Hiding in Plain Sight: Tetouan, Morocco

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Girls walk arm-in-arm

The taxi driver drove for an hour and 20 minutes to take me from Tangier to Tetouan.  The residency directors met me at an open area near the medina, the old town of Northern African cities.

The medina has no cars and is an intricate network of narrow maze-like alleyways filled with street vendors and people selling vegetables in piles. Chickens run between your feet and some areas smell of the raw meat being cut up in the open air. Cats slink around and eat out of cast-off bags.

When we bought tomatoes, one of them was soft and the seller’s thumb went through it. He flung the red bits onto the ground and kept shoveling the little tomatoes into the bag we were buying. Once you bring the produce home, it must be washed in vinegar or rinsed in water that has had a few drops of bleach added to it.

The street vendors outside the medina yell continuously. I hear them in the morning when I leave the riad and throughout the day while writing at the residency. The sound is soothing, like ocean waves.

Their voices rise and fall in a constant Arabic chant advertising what they have for sale: peaches, strawberries, watermelons, avocados, apricots, freshly-dug carrots and radishes, string-wrapped bunches of mint, cilantro, thyme. They sell homemade goat cheeses wrapped in grape leaves …and cartloads of Lays potato chips, sold by the single bag.

I’ve made an audio recording. Click the red circle with an arrow:

… the array of what you can buy isn’t limited to food: baskets filled with twigs from salvadora persica AKA the “toothbrush tree” (the end is chewed till it’s frayed then used to brush the teeth);  glittery stones that are ground up to make eye shadow; Western-styled pants; hats and baseball caps; outdated cell phones; elaborate tunics; boxes of tissues; baby clothes…

Why did the residency directors meet my taxi in a plaza? Because there aren’t addresses in the medina as we understand them. You have to know where to go.

I felt confused by the alleyways, which often don’t have signs. Many of them simply require memory. Those that do look like this:

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Tetouan is a metropolis of half a million people located in the Martil Valley with the Rif Mountains on one side. It’s one of Morocco’s two major port cities on the Mediterranean Sea. It’s roughly 40 km (25 miles) south of the Strait of Gibraltar.

To be here is to feel as if you’re straddling multiple worlds: young men with modern haircuts and dressed in the latest styles of jeans move through crowds of people wearing cultural clothing that dates back thousands of years. The Romans noted in their writings the distinctive clothing of the Northern Africans.

And the ever-present force of Islam creates its own kind of energy.

The calls to prayer occur five times/day. A man is designated to do it in each neighborhood over a loudspeaker system. In Tetouan, the announcement lasts for less than a minute (at least in this neighborhood) and then the sounds of the street resume.

But in Tangier I listened to the thousands of voices in homes and out-of-doors filling the air. Maybe I could hear it clearly because my apartment was located above the medina.

I made an audio recording — you can hear the loudspeakers but it takes a few seconds to notice the background voices of Muslims praying. To listen, click the red circle:

I raced to the window to look out. I was on the phone with my sister for Mother’s Day and put the phone out while standing on the terrace so she could hear. After a few seconds my perception of eeriness went away and the prayers seemed glorious, like human music.

In the beginning I simply saw Muslim clothing — women wearing the hijab and the long dresses — but later I began to notice differences. As in any culture, some women dress without fuss while others draw attention by matching bright colors and coordinating elaborately-designed fabrics.

The cultural and religious clothing the men wear are usually brown, black or tan. I’ve noticed the ubiquity of beards.

Of course in many cultures men dress to draw attention, too. But the divide here between men and women seems to have dampened that. There are mosques for men and separate mosques for women. The cafes selling tea in the evenings are filled exclusively with men. When I’ve walked through the market streets after dark from the residency (the shops are occupied until late in the evening) there are few women.

The gender roles are very strict. I’m still trying to figure out the variety of influences and how they shape Tetouanis. I won’t be here long enough to get a true understanding.

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A modern highway leading to Tetouan. In the bottom left is a “mountain woman” (the local term) wearing the distinctive conical hat with brightly-colored pompoms.
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A man wearing the white kufi and hooded robe walks along the sidewalk.

Alcohol is banned by Islam. In all of Tetouan, we’ve only found three restaurants that sell wine. The one major supermarket (yeah, only one) used to sell it but the religious leaders pressured the officials and alcohol sales ended.

How do the three businesses get away with selling it? They’re owned by foreigners. But if you’re Moroccan, then the assumption is you’re a Muslim.

Are there other places to get alcohol? Undoubtedly. I’ve been told there’s a section of town where a few bars (without signs) exist. But it’s kept quiet to avoid unwanted attention.

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This is the plaza King Mohammed VI recently renovated. His palace begins (roughly) in the middle of the above photo and continues on toward the right. The barriers prevent street sellers from moving into the area plus provide an additional level of safety for the palace.

Security is tight and I didn’t want to be seen taking photos of a sensitive location. I snapped this quickly then kept walking.

The king owns palaces in every major Moroccan city. He loves cars. One time he and his delegation drove into town in a long line of Ford Mustangs.

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On the city’s outskirts a bus rounds a corner while a girl feeds her goats on the roadside.
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Seconds after leaving the city, the terrain becomes gorgeously rural. Olive trees dot the hills in the distance. Olives are served at every meal, including breakfast.
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A local farmer harvests from his garden.
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A woman walks along the market in the early morning. All of these green doors represent individual businesses. The doors fold open like shutters to reveal shops so tiny there is hardly enough room for two customers at a time. Some of them are only large enough for the artisan, who hands things to you to look at and buy.
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Tetouan is an ancient walled city. I took this photo from the walkways at the top.

I review these observations and photos and think: I’ve hardly scratched the surface… an accumulation of details doesn’t capture it. Tetouan is the most elusive city I’ve ever visited.

Cultural Shift: the Kasbah of Tangier, Morocco

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Woman wearing the burqua that completely covers the face, hair and body.

I thought I was prepared for Morocco. I wasn’t.

Morocco is 98% Muslim, mostly Sunni. Most of the women wear the hijab, a covering for their hair. Sometimes I see women wearing the burqua or niqab.  Some women wear a hijab but also have a wide scarf (usually white or cream-colored) that they pull across their nose and mouth when in public.

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I saw many men wearing full-length robes with a hood that comes to a point.

I arrived in Tangier Sunday night. I stayed at Dar Nour (Tangier’s first guesthouse) situated on 11th century ramparts in the Kasbah where Tennessee Williams and the novelist Paul Bowles stayed sometimes during their visits. My room was spacious with windows that looked out toward the medina.

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Entrance to the apartment
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The bedroom with the lamp reflected in my laptop. That ratty feather pillow you see on the right goes everywhere with me. It has been to eleven countries (the one before it I left on the bed one day, and housekeeping staff took it. No amount of discussions with the hotel brought it back. That pillow had traveled a lot, too.)
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The view of Tangier from the apartment’s terrace

At 8 PM I heard the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer over the loudspeakers. It is loud and resounds all over Tangier for about seven or eight minutes. It doesn’t mean that people must begin praying immediately, but that the time slot for one of the five daily prayers has begun. Even so, I could hear people praying. It sounded like a collective moaning rising from all parts of the city.

Because I only had the following morning to see Tangier, I hired a guide. He met me at the guesthouse at 10 AM. It was raining hard and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go but I had an umbrella (and so did he) so off we went. I’m glad I did; the rains stopped about 15 minutes later and didn’t begin again until we were back at the guesthouse.

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Karim, my guide — his English was excellent.

When Karim would show me a place of significance, he would finish by saying, “Take photo now.”

🙂

But some of those places were not interesting to actually look at. But who was I to argue? I snapped away. Consequently, I have pictures of walls, of doorways, of the bland sides of buildings and I can’t remember what they represent. I’ve deleted them.

He seemed to know everybody. Men were always acknowledged; women were ignored unless they were very old.

Making eye contact with women is a social taboo. Even so, I found it very difficult to avoid.

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This is one of the former public ovens (it hasn’t been used in years) in the Kasbah for baking the neighborhood bread and desserts.
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These are the current public ovens. The women have stamps to mark their unbaked goods so they get back their own loaves. I noticed the men becoming very self-conscious as I took their photos.
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This is the second oven, located about 15′ away from the first one pictured.
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Karim took this photo of me on the terrace atop a building where thousands of rugs are sold. This shows a grittier part of the medina. The Mediterranean Sea is in the distance.
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This is the entrance to Hercules’ Cave. It is one of the famous natural landmarks of Morocco and forms the shape of an upside-down Africa. Morocco’s national soccer team has an image of it on their jerseys. I like the mix of greens and blues through the opening.
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This is one of Tangier’s beaches on the Atlantic Ocean side with the city in the distance.

We returned to the guesthouse about 12:30 and I hurriedly packed. There are two kinds of taxis in Tangier — the grand taxis, which take you anywhere you want to go including other cities; and the petit taxis, which are hired for inside the city limits. I hired a grand taxi to drive me the hour and a half to the artists’ residency.

If I thought that Tangier surprised me, I had no idea what would be in store in the city of Tetouan, where I am now. There are almost no tourists. As I walk around the city, I am the only Caucasian I see. What surprises me is how little attention I attract. Sure, some people look at me but mostly they just go about their business.

But this is an experience unlike any other I’ve had in my travels. Stay tuned.

Going There: The Intense Energy of Flamenco

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Three of the dancers from Arte Flamenco

When I decided to include Barcelona in my travels, I saw that Palau de la Música Catalana, a turn of the century Art Nouveau performance hall, planned to devote a week to flamenco. I wanted to see the show and chose my B&B because it was within walking distance.

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The exterior of the Palau

Deeper into the show, one of the flamenco dancers (Sara Flores) sang the sequidilla, one of the oldest and saddest of the flamenco songs.*  She moved her robust voice up and down the scales using microtones like the sounds we associate with middle eastern music.

* The program referred to it as a single song, but I’ve found multiple definitions online. Some refer to it as a type of song; others describe it as fast-paced with multiple dancers and lots of energy. Flores sang it solo and slowly, like a lament.

She pushed against the notes till her voice would go almost flat, then she’d rescue it and bring it back into tune. Her sadness and heartbreak seemed so real. As a performer, she was willing to go there and let us see her — hear her — submerge herself in profound grief.

As the song progressed, she occasionally stomped her feet as if the intensity was too much and needed release. I felt so moved by her courage and willingness to let her voice occasionally disintegrate as a way to connect to the deeper feelings of the song.

I’ve never seen a performance like “Arte Flamenco” — it was the real deal —  ninety minutes of breathtaking dancing and singing.

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The ornate staircase in the interior

Flamenco is a cultural expression that includes dance, specific kinds of music, hand-clapping, singing, guitar, finger-snapping and verbal encouragement of the featured individuals in a particular number. I loved the participatory nature of it, as if everyone on stage was both performer and audience.

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The balconies. I took this photo from my aisle seat on the 15th row, orchestra

Earlier in the evening, Toni Muñoz, the bailaor (male flamenco dancer) performed a solo that lasted at least 12 minutes. His body was perfect for dance — long-legged, tall and slender. His hair flew around wildly as he moved with incredible precision. The longer he danced, the more I appreciated the stamina required by this art form.

There is an improvisational aspect to flamenco like a jazz musician riffing on a musical idea. At one point near the end of the dance, it seemed as if he had become possessed; his feet were creating extraordinary rhythms. It was intense to watch. The other performers and musicians were urging him on, as if they weren’t sure what he would do.

In the way the older woman had reached deep into herself to connect with something darkly emotional, I felt Muñoz was doing the same thing. The exertion was obvious, despite his cool facial demeanor. When he stomped the final part, the audience whooped its approval.

Shipwrecked in a field of air, the flamenco dancer must measure lines, silences, zigzags and rapid curves with a sixth sense of aroma and geometry, without ever mistaking the terrain.

Federico Garcia Lorca, Spanish poet (1898 – 1936)

But the strongest and most captivating performance occurred at the conclusion. The older woman was singing a different song and then from the rear of the theater we heard a clicking sound. The audience turned to look toward the back.

The lead female flamenco (Susana Escoda, on left, top photo) moved with grace toward the stage while clicking softly then loudly with castanets as though she was having a conversation in sound with the older woman. Soon the two of them were standing side by side.

They danced in opposition to one another — first one, then the other —  while the older woman sang. Then the older woman receded to the back and gave the stage to Escoda who danced with such abandon.

Her shoes beat out rhythms that seemed physically impossible. Her feet made the rapid rattles of castanets; she spun around and around while tapping on the stage, her cheeks wet from the effort. As she turned rapidly, I could see her sweat flying up into the lights.

She was fearless and willing to give us everything. Soon the exertion was showing on her face and somehow this made it even more exciting, as if she would dance out this intense emotion in front of us.

And that’s what it felt like, as if she was Working Something Out right there on the stage. She was whirling and stomping with such gusto and bravado, as if she might burst into flames.

The best artists are those who take us inside ourselves, the ones brave enough to embody complex emotions: grief, anger, longing, sadness and despair, frustration and heartache. When it’s done well, the artist instructs us about the nature of these feelings. They guide us into it, as if to say: look at this humanness we share, feel this with me.

Her performance was highly accomplished and raw, all at once. I wish I understood better how we can be captivated by watching someone translate emotions. Maybe they become a proxy for us, a way to examine feelings outside ourselves in ways that would make us too vulnerable to do within.

By the time she neared the end, I felt as if I was holding my breath. Everyone had leaned forward and were urging her on. I wondered how much longer she could endure it.

When she finished, the audience erupted in a way they hadn’t the entire night — yelling, clapping, some of them leaping to their feet. It was as if all of that energy she generated had moved out of her and rushed into us. It was electrifying!

The Death (and Birth) of Time

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The part of my breakfast this morning I could eat — a flaky African bread that is light and delicious, cubes of fresh butter and a rich apricot spread. She brought two over-easy eggs — my favorite — but it’s dangerous for Westerners to eat soft yolks. I left them untouched. I don’t order anything — they bring me whatever they’ve prepared.

This morning I woke up after a rough night. I had difficulty falling asleep then woke up at 3 AM. I was awake three hours before I drifted off again about 6 AM for another hour or so. I’ve felt a little low the past few days. Nothing I can put my finger on, really. I think it’s garden-variety blues.

After I carefully showered (neck down) then used bottled water to wash my face, then hair (five seconds, tops) then brushed my teeth, I came down for the breakfast that’s provided with my room.

A woman in a black hijab nodded hello, then showed me to a table set for one. In the morning they put out place settings for the guests. I can quickly count how many people are registered. Looks like there are seven.

I hear the juicer — it has the low-tech growl of one from the 1950s. The server shows up with a huge glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. Then a pot of coffee (enough in it for two cups.) When I get to the residency I’ll make a pot with the ground coffee I bought a few days ago so I can have my fill. I can drink a whole pot if I’m not careful.

When it comes to coffee, I’m rarely careful.

And then I tried to figure out how many days I had been at this riad — three? four? And I realized I arrived 36 hours ago. It struck me with such a sense of wonder.

And this shock happens all the time when I’m traveling. I could argue it’s the number one reason for middle-aged and older people to begin traveling. It’s the only solution I know for slowing down time.

Everyone feels time passing swiftly. Psychologists note that people are experiencing it at younger and younger ages, even as early as age 11. But to explore why children feel that time is passing quickly is another post, and one that would break my heart to write.

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The scene outside my writing studio, with the Green Olive Arts sign

At home in California, I’ve tried everything I can imagine to make time slow down: filling my days with activities; carving out a day with “nothing.” But neither works. Whether incredibly busy or just lying on the sofa… time does its thing and flies past me at dizzying speeds.

In retrospect, it seemed my time in Paris passed quickly. But my experience of it — day to day — passed slowly. I believe the reason is that nothing is automatic: you’re in a new place so you have to think where is the toothbrush? where is the coffee mug? where is my black shirt? Grocery shopping becomes an adventure; getting a haircut, finding bug spray… all of it a challenge. Going on auto-pilot isn’t possible; I’m outside of my time, rather than inside it (where it passes by without thinking.)

I’d go bonkers managing every hour, so I think of it in chunks: the morning, the afternoon, early evening, late evening. Sometimes these are morphed together, too.

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My writing studio with a full-length window with doors and green shutters, which I close at night. Outside are the markets with a continual drone of men yelling out their wares.
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The vivid colors of the street market beneath my studio window

Does travel always slow down time? That’s a question I can’t answer. When Marty and I were on the Galapagos cruise, many people were on tours (their next stop? Machu Picchu.) They paid someone else to make decisions — where and when to go, which hotel, how to get from Point A to Point B…

What I observed is that it gave those on the tour plenty of time to complain. They hated the towels, they didn’t like So-and-So on the tour, they disapproved of the pace… perhaps I was listening to people who were on a tour for the first time and so were learning what they do or don’t enjoy.

But I also heard some of them always choose a tour because “they don’t want to be bothered.” This was what I heard most often. But of course they were bothered… by the things not going their way.

I’d much rather accept the responsibility for what happens. If I don’t like what I’m doing, I can change it.

It seems inconceivable that we have the same number of hours in a day as when we were six years old, outside and playing when the afternoons spread out before us like an eternity. And summer? … it lasted forever before school started again in fall.

I nearly wrote “I wish I could tell my Boy Self to enjoy the time…” but I wouldn’t want to trouble that child with what would come soon enough.

Life can be difficult sometimes, particularly when we’re feeling low. Life isn’t easy — for anyone. Everyone carries burdens we don’t see. (Plato said that and goes on to say: therefore, be kind to everyone you meet.) But it can also be filled with intense pleasure and satisfaction…

Arguably the hardest part is “being with” the sadness and heartache that is part of being human… but we have to remind ourselves while in those dark places that great joy is also part of the package.

Sometimes we have to wait for it. This might be the sole benefit of time passing so fast.

My Muslim Companion: Encounter on an Airplane

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The Departures terminal at Barcelona International Airport

When I was going through Security at Barcelona International, a very old Muslim man in a wheelchair and his wife were in front of me. He was wearing the kufi,a small white brimless cap, and a cream-colored dishdasha, a full-length long-sleeved tunic. His wife wore the hijab and a long black dress.

She made it through but he set off the metal detectors. They told me to wait while Security patted him down. They walked him through the metal detectors a second time and he set it off again. They used the metal-detecting wand that beeped near his hip. They patted him down yet again, then he had to step onto a contraption I’ve never seen before. They gave him the chemical test by swabbing his hands. What impressed me was his incredible patience. He followed their instructions until they seemed satisfied.

An hour and a half later I boarded the plane and made my way to my assigned seat. Coincidentally, they were there — the wife was sitting in my seat and the old man sat in the middle seat. I certainly wasn’t going to ask her to move, so I took the aisle seat next to the man.

He couldn’t figure out how to secure his seat belt, so I motioned for him to stop trying and he put his hands in the air like a child. I buckled him up. (Later I would unbuckle him so we could move to let his wife go to the bathroom. After she returned, I buckled him back in.)

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Our plane on the tarmac

We were flying on Air Arabia. Once the doors were closed and they had given the safety spiel, the pilot said in Arabic (then later in English) that smoking and alcohol were banned on the flight. Video screens lowered from above the seats and a prayer to Allah was given over the loudspeakers in Arabic. On the screen the words were printed in Arabic, French and English.

The prayer was for Allah to keep us safe during the flight. It reminded me of what we called “travel mercies” in the Pentecostal church, a specific prayer for protection when going on a journey. I could hear the man whispering the prayer.

An official prayer on a plane? This was a first for me. It was a crowded flight; there was one other Caucasian passenger.

As we lifted into the air, the old man nudged me and pointed at my hand. He opened a small red package and poured two white squares of gum into my palm. I thanked him and started chewing; they had a minty flavor, but also tasted vaguely vegetal. I turned to him and said, “This is good.”

He pointed at his jaw and shook his head to say, “I can’t chew gum.” Then he opened his mouth and his dentures popped out like the money drawer of a cash register. It surprised me so much I burst out laughing. He pulled them back in then laughed along with me. I suspected he did this quite often to amuse others.

He asked me if I spoke Arabic then asked in Spanish if I spoke Spanish. I said no then asked, Parlez-vous francais? He shook his head. We had no shared language.

He said, where you live? I told him California and he smiled widely and said, California!

Then he said, Not America, no? I laughed at that and said, yeah, there does seem to be a difference between California and “America.” I asked him where he lived. He frowned and said, “No English.” Apparently, he had used all he knew. (I wonder: when he said Not America did he actually say Not American meaning he wondered why I’d said California rather than America?)

He started speaking in Arabic — slowly — and pointing to me, and then to himself. It seemed important to him but I couldn’t figure it out. He repeated what he had said, so I said it back to him.

He clearly wanted us to interact. I wanted to ask him where he lived so I pointed at myself and said, California then I pointed at him. He said, Tangier, our destination. I told him I was going to Tetouan, but he didn’t understand. Later, when the video screen showed the map with an airplane and the progress of our flight, I pointed to Tangier then moved my finger over to where Tetouan is located while saying it.

Ah! Tetouan! He understood.

He repeated what he had said earlier — he intended it to mean that I was Something to him, and he was Something to me. It sounded like “Bennie” — and he would point to me — and then he would point at himself and say “Bennie-azh’ee.” My impression was that it was about the difference in our ages. But I was wrong.

I am writing this the day after the flight while at the residency. Jeff, the Executive Director, is from Philadelphia and speaks Arabic. He explained that Ben means “son” and to add the I — Ben i —  is to say, “you are like my son.” And Ben-aji means, “My son is coming.” He meant I reminded him of his son, who was coming to visit.

When we touched down, the old man prayed his gratefulness. The moment he finished he pointed outside to indicate landing safely, then pointed to his praying hand. What is English…?

I said, Thankfulness. He repeated the word back to me, as if he was memorizing it.

I opened his seat belt for him. People were rushing to get off of the flight and pushing past, even from seats behind us. Finally I forced my way into the aisle and blocked it while the old man and his wife got out of their seats and made their way to the front of the plane.

We had to use wide metal stairs to go down to the tarmac. I didn’t let anyone pass— he was feeble and had difficulty using his cane on the steep steps. When we were finally at the bottom, the people from behind practically jumped over us to get to the terminal.

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Arrival terminal, Tangier Battouta Airport

The airline brought wheelchairs for them; I saw they were taken care of.

He said, Salaam — peace be with you. I touched my chest then gave him a salute. He smiled, touched his chest then waved goodbye.

My Wild Arrival in Barcelona

The taxi driver was quiet but heavy metal blasted out of the radio in Spanish. Then “Back in Black” by AC/DC came on, which brought up fond memories from high school. Then a song in Spanish; up next — “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by The Police. I tapped my foot while the taxi driver drummed the steering wheel with his palms.

And Barcelona was unfolding on all sides of me. It was 8:45 PM Thursday night.

Earlier, after I’d gotten my checked luggage and made my way to the taxi stand, I had shown the driver the address of the bed & breakfast. He nodded his head — yes, he knew it. We drove for about 40 minutes.

He pulled over and stopped in a busy high-rise area. I looked around but couldn’t see the bed & breakfast. “Is that it?”

He pointed at a glass-fronted entrance. “There it,” he said in broken English.

I paid him the fare (33€) then he unloaded my luggage. As he walked back to the driver’s side I told him, “Your music?” I gave him a thumb’s up. He beamed and put both of his thumbs in the air, then drove away.

I walked inside — it was a high-energy place loaded with people. Since the B&B serves food, I thought — hmmm, I hadn’t expected a full-fledged restaurant downstairs…

Nice.

The woman at the front asked me in Spanish if I had a reservation. I hesitated and she immediately switched to English. I smiled appreciatively and nodded my head yes. I pulled out my passport since she was having difficulty understanding my name. She said, “We don’t have a reservation for you.”

I said, “… I called the owner from the airport — for the bed & breakfast?”

She said, “This is a restaurant.”

I gave her a cracked face. “The taxi driver said…”

“But…” she motioned toward the street.

She opened the door and I dragged my luggage back out and she walked me over to a huge wooden door. She pointed at a bank of buttons then pressed one. The loudspeaker came on, she spoke into it in Spanish and soon the door opened. I thanked the woman and she left.

The guy took my bags. I warned him — they’re heavy. We went up two flights of stairs and he asked me about my reservation. I showed him my passport, and he said, “But no reservation in that name.”

I told him, “…but I called the owner from the airport. He’s expecting me.”

He asked, “Which place?”

“Barcino 147.”

He said, “This isn’t Barcino 147.”

I smiled weakly. I tried to gather my thoughts. “… this is the address… I copied and pasted it directly from the website.”

He asked if I had a phone number; it showed in my Recent Calls. He telephoned and spoke in Spanish. When he hung up, he said, “You should be another place.”

I started laughing. I don’t know why.

“The owner comes for you,” he said.

I put my hand on his arm and thanked him profusely. He smiled and said, “Be quiet.”

I think he meant something like “no problem.” But it struck me as funny. (From this point forward, if someone thanks me for something, I know what I’m going to say.)

My phone rang — the owner said he was already downstairs waiting for me.

I pulled my luggage down the flights of stairs. The B&B wasn’t far. He handed me off to a young Chinese woman named Quynh, pronounced “Quinn.” She explained how the place was run. Finally, she said she would take me to my room. “You have mini-suite.”

Oh. Cool.

We got into a tiny elevator and went up to the 6th floor. My luggage was larger than she was, but she insisted on rolling it for me. She opened a door and I saw a beautiful room. I thought — nice. Sweet. Then she took me into a large kitchen, and said this is where breakfast is served. And I realized that this wasn’t part of my mini-suite at all.

And then I remembered my first experience of being at a bed & breakfast in New Mexico in 1985. Michael and I had decided to go to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Back then, it lasted three days and featured 100 huge hot-air balloons ascending at once — quite a sight. Today, it’s the largest festival of its kind in the world with more than 500 balloons going up each morning during the ten days of the festival.

Anyhow, Michael had found a bed & breakfast for us and I couldn’t wait! I had never stayed in one before.

But when we arrived, it was like a bedroom in someone’s home. We closed the door and we could hear the other guests in their room and in the hallway. It felt like staying at a stranger’s house. I looked around. The room was cute, but small. I felt… cramped. I didn’t like the lack of privacy.

I remember telling Michael: “I hate it.” Fortunately he laughed. He knew I was making a joke and telling the truth all at once. I determined then that I would never stay at a bed & breakfast again.

But (ack, ack) that was a loooong time ago, and I had forgotten.

So Quynh opens the door to my room, and it’s about 10′ X 10′. Quynh is very pleased. She said, “This is best room. It silent. It the mini-suite.”

There was a closed door, and so I waited for her to open it. I thought, that must be the entrance to the living area.

It was the bathroom. She said, “You lucky — you get your own bathroom. That what come with mini-suite. All the other people…” She pointed down the hallway. “They’re sharing one bathroom.”

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It is adorable.
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This is the best I can do as far as a second photo. The room is so small I can’t get a second view. No closet, no place to put my monstrous luggage…

I would include a photo of the bathroom, but there’s not enough room in there for me and the camera at the same time.

Sooo…..

I asked Quynh if there was a restaurant close by. She suggested I go to El Nacional about three blocks away. I wasn’t sure I could find it, but she said it was open really late and they had good tapas.

Once she left I unpacked what could be accommodated in the room (one sock.) I laid down on the bed — it was very comfortable. I opened the window and a fantastic breeze blew in, and I knew everything was going to be okay.

I had skipped breakfast, had a small lunch — it was now 11 PM and I was famished.

I hoped I was in a safe neighborhood. And off I went. The streets were bustling. I found the restaurant relatively easily.

It was huge — and so cool — with hundreds of people inside. I stood in line then the hostess seated me.

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It goes all the way back, as far as you can see in this photo. It may be the largest restaurant I’ve ever visited.

I ordered a glass of Fortunato — it was crisp, dry, with the taste of grapefruit and apple. Delicious.

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Some of the light fixtures are antique bird cages with the bottoms removed.

Every table around me was filled; people were having a blast. I felt like I was floating in a glorious sea of Spanish.

I ordered a plate of grilled bread with olive oil and a salad with three kinds of cheeses including manchego and a goat cheese that was the best I think I’ve ever had — smooth and creamy but with that unmistakable tang of chevre. And toasted walnuts.

IMG_5080 2She brought tiny Spanish olives. I ordered a focaccia with melted mozzarella and loaded with rocket (arugula) — one of my favorite greens.

It was a fantastic meal. And I ordered another glass of Fortunato, which I lifted in the air and said, Salut. I had been in the city for a couple of hours and already three people had been kind enough to go out of their way to help me out.

Hello, Barcelona. It’s nice to meet you.

Punctuality and Neuroticism: A Few Thoughts

IMG_5070I’m writing this from the “Orly Airport, Ouest” — Orly, West Terminal — just south of Paris. This was the primary hub before Charles De Gaulle International was opened in 1974. It’s much larger than the impression this photo gives. I’m on my way to Barcelona.

For the first time, I used Uber. I had heard how quickly they arrive so I was standing at the door with my cap on and the keys to the apartment on the countertop. I clicked Get Car on my iPhone.

What I didn’t realize is that I had clicked “Uber-X” — the deluxe service. (Just before that, I had clicked “Car Pool” and the service isn’t available where my apartment is located.)

By the time I’d hauled my two tons – o’ – luggage down the three flights of stairs, there was a gleaming black Mercedes waiting for me. The driver asked, “Bart?” The French say my name:  Barrrrrrt. He put my baggage in the trunk, I crawled into the backseat and off we flew.

At one point during the ride, on the freeway, the driver said, “Regardez” — look at that — and he motioned his head to the other lane. A motorcyclist had lifted his front wheel high into the air and was flying down the road at 60 MPH on his back wheel. I said, “Jaune et intrépid” — young and fearless. He drove like that for at least 10 seconds before he lowered the front wheel. I should have added, “et stupide.”

Uber-X cost me 40€, but with the 15€ credit I’d received for trying it out, it came to a cool 25€. The online taxi-fare estimator had calculated a taxi would have cost me 39€ (and I would have had to walk four blocks to get it. In Paris you go to a taxi stand, you can’t flag them down when they drive by.) Not too shabby.

I’ve been at the airport an hour, my bags are checked, my ticket is in my pocket. My flight doesn’t leave for another four and half hours. This is Old Man Behavior in the extreme. I’ve got to find a way to relax. It’s okay to arrive a little later to the airport.

When I was 23 years old — maybe 24 — I had a flight from Dallas to Houston. As my pal Karl drove up to the front of the airport, I realized I had left my wallet and airline ticket on the kitchen counter. To get an idea of how long ago this was — in terms of technology — you had to have your tickets with you, and of course I needed ID. The flight was leaving in 40 minutes — it was December 23rd — and so Karl turned the car around. My flight was out of Love Field and I lived in Oak Lawn, so the apartment was close by. Karl violated multiple traffic laws. I kept telling him — there’s no way we’re going to make this work.

When we returned to the airport it was 6:45 — the flight left at 6:30 — and I told him to wait as I ran inside. The screen showed that the flight had been delayed, and wouldn’t leave until 7:15. I ran back out and waved Karl away. I checked in and sprinted to the gate with only seconds to spare.

That experience has stayed with me. I never wanted to repeat it.

But then I did…

… when leaving Houston for San Francisco. My parents encountered bad traffic driving me to George Bush International Airport (when it was named Intercontinental) and though we arrived an hour before my flight, the post-Christmas flight rush was in full swing.

The line for Security was huge and the loudspeakers repeated “all flights are full, please check as much baggage as possible.” Once I’d cleared that, I ran toward the plane (on the other side of the terminal, of course.) I was out of shape at the time and I remember thinking: “I’m going to die.”

My breathing was hard and ragged — from exertion, the stress of the situation, and from the mental effort to figure out what I was going to do if I missed my flight.  When I finally made it to the gate and onto the plane, I was gasping — I couldn’t catch my breath. The flight attendant asked me, “Are you okay?”

I wheezed, “Do I… look like… I’m … okay?” I was covered in sweat; my facial muscles felt as if they had been twisted into knots.

Since that time I’ve never been late for a flight. In fact — like today — I’ve been so early it’s ridiculous.

And Bill? He has the same “problem.” On the day he flew back home from Paris, he was up at 4 AM and out of the house by 5:30 AM for a flight that didn’t leave until that afternoon. He was taking the train to De Gaulle which required one transfer. He texted me later to say he was there, “with four hours to spare.” Then he added, “Like an old man.”

Geez.

The impulse toward punctuality is a good one. I think there’s a particular circle of hell (per Dante’s epic poem) reserved for those who are perpetually late. But there’s a distinct sort of neuroticism at work when a person is absurdly early. I don’t know if it has a name, but Bill and I have terminal cases of it.

How is the time filled? I’ve been writing. And reading. I ate Croque Monsier (a hot ham and cheese sandwich.) I’ve dragged my too-early ass through the shops and stores. I’ve had coffee.

IMG_5069I look around and people-watch, of course. What have I noticed about the French airport?

  • It’s possible to check your bags at the counter, get your ticket, shop, etc. without going through Security — something that’s not possible in the U.S.
  • I’m wearing a black San Francisco Giants baseball cap. There are only two other men in the terminal wearing caps. I had noticed this earlier — caps and hats are uncommon. (I had been told to leave my cap at home because it would mark me as an American. But. Hey. Hello.)
  • There’s a vague smell of cigarette smoke because people are going outside to smoke. In California, few people are smoking outside an airport.
  • The place is packed and yet the people are overwhelmingly slender. Maybe this is due to all that smoking…

When I bought coffee at Starbucks, the clerk asked me my name. She repeated it correctly then wrote it on the cup. Here’s what was handed to me.

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It is now 4 PM.

… only 2 1/2 hours left to go.

Geez.