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sunset ruins

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains…

P.B. Shelley; “Ozymandias”

Photo taken in Volubilus, Morocco

In general, Americans do not excel at hospitality, compared to the rest of the world. We do certain things well—barbecues, for example, or hanging out and eating chips and dips while watching television. But when it comes to the full on, days spent in the kitchen in preparation, slaughtering your last goat to honour your guest even though your children may not eat meat for a week as a result kind of hospitality, Americans tend to fail. The drop-ins being invited to stay and being served like honoured guests. The extra courses, the non-ending stream of complicated things from the kitchen throughout an extended afternoon/evening/night, the seven course meal, in general, don’t come out of our kitchens.

I am not boasting, but for an American I am decent at hospitality. I like to have people over. I like to have things nice. I easily pull off 3 courses, often even 4. But 7? That is beyond me.

So, when I invited my Moroccan friend and her new husband, who is a diplomat, over for dinner, I was stressed. I had to do it.  But I was worried. Would they feel honoured, as they have honoured me in the past? I knew the best I could hope for was: not bad for an American.

Part of it is not my fault. Arabs live in families. So there is more than one woman on hand to help. There are usually maids, younger sisters, plenty of people. Plus, they are used to cooking for larger numbers. They can pull it off more easily.

But part of it is my own deficiencies. The other day at the beach, my American friend Megan pulled out blueberry muffins (dried berries sent from America) and Girl Scout thin mint cookies (also sent in a care package) for my family to fall upon like wild locusts and tear to bits in our excitement. “Megan, you are so Arab!” I said to her admiringly. I have to admit that if you send me Thin Mints and dried blueberries in a care package, I will be very happy, but I will have a hard time sharing them. I will let my own family have a few, but mostly I will want to horde them and eat them myself. But Arabs will share their best, their most precious, their last—they will give to their own hurt. I am not good at this. I like to share things, but I tend to keep the Starbucks only for people I am sure will appreciate it.

Even with Arabs, there are limits of course. They may encourage you to keep eating and say things like “You haven’t eaten anything!”, but if you believe them and eat and eat and eat and eat and eat, their children will not eat that night and they will not be impressed with you (yes, we learned this the hard way, in Mauritania. We left going, “We offended them. We really didn’t eat enough.” I’m sure they were thinking, “I can’t believe how much American eat!”). It’s like a game. You don’t have to keep eating if you are full.

Tuesday was the big day and I was ready with my plan. I have a maid who comes twice a week; she does some basic cleaning and cooks the most incredible Moroccan food imaginable. She is cheerful and easy to get along with, but she is unreliable. On many instances, she has simply not shown up; she does not call. I have to call her husband when she hasn’t shown up yet again, who will tell me, “Oh she is sick” or “Oh she is traveling.” The plan was that she would come on Tuesday (she had missed her previous day), clean the house and cook her wonderful lamb/prune/apricot tagine for me to serve as the 3rd course.

The foreshadowing was enough: you are not surprised that she did not show up. I wasn’t even surprised. Apparently I thrive on stress. I spent the morning calling all my friends until I found one with a housecleaner who was free for the day. I knew I couldn’t do all the cooking plus the cleaning. Because of Ramadan, my guests were not due to arrive till 9 p.m., so I had some time.

Zohra came and did a fantastic job cleaning, much better than my normal maid. I made chocolate tarts (thanks, Kit, they were fantastic!) and a fancy roast potato and green bean salad and I roasted 3 chickens with garlic and red onion and herbes de provence, because they were bringing extended family and we were going to be 12, and my table only seats 6. I made appetizers and arranged fancy salads and chopped and decorated and filled the kitchen with huge piles of dishes, all dusted with flour.

They came at 9:30, bringing me a fantastic tray of Ramadan pastries from a fantastic local patisserie. The extended family did not come. We understood that when the call to prayer sounds at about 7:15, and the long hot day of fasting is over, they drink water, eat dates, and harira soup, the traditional Ramadan soup made with lamb, tomato and chick peas, among many other ingredients. Then they go to the mosque. An invitation for 9 p.m. should have brought us a horde of pleasantly hungry friends.

Yes, my friend agreed, that is the idea. That would be healthy, she told me. But instead, at 7:15, her hungry family eats and eats and eats. She had spent her day cooking as she spends every day during Ramadan, and her family had eaten their fill, of tagine and soup and dates and salads and bread, at 7:15 and so had not come to our house.

The four of us sat down, and sent the kids off to play. We ate hummous and pita bread, falafel and olives, dates and walnuts. Then we ate one of the chickens, and several fancy salads. Then we ate fruit. Then we ate tarte au chocolat, with coffee. They left about 12:30.

We sent one of the chickens out to the neighbourhood guardian (I hope I get my plate back sometime) and put the other in the freezer. Elliot and Abel, amazingly, stayed up till 1 and helped me clean the kitchen. Our fridge is stuffed with leftovers. Who wants to come for some roast potato salad?

But I think it worked. Even though they hardly ate anything, not in the Arab-hospitality-fussing-over sense, but in the literal American sense (because they had also eaten a whole meal at 7:15), I think they felt honoured, which was the whole point.

Which made the evening a success. In spite of my nationality.

…or “photies,” as Catrin used to call them last time I saw her, which was when she was 4…

it's a phone

Stage things much? (The twins that is. I don’t stage things; they do)

big ben

english dragon

Random dragon. He’s English, not Welsh; you can tell by the shield.

stpauls dome

Dome of St. Paul’s. We went to evensong, but the choir was on vacation 😦

stpauls across street

Front of St. Paul’s, taken from across the street (obviously) from in front of a little cafe.

ben's eye

Big Ben with the London Eye in the background


The London Eye


The London skyline always has cranes, but this particular view includes

St Paul’s and Blackfriars Bridge (I think).

The title of these posts is ironic. Obviously one doesn’t go to the UK during their rainiest summer in 30 years expecting sunshine. We did get some, but there were lots of showers as well.

worthing street

A street in Worthing

cliff at Rhossili

Picnicking on the cliffs at Rhossili in Wales

3 cliffs

3 Cliffs Bay

boats waiting


donn helen alex

Donn with my cousin and her son

ww2 bunker elliot

Elliot in bunker from WWII

Enough pics! I will post more snaps later.

It’s 10 p.m. Moroccan time, which changed yesterday from Daylight Savings Time after starting in on June 1st. The mosque is pouring forth a melodic chant, on and on and on, which I take to mean Ramadan has started. My internet connection leaves much to be desired, so tonight I’ll post my story, and tomorrow (insha’allah) I’ll post pics to go with it.

First we visited friends in Worthing, on the south coast of England. Ilsa made a Scottish friend, and claimed to now have a Scottish accent. She claimed her friend now has an American accent. I must say that I personally was unable to discern these new accents, but it’s okay—the two girls have invented a new alphabet and language to go with it. I suppose they will soon both be sporting “Top Secret” accents (I am not allowed to know the name of the new language).

Then we spent some time visiting my cousins and aunt in South Wales. That was super. The last time I saw my cousin’s daughter, she was 4; now she is 20. I know! Isn’t that just wrong? But it makes sense, considering airfares from Seattle to Swansea, or even Nouakchott and Heathrow.

I grew up mostly not knowing the Welsh half of my family (My mother was Welsh and met and married my American father when both of them were working in Ethiopia), except for one memorable trip when I was 8 and my grandmother had a stroke, and Mum took me with her to nurse her for a couple of months. I retain vivid memories of that trip; daffodils and stinging nettles and fizzy lemonade and lime popsicles when I wouldn’t eat, offered by my kind uncle, and how scary I found my grandmother, who was very sick, and a shameful glimpse of my great-aunt in her pale blue panties on the one night that I worked up the nerve to not sleep with my mother but take up my great-aunt’s generous offer of her bedroom, and she of course had given up on me and was in there getting ready to sleep in her own bed. I remember my grandmother’s roses, and the woods full of bluebells behind her house, and my cousin Helen, 8 years older, taking me out for ice-cream and styling my hair on Saturday nights. I remember school lunches and how they didn’t make me buy a uniform although I secretly wanted one, and I remember eating “99” cones which have a Cadbury Flake stuck in them and are so good! We ate lamb chops and tiny green peas, and my great aunt put ketchup on her tomatoes because the doctor had forbidden her to use vinegar. She was a stubborn woman, as was my grandmother, as was my mother.

When my brother got married in 1983, I think it was, Helen came out from Wales for an American vacation. The next summer, Mum and I went to my other cousin’s wedding, and I ended up being a bridesmaid in sky-blue taffeta. That started several years of back-and-forth-ing between the families. One year my brother and his wife went to Wales; another year my aunt and uncle and some friends came to America. But this ended in the mid-90s. Everyone was married. Although the older generation made several more trips, my generation didn’t. We sort of lost touch, although we knew basic news (births, divorces, cancer announcements, in the last couple of years deaths).

How to pick up after 16 years? We did okay. We talked not about the intervening years but about the present, as you do with someone you haven’t seen for a very long time. It was good getting to know her children a bit. Catrin, 20, was invited to a party one night and didn’t want to go. “It’s not really my scene,” she said in her precise voice, which we found amusing as we couldn’t imagine her scene was sitting round the dining room table with us old folks trying to decide between gooseberry cobbler with elderberry ice cream or rhubarb/strawberry cobbler with orange mascapone. I had both. Wouldn’t you?

We hiked on the cliffs of the Gower peninsula, and went shopping in downtown Swansea, visited a little with my aunt who is sadly changed since my uncle’s death 2 years ago, and on the third day caught the train up to London.

Donn said of London, “It’s the only city in the world where it’s cheaper to stay at the airport.” Truly, the UK is very expensive, mostly because of the exchange rate. We visited a few attractions, such as the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral, where sadly the choir was on vacation, but resisted many things because of the money involved. We picnicked on the grass and admired street performers and trudged endless miles through the streets. The kids climbed the lions in Trafalgar Square and I said to Elliot, my little history freak, “Tell us about it,” so he did. He knew much more detail than I ever did. It is very handy having a history freak in the family. I plan to keep him.

We flew easyjet to London and I feel the need to issue a public service call on them to change their name! I am suggesting squeezyjet, but they can do something else if they like.

First of all, I have no problem with them not providing services, because they are really cheap. (they don’t give you anything to eat or drink and you don’t get assigned seats, which makes waiting in line to board especially fraught with excitement, and you are only allowed carry on luggage) Their planes are clean and bright and new, and at first I was prepared to like them very much. We changed planes in Madrid, and I thought it was silly that they couldn’t check our one case from Casa to London, especially since it’s the same airline. Did that really save them money? I can’t see how. But again, I can flow with that. Whatever.

What seemed excessive was that we were 2 ½ hours leaving Casa. The pilot apologized for the delay, and that was it; no free coke or anything. Then, our flight from Madrid was nearly 2 hours late as well! This time, no reason or apology was offered.

At least this time, we didn’t have to deal with the mood of the airline personnel being the deciding factor as to whether our carry ons were too big, rather than the fact that they are industry standard size or the fact that they fit in easyjet’s little orange basket being the deciding factors. Also, they let us bring our own sandwiches.

Coming home, we flew Royal Air Maroc. They not only matched easyjet’s price, but they let us check luggage without charging us extra, and they didn’t fuss about anything. They even fed us! I know who I’m flying next time!

At the end of June, Donn went to the Mauritanian border and met a fruit truck with all the things we’d left in storage there 2 years ago. This is the final segment of his story of that journey. Read parts one, two, three, four and five here.

the truck

Yes, this is the truck

I’ve been meaning to ask Tim who drove from Nouakchott to the border. Saied 1 drove from the time we met, mid-day, until 2 AM when we stopped at a gas station that I think was in Layoune. Here we installed a massive gas tank on the left hand side of the truck and filled it with over 800 liters of diesel fuel.  We had dropped our hitch-hiker somewhere along the way and S2 slept in the small bed behind the seats for 5 to 6 hours until he took the wheel in the wee hours of the morning.

He drove for an hour and a half and then pulled off the road where we slept for about 3 hours. When we woke, S1 took the wheel again and drove most of the day. S2 went back to lying down. Traveling with Saied 2 was like trying to row a boat with an anchor hanging off the back. At least that was the image that came to mind.

For breakfast we pulled into a small restaurant and had tea and fried eggs from a communal plate from which we pulled bits of egg off with our bread.  At each café, S2 found a group of men to socialize with after the meal while S1 and I waited around the truck. This wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for his insistent wrist slapping at the border. I fought the urge to gesture towards my imaginary watch. Instead I waited by the truck and imagined pouring molasses on a cold day. The Saied Brothers apparently made up for lost time by keeping a stack of 20 dirham notes in a cubby-hole in the dash board and shaking hands with the officer on duty at every checkpoint. This seemed to save us bags of time which could be better spent loitering around truck stops.

the saied brothers

S1 and S2 at breakfast

S1 played Berber music intermittently throughout the trip. Not being musical at all, it really is beyond my ability to describe but I’ll give it a shot. Only know that you need to then find some Berber music and listen to it. Ok, so it’s repetitive. The rhythm, the melody, and the vocals are all repetitive. Everything in it repeats not twice or thrice but until you stop counting. There is a musical phrase that winds through a constant, dare I say repetitive, rhythm over and over again while the singer presumably tells a story with each verse ending with the same phrase. It was not entirely unpleasant. Traditional Mauritanian music has no reference point for western ears, but the Berber music Saied 1 played was ultimately kind of catchy. I mean it was no Bob Dylan but seemed a propos to the drone of the highway, the many Mohameds I’d met, the number of times America’s shortcomings were the topic of conversation, and the multiple goat tagines that blur in my memory. At one point, S1 scanned the radio for something western. We found the theme to Flashdance. It’s hard to feel stupider than driving through the desert with two men you can’t communicate with while listening to Flashdance. I think even S1 understood that because after one song it was back to the hypnotic strains of his cassette.

Before lunch I made contact with Elizabeth who informed me of Michael Jackson’s passing. I tried to communicate this news to S1 & 2 since in my experience, pop music icons seem to be one of the most common points of reference for North Africans on the subject of The West. That and America’s failings.

I pronounced his name the way I would say it. MY-kul JACKson. Then I tried the French, or at least the Peter Sellers way. Mee-shell Zhjackson. And then the incredulous way. “C’mon guys. Michele Jackson. [falsetto] ‘Just beat it!’” Nope, Nothing. In simple phrases, trying both Hassynia and French: Il est mort. No? Hua matt. No?  Unbelievable. I gave up. Shortly after that we pulled into a truck stop, perused the menu and decided on the goat tagine. A television anchored to the ceiling was on showing….. Michael Jackson. “You know him?” I asked. Of course they knew him. What a stupid question. “He died today.” “Really?” All of the sudden S2 decided to understand a few words and related it to S1.

When we reached their home town of Agadir, we pulled off the highway onto a street lined with trucks. This was the kind of place one could find a truck to rent and I was a bit concerned they were going to try and off-load me. They had already broached that possibility with Tim and I was really wondering what was going on as we pulled into this truck mall with no explanation. Fortunately, we only changed the oil and were off again. As we left Agadir, we wound up behind an empty truck from Kenitra which is a city just north of Rabat. S2, now driving again, gestured at it repeatedly and spoke at length about it. I didn’t understand a word and yet I feel I know the jist. S1 occasionally replied to S2 and we kept driving northward.

Near Marrakech I was in regular contact with Elizabeth estimating the time of our arrival, planning who would be there to help unload, etc., when…. we turned around. What???  We spent half an hour driving up and down the same section of road lined with truck stops. Are we looking for a specific goat tagine?  I imagined their conversation as something like, “You know, these guys drove the old Cup-o-Tagine guys right out of town.”

Apparently, we were looking for a friend of S2’s. He had been on the phone coming into Marrakech and had arranged to meet a friend, so back and forth we went, looking for him. (I had imaginary friends too, but I outgrew them) S1 explained it to me with a Berber word but I didn’t understand. I forget the word now but when we stopped, I looked for someone that spoke French (and presumably Berber). “Excuse me, do you speak French? What does this word mean?”  “Friend.” Are you kidding me? Ohhh. I wanted to slap more than his imaginary watch. S1 and I waited round the truck for another ½ hour. I tried to exude annoyance and wondered if S1 would ever find a new partner. He is using you, Saied.

Eventually S2 sauntered over to the truck and we all piled back in. Language barriers can be a gift, I suppose, as we rolled on in silence.

On the other side of Marrakech, we had our final and best tagine. This was technically a michwi, not a tagine, michwi being grilled meat and tagine being more a stew.  It was actually phenomenal. Grilled mutton chops with onions, tomatoes and salt. Soo good.


Choosing our michwi, pre-cooking

Back on the road, I calculated our time to Rabat and called Elizabeth.  Looks like we’ll be there around 3 AM, assuming Saied doesn’t have any “friends” in this neck of the woods, I told her. Earlier I had realized we wouldn’t be there at a time when anyone would want to help so Elizabeth suggested we stop somewhere and sleep. “You want me to prolong this?”  I asked. If I was scheduled to be released from prison, would she say, “Boy, tomorrow’s not a good time. See if you can stay another week.” I suggested to Elizabeth that she let Elliot have a sleepover. The more the merrier! “Have fun, watch a movie and at 3 am boys, we’re going to unload a truck!” It’s amazing what sounds fun to young boys if pitched the right way. I felt a bit like Tom Sawyer but hey, it worked. We rolled in at 3 AM, woke everyone up and unloaded. The guard on our street, who was awake (!), also pitched in and it took us about 2 ½ hours.

We’ve discovered we’re missing a few small items including Elliot’s Louisville Slugger baseball bat, which Elizabeth saw in the truck as we were unloading, but all in all, it was a successful trip.  I made it home alive and we have our STUFF. Was it worth it? I don’t like to think about it. Would I do it again? Not without putting something about “friends” in the contract.  Does Elliot miss his Louisville Slugger? Yes. I only hope S1 uses it to keep S2 in line.

mirror truck


Ah the joys of the internet age. Travel is cheaper and easier, but reporting on said travel is not always the same. We’re back now, with a computer whose hard drive has been completely reformatted and is still having some issues.

Where were we? See if you can tell…

sheep may safely grazeSheep may safely graze…

oh my sweet Westley“Oh my sweet Westley! What have I done?”

cliff at Rhossili

worms head

Worm’s Head, Rhossilli

Can you see the worm? No, me neither. Does it help to know that worm is an old word for dragon? No, not really.

wanna-be-in-a-bandWanna-be band members.

We’ve been traveling so this is somewhat delayed. For those of you just joining us, this is an account of Donn’s trip to the Mauritanian border and journey back in a fruit truck, complete with 2 drivers and all our stuff in the back. Read parts one, two, three, and four here.

Saied 1 was slight of stature whereas Saied 2 was at least twice his body mass, a good 2 feet taller and bigger all around. I had asked Tim to put the particulars of the agreement in writing—i.e. final destination, Rabat; payment in Rabat; amount of payment; etc. Saied 2 attempted a few last minute renegotiations, suggesting things like perhaps when we got to their hometown of Agadir (an 8 hour drive south of Rabat), I could find another truck to take me the rest of the way. No. Oh, and aren’t I paying their travel expenses in addition to the amount agreed on? No. I said good-bye to Tim and climbed in with my new travel companions. We were set, cleared for departure. A port worker–perhaps sensing an opportunity about to pass–pressed me for a gift. I declined as Saied 1 behind the wheel pulled out of the border into the wasteland that is the Sahara.

There are no features there except windblown rocks that are permeated with holes. I didn’t stop to photograph them on the way down as it was not worth the gamble to stop Mohamed’s car, and I did not photograph them on the way up as the truckers were anxious to get going and I didn’t want to advertise that my bag held such electronic treasures such as a digital camera. I thought of various ways to describe these rocks. Petrified swiss-cheese. A hard, dry dusty sponge. Or my first impression, which brought to mind a walk I once took on the beach of Mauritania where I found a 3 or 4 foot tortoise shell, badly decomposed. Its basic shape was intact but it was shabby and full of holes. This was the sole distinguishing feature of the landscape during the 5 hours between the border and Dahkla.

We stopped at the café where Mohamed and I had broken down the day before and had lunch. There was a group of truckers and Saied 2 chatted with them after lunch while Saied 1 and I waited by the truck. The truck had a bench seat with two places and a spot in the middle with not enough leg room. It also had a small bed area behind the front seats. I thought, “This is going to get uncomfortable, but here I am with our stuff after 2 years in storage. This is the final part of the journey. I just need to ignore any discomfort, deal with boredom and get home.” Just then, Saied 2 appeared with a hitch-hiker. “Are you kidding me?” I thought. “Where is he going to go?” The 4 of us climbed into the cab…

We seemed to stop at every truck stop on the route and at each one, we met the same group of truckers, drinking tea, smoking, using the bathroom, talking. It was kind of like a pub-crawl through a desert wasteland. One named Mohamed spoke French and wore a dress-shirt. He seemed out of place, like a business man in a field. He asked where I was going and as I explained, I mentioned some of the attempts on S2’s part to renegotiate the particulars of the agreement. I wasn’t altogether sure I’d heard the last from Saied on it and I find it helpful, when possible, to get the reaction of locals to various situations. Are they surprised? Amused? Resigned? He immediately went and talked to Saied. To me as an American it seemed heated–I don’t use that tone or volume except when I’m put out–but in this part of the world, that’s often how people talk. After 10 minutes he turned to me and said that everything was settled. “I wasn’t thinking to talk to him about it, I just wanted your thoughts on it. Was he angry?” I thought, “I’ve got ride with these people! Worse, I’ve got to close my eyes and sleep next to these people.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, “We are all brothers.”

And the topic didn’t come up again, at least not between me and Saied. However, he and our hitchhiker talked incessantly, again in a tone and volume I don’t usually use, and except for recognizing an occasional Arabic word, I didn’t understand it at all. To watch someone’s monologue totally detached from the meaning of what they are saying, detached also from cultural clues and context, is a truly bizarre experience. To me, it seemed Saied laughed much too loud and too frequently for a grown man. The hitchhiker joined in and I watched Saied 1, driving, who never cracked a smile. This was definitely the most uncomfortable part of my trip.

The communication barrier between S1 and myself, linguistically speaking, was total. He didn’t understand a word of Hassynia or French. Nevertheless, he made an effort to be civil, encouraging me to eat from our common plate, pointing me towards the sink or bathroom. Conversely, Saied 2 seemed to understand me if he had to but chose to associate with me as little as possible…

last installment tomorrow, insha’allah…

August 2009

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A Perfect Post – January 2007

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