w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
Let’s say you’re in Europe and you suddenly realize you have two weeks in which you can traipse, jumping planes and Euro rails to wherever you like. Sounds like a dream, right? Now add to it a limited budget, the most expensive and congested travel season, the high stakes of a family-less Christmas, five suitcases, two tired kids, one cranky husband and a partridge in a pear tree.
We had planned to stay in Rome through the holidays, but when the Pigneto loft fell through, we found ourselves scampering for substitute housing. The Trastevere apartment was wonderful, but unfortunately, only available until the 15th. We took it as a sign that we should see more of Europe and so we scrapped our plans for Croatia and decided to head north to Paris and Brugge before landing in London to celebrate Christmas with our friends John, Becky and their two kids.
When last we were in Paris, just as we were recovering from jet lag, Oona caught a nasty stomach bug so we spent the majority of our trip cooped up in a tiny one bedroom apartment in the Bastille, passed out between bouts of laundry. Isoo, who suffers from an extreme case of Emetophobia is still haunted by the trip, so much so that three years later, he still associates Paris with vomit. So debilitating is his fear that he is a chronic hand-washing germaphobe, hates flying for fear of motion sicknesss and is a very, very picky eater. It is both a miracle and a testament of his courage that all of his hair has not fallen out during this trip. But needless to say, he was not excited for our Parisian jaunt and was near hysterical when Oona, right on cue as if to torment her brother, boarded the plane to Paris and promptly threw up.
I tried to comfort her as Chris discretely walked up and down the aisle collecting unused airsick bags. Isoo had fled to the back of the plane and was facedown on the tray table, his coat thrown over his head and his hands covering his ears. By the time we landed in Paris, Oona was white as a sheet. I seriously thought she was going to pass out and/or get detained in Customs for Ebola.
Due to the last minute nature of our planning and our limited budget, we were resigned to an albeit spacious, but inconveniently located apartment in the 18th Arrondisement. We quickly rounded up our bags and hightailed it to the taxi stand only to learn that Paris was in the midst of a strike with cab drivers barricading the streets to inhibit the passage of Uber cars. We queued at the bus stop, Oona squatting on the ground as Chris used a map and his Google translator app to figure out how to get to our apartment on the other side of town. We boarded a crowded bus, and then an even more crowded metro train which deposited us in the middle of bustling Gare du Nord. I staggered up the stairs with two suitcases, my purse and a backpack cursing Gard du Nord for its lack of escalators and muttering “It’s okay baby, we can do it. Almost there, just take one step at a time,” words of encouragement as much for myself as for Oona. The boys led the way, briskly walking the 15 minutes to the apartment with Chris trying to shield Isoo from the trail of sick left behind by his sister. I followed with Oona, who stopped every few feet to lean against a pole or rest in a café chair. At one point she lurched forward and threw up all over a bus stop as I stood there helpless, trying to hold back her hair, surrounded by our bags, both of us soaked beneath our coats. A young man stood watching us, and I looked at him embarrassed and apologetic; two gross Americans who dare sully their gorgeous streets. But he returned my glance by digging into his pocket and passing me a packet of tissues. You can say whatever you want about the French, but everyone was absolutely wonderful to us. By the time we made it to the apartment Oona had thrown up at least a dozen times and in my desperate urging I had promised to buy her a car on her 16th Birthday. She crawled into bed and did not emerge for three days.
If we hadn’t prepaid for our hotel and already booked the car, we would have skipped our plans to visit Brugge. But the morning of our departure, Oona, bolstered by the idea of waffles and chocolate, peeled off her pajamas and climbed into our tiny Fiat. It's impossible not to adore Brugge. It’s a magical fairytale city of medieval buildings, cobblestone squares, horse drawn carriages, picturesque canals and many, many chocolate shops. Add twinkling lights, an ice rink and a bustling Christmas market and you have the makings of a perfect holiday distraction. Our visit went something like this: waffles, fries, chocolate, mussels, beer, chocolate, shopping, chocolate, canal ride, chocolate, birding Minnewater Lake, chocolate, ice skating, chocolate. You get the picture.
Due to Oona’s stomach flu and our side trip to Brugge we were in Paris several days before we hit any of the sights. Frankly, this was fine by us. Not only had we seen many of the sights during our previous visits, but, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, the magic and romance of Paris has for us…faded. Even walking around the once beloved Marais and Ile St. Louis districts, I felt the city had gone the way of New York (and I dare say, London), its charm and individuality depleted by too many chain stores; overpriced, uninspired restaurants; pushy, noisy crowds. With the exception of the residential avenues in Montmartre, I suspect it will be awhile before we feel the itch for a return visit.
Speaking of itch, we had even more trouble finding a place in London. The top contender was a three bedroom house in southeast London. On paper it sounded great: movie projector, a sprawling yard, treehouse, trampoline, fireplaces and even a fully decorated Christmas tree. The catch, and this was a big one, was Mr. Darcy, the resident cat who needed feeding and loved to sleep on everyone's beds. Chris is very allergic to cats, but after several futile days of searching out alternatives, we deboarded the Chunnel armed with a suitcase-full of Benadryl. Upon entering the foyer, we were more than a little dismayed to find that the house smelled strongly of cat and cumin, and was covered in a layer of Mr. Darcy's fine black hairs. After just a few hours, Oona walked upstairs to find Chris' eyes red and nearly swollen shut. Through the angry slits of his eyes, he was surprised to see a similarly puffy face squinting back at him. Who knew Oona, too, was allergic to cats? Like father, like daughter.
It's crazy the amount of time I used to spend researching and preparing for a trip. Months out I'd book hotels and restaurants, scour the library for books on the destination, read up on the history, prep the kids with movies, gently introduce the local cuisine, insist on learning the fundamentals of the culture, language, etc. But with spontaneous fast travel there's just no time to plan an itinerary. As soon as we shut the cab door headed to the airport, Chris and I would do a basic Google search: currency, how to say "Thank you," "Please," "Hello" and "Good-bye," tipping etiquette and whether the tap water was potable. Armed with this (very) basic knowledge, we'd hit the ground running, drop our suitcases and then bump our way through the city in the hope that something, anything would rub off on us by osmosis.
But the beauty of London is that it didn't require a tremendous amount of preparation and since Chris and I had already been, we didn't even pretend to do much sightseeing, opting instead to monopolize all of John and Becky's free time. We took in a play, made a fantastic dinner at their gorgeous home, and even left the kids with their grandparents for our first adults only night out in over four months. We drank fancy martinis at the Connaught Hotel and then caught a cab to the only burger restaurant open on Boxing Day. Who cares that it was a fast food joint located in a mall? The burgers were excellent and the company even better.
We may not have gotten much out of this leg from the homeschool/cultural enrichment/learning front, but I do know that what we got was more sorely needed: to sleep, recuperate, dumbly stand in front of a magnificent building noshing on crepes with nary a clue nor curiosity. The kids needed to play. We needed to go to the trouble of cooking a real dinner, to catch up with friends and NOT talk about our travels. We needed to shop for underwear and celebrate my birthday lounging in bed reading silly magazines. In true Christmas vacation form, we needed to simply shut off our bodies and our brains and enjoy our family, food and the company of our friends. It was uninspired, undisciplined and an absolutely perfect, wonderful waste of time. I sincerely hope your holiday was the same.
Next up? Several long, inconvenient travel days as we tour Turkey and finally make our way to Asia. Five flights in eight days. We'll see how the kids hold up!
Little lady trying to keep it together on the bus ride from Orly.
With Oona sacked out at home, Isoo and I walked around the 18th, home to a bustling immigrant community, lots of great ethnic restaurants and Halle Pajol, a sprawling new multi-use building housing a library, arts center and several cute restaurants.
Once Oona felt better we all walked to neighboring Montmartre, winding through the charming residential streets and even to the top of not so quiet Sacré-Cœur.
The view of Paris from Sacré-Cœur. Yes, the weather was as dreary as it looked.
Eating our millionth crepe.
Planted back in the 30's, this tiny "secret" vineyard in Montmartre is the only one that continues to grow inside Paris. It still produces 1,700 bottles per year with the proceeds donated to charity.
Moulin de la Galette - only one of two remaining windmills in Paris. The other, of course, being the one at the Moulin Rouge.
How is it that I've been to Paris a handful of times and never made it to Musee d'Orsay? We spent an afternoon rectifying the situation. The ladies outside the Orsay.
Christian Peacock's Clockface.
Looking for a charming, cozy meal in a fabulous Parisian bistro? Good luck getting a last minute table! Most of our meals consisted of (delicious) Thai and Indian take-out in our neighborhood. But we did snag a table at the institution Bofinger. It may not be Paris' best restaurant, but a favorite nonetheless.
Adding our love lock to Pont Notre Dame.
We were just one of many clowns who participated in the tradition.
Notre Dame dressed up for Christmas.
Wait! Something Isoo liked about Paris! Feeding house sparrows at Notre Dame.
An hour wait in the freezing cold and rain, but we finally made it to the ice rink at the top of the Eiffel Tower. The rink was tiny, but the views were great. And it made Oona so happy.
While Brugge is lovely in the summer, it's especially magical in the winter. There's something about walking in the crisp air scented with mulled wine, listening to the clip-clop of horse drawn carriages and knick-knacking the Christmas markets that just feels so festive.
First stop: the surfboard-sized waffles at Lizzie's Wafels. Yes, they were as great as they look, but even better was the hot chocolate: a clear mug of steamed milk served with a tulip shaped bowl made of chocolate and filled with chocolate shavings and fancy marshmallows. You drop in the chocolate cup, watch it sink and then stir. Best hot chocolate ever!
Love the gorgeous architecture.
A couple of tidbits about the buildings: It used to be that residents were taxed according to the number of windows they had in their home so homeowners would brick over extraneous windows before the tax assessor's visit. You can still see evidence of bricked over windows thoughout the city. And of course pianos were bitch to move up the steep, narrow houses so they hoisted them up from the outside and then in through the window. You can still see the hoist rings at the top of the older homes which were also pitched forward so the furniture didn't swing and shatter the windows. The more recent homes have rings imbedded near the front door to keep safe Brugge's most common mode of transport.
And I didn't even mention the canals yet!
We were surprised to find that despite the cold, canal rides were still being offered. Of course we had to take one. What we didn't plan for was our underage driver.
When the tour guide invited Isoo to drive the boat, he thought he was kidding. So did the other 30 passengers. His three point turn was a little sketchy, but he did a pretty good job despite the wind. After disembarking, I asked Isoo what he thought of driving the boat and he said (in typically dry Isoo fashion), "Well that was pretty unprofessional of him." But the opportunity was not lost on Oona who burst into tears, and shouted, "No fair! Isoo got to DRIVE! A BOAT! In BRUGGE!"
Fortunately, Oona had her own fun. Skating with Chris in Grote Markt.
This is the canal behind our hotel, the Walwyck. The main house has great views over the water, but because we needed a family room, we were given a larger room in the top floor of the owner's house, a mansion just around the corner. It was sort of weird to go tromping through their home after our dinner. The owner's son, who was about Isoo's age, was having a party and their family room was filled with tween boys playing video games and eating junk food. Isoo didn't say anything, but I'm sure the scene made him miss his buds. Anyhow, the big canals are nice, but this quiet little flower-lined one has to be my favorite.
We strolled/birded Minnewater Lake.
Last but not least, the chocolate. The chocolate in Brugge is not for mere mortals. They are works of art. Chicago has the Macy's window, Brugge shows off its holiday spirit in the chocolate shops. Yes, these sculptures are made of pure chocolate.
While the kids really, really missed home, we all had a great time hanging with our friends in London. Despite having a full house of visiting grandparents, we were grateful to be so generously included in their celebration.
We didn't have much Christmas shopping to do this year, but thought it would be cute to hit up Oxford Square and Carnaby Street for the Christmas lights. The streets were so crowded we could barely move.
We much preferred our night watching Theatre503's hilarious, family-friendly pantomime, Cinderella and the Beanstalk. The kids even snuck a picture with the actors.
This is the living room of the house we rented. Isoo was the only one who would sit in it because Mr. Darcy liked to perch on the couch and smother his cat hairs all over the cushions. (This is a rare Oona sighting.) While the house came with a tree, the kids insisted on getting one of our own.
This was the compromise. Tiny, but all ours. We used earrings and ribbon for ornaments.
These are the lame stockings I made. I know. So sad. But the kids didn't care because I was able to locate and include Reese's Pieces!
The kids did not ask for a single thing this year. I'm sure the knowledge that they would have to schlep it halfway around the world influenced their decision. With the exception of a couple of small souvenirs we'd collected throughout the trip, we were happy to oblige!
Post jolly Christmas dinner.
What's Christmas without a little birding? The boys in Regent's Park.
I was feeling a little guilty about not having done much London sightseeing so I let the kids guide me in selecting a tour. Their pick? The Muggle Tour of the locations included in, and inspired by, the Harry Potter movies. It was sort of fabulous. Here's the "Leaky Cauldron" Fun fact: In the third movie, the Night Bus drives down this road and delivers Harry to the Leaky Cauldron. They chopped off the top of a double decker bus and affixed it to another double decker bus to create three tiers. Unfortunately, when they delivered the bus to the site, they realized that it was too high and had to re-doctor the bus on site to fit under the bridge.
We also took a walk down the street that inspired "Diagon Alley" to this bookstore that sells first edition Harry Potter titles. And this is Oona with our excellent tour guide, Sophie McGonagall.
I swear I did try to show them a little more of merry old London. Evidence: the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace.
Look kids! Big Ben!
And Westminster Abbey, where either Isoo was going to die of boredom or I was going to kill him.
And then we did modern London. At the Tate Gallery for a little hands on crafting a la Turner.
And where Oona stopped in front of this picture and asked, "Okay mom, what's this picture about again?"
The whimsical Alice in Wonderland-inspired tea at the Sanderson Hotel was more relaxing.
Champagne birthday toast on the London Eye. A lovely farewell to the European leg of our trip, and a wonderful way to ring in the new year.
It was bad enough that our flight out of Marrakech was delayed, but an hour after we finally landed we were still hopelessly watching the baggage carousel turn, empty of our suitcases. The good news is that there is nothing more entertaining than witnessing a bunch of angry Romans scream and gesticulate over lost luggage. No one has ever accused me of being a laid back pushover, but compared to the Italians, I am a mere amateur. When we finally collected our bags, we jumped into a cab, and headed to our loft in Pigneto.
What is Pigneto? Why, according to several travel guides it is only “the coolest neighborhood in the world." Artists, bohemians, great bars and cool cafes? I mean, when would you not want to stay there? When the mattresses are doused in blood, urine and body hairs. Filthy bathroom walls, floaters in the toilet, not a single clean utensil, dealers loitering on the corner, chairs thoughtfully marked "BROKEN. DO NOT SIT HERE", and the doors and windows covered in bars. After a terse discussion with the owner and several emails to Airbnb requesting the return of our $3,200 payment, we quickly booked a hotel, jumped into a cab and hightailed it across town. We arrived at the Hotel Alimandi and was told that despite our online reservation, they did not have our family room, so Isoo and I ended up on one floor, and Chris and Oona on another. By the time we dropped off our bags, made our way to a restaurant and ordered our dinner, it was nearly 11:00 p.m. and we had already spent our entire daily budget on cab fare.
Desperate to find a last minute place to stay (in expensive Rome), we ended up booking a sweet two bedroom apartment in the charming Trastevere neighborhood. Yes, it broke the bank, but the beautiful, airy, light-filled apartment was exactly what we needed after hectic Marrakech and our bumpy start in Rome. When we met Silvia, the owner, I couldn't stop staring; she was stunning and chic. It made total sense when I later learned that she is an Italian film actress.
The Coliseum, Roman Forum, St. Peter's Basilica, Sistine Chapel, Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, Pantheon. I could go on. A city could be built around any ONE of these monuments and yet Rome greedily houses them all. Everywhere you turn there is a mosaic tiled church, hidden piazza, ornate bridge. The city is just unreasonably beautiful. Even our local Farmacia, purveyor of foot spray and band aids, is ensconced in a centuries old ivy covered building. And you can keep your Pigneto, I could not have loved our Trastevere neighborhood more: charming winding streets, sparkling Christmas lights, cobblestone lanes, leisurely sidewalk cafes, gorgeous people, Santa Maria church bells, bookshops, the lazy Tiber River.
We had originally planned to hunker down in Rome for a full month to celebrate Christmas, but the new apartment wasn't available for that length so in all, we only had 17 days in this glorious city. With all the hassles of travel, and the prevailing homesickness, I thought I'd never say it, but I could live here forever. Even Isoo, who is not easily impressed nor a fan of urban environments threw an extra coin into Trevi Fountain to ensure his return.
The Pantheon. Nearly 2000 years old and perfectly preserved. It was raining the day we visited so we got to see the ancient Roman drainpipes in action.
There are so many priests and nuns walking around Rome. They are everywhere - the local pizzeria, the newsstand, standing at the bus stop listening to music on headphones. It's a cool and wonderful reminder of how human we all are.
The Map Room in the Vatican Museum.
St. Peter's Basilica. We thought the kids would enjoy climbing to the top of the dome.
The view of Vatican City from the top. Oona loved it.
Isoo did not. In fact, he thought found the entire Vatican City visit to be "pure torture."
Poor baby. We felt terrible for him.
Inside St. Peter's: Michelangelo's La Pieta. Believe it or not, we all preferred the sculptures and was somewhat underwhelmed by the Sistine Chapel.
We took a walk to the Coliseum, but after wandering around with a guide book, we decided to return with a tour guide.
The day we returned was freezing and rainy, but Elena did such a great job even the kids were captivated. Isoo was full of questions.
The Coliseum's remains. The stage was partially rebuilt to give visitors an idea of the the layout. The Coliseum's true floor was covered in sand to conceal trap doors and soak up the blood of the gladiators. The labyrinth beneath housed a series of rooms where animals where starved and then hoisted up in rudimentary elevators and released for the games. The three rows of arches were where the spectators sat - the wealthiest closest to the action. Just like the Bulls game!
The Roman Forum and Isoo among the umbrella pines.
Soaked to the bone, but the kids were great sports.
La Bocca della Verita. Tell a lie, it bites your hand. Oona must be telling the truth.
We spent a lot of time hanging out at the Spanish Steps eating gelato and people watching.
Trevi Fountain is being given a good cleaning (courtesy of Fendi) so unfortunately, it's under scaffolding and heavily concealed. However, if you want to throw a coin to ensure your return, this PHOTO of the fountain will be happy to accept your Euro.
We rented bikes at Appica Antica to check out more ancient ruins and ride on the very bumpy original cobblestone roadways (not pictured).
Gorgeous sculpture of Goethe at Villa Borghese park. According to Isoo, also a great place to bird!
Piazza Navona by night.
On December 8, Piazza Navona hosts a carnival in celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Most Romans celebrate by going to church. We visited the Sant'Agnese in Agone cathedral, then we hit up the carnival. When in Rome.
The Orto Botanico Roma was right behind our apartment. We thought it would be an easy way to kill a half hour. Turned out to be a fantastic place to bird and write. Chris and the kids went twice.
Modern Rome? That would be the Maxxi, the new contemporary art museum. Still trying to gain traction, the museum's exhibitions are very slight. In fact, the day we visited, there was not much to see, which even the museum acknowledged by reducing our entry fee. Give it a few years before making a visit.
Rome does Christmas well! Just ask these happy Santas.
Better yet go to the Christmas tree lighting at Piazza Venezia!
National flags represented on Via Corso.
Just some of the gorgeous lights around the city. While I wholly intend on returning, I honestly can't imagine that I could enjoy Rome more. There is something magical about discovering a wonderful city for the first time at Christmas.
While walking around our neighborhood, we stumbled upon a little shop that teaches mosaic art. Of course we had to take a class. This is Nadia teaching Oona how to break tiles. I thought this was about the most therapeutic thing I've done in a long time. Absolutely loved it.
The tools of the trade. First we drew a picture on a small piece of paper. Then we selected bits of glass and tile and then broke them down to our desired size and shape using the wooden block with the embedded ax point and the crazy hammer looking thingy. After that we used glue to paste the tiles to the pictures. Note: Nadia did not speak English and we don't speak Italian so we might be a little unclear on the correct terminology.
Oona set the tiles. Then we mixed cement and filled a a 4'x4" square, placed the tiles inside the cement and then gently pulled off the paper.
Isoo learns how to set tile in cement. So fun.
But our learning did not stop there! We also went to Gladiator School where we learned all about the battles of Ancient Rome.
Oh yes, there were costumes involved.
Lots of them.
Any many useful tips like "How to Stab Your Father When He is Wearing a Ridiculous Helmet"
And "How to Catch Your Father in a Fisherman's Net". Btw, I was under strict orders by the kids not to share these images so you don't know anything about them or else you will get stabbed by a three pronged pitchfork.
But don't worry. When it came time for the duels, we parents got our revenge,
Needless to say, we had a blast. Our teacher was fabulous. I think we all laughed incredibly hard that day.
And we have been eating exceedingly well....
Top: Gelato at Frigidarium. Best pizza ever at Pizzarium.
Middle: Aperitivos at the Eden Hotel. So much pasta.
Bottom: Our favorite resto, Pianostrada Laboratoriodicucina. Just another insanely charming little corner trattoria.
But mostly we just hung out in our neighborhood of Trastevere.
Lounging in our beautiful apartment.
Walking our winding streets.
Keeping the kids up past their bedtime to hang out in the Piazza Santa Maria.
Running by the Pont Sisto.
And dreaming of all the things we'll do when we come back!
Marrakech is like childbirth: The memories are great, but while in the throes, it's a complete and total pain in the ass.
The last time we were in Morocco was 17 years ago. Chris and I flew in to Casablanca, picked up a car and drove to the seaside town of Oualidia, the pottery capital Safi, the fishing village of Essaouira, to the winding medina of Marrakech and up through the desert to Fes. It was our honeymoon and by our second day in Marrakech, I had been touched by so many strangers, you could have dusted me for fingerprints. A man trapped Chris and I in a dark alleyway and offered to trade me for a donkey. I was constantly followed. Children tugged on my clothes and arms. Doors locked behind us in carpet shops. It was more annoying than menacing, but by the time we returned back to our home in NYC, we vowed never to return.
So yes, like childbirth, we conveniently forgot all of this and birthed a sibling – a two week trip to Marrakech, the capital of unwelcome touching and aggressive street hawkers. If there is one location Isoo was dreading, it was here. This is a kid with full blown anxiety – fear of vomiting, rigid sleep rituals, obsessive hand washing and tooth brushing, picky about food, smells, strangers, you name it. So going to Marrakech was like venturing straight into a cobra pit. But it wasn’t just Isoo who struggled. This portion of the trip, more than any, made us question the kind of travel we wanted to pursue, the lifestyle we were giving up and highlighted our individual weaknesses and strengths.
Don't get the wrong idea - we are not extravagant people, but because I knew Marrakech would be stressful for Isoo, I rented a (fancy for us) house that would feel like a sanctuary. It just so happened that the house came with a driver and housekeeper. Our flight to Marrakech was delayed so we arrived after 9pm. Fayssal met us at the airport and took us to the house where Sabah had a chicken tagine waiting for dinner. Then she showed us around the dreamy three-story riad anchored by an central, open courtyard complete with a private dipping pool. The downstairs consisted of a cozy salon with series of daybeds for lounging, the open air courtyard and sitting room, and the kitchen/dining room. Upstairs were two bedroom suites connected by an open air sitting area. On the roof was the terrace and another bedroom suite. It was gorgeous. We’d never seen anything like it.
The next morning, Sabah arrived early to make us breakfast. Unaccustomed to having a housekeeper, Chris and I had set the alarm, got washed, dressed, made the beds and had coffee ready for her arrival. After the first of what would be 13 straight days of bread for breakfast, Sabah wandered from room to room, and then admonished us for leaving her with nothing to do. It went like that the entirety of our stay and frankly, while Sabah is a lovely woman, after a couple of days, I really hated having her around. Not only am I not a morning person, but I do not like strangers in my house and prefer to do my own cleaning. In the end, we didn’t use Fayssal either, preferring the sponetanity of cabs and long walks.
A note about open air houses – they are awesome when a little bird chirps next to you while you're sipping coffee, when the sun is streaming through the house or it’s night and you look up to see the sky is filled with stars. It’s way less awesome when it’s the rainy season and you’ve left your camera sitting in the courtyard. Or you need rain boots to get from the bathroom to the kitchen. And when it’s cold for several straight days and you're so desperate for clean laundry you spend six hours diligently flipping socks on a portable electric heater. It's especially hard at 5:30am during the call to prayer which woke all of us every single morning. Chris and Isoo got over the magic of the house pretty quickly, missing the good old days of ceilings and central heating.
Despite the cold, Oona insisted on checking out the dipping pool.
The open air courtyard.
The kids across the courtyard.
After the first couple of days, Sabah made a point of locking up the broom and the tea. If you know me at all, you know how painful and hilarious this is (the broom part, not the tea). Clearly she was not comfortable with me trying to usurp her job. We mostly hung out in the salon, hiding from Sabah and the rain, but if she offered tea service, we always said yes.
Sabah trying to show Isoo how to twirl a fez tassel.
Oh the medina. What can I say? It is absolutely magical. There is no place like it. The day after our arrival we walked the twisty alleyways, taking non-stop pictures, the children picking up instruments, fingering scarves and carpets, marveling at the hammered trays and shiny teapots, the goatskin lamps, the piles of colorful, deflated poofs. Just before sunset we climbed to the top of Le Grand Balcon Café Glacier, ordered our mint tea and then watched the square come to life, smoke emitting from the food stalls, knots of crowds gathering around snake charmers and monkey trainers, the hawkers out hustling tourists into restaurants. Isoo stood at the edge of the balcony, quiet as a church mouse, taking it all in and then finally turned to Chris and said, “Wow, Dad, I wonder what my friends would think if they could see through my eyes right now.” Even he couldn’t resist the charms and magic of the medina.
But in the coming days, it would all unravel. Isoo was protective of me, hating the constant touching, the “konnichiwa!” that followed me around the square. He detested the sellers, the noise and dirt, the dark, low alleyways, overflowing dumpsters, the mysterious puddles, the narrow streets crowded with donkey carts, motorcycles and bikes. And as much as he abhorred it, Oona adored it. She loved Jemaa el fna, everyday asking, “Can we go to the night party?” She moved from crowd to crowd, drinking it all in, holding snakes, nagging me for henna tattoos, jumping up onto an orange stall to sell juice, marveling at the monkeys wearing diapers, the acrobats and their human pyramids. She haggled for the best price on wooden snakes, begged for a tasseled fez hat, devoured dried fruit and nuts and sweets sold from the wooden carts. While she wouldn't be able to to make it to school without getting lost, within a day, she had the medina down cold, grabbing Chris by the hand to lead him to her favorite stalls.
The view from the Le Grand Balcon Cafe.
"#18 is the best!"
Just thought I'd make myself comfortable by this stinky dumpster and the start of a darken alley to you, know, catch up on some reading. Ah, Marrakech. On the street to our riad.
Marrakech movers and shakers.
In Jemaa el fna, young men in hoodies, tight acid washed jeans and fawkhawks line the stalls touting the merits of their restaurants:
"Hey, hey, come here! Best food, better than Jamie Oliver!"
"Free air conditioning!"
"Come, look, see the menu. No diarrhea for 2 years!"
"No, come here! No diarrhea for 5 years! Guaranteed!"
"Hey you, you look like the actor in X-men with the really long…."
We sit at a food stall and Isoo pulls the collar of his shirt up to cover his nose. Oona, famous for her love of soup, leans over, stares into a murky cauldron and says, “That looks good. I’ll have that.” Chris and I eyeball each other, trying to ride that line between caution and curiosity. But after having worked at Tizi Melloul for 6 years, I’m no rookie to Morrocan food. We go with curiosity and thankfully, I manage to be the only one who gets sick during the trip. In the meanwhile we have a few great tagines, pastilles, couscous and brochettes, but man, do I miss sushi!
Everyday I'm hustlin'
Nibblin on bread.
In a tiny little strip hidden in the olive souk is Mechoui Alley, famous for its lamb sandwiches. The lamb is delivered, salted and then put into a pit that's been smoldering with ash and coal for two hours. When it's done, it's sold by the kilo and served alongside a piece of Moroccan bread. The kids nearly cried when they saw the piles of dead flesh piled in the carts. I did manage a taste, but I draw the line when I see a tail. Chris, on the other hand, couldn't get enough. He would disappear during various times throughout the trip and return with a greasy grin and a round belly.
They let us into the kitchen to see the cooking pit. Ha! this is me, photo thieving Chris' pic.
Oye. I can barely make it into Old Navy without losing my mind, much less deal with the haggling in Marrakech. I'll gladly throw a wad of money on a cash register just to make the ordeal of shopping end. This is why Chris is in charge of all the haggling. The rule of thumb is ask the price, offer half, and then work your way toward the middle. And no matter how self-satisfied you are with your purchase, you've probably lost because the shopkeepers in Marrakech are WAAAAYYYY better at the haggle than you.
So despite coveting the rugs, pillows, teapots, etc., I just could not pull the trigger. Shopping + pressure + haggling + attempts at brainwashing = empty shopping bags. Case in point:
I stop to admire a pair of funky purple harem pants and the shopkeeper comes out.
“250 dhms,” he says.
"Oh, I'm just looking, thanks."
"No. You like. You buy. 250 dhm, special price for you."
“What size are they?” I ask hesitantly.
“No really, what size?”
Looks me up and down, “They fit you. You take. 230 dhm.”
“Wait, can I try them on?”
“Why? They fit you. You take. 200 dhm.”
“Oh, 200 is too high. Will you take 120 dhm?”
“No. 200 dhm. Final offer.”
“Um, Ok. No thanks.”
“Fine, 180 dhm."
"No really, I was just looking."
"Why you no buy? They fit! I give you special discount! 170 dhm!”
“Let me think about it. I’ll come back after lunch.”
“No. Don’t come back.”
"Oh, OK. Good-bye."
Here are pictures of beautiful things I did not buy.
Also, while there are supermarkets and shopping malls galore in the new city, the medina is all specialty stalls.
Our corner store.
Most of all, I did not buy anything from this guy. Here's a well known Marrakech con: Step foot into the super windy, ultra confusing Dyer's Souk and a "guide" will offer to take you to the dying vat. Instead he will take you to a shopkeeper who will do a fast demo of the dyes (scripted and done a million times each day) and then he will (unbidden) wrap your kids in turbans, encourage you to take pictures and then hard sell you into buying a million overpriced scarves. If you don't buy, he will throw his hands into the air, stomp out and watch as you helplessly try to find your way out of the souk. If you leave empty handed, the shopkeepers lounging in doorways will laugh and offer up the wrong directions.
Oh well, at least we got a cute pic out of it.
Oh wait, we did buy something! Actually, we stopped to watch this guy make chess pieces and before you know it, both kids were sporting necklaces. If a guy makes necklaces with his feet, you gotta pay him, right?
After our blow out in Evora, Chris offered to step it up and take over some of the trip planning. His first order of business was to plan the desert excursion in Morocco. Several of our friends had raved about driving to the edge of the desert, riding camels into the Sahara and staying overnight in Berber tents. You must do it! they insisted. Who are we to argue?
So despite a record breaking rainstorm raging in the south, we packed a bag and met our young Berber driver, Ahmed, on the outskirts of the medina. We drove an hour through flooded streets before learning that the bridge to Ouarzazate had collapsed. We turned around, unpacked and then spent the next couple of days waiting for the rain to subside. Three days later, we were packed and on the road again, this time, with just a "small detour", promised Ahmed.
After countless inquiries of "are we there yet?", "we're hungry," "when's lunch?" "I have to pee," Ahmed pulled into a restaurant and with the motor still running, said, "Have lunch, I'll see you in an hour" and raced off. It was 3pm and we had been in the car for seven straight hours. We bombarded Chris with questions, to which he had no answers. When Ahmed returned, we hopped into the car and I demanded to know how much longer till the desert. "And don't say 10 minutes and then 40 minutes and then 1 hour that turns into 5 hours. Just give it to me straight." When he mumbled, I screamed hysterically, "Huh? What's that? Speak up!" Turned out the roads were still closed which meant we had to drive all the way west to Agadir before heading south toward the desert. In the end we spent 12 hours driving the first day only to spend the night in a freezing hotel, wake up to an even colder shower, and then got back in the car for another 5 hour drive to the lip of the desert.
When we finally got to the desert, we dropped our bags at yet another hotel, and boarded camels for an hour ride into the Sahara. It was great fun for the first 20 minutes. There is a reason why only tourists ride camels. It's freaking painful! (The Berbers? They drive ATVs.) But the dunes were undeniably breathtaking. I mean, ridiculously, insanely beautiful. Oona had a blast running up and down the dunes, whooping and racing, making footprints in the pristine sand. Isoo was dismayed to find that there were no birds, which basically killed the trip for him. He couldn't even muster a smile for the pictures.
After the other guests arrived, we had a tasty tagine dinner and then gathered around the campfire to count shooting stars. We also listened to a drum show and some of us (i.e., Oona) danced around the campfire before taking a night hike in the dunes. It was pretty excellent and we had a great time getting to know the other guests. I had never seen so many stars. The evening was terrific until we retired to our tent. While we were lucky to have real beds, the recent rains made the mattresses so wet the damp seeped through our clothes. In the morning, my ankles were sore from the weight of the (numerous) blankets and yet, none of us had slept a wink, having spent all night shivering in the cold. We were not happy (Berber) campers.
We rode the camels back, took another freezing shower and then drove 9 hours back to Marrakech. In the end, we spent 26 hours in the car, 6 awake hours in the desert, 8 freezing hours "sleeping", several days spent waiting for the reschedule, and $1,000 for the privilege. Was it worth it? Ask me again in a couple of years, but we did manage to birth some fantastic pictures.
Our driver Ahmed: a true (modern) Berber. When I asked his age, he hesitated and mumbled 25 (I'm guessing he's not a day over 19). At every bathroom break he would smoke cigarettes and chat on his two cell phones.
Many of the roads were still flooded so the driving was slow going. Thankfully, we had an endless supply of Berber music to keep us entertained.
Isoo was not happy about the camels.
Oona at sunset.
New friends Colin and Caroline. And the lovely London ladies.
Our Berber tent. Wet and wild.
This amazing sunrise ALMOST made up for the sleepless night.
Early in the morning, Chris took Oona sand boarding and I took Isoo birding. While we were out walking a real live nomad came over the dunes on a donkey. Surreal.
Scenes from the drive
Top: Oona at the Casbah.
Middle left: Isoo at the hotel. Middle right: Dades Gorge.
Bottom: In some villages, married Moroccan women wear white (and the men walk 2 steps behind).
Sheep herding in the Atlas Mountains. Making argan oil.
Exhausted from our long hijacking.
We had one warm day in Marrakech so we high-tailed it to La Mamounia, the super posh playground of movie stars and diplomats, and apparently, grungy American almost backpackers. We bought a pricey day pass and spent the day lingering by the pool, noshing on $35 hamburgers, the kids doing laps while Chris and I took turns running on the treadmill. When the sun went down, we headed to the indoor pool, doing belly flops whenever the ornately garbed attendants turned their backs. It was Isoo's favorite (and according to him, only good) day in Marrakech. I said, "enjoy it while you can, because the days of fancy hotels are over!" I said it like it wasn't a big deal, but frankly, and don't judge me for this, I was a little sad. In the olden days, when Chris had a job, we could afford to splurge like this. We didn't do it often because I'm a cheapskate, but it was nice knowing we could. Now that Chris has not only given up his job, but turned his back on his career, these kinds of opportunities won't come along often. When we return, we'll rent a small place, buy a used car, purchase furniture with what's left of our savings. We'll both have to work. None of this is horrible. It's what we chose: to start over, live with less, share responsibility. Part of me is excited. But I don't yet understand what that life will look like because we're in state of limbo (and a privileged one at that). We'll see how it goes. But meanwhile, the day at La Mamounia? Isoo was right. It really was awesome.
What better way than to spend Thanksgiving than with a traditional belly dance show? We kept the kids up for a 9:00 dinner at Comptoir followed by a 10:30 belly dance performance. Chris and I loved it, but Oona deemed it "too naked" and Isoo didn't even seem to notice the dancers. I'm giving him another year.
What am I thankful for? Chris, my family (near and far), my friends (who I miss terribly), the occasional run, so much great food, beautiful art, sunny days, hug pillows, Googlemaps, shower curtains, dryers, Uber, a world that tolerates my inability to speak anything but English, good coffee, people who are willing to accept our overtures of friendship and Facetime.
She danced. With a candelabra. On her head.
Grateful for these guys.