Berber.

Berber.

On Friday afternoon I made the short trip back to Marrakech for a quick overnight turn around, before heading to the sea port of Essaouira the following morning.

I woke on Saturday morning in my teeny tiny riad in the middle of the medina, where the sounds of pipe music and prayer competed with each other in the distance. A cocktail of talcum powder and cigarettes wafted through my open window, giving me only the slightest headache, before I enjoyed breakfast of crêpes and a strong coffee on the rooftop terrace. Scanning through my emails, I found one from the sweetest woman who I’ve met just a handful of times in my life.

She wrote that she enjoys my blog before going on to add that she isn’t sure how she found it in the first place. I know this feeling well – I too, have a habit of finding things and not knowing how I found them in the first place. I read on with tears in my eyes as she commented on my strength and honesty – two things that I feel marry with each other particularly well.

I draw strength from being honest, and through writing I feel as though I can do things I didn’t know I was capable of doing. When I feel lost, or alone, I find myself gazing into the distance in cafés or out of the windows of taxis – most of the time probably looking completely deranged, as I conjure up thoughts about that moment, and how life could be completely different if I’d allowed it to be. Then I write about it.

The way in which my life has panned out thus far is 100% the opposite to what I had envisaged ten years ago, and while I don’t think I’m particularly strong, I will agree that I’m honest- in measures (probably) to my detriment most of the time. In my life that isn’t children, pets and vast spaces filled with old friends and most of all, my family, I am able to do things and think things, that may otherwise, not be possible.

About nine months ago, I discovered Berber Lodge in one of those aforementioned moments where I found it, not knowing how I found it. Maybe I caught a glimpse of a Berber wall, built from the pinkest earth peeking through an olive grove, or an emerald green bedspread draped over endless white Egyptian cotton sheets – I’m not sure, but I started to follow them on Instagram, making a promise to myself that I would go there one day.

‘One day’ arrived last Wednesday.

Situated just 45 minutes outside of Marrakech, Berber Lodge is nestled in an ancient olive grove with stunning views across open, barren plains which grant breathtaking views towards the tips of the Atlas Mountains. When I arrived, I was met with a thousand smiles and my suitcase disappeared across a courtyard filled with cactus and a smattering of Mediterranean plants. Mint tea followed, before I fell into a dark green cane chair in the front garden for a lunch of mouthwatering lamb chops, hummus and cous cous and a glass of biodynamic Moroccan red wine, washed down with fresh fruit salad for pudding.

At dusk I walked to nearby Oumnass, a village where call to prayer echoed through the valley while children chased a football along the road as shepherds moved their herd home for the night. As the sun began to disappear, stars decorated the sky and the tips of the mountains turned from pretty shades of pink, to the darkest of blue.

‘It’s a like family home, non,’ my host explained over dinner as I showered him with compliments littered with adverbs. I think it was Stephan King who said that the pathway to hell is paved with adverbs- which makes me think he’s never visited Berber Lodge.

Romain Michel Ménière is the humorous and clever witted force behind this charming place. With a creative and talented eye, he, and his equally warm and stylish godmother, Cosette, had me wanting to stay for more than two days, from the very moment that I arrived.

It was just like a family home. Every meal was prepared with ingredients from both the garden and suppliers not far away. Each person who works alongside Romain and Cosette is from Oumnass, only moments away, and the house dogs are as friendly as their owners. The lodge is always busy, with guests coming from each and every corner of the world. Some are famous, and others, quite regular. Here, everyone is welcome and each lodge on the property is beautifully designed and pared back, embracing everything that is Berber with subtle nods to 20th century design.

In a world where we aspire towards everything being bigger- from houses and cars to hairdos, throughout the 48 hours I spent at Berber Lodge, I found myself transported to a place that embodied everything that I am slowly learning is ‘my big’. Nothing was a problem, the smiles were real. A new garden was establishing itself under ancient trees, and in seemingly empty corners found around the property, there was actually so much to appreciate – an occasional courtyard here, a carefully designed reading nook there. Old met new, in a fusion of so much that was as stylish as it was true to its environs.

My camera is overloaded, and this little place just outside of Oumnass will always be deeply embedded in my memory.

Just like so many things in life, I’m not sure how all of this all came be, but I’m utterly grateful that it did. It took a little bit of planning, but the rest is history.

When I remarked that I was sad to be leaving, Romain made the very valid point ‘yes, but you can just move around, non, it is hard for people to do that, non, look at you like a character out of a Agatha Christie novel propped up in the garden,’ in the same moment that Cosette drifted in, her perfume wafting behind her, looking chic and glorious as ever.

A formidable duo, who are magnificent custodians of a very special place.

Pictured: one of many beautiful spaced to relax at Berber Lodge.

Explorations.

Explorations.

In life, I suspect there are only so many times where you’d expect to be held up by a donkey reversing a cart stacked full gas cylinders down a two meter wide alley, challenged only by two oncoming motorbikes who (seemingly), have the upper hand when it comes to speed.  Until Wednesday this week, I’d only been in this situation about twice in my life.

Admittedly, over the past couple of years, I’d begun to wonder when I would next find myself in a traffic jam with a reversing donkey and two oncoming motorbikes, and found myself positively relieved when it finally took place outside a watch battery vendor in the middle of the souk.

When I arrived in Marrakech over a week ago, I was met by the night manager of my riad who immediately offered me mint tea, followed closely by a beer.  ‘I’d love a mint tea,’ I enthused before enquiring if he had a glass of wine to go with my dinner.
‘We have rosie wine just for you,’ he assured me.

For those who know me well, will also understand how much I love a glass of rosé.

Therefore, each day after hours of traipsing through the souks and visiting the thousands of museums and sites that Marrakech has to offer, before getting lost on the way home and dodging motorbikes screaming down alleyways, I’d reflect on the day with a glass of rosé, pondering the joys that are travel and the inspiration that marries with exploration.

In Marrakech the souks are made up of an absolute maze of stalls, and my only advice to anyone planning a visit to this amazing city is to just dive in and lose yourself in it all.

On Tuesday, towards the end of my first week in Marrakech, I found an incredible artisan cobbler named Monsieur Ahmed sitting in his tiny little studio just within the medina walls. Here, he weaves raffia shoes, cobbles leather sandals and will repair any type of shoe that you take to him. With his linguistic offerings being both French and Arabic, I spent an hour sifting through his wares, peppering pregnant pauses with daft offerings in French – ‘it nice,’ ‘so much perfect choice,’ ‘clever you Mr,’ before paying an advance and agreeing that I’d come back the following day to pick up my order.

A couple of hours later, I arrived home for my final night in Marrakech with an empty purse and a hankering for my daily glass of rosé.

I sat for what felt like hours waiting for the clock to strike seven, and by the time I discovered that my watch had in fact stopped, it was well after 9pm.
After two years on my wrist, my ever faithful Swatch had decided to fall asleep at cocktail hour.

The following morning I returned to Monsieur Ahmed’s store only to find it completely void of any sign of him, but still full to the brim with beautiful shoes – just as it had been the day before. Taking a seat on a little stool in the corner, I panned the walls in the event that I’d missed something, while counting the minutes as I waited for the Chinese whispers of the alleyway to work their magic and for Monsieur to make an appearance from the street.

Fifteen minutes passed before my new friend squeezed out of the attic high above, before navigating his way down a ladder – his portly little body wobbling with every step. ‘Ah, Madame’ he squealed with a smile, ‘shoes, shoes, shoes’. Trotting to his desk, he produced a bag and together we went through each pair, checking the laces and the stitching for faults – ‘et voila’ he exclaimed ‘for you I make chausseurs parfait’. They were perfect, bar one pair that had a tiny little defect where my foot becomes so wide that I think I almost frightened him.  ‘Saturday,’ he promised, ‘return on Saturday for the all’.
Producing my watch, I clumsily asked where I could find a new battery -‘c’est fini’ he laughed before sneaking off down the alley, returning moments later, cross that his watch battery friend had closed his store for lunch. If I left my watch with him, did I have confidence that he would have that fixed by Saturday, he wondered.

I had every confidence that he’d have it ticking with absolute vigour by the time I returned on Saturday, but in an age where smart phones rule every minute of every day, I prefer to read time the old fashioned way, and the thought of three days consulting my phone with an empty wrist left me feeling completely naked.

‘Be careful, they are many’ Monsieur warned, wishing me luck with the battery, advising that if I turned left into the souk I would find a plethora of watch batteries. He also warned that most of them are ‘not so good’. Thanking him profusely, I waved goodbye and continued on my way.

Within ten minutes I had found a watch battery shop where two boys also sold speakers, transmitters, earphones, iPhones and covers for iPhones. After a few minutes involving a set of tweezers and rapid Arabic mutterings, my watch was ticking again at 11.24 am.

After a further fifteen minutes, the time hadn’t changed.

‘I would like a new battery,’ I said to the boys running the shop, only a bit flustered when I returned from a short walk where I’d admired a thousand raffia baskets and a fresh batch of kittens sunbathing in one pile decorated with alarmingly bright pom poms. As the kittens raised their paws as if to stop me in my tracks, I noticed it was still  11.24 am.

‘Oh yes, sorry Madame, a new battery’.

While I understand that we all need to buy a flat battery from time to time, today I would love a new battery for my watch, I explained, and with, that my little black time machine was dancing deep into the souks in the hands of a little petty thief who’d left me with the promise of ‘one minute, just one minute’.

Counting the minutes and wondering if I’d ever see my nifty Swatch again, it was in this moment that the cart stacked high with gas cylinders being reversed by a donkey in competition with two oncoming motorbikes, trotted backwards through my path.

Grabbing the the glass counter of the battery vendor and with no one to catch me in the (high) likelihood that I fall, I made every attempt to keep my eyes on the street awaiting the return of my Swatch, but found myself distracted and delighted that my moment had finally come.  It was blissful, made even happier when not one, but two of the boys returned with a ticking watch that hasn’t stopped ticking since.

Marrakech is a heavenly place. The rosie is always chilled, there is someone kind around each corner and there are plentiful people who will sell you anything you need – flat watch batteries included.

This is a city full of history, and as I left the riad and climbed into my waiting car on Wednesday afternoon, I had plenty to reflect on after a short week in the pinkest town I ever did see.

Berber Lodge was next on my agenda, and after navigating our way through villages where the narrow roads were lined with rammed earth houses and sweet little children running alongside our car, I knew I’d reached some sort of paradise as we arrived at dusk.

I delighted in the olive groves, the pink peaks of the Atlas Mountains, the deafening silence and an open sky that was soon littered with stars, all made more beautiful with the warm welcome I received as my bag full of bricks was unloaded from the car.

More to come.

Pictured: the King above the door, as he is every door in Morocco.

Hey, Spice Girl.

Hey, Spice Girl.

Coming to Morocco is a long held dream of mine that was finally realised when I arrived late in the evening on Thursday last week. Upon stepping off the plane, I was welcomed by teaming rain and a toothless taxi driver baring my name on a tattered placard. ‘You speak French?’ he asked, before ushering me into the taxi, ‘a bit,’ I replied, and with that we were arranging for me to be fluent in Arabic by the time I leave in a month, taking surf lessons when I arrive in Essaouira next week, and I mustn’t forget ‘over there, that is the Royal Palace, the King stays in another Palace, but that is the Royal Palace’. ‘Right, that is the Royal Palace,’ I muttered, and ‘voila, here is the entrance to the Medina,’ he added as we raced under an arch and into the Old City, barely utilising two wheels out of four.

Colette loved Morocco and so did the darling of French song, Dalida, as well as Gertrude Stein, Orson Wells, Edith Wharton, Henri Matisse, Edith Piaf, Alfred Hitchcock, Sir Winston Churchill, Jacques Majorelle, Marlene Dietrich, Henri Bordeaux, Anais Nin and Voltaire – just to name a few. And not forgetting my favourite, Yves Saint Laurent.

For my 16th Christmas present, Mum gave me a bottle of Paris by YSL- a perfume that I wore religiously for the following twenty years of my life before switching to Vetyverio by Diptyque during a moment of heartbreak in my mid thirties. Perfume has a funny way of doing that, and I often ponder the irony that was the end of my relationship (now we’re talking perfume), with a product named after the city I now call home, in the very same year that I took up learning French.

I know, it’s gripping stuff.  But in life, change is inevitable.

When I was 17, I read Yves Saint Laurent’s biography with eyes watering at every mention of his life in Paris and love for his other home, Marrakech. With each spray of his perfume, I thought of him and those horn rimmed glasses, his dazzling designs and in the days before Google, I’d pore over images of his muse- a much younger Catherine Deneuve – all fiery and cool with her short, sleek hair and high waisted YSL trousers on the pages of black and white coffee table books.

And of course, when it comes to Morocco, there is also the rich Islamic culture and breathtaking call to prayer five times a day, the High Atlas Mountains, the Berber people, the Sahara Desert, the Medinas, the souks, the snake charmers and a general romantic essence of everything that is Eastern and beautiful – all just hours away from Paris.

My time is now.

As my head hit the pillow on my first night in Marrakech, I drifted off to the sound of pattering rain of the roof and ‘adhan’ (call to prayer) in the distance.  I woke the following morning to the first call of the day competing with roosters calling from a neighbouring garden. Maps, notes and suggestions from those who’ve trodden this path before me, lay splayed out on the breakfast table, and I enjoyed at least five cups of mint tea before I stepped through the door of the riad and onto the street below.  Moments later ‘Hey, Spice Girl’ was called out to me and, not certain if I was supposed to take on the guise of Sporty, Baby, Posh, Ginger or Scary, I gave up guessing pretty quickly, smiled, gripped my umbrella and continued on my way.

The people of Marrakech are as charming as they are beautiful. The millions of stalls in the souk leading off the square Jamaa El Fnaa, are as magical as they appear in magazines and coffee table books. The moorish architecture and the minarets atop the mosques reach for the sky, seeing me gazing upwards and tripping over my feet far too often. There are fewer cars than I’d imagined, and the little larks that fight for my breakfast baguette untouched in its basket, have slowly become my friends.

I spent my first morning developing a new found love for my second language which sees me often faking deafness and ignoring phone calls in Paris, but with Moroccans speaking French at a much slower pace, a new confidence was quickly acquired. I immediately found them to be grateful for my tattered attempts, and complimentary with every word.

Spice Girl soon had a skip in her stride, something that is often lost on me with Parisians who, as much as I love them, can be intimidating – leaving me feeling humiliated with their heigh standards expected with each and every spoken word of their delicious language. For anyone looking to improve their French, just hit the souks in Marrakech where you are thanked, rather than spanked, for giving it a go. Gone were the English menus and futile American accented quips of ‘bye, bye, see you next time,’ often found in Paris at the sheer sniff of an accent, replaced with a much needed ‘Madame, vous parlez bien Français’. I suppose it helps, when Madame is lining up a thousand pairs of shoes and pondering every colour.

By lunchtime, I was sitting on a rooftop deep within the souk feasting on a vegetarian pastilla, feeling very happy to be here.

Later that afternoon, as the sky cleared and umbrellas went down in unison with the sun, I met with a great friend of our family who, in a moment of pure serendipity, was finishing up in Marrakech just as I arrived.

After meeting in the middle of the main square, Jamaa El Fnaa, we dodged plops of rain in the souk along with offers of tea and presents as we giggled our way through piles of leather bags, walls of raffia shoes, endless baskets and seemingly thousands of bottles of Argon Oil.
‘This is Trisha, my mother’s greatest friend,’ I offered to anyone who’d listen, and with that, there were gifts of glittering key rings and tours around every ‘upstairs,’ where we were shown more wares that neither of us needed, as much as we were reassured that everything was made in Morocco, ‘pas Chine’.

The larks danced on palm fronds as we walked home through the warm evening air before enjoying a special moment of non stop chatter – refreshing cocktail in hand, at the Churchill Bar in the beautiful Hotel Mamounia on the edge of the Medina – a wonderful end to my first day in Marrakech.

As a young aspiring painter, Jacques Majorelle arrived in Morocco in 1917, invited by the French Resident General, Marshal Lyautey.  After spending a short time in Casablanca he travelled to Marrakech and like many of his contemporaries, fell in love with the vibrant colours and street life he found here.
In 1923, Majorelle purchased a four-acre plot situated on the border of a vast palm grove, and in 1930 he built an Art Deco house and studio and painted it in ‘Majorelle Blue’.

Following Majorelles death in 1962, the garden and house fell into an abandoned state before being purchased and rescued by Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent in 1980.

Early on Saturday morning, I set off for les Jardins Majorelle located just outside the walls of the Medina. Skipping through endless boot loads of carpets, second hand books, wooden carts filled of fruit and vegetables, fresh orange juice vendors pressing cup after cup of juice, and seemingly millions of people, I finally made the dash across the busy Avenue Yacoub El Mansour, before emerging in the cosmopolitan and comparatively peaceful, Rue Yves Saint Laurent.

The following hour was spent in the magnificent, recently opened Musée – a shrine to a man who the Moroccans loved and one who made a significant contribution to this city for the duration of his time here with Pierre, the man he loved. The walls are adorned with photos of Catherine et al and as well as a decent collection of his incredible sketches. Videos of catwalk models from a bygone era, naturally beautiful, barely tanned and definitely not botoxed, are beamed through a screen in a thoroughly modern theatre.
Down the hallway in a darkened room lit up only by a temporary exhibition of his sparkling dresses barely reaching the knees of the mannequins that they adorned, I almost walked into mirrors as I navigated my way through the glittering darkness.

In a city where it is not unusual to see many women covered from head to toe, I found myself momentary ‘nowhere,’ and feeling more than just a little bit contemplative.

Next door, the Jardin Majorelle was busy with afternoon foot traffic made up of at least three Chinese brides posing under Majorelle’s studio window; wheelchairs scooted down paths and lost children called for their mothers, while couples and families from every single corner of the world took selfies in a thousand different languages. Bustling groups of middle aged women on their once in a lifetime trip together, shouted across rare cactus plants about important things like the price they paid earlier in the day for a fresh orange juice in the main square.

All of this was made bearable by the sheer size of the gardens, where quiet corners in this expansive and beautiful oasis are easy to come by.  It is a truly magnificent place, and like the city outside it’s four walls, this is a place for everyone.

In a nod to Morocco’s Berber culture (who also make up the oldest people in North Africa), a staggering collection of over 600 objects ranging from jewellery, clothing, arms, basketry, textiles and carpets accompanied volumes of text, are all housed in a fabulous museum within the walls of what was once Majorelles studio.

After three hours, following a fusion of cultures fastidiously arranged within square metres of each other, I collapsed into a chair in the garden café with a fresh juice of pineapple, ginger and soda.

Marrakech is blanketed by the High Atlas Mountains which loom importantly in the distance from every vantage point and rooftop. Each night, I climb up to the roof of my Riad and join the larks as the sun begins to set – and together we soak up the magic that are the colours of the day painting the peaks of this staggeringly beautiful and vast mountain range.

I had romantic visions of being driven up to the mountains through the Vallée Oukira and finding plentiful waterfalls, pack mules, Berber villages and breathtaking views. A car arrived on Sunday morning and my driver was delighted that I was willing to spend the day in French.

‘I also speak excellent England,’ he assured me, before we set off on an adventure towards the Oukira Valley in the lower reaches of the Atlas Mountains.

Conversations about the Berber people, the importance of olives, agriculture, magnesium and tourism followed, as we wound our way out of the city and towards the mountains. ‘Tu comprends,’ he’d check, met with plentiful ‘oui’s’ and ‘d’accords’ from me.
Slow and considered with every word, we stopped from time to time at places selling tajines stacked neatly upon each other and tapis hanging from the walls.

The track leading into to the Atlas from Marrakech is a winding road filled with tour buses, four wheel drives, city taxis and locals waiting to sell everything from market baskets to bunches of flowers, ceramics and jewellery.

‘Better than the Swiss Alps’ he rejoiced, as we headed deeper into the valley.

I was exhausted by the time we reached our isolated lunch spot at midday, where we were greeted by a jolly fellow who offered tajines of beef, chicken, vegetables and cous cous. ‘Pas touristique’ my driver smiled, ‘c’est très typique des gens Berbères,’ he added.

Seated in a windswept corner of the isolated restaurant, overlooking the river and surrounded by the mountains, I tried my hardest to romanticise the experience.

A tajine that smelt pretty dreadful and tasted even worse that had been prepared in a pot beside the WC, was proudly presented with a tall glass of water. I spent the following hour attempting to savour every bite, but was defeated by a growing sense of cynicism and eventually pushed it aside.

More like the lower reaches of the Himalayas than the romantic wonderland written up with enthusiastic vigour in magazines, I soon concluded that the valleys beneath the Atlas Mountains have become a wasteland of plastic chairs in the cafés that line the river, along with Argon oil workshops run by women designed for tourists to capture with the zoom lens of their cameras.

When I arrived home last night, I painted a picture in my mind of what the valley would have been like a hundred years ago, before drifting off to sleep.

As with everything in life, change is inevitable but one thing is for sure, the magic of Marrakech remains.

Pictured:  the shadows of palm fronds bouncing off the beautiful home and studio of Jacques Majorelle

A minute in Marrakech.

A minute in Marrakech.

My apartment in Paris has no lift, just (approximately) 95 stairs and I live like a pigeon in a tiny loft at the top of each and every one of those stairs.  Actually, not counting the final ten which lead to a little green door.  Nadine lives there.

For those of you who have been with me since the beginning of my pinnings will be familiar with Nadine – my wonderful neighbour who has lived in her little Saint Germain pigeon hole since the end of the 1950s.  Chez Nadine is a rabbit warren, neatly arranged but full to the brim with everything from potted ferns, books, at least 100 saucepans, and I mustn’t forget to add the endless jars filled of multiple hair brushes. There are cupboards full of linen and bag upon bag of all sorts of things. Do I need a printer? No, I’m good for printers. A coffee cup? Got them too.

When I arrived back to Paris from Australia almost a month ago, I found myself fading by about 5pm for the first week but on day two, I did slip a note under Nadine’s door letting her know that I was home and ‘très fatigué’. With every intention of catching up sooner rather than later, I was met with alarm on Wednesday as I packed for my month in Morocco, when I discovered a bag filled with souvenirs from Australia and a card written in ‘my best French’ to Nadine.

Fortunately, after hours and hours of racing around the city ticking ‘to do’s’ off my list, just as I’d raced up the stairs short of any breath and almost perishing, Nadine was waving off her tradesman as I reached my door. We said our hellos, I had four kisses planted on each cheek, before she summonsed me up the final ten stairs for a cup of coffee.

I love these moments that we share together, she thinks differently to me on so many levels- but in the same way in many others. Her heart is kind, and our thoughts are separated only by about four decades and two different languages. Every time we sit together, I know that I have to speak in French (this retired school teacher has no time for laziness) and she is ever complimentary about my accent and vocabulary – it’s in her DNA.

As we sipped our coffee her eyebrows became buried under her neatly arranged fringe at the sheer mention of me leaving for Morocco the next day. ‘Pourquoi?’ she asked, before adding that there were many Moroccan people in Paris. I agreed, but went on explain that I have a long held dream of wandering around Morocco- this stuff is in my DNA.
Patting her ever present ‘bum bag’ or, for the Americans in the group ‘fanny pack,’ she asked if I had one.
Explaining that I went to a fiftieth birthday two years ago dressed as Edina from Absolutely Fabulous wearing a gold bum bag and a copper perm, was all but impossible for me to describe in French, so I decided to end that question with a simple ‘non’.

So here I sit, on my first night in Marrakech in the most beautiful Riad sipping on a glass of ‘rosie’ wine (they had me at rosie) after my first ‘real’ Morrocan tagine.  Each time I reach for my phone, I have to rummage through my borrowed ‘bum bag’ from Nadine. It has sat loyally beside me since the moment that she went through on of her many bags, with one obviously allocated to ‘fanny packs,’ before wishing me ‘bon courage’.

The rain was heavy as my flight landed in Marrakech just after six pm tonight, and the French pilot made every effort to apologise for the weather – as if it was his fault. After seemingly hours of lining up and presenting my entire life to the men at passport control, I finally emerged out of the airport and was greeted by a man with no bottom teeth, holding my name on a placard. As we whizzed through the Kasbah, he taught me the basics of Arabic; ‘shukraan’ for thank you and if I want extra points, ‘shukraan jazilaan’ for thank you very much. ‘Marhabaan’ will see me saying hello and ‘eazim’ will suffice for great.

The Royal Palace is ‘just there’ and do I speak French? I should really get a French-Arabic dictionary and some books to aid in my Arabic lessons, is what I was told.

And then suddenly I was tipped out of the taxi and walking down a cobblestoned street under an umbrella with a man named Hafeez. Quite the gent, he wheeled my suitcase- all 23 kilos of it, full to the brim with at least seven versions of my travel uniform of white shirt and matching trousers- before flinging a nondescript door open on an equally as nondescript cobble stoned street, revealing Riad Daria, my home for the next week.

As I sat down for dinner, I observed call to prayer sounding in the distance.  The sound of this is easily one of my favourite things.  It’s heaven here, and I couldn’t be happier that I’ve finally made it.

Bum bag and all.

Pictured:  the entrance to Riad Daria where I enjoyed tea on arrival after skipping through puddles.

 

 

The magic of Montmartre.

The magic of Montmartre.

‘I don’t believe in things like that — fairies or goblins or magic or anything. It’s old-fashioned.’
‘Well, we must be jolly old-fashioned then,’ said Bessie. ‘Because we not only believe in the Faraway Tree and love our funny friends there, but we go to see them too — and we visit the lands at the top of the Tree as well!’.

Excerpt from ‘The Magic Faraway Tree,’ by Enid Blyton.

As a little girl, I devoured pages of Enid’s books with the same enthusiasm I showed for cake and ice cream. Dame Washalot, Moonface, Silky the fairy, Mr Watzisname and the Angry Pixy, along with Fanny, Jo and Bessie (and later in the piece, cousin Dick), would join me under torchlight as I turned page after page, licking my lips at each and every mention of treacle. And, Hey Presto! It was Elisabeth Allan and her constant outrage and sheer determination displayed during her adventures at Whyteleaf School, that stirred an interest for midnight feasts and pot roasts in my ten year old self.

In our garden at home I would climb trees in search of my own faraway land and characters, and I also believed (with a fairly strong degree of certainty) that fairies did exist at the bottom of the driveway.  When I wasn’t pottering about in my tree house built at the top of the oldest tree in the garden, I was lighting fires in my garden below and boiling a billie ready for another fresh brew of tea.

The imagination was fertile, to say the very least.

After I boarded the packed Line 4 at Odeon on Saturday morning destined for the northern reaches of Paris, I scanned the mass of swaying bodies that made up the populous of our carriage. African women chatted non stop in full colourful dress, reaching for their market trolleys with every jam of the brakes; a grey haired man sitting opposite me stared out the window longingly, his pink and red paisley cravat tucked neatly into an even pinker shirt; two young boys read the Quran in long white robes ready for the Mosque, and two very bossy women argued about whether they would leave the metro at Barbés, ‘c’est le marché aujourd’hui,’ one croaked at the other, she wasn’t about to get caught up in all of the bother that is the foot traffic of the Saturday market.

As we drew in at St Michel, about seven unicorns stepped into the carriage and spoke at rapid pace about life ‘en general’ as they sensibly sipped red wine out of plastic cups. Of course they weren’t real unicorns, rather, nice catholic French boys celebrating the imminent nuptials of their friend, who, for the record, wore fairy wings across his back and a diamanté crown on his head.

I particularly adored listening to them speak about life ‘en general’ as they nodded earnestly with each sip of their vin rouge, all whilst wearing silver sparkling unicorn horns atop their very French heads.

Stepping off the metro at Barbés, I found myself swept up into the swarm that was the foot traffic predicted by the bossy woman earlier, before I switched to Line 2 for just one stop — station Anvers on Boulevard de Rochechouart — the hectic thoroughfare that runs through the heart of Montmartre, in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris.

Montmartre, or in Latin, ‘Mount of Mars,’ is primarily known for its artistic history and breathtakingly romantic vistas, complete with buildings whose individual appeal leans away from the uniform style of Haussmann. Originally not officially part of the City of Paris, these buildings are made even more fabulous with their array of colourful window shutters. Montmartre is also home to the brilliant white domes of the Basilica of the Sacré Coeur found on its summit, which are striking from every angle regardless of where you stand in Paris. There is also the Moulin Rouge, the cabarets, and more recently, the seedy, sex fuelled nightclub strip that is Boulevard de Rochechouart.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, and at the beginning of the twentieth, during the Belle Époque, many artists had studios in or around Montmartre, including Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Henri Toulouse Lautrec, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro and Vincent Van Gogh.

On this hill overlooking the city of Paris, you can just imagine the artists of the twentieth century in a village environment, in muddy lanes and broken down shacks inspired by the circus and silent movies — close to the locals still dancing the night away in the Old Moulin de la Galette, with dancers and clowns and spontaneity set amongst libertine lifestyles and a love of popular culture. Whilst the twenty-first century has seen this hilltop haven become gentrified, popularised and quite often, heaving with tourists, the magic still exists.
The same could be said for so many corners of Paris. It is true, this city is a living museum.

And, I will add, if fairies and goblins were indeed real, I believe they might just be paying 18th Arrondissement prices in rent.

Rushing through the masses and whizzing up the stairs toward the exit of Metro Anvers, I met up with Ruby Boukabou, a new friend in Paris who I first found under Tracy Moffat’s famed piece ‘Something More,’ at the Sothebys preview of pictures late last year.

Ruby is dynamic as she is energetic and when she’s not tap dancing her way around Paris, she can be found leading tours through Montmartre — a more recent venture that she embarked upon after writing several guides to this magical city. Her gold tap shoes are never far from reach, and following a quick pit stop at La Halle Saint Pierre, where one can find artworks created by ‘outside artists,’ (those not formally trained), we began our walk along the winding streets and up towards the back of the basilica.

At the top of seemingly thousands of steps leading up to the basilica, a man with a cello strapped to his back smiled up at us before tipping his hat as I took a quick photo of my ‘guide’ and her tap shoes for flyer promoting another new project, ‘Tap for Beginners’. (I may or may not have been invited, watch this space.)

In that moment, I cast my mind back to the first time I scaled those steps many years ago before making a mental note that on each visit, the magic remains the same.

A bridal party, complete with a bride in full ceremonial dress of beaded head wear and mountains of tule, posed under the romantic, sun hazed shadows cast from the domes of the basilica, as their guests chatted under the walls that frame the Square Marcel Bleustein Blanchet. In this pretty park children squealed and daffodils bloomed around its edges, a sign that spring is indeed upon us.

As we continued on our meander through cobblestoned streets featuring endless window shutters in a palette of a thousand colours, I also delighted in the abundance of street art — a gaggle of pink flamingos danced alongside us while mournful faces cried tears in shades of pink and purple. Poetic political slogans were painted alongside messages of love and spray painted bunches of flowers. A pair of trousers once dipped in wax emerged ridged from a wall housing a beautiful ‘maison,’ more reminiscent of a wedding cake than a home. A simple plaque in the gateway of this impressive building informed that this was once the home of Dalida, fondly remembered as an iconic darling of the French music scene.

Further along, under the watchful eye of the Musée de Montmartre, the vines in the ancient Vigne du Clos stood obediently in rows right down to where we stood on Rue Saint Vincent, and the late afternoon birdsong was made even more pleasant with a warmer than usual breeze in the air. I felt as though I’d been transported to another world. The shutters on every building had been flung open following a freezing winter, welcoming abundant light, and I think the words ‘when I grow up, I’ll live here,’ were uttered more than just once.

Further down the hill we admired Le Bateau Lovoir, Picasso’s studio for many years, and moments later, witnessed a Spanish tour guide almost implode as he spoke with unhinged enthusiasm in front of the blue door where Van Gogh once lived with his younger brother, Théo.

In the early evening we reached Rue des Abbesses, where mass was in its infant stages when we entered the Church of St Jean Montmartre. A passionate member of the parish resplendent in a neatly zipped up puffer jacket, conducted hymns from the lectern with erratic hand movements, while the priest wore more traditional garb decorated in the finest hues of magenta and gold.

We delighted in the enthusiasm of our conductor, before to retiring to a rooftop bar with endless, breathtaking views spanning the entire city — a hard earned Aperol Spritz in hand.

As several million lights twinkled below, the tower lit up in her usual hourly display of sparkling magic. In that moment, I concluded that magic does indeed happen. Or maybe, in the words of Enid Blyton, I’m just ‘jolly old fashioned’.

In closing, and on the topic of magic, this is my final Parisian piece for a month and on Friday you will be delivered the first of many ‘pinnings’ from Morocco, beginning with Marrakech, as I embark on a long awaited journey through the magical souks, medinas, mosques and everything that is Berber and beautiful.

Watch this space, I feel as though a fairy might be just about to cross my path.

Pictured: the beautiful café la Maison Rose, Montmartre, where we enjoyed afternoon espresso and gâteau au citron.

Connecting the dots.

Connecting the dots.

‘An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place and circumstance. The thread may stretch and tangle, but it will never break’.  Chinese proverb.

My first memory in life is of blowing out the candles on my fourth birthday cake. It’s vague, but I can recall this moment with enough clarity to know that it actually happened. There are earlier ‘memories’ that I question the validity of, and often wonder if they are ‘made up’ as a result of hearing versions of tales and therefore, ‘constructing’ memories from occasions that may have occurred before the age of four.

My family have a lifelong habit of questioning the ‘construct’ of my tales and memories, and, I know that a friendship is moving from gold to platinum status, when people ask ‘are you sure about that, Pin?’.

At about the age of four, I also developed a fairly strong will. As a sensitive person, with a penchant for rom-coms and happy endings in books, maintaining this will for the past 35 years (if indeed, it started at four) has not been without its struggles, but the older I get, the easier it becomes to determine when to say yes when I mean yes, and no, when I mean no. Indians are excellent at this – they tend to say yes as they shake their heads in a fashion normally reserved for no.

Just before I returned to Paris almost a month ago, Mum and I had dinner together where the topic of conversation shifted to ‘moments of clarity’. She recalled the summer before last, where I announced that I was going to sell everything and move to Paris – just like that. It was a bit ‘just like that,’ but there were months in the lead up to making that decision, where I lay awake at night, in an apartment that I loved, in a city that I’d long called home, and questioned what it would take to make me truly happy.

I had no reason to be unhappy, and not for a second am I actually suggesting that I was unhappy, I was just at a turning point in life, where days were turning into months, and months into years, and where being four was becoming more like ‘a long time ago’. Almost ‘the olden days’ in the minds of my colleagues, many of whom were a good fifteen years younger than me. I remember saying to a group of them in the kitchen at work ‘I think I’m having a bit of a quarter life crisis,’ to which they teased, ‘no Pin, at your age, it’s almost mid life’.

I suppose if you’d doubled my age and added about ten years, they were not too far off the mark.

And suddenly, I was living in Paris. For the first time in my life I saw ‘real’ freedom, where the daily commute to the office was replaced with a morning meander to a café. Mid morning deadlines were non existent and the Swatch on my wrist was almost redundant – I no longer religiously checked it, willing the end of the working day.

But, the grass is always greener and it was during these early days in my new life in Paris, where I began to crave routine and deadlines, and rather than getting lost in the rues, I was losing myself in all that new found freedom.

The man at ‘Scoopi Copy’ about four blocks away from my apartment in the 6th, is as long suffering of my mumblings, as he is kind. I first found him during one of my Parisian winters, a forerunner to my new life here, when I was taking a month of classes at the Alliance Francaise in Boulevard Raspail. He has a little dog who yaps, and there is a beaded curtain at the back of his shop, behind which he sits and drinks Coke Zero as I scan and print documents on a fairly regular basis. During the first few weeks following my move last year, I was not only seeking routine, but also a the second part of my visa.

Day after day I’d visit ‘Scoopi’ where endless documents were scanned before being churned out of his printer. Headers of red, white and blue loomed over dossiers littered with French language, legal documents were stacked one on top of the other, and my favourite, a timetable for my ‘new life’ came whizzing out on one of those early days of freedom, in colourful tones of pink, green and yellow.  I’d built a work plan.

This timetable has been altered to suit study requirements, reprinted upon alterations and most importantly, adhered to, for (almost) the past twelve months.

One thing I quickly learned is that in times of freedom, the need for routine becomes more important than ever. And, as a side note to this, realising the importance of saying yes to each and every opportunity and invitation, was to become a conduit to the success, outcomes and wins found in that freedom.

Before too long, my diary was filling up with appointments, coffee meetings, lunches, dinners, trips to museums and walks in parks – all with people I would otherwise not have met if it weren’t for that moment of clarity, which resulted in my move to Paris.

Within weeks, the invisible red thread was weaving its magic through the rues, parks and boulevards of my new found home.  And suddenly, I found myself working harder than I’d ever worked in my entire life.

Not only was I finally realising a long held dream of writing (and actually being disciplined in it), I was also confidently saying ‘oui’ when I’d actually meant ‘non,’ simply because I hadn’t understood the question.  The latter saw my cheeks flush a constant shade of red to rival the rougest of vin rouge, after moments of pure linguistic humiliation. Glasses of wine and conversations had with English speaking friends, saw moments of hysterical laughter when I’d admit to things like asking the woman in the boulangerie ‘was she a delicious croissant that I’d could eat?’ mixing my etres and avoirs, when really I wanted to know if she had any delicious croissants left for me to eat.
As much as I was determined to speak French, I was grateful too, for new found friends who could laugh along with me in English while reassuring me that I wasn’t an alien, rather, quite normal in fact.

More recently, I discovered Monday Book Club, held each week in the beautiful Hôtel de Crillon in Place de la Concord.

This discovery came about following a highly enjoyable, laughter filled lunch, with the sunny and talented character that is Jane Webster – not long after my recent return from Australia. Written up in the New York Times (just this week, 8/3), Jane is described as the ‘doyenne of the impressive Chateau Bosgouet.’ She is also the founder of Monday Book Club, and, while our book club didn’t get a mention in the review, I am more than happy to sing its praises.

Following lunch, I downloaded The Bettencourt Affair and devoured it in two days, enjoying each page of my first ‘book club book’ of many, with the same enthusiasm I’d shown for the fois gras and filet de canette I’d enjoyed at our rendezvous a week earlier at the famed restaurant Le Grand Vefour – situated in the north western corner of the Jardin du Palais Royal.

Just yesterday over coffee with another talented Australian, who has moved her life to Paris to continue her career as an artist, we spoke of everything from Emma Gonzales to every other topic on Earth (looking for complimenting words beginning with E here). Shrugging into our coats as we stood up to leave hours later, we agreed that we could have continued to chat for a further several hours.

‘Paris delivers me the most interesting people,’ I explained, ‘people I may have otherwise never met’.

She agreed, adding that while sitting in cafés solving the worlds problems for hours is probably not going to get me a book published, or her, a painting finished, it is important to realise that opportunities like these ‘just feed it’.

Feed what, you might ask?

For me, it is that invisible red thread that connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place and circumstance. The thread that may stretch and tangle, but it will never break.  This contributes to our success in each and every way.

As with with every friendship, new or old, comes the inevitable connection that are the dots that make up each little ‘rue’ on our map of life.

And finally, I will continue to say yes when I mean yes, and no when I mean no.

Except in French of course – that project is ongoing and more satisfying than ever, and forgive me if the odd ‘non’ was actually meant to be a ‘oui’. I’m strong willed in different ways, when it comes to ‘parler français’.

But at this point life, my early memories, life experiences and moments of clarity, are more than ever, adding up.

A tiny little part of me knows that I’ve got Paris, and all that it continues to deliver, to thank for that.

Pictured:  a man waits for the bus outside the beautiful Abbey of Saint Germain des Près.

 

 

Thoughts.

Thoughts.

Evan from Emirates had seen too many episodes of ‘Mean Girls’.
If I’m honest, I’ve never actually watched a single episode of ‘Mean Girls’, but going by the title, it would seem that the themes of the series in question, are probably not too hard to decipher.

Lumping my bag onto the weighing belt at the airport, almost breaking my back in the process, I offered up a smile in an attempt to get off to a good start. ‘Hi Evan,’ I said with a baby Labrador skip in my (not so baby Labrador) stride, ‘it’s been a long summer, family you know, so many Christmas presents,’ I went on to squeak, almost having a baby suitcase in the process.

‘Handle up,’ Evan warned as I lay the suitcase down on its side. Following his instructions, I stood the suitcase on its wheels just as he pressed ‘go’ on the conveyer belt, almost causing me to ride the bag like a miniature pony all the way down the chute to the aircraft.

‘Ha, all good,’ I laughed, ‘nearly got me!’. Evan went on to explain that I had too much luggage, and when I agreed, asking what he proposed I do about it, he simply advised that I could find some ‘friends’ in the airport to take it ‘home’ for me, or (even better) just ‘pop’ the excess into the bin behind him. Just like that, never to be seen again.

‘Ok Evan, it looks like I’ll be paying for some extra luggage, I understand, but in return do you think you could possibly see if there are any spots on the aircraft with a spare seat beside it – I’m traveling alone, you see’. Evan then went on to advise that traveling alone is my ‘choice’ and he doesn’t do favours, I’d be seated in approximately row 7,062 in the aisle near the closest ‘torlet,’ ‘mkay?’.

With that, I went to Jeff in customer service and dobbed on Evan. Bugger Evan, I don’t ‘choose’ to do anything alone, and if I had an endless pit of money I’d be flying in my own private jet to Paris – speaking of choices.

Jeff was the kindest man I’ve ever met. Ever. He assured me that he’d have a word to Evan, and went on to block me a row of four whole seats – away from any children with ear issues, at the back of economy and right near where the staff sit, ‘they’re just there, you can press the call button for anything you need Virginia, have a safe flight,’ casually adding ‘oh, and the excess, I’ve waved that for you, enjoy Paris’.

I wanted to climb the customer service desk and kiss Jeff, but had and early premonition that Jeff wouldn’t really have liked that so much, so I refrained, short of telling him he ‘completed’ me. Instead, I explained that his kindness had ‘improved my day exponentially,’ like I was suddenly an accountant staring at fiscal growth on a spreadsheet, not a civilian in an airport who’d been picked on by a man named Evan.

The end of two blissful months in Australia was almost destroyed by Evan (watch me be dramatic here), but thanks to Jeff, all was looking good. As I passed through Gate 11, it was Evan who checked my boarding pass and wished me a ‘bon voyage,’ before flashing a big smile.

Short Evan had a short memory – must be all those episodes of ‘Mean Girls’. Or, maybe Jeff was a bit of a heavy hitter when it came to ‘having a word’. Sweet Jeff.

As a combination of it being Valentines Day and Chinese New Year, the aircraft was almost empty. My four seats, making up row to myself, were a first after many years of flying and a welcome godsend. After placing my bags overhead and settling in, I wiped my eyes only a little bit as we headed up into the great big sky, destined for my ‘other’ home, miles away from my beloved family and friends.

Almost as soon as the seatbelt signs were turned off, a man in a short t-shirt barely reaching the waistline of his tracksuit pants, giving me full view of all that I didn’t want to know about, threw himself into the forth chair of my precious, hard earned row. He’d been eying ‘my’ row off throughout takeoff from his seat over the way, and proceeded to stretch out over all three seats that Jeff had so kindly allocated me as reverence for earlier ‘Evan-attude,’ and snored for the next twelve hours. Too tired and only the slightest bit emotional, I sat upright in my chair and watched about eleven films. Fifteen hours later, as we approached Dubai, he woke again and asked if I might like to ‘stretch out,’ for touchdown. I stared straight ahead and said nothing for fear of crying.
‘Hey, come on, ‘we’ have all this space – you should use it,’ he laughed, before asking me ‘what was the Eminem film you watched, what channel’. I swallowed, thought long and hard and responded with a weak, ‘It wasn’t anything to do with Eminem, I detest Eminem, the film was called Goodbye Christopher Robin’.

For the record, Goodbye Christopher Robin is a really beautiful film that did a good job of leaving me with no napkins left for supper, I highly recommend it.

Which brings me to films.

Just five minutes way on foot, along the ancient cobblestones of Cour du Commerce Saint André and left on Boulevard Saint Germain, I have ‘Cinema Odeon’. Downstairs from chez moi, just five steps away I have ‘Christine 21,’ a bit of a cult hero in the Parisian film scene where one can enjoy classic films in both French and English. Over the past five days, hemmed in by a rare, Siberian chill, I’ve seen four films and had Evan not taken up so much of the segue in getting to this point in the piece, I’d have given you a full debrief of all of them.

Set in a 17th century villa in Lombardy, Italy, Call Me by Your Name is a story set in sun drenched splendour of the surroundings of the Perlman family holiday home. Dr Perlman, the father, invites a handsome doctoral student to spend the summer with him and his wife and their young son, Elio.
Flies buzz, fruits are picked from the trees in expansive orchards, swims are had in cold and vast water holdings, and the Italian countryside begs for the viewer to leap through the screen in moments of pure, unadulterated, nostalgia.

I was taken by this film, not just for its breathtaking scenery and the beautiful love story between two young men that unfolds, but also for the journey back into the 1980’s decorated with Elio’s erratic and gifted playing of the piano. I downloaded the soundtrack to this film days before I went to the advanced screening last Tuesday, and have played it on repeat ever since.

In the final moments of the film, Dr Perlman delivers a (questionably idyllic for 1983) monologue to Elio in the sofa of his study. He speaks of a ‘beautiful friendship, maybe more than a friendship’ going on to add that he ‘envies’ Elio. In Dr Perlman’s place as a young boy, most parents would hope the whole thing would ‘go away’ or ‘pray that their sons land on their feet soon enough’. Dr Perlman is not such a parent; in Elio’s place, he urges him to ‘nurse it,’ and if there is a flame ‘don’t snuff it out’.
He finishes by advising ‘we rip so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should, that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing, so as not to feel anything – what a waste’.

That is not a spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the film already, because the whole way through the film you anticipate Dr Perlman’s dignified, understanding, and kind words that will eventually be delivered from him, to his son.

In the moments before heading in to watch the film, I hid from the chill outside in the relative comfort of the cinema foyer. An older man of about 70 years old entered and waited beside me. He was beautifully presented in pressed trousers, a sports coat and a tidy shirt (his collar may have been only a bit askew). His hair was not dissimilar to steel wool, the sort you’d clean a cast iron pot with, and his eyes were incredible and dark brown. As a younger man, he would have been even more handsome. As we were called in to take our seats, he put his seeing glasses on – one arm missing on the left side, but they had obviously continued to do the trick, lopsided as they appeared. He proceeded to get lost and headed for Cinema 3, muttering ‘merde’ before following me into Cinema 2.

As the credits rolled at the end of the film, I was holding a tissue up to both of my eyes, sobbing fairly decent tears after Dr Perlman’s words, as were my seating companions on both sides. As I stood to leave, I noticed my friend from the foyer sitting behind me, glasses lopsided and tears streaming down his face as he tapped his novel against his right knee crossed neatly over his left leg, as he stared vacantly into the distance.

A gentle reminder that we are never fully aware of anyone’s story and what might be going through their mind, and what may have happened in their past.

I’ll even apply this to Evan.

Today marks my first day of Monday Bookclub held in the beautiful Hotel Le Crillon, just off Place de la Concorde where many notable public executions of royalty took place during the French Revolution. In 2018, it is more of a frenetic roundabout, littered with taxis doing their best not to mow down tourists. The book for March is The Bettencourt Affair, an addictive read of over 1,000 pages which I also devoured during the cold days delivered by the ‘Beast from the East’.

Tonic for the mind and soul is often delivered in strange ways – long flights and forced lockdowns delivered by weather patterns from Siberia, included.

Pictured: the beautiful mosaic walls of Boissonerie, a fabulous restaurant not far from home in the Rue de Seine.