Let us eat.

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

Julia Child.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘French?’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The flow on.

The flow on.

‘For last years words belong to last years language, and next years words await another voice’.

T.S Elliot 

And here we are, almost a month into another year.

The week before the Christmas festivities began, I sang Christmas Carols at St. Andrews – the English church – just moments away from the big mosque in the Grand Socco.  The West African men, devout in their Christianity, played drums between rousing versions of Away in a Manger and Good King Wenceslas.  Children squealed with delight at the end of the service when the church patron, who also runs a successful bed business in Tanger, dressed as Father Christmas, spoiling them with little presents dug out of a huge red bag.  

The evening call to prayer could be heard from the mosques around town in the same moment that we spilled out into Rue d’Angleterre.

Humming ‘Christ was born, in Bethlehem,’ I meandered slowly through a sea of beige Mercedes taxies, uniform in their makeup and chaotic in their line up, before turning back to observe St. Andrews from the gate of the Hotel Villa de France.  The English flag flew above the church and the mosque stood proudly in the distance.  Matisse painted this vision in the light of dawn many years before I arrived, but the view remained quite literally unchanged on the eve of Christmas, 2018.  

Save perhaps, for the taxies.

I began writing this a week ago, overlooking the beautiful Atlantic Ocean where magnificent sunlight provided a filter on what can only be described as a perfect winter portrait.  The beach was empty, with the exception of a lone boy flying a kite which danced with caution across crashing waves.

The water at home had been cut for five days, making the flat almost unbearable hence my escape to a favourite beach restaurant for the afternoon.  Piles of washing spewed out of the basket and dishes filled the sink.  Mopping the floors was but a distant memory, and the jackhammer sounding below served as a constant reminder of works taking place on the road being the reason behind the problem. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, and I was beginning to feel somewhere in the vicinity of deranged.

No letter from a local council officer advising that works would take place, and if I mentioned the problem to anyone even remotely Moroccan, I was reminded that I could always go to a hammam.

True, and I realised this could be my reality for as long as this problem may last.  But a hammam would not mop the floors.  Daily baths were had with a salad bowl and a bucket, with water purchased in ten litre plastic bottles from the small general store downstairs boiled in the kettle.

One evening, as I lowered myself into a lukewarm (borderline cold), inch deep bath for the forth day, I cast my mind back to being a fifteen year old where I spent 12 months living in the Australian high country during an outward bound school year inspired by Kurt Hahn.  

We chopped our own wood for daily showers, and if that task wasn’t met, we had to go without.  As part of that year, we went on a week long snow tour in the height of winter, where we wore ancient wooden cross country skis and carried daily rations of food hidden in packs stuffed full of a tent, a trowel to dig a hole for a lavatory, and enough warm clothes to fend off hypothermia.  I recall one night so cold, where we camped atop a mountain and snow fell relentlessly from dusk until dawn.  I slept in all of my clothes along with my hiking boots and my jaw was clenched stiff when the sun came up the following morning; everything was sodden wet.  As the day grew longer, the sun became warmer, and everything dried out as we continued our trek through deep, fresh snow and onwards to the next campsite where we would spend the night.

The smile on my face as the sun burned my cheeks, was one of complete joy. I defrosted,  laughed and sang my way up the mountain with a handful of people who have become lifelong friends.  It didn’t kill me. Quite the contrary, and those memories of that year, remain incredibly fond.

Forgive me if I sound pathetic, but I will practice any mental exercise to make a grim situation better than it actually is, and that lukewarm bath needed a little silver lining.

The first round of roadworks started just as the Christmas drinks began to flow.  Fortunately, on Christmas morning, Father Christmas delivered a warm shower and following this, I joined twenty others in the Tangier home of two very dear friends, Monica and Richard and their gorgeous twin boys.  

Monica is Italian and not known for doing anything in half measures.  The table was set to perfection and the turkey cooked just as I’d always remembered.  Happy cheer was present as ever and the wine flowed and laughter followed.

A handful of my Tangier favourites, Maggie, Nicolo, Frank, Gene, Monica, Michele and Micky formed my table, and I delighted in finding myself bookended by the boys at the end of the table.  At the ripe old age of 11 years old, they looked at me with faces of utter confusion which was followed by hysterical laugher, when I told them that we were the youngest kids at the table.  ‘I mean, I’m only 28 years older than you both,’ I advised as I went in for 17ths of panettone without flinching.  

Alvin the cat sat in the windowsill, staring on with complete judgment as I wiped the crumbs away from around my mouth.

Twinkle Toes was on duty that day as an extra set of hands, and he was puffed up like a pigeon when he saw me walk into the room.  ‘Virginia, you will have a Bloody Mary today,’ he advised, before pouring a delicious mix of tomato-y goodness into a glass.  Virginia was very grateful, already weary.  Christmas Day was just the beginning of what became two weeks of fun and heady festive cheer. 

On Boxing Day drinks were had on a roof terrace not far from home.  With half an hour until I was due at that particular party, I turned the shower on, only to be met with one little drip. 

No more, no less.  

Rummaging through the top drawer in a desperate search for a pair of tights I found nothing, just one pair of jogging tights that hadn’t seen the light of day for months. The laundry basket was overflowing, following Twinkle Toes’ constant reminders that I mustn’t start the machine if the water was going to be cut at sporadic times.  That would, ‘make big boom’.

I took his word for it, and entered into a small wardrobe crisis.  My neighbour explained that we were all in this together and the water was set to be an ongoing saga.  

The flow on (I like a pun) was hardly life changing, just a minor nuisance. 

After finding no tights in the drawer, I burst out the door on Boxing Day night with the same pizazz as a novelty dice out of a newly cracked Christmas cracker, in pursuit of a new pair.  I walked like an Olympic power walker towards the tiny makeshift mall down the road, not daring break into a jog as that is just not the done thing in these parts.  Only thieves run, with the rest of the general populous opting for a gentle meander, or a walk so slow it could easily be mistaken for a glide.  

The man who sells tights knows that I like an XXXXXL from Germany and he always seems to have a pair on hand when I make an appearance.  On this particular occasion, he had a shocking pair in a colour reminiscent of prison issue ‘greenish grey,’ with an extra support gusset that he proudly advised that I’d like.  I swept up two pairs with complete enthusiasm.  

Lucky my dress is below the knee and my boots will hide the rest, I reminded myself.

The Syrian woman, who runs arguably the best take away shop in Tangier, is (understandably) very concerned about the state of her home country.  When her husband returned home recently to visit his brother and extended family, he had to fly into Beirut before taking a bus to the border where he travelled onward by car to Damascus. 

‘Just Americans and Russians use our airports now,’ she explained wistfully.

I enjoy trips to the woman at the Syrian takeaway for her beautiful, kind and calm nature.  Her stories and felafel have become a much enjoyed and and far too regular lunchtime habit.

‘Hello there,’ came a soft, familiar voice just as I was parting with 40 dirhams and my prison issue greens avec great gusset, were being bagged up.

‘Oh hello!’ I exclaimed back to the Syrian woman from the best takeaway in Tangier, blinking only momentarily – she was completely out of context and standing alongside the most beautiful older woman who I’d not met before.

‘This is my mother,’ she explained as she took me into a huge, warm hug ‘you had your big day yesterday,’ finishing with a heartfelt, ‘Happy Christmas’.

Observing her hijab tied neatly under her chin (as always), the cuffs on her shirt purposefully folded back, and her kind twinkling eyes twinkling, I smiled and hugged her back.  Yes, Christmas in Morocco was wonderful, I thanked her before pointing at the tights, ‘no water at home,’ I laughed rolling my eyes.  

My interaction with my Syrian friend was a sage reminder that all was actually quite good on the home front and as I kissed her goodbye, I promised to come for felafel in the new year. 

One thing I observed throughout December, is that not once did anyone mention ‘the holiday season,’ in fear of offending other religions.  Rather, windows were spray painted with white stencilled blasts of ‘Joyeux Noel’ and ‘Merry Christmas’.  The text in Arabic was impossible for me to read, but I assumed it had the same meaning, with the beautiful swirly script painted onto shop windows finished off with bursts of holly and bells.

Taxi drivers were triumphant when the opportunity arose for them to remind me that I was ‘a Christmas person,’ before asking (when it became apparent that I was Australian), if a kangaroo would deliver my presents?

It was a sweet reminder that, by and large, Morocco is a country where we can all live in noisy harmony, regardless of faith or race.  Here, all sorts of religious holidays are observed throughout the year, with Islam being predominant, and not once are the names changed or the reasons behind the celebrations blurred.  Rather, days are recognised from all the different books and regardless of what one might believe or not believe, in Morocco, and as a person not strictly religious, I have learned a lot from people and their devotion to faith.

Sometimes, I feel like a great big heathen, rolling around with baskets in the back of taxis while the driver mutters prayer under his breath following the call heard from the mosque in the distance, but all of this has taught me that, while religion can have its downside, it is also the basis of much routine and a sense of belonging for a vast, balanced, majority.

Twinkle Toes, not the slightest bit religious but the first to say ‘Inshallah’ (god willing) when I ask him to help me with anything, sat me down a week before New Year’s Eve and gave me a stern talking to.

‘You haven’t had a party,’ he scolded, newly confident after working as a waiter for many friends who had hosted me for endless Christmas drinks throughout the festive season.

‘You need to say thank you, write a list,’ he bossed, finishing with, ‘I will dress as Papa Noel, Inshallah’.

The night before New Year’s Eve, forty five people squeezed into my sitting room.  The tropical plant that normally provides a Moroccan ambience in the entrance to the flat, twinkled disco blue with flickering lights provided by Papa Noel himself, and the kitten wore a pink sateen ribbon around her neck.  

Everyone was jolly after a week of non stop drinks and catch ups.  Papa Noel stole the show, handing around snacks that he’d prepared in the kitchen dressed in full red regalia, with a synthetic, novelty white beard covering his black designer stubble.

The following night, on the final eve of 2018, two of my most treasured Tangier favourites, Gavin and Boz, hosted 8 for a  delicious dinner at their wonderful Kasbah house that has become something of a home away from my own Tangier home.  While they spend the bulk of their time living in London, it is always a complete treat to have them both in town.  At midnight, we joined many of our fellow Tangerinas to sing in the new year at Villa Mabrouka, once the Tangier residence of my teen idol, Yves Saint Laurent.

Two nights later drinks were had at the beautiful home of Nicolo, another great friend and Tangier treasure, with lunch at Veeres most glorious house on the old mountain, signalling the end of it all the following day.  

Last years words belong to last years language, and as I swung into 2019, in a new town that a year ago I had no idea even existed in the form that I’ve come to know it, I felt positively excited that I found Tangier.  In just under 12 months, I have met so many precious people from every single chapter of life’s unpredictable and unknown pages.  I am so very thankful for everyone who made my first Christmas and New Year in Morocco so very special – there are too many to name.

The love I have for my family and friends is stronger than ever, and I am now the proudest aunt in the world to five of the most gorgeous nephews and as many godchildren. 

Just like the water stoppage and the joy I felt when it returned to normal two days ago, the flow on from my move here has no boundaries, and for that, I look forward to what this year may hold.  Who actually knows what is ahead, but for the time being I will continue to document my endless learnings and learn from my mistakes, of which there are plenty made in a humiliating fashion on a daily basis.  But right there, lies the way to develop a new voice, for a new year.

Happy, happy new year, here’s to a very safe and enjoyable 2019.  Thank you so very much for continuing to read my pinnings and I look forward to delivering many more as the year unfolds.  

My resolution is to return to two publications per week and you’re more than welcome to hold me to that promise.  But right now, I’ve a real hankering for falafel.

And finally, as the festive season came to a close last week, I need to tell you that I had a wonderful dream where I adopted a donkey.  He was beautiful and strong, and for some reason, I named him Heathen.

Pictured: white doves, the ultimate sign of peace, living in rather questionable conditions at the local market.