March 22, 2013

Into the souk: A return to Morocco

It was a muggy afternoon in Marrakech, and I was sweating slightly as I made my way through the souk, dodging mopeds belching clouds of grey smoke and flattening myself up against walls to make room for the donkey-drawn carts that kept rushing by. My purse was twisting awkwardly around me as I walked, bouncing wildly off my hip with every step, but I couldn’t stop to adjust it because one of my hands was clutching several flimsy plastic bags bulging with hand-woven baskets, ceramic bowls and more spices than I could probably ever manage to cook my way through, and the other hand was gripping an oversize antique silver tea tray wrapped in unwieldily layers of cardboard and lashed together with twine. I looked like a caricature: Tourist girl gets lost in the souk and emerges several hours later laden down with every kind of good imaginable. I almost expected a camel to trot out after me.

Nearly two and a half years after my first visit, I was back in Morocco. Back, and throwing myself once again into the spiders’ web of tiny, tangled alleys that make up Marrakech’s labyrinth of a medina.

The thing about Marrakech, the thing that had hooked me from the moment I first arrived and then drew me back again after two years, is that the city feels like something straight out of a storybook, a movie or a myth. It feels like it’s stretched between two incompatible time periods, where men in hooded djellabas and pointed leather slippers smoke and sip tea and artisans labor away in darkened, haze-filled alleys, hammering intricate designs into silver tea trays while mopeds – dusty, rickety ones from the 1970s, with pedals and bicycle-like seats – swerve their way down narrow streets heaving with activity. In some places, it’s almost impossible to stop moving; as soon as you come to a standstill, people are squeezing past you like a human river and you suddenly find yourself directly in the path of an oncoming donkey and cart.

There’s always some kind of fragrance hanging in the air, changing constantly as you walk. It’s smoke, it’s a meaty tagine simmering on hot coals, it’s raw spices, sharp and intensely aromatic, and then it shifts to something more pungent, hot metal, exhaust, something sour and animal that hits you in the back of your throat, and then smoke again. The noise, too, is always swirling around, clanking, buzzing, conversation in Arabic and French, shopkeepers calling out to passing tourists, the shrillness of a snake charmer’s horn in the chaotic Djemma-El-Fna square, and then the call to prayer, a haunting multi-layered chanting song without a melody that drifts down from the mosques and wraps itself around everything else.

I had assumed, foolishly, that it would be easier to find my way around the city this time. After all, I was staying in the same place as before – a traditional riad tucked into a corner of the medina – and my sense of direction isn’t bad at all. I had also assumed that I wouldn’t find the city so intense the second time around – that culture shock hits once, like lightening, for each place visited, and then recedes to leave a kind of calm in its wake. The thing about Morocco, though, is that the culture feels opaque and impenetrable when you’re on the outside looking in. For all the cups of mint tea you slurp down, for all the times you practice your Arabic greetings and thank-yous on shopkeepers, there is not even the slimmest chance that you will blend in. No matter how carefully you dress to avoid offending the country’s Islamic cultural norms, no matter how much you try to recede into the crowd, the truth is inescapable: You will stand out. Particularly when you’re a five-foot-nine girl (Moroccan women tend to be tiny and squat), pale-faced, wide-eyed and clutching a camera.

As I made my way down the street, I could feel eyeballs boring into me from all directions. An old man walked up and briefly touched my hair before giving me a crooked-toothed grin. Another man, swerving past on a beat-up bicycle, offered up a soft “bonjour, la gazelle” – the Moroccan version of a pick-up line that seemed to follow me around the city – before gliding around the corner. A pair of women, one in a billowing black burka and the other in a bright purple head scarf, stared at me with undisguised curiosity as they walked past. And as I trudged along, the calls of the shopkeepers, squatting outside their stores on little wooden stools, followed me.

“Bonjour, ça va? Hello! Hello! Français? English? Madam, please! Just to look at my shop, just to look! Madam, please!”

To walk through Marrakech’s medina – the souks in particular – you need to submit yourself to this kind of relentless marketing. Eventually you realize that it takes much more effort to refuse these invitations than it does to give a cursory glance to a shop’s wares, drop a few compliments, and then extract yourself, moving a few metres away before repeating the entire process all over again.

Time after time, I found myself being pulled into a tiny, dusty shop where an overly eager vendor would begin the process of hawking his goods. Everything was “very special”. Everything was “not costing very much”. Carpets were pulled from towering stacks and layered one over another in front of me until my exit path was effectively blocked with a tower of richly patterned wool. Jars of jasmine and myrrh – deeply perfumed in a heavy, ancient sort of way – were wafted under my nose, and leather babouches were pressed into my hands.

In the middle of Rahba Kedima, a sunlight-flooded square packed with merchants and fringed with spice venders, cafés and dark passages into the depths of the souk, I briefly made eye contact with a man selling woven bread baskets, which were piled behind him on the pavement in a haphazard heap of straw and bright colours. Seconds later – perhaps reading that accidental eye contact as a desperate desire to buy – he was trotting along behind me, arms laden down with the cone-shaped baskets, trying his absolute hardest to extoll the virtues of what was quite possibly one of the most simple products in existence:

“Madam, it is only costing twenty dirhams! Madam, it is authentic Moroccan way to serve your bread – no home is complete without it. Madam, your husband will surely appreciate the proper presentation of bread!”

After he had followed me around several corners and into the heart of the souk, I spun around and told him that my husband had already bought me a bread basket and had forbidden me to buy another.

In fact, this mythical husband proved himself to be quite useful throughout the week. During my first visit to the city I made the mistake of letting shopkeepers know that I was travelling alone, a foolish and naïve slip-up that almost inevitably led to some sort of offhand marriage proposal: You want these tea glasses for free? Marry me. You want to find your way back to your riad? Follow me, then marry me. This year, I was more prepared.

“My husband – he’s just a few stores away right now – wants me to search for some lanterns for our home”, I said, stepping into a tiny shop crammed with elaborately decorated lamps dangling just millimetres over my head.

“No, I can’t buy any more saffron, my husband said I bought too much already”, I replied to a particularly insistent spice vender. The word felt strange as it slipped out of my mouth, but it seemed to work – the fake husband lent a legitimacy to my presence that the identity of single girl travelling alone had never managed to.

Normally, I’m not a fan of shopping. I find it tiring at best, rage-inducing at its very worst. But shopping in Marrakech, like the city itself, was almost intoxicating in its exoticness. And so I bartered my way through the souk, sipping little glasses of intensely sweet mint tea while shopkeepers wrapped layers of newspaper covered in Arabic script around my purchases and fastened sheets of old cardboard to the sides of the gigantic silver tea tray I just had to have, covering the whole thing in a dense web of twine (“this is very good for the airplane”) before sending me on my way.

I got lost. I studied my map, then circled the souk once, twice, three times, each time ending up right back at my starting point. Shopkeepers looked surprised to see me pass by again, then amused, one of them calling out “Madam! What are you looking for? Spices, rugs? Teapots? A husband?” Raucous laughter followed. The sun was sinking lower, sending shimmering shafts of dust-infused light through the bamboo-slatted roof overhead and giving everything a mysterious, etherial glow. I pointed myself down yet another uncharted street, this one completely non-existent on my map, and finally emerged back into the familiar chaos of Djemma-El-Fna just as the sun dipped dramatically behind the minaret of the Koutoubia mosque.

Two days later, I watched as the baggage claim carousel in Rome’s Ciampino airport gave a loud metallic squeal and lurched into action. After a while, my suitcase tumbled out, bulging at the seams. A small chunk of Moroccan donkey dung was still stuck to one of the wheels. Minutes later, my cardboard-wrapped tea tray rolled awkwardly down the chute, looking out of place among a stream of black plastic suitcases. Miraculously, the web of twine had held together, proving that the merchant’s packaging methods for my “very special” purchase were indeed “very good for the airplane”.

For more photos from Marrakech, you can view the album on Facebook.

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March 10, 2013

The cure

At the beginning of last week, hot on the heels of my weekend excursion to Germany, I finally got hit with the flu that seems to have been making its cruel rounds through Rome for the past several weeks. I blame this entirely on my seat mate during the Munich to Rome flight – it’s common knowledge that flights are a breeding ground for germs, and this woman spent an entire hour and a half sneezing, snorting and sniffling in my general direction before complaining, via phone as soon as we disembarked, that she was burning up with a fever and could hardly manage to drag herself to the baggage claim area, let alone back into the city. As she barked directions to prepare a bowl of white rice with olive oil and parmesan cheese (the Italian equivalent to chicken noodle soup and saltine crackers) to the person on the other end of her call, I hurtled myself into the nearest washroom and proceeded to scrub my hands no fewer than three times.

Two days later, I woke up feeling as though someone had hit me over the head with a frying pan, tied down my limbs with lead weights and rubbed my throat raw with sandpaper, all the while surrounding me in a blanket of ice cubes. To be honest, I’m not actually sure if I had a true flu or just a very, very bad cold, but the details are irrelevant – either way, the last thing I felt like doing was hauling myself out of bed and working. Even my usual morning cappuccino held absolutely no appeal, which, for me, was more revealing than the temperature on the thermometer.

Given that this was the first time I’d gotten sick since moving to Rome, I wasn’t quite sure how to approach the whole thing. Back in Victoria, I would have pulled on a ratty old pair of yoga pants and a sweatshirt, hopped into the car, and driven to the nearest Pharmasave or London Drugs, where I would have made a quick three-minute circuit of the store to stock up on Advil, decongestants, crackers, kleenex and a stack of magazines – all without speaking to anyone – before flinging myself back into the car and subsequently back into bed, all within the space of fifteen minutes.

This is not possible in Rome. To begin with, there is no equivalent to Pharmasave or London Drugs (or any of those drugstore chains) here. Drugstores in North America are cavernous, warehouse-like emporiums packed with not just pharmaceuticals, but cosmetics, greeting cards, electronics, snacks, and, well, almost anything. At the drugstore just down the road from my old apartment in Victoria, it would have been entirely possible to buy a new computer, some kitchen equipment and a handful of new lipstick shades all while waiting for a prescription to be filled. The first time I walked into a pharmacy in Rome, then, I wasn’t looking for medication, but for a bottle of shampoo and some lip gloss. I quickly learned, after spending nearly fifteen Euro on an undersize bottle of specialty pharmacist-designed shampoo in an elaborately decorated package while not finding a single tube of lip gloss, that things worked differently now.

The pharmacies here are, generally, tiny and intimidating shops that are either brilliantly modern with crisp white surfaces and clean lines, or so ancient-looking that it feels like they’ve been around since the beginning of medical history itself. Either way, there will be a team of authoritative pharmacists clad in white lab coats staring you down as soon as the door swings open, and either way, nearly all of the products – including bandaids and the most innocent of painkillers possible – will be kept behind the counter, where you will have to specifically request them.

The pharmacy closest to my apartment is of the ancient-looking, wood-panelled, frescoed-ceiling type that feels both intimidating and incredibly reassuring. I shuffled in, cheeks flushed and kleenex at the ready, and within seconds a woman in skyscraper-high stiletto heels was asking me what I needed. Speaking Italian is difficult when your brain is caught in a feverish fog and your voice sounds hoarse and strangled, but I soon emerged with slim little boxes of painkillers (which proved to be effective) and decongestants (which proved to be useless), both of which the pharmacist took the time to individually and precisely wrap in multiple layers of tissue paper emblazoned with the pharmacy’s name.

The next day I pulled myself off the couch, got dressed, and styled my hair (in Rome, the bed-head and yoga pants look really doesn’t cut it, even when you’re sick) just to make the two minute walk back to that same pharmacy so that I could beg another pharmacist – this one a distinguished-looking older guy with piercing eyes behind little blue-rimmed glasses – for something that would help me stop coughing. He wordlessly vanished into a back room, and then returned a few minutes later with a little box and a self-assured expression. What was it? I wasn’t sure. How did it work? I didn’t know. When a lab coat-clad pharmacist hands you a product with such extreme confidence written all over his face, you don’t start asking questions (especially when you don’t even know how to ask those questions). You just assume he knows what he’s talking about, and take it (which I did, and it worked miracles).

And as for those crackers and magazines, both of which are so necessary for surviving a flu? Since the pharmacists obviously didn’t have stacks of Vogue Italia or boxes of saltines in their mysterious back room, I had to drag myself first to the grocery store, where there were very few types of crackers not flavoured like pizza or designed to become bruschetta, and then to the edicola, where I guiltlessly stocked up on this season’s fashion bibles. Because if there’s one thing that those all-knowing pharmacists forgot to mention, it’s the fact that a stack of glossy magazines makes a flu go away just a tiny little bit faster.

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March 6, 2013

Love is in the air…port

Late on Friday afternoon, I found myself at the airport, getting ready to leave Italy for the first time since September in order to head to Munich, Germany for a weekend full of business meetings. Rome’s Aeroporto di Fiumicino is the kind of permanently dusty, tired-looking sprawl of florescent-lit passages and worn linoleum floors that doesn’t do much to emphasize the romance of travel or, really, romance of any kind at all. The check-in counters are mobbed by a disorganized, tangled pack of passengers and suitcases, and the line snaking its way through the one or two open security lanes moves slowly enough that you start to suspect your feet might become permanently rooted to the ground underneath them.

It goes without saying, then, that the security line is not the kind of place where you’d expect to receive a spontaneous marriage proposal from a complete stranger.

I was going through the process of systematically ridding myself of all metal objects – belt, necklace, stray coins in pocket – while simultaneously shaking my laptop free of its case and trying to stuff it, along with my coat and purse, into one small plastic bin, when one of the security staff planted himself in front of me.

“I’m sorry, bella,” he said with an apologetic smile, “but if it is not too much of a problem, could you remove your boots, please?”

I sighed, having watched a pair of boot-clad feet march their way successfully through the metal detector only seconds earlier, but bent down and tugged off my knee-high boots.

“And your scarf, please, cara.” I obediently unwrapped the scarf. The security guy’s smile widened. As he took the boots and scarf from me and dropped them haphazardly onto the x-ray machine’s conveyor belt, he muttered something that sounded suspiciously like “will you marry me”, which I promptly disregarded as a simple misunderstanding or a massive translation error, because obviously there was no way that a man who had only laid eyes on me seconds earlier would be proposing marriage to me, right?

Wrong. A few seconds later he turned to face me again and repeated, very clearly this time, and very much in English, “will you marry me?”

I’ve never before been quite so eager to dash through the metal detector and to the relative safety on the opposite side.

Two days later, I found myself wandering through the Munich airport in search of some decent coffee to keep me adequately caffeinated for the flight. This airport was everything the Rome airport was not – sleek, airy, packed with upscale shops and restaurants – but for all its glossiness, it was proving nearly impossible to find a shot of espresso that didn’t come from a suspicious-looking fully automated machine with a three-Euro price tag attached to it.

On my second lap around the terminal, I suddenly noticed the smell of espresso – good espresso – wafting tantalizingly  past me. Looking around, I spotted a small sign advertising a coffee bar and pointing down a nondescript staircase into some less-glamorous annexed area of the airport – the sign was written not in German, like every other sign in the airport, but in Italian, and as it turned out, that little section of the airport was dedicated entirely to an airline offering flights into Italy.

And so I descended the staircase and found myself swallowed up by Italy. Disorganized crowds packed the departure gates. Dramatic hand gestures were everywhere. Loud mobile phone conversations filled the air. And through all the chaos came the unmistakable sound of ceramic cups clinking against saucers – the coffee bar.

I ordered my caffè macchiato confidently in Italian, then struck up a conversation with the barista about why a Canadian girl who spoke (some) Italian was here, in Munich, draining every last drop of an airport macchiato as though it were liquid gold. And after setting the cup back down with a satisfying clank, I thanked the barista and turned to leave.

Aspetta, aspetta,” he called after me. “I have a question for you! Are you married?” I shook my head, grinning, but continued towards the staircase.

His voice followed me up the stairs: “I would marry you! I would marry you right away!”

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Verbalized: Past participle, past tense of ver·bal·ize (Verb) 1. Express (ideas or feelings) in words, esp. by speaking out loud. 2. Speak, esp. at excessive length and with little real content.