Saturday, May 31, 2008

from Paris: intermission

A day here with my daughter. I have been an okay blogger, right? Reliable even when, in Marrakech, I never could log on from my room. And still, I found a way to post.

In Paris, I stay at a little hotel next to the Luxembourg Gardens. The Internet connection is infallible and has been thus for years.

And yet, it’s my last day with my daughter. So I’m going to ask for a day’s blogging pause. Even though it’s Paris.

Here’s a summary: we ate, we walked a lot, we shopped and we ended the day with eating very well.

It was a fine Saturday.

Three photos to tide you over. Ones that shout "Paris!"

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Friday, May 30, 2008

from Marrakech: reconsidered

Marrakech. Can’t get it out of my mind. I’m on the train now, speeding back (well, with long pauses) to Casa, where a flight will take us back to Paris. But I’m still in Marrakech. I’m still tossing and turning over it.

A commenter wrote that not everyone is so consumed by the Marrakech chaos that I write about so constantly here in my posts. I suppose you can leave it behind for a while. We did: early in the day, we turned our backs on it -- walking away from the intersection so close to our riad (now, imagine trying to get to the other side!)…

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...heading (at least at first) toward the Majorelle Gardens – created by Jacques Majorelle, restored by Yves Saint Laurent, now open to the public. They are intimate, worldly (plants from every continent) and colorful (with an emphasis on incorporating into the design a deep blue, that has come to be nicknamed majorelle blue). And did I mention that they are breathtakingly beautiful?

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majorelle et moi

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Is there any chaos here, in the gardens? No. Like the rooftop of our riad, their noise is the noise of birds at play. Am I really in the same Marrakech that I described here yesterday?

Yes and no. One foot in each place. Outside the Gardens, the new Marrakech has the new eateries, but the colors are the same. Pink. And the donkeys are still pulling wagons.

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At the same time, you can wander to a place like this:

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…and enjoy a fantastic lunch of Moroccan “tapas” (hummus, eggplant, Moroccan samosas), and plug in your computer. No, not me. No computer in my bag. But then, I don’t live here. I live in the Medina, the old town. The Medina, remember? Yes, with the souks, the square, the mosques and their periodic wailing song, heard over the din of scooters, the Medina, where everyone watches and no one wants to be seen.

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Back we go, to our beloved riad, to the rose petals, the art, the rooftop. The sun is low but oh so sweet and warm.

But in the evening, we are again in chaos. The food stalls, monkeys on leashes, snake charmers, story tellers – they’re all back at the square, entertaining the crowds that come each night. To listen and watch. To eat. To drink mint tea.

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For the price of a drink (water for us), you can climb to the roof of a café and see it all en masse. To the left, in front, to the right, stretching beyond the range of my camera – chaos. Delicious, mesmerizing, unbelievable chaos. The type that you’ll remember always. The type worth traveling for.

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For out last dinner, we return to Le Topsil – the place just down the alley from our riad. No escort needed. They know us, we know them. The routine is comfortably familiar. One price and you eat and drink all that is presented. Dishes of vegetables, tajine pots, couscous of course, peaches, cakes – it’s all there.

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Soothing. Even Marrakech can be soothing. Lovingly caring.

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At six in the morning, someone knocks and brings a tray of hot pastries, fresh orange juice and coffee. At our riad, breakfast is served anytime. At 6 in the evening if that is your wish, at 6 in the morning if you have a train to catch.

And now, I look out the window at this rugged hilly land – the olive trees, the herds of sheep, goats, even the occasional camel...

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...and I think back to the Medina... rugged as well, in her unique way. Compelling. Beautiful.

And I know that the calm is there too, upstairs maybe, or just outside, in the garden.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

from Marrakech: how to do a souk

There was once organization and order to this madness. Vendors were grouped according to their wares. The metal souks (the term refers to the passageways with the stores) were together, the dyers of wool and fabrics were in another area, the tanners and leather goods sellers were elsewhere. Even the slipper vendors were off in their own corner.

Now, the boundaries are fluid. You can pick up slippers just about anywhere in Marrakech. And leather good. And silver tea pots.

And yet, there are groupings. And there roughly drawn maps telling you where to find what. And they’re almost worthless because inevitably you’re going to get lost. Or, I’m going to get lost. It’s my specialty.

This day we were to probe the souks. And I was to come to a decision about canary yellow slippers. (It’s the color of choice here.)

This is a challenge, especially if you’re not otherwise in the buying mode and you carry a camera. Here’s what can happen:

If you make eye contact, you’re going to get pestered to come inside a stall. Just to look. And it will be impossible to leave.

If you pick up your camera menacingly, as if to take a photo, you’re going to be told not to take a photo.

If you approach, say a pair of canary yellow slippers to admire them, you will be hassled to buy them.

If you approach a vendor and offer them a coin to take a picture, they will say yes and take the coin. Or, they will say ok to the photo and thank you for asking and assure you that you can do it for free. And then you will take your photos and leave. Or you will take your photos and then be hassled to buy. In any case, the vendor will not be in the photo. He will always hide his face. Respecting modesty is important, but it's a balance. Morocco would be a faceless canvas if you always ask permission.

If you get too close to a vendor, just to save your life or the life of your child (the motor scooters are a constant stream of trouble; that the vendors don’t all die from lung disease alone from exposure to the pollution, has to be a testament to their strong genes and perhaps all that mint tea that they are constantly drinking), you’ll fall into the arms, so to speak, of a vendor.

If you take a photo surreptitiously, if you’re quick, your photo will be awful. If you take care, you will inevitably be seen by someone and most likely be told something in Arabic. It will sound angry. Maybe it’s praise for your ingenuity, but I doubt it.

So souks are a challenge. The best way to handle an exploration is to wear dark sunglasses, walk straight ahead, pretend you are not interested in anything, accept direction from no one when you get lost (because all directions cost a coin and they inevitably lead to someone’s store), look like you hate your camera, respond to no one who wishes you a good day and leave.

Of course, I did none of the above. What you see below is a compellation of mistakes outlined above. But, in the end, we did begin to get a sense for the vibrant, hectic, hugely fascinating and endlessly colorful souk life.

The dyers and weavers and cloth sellers:

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The tanners and leather goods sellers:

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Books and photos of old Morocco:

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Women selling, women buying:

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Rare quiet moments:

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Less quiet: plunging into chaos:

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Less quiet: celebrating the boy's third year (note canary yellow slippers):

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Afterwards, we collapse on the roof of the riad. You want perfect respite, just a step from the center of the Medina? An artsy place with the most ingeniously renovated spaces? You cannot do better than the Riad El Fenn.

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Except for the occasional French children who play “un, deux, trios, soleil!” and of course, the bird song, the chirpy, boisterous birdsong, it is absolutely calm on the roof. The sun is strong in the Moroccon way (warm in its rays, cool in its shadow), the air is crisp and by evening, we are made whole again.

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There is then the matter of dinner. Our riad hosts tell us – try Le Foundouk. It’s on the other side of the Medina. Take a taxi.

Ah yes. The taxi is another challenge here, but remember, I had recovered on the roof of the riad among all those flowers and chirping birds. I am ready.

You see, it goes like this: You hail a cab. That’s the easy part. The cab is usually heading in the wrong direction and you have to cross and dodge traffic to get to it, but assume you did and you are inside safely and you communicate where you are going and the driver understands. Meaning, he knows that you are about to blow $100 or more on dinner for two and he wants to share in that wealth that you have displayed by announcing where you are heading; explanations that you are a state employee with a flat salary don’t work, mainly because he doesn’t believe you are from America.

No one here ever guesses we are American. No surprise there, I’ve not seen Americans in Morocco. No, truly -- not a single one. British – hugely so. They're so pale, they stand out. French – quite a few. But not many from the States. At least not now. So rare is our kind, that one souk seller asked me where I was from and I dodged the question and concentrated on the item I was admiring in his stall (what a mistake, I know) and when he heard me speak to my daughter he said – well, you are not from an English speaking country because I can hear that your English is not very good.

Back to the cab. We are inside, the destination is revealed and the haggling begins. It should cost you pennies to get there. It will not. Why? Oh come on! Where’s your bargaining power? You are in the cab and squawking – that’s too much, that’s too much, and he’s outlining all the special circumstances – it’s far, it’s evening, that’s life, etc. So you finally settle for the equivalent of $7 instead of the $2 you should be paying and you’re happy that it’s not more.

I have to say that the very best cab ride ever in Morocco (apart from the one in Casablanca, where the driver admitted to having a meter – all other cabbies hide it and pretend it doesn’t exist, and this one ran it and the tab was a dollar) was on the way back from dinner this evening. The driver was a Medina man, and he decided to go through the heart of the old city. It was an unbelievable ride! Crowds are out and about, children are playing, scooters are darting, cyclists are zipping along and he plows through at some ungodly speed, honking them all to the side and we killed no one! In the middle of the ride, he put on Moroccan music and swayed to its rhythm and we were flying through the narrow streets with all those people and he was so happy and we were happy with him and it was all quite surreal.

But let me not neglect the dinner in between the cab rides. We are dropped off in the middle of a crowded square. I can go no further -- he tells us in French. You take the second street, and continue for a little bit and then you will notice and alley…

I am about to change my mind about eating out. There is no hope that we will find anything in this chaos of alleys and people and scooters. But, magically, a man in a long brown robe and a red hat appears. The cab driver tells us – go with him. Ah. We’ve done this before. We follow. It’s the “men in long robes and red hats” relay. The robed leader takes us to another man in a brown robe and red hat. They chat for a minute, we wait, then he waves us on and leaves. The second man takes us down a dark alley.

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We follow. We know there will be a massive door and that a secret knock will cause it to swing open and inside there will be magic.

We dine on the roof. The wind has kicked up a bit, but the cool breeze only makes you savor the richness of the meats and vegetables, sizzling in your clay pot. Moroccan rosé wine works beautifully with most everything placed us.

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The stars are out. Moroccan magic has settled in. Or maybe it’s that I really like rooftops.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

from Marrakech: on your toes and looking beyond

You have to pay attention. You can’t neglect anything – not cars, not mules, not cycles, not closing hours, not the source of directions deliberately leading you to someone’s shop, not open doors that look like they should lead you to the Sultan tombs, but in fact lead you to the mosque, the forbidden mosque where non-Muslims may not go.

Non! Non! Non! The little boys outside shout at me as I push the great big door further. Mosquée, mosquée!. I understand and yet I don’t understand. Where am I?

An older man comes up. This is a mosque, he tells me in clear and definitive French. What are you looking for? The tombs… Ah. Walk there, around the corner. But first, come visit my spice store. Artisanal.

They all know to throw in that word, that magic word, that word that makes foreigners rush to open wallets and fork over vast sums of money.

We set out this morning to visit the Sultan palace. We neglected to consider that it may be closed at lunch time. Palace closed. Come see Jewish synagogue with me. No, that was yesterday’s plan. Besides, there are a million guides in Marrakech. Faux guides, they’re called. For a coin, they will show you anything.

We pass the time in a government supported artisanal (yes, artisanal) craft store. It’s huge and it has everything, but especially furniture. Beautiful large mirrors, chairs, armoires, inlaid tables, massive birds and animals made of stone, silver, wood. And carpets. No no, no carpets, no blankets.

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That was last year. This year, think small. A small vase. A very small bowl. I’m looking for Lilliputian items. Small is good.

And finally, it is time for the tombs, the palace – all are open. Sultans from the 16th century. Living in splendor, dying in splendor.

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Except the splendid living did not last. Ostentatious display of wealth breeds jealousy and leads to war. The palace was ransacked and pilfered shortly after it was completed. And this is what remains, a place for storks to nest:

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But really, Marrakech is more about people and their simpler spaces, rather than monuments. I have already noted though, that it’s hard to take photos. Vendors can be bought with a coin or captured with a telephoto. Sometimes. But street scenes are a challenge. Crowds are rarely a good place to take interesting pictures. They move fast and there is always clutter in your frame. And still, the color in the clothing, the tight adherence to a spectrum of traditions – it pulls me like a magnet.

From the crowds, I got this much (yes, they're hooves; no, I do not know if he's buying or selling):

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But if you can strip away the crowds, take away the scooters, the cars and donkeys, in other words, wipe out the everyday madness of this very typical street scene:

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…you arrive at the tones that, to me, are the splendid Marrakech. The one that Churchill called the most beautiful spot in the world:

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Oftentimes this city is impossibly polluted by the old vehicles that plow through the streets and sidewalks (yes, sidewalks). And sometimes, it is a place of smoky grilled foods. The square in the evening offers that: the smoke rises from a hundred (or so) stalls as a sort of invitation to eat, to be part of the open kitchen.

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Spices. No one can argue that Morocco is spice cetral. Les épices, come in, authentic!

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Sometimes Marrakech is all roses and orange blossoms. The soaps, the oils are full of these and passing a store will put you right there, in an intensely fragrant garden.

Roses are everywhere in the riad. Petals in a fountain, small bouquets and large in public and private spaces.

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And they are on tables in restaurants. Petals scattered over tablecloths. Rich burgundy, creamy pink. Marrakech colors.

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We eat dinner by a pool of water. Candles add enough light for eating, but aren’t good enough for photography, so I (mostly) ignore the camera and concentrate on the food. And there is a lot of food. Plates of savory vegetables fill the table before the meal begins. And as on nights before, the flavors are intense. Eggplant, pumpkin, cucumber, chickpeas, nuts, olives, beets. Spiced, mashed, pickled, puffed, pureed.

I order a sea food couscous for a main course. After, we are given two bowls of couscous, side by side, to compare – the Berber dark grains from the Atlas Mountains and the traditional light grains. Both smothered with vegetables – the Berber with cabbage, the traditional with carrots, squashes and potatoes. And for dessert, I choose couscous with honey and yogurt and melon.

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The walk back to the riad takes us to the square, where the eating and enticing (eat here, come watch, come listen, buy a Henna tattoo, have your tooth pulled!) is winding down.

Our retreat through the back allies is already a quiet one. No scooters, no people.

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We round corners and see cats move from one discarded piece of food to another. And now we are by the great big riad door. We ring the bell and someone scurries to let us in. We are inside. The door shuts behind us. The day is done.