Back to School: The More Things Change…

 

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Hardin Elementary School. The covered walkway and orange sign weren’t there when I attended. We were bussed to the high school to eat lunch. The elementary didn’t have a cafeteria until I was in second grade.

When I was a child and summer break was drawing to a close, mom would take my sister and me to buy school supplies. My love for this was intense. It signaled beginnings — a new school year, new teachers, a fresh start.

But I also loved it because it made me feel organized.

After the supplies were arranged on my bed I’d open the package of file dividers and put them in my new spiral-ringed notebook then put sheets of rule-lined paper in each section.

Each package of scissors, school paste, rubber erasers, pencils and pens would be opened and put into the see-through bag with three holes on the side. Packing everything “just so” and visible inside the plastic meant… what, exactly? I wish I knew. But it gave me a rush. Lastly, I’d secure the supply bag into the binder and close it.

Then I’d kneel beside my bed and open the notebook slowly. I’d unzip the bag and pretend to remove something I needed. I’d open a tab so I was looking at a thin stack of gleaming white pages.

On the first day of class, we were issued our textbooks. The First State Bank in Liberty provided book covers made from brown paper like grocery sacks.

The covers had dotted lines in the corners you cut with scissors then turned over onto glued edges that needed to be licked. The process was rather laborious, which explained why most students just folded the ends down and were done with it. But not me. I wanted to cover my books correctly.

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Once all of my textbooks were done I would stack them atop one another. The monochromatic brown of the perfectly done covers… heaven, sheer heaven.

And I still like things when they’re freshly organized (despite my problem with remaining organized.)

It creates anticipation. When everything is neatly in place, anything is possible.

This week was the opening of the Fall semester at the college. I don’t buy school supplies anymore but I do have Getting Prepared rituals.

I carry a shoulder bag on campus. It holds the textbooks for my classes, a three-ring spiral notebook where I keep grade books, attendance records, syllabi and handouts.

But the shoulder bag I’ve used for years fell apart on my last night in Quito, Ecuador. (When I travel I pack lightly — a carry-on and a shoulder bag.) The zippers wouldn’t zip; the edges lost their sewn binding. I wrapped one of my belts around it; some of my T-shirts could be seen from the sides. I looked like Jed Clampett on my way to the airport.

Back at home, I bought a nice leather bag for my trip to Paris. Four weeks later I was waiting in line to board the flight from Barcelona to Tangier and the shoulder strap pulled completely out. The bag dropped to the floor with a loud thud. I had to carry it by the handle for the next three weeks before I made it back home.

Then I threw it away. While in Vancouver I found a bag constructed of safety belt straps by a woman who salvaged them from junked cars. She’d sewn them with an industrial sewing machine. It’s the sturdiest bag I’ve ever seen. Cleverly, it snaps shut with a safety belt buckle.

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And so last week I carefully arranged my books, pens, whiteboard markers and other supplies into my new shoulder bag. And loved the organization and the promises it holds.

Forty-five years after those long ago back-to-school days and I’m doing the very same thing.

We like to believe we’re no longer children and all grown up. But the older I get, the more I question this idea. Am I really so radically changed?

I still enjoy that feeling of leaving the library with a big stack of books; I’m still devoted to reading. I love waking up in the morning to the sound of rain. I still drink V-8 all the time, like I used to do with my friend Karen before band practice. When something really wonderful happens in my life (and I’m alone at home) I still jump up and down.

I’m a balding middle-aged man with many years separating me from that child attending elementary school in Hardin, Texas.

But maybe not so different after all. The thought gives me an odd kind of thrill.

Vancouver: Another World (Close to Home)

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Views of downtown Vancouver from the Lookout located high above downtown. The Lookout provides 360 degree views of the city.

I’m going to start with a gripe: I didn’t get a Canadian stamp in my Passport when I went through Customs.

It’s becoming a thing of the past for US tourists coming into Canada to get them. But this isn’t absolute — some people do, some don’t. I wish I had been in the Yes column.

You can tell by the significance of this gripe that my life is going well…

🙂

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I snapped this photo of Mount Baker from the window of my United flight as we began our descent. It’s a snow-covered volcano 10,781 feet tall and clearly visible above the cloud cover. Mount Baker is located in Washington State but can be seen from Vancouver.

And I have something  to admit: it had never occurred to me that Vancouver was so close.

It felt as though I had stepped into a different world… and yet the flight was only two hours and fifteen minutes long.

Their accents, though mild, reminded me I wasn’t in the United States. The “ou” in out or about takes on a long’ish sound — “oot” and “aboot” and sometimes vowels are swallowed: Toronto becomes “Tronno” for example. There’s a distinctive vocal lift at the end of some of their sentences. It doesn’t sound like a question, though… it simply sounds as if their word inflection goes up.

But I loved — loved loved loved — Vancouver. It’s a bustling hustling kind of city with gorgeous architecture. The weather was incredible, mostly in the 70s. The temperatures would drop into the mid to low 60s in the early morning and late at night.

Because it’s located on water, there are always nice breezes and it was sunny nearly every day. It rained, briefly, one afternoon. I kept thinking: this is like San Francisco except sunny and warm. SF is chilly and almost always foggy during summer.

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Boats of all sizes, including yachts, cram the harbor.
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I liked the reflective surfaces of the downtown architecture and how the sky (and other buildings) are mirrored on their surfaces.
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This is my pal Jeff from Houston. We met in Dallas in the 1980s and have been close friends for 30 years. He’s a CPA and Chief Financial Officer for Planned Parenthood Southeast region. This was our second vacation together.

We’re avid museum-goers and spent many wonderful hours looking at indigenous art and crafts at the Anthropology Museum at the University of British Columbia and saw the fantastic Picasso exhibit at the Vancouver Art Museum.

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The Museum of Vancouver had a strange — and wonderful — exhibit that gathered together local collectors and their obsessions. Common collections included things like pocket watches, classic/antique toasters or action figures.

But some of the obsessions were unexpected: a woman who collects glass eyes (yeah) and one who collects early versions of prostheses and artificial limbs. A woman collects the costumes and paraphernalia of a drag queen ensemble from the 1980s. A young guy focused on the very first video games (think PacMan and Tetris) and antique* pinball machines. Their collections were beautifully displayed and lots of fun to see.

* I suppose any pinball machine is antique these days. Sigh.

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Boats — moored or moving — near the Burrard Bridge.

Vancouver is spread across multiple peninsulas along the Pacific Ocean plus several islands. The capital of British Columbia is Victoria, located on Vancouver Island.

The Butchart Gardens

I love the following story: in 1904, a husband and wife bought land that held limestone deposits. Their timing couldn’t have been better — they supplied cement for the massive building boom along the West Coast from San Francisco up to Portland and Seattle and Western Canada. They became very rich.

But of course the limestone deposits became depleted, and the wife — Jennie — hated the unsightly pits the excavation and limestone quarrying had left behind. So she had topsoil brought in via horse and cart and began to build a garden. It became her life’s passion and soon she hired gardeners to help her execute her vision.

Her gardens became so well known that they were receiving 50,000 visitors/year by the late 1920s.

Butchart Gardens grew to cover 50 acres and is some of the most lush and gorgeous landscaped gardens I’ve ever seen. They employ 40 full-time gardeners and more than a million people visit every year. The great granddaughter is the owner and manager now.

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The Sunken Gardens, the earliest part of the extensive project. Hard to believe this was once a jagged spent quarry.
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Some of the manicured lawns that spread across this enchanting place. The gardeners put out more than 900,000 new flower plantings every Spring.
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A pond and fountain amid lush flowers
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Views from Granville Bridge, which we walked across one morning to browse the art galleries and antique shops in the older part of town.

Vancouver’s Building Explosion

Everywhere we looked construction cranes dotted the landscape. The city is in the midst of one of the largest construction booms in recent memory. We saw high-rise apartments being advertised with a sign slapped across it “Sold Out” but the construction hadn’t begun yet. There was simply a massive hole with construction crews and earth-moving equipment.

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I snapped this photo while we were hiking the city. This one was further along — the foundations had been poured. To get a sense of the scale, notice the men working down below, and the truck on the street in the upper right.
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The view from the terrace of the two bedroom apartment we rented. The moon was gorgeous and full but despite numerous attempts my camera wouldn’t capture it. The thin black arm of a construction crane is in the distance.

The strength of the US dollar made this trip very affordable. I withdrew $300 Canadian from an ATM when I first arrived and only $258 USD was deducted from my account. Prices in Vancouver reminded me of San Francisco’s high prices — so it was a blessing the exchange rate worked in our favor.

I can’t wait to return to this magical city. And now I know… it’s just a quick hop north.

Post (and Pre) Travel Displacement: On Settling Down, Sort Of…

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The wingtip of my plane leaving behind the northern coastline of Africa

When I was in my mid-20s, a couple of friends took me to a fancy white-tablecloth restaurant in Dallas. None of us knew it but men were required to wear a jacket in the dining room. We weren’t wearing proper clothing and so jackets were provided by the maître d’.

Mine was forest green and ill-fitting. I felt ridiculous. It didn’t bode well for the evening. I couldn’t shake off the feeling I didn’t belong, as if I had slipped in the back door. I felt out of place.

For different reasons — and certainly not as intensely — I’ve felt out-of-my-element since returning. Yes, it’s good to be back at home and seeing my friends. It’s lovely to be sharing a meal with Bill again. It’s pleasing to have the comfort of predictability, the pleasure of repeated tasks and these familiar surroundings…

Is it because of the travel?

This period of travel in 2016— unprecedented in my life — has been extraordinary. It still seems unreal that by the time I return to teaching in August, I will have been away from home for three and a half months and traveled more than 58,000 miles. I’ve visited seven countries and have now been on every continent on the planet, save one: Antarctica.

But I’ve felt oddly disjointed since being back at home. I think my head is still somewhere in the clouds, headed to a new destination.

Because life has been hectic?

I had less than a week to recuperate then I drove to San Jose to get my sister. She had been flown out by Acer Corporation along with eleven other tech experts from around the country. For four days she answered questions and provided feedback to companies like Microsoft and Google about the technological needs of students and educational institutions. Katie is the Technology Director for a school system in Texas.

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My sister and I at Vista Point, high above Sonoma County in Armstrong Woods State Natural Reserve, just north of Guerneville, CA

I drove her up here for a weekend with us — we had a blast together. I felt as if I fell in love with her all over again. No one can make me laugh like she can.

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After much searching we bought a circa-1900 hutch for our kitchen. Katie helped us find it. We’re in the process of filling it and clearing out things… although clutter seems to be our natural state.

We’ve been getting bids for drywall repair. We killed two sick chickens — extended illness endangers the other birds. We’ve been to two dinner parties, one in Monte Rio and one in San Francisco. We’ve hosted two dinner parties here at home. It’s been… our life. Our daily life.

I haven’t been able to get much work done. I’ve drafted some new poems and have been outlining the novel’s middle section, but neither of these activities feel very productive. Why doesn’t working feel like working? Why doesn’t being at home feel like being at home?

Is it because there’s more travel ahead?

I go to Texas June 25th to attend our family reunion on July 4th (the 63rd one) and to be a part of Katie’s retirement party on July 9th my parents are hosting. She’s retiring at the tender age of 53 (and yes, I’m envious.) She has a successful furniture store in Waco (Shades of Shabby) where she plans to devote herself full-time.

I fly to Vancouver, British Columbia July 16th to explore that city for a week with my good pal Jeff, who will fly there from Houston.

Maybe I’m experiencing Betwixt-and-Between — not traveling, but not really at home, either.

I guess I’m waiting for that sensation of belonging. Maybe once I’m back at home for good I’ll be able to feel as if I’m where I’m supposed to be.

And that fateful dinner in Dallas?  I remember my anticipation for when the meal would finally be over and we could pay the (exorbitant) check. What a pleasure it was to remove that stupid jacket, step outside into the warmth of the evening and feel like myself again.

Food Fatigue / Food Cravings: A Few Thoughts

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In the 1970s, Aunt Edna told my family about a new low carb diet that allowed bacon and eggs (as much as you wanted!) and yet still lose weight. The idea was completely new.

It seemed too good to be true. I’m sure she had heard about Atkins’ book (Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution: The High Calorie Way to Stay Thin Forever; D. McKay Co., Publisher; 1972) but I don’t recall hearing his name until many years later.

The diet swept through my small town as it did through the rest of the nation. Suddenly everyone was figuring out what “carbs” meant — breads, rice, pastas — and banishing them from the table.

People were losing weight… and buying mints by the cartload because the diet puts the user into ketosis: truly horrible bad breath.

Then Limited Food Choice Fatigue set in.

People started craving a piece of cornbread or a big bowl of rice. (At the time rice * was a huge industry in southeast Texas. Rice was a several-times-a-week dish at our dinner table. Then the cheap Chinese imports arrived and the farmers went bankrupt. To my knowledge, only one local family still farms rice in 2016.)

* People are sometimes surprised water-intensive rice production would take place there. But when people think of “Texas” they’re usually thinking of West Texas from the movies — hot and dry. It’s a huge state. Southeast Texas is wet and muggy with average annual rainfall of 63 inches. 2015 was a “wet year” and the area received 83 inches of rain.

But this is about food fatigue. What it means to have a restricted diet and soon feel as though you simply can’t eat it anymore.

That’s how I felt in Morocco. In restaurant after restaurant, the same things were offered: tagines (stewed meat) couscous (steamed vegetables over the grain couscous) harira (a thin tomato soup with bits of egg in it.)

In Tetouan there are no restaurants that serve Western cuisine… or for that matter any “foreign” food — no Chinese, no Japanese, no Indian — just Moroccan. Being a Westerner, some foods the locals ate were off-limits so my choices were even further restrained.

I would open a menu then close it again. I’d leave half my plate untouched. Often I felt hungry. I lost weight.

(Quick story: while eating at a restaurant we heard a loud screeching outside. One of the waiters opened the door. Two cats were going at one another with claws flying and high-pitched screams and growls. Suddenly they separated and one of them ran into the restaurant and into the kitchen. No one seemed concerned.

After about 20 minutes the cat wandered back in as if nothing had happened. It curled around one of the legs of a table nearby and remained there for the rest of our meal. Seeing cats in restaurants was common, but I never got used to it.)

But then watermelons arrived in the street markets. They were superb and I ate them like there was no tomorrow.

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One of the (many, many) bowls of watermelon I devoured

While I ate I would have these sensations, as if I was being transported. I grew up loving watermelon and my dad still raises them. Occasionally I get a good one in Sonoma County, where I currently live.

On a walking tour through one of the markets, we came across a man selling homemade candies. He’s known for his peanut brittle and he offered me a sample. It was nearly as good as my mom’s.

I had the same feeling eating the peanut brittle, as if I was temporarily at home again. I didn’t feel homesick in any traditional way. I simply wanted to eat foods I knew and loved. I bought a big bag and ate the whole thing in one afternoon.

Foods create taste memories that are inextricably tied to our notions of safety and being where we’re known. It was more than simply missing something — I needed to experience those tastes, as if my body recognized some fundamental lack and therefore created intense desires. I found myself dreaming of fried chicken, of fresh salmon, a really fine steak, salads, cold strawberries…

On our final night, Rachel drove us to a restaurant on the top of a mountain with gorgeous views of Tetouan.

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In the far distance you can see the thin blue strip of the Mediterranean Sea.

The owner had carved out sitting areas in the mountainside; the restaurant has been around for more than 35 years and still doesn’t have a sign. You have to know where to go.

His restaurant serves one thing:  bowls of seasoned tomatoes and onions with either kefta (meatballs) baked in it, or sardines. I don’t trust meatballs made by others… so I ordered the sardines.

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The bowls with a pepper in the center are sardines, the others are kefta. It tasted better than it looks. Even so…

We didn’t know they would arrive in such big bowls (blackened because they’re put directly into the fire to cook.) They were served with six huge rounds of bread. We also ordered two mint teas and a large bottled water, shared by three people. The cost? 35 dirhams each, including tip. Approximately $3.50 USD.

No silverware is used. You tear off pieces of bread and scoop up the food. No napkins. Within ten minutes our fingers were stained red. I noticed that all of us were holding our hands up like women waiting for their fingernail polish to dry. Fortunately, someone found tissues in their purse and we were able to more-or-less clean up.

More than half of my dish remained uneaten. I couldn’t…

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Goats were nibbling on the hillside five feet away from our table.
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… and chickens were everywhere…

It was a lovely evening and we chatted about our experience of being at GOA the past two weeks and our plans for returning home.

Bill emailed to ask me what I wanted for dinner when I returned. I told him fresh salmon, mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli. And I wanted to cook it myself.

Back at home in Forestville, there was a 2 1/2 lb. slab of freshly-caught King salmon in the fridge ($52… welcome to California) and a huge head of broccoli. Potatoes were already in the pantry.

It was a feast! I seasoned the salmon simply with salt and pepper then pan-seared it, made mashed potatoes with butter (and two tablespoons of cream cheese for richness) and steamed, oh, about two pounds of broccoli. (The next day I used more salmon in a creamed pasta dish with fresh dill and green onions.)

I woke up in the middle of the night with heartburn. But I didn’t care. After taking some Tums I crawled back into freshly washed sheets, in my very own bed.

The next morning I couldn’t wait to make breakfast. I could finally have over-easy eggs (from our chickens) a huge platter of bacon and toasted English muffins with plenty of butter and three-berry jam. We keep nearly 20 chickens and so eat a lot of eggs, and I missed them much more than I expected.

After six weeks of espresso (Cafe Americaine — “American coffee” — is served in Paris and Barcelona but it’s terrible; instant coffee is served in Morocco) freshly-brewed and piping hot coffee using our own just-ground roasted beans was the best thing in the whole wide world.

Last night I fried chicken legs, wings and thighs, stewed squash with onions and made rice. I ate till my eyes crossed. How long will it take for me to eat my way through these food cravings?

Going Back in Time: the Leather Tanners of Tetouan

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Treated and scraped hides hanging in the tannery

I remember when my dad and his mother (we called her Bigo) killed and dressed out a hog in our pasture. I was six or seven years old, probably in 1967 or ’68.

They laid a metal 50 gallon oil drum on its side then lifted the opened end and set it on stacked pieces of 4×4 lumber. The cleaned drum was filled with water then a fire was built underneath it.

The dead pig was put forelegs-first into the boiling water. I can still see dad holding the back legs and pushing the hog down, pulling it forward then pushing it back down again. The boiling water loosened the coarse hairs.

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
― Marcel Proust

The pig was pulled from the water and laid on her side. I remember Bigo on her knees and using her big butcher knife to carefully scrape the skin, like giving the pig a full-body shave. She was meticulous about everything (where my dad learned his meticulous ways… which I suppose were passed on to me) till the pig was completely smooth.

It was gutted and washed then cut into what we would recognize from the grocery store: roasts, bacon slabs, long racks of ribs, pork chops…

Home butchering has a long history, but is rarely done in the U.S. today.

In Tetouan I visited the tanneries where the hides of cattle, sheep and goats are turned into the rich leather that is crafted into handbags, luggage, shoes and so on.

It’s a process that has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years. I felt as if I had gone back in time.

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These have been in use since the 1700s.

Huge containers are filled with cattle urine where the hides are initially soaked, and then they’re submerged in huge vats (some carved out of the stony ground) and filled with a mixture that includes pigeon droppings and water. They remain in the poop for upwards of three days.

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These mixtures loosen the hair. A young tannery worker scrapes it away from the treated hides in a tiny and hot workroom. The bags on the left hold the hair.

The tanning process makes the leather supple so it can be easily worked and to efficiently take on the natural dyes.

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Piles of hair scattered around the tannery
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One of the most difficult jobs on the planet. These men walk through the tanning liquids — and sometimes use their hands — to move hundreds of hides so all parts are exposed.

What’s the first thing I noticed? The incredible overpowering stench. It’s acidic with the metallic and soured egg smell of ammonia and sulfur. The pigeon manure was super-pungent in the heat. Some of the men don’t even wear rubber boots but use their feet to massage the tanning fluid into the hides.

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These tanning vats are built from an adobe-type brick and date to the 1600s.
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Hides in the tanning process
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Vats no longer in use in the foreground; the current ones are in the distance. This photo provides context for the location of the tannery in the city.

The leather artisans are a few blocks away. Their tiny shops (sometimes so small there’s only room for a single individual) sell items made by hand using ancient techniques.

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This is the shoemaker. His son also works in this tiny space. They make between seven and ten shoes per week. They represent the 5th and 6th generation of shoemakers in their family. On the right you can see a black shoe with red soles they’re completing.

When I return to Tetouan, I plan to visit them on my first day so they can measure my feet and make me a pair of shoes. I didn’t see their shop until three days remained of my time there. If prices haven’t changed, it will cost me 400 dirhams to have them custom-made, approximately $40 USD.

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This craftsman makes fantasia bags, which once held gunpowder, spear points and other weapons. This tradition continues but is now only for racing while wearing the full regalia. The men yell as they race their horses across the fields.
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This is not my photography but shows a Grand Fantasia as practiced in the 21st century. You can see the bags worn across the bodies of the riders.
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These are some of the thin leather strips — each one cut by hand — that are woven into the fantasia bags.
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This is a closer view. Each loop is pressed through the leather using an awl. It will take him a week of working eight hour days to make a single bag. He sells them to a dealer in Casablanca for 200 dirhams, approximately $20 USD.
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This man’s hands are as steady as my own. He is 86 years old and has been making these bags for 70 years. His father taught him how when he was 16 years old.

He is the fifth generation of his family to make these bags. But he is the end of the line — none of his children are interested in continuing the work. When he dies, a long tradition will go with him.

I’ve always liked the Proust quote I used above. I can become nostalgic for times like that hog butchering from my childhood. I understand when people feel a yearning for when things were “simpler” but it’s a romantic falsehood. None of us would want to return to when things were so hard to accomplish.

Is it any wonder the leather worker’s children don’t want to devote a week of their lives for the equivalent of $20?

Yes, it’s sad that our cultures — anywhere in the world — are being lost to the forward momentum of time. But it is a natural unavoidable change as we develop new and better ways to accomplish tasks.

For all the reasons the internet distracts us, it also brings together people who share an interest in making. Arguably, at no point in modern history have more contemporary people devoted their spare hours to developing the skills and talents that preserve the beauty of handmade objects. Our college has a woodworking program on the California coast that brings in artists from around the globe to teach them how to craft gorgeous furniture by hand.

My dad is 85 years old and when some of his contemporaries say “things aren’t what they used to be” he reminds them of reality. “Yes, that’s true…” he says, “like when I need light I flip a switch and when I need water I turn on the faucet. No one really wants to go back to the good old days.”

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Even so, as I watched this old man’s hands move with such assurance to weave the leather into intricate patterns, I couldn’t help but feel wistful.

Writing in Tetouan: The Residency

IMG_6104This is the studio where I’ve been working for the past two weeks. You can see the long windows with shutters; I’ve loved the sounds of the Tetouanis chatting as they pass on the street below and the sing-song chants of the fruit and vegetable sellers.

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The street beneath the window as seen through the balcony rails
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Shoppers in the crowded markets

Green Olive Arts (GOA) is a relatively new organization started in 2013 that promotes the arts in Morocco and provides space for working artists and writers from around the world. It became a writers’ residency (no visual artists) by coincidence rather than design for a few weeks in May. The writers — only three of us — have had dinner together almost every night and talked shop. Gretchen flies back to Cairo the same day I leave; Annie remains for another two weeks. Two visual artists will arrive plus another writer for several weeks.

GOA is situated near the walking streets just outside the medina. It’s a very cool space on the second floor of an old building.

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The entrance hallway — the closed doors on the left are studios
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The co-directors of GOA Jeff McRobbie and Rachel Pearsey in their office
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The lounging room for reading and conversation
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The dining room where we ate lunch, usually around 2 PM. “Moroccan time” is later — businesses open around 9:30 and lunch is eaten mid-afternoon; most evenings we ate dinner around 8:30 or 9 PM.

Last Wednesday we had a public reading of our stories from the residency with about 25 people in attendance. They were a marvelous audience, attentive and engaged. I read slowly to accommodate those who are still learning English. While I stood at the podium, I looked out at a crowd with many women wearing the hijab. Even after two weeks, my reaction is a mix of interest and surprise. A Q&A followed the reading.

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One of the marketing materials created by GOA for the reading. The quote is from the novel I’m writing.

Tomorrow the grand taxi picks me up at 9 AM for the return to the Tangier Airport. I’ll fly to Paris via Madrid, stay the night then board a 10 AM flight to return home to California.

The contrast between my initial and current reaction to Tetouan is immense. When Jeff and Rachel were leading me through the medina on that first night to the apartment, I felt overwhelmed.

I thought I was prepared for being in a completely different world but I see now it’s impossible to divorce myself from my own American’ness. No matter how much I might intellectualize an experience, some of my responses are ingrained by our media and culture. Fears surfaced, something I would have sworn didn’t exist before arriving here.

I had to think through the difference between an individual Muslim and what we Americans are taught (quietly and loudly) to distrust.

In these two weeks I’ve had to confront my own bias; it shocks me to admit it. It was beyond my conscious control.

Maybe it’s in our DNA — a part of our evolution — that causes wariness of those who don’t look like us. Maybe it’s part of our interior armor to protect ourselves. There was a time in the far past when this was helpful, but now? It gets in the way of seeing individuals for who they are.

I’ve felt welcomed by the Tetouanis. My perception of their otherness has lessened. I want to come back; two weeks hasn’t been enough time. Their culture reminds me of my upbringing in southeast Texas where you’re expected to greet others warmly, share the food you have, give people the benefit of the doubt.

Living in Tetouan these few weeks has caused me to see, yet again, what we all share as human beings: the goal to improve our lives, our innate need for other people and community and our desires for acceptance, safety, and love.

When Wafae (her name means complete loyalty) came to the residency to cook the couscous for twelve of us last week, she arrived at 10 AM and cooked for four hours. The hallways were filled with these incredible aromas. She provided this delicious meal of steamed cabbage, potatoes and carrots and seasoned chicken over couscous plus a thick sauce of caramelized onions, garbanzos, cinnamon and other spices.

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Everyone eats from the same bowl of couscous. The smaller bowl holds a sauce you can spoon over the portion you’re eating.

Later in the afternoon, Wafae stopped by my studio on her way out. She reached out her hand, said something in Arabic then gave me this huge smile and left.

Rachel was nearby and interpreted: “May God help you with your writing.” Her words have stayed with me all week. I don’t know why but I get a lump in my throat every time I think of it.

The Exotic Blue City of Africa

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The cemetery in the Blue City

Imagine an entire city with most of the walls, stairways, doors, houses — and gravestones, too — painted blue. Welcome to Chefchaouen, Morocco. It may be the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.

Theories differ as to what prompted this local custom. Some say Jewish people painted things blue when they moved here in the 1930s to get away from Hitler. Others say the color discourages mosquitoes. Blue has historically been a spiritual color and some believe the extensive use of it becomes a constant reminder to live a spiritual life. It’s strange that the origin of all this blue remains a mystery.

The city name is pronounced “shef CHOW win” though Moroccans refer to it as ‘chaouen.

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Another view of the cemetery
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A stairway leading to someone’s home, decorated with brightly colored flower pots
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Another entrance with smaller pots arranged on the walls. The stairs lead downward to an opened doorway.
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A panoramic view of one part of the city. I took this photo from the fortress, a thick-walled building where the townspeople gathered during invasions hundreds of years ago. The city dates to 1471.
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This view of the city includes a blue-tiled fountain no longer in use.
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Public water is available at places like this in every neighborhood in Moroccan cities. I’ve seen them in Tangier, Tetouan, and here — though none have been as elaborated tiled or as vividly colored as this one. People without indoor water use these every morning to bring water into their homes. You can also wash your hands. And that blue cup? Everyone uses it for a drink of water. Think community.  🙂
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A man wearing a blue shirt with splatters of blue paint on his pants pushing a wheelbarrow filled with blue containers… in the Blue City. Can you stand it?
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A woman entering her home on one of the blue alleys
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This is a walkway that leads to the main square. I’m not sure what Sababa means. Maybe a children’s school?
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This is the paint store. You choose the color and they mix it for you. The powder is very fine, like flour.
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Elaborate and plain clothing for sale along a narrow blue pathway
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From left: Rachel Pearsey (Tetouan, Morocco — Green Olive Arts co-Director and artist) Hannah Greening (Bath, UK; intern at Green Olive) Gretchen McCullough (Cairo, Egypt; fellow resident writer) Annie Raab (Kansas City, MO and fellow resident writer)

Gretchen grew up in Harlingen, Texas, which is in the southern tip of the state. She has lived in Syria, Cairo or Turkey for much of her adult life.

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I love the city’s haphazard use of blue; they paint as high as they can reach. The lack of uniformity is part of the beauty.
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A young woman cuts bread and puts the slices into baskets for the guests of the restaurant where we had lunch.
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The multiple blue hues of the buildings and the city spread out on the hills beyond. Dark clouds threatened for several hours but it didn’t rain.
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Another view of the Blue City
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Women come to pay their respects in the cemetery. The building is a mausoleum.
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The brilliant colors of the cafe square
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Look what the woman in the purple hijab carries through the square…
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This is the inner courtyard of the fortress. The trees are loaded with oranges too bitter to eat. The Rif Mountains are in the distance.
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This old man was sound asleep on his bench. His brown cloak — the djellabah —  is commonly worn in Morocco and has no religious significance.
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Unusual wall drawings just outside the gates of the city
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Blue has always been my favorite color.