Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Work, Work, Work

When I was living in San Francisco, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find work. During my last couple of years there, I came to grips with the fact that I was just getting too old to be hired by others. So, I planned and started my own business. But it was tough going and I didn’t have enough capital to maintain it after a year. Of course, locating my shop in a flood zone and getting hit with 4 feet of flood water the very first week I moved in didn’t help matters.

But here in Fes, employment opportunities are a different matter and my age seems to be a plus rather than a detriment.

At any given time I seem to have 4 jobs going. There is my full-time ESL teaching job and there is the job of restoring my house. Of course the latter doesn’t pay yet, but one day, Insha’Allah, I will be in a position to rent it out to visitors. Then there are my belly dance classes. These are sporadic but fun to do. I have the idea to teach some young Moroccan women some Egyptian dance technique along with a choreography or two which they can then perform for hire at riads. I have two young ladies who have expressed interest and I hope to put a show together with them. The idea is to act as their ‘booking agent’ and reimburse myself for the investment of time and energy as the jobs come in. I have also taken on the job of editor for Café Clock Online. I write 1-2 articles a day about the personalities that come and go through this popular eatery.

Occasionally, I coach Moroccans who are seeking a visa to the U.S. and are about to have their interview at the American Consulate. I help them to formulate and articulate their answers to the questions they will be asked. I’ve only done this twice but I’m batting 1,000. Both applicants got their visas! I’ve done marketing communication projects, written an operations manual for a new business and, like most women, I am the unpaid housekeeper who makes the beds, washes the dishes and cleans the house from top to bottom.

I find it very odd to have so much work available to me while most Moroccans I know are struggling to find one job. But then again, I have a great deal of work experience and life experience that I bring with me and it’s gratifying to find a market for my skills. I work very hard and get up early each day to support myself, my husband, my house and the car. Sometimes I get weary, but I always remind myself I’d rather be tired from working then bored and listless from having no sense of purpose.

I feel valued for my experience and skills. Something I was losing in the U.S. And while I barely make ends meet --- even with all the work I do, I am not in debt and I live within my means. I am wearing the same clothes I’ve worn for years and washing those clothes by hand but I do know where my next paycheck is coming from and I never go hungry.

Little by little, I am creating a fantastic home and preserving the traditional style that makes it so impressive. I am teaching the next generation of Moroccans to speak English and improve their chances of finding gainful employment. I’m teaching others how to express themselves through Arabic dance. And, I am finding a wider audience to speak about the draw of Fes as I write for yet another blog.

I never imagined I would find such a venue for the potpourri of skills I have gathered throughout my lifetime. I’ve walked through the looking glass and found another world.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Pretty Woman

There is a fine-boned, delicate woman who lives and works in the Medina. She was born here and seems to float through the streets with a calm that I rarely see in the chaos of old Fes. She always addresses me as ‘madame’ and formally greets me each time we meet.

I was sitting atop the Cascade hotel the other night, enjoying the temperate air and the sounds of people coming and going below, when she materialized. She slowly made her way to the far corner where I was sitting with two others and sat down beside us. Her voice was high and clear as she greeted everyone. Her ‘r’s’ rolled endlessly off her tongue, making me smile inside at the sheer musicality of her words. After some time had passed, the two men sitting with us left on an errand and we found ourselves alone. With no one to interpret for us, we resorted to the little bit of French we both knew to continue our conversation.

I found out she is 45 years old and lost her parents at a young age. As beautiful as she is, I was shocked to learn she was much younger than I had thought she was -- for her bearing is that of someone in her 60’s. She moves slowly and has a weariness about her that belies her age. I think to myself that she must be ill.

Ever so deliberately, this elegant woman opened her handbag and sorted through several layers to extract a cigarette. This surprised me, too, as few Moroccan women her age smoke. She asked me why I had come to Fes. Through gestures, some French and a little bit of Arabic I explained that Fes offered me work, a home and a husband … things I wasn’t able to have back home. I told her Fes kept offering me things and I just kept saying ‘yes’ until I found myself settled in. “Marhabah, Saida,” she said. “Welcome”. She seemed to like my explanation.

Another cigarette was taken in hand and she offered one to me. More of her story came out and I learned she lived with her sister and her nephews in a house that was far from calm. She has no husband or children. She counted all the places she had travelled in Morocco on her fingers and ended by saying Fes was where she preferred to be. “Fes?” I asked. “Fes is far from tranquil … why Fes?” Her answer was lost on me but I gathered it’s because this is the place that is most familiar to her.

Taking my leave I later learned a little bit more about her story. She was quite a beauty in her youth and many a young Moroccan man sought her favor. She lived the high life and it seems now she is paying the price for her youthful follies. In any event, that’s how the story was relayed to me. To me, she is unearthly and I now have this fixed image of her in my mind, floating through the dark recesses of the medina, wistfully carrying her past around with her.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A British Author, A Ukrainian Belly Dancer, and an Aspiring Accordian Player

I had a much needed day off yesterday after 6 straight days of teaching, reviewing the semester’s teachings, invigilating exams and then marking exams into the wee hours of the night. It was tough to get up that morning, but by noon I succeeded in feeling semi-human.

Off to Café Clock where I was scheduled to interview an author passing through Fes who was collecting ‘stories’ for a book he is writing. I don’t know if it was my foggy mind or the effect of the warm sun on the terrace that prevented me from fully comprehending the nature of his book, but I never did quite grasp the concept. Oh well. It was a pleasant enough start to the day as the gears of my mind started mesh and we shared a convivial cup of café crème. I figured I would be able to fashion some words later that would catch the essence of what he is doing here.

Later that day I was scheduled to conduct another interview (I am now writing for Café Clock’s blog). This time it was going to be much easier because the subject was an international belly dancer who is here in Fes for a month. I am no stranger to belly dance and I was looking forward to meeting Nadia. I arrived at the house where she was staying in Batha. I had Omar in tow to take some photographs. Little did we know what awaited us.

After knocking at the wrong door, we finally gained entrance into the proper place. Behind the kitchen doors sat a visitor from Zimbabwe, our Ukrainian dancer, a Jordanian chef and our Irish host and her daughter. The atmosphere was charged with laughter and the conversation was filled with the melody of English spoken in a variety of accents. It’s always interesting to me that people think I have an indefinable accent and so I wasn’t surprised when they asked me “What is your accent?” After being asked this question so many times I’ve finally pinpointed the answer and was able to readily reply. “It’s articulated English.”

Omar and I sat down at the table and greeted everyone. We wanted to photograph Nadia straight away as the light was quickly fading. Alas, she had not brought any costumes with her but that was okay. Nadia was quickly taken to an appropriate backdrop for her photo session and returned to the kitchen where our new-found Jordanian friend was preparing crevettes in a garlic and curry sauce for dinner. The smell was divine and the taste was sublime.

Before long, stories were being exchanged and several enactments followed. There was a brief rendition of Irish song, followed by some high-stepping Irish dance. We were also treated to an example of traditional Ukrainian dance and a tantalizing glimpse of Arabic dance from Nadia. Ali, the Jordanian, extolled the virtues of his country and Philomena revealed the fact that she would soon be reunited with her accordion which she fully intended to finally learn how to play it. Believe it or not I was able to tell her an accomplished accordion player is currently teaching with me --- someone who also plays Irish tunes. Omar gave insights into Moroccan culture and mentality to those recounting stories of encounters that left them puzzled while the visitor from Zimbabwe played host, replenishing glasses and serving second helpings from the crevette stew.

Later, as Omar escorted me across the Medina to my own home, we shook our heads in wonder at the gathering we had just left behind. Fes certainly is a magnet for unique personalities and our evening of ‘work’ had served to underscore the phenomenon. Of course we both realized that we, too, are unique personalities, and consensually agreed to keep accepting projects like the one that led us to Batha that evening.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Good Luck People

I’m told certain people are ‘good luck’. These people are said to possess a special ability to attract good fortune to others. In order to avail yourself of some of their luck, it’s vital that you be in their presence and in their good graces.

One such good luck person is also the laziest person I’ve ever met. I don’t know which started first; the laziness or the good luck. But he’s universally regarded as good luck, so he only has to sit in the cafes, day after day, waiting for someone to buy his coffee, give him something to smoke, or take him along on an errand or an adventure which someone inevitably does. His lack of interest in work is entirely excusable because just to have him in your presence means something good will happen to you. Therefore, it’s good to have him available, 24/7.

I think it’s a great gig if you can get it.

And I, too, have been told I bring good luck. My house has been dubbed ‘good luck’ as well. I certainly prefer to be the harbinger of good luck rather than bad, but I am not clear on one’s responsibility as the bearer of good fortune or what demeanor should be adopted. In fact, I’d love to receive the message that I should quit my job, stop doing the housework and make myself available to dispense good luck to those who need a little boost from the unseen realms. But alas, I have yet to embrace the idea that I bring good luck and am more interesting in receiving it than bestowing it. Perhaps that’s the problem.

Maybe tomorrow I will hand in my resignation and begin embrace the role of good luck provider. It’s a tempting thought.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Ups and Downs

Some days are a roller coaster ride of emotions.

Take yesterday. So many heartwarming things happened ... mostly small little things but together they seem to sustain me when homesickness visits once again or culture shock sets in. You'd think, after three years here, culture shock wouldn't pay a visit anymore, but it does. Surprisingly, I'm sometimes shocked by the behavior of visiting Westerners more than Moroccans.

Among the positive experiences yesterday were the enthusiastic greetings and kisses from the neighborhood children I encountered on the street. There was the timely offer of a ride to the taxi stand as a colleague saw me walking down a dark street after school, closely followed by an unsavory looking character. At my favorite cafe, the chef inquired if I'd like some french fries added to my dinner order, as a little extra sustenance after a long day. And kind words and supportive strokes from other foreigners who told me I am beautiful and a look at my face always brightened their day. And my students who always respond so warmly to a single word of encouragement or a simple acknowledgement of their efforts.

On the flip side there were arguments. An argument with my husband and an argument with a guest. This is how I ended my day. In point of fact, I hate contentious confrontations but they seem to be totally acceptable here. Anger flares up and quickly subsides. I've got the flare up part down pat. It's the subsiding of the anger that I need to work on. I often feel like a tea kettle that's with boiling water inside that simply must be released to avoid an explosion of the kettle. I am the kettle and the anger is the boiling water. Like vaporized water my tears inevitably appear when things heat up and I am later filled with remorse for my inability to hold my temper.

But displays of temper are everywhere and I seem to have assimilated this behavior. Couldn't I have picked something else to emulate?

Ah well. Today is another day. Either I must learn to ride the rails with all the ensuing emotions or get out of the car altogether.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Annual Paper Chase

It's that time of year again. Time to fill all the paperwork needed for my new work contract. Every year the documents I am required to provide change. One year I need the papers for my house and a copy of my marriage act. The next year, those documents are not required but I must provide a copy of my college diploma and teaching certifications along with translations in Arabic. Now I'm sure I provided these papers the first year but this year they are now requested again. There are forms which must be filled out in triplicate -- I can't copy the original but must laboriously complete the same form with the same information --three times for one set of papers and five times for another. Oh yeah, and it's all in French which I barely comprehend.

These documents are next sent to Rabat and Casablanca for review and approval. Approval that comes in the form of a stamp and a scribbled signature. This can take up to 2 months if the authorizing individual happens to have scheduled a vacation that coincides with the arrival of my paperwork for it seems there is only 1 person who can approve the contract. Once this is done, I have one of the precious documents necessary to renew my work visa.

Now the fun really begins because a completely different set of forms, along with this new work contract, need to be provided to the police in order to renew my visa. Nine passport photos must be provided and money must be paid for a stamp which will ultimately find it's way onto the visa/identity card.

But before I can present these forms to the police, a trip to the Beledia is necessary to notorize a copy of appropriate pages in my passport and some other official papers -- exactly what they are escapes me now. I seem to block out the memory each year because it ends up taking a month or more to chase down the paper (this is after the two months needed to get the work contract) and fulfill all the requirements for copies, stamps, notarizations, etc.

But that's not the best part. The best part is the trip to the police station where I must present all these papers which took months and months to gather to officials who don't exactly find their work fulfilling. Perhaps its because they are forced to work with ancient manual typewriters with carbon paper behind desks piled precariously high with folders and paperwork from seemingly thousands of others just like me. Every day the line of visa applicants stretches around the corner and these officers are behind schedule before their workday even begins. Day after day after day.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate if, by some miracle, I'm not sent away to gather some other obscure document or trade the stamp I purchased for one in a different color or make additional photocopies. Any business with these officials must be conducted in Arabic or French and woe to the foreigner who tries to speak English. But once all the hoops have been jumped through, I only have to wait another two months to get my new visa. Once my new visa arrives 5 months have passed since the whole process began which means that by the time I get my new annual visa I only have 7 months left before it expires again and need at least 2 of those 7 months to collect the paperwork all over again.

Thank God I am eligible to apply for a 10 year visa this year.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Case of the Missing Underwear

While enjoying a relaxing cup of coffee at Café Clock the other day, a recent posting on Trip Advisor was pointed out to me by an acquaintance. A local riad was panned for what seemed like an unbelievable situation. The guest reported that someone got access to his room, rummaged through the suitcases, and stole his girlfriend’s used underwear.

We were shaking our heads at the ludicrous situation when a Moroccan friend volunteered that the underwear was probably used for magic. We were further told that used underwear was one of the ingredients (if you will) used in a spell in which someone wishes to separate a man and a woman. The other ingredients include her maiden name and some of her hair.


Yes, we were assured. These items and information would be then taken to a woman who performs black magic and the woman and the man would then be separated.

“Then it must have been a woman who entered their room and took the underwear. She wanted the man for herself,” I said.

“Or it could have been a man who wanted the woman”, pointed out my friend.

Either way, I felt sorry for the owner of the riad and sorrier still for the person who took the underwear.