Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Chefchaouen Album

Pam visited on her spring break some weeks ago, and I took advantage of her presence to play the tourist a bit. We spent two days in Casablanca, stopping into Rick's Bar at the Hyatt and contemplating the Hassan II mosque jutting out into the Atlantic, though the only real story of that trip involves a midnight stop at the central police station to look up my entry visa number so that I would be allowed into the hotel. The truly impressive trip of the week was instead a four-hour trek into the Rif mountains, where we quite literally lost ourselves in the postcard-perfect medina of Chefchaouen.

At 8am on a Wednesday, Pam and I boarded a CTM bus heading for Tetouan. After a few curious stares from our fellow passengers, two stops in small-town markets, and a conversation with an over-friendly cigarette vendor who complimented my English, we debarked at the Chefchaouen depot.

In my typical fashion, we travelled without a map, but nonetheless succeeded in winding our way to the old city, whose distinctive color scheme we wished to see. The city, built into the side of a mountain, is painted entirely white, with its doors and alleyways dyed in a dizzying array of blues. Narrow paths frequently turn into staircases and even wider streets are often painted teal or or robin's egg shades.

We marveled. We pointed and took pictures. We bought blue scarves to match our surroundings and drank tea in a quiet square. From the old fortress tower, we looked down over the octagonal minaret and the mazelike town and up to the mountain peak sheltering this curious place. After a day of climbing and descending through the tangle of blue alleys, we bought the last two tickets on the evening bus to Fes - and enjoyed two hours stranded on the side of the road with engine trouble before stumbling happily into bed after our late return and long day.

Saturday Sun

Ella and Louis float through the emptiness of a clean, light room. On the north balcony a row of white shirts and bedsheets drift in the breeze, while the west window looks out over the valley-ravine, offering a myth of isolation and perfect stillness. The bathtub sparkles white and smells of lemon soap, while in the next room the two beds are neatly made, their blankets brushing the newly-swept floor. This white space is mine, and this Saturday calm as well. Tuesday brings exams, and the future beyond comes unknown and unbidden, but for this moment I am mistress of a tiny corner of the world and I will welcome that security and settle in to write.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Post weekend high

I just want to say that life is a wonderful thing. I'm not sure that France is the place for me ultimately, but right now I am content and happy. I had a dinner party last night, with lots of people from lab and it was lovely. Then today, despite a ridiculously low number of sleeping hours, I went skiing with Max. It was also a lovely day, nice snow, good company, AND it was still light out when we got home at 7! 'Springing forward' kinda sucks for sleeping, but it is still made things feel so much warmer and alive...despite being very tired when I got home I couldn't stay inside and went for a walk in the park instead. The mountains are STILL breathtaking and combined with a sunset are amazing. I just wanted to walk and look at them and feel nice. I think this feeling is what people are looking for (amazing what the endorphins from exercise and sunlight can do...) but I think if everyone would just stop and look at the sky occasionally, or smell a flower, or smile at a little kid running and yelling, we all might be happier. :)

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Package Drama

Goal: to send 2 packages, 1 to my sister for her birthday and one to Aubree in China as a random cadeau

Level of Difficulty: WAY behind proportion to the goal.

Post office hours here are ridiculously awkward for anyone who has a real job, so I've always used the 'bureau de poste' that is in the lab complex. Apparently, they have recently had a rules change without notifying anyone, because when I took my packages Wednesday morning, the man informed me that they no longer send personal mail. When I told him that I was expecting to pay, not the lab, he didn't care. So then I had to carry my packages with me that evening, when I was planning on hiking up the Bastille. Oh joy. Strike 1!

That evening, I had the bright idea to stop by a real, exterior to lab, post office on the way to the mountain. They were still open (!) but it seems this was surprising to most locals as well because the line was nearly out the door. We hadn't allocated much time for the spur-of-the-moment post office run, so we decided to leave because if we had waited, it would have gotten dark when we were halfway up the hill. Which would have been bad. Uphill in the cold dark, ugh. So I carried the packages uphill and then back home with me. They weren't terribly heavy, but still.

That night, the girl who I climbed the Bastille with, Franziska, offered to take them to the post office the next day with her, when she went for something else. So I took them to work again, and gave them to Franziska after lunch. Today, she comes to the office...handing me back the package to China. She was happy that she had mailed my sister's bday present, because it needs to be there by April 3 (small chance, I know!) but she couldn't mail the other one because she didn't know the contents for the customs declaration. I think if I was AT the post office with a package, I would either make up the contents, or open it and then reseal it...but I dunno. Maybe there were lots of grumbling french people behind her in line,...Strike 2!

So there I was again, at work today, friday, with a package that was supposed to be mailed on Tuesday. I left relatively early today, 5, went to the library to pay a fine, and then raced to make it to the post office. Whew, 5:33, made in the shade!...or so I thought. I got into the post office only to find out that the computers were down and they could not send any packages AT ALL. Mon dieu! Strike 3! (but baseball aside, I was determined at this point to send this blinking package!)

Ok, can I make it to another post office in 20 minutes? This is assuming they don't close the doors early, because they have enough of a line to keep them busy to closing time...entirely possible to occur... I get there at 10 til...and proceed to come THIS close to getting hit by a biker crossing the street. Not a, it obeyed the law and stopped for the pedestrian...but it was a close miss. However, that must have been the last of the bad luck because the post office counter closed just AFTER me instead of before me, at 4:53, and my package is safely INSIDE the post office.
No guarantees it will get to China before August, but hey, its on its way, after the biggest comedy of postal frustration ever. I like France, but the postal service could use some work!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Bath, not the tub

Disappointing about England: I didn't hear anyone say 'Cheerio' to say goodbye...bummer

Wonderful about England: Many things! The countryside was very beautiful, especially in the Salisbury plain near Stonehenge. I think I could go camping happily there for quite a long time. I got 2 new friends, since Becki and I really didn't know each other at all well before I went, and I met and hung out with her boyfriend Matt as well. I can now say I've been to Wales, though I don't think Cardiff is horribly representative, but I did hear spoken Welsh (I still think it sounds neat and want to learn it) and tour a medieval castle. And the Bath Abbey is truly amazing, somehow the combination of bright colors and whiteness in the windows and the stone made it truly beautiful. And now I've been to a Church of England service, which is not quite as intimidating as Catholic ones!
So all together, other than the unnecessarily long journey home last night, my trip to England was very enjoyable and I very much want to return, since there are so many parts of England I still haven't seen, and I feel like its probably like France in that it varies muchly despite its small land area. Another thing to add to the exponeniating to-do list of my life!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

french researching

Just a short note to say that I was actually quite staggered today. Kenn (a visiting researcher from Delaware on my project) asked when I was leaving, I answered the end of May, and Trevor was like, "oh my, so soon!" Kenn then proceeded to be like, you should get her to stay..." And Trevor was like, "yeah, but I can't." He looked straight at me -- and I said, "You've never tried," kind of just to see what he would say. It is true, he actually has never asked me to stay, even though he is continually harassing Andrew about taking the PhD position. I think its because whereas Andrew doesn't really know what he's doing next year, I have concrete plans that I can't change, Trevor knows I'm going to med school and so has never bothered to try and change that. It was funny though, he was like, "I haven't?"
And then later, he brought it up again and was like, "of course, if you wanted it, the PhD position would be yours in a heartbeat." And I was shocked at how tempting that sounded! Lately I have been really busy and involved with my research, the question has become much more intriguing, and I could actually see myself getting a PhD. Don't worry, I'm not going to perjure myself, or whatever the term is, by going back on my word to Vandy Med, and I have wanted med school since I was 6, I'm not changing my mind in a heartbeat, but there is a certain allure to the research option as well, more than I thought it would be.
I think it partly felt good just to get that offer, that I could stay if I wanted, but huh. Interesting.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Encore la Belgique!!

Today, for the first time in a week, just sitting was lovely and perfectly relaxing. The TGV, the high speed train from Paris to Grenoble, was especially nice today in comparison to all the other sitting I have been doing this week, either in slightly boring meetings with the subsequent struggle to stay awake and/or ask intelligent questions, at dinner with people I've basically just met, or in bars afterwards with music and lots of people drinking and yelling. None of these situations are terribly relaxing, and followed by not-quite-enough sleep afterwards, have led to some fatigue. So the 3 hours of sitting in a comfortable pullover, in contrast to slightly chafing dress clothes, in the silence of the train, reading and knitting, was an amazing experience.

I have returned from Belgium, however, with more than just tiredness, but with knowledge I didn't have before about the European Union and its institutions, countries, maps, etc. Truthfully, most of what I learned centered around the incredible beaucracy of such a large institution, with its sluggishness of movement in policy and other matters, and about its representatives' reluctance to say anything actually informative. You should not hold a question and answer session if you fully intend on verbally circling every single question!! What they don't say can be interesting too, however, and I certainly know more about the EU than at the beginning (which wasn't much, but still).

And, as always, I think it is the people that make or break an experience for me. If I hadn't met anyone I respected/liked/enjoyed being with, my week would have been a disaster. There are cool people everywhere as new experiences continually remind me, and there were several people that I hung out with more than the others that I really enjoyed being with. Its almost sad, knowing that if you had met someone in other circumstances, you could have become good friends, but because you will know them for a week in a conference setting there is a very low probability that will happen. Its like lost friendship potential...but who knows, with this wonderful thing called the internet, anything is possible!

So yes, now I am back in Grenoble, and must confront the early wake-up call and then the bike ride to work tomorrow, which will be an effort I am afraid due to the incredible number of Belgian calories I have consumed in the past week...

Belgium I

All the keys are in the right place! That is the first thing I notice as I sit down with Jesse to write; I have been using the computers at a nearby internet cafe to avoid the exorbitant prices for internet at the hotel, and they have ?french? keyboards. At first, I thought all the keys were in the wrong places, it turns out its only a select few, but the 'a' key is annoying to be continually switching with 'q'!! So at the moment, my ability to type without constant grimaces and backspacings is making me happy :).

On the whole, however, I have really enjoyed Belgium. Somehow it looks different from France, the countryside is a mix of fields and pine forests, with plenty of rivers and creeks running everywhere. The American Fulbrighters here would say that is because the rain is entirely unpredictable, with rain and sun at the same time sometimes!, which they find perplexing and frustrating, but so far the rain hasn't annoyed me. Its true, it does seem to rain at least a little everyday, but it makes all the vegetation so green and beautiful, and as long as you're prepared it goes away quickly anyway so its no big deal. There has been plenty of sunshine as well, and with the help of an umbrella (nevermind that I seem to have left it in the bar last night!) and Gore-Tex shoes, I am staying dry enough.

It has been interesting watching group dynamics in a group in which most of the people were strangers only 4 days ago. There is a large contingent of Germans for some reason, so they are obviously more comfortable with each other, but there are currents and groups that didn't exist before forming already. There's the guy that everyone groans when he talks...except for the one oblivious girl...who everyone groans when she is late...again! There's the jokesters, the quiet ones, the fake but fairly fun (hehe, say that five times fast) ones.... I know its not good to judge people unnecessarily, but at the same time, its completely natural and as long as you don't let your opinion affect your respect and regard for them as people with complete histories and futures you will never know, I don't think its such a bad thing to know, within yourself, what you think of people. Sharing it is something else...which it seems people also feel compelled to do in situations like this, where the society has been completely artificially constructed.

For me, what it essentially boils down to, is that in Belgium I have so far, discovered a lovely country, with beautiful cities, french-speaking with a slight accent, many new people that are nice and interesting and several who I really like. Perhaps my favorite strongly reminds me of Pam Peters, with her perky funness and humor, with a twist of Spryte's hilarious expressions thrown in. Pam and Spryte, you have a combined alter-ego named Erica!! ;)

And there's still 3 more days!!

Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Imam and the Banana

Okay, so I didn't write it, but I wish I could have. Scarlettscion recently posted an entry recounting a conversation among Moroccan friends after a recent wedding, and it is remarkable both for its humor and its glimpse into sexuality here. Without further introduction, I recommend "The Imam and the Banana".

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Stocking a kitchen

In honor of my new kitchen privileges, I went out grocery shopping today and decided that staying local sounded a lot more fun than a trip out to the big French supermarket on the edge of town. I spent about two hours wandering the Ville Nouvelle in the neighborhood surrounding the center and in the neighboring Atlas area. At the end of the day, here's my tally:

My favorite fruit vendor in the marché central:
2 kiwis
3 oranges
1 lb strawberries
1 lb bananas

The blind vegetable man around the corner:
3 tomatoes
2 heads cauliflower
2 lemons

The grocer in Atlas who complimented my Arabic and told me about living in France twenty years ago:
2 lbs pasta
1 lb lentils
2 lbs sugar

The refrigerated-goods shop in Atlas:
4 containers yogurt
3 eggs

The grocer just down the street from the Villa, who always asks how I'm doing and teaches me the words for his wares:
1/2 lb flour
1 jar strawberry jam
2 loaves whole wheat bread

Total: 96 dirhams (somewhere between $11 & $12)

I LOVE Morocco.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Western Sahara

Today's New York Times offers a compelling op-ed piece on the Western Sahara conflict. Mohamed VI has certainly proved himself to be a more stable and modern ruler than his father on a number of issues, and I hope that his proposals do receive serious attention. The Polisario Front would like to see a referendum on the issue, and I do think that a democratic approach would be just if it could be properly carried out...but given the circumstances such a vote would be difficult to conduct without manipulation. After this long, any end to the standoff would be welcome, and to see it firsthand from here in Morocco could be very interesting indeed (though I must admit that everyone here is paying far more attention to the newborn princess than to the machinations of the UN).