is getting time to get home, although I have to say that if Sylvie and her family invited us to spend another month here, at the pool and on the veranda, we'd be hard pressed to say no ...

Monday, August 24, 2009

Cooking lesson

Mark, Marja and Dick, my favorite gourmet cooks, this post is especially for you!

Fatima, the housekeeper who is normally here every day, has come once a week while we're here. Today I asked her for two things: one, to cook us a Moroccan dinner, and two, to teach me how she made a couple of things. She spoke half in Arabic and half in French, and I wrote down what she did. Rather than write this up just for myself, here it is for all of us.

FATIMA'S EGGPLANT SALAD, which I loved when she made it for us on our arrival.

Peel and dice a medium eggplant in small pieces, and put it in a large pan, preferably nonstick.
Dice a shallot or small onion in small pieces.
Put 4 cloves of garlic through a garlic press
Add a teaspoon of paprika
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 to 1 tsp cumin
2 to 3 tsp olive oil, possibly a little more
salt to taste
Mince about 1/4 to 1/2 cup parsley (she didn't mind including the stems in tiny pieces)
You can add a little lemon juice (she didn't today)

All this goes in the big frypan. Mix it well, cover it, and cook over a low flame, stirring occasionally.

While it's cooking, remove the skin from 4 or 5 tomatoes. Remove the seeds to a little bowl. Mince the rest. Pour the seeds into a strainer and push the juice into the eggplant mixture; throw out the seeds. Add the minced tomatoes and mix well.

Cook another half an hour at least, maybe an hour, stirring occasionally. Serve hot or cold. She served it to us cold, and I loved it that way; haven't tried hot yet.


She had already started to prepare this, so I didn't see the quantities she used.

Brown the lamb, about half a pound per person, in olive oil.

Into the tagine (we'd use a stew pot) put:
Olive oil
Garlic powder
A handful of whole parsley, to be removed later
A small onion, whole, for the taste
Water, maybe half an inch or so

In a separate bowl she softened prunes (sold here pretty hard) in water, then cooked them in a separate pot with a little water to soften further. When softened, she drained them, put a few spoonfulls of sauce from the tagine that was cooking, added some cinnamon, and cooked them for maybe 15-30 minutes. She checked the lamb frequently to test for doneness with a fork and to add water when necessary. It took several hours for the lamb to be tender. At some point she removed the parsley. At the end she added the prunes around the lamb and sprinkled sesame seeds over everything.

I tried to find out if she thought the taste would be affected if the same ingredients were put into a covered dish and cooked in the oven instead of a tagine over the stove, but her French wasn't up to that so I don't know. The top of the tagine is maybe 9 inches above the base, and I don't know if all that enclosed heated air changes the taste.

While she was doing this she showed me a Moroccan cookbook in French. Here are lists of what I gleaned about Moroccan tagines:


salt and pepper
flour to thicken


Beans, different sorts
string beans
chick peas

And while all that was cooking, she made a dressing for the green salad:


Parsley, chopped finely, stems included
Shallot or onion, minced finely
Tarragon vinegar
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

And that, my friends, is the cooking lesson for today! Tomorrow we head to Fez, for our last trip in Morocco. Cheers!


South of Casablanca

You can imagine how badly the traveling bug must have bitten us to pull us away from this pool!

On Friday morning we started to drive down the coast. In a perfect picture of chronological confusion, we saw a man riding a heavily laden donkey cross the modern pedestrian overpass over the highway. Our first stop was El Jelida, the first big down south of Casablanca. The old town there was heavily inhabitated by the Portuguese, who used it as their major port in this area. In a shop a sweet man tried to sell Rick pants and shirt that unfortunately Rick thought he'd so rarely wear that it made no sense to buy them, and then the man said Wait! He took out a long, long blue scarf made of thin cotton. Near one end he made a knot and placed it on the back of Rick's head, spreading out the fabric in front. Then he wrapped the fabric around his head and even over his face: "Voila, comme les Tuaregs!" So Rick now looked like a Tuareg Arab, ready to do battle with endless kilometers of rolling sand, searing heat, and cranky camels and horses. I took a few pictures and hope at least one comes out.

In El Jelida we visited what they called the Portuguese cistern, a large room with Roman-arched vaulted stone ceilings and wildly thick stone walls. In the center was a small fountain, over that was a circle of daylight down through which the rain drained, and there was shallow water on the floor sloping down to the raised fountain. Children were having a wonderful time splashing around, and their laughter reverberated off the stone walls. It was not a peaceful spot, as our guidebook promised us, but an interesting one. This room had been the room in a chateau where weapons and arms were stored before the Portuguese arrived, and then over the years it fell into disuse and was forgotten. Early in the 20th centery a merchant whose business abutted one of the walls wanted to expand and broke through the wall to discover that huge space. Imagine if you had been that merchant!

We passed a place just outside the medina (old town) where dozens of people cooked the local fish, sardines and others-- grilled, fried, whatever, and served some salads. We wished like hell we had been hungry because it was full of smoke and fish smells and mysterious Arab words called from one vendor to the other, just wonderful, but despite a free taste we moved on.

After El Jelida we took the small coastal road south, and passed tiny agricultural villages. We saw many more men in jelabas and more veiled women (are poor people more religious everywhere??), and a lot of dust. The main means of transport consisted of small animal-drawn wagons, often covered against the sun, and animals such as donkeys, mules, burros, and an occasional horse carrying one to three people and heavily laden saddlebags and bundles. Plus of course motorbikes and a few bicycles. We almost never saw a motorcycle, occasionally a car, many trucks, and many of them had tall, tall loads that were impeccably covered. We passed many farm stands selling squash and root vegetables. The squash in particular were arranged with quite an eye to aesthetics. We saw between homesites fences made variously of piled up drywall stones (without mortar) which reminded Rick of the Greek islands -- there are so many rocks in the soil! -- cactus with ripe prickly pears, palm-looking plants with tall fronds and reeds, fences made from the reeds, and near the ocean seaweed walls. We saw tents erected near the sea with huge piles of dried seaweed the color of red wine, and speculated on whether that was used for fuel or fertilizer. Even by the ocean it was so dry: fuel must be terribly scarce.

In the countryside we saw high stacks of hay the shape of a Monopoly house, but were puzzled because many of the shapes had smooth sides. We finally figured out that after the hay is harvested, tied in rectangular bundles, and built into the house shapes, each big mound is covered with a thin layer of dried mud to protect it from the wind and the rain until it's needed.

Ouilidia is a seaside town we didn't stop at very long because we were low on cash and all three banks in town had ATMs that apologized in very polite French for their inability to open at the moment. We had found two banks and in asking a policeman where there might be another, he offered to show us. So he got into the back seat and directed us there! Lovely, but just as useless as the first two. So we continued on to the next big town, Safi. On the way we saw endless rocky soil and so many people riding donkeys, enveloped in endless lengths of fabric against the sun and dust.

The first bank we saw upon entering Safi worked fine, which was a balm for our peace of mind. (When I spoke to Naima later she was horrified that we had left Casablanca without all the cash we'd need and a full tank of gas, but we Americans are spoiled ...) At Safi I saw people giving four "bise" at a time: four "air kisses," left, right, left, right. It takes forever to say hello and to say goodbye here!

Safi used to have two claims to fame: their sardine catch is one, which is now gone because an enormous and terribly smelly and polluting phosphte factory has been built right next to the town. We can't understand the logic of that. If the chemicals killed the sardines, what do they do to the people? The second, however, remains.

Safi is known for its pottery, and it sells its pottery all around the country and abroad. Abdullah, a man who learned it from his father, who learned it from his father, etc., showed us exactly how it's done. The clay is quarried from 17 kilometers away and is dry. It's soaked in water 24 hours and then is cut in large slabs and shaped on a wheel operated by foot, like the old treadle sewing machine. The operator sits in a hole covered at the waist at floor level by a cloth, and shapes the clay with his fingers as it spins. While we were there he was making a tagine (I told you about this earlier), and since the top and bottom were from the same piece of clay they fit together perfectly once the top was cut off. Then white paint from Limoges was applied and allowed to dry in the sun for a day. After than natural color was applied, not paint but from natural substances such as saffron for yellow, tomatoes for orange, olives for green, which allowed these dishes to be used for eating and cooking. The designs were handpainted freeform, and there were hundreds. Abdullah said he was taught between 900 and 1,000 of them by his father and other artisans. The brushes were not bought: the handles were made from old pens, and the brushhairs came from their donkeys. There are small cuts made through the color as part of the design, using the tops of sardine cans as the tool, again all freeform by memory. There's a first baking, and then there's another coat of white stuff and a second baking, after which the color comes out shiny and the piece is ready. We bought a platter and a vase with exquisite designs in a saffron lemon color. Abdullah insisted on giving us several small things in addition, and went to a great deal of time and trouble finding carton material and strong string to box it all up well enough to withstand an airplane trip (although I wouldn't go so far as to be sure it would come through fine if checked as luggage!).

In Safi Rick bought a white embroidered shirt from Abdullah in another store -- Abdullah had nine brothers and sisters and five trillion cousins and other close relatives, and seemed related to everyone in the marketplace. The shirt had been embroidered by his mother. Abdullah spoke Arabic, his native language, French, English, Spanish, Italian,and German, all by picking it up. He told us he couldn't read or write because he never went to school, although his son was going to school.

It was getting to be late afternoon and we decided to drive on to our final stop on this trip, a town called Essaouira ("ess A weer A"), passing more dusty fields, flocks of goats and sheep, market towns, donkeys ridden by men or women, and often people out walking from one invisible place to another invisible place. The immensity of the distances here must be experienced: an occasional shrub, rocky soil, perhaps some dry grass, low hills, and nothing else as far as you can see.

At Essaouira we stayed at the Hotel Ibis, which is a chain that was recommended by Naima as being minimal but adequate, clean, and cheap. This it certainly was: a bed, a bathroom with a shower, shelves for drawers, a rod with 3 hangers, a TV, and breakfast included for 512 dirhams which equals approximately $60 in round numbers. We had brought sandwiches and fruit with us and didn't want dinner, but were really tired from driving a standard-shift car all that distance down the little roads, and went to sleep.

In the morning we started to explore. Essaouira has a sheltered port, essential because the waves of the ocean there are fierce. The winds make the waves splash on the rocks in huge plumes of spray. Fishing boats abound, with men coiling up the nets and floats. There were big battered steel-hulled boats and dozens of blue wooden rowboats all tied up 10 by 10, bobbing in the water. The smell of seawater and fish was dazzling. During the day we wandered around the medina and saw pottery fram Safi that wasn't nearly as nice as what we had bought and now understood so much better.

Essaouira is famous for its woodcarving of a wood that the guidebook says is endangered (meaning you're supposed to have a guilty conscience if you buy any): thuya, which I have no idea is a word in English since I didn't know it in French either. It's an extraordinarily beautifully grained wood, a very different grain from the trunk than from the roots of the tree. So many different objects were created from this wood, including many in which marquetry is used. We watched artisans making a circular tabletop in marquetry, which is the technique of using tiny pieces of wood chiseled to fit tiny spaces to make a design, the wood equivalent of mosaic in stonework. One worker planed and jointed the boards. Another used a bandsaw to cut the pieces into different widths and lengths, tossing the rejects to be recycled for marquetry. A third took five minutes to chisel a tiny triangular piece for the table top. Another whom we didn't see put the finish on it. In a shop we saw a marquetry dresser with three large drawers, curved on the sides and in front, so elaborate, which we were told the artist had put 13 years into making (not full time, we were assured): 45,000 dirhams, about $5,000 before bargaining. Frankly, that's cheap at the price. Totally beautiful.

Many pieces were ingenious. There was a cylindrical stack of four drawers which not only slid out but swiveled. The marquetry covered jewelry boxes and items of all sorts. We bought a sculpture of thuya wood suggesting a sailboat, a small figurine of a camel, and a small cup for pens. We had been in the markets of Marrakesh and Casablanca and were surprised that nothing, but nothing, was beautiful enough to buy, but here was a different story. In the wood shops I wanted to buy everything.

We saw zillions of other things, too, including of course carpets.

Before we left home we had thought about buying a carpet for under the coffee table in the living room, but these prices, although probably worth it for handmade carpets, were appalling, not for folks like us. One man got us, however, or perhaps we got him. Rick asked him where a toilette pour Madame was and he led us on a very circuitous path to the back corner of a carpet store, where I found a real toilet, not two grooved foot-shaped platforms over a porcelain hole in the ground: such luxury! (I've figured out that afterward you take the bucket that's there, put water in it, and swish out the porcelain, but I've never figured out what you do with the toilet paper. Now THIS is what guidebooks should tell you!) When I came out, there was Rick looking at three or four carpets that had been spread out on the ground. I was sweetly invited to sit on a small bench and a cushion placed for me. Delighted to oblige. Carpet after carpet was unfolded, all very beautiful and really the right size.

Then we got down to the hard part. This man did what others had done. When asked the price, even if we had a language in common, he required first a pen (sometimes that meant asking someone for one and waiting for it to arrive!) and a paper, on which he wrote the number. Always, by the way, "he." So he wrote 2,800 dirhams, which would be something like $320. No way, no way. Since we didn't make a counter-offer, he said (I'm translating from French now), "Madame, here we have the habit of bargaining. I say 2,800 dirhams (he pointed to the number) and you say 2,600 dirhams (he wrote the number below the first)." Still nothing from us. Finally he asked what price we would be willing to pay. I thought a long time whether I wanted one, really. 800 dirhams, I told him. He was appalled. We explained carefully that we were not bargaining (the very best way to bargain) but honestly couldn't afford to pay more, we were so sorry, we were sure the carpets were worth so much more, so sorry (and the best bargaining, for us at least, is the truth). He looked to be in agony. Finally he said, "1,000 dirhams," because tonight is the first night of Ramadan and it brings good luck to make the first sale. $125. I said I'd think about it. Which I did, at some length, and finally said yes. He looked like his parents had just died, like we had just stolen food from the mouths of his children. We followed him to an ATM where I took out 1,000 dirhams and gave them to him. We remain unsure if all that misery was real or part of the process: I wish I knew. But really, we would never have spent more money than that on a small carpet. It is very beautiful, though, and when you visit and see it in the living room under the coffee table you will appreciate how it came to be there.

All this bargaining is exhausting. We sat in a shaded cafe, listening to blues and jazz, watching an international parade from veiled women to girls in the skimpiest of shorts and halters, drinking sparkling water and reading the first Herald Tribune, now owned by the NY Times, we'd seen in a week.

Afterward we watched a bunch of men crowded around a fish seller, auctioning off the day's catch: why weren't they the women, since the women cook the fish? We saw dozens of adolescent boys, jumping off the walls of the port into the water, chasing a plastic bag thrown in first. The huge surf kicked up a lot of mist, making the light extraordinary which has caused this town to draw many artists.

We decided to stay at the Hotel Ibis another night, in large part because it had an air conditioner, a rarity here, even though it wasn't a very strong one. After lounging by the beautiful pool we went back into town for dinner. Ramadan started that night. Religious Muslims eat, drink and smoke nothing between first prayers, at around 4 AM, and 7:30 or 8:00 PM. We found a wonderful restaurnant near the medina at 8 PM, and here was the dinner we had. Each of us had a salade marocaine: a mound of cut-up tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and spices I couldn't identify, garnished with sprigs of lettuce and half-slices of orange. We shared a soupe marocaine, which had beans in the bottom and spices, one of which was curry and another cumin, but I'm not sure about others. I had a tagine d'agneau, lamb stew, served in the traditional terracotta dish on the bottom covered with a conical top where the top flared out to pick it up. It was still bubbling from the oven and was served on a wicker trivet. Rick ordered a brochette of beef, which came with rice and salady things. The beef was spiced, again with spices I coudn't identify. I had fruit salad for dessert (cut up apple and slices of banana in orange juice) and Rick ordered a crepe with orange and cinnamon. Because the waiter knew Rick has diabetes (we had asked for bread when we arrived, right away, because his blood sugar was too low), he took it upon himself to tell the cook not to add any extra sugar. He told us many people in Morocco have diabetes, including his mother, aunt, and many relatives. A cuisine so thoroughly built on carbohydrates is hell on diabetics. At any rate, the dinner came to 255 dirhams and we gave him 45 dirhams for a tip, so our wonderful Moroccan dinner came to about $35 in round numbers. A superb meal to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary.

Yesterday morning we missed a turn and therefore took back roads to Casablanca, going inland. Most of the towns we passed through were poor and dusty, but every now and then you reached an obviously more prosperous town that either was more interested in its appearance or was able to indulge such an interest economically, or both. It's a good thing we still had a bag of snack food with us because in these small towns all cafes and restaurants were closed for Ramadan, although food stores and stalls were open. In fact, they were swamped. When we reached Casablanca we went to a couple of food stores before reaching the house: our favorite bakery, Amoud, for baguettes, and a supermarket, Label Vie (I know, pseudo French), and both were crammed to the gills with shoppers. We'd been at each several times before: no comparison. At the bakery they not only gave out numbers to customers but had food piled high up on the glass tops of the display cases as well as inside. People were lined up three and four deep. At the supermarket, a poor one in a poor neighborhood, it was hard to navigate the aisles for all the shoppers.

Leila explained that Ramadan is a month of parties, where people invite each other to dine every night, so buy a lot of food. We were planning to have dinner at a restaurant with Leila and her niece last night, but it was so hot and sultry when we got home all we could think about was the pool and no clothes. We were relieved when she suggested canceling the plan because we must be tired from our trip, which we were.

And it was a superb trip.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Getting the traveling bug

The pool continues to be as wonderful as any pool could possibly be but we're starting to get out more, possibly because we're beginning to realize we have only another week here.

Two days ago we decided to explore the souk (market) here in Casablanca. Although of course it was similar in many ways to the souk in Marrakesh, there were some fascinating differences. Casablanca, unlike Marrakesh, is not a tourist town: it's Morocco's business center. There were some crafts being sold but mostly it's a market for people who live here. Amend that: POOR people who live here. I doubt the rich ones go here, and in Morocco there aren't that many in between rich and poor. There were more everyday things for sale, such as plastics for the kitchen. The clothes were made of cheaper materials, often synthetics, and in bold, cheap-looking prints. On the other hand, the area where fruits and vegetables were sold was a revelation. Poor they may be, but people who buy produce here get gorgeous stuff. The peaches were perfect, and the figs were better than figs I've seen in the supermarket. As always, many, many booths/stalls/carts with exactly the same merchandise, often lined up right next to each other.

On the way back we got royally lost. Navigating the streets of Casablanca is a challenge, probably true of the streets of every town here. Because these places are so old, streets go every which way. No such thing as a grid, and street signs are either non-existent or so small or poorly placed that they might as well be. But no one stays lost forever.

Yesterday Rick went back into town to see the big mosque I had seen earlier, and he was truly lucky: while he was there they opened the roof. Can you imagine, an enormous roof was designed to slide open to let in the air. That must have created an entirely different feeling in that vast space. Afterward he walked along the Corniche, a road and walkway along the sea, and had a fruit and seafood salad at a restaurant there which he told me was beautiful and delicious.

Last evening we were invited to our friend, Leila's, for dinner. Her 17-year-old niece, Maha, was there too. Maha will be leaving soon for England, where she plans to spend the next three to five years in school. Her English now, while not terrific, is better than Leila's, so while I was in the kitchen with Leila Rick and Maha were able to talk fairly easily. Leila has a beautiful apartment in an old part of Casablanca, not far from the market and also not far from the American consulate where a suicide bomber blew himself up three years ago, an explosion she heard. As is true of all the rooms we've been in so far, the ceilings in her apartment were very high, 9 or 10 feet, and the rooms were large by American standards. We had both thought she'd have a poor little place, but she had a very big living/dining room, two bedrooms, a large kitchen, a bath, and a balcony. She made a salad with rapeseed oil (had to use an English-French dictionary to find that one), which she said is the best for salad and keeps depression at bay (?!), stewed chicken for which I must get the recipe, and couscous with onions, raisins, and honey. We brought patisserie from the baker that we'd been told is the best, and were delighted when Leila confirmed that. We did too, when we tasted it at dessert. She made us Moroccan mint tea: first you put a spoonful of Green tea into the teapot, in little balls, not dried tea leaves, and rinse it in boiling water supposedly to remove the caffeine. Then you take a handful of fresh spearmint, stems and all, and put them in the teapot too. You cover that with boiling water, add a few sugar cubes, and let it steep. Everyone, start growing spearmint! It was absolutely superb.

We also talked about the king. He's a fairly young man, educated abroad, who succeeded his father within the last ten years and immediately set about some modernization. I've read that he set aside 30 seats in the Parliament for women, but I don't know how many seats there are nor do I know how independent the Parliament is. Obviously a subject for my next conversation with Leila! However, this king is awesomely rich, with a palace in every major city and many minor ones, plus ownership of huge companies. The poverty of this country is horrendous, so that's hard to hear -- slums are everywhere. She told us there's been a birth-control publicity campaign on television to deal with the fact that many poor people don't use any and have a dozen children. But if you're poor, that means a dozen people who can beg or work or get money for the family somehow.

Today we are off for two or three days to towns south of Casablanca along the Atlantic coast. Next week, having checked the internet, we'll go to Fez because much to my surprise it is less hot than Marrakesh.

So I wish you all a good weekend! Back next week.