Musings

In the Hot Air Balloon


Well. I don’t even know where to start. It’s been more than a year since last I wrote, and so much has happened, but I didn’t tell you about it because the wanderings were playground related and not museums or historical sites, the sitings were mostly diaper changes and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish and the tastings were composed of steamed carrots and just a lot of burrito bowls. Yes, we had a baby 17 months ago. And it’s just been everything. Like, all the things. It’s so much harder and more wonderful than you think and yada yada, all the clichés are true. So now instead of in a sidecar and motorcycle,  I imagine us all floating together from place to place above the earth in a hot air balloon as a little family of three! 

Since we left Paris oh, wow, about 2 years ago, we’ve lived in Salem, Ma and Cambridge, MA, which I will have little bits to share about, but now we’re back in France for the next several years, in Tarbes which is in the Pyrenees Mountains in the south west. I’m a stranger once more and again everything has a veil over it which I feel the need to lift, peek under, and then tell you all about. Writing this blog began as a way for me to answer the question, from others and myself, “what are you doing here?”at a time when I was moving around the world, and also away from the most important passion of my life and the only career I had ever wanted. It seemed (and, in fact, was) very important to have a goal and purpose. Now, with a toddler, a little part of me walking around, my goal and purpose have never been more clear. And yet, from time to time, now that there’s a bit more breathing room, I hear a small voice inside asking, “but…what are you doing here?” And so here I am. I’m experiencing a culture through food (and sights, and also probably now a child’s eyes) and writing about it. Among other things. And so far, I’ve been here for 2 months and have not had a café gourmand yet, which is a serious travesty.  

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You can’t take it with you

During my time in the US, besides enjoying spending time with family and friends, I also took advantage of some things that I don’t have access to in Paris. I wrote about the more food related things in this earlier post, but for the most part these are things that are either too expensive, hard to find, or simply don’t exist here. Here are some of the things that I enjoyed while in New York:

Also delicious, delicious coffee from places like Gimme! Coffee and Ithaca Coffee Roasters complete with half and half. Not pictured because I drank it. Lots of pumpkin goodies like cookies that were dairy and sugar free because that’s how my parents roll these days. They were yummy, although not that photogenic. My mom also made delicious (and photogenic, it must be said) vegan pumpkin pie. Last but not least, there was more than one bagel that came to an end at my hands.

 

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Souvenirs and Gifts from Paris (that won’t break the bank)

Knowing that I was going back to the US for the holidays, and that I would be seeing almost my entire family during that time, I began to think about some gifts that I could bring back with me. Gifts that could serve as a Christmas present but with a souvenir flair, something that said, “I was thinking about you while I was away in this foreign country”. If money was no/not much of an object, I could think of millions of things that I would bring back: silk scarves and boxes of macarons, decadent chocolates and salted caramels, luxurious face creams, lusciously scented Diptyque candles, vibrant Provençal linens, chic and slightly wacky fashions, beautiful artworks and tiny jars of mustard in exotic flavors. As it is, though, I was forced to stick to a budget. I began researching gifts that were affordable, useful, and beautiful. Above all, these things had to feel French, ideally being things that French people love and use in their daily lives (ultimately landing far away from the items in the souvenir shops plastered with “France” or “Paris”, with one small exception). These are the things I found and not one of them is priced over 10 Euros. They can be combined in many different ways to create gifts at all price points and for various audiences (one such combination below) so that no one is left out. They can even be added to a more luxurious gift as a little something extra. I waited until now to share them since they were the actual gifts my family and friends received. Since my family and friends are unfailingly polite, I don’t know what the real response was, but I’ve seen many of them used, and I stand by all of them!

French Soaps

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I like these soaps because they smell delicious, come in a wide variety of authentic scents that are sure to please a panoply of noses, are so pretty, and the Marseilles region of Provence has been known for its (exacting) soap-making for centuries. These are Compagnie de Provence, but there is a wide range of brands with various packaging, scents and price points, as well as very famous solid laundry soap worth looking into.

Fleur de Sel

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When I said in French class (en français, of course) that I had bought salt as gifts everyone looked at me like I was crazy. I may be, I never know if my proclivities with food are normal (in fact I remember my mother being bemused by Guillaume’s and my excitement about some watermelon radishes that came in our CSA box and that we had pickled. She said, “What is the big deal with radishes?” I say, if one cannot get excited about beautiful concentric circles of hot pink in a giant slice of vegetable, crunchy and tangy from a pickling in vinegar, then I don’t know what one can get excited about. Personally.) Fleur de Sel, like many food items in France, is something that is taken completely seriously, and also completely for granted. It is in everyone’s cupboard, is very affordable, but is harvested in precise locations, with exacting standards, the same way that it always has been. I don’t think many people in the US keep fleur de sel, but it is very useful for finishing dishes, salads, or even desserts. I focused on fleur de sel from Guérande, near where we had been in Nantes, and Camargue.

Vichy Mint Pastilles

These mints, very French, made with Vichy water, and available in most supermarkets, were probably originally made to cure all sorts of ills. Now they just taste nice and freshen breath and are the perfect thing to tuck in to a larger gift or with other items, like the little satchels below, especially when elegantly packaged.

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Early on I came up with the idea of several smaller items wrapped up in another gift as a little parcel. I toyed with scarves, tote bags, tea towels, but then I found these napkins at a popular mid-range French department store, BHV. They are very French Country; a little kitschy while still being something that certain French people would use. I wrapped a soap, a container of fleur de sel and some mints in a napkin with some pretty ribbon in the colors of the French flag to really bring home the theme.

Eiffel Tower Keychains 

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The pièce de résistance (if you will allow a bit of exaggeration), I attached one of these to each of the parcels I gave away. This is definitely a Souvenir with a capital “S” and it even says Paris on it, but I bought my first Eiffel Tower keychain in 2001, and it has been on my keys ever since. It is the perfect size and shape to find in the depths of a bag or pocket, and reminds me of my trip every time. OK, so maybe a person who has not been to Paris would not want a remembrance on their keys, but it’s a little thing, and I think they are so adorable, especially attached to the tie on the parcel. They come in several different colors and designs, including some very kitschy ones, but I prefer this sort of vintage-y color, and simple design. 

Candle from Notre-Dame de Paris

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This might not be for everyone, but I discovered that Notre Dame Cathedral has candles that you can take with you for a suggested donation.

Tote Bags

Tote bags are infinitely useful, are often seen on the shoulders of (especially young) Parisians, and are available in many places. These are from the Rodin Museum, Shakespeare and Company Bookstore and the Compagnie de Provence store, respectively.

Market Baskets

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These market baskets were actually the first thing I purchased in France. I noticed them at the large covered market in Nantes and they looked so French, so utilitarian and un-stuffy, indeed I saw them all around me overflowing with carrots and strawberries and being strapped to the backs of bicycles. They were also very well-priced (not being the very fancy kind that you buy at William-Sonoma) and I couldn’t resist a few for some family members. They definitely proved a bit of a challenge to tote around, especially since I wanted to keep them protected, and I learned a good rule: only buy things that will definitely fit in your suitcase.

Notebooks

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Who can’t use a notebook? Cute, useful, evocative.

Pottery Cups

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Is it cheating that these are sort of free? These absolutely adorable pots come filled with yogurt at the supermarket. Only one brand that I’ve found still uses colored clay pots, although many still use glass, and they change colors and flavors as the seasons do. Right now the flavor is vanilla, and the pots are this gorgeous red color with “Joyeuses fêtes” (Happy Holidays) scrolled in the clay. I cannot think of a single person who would be, if not delighted by this piece of French crockery, at the very least find some clever use for it. Pencil cup? Bud vase? Custard cup? To hold salt on the countertop? Coffee cup? Shot glass in a pinch?

Herbes de Provence

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A traditional French spice blend from, as the name suggests, Provence. Oftentimes containing lavender, a staple product of the area, I learned that they only began including it when the tourists requested it. With or without the lavender, a nice choice for the chefs in your life.

Gift Tags

Finally, I knew I was looking for some tags or labels to distinguish the packages, and I thought I wanted them to say “Merry Christmas” in French. After a lot of searching I found these absolutely perfect ones at BHV, at Hôtel de Ville. I also liked the old-fashioned tags as well, which have a certain “je ne sais quoi”.

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A New Year

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To cite “I’ve been busy” as the reason that I haven’t posted in a while wouldn’t be particularly accurate. The truth is that when you don’t have to go anywhere and don’t have to do anything, it’s probably more realistically called leisure. But the holidays always feel very busy, though, don’t they, and for the week or so around Christmas and New Year’s my parent’s house was bursting with my entire family plus husband, wife and significant others (9 people, 2 dogs and a cat, altogether). We were busy indeed enjoying one another’s company and going hither and thither. For one thing, the house operates on a well for water (actually two) and we’ve discovered that it supports exactly 3 people without running dry. My mom purchased guest passes at the local gym so that we could shower and ALSO run the dishwasher and you know, flush toilets and whatnot, so we spent some time driving down there, at least perfunctorily exercising, and sauna-ing and showering. To me, there seemed to be the pervasive sense that we don’t quite know when we will all be together again. We are spread out across the country (and world) and only have plans to spread further. So it’s bittersweet. We’re packing years worth of chatting, fun, hugs, games and heart-to-hearts in a few short days. It can be a lot and every day is full. I often think it would be so nice to all live closer together so that we could have multiple low-key, relaxed meetings instead of trying to cram it all into one week.

It has been so wonderful to be “home” for the holidays. Home is such an interesting concept. When I lived in New York City for eight years, that felt more and more like home, and it still does in a lot of ways. Boston never felt like home at all. And Paris, although lovely to visit and even stay for some time, feels very transient. They say “home is where the heart is”*, and I remember as a kid puzzling over this like it was a koan. I think it can be taken two ways: one is that one’s home is where he or she loves to be and is happiest, and the other is that home could be anywhere the person or people you love best reside(s), whether it is a mansion or a cardboard box. Both of these things are true for me, actually, and so home has been various European cities (I ask not for a violin, tiny or otherwise). So not having any physical place to hang my hat, my parent’s house fills that kind of grounded presence. I grew up in this house from the age of 8, and there are countless memories echoing within its walls. I’ve found it comforting to spend a bit of time here. It helps that I never once have to give the blank and slightly wild-eyed stare of mingled incomprehension, panic and rapid translation when someone speaks to me in a shop.

When this year began (more than two weeks ago, how can that be), the internet, magazines and other media were all abuzz with the change in numbers on the calendar and all that it entails- assessing the old year and reminiscing, reevaluating and taking stock, and looking forward to the year ahead-making plans, promises and premonitions. Around the holidays, at the various parties and gatherings, I answered many questions about “how I am” and “how Paris is”. So, I’ve been thinking about the past seven months or so, trying to define the experience, and even put it into a short concise sentence. Being away from the United States for longer than 3 months, hearing a foreign language constantly, attempting to learn that language, traveling to different cities around Europe- how do I sum that up, beyond using the word “amazing”? I do know that 2013 felt big. It was so exciting, and yes scary, to pack up all our belongings and move to Paris. And it has turned out both more wonderful and also as difficult as I imagined it to be. 2014 promises to be a roller coaster, with many things that I have planned, some that are about half-planned and some that for whatever reason I have no/ little control over and I have to just let happen. But, oddly for someone who tends towards the anxious, I love roller coasters. I am ready.

*Apparently attributed to Gaius Plinius Secundus, otherwise known as Pliny the Elder, a Roman author who died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

 

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Fall back

This morning we woke up before the alarm went off, which hardly ever happens, and then noticed that the clock on the oven and the clock on the wall were different from our phones and computers. It took a few minutes and a few sips of coffee before Guillaume mentioned it might be daylight savings time. And it was. In Europe, daylight savings time ends at the end of October. Surprise! An extra hour of sleep!  We had some more time to make it to the Sunday market, which closes up shop around noon. Autumn makes me think of certain things, and although apples and pumpkins and spice are not ALL OVER EVERYWHERE in Paris as they are in the US (which I love, by the way, I had to go all the way to London for a pumpkin spice latte, and reading the Trader Joe’s fall circular to see what new products pumpkin or pumpkin spice has been shoved into is a favorite pastime), they are available for the most part and I was looking forward to stocking up on some seasonal fruits and veggies: Brussels sprouts, apples, Swiss chard, hopefully. We found some green Swiss chard at the market and we asked about rainbow chard, which I think is prettier and tastes better. The grocer said he had heard about it somewhere, but it was very exotic, and the woman next to us actually laughed and looked at us like we were crazy. Well, lady, you are missing out. As I’ve said before, in this post about Morocco, when I’m in a new place I like to eat how the locals eat. It’s more practical and cheaper not to mention giving a better sense of culture. Living in Paris, I wouldn’t necessarily even think twice about this; beyond eating more and better cheese, wine, pastries and bread, how different would my diet be from how it is in the US? But the truth is, there are many, mostly subtle differences. I’ve been cooking a certain way for almost 20 years and it’s a bit hard to change. I have favorite recipes, and go-to dinners that we make regularly, as well as eating vegetarian for much of the week. Slowly and hitting up a variety of ethnic, natural and regular grocery stores, we’ve been able to find our basics: tofu, soy sauce, vanilla, flour, baking powder, brown sugar. Other things we happily replaced with other different/better products (have you SEEN the yogurt aisle here?) But there are some things that I can’t find or can’t find affordably that put a tiny wrench in things I regularly eat, recipes I was planning to make, or cravings that I had : baking soda (hard to find), kale (making progress,), a nice bedtime tea, filo dough, canned pumpkin, half and half (I’m currently creating my own combo with a light cream/milk. It is sad), peanut butter (super expensive), vegetable or chicken stock and black beans.

My goal, ultimately, is instead of trying to eat like we do in the US, to cook like a Parisian. They eat, and eat very well, so we should be able to do the same. They have very specific ideas about their food (i.e. kale is to feed rabbits), and although I may not agree with all of them, learning about them and trying them out is a good idea. I admit that my brain doesn’t immediately know what to do with the huge piles of golden trumpety mushrooms, long sandy leeks, chestnuts, fresh figs, and plums of every color, but I also know it is my challenge, and one that will be fun to meet, especially now that it will start getting dark at 5.

 

 

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Learning French on Marlborough Street

This past fall I took French classes at the French Cultural Institute, part of the Alliance Française. With the knowledge that I would be living in Paris in less than a years time, I knew that I needed to get serious, and the strangely organized Rosetta Stone was not doing the trick. After 4 units of the program I knew how to say “the cat is on the table” or talk about my green bicycle but not how to introduce myself. I had been fighting taking a class because of the cost, and the time commitment, but after taking two months of Arabic last summer, I realized how much I could learn in a stricter class setting and how much I enjoyed being in one.

So every Tuesday and Thursday morning I would make my way through the Public Garden. I passed parents taking photos of their children seated atop the bronze duckling statues of “Make Way for…” fame. I watched the swans and ducks go about their business, fishing, swimming or sleeping with head tucked firmly beneath wing, visited in later months by geese winging their way south. I watched the weeping willows, my favorite, gently brush their long, leafy tendrils in the pool, their color changing slowly with time from green to burnished gold. In the city the leaves change slower, more subtly, and it becomes even more of a treat to see red leaves shot through with sunlight.

I walked through Back Bay to the beautiful old house that holds the Center. I walked through lovely rooms, up two flights of stairs to the back of the building, to a classroom that alas, had little in common with the rest of the old house except that it was always too hot or too cold. And there I spent an hour and a half before going on to work or whatever else the day planned. We were a group of ten, ranging from 17-70 years old, mostly women, mostly learning so that he or she could travel easily in France. Some had family who were now or would soon be living in France. I felt comforted that it is never the wrong time to start, but when I told the class that I needed to be fluent by May, we all had a good laugh. I think it would be possible for some; those to whom language comes easily…and who spend more time on homework. Our teacher was a young man from France, infinitely friendly and patient. This program is a type of “immersion” program, meaning only the language being taught is spoken while in class. This is a popular method, and thought to be useful because it is the way in which we all initially learn language and the best way to begin to think in the language itself rather than translating as you go. Rosetta Stone itself uses this method, using photos to communicate words and phrases. With Rosetta Stone I was missing larger concepts, such as grammar, and spelling. I would know how to say something using a verb, but not how to conjugate it. I noticed some similar issues in my Arabic class as well, but whereas in Morocco the teacher would speak English (if he or she was able) to explain a difficult concept or word, here the teacher, on strict orders from the school for French only, would enact a miming ritual (I know, so French) which would usually be humorous, but would take valuable class time. Hearing nothing but French for an hour and a half is incredibly helpful and vital to training the ear and mind, but the strict rule of “no English” can be a hindrance. If, for example, the teacher was able to spend 5 minutes after writing out the accents (aigu, grave, circonflexe) explaining why they existed, it would only serve to enhance the class time that came after. Instead I had to wait until I got home and looked them up to learn what the purpose was. Learning that the circonflexe (as iHôtel) usually replaces an “s” that was once there, no less than blew my mind. So much easier to remember how to spell words! Our teacher did acknowledge that the best learning would be a combination of class time and self-study, looking up terms and words, etc, but such basic, important ideas that can crack open a language like that should be shared.
The class also went very slowly, being catered towards the slowest student as opposed to aiming somewhere in the middle. We were learning from a textbook that is used around the world, and there are issues as with any language textbook. The verb “pouvoir” for example is defined in English in the dictionary at the back as “to can” which I think we can all agree does not mean anything. It is more commonly defined as “to be able”.  I was amused by the fact that one of the first words we learned was United Nations, as it was in the Arabic textbook. I’m starting to think there is some kind of conspiracy. Besides the slow pace, the teacher was very lax on pronunciation, only correcting when it was very wrong, even praising mediocre articulation. I think he was being easy on us beginners, but pronunciation is one of the things that I think it is important to emphasize early on, so that good habits can be formed rather than bad ones. 

I didn’t sign up for the class this semester; taking that walk in 18 degree weather is less enticing, and the path is icy and the trees are bare anyway. I really found it overpriced for what we ended up learning. By the time competency is reached the student has spent thousands of dollars. Maybe this is normal, and a small price to pay for another language. And somehow when I am sitting on my own with the books spread out in front of me, it seems a lot more confusing than it did in the classroom. Overall I am reminded that conversation, listening and speaking, is the only way to learn. But I will be tossed right into the deep end of that pool in 5 months whether I like it or not. Sink or swim indeed!

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Tips From Your Friendly Neighborhood Shopgirl

For most of the time I’ve lived in Boston, about two years, I’ve worked at a shop that sells artisanal chocolates from around the world. For a time, this was exactly as fun as it sounds- I got to be surrounded by a luscious chocolate aroma and vivid, colorful candy all day long. I got to learn about and discuss the nuances of chocolate production and bon bon making. And most people were friendly, the way only people shopping for candies in a lovely shop could be. I distinctly remember thinking that, and being excited to go into work. After less than a year though, those few rude or even nasty customers could sour an entire day. Certainly working at any one job, in any one position for a length of time can take on notes of the monotonous and tedious, but I’ve found that in retail, in chocolate retail in particular, there are certain things that customers do and say that are like nails on a chalkboard. And so I offer you, 7 Things a Customer Should Never Do:1. Do not ask, “Is that good?” Yes. It is good. If we sell it, it’s good, or at least I am going to tell you that it is. Taste is extremely subjective, so asking me what is good is not even going to be much help. I personally think that bacon and chocolate are two great foods whose greatness is not improved by combining them, but there are many people who disagree. And that is if I’ve even tasted the piece in question. We have over 1,000 constantly rotating products which I can’t afford to sample, and the owner can’t afford to let me. Which brings me to;

2. Do not say, “How do you work here?” “I could never work here.” “I would be so fat if I worked here.” “How do you not eat everything?” I hear variations on these all day long. And I am never quite sure what to say. “With difficulty.” “I could never work here either. Oh, wait.” “Ma’am, do you honestly think we can go around eating all the chocolates?” are some of the responses that I choke back. Every job in the world has that question or humorous statement that they’ve heard a million times and that everyone thinks they are so clever to come up with for the first time. The masons building the first cathedral must have heard, “How do you get it to stay up?” In the end, when hearing the same thing for the billionth time, all I can do is smile and nod.

3. Do not leave your sunglasses on in the store. This is a tricky one because, I know, it is easy to forget you have them on. Or maybe you just got Botox, I don’t know your life.  But with your sunglasses on I can’t tell that you are looking at me, and thus talking to me, which makes for an awkward exchange where you think I’m being rude, and I do a terrible De Niro “Are you talking to me?” It’s one of those things that maybe doesn’t seem rude, but is pretty rude. Unlike the following:

4. Do not talk on your phone while in any kind of transaction. This doesn’t just seem rude. It is. And yet I see people do it anyway. All the time. Talk on your phone all you like while you are in the store, if you don’t mind everyone all up in your business. I don’t care. But if you answer the phone while I am ringing you up I am tempted to send you to the back of the line. I’m a human being and you’re a human being and we are having a human transaction wherein I may have to impart some important information. And don’t even think about approaching the counter while already on the phone, hoping to bark out some instructions in the middle of your important conversation. Just no, OK. And even though I work at a more high-end store, in a fancy neighborhood and therefore am confused why people don’t have manners, I’m pretty sure a transaction at the bank, or the drugstore or the grocery requires phone-free time as well. I know you’re busy, but you are not so busy that you can’t smile for three minutes while you make a transaction. As Stephanie Tanner of Full House fame would say, “How rude.”

5. Either I pick them, or you pick them. I know we have a lot of chocolates. I know it’s overwhelming. And I can put together a box of chocolates that is beautiful, delicious and fits your criteria in four minutes. But if you decide to select your pieces can we not do the thing where I describe every chocolate and you say yes or no? We have A LOT of chocolates and by the time we’re halfway through we will both want to kill ourselves. I don’t know what this lady would like, I don’t know her from Adam, and again, taste is subjective. It is a busy time, and I am happy to help you. But doing it this way helps no one.

6. Do not lean on the glass cases. When did we all get so tired? Not only do we have to clean it, but it is glass, and breakable and expensive, blah, blah, blah. When children do it, I am not surprised. When their parents say nothing, I am a little surprised, but it is shocking to me when a grown up lady who should know better drapes herself over the gelato case, head in hand, elbow and torso leaning on the glass, her hair brushing over everything, like a high school student who is so over a math class. Are you kidding me with this?

7. Do not put your belongings on the product. If there is no where to put your purse that isn’t covered, then don’t put your (enormous) (Coach) purse down on top of everything. This seems obvious to me, but I guess it is not. I actually saw someone writing something down on top of a bar of chocolate. If you need to write something down, and there is no where to write, a bar of chocolate is not a substitute. It is flat, but nothing else about it is a good writing surface.

Working in retail is hard. Working in retail at Christmas is surely one of the circles of hell. We are all doing our best, and I would love for everyone coming into the store to have a wonderful experience. But it is a two way street and the season would be so, so much more joyful if everyone remembered common sense, human decency and manners. And if you do, I will not only return the favor but give you as many separate bags (with tissue paper!) as you want!

May your Holidays be merry and bright and full of the people and foods you love!

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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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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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Musings

دنِكا

At this point in my studies of the Arabic language, a week in, I know the alphabet: how to write and read the letters and what sounds they make. I can read words, although I feel like a kid again slowly sounding out the letters “sss…aaahh…mmm…kkk” (samak, or fish). I was assigned four hours of Arabic classes a day, with a group of Spanish tourists on holiday. I had been under the impression that I would be taking two hours a day, so I was none too happy to find out that it would, in fact, be double the time. Quickly, though, my school-brain kicked in and the classroom took on a fun atmosphere. Our teacher, Ikram, speaks very little English or Spanish, but as she was only supposed to speak to us in Arabic, that ultimately didn’t matter. I have been pleased to find that my name, so often mispronounced elsewhere, is made up of straightforward Arabic sounds, and is easily understood, written and spoken. Poor Pablo sitting next to me was out of luck; there is no “p” sound in Arabic. Likewise “g” as in “good” and “v”. However, there are enough letters in Arabic that have no equivalent sound in English (or Spanish or French) that when a sound like “shin” (the beginning of shoe, or shop, or shin, for that matter) comes along it feels like a small victory.
As we went through the 28 letters of the alphabet we would learn three or four words that used letters we had learned thus far. To define the word, Ikram would show us a picture.  It was great fun to guess what was pictured. Grainy black and white photocopies, she held them up and the Spanish contingent quickly said what it was, in Spanish, and I followed in English. Sometimes it was straightforward, orange, say, or peach, or cat. But on Wednesday she showed a picture of something that I wasn’t sure about. “Acorns?” I said, as they looked vaguely similar, the crown being the same, but the body was quite a bit longer and thinner, shaped like a date. “La (no), from the tree,” my teacher said, shaking her head. At a loss, I looked to the Spanish for help. “Like a seed? A nut?” I asked. “I don’t think we have those in America.” One girl, Susannah, took over. “Jamon, you know?” “Si, pig,” I answered. “What the jamon eat” and she mimed eating. “Oh, si, acorns!” I was right the first time, and I didn’t say that only the very luckiest American pigs would eat acorns, and if they did they wouldn’t look like that, and that I was glad that I had read enough food magazines to know that Iberian pigs feast on acorns.
This second week is harder, having left the cozy confines of 28 letters to find myself in a jungle of “the rest of it”: endless vocabulary, grammar, colloquialisms and dialects; a vast undertaking that people, even native speakers, spend their entire life on. I do not expect it to be easy, but I am finding that learning something, especially something that is challenging and with rewards that come the second I step out of the classroom, is satisfying. But ask me again next week.
Two of the words I know: cat and door.

*Title is my name in Arabic, basically.

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