Being 39.

Being 39.

The phone rang on Sunday morning just as I was busying myself with the five millionth photographic update from the wedding.  No need to explain whose, unless (say) you’ve been without power for the past six months.

‘I’m just sifting through the Sunday papers,’ my sister told me, before adding that she was particularly interested in an article about a woman about to turn forty who packed up everything and travelled to India to have her future read by a Guru in Mumbai.

‘Oh I did that once, in Rishikesh when I was 23,’ I explained laughingly, ’a cross – legged man on the edge of the Ganges told me that I’d meet a nice man when I was 27 and he’d gift me three beautiful children by the age of 30.  After this rendezvous, thrilled with news of my bright future, I went for a long celebratory swim at the top of the river and a human skull floated past as I was performing a gentle breaststroke.  Three months later, in Istanbul, I was still keeling over with a most horrific stomach ache,’ I finished.

All that came from my palm reading in India sixteen years ago, was a brutal parasite.

It’s probably quite obvious that my palms didn’t tell the truth and when I explained to my sister that, ‘perhaps Mr 27 was kidnapped, and this is why he didn’t eventuate,’ she giggled and responded with a long ‘hmmmmm, maybe you should write about this’.

There’s not much more to say about Mr 27, or the reading overall, except that the cross-legged man did say that my palms suggested a long life blessed with excellent health – and not once have I questioned his integrity because I’m still alive and I feel exceptionally healthy.

On the eve of my own 40th birthday (just eleven months away and counting – do love a milestone), I returned to Paris last week which signalled the end of two and a half incredibly enjoyable weeks in Greece with my parents –  part of which I wrote about in my last piece.  Had I been blessed with one child per year between the age of 27 and 30, not only would I have been exceptionally busy in the birthing suite, but there is also probably slim to little chance that I would have been able to enjoy all the little things that have become very important in my life, now that I’m 39.

Arriving on Corfu from Crete via Athens, was like stepping back in time.  I’d visited Corfu ever so briefly at the age of 19 and had never returned.  In my teens, I read Gerald Durrell’s ‘My Family and Other Animals,’ a book I revisited soon after my palm reading in Rishikesh.  Last week on Corfu I savoured for the third time in my life, every page of this paperback favourite.

Winding around wide boulevards from the airport as dusk edged its way into the later part of the day, my eyes darted from building to building with paint peeling off ancient facades and shutters stood wide open and obedient against tired walls. 

Throughout the ages, the Cavalieri Hotel has been a meeting point for writers, actors and poets, statesmen, businessmen and travellers. Originally built in the 17th century as a nobleman’s mansion belonging to the ancestors of Count Flamburiari, it opened it’s doors as a hotel in the late 1960’s.  The Cavalieri is situated on the edge of Durrell Park, home to the Corfu Cricket Pitch and Enoseos Square, all framed by the lush greenery of the Kapodistristou Boulevard.  

On arrival, I felt further transported into another era with the town’s Old Fortress standing proud just moments away, and as we enjoyed our first dinner on the hotel’s rooftop later that evening, I explained to my travel companions (also known as my dear parents, squared off with the added bonus of one of their oldest friends), that these types of places really have an impact on me.  It was a memorable moment made even more special by the company kept.

The week was spent exploring all that is the glory of the old town and island, in its unique architectural blend of Byzantine, Venetian, French and English influences – history would suggest that almost everyone has tried their hand on Corfu, and while the island looks (in part) exhausted, it is a place brimming with history and if each tired wall could talk, I’m sure we’d have heard some unbelievable stories. 

Throughout the week, we followed narrow alleys lined with pots filled with healthy geraniums and enjoyed lunches in the beautiful, warm spring air.  One afternoon, I found Mum positively breathless after an impromptu meeting with a group of women at the incredible Municipal Art Gallery of Corfu.  A new book, ‘The Gardens of Corfu,’ carefully curated by English writer and Corfu resident Rachel Weaving, and beautifully photographed by one of the worlds finest garden photographers, Marianne Majerus – was due to launch at the gallery later that night.

Following an early evening apéro at the old Liston Hotel, where Mum, Dad and I chatted about life with even more vigour than a man bowling a ball on the cricket pitch across the road, we attended the book launch before enjoying a glass of retsina with Corfu locals, both English and Greek, under ancient fig trees in the gallery gardens.  Here, we were further spoilt with breathtaking views across the Ionian Sea towards mainland Greece and to the left, the mountains of Albania.

One morning we visited the Reading Society of Corfu, founded in 1836 by a group of intellectuals whose principal goal was to stay informed about European scholarly and cultural developments. Today, the core of the Reading Society is the main reading room and valuable library of over 30,000 volumes in seemingly as many languages, including the important holdings in the Ionian Island collection and the Guilford Archives.  Chalk pink hallways lined with maps and pretty light fittings and a reading room in perfect Giverny green, had me in further conniptions. 

Days later, Mum and I travelled to the village of Old Perithia, a tiny, rambling town built in the 14th century while the island was under Byzantine rule, and one which sits on the northern flanks of Mount Pantokrator at about 400 meters above sea level.  Our driver, Giannis (you can call me John), was not only one of the most heavenly people I’ve ever met, but also incredibly informative when it came to the history of the island, and patient with every request to stop and photograph another wildflower or sweeping vista.  On the way home, he insisted on shouting us a cup of tea at the White House, the last Corfu home of Lawrence Durrell and his wife Nancy.  

The following morning, Dad and I set off on foot to Mon Repos, a villa built in 1831 as a summer residence for the British Lord High Commissioner of the United States of the Ionian Islands, Frederick Adam, and his second wife Diamantina Palatino.  Adam and his wife had to vacate the villa soon afterwards in 1832 when he was sent to serve in India, which saw the house rarely used as a residence for the later British governors. In 1833, it housed a school of fine arts, and in 1834, the park was opened to the public. 

After the union with Greece in 1864, Mon Repos was granted to King George I of the Hellenes as a summer residence.  

Empress Elisabeth of Austria stayed at Mon Repos in 1863.  Here, she fell in love with the island, which resulted in her building the Achilleion Palace, another wonderful villa and surrounding garden that we explored during one of our first days on Corfu.

At Mon Repos, Dad and I wandered around the now wild gardens, agreeing that it wasn’t hard to imagine generations of children running free along winding pathways amongst established, European trees with views across the Ionian Sea flanked by tall pencil pines.

Towards the end of our time on Corfu, we sailed to the tiny island of Paxos for a day trip.  On our way home that afternoon I gazed out to the horizon, one that holds a future not yet known to anyone, perhaps not even a cross – legged man on the edge of the Ganges.  

As we approached Corfu at dusk, I sat between my parents (quite literally my oldest friends), and contemplated the words of Lawrence Durrell who described Corfu as ‘this brilliant little speck of an island in the Ionian with waters like the heartbeat of the world itself’.  

When it comes to understanding tomorrow, I quite like the idea of relying on the ocean, nature, history, beauty, friendship and laughter – all of which I’ve been delivered in spades during two and a half incredibly special weeks.

A Cretan odyssey.

A Cretan odyssey.

Dad was in, so was Mum.  I’ll come too, I agreed, after the email was sent to Dad’s sister Janet and her husband Lachie, along with another friend Dougie and his brother Norm, their wives Jule and Joy – they wanted to walk in the steps of their uncle Doug.  Jo and Paddy were on their way from Perth to a sixtieth in Rome – Crete wasn’t too far out of the way, Steena and James live in London, they also thought it was a good idea, as did cousin Sophie who would be in London at the time, and another dear friend of the family Julie, she was also in and then there was Russell, he’d be driving around Italy at the same time, he was keen too.

With a shared interest in botany, literature and history, suddenly we were a team of 16 on the island of Crete staying at the Hotel Doma.  Each morning we’d arrive one by one to the most heavenly of breakfast rooms with cedar chairs bound in raffia complimented by jars of homemade marmalade adorning each table laden with the whitest of linen cloths.

At Doma, if you’d slammed the loo door shut you’d almost expect to see graffiti reading ‘Truman was here’ or ‘Paddy L-F lives,’ or perhaps ‘Ernest H, ‘57’.

It’s just that type of place.

Each morning after breakfast, I’d take the last sips of my coffee down to the garden where I’d find Ioanna weeding pots of geraniums in her dressing gown.

As I wrote last week, the Doma Hotel was built in the late 19th century and overlooks the Bay of Chania.  The hotel started its life as the Austro Hungarian consulate before being purchased in 1933 by the grandmother of the present owners, Irene Valyrian and Ioanna Koutsoudaki.  In 1940, the British Consul took a shine to the property and persuaded the reluctant residents to move out, leaving most of the furniture behind.  The house was finally returned to its rightful owners in 1955, following the German occupation throughout the Battle of Crete in the 2nd World War.  To this day, Ioanna and her sister Irene run the hotel, both are well into their 80’s and it is hard to imagine them ever not being there.

Another final piece in the puzzle is Jim Carstairs, a second cousin of my grandmother (Dad and Janet’s mother), and great uncle to their cousin Sophie.  Jim died in Australia in 2007, but spent six months behind enemy lines in 1941, including four weeks at Patsos where at times he hid out in the same cave that was later occupied by famed English writer, Paddy Leigh Fermor and the kidnapped German General Kreipe, in 1944.  This tale has always rather fascinated me, but it wasn’t until we actually arrived and began our travels around the island, that I realised just how incredible the early 1940’s on Crete really were.

Jim wrote each and every detail of his endeavours on Crete in diaries, on slips of paper and also into the insides of cigarette packets, all of which were later built into the walls of a Cretan family home in fear that had they been found, they’d jeopardise the propaganda machine and overall efforts that are the reality of any war.

Historian Mike Sweet writes of Jim relating that, ‘after spending about four weeks at Patsos, by November he was told to move to a holding area close to the south coast. A key figure in arranging this was the famed resistance leader Kapetan Petrakogiorgis, based in the village of Magarikari, who controlled the area where the Amari Valley joins the Messara Plain.

It was this area that became the vital route, not only for Carstairs, but for scores of later evacuations and insertions of agents and supplies for the resistance, linking villages in the Amari with landing beaches on the coast.

In his diary, Carstairs relates details of how he conferred with the resistance leader, giving a unique insight into the workings of such relationships. This period was a fraught time for Carstairs, and his journal records how his leadership skills were sorely tested.

He faced enormous challenges. They began with leading more than 80 men safely from Patsos to Magarikari (a three-day trek), keeping them secure and fed when they arrived (for at least three weeks), and then making another, even more gruelling three-day trek to the coast.

The final leg involved crossing the Messara Plain, heavily-garrisoned by the Germans, and then up and over the towering Asteroussia mountains, to the isolated beach of Treis Ekklisies, 60km due south of Heraklion. This is where Carstairs’ Cretan odyssey reached its dramatic conclusion. In the dead of night on the 26/27 November, HMS Hedgehog embarked 90 passengers, almost all of which were the group Carstairs had led.

The nominal roll for the voyage to Alexandria identifies 28 Australians, 28 New Zealanders, 11 British, 11 Cypriot, four Greeks and eight others. One of the passengers was Evangelos Vandoulakis who Carstairs had smuggled on board’.

In Mike’s notes the part that struck me the most, was that it was Evangelos Vandoulakis who had cemented Jim’s war notes into the walls of his family home.

Shortly after the war Jim’s tattered notes were returned to him and following this, he typed a memoir of his incredible WW2 experience.  In 1991, Jim made the journey back to Crete where he rekindled friendships with the families and friends who had aided him in his Cretan exile.

Last Sunday, we ventured to Patsos and met the Harokopos family who are the second family in Jim’s story, and the same family who protected Paddy Leigh Fermor in his own Cretan odyssey.

George Harokopos was a school teacher in Patsos.  A proud man, and by no means wealthy, he owned a small house in the centre of town in the province of Rethymno.  When we arrived last week, his nephew, Vasillis led us straight to Jim and Paddy’s cave which has been widely documented in Paddy Leigh Fermor’s writing.  Later that evening George’s sister Maria (Vasillis’ mother) made us a delicious dinner to mirror what they fed Jim when he was hiding from the Germans in their attic just above the kitchen.  As the night drew to a close we enjoyed a highly necessary glass of raki straight from a 150 litre plastic barrel (no fine oak here) posititioned under that very attic. We made to toast to Jim before collapsing into beds decorated with a million stuffed teddy bears in two village homes, each belonging to Vasillis’ brother and cousin.

Even though George is no longer here, his sister and her son took us in for the night showing the same hospitality and kindness that both Jim and Paddy were recipients of over 70 years ago.

In the days leading into our pilgrimage in memory of Paddy and Jim, we also enjoyed meanders through Cretan gardens organised by my mother who has a Mediterranean thumb, after building her second garden in the harshest of climates on the south west coast of Australia.  These gardens and the people who have built them in earth so ancient, were a highlight as we took in sweeping views across land and sea brimming with history.

Our week on Crete was not an organised tour assembled by anyone in particular – rather a coming together of people with varying interests, brought together by friendships dating back many years.  As the youngest of the group, I have learned a lot from my Best Marigold Hotel experience and I will never forget the stifled laughter teamed with moments of sobriety and wisdom brought about by gruelling memories and the beauty found on an island that has survived the harshest of conditions in both a military and climatic sense.  The botany in Greece is beautiful, as are the people with so many stories to share.

I arrived with Mum and Dad, my aunt and uncle, and a handful of their very dear friends and I finish typing this on Corfu.  We have formed precious memories out of much laughter, lessons learned and overall the importance of camaraderie.

This is for Mum, Dad, Janet, Lachie, Julie, Soph, Dougie, Joy, Normie, Jule, Steena, James, Paddy, Jo and Russell.

For those in our convoy, I will say one last time – ‘where is Russell?’.

Pictured: the beautiful breakfast room at Hotel Doma.

Harvesting Lavender.

Harvesting Lavender.

‘So you’re moving to Athens as well,’ they laughed, before chinking another glass in recognition of my apparent inability to sit still at the moment.

‘No, I’m not moving to Athens, just Tangier this year,’ I assured them, before we settled in for dinner.  

I know, it does seem as though I’ve been on the move quite a bit lately.

Those taunts in jest were made a week ago in Paris, at what was supposed to be a quick dinner and a catch up over drinks before I hit the shores of Greece.  A long night of laughter and too many glasses of wine followed with friends whose acquaintance I made at the Sorbonne towards the end of last year – an understandably pessimistic bunch, they listened intently as I told them all about my journeys through Morocco and plans to spend more time in Tangier over the next twelve months. 

The following morning, before the birds had found the chance to tune their voices in time for morning song and the sun had woken, stretching her arms in time to deliver a new day, my alarm sounded at 3.58am with the ferocity of a fog horn, or a siren hailing an emergency.  I was bound for Athens to meet my parents for two weeks in Greece, in particular Crete, on a trip that was born from a dinner of fresh salmon and salad in Australia just over two months ago, before I returned to Paris for (what was supposedly) another year. 

‘Shall we do it?’ we sang in unison between bites, resulting in a spontaneous email being sent to a smattering of their friends who had shown an interest in retracing the steps of the likes of Paddy Leigh Fermor and Australian, Jim Carstairs, on an island littered with wildflowers, goats and sheer cliff faces. 

In that moment we weren’t to know that Tangier would kidnap my heart just a handful of weeks later, and that our journey to Crete would become not only a special reunion together but also, perhaps our final rendezvous for 2018.

On Sunday morning, my father rounded the corner of the Athens Gate Hotel in all his colourful glory, followed shortly by my mother – chic as ever, who immediately requested a mineral water upon learning of our preordered gin and tonics.  It was heaven to hug them tightly and enjoy rapid chatter, no one daring draw breath in fear that we miss something.  Later that evening we enjoyed dinner overlooking the temple of Zeus under a perfect night sky, joined by my aunt and uncle as well as a very dear friend of our family who had all flown in that day. The following morning, joined by another wonderful couple who’d arrived late the night before, we returned to the birth place of civilisation, as we paid a visit to the ancient ruin of Delphi on the same day that I celebrated my 39th year.  This was a moment so special and one that will be hard to forget, as will the conversations had in the car that transported us there and back.

Athens is a magnificent city that I’d not visited for 20 years, and as I rounded corners in the beautiful, private garden of Sparoza on Tuesday morning, enjoying views towards the mountains in the company of the garden’s custodian Sally – a charming Englishwoman of more than 80 years-  I was reminded of the beauty that is earned with age, in both people and landscapes.

At Sparoza, paths were strewn with cuttings of lavender – ‘I grow tired of making piles while I harvest the lavender’ Sally quipped, as she trod on clippings under foot releasing a scent that transported me back to childhood-  before adding that the olive trees in her  garden are simply ornamental, ‘talented hands are required elsewhere- there is little time to harvest the olives’.  I pondered their age, ‘are they old?’ I thought out loud, ‘Oh no, they’re only 50 years,’ Sally replied, as she took my hand and showed me more plantings in her Mediterranean garden designed to survive the harshest of conditions – allowing it to retain an effortless air in keeping with all that she is, and remains determined to embody, in all of her work.

The past few days have seen our group double in size, with more arrivals of friends as we reached the island of Crete and better still, the Doma Hotel late on Wednesday afternoon.  When I spoke to one of my sisters during the week, I explained that my life is becoming reminiscent of the Best Marigold Hotel, one of my favourite films and one that I could watch over and over after developing a deep love for all of the characters following my first viewing a handful of years ago. 

Built in the late 19th century, the Doma Hotel overlooks the Bay of Chania.  The hotel started its life as the Austro Hungarian consulate before being purchased in 1933 by the grandmother of the present owners, Irene Valyrian and Ioanna Koutsoudaki.  In 1940, the British Consul took a shine to the property and persuaded the reluctant residents to move out, leaving most of the furniture behind.  The house was finally returned to its rightful owners in 1955, following a brief German occupation during the Battle of Crete in the 2nd World War.  

‘We must stay at Doma,’ Dad announced as we began planning our journey, ‘it’s one of my favourite hotels in the world’.

By Wednesday afternoon, cars began to draw in and the characters reminiscent of those from the Best Marigold spilled out.  Sensible walking shoes, greying hair, suitcases lightly packed and loud voices filled the foyer.  Breakfast of homemade marmalade will be served on toast from 7.45am each day, gin and tonics are enjoyed from 5pm, do we need a car, yes we do, or do we?  Are you happy to dine out each night, yes we are, but where?  

Following check in, I ricocheted to my room where I was met by the young manager of the hotel.  Dying to lie down on my bed I stood instead, swaying upright, as he explained that he understood me well, ‘You are so young’ he told me, as I eyed off my single bed under sweeping shutters dying to be opened, ‘all of these people older than you, they ask so many questions!’.

 Crete is a wonderful place, made even better by my travel companions and the two, incredible sisters who live at Doma and still have an active role in the day to day running of the hotel. On arrival, I spotted someone in a dressing gown gliding down a hallway well after midday, hair damp following a swim in the ocean below (I suspect Ioanna), and this morning at breakfast I enjoyed the most delicious toast and homemade marmalade I ever did eat.  

As we drove around the island on Thursday, spilling down gorges before stopping for   moments of reflection for those who fell during times of war – Crete is a place of harsh conditions and ultimately, survival- it became more apparent than ever, when harvesting lavender and life en general, there is so much to consider.  Brakes were slammed on, causing a near rear ending of our convoy of cars, as an exotic wildflower emerged from ancient earth, or a goat trod in our 21st century path.

All worth admiring, all worth pondering.

More to come…

Pictured:  with two of my favourites, reunited in Athens.

Spring Reflections.

Spring Reflections.

Walking home last week, I watched an old man staggering towards me on his cane just as the bottom dropped out of his shopping bag. He muttered ‘merde’ and four little bottles of beer rolled along the pavement – I rushed to his aid and picked them up as he showered me with gracious thanks.

He then asked if I would walk him back into the shop to find him a new shopping bag, a request that I happily accepted before continuing on my way.

As I began writing this, an ancient woman was chain smoking slim cigarettes at the cafe table beside me, turning to stare in my direction from time to time while muttering something about my shoes.  Her copy of Le Monde was covered in what was once gateau au chocolat, and in order to get the attention of the waiter – who she kissed four times each time he arrived at her table – she would smash another wine glass on the pavement.

Spring has arrived and Paris is incredibly warm, which appears to be getting to some people.

It has made me feel reflective, and just yesterday I pondered the fact that I am afforded so much enjoyment through watching old people in Paris (and all people for that matter) – with one of my favourite characters being another ancient woman who dines each night at Cafe Louis Philippe on the Quai de l’Hotel de Ville.  Half asleep at all times she sits in the same seat each time with her Great Dane and sometimes, her adult son.  

Last summer during a night of cocktails in the courtyard at Hotel Costes, one of the chicest women I ever did see sat in a velvet chair, immaculately presented with three Cavalier King Charles Spaniels sitting on both her lap and at her feet.  When I turned to see what the racket was behind me that threatened to drown out the cool sounds of jazz filling the beautiful, buzzing courtyard, I found her snoring so loudly it could probably be heard across the channel in Dover.

Paris is a city that awakens all of the senses but usually maintains a relative sense of calm.  Despite sirens that whirl on seemingly never ending rotation, as police cars whizz through the open boulevards and narrow streets; the jackhammers that sound through limestone next door and the shrieks that filter through the night air as revellers make their way home from cafe terrasses- the grandeur that is the architectural makeup of this city wraps its arms around the greatest of characters and the seemingly regular – leaving space to explore and be completely at ease with oneself, as millions of people do things such as sleep in chairs, bustle along streets, take hours to bring the bill and just be lost in unique degrees of apparent anonymity.  

In the days following my return from Morocco almost two weeks ago, I was reminded of just how magnificent Paris is at this time of year.  Blossom flowers cover the limbs of  trees, pollen drifts as aimlessly as the many flâneurs who wander along the Seine, and the cafes overflow with locals and visitors who drink up the rosiness of dusk.  The steeliness of winter is replaced with evening shadows of chalky pink bouncing from the endless limestone walls – and my favourite part of Spring, the days are long and warm.

The past week has seen catch ups over lunches and dinners with new friends and old, where I’ve shared tales and photos from Morocco, and on Sunday morning I boarded the metro for the Puces de Vanves – an endless flea market filled with more brocante than I will need in a life time.  Just as I planned to leave, I was overjoyed when I happened upon six linen napkins hidden under a pile of bedsheets and monogrammed with the initials P.A.

Paris has as a way of delivering the sweetest of surprises, and at times when I think I’ve found my way, a new corner emerges.  Just as when I feel all is lost with my spoken French, I find myself confidently nattering in places like a Drougerie in a far flung corner of the city, or the tech section of the B.H.V.  

This weekend I will fly to Athens where I’ll meet my parents on the eve of my 39th year.  Full of Spring contemplation, I think the first two lines of Tolkien’s ‘Song of Aragorn’ sum up my reflective musings as I weave situations into words while staring blankly at my suitcase;

‘All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost…’

Just as all the change emerging from this Spring is partly engineered and the rest remains a complete mystery.  I don’t normally feel quite so at ease with birthdays as another year is added to the tiny speck on the horizon that is my life.

But, this year feels different.

Pictured:  Monet’s beautiful garden at Giverny, pictured on a day trip last week.

Basket Case.

Basket Case.

There was such an argument going on.  Well not an argument, but a series of shouts all centred around a mobile phone. Who did it belong to?  Not me, I assured the cashier. All I really wanted was a salad sandwich with ham and cheese and a bottle of water, and no I didn’t leave my telephone on the bench of the Boulangerie. Not mine.

After five weeks of tajines and too many breakfast crepes, on my first day back under a perfect blue Parisian sky I was ready for a baguette with lettuce and mayonnaise, jambon et fromage. Walking out of the Boulangerie leaving the shouts behind me, I smiled as I was reminded of the vigour that Parisians use when they speak, before I headed to the banks of the Seine where I found the Bouquinistes bathed in sunlight, their books and botanical prints neatly arranged along the walls that line the river. Little chairs were dotted under Plane trees standing tall along the pavement and I sneezed, just as an old man introduced his three dogs to me; one is four, the other five and this one, six. ‘À te souhaite,’ he offered, as I reached for a tissue as pollen drifted under my nose.

In Morocco, people young and old sold me more packets of Kleenex than I’ll ever have a need for in an entire lifetime, and I have been grateful for these endless packets of tissues this week as I’ve ‘a tishooed’ my way around Paris in perfect spring conditions.

On Sunday morning as our aeroplane chugged over the Strait of Gibraltar towards Spain, I also needed a tissue for different reasons, but with my bag in the overhead locker and the seatbelt signs on as turbulence drove us sideways, I opted for sunglasses as I gazed down to the ocean, watching wistfully as Tangier slipped away from view.

From the madness of Marrakech, to the beauty of Berber Lodge, the endless winds of Essaouira and the ancient bones of Fès, I spent my first couple of weeks in Morocco whizzing around in taxis and rumbling through the countryside on long train journeys, before reaching Tangier for my final two weeks in a country that I had mixed feelings about, but was fast becoming attached to.

Tangier was different, in ways hard to describe. Had I stepped off a boat in it’s port, alone and with no sense of direction, it may have been an entirely different experience. Or not. I will never know, because I didn’t sail there. Rather, I took the 2.17pm from Fès and as our train approached Tangier at dusk I felt an overwhelming sense of happiness, different from any other feeling I’d felt for a very long time.

The two weeks that followed not only inspired me, but I also felt a great sense of belonging. Lunches were enjoyed, endless cups of coffee were had in the company of new friends and situations such as a trip home from Sunday lunch in a van with no doors, provided me with very happy memories. There were also plenty of long nights comfortable in my aloneness, in a beautiful apartment on the Rue d’Italie. This was made possible by Serena, a special person who had known me for no more than 24 hours when she made the offer of her otherwise vacant home, on the eve of her leaving for Spain just five days into my stay in Tangier.

During those nights I pondered spending more time in Tangier, and found comfort in the noise on the busy streets below as the night sky drank up the softness of dusk. Early mornings were filled with an orchestra of call to prayer competing with the morning crows of roosters.

Seemingly thousands of them.

I skipped home each evening with a smile on my face following interludes with the florist, the man at the vegetable stall and the European grocer who saved my life with a bottle of rosé from time to time, allowing a glass to be savoured with a biscuit and cheese for dinner. Lunches of cous cous and chicken were had at Darna, the women’s association of Tangier, and long walks were enjoyed through the endless gardens and parks that overlook the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by old villas and the crumbling  masses of ancient buildings. The sheer sight of these structures infected me with a desire to charge through the gate and set to work. Immediately.

Morning coffee was always entertaining, ‘who might turn up today,’ I’d wonder, as I meandered through the Gran Socco, past the Cinema Rif and up to the Café de Paris, where Jonathan and his divine friend Christopher and other characters deeply woven into the fabric of Tangier, would chatter away, and I’d buy more packets of tissues.

Following an entertaining first weekend with Jono – who displayed kindness, friendship and hospitality beyond any possible measure for the whole two weeks – I enjoyed a happy couple of days with a wonderful woman named Maggie, who took me into her home and was hilarious and inclusive for the duration of my time in Tangier – inviting me for dinner from time to time and always touching base when she was out for coffee. With ten days remaining, I settled into the apartment on Rue d’Italie where on Saturday mornings, a beautiful housekeeper named Khultum would arrive at 9am, barely flinching when I greeted her in a towel and with sign language and smatterings of French, our only means of communication.

One day after lunch with an energetic Italian woman who has called Tangier home for many years, I was introduced  to the stalls of Charf on a seemingly never ending unsealed road behind the Hilton Hotel lined with Berber huts filled from head to toe with cane and raffia.
Monica laughed as I was driven almost mad as I stepped sideways through stacks of chairs – I was becoming a basket case in a hut full of baskets.
How I’d love to fix up an apartment here I thought, as I drifted off to sleep later that night.

At coffee later in the week I found myself talking to Dominique, a Frenchwoman who told me about her new life in Tangier after taking an apartment there in October last year.  I listened with equal measures of both intrigue and caution after Morocco had seen me hit with a bout of wanderlust that was proving hard to shake. Following coffee, we went for lunch together and she asked why I would even hesitate, my mind seemed made up and I could make a great life in Tangier fixing up an apartment and documenting the whole experience.

The evening before, an entertaining Moroccan man with boundless energy and a crooked smile had turned the latch on an apartment in a beautiful building situated in what was once the old European quarter of Tangier.
A bath sat unplumbed in the bathroom and in each room, holes glared at me from almost every wall. A day later I returned to reinspect and found myself further enamoured by the bones of this building and the potential that it holds.

I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.

On the eve of leaving Tangier, I handed over a brown paper envelope containing a months rent and the promise that I’ll return at the end of Ramadan to begin painting the walls.

I will be forever grateful for the guidance and friendship shown throughout what was a week full of decisions. There was much laughter as I became more and more befuddled, but questions were generously answered with careful consideration, invaluable advice and understandable caution. I know that I have made a decision that is not only important to me, but a decision that is wholly mine. Not without the added bonus that is the happiness, kindness and hospitality that I found from the minute I stepped off the train in Tangier.

As Rick said to Ilsa in the 1942 classic Casablanca, ‘We’ll always have Paris,’ and I look forward to splitting my time between the two, and sharing the story as it unfolds.

Pictured: beautiful blossom outside Shakespeare and Co., Thursday morning.

Tangier.

Tangier.

Birds sing, branches sigh and darkness drinks up the red wine of sunset.
Muhammad ibn Ghalib al – Rusafi (d. 1177)

Five weeks ago, I set off on an adventure I’d long dreamed of.

My fascination with travel began the moment I left school, where I boarded a plane from Australia and set off for a year in England. Throughout that year I found places such as Paris, and Rome and Athens and all that is beautiful and brimming with history, on a continent so far from home, but one that felt incredibly familiar right from the moment we first met.

A few years later I made my first of many visits to India, on another continent, where I became enchanted with not only the colours that were associated with even the most dreadful situations, but also the sounds and the smells and most of all, the deep seated history that quite often haunted me with each corner turned.

In India, it became clear that millions of people had trodden the same path before me and while nothing was original, it also wasn’t contrived, and I tripped over my feet as things happened with such rapid spontaneity that I often felt as if I was in a dream.

Each time that I leave India, I feel an indescribable feeling, as if I’m leaving a piece of me behind.

In Josephine’s Istanbul apartment all those years ago, we spoke about the beauty of India and the fashion in which it simply captures the heart in ways that are often hard to explain – we agreed that India has made it difficult for any other place to size up to when it comes to measuring magic. When we spoke of Morocco, she urged me to come here – ‘you’ll find bits of it there’.

One afternoon, I told her about an old friend of our family, ‘he lives in Tangier,’ I chirped, ‘has done for years’.

Her aeroplane mask slowly moved away from her eyes, when no more than ten minutes later, a documentary about Tangier came onto the television screen. Michael Palin spoke of a city where eccentricity is celebrated and where for many decades, expatriates have lived amongst locals in a fabulous fusion – for years and years they have trodden the cobblestones of the Grande Socco, and most are now considered locals themselves.
On the television screen, a rooster trotted along the top of a sofa in a room full of books as his master spoke of his love of Tangier.

‘That’s Jonathan,’ I said to Josephine, as she lit another cigarette. Her eyes flashed blue as they did in rare moments of happiness, before she pulled her aeroplane mask away from her face, pretending not to be intrigued. ‘You’d better go to Morocco,’ she told me, after I woke her from what I thought was a deep sleep. One eye cocked, she’d watched the whole thing from a gap in the left corner of her mask.

Two weeks ago, I left the north eastern Moroccan city of Fès and its (often) haunting winding cobblestoned alleyways that can frequently lead to nowhere. In Fès, I found scents belonging to seemingly no one wafting under my nose, as ghosts from a thousand different pasts danced ever present through it’s medina; a wonderland set amongst medieval Marinid architecture, vibrant souks and old world atmosphere. I happened upon rich academic history when I stumbled across the 14th century Bou Inania as well as the Al Attarine, while searching for a celebrated leather store that I’d written into my travel notes.

At the end of my stay in Fès, a blind man whose eyes flashed white drove me to the train, wishing me good luck in Tanger as we neared the station. ‘Inshallah à Tanger, bon voyage à Tanger Madame, Inshallah’.  Little did he know, I was nodding at his Inshallah’s for different reasons and to this day, I still don’t know how he can drive a car for a living with so little vision.

The train trip from Fès to ‘Ton- jee’ is five hours in duration, which includes a one hour stopover in Sidi Kassel- a tiny little village where I found birds chirping on cables overhead, pausing their chatter only to flutter into the distance as the 3.07pm to Marrakech rumbled through the station.

The landscape began to change as we neared Tangier at dusk. Rolling hills were rich and green and my eyes danced as I counted rows and rows of gum trees, which soon turned to olives, before the great mass of white wash that is the city of Tangier loomed in the distance. I felt it’s lure, well before I’d stepped off the train.

Jonathan Dawson towered over everyone on the platform at the train station, his hair combed back and a neck tie arranged with precision, lead to a smart coat and trousers, finished with shoes so shiny that I could have used them as a mirror. ‘I didn’t need to even try to guess which one was you,’ he said, linking his arm in mine, ‘you’re the image of your mother’. To return the compliment with ‘you’re also the image of your mother,’ would have sounded rather odd, but I remember Jonathan’s mother with such fondness and she too was tall, handsome and utterly charming.

Walking towards a 35 year old Renault parked at an angle at the edge of the station, we were met by Tariq, a divine man who has been nothing short of completely helpful since the moment I arrived- just yesterday he took me through the instructions of my mobile phone card, where he tried not to laugh at my pathetic attempts at understanding instructions in Arabic.

‘Do you mind if we go straight to drinks,’ Jono asked, as Tariq heaved my suitcase into the car in the same moment that I stepped into a puddle of mud. ‘Not at all,’ I replied, ‘even though I look like a gypsy’. ‘You look ravishing,’ he assured me, as we chugged through the traffic and into the distance.

And suddenly, I was being introduced to what felt like a thousand new friends in a beautiful flat, high above the medina, on the eve of the Easter weekend. One woman took me through the importance of using ‘tu, not vous,’ when speaking French in Morocco, ‘you’ll sound provincial and silly using formal Parisian french,’ she warned.  The following day at a wonderful, intimate lunch at the beautiful Tangier home of an English interior designer, a writer visiting from London chuckled when I told him this tale, ‘oh, I’d rather be provincial – all the more reason to stick to vous,’ he laughed, as I admired his beautiful three piece green linen suit. Well, he’d been eyeing off my gold socks in church – where on earth did I find them?

With Jono going through what he calls ‘a catholic revival,’ he’d marched off to the cathedral on Easter Sunday, and I made my way to St. Andrews, the ‘English church’ in comfortable shoes, gold socks (I’ve got ten matching pairs from Paris, and brought them all to Morocco) and a mental list of people I needed to say hello to – ‘you’ll see so many people there, do send my love,’ he told me as we parted ways after coffee.

Not certain how I’d know ‘everyone,’ having arriving in Tangier less than 48 hours earlier, I walked through the beautiful gardens of the English church, bathing in the sunlight which threw teasing glimpses of warmth through palm fronds and other types of  greenery above. Headstones were littered throughout these pretty gardens, where I read names more suited to the births deaths and marriages of a British newspaper than a town in North Africa.  Moments earlier, I’d waded through a market outside the gate of St. Andrews run by Berber women selling vegetables.

The church was packed full of Tangier locals and their Easter guests, and Jono was right, I did recognise almost everyone – kisses were planted on both cheeks during the moment usually reserved for ‘peace be with you,’ and hymn 179 was sung in a thousand different accents.

As I began preparing for this piece, I read somewhere that Tangier is a city that clings to Europe, just as much as Europe clings to Tangier. When we arrived at his apartment on my first night here, Jono led me out onto the terrace with Birdy, his feathered dog who began life as a humble rooster. ‘You have Spain over there, Gibraltar there and the coast of Morocco over there- where else in the world can you see three countries from such a tiny vantage point’.

Each morning, woken by the Birdy’s crows and the second call to prayer, I sat on the terrace enjoying coffee as I felt myself becoming lured, stitch by stitch, into the magic of Tangier.

Multiple lunch invitations have ensued, and phone calls overheard in the streets of Tangier might be heard to end with cries of ‘lots of love – do pop by for a gargle if you’re still here on Wednesday’.

Jono’s self named ‘racketty old flat’ is a minefield of books and artworks, all carefully arranged with the same easy style as his outfits. Birdy dines on left over pudding and salty snacks at the end of lunch, and a fire burns in the library where Jono tells the most hilarious tales. One evening, we bonded over a shared hatred of tinnitus, a ringing of the ears we discovered we both suffer from, which keeps us awake at night and frustrated during the day. That same evening, as I wept with laughter at one of his ridiculously funny stories, Jono handed me an antique hearing aid made of brass which looked like a horn more suited to a brass band. We cried with laughter as I held it up to my ear and could hear properly again, while Birdy attacked my gold socks with such ferocity that I thought I’d lose a toe.

For many years, Tangier has attracted the wild, the talented and the wonderful from all corners of the globe. It only takes a coffee with Tangerian friends, or a visit to a churchyard, to see and hear of plentiful names (many of which leave me in complete disbelief), who have trodden this path before me.  Some stories are hard to believe and others, quite regular.

On Tuesday, following coffee with another new friend who I have come to greatly admire for his courage and brightness, kindness and wit, we walked home together after an hour of rain, as the sky cleared momentarily.  He bumped into a Moroccan friend outside my front door whose eyes lit up when he introduced me, explaining that I was going inside to write – ‘make sure you write something nicer this time,’ the stranger advised. Laughing, I asked if he’d read what I’d written before, ‘no, but you can always write nicer,’ he finished.

Just as birds sing, branches sigh and darkness drinks up the red wine of sunset, Tangier, and Morocco as a whole, continue to teach me the importance of now, and the moments that will follow.  I will be forever grateful for the kindness and humour shown by each and every person that I have met here. When I asked in advance if I could write him into this piece, Jono responded with ‘of course, you must write whatever you like, its been so wonderful having you here’.  I would write everything, but I’d need a thousand pages and I think a little bit of the magic needs to be left to the imagination.

I feel that this is the first of many séjours to this city, and each day I trip over my feet as things happen with such rapid spontaneity that I often feel as if I am in a dream. And, I know when I leave Morocco, in particular Tangier, I will leave a piece of me behind.

If Birdy had his way, it would be my big toe.

More to come.

Pictured: Easter lunch at Veere’s.

Josephine.

Josephine.

I know exactly how I came to be in Fes- the story is over a decade old, with the first chapter being written in a light filled flat in Istanbul.
Sheepskin rugs adorned every chair, vegetable dies bubbled in copper pots atop the stove in a tiny kitchen where jars full of wooden spoons lined every shelf.  Throughout the flat, looms of wool were bundled into corners amongst bookshelves stacked with books from here to infinity.

Many years ago I sat in that breezy apartment as the credits to East Enders rolled, before Michael Palin appeared on the BBC. Gazing out the window, I admired Topkapi Palace in all its glory across the Bosphorus river, and the call to prayer was in its early stages as Palin spoke of his love for Tangier and the expatriate community who have made lives there.  ‘You just need to go to Morocco,’ Josephine shouted at me from across the room, her aeroplane mask sliding down her face as her hand rolled cigarette dropped ash onto her sweater. ‘It’s different you know, you’d like it- Fes in particular,’ she added, before falling back into a deep sleep.

I watched the entire Palin documentary nodding in agreement, I had to get there. As the show came to a close, I tugged on Josephines sleeve ‘wake up,’ I begged, hoping that she wasn’t dead.

When I met Josephine Powell, she was about 86 years old. Two years later she did die, and I sobbed very real tears after learning of her death when I read her obituary in one of the international newspapers.

Born in 1919 to wealthy parents, Josephine was raised in New York by her stepfather, following the death of her mother when she was very young. As soon as she could, Josephine left New York with the International Refugee Organisation where she was adopted as ‘a mother’ of the Western Mongolian Kulmuks, after her post Second World War efforts ensured that a group of Kalmuk refugees were not returned to face the wrath of Stalin, rather, resettled in New Jersey.  She was the god daughter of Dame Nellie Melba, a godmother she never met, but one who sent her a pearl each birthday.

Josephine was strong willed, and I was in my early 20’s when I met her with more lines on her face than the average road map. We said our first hellos at the arrivals terminal in the Istanbul airport after I stepped off a plane from Italy, flustered because my bag kept rolling off the trolley and she was showing equal signs of bother because an official had just told her that she wasn’t to smoke in the airport. ‘They’re like a cool glass of water these Turkish people, don’t even begin to try with their language,’ she warned, dragging on a hand rolled cigarette in her bank manager’s very smart Audi, as we swept out of the airport and towards her apartment.

Initially terrified of this tiny woman with a gigantic spirit, I spent the following three months sleeping atop a chest of drawers with a goat hair rug as a mattress. For hours each day we would sift through her collection of photography and artefacts and at five thirty each afternoon, we’d religiously watch East Enders just as the fourth prayer for the day was beginning to sound from the mosque down the hill.

Prior her life in Rome, followed by Istanbul, Josephine kept a room at Hotel Kabul – making frequent trips in her Land Rover from Afghanistan’s capital to Rome, with her beloved Belgian sheepdog Sila by her side. Each night as I sipped a tea cup of red wine, Josephine would bark across the room ‘I hate that stuff, it makes me jaundice,’ before patting the edge of the sofa inviting me to ‘sit here’. She had a wit as brilliant as her memory, and her accounts would sometimes go on for hours.

I learnt of her love for photography, something she became renowned for, ‘I’m an amateur who found a camera and just started snapping. David Talbot Rice came for dinner in my flat in Rome and discovered pictures floating in my bathtub’. Before too long, she was on a mission to a Byzantine mosaic – a triptych of the Madonna and child- resulting in the first volume of many photographs which would soon be published in coffee table books that would later adorn grand homes, just like the one she’d escaped in Central Park West.

‘Early on, I learned the art of being invisible from the actor Alec Guinness at a party in Positano. He found me sitting alone, I was always alone, and he told me that you just keep being comfortable in your aloneness and no one will ever notice you’.  Josephine adhered to this advice for the rest of her life.

On her travels, Josephine became loved and trusted by Anatolian women who would invite her into their homes for dinner and a bed, where she would carefully study the weft and weave of their carpets. The dyes were made from vegetable matter and the patterns were a nod to their culture. There were no words, just stories from their lives – an occasional feast here, a battle there.  Josephine’s story, is not dissimilar to an Anatolian carpet.

She was proficient in many languages, ‘I’ll never speak Turkish,’ but French, Italian, Spanish, Pushtan, Farsi, Arabic, Russian and German are just a few that I can recall. ‘I collected so much along the way,’ she’d sigh, before setting me to work on more drawers full of tools, Ikats and carpets.

Towards the end of what was once the Soviet Union, Josephine was camped in the middle of nowhere with Sila. A group of young boys woke her as they rifled through her bags attempting to steal her Rubles – ‘go home to your mother,’ she shouted in a dialect only too familiar to them. They sprinted into the depths of the night and she slept tight, ‘never underestimate the power of language,’ she mused one night, as we sifted through more photographs.

The door to Josephine’s flat was like a turnstile, with visitors from far and wide eager to get an audience with this unassuming anthropologist, ethnographer and photographer.

Her enormous red telephone would ring loudly and often, waking her from a deep sleep, aeroplane mask across her eyes and hand rolled cigarette hanging from her lip. She knew the power of no, but this didn’t reduce the amount of visitors. There were journalists, explorers, weavers, academics, old friends and new contemporaries. There were also very few people who were close to Josephine, she had a way of keeping her distance, but when she was in the company of someone that she admired or liked, her piercing blue eyes would twinkle in a way that I can barely describe.

I loved seeing her blue eyes light up in rare moments of complete happiness.

There were young boys who were students at the university in Istanbul who would intern for Josephine, completing tasks such as filing and work on her computer. ‘They don’t appreciate their Anatolian past, it’s all washing machines and white goods these days’. One boy, who she referred to as ‘Big Foot,’ in relation to the size of his feet, was her most frequent helper.  He would arrive most days, his feet tripping over her beloved rescue cats (which she’d rescued from her balcony), fondly known as ‘C1 and C2,’ simply because one was a cat, and so was the other. ‘I have big feet as well,’ I commented one day from the top of the ladder leaning against a bookshelf, as I listened to her arguing with Big Foot. ‘Not as big as his,’ she replied, before sending him out to buy her more tobacco.

The day that C2 went missing, was also Big Foots wedding day.

I arrived home from the bazaar with an extra large garbage bag full of tobacco sourced from a man who brought it into Istanbul from a little village near the Black Sea. Josephine would roll cigarette after cigarette in the most beautiful papers decorated with Arabic watermarks, sealed with the dab of her finger.

When I walked in the door, I found her distressed because she was not only reluctant to go to the wedding (she wasn’t comfortable in large, organised crowds) but also, C2 was nowhere to be seen. We hunted through the garden calling his name at the top of our lungs, before returning inside to prepare an outfit for the wedding.

In a home full of colourful Ikats and a plethora of ceremonial costumes hanging from hooks and over doors, Josephine left for the wedding in a Hawaiian shirt given to her by a foreign correspondent friend, teamed with a pair of grey flannel trousers and her sandals.

Josephine and C2 returned home later that night, both within moments of each other.

We sat up for hours as she gave me a full account of the wedding.  It had made her feel sad and she wanted to cast her mind back to a world far away from the present day.

An old tattered Kodak box sat high up on the top of a bookshelf. ‘That’s the one,’ she gasped, cigarette hanging from her lip, as I climbed the ladder and pulled the box down. For the following four hours she walked me step by step through Afghanistan, Iran, Morocco, Kashmir and the plains of Anatolia.

At one stage, a photo of a much younger Josephine appeared in the pile. ‘Ah, those were the days,’ she smiled before a little tear fell down her cheek.

Weeks later, as we waited for my taxi and said our goodbyes in her little flat, she sat beside me and flashed those beautiful blue eyes before handing me the most magnificent  Ikat that she had pulled down from the doorway leading into her kitchen. ‘It’s a man’s wedding costume,’ she explained ‘silk, and the colours are set with egg whites’.

I treasure that Ikat as much as I treasure the three months I spent with her.

I began writing this piece last week in Fes and I finish at the tip of North Africa, in Tangier.  Each day on this trip throughout Morocco, I have thought of Josephine. On long train journeys and frantic taxi rides, on walks through the souks and endless, ancient monuments and mosques and particularly when I’m sitting alone, I remember her words about being comfortable in ones aloneness and I smile.  I remember her blocking the world out with an aeroplane mask, cigarette hanging from her lip, but in photos taken when she was younger, Josephine was just as anonymous riding a horse through Iran, or driving her car from Kabul to Rome.

‘They’d hear about me and try to find me, but I was always one step ahead’.

This one is in memory of Josephine, wherever she may be in the world.

Pictured:  Josephine as I remember her, taken by Jurgen Frank and published in Cornucopia Magazine.