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