Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Photos are up!

Augh I know I know I've been incredibly lazy. When I don't have class anymore, I actually get even less accomplished because I have too much time to do it in. But! I've finally put up pictures of our epic trip to Barcelona and Lisbon, which you can see here, here and here. Yes, I had to use three Facebook albums because there were too many pictures to fit in one. You'll see why when you hit the photos of Sintra, near Lisbon. CRAZY AWESOME INSANITY.

Blog posts to come when I find the notes I made during the trip...

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Volcano Chronicles, or, Carbon Particles Are Way Sneakier Than You'd Think

We're back from our trip to Barcelona and Lisbon exactly a week later than expected, thanks to Eyjafjallajökull, the Icelandic volcano that decided to spew a huge cloud of ash into the air the night before our scheduled departure from Lisbon on Friday the 16th. It closed down most of the airports in Europe (although Reykjavik's airport remained ash-free thanks to wind, which is one of the more ironic aspects of this story) and trapped hundreds of thousands of travelers in foreign cities. And we were part of it all!

There will be photos and stories about the craziness, but now I have to plan lessons and try to make up the week of classes I missed in the one week I have left of teaching. Yes, that's right, I only have a week left of teaching now, which is ridiculous. So! Stories about street food and beaches and football games and castles and trams and nightclubs to follow. ¡Hasta pronto!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Why Do They Let Me Teach Their Kids?

I play a game with my students to make them practice using "could" and "might" to speculate about situations, since French doesn't really have an equivalent. So I give them a situation and make them compete to try to come up with the most possible reasons, and I tell them that if their sentence makes me laugh, they get extra points. For my own personal amusement, I use the names of people I know. The following are actual student sentences, with the grammar cleaned up a little bit, elicited from the situation "Amelia is very tired today."
  • She might have spoken with her boyfriend. (When I said, "But that doesn't make you tired!" I got the most suggestive eyebrow raise I've ever received from a 15-year-old.)
  • She could have spent the night outside with a pink elephant in a gay bar.
  • She could take Russian lessons at night.
  • She might take wrestling classes at night.
  • She might have woken up in Africa.
  • She could have watched a TV show about tuna.
  • She might have been taken by a UFO.
  • She could have been in penguin-land, where it is night for 6 months.
  • She might have gone to a party with the rugby team.
  • She could have spent a torrid night with Brad Pitt, Jude Law and Johnny Depp in the same time.
Seriously, I couldn't make this stuff up.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Nice is Nice is Nice

We decided to take a little break in the middle of the long 6-week stretch between February and Easter vacations (our lives are really tough) and take a train trip somewhere. Tickets for Nice turned out to be cheaper than tickets to Amsterdam, so south we went!

On Friday night, we headed in to Paris to catch our 10:09 train, which would get us to Nice at 8:30 Saturday morning. First-class tickets were only €5 more expensive than second class, so of course we bought those, as the train didn’t have any sleeper cars. We settled into our roomy, cushy seats with iPods, snacks, and books, and had a surprisingly enjoyable trip. In the morning, I turned towards the window and was greeted by this:

So I immediately woke Logan up and we snapped oodles of pictures (thanks to my NEW camera’s high-speed burst mode, I took over 100 pictures in two minutes, which on the plus side ensured at least a few good shots, and on the minus side meant I had to go through over 100 pictures to find those good shots). The train stayed along the coast for the rest of the ride, offering ever-changing views of the ocean and the sun and the clouds. It was a lovely welcome to the Côte d’Azur!

Once we arrived at the train station, we oriented ourselves and walked the 10 minutes to our hotel, which was two blocks from the ocean, tucked behind the famous Hôtel Negresco. I can totally see why it's famous:

Our hotel, Le Lido, was much less fancy, but more than made up for it in cleanliness, friendliness, and proximity to the beach. We were able to check into our room and take showers, which enabled me to survive the rest of the day despite my lack of sleep (first-class seats may be comfier than second-class ones, but that doesn’t mean they in any way resemble a bed). Then the owner of the hotel, Diane, gave us a map and pointed out the places of interest, including a supermarket so we could get cheap groceries.

Then it was time to head to the beach, which to my surprise had pebbles, just like the Normandy beaches!

Logan, of course, had to defy the ocean by building a wall. I watched from a comfortable distance (his shoes are waterproof, mine are not) but eventually had to join in the fun by building precarious towers.

By this time we were a bit sick of sitting on pebbles, so we found a café with ocean views and had some coffee. What I love about coffee in France is that you’re not really buying a drink, you’re buying a place to sit in the sun and chat and people-watch, all of which we did for a while. Then, since it was after noon (by how much I’m not telling you) Logan had his first French Riviera beer.

After that we got a bit antsy, so we headed along the beach up to a place that looked as if it would have good views. We were right.

Yes, those are people sunbathing, some of them topless. It was sunny out, but not that warm, in my opinion… I guess after a long cold winter of staring at the beach and not being able to enjoy it, any sun is better than none.

Continuing around the hill, we saw the Monument aux Morts, the memorial that every French city and town has to commemorate the soldiers who died in WWI and WWII, and sometimes others. This one was particularly striking, built into the hillside as it was.

By this time we were quite hungry (who knew that sitting on a train all night could be so exhausting?) so we found a place with outside seating and each ordered and inhaled an entire pizza. Mine had shrimps and mussels on it, which made me happy.

The hill overlooking the city was calling to us, especially since we’d heard there was a waterfall on it. We followed some maze-like paths up to the top, overtaking a group of older tourists who said something about young legs as we passed, which would have been funny except that I’d really wanted to take a break at that point and couldn’t, to uphold the reputation of young people everywhere. But the trip was worth it, as we saw Nice spread out before us:

The top of the hill also had many layers of old fortress walls and dungeons and such, but the highlight was definitely the waterfall, which we found by trial and error and eventually by following the sound of falling water.

It was impossible to walk in front of it without getting sprayed, but it was still sunny enough that the mist felt good, and it delighted the children, of course. As the sun started to go down, we walked down the other side of the hill and back along the beach to the supermarket, to buy supplies for our evening plans.

One short shopping trip later:

Yes, that’s an itty-bitty can – it cost so little I couldn’t resist. Part deux of our little pique-nique?

The bag contains peanut-flavored puffed corn snacks, something which is very popular in France even though nobody here likes peanut butter. I absolutely love those things and have been known to inhale a whole bag by myself if I’m not paying attention. The beer is because you can’t have a picnic on the beach without beer.

Alas, even in the south of France the sun has to set, so when it got cold we headed back to the hotel room, watched some bad French TV, and fell into bed, exhausted.

The next day our only agenda was to spend time on the beach, so we headed along the Promenade des Anglais (the wide pedestrian area parallel to the beach) only to find tents and barriers along the road and general excitement. As it turned out, there was a Paris-Nice bike race that was ending that day! We found out that the race would end around 2:00, giving us plenty of time to get in our lazing around on the beach.

Then we wandered around town in search of a bakery open on Sunday, that ever-elusive species, and hit the jackpot when we found one that sold pan bagnat, a regional specialty of garlic-rubbed bread, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, tuna and anchovies. I got one, but Logan didn’t, which left him with no defense against my tuna-garlic-anchovy breath for the rest of the day. It was delicious, in any case.

We found some perches on bollards to watch the end of the bike race, which was actually pretty cool despite not knowing who anybody was. I cheered just as loudly as everybody else when the winner flew by!

As the crowd dispersed, we headed into Vieux Nice as a change from the beach. Most of the stores were closed (welcome to France on a Sunday!) but the little streets were fun to explore

and we came across an ice cream place with over 50 flavors of gelato, from the ordinarily delicious (nutella, raspberry, pistachio) to the bizarre (basil, lavender, violet). Logan got cactus and I got Dragibus, with gummy candies in it, as a nod to my old favorite, bubble-gum ice cream from King Kone at home. They were both pretty good, but it was really the novelty of eating ice cream outside without getting cold that made me happy.

We also found a pretty fancy-looking but still reasonable restaurant called Le Tire-Bouchon (The Corkscrew), so we went back to the hotel to get all gussied up, then came back to wander some more so as to not be the first ones there. The Promenade des Anglais was gorgeous at night.

Dinner was spectacular – we had an amuse-bouche of toast triangles and tomato sauce, followed by potted rabbit with roasted garlic and toasts for Logan, and cream of watercress soup for me. Then I had pork medallions in sage sauce, with purple potatoes and some other sort of root vegetable, and Logan had a fish filet with apple and cider sauce. It was delicious, and we had wine, and then there was dessert! Logan got licorice-flavored crème brûlée, which could have been gross but wasn’t at all, and I had tiramisu with berries, which came on a plate drizzled with raspberry coulis and honey, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I spooned those right up. The portion sizes for everything were perfect, too, so we were satisfied but not full to bursting. It was really a lovely evening.

The next morning was our last chance to watch a sunrise in Nice, so we dragged ourselves out of bed bright and early and walked down to the beach to find…
this. A tad underwhelming. We still had fun testing out various camera settings and taking lots and lots of wave pictures (many more photos on Facebook!), and finally we were rewarded with this:

At this point, a delightful aroma started to waft towards us, and, having skipped breakfast, we tried to find it. A short while into our quest, we were rewarded with the bakery of our own favorite supermarket, which was offering a breakfast deal of two croissants or pains au chocolat, a small fruit juice, and a coffee for €2,30. I could have kissed the lady behind the counter. We took our booty back to the beach and enjoyed our breakfast while taking our last looks at the Mediterranean. Then it was back to the hotel to collect our bags and off to the train station to catch our train… It was a wonderful, stress-free break from our usual weekend routine, and we even got a little tan! It was gone in a week, of course, but we enjoyed our color while it lasted.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Marrakech, or, ils sont fous ces Marocains !

Marrakech, you crazy city. The word “insanity” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

One of the first things you learn in Marrakech is how to cross the street. I hereby present a strategy that (probably) won’t get you killed:
  1. Identify a good place to cross. The painted crosswalks mean absolutely nothing to anybody, but if it makes you feel better, by all means locate the nearest one.
  2. Find someone whose skin tone is at least a few shades darker than yours, or who’s wearing a headscarf or robe, who is also crossing in roughly the same place.
  3. Position yourself on the non-traffic side of your new guide and do exactly what they do. This may mean pausing in the middle of the road as cars, trucks, buses, scooters, motorcycles, bikes, horses and carts, and donkeys rush, zoom, whoosh, trot, or plod by on both sides, but trust the drivers and your guide: they’ve been doing this since they were but babes in arms.
  4. Don’t look back. Really, don’t.
  5. Put a little extra spring in your step as you climb the 8-inch curb on the other side, so the drivers can see you’re making an effort to get out of their way.
  6. Quietly celebrate not ending up as the number 6 bus’s new hood ornament.
Luckily for you, I took a video of an intersection so you can see just how crazy it really is! The woman in yellow is a pro: cool as a cucumber.

What actually surprised me the most at first wasn’t so much that the streets are absolutely insane, even the extremely narrow ones in the souks (markets), but that it’s surprisingly not terrifying to walk places. Even with our luggage the first day, walking up and down and around trying to find the hotel, there were bikes and scooters and carts coming both ways down the 7-foot-wide streets and not once was I afraid of being run over. If you keep to your path and don’t accelerate, decelerate, or change direction quickly, everybody adjusts to your path and you get through without incident. It’s quite beautiful, actually – a bit like a ballet.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We arrived at the Marrakech airport on February 10th, got out onto the tarmac, and instantly shed a layer and giggled with glee. It was warm. Then we got our passports stamped

and headed into the terminal to find a bank. I gave the lovely man 145€ and he gave me 1595 Moroccan dirhams, which made me feel very rich. One euro is 11 Dh, so you basically divide the dirhams by 10 and chop off a little more to get euros. One dollar is 8 Dh.

We got outside and found the bus to the main square of Marrakech, Djemaa el-Fna. A round-trip ticket for the 30-minute ride cost 30 Dh. It’s okay to laugh incredulously at the price; we spent most of the week doing that, actually. So we hopped on the bus and glued ourselves to the windows. There were snowy mountains in the distance, and palm trees and cacti close up, and everywhere people on scooters with no helmets, people driving donkeys, even camels! Dromedaries, with one hump. We’d gotten a map of the bus route, so we compared that with my Google map of the riad (small bed-and-breakfast) we were staying in and figured out where to get off. When we got to Djemaa el-Fna, the bus driver came back and asked why we weren’t getting off. I showed him the map, and he said no, that street is clear on the other side of town from where your map says, you should get off here. He then handed us a better map, pointed out the street we were looking for, and helped us off the bus. We hadn’t rolled our suitcases three feet before we were accosted, in French and in English, by the row of men sitting waiting for the tourists. “Bonjour! Are you looking for a hotel? You already reserved? Where? Mine’s better!” Many firm “Non, merci, ça va, on est bien”’s later, they left us alone and we had ten free steps before the next batch got to us. Trying to look like we knew what we were doing, we continued into the Djemaa el-Fna proper. Oh lordie. Everyone had set up their little umbrella, under which women were advertising henna designs for your hands and men were either charming real cobras or holding pet monkeys for photo ops. Giving the animals a wide berth, we tried to find a street name, any street name, anywhere at all, and were frustrated. We got all the way into the souks, then realized that that was not where we wanted to be and turned around. Finally we found a name that matched something on our map and thought we were getting close. Down that street and up another one, fending off would-be guides left and right, we still hadn’t found anything helpful. A French couple stopped and asked if we needed help, having seen us on another street, and as we were puzzling over the map another group of men came up and offered to help. At the end of our ropes, we told him the name of our hotel and he called his friend over to lead us there. As he led us down progressively smaller and less-well-maintained streets,

I started to worry, but soon he brought us to this door.

Notice the tiny little piece of paper in the upper right? That says 70 Riad Zitoun, Jamaa House. That is the only indication you get. A young woman in a headscarf came to the door, nodded when I gave my name, and led us up the stairs. She showed us the room, then wrote our names down (doing a much better job in French than I’d do in Arabic) and took my 999 Dh ($125) for four nights. Then we collapsed on the bed, exhausted.

I had a small culture-shock-induced breakdown, but soon decided that the best way to fix that would be to get out and eat something. We found little pastries for 1 Dh each (cue slightly hysterical laughter on my part) and enjoyed ourselves looking at all the beautiful things for sale (and saying “non, merci” five times a second). I tried to bargain for some black suede ballerina flats and got him down to 300 Dh from 650, but I still didn’t think they were worth it and I didn’t want to buy the first thing I saw, so I tried to back out gracefully, which is apparently not cool at all. After many protests about how we’d wasted his time, we escaped and continued on to Djemaa el-Fna, where we discovered that the stands selling fresh-squeezed orange juice charged 3 Dh a glass. We stood next to the cart with our glasses, sipping our lovely sweet juice and watching people, and suddenly I felt much better about life.

Then we walked out past the Koutoubia, the main mosque

to the more European part of the city, where there are wider streets, gardens, and McDonald’s, KFC, H&M, and other American and European stores. But the sidewalks reminded us where we were:

By the time we got back, it was darker

and Djemaa el-Fna was filled with temporary restaurants, all selling the same dishes for the same prices, but each with its own hawker to bring in the wide-eyed tourists. Taking it all in stride (kinda), we chose a place and sat down. First, we got round leavened bread with tomato sauce and spicy sauce, both of which were fantastic. Logan ordered chicken tagine and I got a meat tagine. Tagines are those round dishes with pointy tops used to make stews – ours had potatoes, carrots, onions, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes, as well as the tenderest meat I’ve ever had. We also got a “grande” bottle of water, which turned out to be 1.5 liters, for 5 Dh. I could barely finish my meal, and the best part was that the whole meal, total, for the two of us, cost 75 Dh. You can’t even get an entrée for that in France, and certainly not of this quality. Fat and happy, we snagged the rest of the water bottle to brush our teeth with and returned to the hotel for bed.

The next morning, I awoke briefly at the dawn prayer call (half-asleep, I thought it was Logan groaning for a second), then woke up fully at breakfast, which was waiting for us outside our door. Hot coffee and hot milk (but no sugar!), mini croissants with creamy filling, round breads with jam and weird moldy-cheesy butter, tangerine juice, and sweet mint tea.

Then we set out to enjoy the souks. I found another shoe place (there are millions), selling patterned flats this time, and sat down prepared to bargain with Abdou. He asked our names, made rhymes with them (“Chez Lisa, il y a de la bonne pizza, chez Logan, il n’y a rien!”), and told me I looked like a princess in the shoes. We settled quickly (probably too quickly – I should have started lower) on 220 Dh, or 20€, and he threw in a few mini shoe-shaped keychains as well. Then he asked if we wanted tea and we couldn’t refuse (mint tea is known as “Moroccan whiskey” because everybody drinks it all the time everywhere) so we sipped the tea, sweetened with huge chunks of sugar, and chatted about Morocco and the US. At one point he asked Logan how many camels he would trade for me, which is probably just something he says to every tourist, but I nearly spat out my tea as Logan tried to judge what an appropriate number of camels would be. We took our leave, much more amicably this time, and wandered the souks a bit more. I apologize for the lack of pictures of the narrow, bustling streets of the souks, but if you even slow down while walking, the three nearest vendors will jump on you, so I shudder to imagine what would happen if you brought out a camera. There are so many beautiful things to look at, though: shoes and slippers in every color of the rainbow, scarves in every material and pattern you can imagine, embroidered tunics and dresses, robes, leather bags, cloth bags, pottery, copper teapots, tea glasses, cushions, furniture, spices, soaps, all spilling out of doorways and stacked higher than you’d think possible. By the end of the trip, I had perfected walking by and looking just long enough to see what I wanted to see without getting accosted. I also became mysteriously unable to speak or understand whichever language they chose to yell at me in, which helped.

To relieve the claustrophobia a bit, we wandered over to the mosque, which has gardens around it. We spent a nice long time sitting in the sun, admiring the palm trees and watching people. We saw a lot of groups of young women, some in headscarves and some not, dressed with varying degrees of modesty (from loose pants, long tunic and headscarf to stilettos, painted-on jeans, tight shirt – and headscarf!) walking around with linked arms, giggling and enjoying the sunshine. I liked that all of them seemed to have the freedom to dress how they wanted, and that they granted their friends that freedom as well. Marrakech, being very touristy, is quite tolerant, which I appreciated for my own sake. Tolerant, that is, until your heathen self gets too close to a mosque, which Logan learned to his chagrin many times over the course of our stay. This is about as close as I’ll ever get to a mosque, as I don’t particularly enjoy being yelled at in French and English by groups of small boys.

By this time, we were ready for a drink and a bathroom, so we headed to a pretty touristy-looking café. I went to the bathroom and experienced my first squat toilet, which was… eye-opening? thigh-punishing? frightening? But I managed without slipping, falling, touching the walls, or doing anything else unfortunate, so I’m quite proud. Do I get flowers or something? Baby’s first squat toilet?

After that ordeal, I was ready for some coffee, which was delicious. We sat in the sun and watched traffic for a while – this was where the video above was taken, so you can see why the traffic was worthy of attention – and then got some gelato and sat in the sun some more. For dinner, we went to the stalls again, this time with a fellow assistant named Keri who had arrived that day. We agreed to meet the next day to go to a museum, then went back to our respective beds.

The next day, we tried to take a shortcut to meet Keri, which failed in a spectacular fashion when we realized we were actually at the museum we wanted to go to, clear on the other side of the souks from where we were supposed to meet Keri. Many apologetic text messages later, Keri arrived and introduced us to Roz, a Brit she’d met at her hostel. Roz, Logan and I decided to go into the museum, the Musée de Marrakech. It was built in an old palace, so the architecture and ornamentation were just as interesting as the exhibits themselves.

The exhibits were pretty awesome, though, especially the one with textiles from various regions of Morocco. This was a belt, silk embroidery on silk, designed to be wrapped around the waist multiple times. I just loved the geometric pattern.

There was also an exhibit about tea, it being such an important part of Moroccan culture. I mean really important:

That’s a lot of tea right there.

After chilling out and imagining what it would have been like to live there, Roz showed us the way back to Djemaa el-Fna, right through the souks. At one point, a vendor, seeing Roz and me trailing behind Logan, yelled “Good businessman! Have two wives!” and we all cracked up. Oh, Morocco, you slay me.

We hung out writing postcards near the mosque for a bit, or rather, I wrote postcards while Logan took pictures, but I joined him when I realized that you could see the crazy mountains from there.

Intellectually, I know that they’re really far away, but don’t they look close enough to touch?

After dinner, we went out with more assistants (apparently everyone in the Académie de Rouen decided to go to Morocco in February) to have tea on a rooftop terrace. It was gorgeous and warm, and the tea was served in individual teapots:

It was so lovely to sit and sip our sweet tea and chat about our crazy adventures so far in Morocco.

The next day, Logan and I got up relatively early to visit two more historical sites near the Musée de Marrakech: the Madersa Ben-Youssef and the Qoubba des Almoravides. The Madersa (or madrassa) was a Qur’anic school, built in the 1500s and allied with the Ben-Youssef mosque right next door, and it is beautiful. It contains a prayer room, washrooms, and lots and lots of student rooms, all built around small courtyards to let in natural light. The rooms overlooking the main courtyard were for visiting dignitaries, and were accordingly fancier. Logan and I wandered around pretending that we were first-year students moving into the dorms (“Hey Mom, look, my bed is lofted already! And I’m on the ground floor! Sweet!”), which, while basic, were quite lovely:

Just seconds after this picture was taken, there was a minor tragedy: I dropped my camera on the hard tile floor of the courtyard, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put little Kodak EasyShare together again. The following pictures, therefore, are courtesy of Logan. Here I am, hiding my grief:

(Don’t worry, this story has a happy ending: the camera was unfixable but I bought a reasonably-priced shiny new blue one which is actually much nicer!)

The carved cedar in the main courtyard was ridiculous. I love the aesthetic of all the architecture, because it’s always abstract and geometric and my little pattern-oriented brain goes into overload.

We also got to see some furnished student rooms, complete with a teapot and brazier to make your own tea in your room! It was neat to imagine what the daily life for a religious student was – very different from my college experience…

We emerged into some rain, which soon passed, and continued on to the Qoubba, which was constructed to provide visitors to the ancient (11th-century) mosque with a place to wash. There were remnants of the individual washing stalls, as well as a central trough with an incredibly ornate dome that, according to the notice board, used every single arch style then known to Islamic architecture. I, for one, believe it.

Then it was back to the hotel for a well-deserved rest. We had a dinner date with the rest of the Rouen crew, so we went to a real restaurant where I ordered a beef tagine with prunes and almonds.

Happiness, thy name is tagine. At dinner, we arranged to meet some other travelers, Jay and Kate, the next day to see some palaces.

First on our list was the Palais Bahia, built in the late 19th century by a vizier for his concubines. It’s huge, with courtyard leading to courtyard, garden upon garden, and every surface covered with carved wood, sculpted plaster, or intricate tile work.

It was a bit overwhelming to try to focus on all of the beautiful details, but luckily there were kitties to distract us!

Kate tried to make friends with it, but it’s seen too many tourists come and go to dispense its affections so easily.

After the cool beauty of the palace, we headed out to the walls of the ancient city to see the most impressive gateway, the Bab er Rob.

It was hard to imagine the ancient majesty of it with all the scooters and cars whizzing through, but it was neat anyway. We found some lovely mountain views, then headed back into town to have a snack. Some luscious-looking pastries lured us into a bakery, where we also found large glasses of some delicious-looking substance, which we promptly bought. This entire table of mouthwatering goodness cost less than 7 euros:

Yes, those different layers were all different flavors – raspberry, strawberry, something creamy and delicious, mango… Feeling much more energetic, we set out for the Saadian tombs, which were built in the 16th century. We couldn’t go all the way inside, but they were quite impressive anyway.

I especially liked a particular bit of tile that looked woven:

After braving the restrooms (I will never complain about French public bathrooms ever again ever) we set off for our last stop, the Palais Baadi. This one was much older than the Bahia, built in 1578, and is mostly ruined (thanks to a different prince who stripped all the decorations to take them to his own palace – nice guy!), but the main walls are still there and you can walk around to really get a feel for the huge scale of it.

Jay and Logan got yelled at for exploring the sunken green areas, but the guard just gave them a nasty look while they climbed back out. We also found our way into the tombs, where I kept expecting somebody to leap out of any of the myriad dark holes and rooms, instantly turning my hair white forever. Luckily nobody did, but it was still quite dark and creepy.

We emerged, blinking, and made our way up to the top of the palace, where we got to see the storks who nest on the walls up close and personal. Then it was off to find more tea on a terrace close to the palace, where we sat and watched the storks for a few hours, chatting about the UK (Jay is from London) and Australia (Kate’s an Aussie) and the US. Then it was back to our new hotel, which we’d seen briefly in the morning to drop off our bags, but now had a chance to really explore.

We’d planned this hotel switch because we wanted to treat ourselves, but couldn’t quite afford to do it all week, so for the last three nights we moved to a nicer place, which turned out to be right next door to our first hotel! The new one was absolutely gorgeous, complete with a central courtyard

with orange trees and banana trees. Our room had lovely details

and a skylight with a nifty shade mechanism that we spent a good ten minutes playing with, because we’re four-year-olds:

After oohing and ahhing over everything in sight, we got dressed up and went out to one of the fancier restaurants on Djemaa el-Fna, because it was Valentine’s Day!

We couldn’t take pictures, but the restaurant is on the second floor, so we had a lovely view out over the square. We ordered the tasting menu, which gave us little tiny portions of everything – first all sorts of marinated veggies, then two kinds of tagine and couscous, then crêpes with honey and orange slices with cinnamon. It was delicious, and there were dancing girls! Which was a little bit odd, but the second woman dragged a female guest up to dance with her, then a male one, which was pretty funny. After that, it was all we could do to drag our fat bellies homeward, but we managed.

The next day we hit up our last two museums. First, the Dar Tiskiwin, which has textiles and artifacts from Berbers and other Saharan tribes. I’m fairly certain that the museum was in someone’s house, but it was interesting nonetheless, especially being able to see the blankets and rugs and bags and tents that were a part of daily life in the tribes. There were also some really neat leather belts that were embroidered with leather, which I made Logan take a picture of for my mother:

We headed out of the maze of tiny little streets and across Djemaa el-Fna to check out a park outside the city walls, but were stopped in our tracks when a woman grabbed my hand and squirted henna on it. I’d been planning to get some henna done, but not in that manner… But being afraid of conflict with strangers, as I am, I let her do it, then bargained her down to less than half of her asking price, which was still ridiculous. Logan was angrier than I was, I think, but it did come out nicely:

And I had the eminently satisfying chore of picking the paste off after a bit!

We wandered around the park, which is called the Cyber-Park because there are free Internet kiosks (with a frustrating touch-screen) scattered around, then went back home, stopping at the Koutoubia for more pretty pretty pictures.

On our way, we stopped to get a little picnic, then ate it in our lovely hotel courtyard.

In the bag are two flaky cream-filled pastries, two muffins, and two dense honey-filled sweets, which we got for 12 Dh. There are also pomegranate and pistachio yogurts, which were just as delicious as they sound. Mustafa, one of the turtles who lives in the courtyard, didn’t want to join our picnic, despite the delicious crumbs we put in front of his little nose.

Then it was time for our last museum, the Dar Si Saïd, which specializes in tradition Moroccan crafts. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take pictures, but there were wood carvings and jewelry and metalwork and all manner of lovely things. The best part were these little sedan chair-like things, which apparently would be attached to an eight- to ten-foot diameter wheel to make a small Ferris-wheel-like ride for kids. There was even a picture to show us how it worked! Logan and I got really jealous, though.

For dinner that night, we went to a stall that we passed every day, where a young man was selling something scrumptious-looking. As we watched, he put ground meat and red onions on his hot plate, squirted them with oil, and cooked them for a bit. Then he added an egg, hot sauce, rice, and olives, mixed it all up, and shoveled it into a split roll.

It was hot, filling, spicy, and cheap – only 10 Dh for a satisfying meal. We ended up going back a few times, and bringing friends, because providers of good street food should always be rewarded.

The next day, as we were wandering aimlessly trying to figure out what to do on our last day, we ran into Keri again. She wanted to go see the Jardin Majorelle, a European-style garden outside the city that has a reputation for being calm and relaxed, something that is all too rare in Marrakech. We joined her, and after a rather long walk out, we were rewarded by cool greenery accented with brightly-colored buildings and reflecting pools.

It made a nice change from the hustle and bustle of the old city, and since we had to pay to get in, nobody hassled us! I particularly liked this cactus; you can see the outlines the leaves left on each other as it grew:

The wind soon picked up, and as none of us had umbrellas or even sweaters, we hurried back to the old city. We escaped the rain, luckily, and after dinner met up with the assistants again to have tea at our favorite place, the one with the terrace and individual teapots. This time, they recognized us, and let Logan pour the tea!

Finally, we couldn’t put it off any longer and had to go back home to pack. Our hotel served us breakfast early in the morning so we could catch the bus back to the airport, and we spent the ride looking out the windows to say goodbye. At the airport, we had more stunning mountain views.

This was the last enjoyable moment for quite some time, since as soon as we got through security, we saw that our flight had been delayed for three hours. Luckily, the other assistants were on the same flight, so we hung out together, without food or water (they didn’t take credit cards and none of us had any cash left), until our plane was finally ready. One last farewell out the plane window

and it was back across the Mediterranean to France. I was sad to leave, and not only because an assistant’s salary goes a lot further in Morocco than in France. As stressful as it could be at times, I actually liked the constant interaction and attention, even if it was just to sell me something. I liked being able to speak French with most people and have conversations (although I really want to learn Arabic, just so when they assume I only speak English or French I can whip out something in really insulting, really slangy Arabic and watch their faces), I liked the friendliness and helpfulness we encountered most of the time, and I loved the sensory overload. I’m definitely going back sometime, hopefully with a giant empty suitcase so I can bring back all the tea sets and cushions and bags and tagines I drooled over all week.

More pics, as always, here.