Sunday, February 24, 2008


An ode to an oud

A recent discovery made my heart sing
A pot-bellied, wonky-necked beautiful thing
But it's not on its beauty I'm keen to expound
Or even its strings with their delicate sound
It's simply a chronically Scrabble-obsessed nerd
Has found an exciting new three letter word

The Rough Guide to Morocco tells me that if I eat in a local cafe or am invited to a meal in someone's home where the food is eaten with the hands, using bread as a scoop, I should do as they do and use my right hand because the left one is used for going to the toilet. Please. Whilst it's fascinating to know the origins of why people do what they do, it implies that despite modern living conditions they're still eating with their right hand because they haven't washed their left and if that's the case, I don't want to eat anything with either right or left hand. How many chefs do you see preparing your meal with their left hand behind their back? My immunity to such things has long since been eroded by my over zealous adherence to sell-by dates and instructions in public toilets everywhere to 'NOW wash your hands'. So I wish the book had simply said that it's traditional.

We're trying not to be taken for tourist mugs and have succeeded and failed in about equal measure. Sitting in a bar I accepted a shoe shine, but when I asked how much, the guy just smiled and shrugged. That was one of the failures of course because I'm not going to risk insulting him by offering too little, so I gave him ten dirhams (about 70 pence) and afterwards found that the going rate seems to be one or two.

To balance the score sheet: I suppose the least surprising person to take you for a ride ought to be a taxi driver, but we were still astonished at the cheek of one of them. Hundreds of these petits-taxis buzz around in the evening like little fireflies, so we hailed one just before 7 o'clock to go to a restaurant. He charged us ten dirhams When we came out of the restaurant about two hours later he was there again so we hopped back in but noticed that the meter wasn't on. "That's right" he said, "it'll cost 40 dirhams". But we know that he knows that we know he's just charged us a quarter of that for the same journey. We jump out as he's shouting after us that he'll do it for 30. I'm not sure which is greater - his greed or his stupidity.

Saturday, February 16, 2008


A less critical view

"See" says my loved one midway across the road, indicating the two cars that have just screeched to a halt a yard in front of us, "they won't actually run you over". Naturally I'm thrilled that his experiment has been a success, but somewhat reluctant to continue with it to find out just how many lives we have left.

But, okay I'll admit it. I've been hasty, harsh even, about Casablanca. Now that the smog's gone there's blue sky and even some real grass if you walk far enough; we've seen some lovely art deco architecture, the grand mosque and the rolling waves of the Atlantic; eaten a tagine in a local restauant where I was the only woman amongst a hundred men and no one took any notice, (spoilt only by the accompanying glass of water).

And besides, we're leaving tomorrow for a few days in Rabat - always willing to make the best of things that's me.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


Casablanca but not as we know it

I’m woken by pain that makes my head, neck and elbows throb. A full orchestra tunes up in the street under our window and the discordant sounds make me wince. The realisation comes slowly that the pain is caused by nothing more serious than a virus and the noise by the deafening and continuous honking of horns and barking of dogs.

I draw the curtains and discover that the sights are no more harmonious than the sounds - dirt and smog and rubbish bins spilling over, craters and other traps for the unwary pedestrian on the pavements. This is Casablanca and it dawns on me that the reason we’ve found it so hard to pick up tourist literature is the obvious reluctance of the tourist board to inform you that it’s the arse end of Morocco. We learn later that King Hassan II planned his great mosque here in an attempt to entice tourists, and he succeeded, but he couldn’t persuade them to stay. As soon as they’ve seen it, they rush off to Marrakesh, Fez or just about any other town in Morocco but this one.

It looks as though the French were midway through a giant reconstruction programme when they left in 1956, and took all the architects’ and engineers’ plans with them, leaving what looks like a half-demolished city. The pavements are not for walking on - lorries load and unload on them, shops spill out their machinery and wrought iron on to them, tyres and all manner of car parts are hosed and mended on them and the pedestrians, without any apparent trace of resentment, abandon them, put their lives in the hands of Allah and jaywalk into five lanes of speeding, screeching traffic.

But ever willing to hone our survival skills, we quickly learn that the most important thing you need here is flexibility. Distances for instance are a matter of individual interpretation. Three people told us the railway station was ‘just down that road - not far at all, but then half an hour’s walk to a lot of people, may seem just that. The apartment we found on line assured us that the landlord lived in the neighbourhood should we need help and advice. He lives more than 200 kilometres away. I had vowed that on no account would a glass of mint tea pass my lips but our landlord met us at the airport, took us to the apartment, where his wife had prepared it for us, so of course there was nothing for it but to put all thoughts of sheep’s eyeballs out of my mind and pronounce it quite delicious. We order coffee and croissants for our first breakfast and receive a tray of orange juice and pain au chocolat. Is there a problem our waiter’s quizzical look seems to say? No, no, that’s just lovely. Later we hop in a taxi only to find it hailed again a few minutes later by a woman who gets in casually, smiles and says hello, but hey now that is green. And of course, for a ride costing about 50 pence, we’re certainly not complaining. Oh, and I should also mention that you need to feel confident of your partner’s desire for you to live, otherwise when he suddenly shoves you into the chaotic traffic to cross the road, you could be forgiven for suspecting that a new life insurance policy has just been taken out.

And you must be flexible about your usual alcohol purchases. The cafes and bars sell only non-alcohol drinks and upon enquiry at the supermarket, they’ll tell you that they don’t sell it, but if you’d like to go round the corner, through the unmarked door, up the stone staircase, you can buy it. They’ll wrap it in black plastic bags, but since that’s the only purpose the bags seem to have, you may as well carry a neon flashing arrow proclaiming alcohol.

You also realise why the Moroccans lead a rather more laid-back lifestyle than us. If you were called to prayer five times a day beginning and ending at sunrise and sunset, you’d probably feel a bit short on sleep and want to conserve your energy.

Friday, February 08, 2008


How not to say I Do

Now I’m as ready as the next person to ooh and aah over a beautiful bride as she glides from the church, but I’m not quite as keen on her during the year leading up to it. The tyrannical stamping of pre-satined feet makes some African dictatorships look positively benign as families and friends are bullied into bowing to the bride-to-be’s all-consuming desire for her ‘perfect day’. Look love, it’s just a wedding, life goes on afterwards and then it’s called a marriage, which you don’t seem to find half as appealing.

Is it just me who thinks that this fantasy wedding, pursued so relentlessly by brides-to-be, is a bit – well – silly? Already every high street has three bridal shops catering for their every whim, some so exclusive that you can’t just waltz in off the street, but must make an appointment before you get to try on that ‘perfect dress’ that will transform you into a fairytale princess.

But now apparently, the bride-to-be has come up with yet another plan to increase the chances of her getting her perfect day. It’s a pre-nuptial agreement for the bridesmaids. So, if you’re likely to be asked to act as one in the near future, not only will the bride-to-be expect you to squeeze into a pink taffeta monstrosity, manage the tantrums of the pageboy, but she also wants you to promise not to get fat, change your hairstyle or get a tan that leaves unsightly strap marks.

A few months back, it was reported that the groom-to-be got so fed up with his fiancée’s escalating demands for her perfect day that he called the wedding off. But was she bovvered? Not a bit of it, she went ahead without him and declared it a complete success.

There's nothing wrong with a bit of fantasy - it gives a little sparkle to some of life’s duller moments. I do it all the time: I win millions of pounds and found, not an ordinary old-fashioned orphanage, but one with an infallible, innovative way of detecting paedophiles and sadists, and at the same time attracting caring, vocational staff and turning out happy, well-adjusted children and hey presto, I solve the problem of suitable homes for deprived children.

But, I know it’s a fantasy - I can’t even organise our various hospital appointments without one or other of us turning up at the wrong time or the wrong hospital.

Or, I fantasise that I’m the heroine of that recent newspaper article describing a stand-off situation between a woman and a tiger – the woman stares at the tiger with a ballpoint pen in her hand; the tiger returns the stare with her husband’s head in his mouth. She obeys the muffled instructions from her husband to stab the tiger in the eye with the pen, does so, which persuades the tiger that though he could likely hold on to this dinner, a one-eyed hunter might not get another quite so easily and so releases the head and skulks off.

Again, I know that the stand-off situation I’ll actually be in will be with a flock of sheep. They’ll look at me, decide that this strange two-legged creature is a pushover and impudently surround me and try to crush me to death; I’ll look at them more than a little perplexed about what to do, until someone comes along and says boo.

So I reckon it’s about time brides-to-be to stopped confusing show biz fantasy with real romance – by the time you’ve finished arguing about canapés or sausage rolls, four or six bridesmaids, a Mauritius or Madrid honeymoon, pink or green balloons you’ll have strangled any last bit of romance out of the occasion and become boring tyrants into the bargain.

That perfect day just ain’t gonna happen, or at least not in the way you’re planning on. One or more of the guests will get horribly drunk and let on just what they think of your sister, or criticise your catering, your venue, or your guest list. So it would be nice if you could stop for a moment and realise that it’s not just about you – most of the others turning up for your wedding aren’t all that interested in the story of how you came to choose a sweetheart neckline over the halter. Give them a bit of fun and they’ll happily ooh and aah over your dress.

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