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.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Yesterday at about 2:45 we decided on the spur of the moment to go to Marrakesh, and we were out of the house shortly after 3:00 (how long does it take to change out of a bathing suit and feed the cat?) The car, a small Peugeot hatchback, is air conditioned, unlike many here, so it was possible to drive there during the afternoon. Marrakesh is about 2+ hours inland, 238 km from Casablanca, via a well-paved limited-access toll road.

There was farmland outside of the city but soon we saw dry grassland -- not quite as dry as southern New Mexico, though. There was an occasional low-roofed walled compound made of mud bricks, which was hard to distinguish from the land. No windows. If you were close enough you could see the gate leading in, with an open courtyard and low buildings around it. Occasionally we saw flocks of sheep and goats but often these dwellings seemed to have no way of making a living; perhaps they grazed their flocks at a distance.

On the road there were trucks that were loaded twice as high as they were wide, so picture a truck maybe 8 feet wide but 15 to 20 feet tall. The loads they carried were covered by tarps and tied down so we couldn't see what they transported. The highway speed limit was 120 and it didn't take long to realize that the trucks, and some cars, went MUCH more slowly than that, possibly half as fast or even less, so once you saw them you had to get over to pass very fast because you reached them in a flash. On the other hand, some cars passed at lightning speed.

Marrakesh, to our surprise, is obviously a town with serious money. There were lots of new apartment buildings going up, very spiffy, and very spread out: it was maybe 10 miles to get to the center of town from the outskirts. We of course headed for the market. I've been to Tunisia and went to the market there, but nothing prepared me for this.

The Marrakesh market consists of hundreds of streets, corridors and alleyways. Depending on the width there was daylight or electric-lit roofs. For everything you could see -- clothes, shoes, toys, spices, nuts, dried fruits, electronics, objets d'art, and dozens of others -- there were literally hundreds of merchants exhibiting exactly the same merchandise. Given all the competition, no wonder they tried to pull you into their shops! Which Rick hated, but I was amusedm perhaps because I could speak French and therefore felt I could defend myself. I enjoyed changing nationality as we walked along: sometimes I was Canadian, sometimes Swiss, sometimes others, because no merchants guessed American once they heard my French -- everyone knows Americans can't speak anything but English.

And the people, thousands upon thousands of them. Many beggars: mothers with children, blind people, even small children alone. A little girl about four was trying to sell small kleenex packs and was shooed away by the waiter of the cafe we stopped in for something cold to drink. Some women wore western clothes but most wore long-sleeved, ankle-length caftans or jelabas (= without or with a hood). Some wore scarves around their heads and necks, some wore veils as well so that you could see only their eyes. Men wore shirts and long pants but not blue jeans. Many were carrying packages of things they had bought at the market. Threaded through the throngs (sorry, alliteration not intended) were motorbikes and bicycles of all sorts: you can imagine the chaos trying to get from here to there.

Oddly enough, we didn't feel like buying anything. The profusion itself made choosing something difficult: it was all too much! The high-pressure salesmanship didn't help. It was also, needless to say, very hot. Even though we got there around 6 PM in hopes of cooler temperatures it was in the high 90s, so during the day it was surely well over 100. There was a beautiful light cotton, Berber cotton they called it, that we both would like to get shirts made out of, but the thought of trying something on (over our clothes of course) was horrendous. We'll look for shirts at markets closer to the coastm where it's cooler. We did buy a few things -- saffron powder, a couple of wooden stirring spoons for the kitchen, a small agate bird, but that's about it.

There was of course bargaining. The price of the agate bird started at 250 dirhams, about $30, and went from there to 200 dirhams, 100 dirhams, and ended at 80 dirhams, $10. That was fun, actually.

At dusk we found ourselves in a huge plaza, and about 8:15 there were simultaneous calls to prayer on loudspeakers from four minarets we could see in different directions. We didn't see anyone do anything different as a result. Maybe the calls to prayer are giving people 45-minute warnings? The plaza was astonishing. Hundreds of cooked-food merchants set up shop, one next to the other in numbered booths. Each had a small cooking area, a long table covered by a white plastic tablecloth, and two long backless benches. Here too men (always men) tried to lure you into his particular booth. The booths sold brochettes of different meats (beef, sheep, fish, sausage), salads, sandwiches, various dishes I couldn't identify. Hundreds of them, all lined up. Then there were a couple dozen booths selling snails, which I'm sorry I didn't get, 5 dirhams for a small plate and 10 for a large one -- about 65 cents and $1.25. Other dozens of booths sold fresh orange juice. Other dozens sold sweets. Picture each type lined up identically next to the others. We sat down at one and had brochettes of lamb with French fries ("frites") and mint team for 44 dirhams, about $5. The tea here is much sweeter than in Tunisia, but delicious. Then we had a glass of perfect orange juice (picture a booth with hundreds of oranges, above which is a man with a juicer). We looked down at a small little girl begging, and gave her the last of our juice to drink. During the time we were there we gave change to probably half a dozen beggars, and food to several children.

Also in the plaza at this hour were entertainers. An old man told a story (in Arabic, of course -- only educated people and those who sell things speak French here). A veiled woman with a pom-pom sewed to the back of her pants belly-danced -- wiggling her ass was super-effective! -- while a gray-haired shirtless old man worked the crowd for donations. Liter-bottles of Coca Cola were set up in a circle while people with fishing rods tied to a large ring at the end tried to get the rings on the tops of the bottles, but it was almost impossible because the ring was vertical, not horizontal.

When we left Marrakesh at 9:45 PM we noticed there was an outside-temperature indicator in the car: 33 degrees Centigrade, which translates to 92 degrees Fahrenheit. You cannot imagine how grateful we were for the air conditioning.

Getting out of Marrakesh was like driving in Casablanca. This place either makes you a better driver or makes you give up driving entirely. If there are rules, they don't matter. Painted lane divider lines don't matter. Speed limits don't matter. Cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians, huge numbers of them, just aim in the direction they want to go. They come swooping in front of you from nowhere: anything goes. Rick, who has driven at least a motorcycle all around the world, says it's worse here than anywhere else he's been. People don't have a zillion accidents because they expect this, because usually they go slowly enough to swerve out of the way, and because they've probably developed eyes not only in the back of their heads but the sides as well. A challenge!

When we got home we stripped and jumped into the pool. A wonderful country ...



Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The laziest vacation ever

You too would be hard-pressed to tear yourself away from a gorgeous pool in a gorgeous garden all to yourself, with a good library of books upstairs and with every day sunny and warm! Yesterday I was thinking that if this exact place were a hotel I would not love it as much. There's something different about having a luxurious place entirely to yourself. Consequently, there isn't all that much to write about lately.

Our friend, Leila, came to dinner the other night. It's quite an experience cooking dinner for friends in someone else's kitchen, but by now I know my way around it. You have to be inventive, since the familiar ingredients and implements aren't there. When I go to the market I see a lot of vegetables and fruits I don't know, and wish I knew how to cook the vegetables. Next Monday the housekeeper will be here and offered to make us dinner, which of course I accepted with joy. I also asked her to teach me how she made the two salads the first night we were here, one of eggplant and the other of green peppers. She said yes and that her daughter Sana, whose French is so much better than hers, could write it down for me, but I said that she could just make them and I'd watch and write it down myself. I'm looking forward to that.

When Leila was here we spoke as usual a mixture of French and English, and I realized that the way my French gets better is by islands. What I mean by that is that some things are really easy for me to think and say in French, surrounded by other things that are much harder. With time, the islands of easy things get larger and larger: a much more complicated process than a slow linear one. She insists my French is excellent, but of course I can't help comparing it now to how fluent I was 35 years ago, when I could dream in French. I think she means she's impressed that my grammar is usually right, but then if that's how you're taught -- and even more important, how you have taught it yourself -- then that's the easy part.

Yesterday we managed to tear ourselves away from the pool and went into town to the huge mosque. Rick couldn't go in: shoulders and knees had to be covered (= decent dress) and he didn't qualify. I did while he wandered, which he loves to do. It was extraordinary: I'd really like to come back so he can see it too. Only the mosques in Mecca and Medina are larger. It's so big that 20,000 men (not a generic!) can pray inside at one time, with room for 5,000 women in the two side balconies fronted by ornate grilles (is that French? Can't think of the English word). Many years ago I was in an orthodox synagogue and sat with the women in a balcony, watching the men pray below through the edges of curtains in front of me, so the women's balconies are just like that except here they're much more beautiful. Outside in the plaza is room for another 80,000 people. Ramadan starts on Saturday and it will be full then. Muslims pray 5 times a day, the first at FOUR AM (I could NEVER be a Muslim!) and the last at 9 PM. Imagine Moorish architecture and multiply it by a zillion: as big as a Boeing hangar space inside, just acres and acres of marble and mosaic and elaborate metal chandeliers. I tried to take some pictures but doubt if any will please me: the real point is the vastness of the space, and my camera, at least, couldn't capture that.

Afterward Rick tried to take the car into the old town and we quickly realized that was a mistake. Streets are narrow and people walk in them. You try to squeeze around the people, the cars, and the donkey-drawn carts with potatoes or guavas being sold and it's obvious that markets and cars don't mix. But it was hot and it was time to go back to the pool! We'll do the market another day, especially because it stays open well into the evening.

We have another week and a half here -- leaving next Friday -- and between now and then we'll get up the energy to explore. I hope you are not bored, wanting more action. This blog, after all, is being written by someone who is utterly content to spend two weeks in San Diego going to a beach every day and reading! But we're starting to at least think about tearing ourselves away from the pool: progress!

Our love to you all,


Friday, August 14, 2009

Beginning to learn Casablanca

Hello, everyone

We can't get over what it's like living like really rich people. Having our own totally beautiful swimming pool in a lovely garden is something we could get used to. When we get up each morning the caretaker has already swept away from the veranda and the walkways all the spent flowers and leaves that have blown down from the bougainvillea, and skimmed the pool. Everything sparkles in the sunlight. The daytime is hot by our standards, probably mid 80s or so, but then we just get into the pool and all is well! We have been reading and reading and swimming and swimming. We feel like caliphs.

Two days ago we needed to go to the market. Although Sylvie, the owner of the house, left instructions about where to go we found it impossible: none of the streets here have names posted, so the map isn't any use. There are streets and roundabouts and more streets and roundabouts: you can imagine the perplexity. So we drove until I spied a sign for a supermarche (think accent on the last e) and we turned. I am sure it was not a supermarket that Sylvie would have recommended. It was in a very poor neighborhood, some shabby apartment buildings but much worse, a large shantytown in an open field where the roofs and walls were made of scavenged materials. Somehow that was more shocking than homeless people living under bridges, probably because it was more unfamiliar. The contrast between where we are living and the rock-bottom poverty in which those people lived is pretty painful. In the supermarket I am sure they don't get to see many foreigners, let alone Americans, but everyone was very helpful and nice, even if they didn't speak any French.

Leila is a Berber, the original inhabitants (followed by Arabs who brought Islam, followed by the French, who brought Frenchness). As I think I said before, she teaches and writes. She seems to have adopted us, for which I am so happy. Yesterday in the early evening -- she too finds it too hot to be outside during the day -- she came to pick us up and now we have a geographic sense of how to get around. She drove us around Casablanca, showing us the Corniche, an 8-kilometer promenade along the seafront, the medina (the old town), the souk, the huge mosque Hassan II (the 3rd largest in the world, I've read, and the only one we as non-Muslims are allowed to enter), and much else. We had dinner at a restaurant she chose for its old decor and its food. I must describe our dinner, which of course she ordered.

First there was Moroccan bread, round flat rolls about 5 inches in diameter, which one could dunk in a wonderful tomato sauce, plus olives. Second there were three appetizers. Two of them consisted of five small bowls of different things: sardines, calimari, carrots and rosewater, "eggplant caviar" made of creamed eggplant and spices, tomatoes and spices, and others I forget. The third appetizer was three fried things that sort of looked like egg rolls: a pigeon (!) and almond mixture, a beef mixture and another one. Then two main courses, both tagines which is the name for a round terracotta dish with a lid that rises up to a point and is used to make stews in the oven. One tagine was chicken and the other beef and prunes. Finally we had dessert: something that looked like mille-feuilles interspersed with a creamed sweet mixture. The restaurant didn't serve alcohol, which was fine with me because it was an outdoor restaurant and hot even though it was evening. Each and every taste, and you can see how many there were, was entirely new. I am thrilled to have tasted pigeon! There was not one thing that wasn't delicious and intriguing.

Then, for the movie fans among you, you will be happy to know that there is a Rick's Cafe in Casablanca. It looks nothing at all like the Rick's cafe in the Bogart/Bergman film -- much bigger and more impressive. It was located next door to the restaurant so we walked there after dinner, but they wouldn't let us in unless we wanted something to eat (most certainly not!) or drink (equally). Naima was astonished because this lack of openness and hospitality was so un-Moroccan, but the place is owned by an American woman. Plus, we guessed, it would be overrun by tourists wanting just to be in Rick's Cafe without buying anything.

Leila has been in the U.S. but her English is limited although she's trying to improve it. We speak in a mixture of French and English. She's altogether lovely and generous and interesting, and we are so lucky to have met her.

We got home at midnight, stripped, and jumped into the pool to cool off. Such a blessing.

We have heard from the Moroccan family that they have spent some time with some of our friends, and we are completely delighted by this. They have been to Mt. Rainier and the Olympic Peninsula and are going to Vancouver. They are being much more assiduous in their tourism that we are! But perhaps one of these days we'll manage to tear ourselves away from this pool and go someplace ...



Wednesday, August 12, 2009

No photos

And I forgot to tell you that photos will have to wait. I've lost the little gadget that connects the camera to the computer to download the photos. Words will have to do.

We're in Morocco!

But damn, I went to a cybercafe in Paris two days ago and spent half an hour writing you all a blog about our last few days in Paris, and because the keyboard was different I somehow did something that lost the entire thing. I'll summarize it here before describing our arrival in Casablanca yesterday.

On Sunday (today is I think Wednesday) we were invited to dinner, or the main meal of the day, by Adame Diop, a woman we met at a cafe a couple of days earlier. She came to Paris from Mali 20 years ago to study, and stayed. She's always worked in restaurants, which is how we met her. We got to talking and when she asked whom we knew in Paris and I said no one, she declared, "Alors, je vous invite chez moi!" Superb! One of the greatest advantages of home exchanges is precisely the opportunity to meet people who live where you're visiting, and I had been missing that. Adame lives in a new apartment with her three daughters, ages 14 to 9 months, and is obviously a generous soul: she had a cousin from Mali staying there for three weeks, and while we were there two friends from Martinique arrived for a visit as well.

Adame told us that next month her oldest daughter is going to Montreal, where she has an uncle, to go to school. Why? Because the schools, she said, are full of "bandits" -- her word. A terrible thing if you have to send your own child so far away to keep her safe. For the moment, she said, her middle daughter is okay. I've read about the lousy conditions in Paris for black immigrants, and Adame was confirming them.

It was a wonderful meal, for which she had taken a lot of trouble. We were there for more than four hours, and I spoke French all the time, which I loved, except when I was translating for Rick.

On Monday we took the train -- the real train, not the metro -- to see Monet's gardens at Giverny, about an hour north of Paris, at the suggestion of my friend Carol -- Carol, thank you so much! They were spectacular, just unbelievable. My sister, Sara, would have loved it, being much more a gardener than I am. Acres and acres of garden, a really interesting cross between the controlled French style and the uncontrolled British style of gardens, achieved by planting severely rectangular beds with wild but obviously deliberately chosen growth. I saw many flowers I knew and many I didn't. Then you crossed the road to get to the water part of the garden, the part everyone knows from Monet's paintings of the water lilies in the pond and the Japanese arched bridge over it. The water lilies grew in a large, irregularly shaped pond with weeping willows, bamboos, shrubs and trees surrounding it, and there was also a quiet, swift stream in deep shade. I learned that Monet employed 600 gardeners, and I certainly believe it.

We loved Paris but found it frustrating because the rate of exchange made most things too expensive for us. We couldn't eat even an ordinary meal at a restaurant, which would have cost more than $100, or go to a concert, or take a boat trip on the Seine. We spent an unbelievable amount of money just on transportation -- the metro, the bus to/from the airport, and the train to Giverny cost hundreds of dollars. But we loved looking at the architecture, or at least the domestic architecture of the apartment buildings as opposed to the grandiose monuments the French love so much. We'll spend a couple more days there just before we come home.

Yesterday on the flight to Casablanca we were lucky enough to meet Leila, a Moroccan/French woman who teaches at a university here. Thank goodness, because we didn't have any local introductions. A wonderful woman, who's been in the US twice and tried to practice her English which was hard because there wasn't so terribly much of it. She offered to drive us around Casablanca today to introduce us to the place, and I will call her to arrange it. We also met Omar, someone who works for Ahmed, the owner of this house, and he offered to spend some time with us this weekend. I've come prepared with the name and address of the main synagogue here, and we're planning to go on Friday evening to see what we can find.

But now this house. We are in a mansion, the kind of place that if you paid to rent this house would cost many hundreds of dollars a night. Rooms are many and enormous. The housekeeper had prepared us a traditional Moroccan meal, and then she and her 24-year-old daughter gave us the keys to the house and the car, and left. The meal was superb, and after dinner we stripped off our clothes and went into the swimming pool. The night was fragrant with jasmine, and the stars glistened. Occasionally a confused rooster crowed, but otherwise there was silence. The entire place is walled and gated, as are all the houses around here. In front there is a huge veranda, with an outside kitchen on the left and comfortable chairs and a coffee table on the right. Think 75 or 100 feet wide, covered with bougainvillea. Plus naturally a fountain and a beautiful, perfectly maintained garden. The garden is kept up by Habib, the caretaker ("le gardien"), who speaks no French. Fatima, the housekeeper, will come once a week to do the housework for us. We went to bed drunk with the scent of jasmine that flowed in through the windows. We have never been in such elegance.

Well, this has been a long one but assuming this now works you won't have to read so much at any one time any more. It certainly is wonderful having a computer again!

With our love,


Friday, August 7, 2009

Hello from Paris

Hello, everyone

Our apartment is a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower and we've bought an unlimited metro/bus pass, so we're wandering all over Paris. The prices here are insane, to the point where we feel like starving students: can you imagine $7 for a cup of coffee or even more for a coke? The first day we arrived we asked for a cafe creme and a croissant for each of us and it cost $18. We are now being very, very careful.

I am realizing that it's been close to 45 years since I was here for more than a day, and am amazed when places and stores I remember are still here. My French is coming back, too: quelle joie! Rick and I are spending our time wandering the streets, our favorite thing. He loves torturing himself by reading the prices of things. I guess it makes sense in that Paris is the equivalent of New York, but even in New York one can find lots of cheap places. Here, no.

We are admiring the beautiful apartment buildings with the wrought-iron grilles on the balconies that the first New Orleans settlers obviously brought with them, and the tiny streets with cafes and elegant stores. We sat in Notre Dame for an hour studying the design of the cathedral, and stood under the Eiffel Tower marveling at the complexity of its construction. It is so graceful, so smooth in the enormity of its height and breadth: it's amazing to think that when it was first built there was a huge outpouring of opposition to its ugliness! What would Paris be without it today? Rick wanted to see Pigalle (naturally) and I was suprised to see that there are still, all these years later, dozens of "sex shops" -- I thought it would be like Boston where the red-light district was replaced by the huge Government Center.

We just came from a cafe on the Boulevard St. Germain where we struck up a conversation with a woman who worked there, originally from Mali. It was such a lovely conversation (with me translating because she doesn't speak English) that she invited us to lunch on Sunday, her day off, where we will meet her three daughters (don't know about a husband yet). What a lovely thing to do! She refused to allow us to bring anything, so we'll have to be resourceful: whenever you move to a new neighborhood it's a matter of finding where everything is. I do wonder if a native-born Parisian would have extended such a lovely invitation to a pair of strangers, but no matter. It will be terrific.

The apartment where we're staying is little more than a pied a terre (don't know how to do accents on this keyboard -- I'm in a "cyber-cafe"): a tiny kitchen, one bedroom, a small living room and a dining room. There's a separate WC and a bathroom with a sink, a stall shower, and room to stand that measures something like 3' by 1.5'. No wonder there are no fat French people. But it's just fine -- those of you who will see the Moroccans please tell them that we are most comfortable in their apartment and it's just right for us. Yesterday was like the replay of the heat wave the week before we left, with temperatures well into the 90s: we found a fountain, took off our sandals, dangled our feet in the fountain, and poured water on our shirts. Later we passed larger fountains at the Palais de Chaillot and saw dozens of children and grownups in them.

All in all, it's marvelous to be here and we're enjoying it to the hilt. There are, of course, huge crowds of visitors, but we expected that and can't really object since that means us too. Rick has no fear of speaking English to Parisians instead of waiting for me to translate, which I am vastly impressed at, and he has been kindly and politely responded to nearly every time. So much for the unfriendly French.

Au revoir, a bientot!


Sunday, August 2, 2009

It's tomorrow!

The To-Do list obviously does filthy things in the middle of the night, because each day it's gotten longer and not shorter! But we're down to the last dozen or so things, so we're off soon to spend the night at an airport motel and then tomorrow on to our 10.5-hour flight to Paris. I checked the ten-day temperatures in Paris and Casablanca: the low 80s in the former and not much more in Casablanca -- perfect! Marrakech, unfortunately, is between 101 and 107: that will be a tough decision. But wherever we go will be new and fascinating.

We love you all and we'll be in email contact every now and then.

Jo and Rick