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A word for my vegetarian readers: Uh, sorry.
My househelper does not like chickens from the supermarket. She screws up her entire face, smelling them, poking at them. Once she made me throw one away, claiming it smelled bad. I didn’t actually think it smelled all that bad, but since in my experience North Africans will consider as food more things than I will, I went with her judgement.
The chickens seem harmless to me, although I admit they do sometimes look a bit old. They are raised in Brazil, killed in a “hallal” way (i.e. permitted for Muslims), and shipped for sale in Morocco. They are inexpensive.
Khadija tells me that I need to go to Takkadoum to buy a live chicken. They will kill it for me, she tells me, and then I need to let it sit a day. It will be so much better than these dead, wilted-looking Brazilian chickens, and the cost is the same.
So this week, we went to Takkadoum to buy a chicken. We knew where to go–right next to the place we buy our lamb, although that’s already slaughtered and in pieces by the time we get there.
We view the impressive rainbow of chickens on the ground. We have no idea how to pick a chicken. So we ask—which is better? Male or female? Are certain colours of feathers hiding a plumper, tastier interior? Lower in fat; higher in nutrition? Less sugar? The men shrug. It’s a matter of personal taste, they tell us. This is unusually unhelpful.
Since we have no idea, we pick one at random. I like black and white, Donn likes black and white, why not a black and white chicken? The guy offers us two chickens, tied together by their legs and dangling resignedly from his hand, but we’re pretty sure we just want one, even though we’re having guests.
We point to our chicken, and it’s taken just across the way to be weighed and slaughtered. I’ve never seen a chicken killed before so I’m looking forward to seeing it flopping round with its head cut off, like the stories my dad used to tell of his childhood on a Kansas farm. Instead, the chicken’s throat is cut and it’s plopped down into a bucket, where the wings flap a bit but it’s undramatic.
Once the chicken has had time to drain, it’s taken up to The Machine. We can’t really see The Machine, as I call it, only a rubber belt thumping away on the side. But in an amazingly short time, the plucked raw chicken is held up for our inspection. The man offers us the head, but we decline, although I’m tempted to take it just for you, dear readers. But then what would I do with it? Yeah.
The chicken has shrunk dramatically. It’s only about half the size, and it wasn’t all that big to start with! Its entrails are removed and it’s washed in a little white sink and then placed in a bag and handed to us.
Of course Khadija does not come, so my plan of showing you a beautiful picture of a chicken couscous has been foiled. I put it in the freezer for later. In the meantime, you can enjoy seeing what she does with Brazilian chickens.
Monday was my friend’s birthday. Her husband was out of town, and I felt her 14 year old son could not be relied upon to take her out for dinner, or even to do dishes. He is a great child, a good friend of Elliot’s, but I had a hunch on this one. “Mom cooks every night,” I could see him thinking. “It’s what she does. Obviously it is something she would do tonight, since it is evening, when she cooks.”
So I had her over for dinner. I also let Ilsa loose on the cake. Ilsa loves to make cakes. Ilsa would make us cake daily if we let her, and we would be even fatter than we are. She made a cake and I made various other things, all in about 2 hours, and all was chaos in the kitchen and we had to cool the cake in the fridge before we could frost it but it worked out. I invited some other women over, and banished everyone else to their rooms and we hung out and laughed and talked and a lovely time was had by all.
We’ve been having fun with candles and lanterns lately, taking advantage of the fact that we live in a place where lovely handmade things can be easily purchased. The hardest part is choosing.
Fun with candles, including an alabaster candle-holder from Egypt. Ok, that one was a present from someone, not bought locally.
This lantern was my birthday present from Donn. We live upstairs in the top half of a house, and we put it in the corner and liked it so much we bought another one for the other corner. We still need a third. If you come to our house after dark, we will light these candles for you to see as you enter.
It was a fun weekend. A friend from Fes visited; we hung out, drank Starbucks (her hostess gift), went out to the Potteries and found gorgeous bowls and vases and plates on sale at prices ranging from $1 to $4.
I love the Potteries.
Soon you will get tired of me posting pictures from there. But luckily for you, my camera died so I only got two pics this trip.
We’ve also gone to the beach. These pics were actually taken two or three weeks ago, before the visit I wrote about. These were taken at a different beach one Sunday afternoon when Donn and I left the kids home doing school work.
I think Rabat has some of the most interesting and beautiful beaches.
Donn: Why is it crooked? Me: It’s artistic. Donn: You did that on PURPOSE?
I love love love all the tide pools teeming with life. It’s a rule of English: tide pools must teem. Don’t fight it.
Rocks at sunset. These pics do not do it justice. I am going to have to break my rule and start posting my husband’s work, and then people will steal them, which will make me cross, and then I’ll stop again. It’ll be fun! Stay tuned.
On Saturday we went down to the rocks to photograph and I forgot my camera. Typical. “Remind me next time,” I said bitterly to Elliot, who wasn’t listening.
Drive just south of the city, past the Oudayas at the mouth of the river with the huge cemetery running down to the sea, past the lighthouse and the surf school, past the bicycle market. To your left are line upon line of apartment buildings and to your right is the Atlantic, in deep green today, and the setting sun is sometimes in your eyes as you follow the curves of the road.
Here you are: you are getting to the part where the cliff face falls down into rocky shelves and tide pools, where fisherman stand on the very edge of the sea and get soaked in the spray and as always, you worry about them being swept away. (I don’t know if it happens or not…is this part of a fatalistic view of life where preventative measures are not taken, or is it just not really all that dangerous? Some day I will find out and tell you.)
We swerve across oncoming traffic and park in a tiny spot in front of what looks to be an empty apartment building, newly built. Taking our lives into our hands, we commend our souls to God and cross the street, where we find ourselves at the top of a cliff. This area has an enormous shelf at the bottom, complete with tide pools, casual boulders scattered about, and a sandy bit where boys are playing soccer and turning cartwheels and flips.
We make our way down. Ilsa climbs an enormous rock and pulls out her sketching book and pencil case from school—the one I just had to replace because the first one got stolen. She drops a brand new pencil sharpener in the sand and I stoop and put it in my purse with a sigh. Boys come to show off, climbing behind her on rock, doing flips down the side, glancing sideways to see if she’s noticed their antics. They faux fight, they race. Ilsa sketches on, unmoved. The wind blows her long blonde hair behind her as she bends over her paper, concentrating on the silvery mermaid she is drawing. “I like to be the only one on the rock,” she tells me.
Later she decides to go rock climbing herself. The boys follow to where my daughter is scrambling up, her hair a golden curtain. It’s obvious to me what’s going on but Ilsa is oblivious still, disdainfully scorning a proffered hand when coming down, appalled at the offer of help which she interprets as doubt in her ability. She is a mystery to them, in her black leggings and tennis shoes and long hair, clambering all over the rocks. She fancies herself a tomboy and mocks the “Barbies” at her school, but she’s really quite feminine in many ways.
The boys continue to approach in a sort of dance. They don’t come too close, they take turns; there are definite rules to this. I think that I could map this out, the way they circle shyly, the way they punch each other and vie for who can throw his body into the air the highest. We are near a shelf of rock covered in tide pools. The boys strip to their underwear, run across the rocks, and suddenly dive into the one deep pool in all these tiny ones. I catch my breath because it looks so improbable, like they’ve somehow found a tiny stretch in the space-time continuum, a baggy part, where they can splash and play. It’s still dangerous, but it’s fun too, like watching those scooters weave through traffic—there’s freedom there.
A lot of this is done with sideway glances at Ilsa, who continues totally unaware. I’m glad for it, but part of me wishes she could see her power without being damaged by it, and that this knowledge could be a pool unexpectedly deep enough for diving set in the rocky shoals of the upcoming years. We leave them, still splashing, and set our faces towards the cliff that is our way home.
Today I got up at a normal time and already, at only 10:45, I’m caught up on blogs and facebook. It feels good, but strange. I have many things that need to get done, but I need a slow day, a day to recover from my week of training and child sickness and the splitting headache I woke up with. I’m not going to get this elusive slow day—today includes my first attempt at doing an English Club at the French junior high. But at least I get a slow morning.
Yesterday was an upsetting day.
First of all, I was reading the little free newspaper available at the train station—au fait, it’s called. I was turning the pages and came to a news item about Mauritania—how suspected al Qaeda members were being released. The picture caption said it was taken outside the French Embassy after the suicide bombing this summer (yes the same French Embassy where my children went to school, albeit the other side of it), but it wasn’t. In the picture was the body of our friend who was shot and killed by suspected al Qaeda militants this summer, although not the ones who were just released.
Nothing like idly turning a page and dealing with that.
In the taxi coming home from the train station on my last day of training, I see a commotion in the street ahead—I crane my neck and see a crowd of men and policemen standing in the middle of a 6 lane street, arguing. As we come closer, I gasp in dismay. There is a woman lying in the middle of the street. She’s on her side, and she’s not moving at all. I think she is dead. In front of her are two tangled motos, on their sides. It’s a common sight to see women on the back of scooters, clinging to their husband or brother who’s driving. Less common are two women, but you do see that. It’s also common to see accidents involving scooters since they tend to be in various states of disrepair and yet cut off large swiftly-moving vehicles with a sort of wild abandon that is almost poetic in its disregard of safety and common sense.
This woman is wearing a djellaba and headscarf. She’s probably middle aged, I guess, from her clothing and even body type. Her shoe has been knocked off; I stare at her bare foot with a terrible sense of sadness and waste. She lies there, unmoving, while overhead men shout and gesticulate, and round her on either side the cars and trucks and bicycles and scooters and vans whiz by, parting briefly around her like a river around a stone. She lies like a stone. I am sure she’s dead. My taxi driver is upset too and begins to pray, all mutters and “bismillahs.”
Donn doesn’t think she’s dead, when I tell him about it later to explain why I’m in such a bad mood. “I saw a dead woman lying in the road,” I shout at him. But he asks for details and points out that she was lying on her side, with a bag tucked under her head. “Was her head covered?” he asks me. It wasn’t, at least I don’t think it was. He’s seen that; a scooter driver laid out flat, jacket drawn respectfully over his face.
We end up quoting Bob Dylan…how many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died? Because these accidents and deaths are totally unnecessary. Just a minor consideration for simple rules of the road would spare so many people, not to mention cars and animals. And I think of my own wild taxi rides this past week, and I am grateful because this could so easily have concerned me. I think of the scooter who missed us by centimeters on a foggy morning. We were just past the big mosque and the orange trees. He had a red light but had opted not to stop, and these scooters are ancient things, not much faster than walking. The driver wasn’t young and impervious, but middle aged, with grey in his beard, wearing a padded jacket against the cold. Why didn’t he stop?
In the evening, Donn has to go out. I make hearty curried lentil soup and cheese drop biscuits for dinner. Elliot complains of a really bad headache and falls asleep on the couch. He is sluggish and I have a hard time getting him to bed. I make the mistake of googling symptoms, and end up reading all about meningitis. Sigh. Never google symptoms—this should be tattooed on all newborn foreheads for their poor over-reactive mothers. I managed to get him out of bed by making these cheese drop biscuits for the first time (I added a soupçon of garlic and herbes de provence and a cup of grated Edam cheese, which is the cheapest and most available cheese round here. I modified Antique Mommy’s recipe, since hers called for impossible items like baking mix, and it was easier to make it from scratch than make a baking mix). He got up, ate a tiny supper, went back to bed, and was fine in the morning. Still, it added to my day.
The twins spent the evening bickering about their music book. They share a book, and Abel has lost it. (They are in separate classes). Ilsa was convinced she’d get in trouble, which is likely. Abel was convinced she was nagging him—also likely.
Ilsa told me she was going to bed, and would most likely be grumpy in the morning. I folded her into a big hug. “I love you even when you’re grumpy,” I told her. And then, thinking realistically about my own state, I said, “Do you love me even when I’m grumpy?”
She scrunched up her face, considering. “I do,” she conceded. “But I don’t recognize it as love when you’re grumpy.”
And on that note, we went to bed.
In the early mornings, when I set off for the train station, it is foggy. The fog is thick and wet and even close landmarks are invisible. My fellow commuters wear thick sweaters and boots; they are dressed for fall, for this weather at this moment. I am not, because I know in about 30 minutes it’s all going to disappear. The sun will break through and instantly the mist will melt away, dissolve, a wisp of ephemeral shining white vanished in a blink of time. I stand out, in my short sleeves and sandals on this crisp October morning, and I wish I had thought to wear layers. Next morning, straining to reach a scarf (which will keep me warm in the morning and can be tucked in my bag when it gets hot), I slip, bang my arms very hard on a shelf, and emerge with a spectacular bruise on my inside elbow. Afternoons are hot and humid; nights unbearable because of the humidity and the windows closed against fresh night air and hordes of mosquitoes.
I’ve spent every morning this week in Casablanca, doing some orientation for my new job. It’s gone well; nothing was earth-shatteringly new, or new at all really, but I’ve met some nice people and caught up on my reading. I’ve memorized the train schedule between here and Casa; I’ve memorized the train stations. I’ve taken a lot of taxis, both Rabat’s blue “petit taxis” and Casa’s red ones. (Who has turquoise, you’re wondering. That would be Mohammedia. This is the stop before Ain Sebaa, where you must change if you are going directly to L’Oasis.)
Trains in Morocco can be quite pleasant. Most mornings I have managed to get a coveted window seat facing forward, mainly because it seems many people do not care if they sit by a window or if they face backwards. I care. I stare out the window at the fields and forests whipping by, past apartment buildings hung with laundry and children playing soccer on a patch of packed dirt. We flash past trees gnarled and twisted by the fog. I watch a stork land in a plowed brown field, folding its enormous black-tipped wings. I see women stooped to work a field in identical poses, as if they were modeling for the passing train. On the way home, in brilliant sunlight, I see the deep deep blue of the Atlantic waters, and the houses of beach communities shining white in the sun.
I’ve taken a lot of taxis this week. I realized something I already pretty much knew: if you are in your car, the sight of a taxi nonchalantly cutting an entire block-long line waiting at a red light by driving into oncoming traffic and then whipping over just at the intersection and waiting patiently for the light to change will enrage you. But if you are sitting in that taxi, anxious to not miss your train, you will secretly rejoice. You will be basically happy to have just missed that line, to have not waited your turn. It’s kind of fun for your inner five-year-old.
I have spent more time traveling than I have spent in class. I am very tired; I’m not used to leaving while my children are still in pajamas, my travel mug of coffee in my hand.
Casablanca is not a romantic city of white houses tucked amongst Mediterranean hills. It is huge, noisy, crowded, polluted. The traffic there is worse than Rabat. Every day class ended early and I would calculate which station to leave from. Casa Port, located across town and necessitating a white-knuckle taxi ride through the noon rush, was a direct train that left every 30 minutes. L’Oasis Station was closer, walking distance, but train left once a hour and I had to change at Ain Sebaa, which involved sitting in the sun for 20-25 minutes. Once on whichever train, I would lean back against the window and relax as we glided through the countryside like a snake. Every day I would arrive back in Rabat, climb the stairs through the interminable construction feeling the fresh sea breeze against my face, happy. Home.
Me: Abel, don’t you have a test tomorrow?
Abel: Yes, but like at 3. No, at 2.
Me, raising eyebrows slightly: That’s still tomorrow.
Abel: Yeah…I guess.
Me: Shouldn’t you be studying?
Wednesday morning Elliot woke up complaining of being really achy. He told me his temp was 96.9 though, so we had a small debate about whether or not he should stay home. I sensed he was really sick but just wasn’t sure, so I wanted to leave it up to him. “Please just tell me what to do,” he pled. That did it—I knew he was sick!
And then I found out that his temp was 99.6. Apparently I am developing aural dyslexia! This ought to come in handy when I am bargaining for items in the medina!
His temperature didn’t go up much, but continued to hover round the 100 mark, and he was achy and listless. We cancelled afternoon plans (they have a half day on Wednesdays) and hunkered down for the day.
Yesterday he stayed home again, still running a low-grade fever. He offered to go to school anyway and infect other children in hopes of starting an epidemic which would close the school, but I wouldn’t let him.
In the afternoon, his temp crept up to 101.8. This had Elliot, normally disgusting healthy, a bit worried. “That’s an odd number to have, isn’t it?” he asked me. “No,” I said, reassuring. This led to a discussion of the Dread Swine Flu, and the chances that we had our very own case!
“I wonder if soon they’ll have a cart that goes through the street to collect the dead bodies?” he asked.
Should I be worried that my 12 year old (Abel, that is) can’t hand me an envelope from his school without gasping “Message for you sir” and falling over? I’m not sure I’m succeeding at this parenting thing.
I was supposed to be in Casablanca all week for some training for my new job at the new Berlitz Language Center (opening in Rabat this week!), but it got postponed. I’ve been doing some online training though. No matter your previous experience/training, you’ve got to do theirs.
Yes, this Berlitz. I figure any organization that can come up with a classic like this has got to be a good place to work.
Although the training next week is from 10 to 12:30 every single day. That means I travel over an hour by train, attend classes for 2 ½ hours, and then travel back; in other words, my travel time equals my training time. Wouldn’t it be better to do, say, two full days of training and then be done? No?
In the meantime, Elliot is home for the third day in a row. He can’t remember ever being sick for 3 days in a row before, but I can. When he was 8 he had this weird bacterial infection and his whole face swelled up. With his typical grasp of perspective, he told me, “I’m just not having a very good life.” Poor kid.
He seems mostly better today, so I guess that once again we’ve managed to miss Pandemics for Our Times. We didn’t get SAARS, no AIDS, no weird allergies, not even malaria! Bo-ring, we are.
…that made me wish I’d thought to bring my camera
- The “Happy Child Trading Company.” I’m not sure if your children have to be happy, in which case why trade them, or if the new children you get would be happy. Or if the company is happy. Either way, I don’t think I’d want to risk any new children. Now if you could get a pony out of it…
- Smurf-flavoured ice-cream. It’s bright blue. Donn says in spite of the colour it tastes surprisingly like chicken, but he’s just trying to gross you out.
- A billboard with a picture of a young woman on a cell phone, smiling brightly. Above her in big letters it says “PHONEY!” Guess that’s truth in advertising.