From Croissants to Cous Cous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Are you a vegetable Madame?’.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The hallway will be pink Tariq,’ 

‘Just like your name Madame’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plenty more to come.

Pictured: moving day.

3 thoughts on “From Croissants to Cous Cous.

  1. It’s a cold winter morning in Melbourne. I’m on the tram into the city but I could have sworn I was actually busy moving to Tangier and renovating a flat.

    What is usually a 20 minute trip has taken 5 seconds.

    Beautiful writing. Looking forward to the next edition!

  2. You’ve made it, very much intact and at home, and ready to proceed with a fascinating journey – congratulations !!! Jono will be very proud of you xx

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