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