Monday, January 21, 2019

Marc in Morocco

My first name is spelled the French way (though my parents aren't French or Francophiles). 

I took French for five years. I got to the point where, during my junior year of college, I was able to have a conversation entirely in French for an entire dinner. 

Yet that was 25 years ago and I didn't use it after that, so now most of my French has been perdu. (Tant pis because I am working on a book about a Frenchman and most of the research is in French…)

And now I am in Morocco, where French would have again come in handy. I arrived on 1/12/19 to speak and run workshops at two international schools: Casablanca International 1/14-18 and George Washington Academy 1/21-22 (also in Casablanca). The weekend between, I visited the historic Technicolor city of Marrakesh.

(Everyone at the schools speaks English, but many locals speak French or Arabic.)

As often happens when I'm in an airport, something went wrong, albeit minorly so. Upon arriving in Casablanca, I thought I was using the airport exit that led to the pickup zone, but I was actually exiting directly into the train station. But I could not simply turn around and return to the airport. I had to go back through security—the kind that didn't care if your bag falls off the belt. (Ask me how I know.)

Smoking is still allowed in restaurants here—or rather, it's not, but most don't enforce it. A chatty proprietor of a mall food court sandwich place told me their other location in town—a standalone restaurant—is better because you can smoke there. Smoking is also still allowed in other public spaces like hotel lobbies. By the way, I loathe smoking.

I've had the privilege of being invited to a good number of international schools, and they have in common the commitment to hospitality. They often put authors up in four- or five-star hotels. The first of the two Casablanca hotels I stayed at, Kenzi Tower, had an elevator system I've not seen before. You don't simply summon the elevator with an up or down button; rather you punch in your floor number and a small screen indicates which of the four elevators to take. Once in the elevator, you push nothing. It already knows.

The Kenzi breakfast was abundance and the tables were nicely set, except for one odd omission: no napkins either on the tables or anywhere along the buffet. You had to ask for one.

While Kenzi was in the city, the second hotel, Club Val D'Anfa, was at the beach. The view from my first floor room:

The nearly empty pool you pass to get to the shore:


This boy of about eight asked me if I wanted to ride his horse for 6 dirhams (about 60 cents).

The view behind the beach:

Further behind, the building appointed in blue toward the back left of the photo is my hotel.

Morocco has a range of biomes. In Casablanca in January, nights are cold. I was not prepared for how chilly the days (at least the mornings are). One person told me it's colder here now than it's been in memory. No matter. I like the cold as much as I dislike smoking.

I haven't felt that Moroccan men are taller than Americans, so I don't know why the urinals are higher. I'm 5'8" and anyone even a few inches shorter than me would be, well, challenged.

The day after I arrived (which was the day before I started at the school), a group of teachers gave up their free time to take me around the city. We started at the Hassan II Mosque, which sits spectacularly on a promontory on the Atlantic Ocean. It introduced me to a concept that should not have surprised me but which I'd never considered: a new mosque. Construction began in 1987 and lasted six years. What makes that all the more remarkable is how big it is: it has room for 25,000 worshipers inside. Its minaret is 210 meters (690 feet) which is, depending on the source, the third- or fifth-largest in the world.

A rainbow of olives at a market:

A charming bakery downstairs from street level; my attention was called to more than a couple bakeries that are not clearly marked from the outside:

I don't get the sense that this is a prime tourist attraction, but I was amused by the outdoor café chair bedecked in imagery from Michael Jackson's "Bad" era:

(He's going through another bad era now with abuse allegations resurfacing, which, if true, is unspeakably distressing and tragic.)

Speaking of music, for some reason, most of the songs I heard on taxi radios and in restaurants were English-language covers of American pop hits—Whitney Houston, Britney Spears, Bryan Adams, Foreigner, and so on. 

To many an American, Casablanca is best known for Casablanca, the 1942 Hollywood movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman that won Best Picture and routinely tops "best movies of all time" lists. The movie was not filmed in Casablanca and Rick's Café did not exist before the movie—or for decades after. But an enterprising businessperson finally brought it to its namesake city. 

I felt like an uncultured tourist when I asked to see it, since it's not authentic, but it's also not exactly a tourist trap. Sure, it caters to Americans and other visitors, but the food is actually good and the atmosphere is authentic.

 View from the rear.

It wasn't on the menu at Rick's, but one can eat camel in Morocco. 

I, however, didn't. 

Vive la Morocco!

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