Monday, January 19, 2009

Schweeah, schweeah

A common response to any expression of frustration about how slowly things are progressing is “schweeah, schweeah” (little by little). I am constantly being reminded that this is how things progress (or not) here in Morocco. Coming from a culture steeped in instant gratification, this is not always easy for me to swallow. But there is a wisdom here that I am coming to terms with.

Since arriving back in Fes in September, I have used schweeah schweeah as a sort of mantra. With so much left to do in the house and only my monthly salary to work with, I have tried to do a little something everyday to help restore this house back to its original grandeur. And in three months time I have accomplished a great deal … little by little.

I’ve added some greenery to the central salon, purchased a table and four chairs. I’ve cleaned and oiled the tile work on the ground floor, scraped the dried plaster off half the metal grillwork on the interior windows and oiled the metalwork to a nice sheen. I’ve had the shutters to the upstairs salons refitted to the windows and installed new hardware. Two doors have been built to replace those which were unfortunately left outside and warped beyond repair. A window has been added to the ground floor bathroom to keep out the dust, the cold, and (some) of the street noise. A few sconces and chandeliers have been added. The terrace has been tiled and the walls have been painted. I purchased cedar wood to rebuild the remaining 15 stairs leading to the terrace and a door has been added to the terrace entrance (it doesn’t close properly but that’s another project). Blistered, peeling paint has been scraped off the wood underneath the steps in the stairwell and the ceiling of a small room. A few days ago I repainted some wall surfaces that had yellowed from the cold and touched up some areas that were splattered with ‘God only knows what’ during previous work projects. And while the remaining work seems insurmountable at times, I do see progress when I take the long view.

So schweeah schweeah is actually working for me.

It’s all about perspective, isn’t it?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Presto -- Change-o!

I awoke yesterday morning trying to make peace with the fact that I had hours and hours of clean-up to face. I really don’t mind the physical work and I really like the results, but I get tired of cleaning the same things over and over again. I never have liked repetitious work.

So I sat in the main salon drinking my morning coffee, eating some petit pain au chocolate and putting off the start of my day’s activities. Mehdi came to the door bearing gifts from his recent trip to Mecca. He gave Hassan a nice, traditional scarf and he gave me a small vial of perfume. I smiled to myself when I saw the label, “Channal 5”. We had our breakfast and then Mehdi went on his way. Soon after that, Hassan brought a man ‘from his area’ to the house and they began to clean the floors and walls. It was such a great help! After they left I still had a few hours of work, but nothing like I would have had if they hadn’t pitched in. So now, the house is back in order and the walls look pristine again. I have clean linens on the bed upstairs and we’re ready for visitors again. Too bad there aren’t any friends coming to fill our rooms right now. The economy and the cold aren’t helping matters. But things change and all I have to do is be patient.

Sometimes I am so grateful that I decided to come here when I did. I think if I had stayed in the U.S. I might have gone through the same amount of money with nothing to show for it for I would have had to rent a place and pay for insurances and the upkeep on my car. Those expenses alone would have depleted my savings significantly. And I’m not so sure I would have found employment to help with expenses. But here, I have a job, a fully-paid for house and minimal living expenses. No insurance (my health care is paid for through work), no car expenses (it’s all Hassan’s responsibility to keep the car running and insurance paid for now), and about $25 a month pays for my utilities. Of course I don’t have a landline telephone, internet, or television satellite fess to pay for. I keep things pretty simple. But I net about $12,000 a year and that’s enough to keep us going. We are cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and we drive a beat-up car. But we get by. We can eat breakfast for $2, share a nice dinner for $7 and I can take a roundtrip taxi to school for $1.50. That’s not so bad.

Every now and then I am struck by the wonder of the changes in my life. Here I am in Africa, teaching young Moroccans to speak English, restoring a house that is hundreds of years old, married to someone who has never been out of his own country, and immersed in a culture that is so different from the one I know. Living here has changed me. Not quickly, but inevitably I think. I am more tolerant, more adaptable and more appreciative of what I’ve got and where I come from.

Mehdi just came to the door again. He asked for a small glass for water. When I brought it to him, he filled it with holy water from Mecca. He told me to have Hassan say an invocation and then we should share a drink of the water. How lovely. What shall we invoke as we drink this holy water? World peace would be nice.

Presto, change-o. May the world know peace.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


I am someone who likes things neat and orderly. Living in Morocco has been a great exercise in letting go of my strong need to put things away and keep my world tidy. Well, I can’t honestly say I’ve let go of my desire for this but I don’t rant and rave as much as I once did when my world gets torn asunder. If I didn’t ease up on this urge, I would always been upset.

This constant tearing apart seems to be a way of life here. Every time I go to my husband’s family house, there is endless movement of furniture and belongings. Beds are disassembled and rearranged in another part of the house. There are two kitchens and it’s anybody’s guess which one will be operational on any given visit. People think nothing of picking up a roomful of furniture and taking it up on the terrace to enjoy the sun. The small gas canister used for heating water and cooking goes from room to room, depending on where everyone wants to have tea or cook a tajine.

Now the year before I moved to Morocco, I, too, was constantly moving my belongings. Floods and flood warnings were the primary reason but in one year I moved everything (including the contents of my shop) so many times I swore to myself I would only purchase furniture I could pick up myself from that point on. Little did I know this nomadic existence would become my lifestyle.

I was of the mind that because of the nomadic history here, it was in everyone’s blood to pick things up and move. Much of the furniture is designed to do just that. Tables to eat on are trays set on folding metal or wood. Beds are mattresses situated atop low wooden slats. Cooking is on small gas canisters. And extra seating or bedding is arranged with cushions and blankets piled on the floor. But then one Moroccan woman I know suggested that moving things and rearranging a household are things that keep a woman busy in the house – and keep her inside where it is still desirable (by the men) for her to remain most of the day. It’s probably a combination of these things but whatever the reason, it’s easier to go with the flow than to ask for things to be different.

So I sit here writing in what used to be my well-arranged, neat ground floor living space. But today, all the furniture has been piled into corners and the dust is once again filtering over all my belongings. That’s because the walls in the two salons have peeled off their paint from the cold and damp over that past year. And we are trying to make this place into a guest house and no one believed the flaking, peeling plaster was a special and traditional wall treatment. So in the end (Inshallah, tomorrow), the result will be good and more guests will come to help pay for the materials and the work.

But for now, I’m getting more practice letting go. For in the end, that’s what we all have to do with everything, isn’t it? Let it all go.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

You've come a long way baby ...

Yesterday, I decided to allocate some of the proceeds from a recent project to purchase some wall sconces for the salons downstairs. Just purchasing lights is a major financial undertaking. I still have a bare bulb hanging from the central salon, but I need a really big light for this space (as well as a long, heavy chain to suspend the light from the halqa) and it will probably cost in excess of 1,500 dirhams. It will have to wait. But, I now have 8 sconces and two big lanterns to decorate both salons. Or, I soon will have when Hassan goes down into the Medina to pick up (and pay for) the four sconces I ordered. These sconces are rather bizarre, but I think they will work. They are reminiscent of Olympic torches with brass and bronze flinger-like ‘flames’.

As I sit in the salon that was once the only room we inhabited here, sealed off from the dust and debris of construction with heavy plastic, I think we have accomplished quite a bit during the past 16 months of restoration. The house is beginning to take shape and it has my signature style all over it. Eclectic, leaning towards the exotic, yet tasteful. That’s me all over. I’m a master at taking what I’ve got and making the most of it. I’m not one of those decorators who sees a vision and then manifests it. Rather, I take what exists and arrange it in a manner that pleases me. Because there is so much going on architecturally in this house (one pattern of zelig on the walls, another on the floors, decorative plaster on the walls, painted wood ceilings above, colored glass in the windows) one doesn’t need much in the way of furnishings. In fact, the simpler the better. So, a room can seem quite full and complete with a bed, a small table here and there and a chair. That’s enough. Safee!

And how luxurious it feels to have two toilets! Still no sink, no kitchen and no shower, but they are coming. And lately I believe they are coming sooner rather than later. Funny how the rest of the world seems to be tightening their belts and suddenly I am feeling more expansive. Maybe the feeling is just relative. After two years of scrimping and doing without, the simple act of making a few purchases now seems totally luxurious. Perhaps we’ve reached critical mass … at least on the ground floor. At this point, any money spent on the ground floor is for aesthetics or additional comfort. I’m not obliged to spend money on building a new wall, installing new electricity, water pipes and drains. Now I can add a cushion to the seating area, change the cord on lamps I brought from the U.S. to accommodate 220 voltage or buy some wool to stuff those Berber cushions and leather poufs I got so many months ago.

And while there are still many basic things to take care of to complete this house, we now can take refuge in some nicely decorated rooms and pat ourselves on the back for weathering the stormy times that got us here.

Monday, January 12, 2009


It’s hard to believe winter has only just begun. Here in Fes, it feels like it’s been winter for months. Today, as usual, it is cold and rainy. I am alone in my 10 room, drafty house. The tourists have gone and Hassan in traveling with a group from Peru. His family is away as well, having piled into the eldest daughter’s van to deliver daughter number two and her family to Marrakech and from there they will fly home to London.

I am enjoying my solitude however. I move from room to room, watching the play of light from the well in the center of the house filtering onto the tiles and listening to the rain tap on the plastic. Like everyone else, I have found that plastic is the ultimate solution to keeping rain from coming through the skylight above.

A pile of laundry awaits the return of the sun … most people here do not have a clothes drier. We depend on the sun to dry our wet linens and clothes. On those rare days when the sun does come out, it seems every woman in the Medina can be found on their terrace hanging clothes and carpets in the air. On these days, the terraces are festooned with color and the steady movement of household maintenance marks the passing hours of the sun’s all too brief appearance. If you haven’t wrung enough water out of your clothes before hanging them on the line, they will not dry. Today I hand washed socks, underwear and tights. I have run out of these items and must hang them from the rafters to dry in couple of days.

Buckets. I seem to buy a lot of buckets for they are widely used here. I have a bucket to bathe from. Buckets to clean dishes and laundry, buckets to catch the rain that is leaking from the terrace floor. And women are seen carrying buckets to and from the hammam every day (but I never go to the hammam anymore … the scene is too crowded, too intense and – dare I say – too dirty for me). Then there are buckets for construction work. These inevitably end up full of dried cement or paint and crack under use. I’ve never had so many buckets in my life.

Life here is elemental. Talk about getting back to basics! Sometimes it is hard and sometimes it is soothing. Today I am soothed. For there is little to do beyond prepare for my class this evening and feed myself along the way. No house guests to look after, no demands to make an appearance at Hassan’s family house for lunch or dinner. No workers to clean up after and no one knocking at the door to ask for Hassan.

In this sociable society, I am a curiosity for I often prefer to keep to myself. And I especially don’t want to go out in this dreadful weather. “Aren’t you afraid to be alone in that house” they ask? “Why don’t you spend the night in our family house … sleep with us (all 6 or 8 or 10 of us) in this warm room…” But this is not who I am. I prefer to be alone or just with my husband when I sleep and when I awake and then ready myself for the upcoming day. Even as a young girl I remember the weekly shopping trip with my mother and my siblings. I was always hanging back, walking several paces behind them. I enjoyed the sense of being on my own. And I’ve never changed. I will never be someone who seeks constant companionship. In fact, I avoid it. I do like the company of others, but in small doses. I like to make guest appearances, kind of like the sun during this long winter season.

End of Year Report

In a few short weeks I will mark my 2nd year anniversary here in Fes. And what a time it has been … never easy, always challenging and full of opportunities for personal growth.

As you might remember, I was just passing through when I arrived here in January 2007. But instead, I got a job, a husband, a house and a completely new lifestyle. I even got a new name.

You are aware of all the difficulties I’ve faced during my two years here, but I don’t think I’ve given a full accounting of all the positives. In keeping with the spirit of a new year bringing a fresh beginning, I am going to focus on just that … the positive.

The end of this year brought our first houseguests. I wasn’t quite prepared for this (to say the least), but Fes has been full of tourists during Christmas vacation and many people were scrambling for a place to stay during the last week of the year. So one evening a young Moroccan man brought 4 Spaniards to the house looking for accommodations. Well the few days before their arrival at my doorstep, I had purchased a new mattress and moved the existing mattress into one of the still unfinished upper salons. I then moved all my clothing and jewelry upstairs as well. Hassan, his mother and I went to a souk on one of the outer reaches of the Medina and purchased two long, foam cushions and I fashioned a Moroccan salon in the room where I had previously used as my ‘dressing room”. I had no sooner finished plumping up the cushions on the couch/beds, when the Spaniards arrived.

They stayed as our guests for three nights (during which time we had to turn away a hapless American woman whose reservation had been given away --- on New Year’s Eve no less) and then four more guests came on the following night. Minutes after the second batch left there was another knock on the door and an English couple came looking for a room as well. Fortunately for me and my sanity, they agreed to take the rooms but then left to get their luggage and never returned. The reason I was relieved they didn’t stay is because Hassan and I still don’t have a bathroom upstairs yet and we had to use public toilets and pee in a chamber pot upstairs while our guests were in the house. We’d wait until they left for the day to sightsee and sneak downstairs to shower and use the facilities. I grew tired of this setup after the fifth day so the English couple did me a huge favor by not returning.

But soon after our guests left, we put in another bathroom upstairs. I have installed a second toilet and, with any luck, a new sink will follow soon. No hot water yet but right now I am thrilled with just a toilet. I scrambled around yesterday buying a few things to accommodate more visitors(more pillows, bed linens and a big supply of toilet paper). So, we’re more ready than last week for guests and even though we don’t have the proper permit to do this yet, we are getting good experience housing guests until we can begin to accommodate tourists officially. This is great because I haven’t been able to fund much with my salary and the future looks promising in terms of financing a room here and there from the tourist trade. And, lo and behold, two Italian women came yesterday and stayed with us for three days. So, I’m back upstairs in an unfinished room, sleeping on a mattress on the floor and tiptoeing around while my guests enjoy the downstairs. And, even better luck, Hassan got a job to take seven Peruvians to the Sahara for 5 days. He left early this morning completely excited to be traveling again and earning some money.

School begins all too quickly and while I don’t prefer to work as much as I do, I do enjoy my students more than ever. I was invited to speak at a University to students in an English language Master’s program. I was a hit with the students and have been invited back to speak about cultural differences between Moroccans and Americans. That should be lively!

Like most people, I have been suffering with a cold but it is hard to avoid. The weather has been cold and rainy for months now and the houses in the Medina are rather damp after all the rain. But it’s nothing to keep me down, just saps my energy a bit. The good news is everything is incredibly green and lush in the surrounding hills and there is snow on the mountains in the distance. Flowers are in bloom too and it looks like spring (even if it doesn’t feel like spring).

Hassan likes to say I am famous here in Fes. And he calls me the “teacher of the teachers” because I have been assigned several student teachers during the last two semesters. And in some ways I do feel ‘famous’ around here. Children stop me on the street to give me a kiss (sometimes they kiss my hand), sometimes I get preferential treatment at the post office or some municipality just by nature of the fact that I am a teacher. And often I am treated to free coffee or food or tickets to an event because …. well, because of who I am I guess.

All this is to say, while life here is often difficult and my skills to handle the difficulties are often inept, I have established myself as a respected member of the community. And the house is looking better and better every month. We now have five rooms that are habitable and a terrace too. There are still many, many projects to tackle but for now, I just close the doors (when I have a door to close that is) on the rooms that are still under construction and try to stay focused on the positive.