Fréjus, France

Fréjus, France
Aqueduc Romain

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Skiing Valberg

I finally went skiing! There is a local Côte d'Azur Ski Club which does a bus run every Sunday to one of three ski areas: Isola 2000, Auron, or Valberg. They have a sign-up on Fri. at a restaurant on the beach strip. It is 45 euros for the bus ride (about 2 1/2 hours each way) and the ski pass for the day, but as a non-member I had to wait to see if the bus got filled by the members. Luckily, it did not. I could not have gotten luckier with the weather - after 2 days of rain here, and fresh snow on the mts, we got a blue ski day! Incredible!

As was the gorge we drove through. Like John Muir, I always feel like I'm in church when witnessing a great natural wonder such as the Grand Canyon, Zion Nat'l Park, or Yosemite. Gorges du Cians felt just like that to me: breathtaking, sheer cliffs, steep drop-offs down to the river, and a road unbelievably built into this narrow tight gorge. Hairpin turns, low overhanging rock, tunnels chiseled through the rock in places - the bus seemed far too big for the road, but the driver knew what he was doing, and we made it. For me a big part of the amazement was the fact that modern technology made navigating this gorge possible at all, and once we popped out the other end, the beautiful snowy Alps awaited us.

Sadly, the day ended on a bit of a bummer. I set my camera on the bus seat and while reaching up to get my coat, it disappeared. Baffling. It was there one minute, then gone the next. I don't believe anyone purposely stole it as everyone on the bus was a local, but maybe it fell on the floor and someone thought it was their own. We searched the bus high and low, and it had vanished, and along with it the 100 or so photos I took. Thus, the pics and links above are not mine and just a taste of what I had hoped to share. Maybe it will still get returned, but seeing as it was our only camera, today Lisa and I went out and bought a new 10-megapixel one. So the next post will be coming with pics from our new camera.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Becoming Legal

France is very fussy about who gets to stay here. State-paid items such as (universal) health care, education, early retirement, extensive maternity leave, and unemployment benefits are pricey. Unemployment is high. Immigration is high.

A non-European Union passport allows one to stay in France (or other EU country) for up to 3 months. Longer than that and you need a visa. A visitor visa is different than a work visa. Either requires application in one’s home country many months prior to entry.

We had our visa appointments in February at the French Consulate in San Fran. I read the website carefully for the documents required and brought an overabundance of copies. Each consulate operates independently but within the bounds of French law. What that means is the consulates have fonctionnaires that follow the rules but bend them to common sense or the situation sitting in front of them. Our visa process went smoothly and a February appointment for a July departure was not too early. Our passports were held and mailed back to us within the 2 month window. We were allowed an exception for applying for the Carte de Séjour (one must begin this process within a week after arrival in France) as we wouldn’t be at our home address until September.

We applied to the Mairie in Fréjus within a week of arrival. The Office des Étrangers is actually in an annex of the mayor’s office, in a rather ugly area of town, but right next to a bright little flower shop. We were given a list of more papers and photos to bring in. Slightly different list than those for the visa. We had to have even more passport photos. The local megagrocery store has a photo booth for such a purpose. Unfortunately our photos look like criminals. I gave them a mixed selection of photos--the new hideous ones and the ones we brought from home which were much more attractive, and hoped for the best. We walked out with a paper and photo stapled to it affirming what we had submitted. Too bad the photos were the good ones, what a waste. We were not asked for any money. What a surprise.

After a couple months we hadn’t heard anything. I do believe the Lady at the Desk told me we’d be getting a receipt in the mail. At this point in the year I dreaded talking on the phone because it’s so difficult to decipher, I hate asking for constant repetitions, and then usually getting the info wrong. So we headed back to inquire. Same Lady at the Desk who looked into it and something happened because I got my medical appointment in the mail.

Next came medical appointments. After being here 5 months it was now time to go to the public health office and prove we weren’t infecting the country with TB. I got my letter for an appointment in Marseille. For the next week. Rick had no letter yet. With Laurent’s phone help we changed the appointments to Nice, and had them both on the same day. Back to Nice! Michelle helped out with Irie, who did not have to deal with any of this. (Like all cultural events, kids get in free.) At the public health clinic (ugly building, ugly part of town, but actually a beautiful mountain backdrop) we sat with 3 young Asian immigrants who appeared to be monks-in-training, with their mentors. There was a very efficient rotation between nurse, doctor and radiologist. A chest xray is required. We did not have immunization cards but they took us at our word for our last tetanus shot. Nor do we have livres de santé, which I guess is a book of health each French citizen keeps, to note such. I have a chart. It is in my doctor’s office. I have insurance papers. They are called Explanation of Benefits and are in a file cabinet, in a storage locker, in the outskirts of Medford, Oregon. But those missing notes were really no big deal, this is, after all, the south.

I did not pass the chest xray. I had a spot on my lung, the size of a small raisin. I told the doctor I believed it had been there a long time, based on vague memories of a chest xray done long ago. Records of which were in Oregon. She said it didn’t look worrisome, but that she couldn’t pass me, and that I had to see a lung specialist, in Nice. We didn’t have to pay anything for these appointments and I was told there would be no charge for the visit to the pulmonologist. Rick passed and got his medical ok. As much as I love Nice, this is getting to be tedious.

We go back to Lady at the Desk in Fréjus. My carte is ready, but I can’t have it because I haven’t passed the medical yet. Rick has his medical ok but his carte isn’t ready yet because he needs proof of income. What? We did that to get the visas! In San Fran! We didn’t press the issue about “Why didn’t anyone notify us?” and instead posed the curious question of why my carte didn’t require this. It seems only the husband has to have enough money!! Since we proved the income for the visa I was surprised we had to do it again, buy hey, we’re not working, what better to do than dowload and copy off our bank statements. The current rule for income is $1800/per person/month, adults only. We’d now been here 5 months. Did we have to prove we were worthy back to July? Just worthy from here on out? I gave them June and November and hoped they’d figure that the gross reduction between the two meant we were living it up and spending it up in France, and boy, were we welcome guests. This visit was worthwhile in that we did receive our receipts that we had applied. We thought it would be nice to have something official since we’d be travelling to another country/continent and we really hoped to get back into France.

An aside: Unlike previous visits we had to wait a couple minutes at this one. I used the time to straighten the pathetically hung Christmas garland. It seriously looked like they had just grabbed handfuls out of the box and whipped them onto the tree.

Back again to Nice, thanks again to Michelle for loaning the car, and managing Irie. The pulmonologist is located in a pretty location in the center of town. Before the appointment I was able to track down the reading of a chest xray I had in 1997 that described the small granuloma (scar) in the same location. The pulm. was glad I had that info, looked at my xray, talked to me, and cleared me after reassuring me it was nothing to worry about. After a bit of tourist activity (another beautiful day in Nice), we then went back to government-ugly public health to get the valuable health ok form.

Back to Lady at the Desk. Yes, she does recognize us by now. We check to make sure Rick’s carte is ready, it is. And she reminds us we have to bring our tax stamps (275€ each) with our health letters to be able to get the cartes. She’s got them in her hand, they’re right there, just over the counter.... But now it’s time to pay.

The receipts (and I gather the whole application) expire January 22nd. It is tempting to never pay the stamps, let the cartes sit at The Desk, and leave in July knowing the bureacracy won’t catch up to us by then. But there is something about being a legal long term visitor, that we are worthy of it, openly and bureaucratically accepted in France. France, the most notorious country in terms of red tape, and we figured it out!

We finally find the Hôtel des Impôts and write a check for 550€. Rick dutifully attached the stamps (5 each) to our forms. Back to Lady at the Desk. We hand over our stamps and health letters, she gives us our cartes. With the criminal pictures. I have until July something to get out of the country, or reapply, which I would have to do in May. Rick’s carte is good until October. Why?

Nathalie says “La bureaucratie n’est pas une légende” meaning it’s not a myth or a fable. It’s real. Oh yeah, it’s real.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Last minute we decided to have a small fête for Obama's (or BarackO as Irie calls him) Inauguration. We invited our small band of loyal friends who all came: Nathalie and Laurent, Michelle and Abbie, Hélène, and Katell. The festivities started back east at 11 am, which is 5 pm here, perfect for an after work/after school get-together. We put out a bunch of appetizers, wine and coffee, and later a bottle of Alsacien champagne. Here's the photo gallery.

Obama's election 2 1/2 months ago has been a source of good will here, in Morocco, and I assume in most of the world, thus his Inauguration was also a bigger deal than most would be. Quite honestly, with the festivities at around 9 am PST on a Tuesday, we are usually at work and not watching no matter who is taking the Oath. I asked our French guests if showing a U.S. Inauguration was typical and the obvious response was "no." But this was no ordinary event so French TV broadcast the festivities live for 3 hours. "Tout le monde regarde" - the whole world is watching. It was great to be able to watch it happen, this extraordinary occasion, extraordinary man, facing extraordinary problems, and following on the heels of a chapter in U.S. history many of us would like to forget. To the world, we have saved face in a big way after the debacle of reelecting The Constitution Shredders, and they are openly rooting for us to succeed and solve the immense problems we, and the world, currently face! We feel hopeful about the change taking place, but know the immense tasks ahead so remain realistic.

On a curious note, Inauguration Day back home was, by chance, also the day we finally received our Carte de Sejours and became legal visitors.
Lisa will write more about that process later.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Best Job in the World!

I'm not sure if the title refers to my current "job" of dad, husband, blogger, student, and voice-over specialist, or the job that I (with thousands of others) am applying for as caretaker of an Australian island. Here is the website for the Best Job in the World. Who wouldn't want to caretake an island, travel around the island(s) and Great Barrier Reef, feed the fish, take pictures and video and blog about it, and keep the pool clean? I think we are eminently qualified! As well, the job commences July 1st, which perfectly coordinates with when we are leaving France.

I put together a 60-second video as required for the application. Unfortunately, their site has been so inundated that I can't get my application to upload, and I've been trying for days. I did send them an email with my info and a link to the YouTube and this blog. So, favor time, if any of you think I/we are perfect for this job, go to their site and send them an email about us.

Since I'm on the topic of jobs, here's a download of the commercial that was made with my voice: CERS commercial. This is not a television commercial, per se, but one that will be sent to major soccer teams and other sporting organizations throughout Europe to attract their athletes here when injured. Pretty strange hearing my voice like this.

I am also back in school. Officially enrolled in Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. Taking Gen. Psych 202 and Lifespan Development, both online courses with the same teacher that so far require a lot of reading and writing. I like both classes and being back in school, the only downside being the reality that time spent on these classes is taking away from time learning French.

Lastly, since January is a state-regulated "Sales" month, I went and bought ski clothes and a new bike, and with the good weather I have been enjoying some nice bike rides both along the coast and up in the hills.

Oh yeah, one last thing: we are having a little get-together tomorrow to watch Obama get inaugurated since they are showing it on French TV. We are excited and hopeful, but also realize he is getting handed a ton of problems. Bonne Chance!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

À la campagne

Our friends, Nathalie and Laurent, invited us to spend Sunday afternoon at their country house about 30" from Fréjus. They don't use it much in the winter. It doesn't get the snow our cabin does, in fact none--Diamond Lake today has about 6 feet of snow and is 24°F--after all, we're still in Provence. They go up for the day from time to time to check things out or maybe celebrate a holiday. They spend 2 straight months up there in summer. The house, called Bon Pin because that is what the neighborhood was called, is centuries old. It has been in Nathalie's family for generations. She spent summers here with her grandparents. She showed us her room where the wallpaper from the 70's is still up! The house is made of thick stone with a tile roof. It is built into a small hillside so one enters on the top floor from the drive way, but the main living areas are down below and open out onto a good-sized flagstone patio shaded by deciduous trees. The house is completely modernized except for central heat and telephone. The walls are so thick that the house stays cool year round, and was decidedly cooler than the mid-50s day outside. The water source is incredible--they have 3 pools, they call them "sources" of pure water. Not wells, but springs, right there to draw from. They have a worry that neighboring property owners will build and divert their water supply "upstream." Laurent told me that water sources are a crucial part of Provençal history, and adeptly described in Marcel Pagnol's Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. The swimming pool is filled with this water.

I could picture them in summer, a giant table under the shelter of the trees filled with fresh veggies, grilled meats, wine and fruits. Some people beating the afternoon heat in the pool, others napping behind shuttered windows. Laurent had a far-away dreamy look when he described the summers there, and kept sighing and saying "à la campagne." Reminded us of how we feel about our cabin.

After touring the house we took a walk around the countryside. There was a bit of development, but mostly open fields and untouched woods. We went to see the neighboring horses and Irie made a pal. The horse got past his wariness of the electric fence to munch the grass she offered. We left the horse after spotting a sheep drive (?). A Provençal shepherd was directing ~50 sheep, a ram, and a few goats, with the help of a dog. They made their way across a field, crossed a street, and into another field. The dog was very effective at corralling the sheep, but got distracted trying to play fetch with Irie, and the shepherd had to call him back to work to keep the sheep out of the road. Laurent mentioned that the shepherd used to have a border collie who was amazingly smart and fast, but that dog died and this one wasn't quite as good. The ram was a little scary--note its horn--but behaved like a regular sheep--a follower.

After the fresh air and exercise we went back to Nathalie and Laurent's house in town for a treat of Galette du Roi (traditional for the New Year and made by Nath) and Rick had the slice with the prize. But there was no crown, nor did he have to do the dishes.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Driving Morocco and Essouira

I was slightly leery of driving the roads of Morocco. I read how high their accident rates are and knew we would be driving over the Atlas Mts. in winter so wondered about renting a “compact” car for this adventure. All turned out just fine, except for the speeding ticket on my last day, which in Morocco is paid on the spot! 400 dirhams, or about $50. We had been warned of being stopped at multiple check points, but were always waved through previously. I had learned that the speed limit was 60 km/hour in urban areas (unless otherwise noted) and 80-100 outside the cities. Not sure where the dividing line was but I got pulled over well outside the city doing 87. Oh well, just another part of the experience. I’m on a mission to see in how many countries I can get a speeding ticket :) That makes two.

Actually, after driving in and out of Marrakech’s medina, I figured I could handle anything. The roads were in decent condition and once outside of Marrakech the traffic thinned dramatically since we were heading toward the mountains. and the interior. Yes, there were still donkey’s pulling carts occasionally, old trucks loaded 10 stories high, plenty of scooters, bikes and pedestrians in the small villages through which we passed, as well, roadside vendors hawking fruits, gems and crystals, etc., and shepherds tending flocks of goats or sheep. However, it was not wet or icy so the drive through the Atlas was uneventful but striking.
The mountaintops were covered with snow, deep gorges cut into them creating steep drop-offs along the windy road, and earthen dwellings were forged into the sides of the red cliffs. It was all very stark, isolated and beautiful in its own way. After completing the mountain passes, we descended into the Draa Valley. The dryness of the countryside was now contrasted with this river valley and literally thousands of palm trees. We drove through this for hours even as the mountains became desert - on one side remained this long narrow oasis of fertile soil, plant life, and the palms. Here’s our photo gallery from driving Morocco.

After 8 hours on the road we arrived at Sahara Sky, our hotel, after dark so only got a glimpse of our surroundings. In the morning, we were fully surrounded by desert, but the rest of that is covered in our post Christmas in the Sahara. After our bivouac and reentry into civilization, we drove back through the Draa Valley, over the first set of mountains and stayed in Ouarzazate for the night. The next morning we hit the road again right away as we had a full day of driving ahead of us, going all the way to the Atlantic Coast and the town of Essouira. We did make a short stop at Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the site of many famous films including Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. Onward, we again had to drive through Marrakech (though not the medina) and from here to our destination traffic was mostly congested and busy. In fact, we had a one-hour wait at one point which turned out to be a nasty bus accident that involved multiple fatalities. This part of the drive was not nearly as pretty as the drive over the mountains and to the desert, but we did drive through a small sandstorm, some rain, and got a rainbow.

Upon arrival in Essouira we were faced with knowing the name of our Riad and that it was in the medina, but that was it. All my preparations and not even a phone # - I’ll blame it on not having a printer here. We figured it out and were told to park in the public parking down at the port and someone would meet us with a handcart for our luggage. We got a glimpse of Essouira’s busy medina, as we followed the cart handler, but it was dark and we were tired so we didn’t dawdle. Irie didn’t want to go back out after a long day in the car, so we joked about how they didn’t have delivery pizza in Morocco only to be proven wrong by the Riad manager. We ate in our suite, in front of the cheminée, as Irie ran around, glad to be back in a Riad haven again.

Lisa: The Riad Watier is owned by a Frenchman and has a helpful staff who brought us coffee or tea whenever requested, sent out our laundry, arranged for a medical housecall, and traipsed about town looking for an open pharmacy on a holiday. There is a massage room onsite and we all had a much needed massage after too much time in the car. Irie had her first massage which lasted about 15”. Our comfy riad rooms never had TVs (probably what makes them tranquil) but we had a great show outside our window. We could look into the alleyway and see stray cats feasting on entrails. On the Muslim New Year this was accompanied by children drumming through the streets. Another “delicious” draft to the senses came after the rain. We didn’t have much to dampen our shopping, strolling and dining during the day. But the morning after a rain we were treated to a large puddle at the end of our alley, caused by a bouchon (cork) plugging the drain. Workers were out there diligently sweeping the sluice back into said drain, which was slowly accepting it now that the rain stopped. I have some jeans that are too long and drag--yummy cuffs!! Given all that, Essouira is a lovely town.

Back to Rick: After the craziness of the Marrakech medina, the long drives to and from the desert, and the incredible Noël camel trek, Essouira’s coastal feel was a nice contrast. It was still very much Morocco - the walled medina, the busy Souks, the hawking salesmen, the cats, and the doors to more tranquil resting spots - but it was all tamped down to a slower, calmer, less aggressive version of Marrakech. We ate very well (wonderful rooftop breakfasts, more tajine and couscous and some great fish), took shopping strolls through the medina, walked the beach , got henna tattoos, and met some nice people. The medina was small enough that we kept running into the two American girls we met at dinner one night. We bought a painting from the actual artist at an artisanal market, and Irie just loved shopping for the Thuya wood products, which come from a tree that is indigenous and unique to a small region of Morocco.

One of our days looking in a Thuya wood shop, Lisa and I (mostly Lisa as it was in french) got into a conversation with a young man who worked there. He got very emotional about what was going on in Gaza and was clearly moved by Lisa’s compassion and take on the situation. Ayoub asked us if we’d like to have coffee later after he was done working and going to the gym, which we did. It was nice to meet someone who wasn’t trying to sell us something, who could share a bit of his life with us, give us an idea of what an ordinary Morrocan faces in their daily life, and who was just another genuine human being. Here’s our photo album from Essouira.

As it turned out, I feel really good about the way our trip was planned. We jumped into the fire in Marrakech, trekked into the world’s largest desert where we enjoyed a very unique Christmas together, relaxed in the coastal town of Essouira, then dove back into intensity of Marrakech with expertise and a very international New Year. It was a symbolic and joyful way to end a year that has seen us, in every sense of the phrase, travel great distances. Best of all, we were returning "home" to the south of France, with 6 months of adventure still before us.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


Marrakech is truly a wild, vibrant city! It would be easy to get overwhelmed by all the sights, sounds, and smells but that was also what made it so unique and exciting. The city has a population of over 1 million people and there is action everywhere, but the medina is truly the heart and soul of the city. The medina (which means "town") is surrounded by walls built starting in the 12th century, with a half-dozen gates (or entrances) and a maze of streets that make getting lost an everyday occurence. The real goal was to make sure that even if invaders were to breach the walls (it never happened) then they would got confused in the maze of narrow streets going every which way. The streets are mostly brick and traveled by pedestrians, bikers, motorized scooters, donkey-pulled carts, horse and carriage, and where wide enough, cars. And cats, I've never seen so many cats in my life! There doesn't seem to be any one type of transportation that takes precedence over any other and humanity is moving everywhere in every direction. Amazingly, I saw very few accidents (they usually involved a scooter) as there seemed to be an invisible rhythm to which everyone moved. I got it down after a day, and really enjoyed walking through the narrow streets, though I was constantly worried about Irie when she was with us. She did get a bit overwhelmed by it all.

Three other things worth mentioning. One, watch out if it rains, which it did while we were there - drainage gets blocked and the narrow alleys don't allow in the sun to dry it out. And if there is construction... double whammy. On the alley from our Riad to the Square they had dug a massive hole (probably in an attempt to fix the drainage system) and there was literally a half meter of passage and even the scooters were driving through this logjam which after the rain was a muddy mess! Two, it was very cool to hear the call to prayer 5 times every day. It gets broadcast throughout the city over loudspeakers and I captured it one evening from the rooftop of our Riad. Three, the doors: old doors, big doors, short doors, mosaics, iron, wood, you name it, and many doors can open smaller for humans and bigger for (in the past) donkeys, etc. You could make a book of just pictures of doors, but more remarkable is the calm that hides behind them. It's a tale of two worlds in the cities of Morocco: the craziness of the streets and shops, and the tranquil oases that lie beyond.

The real center of activity is Jemaa el Fna square (meaning: "Place of Executions"), labeled as the busiest square in Africa (or even the world).
It is a bustling place where caravans used to come to trade on their way to or from Timbuktu. Today it is full of story tellers, snake charmers, monkey handlers, musicians and dancers. Shops and restaurants surround the square and great views can be had from the rooftop terraces of a few of these restaurants. At dusk the food stalls come out and the smoke from all the cooking can be seen from afar. To the north of the square is the famous Kaotoubie Mosque though non-muslims are not allowed to enter. It was also built in the 1100's and stands high above the medina. It is a must to wander into the Souks (literally: "markets") and shop for lamps, carpets, silver, spices, gems and fossils, jewelry, pottery, music, food, etc.
When you do, get ready to be annihilated by every vendor. I like to haggle, so find it fun, but it can be very intimidating. I found that a smile and a firm "no" worked just fine, and to keep on walking if I wasn't interested in their wares. Once inside, my rule is the same as shopping for a car in the U.S. Don't let them know how much you want an item and always be ready to walk away. We got them to come down from their initial prices at least half, and once 80%. We DID end up buying a lot of stuff, and we had a good time doing it. If bargaining isn't for you, there are also "artisanal markets" that have listed prices that are firm. They are worth visiting even if just to get an idea about fair prices for items you might be interested in.

An aside about monkeys: Our first morning after arrival we walked through the narrow streets into the square needing to exchange money. Before we could even realize what had happened a monkey handler had a monkey sitting on Irie's arm. We said, truthfully, we have to go to the bank, and got Irie away from the monkey. But she was enchanted - she had just had a "cute" monkey sitting on her arm! She was also very curious about the snakes, though we learned that the cobras have their mouths sewn almost completely shut to avoid bites which means they starve to death rapidly so we did not go near that entertainment. After getting money she decided she wanted a picture with a monkey so we went back to the original handler (there were lots to choose from) and before we knew it she had multiple monkeys on her, then they were on me.
It's all blurry now, but as I was arguing with the guy about how much money to pay for the privilege of taking pictures with our own camera (he wanted $25), Lisa came over and informed me that she got bit by one of the monkeys!!! I gave him $5 and said take it or leave it and we headed immediately back to our Riad to clean the wounds. The Riad owner called a doctor he knew and then had Taria, one of his employees take Lisa to the public clinic where she got two rabies shots. She had to get another shot a week later when we returned to Marrakech, and still needs one more here in France next week. Scary stuff, to say the least. We were informed that most of the monkeys are vaccinated (for this very reason) and that being bit by a dog here would have been a much worse situation.

The food was delicious. Breakfasts at the Riads consisted of fresh-squeezed OJ, coffee and tea, breads with various spreads (jams and honey), hard-boiled eggs, and yogurt. A perfect start to each day. Tajine is, along with couscous, a national speciality, and we had it at least once each day. It is named after the special pot in which it is cooked and served, and consists of a stew usually containing one meat and various vegetables. Delectable! The food stalls at night in the Square were a lot of fun. All the vendors have workers trying to woo you "in" to their tarp-covered piece of concrete. Luckily, the owner of the Riad where we stayed advised us to avoid the buffets as the food often sat out for hours, and it was a great piece of advice. We found a place packed with locals that served deep-fried fish, eggplant babagnoush, fries, hot peppers, sauce and bread which, while a bit fatty, was soooo good and it cost the three of us about $10 total. We also liked this place that served a Moroccan veggie and chick pea soup (with wooden spoons that made us wary of their cleanliness), and sticky sesame honey twists called chalakia. The three of us would eat there for about $3, total! We all fell in love, especially Irie, with the sweet mint tea that is served everywhere. They would serve it at every meal, while bargaining for carpets, at the food stalls, anywhere anytime. It can be green or black but is loaded with fresh mint and sugar cubes. They make a big deal out of pouring it into one of the upright glass glasses that are used (instead of mugs) from way up high in the air, then mix it back into the pot until the color and taste is just right. Then all the glasses are filled and everyone drinks. We bought ourselves a set.

Finally, to get out of Marrakech for our long drive over the Atlas Mts. and into the desert, I had to get a taxi to the rental car business AND DRIVE BACK INTO THE MEDINA ALONE! I can't possibly impress on you readers what that was like for me, a stranger to the medina 3 days ago, to find my way back into the medina through the right gate and to the Riad. It was crazy enough driving in the modern part of the city, but to do it in the maze of ever-narrowing streets and to get it right the first time was an admittedly proud moment for me. When I walked back into the Riad, both Lisa and the owner seemed a bit surprised to see me. Obviously, following the same route back out of the medina was far easier.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Not Morocco

We've got a few more Morocco posts coming, but have a few other bits of odd news from the past few weeks.

Two days before we left, I crashed my bike, hit a curb and went flying over the handlebars. Got my hands out to break my fall. I spent our vacation sleeping on my right side as a rib on the left side was, at the very least, bruised. It is getting better. The bike, on the other hand, is done, finis, totaled.

I have also decided to go back to school. I am officially registered in two online psychology courses at a community college in Oregon. I will need 7 pre-requisite classes in psychology before I can apply for acceptance to the Masters program in Mental Health Counseling at SOU (in Ashland). My goal, when finished, is to become a private practice therapist.

Irie got to open her Christmas presents after we got home, and in retrospect seems to have had a good, non-traditional holiday abroad. She is back to school and is currently having a fun sleepover with her friend Abbie.

While posting, Irie lost another tooth:

Maggie stayed with our french friend Hélène and had a great time.

Lisa and I have finished our Carte de Sejour process. We need only go buy 550€ worth of government stamps and we can have our official "green cards" en France. Process ( a lengthy journey) to be posted later.

C'est tout.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Christmas in the Sahara

The Christmas season is a challenge for me. My favorite holiday is Thanksgiving because it is full of bounty, gratitude, sharing and love. I also like that it ushers in the Christmas season full of lights and good wishes. It makes a dark and cold time of year brighter. I love dancing in Festival of Lights the day after Thanksgiving. I love how the town lights up and splurges on the electric bill for a month. I love our tree and homemade ornaments. I love Christmas music. I don’t love the gluttony and the greed. It is a tragic reflection of values when a shopper gets crushed in a WalMart stampede. I don’t like the traded obligation of cards and presents. Unfortunately I see some of what bothers me in my daughter, and I saw it this year. As Christmas approached Irie would bee-line to the glittery (junky) Christmas decorations and candy displays in the stores, asking me to buy this or that, or this and this and this. Je veux, je veux, je veux - I want, I want, I want. We knew we would be traveling over Christmas, are only in this apartment for 1 year, so knew the decorations would be at a minimum, and homemade. Our little tree came out of a trash pile on the curb and was pathetic. But after a good vacuuming and some creative bending it was ready to be dressed up. We brought one homemade ornament from home (made in preschool). I made several ornaments out of foam balls and napkins in my crafts class. But what really pulled it all together was the flowers and kukui nut leis my hula sisters sent me. The tree is really quite lovely. I let Irie buy a set of cards with stickers that she could decorate herself and she worked hard writing them all herself. Irie got a major case of the greeds when we put the presents under the tree. These were the ones that had come in the mail from the grandparents. She was relentless with begging and complaining, so after several warnings the presents were put in the closet until after the trip. I did have compassion for her--everything was different and foreign, she was being hauled off again and couldn’t spend the holiday with her best friend. But the entitlement had to stop.

In planning a trip over Christmas we usually like to go somewhere warm. We would have had to fly quite a ways for that. We considered a real winter fairyland trip--Strasbourg, Prague, Vienna--but the crazy train schedules made us unable to plan it. “Why not Morocco?” Exotic, not too far, French-speaking, maybe warm, some sun, and hey! A Muslim country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas!!! At one point during the trip Irie actually said it was her “worst Christmas ever.” great. I think she’s changed her mind. She did say it was her best New Year ever. We deliberately planned our desert trek for Christmas day. Definitely not a Christmas that will slide into the annals of “which year was that...?”

On Christmas Eve Rick picked up the rental car in Marrakech, drove it into the medina (this is a BIG deal that he will post about later!) and we loaded our stuff. We had a long drive up and over the High Atlas mountains. We made our way to Tamegroute and our hotel, Sahara Sky. This place is run by a German astronomy buff and it was here we saw our first Christmas tree. Our Christmas Eve dinner was a yummy turkey tajine. Our last minute Christmas shopping was from a Berber who set up a little “boutique” in the hotel. We bought 3 turbans for the trek. Irie got a coral necklace (the Sahara used to be a sea), Rick got a ring made out of coraline (which broke on a drum on New Year’s Eve) and I got a Croix du Sud (which I lost somewhere in Essouira and got another one I like better). The Croix du Sud (which also happens to be the name of our building in Fréjus!) has a nice story. If you are caught in a sandstorm you simply lay your croix in the sand, pointing in the direction you are going, place two stones on it, and when the storm is over unbury your croix to reorient yourself. As life can be stormy I think we can all benefit from a Croix du Sud.

Christmas morning arrived and Santa managed to find his way to Irie and brought her a very warm hat with built in scarf. We had some time before meeting our bivouac team so we wandered outside and met Mohammed, who was showing off his camel brought over from the dunes nearby. He gave us a test drive then accompanied us into town and gave us a tour of the Islamic library. This place is amazing. At the edge of the desert is housed an ancient collection of Islamic texts, including works on astronomy, medicine, math, arabic grammar, as well as the Koran and its explanatory texts. Much of the page headings are done in elaborate calligraphy in gold. Some pages are made of gazelle skin. The oldest dates to the 13th century. Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside. We were then led through an ancient labyrinth of dwellings to the local pottery ateliers where we saw a demonstration of a foot operated wheel and what goes into the various glazes. In good Berber tradition we took some tea with a shopkeeper, discussed how much we were going to pay for our little green spice keeper, reaffirmed we weren’t ready to buy carpets, and declined the offer of trading Irie for 1000 camels.

Later that afternoon we met Naji in his 4x4. He runs the bivouac company. Naji received calls on his cell phone while Yussef, our actual guide, helped us climb on the camels as traffic rolled by. Our camels crossed the street and headed into the outskirts of town. We departed from M’Hamid, which is literally the end of the road. In addition to all the bivouac outfits and Berber carpet merchants there is a heavy military presence as the Algerian border is only 40km away. Happily the Algerians have their border patrolled as well, and previous skirmishes have settled down. We trekked on, leaving the town behind, passing school children, working burrows and trash heaps. Once well past town the sea of bushes adorned with plastic bags stopped. Maybe in 2000 years archeologists will marvel at the remains of plastic water bottles. The desert wasn’t exactly what I expected. First it started all scrabbly, like some of those photos of Mars. There were more bushes than I expected. The sand made itself into tiny dunes along the way, you could see the humble beginnings of what may later be a massive sand dune as the Sahara grows. The further along we went, the more dunes appeared. I imagined we’d see an endless sea of dunes, no plants, no rocks, but I think we’d have to trek for miles for that. We were on our camels for 2 hours. Irie complained the last hour. My friend Melissa has a saying about a chapped ass, meaning something annoys her. Well, me and my camel know what a chapped ass really is. After we parked at our tents we had about an hour before the sun went down. Yussef unloaded everything and disappeared into one of the tents to prepare dinner. We toured some of the nearby dunes and gazed into the endless horizon as the Christmas sun went down, with no sound but Irie’s heavy breathing and the camels’ snorting. We marveled at Irie’s clothes covered in sand. The sand is REALLY soft. Yussef pounded sand out of the “mattresses” and pillows already stored in the tent and laid out our bed. We thought 5 camel hair blankets would be enough. I’ve never had Christmas dinner made by a Berber who speaks Arabic and some French, in a tent, by candlelight. We had chicken tajine and it was GOOD. It was a clear night and the stars cannot be described. Yussef built a fire and we sat around talking. We were his only clients. He answered our questions about Algeria, women voting (I think he got this wrong), desert wildlife, and he told us a joke. I didn’t have much trouble understanding the Moroccan people speaking French, but Moroccans learn French in school or on the job. Sometimes a vocabulary word could just not be found, but it was always amusing as we circled our way around a word.

Despite the incredibly clear night it was not too cold. But the mattresses were thin for middle-aged joints. Somehow we slept through sunrise.
When we crawled out of the tent Yussef had pulled the table out and set up breakfast.
He prepared the camels and we were ready to go. Rick and I had switched camels this time, and it was heaven compared to the way in! I woke up with back pain but it worked itself all out with the bobbing sway of the camel. It was a gorgeous sunny day and before we knew it we were back at our car, thanking Yussef with smiles, a tip, and Rick’s gloves. And HERE it is on video. Then in good Berber fashion we went to the “uncle’s” shop to look at stuff, hung out for an hour and a half, had some tea and discussed how much we would be paying for the 3 carpets we fell in love with and had had no plans to buy before setting foot in the shop. As we left with our carpets we were told we’d be giving a ride to someone’s “uncle” as he was going our way.

A swaying camel replaced my dancing on the Plaza, billions of stars replaced my tree, and camels stepping over rocks and sand while Yussef checked on us with the occasional “Ça va?” replaced my CDs. Irie ripped through sand instead of ripping through presents. Not much in the way of tradition this year but we had more a sense of togetherness than ever before.

In case you missed the link in the text, here's the Christmas in Sahara video.