Monday, April 30, 2007


Saturday night, Laura decided a good Sunday plan would be to take off for Rabat for the day. Two minutes later, she had talked me into not only tagging along but rather planning the trip. I nearly talked her out of it just as quickly when I told her she'd need to be ready by 8am, but after a moment's pout she resigned herself to waking at such an ungodly hour.

Surely enough, we caught a nearly empty train just before nine and arrived at our destination three hours later. It felt like we had changed continents rather than merely towns, for the wide boulevards and modern architecture looked more like LA than Fez. The ostensible purpose of this jaunt was a shopping trip, so we set off to a mall, curious as to what we'd find. Walking in the door, I entered a surreal sort of dreamworld of couture and gelatto, fancy shoes and a food court complete with a restaurant that claimed to serve mexican food, though I've never before been served a burrito with a side of cauliflower-green bean salad. This place even had an ice skating rink, so go figure.

After a thorough tour, Laura bought the makeup she'd dearly wanted and we decided to spend the afternoon closer to the waterfront. Sitting on the beach, she lamented her tennis shoes and long-sleeved shirt, which I simply dubbed "moroccan beach wear," as none of the other women wore anything more revealing. Nonetheless, she sprawled in the sand in her big sunglasses with my scarf wrapped 50's movie-star style over her head while I pulled out my book and ignored the boys behind us who had begun to catcall in French. At one point in an otherwise banal conversation, Laura inserted the non sequitur "Comparative hominid anatomy is actually one of those things that excites me for no reason," leaving me shaking my head and wondering how it is again that she can't manage to cook rice.

Eventually, we wandered back to the train station and bought sandwiches for the considerably more crowded ride home. Upon opening our planned picnic, however, we discovered that they had been garnished with the sickly-sweet goo that passes for ketchup here and that each had one whole pickle folded squarely in its center and pitted olives hiding throughout. Safely returned home, I got out the leftover pasta and we enjoyed a pleasant meal more befitting to an otherwise weirdly relaxing day.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Stolen Bicycle Musings

People. Just a complex, interesting mix of everything. Having my bike stolen in Grenoble last week has been making me think of the striking difference between the hostility, or at least utter unconcern, of the person(s) who took my only means of self-transportation, the caring shown by people around me upon hearing the news, and the act of complete generosity shown by the girl who lent me her bike for the next 3 months, even though she only knows me through a friend. So much of what makes us tick is community, a sense of group. The person who stole my bike didn't know me, and hence wasn't bothered by taking something important to me. I'm sure they would never have taken a bike belonging to someone they know, hang out with, etc., because they are people to them rather than a random, faraway person more immediately represented by the money invested in my bicycle. On the other hand, the person who lent me a bike didn't know me either, but due to our shared community, we're both scientists at the same workplace, we have a mutual friend, I was worthy of a lovely, kind act. Perhaps part of the answer to the violence and hostility in the world is expanding our communities??

Far from Home

Tonight my father, stepmother, sister and stepsister are all going out to dinner with two of my best friends from college. Tomorrow, they'll be hanging out on my campus, enjoying the April sunshine on Alumni Lawn. And instead of enjoying the return to my alma mater and the tradition of the half-marathon visit, I'm about 4,000 miles away hearing about the dinner they've planned from David while he decides what to wear to the delicious Italian place they've chosen. Most days it's lovely to be in Morocco and all the quirks of life here make up for those American things I lack...and then there are moments like these, which bring with them a twinge of jealousy.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

God is Great: praying in Morocco

The new gardener is praying now, on his knees behind a leafy bush near the back fence. He knows that I am here in the clearing but is likely unaware of my spying on his private ritual. By now, I have witnessed countless individual prayers and it always leaves me vaguely uneasy, wanting to join in while simultaneously compelled to flee, feeling myself an interloper to the divine conversation.

Christians are called to be in constant prayer, though no one I know actually manages this continuous sensation of God. For many, even daily prayer falls aside. I myself tend to observe a simple grace before most meals but otherwise do not pray outside of Sunday services. Coming from such a tradition, I find myself amazed at those Moroccans who do stop to pray five times a day, while the adhan's call of "allahu akbar" reassures even my dhimmi spirit. Perhaps I should resolve to respond with my own observance - hearing the call to the faithful, I often do so reflexively, but the adhan doesn't always interrupt my activities or even reach my ears.

On the other hand, I belong to a faith which exhorts me to perform my prayers in secret and keep my devotionals a private act rather than a public display. When I arrive home to find my roommate prostrate or step into the garden while the guard unrolls his prayer mat, I feel like a spiritual intruder invalidating their acts. Yet in a place where such prayer is common, it often happens amid daily life instead of interrupting the day's rhythms. The prayer room at the school offers quiet but sits constantly open so that I may watch my teachers as they perform salat, while at home Omi used to wash out in the hall before closing herself in the bedroom to pray. Prayer here can be an individual act, but it is also the core of shared worship, a communion of believers as important as the bread and wine I know. My witness is nothing unusual, though my inability to participate leaves me perpetually unsure of how to respond.

For the moment, I listen to the call: "there is no god but God," cries the minaret nearest me, and in the distance other voices echo. Perhaps some of my brethren manage constant prayer, but I find the reminder an awesome expression of faith and a song to my own soul. I will certainly miss hearing it at home, just as I already miss waking up to it now that I live in a better-soundproofed house. Still, I wonder just how angrily the folks at home would get if I returned suggesting we adopt a similar system...I'm afraid that's one element of worship that simply gets lost in translation.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Our Chalet

This weekend, I went to 'Our Chalet', one of the four international Girl Scout houses in the world. The other three are in India, Mexico, and England, but the one in Adelboden, Switzerland, was first. Every girl scout learns of the world centers, I've known the Our Chalet Song since I was 12, and I have always wanted to visit.

Being a 6-hour journey away was too much to resist, though I couldn't miss work for too long. I went for a weekend, in between seminars and programme activities, just a scout making a pilgrimage of sorts. And it did not disappoint. Everyone there was instant family, conversations were easy, histories and stories fun to share, things common to scouts quickly apparent. Its amazing how many songs cross continents! I went hiking and skiing during the days, but that was far from the highlight of the journey - the memorable, wonderful parts were the communal dinners, happy birthday in 12 languages, learning bits of other tongues, combing the songbook cabinet, checking out the piles and piles of scout handbooks from all over the world, looking at the walls, at the bits of themselves that scouts over the world have left to share...

I can't imagine how cool a seminar there would be if a random visit like this was so wonderful. If there are that many handbooks in the center, on a shelf, just think of how many are out in the world, everywhere, touching girls, making them stronger and more confident, building the next generation who, hopefully, will be ready and willing to focus on the things people share rather than our differences.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Into the Sahara

For each step I climb, I slide back halfway again as the ground shifts beneath my feet. The hill is steeper than I anticipated and between gasping breaths I find myself wishing I had carried the skis from the campsite for the returning descent. Instead, I press on to reach the top and finally emerge to see a hazy sunset through the sand blowing in my face. I perch on the dune's edge and admire the play of shadows on sand while my heart finds its usual pulse once again. I half-run, half-slide back town the steep hill into camp, where I dump a quantity of the Sahara out of my shoes before joining the group for tea.

The weather is already cooling and my telephone has no reception - all the better to enjoy the stars and the drumming here in our own private oasis, where the camels sleep outside and we find mattresses waiting in low Berber tents. It's hard to imagine how close civilization remains: under the endless stars it is possible to believe in our isolation but surreal to remember the posh hotel only two hours' ride away. My own mind prefers the fantasy of life as a hermit to the memory of the breakfast buffet, for romantic notions abound amid the dunes. As the cold slows my mind, I crawl beneath the heavy blankets and turn to sleep as a defense against its force.

Signal or no, my cell phone still beeps its morning alarm at 5:30 and I shiver awake, slip into my still-sandy shoes, and fight my way back up the mountain dune to await sunrise. Classmates scatter to more distant peaks as we each seek quiet solitude in which to welcome the morning. Soon after dawn, we drink one last cup of mint tea, zip up our backpacks, and climb onto our camels for the return to civilization.

The trip that yesterday had been novel today hurts with every jouncing step. I watch my camel's feet squish against the sand and wonder how a motion so seemingly fluid jolts my tailbone so much. Our caravan creeps at snail's pace until two hours later we collapse back into the hotel for yet another breakfast buffet and a long bus ride home, leaving those images of asceticism and fancy back among those dunes after our short escape from reality.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Italian Easter

Sarah's family doesn't go to church, so I got walking directions from them the night before and got up on my own because I couldn't pass up Easter in Italy. It was a beautiful morning, just that temperature where walking around makes you comfortable. I walked down the hill a little to the church they described, along some quiet houses and over a bridge, but no one was stirring at the church even. After some serious contemplation of the sign outside, I managed to figure out their service wasn't until 11, too late for me since lunch was at 12.
So, I decided to try and find the church we had passed in the car the day before, up the hill from Sarah's house. The road is very picturesque, windy, and steep, and somewhere in between breathing and making sure I didn't get hit by a car around a blind corner, I got a little lost. I wasn't going the same way we had in the car I didn't know where the church was.
And suddenly, up the hill, I heard bells, ringing loudly and joyously for Easter morn. Apparently on Easter the bells ring actual songs, for 15-20 minutes at a time, and I was able to walk up the hill and actually follow the sound of the bells to church. It felt sort of romantic, using the bells for one of their original functions. I did find the church, a tiny Catholic one perched on the hillside, and experienced my first mass in Italian. Between knowing French, and the general gist of the message anyway, I was able to follow along, and when I managed to retrace my steps successfully and get back to Sarah's house on time for lunch, considered my Easter morning a success.

Florentine music

Florence was many things, but it is some of the little things that struck me the most, filling me with momentary delight or a quick smile. Exploring the first night, and discovering the people next to me looking at the menu outside a restaurant were speaking french and I could understand...the view along the river Arno as the sun was going down...the fact that a street musician was playing 'Homeward Bound' as I emerged from a restaurant. And this last, random chance sparked something that I will remember, probably for much longer than the inside of the Duomo or the art at the Ufizzi.

The street musician turned out to be rather talented, and he was playing all my type of music, James Taylor, The Eagles, lots of Simon and Garfunkel, so I hung out to listen for a while, and walked back to my hostel content. The next day was very busy with sightseeing things (description coming soon), but I didn't have plans for the evening and figured I'd go see if the busker was in the same place. He was, only I'd gotten there a little early and he was just hanging out. It turned out that the woman that had been singing with him was his wife, and they had a little girl as well. I said hello, that I'd liked the S+G, talked a little bit, then he went to set up.

He was just as good the second night, but I didn't actually hear much of it, because it turns out that I can still be 8 years old, and enjoy it very much. His daughter, having seen me talking to her dad, apparently decided I was safe and came up during the third song and asked if I wanted to help with her sticker book. (yes, they do have sticker books in France!) We did a page of stickers, then drew, she made me a picture!, and played make-believe. I was her boss at a job and she kept oversleeping. She wouldn't tell me her name, but she would write it for me, it was Anastasia.

And then, in the middle of us playing, she said, "oh wait, its my friend," and runs up to a shambling, dirty homeless man who was walking up. Who had brought her crayons as a present. She told me he brings her something every night. He sat down next to us and promptly fell asleep, and Anastasia giggled and said he was always doing that. I saw several music-listeners actively avoid the spot where he was sitting, but at the end of the night, Anastasia shook him awake, "friend, its time to go!" and got up on his shoulders to ride.

I collected the sticker book and crayons to give to her mother (since she was up on Carlo's shoulders). Its funny how acceptance goes around in circles, but because Anastasia liked me her dad, Ken, the musician, did too, and shook my hand, wished me luck. We all giggled when Anastasia called me up on the imaginary telephone from her shoulder perch. They headed off to dinner, and I back to my hostel, feeling very joyous at my time spent with Anastasia, the friendliness and good wishes from her parents, and perhaps a little more readiness to give pennies to beggars...they might be buying beer, its true, but they might also be buying crayons for innocent, accepting, beautiful girls for whom social conventions of who can count as a friend don't necessarily exist.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Coin Berbère

Everyone knows everyone in Fes, it seems, and personal connections matter a great deal in shops where the price tag is not on display. One early weekend a classmate went to the medina on errands and I tagged along to meet the shopkeepers she had befriended over the previous months. One early stop was into the Coin Berbère, which sells silver jewelry and handwoven rugs. I returned to the shop with Pam, where our purchases earned us an invitation to tea and a rug lesson in the upstairs shop. I returned again after Khalid mentioned a family house for rent and still hope to find an intrepid classmate or two willing to buy her own bed and chip in on a refrigerator in exchange for the experience in living in a proper riad in the medina, but so far no takers. Still, I stop by about once a week to admire the wares and say hello - and occasionally accept a cup of tea and a seat outside the shop.

Imagine my surprise when upon dropping in today, Khalid tells me a New York Times writer stopped by and wrote an article on the place, and my joy in finding that the lead photograph is of my favorite seat just outside their door. David is the director of the American Language Center here, and finding my little Moroccan community in my big American newspaper simply makes me smile. Enjoy the article here: Le Coin Berbère