Letters from afar.

Letters from afar.

About five years ago I was given a book titled ‘Letters of Note,’-  a collection of letters, memos and telegrams of the famous, the infamous and the not so famous collated by a man named Shaun Usher.  To date, it is probably one of my favourite presents ever.  It’s not a small book; A4 in size with a hardcover binding 367 pages and it travels the world with me, with page 103 covered in the smudges of my fingers and constantly bookmarked:

June 27, 1940

My Darling,

I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something that I feel you ought to know.  One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me and told me that there is danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough and sarcastic and overbearing manner.

It seems your Private Secretaries have agreed to behave like school boys and ‘take what’s coming to them’ and then escape of your presence, shrugging their shoulders.

Higher up, if an idea is suggested (say, at a conference) you are supposed to be so contemptuous that presently no ideas, good or bad, will be forthcoming.  I was astonished and upset, because in all these years I have been accustomed to all those who have worked with and under you, loving you.  I said this and I was told, ‘No doubt it’s the strain.’

My Darling Winston, I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner and you are not so kind as you used to be.

It is for you to give the Orders and if they are bungled, except for the King, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Speaker, you can sack anyone and everyone.

Therefore, with this terrific power, you must combine urbanity, kindness and if possible, Olympic calm.  You used to quote- ‘On ne règne sur les âmes que par le calme’ I cannot bear that those who serve the Country and yourself should not love as well as admire and respect you.

Besides, you won’t get the best results by irascibility and rudeness.  They will breed either dislike or a slave mentality – (Rebellion in War time being out of the question!)

Please forgive your loving, devoted and watchful, Clemmie.

P.S I wrote this at Chequers last Sunday, tore it up, but here it is now.

There is a letter from a young Queen Elizabeth to President Eisenhower therewith a promised recipe for drop scones, and another from a girl named Amy to her favourite author Mr. Dahl containing a dream, to which he wrote a response promising it would form the content of another book (read, B.F.G) and many others throughout this extraordinary book.  But it is this one from Winston Churchill’s wife, Clementine, that always speaks to me 79 years after it was written.

My grandmother Posy, along with my dear Mum, always encouraged letter writing with the advice that one must never write anything down that they may one day regret.  In a world of social media and emails, it is all but too easy to quickly type a comment under a photo, or send an email which is not particularly kind.  There is no turning back from that, and some people could use the advice of Mrs Churchill- a particular president and his twitter account being top of the list.  In my humble opinion.

When I was living in Paris I documented that stage of my life through instagram and here in Tangier, I still do.  One night in Paris after a glass of wine with friends (probably more than ‘a glass’ but we’ll neaten it up and say ‘a glass’) a friend wrote to me from Australia, asking if I’d ever thought of writing a blog.  

With a newborn child, the nights are long and I never want your instagram posts to end, I want you to write more.’

Inspired by that thought, I swiftly pulled out my laptop and set up pinningmywords.com.  I’m Pin and I like writing words, that’ll work, I said to myself in the mirror- and there we had it, a daily blog where I wrote about the frustrations of language, my awkwardness in a city of thin people and all my daily observations- and there were many.  But this wasn’t the beginning of my love for writing – I always have enjoyed writing – with my first memoirs penned at the age of ten.  That would have been a riveting read.  

Writing makes me feel less lonely.  When I am sitting in a cafe my laptop provides a level of comfort and through my blog, I have felt connected to family and friends and now, as it grows, with complete strangers.  People write to me and share their thoughts, and that too provides a great level of comfort in a life where I am quite often alone.

In 2005 I embarked on a trip to India.  I’d been there two years before and was thrilled to return.  That was a time where Facebook had only just surfaced, and Twitter was what birds did.  I did have a hotmail account set up by my friend Charlotte (tech and savvy do not belong near my name) and it was through emails that I would communicate with my family from high up in the Himalaya.

Power cut today,’ I’d write, followed by ‘loo overflowed too.’  

‘I ordered a packet of matches on the telephone to the boys who live in the shed down below in the garden, they arrived ten minutes later with a queen size mattress.’

Dad would eagerly respond with news from home that was of great interest to me therewith football scores, not so much.  My grandmother Posy would send long emails full of love and good advice.  I once wrote to her with tears streaming down my face from an Internet cafe in Delhi as I prepared to leave India the next day, ‘I will so miss the sun setting over the mountains of the Himalaya, I don’t want to come home,’ I wrote.

You’re lucky you ever saw the sun set over the mountains of the Himalaya,’ she replied in an email the next morning.

I didn’t go home.  Rather, a visit to friends in London diverted me to Tuscany, which landed me in Istanbul in June, 2005.  The following months were spent with the formidable Josephine Powell – American by birth but in her life, a woman of many worlds.  I wrote about Josephine in a post aptly titled ‘Josephine’ (April 3, 2018) which you can find on pinningmywords.com

Not unlike Winston, Josephine could be an unpredictable character.  I was never sure who I’d find when I woke each morning as I traipsed up the stairs from my divine bedroom where each night, I’d sleep atop a chest of drawers on a goat hair rug enjoying views of an overgrown jungle garden.  Some days she was hilarious, others in quite the mood.  Throughout my time in Istanbul I collated and documented her incredible collection of photographs and artefacts.  Her collection was formed over many years during her travels from Kabul to Rome, solo bar her beloved Belgian sheepdog who accompanied her in her Land Rover.

Recently, I woke on a warm Tangier morning to an email from Dad, where he wrote:

Darling Pin, 

I was checking some of my old memory sticks and found ‘Pin’s Travels.’  You may be able to use a bit of that somewhere.  I hope the attached file works for you – do you remember when you sent these emails, the Turkish computer made all the i’s into y’s, and I corrected all that for you!

Much love, Dad.

As if he’d read my mind, I licked my lips with glee before opening the exact file I’d been searching for in preparation for this blog.  There within lay all the emails I’d sent home in 2005 from my time in the Himalaya followed by my months in Istanbul.  Two highlights are documented below:

Agra, May, 2005

Dear Mum and Dad,

My tuk tuk driver told me today that he didn’t want to asshole westerners as he understood very well the asshole of travel – just he wanted me to have the best day in Agra with no asshole from him.

I almost lost my breath between laughing and asking what he was going to do with my asshole.  After some time I realised he was saying that with him, I would have no hassle.

Much love, Pin 

Istanbul, July, 2005

Dear Mum and Dad,

I just spent almost an hour writing you the worlds longest email where my bottom went numb as I had sat on this chair writing and writing and then the screen started abusing me in Turkish – which I can’t understand!  

Oh, I don’t know if I have it in me to write it all again… basically, it’s been a busy week. Oh, can I be bothered?  The good person in my head says ‘yes Pin just do it’ and the bad one is yelling above all the music in this Internet cafe saying ‘give up’.  No.  I’ll try mark two of the account. 

I have spent the week changing the latches on doors and clearing tree cuttings from the garden below and making curtains for the kilim shelves and fixing the hose that Josephine uses to spray both stray kittens and Yakob, a young intern who comes to help from the University of Istanbul – also known as Big Foot. When I am not being a carpenter and gardener, I am sifting through publications relevant to Josephine’s collection and footnoting in preparation for a book to be published next year.

I have learnt so much about kilims and am becoming familiar with all the regions of Anatolia she collected from – it is so satisfying and I am fascinated.  Yakob leaves next Monday which has put Josephine’s knickers in a twist as she can’t stand him, but can’t use the scanner without him. He is going to take me through all of those things so that I will be able to fill in during his absence. 

We have also got quite a project in typing Josephine’s field notes – she is going to do them with me at some stage which will be so interesting and I can’t wait to start. 

Josephine is a nightmare and dream combined and I just love her. We went and hid in the attic yesterday with the portable phone and went through so many old boxes.  She had been to see the physio that morning and could hardly walk, so on the way down she passed wind and yelled that the doctor had killed her. Then the phone rang, then her cigarette went out, then I nearly put my foot through the water tank and then we went for tea after she had thrown the contents of the attic at Yakob’s head and told him to be rid of it. 

He is a bit hopeless, and spends all day looking at himself in the bathroom mirror. Yesterday, she found a pair of sandals in my bathroom and yelled ‘Big Foot come and get these, you’re the only person who could possibly wear them with your big feet,’ he staggered in saying ‘thank you Miss Powell’. I think he would have thrown them into a bin on the way home. 

We had a really great day in my apartment on Sunday which is also the gallery/studio for all the kilims and artefacts and anything that doesn’t fit upstairs in her house.  I was laughing at her, telling her that I wanted to stick all the promotional posters up around the room from her previous exhibitions – dancing around the room and sticking them up knowing how much she hates it.  ‘Shut up, stop it’ she kept saying with her head in her hands laughing.  

I was feeling somewhat weak and exhausted this afternoon after clearing her garden of all the trees – I really needed some chocolate.  Just as I was heading out the door to the shop I heard, ‘Australia – stop’ and she came at me with a box of chocolates that was a meter long and bigger than her whole body.  We sat on the steps mumbling and making ourselves completely ill.  

I went for dinner with Fi, Andy and Sandy de Crespigny on Monday night which was so great. They were in town on their way to the south of Turkey and then on to Croatia and Prague. I just loved catching up with them again.  On Saturday I went to Aya Sofia, the beautiful mosque that we can see from Josephine’s balcony.  It’s incredible, and I had given you a long description in the email that left me but I loved it, and stayed until dusk before walking home over the Gulata bridge past the fishermen, then through Taxim square and down the cobblestone streets to Josh’s house (the boy who chops down the garden can’t say Josephine hence calls her Josh which I find so very funny). 

Anyway, I am so sorry that this email is rushed and rather disappointing to say the least. Probably riddled with spelling errors and bad grammar but I had gone to such trouble with the last one and am very angry with the computer.  It is almost midnight and I think I might go and get a Turkish Delight and curl up in bed.  I will write a proper account soon – Josh is off to the physio again in the morning so I might get a minute to write a longer email.

Lots of love to you all,

Pin xx

There are thousands more emails like these, and I have spent the better part of the past couple of days laughing at the way I wrote to my parents at a time where I had no other way of reaching them, save for an expensive reverse charge phone call, a letter or an email.  My travels to India and Turkey marked a time where I began to use writing as a comfort – it was a way to escape the chill of the Himalayan air, and everything was a new experience and one that I couldn’t wait to document.  In India, I explored both language and culture in a way that I hadn’t before.  I was 22 when I first visited India, and 24 when I ended up working with Josephine in Istanbul, then aged 85.  With Josephine I wrote madly, inspired by her travels and it was also a way in which I could go out, sit in a cafe and have a moments peace.

I documented every minute of those early travels in long emails to Dad who would correct my spelling and grammar before distributing my letters to friends, family, neighbours, golfing friends and anyone who expressed even the remotest interest.

He would have had a field day on my last post titled ‘The Fast and the Feast,’ (sorry subscribers, you got the unedited version) where I remarked that we must cease the day, when really I wanted to use the word ‘seize.’  I wasn’t trying to say that we should stop this day, rather, that we mustn’t put too much emphasis on tomorrow.  As soon as I’d pressed ‘publish’ I realised my error.  I’ve always had a problem with words – I’m constantly having ‘revolutions’ and rarely ‘revelations’ and I dream of one day sailing across the Specific Ocean.

Josephine urged me to visit Morocco, explaining that it would fill me with the same dreamy and exotic satisfaction that I’d so enjoyed in my travels through India and Turkey.  Thirteen years after I lived with her in Istanbul, her urge became a reality.  I came here and I stayed.  For now. 

Last week in my blog I wrote about a beautiful email that I’d received from a friend I met at Monday book club in Paris, before I left for Tangier.  She wrote about the cast of characters that she’d observed I’d collected in Tangier, which she has come to know through my writing as well as the way she sees my life through photos on Instagram.  This email prompted me to think about the immediacy of today and the way in which we can feign happiness, and rarely project sadness, through a world driven by social media.

I replied to her original email, hoping that she wouldn’t mind if I used her words as an opening for my blog, which I did.  Her response was so fitting for the theme of this piece:

August, 2019

Of course, I have no problem with your use of the email.  I wrote it on impulse as I am reading Byron’s letters. It strikes me that the art of letter writing is endangered. Much of what we know regarding Churchill, Byron, Gertrude Bell is due to the letters they wrote. 

In any case, I have started writing letters. I find letters much more thoughtful and enjoyable. I have begun a long exchange of letters with a friend in California. We hadn’t communicated in forty years. One day, I found a letter written to me in late 1970. In any case, he has led an fascinating life and his intellectual depth is something I relish. That said, we write letters and emails, exchanges of ideas. No phone, no text, no social media. There is no desire to meet. This is a unique experience and thoroughly enjoyable. It has prompted me to focus more on letter writing…

Whilst my life is perhaps more Bridget Jones than Gertrude Bell, I will always be inspired by those who’ve written about their explorations and experiences well before me, and I would be lost without their documentations and letters.  As my friend wrote, the art of letter writing is endangered and most of what we know from a (in my opinion) much more exciting pre instagram past, is purely through the written word.

A dear friend of my family, and someone who has been something of a fairy godmother and mentor to me throughout my life, Jennifer, arrived in Tangier last week.  I’d just begun writing this piece, and out of her suitcase she presented a yellow envelope full of letters that my ‘actual’ much loved godmother had given her to pass on to me.  I’d written all of the letters as a child, with the following being my favourite:

1990

Dear Sally,

Thank you very much for the bag with the tap running. I really love it.  

Another thank you for the writing paper, it is very nice of you.  I got this paper for my birthday and I love it just as much as I love yours.  I have been riding my horse a lot and hope to do a bit of riding with some friends.  I played gold off Saturday and got 100 which is pretty good for a learner.  

Heaps of love from Pin xx

I remember so clearly how terrified I was of riding when I was a child.  I was constantly being thrown off a little brute from one side of a paddock to another, and furious that my three sisters were all naturals in the saddle, just like Mum.  I’d pull on the reins and say horrific things to the horse when no one was listening.

As for golf, I seriously loathed Saturday lessons with a woman called Mrs Morrison at a little country golf course not far from home, and the only reason I went to the lessons was because Mum made me and there was always a chocolate biscuit at the end.  I’d drag the golf club around 9 holes, with the score that I was so proud of, 100, rather telling I’d say.  

But through my letters I presented a cheery happy little person who so loved riding her pony and was thrilled to be averaging 11 shots per hole at golf.  The ‘bag with the tap running’ has left me guessing, as has the fact that I didn’t write to thank my godmother on the paper I so convincingly told her that I adored.

These days, we can filter everything and present our lives in a way that we believe people wish to see it, and rarely share our struggles and failures.  But through letters (apart from those written by me as an 11 year old child, probably with Mum over my shoulder saying ‘be newsy and positive’) more importantly than ever, we need to document a time and a place in our lives that will inevitably shape and inspire future generations.

Today at lunch I spoke to my host about our shared appreciation of  letters and diaries.  I could immerse myself in them for hours.  We all could.  Just as you so generously do with this blog, and for that I am very grateful.  A documentation of musings and moods and maybe just a little bit filtered.  

From Clemmie Churchill’s written concerns to her husband, to Josephine Powells incredible field notes, to a little girl in Australia writing to thank her godmother, and all of our travel diaries and daily documentation’s.  It’s so important to write it all down – not in a short, online burst –  but in the present moment as it actually is.

Otherwise, we are all but passive in a life so precious.

From Tangier, with love. 

Pictured:  Jenny and Jono at Lunch, Tangier 2019.

The Fast and the Feast.

The Fast and the Feast.

Just as I sat down to put the finishing touches on this piece of writing, a lovely friend who I met one morning at book club in Paris sent me this email:

‘It has been approximately a year and a half since I met you in Paris.  I have been following your adventure in Tangier.  I am completely envious of you for the cast of characters in your life. Your blog posts have been far too rare, but hopefully that means you are working on a book or some other form of publication. You glow in the photos and I can only take that to mean you are happy and your life is full. 

Your trip to Egypt was a true adventure…certainly not the pyramid hopping, photo snapping tourist outing. In our world, we need more Gertrude and less Kim. I’m completely immersed in Italy. I think about moving there every other day. Then I think about packing my books, my house, my dogs, and instead plan my next trip and crawl into a book of some Italian adventure/nature. I’m working my way through the letters of Lord Byron during his time in Italy, and the life of Iris Origo. When not obsessed with Italy, I’m obsessed at the opposite end of the spectrum with the confluence of philosophy and science (physics, neurobiology, chemistry, artificial intelligence A.I) as science/technology grapple with what is the brain/mind (the mechanics vs the spiritual) consciousness/the unconscious in the race forward to developing A.I. These of course, somehow all go back to the age old questions of Aristotle. Humanity is at an interesting turning point. I suppose this is very remote from your world, but in many ways your world is not just an exotic, social beauty, but a place of thinkers. At least, I imagine it so. 

I write this mostly to say, I hope your life is as blissful as it appears. I remember when you embarked you were unclear on what it would hold. Sometimes life knows what we need better than we know…’

I sighed and almost cried when I read this.  How serendipitous, because each subject covered in the email is something that has been playing on my mind for some weeks now.  I particularly loved the part about ‘more Gertrude and less Kim.’  I sleep with Queen of the Desert beside my bed and thankfully I haven’t seen a trace of a Kardashian for an eon.

I have been absent from this blog.  My mind has been somewhat blocked and for the first time in my entire life, I have quite literally been lost for words.  It’s a maddening thing to go through, because in my head I am writing thoughts and film scripts fast and frequently, but the action of putting those words onto paper or at least the computer screen, has been somewhat impossible. 

Dusk, Monday May the 6th, signalled the beginning of Ramadan in Morocco after much discussion about on which day it would fall.  Taxi drivers were betting on Tuesday the 7th, friends had heard from trusty employees that it would definitely be Monday the 6th, and Twinkle Toes was sure it would be Wednesday the 8th.

‘Listen to me,’ he said, in that way that only he can.

As my taxi drove into Tangier at dusk on Monday the 6th, following a peaceful sunset walk along the Atlantic, the long awaited perfect crescent moon rose above the big mosque at the top of the boulevard.  ‘Ramadan Mubarak,’ I said to the taxi driver, squeezing his shoulder and adding a tip to the fare as I climbed out and headed towards Casa Pépé, the European grocer.

I had a pantry to fill and a fridge to stock.

The month of Ramadan taught me so much and I went in shoulders back, ears ready and loaded with questions.

Each morning for thirty days just before 3am, people would down tools taking their last sips of water and bites of food before sleeping.  They fasted from this time until sundown – usually around 7.30pm, when the imams across Tangier would call the town to evening prayer which signalled iftar, literally meaning ‘breakfast’ which in darija, the Moroccan dialect, is known as l’ftour.  I loved that time of day as the town, for the duration of the day silent and almost eery, would light up; cafes and restaurants opened and the tinkering of cutlery and sounds of chatter could be heard across my neighbourhood as families celebrated the daily l’ftour.

I was worried about the poor and the homeless.  What would they do each night for thirty days with no family and friends to celebrate l’ftour with?  With the month being not just about sacrifice and fast but also charity, that question was soon answered.  Cafes and restaurants across the country served free harira (soup) and tea to those in need, every night for the duration of the holy month.

With cafes and restaurants closed during the day, I found myself talking less, smoking less, eating less and drinking less.  The simple pleasure of having morning coffee with friends was but a distant dream and the confines of my kitchen walls became my reality.  Indirectly, I was doing my own version of Ramadan as I made little sacrifices here and there.  Sure, I could make coffee on the stove, I could pour water from the tap, but it wasn’t the same.  To eat on the run would only be disrespectful and it was somewhat forbidden.  I began a daily lunch routine (at home) of wrapping tuna and fresh salad into flat bread, and some nights I would invite friends to cook traditional dishes in my kitchen, enabling us to enjoy l’ftour together.

One night a very dear Moroccan friend, who is exactly the same age as me, prepared a whole baked fish peppered with the simplest of flavours, alongside fresh soup and a glorious salad.  ‘Where did you learn to do that?’ I queried.

‘Mum,’ he smiled, ‘I miss her every day and I am reminded of her through cooking what she always cooked.’

We would talk for hours, late into the night, about his childhood in Tangier.  Sometimes we’d laugh until we cried, and cry until we laughed.  I learnt during this time that our childhoods were so similar, even though we were raised worlds apart and in two very different cultures.

Tangier of the 1980’s was very different to the Tangier of today.  He remembers playing marbles on the streets until dusk, and doing homework under the guidance of his father.  Trips to the beach and new desert boots were highlights in the memory reel (oh, mine too!).  His parents had exactly the same values as mine, and sadly, as the youngest of seven children, he lost them both on the eve of turning twenty one.

One night he told me about the day he forgot to practice his Koranic verses aged about 12 years old, and the tears he shed on the Monday morning at school when he knew he’d be subject to the cane (long obliterated by law in Moroccan schools, for those wondering).

His new desert boots were navy blue and his pride and joy.  His mother had bought them that weekend, hence him forgetting to learn the verses.  On the Monday he went to school and saw the fury in his teachers eyes when he admitted to his failures.  ‘I remember clearly my shoes turning from blue to black as the tears streamed down my face, dropping like a dripping tap onto the suede’.

From time to time he would switch from flawless French to darija and then impeccable Spanish, during telephone calls as he prepared l’ftour.

‘I understand why you are fluent in both French and Arabic, but your Spanish is also very good,’ I commented one night.  ‘Soap operas,’ he replied, ‘in the 1980’s, Tangier got Spanish television.’

I laughingly told him that the reason I’m all but linguistically challenged to almost criminal levels, is probably because we had channel 9 Ballarat and the ABC, as pickings in 1980’s Australia.

‘What’s Ballarat?’ he winced.  Pulling out the broom stick, I pointed to the little regional city on the map of Australia which hangs in my Tangier kitchen, ‘there,’ I said ‘ that’s Ballarat.’

One night following l’ftour, we went out walking to take in life on the streets and observe what the night was all about.  A shoe shiner who lives in a doorway not far from home, was sitting up on his step with a tin of Kiwi boot polish and his brushes neatly stacked at his side.  He eagerly slurped on his bowl of harira given to him by a café owner, before sipping on tea served as only the Moroccans can, from high above out of the most elegant silver pot and into a glass.  These types of visions became the norm giving me a much better understanding of Islam – not necessarily as a religion but moreover as an entire way of being.  The acts of charity and kindness were profound.

Each day, the morning call of Allah Akbar woke me early, followed by a second call not long after.  Two Saturdays into the month I found myself in the studio of Cap Radio Maroc, the equivalent of a commercial radio station in Australia.  

The host of the morning program had heard about me living in Tangier and was interested in my observations of Ramadan as a foreigner.  We chatted madly about life here and all that I had learnt durning the month.  I suppose this is where the block with my writing began.

In hindsight I had been taking in so much, I was learning and appreciating a better understanding of Islam and the way in which it defines people and this culture.  In my corporate life in Australia we would often enjoyed iftar with our colleagues during ramadan, we’d have cultural days to recognise different religions; we had movements, hashtags, facebook groups, mountains of conversations about equality and the importance of kindness and wellbeing – but right here, in that moment, I was living in something that, thankfully, was sans hashtag.

So, I made the unconscious decision to keep living in it.  To keep those midnight conversations alive with my dear friend and his mothers posthumous cooking; to revisit the radio station where my voice, through my questions and observations, could reach taxi drivers, the imams, the children, the families, the shopkeepers and all in sundry who were listening.  And I stopped publishing, because I was obtaining what had previously been unobtainable in my life as I knew it before my life in Tangier.  And they called the radio station and through translation we spoke, and we all said a collective ‘shoukran bzaf,’ darija for ‘thank you so much.’

At the end of my final visit to Cap Radio, my host laughed into his coffee when I told him that I’d been keeping a tally on my whiteboard in the kitchen of how many petit taxis had sideswiped flowerpots along roadsides during Ramadan. At that stage, it was about forty two.  The race home for l’ftour at the end of a long day of fasting was not just very real, but also rather expensive for some.

Trips to the flea market were exhausting on hot afternoons.  One day, I decided that I’d complete the task of making curtains for the kitchen and my bedroom – summer was after all, well on its way.  Traipsing around the labyrinth in the middle of the market looking for fabric was fun- a length of white here, a smattering of pink there.  The stitcher took my measurements (scribbled on a jot of paper) out of my hand and promised to have them finished in just under an hour.  He was a dear man, very religious and dressed in a Moroccan djellaba, his lips dry from fasting and his smile so sweet.  We had no language, and the temptation to pull out a bottle of water and take a swig, was very real in the moment when I arrived back to collect the curtains, only to discover that they were longer than the length of my apartment.  

Returning home that night, I waited for the sound of Allah Akbar, and there it was!  I’d done a full day of fasting.  I hadn’t necessarily planned to, but it just happened due to being out all day where, to eat or drink would have been totally unacceptable and selfish.  The taste of freshly squeezed juice as dusk set in was indescribable, and in that moment, my admiration for my neighbours grew even more than I thought possible.

L’Eid, the day signalling the end of the holy month, fell on Tuesday June the 4th.  ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ (Happy Ramadan) became ‘Eid Mubarak,’ (Happy Eid) and fistfuls of spare dirhams were handed to street guardians, shop owners and Twinkle Toes.  During the month I learnt that the average taxi driver needs to earn 250 dirhams a day, about 25 euros, in order to make his rented licence worthwhile.  So in this time, I began to double what was on the meter and made some very dear friends.  One older man almost drove me into a wall when I paid him thirty dirhams (about 3 euros) on a ten dirham fare, before thanking him in Arabic. 

Following Ramadan I left Tangier for London where I caught up with two of my oldest friends, lifelong friends from school.  We laughed about my life and all that it has become.  ‘But you feel safe there, Pin,’ they begged between drinks, to which I responded ‘I can honestly say, I’ve never felt safer, nor have I ever felt more enlightened.’

And then began the feast to follow the fast.  I had turned 40 in April, and from London I travelled to Paris to meet a very special person.  

Edwina is the eldest of my two younger sisters.  Essentially, we are (almost) Irish twins.  I was born in 1979 and she, late in 1980.  As children, we were close and always in each others pockets.  Edwina is incredibly funny, brutally honest and extremely kind.  When I sent a little note to most of Australia and the rest of the world over a year ago, advising that I’d be holding a lunch in Tangier on July the 4th, 2019 in celebration of life and a new decade, she quite simply phoned and said ‘yes, I’m coming.’

Never mind her not yet two year old child, he is just like her.  Formidable, adaptable, funny and unaffected.  Our parents, known as Gunny and Bimpop to the grandchildren, had a plan laid out with Edwina’s husband Tim, and his family, which allowed her three weeks away from her adored baby, Alby.

Having not seen my family for over a year, I was full of butterflies on the train from London to Paris.  Once in Paris, I approached the hotel from the metro l’Odeon – my local metro prior to leaving my life in Paris for a new one in Tangier.  On arrival at the hotel, the receptionist advised that ‘Madame Edwina’ was taking a nap, so I approached the lift with a casual demeanour.  The door opened, and there she was.  We held each other very tight and I think I did a little hiccup.  As a bonus, another of my dearest friends was in Paris that night and the three of us went for dinner and serious laughter.  The two of them would join me in Tangier the following week, therewith with masses of very good friends who either live here, or were set to fly in to celebrate.

The week that followed was beyond anything I could ever have imagined.  Some of my very favourite people traveled half way across the world to be in Tangier, others couldn’t – there are always jobs, children, ill health and lives in general to consider back in Australia.  And, Morocco is a long way to come for lunch.

But over four days, I hugged some of my dearest friends very tight with my sister at my side at all times.  I didn’t actually know how important those four days were as they unfolded.  It was a heady whirlwind – drinks in wonderful Anna’s divine garden on Tuesday night, gin and tonics in my flat on Wednesday night, and then lunch for fifty eight with the formidable and brilliant Abdou of ‘Chez Abdou’ on Thursday.  He is legendary in these parts, and not a single square meter of his beachside paradise is safe from the paintbrush – with every little corner decorated in the most terrifically kitsch hues of mauve, yellow and orange.  Since the early 60’s, Abdou has fed everyone from the Rolling Stones to the man who lives next door – I adore him and he made the day even more special than I could have ever imagined.  

As dusk set in I sat with Abdou in his little corner behind the kitchen, glass in hand as the party rolled on outside.  Everyone was happy – new friends, old friends, friends like family- all partied together.  It was the most perfect day.  The Atlantic Ocean crashed in the distance and the faces of all those I love dearly were sun kissed and happy.  No one was about to go home.

We did eventually leave on a big bus and had a good nights rest before drinks with my dear friend Gordon in his beautiful garden the following night.  As the night drew to a close, my heart was heavy but ultimately very full as I waved everyone goodbye, dragging them out of his garden oasis and into waiting cars.  A perfect week had come to an end.  ‘See you soon,’ we shouted through tears of joy and laughter.  Of course we will, I reminded myself in a moment of comfort, as I waved the last car off along the little track and up to the road alongside the Kings Palace.

Frederick Buechner wrote ‘One life on this earth is all that we get, whether it is enough or not enough, and the obvious conclusion would seem to be that at the very least we are fools if we do not live it as fully and bravely and beautifully as we can.’ 

Just a week after that glorious time spent here in Tangier, our dear man and friend to everyone he knew, Stephen Jones, left us in the cruelest of ways in Spain.  He owned those few days in Tangier, holding court for the entire time he was here.  Those who knew him fell over him and those who’d just met him, were enamoured by him.  In life, we all adored his emotional, witty and kind ways.  His jokes were terrible, his heart was gigantic.  I will forever treasure every, single second of the twenty year friendship we had – he was a brother to us all.  Most importantly, he was an incredible husband to our dearest friend Fi – they loved each other so dearly and we all admired their love and friendship – it was a marriage like no other.

This blog and every, single word I will ever write is dedicated to him, to Fi, to their three beautiful children and extended family and masses of friends.

Thank you Jonesy for all that you did for all of us – in life you collected people, connected people and taught us all so much.  

This is for you, in acknowledgment of your good advice, brilliant humour and devoted friendship and for the fact that you lived life both bravely and beautifully.  I know you’d approve of me using those two words.

Brave and beautiful. You truly were.  And in our hearts and minds, you always will be.

The past three months have taught me so much, whilst we can’t prepare for what tomorrow will hold, we must make the most of this day.

Pictured:  the most beautiful day.

 

Not Sadly.

Not Sadly.

“…as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.  For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.” 

Howard Carter, Egyptologist, on first opening the tomb of Tutankhamun.

While I can’t claim to be anything but a hopeless traveler who spends days staring at the sky and daydreaming, before tripping over my own feet at the sight of people going about their daily business – those words uttered by Howard Carter upon finding that tomb, resonated with me a lot during my recent trip to Egypt with my fabulous travel companion, Jonathan Dawson.  

One afternoon on the banks of the Nile in Upper Egypt, Jono and I met ‘not sadly Mohamed,’ with eyes piercing blue and a smile broader than the Nile.  Dressed in swimming trunks and cotton gandoras, we left the town of Luxor behind us and he sailed south towards a cutting where the water flowed freely and it was safe to swim.  I’d heard all sorts of stories about Bilharzia – a rather hideous sounding disease caused by parasitic flatworms – and with this in mind, I carefully monitored the deep blue water below flowing freely, before it parted and lapped against the edge of our boat.  Mohamed chatted about his life and smiled as I hummed the Bangles hit ‘Walk Like and Egyptian,’ while taking endless photos of the palm trees lining the banks.  

‘I want you to be not sadly,’ he remarked as we leapt off the edge of his boat and into the deep, cool waters below.

In that moment, I was anything but sad, I was completely ‘not sadly,’ which I think loosely interprets to ‘incredibly happy.’  As we sailed home that night into a brilliant sunset with the engine cut and the boat driven by the strong current of the Nile, I relished in the sight of children playing on the waters edge; bugs buzzed, birds swooped and a warm evening breeze brushed against my cheeks.  We sailed past the beautiful Winter Palace on the East Bank, before docking on the West Bank where we made the short meander to Mohamed’s favourite coffee shop.  On cue, an entourage of camels lumbered past ridden by Egyptian boys swaying in their saddles smiling down at ancient revellers smoking shisha pipes on the streets below.

Following our coffee, we made the journey home to the Marsam in a tuk tuk driven by a boy named Ali, who looked more like Johnny Depp in the film ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ than Johnny Depp himself.  Rattling along, I smiled broadly with tears in my eyes as we neared the foothills of the Valley of the Kings, just as the Colossi of Memnon fell into view and in the same moment the tuk tuk’s curtain wrapped itself around my face, blinding me momentarily.

Mohamed (Peugeot Mohamed) lives in the tiny village of Qurna where the Marsam Hotel is situated.  From my bedroom window I enjoyed spectacular views of Old Qurna a now empty village, following a decision formed by the Department of Egyptian Antiquities to move its residents to a new site over a decade ago, to protect the tombs on top of which mud brick houses were built.  Mohamed drives a beaten up Peugeot taxi, has a fabulous gap between his teeth and each sentence began with ‘really.’ 

‘Really, he is my best friend.’

‘Really, it was such a very smart decision.’

One morning ‘Mohamed with the Peugeot’ came to meet me after breakfast and we enjoyed a day of whizzing around the Valley of the Kings.  Waking early, I raced out to the wheat field in my nighty and found a magnificent group of hot air balloons drifting silently overhead.  Mesmerised by the sheer beauty of it all; the utter peace, the camels, the house donkey braying and the sound of a motorbike in the distance, I almost missed my ride with Mohamed who I found sitting patiently in his Peugeot tapping through his phone with a smile on his face.

‘Sorry Mohamed,’ I apologised, gasping as I tripped into the passenger seat with my straw hat almost flying back to Cairo as he took off at speed.  Cruising along the deserted road and into the valley, we smoked Cleopatras with a warm breeze drifting in the window and he spoke of what has been his playground since birth.  There has been triumph, terror, sadness and a great deal of happiness for the people who live in those foothills, over thousands of years and in the short 30 years that have formed Mohamed’s life thus far. 

‘We lit small fires along the road during the recent revolution and would run sentries through the night,’ he explained when I asked how on earth it was that everything was still intact and absolutely restored, particularly following my meeting with King Tut, his legs outstretched and face still recognisable as a face, over 3000 years after his death.   

‘Really, as Egyptians, it was natural to protect our country and our history during this time of the revolution,’ he shrugged, lighting another Cleopatra as he rounded the corner towards the tomb of Hatshepsut, which I love is prounounced ‘Hot Shit Soup.’

Hatshepsut came to the throne of Egypt in 1478 BC and died in 1458 BC at the age of 50. Her rise to power was noteworthy, as it required her to utilise her education, an understanding of religion and impeccable bloodline, due to her being the daughter, sister, and later, wife of a King.  Her understanding of religion allowed her to establish herself as the God’s Wife of Amen, and as I left her beautiful tomb, still in impeccable condition and with sweeping views across Thebes, I smiled to myself as a guide standing nearby explained to his group of Americans, ‘she was a woman can you believe, in the Valley of the Kings,’ a statement which was met with ‘ooohs and aahhs.’  

You bet I can believe it, I thought to myself as I made my way back to Mohamed, who was thrilled to learn that I’d so enjoyed meeting Hot Shit Soup.

Following a pit stop at a café for delicious coffee blended with cardamom, we moved north to Old Qurna where I viewed exquisite Theban tombs as painterly and beautiful as they would have been they day they were built.  Ducking through minuscule doorways and into the tombs, I was accompanied by a man wearing a turban almost as magnificent as his face with a hand outstretched, ‘You can take the pictures, just little bit of fakkah (small change),’ he winked.  For a fistful of Egyptian pounds and sans photography ticket, (no one was about to catch me bar the man in the turban) I snuck around like a Bond agent, snapping pictures as he giggled on with glee.  Ancient grapes, angled faces, and bare bosoms were painted with the rawest and brightest of slips, whose brilliance thousands of years later left me completely thrilled that I’d parted with some change to capture their sheer, untouched beauty.

Next stop was Deir el-Medina, an ancient Egyptian village which was home to the artisans who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings during the 18th to 20th dynasties of the New Kingdom of Egypt (c.1550–1080 BC).  The settlement’s ancient name was Set maat ‘The Place of Truth,’ and the workmen who lived there were called ‘Servants in the Place of Truth.’  During the Christian era, the temple of Hathor was converted into a church from which the Egyptian Arabic name ‘Deir el-Medina’ (the monastery of the town) is derived.

At the time when the world’s press was concentrating on Howard Carter’s discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, a team led by french Egyptologist Bernard Bruyère began to excavate the site of Deir el- Medina. 

This work has resulted in one of the most thoroughly documented accounts of community life in the ancient world spanning almost four hundred years. There is no comparable site in which the organisation, social interactions, working and living conditions of a community can be studied in such detail.  I meandered through a small natural amphitheatre and the original village, overwhelmed by it all and delighting in the fact that perhaps it may have been built separate from the wider population in order to preserve secrecy in view of the sensitive nature of the work carried out in the tombs.

Mohamed confirmed this for me over a glass of Stella, the local Egyptian brew, later that night ‘you’re a good student,’ he remarked laughingly.

I’m not, I assured him, apologetic for being a hopeless student, before going on to explain that for me it is the surrounds, the beauty and the absolute surety that all of this is true and documented and still open for exploration, all while people go about their daily lives. That, is where the magic lies.  Just being there had me more at ease with the world and inspired beyond my control – I was mesmerised with absolutely everything and completely cleansed following my dip in the Nile the day before.

As we sipped a second glass of Stella, we discussed Lord Carnarvon of Highclere Castle – amateur Egyptologist and Egypt enthusiast who, earlier in the 20th century, recieved the concession to dig in the Valley of the Kings.  Carnarvon funded the work of Howard Carter and lived mainly in the beautiful Winter Palace on the East Bank of the Nile.  Works were interrupted during the First World War, but resumed in late 1917.  By 1922 little of significance had been found and Lord Carnarvon decided this would be the final year he would fund the work.  

However, in November 1922, Carter was able to send a telegram to Carnarvon in England, saying:

‘At last we have made wonderful discovery in the Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; re-covered same for your arrival; congratulations.’  That discovery was Tutankhamun, arguably the most important discovery made in living history. 

The following day, Jono and I visited the house of Howard Carter –  a short trip from our hotel on the local bus.  Young girls completed their maths homework on their knees as older men chatted about the day ahead.  We sat upright in rigid, threadbare seats, looking only the slightest bit different to the rest of our compatriots and I giggled to myself when I saw a little tube of shoe polish rolling around on the floor of the bus.  It could only have fallen out of one pocket on that bus.

In Carter’s house we observed an almost untouched layout, as if he’d just left for work and would return home that night.

‘Take a picture at the desk of Howard Carter,’ a fat man named Mustapha ordered.  ‘This is where Susie, Lord Carnarvon’s dog slept,’ he said hands waving, before flinging open a small door to a cupboard looking suspiciously more like a small store for camera equipment, than a dog kennel.  ‘Thirsty?’ he queried, as I licked my lips with excitement upon discovering a dreamy, pared back kitchen, ‘take a drink of water from the tap of Howard Carter!’  

We were in luck that Mustapha, in his synthetic black gallibaya was on hand that day, because had he not been, we probably wouldn’t have had the place all to ourselves, and I wouldn’t have the pictures in my mind of floating white curtains blowing in a warm breeze throughout a house that was once home to the two men responsible for finding and preserving such an important piece of history that we can all enjoy into perpetuity.

‘You know Lord Carnarvon died here in Egypt, in Cairo?’ Mustapha gasped, jiggling along behind us as we waved him goodbye, thanking him profusely for his hospitality- especially that cool glass of water.

‘A mosquito bite became infected by a razor’ he added.

‘When the news arrived at Highclere by telegram, the dog, Susie, dropped dead, just like that,’ he finished before waving us goodbye.

Just like that.  And with that, along came the community bus, almost running us off the road before delivering us back to the Marsam for lunch.

Farewelling the beautiful faces at the Marsam Hotel, all who looked after me like one of their own for the duration of my stay, was a moment full of mixed feelings and marriage proposals.  Most of the boys, with their chests puffed up in their beautiful galabayas, were also named Mohamed, with the boy who cleaned my room each day no exception. On the morning I left, I entered one last time to check under the bed for a pair of knickers or an entire bag of shopping, only to find the word ‘BYE’ spelt out in towels on my bed.

Making my way to Mohamed’s Peugeot parked out the front, a heavy heart accompanied an even heavier bag and I found myself tangled in fresh white sheets hanging from the clothesline, laughing, as I raced away from another proposal of marriage, this time from the man who ran the laundry.  All in good spirit and not for lack of trying.  

As I boarded the plane to Cairo, I felt wistful following a week of Upper Egyptian magic.  The man who greeted me as I stepped onto the plane assured me with utmost confidence, that he was going to fly us safely back to Cairo.  So, when I saw him pushing the drinks trolley ten minutes later, I felt only momentarily perplexed.

Flying across ancient valleys that would have once been home to riverbeds and ancient civilisations, my mind whirred and I took note upon note.  There was just too much to take in, even from the sky.  

As we flew over perfect green circles of desert irrigation, I found myself casting my mind back to the afternoon where Jono took me up to Old Qurna.  ‘Don’t make eye contact with anyone,’ he’d advised, as we made our way up the hill to visit a woman probably not much older than me but who looked incredibly old.  

She is the only person living there following the evacuation, along with her son and daughter who carry water up from the road and herd her flock of sheep in at dusk.  Entering their mud brick house, which in itself is a tomb not ancient but nevertheless incredibly old, I was overcome with the stench of ammonia and stifling heat, particularly  as I ventured further towards the back of their underground home.  A cockroach crossed my path when I found myself in the lavatory, a simple hole in the ground where the dishes are probably also washed.  

Once outside again, the views across the valley of Thebes were magnificent, as was the fresh evening air which filled my lungs.  I think I recall the only sound in that moment being a donkey braying from a makeshift stable, and a motorbike rattling along in the distance.  Maybe her son returning for the night?

As we touched down in Cairo I gasped as the Giza pyramids appeared below and Jan Mulder, accompanied by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, played ‘Ocean of Dreams’ through the speakers overhead, only momentarily interrupted by Quranic verses as we touched down; and there we were, just like that, back in dusty, chaotic, glorious Cairo.

Each morning in Cairo, Jono and I would set off for coffee via a tiny laundry where we’d drop the washing and ironing – in Arabic,  ‘rasill we mackwa.’

Coffee was enjoyed at a street café with rackety old chairs littering the street.  ‘I rented a flat up there on the third floor,’ he explained one day as I sipped on my second cup of the most delicious coffee I ever did drink.  ‘See that woman, she lives without electricity and teeth,’ he added, as I observed an old woman with a undershot jaw puffing on a cigarette on the fourth floor, before dropping it onto the street below, almost setting a man on fire.

‘The man who owns this café calls me Jack,’ he said pan faced, ‘whenever I arrive, he says siddown Jack,’ he added, which resulted in me spitting out my final sips, laughing at  the way in which T’s become D’s when native Arabic tongues turn to English, in a similar vein to Twinkle Toes often saying to me, ‘waddashame’ when things go wrong.  And furthermore, the fact that ‘Jono’ had suddenly become ‘Jack.’

And from that moment, our favourite café – the place where we nattered the mornings away as he wore his ‘Tower of Trivia’ hat, giving me more to think about – became fondly known as ‘Siddown Jack’.

One afternoon as our days in Cairo became numbered, I wandered around the island suburb of Zelmalak before sitting down for a coffee.  Swifts flew overhead and the Nile flowed across the way.  I wrote about Palm Sunday Mass in the Catholic Church in Luxor, where we enjoyed a full sermon in Arabic and Jono read a psalm in English.  It was my second mass in as many weeks, and I lit four candles in memory of those no longer here and for all who are still here, allocating many names to each candle.  Little children with their hair gelled and dressed in their Sunday best, used olive branches handed out during the parade at the beginning of the service to tickle each others noses.  It was a beautiful service in a language which I fail to understand, but regardless of language, it felt so familiar.

Walking home to the glorious, dusty old Lotus Hotel that evening, I found myself accidentally immersed in the busy Boulaq market where loud hip hop played and the narrow streets were jammed full of people and cars in the shadows of a busy overpass.  Foreign and outnumbered, I felt an enormous smile stretch across my face as the late afternoon sun bounced off windshields, and people gawked at me from little vans stuffed full of families edging their way through foot traffic.  The noise was chaos personified and again, my eyes brimmed with tears of happiness.

‘What did you see today?’ quizzed the boys in the café when I met Jono an hour later for a freshly squeezed lemon juice.

‘Nothing I was supposed to see, but everything I needed to see,’ I smiled, again, feeling every bit the hopeless tourist, but delighting in the hip hop and tooting from the Boulaq market still ringing in my ears.

A night of live Nubian music followed in a bar across town, where young Egyptians danced the night away and I observed an enormous sense of togetherness and solidarity.  

Following three weeks of dipping into the Nile, diving down tombs, interacting with smiling faces – ever helpful and incredibly friendly; scooting around the Egyptian Museum in Cairo where a kitten barely left my side as he danced around ancient antiquities, and feeling overwhelmed with knowledge and stories – both ancient and contemporary whilst I watched the world go by in all of its Egyptian brilliance and grit – it was in this moment with new friends, happy and laughing in their domain, that I recognised a renewed sense of self and furthermore, contentment.

A divine Egyptian who had introduced me to the feast of Nubian music the previous night, met us for coffee at ‘Siddown Jack’ on our final day.  Jumping into a taxi, we ventured to the Mohamed Ali mosque in old Cairo, where we sat on the floor with our backs to the wall, shoes ‘soles up’ and by our side, and I quizzed him about his life in Cairo, particularly during the 2011 revolution.  

‘I served thousands of sandwiches, day after day,’ he told me, before adding ‘I never left the side of my uncle who was adamant that things needed to change.’  At the time of the revolution he was just 22, and all that he has achieved in his short life put many things into perspective for me.

At one point, just as we stood to leave – hungry, culturally fatigued and more than ready for a promised lunch of roast pigeon, a man approached us, asking if I’d pose for a photo with his wife under the the grand dome of the mosque. ‘Of course,’ I smiled in agreement, and with that, his wife wrapped her arms around me, her specs peeking through the small gap in her niqab and she whispered ‘we’re beautiful.’

‘We’re queens,’ I smiled back, as we hugged each other tightly before saying goodbye.

An hour later, snacking on roast pigeon and salad in a small café on a dusty back street in old, Islamic Cairo, the conversation turned to age.

‘I’ll be forty next week,’ I sighed, to which my companion responded ‘I’ll be thirty, the day after you turn forty.’  A celebratory glass of Stella was enjoyed on a roof top overlooking the Nile at dusk, following a final trek around the beautiful, dirty, dusty, ancient city that he calls home.

Egypt did wonders for me.  Each day as I miss it, lust after it and reminisce about it, I thank Jono – ever humorous, generous and entertaining, full of knowledge and arguably the best travel companion, for introducing me to ‘his Egypt.’  I will be forever ‘not sadly’ that we made this trip together and the opportunity to see Egypt through his eyes and all the other eyes we met along the way, was a gift.

Just as Egypt is the gift of the Nile.

From Tangier with love, from the most hopeless tourist that ever did travel.

Pictured: Me at the Citadel, overlooking Cairo.

Reflections.

Reflections.

May your spirit live, may you spend millions of years, you who love Thebes, sitting with your face to the north wind, your eyes beholding happiness.’

– from the ‘Wishing Cup’ of Tutankhamun, inscribed on the headstone of Howard Carter, Archeologist and Egyptologist, 1847- 1939.

‘Run quick, crazy traffic,’ the man warned as he jiggled through six lanes of tooting cars weaving their way around the busy roundabout which frames the famed Tahrir Square.

‘Welcome in Egypt’ he added, his body wobbling and keys jingling, ‘you’re France?’

‘La, Maghreb, Tanja,’ I advised.

With a look of disbelief he kept moving, perplexed by my non Moroccan appearance and ‘whoosh’ we became separated by a large, hooting tour bus and at least four taxis.

This trip to Egypt came about over a cup of coffee in the Cafe de Paris, Tangier, just weeks ago.  My wonderful travel companion, Jonathan Dawson had wanted to return after an absence of three years, and I’d never been.  Within days, flights were booked and I’d started a file on ‘Um el Dunya,’ which in Arabic means – ‘Cairo, the Mother of the World.’

As the flight began its descent into Cairo, I craned my neck and strained my eyes from my aisle seat as I took in the landscape below.  I just knew that Egypt was going to bring a welcome change.  

A change that I didn’t understand the value of before I left Morocco.  

The Lotus Hotel was built in 1950, and is situated in the heart of downtown Cairo on one of the cities main thoroughfares leading off Tahrir Square, the famed Solim Pasha Street – known today as Talaat Harb Street.  According to their website, ‘ the Lotus maintains an authentic art deco ambiance that dates to the founding of the hotel.  Today, as then, the Lotus Hotel remains a family-run institution, providing guests with ultimate hospitality and comfort.’

During my stay, the hotel staff constantly reminded me of recent and extensive renovations, and whilst this is probably true, the badge of honour behind the desk which once boasted two brass stars and now displays just one, might suggest that the Lotus is a ‘former two star hotel.’

I couldn’t have been happier there with two single beds, Art Deco furniture, a bedspread printed with teddy bears and a piping hot shower that drenched the lavatory and soaked the loo roll.  Emad, head of client relations and probably one of the most patient people I’ve ever met, had the shuffling night porter deliver a desk to my room as soon as I arrived with my laptop and plenty of questions.  One night, following a monumental wifi crash, my computer had a sporadic moment of waking up – delivering all sorts of messages through WhatsApp while opening multiple pages on Google, causing all my devices to melt down as soon as they’d reincarnated.

The Lotus is Jono’s preferred hotel in Cairo and it soon became mine as well.  He warned  that it hadn’t changed since inception and ‘heaven only knows’ what to expect on arrival, but after a quick search on the internet I knew that I was going to be more than fine surrounded by Egyptologists, writers and other travellers who also appreciate the magic of the Lotus Hotel.

Miss Ruth Buchan, a Scottish woman from Perthshire and self proclaimed ‘armchair Egyptologist,’ wears a kilt and a sensible sweater each day teamed with tights and a pair of navy blue creeping court shoes.  

Miss Buchan has lived in the Lotus Hotel for 35 years and is showing no signs of ever leaving.  When the BBC pulled out of Egypt following the recent revolution, she put away her wireless because only ‘the Beeb’ could accurately tell her what is going on in the world.  These days, she spends most of her time sitting in reception pining for an era very much past, nattering to guests about topics varying from the British royal family to the privatisation of the Royal Mail service. 

Miss Buchan is rather cross that the Sunday service has been moved to Friday at the church of Saint Andrews, built by the Queen’s Grandfather George and located just fifteen minutes from the hotel.  She forms a very important part of the choir of Saint Andrews, and when I found her waiting in reception one morning wearing a floppy straw hat (Marks and Spencer she told me earnestly), she was poised with two magazines dating back to at least 1998 – ‘a gift’ she explained because she felt that I was someone who enjoyed reading.

Each day, as I devoured plates of tahinah and taboulé at the Cairo institution that is Cafe Riche, I imagined Miss Buchan blinking furiously on the sofa in reception back at the hotel, longing for the time when she hopped off the ship in Melbourne on the eve of the Queens coronation.  ‘We sailed for weeks on end and when we’d pull into ports in these parts, the crew would bring all sorts of things on board, including poofys,’ she once told me.

‘Poofys?’ I raised my eyebrows.

‘Yes, those wonderful leather things you put your feet on.  They were stuffed with god knows what, so we’d empty their insides into the Nile,’ she responded through gritted teeth, before lowering her voice to a whisper as if someone was still following her 70 years later to see if her poofy was stuffed with contraband.  Miss Buchan very much lives in the past and is sceptical about everything, including the future.  

From resistance to the British occupation around the turn of the 20th century, through to the revolution that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Cafe Riche played and continues to play, a central role in Egypt’s political and cultural life.

Located moments from the hotel, Cafe Riche has survived more than a century of twists and turns in Egypt’s political, economic and literary history.

Founded in 1908, the cafe was given its name in 1914 by French owner Henry Recine.  Racine sold it a short time later to Greek businessman and art lover Michael Nicoapolits who added a theatre that would feature prominent artists, including legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.

Today, Cafe Riche is run by the family of its first Egyptian owner fondly remembered as ‘Magdy,’ who purchased the cafe in 1962.

Things have changed around the cafe but inside the clock seems to have stopped. Everything is the same – the paint and photos on the walls, the tables and chairs and the layout of the furniture.  Perhaps it is tired and the tablecloths just the teeniest bit filthy, but for the most part it is heavenly and a most wonderful trip back in time.

Cafe Riche was the favoured meeting point for Egypt’s literary celebrities, such as Youssef Idriss, Naguib Mafouz and Yusuf Sibai and modern history makers, including Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mohamed Naguib.

Leaders of the 1919 revolution against the British occupation had secret meetings in the cafe’s basement and used the printing machine, which is still in place, to print political pamphlets.

The cafe was at the heart of the 2011 uprising against Mubarak’s regime. The young people who staged the uprising would meet in the cafe each day for their free morning coffee and sandwiches, before heading to Tahrir Square where they would join tens of thousands of other anti-Mubarak revolutionaries.  It is said that the revolutionaries also had secret meetings in the basement of the cafe in fear of Mubarak’s policemen.

As I wandered around the streets of Cairo, it was almost impossible to imagine tanks stationed on each corner, before they rumbled along the main thoroughfares as street pavings were torn up and used as ammunition against the police when the army really moved in following the chaos that was the revolution of 2011, and the protests that followed 18 months later marking the one year anniversary of then president elect – Mohamed Morsi.  

Nowadays the city, and the country as a whole, seems to be in a state of revival under ‘new’ President Sisi.  A lot seems to have changed in Egypt, and while there was huge unrest at a time that feels like yesterday, Cairo has returned to its original busy, magnificent, filthy and friendly ways; where open smiles greeted us in every doorway and street corner as we made our way to another street cafe each morning to watch the world go by.  A mesh of religions and a bundle of cultures all exist in this bustling city of over 20 million people and from my very early and raw observations, I began to realise that there is a certain amount of magic in Cairo.

So much has changed, but much remains the same, and I find Egyptian people both proud and kind.  As Socrates wrote:  

‘The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.’ 

It would appear that this is exactly what the majority of Egyptians seem to be doing.

On the subject of change – a year ago almost to the day – I arrived in Tangier for what I expected to be a week or two following the Easter weekend with Jono.  When I boarded the flight from Paris to Marrakech for what was supposed to be a month of warming up in Morocco rather than enduring what had become a long and bitter Parisian winter, I could not for a moment have imagined how much my life was about to change.

Morocco had me at tajine.  I soon decided that I loathed mint tea, and figured that the best way to avoid being hassled was to answer each question flung in my direction.

‘Lady, I know you from the last time – I am your Italian friend, remember me?’ a Moroccan man said to me during my first trip into the souk in Marrakech.

‘Yes of course you do,’ I smiled back ‘how are you, and how are your family?’

He darted off in the other direction because his script didn’t involve an extended dialogue about children in Siena, or a Nonna in Rome.  Another man once shouted at me ‘are you deaf?’ when I kept walking through the Medina in Tangier, ignoring his greetings of a thousand hellos in as many languages.  Turning back, a bit ashamed but smiling, I replied ‘Hello, I wasn’t sure in which language I was supposed to respond.’

My love for tajines soon dwindled and I have since limited them to special occasions – usually a visit to a private house or a celebration.  I relish in Friday cous cous, a religion within the religion, and I still loath mint tea.

Darija, the Moroccan version of Arabic, was something that I was keen to learn a ‘kitchen’ version of when I finally took over my flat at the end of Ramadan last year.  A Moroccan friend spent a good deal of time helping me learn the very basics of a language that is purely phonetic, not written and not recognised in any other Arabic speaking country.  These days, I can hop into a taxi, greet the driver, thank him for pulling over and giggle when he laughs at me when I count my dirhams, ‘khamsa’ I exclaim when we pull over, realising the trip was just five dirhams.  ‘You speak the Arabia?’ they always laugh, to which I reply ‘shweya’ meaning, ‘a bit.’

I cannot speak a bit, I can only say hello, goodbye, thank you, and I can count to ten.  I also know the word for fifty and I can order half a kilo of cherry tomatoes.  Or, half a kilo of anything for that matter.  I’m good at telling people that I live in Tangier, ‘anah tanjawia’ and if I feel a twinkling little set of hands rifling through my basket as I go about my daily chores in the Medina, I’ve got the word for ‘shame.’

In many ways I’ve adapted and changed, and for that, I feel better prepared to build on what I’ve learnt as I plan for tomorrow.  The past year has taught me about navigating the nuances that form part of living in a culture quite different to my own.  I’ve enjoyed embedding myself in a new country and have experienced some inconceivable blows.  Having said that, I wouldn’t change anything because I have learnt a great deal about myself and others.  As someone said to me recently, we don’t necessarily change, we just get to know each other better.  

One of the most important things I have observed about living in a small expatriate community in a foreign land, is to care for each other – with an emphasis on trust and with a willingness to share in the positive and negative experiences that will inevitably come our way.  A short year ago, I knew no one in Tangier, and just twelve months later I have a wonderful family made up of people from a variety of cultures and mindsets.  

Following a lecture at the American Legation in Tangier on the eve of leaving for Egypt, I limped out of the building on my way to a much anticipated appointment with the podiatrist.  The corn that has both plagued my writing and my life for many years now had habitually reared its head – and I had a plane to catch to Cairo the following day.  The corn wasn’t invited.

The subject of the lecture was ‘Jews and Judaism in Moroccan society.’  I listened intently as academics drew parallels through music, history, population and the dwindling numbers of Moroccan Jews living in Morocco today.  The role between Islam and Judaism was discussed with a particular focus on the way in which the two religions had meshed for centuries, both pre and post independence from the French in 1956.  

The final speaker – raised in a household in 1950s Tangier – spoke of Alice, seamstress to her mother and an integral part of the family.  The two women would travel to Paris and observe couture and patterns and source the most beautiful silks, before returning to Tangier where Alice would create pieces ‘fit for a catwalk.’  The speaker remembered fondly the relationship between the two women – Alice Jewish, and her mother Islamic, and both of them as close as sisters.  When Alice delivered a child of her own, she continued to work with this woman’s mother and when ‘Mother’ went out, Alice fed both children.

‘Mother, how did you feel about me being fed from the breast of a Jewish woman?’ the daughter asked years later.

‘She kept you alive, sharing with you precious food meant solely for her own child and that is what was most admirable,’ came the mother’s response.

Limping through the fruit market as I made my way to the podiatrist, I reflected on these words just as a fight broke out between two men who looked set to kill each other – one had blocked a narrow road with an early 1980s standard issue Mercedes Tangier taxi, and the other was trying to weave his way past in a small Honda van typically used for transporting things like little chairs.  

The Honda driver was dressed in a pith helmet and army fatigues and he was really furious.  Just as I thought war was about to break out they found a solution, blew each other a kiss, and held their right hands to their hearts in a moment signalling peace.  Ducking under brooms and mop buckets, cartons of UHT milk and a stack of strawberries, my bad foot – the one with the corn – was almost run over by a small blue ‘petit taxi.’  A man pushing a trolly stacked high with open cartons of eggs stepped back, signalling me through with his right hand in a moment where he almost lost everything.

‘Shoukran bzaf,’ I thanked him – riddled with reflections, as I limped up the hill to the podiatrist.

Whilst it is early days for me in Egypt, the time to purge and reflect has been more valuable than I could have ever imagined.

On the eve of leaving Morocco for a short break in Egypt, I was all but a bit weary and ready for a change.  Never could I have imagined the way in which this country, beginning in Cairo, would wrap her arms around me – so willing to share her magic.  Cairo is after all, the Mother of the World.

Last Sunday, during mass in the Catholic Cathedral in the suburb of Zamalek on the residential island of Gezirah (Cairo), I lit four candles with each one allocated a number of thoughts.

That evening, we sat with a small group of elderly men from Yemen and sipped on a glass of beer while sharing their freshly roasted peanuts spread out over the table on newspaper.  I watched them smiling and laughing with each other, realising that even when faced of adversity at a time where they are all but separated from their country with no actual knowledge of what the future may hold, these men are happy together, regardless of their situation.

‘God bless Yemen,’ I smiled as we shook hands and called it a night.  They blew kisses before handing me a cigarette, ‘a Yemeni gift,’ they laughed.  A good one at that, I concluded.

Each day over morning coffee in Cairo, Jono would shares tales of his life in Egypt.  As a self proclaimed ‘Tower of Trivia,’ he gave me more to think about; just as I felt as though I’d conquered the dates of the Pharaohs, had almost re acquainted myself with the AC’s and BC’s, the Greeks, the Turkish, the Egyptians, the entire Ottoman Empire, not forgetting the Nubians, the Coptic Christians and Islam; and when I believed I’d finally come up for air in my constant state of drowning in history, I came to terms with the fact that, (for instance) Howard Carter actually died before my father was born even though in a historical sense, it is as if he discovered Tutankhamen just yesterday.  Then there was the first revolution in 1919, another in 1952 and then of course the toppling of Mubarak in 2011.  The ‘Tower of Trivia’ would then drop in another piece of information which saw me up late at night on my computer with the tired and maddening wifi at the Lotus whirling around and around, as I madly read about the extensive history that form the bones of modern day Egypt. 

Cairo partied late into the night, with horns tooting from the millions of cars filling the streets, and the cafes and bars seemed to barely close.  But as I closed my eyes at the end of each long day, I heard nothing but complete silence.  I don’t think I have ever slept so well in my life.

One night I found myself up very late after Jono asked if I’d read much about Om Seti, formerly known as Dorothy Eady.  Eady’s story soon became an obsession, luring me further into the magic of this country.

Dorothy Louise Eady was born in London in 1904 into an Irish family.  A quick bit of research tells me that Eady was an only child and raised in a coastal town.  At the age of three after falling down a flight of stairs, she began exhibiting strange behaviours – asking that she be ‘brought home’ and she had also developed foreign accent syndrome.  Her Sunday school teacher requested that her parents keep her away from class, because she had compared Christianity with ‘heathen’ ancient Egyptian religion.  She was expelled from a Dulwich girls school after she refused to sing a hymn that called on God to ‘curse the swart Egyptians,’ and her regular visits to Catholic mass, which she liked because it reminded her of the ‘Old Religion,’ were terminated after an interrogation and visit to a priest by her parents.

After being taken by her parents to visit the British Museum, where she observed a photograph in the ‘New Kingdom Temple’ exhibits room, the young Eady called out ‘There is my home!’ but ‘where are the trees? Where are the gardens?’

The temple was that of Seti I, the father of Rameses the Great.  Eady ran about the halls of the Egyptian rooms ‘amongst her peoples,’ kissing the statues’ feet.  After this trip she took every opportunity to visit the British Museum rooms, and it was there that she eventually met E. A. Wallis Budge, who was taken by her youthful enthusiasm and encouraged her in the study of hieroglyphs.

Eady became better known as the legendary Om Seti, keeper of the Abydos Temple of Seti I and draughtswoman for the Department of Egyptian Antiquities.  She is especially well known for her belief that in a previous life she had been a priestess in ancient Egypt, as well as her considerable historical research at Abydos. Her life and work has been the subject of many articles, television documentaries, and biographies.  A 1979 New York Times article described her life story as ‘one of the Western World’s most intriguing and convincing modern case histories of reincarnation.’

At a time where I am in a constant reflective state as I continue to set up my life in Morocco, I am reminded of how much I have always relished in cultures and civilisations so often meshed together, and just as often in conflict.  I find myself hungry for stories that pre-date everything we understand in the current day, which form an important part of  the patchwork of an overwhelmingly historical and patterned past, as I contemplate a future riddled with unknowns.  

Last night, as we rounded endless corners and took wrong turns on the way to Terminal 3 at the airport in Cairo, I observed a perfect crescent moon shielded in dust as palm trees swayed in the distance and Umm Kulthum’s beautiful ballads drifted out of the radio in the taxi.  Arriving in Luxor just after midnight, and waking up this morning on the West Bank of the Nile in the old Marsam Hotel – formerly known as Chicago House and home to Egyptologists since it was built in 1920, was something of a dream.

The Marsam is situated on a wheat field overlooking the colossi of Memnon, and the Ramesseum is just next door.  The Nile flows just a tuk tuk ride away, and overall, arriving in glorious Upper Egypt is a further reminder that this trip is every bit worthwhile.

From my flat in Tangier to the Lotus Hotel and the streets and cafes of Cairo, to the wheat field on the edge of which I sit typing this – where the call to prayer sounds in the distance and the house camels bed down for the night.  A donkey makes a racket across the way, just as the sun begins to set over a cloud of smoke from a fire burning sugarcane in the distance- everything is very much in perspective.

Here I sit, my spirit alive, in the foothills of the Valley of the Kings, with my face to the north wind and my eyes beholding happiness.

I look forward to what the ‘Tower of Trivia’ has in store for tomorrow.

Pictured:  ‘Mohamed the Mint Monitor’ who delivers a fresh bunch of mint to Cafe Riche each lunchtime.

 

‘No See Gas.’

‘No See Gas.’

There is something to be said for a bit of disguise, whether it be quite simply wearing a splash of make up each day (which I do, every day) or dying ones hair when it starts to become grey (which I never have, and probably never will).

I will add, I am going quite grey. 

Of course, people go to more dramatic extremes – disguise and character development fascinate me, and as Graham Greene wrote;

“I’m not at peace anymore. I just want him like I used to in the old days.  I want to be eating sandwiches with him.  I want to be drinking with him in a bar.  I’m tired and I don’t want anymore pain.  I want Maurice.”

Maurice, one of three central characters in Greene’s post World War Two novel, the End of the Affair, soon realises that his affair with Sarah will end as quickly as it began.  The relationship suffers from his overt and admitted jealousy.  He is frustrated by her refusal to divorce Henry, her amiable but boring husband.  When a bomb blasts Maurice’s flat when he is with Sarah, he is nearly killed.  After this, Sarah breaks off the affair with no apparent explanation.  By the last page of the novel, Maurice may have come to believe in a God as well, though not to love Him.  Greene masked him in an unfathomable disguise – confused by his own reality.

I adore reading Graham Greene, the master of disguise and fascinating characters, and I have only just returned to the land of the living after long nights and early mornings were overtaken by spy dramas, modern and lavishly exaggerated, all of which Greene would probably not approve.  

It all began a couple of months ago when a friend asked if I’d ever watched ‘Homeland,’ to which I promptly answered, ‘nope.’  Curious, I quite literally disappeared without a trace, binging on episode after episode and becoming nothing short of obsessed with Carrie, Saul and Quinn (oh, Rupert Friend, you’re a delight).  When Season Seven came to a crashing end (don’t even start watching Season One if you never have, you’ll have to resign from work) I felt somewhat empty and sad, and missed Carrie’s terrible brown wig that she continued to wear into impossible to survive war zones and all those dark alleys.  Season after season.

Carrie is played by Claire Danes, a natural blond, who looked rather ill in her brown wig when she dodged bullets or tricked terrorists into interrogations masked as happy meetings in cafes.  

Last week I began my binge on ‘Fauda,’ an even more addictive spy series, thankfully, only two seasons long, which has resulted in me emerging a few days ago feeling rather productive. 

Also in Fauda, beards were darkened, wigs were worn, badges from opposing armies were donned on shoulders, and languages not native to the enemy but crucial to the cause, were spoken fluently.

Half way through Season One I learned of the death of my dear, great Aunt Bard, sister to my beloved grandmother Posy; both who are survived by their baby sister, the extraordinary Debo.  

Aunt Bard was stern but fun and had a true appreciation for the ridiculous.  When I was a child, she would encourage my lunatic antics through a made to measure lens, focused mainly on my obsession with dress ups.  Never one to let an opportunity go by to see me morph into character or marvel in my mimics, she and her sisters gave me licence to be whoever I wished to be. 

My main character didn’t have a name, but she wore bouncy blonde curls fashioned from a wig in Posy’s dress up box.  Her shoes – black patent leather spikes- were teamed with a favoured dress, a pleated number probably still hung over from the 1960’s.  Following dinner at Posy’s house by the sea, my grandmother and her sisters would sip on plentiful glasses of wine and reminisce; waving in friends as they took their evening walk along a scarce road, more like a path lined with agapanthus outside her kitchen window, and suddenly Posy’s table would be abundant and full with cackling characters.  The nameless woman would sip apple juice from a wine glass completely in character before thanking the girls and their friends for a fistful of coins which they’d given me to buy ice cream from the shop.

Grabbing the keys to Posy’s very small car, I’d set off through her garden on foot –  having just a minor brush with death alongside wild coprosma (known as shiny leaf in those parts) before making my way down to the street, stumbling only slightly in my grandmothers patent leather spikes.

I was all of ten years old and quite convinced that the shopkeeper, busy flipping hamburgers, would believe that I’d just ‘blown in’ in my tiny car (which was nowhere to be seen) as I swung the keys to Posy’s Holden Barina on my index finger.  Surely, Shirley the shopkeeper had no idea who I was.

My point is, we all love a bit of a thrill and a mild amount of disguise; whether it be a child dressing up as something that she’s not, a novelist developing feelings for his character and mourning him when the final drops of ink dry and the end of the final chapter, or a spy agent on the silver screen whizzing through a tunnel doing that hip thrusting thing they do as they wave a gun in this direction and that.  

We daydream all throughout our lives and become engrossed in novels where characters are written with a real person in mind, disguised completely as someone else.  The mind becomes more fertile with age and wisdom peaks on the very day we die.  As one of my favourite people often says, ‘none of us are getting out of here alive.’

So here I sit in my study in Tangier, the very town where Ian Fleming peeped over newspapers in cafes as he researched his latest novel, and where Matisse hid in his room in the Grand Villa de France, painting his version of the square below with St. Andrews church in the distance.  The town was a Mecca for Beat names like Burroughs, Bowles, Williams, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Gysin and the Rolling Stones.

For decades, it’s been a home for misfits and good fits alike.

When I sip on gin and tonics in beautiful Tangier gardens listening to stories from old Tangier, I sometimes find it hard to believe what I am actually hearing – if the walls and waving palm fronds could talk, they may need to seek witness protection.  Large amounts of salad dressing is, no doubt, lashed into versions of events from a bygone era, but if the truth be really known, Tangier is known to have been a hermitage for people to come and reinvent themselves, fashioning their own disguise.  Characters have been written into novels now famous and revered, and it only takes a walk through the churchyard Matisse painted from his window, admiring headstones dedicated to the famous and the not so, to be reminded of just how full this town is of history and characters lifted straight from a novel.

When I was speaking just last week with a much loved Moroccan friend enduring a silent struggle, I reminded him that in every film and every novel, we find characters with whom we can relate.  I explained that this should be of comfort, because it is a reminder that we are not the first, nor will we be the last, to experience things in life that are both challenging and life changing.  

Characters are invented and developed before they are given the chance to dance across pages of books.  Nothing is original.

Whilst I am not about to start dying my hair or lifting my eyes, nor will I ever fill my cheeks, I will remember fondly my great Aunt Bard, no longer with us but who was the mistress of the ridiculous and terribly fond of disguise.  I’ve spent the week reminiscing about running around in her garden with my wig sliding sideways and my high heels too big and too high threatening a serious ankle injury, while she always looked on with her sisters and their friends, barely flinching, but ever encouraging.

Two days ago, Twinkle Toes entered the flat with a small plastic bag.  ‘What is it?’ I asked, tearing open the package where I found a plastic item printed with  menopausal mauve flowers, which I promptly mistook for a table cloth.

‘You don’t understand,’ he scolded me laughingly, ‘it’s a no see gas.’

‘A what?’ I queried as he made himself busy with the gas bottle by the stove.  ‘In Morocco everyone has one, its a no see gas.’

As if he’d read my mind for the theme of this piece of writing, he’d gone out and purchased a custom made cover for the gas bottle, so that in future it will be ‘no see.’  ‘Pretty, no?’ he laughed, as he smoothed it down like a bridesmaid would to the dress of the bride on her wedding day.

Aunt Bard would have marvelled in ‘no see gas,’ as would her sister Posy.  I cannot wait to welcome Debo here in September so that she can experience the joys of Tangier and the seriously awful, purpose made gas bottle cover which has quickly become a very favourite item in my Tangier Flat.

I feel it timely that in this week of reminiscing, my once dark green gas bottle began its own version of dress ups. 

This one is in memory of Aunt Bard and Posy.

Pictured: ‘No See Gas’ in all of her glory.

Frost Bite.

Frost Bite.

‘Life is so ironic, it takes sadness to know happiness, noise to appreciate silence and absence to value presence.’

I’m not sure who wrote this, but I stumbled across it recently when I was digging around for my passport number. It made me think about the true meaning of sadness, silence, and absence, and how they actually differ from their opposites; happiness, noise and presence.  

The Venezuela Cafe for Lovers of the Sea is a magical place.  Nestled into a long courtyard below the beautiful gardens of the El Minzah Hotel in the heart of Tangier, palm fronds sway and banana leaves stand to attention.  Kittens hunt spiders in webs laced with mildew when they’re not playing bashfully or fighting over raw chicken handed to them lovingly by an old man, who wears a woolen hat and is in charge of the coffee machine inside.  

The walls of the courtyard are lime washed in the prettiest shade of pink and little grey stools are scattered around the place.  There is a small mosque down the end of the courtyard near the mens lavatory.  

The only lavatory.

The cafe has become a favourite place for morning coffee, especially with winter in Tangier being particularly warm this year.  Young boys play Parcheesi, which in itself fascinates me.  A quick visit to Google explains that Chess is the game of Kings, and Parcheesi, the game of Emperors.  Moroccan pop plays on a tinny sound system resting on the edge of a table where a yogurt pot is fashioned as a leg stabiliser.  

Outside in the street, ancient men sell fish bait, which would probably explain the name of the cafe. We’re a long way from Venezuela in Tangier, but I can only conclude that the lovers of the sea are the fishermen who vie for a handful of bait while I’m drinking my coffee in the courtyard.

The cafe is a place where one can feel contemplative, peaceful and absent from the outside world.  It’s a heavenly, and the name is a constant reminder of the quirks, nuances and surprises I experience each day in Morocco, with both language and people.

Recently, Twinkle Toes told me a story about falling asleep while he was warming some bread.  ‘I had to race into the chicken when I woke up four hours later,’ he advised earnestly, finishing ‘I thought I would burn the house down.’

The chicken, I assumed, was the kitchen, and he giggled when he described the bread reminiscent of piece of black coal when he flung the oven door open.

Last week, still laughing from the chicken and kitchen, the following email turned up in my inbox from Fay, at ‘Love at First Bite,’

Hi Lucy

We can certainly do a unicorn cake for you with confetti cake inside. There are a couple of options with the unicorn cakes depending on which option you would prefer.  Option one – a fondant iced cake with a sugar unicorn on top (see image of similar attached) £88.  Option two – a buttercream unicorn cake with a unicorn horn and piped swirls (see pic attached) £75.  Option three – alternatively we could do two dozen unicorn cupcakes which would be £60 – £2.50 per cupcake.

If you let us know which option you prefer we can get that booked in for you.

Best wishes, Fay

I read through Fay’s helpful options with a smile on my face, knowing from the first line that the email was not meant for me at all – unlike Lucy, I don’t have a four year old, nor do I particularly like unicorns.  I was rather taken with the idea of a confetti cake inside, but concluded it could make me feel a little bit sick.

One person who probably would appreciate a buttercream unicorn cake, or maybe even option three of two dozen unicorn cupcakes, is my oldest school friend Skye, who has a penchant for pink and all things sparkly.

Skye turned 40 on the 3rd of February, and in the lead up to this important milestone, her husband Lachie had emailed to see if I’d come out to Colorado in the guise of her fortieth birthday present.  I agreed, provided I didn’t have to dress as a unicorn.  Or, a Barbie.

On Friday the 14th, I arrived in Denver after a flight to Madrid, a transfer in Frankfurt and ten hours in the sky following.  ‘Eric’ met me in a car larger than my flat in Tangier and the following four hours were spent nattering about all things Trump and the U.S of A.  What Eric didn’t know about the world, wasn’t actually worth knowing about.

Endless diners flashed past blinking neon lights with a cozy appeal, as we made our way  over the pass towards the tiny little alpine town of Crested Butte.  I found myself blinking with exhaustion but smiling in my own little ‘Welcome to America’ moment.  Surprisingly for many, I had never been to the United States, and hadn’t really planned to in a hurry.

I was suddenly a long way from the Venezuela Cafe for Lovers of the Sea, but overjoyed when Skysie jumped out of her truck (also bigger than my flat in Tangier) and we fell into a huge delirious and happy hug.  Eric even got one from her, which led to a happy dance in his double breasted suit teamed with white shirt and red tie, along with black shoes more suited to an accountants office than the bed of snow that blanketed the ground around us.

We had a short drive home and the chatter was non stop.  Skye’s husband Lachie poured a long awaited Pinot Noir when we arrived, and it didn’t feel at all like a year ago that the three of us had last shared a bottle of wine.

That night, I fell into a delightful bed covered in red Valentines chocolates left for me by the ever charming Jimmy, the baby of the family who is now 8.

I woke the following morning to the view out my window which boasted a valley decorated with fir trees stuck like toothpicks into giant cupcakes of white, fluffy snow.  An enormous fat fox lumbered past the window as the sun peaked over the mountains in a stunning, warm hello.

Before too long I had two little bodies in my bed, Jimmy and his brother Archie, who is also my godson, and they quizzed me on life in North Africa.

Is it hot?

Do they speak English there?

Do you like it there?

Can you swim there?

‘Yes, of course,’ I answered to every, single question, before they set off for school.

Each morning, we’ve repeated the same routine and it is incredibly special to be back with the two little boys who I love like my own, along with their parents who have been nothing but the best of friends to me for a very long time.

Life in Tangier doesn’t really require much wet weather gear and I was the butt of all jokes when I arrived with my standard five pairs of white jeans, one for each day, and a big down jacket to be worn over my uniform ironed shirt.  I’ve been teaming the latter with Lachie’s snow boots as I penguin walk everywhere, desperately trying not to acquire an injury that will require surgery.

On Sunday, Skye and I went cross country skiing, something we hadn’t done since our outward bound year when we were fifteen; our faces were frozen stiff and we gasped for breath, not because of the altitude or the freezing air, but because we were paralyzed with laugher for the entire afternoon.  Squeezing into a spare ski jacket over a pair of my pristine whites, we took off and I secretly hoped that I wouldn’t have lost my knack on the nordics, but that was not so.  I found myself clompy and ungraceful as slim limbed outdoors types wearing fanny packs, glided past me on the long, beautifully groomed track peppered with firs.

In this part of the world everyone is alarmingly friendly, and as we crashed at our lunch table after finally making it up to a sweet little yurt that doubles as a bistro, we devoured the freshest tomato soup followed by coffee.

‘Could I please have a cafe latte,’ I asked the woman behind the counter.

‘Hells yes you can,’ came her response, ‘double whipped cream or just clotted,’ she queried with a burst of enthusiasm I found hardly normal.

At this point, Skye took a picture of me looking very much like my great Aunt who had a decent sway back and used to peer down her nose at people.

‘Just milk, thank you,’ I responded gently, confused and perplexed as to how a simple white coffee would require cream, while also wondering how offering such a thing could almost cause her to double over with happiness.

As we walked outside, further belly aching laughter eventuated after we discovered that our nordic skis, the same as everyone else’s nordic skis, had become lost in a neat line of nordicness.

‘Let’s take a picture of us both,’ I suggested, gasping for air as Skye doubled over.  Skye was always a pretty little thing at school with a ribbon in her hair and fresh faced skin void of any makeup.  At forty, she looks exactly as she did when I first met her when we were 13, not a day older.  The picture we took depicted me looking more like a viking than ever, or perhaps the previously mentioned great Aunt with the decent sway back, and Skye, like a small man who might be named Wayne and who drives a forklift for a living.  Her eyes had completely disappeared, as had our will to even try and contain ourselves.

Gliding home, we chatted as we found our feet and pulled ourselves together.  I smiled as we edged closer to the finish – it was just like we were back at school 25 years ago.

Just as happiness will inevitably outweigh sadness and noise will always surpass silence, it is true that it can often take a long absence to truly value the present moment.  Nothing in the world can beat time spent with old friends, and the past week has been magic.

We all just took up from where we left off.

I will be forever grateful to dear Lachie, who made this little gathering happen in our fortieth year.  Last night the three of us sipped on wine and saki as we feasted on the most delicious Japanese dinner, reflecting on many things, and later on in the bar after dinner, we admired the dance moves of an over enthusiastic ski bunny.

As we rumbled up the hill in the town shuttle, I captured a picture of us all, laughing and fresh faced.  It could easily have been taken all those years ago when we first met at school.

This weekend, I will return to the Venezuela Cafe for Lovers of the Sea.  It is inevitable that the kittens will chase spiders in webs laced with mildew, and the boys will play Parcheesi as they always do.  Spring is on its way, so I imagine the sun will shine as I sip my coffee and contemplate entering another decade while reflecting on a really special week.

As Forest Gump said, ‘life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.’

Well, if thats the case, this week has been constant Turkish Delights.  My favourites.

Speaking of favourites, this blog is dedicated to my godson Archie.  My only godson, and the most recent subscriber to pinningmywords.

He got me at my own game the other night when I said ‘goodnight, my favorite godson,’ to which he replied, eyes rolling, ‘and your only.  And you’re my favourite godmother Pin.  And my only godmother.’

For now, it’s bye bye Crested Butte and hello, glorious Tangier.

 

 

 

 

 

Let us eat.

Let us eat.

‘People who love to eat, are always the best people’.

Julia Child.

During a long, cold winter in Paris a couple of years ago, I underwent the torturous exercise that was ‘another’ French course.  

Each morning, I’d crab walk down the million stairs from the top of my building to the bottom passage beautifully laid in cobblestones, carefully avoiding a fall (I took many a topple down those stairs), before bursting out the front door and into the cold morning air.  The school was just 100 steps away at the end of my street, and it was there that I made some wonderful friends from all around the world during a month of sing alongs and conjugations of endless verbs.

Two beautiful girls from Uruguay were the youngest in the class, at just 18 years old, and easily the best at all the work.  I envied their young brains – so malleable and willing – particularly when it came to taking in new information.  Mine, on the other hand, was slow and stubborn and most unwilling to learn.

Over coffee one day, one of the girls announced that I reminded her of Julia Child, ‘in the best possible way’.  She went on to explain that my passion and determination for the language and my love of Paris reminded her in equal parts, of Julia’s obsession with butter and French cuisine.

When I asked if my loud sighs and struggles with the language, also a profound Julia feature, were a contributing factor to her freshly drawn parallels, she could only stare into the distance with a smile.

I took that, as the most complimentary version of ‘yes’.

About a month ago, I re-watched the acclaimed film ‘Julie and Julia,’ which tells the true story of New Yorker Julie Powell (Amy Adams) embarking on a daring project where she vows to prepare all 524 recipes in Julia Childs’ landmark cookbook, ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’. Intertwined with Julie’s story is the true tale of how Julia Child (Meryl Streep) conquered French cuisine with passion, fearlessness, and plenty of butter.

From every sigh to wail, Streep was genius in her tenuous portrayal of Julia Child, to the point that I found myself sobbing into a tissue during many moments of the film where Julia’s frustrations were so apparent – everything from her heavily accented French to her competitive chopping of onions were just so brilliant.  It also made me think a lot about the role that food plays in our daily lives.

In Morocco I find myself brought together with (sometimes) the most unlikely of friends, through food and my love for it.  

I don’t typically eat cous cous each day, nor do I eat chicken tajine for breakfast.  The bread is delicious (maybe, thanks to the French) and the olives are always succulent.

Sometimes when I’m walking home at night, I see ‘my children,’ a little gang of the same four boys aged about ten years old, who slurp on soup with me and boss me around before saying their pleases and thank you’s with utter purpose, after I boss them back – reprimanding them for being even the remotest bit ungrateful to the waiters who serve their food.

These boys live in parks and in doorways, and while they will never see a penny from me, I will always buy them food.  Their love and hugs at the end of dinner, fills me with a type of prickles that no amount of money could ever buy.  I hope that they enjoy every minute with me as much as I relish in every second, with them.

During the water crisis, Twinkle Toes arrived one day and gave me another little lesson in British English, where he knocked on the table in a role-play before singing ‘whoisit,’ as one word.  ‘Not sure,’ came my response with a giggle.  ‘You must always say, who is it (whoisit) when you hear the doorbell,’ he warned.  Almost on cue, the doorbell sounded and the kitten raced into a cupboard to nestle into a pile of shoes, utterly petrified.

‘Who is it?’ I queried, not in the mood for a lecture from the kitchen, before opening the door where I found my gorgeous neighbour and his two equally sweet children grinning, as they hung from the bannisters.  

‘Do you have water?’ the father asked as the kitten appeared, wrapping herself coyly around my legs, her tail rigid in the air.

‘No, I don’t,’ came my response, adding ‘do you speak English?’.

‘No,’ came his response, followed by a ‘no’ from each child when I nodded towards them.

‘French?’.

‘No,’ they responded in unison.  In English.

‘Spanish?’ I begged, to which they all responded ‘si’.

‘I don’t speak Spanish,’ I apologised, to which they all responded, ‘don’t worry, we speak English’.

So there we stood, smelly, frustrated and in a linguistic crisis.

‘Do you want a kitten?’ I asked, as my little girl purred in their direction.

On that note, the father grabbed both of the children and whisked them back upstairs.

I guess that was a no, I thought to myself as I closed the door after promising to let him know if I were to hear anything further about the water.

It had become no secret, over the past eight weeks, that the kitten and I were finding it increasingly difficult to live together.  She had chewed the raffia off every, single dining chair, shredded the sheets on each bed, torn the curtains off their railings, taken the hem off every dress hanging in the wardrobe and torn every roll of loo paper, once made up of three ply goodness, into a million little pieces.  Each and every shoe that I own, had a tooth mark firmly embedded into the toe, and my Berber carpets were being used as a shredding board.  

One day, I found her chasing a new set of pompoms around in her bed.  Perplexed, I walked calmly to the wardrobe, only to find a beautiful shawl robbed of all ten.

My ankles were to her, just another target to attack.  Each morning as I made my coffee standing barefoot at the sink, she would launch her teeth and claws around them and no amount of cry’s from me were going to stop her.

The little baby had gone completely mad.  We were living together, day in day out, in my kitchen which now doubled as a prison.  All the doors to each room were firmly shut with little torn up pieces of paper acting as door jams.  Whenever there was silence, I would find myself curious which usually resulted in stress, when I would find her (for example) eating an entire pot plant in a room where she’d managed to push the door open.  Vases of flowers were often found lying spilled across a table, with books saturated and ruined as a result.

I dreaded the day that I would have to finally admit that she needed not to be with me in my flat, rather, in a big house with a garden and another cat to keep her company.

That day came last week, when the kitten saver announced that his barbers brother was a cat lover with a huge house and a loving family, and they were willing to take her on as their own.  They also had another cat.  

We waved her goodbye following one final hug.  Her little claws dug into my shawl as I handed her over, lump in throat fully intact but happy in the knowledge that she would finally be happy too.

Last Friday afternoon, the doorbell sounded.  I sang out my routine ‘whoisit?’ again, not wanting to be scrutinised from the kitchen, only to find the neighbour and his children at the door again, this time with a huge bowl of Friday cous cous.  

Stammering ‘thank you’ in Spanish, and delivering it again in Arabic, the little girl nodded towards the kitten’s bed – still made up and full of pompoms.  ‘She left,’ I explained wistfully, ‘she’s gone to a better home’.  

They looked on sadly, and I returned a look of sorrow.  I suppose the cous cous was an offering developed during a family meeting, where they all agreed that food might perhaps result in a pat of the cat.  Twinkle Toes rounded the corner in that moment and thanked them profusely for their offering, before waving them goodbye and sitting me down with two forks.

‘We can share this’ he announced triumphantly, sipping on his Coca Cola and moving aside whatever it was he was previously doing.  So there we sat, together for our first shared meal in memory of sweet Amira, who he cannot stop scolding me for giving away before he had a chance to say goodbye.

‘She loved me you know?’ he keeps reminding me at any given opportunity.  And, it’s true, she did, he was the only person she ever truly obeyed.  

Each week he would balance a sandwich on his knee, as he took her little paws in his hand, clipping her nails and telling her to ‘siddown’ or he would get ‘very hungry’. 

Last Saturday I travelled to Briech, just under an hour away from Tangier, for a big family lunch at Monica’s mother and stepfather’s beautiful little house in the country.  Richard was at the wheel, Monica entertained us all from the front seat, and Lawrence, Anthea and I sat like children lined up in the back.  Lawrence and Anthea are another favourite couple and just a week before, we’d gathered at their flat just ten minutes from home.

We enjoyed plates of salmon on bread and a hard earned gin and tonic in their precious flat, easily one of my most treasured places in Tangier.  Casting my eyes over endless shelves of books, stretches of wallpaper and groupings of pictures hung amongst beautiful lamps, I laughed as Lawrence poured my drink, ‘you do minimalist SO well!’.  

One night in summer we sat on their terrace sipping wine, enjoying sweeping views of Tangier, ‘that was all farmland 20 years ago,’ they explained at dusk, pointing toward the vast stretches of stacked houses that now form an enormous, expansive urban sprawl.

The road to Briech is also becoming more and more built up (as I was reminded in the car on Saturday), but as we left the aforementioned sprawl behind us, camels lumbered along the road and a flock of sheep caused a road block as their shepherd smoked on a kiff pipe, oblivious to the mayhem the bleating little cretins were causing as they scattered across the road.  Green grass lined the potholed track and the traffic was sparse, unlike the summer months, when families move in droves by car to take their spot on one of the many beautiful beaches along the Atlantic coastline.

As we pulled into the house in Briech, a donkey staggered past our car and his master, a Berber drover, led a cow behind on a thin piece of rope.  We were treated to the most divine lunch, with Monica’s mother and stepfather also Italian, making them the most natural, generous chefs and hosts.

Spoonfuls of risotto were heaped onto plates, the wine flowed freely, a rooster crowed in the distance and two little dogs sat at my feet, their little peepholes for eyes looking up through their fringes, desperately waiting for me to drop a speck of mouthwatering risotto onto the floor.

Not a chance I laughed, as I devoured every, single mouthful.

As we staggered through the courtyard, full and happy after a delectable lunch, I took photos of potted lemon trees, gorgeous blue doors and clumps of pink geraniums.  Their house is a breathtaking little wonderland which is both a joy and a treat to visit.

Waving our hosts goodbye, we began our forward journey back to Tangier along pretty winding roads in glorious winter sunshine, exhausted, happy and promising never to eat another thing, ever again.

Julia Child was right, people who love to eat, are always the best people and over the past couple of days as I began researching this piece, I felt it only too apt that I’d dedicate it to food.  Some of the best people I’ve ever met, have been scooped up to me just like a good spoonful of risotto, or a tajine of cous cous.

And on that note, I’ve got a lunch to run to in arguably one of my favourite gardens in Tangier with a handful of my very favourite Tangerinas.  I just know it’ll be delicious!

Pictured: that donkey, that cow and that Berber man.