Another Year.

Another Year.

Two ladies are chatting in the doorway to my building. Both are wearing face masks which teamed with their hijabs, leave very little of their face exposed.

There is a doctors surgery on the ground floor of my building, and it’s not uncommon for the steps in the foyer that lead to the lift, to double as a waiting room.

‘As Salaam Alaikum,’ I smile from behind my mask as I brush past with my basket full of shopping.

‘Wa Alaikum Salaam,’ they respond in unison.

The lift chugs up to my floor and I burst through the door to my flat, hissing at my mask as I fling it onto a beautiful chair in the entrance, ‘hate you,’ I scold laughingly, as if the mask suddenly has feelings.

It’s early, probably about 10.30am, and I’ve deliberately been out just as the shops open, to avoid the crowds who venture out much later. In the old days, Tangier would rise for the day at a slow, Mediterranean pace, these days she is hard to raise from her slumber at all.

My shoes are slid off and inside slippers are slid on. I shuffle around the kitchen after my mandatory hand wash, before the ferrying of goods from the basket in the entrance begins.

Salad, fruit and vegetables from the market are soaked in a bowl of water. Milk and wine are placed in the fridge, and I thank my lucky stars the wine didn’t clink against my keys as I bustled past the women waiting for the doctor minutes earlier. Bread goes in the bread basket.

‘Where is the bread?’ I ask myself, before realising I didn’t pick up a baguette from the boulangerie.

By now it’s been fifteen minutes since I arrived home, and what would have once been a relatively simple exercise of unpacking the shopping, takes forever as I apply extra caution to surfaces and things touching surfaces whilst wiping the wisps of hair out of my eyes; hair that has for some reason become static and adamant that it will itch my face in these new times of ‘mask wearing’.

Cursing myself, I slide my slippers off, grab my money and antiseptic hand wipes (German, they smell like medicinal heaven and would kill a man if he ingested one; take note, Donald), I slip my mask back onto my face and put my outside shoes on again. Off I trot down the stairs and back into the foyer of the building.

‘As Salaam Alaikum’ I smile from behind my mask to the same two women still standing on the stairs. Must be a slow morning in the Doctor’s rooms.

‘Wa Alaikum Salaam,’ they respond in unison.

Mohammad’s on the street shouting into his phone. He see’s me coming and gives me a big wave. I love Mohammed. He guards the street like a member of the family, and he is always there to help me through the door. Moments later, I arrive at the boulangerie where a queue has formed outside the door. The security guard who mans the foot traffic at the boulangerie gives me a nod. Two in, two out. He knows that I know the rules.

These days, I’m very obedient.

A homeless man holds out his hand, but my money is deep within my basket. Now that it is mandatory to wear a mask, I can no longer multitask (let alone see, for some reason) and I telepathically tell him to wait a minute.

Once inside, the banter begins with the girls who are always full of chat and polite, happy exchanges. The one who is pretty and has a mouth full of braces, is unrecognisable in COVID times with her face behind a mask and her hands covered in latex. She looks more like a dental nurse than a bread seller.

My hair is static as I reach for the money inside my bag, and the temptation to wipe it out of my eyes makes me sniff. The cashier is behind a plastic visor, the type you might use if you were a blacksmith, or a welder.

Everyone jolts when I begin to sniff and stifle a sneeze. I want to joke that I haven’t ‘got it, just my hair is static and I don’t want to touch my mask,’ but I’ve only recently learned to even say ‘sorry’ in Arabic, so I choose that offering instead.

I prepare twenty dirhams out of my change for the security guard at the door, and a further five dirhams for the homeless man who is bound to accost me as I leave.

Waving everyone goodbye, imagining that they’re all nattering ‘do you think she’s got it?’ I hand the security guard his money with a whispered ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ and a smile.

The homeless man shuffles forward and he takes his five dirhams with mutterings of ‘thanks to God, God is great’. I smile at him from behind my mask, a hopeless gesture really, but I hope that he can see the creases around my eyes join together when my face lights up.

Mohammed is off the phone when I reach my street and he’s quick to open the door. Each year, I give him money for Ramadan as he is incredibly kind and always helpful.

We have very little language between us, and during the COVID19 lockdown he has developed a ritual of waving his arms each time I step outside as he speaks to the sky delivering a message to his namesake. I understand he’s saying something to ‘the other’ Mohammed about the virus, as ‘Corona’ is a universal word.

‘Shoukran, Mohammed’ I thank him, handing him 100 dirhams. ‘Lah, Shoukran,’ he offers, before promising to spend it on his children.

The two women have obviously been ushered inside the Doctor’s rooms and the steps are now occupied by a young family waiting patiently and with their faces, also behind masks.

‘As Salaam Alaikum,’ I smile from behind my mask, nodding at the mother holding her child as the father busy’s himself on his phone.

‘Wa Alaikum Salaam,’ she responds.

The lift chugs back up to my floor and I step out for the second time in one morning. I toss my mask back onto the beautiful old chair in the entrance hissing at it once again, and I slide my feet out of my outdoor shoes, and into my inside slippers.

A mandatory hand wash follows, before I place the baguette in the breadbasket and race to the bathroom sink and brush my hair tightly back into a hair clip.

Another year has passed us by, and here we are again in the month of Ramadan. Had I known twelve months ago that we’d be in lockdown because of a strange virus and that planes would no longer fly, I’d probably have torn out the very head of hair that plagued me with its static fit during my morning shopping trip.

Isn’t it strange how we’ve just ‘adapted’ to this new way of being?

Masks, static hair, the fear of sniffing or heaven forbid, sneezing, reduced contact, et al.

Ramadan Mubarak to my Muslim friends, who have had to accept a different approach to Ramadan this year.

There is still the daily fast from dawn until dusk, but without the added fun and excitement of the much adored evening promenade in the streets and cafés with friends; a nightly extension of the much anticipated evening l’ftour.

When I sighted the crescent moon at the end of last week, I felt happy for my neighbours as they entered this time, but only the slightest bit sad about this changed way of living and the way it will impact this normally very holy and social month.

As Twinkle Toes loves to say between every second word; ‘Inshallah’ we will meet again soon and next year, another year on, we will reunite with the freedoms that we (seemingly unknowingly) took for granted in the past.

Where ever we are in the world, and whatever it is that we believe in.

For the Love of Strangers.

For the Love of Strangers.

One morning three years ago, I made my daily commute on foot from my flat in Paris to the Sorbonne, where I was undertaking a semester in French. On my walk, I passed a house that had forever caught my eye.

On that particular morning the front door was wide open, and the man who lives inside was busy rearranging his bookshelves. I wanted to ask if I could come in and roam around his house – I’d dreamed up a floor plan of rooms full of clutter, but I was late for class so I kept on walking.

And anyway, I’m not great with strangers and would have been too timid to ask.

Days later, I was sitting in a café just off the Rue de Rivoli, madly conjugating verbs with a cold glass of rosé. Half way through my être column, I felt a presence land in the seat beside me. Almost at avoir, I didn’t even glance sideways; I was experiencing a rare moment of understanding the language that was plaguing my every day.

“You’re from America?” Came a voice from the chair beside me. Looking up briefly, and noticing that the cafe was all but empty and the voice directed at me could have sat at any given table but had chosen to sit beside me, I responded curtly, “non”.

“Canada?”

“Non”

“England?”

“Non.”

“I am from Tunisia” he explained eagerly, even though I’d shown little to no interest in him whatsoever.

“Tunisia is the most beautiful place, I will go there soon but in this day it is not safe,” he explained as I busied myself with notes on le futur antérieur (the future perfect), using the future simple form of avoir as an auxiliary, followed by the passe participe of the main verb.

Desperately wanting to be alone as I reached a milestone I’d struggled to conquer during previous weeks in class, I kept my head down and bit my lip.

“My father, she is in Tunis and my mother, he is in Paris.”

“We left Tunis many years before and I miss my father…”

“My brother, she is in Paris also and my sister, he is in Tunis.”

“Where are your family?” He finished.

“My family are on holiday” I replied, feeling bothered as I reached for my glass of wine. I was now so distracted and all my ‘future perfect’ effort was disappearing down an imaginary drain, right before my eyes.

“Where is the holiday?” He asked.

Without sounding utterly cantankerous, I really can’t stand small talk with strangers. Unless of course, I am sitting staring at a wall with nothing to distract me and I am not trying to wrangle something like a piece of writing, or a language impossible.

Short of saying “off you pop, pest,” I took a deep breath and reached deep within.

As for the French homework, she was going to have to wait.

“My family live in a country far away, they are very nice people and from time to time, I miss them. I live in Paris with my lover, he is from the land of Botatta and he has fourteen wives and sixty three children. His mother is a nurse, and his father is a car parking attendant. We met in the circus and he can wrap his legs around his head”.

“It’s love,” I finished.

“Does she love you?” He asked, as I stood up to pay.

He does, a lot” I replied as I collected my bag, paid the waiter and walked away.

During this lockdown I’ve cast my mind back to the strangers I’ve met in my life, usually as I sit alone in cafes or as I stare out the window on long train journeys. I document these meetings as soon as they take place, just so that I don’t forget them.

In Paris I had plenty of them and in Morocco, they occur on an almost daily basis.

With this new found silence and day upon day to remember the past, I have found myself going through old notes and photos, where I am reminded of the places in which I encountered strangers who wanted to talk in moments that I didn’t.

One day about four years ago I was traveling on a train from Rome to Grosetto. I’d left Paris earlier that morning, and when I’d phoned ahead the night before to ask my hosts in Tuscany if they needed anything, the response was “Oh yes please! Just the most filthy, smelly sheep’s cheese you can find – loads of it”.

By the time I arrived in Rome, my bag had begun to smell vaguely like a barn.

Following a short trip in a taxi from the airport, I made my way to my seat on the train. In that moment, I was beginning to experience the travel sweats that are typically reserved for trips with carry on luggage which is heavy, because one has jammed too much in, and one is beginning to regret not paying the extra €20 for checked in bags. Carry on is also typically just the tiniest bit too wide for things like passages on trains.

Unwrapping my scarf from around my neck (it was cool when I left Paris that morning), I mouthed ‘ciao’ to the man opposite me. I can’t speak Italian, and I was feeling mildly awkward as little wafts of goat cheese came directly from the luggage rack above my seat. About an hour into the journey I opened my bag to retrieve a phone charger, and almost expected a bundle of straw to fall out and a chicken to escape.

The smell of barn was incredibly intense.

My companion opposite me began conversing in Italian;

“Are you a farmer?” He asked.

“No” came my response.

“Is there an animal in that bag?”

“No” I blushed.

“Your bag smells like goat’s pee pee” he laughed.

Of course I don’t actually know if that is what he was saying because as I mentioned, I can’t speak Italian, but I’m sure it was something along those lines.

This morning I found a picture I took three years ago of the street that runs along the west side of the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris. In that moment, I was taken straight back to the beautiful old house with the door wide open. I wonder if the man is ok, I thought to myself, the one I caught a glimpse of rearranging his bookshelves that morning three years ago.

And as for the Tunisian, I hope he too is ok, and I wonder if he has yet grasped that a man is he and a woman, she.

The complexities of language and meetings with complete strangers, and the fact that they are also a thing of the past in a time where we no longer happen upon people during our new life in lockdown, are all things to consider for the future.

These days whenever my phone buzzes, it’s likely to by someone I know on the other end. We launch straight into conversations about what we ate, what we might drink later, and who we’ve spoken to recently. It feels uniform and pleasant, but there is very little room for spontaneity.

I can only dream of being on a long train journey (oh, and how I’d love to go to Tunisia) and for a dreaded stranger to sit down beside me and ask if I’m married or if there is a goat in my handbag.

These days, it’s just my mind on a little journey madly plotting what I could possibly say next.

Which might explain why I’m late publishing this week; I’ve been knee deep in photos and memories, and visions from the past.

Pictured: A pretty towel on a brass hook in my bathroom.

The Music.

The Music.

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again.’

When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes’.

When we were little, our Grandmother, Posy, took us to see Les Misérables. We wore pretty skirts and hand made shirts, and ribbons in our hair. A trip to Melbourne always saw this type of wardrobe situation arise, and I adored every part of dressing up. On this occasion, I remember Edwina, the third sister of our four, being attacked by a goose in our Great Aunt Debo’s garden just before we set off to catch the train.

Poor little thing had grass stains on her tights for the rest of the day. I’d have been furious, but she took it all in her sweet little eight year old stride.

Music has always played a part of my daily life and I particularly love a sing along. I’ve never quite been one to grasp the words of songs, just the tune, and I often make the words up as I go, belting them out with complete conviction.

Recently, I found myself doing morning emails and note taking to the Les Misérables sound track, sung by the stars of the motion picture.

Oh, Eddie Redmayne when he sings ‘empty chairs and empty tables…’ so reminiscent of current day boulevard, Tangier. In our daily lockdown, I live for music more than ever and you might recall in a recent blog, I mentioned hymns and my love for them, as well as Leonard Cohen in the one just past.

Just when I thought I’d come to terms with the daily lock up, and short bursts of shopping when needed (it’s just a little pause in life, I’d remind myself), we had a new law introduced. Everyone had to wear a face mask in every public place across every corner of Morocco.

No mask, no shopping, and fines would be imposed.

Those daily nips to the shops, quick and with one of my thousand shopping baskets flung over my shoulder, became uncomfortable and rushed trips, with beads of sweat building behind my mask.

I truly feel and have the upmost respect for, anyone who has to wear a mask as part of their profession and on a daily basis. Not just during COVID19.

The introduction of mandatory mask wearing saw an increased level of stress on the streets. This ‘introduced species,’ so rarely used in this culture, or many to be honest, in every day life, was only another weird addition to our new normal.

Listening to the BBC one morning last week, as I do every morning of my life, I was intrigued to hear a virologist discussing the risks associated with the misuse of a mask. If they are cheap, they are useless, if a hand touches the mask and it’s contaminated, the hands are then infected and will need to be washed immediately before they touch another surface. If a family takes to wearing disposable masks and they throw them in the kitchen rubbish bin each night, the virus can breed like a little demon as they sleep. Who then handles that bin bag?

On morning walks to buy milk I began to see filthy ‘one wear’ masks hanging around the necks of people touching all sorts of things that were about to be purchased and taken into a mass of homes.

Is this the answer? I kept asking myself, and will continue to do so. I have no objection to people wearing a mask, but if we don’t know how to use them properly, are we really protecting ourselves and everyone around us?

Deciding on a cloth mask, one I can wear for the duration of my ‘every other day’ ten minute walk outside, to then be thrown straight into a boiling hot wash, I found myself in the doorway of a building just three minutes from home and collecting four of them, lovingly stitched by a local tailor who is, understandably, looking for a way to tread water for as long as this may last.

It may not be surgically approved, but with a shortage of them available (I tried seven pharmacies in as many minutes on the day the new law was announced) this is my best bet to fit in, be obedient and not contribute to more landfill in a world that is already boiling hot and now, at a standstill.

On the phone to a friend on Easter Sunday, we discussed all of this and what the future might look like. There is no answer to these questions and we both noted that we’d seen a slow down in humour as the situation becomes more real, and our streets, quieter and quieter.

This, of course, is the reality all around the world.

My flat was particularly silent during Easter and I’d stocked up in the lead up to the weekend, choosing not to go out and sweat behind my mask and feel furious as I struggled with the keys to my door. Rather, I wanted to be peaceful and (obviously) alone with baskets full of fruit and the fridge stocked with salad.

In the past, we made choices to live to suit our circumstance. For me, it is here and surrounded by noise when I want it, and calm when I crave it. I’ve lived alone for a while now, but I’ve never felt lonely in my aloneness.

During Easter this year, for the first time in a very long time, I did feel lonely. Just as a friend did on the telephone the last week, separated from her family due to a situation that arose well before Wuhan erupted. Her situation had always been manageable; she’d sought solace over a glass of wine or a walk in the park with friends. Now, these little ‘pick me up’ glimmers of hope were a thing of the past and but a dream for the future.

I’ve always been pretty optimistic and as I reminded my friend on the phone, the screen has never been so lit up nor have our phone lines. We are all still here, same uniform, different framework.

But it’s not the same as a huge hug, or a hymn belted out in the church on Easter Sunday morning, followed by a hunt for eggs with gaggles of excited children. This year, that all played out on instagram, or Zoom – and whilst the excitement was still there, the human interaction that is as important as icing sugar on a warm, straight from the oven chocolate cake, was missing.

How I craved an Easter egg (I don’t even really eat chocolate) or a hot cross bun. A long lunch with friends following a morning of hymns in the English church of Tangier, during a bumbling sermon that I would normally will to end so that I could take a walk in the beautiful church gardens, sheltered by annuals and full of gravestones littered with names of people who found solace in Tangier many years before me, was a fond memory, not a reality.

Rather than dwell in the sadness that is loneliness, I found comfort in music, and plenty of it. Hymns, contemporary music, full symphonies belting out classics, and new music. My daily writing project to Jane in Normandy stepped up a notch; and when my friend Gavin sent me a piece to ‘run my eyes over,’ it was truly touching and gave me insight to who he is as well. An insight I may never have had, had our lockdown not occured.

Yesterday one of my dear friends, Jono, sent me ‘A Time of Distance,’ by Alexander McCall Smith.

The unexpected always happens in the way the unexpected has always occurred, whilst we are doing something else. While we are thinking of altogether different things – matters that events then show to be every bit as unimportant. As our human concerns so often are; and then, with the unexpected upon us, we look at one another with a sort of surprise; how could things possibly turn out this way? When we are so competent, so pleased with the elaborate systems we’ve created – Networks and satellites, intelligent machines. Pills for every eventuality – except this one?

This poem goes on for miles and miles and if I were clever enough, I’d link it to this piece. I encourage you to find it and read it in full – it’s beautiful and relevant.

In the meantime, I shall do as I’ve always done – I will listen to music. A dog barks in the distance and my house pigeon croons above, just as she does every morning. The second verse of ‘The Song of Angry Men,’ the opening piece to this piece and one of my favourite songs from Les Misérables, play’s as I finish typing and speaking of relevance, it’s lyrics can be applied to our current situation:

‘When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes’.

Pictured: the normally busy Place de France, Tangier.

Oh look, Happy Easter.

Oh look, Happy Easter.

I was raised on a healthy diet of Leonard Cohen and this morning I woke up to the link below sent to me by my Mum. I’ll admit I did shed a little tear, particularly when the music teacher on the piano rose up from his seat, mid emotion and deep in isolation. I’m sure I would have loved him as a music teacher if I wasn’t such a hopeless music student.

Do watch and then promise me you’ll come back and keep on reading.

My friend Gavin recently sent me a wonderful video wherein a drag queen named Diane Chorley sits on the phone explaining to her friend Hazel, why she didn’t post on Instagram today. I soon became a huge fan of Diane, and just when I didn’t think I could love her any further, particularly in the moment where she talks about her desire to be at the cinema with a ‘butterkist toffee pop and a mocha’ and how she feels ‘fed up’ in isolation, she goes on to explain that if anyone is looking for her, they’ll find her in the ‘bleedin bath listenin to Michael Bublé’s Christmas Album’.

Couldn’t have put it better myself. I adore Michael Bublé and particularly his Christmas album, and I’ve only just taken it off my ‘favourites’ loop on my ipad – albeit four months after Christmas.

I’m late this week and, just like Diane, I’ve had little moments of being ‘fed up.’ Not for any other reason than the fact that every day I wake full of ambition and then that day turns into the next day before I feel as though I’ve grasped ‘that’ day; every day is just ‘day’ not Monday, not Tuesday…just plain old ‘day’.

Throw in Factime, Zoom, House Party, endless WhatsApp’s and telephone calls, it is easy for one day to turn into another and for productivity levels to reach and all time hero zero. Oh, and speaking of Instagram…

Today, also known as ‘day,’ I had an on screen chat to a group of girls who’ve been my friends for a really long time. We started at school together almost twenty five years ago and I’ve gone on to be godmother to many of their children, and Aunty Pin (I nominate myself) to the rest of their children. Throughout our conversation, I was in one of my favourite nighties (thanks, Mum) and a warm cashmere jumper with a fresh brewed coffee in hand, whilst they drank in the night under a Southern Hemisphere sky.

It was a session of complete connection, in a way in which I’ve become so used to in the past few weeks. There was tears, laughter, a load of talking over each other and plenty of hilarity.

Just the same as the day we first met and only a little bit different.

This piece started on Monday morning and quickly became something I knew I wouldn’t finish. When I chatted to the girls this morning I realised that really, it didn’t matter if all the pinnings and thoughts that I’d jotted onto endless pieces of paper before my Monday deadline, didn’t come into fruition.

Communication is so much more important and throughout these past weeks I’ve had some of the best chats of my life.

As I finish typing, I am swaying and furiously typing to ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon. Let’s take those lyrics into Easter. We were once spoilt with family and covered in chocolate, and this year, we’ll still be together with those we love and with whom we are isolated. I am going to spend part of the weekend on screen with my family celebrating Dad turning 71 on Monday, and the rest of it doing what I’ve become so used to.

That is, using each day to imagine (do play it, it’s such a beautiful song) what I can possibly do next.

Happy Easter for those who celebrate Easter, and whilst your at it, maybe sing a hymn.

I haven’t stopped singing hymns in isolation (as per my post of last week – some things never change). But for now, I’m off to listen to Michael Bublé’s Christmas Album.

Happy Easter, wherever you may be.

Pictured: An incredibly quiet Tangier.