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My kids think this is so funny. They watch it over and over again. “Yes!” they mutter to each other.

Brian Regan’s description of the cattle call boarding of modern airlines may make seasoned travelers chuckle. (Note: this clip is long and I don’t care if you skip it, although the kids won‘t sympathize. The part I’m referring to is around the 5 minute mark, as I recall) You know how, when the airline personnel says, “Rows 35-49 boarding; if your seat is in rows 35-49 please come up now” and Every. Single. Person who is even in that terminal, much less actually getting on your flight,  surges forward and crowds around the poor flustered airline person? That’s what he’s referring to.

We flew Easy Jet (a misnomer) to Madrid last weekend (okay, so it was the weekend before last if you want to be technical). Easy Jet is a cheap, no-frills airline. It keeps prices down by, among other things, not assigning seats and not including any checked luggage with your ticket. (Aside: this works and their prices are really cheap. Which begs the question–why, then, are so many American airlines now not giving out free snacks or allowing checked luggage while keeping their prices so high? Protest, people, protest. It’s the last resort of the consumer)

We arrived at our gate in the Casa airport and immediately went to stand in front, having been warned by experienced easy-jet travellers. (It’s a cattle call, was how they put it) The woman waved us back, rather irritably. “We board by sections,” she told us. “And the plane is late. Go sit down.” We obeyed, but others didn’t. They crowded round and pushed against each other, until finally we decided to join them.

I have written before, several times, on how much Donn and I are working on being able to elbow our way into crowds and cut people off. We’re really improving, and I’m proud of us for being able to shed our inhibitions, our “oh-this-elderly-woman-was-here-first-and-is-fragile” concerns, our politeness-instilling upbringing. While we still are somewhat reluctant to cut people off ourselves (I actually haven’t managed it yet at all, to be honest, but I’m doing my best!), we are doing well at not being cut off ourselves.

But I was so proud of Ilsa. My tiny daughter just pushed her way into the throng, slipping through tiny gaps and elbowing her way to the front. “Go Ilsa!” I told her, thumbs up. Obviously I had to follow her, couldn’t leave her alone, and people let me through. So we ended up not far from the front of the maddening crowd.

And the lady was right. They did board in sections. Our section was second (first are the people who pay extra for the privilege), because we were traveling with children. And our flight was fine; one might even say “easy.”

I mentioned before the bomb that exploded in Madrid the day we were to fly out. No one was hurt and all it did was snarl traffic and blow out some windows. I assumed that security at the airport would be tighter, but it was still much simpler than, for example, buying a latte at JFK.

Our first glimpse of an easy-jet personnel showed someone in a bad mood. He sized us up and narrowed his eyes at my purse. According to him, I had two carry-ons. I would have to pay.

No problem. I unzipped my carry-on and put my purse in it. He was still unconvinced, and made me put my tiny case into the orange metal grid, where it totally fit although I had to maneuver the handle a little bit. He passed us on through, somewhat unhappily. He was short and snippy, but I chalked it up to stress because of “la bomba.”

Then we went on, through security and everything, up to our gate. (We had a long wait; the plane was late again) Suddenly, everyone sort of rushed the gate, so we joined in. Following an announcement and flashcards, we sorted ourselves into sections. We were in a different section this time (general boarding), but towards the front of our group. The line stretched out behind us.

When we arrived at the front of the line, the woman was curt. She glanced at us and announced that our cases were too big. Without even measuring them, she labeled them and made us hold up the line (you know how you love being the ones to do this) while she fussed about printing out luggage tags. We tried to argue, but to no avail. Our cases were whisked away from us into the bowels of the plane.

We boarded the plane unhappily. How could our carry-ons suddenly be too big, when they weren’t too big before? They were the same size as they had been two days earlier. Not to mention that we were without all the travel amenities we had planned for the flight–my bottle of water, Ilsa’s headphones, book and chewing gum. Another American woman living in Morocco, who ended up sitting behind Donn, had just had the same experience. The easy jet woman was very rude to her and said, ‘Can you read English?’ when the American woman protested that her case had not been a problem two days earlier on the flight. In fact, the easyjet-woman insisted she get out her credit card and pay for the bag then and there, before she would allow her to board.

They ended up not charging us for checking our bags, but it was still a hassle. And it didn’t make sense. If on one flight your bag is fine and on the next flight that same bag is too big, how can you plan? If boarding easily is dependent on the mood of the person checking you in, how can you avoid being “that family” that holds up everyone else? And, should easy jet change their name? If so, to what? Complicated Jet springs to mind, but perhaps “It Depends” Jet would be better. “It Depends on my Mood” Jet? What do you think?  And what would they do for a logo?

Overall, the weekend in Spain was a disappointment. Since we didn’t have a lot of time, we opted to fly to Madrid rather than taking the train and the always-uncertain ferry, with its fluid notions of scheduling, to Tarifa in southern Spain. The flight is 1 ½ hours and the train ride to Casa a little over an hour, which is much shorter than the 4 hour train to Tanger, the hour-long crossing (they claim it’s 30 minutes and it is if you only count the time on open water), plus however long you sit in port waiting for the 3:00 ferry to leave (up to 6 hours). But we realized that the differences, obvious on paper, wisp away in reality, eaten up by the hours in the airport (we took an early train rather than cut it fine and risk being late; our plane was an hour late) and then spent finding the bus stop and bus information, and waiting for the bus. We left our house in Rabat at 9:40 a.m. and didn’t get to the guest house in Madrid till nearly 8 p.m. local time (an hour ahead).

I’m sure Madrid has many charming facets hidden just below the surface, but we really didn’t find them. It’s famous for museums, but we were only there one full day and didn’t even try. Our main goal for the day was a visit to Carrefour and similar stores, where we planned to stock up on pork products as well as things like socks and jeans for the kids, a new headset for skype since our second one has broken now, and birthday presents for the twins. So on Sunday morning, we caught a bus downtown, got out and wandered round an area looking for breakfast. It always takes a while to acclimate to a strange city, especially when you don’t speak the local language. We eventually ate in the “Juan Valdez Café” –yes THAT Juan Valdez, the guy with the hat from the old commercials. He has his own cafes now, very Starbucks-esque only with more of a fuchsia-pink theme, and we had very good espresso and some pastries. I studied the free map I got at the airport and we found a tourist office, and they sent us off downtown on the metro, where, again we wandered around.


We saw statues. We went in some shops. We found the Museum of Ham. Seriously, they have the Museum of Ham in Madrid. At first I was all excited and had warm fuzzies toward the Spainards, these considerate people who not only make excellent ham but have also thought to preserve (HA!) their methods for others to learn from. But then we went in and it was just a shop and restaurant–admittedly a shop with a truly impressive display of porcine products, and a packed and bustling restaurant. We had to eat standing up at the bar, where we had excellent serrano ham and cheese sandwiches and green olives for lunch–for 1.50 euros per person.


This is how the Spainards eat sandwiches. They take a roll of ciabatta-like bread and slice it in half. They put a slice of jamon Serrano and a slice of cheese (I forget the name but it starts with M and is very very good) and then you eat it. No butter or oil or mayo or tomato slices. It’s very good, although I am partial to lots of veggies on my sandwiches.

I’m sure Madrid is charming.


Have you ever been there? What did you do? Please tell me in comments, so that I can realize what losers we are for not finding the good spots. But after we had wandered the town a bit, visited a big department store having an awesome sale and yet been unable to find anything in our kids’ sizes, dealt with aching feet, it was time to leave. After one last stop that brought much joy to my heart… (so worth the extra foot-related agony, as it was not on the way…)

starbucksmadrid(and yes, I have totally forgiven them…)

We caught a bus headed towards Torrejon. We knew there was a Carrefour on the way. We asked the bus driver to let us off near Carrefour, which he did. I do not believe he was a sadistic man, or in any way anti-American. We said we wanted that stop, so he took us there. It was not his job to ask if we were trying to go to Carrefour or, perhaps, meeting Spanish friends who lived nearby.

Nevertheless, he dropped us off on the side of the freeway. We made our way across an overpass, limping a little on our sore feet, and down the other side. We could sort of see the big Carrefour sign in the distance, and eventually figured out we needed to go further down the freeway. It was probably about a mile. We walked across a river on a tiny little walkway on the side of the freeway, then triumphantly crossed another road and entered Carrefour’s parking lot…

…which was completely empty.A bad sign. We looked and saw the shopping carts lined in front of the door.

Carrefour was closed. It was, after all, Sunday afternoon, and we were in a Catholic country–admittedly in a major city, one where about half of the downtown stores were open.

There was nothing to do. We knew we wouldn’t have time to come back in the morning. Bitterly disappointed, we limped back along the river, across the freeway, and down to the bus stop, where we waited and waited because the buses went to Therathwala, not Zarazuela.

Really, there were 2 highlights of the weekend. One:


The second was a little Italian restaurant located just round the corner from the guesthouse, the Chacabuco. We went there on Saturday night. The lady who runs the guesthouse recommended it, and pointed in a sort of general way off the balcony. We went in that general direction for some time before we asked someone on the street, who pointed in a different direction. Did I mention it was 8 degrees (celcius) that night?

We eventually found it and entered the warm cozy space with much contentment. While we were looking, we had already inspected the menus of several other restaurants, cringing at prices like 19 euros for beef when we have a teenage boy and two tweens to feed, none of whom had really eaten enough lunch. So we eyed the fun décor and linen tablecloths with some trepidation. Would this place be affordable?


It was. They did pizza and pastas and offered many pork products in their entrees. After a hostess dealt with our uncomprehending and apologetic smiles and shrugs, she sent us a waiter who not only spoke English but exuded a joie de vivre and a sense of humour. “Ask me any questions you have about the menu,” he told us. “And if it’s too expensive don’t worry–two hours of this big boy washing dishes in the kitchen (nudging Elliot), and the bill will be paid for.” He was a perfect waiter–solicitous without being obsequious or obnoxiously present. I wish I’d gotten his name or his picture but trust me–if you are ever in Torrejon, near Madrid, go to Chacafuca.

The food was delicious; the company congenial. We left sated and happy, so warm inside that the cold night air wasn’t noticeable. It was such a good experience that we went back again on Sunday night, where we had a different waiter but overall the same experience.


(Coming up next; I will finally finish talking about what was actually a really short trip…)

One of the first things I noticed about Madrid was the preponderance of statues. There are statues everywhere. There are two things that pop out to the casual observer: round-points, which occur every block on some streets, and statues and/or fountains, which are often in the centre of those round-points.

The first statue I saw was this Bronze Midas in the airport (note: I named him myself. He and his luggage were both unlabelled). Apparently, this man had also just missed bus 894 on a cold winter Saturday evening, only he didn’t have hyper-animated twins sword-fighting in front of him and bumping into him and climbing on his lap, so he froze. It’s a sad tale, and they set him up as a caution to others. Now, everything he touches turns to ice, I explained to Abel.


What amused me most was how he was set up; just staring at a wall. The patron saint of bored travelers? I dunno.


Then, we walked outside to see this lady in all her glory, as my mother would say. I was curious so I went to look at the sign, and explained to Ilsa that this was supposed to be Europa, being carried away by Zeus in the form of a donkey. (Supposed to be a bull but come on; you’re telling me a Spaniard couldn’t do a better bull than that? They do a better rendition in every souvenir shop!)


Ilsa was unimpressed. “I thought Europa was supposed to be pretty,” she said.

“I suppose the sculptor thinks she is,” I said.

“He must be Mauritanian then,” she replied. Which cracked me up.

Driving down the long main street of Torrejon, we passed many round points and statues, one of a torso rising out of concrete waves, another vaguely human in shape and sort of dancing, I would say. All those years of Art History studies weren’t wasted on me!

Of course, downtown Madrid had lots of statues too. This one was a king.



This is a famous image of Madrid, a bear and a tree. For some reason, I saw fit to snap it with lots of people around it.


We wandered around a bit and saw some churches…


and some other statues…


and the museum of ham.


You get the idea.

So why do you think the Spanish are so fond of statues? City beautification? A predeliction for playing with stone? Any thoughts?

I feel that I am getting to know Spanish public transportation. I’ve now been to Spain twice, neither time with a car, although I would like to point out that the entry paperwork I was required to fill out at the Madrid airport included a lot of information about what vehicles I was or was not bringing with me. I found that bizarre. Do a lot of people fly their cars into Spain for the weekend? Or ever? And don’t tell me that Americans have long been famous for their love affair with the automobile–everyone had to fill these out, not just Americans.

Back to the public transportation. Overall, I would have to say that it’s quite impressive. Buses are big, with plushy, comfortable seats, and high, like Greyhound buses in America. There’s a digital display of the time and outside temperature, and a “fasten seatbelt” sign that flashes most of the time, although I didn’t see anyone who complied.

And then there’s the music. Oddly enough, it’s 80s music; all 80s music. “Thriller,” “Maniac,” “Because the Night Belongs to Lovers.” I find myself, as each new song starts, thinking, “Ok I recognize this…it’s…uh…” and then my brain starts singing along. All these songs from jr high and high school, burning their way inexorably into my brain. “We are the world  (we are the world); we are the children (we are the children),” I found myself humming today, 3 days later. Spanish scenery rolls past the window to the sounds of Madonna and Michael Jackson and George Michael and Blondie. It’s odd to think of the soundtrack of my adolescence playing itself out, endlessly, as the Spanish buses roll round and round their assigned routes and my life goes on in quite another direction.

We took buses a lot this weekend. We also discovered the Madrid subway system. Again, impressive. All was clean and bright and punctual, including our fellow passengers. No one was drunk, or swearing, or muttering, or had open sores. (I used to take Portland public transportation a lot, in case in you can’t tell. I did wonder what a Spanish person’s reaction would be to Tri-Met bus #19, Division St., which Donn and I took last year, on which we saw some scary people. Donn said to me, “It makes you wonder about democracy when you realize that these people can vote!” Luckily for the future of the free world, chances are good they forgot their medication on election day.)

We even discovered the elusive “every half hour” bus that we‘ve been told about on both visits. Apparently it is ready and willing to be caught Mondays through Fridays, or “lunes” through “viernes” as they like to put it. (It‘s like those Spanish have a different word for EVERYTHING.) (stolen and adapted from Steve Martin).

Our guesthouse was in a place called, I believe, Zarazuela. We didn’t realize that it needed to be lisped, just like “thinco” and “Barthelona.”  As a result, although we KNEW we needed bus 224, the driver was convinced that we didn’t. No, he didn’t go to Zarazuela, he was sure of it. If only we’d realized that we wanted to go to TharaThwala, we could have spent less time sitting, bereft and depressed, and of course cold, by the side of the freeway. (More on this later)

We took several Moroccan trains too. I have written before of the Moroccan trains, and the curious fact that they have not seen fit to adequately label their stations. I think they feel that everyone already knows this is Ain Sebaa, or Sidi Kacem not Sidi Yahyia, so why bother put up a big sign? Perhaps they feel that would be showing off. So when the train stops at Ain Sebaa, and actually cuts the engine, the only people left on the upper level of the second class car are the Nomad family and 2 other Americans, all of us looking at each other and saying, “Do you think this is it?” It must be, I pointed out. All the Moroccans have already de-trained. The only ones left are foreigners.

Sitting backwards, I startle as the ground falls away in front of me. I see a cliff face looming downwards towards a gorge by the time my brain has registered the fact that we are halfway across a narrow bridge. I watch, slightly nauseated, as sheep and cows and green fields and buildings appear and instantly dwindle to nothing. Around me people sleep and chat and stare into space. From a passing food trolley, I buy a packet of chips for Elliot , whom I happen to be sitting next to on this leg of the trip. It’s 3:30 by this point (4:30 Spanish time), and we haven’t had lunch.

We left on a cold rainy Saturday and returned on Monday afternoon to brilliant sunlight and warm air, which have continued through today. When we come from the train, we walk a block to one of our favorite chwarma restaurants. Even though it’s 5 p.m., we enjoy a late lunch in the crisp afternoon air. It feels like spring.

I’m getting to the pictures…

A bomb exploded in Madrid on Monday morning. I have never been in the same city at the same time as a bomb before, and I have to say the experience was profoundly peripheral. I wouldn’t even have known about the bomb if I hadn’t been sitting, shortly after 9 a.m., eating bacon and eggs in a little café in the suburb of Torrejon, staring at a wall TV and wondering if “una bomba” meant bomb or something else, something more boring everyday, possibly to do with firefighting. (I had just learned “bombero” the previous day when a fire-engine wailed by). It kept scrolling along the bottom of the screen, “estella una bomba” or something like that, “blah blah blah Juan Carlos I.” I didn’t even have a phrase book with me.

Perhaps I shouldn’t begin my story at the end. “Begin at the beginning,” the King tells Alice in Alice in Wonderland, “go to the end. Then stop.” So I should perhaps go back a bit, to a rainy Saturday morning in Rabat. The kids are grumpy at not being allowed to sleep in, and I’m already regretting my decision to wear light-colored pants as I notice a mud splatter on the back of my calves. The children are shocked and amazed at how light we are packing, but we are flying the misnamed “easy jet” (heretofore to be known as Complicated Jet…I’ll get to that), and they only allow you one carry-on per person. Since we are planning to do a fair amount of shopping in Spain, we take one change of clothing, our toothbrushes, and not much else. Ilsa is stunned to be told she can only bring one book; she brings a 750 page book and frets the entire time that she is nearly finished, although she isn’t.

Have you got the picture now? Are you in mode, to follow the Nomad family on yet another trip? A friend kindly drops us off at the station, and we take the train to Casablanca, scattering ourselves throughout a crowded car so only two of us are sitting next to each other.

At the airport, everything is fine. We’ve arrived in good time. The train station is located at the airport, which I think is brilliant–it’s so convenient. We buy sandwiches in an airport café but the kids are still hungry.

Boarding the plane presents no problem. At first I like “easy” jet. The plane is new and clean and orange and white, with average leg room. I don’t mind them not providing any snacks because they have low prices; you can fly Casa to Madrid for less than 30 euros, for example.

“I hope the plane lands and then bounces and then lands again,” announced Abel, but he was sadly disappointed. It was a quick, uneventful flight. We made our way through the Madrid airport. We had arranged to stay in a guesthouse on the outskirts of Madrid–a suburb called Torrejon–and we knew we needed to take a bus. It took us a while to find the bus stop, and then we bought and devoured a pastry so that we’d have change for the bus. Eventually we went out and settled ourselves at the bus stop.

It was 8 degrees celcius.

Last time we were in Spain, we heard of the elusive “every half hour bus.” This time, yet again, we were told by the lady at the guesthouse of a bus that left every 30 minutes. But it was Saturday. The bus comes once an hour on Saturdays, it turns out. Of course we’d just missed it! You know us by now! We sat there on the cold concrete bench for 55 minutes before that nice warm plushy bus arrived. Meanwhile, a slew of other buses, going other places, came every 5 minutes…

…to be continued.

Everyone: Hi, Nomad.

(takes sip of tepid coffee from Styrofoam cup, thinks longingly of dark chocolate and espresso from old life)

It’s obviously become a problem. At first I thought I could take it or leave it, preferably leave it. I grew up in a family that moved a lot. My dad was a school teacher, but somehow we moved houses and cities and even countries fairly regularly. “I’ll never do this to my own children,” I vowed with 10 year old intensity.

No, I’m not blaming my parents for my problem, but thank you for that suggestion. I’m just trying to give background, explain how I got started. Some kids have parents who model drink or drugs and teach their kids to steal; mine modeled cardboard boxes and new schools and the wide-open vistas of the highway, and taught me how to sit on suitcases to close them.

In 2001 when our oldest was five, we moved to Mauritania. When he was eight, we went to France; when he was nine, we spent a summer in the US and then went back to Mauritania. On his 12th birthday, we moved out of our house and then back to the US; when he was 13 and 2 months, we came to Morocco.

On August 3rd, we pared our life down to 10 suitcases (don’t be TOO impressed; we left a lot of boxes in storage) and began a life of nomadicity in earnest. With that in mind, we have moved 6 times in the last 5 months.

I only realized how addicted I was becoming to this lifestyle with the last move. I didn’t even worry about what was left behind. I packed up in a mere afternoon. We moved for 2 weeks with only 2 carloads, and that included food items. Can’t find your hairbrush? No problem; use your fingers. Going to school in dirty jeans? Who will even notice? Just say you fell on the way, trying to dodge a taxi or something.

But is it a problem, or just a lifestyle? Am I unable to stop? I offer this for your consideration: this afternoon, I unpacked and packed at the same time. We’re going to Madrid this weekend (required by visa issues) and we’re flying easyjet, which means one carry-on per person and no checked luggage. Piece of cake.

I began to be concerned when I noticed how my black Levi cords are fitting. Or not so fitting, as the case may be. I notice that I justify copious amounts of chocolate for myself at times like this. And I wondered, am I moving so often just so that I can eat guilt-free? We arrived back at our current house-sitting situation to find a half-eaten tin of Almond Roca and a note: Enjoy.

No, it was really a command, wasn’t it? “Enjoy the Almond Roca,” said the note, rather hypnotically actually. So I did.

I enjoyed rather a lot of it, actually. Also the Starbucks French Roast (the house smelled HEAVENLY this morning) and the molasses. I made cookies. I made spaghetti and garlic bread. And, what with all the moving, not to mention all the rain, I didn’t go to the store this week, so we had no fresh stuff for salad. Just carbs, no vegetables or fruit.

Perhaps I’m trying to make myself so big that I no longer move? (Puts fingers together, purses lips, nods thoughtfully) That’s possible. Very possible.

(blinks meaningfully) But I’d  like to be able to just stop. And I will, promise. I just have two more bars of chocolate to get through, and the cookies to finish.

You know, I really could quit anytime.

This doesn’t really qualify for “Very Funny Friday” but I’m posting anyway in a pitiful attempt to be close to Sue, who really is very funny.

Spanish drivers are among the most courteous in the world. I’m pretty sure this is true and not just a reaction to learning to survive the chaotic Moroccan streets. In Tarifa, as soon as we got anywhere near a crosswalk, they would skid to a halt and wait until our feet were back on the pavement on the other side before moving. It was very bizarre, and it took us some time to get used to it. Cars would slow down as we stood at the crosswalk, but we didn’t dare step into the street until they had come to a complete stop and were impatiently waving at us to get on with it.
Now that we are back in Rabat,  we realize we’ve lost a bit of our hard-won edge. We’re not quite as quick at crossing as we were; we have reverted to expecting people to honor crosswalks at least a little bit. It’s not good. I came within inches of being hit by a car the other day.
Other than that, Spain is receding rapidly into the distance, barely visible even in the rear-view mirror of the mind. It was relaxing while it lasted. But dealing with stories of workers who don’t even bother to show up for days, delaying the time I can emerge again above ground and unpack at least a few more suitcases, hasn’t done much for my mood. I suppose I should be happy I don’t have to deal with the workers myself.
The original date to move out of the basement was last Friday. Then it got moved to Monday. Now it’s, maybe, next Friday. Insha’allah, as they say in these parts. In the meantime, we’re eating very well and feeling very stressed. In my dreams we are always, constantly, travelling, drinking coffee in restaurants while glancing at our watches, rising to go, surrounded by luggage. In my dreams, my feet ache.
One of the things I love about living overseas is how international the world becomes. Although in this era of easy global travel and headlines from around the world we know our world in shrinking, it’s still easy in our home countries at least to surround ourselves with those that look, sound, and relate to the world just as we do. In fact, you have to work at it in order to avoid this. That is obviously impossible for Americans living in Morocco, where your taxi-driver will want to discuss the recent election and you can get onto topics ranging from abortion rights to the Iraq War to the Israeli-Palestinian tension in the time it takes to get to the store. Ilsa’s two closest friends so far are a Moroccan girl and a German girl. Elliot has a Spanish boy in his class who spent the last 5 years in New York and a Moroccan friend who just moved back here from Korea.
On our way to Spain, we stopped in to see some friends who are Canadian-Korean. Ilsa spent the night in their daughter’s room.
“She’s only 8, and she can already read in FOUR languages,” said Ilsa to me in hushed, admiring tones. “I’m 11 and I can only read two.” I nodded, thinking of my own monolingual childhood.
We are currently living with a Korean family; Korean-Korean, as they say, as opposed to Korean-Canadian or Korean-American. English is their third language. “Tank you papa,” says their six-year-old sweetly as he pours her juice; it‘s one of her few English phrases. For lunch today, we wrapped purple rice in thin strips of salty seaweed, and crunched down tiny whole fish that were crispy, sweet and spicy all at once. They were so good that you didn’t think about the eyes and heads, just about how the sesame seeds and sugar and soy and hot peppers were mingling and dancing on your tongue.
We can’t offer them money in exchange for more than doubling their family size for more than a week, we’ve learned. That would insult them, make them very angry. I imagine it being as if I invited some friends over for supper and they tried to pay me for my efforts. But it’s hard negotiating the unspoken lines between cultures. Donn was helping our hostess with some prep work she needed to do for her art (she’s an artist). “You can go and relax; I‘ll do it,” he told her. “I don’t know how to relax,” she replied, in total seriousness. In the meantime, I spend far too much of my time lying on my bed in this little room, hiding out, reading and typing, my way of staving off depression. (I also house-hunt and visit people and do laundry; I’m not actually a vegetable) She and I drink coffee together and talk; we are learning each other’s pasts. The twins have begun taek-won-do class with her husband.
We’re surviving, here in the basement. We enjoy our hosts; we love their food and their gracious hospitality even as we struggle with guilt for all the extra work we are giving them.
But oh, how we long for this waiting to be over, for the cases to be unpacked, for the feet to stop aching.

Tuesday was a long day. We were up at 6:30 Spanish time, which is 5:30 Moroccan time for those of you playing along at home, and I was actually up even earlier as I had one of those “wake up to pee and then stay awake worrying about things” moments, so I was actually up at 5 Spanish time, 4 Moroccan time. Yawn! I heard people heading home as I lay there, desperately trying to relax.

We had quite a time finding breakfast in Tarifa at 8 a.m. Nothing is open! We eventually found a little café-bar, very much a workingman’s sort of place, which provided us strong bitter coffee and toast with jam.

Our trip was uneventful if long. We caught the ferry no problem, had a good crossing, had bags of time to wait at the Tangiers train station, where we bought some delicious curry chicken flaky pastries for about $1 each. The train sat for an extra half hour in a little beachfront town called Assilah, which was mildly annoying, but we really didn’t care. We watched the waves breaking on the shore through the window. We had an entire compartment again, so we were sprawled out and relaxed.

Now we’re back and vacation is over. We’re officially homeless, camped out in the basement of some amazingly generous people that we’ve known for only 2 months now. Supposedly we’ll move into our own place next week, but we have to wait for the current occupants to vacate. They are also waiting, for the work to be done on their new place, which is proceeding at exactly the rate you’d expect in a developing country with a somewhat weak work ethic. In other words, we are not exactly sure when we get to move in. So we’re in a basement, dealing with the fact that most of our suitcases are over at the new place, and Ilsa had the suffer the deep embarrassment this morning of taking her sports exam in board shorts, since we couldn’t find her sweats.

I had this post ready to go a couple of days ago but my battery died before I actually got it online. I don’t really have internet access these days, until we move, so you will hear from me sporadically. My google reader is piling up. Sigh…this had to happen when everyone else is doing NoMoPoWhatever, and posting prolifically. Don’t worry if you don’t hear from me. I’m fine; stressed and grumpy and just fine.

In the meantime, here are some random photos from our last couple of days in Spain:

Sunday afternoon’s picnic at the beach. It was cool and very windy, alternating sun and shade. The kids had a blast making sand forts and having a full-out sand-ball fight. Of course my camera’s batteries had just died, so I didn’t get any pictures after this lone sandball.


It was wonderful to feel the sand between our toes again! When we lived in Mauritania, we went every Saturday, but this was our first beach trip since we left in July 2007.

Tarifa is the “southest” point of mainland Europe.

The water to the left of the causeway is the Mediterranean; to the right, the Atlantic Ocean.


I told you the streets were narrow!

You’ve seen lots of pictures of the ancient city; here are a couple of modern-day Tarifa, along the busy main street which is lined with shops catering to wind and kite surfers.


There are plenty of places for old men to sit and warm their bones in the sun, or catch up on the day‘s news.


One place even had a bench made from a surfboard!


This is some wall art outside of our favorite bakery, showing where to tie up your dog since he wasn’t allowed in.


Every evening, these people roasted and sold chestnuts. They are delicious and warm your hands as well as your stomach. They saw me take their picture and were laughing, thinking it wouldn’t turn out. I showed it to them and they said, “Muy Bueno!” We walked away with a bag of warm, freshly roasted nuts.


The place where we’re staying has a lemon tree just as you walk in. Several times now, we’ve been served lemonade made from freshly-squeezed lemons. It’s delicious.


On Friday, we decided to head to Gibraltar. We got off to a very late start, and the bus schedule we’d been given seemed to be suggestive as opposed to authoritative. The helpful man in the tourist office had said a bus left for Algeciras every half hour, so we headed off to the bus station somewhat optimistically about 11:30. According to the schedule, there was a bus at 11 and another at 12:30, but we only waited 15 minutes and caught one at 11:45.

We had followed his advice and bought a card at the tobacconists. It cost 1.50 euros and we were told that this was a deposit. We put 20 euros on the card. Each ticket would normally cost 2 euros, but with the card we received a discount so that 5 tickets cost 6 euros. We had to change buses in Algeciras, and the tickets for the second leg of the journey were the same price, so overall the card worked out really well. You have to put money on the card at a bus station or tobacconists, and then you use it to buy tickets as you’re boarding a bus.

The bus wound through the rocky hills of Southern Spain. It was a hazy morning with high thin clouds, and the Mediterranean sparkling below–a green and silver morning. We passed groves of eucalyptus, olive, and lemon trees and lines of windmills turning lazily.

Algeciras is a good sized town and that’s about all I can tell you about it, since I only saw bits of it from the bus. We changed buses at the station and then were off to Gibraltar, the giant rock of which is easily visible along most of the route. The bus goes to La Linea de la Concepción on the border, and it’s quite a short walk to passport control. The crossing goes across a live runway, and on the way back we had to wait for an EasyJet to roar past in landing before walking across ourselves.

We really weren’t sure what all to do. There’s the taxi-driven guided tour of all the main sights, but that cost $150 for our family–a bit beyond budget! We hadn’t really researched it. We just sort of wandered in the direction of the city center, and found ourselves crossing the LandPort (I think that was the name–why didn‘t I take notes?), which for centuries was the only way to walk onto Gibraltar, through a short rocky tunnel. It comes out into a large square called Casements, which is lined with shops and galleries and is filled with tables and chairs corresponding to various establishments (including, to our children’s delight, a Burger King. No we didn’t eat there!) We settled ourselves there, enjoying the alternating sun and shade, and enjoyed some proper British fish and chips with malt vinegar.

casementsThat’s the Rock itself just behind. Sorry for the poor quality snap.

Afterwards, we just wandered through the main shopping area. We have since talked to others and found out all that we missed, but honestly I was wearing entirely the wrong sort of shoes to hike that giant rock, the sight of the first Moorish invasion onto mainland Europe. We missed the monkeys. The museum wouldn’t take our euros or our credit card. So we mostly wandered in and out of shops and churches. Since our biggest goal was buying lots of British foods, the day was a success, but I’d like to go back sometime to get more food and also to do this tiny territory properly.


What did we buy? Marmite, HP sauce, Branston pickle, Turkish Delight, Crunchie bars and Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut (the real kind, not the American wax-chocolate version), Dolly Mix and Demerara sugar, Patak’s curry paste and Illy coffee (which is French but oh well! It‘s delicious). In Marks and Spencers we bought tea bags and bakewell tarts and, of all things, cranberry sauce–made from real American cranberries! I was thrilled. My biggest disappointment was not finding a bookstore, but honestly we missed the majority of the city. Next time.

We staggered back with fingers aching from the weight of plastic bags cutting into them and waited for the bus back to Algeciras. We ended up having to spend an hour and a half in the Algeciras bus station, freezing, because we’d assumed that we’d be able to catch one of those elusive every half hour buses, although I feel that they are urban myths.

I actually took my boots off on the bus. My only pair of boots were bought in Morocco, and they have leather soles–that is, only a thin piece of leather makes up the sole. There is no padding, no rubber grip, nothing to cushion the foot from feeling every little rock in the pavement. On top of that, these boots have three-inch heels. Yes they are really cute, but they are not ideal walking shoes, and I’m rather proud that I have walked so extensively in them.

Once back in Tarifa, we deposited all our goodies and headed out to find dinner. By this time it was about 10 p.m. and we were hungry. We ended up ordering several different tapas and sharing them in a warm, charming restaurant.


We got another free concert as well. In the apartment above the restaurant, a group was practicing. As people entered the square below, they would shout encouragement and join in the singing, so we were surrounded by music.



The next day, Saturday, was similar, only this time we headed to Carrefour, to get some things we can‘t find in Morocco. We had to catch two buses again, as Carrefour is located in Los Barrios, north of Algeciras. Buses don’t run as frequently on Saturdays, and we spent a lot of time sitting in various stations. (Carrefour is sort of like Target, only with a large grocery section. For you Northwesterners, it’s like Fred Meyer’s.)

That evening, we headed out for supper about 8. We went back to the same little Tex-Mex place we’d eaten at the first night, as Elliot had ordered nachos con chile con carne that were so good Donn and I wanted our own. We arrived about 8:15. The door was open and tables and chairs set up, but the light wasn’t on yet. Were they open? Donn asked, and the guy looked at the clock and shrugged. Yes, it was about time to open up, although we were obviously early. We sat down anyway, and he turned on the outside lights, brought out a warmer, and hung up a mask over the door, part of the décor. Welcome to Spain, where lunch time is 3 and supper is between 9 and 10. Apparently when we went out to eat at 7:30 the other night, we were getting in on the end of snack time. (We don’t have an equivalent in America; goûter in France and teatime in England. I did learn the Spanish word but I don’t remember it).

That night, Donn and I went out for dessert, and we discovered that many places we’d assumed were closed for the season are actually still open–at 11 p.m. that is. We found crepe restaurants and little stands selling Belgian waffles covered with chocolate doing a roaring trade. When in Spain, I told Donn, as I tucked into something called an Argentinian pastry, served with ice-cream.

Thursday Nov. 6
We decided to spend our first full day in Spain just hanging around Tarifa. This was a good decision, since we like medieval coastal towns full of little shops and cobblestone alleys and cafes and plazas with trees full of ripening tangerines.

We slept in rather late, and decided to visit a pastry shop we’d seen the previous day. The kids had hot chocolate and pain au chocolat–really good ones with chocolate all over the inside and chocolate shavings outside, rather than just one stingy little bit in the middle. Donn and I had espresso (café solo) and ham and cheese croissants. All was delicious.

Afterwards, we set off to see the town.

stmatthewsThis was in the Plaza de Angel

dooratstmattsDoors of church

We headed back into the medina and walked around a long time, wandering through the maze of tiny medieval alleyways and through churches and past shops selling records or sporting goods or candy. Well, we didn’t exactly make it past the candy shop 😉

We stopped for lunch near the biggest church, and sat outside enjoying the mild weather. Spain is noticeably warmer than Morocco, although I realize that perhaps this week is warm in Morocco as well. Menus here are a bit of a guessing game, since none of us speak Spanish. (Yes I know the twins studied it last year, but we didn’t get much beyond colours and numbers.) But we‘re really expanding our vocabularies. Octopus is pulpo, for example, and it’s coming in handy to know that. Some of the menus have English translations. One announced “incoming” for starters, and another announced the “home salad” was “dressed.” Another said, “Thank you for their visit.” No, really, thank you.

After filling our stomachs with patatas tortillas (potato omelette; I know, I was expecting tortillas too), we headed back down to the port.

There are advantages and disadvantages to coming off season like this. Advantages are obvious–cheaper rates, no crowds or waiting for things. But there are disadvantages as well. The castle is closed for repairs, several stores are either closed for the season or out of business, and it’s a bit cool for the beaches.

We walked past the castle down another little alley, followed a staircase, and found ourselves in a courtyard with a froggy fountain.


We snapped photos and rested on benches, before heading down to the port. We found our way down to the beach, and then made our way back to the hotel. After all, if the Spanish take a siesta every day, we should too. When in Rome.

Refreshed, we headed out again about 5 to enjoy the late afternoon light.

abelwantsmycoffeeAbel reaching for my coffee

This time we ended up enjoying a coffee at an outdoor café, and then stopped by the tourist office to ask about buses to Gibraltar. The man working there was really kind and helpful (and if you are thinking, well of course he was, that means you have not visited many tourist offices) He explained that if we bought a “tarjeta de transporte para via jar con autobuses comes” at the local tobacconists, we would save substantially on 5 tickets. He also pronounced Algeciras properly for us. We’d been saying, well, Algeciras, but of course in Spanish it is Al-ha-theer-us. Don’t forget the lisp! As the lady at the bakery said, “Es diffithile!” She emphasized it for us again, “Diff. I. Thile!” We smiled and nodded. It’s what we do.

He wrote out what we would need to ask for on the back of a bit of paper. Later, back at our hotel room, I examined it and realized it was an ad for a free flamenco concert, that night. The kids wanted pizza so we humoured them and went to “Punta Pizza,” run by a friendly woman. Her husband spoke French so came over to translate for us when we had questions, and he also was apparently the delivery person, but he spent a lot of his time keeping their one-year-old fed and happy, while the mother cooked delicious pizza, pesto, and an appetizer consisting of grilled apple and local cheese and walnuts all drizzled with honey.

We settled the kids in bed and headed out for the concert, which didn’t start till 11 p.m. We’re Spaniards now, we thought proudly, not at all tired thanks to drinking espresso at a sidewalk café at 6 p.m.

We knew where the café was–right near the froggy fountain–so we headed directly there. I was proud of myself for already being able to figure out a shortcut. The place was crowded and smoky but we found the last two empty stools and settled ourselves in. We were delighted to realize, when the concert started, that we had inadvertently gotten ourselves into the front row.

We really had no idea what to expect. I was sort of hoping for flouncy skirts and lots of hand gestures. I imagined it being sort of happy dance music. Instead, two people, a woman and man, came out and sat on two low stools. The man tuned his guitar, the woman took a deep breath. “Maria!” shouted several in the crowd.


Maria Montilla had an incredible voice. She scrunched up her entire face and brought out an enormous volume from deep within. Her voice ranged all over, wailing over the scales, followed by the guitar. She rarely smiled; it is solemn, serious music, no doubt about life‘s struggles, and death. There was nothing left to do but shout Olé!


She kept time by clapping softly, and everyone in the café followed suit. There was one young man in particular, standing nearby, who stomped his feet and clapped loudly; this got him big smiles of recognition from Maria, perhaps acknowledging someone who also loved this music. Also, a woman sitting near the singers twirled her arms in intricate patterns and gestures. But mostly it was just the music and the hot crowded room and the smoke-filled air, people clapping and yelling “Olé!” and stamping their feet in time.


We left during the break because it was after midnight. I was amazed at the power of Maria’s voice, which hadn’t faltered once during an hour of singing, and who apparently was only half-way through. It was a great concert.

September 2022

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