Tastings

birds singing in the sycamore tree

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I’ve been in Paris now for three blue-skied, breezy days and I have been enjoying food because my vacation is over tomorrow, and I am going back to Boston, which I don’t care what anyone tells you, has very lame food. I’ve been eating things like flaky, buttery croissant and pain au raisin from the good bakery where they do it the right way with layer after layer of pastry. We ate moules frites at a Belgian restaurant, and falafel in Le Marais, which was very elusive as we could never find the precise cobble-stone street, and when we did the stand was closed, and the next day we again had a hard time finding it, but truthfully it was all the more delicious for its elusiveness, and for being stuffed with cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, hummus and spicy sauce along with the chickpea fritters. We ate crepes with nutella and bananas beside a fountain under the gaze of the Eiffel Tower, and then I had bread and cheese and wine for dinner. (Wine, in case you are wondering, is as delicious as I remember, not having had it since the last time I was here.)

This, even though I employed the same devil-may-care-vacation-is-almost-over attitude during the last few days in Tetouan, enjoying creamy avocado smoothies, pastries and cheeseburgers. I haven’t had the chance to discuss Omar’s Superburger here, mostly because it was closed during the day during Ramadan, and because it’s the kind of thing you get spontaneously, without making plans for a photo shoot. Omar owns a place by the main plaza. It is small and dimly lit, and has the look of a very old-school Spanish place, with heavy wrought-iron lanterns, leather stools and a dark wooden bar. You can order three things, a hamburger, a cheeseburger or a superburger, along with a few drinks and coffee. When you’ve ordered he will take a patty out of his refrigerator and flatten it out on the small, butane powered grill. He will scoop some finely chopped red onion onto the plancha, and then crack an egg into a metal ring. He will cut a roll and scoop out the extra bread in the top, leaving more room for the filling, and place that on the grill. He will cut a sheet of paper in half using the edge of the counter and then assemble the burger, onions, patty, egg, a slice of American cheese, Moroccan ketchup, and hot sauce if you request, wrapping it in half the paper and placing it on the other half. This burger costs 14 Moroccan dirhams, about $1.60, and is very good. Let’s just say I had more than one. 

 
Oh yes, I have been enjoying the last few days of this fun and fascinating trip, and am reluctant for it to end. But like all good things, it must. Here in Paris, that familiar crispness of late summer is manifest in the mornings, or in the moment you pass through a patch of shade, or find yourself wading through a pile of sycamore leaves, bringing a shiver of autumns passed, the jitters of school, the crunch of an apple. It always goes too fast, does the summer, but this one has been so full of memories and experiences and delicious food that I can’t possibly be regretful. I can only bask in the sunlight, enjoy a cup of coffee and the last pages of the last summer book, and get on that plane back tla réalité.

 

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Musings

I learned some Arabic, and this lesson.

I’ve been in Morocco now for two months, and as the time to leave approaches, the things that are pleasant intensify in sweetness; they take on a certain necessary quality. The luscious peaches, the Za Za, a smoothie of various fruits and sometimes avocado or even flan. That arresting mountain view around every corner. Sitting in a café watching the world go by. Breakfasting on toasted bread, fresh cheese and honey. Even my Arabic classes seem more fulfilling, important. We know to appreciate things when we have them, to at least try, but there is always something getting in the way of perfection. Indeed, after two months, things that were niggling are starting to become annoying. The call to prayer early in the morning seems louder and longer (may indeed be louder and longer) and what once I slept through, is waking me up consistently. The hot water heater that at first I was grateful just to have, will not maintain a temperature more than cold and less than scalding. No one will clean the bathroom and it becomes a standoff where everyone is waiting for someone else to fold first. These things make me impatient to go. I am always waiting for things to be right, for the perfect moment, for the stars to align. “If only…” I think. “If only I had a better pillow. And the bathroom wasn’t so dirty. And I could get some sushi.” But when I am back in Boston, head rested on a good pillow, with a clean bathroom and a belly full of sushi it will be “If only I didn’t have to go to work tomorrow. And the cat wasn’t scratching all the furniture. And I had one of those peaches.” Nothing is ever, will ever be perfect. It will be too hot, or too cold. Or there will be bugs. (Why are there always bugs?) Or too loud, or too hard, or too sad, or too easy. The next moment will be different, perhaps, and maybe better, but not more perfect.

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Wanderings

الازدحام

It is a good thing that I learned the Arabic word for “overcrowdedness” last week, because boy is it ever out there. Today is Eid al-Fitr, the holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan, and it seems the population of Tetouan has tripled and everyone is out filling every store and the souk shopping for food and especially clothing. I wish I had taken my camera to document the stall in the souk with plate after plate stacked to swirling heights with Ramadan pastries, reminiscent of Italian cookies; the giant bunches of mint and cilantro parceled by squatting, spitting old ladies; the hot, musty stores crowded from wall to wall with people purchasing new wardrobes for the holiday; or the lonely bakery shelves, having been relieved of the last loaves of bread. But I most certainly would have been trampled, knocked over and given a dirty look for stopping to take a photo, never mind a good one. As it is my foot was stepped on, crushed by a bottle of water and was thisclose to being run over by a motorcycle. All day the valley has been cloaked in a cloud, lending a misty, diffused light to the day, but also an intense humidity. It has the feeling of Whole Foods the day before Thanksgiving, everyone has things to do and buy before getting to where they really want to be and enjoying the holiday. Somehow we made our way through the crowds, accomplished our mission and purchased a kilo of tomatoes for 80 cents.

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Musings

30 days and 30 nights

The waxing crescent moon comes into view
Ramadan began a little more than three weeks ago, with the boom of a cannon indicating the exact moment. There was much speculation of precisely when it would begin, being regulated by that most fickle of characters, the moon. Preparations began by pushing the clocks back one hour on that Friday morning. My teacher tried to explain this to me that Thursday by saying that my class would be one hour earlier, which I took to mean it would actually be one hour earlier, not that all time would change, but after a bit of a “who’s on first” comedy routine in half Arabic and half English, we eventually got there. This effectively makes the daylight hours, and thus the fasting hours, shorter, and also makes it so that if one visits nearby Spanish port city Ceuta located on main-land Morocco, one travels 2 hours into the future. Ramadan, which can be explained almost anywhere better than here, lasts one lunar month, and is basically a time for prayer, family, philanthropy and fasting from food, water and smoking during daylight hours.
My very favorite part is when a cannon sounds in the wee hours of the morning, around 3:30, signaling suhoor, or the meal to be eaten before the start of fast. And by favorite, I mean not favorite. The first fifteen times, this woke me up from a deep sleep, which I suppose is exactly what is supposed to happen. This is followed by the call to prayer, which usually lasts less than a minute, but during Ramadan, this one in particular is more like five minutes, usually including a song.  After this, things seem to quiet down for a while, as people go back to sleep until as late as possible. Although people do work during the day (we still have Arabic classes, for example) restaurants and cafes are closed until sundown and some establishments have truncated hours, most don’t open until 11 or 12 if they can. They remain open until 5 or 6. During these daylight hours, only children eat and drink on the street, so we also do not eat or drink or chew gum outside of the house, even in class. While there is no law that prevents the sale or consumption of food or drink, my roommate was unable to purchase water at the gym that he goes to, he was told it would be disrespectful. This brought on an interesting discussion about personal freedom, the freedoms of private establishments, and the rights, if any, of visitors to a country. It’s hard enough for us to go without water for a two-hour class in the heat, so our movements are limited by our self-imposed restrictions on eating and drinking. In the afternoon hours we go shopping for food for dinner, vegetables, a steak, some eggs, bread. I notice that when the call to prayer comes, almost everyone heads in the direction of the mosque with a prayer mat under his arm, and all the teachers in the school pray, which I don’t see during the rest of the year. About an hour before sun set, I watch the streets begin to bustle with people hurrying home from work, people doing their last minute shopping and the waiters start to bring out the tables and chairs from the cafes which will soon be full to overflowing. When the sun sets, around 7:30 PM early on, now closer to 7:15, another cannon sounds, and I watch as people take bottles of water or juice from their bags and drink, and a few people take their seats at cafes. There is little movement on the streets at this time, everyone settled at home with their families, or in restaurants, or sitting at tables that have been set up in the street or on the sidewalk. Even the people at work, in shops or squashing oranges for juice on the street, pause at this time to drink water, eat dates and have a bowl of harira. This is the most basic Iftar, or fast-breaking meal. The more elaborate meals available in restaurants and some homes include harira and dates, but also a glass of orange juice, a plate of traditional Ramadan cookies made with seasame paste, and plates of croissants and other pastries.
At this time we begin preparing dinner. During this month our only dining option outside of the house has been Birjiss, a “pizzeria” that usually also serves pasta and salads, as well as schwarma, hamburgers and traditional Moroccan food. The Moroccan food is pretty awful, evident from the several Moroccan people who we have seen send it back, but the pizza, pasta and hamburgers are serviceable. During Ramadan they serve only pizza and pasta, as well as the break-fast meal, and we’ve been going about once a week to get a pizza served on a very thin premade crust. And, although I like to say it’s rolling the dice, we always choose to gamble on the salad Birjiss. A typical Moroccan salad, which is to say a composed salad, it is a large mound of rice, made creamy with mayonnaise or the like, surrounded by diced cheese, tuna and mostly canned vegetables: hearts of palm, corn. If the roll of the dice is good we might get a few shreds of lettuce, or a bit of tomato. If it’s snake eyes, we get canned peaches, the addition of which inevitably makes me think of the salad bar at Pizza Hut circa 1992. It’s our go-to place, which probably won’t change even though yesterday we saw the waiter re-folding the cloth napkins left behind by the previous patrons and putting them back on the table. We have mostly been cooking dinner at home this month, in a kitchen with little more than a camp stove and a knife. We put together salads of tomato, cucumber, corn, avocado, red onion, green and red pepper, sometimes zucchini. The produce is really good here, the first time I ate a tomato I said, “why does this taste like bacon?” and the answer is that real tomatoes, which I don’t think I get that often in the US, are not that pretty, and have a rich, almost meaty flavor to them. I have not had a peach this good since I was a kid. Guillaume will get some chicken or steak from the butcher across the street (one day it’s a half cow hanging in the store, the next, steak) and cook it up in a pan. We eat with a round, flat bread from the bakery across the street. Delicious the first 10 times, but after a month of it, I yearn for a tofu stir fry.
During Ramadan, the night becomes the day. It seems everyone, from the young to the old are out and about, buying ice cream, selling goods (mostly shoes and cell phones, arrayed on the sidewalk) drinking tea or visiting with friends until 1 or 2 in the morning. This also means that, like the rest of the time, it is a bit of a man’s world. During the rest of the year men can be found throughout the day and especially in the evening hours lining the sidewalk cafes drinking tea, coffee, orange juice or milkshakes. I have never seen a local woman at one of these places. Local people tell me this is “cultural”. During Ramadan things are much the same except the action happens after sundown and there is a more festive atmosphere. As a woman I am never made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, but there is a definite awkwardness the few times I have sat down to have tea at night. To me personally it feels very old-fashioned, but when in Rome, well, you know. I’ve heard that many expats leave the country during Ramadan, citing grumpy people as well as a life disrupted, but I am finding it interesting, festive and with minor inconveniences that, if moderately annoying, give us a small window into this important aspect of Moroccan culture.

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Sightings

Souk, I am your father

The Sunday street market in Vincennes, France
Union Square farmer’s market
in NYC, one of my favorites
Like any good urban hippy, to me the word “market” connotes rows of jewel-toned, organic produce arranged in picturesque piles, galvanized buckets of freshly cut flowers, tote bags and exorbitant prices that we can write off as supporting local. The markets in Morocco are very utilitarian, although in the big cities you will find quite a bit of touristy items, like leather goods and tea glasses, mostly you will find only what a Moroccan needs for daily life: vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, cheese, bread, henna and hair dye, toothpaste, cleaning products including homemade bleach sold in water bottles, clothing and sandals, and plastic, plastic, plastic in any shape and form you can think of. A few weeks ago, just before Ramadan began, there was a school trip to a rural village souk about 20 minutes away from Tetouan. The market takes place weekly in the village center which consists of quite a few multiple story buildings holding cafes, stores and dwellings. The market itself is a maze of every kind of necessary you can think of arrayed on tables, crates, the ground, and covered by an intricate web of tarps and sheets, some drooping so you’d have to stoop or lift them to pass under.
There was some kind of order, fruits and vegetables in one area, olives and spices in another, clothing and shoes here, one whole street filled with stalls of hanging sides of beef and goat, the ground littered with raw chicken parts, surrounded by wooden boxes of small, silvery fish, wet and glistening. One small section was populated by a line of men sitting on the ground with huge chunks of chalk in front of them, marked by the sound of chisels chipping it away. Mixed with water, the chalk is used on walls. They had small plastic bags with chalk dyed blue and yellow to use for decoration.
Potatoes, oranges, cucumbers and two large melons.
As we made our way through, the school director who accompanied us stopped here for olives, here for a melon, and tried to get cheese from a cheese vendor, but we arrived after 3, and thus he was sold out. We ended at an eating establishment, one of several in the market. Five or six plastic tables and plastic chairs set up on the gravel road covered by a series of tarps to protect from sun and wind. On one side a small camp stove and a vat of oil for frying.
This is the kitchen. I like to think that donkey and goat are good friends,and
this is the time of day they catch up.
Plates of sunny-side up eggs, “fish and chips” and in the
foreground, mounds of salt and cumin
Oil cured olives with peppers and
preserved lemon

We were each given a large sheet of paper as a placemat, a round, flat bread to share with the person opposite, a glass of mint tea, a plate of two fried eggs, a plate of fried but unbreaded fish and French fries, and dishes of olives, black, and green with red peppers and preserved lemon. The tea was very sweet, as to be expected, the eggs, most likely laid by the chickens next door earlier that day tasted pretty “farmy”, which, I imagine is what they are supposed to taste like and that my idea of eggs is somewhat warped. The French fries, alas, are never very good here. They are available many places but are always too cold, too hard, too greasy, losing everything that’s worthwhile about either potatoes or fries. We had melon for dessert, a local type, oblong in shape, bright yellow on the outside, pale yellowish-green on the inside and with a mellow honeydew flavor. Despite the overwhelming smell of livestock, raw meat, fish and garbage, a truly remarkable stench, the meal was good and it was interesting to see a more rural part of the area.

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Wanderings

Interzone

Have I told you that the apartment in which Guillaume and I are staying is shabby-chic? And by chic I mean it is charming in its own little ways, with colorful tiles on the floor, and a washing machine (hallelujah!), and by shabby I mean shabby. And that there are two other boys living here too? Add to that the heat, the noise, the endless verb conjugations, and a weekend away sounded like the perfect gift for my birthday. Morocco holds endless treasures; desert, seaside, mountain, bustling souk, modern city, peaceful oasis. Meknes, Marrakesh, Fes, Rabat, Casablanca; I could easily spend these two months seeing all that this country has to offer, and probably just scratch the surface. While I do think that being settled allows me to really get a feeling for Tetouan and its immediate surrounds, which I like, seeing a little something more was tempting. Our class schedule really only permitted a weekend excursion, which cut out Marrakesh (11 hours by bus) and really Fes and Meknes as well (6 hours each way). Tangier, though maybe not the most exciting Moroccan city, is an easy hour drive away but would still give us something new to look at, and most enticingly, a calm, clean home away from home. When I began exploring hotel or riad options for the trip, still not even sure where we would be heading, one small hotel stood out above all the others. La Tangerina received thousands of excellent reviews, with barely even a bad one. I love a good review site and know that raves across the board are very rare. For every person that has a good experience there is always one that had a completely horrid one. Always. These guests had been so pleased that all of them wanted to go back. It was also well within our budget, but the piece de resistance was the view from the rooftop terrace, of the Mediterranean and Spain on one side and the whole of Tangier on the other.
And so, on Friday afternoon we took a taxi from the center of Tetouan to the outskirts where we got into another taxi, this one of the grand taxis that make the journey between cities. These taxis, regular sized cars, operate as a sort of bus, not leaving until there are six passengers, four in the back and two in the front. We payed for four passengers so as not to have to wait, and to have a bit more room. The landscape is beautiful with mountains and fields dotted with donkeys, sheep and horses and roadside buildings ranging from restaurants with sides of beef hanging on the porch to large event palaces. It hasn’t rained for two months or more and it is very dry, but the brown is punctuated by the green of cacti and pine trees, an interesting juxtaposition, and bursts of colorful wildflowers too. Once in Tangier we were dropped at the bus station, where we found another taxi to take us through the city into the Kasbah, or old walled fortress. Tangier is a modern and cosmopolitan, if slightly ugly city. When the taxi arrived at the door to the medina, he drove right in. In Morocco cars, people and motorcycles share the road despite their differences in size and susceptibility to injury. We bumped along, the people around us ignoring the honking and going about their shopping. We went up steep hills until we entered a final stone arch, the Bab Kasbah, or door to the Kasbah, and were dropped off with a gesture to follow the road straight. There was an obligatory boy or two hoping to show us where to go, but I was struck by how serene and quiet it was within the stone walls.
Strait of Gibralter and Spain beyond
We entered the heavy wooden door of La Tangerina straight into the 1920’s. With black and white checkerboard tiles under foot, I looked up to see three floors surrounding a central courtyard in the traditional riad style, at the top of which was a faceted skylight. There were carefully curated antiques, birdcages populated by finches singing the days news, and old radios piping in jazz. All of this to take visitors back to the colonial days of Morocco. Rather than everything feeling old, as antiques and historical buildings sometimes do, it felt new, more accurately recreating what it was to live it for the first time. Not exactly an accurate picture of Morocco, it isn’t how I would recommend or want to see the country as a whole, but as a luxurious and fun weekend it was perfection. We were shown to our room, one of ten, all different, which was comfortable, clean and had real personality. The bathroom was what heaven is like, if heaven is tiled in emerald green tiles, which I imagine it at least partially to be. We headed straight up the two flights of stairs, ogling more birds and more antiques as we eventually exited at the top onto a patio with this truly stunning vista.

 

We were met with mint tea in glasses with colorful patterns and almond cookies. I am truly impressed by the variety of flavors and textures possible in almond cookies. The patio featured a veritable jungle of potted plants, ranging from roses to potted palms to small pots of mint, creating a lush, peaceful feel. The ocean spread before us like a rippling quilt, variegated with strands of green and blue, the currents of the Mediterranean and Atlantic blending but not quite mixing. Since Ramadan began two weeks ago, we haven’t had anything to eat or drink outside the house during daytime, so it was very nice to be able to enjoy a glass of tea with the sun on our faces. If you ask they will prepare dinner for you, and we did ask, having an inkling that we wouldn’t want to leave this place. The beef and vegetable tagine was essentially really good brisket, the meat falling apart at the slightest fork provocation. Moroccan food, though full of spices, does not taste spicy in the way that Thai or Indian food does. Instead the predominant flavors are the mellower ones of mint, oregano, ginger, pepper, turmeric. This was followed with truly the best fruit salad I have ever had, marinating in fresh peach and orange juice.

I rose earlier than usual, although not on purpose, subconsciously eager to drink in the view once more. And then seeing the delicious breakfasts being enjoyed by other guests, it was all I could do to wait another hour before waking Guillaume. Moroccan crepes with dishes of caramel sauce, butter, jam and fresh cheese, a basket of bread and pastries, a plate of cakes, fresh-squeezed orange juice, coffee and watermelon. There was no reason to go anywhere. Whatever Tangiers had to entice us with, it could not hold a candle to this view, these peaceful surrounds, a little sun, a good book. In the afternoon we went for a walk, and immediately ran into a man, who is apparently the uncle of the woman who owns the riad. You guys, people here are so warm. If I communicate nothing else in this space, it should be that: everyone is friendly, helpful and generous. When I say everyone, I obviously don’t mean everyone, hyperbole is one of my guilty pleasures, along with America’s Next Top Model. There is still the crazy guy who makes his way down the street ranting very loudly about how Tetouan is the armpit of Morocco (um…why are you here?) there are still beggars trying to get a few dirhams out of you, there are a few people who stare and don’t smile back. And there are the people who are so, so, so friendly and helpful that you have to wonder if they are trying to get money out of you. This man is one of those people. But then they are so personable that you start to think that it would be nothing less than an insult to offer money, to assume that they are being anything less than hospitable, but then when you hear him mention that he works at the tourism office you think maybe he wants money after all. Or is he just being helpful? He wasn’t helpful, telling us that we should be learning Derija, the dialect, rather than Fusha, modern standard Arabic because no one will speak Fusha (too late, but thanks) and telling us that the cannon we had seen, clearly, with our own eyes behind the parapet of the Kasbah walls was not actually there. Or telling us that we need to see this museum, and that cave and this we will find supremely enjoyable even though we told him we were leaving the next day. It was moderately helpful when he pointed out Louis Vuitton’s house and that it had cost $22 million, so that we could know that we were pretty well priced out of the neighborhood. But helpful or not, he was definitely friendly! Finally extricating ourselves we walked through the old city, an intricate beehive of narrow “streets”, barely wide enough for two or three people side by side, which suitably zigged and zagged and upped and downed, some narrow passageways led into other narrow passageways and others led into dead ends. After an hour or so we turned to go back up the hill to the hotel. We got lost after going down the third street that ended in a door, but of course a man sitting in a doorway weaving thread asked where we were headed and pointed and said “that way and then right”. The evening was spent in much the same way the morning was, except this time it was bathed in the rapidly changing colors of sunset: pure white to gold then amber into burnt sienna.
We had a very good chicken couscous dinner as the stars twinkled overhead, and a bracing sea breeze required putting on a sweater for the first time in a month. I consider it fair that I only saw the shooting stars that evening from the corner of my eyes, never catching them precisely; a birthday eve can be too perfect, after all.
I didn’t want to leave this beautiful, tranquil, perfect place. It was such a nice time that even coming back to an apartment where a plumber had fixed one leaking pipe just to create a brand new, also leaking pipe and had trashed the kitchen and bathroom in the process, couldn’t ruin it.

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