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.

 

 

Berber.

Berber.

On Friday afternoon I made the short trip back to Marrakech for a quick overnight turn around, before heading to the sea port of Essaouira the following morning.

I woke on Saturday morning in my teeny tiny riad in the middle of the medina, where the sounds of pipe music and prayer competed with each other in the distance. A cocktail of talcum powder and cigarettes wafted through my open window, giving me only the slightest headache, before I enjoyed breakfast of crêpes and a strong coffee on the rooftop terrace. Scanning through my emails, I found one from the sweetest woman who I’ve met just a handful of times in my life.

She wrote that she enjoys my blog before going on to add that she isn’t sure how she found it in the first place. I know this feeling well – I too, have a habit of finding things and not knowing how I found them in the first place. I read on with tears in my eyes as she commented on my strength and honesty – two things that I feel marry with each other particularly well.

I draw strength from being honest, and through writing I feel as though I can do things I didn’t know I was capable of doing. When I feel lost, or alone, I find myself gazing into the distance in cafés or out of the windows of taxis – most of the time probably looking completely deranged, as I conjure up thoughts about that moment, and how life could be completely different if I’d allowed it to be. Then I write about it.

The way in which my life has panned out thus far is 100% the opposite to what I had envisaged ten years ago, and while I don’t think I’m particularly strong, I will agree that I’m honest- in measures (probably) to my detriment most of the time. In my life that isn’t children, pets and vast spaces filled with old friends and most of all, my family, I am able to do things and think things, that may otherwise, not be possible.

About nine months ago, I discovered Berber Lodge in one of those aforementioned moments where I found it, not knowing how I found it. Maybe I caught a glimpse of a Berber wall, built from the pinkest earth peeking through an olive grove, or an emerald green bedspread draped over endless white Egyptian cotton sheets – I’m not sure, but I started to follow them on Instagram, making a promise to myself that I would go there one day.

‘One day’ arrived last Wednesday.

Situated just 45 minutes outside of Marrakech, Berber Lodge is nestled in an ancient olive grove with stunning views across open, barren plains which grant breathtaking views towards the tips of the Atlas Mountains. When I arrived, I was met with a thousand smiles and my suitcase disappeared across a courtyard filled with cactus and a smattering of Mediterranean plants. Mint tea followed, before I fell into a dark green cane chair in the front garden for a lunch of mouthwatering lamb chops, hummus and cous cous and a glass of biodynamic Moroccan red wine, washed down with fresh fruit salad for pudding.

At dusk I walked to nearby Oumnass, a village where call to prayer echoed through the valley while children chased a football along the road as shepherds moved their herd home for the night. As the sun began to disappear, stars decorated the sky and the tips of the mountains turned from pretty shades of pink, to the darkest of blue.

‘It’s a like family home, non,’ my host explained over dinner as I showered him with compliments littered with adverbs. I think it was Stephan King who said that the pathway to hell is paved with adverbs- which makes me think he’s never visited Berber Lodge.

Romain Michel Ménière is the humorous and clever witted force behind this charming place. With a creative and talented eye, he, and his equally warm and stylish godmother, Cosette, had me wanting to stay for more than two days, from the very moment that I arrived.

It was just like a family home. Every meal was prepared with ingredients from both the garden and suppliers not far away. Each person who works alongside Romain and Cosette is from Oumnass, only moments away, and the house dogs are as friendly as their owners. The lodge is always busy, with guests coming from each and every corner of the world. Some are famous, and others, quite regular. Here, everyone is welcome and each lodge on the property is beautifully designed and pared back, embracing everything that is Berber with subtle nods to 20th century design.

In a world where we aspire towards everything being bigger- from houses and cars to hairdos, throughout the 48 hours I spent at Berber Lodge, I found myself transported to a place that embodied everything that I am slowly learning is ‘my big’. Nothing was a problem, the smiles were real. A new garden was establishing itself under ancient trees, and in seemingly empty corners found around the property, there was actually so much to appreciate – an occasional courtyard here, a carefully designed reading nook there. Old met new, in a fusion of so much that was as stylish as it was true to its environs.

My camera is overloaded, and this little place just outside of Oumnass will always be deeply embedded in my memory.

Just like so many things in life, I’m not sure how all of this all came be, but I’m utterly grateful that it did. It took a little bit of planning, but the rest is history.

When I remarked that I was sad to be leaving, Romain made the very valid point ‘yes, but you can just move around, non, it is hard for people to do that, non, look at you like a character out of a Agatha Christie novel propped up in the garden,’ in the same moment that Cosette drifted in, her perfume wafting behind her, looking chic and glorious as ever.

A formidable duo, who are magnificent custodians of a very special place.

Pictured: one of many beautiful spaced to relax at Berber Lodge.

Explorations.

Explorations.

In life, I suspect there are only so many times where you’d expect to be held up by a donkey reversing a cart stacked full gas cylinders down a two meter wide alley, challenged only by two oncoming motorbikes who (seemingly), have the upper hand when it comes to speed.  Until Wednesday this week, I’d only been in this situation about twice in my life.

Admittedly, over the past couple of years, I’d begun to wonder when I would next find myself in a traffic jam with a reversing donkey and two oncoming motorbikes, and found myself positively relieved when it finally took place outside a watch battery vendor in the middle of the souk.

When I arrived in Marrakech over a week ago, I was met by the night manager of my riad who immediately offered me mint tea, followed closely by a beer.  ‘I’d love a mint tea,’ I enthused before enquiring if he had a glass of wine to go with my dinner.
‘We have rosie wine just for you,’ he assured me.

For those who know me well, will also understand how much I love a glass of rosé.

Therefore, each day after hours of traipsing through the souks and visiting the thousands of museums and sites that Marrakech has to offer, before getting lost on the way home and dodging motorbikes screaming down alleyways, I’d reflect on the day with a glass of rosé, pondering the joys that are travel and the inspiration that marries with exploration.

In Marrakech the souks are made up of an absolute maze of stalls, and my only advice to anyone planning a visit to this amazing city is to just dive in and lose yourself in it all.

On Tuesday, towards the end of my first week in Marrakech, I found an incredible artisan cobbler named Monsieur Ahmed sitting in his tiny little studio just within the medina walls. Here, he weaves raffia shoes, cobbles leather sandals and will repair any type of shoe that you take to him. With his linguistic offerings being both French and Arabic, I spent an hour sifting through his wares, peppering pregnant pauses with daft offerings in French – ‘it nice,’ ‘so much perfect choice,’ ‘clever you Mr,’ before paying an advance and agreeing that I’d come back the following day to pick up my order.

A couple of hours later, I arrived home for my final night in Marrakech with an empty purse and a hankering for my daily glass of rosé.

I sat for what felt like hours waiting for the clock to strike seven, and by the time I discovered that my watch had in fact stopped, it was well after 9pm.
After two years on my wrist, my ever faithful Swatch had decided to fall asleep at cocktail hour.

The following morning I returned to Monsieur Ahmed’s store only to find it completely void of any sign of him, but still full to the brim with beautiful shoes – just as it had been the day before. Taking a seat on a little stool in the corner, I panned the walls in the event that I’d missed something, while counting the minutes as I waited for the Chinese whispers of the alleyway to work their magic and for Monsieur to make an appearance from the street.

Fifteen minutes passed before my new friend squeezed out of the attic high above, before navigating his way down a ladder – his portly little body wobbling with every step. ‘Ah, Madame’ he squealed with a smile, ‘shoes, shoes, shoes’. Trotting to his desk, he produced a bag and together we went through each pair, checking the laces and the stitching for faults – ‘et voila’ he exclaimed ‘for you I make chausseurs parfait’. They were perfect, bar one pair that had a tiny little defect where my foot becomes so wide that I think I almost frightened him.  ‘Saturday,’ he promised, ‘return on Saturday for the all’.
Producing my watch, I clumsily asked where I could find a new battery -‘c’est fini’ he laughed before sneaking off down the alley, returning moments later, cross that his watch battery friend had closed his store for lunch. If I left my watch with him, did I have confidence that he would have that fixed by Saturday, he wondered.

I had every confidence that he’d have it ticking with absolute vigour by the time I returned on Saturday, but in an age where smart phones rule every minute of every day, I prefer to read time the old fashioned way, and the thought of three days consulting my phone with an empty wrist left me feeling completely naked.

‘Be careful, they are many’ Monsieur warned, wishing me luck with the battery, advising that if I turned left into the souk I would find a plethora of watch batteries. He also warned that most of them are ‘not so good’. Thanking him profusely, I waved goodbye and continued on my way.

Within ten minutes I had found a watch battery shop where two boys also sold speakers, transmitters, earphones, iPhones and covers for iPhones. After a few minutes involving a set of tweezers and rapid Arabic mutterings, my watch was ticking again at 11.24 am.

After a further fifteen minutes, the time hadn’t changed.

‘I would like a new battery,’ I said to the boys running the shop, only a bit flustered when I returned from a short walk where I’d admired a thousand raffia baskets and a fresh batch of kittens sunbathing in one pile decorated with alarmingly bright pom poms. As the kittens raised their paws as if to stop me in my tracks, I noticed it was still  11.24 am.

‘Oh yes, sorry Madame, a new battery’.

While I understand that we all need to buy a flat battery from time to time, today I would love a new battery for my watch, I explained, and with, that my little black time machine was dancing deep into the souks in the hands of a little petty thief who’d left me with the promise of ‘one minute, just one minute’.

Counting the minutes and wondering if I’d ever see my nifty Swatch again, it was in this moment that the cart stacked high with gas cylinders being reversed by a donkey in competition with two oncoming motorbikes, trotted backwards through my path.

Grabbing the the glass counter of the battery vendor and with no one to catch me in the (high) likelihood that I fall, I made every attempt to keep my eyes on the street awaiting the return of my Swatch, but found myself distracted and delighted that my moment had finally come.  It was blissful, made even happier when not one, but two of the boys returned with a ticking watch that hasn’t stopped ticking since.

Marrakech is a heavenly place. The rosie is always chilled, there is someone kind around each corner and there are plentiful people who will sell you anything you need – flat watch batteries included.

This is a city full of history, and as I left the riad and climbed into my waiting car on Wednesday afternoon, I had plenty to reflect on after a short week in the pinkest town I ever did see.

Berber Lodge was next on my agenda, and after navigating our way through villages where the narrow roads were lined with rammed earth houses and sweet little children running alongside our car, I knew I’d reached some sort of paradise as we arrived at dusk.

I delighted in the olive groves, the pink peaks of the Atlas Mountains, the deafening silence and an open sky that was soon littered with stars, all made more beautiful with the warm welcome I received as my bag full of bricks was unloaded from the car.

More to come.

Pictured: the King above the door, as he is every door in Morocco.

Hey, Spice Girl.

Hey, Spice Girl.

Coming to Morocco is a long held dream of mine that was finally realised when I arrived late in the evening on Thursday last week. Upon stepping off the plane, I was welcomed by teaming rain and a toothless taxi driver baring my name on a tattered placard. ‘You speak French?’ he asked, before ushering me into the taxi, ‘a bit,’ I replied, and with that we were arranging for me to be fluent in Arabic by the time I leave in a month, taking surf lessons when I arrive in Essaouira next week, and I mustn’t forget ‘over there, that is the Royal Palace, the King stays in another Palace, but that is the Royal Palace’. ‘Right, that is the Royal Palace,’ I muttered, and ‘voila, here is the entrance to the Medina,’ he added as we raced under an arch and into the Old City, barely utilising two wheels out of four.

Colette loved Morocco and so did the darling of French song, Dalida, as well as Gertrude Stein, Orson Wells, Edith Wharton, Henri Matisse, Edith Piaf, Alfred Hitchcock, Sir Winston Churchill, Jacques Majorelle, Marlene Dietrich, Henri Bordeaux, Anais Nin and Voltaire – just to name a few. And not forgetting my favourite, Yves Saint Laurent.

For my 16th Christmas present, Mum gave me a bottle of Paris by YSL- a perfume that I wore religiously for the following twenty years of my life before switching to Vetyverio by Diptyque during a moment of heartbreak in my mid thirties. Perfume has a funny way of doing that, and I often ponder the irony that was the end of my relationship (now we’re talking perfume), with a product named after the city I now call home, in the very same year that I took up learning French.

I know, it’s gripping stuff.  But in life, change is inevitable.

When I was 17, I read Yves Saint Laurent’s biography with eyes watering at every mention of his life in Paris and love for his other home, Marrakech. With each spray of his perfume, I thought of him and those horn rimmed glasses, his dazzling designs and in the days before Google, I’d pore over images of his muse- a much younger Catherine Deneuve – all fiery and cool with her short, sleek hair and high waisted YSL trousers on the pages of black and white coffee table books.

And of course, when it comes to Morocco, there is also the rich Islamic culture and breathtaking call to prayer five times a day, the High Atlas Mountains, the Berber people, the Sahara Desert, the Medinas, the souks, the snake charmers and a general romantic essence of everything that is Eastern and beautiful – all just hours away from Paris.

My time is now.

As my head hit the pillow on my first night in Marrakech, I drifted off to the sound of pattering rain of the roof and ‘adhan’ (call to prayer) in the distance.  I woke the following morning to the first call of the day competing with roosters calling from a neighbouring garden. Maps, notes and suggestions from those who’ve trodden this path before me, lay splayed out on the breakfast table, and I enjoyed at least five cups of mint tea before I stepped through the door of the riad and onto the street below.  Moments later ‘Hey, Spice Girl’ was called out to me and, not certain if I was supposed to take on the guise of Sporty, Baby, Posh, Ginger or Scary, I gave up guessing pretty quickly, smiled, gripped my umbrella and continued on my way.

The people of Marrakech are as charming as they are beautiful. The millions of stalls in the souk leading off the square Jamaa El Fnaa, are as magical as they appear in magazines and coffee table books. The moorish architecture and the minarets atop the mosques reach for the sky, seeing me gazing upwards and tripping over my feet far too often. There are fewer cars than I’d imagined, and the little larks that fight for my breakfast baguette untouched in its basket, have slowly become my friends.

I spent my first morning developing a new found love for my second language which sees me often faking deafness and ignoring phone calls in Paris, but with Moroccans speaking French at a much slower pace, a new confidence was quickly acquired. I immediately found them to be grateful for my tattered attempts, and complimentary with every word.

Spice Girl soon had a skip in her stride, something that is often lost on me with Parisians who, as much as I love them, can be intimidating – leaving me feeling humiliated with their heigh standards expected with each and every spoken word of their delicious language. For anyone looking to improve their French, just hit the souks in Marrakech where you are thanked, rather than spanked, for giving it a go. Gone were the English menus and futile American accented quips of ‘bye, bye, see you next time,’ often found in Paris at the sheer sniff of an accent, replaced with a much needed ‘Madame, vous parlez bien Français’. I suppose it helps, when Madame is lining up a thousand pairs of shoes and pondering every colour.

By lunchtime, I was sitting on a rooftop deep within the souk feasting on a vegetarian pastilla, feeling very happy to be here.

Later that afternoon, as the sky cleared and umbrellas went down in unison with the sun, I met with a great friend of our family who, in a moment of pure serendipity, was finishing up in Marrakech just as I arrived.

After meeting in the middle of the main square, Jamaa El Fnaa, we dodged plops of rain in the souk along with offers of tea and presents as we giggled our way through piles of leather bags, walls of raffia shoes, endless baskets and seemingly thousands of bottles of Argon Oil.
‘This is Trisha, my mother’s greatest friend,’ I offered to anyone who’d listen, and with that, there were gifts of glittering key rings and tours around every ‘upstairs,’ where we were shown more wares that neither of us needed, as much as we were reassured that everything was made in Morocco, ‘pas Chine’.

The larks danced on palm fronds as we walked home through the warm evening air before enjoying a special moment of non stop chatter – refreshing cocktail in hand, at the Churchill Bar in the beautiful Hotel Mamounia on the edge of the Medina – a wonderful end to my first day in Marrakech.

As a young aspiring painter, Jacques Majorelle arrived in Morocco in 1917, invited by the French Resident General, Marshal Lyautey.  After spending a short time in Casablanca he travelled to Marrakech and like many of his contemporaries, fell in love with the vibrant colours and street life he found here.
In 1923, Majorelle purchased a four-acre plot situated on the border of a vast palm grove, and in 1930 he built an Art Deco house and studio and painted it in ‘Majorelle Blue’.

Following Majorelles death in 1962, the garden and house fell into an abandoned state before being purchased and rescued by Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent in 1980.

Early on Saturday morning, I set off for les Jardins Majorelle located just outside the walls of the Medina. Skipping through endless boot loads of carpets, second hand books, wooden carts filled of fruit and vegetables, fresh orange juice vendors pressing cup after cup of juice, and seemingly millions of people, I finally made the dash across the busy Avenue Yacoub El Mansour, before emerging in the cosmopolitan and comparatively peaceful, Rue Yves Saint Laurent.

The following hour was spent in the magnificent, recently opened Musée – a shrine to a man who the Moroccans loved and one who made a significant contribution to this city for the duration of his time here with Pierre, the man he loved. The walls are adorned with photos of Catherine et al and as well as a decent collection of his incredible sketches. Videos of catwalk models from a bygone era, naturally beautiful, barely tanned and definitely not botoxed, are beamed through a screen in a thoroughly modern theatre.
Down the hallway in a darkened room lit up only by a temporary exhibition of his sparkling dresses barely reaching the knees of the mannequins that they adorned, I almost walked into mirrors as I navigated my way through the glittering darkness.

In a city where it is not unusual to see many women covered from head to toe, I found myself momentary ‘nowhere,’ and feeling more than just a little bit contemplative.

Next door, the Jardin Majorelle was busy with afternoon foot traffic made up of at least three Chinese brides posing under Majorelle’s studio window; wheelchairs scooted down paths and lost children called for their mothers, while couples and families from every single corner of the world took selfies in a thousand different languages. Bustling groups of middle aged women on their once in a lifetime trip together, shouted across rare cactus plants about important things like the price they paid earlier in the day for a fresh orange juice in the main square.

All of this was made bearable by the sheer size of the gardens, where quiet corners in this expansive and beautiful oasis are easy to come by.  It is a truly magnificent place, and like the city outside it’s four walls, this is a place for everyone.

In a nod to Morocco’s Berber culture (who also make up the oldest people in North Africa), a staggering collection of over 600 objects ranging from jewellery, clothing, arms, basketry, textiles and carpets accompanied volumes of text, are all housed in a fabulous museum within the walls of what was once Majorelles studio.

After three hours, following a fusion of cultures fastidiously arranged within square metres of each other, I collapsed into a chair in the garden café with a fresh juice of pineapple, ginger and soda.

Marrakech is blanketed by the High Atlas Mountains which loom importantly in the distance from every vantage point and rooftop. Each night, I climb up to the roof of my Riad and join the larks as the sun begins to set – and together we soak up the magic that are the colours of the day painting the peaks of this staggeringly beautiful and vast mountain range.

I had romantic visions of being driven up to the mountains through the Vallée Oukira and finding plentiful waterfalls, pack mules, Berber villages and breathtaking views. A car arrived on Sunday morning and my driver was delighted that I was willing to spend the day in French.

‘I also speak excellent England,’ he assured me, before we set off on an adventure towards the Oukira Valley in the lower reaches of the Atlas Mountains.

Conversations about the Berber people, the importance of olives, agriculture, magnesium and tourism followed, as we wound our way out of the city and towards the mountains. ‘Tu comprends,’ he’d check, met with plentiful ‘oui’s’ and ‘d’accords’ from me.
Slow and considered with every word, we stopped from time to time at places selling tajines stacked neatly upon each other and tapis hanging from the walls.

The track leading into to the Atlas from Marrakech is a winding road filled with tour buses, four wheel drives, city taxis and locals waiting to sell everything from market baskets to bunches of flowers, ceramics and jewellery.

‘Better than the Swiss Alps’ he rejoiced, as we headed deeper into the valley.

I was exhausted by the time we reached our isolated lunch spot at midday, where we were greeted by a jolly fellow who offered tajines of beef, chicken, vegetables and cous cous. ‘Pas touristique’ my driver smiled, ‘c’est très typique des gens Berbères,’ he added.

Seated in a windswept corner of the isolated restaurant, overlooking the river and surrounded by the mountains, I tried my hardest to romanticise the experience.

A tajine that smelt pretty dreadful and tasted even worse that had been prepared in a pot beside the WC, was proudly presented with a tall glass of water. I spent the following hour attempting to savour every bite, but was defeated by a growing sense of cynicism and eventually pushed it aside.

More like the lower reaches of the Himalayas than the romantic wonderland written up with enthusiastic vigour in magazines, I soon concluded that the valleys beneath the Atlas Mountains have become a wasteland of plastic chairs in the cafés that line the river, along with Argon oil workshops run by women designed for tourists to capture with the zoom lens of their cameras.

When I arrived home last night, I painted a picture in my mind of what the valley would have been like a hundred years ago, before drifting off to sleep.

As with everything in life, change is inevitable but one thing is for sure, the magic of Marrakech remains.

Pictured:  the shadows of palm fronds bouncing off the beautiful home and studio of Jacques Majorelle

A minute in Marrakech.

A minute in Marrakech.

My apartment in Paris has no lift, just (approximately) 95 stairs and I live like a pigeon in a tiny loft at the top of each and every one of those stairs.  Actually, not counting the final ten which lead to a little green door.  Nadine lives there.

For those of you who have been with me since the beginning of my pinnings will be familiar with Nadine – my wonderful neighbour who has lived in her little Saint Germain pigeon hole since the end of the 1950s.  Chez Nadine is a rabbit warren, neatly arranged but full to the brim with everything from potted ferns, books, at least 100 saucepans, and I mustn’t forget to add the endless jars filled of multiple hair brushes. There are cupboards full of linen and bag upon bag of all sorts of things. Do I need a printer? No, I’m good for printers. A coffee cup? Got them too.

When I arrived back to Paris from Australia almost a month ago, I found myself fading by about 5pm for the first week but on day two, I did slip a note under Nadine’s door letting her know that I was home and ‘très fatigué’. With every intention of catching up sooner rather than later, I was met with alarm on Wednesday as I packed for my month in Morocco, when I discovered a bag filled with souvenirs from Australia and a card written in ‘my best French’ to Nadine.

Fortunately, after hours and hours of racing around the city ticking ‘to do’s’ off my list, just as I’d raced up the stairs short of any breath and almost perishing, Nadine was waving off her tradesman as I reached my door. We said our hellos, I had four kisses planted on each cheek, before she summonsed me up the final ten stairs for a cup of coffee.

I love these moments that we share together, she thinks differently to me on so many levels- but in the same way in many others. Her heart is kind, and our thoughts are separated only by about four decades and two different languages. Every time we sit together, I know that I have to speak in French (this retired school teacher has no time for laziness) and she is ever complimentary about my accent and vocabulary – it’s in her DNA.

As we sipped our coffee her eyebrows became buried under her neatly arranged fringe at the sheer mention of me leaving for Morocco the next day. ‘Pourquoi?’ she asked, before adding that there were many Moroccan people in Paris. I agreed, but went on explain that I have a long held dream of wandering around Morocco- this stuff is in my DNA.
Patting her ever present ‘bum bag’ or, for the Americans in the group ‘fanny pack,’ she asked if I had one.
Explaining that I went to a fiftieth birthday two years ago dressed as Edina from Absolutely Fabulous wearing a gold bum bag and a copper perm, was all but impossible for me to describe in French, so I decided to end that question with a simple ‘non’.

So here I sit, on my first night in Marrakech in the most beautiful Riad sipping on a glass of ‘rosie’ wine (they had me at rosie) after my first ‘real’ Morrocan tagine.  Each time I reach for my phone, I have to rummage through my borrowed ‘bum bag’ from Nadine. It has sat loyally beside me since the moment that she went through on of her many bags, with one obviously allocated to ‘fanny packs,’ before wishing me ‘bon courage’.

The rain was heavy as my flight landed in Marrakech just after six pm tonight, and the French pilot made every effort to apologise for the weather – as if it was his fault. After seemingly hours of lining up and presenting my entire life to the men at passport control, I finally emerged out of the airport and was greeted by a man with no bottom teeth, holding my name on a placard. As we whizzed through the Kasbah, he taught me the basics of Arabic; ‘shukraan’ for thank you and if I want extra points, ‘shukraan jazilaan’ for thank you very much. ‘Marhabaan’ will see me saying hello and ‘eazim’ will suffice for great.

The Royal Palace is ‘just there’ and do I speak French? I should really get a French-Arabic dictionary and some books to aid in my Arabic lessons, is what I was told.

And then suddenly I was tipped out of the taxi and walking down a cobblestoned street under an umbrella with a man named Hafeez. Quite the gent, he wheeled my suitcase- all 23 kilos of it, full to the brim with at least seven versions of my travel uniform of white shirt and matching trousers- before flinging a nondescript door open on an equally as nondescript cobble stoned street, revealing Riad Daria, my home for the next week.

As I sat down for dinner, I observed call to prayer sounding in the distance.  The sound of this is easily one of my favourite things.  It’s heaven here, and I couldn’t be happier that I’ve finally made it.

Bum bag and all.

Pictured:  the entrance to Riad Daria where I enjoyed tea on arrival after skipping through puddles.