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Before I moved to Morocco, I had barely even heard of Ceuta, and I certainly couldn’t pronounce it. (Variations exist. Apparently it’s “Soota” not my clever Spanish-sounding-to-me “Swe-etta.” The Arabs call it Sebta) Ceuta is a city in Spain, but not on mainland Spain. It is a tiny toehold that Spain maintains from colonial times, situated on the edge of the continent of Africa and surrounded by Morocco on 3 sides.

Ceuta is about a 4 hour drive from Rabat, or 2 ½ if you believe our friend Russ. (Aside: don’t.) People go there for a day’s shopping trip. Why not us?

We decided to go before the kids got out of school for vacation, since we wanted to shop mostly for them. We set the alarm for 4:30 a.m. On Mondays, the twins stay at school for lunch, and I’d already made their sandwiches. Elliot had been charged with getting all 3 kids up, dressed, fed and off to school by 8. I kissed him goodbye when we left about 5:30.

We set off through in the dark, rainy night, catching glimpses of the moon through the ragged clouds. We were halfway there when I called the house, to be assured that everyone was up and fed and dressed at least.

We drove through a watery pale dawn, alongside crashing waves and through some dramatic hills, eventually arriving at the border. The border has quite a reputation, and we weren’t really sure quite what to expect.
We joined a long, scraggly line, one of 3. We gradually inched forward. The car in front of us wasn’t even trying—every time there was space to move forward, the driver and a passenger would get out and push. I don’t know if they were saving gas or putting off dealing with a harder problem, but I did wonder if Spain was going to be happy to get a car like that.

Around us, all seemed chaotic. People were streaming along one side, obviously foot passengers, but throughout the 3 lines of cars, people were walking back and forth. There were no signs anywhere.

Donn had talked to friends, so he sort of knew what to do. He got out of the car with our passports. I was in charge of moving the car forwards, which mostly consisted of me reading a book and keeping a corner of my eye on the car in front. At one point, the 3 lines merged into 2, but by smiling my special smile at the guy trying to cut me, I managed to not lose too much space.

I was really stressed the entire time that I would get to the front of the line and have to try to enter Spain without my passport or my husband, but I needn’t have worried. By the time the 2 lines merged into one, Donn was back.

Meanwhile, Donn was having his own fun. There were four windows let into a building that ran parallel to the traffic—in other words, there wasn’t really space for lines to form. Each window was numbered, but there was no other signage to indicate which window might be for which type of person, so Donn joined a group of women at the first window. They let him stand there about 10 minutes before telling him it was the women’s line. So he went on to Window 2, where they told him after about 5 minutes that it was just for Moroccans. On to Window 3, where there was no line but the official told him he needed Window 4, for foreigners. You could not tell by looking who should be in any line. We saw other men in the women’s line. But, should you ever decide to cross from Morocco to Spain at Ceuta, it’s Window 4. Remember that.

The Spanish side was simple. We moved in an orderly line, and a man briefly examined and stamped our passports and waved us forward. And we were in Ceuta, a small city built out on an isthmus, surrounded on 3 sides by the deep blue sparkling waters of the Mediterranean. It was a gorgeous day if you could be out of the wind. Whenever I see the Med, I think of how Homer called it “the wine-dark sea.” Seriously, what makes it that deep, deep blue?

We had no idea where to go in Ceuta so we just drove around. It’s not very big, but it is dense. We found a cute downtown area that had lots of boutiques and no parking, and drove around fruitlessly for about 40 minutes before finding a parking garage with, and this is brilliant, little lights above each parking spot, so that you merely had to glance around for a green light to know where a free spot was.

Out into the wind! We wandered round the shopping area. It was fun to be once again in a place decorated for Christmas. Rabat has decorated streets year round, since this is where the king’s main residence is, and it is a very pretty city. But it was still nice to go again to a place with public spaces decorated with angels and shepherds and wise men on camels, with large white stars and trees strung with lights in the plazas and bells ringing.

It wasn’t an unqualified success. We were looking for specific things and we either didn’t find them at all or did find them and couldn’t afford them. (Elliot wants a drum set more than anything else on earth right now, but the one we found was twice the price it would be in America. If only we could buy it there and somehow get it here. Who wants to come visit?) We did find a large grocery store, where we got some treats for Christmas. We stopped for a late lunch and shared a variety of tapas. We love Spain.

The kids, meanwhile, had come home from school and deposited their backpacks, then walked over to a friend’s house. She fed them supper and brought them home, where they did their homework and put themselves to bed. I know! Before you fall over in amazement at how good and mature my children are, remember that they were very proud of being trusted to look after themselves.

Coming home, we experienced the border in reverse—easy through the Spanish side, a bit more complicated on the Moroccan, mostly because at one point there were suddenly 5 lanes of traffic battling it out (literally) to enter a roundabout. Sigh. Welcome home.

We stopped for a late supper in an outdoor roadstand in the mountains. It was freezing, with an icy rain pelting down. We huddled under the roof and ate harira soup and olives and dates and kefta brochettes and fries, until we were warm and full. It was 11 when we got home, to carry in groceries and fall into bed, exhausted.

Sorry, I know the photos didn’ t really come out and certainly don’t do it justice, but I’m posting them anyways to give you an idea. Here’s a last one of dragons on a building.

December 2009

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