Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last Day of the Year

It's New Year's Eve, 4:00 in the afternoon and I just got myself showered and out of the house. Don't think I was just lounging around though. Oh no! I cleaned 3 bedrooms, changed all the linens, scrubbed three toilets (ugh, I hate that part the most), shined up the faucets and cleaned up the clean-up materials. I have one visitor in my house (a friend of a friend) and two more expected tomorrow (brothers who own a guest house and rented all their rooms so asked to crash at my pad for two nights). After they all leave I won't be able to house anyone else until there are a couple more days of sunshine so I can have the linens washed and hung out to dry. But today began with a howling wind and rain, followed by sunshine and wind and then all hell broke loose and the rain and winds returned in full force.

I am sitting at Cafe Clock. I had hoped to order their incredible sticky date pudding with vanilla ice cream but that is not to be. The wind and rain drove everyone into the Clock and they are out of everything. Except coffee and tea. Oh well. I'll just have to return later to indulge myself.

This year has been one of hard work. But, I do see the results of that work and hope it will abate for 2010. I am not doing any more work on the house for a while. Without the construction work, I will not have the cleanup and inevitable disruptions of having workers in the house. It's almost like a full-time job has been eliminated. I rather like that. The house is staying warm-ish and dry --- unlike previous winters here. I have hot water showers (one caveat; the hot water heater mysteriously shuts itself off after a 5 minute shower so I cannot linger like I did before. But no problem. I just view it as a ecological and economical benefit). I have some great, warm, woolen blankets on all the beds and a neighbor who washes my linens for me when the sun is shining. My teaching job, although not exactly on auto-pilot, is easier to do because I know the materials so well and can be more creative with my presentation of the lessons. The belly dance lessons are not plentiful, but they come with enough regularity to supplement my income and keep me moving.

Yesterday I taught two Slovakian women a small dance routine and showed them a few maneuvers with veils. As they left, one told me "I will never forget you". I was taken aback as I just did what I always do and although she seemed to enjoy herself, she didn't seem over the moon. But then I realized one never knows the impact one has on others and I was grateful I helped make her Moroccan experience a little bit more memorable.

So, to celebrate the close of a difficult, challenging and enlightening year, I plan to spend a quiet evening at home. Reading. Watching a movie. Eating chocolate. I am not inclined to join the group headed to the bar at the Hotel Batha where it is rumored that 200 Cameroons will be in attendance. Somehow, drinking the night away doesn't appeal to me, even though there will no doubt be lots of dancing and highjinks.

No, I plan to see the year out quietly and give thanks for the delights that await me in the coming year:

1. A visit from 4 good friends in April
2. A 3 month trip to California to see my sister and friends
3. A house that is comforatbly habitable
4. A secure job -- and one that I enjoy
5. Several sources for extra income
6. Continued good health
7. Developing new friendships
8. An escape from the brutal summer heat of Fes
9. The possiblity of a segment on my story on House Hunters International
10. The unknown

Happy New Year Everyone. Peace. Goodwill. Prospertiy to all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Another Day

I awoke at 5:00 this morning. This might have something to do with the fact that I fell asleep around 9 pm last night. I went to the hammam with two friends and the treatment evidently wiped me out!

I don’t care for the public hammams. I’ve tried several of them. I’ve gone to 4 or 5 different hammams in Fes and one in Chefchouen. I didn’t really like any of them although it is an experience one shouldn’t miss. The reason I don’t like the public hammans is probably because I am a rather private person and have always been one to shy away from crowded places. But the hammam I prefer to go to now is really posh compared to the public baths and I always enjoy my time there. My attendant gave me a hard scrub, taking away one or two layers of skin that left my body red and smooth. We purchased the spa package that also included a clay-like body mask of rose water and who-knows-what other substances. It felt great and I could have stayed there all afternoon, sleeping in the ‘relaxation room’ afterwards.

Right now the first call to prayer is underway. I love the early morning call to prayer. Outside the garbage collectors are sweeping the streets clean of all the debris from yesterday. This time of the day Fes is clean, quiet and spirit-filled. I am drinking coffee at the kitchen counter and planning the belly dance lesson I will give at 1:00 this afternoon. The fee I collect for the lessons will reimburse me for yesterday’s hammam.

I am on holiday right now and like every other holiday; I never seem to get out of town for the break. I seem to need the time to regenerate from the previous semester and all the various jobs I do in-between. Or my money is earmarked for something else and I can’t afford to travel. These days, I have some longer term plans for my money.

I’ve stopped spending money on the house. I still need to plaster and paint the rooms above the ground floor (that’s 7 rooms plus the stairwell), I still need to install some electricity on the upper floor and purchase a washer and dryer. I need a sink in my water closet, plumbing for the washer and shelving in the kitchen and closet. Oh yeah, I also need two more windows made and dozens of light fixtures. I estimate another 15,000 dirham will finish this place nicely. It’s not a lot of money by U.S. standards, but it will take me months and months to accumulate the money on my income. But that’s okay. The house is eminently habitable now and it can wait.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Rain, rain and more rain

Winter has arrived. And with it has come the blessed rain. I enjoy the rain because it washes the air and the streets clean. I don't really mind the mud that accompanies it. I just wear industrial boots and clean them up from time to time.

I am happy to report the plastic on the skylight is keeping the rain out of the house. Even though I spent a fortune building a pitched, metal frame around the skylight and added tempered glass to it, the cover never did stop leaking. Seems no matter what you try or how much you spend to cover your skylight, in the end it's plastic that solves your problems.

The house is much cozier that the past few years. I have had windows built and doors made for all the rooms so I can now shut out the cold. Well, not all the windows have glass on them yet but the majority do. Those without have bubblewrap and other creative solutions to the drafty air that whistles through them. But comparitively speaking, the house is quite warm this winter.

Right now the sky is blue. Perhaps I should take advantage of this and find Rachida. She's a neighbor who washes my linens for me. One must grab opportunity when it arises and with a breeze in the air and a brief respite from the rain, perhaps now is the time to get my laundry done!

Friday, December 18, 2009

The water fountains that pepper this city draw many people. There is a fountain across from my house and I witness many comings and goings.

Some people use the fountain because they don’t have running water in their house or they are trying to save a few dirham by using the city water instead of the metered water in their homes. Dishes and clothing are routinely washed in the fountain. Donkeys and mules are given a brief ‘coffee break’ here and the myriad of stray cats jump in and out of the fountain’s well to take a sip of the cold water.

In the early morning hours, vendors with large bunches of mint wash the dirt off it before taking it to their designated spot to sell it. Passersby drink from the spigot or perform their morning ablutions. Feet and hands are washed and plastic containers are filled and carted away for a variety of household duties. There is hardly a moment that goes by without someone turning on the spigot and using the fountain water.

I’ve seen motorcycles, hand carts, work materials and laborers themselves washed by the fountain. And each use has it’s own sound or smell. I particularly like the smell of the mint being washed.

Occasionally a fight will ensue at the fountain. Someone wants to use it for something not really acceptable … like cleaning fish. Or some harried housewife is taking too long washing her clothes and a workman is pressed for time. But in the end, everyone works through their differences and the fountain continues to provide for all who need it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The children in my neighborhood are rather poor and I always find it interesting to see how resourceful they are in creating games or finding things to occupy their interest.

Of course this can often include things that are rather mischievous.

The young boys like to fight. Nothing serious (most of the time) but they grab one another and wrestle their opponent to the ground and chase their friends from one end of the street to another. Typical of young boys all over the world I’d say. The young boys also like to pick on one particular, be-speckled kid named Omar. He inevitably responds by crying and some adult inevitably makes the perpetrators apologize.

The girls like to chant as a group. A chorus of their bird-like voices carries a long distance. The girls also like to take chalk and write on the doors of their neighbors. I’ve had pictures drawn on mine, various words like “father” and “mother” and some nonsensical words. Someone once wrote “Non-believer” on my door. I didn’t particularly appreciate that. After all, how do they know what I believe or don’t believe?

Soccer is often played in the streets. Much to my annoyance when it’s right outside my door because the “thunk, thunk, thunk” sound of the ball hitting my wall reverberates throughout the house. And the boys’ voices are always rough, loud and aggressive. But all I have to do is ask them to move a little bit and they almost always comply (with someone grumbling mightily but acquiescing nonetheless).

Kicking empty, liter-sized plastic bottles that litter the street is great sport and amazingly loud. Kids will kick them up and down the street until all the air is gone and the bottle becomes a flat, sorry imitation of a cylinder. They also like to pull apart Styrofoam and other packing materials that occasionally find their way onto the street into little bits that make me cringe on behalf of the planet.

Yoyos were popular in the summer and games of tidily winks come and go. Top spinning is also great sport and the kids like to slam the metal cover to my utility gauges against the metal bit to sharpen the point on the bottom of their top. Card trading turns into a fury of bargaining and shouting. And every year when elections are held and leaflets literally paper the street, the kids take great joy in grabbing a handful from the adults (who have been paid to distribute the leaflets) and then throw them hither and yon or stuff them through the doors of the houses on the street.

I live across from a public fountain and spraying your friends with water from the spigot is great sport; especially when it’s hot outside. Kids also like to take a mouthful of water and spit it through the keyhole in neighboring doors. Knocking on the neighbor’s door and then running away before it is answered is full of fun, too!

All-in-all the children don’t have many toys to amuse themselves. At least I haven’t seen many aside from a kind of rubber punching ball sold at carnivals back home. I remember one boy coming to me with tears in his eyes because his ball had a hole in it and was now a rubber blob that was unusable. I walked down to the neighborhood store and bought him a new one. The look of surprise and delight on his face was priceless! I saw him proudly carrying that ball with him for about 1 week. I guess it, too, became a rubber blob before too long. Then it was time for him to start kicking plastic bottles again or jump on the discarded wrappers of cookies and other junk food to try to elicit a loud “pop” from the cellophane. Another amusing sport.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Daily Economics

When I read about all the economic turmoil around the world, I often thank my lucky stars that I am living in an affordable place. Even though I haven’t been able to save any money yet, and even though I often long to return to San Francisco, in Fes I have been able to find gainful employment and live within my means. And while I only make the equivalent of $20,000 U.S. a year, I do live in a house I own and have a relatively stable job. Fortunately, the language center where I work has a waiting list of students each semester and I can work as many hours as I want.

Some things are comparatively cheap here while others are over-the-top expensive. But it seems the things you really need are affordable and the frivolous or ‘exotic’ things are what cost an arm and a leg. Food is eminently affordable. Bread, which is baked fresh every day, costs only 1 dirham (>8 cents). A baguette is a dirham and a half. A cup of coffee that would cost $2.00 or more at Starbucks can cost under a dollar here. You can buy a fresh sandwich with lots of healthy ingredients for under a dollar. But then it’s going to cost you nearly $7 to purchase a “Big Tasty” from McDonald’s.

Utilities don’t cost much either but then I am unbearably hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. One does live with the elements here. But every month I spend less than $20 for my water and electricity. If I need to refill the propane gas for my heat and stovetop, each large canister (I have 3) costs 40 dirham to fill (5-6 cents).

Some skilled artisans work for very reasonable prices, too. I had someone build 5 cedar wood doors (each with nice detailing and including all the necessary hardware and installation), three shelves for my kitchen, and a step for about $750.

A taxi ride to work is about $1. Hiring someone to carry heavy items in his push cart from Bab Boujloud to my house is about $1.25. And you can hire someone to clean your house for a mere $7.00. I can even get a very professional haircut and highlighting for a fraction of what I would pay in the U.S.

But then there are some other ‘luxury’ items that cost way too much. A very small tube of foundation makeup cost recently cost me almost $20. Votive candles are cheap at home but costly here. Paper products like napkins, tissues, toilet tissue and paper towels are priced dearly. Cleansers and Edam cheese, familiar brand name products from home and 100% cotton sheets and towels all cost way too much.

So, you pick and choose what you need vs. what you want or can afford. And at the end of the day you realize how the choices between what you want and what you need are really simple choices to make … and it’s not always a matter of economics.

My biggest challenge now, economically speaking, is to save enough money to visit and live in the U.S. for three months next summer. I know I can manage to live on 100 dirham a day here when I have to. I can feed myself, take taxis to and from work, buy a cup of coffee and a pastry to treat myself and even have some money left over to handout to the local children or local indigents. But that same money will only buy me a fraction of what I need just to eat every day in the U.S. What can I buy with $15 there? Not much.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Back to School

Last night I returned to teaching after three days off. I haven’t had two days in a row off -- let alone three -- in quite a few weeks. Unlike my Moroccan colleagues, who routinely work 6 days a week, I am a spoiled American who craves long weekends … one day to do household chores and prepare for the upcoming week, and one day to play or do absolutely nothing productive and the occasional third day off to read, see a movie or treat myself to some shopping.

But I was glad to see my students and with many shops still closed for Eid, I had found myself doing more household chores than usual with the time off -- I actually even cooked some meals in my new kitchen … something I have not done for almost three years! My return to work was kind of a relief.

My students routinely give me pleasure. I was teaching a more advanced English class last night and our discussions are always enlightening. We were discussing the topic of plagiarism and drawing lines around ‘acceptable’ cheating and other questionable behaviors. I asked them if there was ever a situation when not telling the truth acceptable. We talked about stealing – would their principles change if one person stole 20 dirham from them and another stole 200 dirham? Most said 20 DH would be acceptable. What if it was their child who stole 20 dirham. Would that be acceptable? No one could accept that but first, they said, they would have to verify with absolute certainty that their child had, indeed, stolen the money. Good answer.

Finally, I asked my students if it was a teacher’s job to help educate students about these matters. Or should a teacher just stick to the curriculum and let students learn from their own social network. My students were quite adamant that a teacher should broach these subjects. “You are more experienced than we are and we need to learn from you.” I can hardly imagine American teenagers responding in a similar fashion.

When I stand in front of the classroom and look out at all the beautiful and open faces of my students I am often filled with gratitude. Mind you, they drive me to distraction many times, chatting away in Arabic while I’m trying to teach them the difference between a defining and non-defining clause and furtively checking their cell phones for text messages or taking note of how much time is left before they can bolt out the door. But there are those times when what I say captures their full attention. I can actually feel the atmosphere change in the classroom and I am aware of the responsibility and trust I hold. When I speak from my heart they, too, can feel it and always give me their full attention. More than once it has brought an incredible fullness to my heart and tears of gratitude to my eyes. I cannot recall feeling so honored for my years of experience in my own country.

What a rare and wonderful honor.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Home Alone

This is always a tough time of year to be away from the U.S. Thanksgiving has now come and gone and I have survived my third year away from family and friends on my favorite holiday. It helps a great deal to get together with other Americans during these holidays. Yesterday, our school director treated all the American employees (there were 8 of us, including the Director himself) to a huge lunch at a posh restaurant. We had wine, too much food, lots of laughs and an overwhelming urge for a nap afterwards. Too bad we all had to teach that evening.

Now that just leaves Christmas to get through. Luckily, we don't have to work that day. I don't think I could bear working on Christmas day. But the end of the fall semester always coincides with Christmas so the school is blessedly closed. Even though it's great to miss the over-commercialization of Christmas, it's not-so-great to miss your family, friends and the traditions of a Christmas tree, carols and holiday merrymaking.

Everyone here is in the final stages of Eid Khbir fever. There are lines of people outside every food stall, knives being sharpened for the sacrifical sheep who will succumb to the knife tomorrow morning, women scurrying to and from the bakery with trays of cookies, breads and sweets on their heads (these bakeries are ovens where goods prepared at home are baked for a small fee) and sheep being carted to homes and then carried up to terraces to enjoy their final moments. Everyone says all the cats disappear when the moment of the sacrifice arrives. As the medina is filled with cats, not seeing one is unusual. I wonder ... do the cats smell the blood or do they sense the panic and resignation of the sheep? Hard to say.

Regardless, tomorrow I will spend the day alone. I am teaching today but plan to stop by Cafe Clock tonight to buy some premade food for tomorrow as all shops will be closed up tight. I haven't had the time or desire to fight the crowds at the stores to lay in some food so I will once again turn to my ready food source at the cafe for nourishment. Some couscous, a plastic bowl of my own filled with homemade harira and the baguettes, cheese and eggs I have managed to purchase should see me through the day quite nicely.

I doubt I will even venture outside my door tomorrow. The teenaged boys will have set up their fires for roasting the sheeps' heads right outside my door and I want to turn a blind eye to the activities. No garbage pickup tomorrow, of course, so there will be lots of stuff I don't want to investigate thrown out on the streets too. I have a few movies to watch, several litres of linseed oil to paint my new cedarwood doors and windows and a book to get me through the day.

Holidays have taken on a whole new meaning for me. I'm not sure it's altogether to my liking but somehow I know it's good for me to have these experiences and cultivate the tolerance and understanding needed to appreciate what I miss and accept what I don't really resonate with.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Strong Women

Strong Women

It should come as no surprise that the foreign women who take up residence here in Morocco are particularly strong and interesting women. Coming from all parts of the world, I have met some truly fascinating females. There are artists, writers, teachers, workshop organizers, actresses, young mothers, dancers, computer programmers, psychics, massage therapists and more.

These women are incredibly intrepid and creative. Others are full of electric energy. Their accents are Australian, South African, British, Welsh, American, French, Irish, German, Spanish --- you name it. It seems to me more foreign women than men are taking up residence here.

Why is that?

There certainly isn’t an abundance of what I would call feminine energy here. In fact, I often feel it’s an overwhelmingly male energy that permeates the city.

Is that what draws the women?

Of course there is an abundance of gorgeous males to look at and lots of attention (both positive and negative) is showered on foreign women.

Is that it?

Not only are the women coming here to live, but they are buying houses and restoring them. They are starting businesses or finding jobs in a tough job market. Certainly this is not the easiest place to negotiate major transactions and projects like restoring ancient buildings and having to hire workers when you don’t even speak the language. And, more often than not, have never tackled a restoration project before.

Are they crazy or what?

Personally, I lean towards the ‘or what’ explanation. The more experience I have, the more I see it is women who are the stronger sex. They can do so much on so many levels. And the women who come here are full of an adventurous spirit. I think they are drawn here because it’s a peaceful place and relatively inexpensive to live here.

Don’t you just love women?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lucky Me.

I could never have imagined the difficulties I have faced in adjusting to life in Morocco. It’s easy for me to fall into a negative spin when my monkey mind decides to enumerate all my grievances and hard lessons.

And then I stop myself and realize just how lucky I am that I came to Morocco when I did.

I was in a financial tailspin by the time I decided to leave the U.S. Ever since September 11th, I was having trouble finding a financial foothold, in spite of all my efforts to support myself. About a year before 9/11, I had bought an antique business. One problem after another arose until I finally sold my lease to the multi-millionaire who owned the neighboring raw vegan restaurant. It was the construction on the restaurant which caused many of my problems with the shop. That, and the fact that the town decided to dig up and lower the street in front of my business. The construction going on beside me and in front of me totally obscured the view and the access to my store. Anyway, I sold the lease (which I fortuitously renegotiated and extended when I bought the business) just in the knick of time and never did relocate the business because of the economic situation following September 11th.

After consigning my antiques, doing a few marketing projects here and there and even trying my hand at selling advertising space for a new age magazine, I took off for Paris where I lived and worked on my own personal growth for 5 months. Upon my return to the U.S., I eventually sold my condominium and everything in it. I made a nice profit because the real estate market was still skyrocketing. Unfortunately, my intention to relocate to Annapolis, Maryland never manifested. I wanted to buy something there and possibly engage in some business venture with my brother and his wife. Tragically, my sister-in-law died the day after I arrived on the east coast and the summer was spent standing watch over my brother, who was devastated by his wife’s untimely death. Meanwhile, real estate prices continued to climb all over the country and I just couldn’t get back into the market. With no job I had little chance of obtaining a loan. And prices were out of my reach now.

And then, at the request of my brother, I stayed in his house during the winter months while he traveled and grieved and I wrote a business plan for a retail business. It was a consignment business which specialized in selling costumes and theatrical wear. I called it Caravan Costumes.

Armed with a business plan, some seed money from the sale of my condo, and a big consignment from someone heading off to Egypt, I eventually found a location and opened my shop. But within days of opening the store, a flood hit the town and my shop was inundated with water and mud.

Not to be deterred, I took everything out of the shop, cleaned it, repaired it and reopened in the same location a month later. But the town was slow to recover from the disastrous flood and I wasn’t making enough money. After moving my shop back into my apartment and trying to sell exclusively to the Burning Man market, I was told about an ideal location next to a live performance theater. I took a short-term lease (it was twice the rent and half the space), once again lucked into a consignee who had a tremendous inventory of gothic type clothes, I re-opened in my new location for the Halloween season. The store did phenomenally well.

But by this time I was out of steam and money and couldn’t keep it going.

So I abandoned ship, so to speak, and decided to leave the country. I had been moving non-stop during that last year in the U.S. I began Caravan Costumes in an apartment in San Rafael. Next, I moved to the flood zone (alas) in San Anselmo. Just after the flood, I moved my residence across the street from my shop. After several flood warnings after the flood that ruined so many businesses (talk about closing the barn door after the horses are gone) I moved my entire inventory in and out of the shop on three separate occasions. Then I moved everything into my apartment and finally, I went to Mill Valley and reopened the store. I decided to share an apartment with a friend to save money. That lasted just a short while before I was on the move again. The shop closed, I returned the inventory and began house sitting throughout the Bay Area. More moving, and packing and unpacking.

Finally, I decided to get my certification to teach English as a second language and travel outside my country. I had a teaching degree and thought I would fall back on this to support myself for a while. Also, I felt all the too-ing and fro-ing was a message that I was to travel.

I had accepted a job offer teaching in Instanbul but had already booked a flight to Morocco to study Arabic in a 3-week intensive course. I arrived in Morocco in January of 2007 and I was a miserable student of Arabic. Nothing seemed to sink in. I was one of three students (the other two students were fresh out of college and excellent at learning the alphabet and sounds) and soon dropped the classes all together. I was embarrassed by my inability to absorb the lessons. And anyway, I was headed for Istanbul soon, so why bother? They don’t speak Arabic there.

But destiny had another path in store for me and I was offered a job at the school where I was studying Arabic. I accepted the offer simply because the hours were better. Full-time teaching here is 15 hours a week. In Istanbul, it was 35 hours a week. I didn’t want to work so much so I stayed.

And I got married to a Moroccan within 4 months of my arrival. Within 6 months I had purchased a house and a car. And for the past 2 years I have been teaching and restoring the house. Every dirham I make goes into the house. And it’s still not finished.

BUT … and it’s a big ‘but’ and here’s where the lucky part comes into the story … I own my own house and I am able to live entirely within my means. I have no debt and feel I am building nice equity even though it may take a while to realize the gains. I am employed in a school where there is a waiting list so, at least for the present, there is a semblance of job security. Were I to have kept the money I invested in the house in my portfolio back home, I’m sure I would have lost a significant portion of it. As it stands now, the money seems more secure in the house. My house is in an excellent location (I finally learned the lesson about location) and I can see a light at the end of the tunnel. I feel I can realistically expect to complete the restoration by June of next year. Three full years of work!

On the personal side, my marriage has not been without great challenges, but I married a man with a good heart. He’s a wild card at all times, but he has always done the right thing when push comes to shove. I am really, really lucky to have chosen him even though we challenge each other every day and in every way.

So when I read the emails and the news reports about the economic situation abroad, I can only give humble thanks for being saved from financial ruin, for surely I would be running scared by now had I stayed in San Francisco.

I am in the right place for now. With all the difficulties and all the differences, I am confident I am where I should be.

Lucky me.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Straight Talk

There are so many experiences and reactions to those experiences that I am tempted to write about in this blog. I used to write absolutely everything I felt. But I have come to know that my American ‘directness’ is neither appreciated nor well tolerated here.

And so I weigh the pros and cons of being direct in my mind. Not just here in Morocco, but in every circumstance in life. And, as always, I come to the conclusion that the best path is in the middle. If I can learn to express my feelings in a more ‘cultured’ manner, I will have more peace of mind. And by this I mean with more consideration and forethought about the ‘culture’ I am living and operating in. And I don’t think of culture as something necessarily foreign, unless it’s to realize it’s something foreign to my experience. An experience I haven’t lived or a view I didn’t grow up with, for example.

Too often I just shut up instead of practicing a more thoughtful approach. This, too, is a mistake because I replay imagined and real dialogues in my head. I can’t find peace. So my lesson is to temper my tongue. Develop ‘Right Speech’. This is rather a challenge coming from a culture where speaking one’s mind is more often than not seen as an admirable trait. And coming from a family where the barbed ‘come back’ was admired, often applauded and tacitly encouraged.

What a Petri dish this place is for me. Without close friends or family or even someone who can offer wise counsel I find I am left on my own to figure out how to be. These days I am my own guide, my own teacher.

It helps immensely if I keep reminding myself I am where I should be. And, too, remember the gestation of the idea to visit Fes. Back in San Rafael, I had seen a documentary on the Sacred Music Festival and it was from this film that I learned Fes was considered the spiritual capital of Morocco. I wanted to grow spiritually, so visiting Fes seemed like a good place to further my growth.

Ahhhh, it’s so true what they say.

Be careful what you ask for …

Monday, October 19, 2009


I’m feeling old and creaky lately. Not enough exercise to limber up and I have to climb too many stairs of varying heights in my house. It’s all beginning to take a toll on my body. I feel like I need a hip replacement, although I’m sure that’s just an exaggerated response to the inevitable aches and pains that come with advancing age. When I wake up each morning, my feet and joints are stiff and I hobble to the bathroom. I’ve noticed that after sitting for a while in a café or at my desk, it takes several yards of steps before the joints lubricate and allow me to walk without a noticeable limp. Aging does humble one, doesn’t it? I keep telling myself I’m lucky to know the effects of aging. But sometimes I’m not very convincing and I reach for the ibuprophen to reduce the inflammation and pretend I am still in my middle years. That could be true were I to live to the ripe old age of 112.

One sure sign of getting older is talking about your aches and pains. I’m going to stop this conversation and change subjects right now.

Last month I had 3 weeks off between semesters and I was able to pick up some extra cash doing odd jobs. Of course all the money went straight into the house. My house is always hungry and greedily eats all I am willing to give her. I vacillate between thinking I am almost done restoring the house and thinking it will never end. When I look at the house, I see there are just a few jobs remaining – install sinks (3), plaster and paint the walls from the stairwell up (it’s a big ‘up’ however), tile the floors in two small rooms, build and install a few doors, plus complete a little bit of electrical work. Then I tally up the cost for all of this (not counting the need for about 2 dozen wall sconces and appliances for the kitchen) and I lose heart. How long will it take me to make enough money to do what remains to be done? And how many hours of cleanup must I do after each project deposits layers of dust over the entire house?


But, I must remain hopeful and positive. This week alone, Hassan and I managed to get the shower upstairs tiled and finally, finally, finally, all the stairs have had zeliig installed. The entrance is now getting zeliig around the bottom edges which the last worker left unfinished when he walked off the job over a year ago. Tomorrow, Insha’Allah, another worker will bring 5 windows for a variety of locations and one door to install on a utility closet. I’m particularly happy about the windows because they will help to keep the house warmer throughout the winter months. Plus there is the added benefit of muffling some of the street noise and keeping some of the dust from the streets out of the house.

But then I remember the cleanup required after each project and I grow weary before the work even begins.

{deeper sigh}

And to what end? Why am I doing this? Am I going to run a guest house? I really don’t think I have the proper temperament to host tourists on a regular basis. Lately I’ve been thinking of setting the house up as two separate ‘apartments’ or suites and renting each floor in its entirety. This means looking for longer term rentals. If I can rent the house for several months at a time, I am free to travel back to the U.S. I am aiming for this by summer.

(a sigh of contentment and hope}

But plans are meant to be changed and who knows what will ultimately happen?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Profile of American Tourists

I’ve observed several categories of American tourists here in Fes. These tourists usually stay in Fes for 2 or 3 days and are really among the minority of the various cultures that visit here. We get a lot of European tourists due to the proximity and cheap airfares. We also get a surprising number of Australians. I’ve found Australians are great travelers and the fact that it takes up to 24 hours to reach their destination is just part of the journey for them. Eastern Europeans, Japanese, Koreans, and even one or two groups of Mexicans all find their way to Morocco. But it is Americans I want to write about because I am one of them and so I am keen to observe their behavior outside of the U.S.

One group of American tourists includes the blissfully naïve. Often, they are quite young and seem to make their way through their time here with blessed aplomb. They might get taken advantage of by some seasoned hustlers, but more often then not they are befriended by some Moroccan or another with a truly kind heart who takes them under their wing and provides them with great experiences and touches their heart.

There is another group of tourists who are found in organized groups. They travel in herds and follow the prescribed path of their official guides. They, too, leave with a smile on their face. And while this group most assuredly overpays for any trinket or carpet they have purchased, they have either accepted that this is just the way business operates here, or they remain unaware and truly believe their guide was negotiating on their behalf and received a good price for their purchases. Either way, they are happy.

The next group is the back-packing crowd. They carry their complete needs on their back and front, like a camel laden with necessities for a long trek through the desert. They are the bargain hunters with basic needs for shelter and high expectations for experience. They are a hardy lot and make their way across the country in pairs or small groups. They go with the flow and either know what they want, or accept what they get. This group seems to have a happy experience here, too.

Another group is made up of two distinct subgroups. These are the Americans with money. Some are quite well-off and this group has a great time here. They can afford all the special offerings like excellent 5-star hotels, specialty tours for cooking, wine-tasting and calligraphy classes. They never really experience the nitty-gritty part of life in a medieval city (except the occasional power outage or water stoppage that just somehow adds to the charm of the experience) except from a comfortable distance. Their sheltered experience is full of color and charm. And if something happens to ‘go wrong’ – like some unrelenting street boy who won’t stop pestering them to buy his hand of Fatima key rings – they turn the experience into an entertaining story to regale their friends and family. They are incredibly adept at rising above the fray and keeping perspective.

And then there is the ‘not-so-rich, but ‘better off than most’ group of American tourists. This group lacks the charm of all the other groups because this tourist is always on the lookout for being taken advantage of. Armed with their Lonely Planet, they challenge every exchange and want it to be known they are nobody’s fool. They reject, judge and seem to label everything as either good or bad. They are so intent on ‘coming out ahead’ or ‘being in the know’ that they miss the journey completely. I see it so clearly because I, too, have been guilty of this guarded attitude that seems to guarantee an unhappy response to one’s experience. They insist that people behave according to their standards. And of course this is a recipe for disaster when trying to immerse oneself in a different culture.

Take it from me. I’ve learned the hard way. But all-in-all, I think my fellow Americans are open to the Moroccan experience and I am always happy to see them.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Tomorrow After Tomorrow

Often, when I ask when something will be done, or begun, or arrive I am frequently told ‘tomorrow after tomorrow’. Now I have grown up with the exhortation that tomorrow never comes. So then ‘tomorrow after tomorrow’ becomes a truly nonexistent date. And often it is nonexistent. But then sometimes, the event or project or product really does arrive. Not exactly ‘tomorrow after tomorrow’ but it does arrive.

Accepting ‘tomorrow after tomorrow’ has been just one of the lessons I have learned whilst living in Morocco these past three years. My ‘to do’ list is useless. Time and time again I have learned that my timetable is never the same as anyone else’s timetable. So, a list of things I want to accomplish or acquire and the desire to tick off everything on the list just becomes an exercise in frustration. I’ve found the easiest thing to do is give up the list.

Now having an intention is different. I have great long lists of intentions that I dare not put down on paper lest I become wrapped up in actually realizing them and – God forbid – have a mental ‘due date’ associated with each intention. And lo and behold the manifestation of these intentions actually happens sometimes. It seems kind of magical.

Take, for instance, my intention to limit my time in Morocco each year. One more gruelingly hot summer, accompanied by a month of Ramadan, has brought me to the end of my rope. I can’t bear the idea of another summer in Morocco and want to find a way to return to California for several months next year.

Here’s what has happened since voicing that intention:

The Director of my school said I could work 4 semesters, rather than 6, and still keep my job.

In 24 hours, two parties have approached me about renting my entire house --- one for a year and a half and the other for up to two years.

Another party has expressed interest in partnering with me to finish the restoration of the house and help operate it as a guest house.

Now the trick is, as I see it, to avoid pushing for any one solution but keep my mind and heart open as to what will happen next. This is tricky for a task-driven person such as me. I try to weigh all options and have contingencies all planned out. Of course this approach has never really been effective --- especially in Morocco where ‘tomorrow after tomorrow’ rules the happenings (and non-happenings) of the day. But what is rather fun to observe is how intentions give way to opportunities which may or may not come to fruition. And the real fun comes in observing my reaction to the rise of opportunities (“oh wonderful”, I gleefully tell myself. “This must be the Universe’s way of telling me this is the right action”) and my response to the slamming shut of doors that once seemed wide open (“how could I have been so wrong? … What should I have done to make this thing happen?”). In other words, I masochistically observe myself drive myself crazy until I finally surrender to the wisdom of “Insha’allah”.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Fasting fueds

When you are fasting during the hot summer months, it is easy to lose your temper. And at least three times a day, I bear witness to tempers flaring and a great release of pentup frustration and anger.

It's best to give everyone a wide berth and keep to yourself during the daytime if possible. But many hearty Moroccans are out there taking bread to the bakers, toting water in buckets and visiting the few shops that are open to purchase food and drink for the young, eldery and sick who cannot fast. Life carrys on as before for many and fasting is more of a challenge for those who must continue working during Ramadan.

I marvel at their fortitude and strength.

But things that would be overlooked with a full stomach and quenched thirst can give rise to awesome displays of temper right now. I witnessed a tremendous row at the water fountain yesterday. A big crowd gathered and as the combatants gained momentum, those standing sentinel nearby swooped in at the appropriate moment to stop the argument just when you thought blows were about to be exchanged. It was compelling to watch. They were allowed free reign to 'let it all out' until the moment when an invisible line was about to be crossed. Then the two people arguing were appropriately soothed by their 'minders'. And I can't help but think those losing their temper knew their brothers and sisters would protect them from themselves.

More heated exchanges ensued later that same afternoon. But this was more apparent as pure bravado and bluster.

Sometimes it feels good to raise your voice, wildly gestulate and storm off in a huff. I imagine those who lose them tempers like this can enjoy a nice siesta after expending so much energy.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The heat is on!

Summer in Fes is a test. Can you keep working, keep your cool, and survive life in an oven for 90 days? That’s the big examination question. For me, the answer is “not if I don’t have to”. I can’t stand summers here. But here I am because work isn’t over yet.

Last year I opted not to work in July. This year, I didn’t think I could press my luck another year so I asked to teach half-time. And only in the mornings. This way, I can get up and dressed before the heat of the day settles upon us. Then I’m back at home during the blazing heat of the afternoon where my foot-thick walls and tiled floors help to keep the ground floor somewhat cool. During these afternoons I take a nap. After the sun goes down I come out again … as does the rest of Fes.

Of course there are few tourists here in the summer. It’s just too damn hot. But those who do come brave the heat of the day in their strappy tank tops and shorts and thereby add a point of interest to those who are lounging on the floors of their darkened shops waiting for the heat to dispel. Cheap entertainment. No electricity, cables or satellite dishes required.

I don’t want any visitors in my house right now because I don’t want to give up the ground floor. Upstairs is hot. Too hot for guests and too hot for me now. I lived upstairs for five days last week and that was the last time. I couldn’t wait for my guests to leave! The terrace is unbearable during the daylight hours but a source of welcome breezes by night. I have yet to sleep up there at night but I can tell the time is coming. And while the downstairs is pretty nice for now, the heat is inexorably building. I can practically hear it.

Everyone is talking about Ramadan and anticipating the challenge of not eating or drinking for what will be about 18 hours a day I guess. The month of Ramadan progresses forward 13 days every year. So it takes about 30 years to go through the entire calendar. I don’t actually know how old one is when they begin to observe Ramadan but for all those Moroccans under 40, this will be their first time to fast during the long, hot days of summer. And Ramadan during the summer will last for about 5 years. It’s going to be brutal as far as I can tell. People will simply have to stay indoors during the day if they hope to fast safely. This is going to be very interesting this year. It’s THE TOPIC on everyone’s mind these days as we get the full taste of summer heat.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


It seems to me that drama is a way of life here. And it plays itself out in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Take yesterday, for example. The heat was on and tempers flared along with the temperature. The workmen in our house all wittingly or unwittingly participated in the black mood of the artisan working in our entry way. And what is normally at the heart of the drama is money (or the lack of money to be more accurate). The result at the end of the day was an argument with the supplier of zeliig. He didn’t give us the correct amount of tile and was demanding more money to provide us with what we needed. Egos got involved and we refused to pay more. So this meant we couldn’t finish the stairs we’ve spent an entire year trying to do. No more zeliig to finish the final four steps. So the workers laying the tile called it quits. And the worker who was stripping the front door of its toxic lead paint got a piece of something or other in his eye so he had to stop to tend to his wound. And the artisan who set the dominoes tumbling grumbled off the job complaining that we was hungry and wouldn’t pay him (not true … we just wanted him to finish his days work before giving him his daily wage. A lesson we learned the hard way after paying people before the job was done and then never seeing them again.) I am at the end of my pay period and money is tight. So I was in a foul mood when I left to teach because everyone was asking me for money ahead of the agreed upon schedule. So my class suffered because of my short fuse. When I came home after teaching an extra class due to a last minute request from a colleague, it looked like the Moroccan mafia waiting outside me door. Everyone wanted money and the peacemakers had arrived with them to settle the mob down. But money was dispensed and today everyone is friends again.
And that’s an example of the more subtle type of drama.

The more exciting drama is when shouting and yelling occur. And oh boy the volume that can be generated is awesome. This can result in people not speaking for a year or more and the entire town seems to take sides. I myself have participated in this. And yes, the issue was about money. Who owed whom money. And while I now give a slight nod of recognition to my antagonist, his wife still won’t allow her children to say hello to me. But one of her sons likes to greet me when neither of his parents is around. He sneaks a look right and left before kissing me and exchanging a few words. Then he hurries off. It’s a secret love affair along the lines of Romeo and Juliet. Drama. Life is full of it here.


No Moroccan household is complete without squeegees. And I don’t mean the handheld type that I am used to … the kind used to clean windows or the windshield of your car. No, Moroccan squeegees are long-handled and are used to clean the tiles floors. And if you have squeegees, you have to have buckets too. I have three squeegees and an ever-changing number of buckets. I try to keep a bucket or two for household cleaning and one to wash dishes in (no sink yet for dishwashing). I fondly refer to my dishwashing bucket as my dishwasher. “Just put the glasses in the dishwasher, I’ll take care of them later …” But whenever a construction project takes place, one of my buckets is inevitably used to mix cement or plaster. So I am constantly buying new buckets.

I keep a squeegee in each shower and one in my ‘utility’ closet in the downstairs bathroom. I have tried to keep the shower squeegees designated for ‘bathroom use only’ but those darn workmen always grab the nearest one and use it to wash down the wet cement mixed in the heretofore mentioned buckets. It’s a losing battle so I just clean the squeegee after the workmen and put it back where they found it. I’ve tried hiding them but there really isn’t anywhere sacred in this house. And I’m often away at work while any construction project in happening. I do swear under my breath when I have to clean my cleaning tools before I can clean the house because I haven’t found any solution to this ‘what’s yours is mine’ mentality except surrender. I’m not too gracious about this surrender yet. Perhaps with time I will find this grace I used to think I had.

It’s funny. I am so keenly aware of my feelings of ‘ownership’ of things. This is my glass and that is my towel. Don’t touch them! Can’t seem to fully integrate into the ‘share and share alike’ mentality. Perhaps it’s because I am with one with the good stuff to share. And the people wanting to share with me can’t replace anything they break or ‘lose’. My CD player and my camera have been shared to death. Likewise some of my tools. One of my favorite outfits (shared with a friend) was lost at the cleaners. I swear – someday I will attack the woman I see wearing it on the street. See what I mean about no grace? It’s shocking when I think about it but this graspy attitude sticks with me.

I share my house with groups of friends who want a safe harbor. But I am the one left to clean up afterwards and I am the one with the job to pay for the place and the electricity no one can seem to remember to turn off when they leave the room. I try to remind myself to be grateful that I have a job but it’s kind of challenging when everyone else is staying up all hours of the night and then traipsing off to Essaouira for a music festival while I must go to bed early because I have a class in the morning and must remain in Fes to keep my job … and pay for the things that Moroccan hospitality demands that you share.

But I’ve gone off on a tangent. Where was I? Oh yeah, squeegees.

I’m fairly proficient with a squeegee now. I’ve mastered the technique of wrapping a towel around the rubber part to damp mop a floor. I can turn it over to the clean side with a flip of the handle and wrap it around the rubber once again with a flick of the wrist. I can squeeze the water out of the towel so that it’s almost dry and mop the house from top to bottom in a short amount of time --- that is if I don’t get distracted by the dust somewhere. So much dust collects on a daily basis. When I mop the floor the dust collects in big clumps that look like cat hairballs. Ugh!

It’s raining now and of course the halqa is leaking so the water is collecting on the ground floor. Time to get my squeegee out and push the puddles into the drain. Hey wait a minute … why isn’t someone sharing this work with me?!!????

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Comings and Goings (and stayings?)

People come and go in Fes; particularly foreigners. Of course there are the expected comings and goings of tourists. And then there are those foreigners who have invested in a house or apartment in Fes and they periodically show up to check on the progress (or often, the lack of progress) on the restoration of their houses. And finally there are those expats living here who are from nearby countries. A trip home to France or England is just a two-hour flight so they ‘pop’ home several times a year to visit friends and family or renew their visas. For me, it’s a little more difficult to arrange a trip home because it’s so far away (which makes it a costly trip) and I really don’t have a home to return to. I divested myself of all my possessions in the U.S., including my condo, my car and all my belongings. It looks like I am here to stay.

But with summer looming ahead, I am loathing the thought of spending the stultifying month of August in Fes. Add the fact that Ramadan and fasting begins in the latter part of this month and it’s just one more compelling reason to find a way to get out of town and head north for some relief from the heat. But where to go? Finances dictate that it be a free place to stay. I tried camping my first summer here and it’s not something I want to repeat. I’m just not made for life in a tent and cold water showers from a hose or communal shower --- at least not for an extended period of time (like more than two days). We have contemplated going to England to visit Hassan’s sister but that involves getting Hassan a visa and so far, no movement has been made to get this underway. So, I’m still pondering my options. The least attractive is staying in Fes and frequenting the water holes daily. The most attractive is a miraculous invitation to stay with someone (who?) in a climate-friendly place. Time will tell.

Busy, busy, busy

It’s been a while since I’ve taken the time to write because I’ve been so very busy. The house has been full of guests. Some university students from America occupied the ground floor for a week whilst a friend and her two young sons occupied my bedroom upstairs. Fes was booked full with tourists and my friend was here from England to check up on the restorations of her house. I offered her our bedroom for a few days because they had no other place to stay. Counting Hassan and me there were ten guests in the house! What a crowd.

School continues at its predictable pace. We are now midway through the term and this is when the teaching begins to feel like a bit of a grind. But I know from experience this feeling will pass as the end of the term draws near. After this semester ends, we have a very short break of five days and then the two week summer intensive courses begin. I will teach two classes, six days a week, for five hours a day. What makes it difficult is the heat. There is one more intensive semester in July and then a month-long summer break. I wish I could travel to the U.S. in August but I don’t think finances will make it possible this year. Hassan and I are thinking of going to visit his sister in England, but it all depends on getting him a visa and, of course, the cost. I loathe the idea of August in Fes and simply don’t know what I will do if I have to stay here. It’s unbearably hot and I get cranky just thinking about it. But let’s see what the future brings.

We have ordered the tiles (zelig) to finish the stairs up to the terrace. Just the tiles cost nearly a month’s wages so it’s been a long period of saving to finance this project. With any luck, the tiles will be cut to size and ready for installation within a week. I already have the cedar wood treads for the stairs and what remains to be paid for is the installation, the cement and the sand. But the big costs have been covered so I am anxious to finish the stairway. Access to the terrace is very important in the hot weather for sometimes sleeping on the terrace is preferable to sleeping inside at night. Even with the mosquitoes and bats flitting about! Early morning hours are delightful on the rooftops and Hassan is full of plans to set up a barbeque for cooking and even the installation of a shower (cold water only).
We can arrange a tent for shade during the sunny part of the day and this will expand our living space.

I have been delighted to meet a fellow Californian who is married to the Moroccan man living on the street next to ours. We share a common wall with this family and Hassan grew up with the myriad of boys (there are 8 of them I think) who make up this lovely family. Amanda and her husband met and married in Brazil and have now come to Fes to meet her husband’s family and have a Moroccan wedding fest. She is from Southern California and is managing editor of a magazine in the states. Amanda is articulate and one of the most balanced people I have ever met. I enjoy her company so much and I think I’ve been very helpful to her as she tries to acclimate to Moroccan life. We laugh and laugh at the absurdities and inevitable mishaps that are a result of the cultural differences. I am hoping they elect to stay in Fes because it’s really great for both Hassan and I to have this couple to share experiences with.

Today I am hoping the man we hired to build a door on the downstairs bathroom will show his face. Right now there is just a curtain from the salon to the bathroom and it’s not all that private for the person sleeping in the salon. It’s been over two weeks since we hired him (really, just how long does it take to build a door?) and yesterday he promised to arrive and install the door but he was a no-show. Not unusual, just mildly irritating when you are anxious to complete a project. Anyway, we’ve been trying to track him down to come finish the job. The last “woodman” we hired didn’t complete his job (again, not unusual) and I’m hoping for more success with this guy. Lot’s of doors need to be installed (they were taken off to strip down to the cedar wood) and more need to be built (for those that were left out in the rain and warped beyond recognition). Shutters to the salons upstairs need to have the furry wood sanded smooth (the fur coat is a result of the product used to strip off the years of lead paint) and some of the transom windows with colored glass need to be rebuilt and missing glass needs to be cut and nailed into place.

There are so many projects. Some beamed ceilings need to have the plaster and cement scraped off and tinted with a unifying color. All the cedar wood needs a new application of linseed oil. Metal grillwork needs a thorough cleaning and painting. Walls need to be plastered. Sinks need to be purchased and installed. Windows need to be built, etc, etc. etc. The list seems endless.

So, life is full of projects and work to finance the projects. Socializing and family life need time and attention too. Most mornings I wake up and need a few hours to just stare off into space and gather my energy for the day’s ‘to-do’ list. And things don’t get ticked off the list like I’m used to. Things progress in fits and starts. But I’m getting used to the pace and don’t get frustrated like I used to.

Unwittingly, a terrace garden began to take shape today. Hassan picked me up from school and as we were walking home I spied two young boys hoisting some terracotta planters onto the sidewalk. After a little negotiation, we bought all three large, cylindrical shaped planters for about $8. They are very old as some elderly woman gave them to the boys to sell for her. The boys carried them to our house and situated them on the terrace. Ten minutes later there was a knock at the door. The boys had returned with two more, large planters. These we bought for about $6. Now all I need are some plants to put in them and the rooftop garden will have begun! I laughed to myself as Hassan and I were just talking about his plans to create a nice space on the terrace for summer. And the containers for the plants miraculously appeared. It all felt a bit magical to me.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Spring Break

The long, cold, wet winter is over and spring has sprung in glorious fashion. With a week off from school, I decided to travel to the Moyen Atlas and visit a part of Morocco I had yet to see.

We started our journey with an 8 hour drive to the big cascade (waterfall) in Morocco; Cascades D’Ouzoud. The drive took us through the most wonderful countryside that was filled with wildflowers; red poppies, calendula, some undefined purple flowers and sprigs of white. The surrounding mountains were still snow-capped and the valleys were incredibly green. I saw one of the most beautiful meadows filled with wildflowers that I have ever seen in my life! And with a daily shower of rain, there were rainbows to see everyday!

Cascades D’Ouzoud is basically a campground with hiking trails which lead down to a meandering riverbed of muddy waters. The heavy rains are responsible for the muddiness; I’m told most of the year the waters are crystal clear. And there are monkeys that live in the surrounding forest and they are quite humorous to watch. They have a blond fur and are incredibly playful. They come very close to you and leap into the trees with great dexterity. It was fun to watch them.

After the waterfalls, we carried on through Tizi N’Tichka to Ait Benhaddou. An oasis with great palmeries and a place called the Thousand Casbahs. You had to cross a riverbed on donkeys to get to the casbahs and thereafter you could wander around the city and climb to the top to view a Jewish cemetery. We spent the night at a nice place next to the river. The room was grander than anything else we encountered in our budget range and included dinner and breakfast. Both of which were pretty dreadful. But, you can’t have everything!

The next day we went to the Dades Valley and the Gorges via Ouarzazate, which is known as ‘Hollywood in the desert’. It is here that many films have been produced including Sheltering Sky, Gladiator, Mummy I & II and The Last Temptation of Christ. We saw two beautiful canyons. One with the weirdest rock formations and the other with sheer cliffs filled with serious rock climbers. We pressed on to Erfoud in the Sahara desert.

Erfoud was a nice relaxing town. We spent the night in a step up from a fleabag hotel and visited with some friends of Hassan’s. His brother met up with us in Rissani and helped with the long drive home. Upon leaving Erfoud, we were stopped by the police who said we were going 56km in a 40km zone. After a long harangue they divested us of 100 dirham. We drove back through town to see this 40km sign. After traveling the length of the town and seeing no evidence of a sign, we went back to the police and insisted they return our money. They did so with great reluctance but with fear in their hearts that I would go to the gendarmerie and report them. One more stop along the way to a farm where yet more acquaintances lived and we picked up another passenger for the ride to Fes. We arrived safe and sound, having travelled nearly 7,000 km in 4 days.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

International Women's Day

A really lovely gathering took place the other day at a cafe in Batha. There was a nice mix of expats and locals and the most fabulous garden setting.

An all-women musical group called Jililiat played to the delight of all. There was henna and a luncheon for those with the foresight to book ahead. Because the music was so enticing, women from the surrounding houses climbed up to their terraces and joined in. I particularly liked the hair tossing! Long tresses were flung back and forth as they rocked to the rhythms of Jililiat. Ululations echoed around the courtyard and a good time was had by all. Everyone was in the mood to celebrate the feminine spirit.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Searching for Evelyn

It’s taken me some time to find my footing here is Fes. When I first arrived, I played the role of student. I was studying Arabic and I must admit I was a terrible student. That was difficult for me because I love learning and I am usually successful at my studies. And I had just graduated from my ESL course at the top of my class! But this time, I was the worst student in the class. So my knee jerk reaction was to dropout of my course. Within a few weeks of dropping out, I became a teacher. Now I was on firmer ground. I’ve taught before and even though it was my first experience teaching English as a second language, I was much more comfortable.

Next, I became a wife for the first time in my life. Once again, I was in unfamiliar territory. It was strange, exciting and unsettling. Time and time again, when seemingly insurmountable difficulties arose, I tried to ‘dropout’ but was met with strong resistance each time. So I stuck it out and it has not been without great struggles and hard-learned lessons. But the lessons have been important. I found myself behaving in a way I thought I was supposed to behave rather than being who I truly am. Of course the results were unsatisfactory. But more and more I am reconnecting with who I am and the adjustment is making my life more enjoyable.

An overlay to all these experiences is being an expat. I’ve never lived in a foreign country before. Here I am a ‘gowree-ah’ (a stranger/Westerner). Sometimes Moroccan’s find me interesting and exotic; sometimes they think I can provide a golden opportunity for their own advancement, and sometimes they respond to me with derision, envy and resentment. It runs the gamut.

My fellow expats are an interesting lot. At first, I did little to cultivate relationships with other expats. Perhaps it was because of my marriage. I was trying to fit in with Moroccans but after many unsuccessful attempts to adapt to the lifestyle of my husband, I have abandoned my attempts to reinvent myself. I didn’t really cotton to the heavily communal lifestyle. I couldn’t relate to the traditional roles of the women. And I no longer had the stamina to pull all-nighters with my husband at wedding fests or gnouah and milhoon music gatherings. So after months and months of trying to deny my ‘other-ness’, I have decided to embrace it instead. The result has been reconnecting with my strengths and experience as well as the flowering and deepening of friendships with my fellow ex-pats … all of whom have interesting and wacky aspects to them that I really admire and enjoy.

Another change in how I am perceived has to do with my economic situation. I have always held a firm place in the middle-class. And living in Marin County, California -- one of the wealthier and more privileged places in America where prices climbed into the stratosphere during my 30 years there --I found myself slipping into the lower middle-class. But here in Fes I am perceived as being rather wealthy. Little do they know! But perception and reality are often at odds and in the Medina particularly, a lot of the locals think I hold a strong economic position. Aywah! The result is I have to constantly be wary of prices I am quoted … for everything from a kilo of strawberries to the price of cement and labor. Additionally, I have to be judicious with my offers of help because fulfilling all the requests I get would leave me penniless and with no time to make a living of my own. And finally, I try to stay aware of the unique perspective I have; economically-speaking, I am a ‘have-not’ in the U.S. – I have no real estate holdings, no car, a miniscule ‘portfolio’ and no income. While here in Morocco I have more than most. I have experienced both perspectives and I am working on recognizing my own envies with the goal of eliminating them altogether. How much more satisfying and energizing it has been to feel joy for another’s good fortunes and blessings rather than being plagued by envy.

I am back to dancing. Something I love and something I had abandoned when I arrived here because it is thought to have a limited place in a woman’s life. Here, a woman dances at wedding fests and at women-only gatherings. A ‘respectable’ woman doesn’t dance in public. But I am not a respectable Moroccan woman. I am a respectable American who loves to dance and takes great joy in this form of expression. So I am now the weekly teacher of belly dance at Café Clock. I also give private lessons. Yesterday, I held a special workshop for 9 young women from the American University in Paris. It’s extra income for me and it feeds my spirit.

Additionally, I host overnight guests in my house. The ground floor is quite comfortable now and I no longer feel like I am camping out all the time. When some tourists are referred to me by mutual acquaintances and the conditions are right (i.e., no workmen in the house and there are plenty of clean linens available) I open my house to these travelers. I’ve had people from Spain, Italy, New Zealand, England and Germany stay with me. I like sharing my space with people who appreciate my style. And I like it when they leave, too.

So now I am a teacher, a wife, a dancer, a quasi-business owner, and a strange character in society. I guess you could say I have fully embraced my “gowhree-ah-ness”. And with the exception of being a wife, I have been played all of these roles before. The main difference is my audience has changed. Now I am playing a lead role in an off, off-Broadway production. And like any good actress, I draw upon my previous experiences to bring authenticity to my character. And that’s something I have always known but seemed to have forgotten these past two years. Be authentic. Be true to yourself. Even in the midst of significant change, never forget who you really are.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


After two years of unemployment, my husband has finally landed a job! And it’s not something I envisioned at all but it seems perfect! My habibi will be working full-time as a rep for a furniture company in Casablanca. And the job begins this week.

Destiny played her hand after both of us had reached the end of our ropes. I had delivered yet another ultimatum to my spouse. In response, he fell ill and went home to be nursed back to health. During that miraculous week, he healed. He got physically better and spiritually stronger. He quit smoking altogether. Hash and cigarettes are a thing of the past. He began praying five times a day. And knowing I wouldn’t turn down the request of his good friend, Adil, they both approached me one day and asked for a 400 dirham advance to go to Casablanca to work on what I understood to be a construction job. As it turned out, that job was actually building a faux waterfall in a furniture showroom. The owners saw something in Hassan that sparked their interest and before the week was over, he was offered a job to represent their line of furnishings. He will be provided with an allowance for his housing and his car and will be paid on a commission basis. Hassan is a superb salesman and this is a great opportunity for him!

Hassan returned from Casablanca bearing small gifts and enough money to pay for his car insurance (the car had been sitting in the parking lot for three weeks). My loan was repaid and the women in Hassan’s family switched into high gear to clean and press suitable clothes for his work. Suits, slacks, shirts and shoes were piled high in the salon yesterday and we all carefully stacked his work clothes into suitcases for the return trip to Casablanca. None of his clothing remains in our house on Derb Ben Salem for his home will be Casablanca for the foreseeable future. His energy is remarkable and I feel like I am seeing the real Hassan for the first time. It was a joy to have him around this weekend.

Sunday night, as I waved goodbye as he drove away, I felt really hopeful about the whole situation. I really don’t mind living on my own for the majority of my time. I am rather used to it.

During the past three weeks things have picked up for me, too. I have two marketing projects and am now teaching dance at Café Clock every Monday evening. I still enjoy my English teaching job and have just begun another major project on the house. That project is being funded by the money I’ve collected from overnight guests. In the end, I hope to have one more salon ready on the upper floor with an en-suite bathroom. Just in time for the Sacred Music Festival and tourists coming to visit on spring break. So there is plenty to keep me occupied in my solitude. Next week I have four days off from work (there is a small holiday in honor of the prophet’s birthday). Inshallah, I will travel to Casablanca to meet Hassan’s new employers and we will stay at his sister’s apartment. Hassan’s mind is full of plans for the future and his determination is inspiring. While in Casablanca, we intend to visit the American Consulate to see about securing a visa for him so he can visit the U.S. with me this summer.

Blessed be!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

10 Things

Ten things I never used to do before living in Morocco

1. Drink my coffee with milk and sugar.
2. Sleep in my clothes and wear them again the next day.
3. Wear slippers on the street.
4. Take taxis everywhere.
5. Ride trains.
6. Sleep until noon.
7. Live within my means.
8. Speak Arabic, French and English in one sentence and be understood.
9. Bathe from a bucket.
10. Pay cash for everything.

Ten things I don’t do anymore living in Morocco

1. Cook (at all).
2. Wear revealing clothes.
3. Drink alcohol.
4. Go to the movies.
5. Launder my own clothes.
6. Move every 6 months.
7. Eat junk food.
8. See a therapist (of any kind).
9. Use a credit card.
10. Wear wigs (a real pity).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Knock, knock

Opportunity is knocking and I am determined to answer the door!

Since my birthday last week, I felt I have been given a new lease on life (see last posting). And while the long-term tenants I recently wrote about haven’t come to fruition, the other night two German fellows stayed at the house for two nights giving me new motivation to seize opportunities when they arise. And if the first knock at the door doesn’t bear immediate results, I am just keep answering the door until opportunity actually enters.

I have recently agreed to write business plans for my local hangout; Café Clock and for another business in Moulay Idriss (a guest house). I happen to have the business plan I wrote for Caravan Costumes here in Fes and I have presented it as an example of what I am capable of doing. I re-read the plan I wrote several years ago now and I was impressed with myself! I can do this and I can do a good job! So, a trade deal is about to be made (food and lodging for the plans). This works well for me and will actually result in more money in my pocket each month (or rather, more money to spend on restoration) as well as a nice getaway for days off. Additionally, I also agreed to start dance classes on Monday evenings at Café Clock starting next week. I’ve wanted to do this for sometime but one thing or another prevented it from happening. But I let my interest be known and --lo and behold -- the wish is coming to fruition. I will initially conduct a “free introductory dance workshop” to kick things off and hope to build a steady clientele from there.

I now realize, after living here for two years and not really enjoying myself all that much, that I have not really been true to myself. I’ve kept myself from doing things I used to do or really like to do because I’ve been unsure of how I would be perceived or because I’ve been questioning my own abilities. And I’ve been doing things I don’t really like to do in an effort to ‘fit in’. But how could I possibly fit in anywhere if I’m trying to be someone I’m not?

So with this newfound resolve, opportunity is tapping (ever so lightly but definitely tapping) and I hear it and am ready to respond!

Wish me luck!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A New Lease on Life?

During the past two days I have been approached twice about renting my house on a long-term basis. Nothing has happened beyond the initial inquiries and a look-see at the house. But it gives me something to think about. For if I were to rent the place it would provide me with an infusion of cash to begin a significant project; like rebuilding the last 15 stairs to the terrace or buying some appliances for the so-called kitchen.

Of course renting the place has other implications. For example, would I park myself in one unfinished room for 6 months and live in semi-camping mode or would I find another place to live on a temporary basis? I have thought about moving back into the teacher’s riad where I first lived two years ago. But another teacher has been living there on his own for many, many months and he is loathe to share space with anyone now (even though he said I would be the least objectionable option were I to move in), Living with my husband’s family is out of the question. And renting something else would cost too much money. So, where would I go? The answer hasn’t presented itself yet (but then, I’m not in actual need of an answer at this point in time). Yet, the possibilities are swarming around in my head.

Were I to move out, it would solve another dilemma in my life. Life with my husband has become increasingly problematic due to his lack of initiative and inability to make a living. And for the past week he has been living at his family house. After delivering an ultimatum; “start doing something productive or I will divorce you” he fell ill and went home to be nursed back to health. If I were to rent the place and vacate the premises, this ‘separation’ would be extended and I can’t help but think that would be extremely desirable for me.

Well, I guess I am just in a ‘wait and see’ mode for now. But I feel significant change is in the wind and I warmly welcome it’s arrival.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Grand Day

Roses, chocolate, cake, songs, assorted emails and the best hammam ever were the ingredients of my birthday celebration yesterday. What a day it was! I awoke at 6:30 and sang the birthday song to myself. For the first time in ages, I felt really happy. I went back to sleep and had dream after dream. At 9:30 I woke up for real and took a couple of hours to get my act together. The sun was shining for the 2nd day in a row and I hung some laundry out to dry on the terrace. Around 11:00 I went to Café Clock and had some coffee and a bagel (bagels are one of the many non-Moroccan treats The Clock offers). At noon, my new friend, Rose, joined me. We had a date to go to a posh hammam for a body scrub. She arrived with roses, a card and a gift of perfume in hand.

Nauti-kah is one of the chic hammams in the New Town. I’ve only gone to the cheaper hammans in the Medina and surrounding area. After experiencing a dozen or so of these hammans, I had sworn off them. I didn’t like the crowds, the schlepping of buckets and the curious stares of my fellow patrons. And then weren’t exactly hygienic.

Nauti-kah costs 10X more than a ‘regular’ hammam but boy is it worth it! To begin with, you don’t have the initial, extended bargaining over the price when you enter the door. In regular hammams, a foreigner is often charged a different price. Even when you know what the real price is, you can spend at 20 minutes arguing over the cost and in the end you are still overcharged. Sometimes you have to fight to get your change if you don’t have the exact amount. And if you’ve somehow managed to pay the real price, your service is not up to par. Who wants to go for a relaxing few hours and begin with such a hassle? Not me! But at Nauti-kah, where the price is fixed at 180 dirham (about $24 U.S.), you are treated like a queen. You are given your own locker, a plush terrycloth robe, a towel and a really nice mitten for scrubbing the skin off your body.

After changing into the robe, you are escorted down into the hot, steamy hammam and ushered into ‘the vaporizing’ room. Your hand is filled with the special olive oil soap and you are instructed to rub the soap over your body and soften your skin with the steam. Soon, one of the workers comes to take you to a table with a foam head pillow (you don’t lie on the floor like you do at the other hammans). The scrub was so thorough and the women working there were incredibly nice. Once a few layers of skin had been polished off, you are taken to the whirlpool. Another sojourn into the steam room is followed by the application of rose-scented oil in another room. Next, you are given shampoo and directed towards a shower. Finally, there is the relaxation room – a dimly lit lounge with reclining chairs and muzak playing softly in the background. This process was 2 hours long and Rose and I were both glowing.

A taxi ride took us back to the Medina where we intended to have lunch. I dropped off my bag at the house and found a notice from the post office. My package from my friend Mary had finally arrived. I hurriedly set off for the post office and picked up the box. When I entered Café Clock I was told a gas leak in the kitchen had stopped all food preparation for a while. While sitting at a table drinking some water and preparing to rip into the package from home, the staff of the restaurant came around the corner with a cake and candles. I was serenaded with ‘Happy Birthday’ in English & Arabic.

Mary’s package included loads of goodies. Chocolate, body and hair products, more chocolate, a box of Mac & cheese (!?!!!), miniature slinky toys, a pink bandana, a vibrating toothbrush and something to house photos. WOW!

It was time to return home and prepare my lesson for class that night. Upon arriving at school, I had the teachers sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me. They were very obliging. Then I went for a quick coffee before class and fellow teacher insisted on paying for it. After class, he even gave me a ride home so I wouldn’t have to take a taxi on my birthday. I had my class sing to me, too. A text message instructed me to stop by Café Clock again when I got home and more flowers awaited me. And finally, my sister-in-law, Meryem, came by the house with a great sconce and two clay potting trays.

Where was my erstwhile husband on the special day you might ask? Well, he’s been rather ill and spending time at his family house where his mother is ministering to him. He did come by the house in the evening and offer to take me out for a fruit salad. But I needed to eat something heartier and so he joined me at a restaurant where I was given a few Moroccan pastries to commemorate the day. Hassan was sent back home to his mother and I settled into bed with a movie. I felt completely content and grateful for this wonderful day.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Most of my students are teenagers; they are 15, 16, 17 years old. Many times I give them an assignment to write about their families. And when I read their writings I am struck by the difference between American teens and Moroccan teens. Moroccan teens extol the virtues of their family. They write about how much they love their family and describe how beautiful their mothers are and how handsome their fathers. They love spending time with their family and enjoy their vacations together. In America, the teens I know can’t wait to get away from their elders. But family life here is central to existence and meals are eaten together, free time is spent visiting one another (for everyone has a big supply of aunts, uncles and cousins) and many even have grandparents over 100 years old. Why, I met one old man who claimed to be 116 years old. He asked if he could meet my sister.

Of course there are plenty of teens in the new town who have embraced the styles of Western culture. At night, the school is swarming with teens. There are literally hundreds of them. Many arrive early to visit or flirt with one another. The more daring  play snooker in one of the nearby cafes where it is not unusual to see young women arrive in their galabahs and headscarves and then later watch them emerge from the café restroom in black leather knee-high boots, low cut sweaters and studded mini skirts. Stiletto heels are all the rage in this crowd. And some boys have their hair gelled into a shiny, spiky, gravity-defying arrangement which won’t move a centimeter -- even when riding their brightly colored scooters. The girls seem to like to streak their hair in contrasting colors and the luckier ones have their hair straightened into a flat, asymmetrical style. Of course there is a mad scramble for these relatively racy gals to revert back to their modest attire after the bell announces the end of class. Parents are waiting outside in their cars to transport their precious cargo home before they can be exposed to bad influences.

A few weeks ago I saw one student roaming around the café an hour before class. I was in the café correcting papers from my morning class and preparing my lesson for the afternoon. This student came to my afternoon class without one page of homework completed. When I called him on it, he shucked and jived and failed to give me an explanation for his blank workbook pages. After the break, he arrived in class reeking of hashish. Yes, the students smoke, even drink wine and generally misbehave as teenagers all over the world are prone to do. But I didn’t expect this during the middle of a class. However, these students are more privileged then most and are often given more money to spend in a day than some families spend in a week on food. So, it’s no small wonder that they get into mischief.

But by and large, I find my teenaged students miraculously innocent and well-behaved. The jokes I crack in class in Morocco would be met with derision in California. But here, the students giggle in delight at the most innocent ploys. For example, sometimes a student gives me an answer that includes a compliment to me. I pretend to add a nice notation about that student on their chart, just for saying something nice about me. Inevitably, the students laugh and laugh at this. I have another student who always wants to use the restroom at the same time every class. After the 4th or 5th time this happened (I was slow to catch on) I asked him to tell me the name of the girl he was meeting in the hallway. The entire class joined in on teasing this student and now that the jig is up, he good naturedly takes a ribbing every time the appointed hour for his rendezvous arrives. A rendezvous that he now does not keep.

On Sundays I privately tutor a young girl who is not allowed to leave her house alone. Her father is a wood worker and he has promised to exchange his craft for the lessons I give her. She speaks very little English and I am teaching the absolute basics to her. It’s challenging for me as my Arabic is more basic than her English. But we get by with pantomimes and pictures. At the end of yesterday’s lesson, she simply and earnestly said to me, “I like you.” It was so sweet and gratifying. Her mother arrived several times to proffer coffee with milk and sweets. Her younger sisters peeked in the salon from time-to-time and giggled at my attempts to speak Arabic as well as the sound of their older sister speaking English. And my young student sat very close to me during the entire lesson, leaning her body into mine as she laboriously practiced writing her letters.

I thank God for my interactions with these teenagers. They are always a bright ray of sunshine in my life and they never fail to transport me into a glimpse of their varied worlds.

New Game

I often play solitaire on my computer when I am feeling out of sorts. I think it has something to do with wanting to create order in my life. During those times when I feel out of control, I either clean the house or play solitaire. It helps ease my mind.

These days, I often wish I had a “new game” button to press when my life is off track. A button I can push when I’ve made the wrong moves and get stuck. Erase this hand and give me a fresh one, please. And while I recently wrote about trying to stay focused on the positive, all too quickly my house of cards tumbled into a heap. Now where is that “new game” button when I need it? Clear everything away. I want some new cards.

I don’t think the weather is making it easy to stay positive. I think the sun has shone all of 3 or 4 days during the past few months. And the cold adds another depressing variable to the mix. Yesterday it hailed heartily which caused an overflow of water on the terrace and that overflow came down the stairs carrying wet cement from the unfinished stairs. And just about everyone is sick. I had a worrisome few days with a wracking cough at night that left me absolutely wheezing for breath. And I was very sore from the severity of the cough in the area of my midsection where the ribs join together. After being told the tale of someone with a similar condition which was diagnosed as a lung infection, I quickly got some antibiotics and am pleased to report I am feeling better and the coughing has all but subsided. But my energy has been low and I’ve been sleeping a lot.

A new hand of cards is definitely in order. A simple “undo last move” button won’t help. It’s not the last decision I need to undo, but rather the last dozen or so moves. The way I see it, one mistake after another has been made and I’m afraid I simply cannot see the way to keep going. I’m not even interested in winning at a new card game -- I’m just weary of the game before me and would like to start over again. Mix things up differently. See what a muddle I can make of another arrangement of variables.

But throughout the trials and tribulations I live through, I always smile when I recall an astute observation a French woman once made. After telling her the tale of one of the business mistakes I had made in my life she sighed and said, “Ahh Yveline … if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t living.”

Well, here’s to living.

But still, could you deal me a new hand, please?