Morocco, Part IV: an ancient curse, the dark side of Marrakech and the magic of street food

[Morocco, Part I] [Morocco, Part II] [Morocco, Part III]

When we last left our intrepid traveller, she had been deposited at the busy end of the Fna, desperately in need of the loo (and a shower), an hour late and quite eager to meet her co-adventurer back at the riad…

Jemaa el Fna at night

Truth be told, I navigate better by gut than by map, so after a quick pit stop at the nearest café (NB: it is a fact that in any ladies’ room on the planet, it will always be occupied by someone having a vivid argument on her mobile, and the intensity of the conversation will be in direct proportion to how badly you need to pee), I trust my instincts (and cheat with Google Maps only once) to guide me back to the riad. Briefly revelling in my triumph, I arrive with barely half an hour to spare before C appears. Our reunions are always nice, as was the tagine dinner and Fna-gazing from the rooftop. It’s a different world up there; the din of the music and the drums and the crowds are near-silent within the walls of the riad.


Explorers-ho!

The mission for the weekend is to explore the souks and The Medina. I hadn’t ventured too far my first afternoon, and by the next morning I was excited to see the sights. With company, I figured, it wouldn’t be as daunting. I must report that the bazaars I’ve been to in India and in Istanbul pale in comparison to the ferocity with which the souks here in Marrakech do their souking. Hundreds, non, milliers, of stalls fan out from the Jemaa el Fna square in semi-organised lanes, lined floor to ceiling with wares, some sections carry general themes: cuir, olives, cuivre, vêtements, textiles, lampes, épices… The rest of the stalls, piled high with pottery and scarves and shoes and crafts and rugs and…I’m confident that one could find literally anything here.

By this point we’ve spent some time haggling for trinkets, and I’m beginning to get my sea legs back – in French! We’ve spent an hour or more in a gorgeous lamp shop, genially negotiating, finding C the one thing (actually, three) he’s wanted to get here: some filigreed copper lamps, and I’ve even chosen one for myself as well. We’re feeling accomplished but hungry, maybe a little haggle-weary, and on our way back through the chaos we run into the super-nice Puerto Rican couple from my jaunt in the desert. We’ve decided to have lunch together in a café overlooking the square, so we’re en route when we’re accosted by a very insistent woman, babbling in nursery rhymes, keen on hennaing me. She’s not as keen on C’s brush off and looks him squarely in the eye as she invokes the ancient and potent Berber curse. Every hair in C’s scrappy beard stands on end as she says, finger pointed in warning: Fuzzy wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy wuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy, was he? It’s clearly lunchtime.

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Jemaa el Fna at lunchtime on a Friday, just before the afternoon Adhan

The Adhan, or call to prayer, sounds haunting from above – 3 minarets broadcast the muzzeins’ calls in unison, lunchtime din mixes with the prayers.

Running amok…

After depositing our souk winnings and a siesta, we embark on the next check-box for the day: completion of C’s RunStreak. You see, he’s an ultramarathoner in recovery from a frustrating injury so he’s challenged himself to a 20 minute (and >1.6 km) run each day for the month. I’m an incidental beneficiary (??) of the challenge. And so we set out this afternoon, not entirely sure how it will play out – even with all the European influnce here it is still a very conservative Muslim country. I’ve covered myself head to toe; but still, in running tights and a long-sleeved/hooded sweatshirt, I feel a bit exposed in this place where the sight of a woman’s legs sans frock is near blasphemy. We run through the Fna square and across to Koutubia mosque, with its orange trees ripe for picking. It goes okay, I haven’t gotten berated or stoned, so I’m feeling a little better about the next day’s plan for an even longer run in these streets.

Street food for dinner in the largest open-air cafeteria on the planet

If rigid ideology is what divides us, food is what unites. Jemaa el Fna is a mélange of sound, smoke and smell; an open-air cafeteria for all the senses. There are the food hawkers of course, but also the drumming and other instruments (the gimbri or the oud, Moroccan versions of the lute), the insistent clapping of the two-sided Moroccan maracas; there’s a resonance of flutes in the air…not to mention the snake charmers and storytellers and singers, all swirling their words, in Arabic and Tamazight and French, with the smoke from the cooking fires. The smell is something I’ll always remember as warm and spicy and rustic and elemental.

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In the evening, the stalls go up: dozens of pop up restaurants selling variations on a theme, organised into rows of similar foodstuffs. One row is snails, one row soups, one row meats, one row kebabs, one row desserts. We choose a stall on faith – they’re numbered, and representatives from each stall go out into the crowd to entice hungry-looking wide-eyed lingerers to their tables. It’s an amazing visual, a well-choreographed nightly ritual.

Our first experiment is snails. We’re served a small bowl of the critters from a giant steaming pot, and use toothpicks to pluck them out. They’re a thinner, more peppery version of escargot, sans the butter and garlic. So they’re nothing like escargot at all really, but I’m glad to have tried them.

Bread is a staple at every meal. And mint tea. I order olives and Moroccan salad (something like ceviche without the fish); C orders an entire lamb’s head (because, of course you do) and has way more food than he can possibly eat, so we share an entire plate of meat, plus some of the bread, with the sweet, chatty family sitting next to us; they’re clearly grateful that we’ve shared our dinner.

Dessert is a thick tea; a ginger, anise and cinnamony mix of spices (there does not seem to be any actual tea in the tea), served from massive copper urns, accompanied by dense, crumbly cake that is something of a cross between halvah and gingerbread. I think I could stand here at this stall for an hour, sipping this luxurious tea and watching the Fna go by. Grand total for dinner: 150 dirhams; approx. 15€.


We’re quite good at getting lost together, C and I, but usually it’s in a forest or on a mountain, not on the narrow alleyways of an ancient city. We’d stumbled around The Medina that morning, deeper into the souk streets, finding the old slave market that now houses olives and textiles; exploring old caravanserais (fondouqs), old lodging houses for traders on the caravan routes – the bottom floors wide open to accommodate camels, the rooms on the upper floors for travellers. Only 140 of these fondouqs remain in The Medina; they’re gorgeous old buildings now home to artisan workshops.

We wandered until we found ourselves near the tannery, where, before we knew it, we were being handed Berber gas masks (sprigs of mint) against the smell, and guided into the lieu. There are two tanneries, we’re told: the Arabic one, where they use machines and chemicals to cure the hides (typically cow), and the Berber one, where they use natural ingredients (including “pigeon poo”) to prepare the leather (the more durable camel, and also goat). It’s more fascinating than stinky, and for that fact alone I’m grateful it’s not 10° warmer. And I’m not surprised as we’re then guided into a shop to haggle for more goods (I score a pair of handmade leather shoes) before meandering back out into the maze.

It’s here that we become frustratingly lost and ask directions – we’re aware of the scams so we ask to be pointed the way back. This was the diciest moment of the trip: the guy who initially pointed out the directions began to lead; the streets grew quieter and we were lead into an empty courtyard where he pointed to a minaret (not the one we were looking for, I realised) and demanded money to lead us to it. We said no (again) and began to walk back the way we came. Just then, 3 or 4 of his friends appear from out of nowhere. There are no other people around and we are surrounded by these guys in a really narrow alley, demanding to be paid for their, erm, services. I don’t think I had time to be afraid because when I saw how angry C was, the don’t fuck with me look in his eyes said all the guys needed to know. They backed off just moments before it could have come to ugly blows.

Crisis averted, Google maps gets us to more familiar territory, and we let the adrenaline die down over a fantastic rooftop lunch. It’s times like this I think of that Charles Schulz quote, “In life, it’s not where you go, it’s who you travel with.” We toast, with mint tea, to this very moment in time.

Rooftop lunch at Bazaar Cafe

The afternoon is more wandering, more haggling (argan oil and scarves), more running – this time through the magnificent Cyberparc Arsat Moulay Abdessalam, its manicured gardens and meandering paths a striking contrast to the din of the souks. And finally, after the long day, dinner redux at Jemaa el Fna.

Because food is half the adventure of travel, we first try soup from one place (the ubiquitous harira, which I’ll try to replicate when I get home), then seek out some other vittles for the main course. “Number 55 is stinky food,” we’re told by a guy representing a virtually empty stall. We choose number 55, of course, as it is packed with many more locals than tourists – always a good sign.

The lamb tangia is cooked in earthen pots over an open fire. We’re seated at a long table with sheets of paper for mats, Berber bread plunked down in the middle, Berber whiskey (mint tea) served alongside the meal. Next to us sits a family of 3, excitedly awaiting their dinner. It is served with fanfare, and we watch in equal anticipation as the waiter unfurls the dish. The meal, barely enough for two, is placed in front of the family. But before they begin, we are offered the first taste with a warm gesture.

We’re enjoying the food (C’s got the tangia; mine is a really good roast veggie plate), revelling in the gregariousness and absurd hospitality of the cooks/waiters, welcoming the kindness of strangers. We share bread, we share our meals, we eat in the din of the night amongst thousands of strangers. This is nice, I think…What is it that we’re doing wrong in the West, when welcoming foreigners is discouraged, as if we’d lose something of ourselves if we were to gain new perspective or new friends. It pains me that if the tables were on this soil, this scene wouldn’t likely have played out.

 


We wake the next morning and it’s already time to go. A quick riad brekkie and C is off to the races, almost literally, as the Marrakech Marathon has snarled traffic and, ironically, he has to walk part-way to the airport. I get a few hours more, the first part of which I spend drinking mint tea in a sunny café in the quiet of the morning Fna, watching the day (and the vendors) unpack. I had wanted to see the photography museum, but after our ordeal in that general vicinity yesterday I decide I’d better not get lost with just hours before my flight. Instead, I set a goal of getting the most for the last dirhams in my pocket and venture back into the souks. And I feel pretty good, parting with my last 100 dirham bill and some coins in exchange for some hand-painted bowls. I feel an even more an accomplished haggler when the shopkeeper, laughing, calls me a Berber. For that I take back a one-dirham coin (roughly 10 cents) from the pile I’d placed in his hand and say, jokingly, pour un souvenir, and leave the shop with both of us still laughing.

The ride to the airport was uneventful, and it was on the walk to the car that I realised we were lost the day before mere blocks from the riad. Oh, the labyrinthine rues of Marrakech…The sounds and the smells and the sights of a whirlwind week in Morocco fill my head as I check in and board my flight.

One last stop: Germany. A quick stopover in Munich on a lovely day gives me just enough time to see the Marienplatz glockenspiel do its thing from the 91-metre high Alter Peter. Then it’s Westward-ho into Boston’s late-January chill, where the fernweh takes hold and gets the wheels spinning for the next adventure.

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In case you missed these: [Morocco, Part I] [Morocco, Part II] [Morocco, Part III] and read C’s account here. Cheers!

Paris is always a good idea…

You cannot run away from your own mortality. As such, I did the next best thing. To celebrate this absurd and somewhat surreal 50th birthday, I conjured up the most preposterous answer: a weekend getaway to the birthplace of joie de vivre. Ah, The City of Lights, where Tango is danced (preferably for not the last time); absinthe and champagne flow freely; a moveable feast, where the definition of art and culture and fine food emanates from its every time-worn cobblestone and stone arch, from each outdoor café, fromagerie and brasserie. This magical, medieval maze of rues and avenues where Gargoyles watch from on high like grand bacchanalian overlords, egging on the tiny figurines as they revel in the daily appreciation of small-to-medium-sized indulgences. I had not been to Paris in 25 years.

Laissez les jeux commence… I needed that frame of mind when I realised, standing in the clusterf*ck otherwise known as Charles de Gaulle Airport immigration, it would have been faster to fly direct to Amsterdam and take a train to le Gare du Nord, where I was to meet my birthday weekend playdate. A preposterous 4 hours from the time my plane’s wheels hit French tarmac to those of my valise hitting the pavement on la rue Dunkerque, where an old stone building melts as a parody of itself, and my dear friend with his warmhearted smile waits more patiently than necessary for this sleep-deprived, travel-weary and absolutely famished birthday girl.

C has chosen a fabulous (and equally unexpected) B&B, essentially a guestroom in a lovely couple’s fantastic flat in the 10e arrondissement, a quirky neighbourhood that borders Le Marais, walking distance to everything else we’re to explore in the coming days. I’ll get out of the way that B&B Bouchardon was the most comfortable, charming, understated (whilst being utterly chic and meticulously appointed) bed and breakfast I’ve ever visited. The breakfasts were as delectable to the eyes as they were to the palate. The hosts, Frédéric and Jozsef, made us welcome as if old friends (C had stayed here a couple years earlier, and the mutual warmth clearly has not worn off). And so, almost immediately upon arrival, the champagne toasts commence.

I don’t drink much on the whole, and I’ve not slept or eaten in at least half a day, so we set off for a spot of lunch (Syrian Smörgåsbord, as it happened) and a wander around the neighbourhood to stave off the inevitable end-of-adrenaline, lest I fall over and ruin my own birthday party. We stroll the streets and into Le Marais with all its quirky energy and shops galore. Fresh autumn air does a body good, so we venture to Île de la Cité and Notre Dame to look for hunchbacks, find none, and settle for gargoyles. On the way home we pass a patisserie in whose window I see meringues the size of a smallish hedgehog (this alone should have been the giveaway), and I decide to indulge my curiousity. The real hint came when the store clerk asked what colour I wanted: pistache, naturallement, erm, vert. Tant pis, I think, as the non-pastry fails to live up to its potential; another day, another macaron.

My birthday draws to a close on this continent and with it I reach the end of my candle, so to speak. Luckily, it’s towards the end of an exceptional dinner at the unpretentious yet brilliant Restaurant 52; we’re at an outdoor table on a bustling but not overwhelming rue Parisienne…and there is a split-second realisation that there is nowhere on earth I’d rather be at this exact moment. Merci, C.

The first spark of birthday wisdom arises: one thing Parisiens do much better than the rest of us is savour…moments, fine food, warm smiles, small celebrations.


Vendredi: As if to thumb our noses at age, we set off the next morning to visit The Catacombs (not before indulging in the nothing-less-than-indulgent BBB petit déjeuner, which, on its own, is worth staying here).

If history was taught as a travel adventure story rather than dates and names, I might have become an anthropologist. This day’s lesson is that the stone used to build much of Paris’ lovely architecture like Notre Dame and the Louvre was quarried from the vast limestone deposits beneath the city. A network of pillars and tunnels were created to bolster against collapse, but 500 years of mining began to take its toll. In 1774, Rue d’Enfer lived up to its name, opening a 30+ metre-deep sinkhole that threatened to consume a neighbourhood if something wasn’t done. It was decided to turn a portion of these underground tunnels into an ossuary to alleviate the overcrowding of the city’s cemeteries (neighbours were complaining; perfume shoppes couldn’t keep up with the, erm, bouquet). Ultimately, somewhere between 2-6 million corpses were interred unceremoniously in what became The Catacombs. The place is fascinating, actually, these meticulously-laid bones, layered skull upon femur, bottom to top; Jenga-like stacks along the walls of the mine shafts. The sign above the passageway as you enter: Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.

As you do after seeing piles of centuries-old squelettes, we wend our way to the Quartier Latin and a proper crêperie for lunch, people-watching as we sip cidre (the real kind!) from bowls. This day is like a postcard, vraiment, tho we’ve dubbed it Day of the Dead. We toast to not being quite ready yet. Next up, Le Panthéon. The building is itself a magnificently-carved statue; once a church, it is now a mausoleum, housing not only the likes of Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Marie Curie, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Rousseau, but also Foucault’s Pendulum (I simultaneously rue and thank Umberto Eco upon seeing it). The panoramic view of the city from le colonnade is unexpected and spectacular; well worth the climb up the hundreds of steep stone steps. Who says you can’t earn adventure points* in Paris?

Views viewed, we wander across the Seine in search of Shakespeare and Company, a gorgeous, independently-owned bookstore near the banks of the river. It is because of shops like this that Amazon can’t ever fully win. Shakespeare and Company is situated at kilomètre zéro, essentially the centre of Paris. So, we did that too. And, later, wine and charcuterie and an encounter with some drunk Danish guys to round off the evening. Because, you know, Paris.


Samedi: Le Louvre, les escargots, le fromage, le tarte tatin, Les Tuileries, a climb to the top of l’Arc de Triomphe (the view from Le Panthéon was better) and tea on the Champs Elysées, finding the ones to which all other macarons aspire. Adventure points awarded for both the eating of escargot and the extraction of said snails from their shells with the bistro’s creaky snail tongs.

Le Louvre

Boston, where I live, is among the oldest established cities in the US, a mere infant compared with Europe. So being in a bustling Paris, where (centuries-) old meets (relatively) new every day and rides the metro to work, it’s like a history lesson of the evolution of Europe at each corner. In French. C’est chouette.

Perhaps we’ll dedicate this day to the iconic symbols of excess of la Ville-Lumière.

For the final dinner of birthday weekend, our hosts recommend Brasserie Julien, an exquisite classique Art Nouveau brasserie, mere blocks from the B&B. One does not have to do much more than swap out diners’ vêtements to imagine the likes of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel singing as their artiste friends fill the tables here. We indulge in an absinthe aperitif and beaucoup de champagne with our meal, which is as delectable to the palate as the decor is to the eyes.

 


Dimanche: A quick visit to Montmartre suits the final morning, where the smaller Saint-Pierre de Montmartre, seen during Sunday mass, did not fail to impress; diffused morning light streaming through stained glass onto 12e ciècle pierres (lit., stone), choir resonating in the hall’s towering ceilings…

After this, it’s trains, planes, and, unfortunately, delays, as I make it into my own bed by the stroke of 1 am. Visions of a fin de la semaine parfait dancing in my head.

 


Dernières pensées: An understandable amount of time was spent this weekend talking what-ifs and pondering what-nexts; reflecting on this place we find ourselves (metaphorically and literally), mid-way or more through the short time we have here…in Paris, in this lifetime, and is there a difference?

I feel a combined envy of, and something like inspiration from, the laissez-faire nonchalance in which revelling Parisiens congregate. At the same time, there’s a pang of melancholy for those things you can’t get back: youth, missed connections, crossed signals, diverging paths, bad timing, unspoken words. So I focus on the present moment, and a fantastic weekend with a wonderful human…where or whether we tango again is in the hands of a certain elephant-headed god**. 🕉️

 


*C and I devised the system of Adventure Points a year or so ago on a hiking trip in Sardinia.

**Ganesha, Indian god and remover of obstacles, metaphorically weaves his way into our lives, injecting humour and roadblocks; opening doors and shining light on possibilities. In the couloir of the B&B is a stone sculpture of elephants. There are always elephants. Sometimes they sit just outside the room.