Butterflied.

Butterflied.

“Be kind, for whenever kindness becomes part of something, it beautifies it. Whenever it is taken from something, it leaves it tarnished.”  

Prophet Muhammad.

Last week the Islamic world observed the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. Over three days, shops were closed, bars with alcohol licences grew cobwebs in their windows, and the streets of Tangier were peaceful, if only the tiniest bit windswept.

‘It’s just like Christmas,’ a friend had warned the week before, ‘no one will be available to work and it’s important that they don’t,’ she went on to add.

Rain fell a lot over the holiday, and when I woke on Thursday morning I peeped through the curtains to find a sky full of sun, breathing a sigh of relief, a tiny piece of normality had returned.  ‘Thrice weekly,’ otherwise known as Twinkle Toes, came on Thursday rather than Wednesday – he had a disco to host at his house on Wednesday night, in honour of his mothers birthday.

The man with just one tooth who sells shampoo, gas and booze in the ‘barcal’ across the road, was back from four days in Agadir.  Fresh faced and cheeks flushed with colour, he was ready to launch straight back into Darija lessons, shouting my order back at me in the local dialect through the tooth, as the boys who stack his shelves giggled in the background at my pathetic attempts to gargle words from a place in my throat that has never been utilised.

Mohammed who minds the street was almost beside himself with joy when he saw the doors open at the barcal; never one to say no to a tin of Flag, I found him celebrating on the street corner as I walked home on Thursday night.  That evening, men gathered around the fruit stand near the carpark and smoked kiff pipes together, free again after three days of family.

Nightfall comes early these days, but thankfully Autumn in Tangier is nothing compared to Paris; it’s warmer, and the days are clear when its not raining, with views across to Spain simply breathtaking.  

This piece had originally taken a different turn; I had written about eating cous cous one night in the family home of the boy who saved my kitten; the kindness shown by his mother and the way in which he translated from Darija to English, and when I had words to say (I was struggling to get a word in either way, but that is another conversation for another day), they were translated back in Darija.

His mother showed me a video on her smart phone of a Clydesdale horse galloping through a field, and I smiled at the randomness of that particular moment.

I’d spent all week penning a piece about hospitality and the rapidness at which Moroccans speak, drive, and deal with each other.  At times, I feel as though I’m witnessing the biggest fight, only to see two men blow each other a kiss before going on their way.  Darija is loud, it’s fast, and it is littered with French and Spanish words in a hangover from a bygone time, pre independence.

Last night, as I was about to press publish on the original piece, the doorbell sounded particularly loudly.  Expecting Twinkle Toes to arrive with a new special light bulb for a huge glass star in the entrance hall, I was in the midst of pouring a glass of wine and preparing a slice of cheese.  

My hair was scraped back in a scrunchie for the first time since I was about 12 years old, and a fascinating documentary about Lisa Brennan Jobs, daughter of Steve, was playing on the BBC.  Moments prior, I’d finally brought in all the laundry from the clothesline on my small kitchen balcony.  Rain was forecast for the morning, and as the chilly nights set in, it’s always a race to get things into the flat before they are too far gone in the evening chill.

The kitten scattered at the sound of the doorbell, as she always does.

Opening the door with not nearly enough caution, I found a well dressed man with a guttural voice speaking to me in Arabic, not Twinkle Toes as expected.

 ‘Hamo…’ he explained after we’d finished formalities and thanked God for both of our wellbeing, ‘Hamdulillah’ we’d said in unison.  

I then responded in broken French that I didn’t actually know what he wanted, ‘I am Virginia,’ I told him, cross that my documentary hadn’t been paused before I stood up from the kitchen table.  ‘What do you want?’ I asked, to which he again responded ‘Hamo,’ and that he was here to see my house and eat dinner.  

‘I don’t know you,’ I explained in French, probably saying that I have never known him, tenses are not a strong point.

With that, he held his hand up to silence me, before making a call on his phone.  ‘No, who are you calling?’ I asked, adding ‘you can only call Rashid, the guardian of the building.’ But, he was well on his way telling someone that ‘Hamo’ (he) was ‘here’ and ‘she’s’ ‘definitely not an Arab’.

Sans headscarf and wearing a pair of dungarees teamed with orange desert boots (colour is not an option with big feet, but they’re rather nice) and a matching woollen jumper, I couldn’t have looked less like a nice Muslim girl –  more like a  presenter of a children’s television program.

As he hung up, he kissed his hand and waved me goodbye with a smattering of words that I couldn’t begin to understand, before making his way down the stairs, ‘goodbye, I’m sorry,’ he finished in Darija, and I shut the door behind him.

Racing straight to my laptop, I pressed pause on the Brennan Jobs documentary.  I’d missed all the juicy bits about the wealthiest man in the world’s daughter, and her struggles with being the child of the man who invented the machine on which I was typing this.  Then, I reached for my Arabic dictionary, searching the word ‘hamo’ with complete urgency.

Who was he, and what did he want from me?

‘Father in law,’ the dictionary explained.

The poor man, who I’d observed had rotten fingernails but a rather nice shirt, had come all the way up five flights of stairs to meet with his son and new daughter in law and see their house, only to find an Australian woman holding a kitten, linguistically challenged, and dressed like a pre school teacher.

Last week I sat in my favourite smoked filled cafe on the boulevard with views across to Spain, and I reflected on the kindness that I see each day in Morocco as I build a life here. I’d planned to write about my endless struggles with language and the kindness always gifted to me by Moroccans.

I have to listen so hard when I’m spoken to in accented French, and I squint like a child at an ice cream stand when Darija is spoken to me and I’m lost, like a mapless explorer in the Sahara desert, when anyone speaks in Arabic.

But no one ever laughs at me- I am encouraged and appreciated when I make any attempt to communicate, as funny as I may sound.

Sipping on my coffee as I planned this blog in the smoke filled cafe, Gloria Gaynor came onto the television and sang ‘I will survive,’ which opens with the only too familiar lyrics ‘At first I was afraid, I was petrified…’ and I suddenly found myself singing along out loud.  An older man sitting at the table beside me smiled, saying, ‘I love this song, it is the favourite song of my husbands sister,’ going on to sing at the top of his lungs ‘At first I was afraid, I was butterflied…’

In that moment, I observed the innocence of language, reminded that I am not alone in the never ending struggle that I face each day with a barrage of words that I have to listen to with complete dedication and determination.  In English, he was only trying to sing ‘At first I was afraid, I was petrified,’ and that Gloria Gaynor ‘is the favourite singer of my sister’s husband’.

As Ben Lee sings in one of my favourite songs, ‘we’re all in this together,’ and as the prophet said, ‘be kind, for whenever kindness becomes part of something, it beautifies it…’

I hope ‘the father in law to be’ found his son and new daughter in law last night, and that they enjoyed a lovely dinner together.

For he, was probably as ‘butterflied,’ as me.

Pictured: a mop drying in the window of a local mosque.

Remembrance.

Remembrance.

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilisation surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronise them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

Henry Beston, 1928.

As strange as it may sound, one of my first friends in Tangier was a nine year old cockerel named Birdy.

He was handsome and strong and the most wonderful companion. As a single woman, it might sound rather odd that the line above isn’t used to describe a man that may have crossed my path and showered me with love, rather, an animal who had a brain probably the size of one of my teeth.

Raised on a country property, I grew up with animals but was a late comer in truly understanding them. My sisters were good with horses, I was intimidated by them and frustrated that I couldn’t canter freely across fields with my hair blowing in the breeze like they did in Enid Blyton novels. Rather, I would more often than not, fall off them and be left lying in a tussock with tears streaming down my face.

The house kitten hid in an old dairy near the garden shed, and when I’d try to catch her, she’d race of in the other direction, hissing as she did so.

I loved our dogs but was never really all that enamoured, I’d say ‘sit’ and they too, would run in the other direction.

And, don’t even get me started on the subject of sheep.

When I was older, just before my 30th birthday, I was given a beautiful nine week old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who I promptly named Saffron. Saffron became something of a best friend to me; now that I had my own pet, I learned to love her and care for her like a child.

My heart was broken when she died aged eight, because she had seen me through many trials, tribulations and very happy times; always with a kind and wise head resting on my shoulder. Her intuition was strong, as is the intuition of all animals, they are intelligent and wise, and as Beston wrote, ‘they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear’.

Birdy, as much as he was a cockerel who couldn’t speak English, was always happy to see me when I would drop in for lunch with his constant companion and the man who introduced me to Tangier, Jonathan Dawson. When I stayed at Jono’s flat whilst mine was undergoing a facelift all those months ago, Birdy would race up onto my bed after he’d made his first morning call, which came immediately after the call to prayer in the mosque across the way. His pecks were relentless.

‘They’re kisses,’ Jono would say, and of course I believed him.

Birdy died last week, and while he was loved and revered by so many, I have no doubt, just like Saffron, that he will be happily in heaven with all the other animals who left this earth before him.

Birdy’s death came just a week before the 100th anniversary of the Armistice being signed on the 11th of November, 1918, and, while not too many cockerels went into battle, I have to say in the lead up to Remembrance Day, it did make me think a lot about the role in which animals play in the lives of humans.

When Dad and I visited the battlefields of the Somme just over a year ago, we came across a new memorial outside Pozieres, still covered and one that my father was desperate to unveil and have a look at.

‘You cant just uncover it Dad’ I pleaded with him, half laughing and half wanting to run in the other direction as he drew closer on foot. ‘Yes I can, Darling’ he assured me, ‘it is a memorial to the animals lost in the battle of Pozieres, we must have a look’.

My pleas were realised after we were (thankfully) distracted by a man named Neville who had moved to Pozieres from Bendigo, Australia, to caretake at the memorial, undertaking tasks such as mowing the lawns and minding the covered statues. I was so grateful when we found Neville.

A week later, on Friday the 21st of July, 2017, dogs, horses, ponies and pigeons were amongst the crowd at the unveiling of this new memorial honouring the thousands of animals who never returned home.

Over nine million animals from all sides died during the First World War, not one was a volunteer, and in the case of all the surviving Australian animals, nil were allowed to return home.

Australian WW1 correspondent, Charles Bean wrote, “ the animals came to know when a shell was coming close; and if, when halted, the horses heard the whine of an approaching salvo, they would tremble and sidle closer to their drivers, burying their muzzles in the men’s chests”.

Animals often served as mascots during war, raising the spirits of the troops through their natural affection and innocence. One of the most famous mascots was a black bear from Canada named Winnipeg, who remained with his unit for several months. Later placed at the London Zoo, he made a great impression on A.A Milne and his son, inspiring Milne to write Winnie the Poo. In a general manner, during war, cats are said to have been greatly appreciated and could traverse No Man’s Land without coming to any deliberate harm.

When I traversed the busy Rue d’Angleterre, Tangier, at 10.45 on Sunday morning last week, only a minute late for the Remembrance Sunday service at Saint Andrews Anglican parish of Tangier, I encountered seemingly a thousand kittens stalking the street, while others slept under taxis waiting for their next fare.

Pigeons were shooed from the busy Berber market where women sit each Thursday and Sunday morning wrapped in their traditional red and white Berber dress, topped off with wide brimmed straw hats covered in pompoms.

Upon entering the church gardens which house a divine cemetery, birds chortled in abundant trees and I almost shed a tear, as the sound of bagpipes ushered me into the church.

In 1880, Hassan I of Morocco donated land to the British community in order to build a small Anglican church in Tangier. After the church was built, it was found that it was not sufficient for the increasing number of worshippers, and a new one was built in 1894 which became what we know today as the Church of Saint Andrew.

The interior is designed as a fusion of numerous styles, notably Moorish. The tower is shaped like a minaret and the Lords Prayer is carved in Arabic over the alter.

As I took my seat on Sunday morning, I cast my eyes over the congregation. Pretty hats atop English heads were smattered through the middle pews, and members of the Royal Air force and Navy sat proudly up the front, alongside the Deputy Head of Mission from the British Embassy in Rabat. If my memory serves me correctly, there was also the Commanding Officer of HMS Sabre, as well as a representative from the Gibraltar Defence Police. Regular Sunday parish goers, many of them migrants who have fled various West African countries, nursed children in their laps and we began with a rousing version of God Save the Queen. At 11am precisely, the bugler led The Last Post; always in equal parts as haunting as it is sobering. Almost on cue, the call to prayer could be heard from the mosque in the grand socco, just as the service came to a close.

We remembered them, before spilling out into the church yard where wreaths were laid over the thirteen English headstones in the tiny Commonwealth War Cemetery on the east side of the gardens. Chatter was abundant as the African boys took to their drums, chanting tunes about peace on Earth, and at this point I took a moment to observe the names on the headstones in the beautiful gardens.

The writer David Herbert, has a simple headstone under a tree alongside the path leading up to the church, where inside, a plaque can be found commemorating Emily Keene, famous for introducing the cholera vaccination to Morocco. Major Harry Twentyman, Sir Harry Maclean, Paul Lund, and the writer Walter Harris, can also be found in the garden amongst almost two hundred other names who both lived and died in Tangier, many of whom are fondly remembered by people still living in Tangier.

As I finished my meanderings, I found the graves of Alexandria-born Claire de Menasce and her second husband, Commander Roy Howell RN. De Menasce was the mother of Claude-Marie Vincendon, the third wife of Lawrence Durrell whose brother Gerald, wrote one of my favourite books, ’My Family and Other Animals’ in a stunning memoir of his childhood on Corfu.

The churchyard scene on Sunday could have been lifted from Gerald Durrell’s rightfully adored book. Chatter in English could be heard through the trees, pigeons crooned, and kittens scattered through the bushes as I walked in their direction. Webs woven by spiders in established English trees twinkled with late morning mildew, and the bagpipes played us out of the churchyard, just in time for lunch at Jono’s.

Which, as always, was great fun and the only thing missing was Birdy.

This week as we’ve reflected upon the memory of the men and women who have put their lives on the line in war – all wars, senseless and sad as they are, I have also enjoyed the reminder that in times of both war and peace, animals have remained one step ahead of us – their masters and servants, providing companionship and protection with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained.

Remembering Birdy and Saffron, and all of our furry, fluffy and feathered friends. 100 years on from the ‘War to end all Wars,’ we can only hope for peace in the world, but it is comforting to acknowledge the important role that animals play in our lives, each and every day, just as Durrell and Beston have done in their poignantly written pieces.

Which will also live on.

Time.

Time.

The sky opened up, showering me with unapologetic, torrential rain.  I raced into the million year old Mercedes taxi, slamming the door, before sitting awkwardly – knees together and my basket on my lap.  My dripping umbrella splayed outwards as the engine turned over and over, sputtering for help –  Mustapha was as determined as the rain. We were stuck, when suddenly out of nowhere, an ancient man approached our car with a mouth void of teeth spreading into a broad, honest smile.  

‘I’ll hop out,’ I promised, full of sympathy for the worlds oldest man as he began to push.

‘No, please don’t,’ Mustapha assured me, the blunt wipers scratching the windscreen just as we started chugging down the street.  He blew kisses to the man with no teeth, shouting ‘Hamdullila’ out of the window.

As the saying goes; you have a watch, and Moroccans have time.

Last week when I stepped out for lunch at what I thought was midday, my watch stopped, and by the time I met my lunch companion – believing I was almost an hour early, it was actually fifteen minutes past one.  Of course, in a country where it is not unusual for people to be more than an hour late to any given appointment, fifteen minutes wasn’t really a problem.  But it was for me, because I only bought the watch less than six weeks ago and I still cant work out how the battery could be so hopeless.  

Having purchased the watch in Paris, I’ll blame the French.

When I arrived home from lunch later that afternoon, a friend had sent me a link to an article on the BBC website advising that the Moroccan government had decided to scrap the end of daylight savings – 48 hours before we were due to wind our clocks back.  Just like that, and not for the short term, but forever.  Now, we are on GMT for the rest of our lives, and I was only the tiniest bit disgruntled with the prospect of missing out on an extra hour in bed on Sunday morning.  

Upon finishing reading the article, I wrote back to my friend, joking that it was as if the Minister for Time had been afflicted with a little Friday afternoon tantrum in Rabat.  As it turns out, my cynicism wasn’t all that funny – this is indeed, exactly how it would appear.

On the topic of time, Amira was almost stir crazy on Saturday when our thrice weekly friend was almost (seemingly) a year late to keep us company with our chores.  He eventually arrived with a new electric cook top for his mother and a fake Givenchy track outfit for him, all of which he proceeded to dump in the kitchen, explaining that there is nothing worse than when the gas runs out half way through making cons cous.  I nodded in agreement – only partially perplexed, the other part amused.

When he arrived earlier in the week full of rage – his arms laden with boxes full of food, he explained in a huff that he was ‘hungry’.  Eying the boxes, I advised that perhaps he should make a small snack.  Before too long, I realised that he was actually ‘angry’ and needed to sit down.  

Half a roll of kitchen towel later and endless tears flowing, we’d done some solid problem solving after a big deep and meaningful conversation about the importance of keeping to time.  He’d been reprimanded that morning for being constantly late elsewhere, and this time it wasn’t me who ‘didn’t understand,’ rather, the shoe seemed jammed solidly on the other foot.

When I reread the article about the Moroccan government deciding ‘just like that’ that we’d no longer shift to winter time, situations like this one began to make perfect sense.  

I’ve been googling ‘what time is it in Morocco’ for the past two days now, as it would seem that the seemingly flippant decision out of Rabat didn’t quite match up to the agenda of Apple, and my phone had updated itself regardless.  Last night, I had to phone my dear friend Jono, who wears an ancient watch and carries a twelve thousand year old mobile telephone, in a final bid to set the record straight.

The longer I spend in Tangier, the less bothered I become with the often hilarious quirks that come with ‘Moroccan time’.  Initially, it drove me spare –  maybe even to drink (as the saying goes, I need to blame something), but now I find myself happily meandering; I stop to chat with people along the way, and am only mildly demented when taxi drivers take the extremely long way around town, dropping off everyone and everything along the way.  We always get there in the end, if only a tiny bit fashionably late.

The Australian Artist, Hilda Rix Nicholas arrived in Tangier sometime during 1912.  Her journey was via Spain, where she viewed the work of Valaquez whose compositions and palette she greatly admired.  In Tangier, other artists had sought inspiration before her – Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant lived and painted here in the 1870s, and Renoir, along with John Singer Sargent, visited in the 1880s.

Rix Nicholas was in Tangier at the same time as Matisse, and both are widely documented for being almost obsessed with the light; a piece of Tangier that has also famously remained unchanged.

As I undertook some research for this piece, the most magnificent, orange dusk fell over the Medina, just as the 6 o’clock ferry chugged into the port from Spain (on time).  The light was brilliant – as brilliant as it would have been over 90 years ago when Rix Nicholas first arrived.

In that wondrous, typically Tangier moment, I read about her love for sketching in the open air market, the ‘socco,’ just across the way from where I sat in my favourite smoke filled cafe overlooking the boulevard and the old Medina.  

Rix Nicholas recalled in one diary entry – ‘picture me in this market place, I spend nearly every day there, for it fascinates me completely – I have done 16 drawings and two oil things so far.  I’m feeling thoroughly at home now, so I’m going to take out my big oil box – wanted to get used to people and things first.  Oh!  How I do love it all!  Oh the sun is shining and I must out to work’.

For me, finding this diary entry more than 90 years after it was written by a fellow Australian who I have long read about in history books, was refreshing, almost as if it was written yesterday.  It was also a welcome reminder that, in a world ever evolving and technology driven, some things seem unlikely to ever change.

The following morning I stepped out just after the second call to prayer, and well before the streets were due to fill with swaying Moroccans in no hurry to be anywhere.  I bustled off to a market similar to the one that Rix Nicholas had so enjoyed decades before.  Here, I found my best fruit and vegetable seller lifting the cover on his stall, as my favourite flower man dragged buckets full of imported, scentless but nonetheless, pretty roses across the concrete floors.  Across the passage, cages of kittens, doves, peacocks and cockerels were just beginning to rise.

I too, find great solace, inspiration and happiness in the market, and spend almost every day there, soaking it all in and delighting in multiple languages, all of which confuse me.  Sometimes it can take almost half a day to complete my shopping, with seemingly no rush for traders to leave their coffee and conversation and maybe even a game of cards or chess, to aid with adding up the price of my carrots and tomatoes, avocados and bananas.

I could spend almost a year poring over a bunch of white roses in the lead up to them being counted, their stems shredded and chopped, before they’re wrapped in plastic, and I never leave without a ‘present,’ usually some babies breath or two red roses.

The thrice weekly helper left yesterday as I finished writing this piece.  The lights began to twinkle over the port as night fell – just as they do each day, and he reminded me that Amira is a ‘notty, notty kitchen’ who he loves very much.  I googled ‘what time is it in Morocco’ for the millionth time, as his scent wafted off her ears.

Tomorrow the sun will rise about the same time as today, and one thing is guaranteed –  people will continue to move at a pace unchanged, in the same way they would have when Rix Nicholas adjusted to the ‘people and things’ of Tangier all those years ago.  

Just as I am today- and for this, I couldn’t be happier.

Finding Amira.

Finding Amira.

Decades before I decided to visit Tangier and let alone move here, Paul Bowles wrote:

‘A town, like a person, almost ceases to have a face once you know it intimately, and visual modifications are skin deep; and a good deal of time is required to change their attitudes and behaviour.’  He concluded, ‘Tangier is still a small town in the sense that you literally cannot walk along a principal street without meeting a dozen of your friends with whom you must stop and chat.  What starts out to be a ten minute stroll will normally take an hour or more’.

Tangier has become home for me, quickly and kindly.  We’ve melded together over five short months, and the characters who make each day here interesting and ultimately, incredibly fulfilling, were not even known to me a year ago when I wrote a piece titled 11/9 here: https://pinningmywords.com/2017/09/12/1109/

That piece was centered around life and where it may take you; love and my failings in finding it, accepting the circumstances we are granted in the precious little book that is our lives and most of all, making the most of each day.

During a short visit to Paris last month, a year to the day since I wrote 11/9, I re-read it, reflecting on how much can happen in just a year.  Over a dinner at a favourite cafe on my final night in Paris, my dinner companions teased me under twinkling fairy lights as we sipped through a bottle of wine, ‘you’ve basically created your own version of Eat, Pray, Love, in your move to Morocco’.  

I laughed, advising that while I like to eat, and I am certainly surrounded by a lot of praying (five times daily to be precise) – the one thing I have really found, is love.

Not with one person in particular, but a whole lot of people.  Most importantly, I explained, I’ve truly learnt to understand myself in a way I have never experienced in my entire life, and for me, this has been a huge turning point.

The following day I flew home on one of the twice weekly AirArabia flights direct from Paris to Tangier.  As we glided over Spain, I flung open my laptop to write a blog about love and finding a new home, only to find the laptop dying a slow and painful death from a flat battery, at which point, I settled for a tin of Pringles and a glass of water and took in the beautiful dusk that blanketed Europe.  Butterflies danced in my stomach as we crossed the Strait of Gibraltar before landing on North African turf at sunset.

‘I think I’d like to take in a street kitten,’ I told the server at my favourite restaurant a week after returning from Paris.

I’ve never much liked cats, actually, I find them quite intimidating and clever.  One even lifted its leg on my best pink jeans at a cafe earlier in the summer, spraying me with the most fowl smelling scent just as I was about to head out to lunch.  But living in Tangier has seen the street children and street kittens kidnap my heart – and at this point in time, it would seem a cat is a more feasible option.

A day after I vaguely indicated that I might like a kitten, I answered the door and there stood the waiter from the restaurant with a shoe box that screamed a little tune, suspiciously kitten like.  ‘She found me last night drinking coffee with a friend,’ he explained as I flashed a look of not knowing whether to laugh or cry, ‘I drove her home on the back of a motorbike, you have to take her’.  

‘You cant just give me a cat,’ I laughed.  But he did, and after about 30 seconds, I wasn’t about to give her back.  We bundled her into my shopping basket and headed to the best vet in Tangier, bouncing around in a shared taxi with two old women who flashed suspicious glances towards my crying basket. 

The vet looked at me like I was a wet blanket, lunatic foreigner who had been hoodwinked by a kitten and a waiter. ‘You explain in Darija,’ I told the waiter, ‘I’ve got no hope’.  I went on to learn that she was probably about two months old and in good health, and the cries that she bleated as her little heart was tested, inoculated and tested again, almost broke my own.  I held her tiny head as we treated her for every possible mite and worm, and an hour later, the kind vet was filling out her papers.

‘What is her name?’ He asked.  

‘Amira,’ I replied, ‘she is Amira’.  Arabic for princess, and as it turns out, every bit true to who she is.

Amira spent the following days munching on cigarette butts out of ashtrays and drinking water from my glass – a kitten who had spent her first months living in the doorways of cafes, she was also a survivor who initially showed absolutely no interest in the scientifically developed packaged food that promised ‘rapid growth and a happy heart’.  Her common little voice would bleat from her cot when I went off to bed each night, and she could hardly bare to leave my side.  

I was housebound, threatened with the ailment that comes with kitten ownership, commonly known as ‘crazy cat lady-itis’.  After a few days, Amira found her purr and a healthy appetite and has since driven me mad with clever tricks and games of hide and seek, usually just as I am desperately trying to leave the house in a rush and as usual, late for wherever it is that I’m meant to be.

She is also becoming very fat.

The man who comes to the flat for three hours, three days a week, cried with happiness when he met Amira.  I have a sneaking suspicion that he’d rather like to work in a homewares store like Pottery Barn, but with a lack of any such place lining the streets, boulevards and alleyways of Tangier, he comes to me instead, bossing me around and rearranging the furniture when he’s not watering the plants, or mopping the floors – and he always sings along to the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory soundtrack in Arabic.

Our relationship is an odd one, with him believing that I know absolutely next to nothing about anything –  ‘you don’t understand,’ being his favorite criticism.  When I had people for drinks the night after I arrived home from Paris, I complained of being too tired to even open the door – summer in Tangier had almost killed me.  ‘Go,’ was his only instruction, pointing towards the bathroom, ‘I fix everything’.  I returned ten minutes later and with ten minutes remaining before 30 people descended upon my dining room, only to find an outfit of his choice had been selected from my wardrobe and ironed, and was now hanging proudly on the kitchen door.  He, on the other hand, was busy making carrot fritters that I had by no means asked for, nor did I actually want. 

His love for Amira is heaven to watch, and when I leave the flat for a walk down the street, I return to a happy home and a kitten that reeks of his perfume after loads of kisses during serenades of love songs sung in Arabic. 

Last week following lunch with friends, the two of them greeted me at the door looking suspiciously sheepish, like something might have been wrong.  She glanced at him, he at her.  ‘What happened,’ I laughed, before being shown to my newly arranged dining room, the table precisely not where it had been, and all the kitchen chairs transported from the kitchen to join their dining room cousins in a melange of ‘half Berber, half Spanish farm house/chaotic chic’.

Earlier this week, as we finished hanging pictures in my study, I observed that the dialogue between us had completely changed from ‘you don’t have any… insert required cleaning product,’ to ‘we don’t have any… insert required cleaning product.’  After I’d farewelled him that night, I caught a glimpse of pink on the dining room table.  He’d not only rearranged the roses that were looking rather limp in their vase, chopping their stems and changing the water, but he’d lovingly scattered the remaining petals over the white table cloth.  They are still there as I don’t have it in my heart to move them. 

Tangier has taught me that the most unusual of people will enter my life, many of them culturally so different but all of us with shared complexities.  

Mustapha who drives the taxi always asks after my family.  When I advise that they are well, he always responds with a smiling ‘hamdulillah’ (Arabic for ‘thanks to God’).  Mohamed, who guards the street, bustles towards me with a key to the door and an extra set of hands to help carry my baskets.  I thank him profusely to which he responds with a huge smile and a hearty ‘hamdulillah’.  

The ancient man who runs the bottle shop around the corner has just one tooth remaining and is insistent that I learn to count in classical Arabic – not the local dialect of Darija.  He hisses through the tooth with his tongue and shouts ‘BON-JOUR’ when I walk through the door.  I have no idea what he is saying, ever, but the sparkle in his eyes is ultimately very telling.  When I leave him with ‘a bientot’ he always responds with a loud, hissing ‘hamdulillah’.

Each morning, I am woken as the first call to prayer the ‘adhan’ sounds well before the sun is due to rise.  Cries of ‘Allah Akbar’ echo across Tangier in an un-synchronised fashion from mosque to mosque.  It is a beautiful alarm clock, and when the second call is made about an hour and a half later, I know it is time to rise and face a new day – never sure what it may hold.

But, one thing is for sure, Paul Bowles was spot on with his observations.  A short walk home always turns into a social outing, and for this, I feel ultimately very grateful. 

As I finish typing in a smoke filled cafe overlooking the Boulevard Pasteur, huge threatening rain clouds loom overhead.  A rainbow has formed over the Medina below, casting shades of pink across two large cargo ships chugging  through the strait, and Spain is barely visible in the distance.

It is a moment of magic and reflection. 

This one is for my dear Dad who, upon hearing about Amira, warned ‘a dog has a master, a cat has a servant’.  He’s always full of wisdom and this week, I am particularly grateful for his health after a rough trot over the past week or so.  He too, is proving to be cat like.

Hamdulillah.

Inshallah.

Inshallah.

This morning I set out to buy clothes pegs.  Sadly, the man at the store just moments from home was out of clothes pegs but, Hassan over the way would have them he was quick to assure me.

‘Hassan over the way’ sort of drives me a bit mad because he is always wanting to connect on WhatsApp, and I’m running out of excuses as to why I can’t connect today, yesterday and all the days before.  But, there is nothing I loath more than wet washing sitting in a pile for more than 35 seconds before being hung out to dry, so I tempted WhatsApp fate and braved Hassan.

‘Madame, bonjour’, he cried ‘ça va bien’ and on it went.  ‘Tu est Christina, oui?’ ‘non, je suis Virginia’ I reminded him, before making squeezing motions with my fingers explaining ‘laundry’ because I couldn’t remember the word for ‘peg’.  

‘Ah oui, des pinces à linge,’ he reminded me laughingly, ‘un moment Vir-jee-nah,’ which is the way my name is both spelt and pronounced by most Moroccans.

Another much smaller man appeared and was bossed towards the back shelves by Hassan.  An exchange in darija (which I couldn’t understand), led me to believe that perhaps they didn’t have clothes pegs, but if the man stayed under the shelf for long enough shouting up at Hassan, perhaps Vir-jee-nah would believe that they indeed did, and she’d stand there long enough to be tempted by a chocolate bar, or a can of deodorant.  There was no chance I was getting out of there without buying something.

Moments passed, turning into minutes which soon became several minutes, and all that was happening under the shelf was a whole lot of rustling and a little bit of shouting.  Two older women entered and hemmed me in against a fridge full of UHT milk, and a box full of further UHT milk blocked my only exit.

‘Oui, ou non, Hassan?’ I squeaked, feeling like a big rat in a field of tiny mice, whispering ‘excusez moi’ to the two women in front of me, as I planned my escape.

‘Excusez moi,’ I repeated, slightly louder this time, which was met with little to no movement and with that, I picked up the huge box full of UHT milk, placed it behind me and bid farewell to Hassan.

Aziz down the hill also has a multi purpose store which sells everything from milk to clothes pegs, so he became my plan C, by which time it was at least half an hour since the washing machine had bleated ‘finished,’ and where I was beginning to develop a twitch that comes with ‘wet washing in basket for too long,’ syndrome.

I first met Aziz on Monday afternoon this week, when I decided that it was high time I connected the stove to a gas bottle as a means to the beginning of actually settling into my kitchen.  The store of Aziz is like a wonderland, with piles of laundry detergent mixed amongst packets of cigarettes, mops, buckets and every other imaginable piece of equipment you could ever need in your house.  Including, a long line of gas bottles out the front.

Admittedly, I’d been putting off connecting the stove as I was beside myself with fear at the thought of going home with a gas bottle and joining it up to a potentially faulty appliance that was supplied with the apartment.  ‘Does it work?’ I’d asked, as I signed the rental contract weeks ago, ‘yes of course, Inshallah,’ was the response.  Inshallah translates to ‘god willing,’ and it is used at the end of every sentence in place of where I would use ‘I hope,’ if I wasn’t sure, or ‘of course,’ should I be feeling slightly more confident.

‘À bientôt,’ I say, as I wave goodbye to the waiter after a nice meal in a restaurant, or the shopkeeper following a successful time in a hardware store, ‘oui, inshallah,’ comes the response, nine times out of ten.

Inshallah, used in the context of fitting gas to a stove, hadn’t really been filling me with complete confidence, so I’d left the oven to last.  Pillows have been filled with feathers sourced from Mongolia, and my garden now blooms following a trip to a garden centre seemingly 700 kilometres from Tangier, but when it has come to making a basic coffee in the morning or steaming a piece of fish, I’ve been willing to either go hungry, or outsource the task.  

Exaggerations aside – inshallah I’ve painted a complete picture of the extent of how unwilling I was to find myself in a room alone with a gas bottle and a stove that could potentially really hurt me.

On our first meeting I greeted Aziz with a jolly ‘bonjour,’ followed by ‘Salaam alaikum’ which is a nice greeting in darija meaning ‘and unto you, peace’.  I use it daily and it is always met with a smile.

And smile Aziz did, before advising that he only speaks a little bit of French followed by the question I so often face, particularly when dealing with older Moroccans, do I speak Spanish?  I laughed, before advising that I absolutely do not, but he didn’t mind, surprising me with ‘I love to speak in English’.  His English was about as good as my French, but I was so grateful that in the midst of ‘gas gate’ I would be able to fully understand what was going on, rather than 35% or perhaps even, 23%.  A nod and feigned comprehension (a state in which I so often find myself), wasn’t going to cut it on this occasion.

A call was made and rapid ‘something’ was spoken, before a man arrived in the store.  He smiled incredibly broadly, and Aziz advised that ‘this man, he speak not a language, no words’.

I walked up the hill with my new friend, obviously in complete silence, as he carried a gas bottle on his back and I felt somewhat awkward that I couldn’t even entertain him with some useless but polite offerings of thanks, or even a silly observation about the weather.  Once inside the lift in my building, we stared blankly at the wall and the chug up to the fourth floor took seemingly forever.  

As I opened the door to my apartment his eyes flashed wide and he smiled at me, a pot of roses here, some pictures there, and I quickly concluded that if he could speak, he would probably say nothing at all anyway.  Once inside the kitchen I found my iPad still running the BBC loudly, and as his arm brushed up against it’s screen in the moment where he hoisted the bottle onto the ground, my screensaver – a pretty picture of Paris- flashed up as brightly as his eyes did in shock.

A procedure followed where he took a tool to the washer and banged the old bottle off the pipe and fixed the new one in with a fresh rubber bearing.  I was beside myself with happiness.

Saying nothing, he kissed his hand and touched his heart, before waving me out of the room.  I left, obediently, peaking around the corner as he turned the gas on and lit the pipe. It went up in gentle flames.  Genius I thought, a kind one at that.

Catching me spying from the hallway, he motioned for a knife by pretending to chop his left hand off with his right, and I scrambled through the kitchen drawer and found a pair of scissors.  My silent friend cut the end off the hose before jamming it onto the mouth of the gas bottle so tightly, and then repeated the process – a kiss of his hand before touching his heart and a wave for me to leave the room, before he held an open flame over the bottle.  Nothing exploded or caught fire.  He then turned on the stove and voila!  The burner lit up, and we were in business.

Aziz had a second bottle waiting in the store (always have a spare gas bottle in the house, I’ve been told over and over), and during the short walk down the hill to collect it with my new favourite person, I concluded in my mind that I’d found not one, but two gems in a very short space of time.  Aziz and his friend had gone out of their way in a task to them probably so normal, but for me, nothing short of mortifying. 

As I waved the silent man goodbye following his second delivery, he made a telephone motion with his hands – and in English I responded, ‘of course you’ll be the first person I’ll call when I next need gas, inshallah’.

This morning when I returned to Aziz he gave me a big smile before asking ‘how the gas,’ to which I responded, ‘better than ever Aziz, shukran’.  I went on to explain that I needed not one, but three packets of clothes pegs – ‘you do much washing madame,’ he laughed.

If only he knew.

Sometimes when I’m asked ‘why Morocco,’ I find it a very difficult question to answer.  But the moments spent in silence where no one speaks any common language, provide me with a feeling I find very hard to describe, and maybe that is the best answer.

The kindness I experience in this country, day after day, and quite often in complete silence or perhaps in a melange of languages which often results in utter confusion, is the best kindness of all.

Pictured: the beautiful Rue d’Italie at dusk.

 

From Croissants to Cous Cous.

From Croissants to Cous Cous.

A beautiful cool breeze is delivered through the window of my study directly off the Strait of Gibraltar, causing four pretty aubergine hued dahlias in a vase on my desk to flutter, before it drifts across my face.  The breeze is a welcome treat as I sit here at my new desk fashioned from a Berber work bench, on the third day of actually living in my glorious old, but newly restored flat in Tangier.

‘Have you moved to Tangier?’ ‘Did you buy the flat?’ ‘How long will you be there for?’ ‘What on earth prompted this?’.

I feel as though I’ve answered, yes, I have decided to move to Tangier, and no, I didn’t buy the flat and I have no idea how long I will be here for, quite a few times now throughout the past three or four months.  What prompted this move?

The latter is the only question that I have enjoyed answering, for seemingly the twenty thousandth time, because it is a response that fills me with pure happiness.

Morocco had always danced quietly in the corner of the world map, just below Spain and positioned conveniently between Africa and Europe.  When I decided to move to Paris, I had no idea how long I would be there for either, it was a decision made in a moment of partial haste, and driven by a hunger for something more.  

I loved my time spent in Paris; from the frustrations I found with the language, the dear friends I made, the challenges I faced, and the differing opinions I became privy to when reading the newspapers, conjugating endless verbs as I did so.  I love the way the French debate, and I became very fond of eavesdropping at cafe tables – an affair here, an argument there.  The French both write and speak in such a florid manner, and I quite often kick myself for being so linguistically challenged, particularly as I’ve left my run into learning their language to this seemingly late stage in life (it is late, when you consider the brain not being quite so malleable as it was, say 30 years ago).

With Morocco being a short flight from France, I decided to spend some time here in March this year.  I landed in Marrakech and made my way towards Tangier, via Essaouira and Fes.

‘Come to Tangier for Easter,’ Jonathan sweetly wrote in an email.  I did just that, and ended up staying for two weeks.  Jonathan Dawson, a much loved Tangier local of over 25 years, is sharp in both wit and mind and was the most generous host for my first visit to this wonderful place.  I met some incredible people and most of all, laughed a lot.  Laughter, fun times and enjoyable lunches aside, I also identified in Tangier, a place where I could write and feel inspired in a totally different environment to the one that I’d grown very fond of in Paris.

Towards the end of my stay in Tangier, I was shown through an apartment in what was once the European Quarter.  We meandered down streets lined with beautiful old buildings influenced by the Spanish and on the next corner, the French.  When we reached my building, a post war wonder designed by an Italian, my breath was taken away by an expansive entrance hall, with brass hand rails leading up six flights of marble stairs.  The lift, broken on the day and since repaired, now chugs up to the top of the building where a roof terrace allows views spanning the city.  

A man proudly flung the door open to my flat, where I was met with overflowing ashtrays, empty juice cartons, holes in most of the walls, a draft so fierce I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t blow across the Strait to Gibraltar, and a bath sitting on the bathroom floor, unplumbed and in a pile of rubble.  Fruit sat rotting in bowls, and grey velour furniture was littered throughout the dining room.  High polished mahogany beds were unmade in every bed room, and a wet towel had dried into a stiff sculpture on the spare bathroom floor.

‘Don’t buy in Tangier until you’re really sure – you must rent first,’ everyone had said.  At the end of my first viewing, I wasn’t even sure that I was willing to come back.

A sleepless night followed, where I sat up in bed scrolling through photos that I’d taken of the flat earlier that day, with flashbacks of the train journey from Fes to Tangier playing like a silent film in the back of my mind.  I recalled a feeling of complete wonder as we drew into Tangier at dusk two weeks earlier, where I’d felt a sensation of butterflies in my stomach as rolling green hills reached down to a glorious ocean below.  Whitewashed buildings appeared stacked one upon the other, and larks filled the sky.

Jono and his right hand man, Tariq, had met me at the train and as we whizzed through the streets towards what Jono calls his ‘Racketty Old Flat,’ I took in looming office buildings with tiny old whitewashed houses wedged between them, appearing pink at dusk.  Later on, I discovered the Medina and the Kasbah where the architecture was completely different, ancient and whitewashed, and higher up the hill, shuttered villas stood tall amongst palm trees, overlooking abundant park lands.  Echo’s could still be heard from a bygone era, I heard it if I stood still for long enough and just listened, taking it all in.

I spent days taking long walks between enjoyable lunches, and sunset drinks.  I was captured by the light, enamoured by the people, and my heart was utterly kidnapped by Tangier in general.  Hours before I flew back to Paris towards the end of April, I paid a rental deposit and promised to return in June during the final days of Ramadan.

‘Are you a vegetable Madame?’.  

‘I beg your pardon?  Am I a vegetable?’ I laughed, ‘did you say vegetable?’.

‘Yes Madame,’ Ahmed nodded, ‘and you still haven’t answered my question, are you a vegetable?’.  Not sure where this was going, I leant up against the kitchen bench covered in plaster dust, and sneezed.  ‘Nope, I’m not a vegetable,’ I assured the plasterer.  

‘Well, why you have vegetable food in your cupboard?’ he finished earnestly, before adding that he doesn’t like ‘vegetables,’ just people who eat meat.

The vegetable food was a jar of Vegemite, a little piece of Australia that I very rarely travel without.  I think what Ahmed was trying to establish was, ‘am I a vegetarian’.

Each day in Tangier, I find myself having multiple ‘vegetable’ conversations.  Hassan, who runs the little shop downstairs and speaks French, wants to know why I live alone, where did my husband and children go? Did they stay in Australia or France, and would I like to go jogging with him?

The chess champion of Morocco, who also happens be a waiter and serves my coffee at the beautiful old Cafe de Paris each morning, tells me that ‘Madame makes him a fine day, a happy day’ as he breaks my hand, shaking it furiously.  One day, a policeman gave the chess champion 12 dirhams for his coffee, and left without saying goodbye.  The chess champion turned to me, reminding me that I am lovely and I make his day, before explaining that the policeman is not a nice man ‘he like lin and he make me like tigger’ before inviting me to learn to play chiss with him.  ‘And where John?’.

Taxis are shared in Tangier, you wave one down, the driver pulls over, an address is exchanged and he either nods, signalling that I get in, or just drives off if he isn’t going in my direction.

I love travelling in the little blue taxis, swaying around on the back seat as women in headscarves boss the driver around in the front seat.  Sometimes a daughter sits silently in the back.  I’ve never felt so huge in my life and my basket, full of tools, lists and a measuring tape, takes up the other third of the backseat.  

On the eve of my arrival back to Tangier, Jono wrote and very generously invited me to stay for as long is it may take to repair my flat.  He would been travelling between London and Gibraltar for at least another month, and Birdy (the house cockerel), would love the company.

I imagined that I’d finish the flat in two weeks and that I would be completely independent, not too reliant on anyone and I would quietly go about the restoration – it’d be a breeze.

I arrived in Tangier one Sunday afternoon in the middle of June.  Jono had sent Tariq to collect me, and as I emerged through customs I was delighted to see his broad Saharan smile grinning at me from the gates outside the airport.  He waved me down with a huge hug, and was like Rambo hoisting my suitcase onto his shoulders and grabbing my cabin luggage in his spare hand.  I staggered behind him, shattered from carrying over 50 kilos of luggage since I’d left the apartment in Paris that morning.

As we wheeled towards Tangier, sweeping around boulevards lined with palms, and dodging blue taxis, Tariq assured me that he was happy to help with anything I may need.  ‘Are you sure?’ I asked, not wanting to be too reliant on anyone.  ‘Everything will happen, slowly, slowly Madame Pinq’.

After three attempts at retrieving the keys to the apartment in the days that followed, we finally opened the doors on the Wednesday and work began the following Tuesday.

Ahmed took to cleaning the walls with a spatula before filling gaps and repairing the holes.  An electrician, who also doubled as a plumber, began works on light switches and installing new pipes.  Mohammed would be in charge of mixing the lime (gyr) and adding the tint, in order to create the colours that I’d dreamed of following my first visit to the apartment months earlier – a petroleum blue from my favourite doors in Paris, the rose pink found somewhere on almost every exterior wall around Tangier, and the green from the doors on mosques and the tiles on their rooftops.  There would be smatterings of white; the spare bedroom was suddenly like heaven, and the bathroom completely fresh.  My bedroom soon became a deep blue den, and the dining room the same.  The pink began to fill the hallways and my study, and the green turned the kitchen into a cosy and warm space where I often sit at a tiny cafe table found behind the train station.

Tariq oversaw the entire process, and when he wasn’t wielding a paint roller, he was whizzing around Tangier organising deliveries or negotiating situations for me, in a way that only he can and I never could.  I suddenly realised (after about five minutes following my arrival in Tangier), that he was going to make my life so much easier.  He calls me Madame Pinq, and I will never correct him because I actually like Pinq.  There is loads of it throughout the flat.

‘The hallway will be pink Tariq,’ 

‘Just like your name Madame’.

I wrote to Jono about a week into the works, and told him that if I had a brother, I’d want him to be just like Tariq.  He smiles all the time, even when I’m sure he probably wants to kill me.  No task is ever too big.  He has re- taught me the importance of kindness and that patience really is a complete virtue.  There is no point being frustrated or angry, because those emotions will never increase the pace at which things will happen.  Here, it will more likely prolong them.

When I grab my hair and start to pull it out, because one wall has three coats of paint and the other, two, Tariq reminds me ‘don’t worry for this’.

And within days, there are three coats on every wall and consistency has returned.

Some things just never happen, and I’m becoming used to this being the norm and really, why did they need to happen in the first place?

As part of my rental contract, I made a clause that I would complete the works in a fashion that I desired – this is still the norm in Morocco, and a huge part of taking the flat in the first place.

Last week, on the eve of my move into my new home, a very dear Tangier friend sent his plumber after I described my frustrations with the bathroom, the only room that was seemingly never going to come together.  Within three days, another Mohammed – who looks like a philosopher and makes tinkering seem an art form, had installed a beautiful new enamel bath and tiled it in complete with new taps.  The original replacement bath had been plumbed in the week before, still wrapped in the shop wrapping and too small for the space.  The bathroom was the only space in the entire flat that saw a momentary lapse in sense of humour on my part, but at four in the afternoon, the very day I was to move in, Mohammed unveiled his handy work.  I almost cried.

Just as he left and I set about making my bed, Tariq flicked every light switch and none of the lights came on.  I almost cried a different variety of tears, and he reassured me with that familiar line, ‘Madame Pinq, don’t worry for this,’ and within hours the flat had been completely rewired.  

The hospitality shown by people I’d met on my first visit to Tangier has been more than generous; a drink here, dinner there, lunch before dinner and so on – it’s been an incredibly fun first few weeks.  When I’m not in a hardware store with Tariq, or checking paint mix in the bedroom, I’m madly rifling through my suitcase trying to find something that is not my standard work uniform of white trousers and white shirt.  I feel very much at home and will be forever grateful for the warm welcome that Tangier and it’s residents have shown.  Now, I look forward to repaying all of their hospitality.

As I finish typing, it has been three nights since I moved in.  There is still a long way to go, but I will be forever grateful for Jono and the Racketty Old Flat, which provided a beautiful home away from home for the duration of my fist five weeks in Tangier.  The company of Birdy is always enjoyable, particularly as he staggers around the flat looking for another foot to peck to death.

My transition from a life of croissants to cous cous, has been more than enjoyable.

Plenty more to come.

Pictured: moving day.

White noise.

White noise.

This morning I woke early to the sounds of revellers returning home after a night out.  I wouldn’t normally wake to such things as I’m an incredibly good sleeper, but following the earliest night had since I was probably about 11 years old, I was ready to go at 4am when the Marseillaise could be heard from the street below.

Don’t get me wrong, I can survive on the littlest of sleep, but last night after completing what felt like the millionth unpack since December, I spent ten minutes listening the BBC World Service bringing myself up to speed with the latest on Stormy Daniels and Polio (polar opposites, but in the same news segment), before falling into the longest and deepest slumber I’ve experienced in a very long time.

4am brought with it many thoughts and contemplations.  The news had shifted to Ebola, and Stormy had become to the newest holder of the keys to the city.  Trump’s lawyer was in question after a meeting with the President of Ukraine was found to be apparently fixed with cash, and the daughter of the Russian spy who, along with her father, was nerved agented in Salisbury earlier this year, had finally spoken. 

The birds were just beginning to chirp as I did a quick mental exercise of six verbs in past, present and future tenses.  In recent weeks, my French has slipped from almost bearable to completely unbearable, and as I took my first sips of tea I contemplated what could possibly be going wrong.

Language is a funny old thing, and as a latecomer to the joys of verb conjugations and being paralysed when spoken to, I am slowly beginning to join together some very important dots.  In situations such as the visits to the visa office or the highly glamorous podiatrist’s surgery, I find myself suddenly able to ‘do it’.  Yesterday on a trip to a store not far from home I chatted like a love bird at feeding time, making little jokes about being forgetful when I found myself unable to find the word for ‘I think’ which came to me ten seconds after I’d needed to say ‘I think,’ by which time we’d moved onto a completely different topic.  

I have no doubt that when I speak in my accented French it hurts French ears for miles around, but I am always incredibly grateful for those who just continue to speak – in French – which is far more encouraging than saying (in English) ‘sorry, WHAT?’, which is exactly what happened after I left the podiatrists surgery earlier in the week.  I won’t go into the not so exciting details about why I had to visit such a place, except that the large feet I’ve often written about have been known to deal me a less than savoury trial when it comes to many things, not just shoe sizes.   

Staggering to the door of the surgery that I’d often observed just a short walk from home, I placed a gentle knock on the frosted window pane and was overjoyed when a bubbly Doctor answered the door.  Explaining that I had a problem sans appointment, she patted the chair and hoisted it towards the ceiling, telling me smilingly that she had half an hour between appointments and she’d be more happy to help.  We discussed everything from my life in Paris – what brought me here and do I like it? before her eyes flung wide open when I told her of my plans to spend more time in Morocco.  Were my shoes from Morocco she wondered, and when I responded affirmatively she asked if I would fill a suitcase with raffia pumps and bring them back to her on my next visit?  We laughed about my abysmal French, but not once did she back down and offer even a lick of English, rather, she spoke reassuringly about the importance of just speaking and while many of her rapid sentences en français were as good to me as white noise, I can quite honestly say, I’ve never enjoyed a trip to a podiatrist more in my entire life.

Patting my shoulder and wishing me good luck, with the addition of an invitation to visit whenever I may need to, I left her surgery with a new found skip in my stride – and not just because she’d fixed my poor foot.  As I stepped outside, it began to pour with rain and I took shelter at a cafe just moments away.  

‘May I have a glass of water and a menu,’ I asked confidently (in French) which was met with ‘sorry, WHAT?’ (in English).  And there I sat as I do so often in France, polarised and spinning fifty miles backwards on the never ending road of progress, or lack there of.

Repeating myself, the waiter walked off returning five minutes later with an English menu and a glass of water.  

I contemplated telling him that I’d just had ‘a corn removed in French,’ (oh god, sorry, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t write that) but decided against it because chicken and sweet corn soup was the plat du jour and I didn’t feel like chicken and sweet corn soup, rather, I opted for a glass of wine and waited for my lunch date to join me- no one was going to destroy what had otherwise been a very successful first half of the day.

This morning as I weighed up the news of the world and my thoughts shifted to my linguistic pursuits which feel as though they are in rapid decline, I tallied up my interactions had with Parisian natives throughout the week, before arriving at a total of about 25.  Ten of which have been successful and the rest, well, they’re the ones that see me more determined than ever to get my tongue around this language.  

Today I’m off to visit Guernica at the Picasso Museum along with a friend whose acquaintance I made at the Sorbonne last year.  We enjoy frequent hilarious lunches together where we thank waiters profusely and tell them they are so kind, before wailing with laughter when nobody is looking, agreeing that they could have just offered to send us to the guillotine and we would still respond with sweet offerings of ‘Vous êtes très gentil’.

C’est la vie, and today I’m wearing a pair of shoes that have stared at me blankly from the corner of my bedroom for at least a year – I’m happy to report that they feel like clouds on my feet.  More to come…

Pictured: the wonderful view from my bedroom – every day in Paris.