This morning I set out to buy clothes pegs. Sadly, the man at the store just moments from home was out of clothes pegs but, Hassan over the way would have them he was quick to assure me.
‘Hassan over the way’ sort of drives me a bit mad because he is always wanting to connect on WhatsApp, and I’m running out of excuses as to why I can’t connect today, yesterday and all the days before. But, there is nothing I loath more than wet washing sitting in a pile for more than 35 seconds before being hung out to dry, so I tempted WhatsApp fate and braved Hassan.
‘Madame, bonjour’, he cried ‘ça va bien’ and on it went. ‘Tu est Christina, oui?’ ‘non, je suis Virginia’ I reminded him, before making squeezing motions with my fingers explaining ‘laundry’ because I couldn’t remember the word for ‘peg’.
‘Ah oui, des pinces à linge,’ he reminded me laughingly, ‘un moment Vir-jee-nah,’ which is the way my name is both spelt and pronounced by most Moroccans.
Another much smaller man appeared and was bossed towards the back shelves by Hassan. An exchange in darija (which I couldn’t understand), led me to believe that perhaps they didn’t have clothes pegs, but if the man stayed under the shelf for long enough shouting up at Hassan, perhaps Vir-jee-nah would believe that they indeed did, and she’d stand there long enough to be tempted by a chocolate bar, or a can of deodorant. There was no chance I was getting out of there without buying something.
Moments passed, turning into minutes which soon became several minutes, and all that was happening under the shelf was a whole lot of rustling and a little bit of shouting. Two older women entered and hemmed me in against a fridge full of UHT milk, and a box full of further UHT milk blocked my only exit.
‘Oui, ou non, Hassan?’ I squeaked, feeling like a big rat in a field of tiny mice, whispering ‘excusez moi’ to the two women in front of me, as I planned my escape.
‘Excusez moi,’ I repeated, slightly louder this time, which was met with little to no movement and with that, I picked up the huge box full of UHT milk, placed it behind me and bid farewell to Hassan.
Aziz down the hill also has a multi purpose store which sells everything from milk to clothes pegs, so he became my plan C, by which time it was at least half an hour since the washing machine had bleated ‘finished,’ and where I was beginning to develop a twitch that comes with ‘wet washing in basket for too long,’ syndrome.
I first met Aziz on Monday afternoon this week, when I decided that it was high time I connected the stove to a gas bottle as a means to the beginning of actually settling into my kitchen. The store of Aziz is like a wonderland, with piles of laundry detergent mixed amongst packets of cigarettes, mops, buckets and every other imaginable piece of equipment you could ever need in your house. Including, a long line of gas bottles out the front.
Admittedly, I’d been putting off connecting the stove as I was beside myself with fear at the thought of going home with a gas bottle and joining it up to a potentially faulty appliance that was supplied with the apartment. ‘Does it work?’ I’d asked, as I signed the rental contract weeks ago, ‘yes of course, Inshallah,’ was the response. Inshallah translates to ‘god willing,’ and it is used at the end of every sentence in place of where I would use ‘I hope,’ if I wasn’t sure, or ‘of course,’ should I be feeling slightly more confident.
‘À bientôt,’ I say, as I wave goodbye to the waiter after a nice meal in a restaurant, or the shopkeeper following a successful time in a hardware store, ‘oui, inshallah,’ comes the response, nine times out of ten.
Inshallah, used in the context of fitting gas to a stove, hadn’t really been filling me with complete confidence, so I’d left the oven to last. Pillows have been filled with feathers sourced from Mongolia, and my garden now blooms following a trip to a garden centre seemingly 700 kilometres from Tangier, but when it has come to making a basic coffee in the morning or steaming a piece of fish, I’ve been willing to either go hungry, or outsource the task.
Exaggerations aside – inshallah I’ve painted a complete picture of the extent of how unwilling I was to find myself in a room alone with a gas bottle and a stove that could potentially really hurt me.
On our first meeting I greeted Aziz with a jolly ‘bonjour,’ followed by ‘Salaam alaikum’ which is a nice greeting in darija meaning ‘and unto you, peace’. I use it daily and it is always met with a smile.
And smile Aziz did, before advising that he only speaks a little bit of French followed by the question I so often face, particularly when dealing with older Moroccans, do I speak Spanish? I laughed, before advising that I absolutely do not, but he didn’t mind, surprising me with ‘I love to speak in English’. His English was about as good as my French, but I was so grateful that in the midst of ‘gas gate’ I would be able to fully understand what was going on, rather than 35% or perhaps even, 23%. A nod and feigned comprehension (a state in which I so often find myself), wasn’t going to cut it on this occasion.
A call was made and rapid ‘something’ was spoken, before a man arrived in the store. He smiled incredibly broadly, and Aziz advised that ‘this man, he speak not a language, no words’.
I walked up the hill with my new friend, obviously in complete silence, as he carried a gas bottle on his back and I felt somewhat awkward that I couldn’t even entertain him with some useless but polite offerings of thanks, or even a silly observation about the weather. Once inside the lift in my building, we stared blankly at the wall and the chug up to the fourth floor took seemingly forever.
As I opened the door to my apartment his eyes flashed wide and he smiled at me, a pot of roses here, some pictures there, and I quickly concluded that if he could speak, he would probably say nothing at all anyway. Once inside the kitchen I found my iPad still running the BBC loudly, and as his arm brushed up against it’s screen in the moment where he hoisted the bottle onto the ground, my screensaver – a pretty picture of Paris- flashed up as brightly as his eyes did in shock.
A procedure followed where he took a tool to the washer and banged the old bottle off the pipe and fixed the new one in with a fresh rubber bearing. I was beside myself with happiness.
Saying nothing, he kissed his hand and touched his heart, before waving me out of the room. I left, obediently, peaking around the corner as he turned the gas on and lit the pipe. It went up in gentle flames. Genius I thought, a kind one at that.
Catching me spying from the hallway, he motioned for a knife by pretending to chop his left hand off with his right, and I scrambled through the kitchen drawer and found a pair of scissors. My silent friend cut the end off the hose before jamming it onto the mouth of the gas bottle so tightly, and then repeated the process – a kiss of his hand before touching his heart and a wave for me to leave the room, before he held an open flame over the bottle. Nothing exploded or caught fire. He then turned on the stove and voila! The burner lit up, and we were in business.
Aziz had a second bottle waiting in the store (always have a spare gas bottle in the house, I’ve been told over and over), and during the short walk down the hill to collect it with my new favourite person, I concluded in my mind that I’d found not one, but two gems in a very short space of time. Aziz and his friend had gone out of their way in a task to them probably so normal, but for me, nothing short of mortifying.
As I waved the silent man goodbye following his second delivery, he made a telephone motion with his hands – and in English I responded, ‘of course you’ll be the first person I’ll call when I next need gas, inshallah’.
This morning when I returned to Aziz he gave me a big smile before asking ‘how the gas,’ to which I responded, ‘better than ever Aziz, shukran’. I went on to explain that I needed not one, but three packets of clothes pegs – ‘you do much washing madame,’ he laughed.
If only he knew.
Sometimes when I’m asked ‘why Morocco,’ I find it a very difficult question to answer. But the moments spent in silence where no one speaks any common language, provide me with a feeling I find very hard to describe, and maybe that is the best answer.
The kindness I experience in this country, day after day, and quite often in complete silence or perhaps in a melange of languages which often results in utter confusion, is the best kindness of all.
Pictured: the beautiful Rue d’Italie at dusk.