Morocco, Weeks Fifteen and Sixteen

I’m combining weeks fifteen and sixteen into one post because the former was action-packed and full of new experiences, while the latter was uneventful and full of work. Any week that begins with Halloween is destined to go well.1 Sadly, Halloween is not a widely celebrated holiday in Morocco. Luckily for me, I work at an international school, which means I can go to work in costume and receive admiration and smiles instead of funny looks. So at precisely 7:30am, I was sitting in the library in a reasonably convincing gypsy costume, complete with bells, head scarf,2 and musical instrument. Instead of reading to the kids that day, I sang the stories. Here’s me, my mandolin, and some entranced children:

Later in the day, one of the more difficult kindergarten classes came in for their story. When it was time for them to leave the library, I tried playing the mandolin as they lined up. Worked like a charm. Twenty-four of the rowdiest children at our school quietly faced forward, lined up, and walked back to class. Admittedly, a couple of them nearly walked into doors because they were craning around to watch me play as they trotted off. I felt a bit like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. (You know, minus trapping the children in a mountain to punish their parents.)

The rest of the week went smoothly, and on Saturday afternoon I was off to Spain. You might remember from my last post that Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival which includes sheep sacrifice, was coming up. Well, rather than listen to thousands of dismayed sheep bleating across the city (and smelling them roasting later on) I opted to travel to northern Spain. My goal, San Sebastián, (Donostia in Basque) was only two flights and a three-hour bus ride away. On the first flight I sat next to a young man who had never flown before. Through him, I remembered the wonder of seeing the tops of clouds for the first time. It was great seeing the look in his eyes in the moment when the plane lifted off the runway.

Smooth sailing at the Madrid airport, though I’ve never liked the place. It’s sprawling, sterile, unnecessarily cavernous, and always seems empty in relation to its size. I looked out the window on my flight to Santander and was lulled to sleep by the gray expanse of clouds and the sound of the engine. I woke up to turbulence and passengers discussing it nervously. There was a tense atmosphere as the plane shook and wobble its way through the storm, but I closed my eyes and ears, and let the airplane rock me back to sleep. We landed over water, with the last sunlight glowing faintly behind a wall of clouds. After crossing a drizzly runway, I splurged and paid 8.50 euros for a Spanish-English dictionary, figuring that it would be a good resource should any translation crises occur.3 Half an hour after my flight arrived, I caught the night bus4 to San Sebastián, about a three-hour journey.

We rushed through the night, rain glistening on the ground, across a landscape so dark that it blended into the overcast night sky. The other passengers chatted quietly or slept. We stopped in Bilbao and I was the only one left besides an elderly couple in the back who stood to stretch their legs, then sank comfortably back down into their seats. I looked out at Bilbao and thought for a while about how shockingly different the scenery was from Morocco. Even after only four months, I was so used to the landscape, the structures, and the people that Spain seemed utterly alien to me. I had even been taken aback by the bathrooms at the airport, with their uniform, painted doors and automatic dryers. The road had rails, lights, and resembled most of the roads I was used to from the US. But where were the grand taxis crammed full of people traveling two towns over? Where were the boys selling onions and live chickens by the side of the road? Where were the familiar mosque towers in every village? What about the occasional run-down bus careening precariously as it rattles and whizzes down a mountain road? I felt a brief moment of homesickness for Morocco, until the Spanish bus driver honked his horn. That felt a little more like home.5 I arrived in San Sebastián at night, in the rain, and headed to a friend’s house. Undaunted by the howling wind and violent raindrops on my window, I went to sleep excited about my first experience in Basque Country the following day.

The next day it rained, too. In fact, I was told by my friend that it was the most unpleasant weather he’d ever seen in the city. Crossing a bridge by the port, I saw waves taller than any I’d ever seen, blown in by ferocious winds. We walked around town until every article of clothing was soaked, fingertips wrinkled.  Stopped into a bar for orange juice and warmth. It was crowded with refugees of the wind and rain, who chatted and sipped their coffee while waiting out the storm. We trudged home eventually, squelch squelch squelch, and changed into dry clothes. After a simple three-course lunch and a delicious nap, I spent the evening discussing psychology, learning Basque pronunciation, and listening to the rain.

On Monday the rain was light enough for me to explore San Sebastián all day. As my sandals were soaked from the night before, my friend lent me a pair of sneakers and off I went. Mid-morning, I slipped into Cathédrale Buen Pastor behind two women in beige raincoats. My plan was to stay long enough to dry off a bit, but it was so peaceful that I ended up sitting in a pew for three quarters of an hour, writing down my thoughts6 and admiring the Neo-Gothic architecture. Women walked in every couple of minutes, pausing briefly in front of the pulpit before continuing to the other side. Bells chimed nine times, twice, and sounded much more distant inside than out.

I looked at the arching ceilings and the orange-yellow light coming from electric bulbs attached to every few columns. It was so dark outside that even the stained glass windows were dim, barely illuminated by a gray sky. (So different from that day in Sacre Coeur when I stepped into a dappled pool of light that danced down from colored glass.) There was a pipe organ in the back of the cathedral. I’ve always wanted to be in a church when somebody is practicing the organ.7 To hear and feel the music as it ricochets across columns, in and out of pews, brushes against each colored pane of glass before catching warm candle air and rising swiftly away like a freed balloon.

Passing women gone, I found myself alone in the cathedral. Just me, the columns, and the shadows. Rows of wooden pews waiting for the next mass. I spent some time studying the confessionals; I’ve never confessed. I’ve only seen it in movies. I wondered briefly if it’s like going to a therapist. What are the differences? What does it feel like to have your sins peeled away? Do you feel light and free, or naked, exposed, and alone?

Sitting there, in the dim electric light, I was reminded of a library. Or maybe, for me, libraries are cathedrals. Holy places. I could so easily imagine the walls lined with books, every cranny and crevice, all the way up to the stained glass. Around the lower windows, climbing one at a time like ivy, books filling this beautiful, arched space. There would be the tallest ladders stretching up into the shadows. The pipe organ remains, of course, and every time it’s played, the books would shake off their dust and resonate with joy.

I wandered down the streets of San Sebastián, hunched in the rain. I tried on hats in a very fancy hat shop, and the Spanish-speaking saleswoman was extremely patient. Eventually decided against a hat that day, as none were waterproof. I followed the scent of fresh bread to a bakery and was amazed at the number of people bustling in and out despite the rain. A sign of a good bakery. I found out from a man in a music shop that there were no accordions for sale in the entire city.8 I played piano in a second music shop, but was refused an audience with the mandolin. I was drawn into another shop by a beautiful dress in the window, and decided to make it myself in Morocco. Whenever I passed a fashion shop, I received judgmental looks from the people inside. I must have been a funny sight; oversized men’s sneakers, voluminous blue skirt with pockets, mismatched turtleneck, tiny backpack. I consoled myself by deciding that, were they visiting for the weekend from Morocco with only a few items of clothing, most of which had gotten soaked the day before, they would be dressed that way too.

In the early evening, I returned to the cathedral for a second time. It was even more deserted than it had been earlier in the day. The rush hour street sounds were muffled and distant, and when I sneezed it echoed all around the room. The stained glass was dimmer than ever, and I closed my eyes for a few minutes as all my thoughts drifted away into the dark. I had pintxos (pronounced “peen-cho”) for dinner, and they were so good that couldn’t stop thinking about them for hours afterward. (A pintxo, dear reader, is the Basque version of tapas, only about ten times more delicious.) Went to bed and dreamed of picnics in the sun.

On Tuesday I woke up early with sunlight9 trickling in through my window. My first stop was a recommended bakery, where I picked up a baguette and a croissant. Ate the croissant while crossing the city, much to the envy of passers-by on their way to work. I walked through the old town and climbed up, up, up the hill to the old fort.10 Clouds were spread out across the sky in ripples, like a worn out blanket, sea glimmering below. The ocean was dappled with sunlight, and the rugged clouds above made it look like two landscapes instead of one. A red sailboat bobbed miles out, as clouds floated past it and the ocean changed color with the sun. I looked the other way, over the city, and saw mist rising off the buildings and hills. I sat in a park at the top of the hill, nibbling my baguette and enjoying my first glimpse of sun in three days. I listened to birds chirping and muffled footsteps on stone. Too late in the year for tourists, the people who passed by were runners, dog walkers, middle-aged lovers. I tried to lure a bird in front of my camera with a piece of baguette, but it got the better of both me and the bread. I walked down, squinting in the sunlight, past happy dogs and a family on a picnic.

On the bus to Santander, I watched the Basque countryside drift lazily by. Old stone farmhouses with terra cotta roofs. Rectangular and blocky with small square windows, they made me think of cow herds, strawberry jam, and family around the fire. Every so often, the ocean would appear between two hills. I remember thinking about the huge valleys going by with sheep grazing on the slopes, then remembering that I was going by, not the valleys, and certainly not the sheep. Other roads twisted through fields and trees, disappearing into the hills. I thought about how I would like to come back and explore every single one of them, given the time.11

In Santander, I visited yet another historic cathedral and, for the first time in my life, lit one of those tiny prayer candles.12 I bought yarn at a knitting shop, sipped tea and read a book in a café, visited a dive bar with a friend, and ended my day curled on her couch, crocheting a scarf and listening to Spanish television. In the airplane on the way back, I looked out the window as we crossed the mountains of northern Spain. There were roads zig-zagging up steep slopes, and I imagined cars simply tumbling backdown. The sun glinted across rivers, like spotlights in succession. Further south, a dense cloud bank hung over farmland. The clouds looked so solid that it seemed it would hurt to fall into into them. They were packed tightly, with a band of blue sky above, followed by another stretch of solid, white clouds that ended in a line near the horizon as if painted on with one, long brush stroke. In the midst of turbulence, the flight crew offered fake cigarette packs over the intercom. “Tobacco flavored. They produce NO smoke!”

  1. If you didn’t catch all my pre-Halloween adventures in the last post, go take a look. []
  2. Ironically, I think this was the closest I’ve gotten to dressing like a Moroccan. Long skirt, long sleeves, head covering… []
  3. I had a printed page of useful Spanish phrases, too. []
  4. The bus driver had a passenger list, and knew my name as soon as I reached for my UK passport. []
  5. Morocco may be the only place I’ve been where drivers honk more than they do in Washington, DC. []
  6. Most of this post was written by hand in the cathedral, on the back of my San Sebastián map. []
  7. When do they do it? In the middle of the day? At night? Does it wake up the neighbors? []
  8. So much for my half-baked “buy an accordion and somehow transport it back to Tangier” plan. []
  9. Finally! []
  10. Thanks to the pleasant weather, I was out of the man shoes and back in my sandals, skirt, and leggings. []
  11. There is a beautiful coastal path from San Sebastián to Hondarribia, a neighboring town, that takes about ten hours to hike. It’s already on my to-do list for my next visit to the area. []
  12. I spent about five minutes deliberating over this, but decided eventually that one does not have to be religious to light a candle. I decided that I would light mine to send good wishes and love to my friends and family back in the states. []

6 Responses

  • Spain is one of my favorite places. One day I hope you get to Barcelona and see the work of the artist Gaudi all over the city – in buildings, parks -adventurous work. Your photos belong in publications so they can be shared. You make me feel I’m there with you.

  • Fascinating post and beautiful photography as always. I’m glad to be able to keep up with you while you’re away (or while you’re home, as you call it now).

    Happy to see you playing the mandolin. I imagine you’ve gotten to be pretty good with it by now. Have you learned minor chord fingering? I’ve worked out a good guitar part for Wagon Wheel, so if you can play an F#m we can jam again when you return to the States.

    Did you hear any spoken Basque? It’s not closely related to French, Spanish, or any other language. I’ve always wondered what it might sound like.

  • The pictures are beautiful and the way you describe everything makes me feel like I’m right there getting soaked with you. I would have loved to have gone to the cathedral with you. I’m glad you lit the candle. You did it for the right reasons. I miss you

  • Your posts in this series have been captivating from the start, so when I say I can see your growth as a writer from one post to the next, I mean in no way to imply I ever found your writing anything but clear, creative, perceptive, eye-opening, and fun. Your talent has always been evident. If you ever grow tired of everything else you excel at and various people pay you to do, I’m sure any of the National Geographic travel mags would love to put you in print.

  • Rosa: No Basque recipes this time, but I fully intent to visit again and sample more of the cuisine!

    Jeff: Anytime you want to swing by Morocco, I’d be happy to jam with you. In fact, I think I can safely say that I would learn an F#m just for your visit.

    Faith, Kim, Joshua: What glowing praise! I’m so glad you’re enjoying these weekly posts and photos. Your encouragement keeps me going. Let’s not exaggerate, though! I’ve got a long way to go before my stuff is National Geographic worthy.

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