Other houses

There is a marked contrast between the grandeur, even richness, of the palaces and riads, and than the dilapidated state of so much of the housing, I can’t work out how much this is due to poverty and how much a cultural disinclination to use the exterior of a house as a demonstration of status.

You have the same thing in France, where many people are relaxed about peeling shutters and crumbly plaster. In many ways this is quite healthy, but it is disconcerting when you come from a country where so much attention is paid to how a home looks.

Here is a hotch potch collection of photos of houses, doors and street views that I have taken over the past few days, (I am particularly drawn to photographing doors and windows – but there are not very many of the latter round here.

Riad Tizwa

I think I chose my lodgings well: the Riad itself is full of character and the quartier, Batwa, is within the old city, near the medina but at the same time handy for roads, taxis, banks and so on.

You can see that this is the end of the city where better off people built their houses. Tizwa is one of a huge number of riads which have been restored to become boutique hotels. Merieme said that the previous owner was quite well off and lived here with his two wives and extended family.

The heart of the building is its central courtyard, three storeys high and originally with no roof (it now has transparent panels which are open much of the time to let the light in. The ground floor has two palatial sitting areas (one of which has now been converted into a bedroom suite). All the other bedrooms have windows looking onto the courtyard. I dont think there are any windows looking out at the external world. It gives an extraordinary sense of calm but, because of its size, not claustrophobia. The only sounds one hears are the children chanting in a nearby school, the trundle of suitcases being wheeled down the alley to other riads, and the regular call to prayer from the mosques.

The only downside to communal living is that of course one is party to all conversations.

Slowed the pace

Today was intended as a recovery day after two long days of activity. Well, it was supposed to be, but after setting out on what was meant to be a short stroll to take photos of the splendid Riad doors, I got tempted to walk on – and on.

I ended up in a quartier I had never been in before, and was bracing myself to retrace my footsteps when I found I had somehow managed to land up on the Talaa Sghira.

The next project was to have visited the Batha Museum, which is supposed to be splendid, but found it was closed for renovations. So instead I have spent some time bringing this blog up to date (well, almost, as I am suddenly having problems uploading photos).

Less lost

Now that I can find the two main arteries which cross the medina, Talaa Bkira and Talaa Sghira, and know if I am lost to ask for the Bab Boujloud, I can reduce the number of false tours of cul de sacs.

I can now take the time to enjoy dawdling and looking at the rich variety of stalls – particularly on the way down. Fez is very hilly and most of the medina seems to be deep in the valley with Batha And its neighbours to one side and the Merinid Tombs to the other.

The guide books all talk about the distinctive areas – for leather, jewellery, food and so on. Actually so far I have found the Medina to be an incredible mix. What I can never understand about markets is how many merchants there can be selling the same things – and none of them apparently having any customers. I can remember the economic theory that sellers with the same (or similar) goods grouped together attract customers. But here they seem interspersed higgldy piggldy. So a lot of merchants seem to spend their day sitting on chairs outside their stalls, watching the world go by.

Here are some of the stalls that have attracted my attention in these first two days.

I felt quite triumphant when I reached my destination, the Fondouk el Nejjarine, with only a few requests for directions. This impressive building was built in the 18th century to provide shelter and storage for traders arriving with valuable merchandise. The horses could come right into the courtyard with their precious loads. It reminded my of some of the wharfs I have visited in London. Upstairs is an interesting museum of wooden artefacts and on the roof terrace a good view of the surrounding medina.

I then moved on to the giant complex consisting of the tomb of the founder of Fez, Moulay Idris II, and next to it the 9th century Karaouiyine Mosque and University (some say the oldest in the Western world). Frustratingly all I could do as a non-Muslim is to peer through the open doors. I regret this and compare it with our ability to explore the mosques of Istanbul two years ago.

Then the long trek up Talaa Sghira and through Batha, back to the Riad. I calculated using the pedometer on my watch that I walked well over six km today, which for me is way over my normal limit (and when I got home I found I had worn holes in the heels of my expensive new compression stockings!).

It was too late for me to order another dinner at Riad Tizwas, so I went to another one down the road with a restaurant advertised. I had a delicious three course meal: chickpea-based soup, a vegetable course (about five dishes with things like aubergines, carrots, beans – all nicely spiced) and then a chicken tajine. Not only was there very nice service but an elderly musician playing an oud (which seems to need even more regular tuning than the cello). The musician had limited French but was enthusiastic to hear that I played the cello and eager to demonstrate the 11 strings on his instrument.

The embarrassing bit came when I needed to pay. I appeared to have run out of money. They were absolutely charming about the missing equivalent of 7 euros and agreed I should pay it in the morning. When I got back to my room I saw the money was in fact there, but in the dark on the restaurant roof terrace I had simply not seen it!

Lost

Normally I have a reasonable sense of direction, but yesterday I got totally and utterly lost in the 9000 alleyways which make up the maze of the Medina.

Most people hire a guide, but I knew that one of the half day or full day tours would be too far and fast for me. Hence I braved it alone, with a simple printed out map showing a couple of arrows put in by Merieme.

I made it quite easily to my first stop, however. This was the magnificent 14th century Bou Iranian Medersa, one of the few merdasas to be open to non-Muslims. (A medersa is a mosque and Islamic school combined.)

I got there quite late, so shared the splendid courtyard with too many tourists, some taking irritating selfies for ages. But it was worth it: the usual richness of mosaic tiles, the detailed carving of the cedar screens, the delicate plasterwork on the walls – in fact everything decorated.

My next target was the Musée de Bois. I continued fairly confidently down Talaa Keira, but somewhere took a wrong turn and found myself truly lost, in a poorer quartier where nobody spoke French until I found someone able to say to me that the Musée was closed today. So I decided to go to the tanneries instead, and was pointed in the right direct – I think.

More going round in circles with bystanders pointing me in opposite directions, so finally I accepted the offer of a boy of about 13 to point me in the right direction. Stupid me. I now of course had Mohammed and his friend well and truly glued to my side. (That’s Mohammed on the right.)

He took me with apparent confidence what seemed to be yet more tortuous circles, which include stopping off at his mother’s herbal shop and his uncles textile store Both were thankfully very relaxed when I said firmly I was not buying anything and quite interesting. I watched a guy weaving silk , hard work involving both arms and feet pedals. And in the herbal store The manageress told me she had a degree in English and would really rather be teaching English than selling herbs.

At last we reached the tannery (not the main one as Mohammed said it was closed for three days for cleaning) and – surprise, surprise – the access to the viewing terrace was via a huge leather emporium where I seemed unable to avoid another guide. (I have since read that the leather shops are supposed to give free viewing access to tourists.)

 Still, he earned his inevitable tip by giving me an interesting description of the tanning process. The skins seem to take about three months of being washed, rinsed and dyed in various mixtures. 

I knew already from my Nigerian times that cow urine was involved in the cleaning stages,now I learnt that pigeon poo is also used (to make the skins more supple – along with a lot of hard work by the tanners pounding them).

The view of the dye pits was a little disappointing.  I hope to return later in the week (when I have recovered from this series of misadventures!) and visit the largest tannery, which I now know is alongside rue Chouara – if I can find that.

After I had paid off Mohammed (who had the cheek to ask for more, making me feel such a green sucker}, I made my way wearily up the other main alleyway through the Medina, Talaa Sghira.

Halfway up two girls who were sitting drinking milky drinks said ‘Bonjour Madame‘. I too bought a glass of fermented milk (forget the name for this) and joined them. It turned out that they were back home in Fès to visit their families, but normally lived in Paris where both had just completed graduate degrees, one in accountancy and the other in IT.

I asked them what foreign languages were usually taught at school and they said French from primary level and English from secondary. Interesting, as I am getting the impression that young Moroccans in particular are not necessarily able to speak French and understandably (for tourism reasons) quite keen to practise their English. I wonder how long those colonial ties will remain – and yet most signs are in French as well as Arabic.

Back at the Riad I recounted my mishaps to Mereme, who was most disapproving of my tipping Mohammed. I agreed, but said I had been desperate.

That evening I took a ‘petit taxi’ (the ones used for local trips put to the grand but ugly hotel which dominates the skyline of old Fez. The Merinid Tombs on the hillside above the hotel would have been a better place to watch the sunset, but I knew that the climb would be too much for me. So instead I had a leisurely thé à la menthe (I am becoming addicted to the Moroccan version on the hotel’s terrace.

Actually the view was a little disappointing: Fez from above is really a mass of rooftops, mostly in rather dilapidated condition. The best views of the Tombs are in fact from my side of the valley, in the Batha quartier.

The journey back was another learning curve. Merieme had said there would be petits taxis outside the hotel. Nope. So I ended up having to get one of the concierges to phone for one (and tip him) – and to pay double the price so it would come up the hill to collect me.

Supper was a delicious, light affair, brought to my room: a salad and then some of the tasty pastries (which I have just discovered are baked by Merieme).

Balmy September

What an amazing summer. Usually by now we have had rain storms which bring the temperature down, but today was yet again a sunny day with temperatures rising above 30.

Yes, the pathetic couple of days rain we have had in the past three months present a serious problem long term, but just now I am enjoying leisurely lunches like this:

And when not lunching out, I am eating too many of the extraordinarily large crop of figs (I have these two varieties):

Design for pensioners

This morning I searched for my magnifying glass in order to read the instructions that came with a new medicine. Then I struggled for ten minutes to open the child-safe bottle.

This all seems ironic when pensioners must be the largest single group to consume medicines and many like me have poor eyesight and arthritic fingers.

Of course I am particularly annoyed when it is the pharmaceutical industry that makes life difficult for us. But they are not alone. Electronic gadgets, for example, are guilty not only of having ridiculous hard plastic casing which has to be virtually sawn off, but also instructions printed in minuscule typeface (typically 6 point) in five or six languages on long flimsy lengths of paper. Once again, I have to Look for a magnifying glass. (I have at least two waiting to come to the rescue, but inevitably they tend to congregate in the same place.)

Sometimes industry gets it right. I am very pleased with my collapsible, folding stick, though in an ideal world it would have some way to remain folded without having to use the bag that comes with it (which I always mislay).

But as well as all the instructions and bottles that should be made easier for older consumers to use, there are many other ways life could be made easier for pensioners. Granted my current obsession is perhaps a minority demand, but who knows, maybe there are lots of people who need the same product.

My recent trip to Barcelona taught me that I need to sit down regularly and that I cannot rely on the availability of seats when needed. So for next month’s trip to Fez in Morocco, I plan to carry a daypack with not only my camera and folding stick, but a folding stool. I have one, which I took to Italy three years ago. But it is heavy and cumbersome – not least because to close it I need to press firmly on three buttons with my arthritic fingers. I need something lighter.

What I want is a light (aluminium) folding stool which is easy to open and close and which packs down to a small space in my backpack. Most important of all, it must be at least 40 cm high.

I searched the internet and thought I had found one, but it is ‘currently unavailable’ and of questionable, unknown quality. Pity, because it meets my specification. It is extraordinary how many fishing and camping stools there are on the market, about 25 cm high, made for agile young people with knees that work.

Come on designers, make me my folding travel stool. OK, not for Morocco but for future trips – and for visits to galleries and museums..

Stuff

I have acquired a new tenant for my gite: an acrobat working with a circus based about 30km from here. As with Odile last year, the deal is that Sébastian moves out when the family come, potentially at Christmas, Easter and in the summer. So understandably his rent is very small.

Much of the last ten days has been taken up with removing stuff from the gite and its cave below. I have done a massive clearout of old sheets, cushions, dusty elderly household equipment, broken shopping trolleys, potentially dangerous paraffin stoves….

Sébastian then asked if he could put his motorbike in the (never finished) garage, for security. Luckily Philippe, who looks after my land and fixes things for me, has a van, and he spent a day taking stuff to the tip.

I’m getting quite keen on this idea of reducing my possessions and have now started on a wardrobe full of things I no longer wear and the books I’m never going to read. I have taken a couple of dozen books to an Englishman who sells books in English and plan to make inroads Chris’s the vast collection of thrillers and similar.

I think disposing of years of accumulated junk is a typical activity for someone of my age. We did our major reduction of possessions when we moved from house to flat in Brighton and then I got rid of yet more when I sold the flat. So maybe my task is not as horrendous as for some. I have a friend in a nearby village who is confronted with the nightmare of disposing of a houseful of books collected by her husband, many of them of some value.

I suppose the only part of disposing which has hurt me has been coming to terms with the fact that furniture and objects which I inherited from my mother and which I have loved since I was a small child, have no future place in the life of me or my children.

The only things I would fight to save if my house caught fire here would be family photo albums. All other stuff is replaceable.

Empty house

They have all gone home now: first the Gillies, then Sara, and on Friday the BPs. So I am left with a tranquil but sadly empty house. The washing machine ran all Saturday, I’m halfway through putting the houses back in order and as usual am building up a small pile of things left behind.

It was a good visit. All four children clearly enjoyed coming back to Granny’s house, the highlights being, of course, the pool and Poppy. Apart from the odd conference call and internet work session, the parents were also able to relax, often over a glass – or two – of wine and feverish games of Monopoly Deal, to which we are all addicted (including Ella and even Maddie).

Otto did his best to organise a table tennis championship but struggled as Sara, Jude, Ella and Maddie were firmly non-players and Ed was often cooking at crucial moments. However Otto, Steve, Kate and I had some good rounds. Otto is playing well and even managed (ahem) to beat me. But then, so did everybody else…

Water is a central feature of holidays here. Given the weather was so hot there were no river canoeing trips this year, but good visits to the beautiful river at our old campsite, La Corconne, and the BPs had their usual swim and picnic at the local river spot, le Rieumage. The huge pool next door was used also, for some group jumping exercises. But what is nice is how much my bassin is appreciated. The children enjoyed sharing it with the three goldfish who are now residents, as well as lolling around on floatable toys.

The big surprise was that Maddie, who in Portugal in May was still refusing to get her face wet, was not only prepared to jump into the water, but like the other three, seemed to spend more time under water than on the surface. This image could have been any one of the four:

A sign of the times, all four spent what seemed to be a huge amount of time on various devices – iPads and Kindles – often playing with each other across the internet. But then, I can remember that at their age I spent hours on holiday (particularly on wet days) playing cards and board games.

What is encouraging is that they also spent time on entertaining us (Ella of course acting as Producer, and Otto starring as the most enthusiastic singer), and all four were often engrossed in producing booklets or pictures. Here, for example, is a booklet produced by Willow (aged 7) which I found today when clearing up.

I took only a few family photos (partly out of respect for Kate and Jude not being happy with clients tracking down family pages. So here are my mainly non-family memories of summer.

Ethical travel

Thanks to Trump my big autumn project – a trip to Iran – is now off the agenda. I had been so looking forward to this visit. I love Islamic architecture and Iran is stacked full of history and beautiful buildings.

There were always lots of reasons not to go to Iran. It would have been the most expensive holiday of my lifetime, not least because even before the new, serious eruption in diplomatic relations, I would have been unable to travel independently. Because of Britain’s alignment with American foreign policy, British tourists were already covered by the same requirement to either travel in an officially accepted group (someone I would not want to do) or to employ a ‘guide’ at all times.

My family was concerned that the trip would not have been safe. I was less concerned by this. I am used to travelling on my own; I know when to keep my mouth shut (at least when travelling!); at 76 I don’t risk the unwelcome advances that younger women might face; and if I get ill, there are good hospitals in Iran (and I would have taken out repatriation insurance). I do acknowledge that I could always run the risk of losing my papers or money. That is a growing risk wherever I am!

More serious was the criticism that travelling to Iran would be visiting a country with serious human rights issues and would be implicitly validating the regime. That is the most complex of the objections and one for which there is no easy answer.

Should one not visit a country whose governance one disapproves of, whose values are not your own? Should one boycott countries which have serious abuses of human rights, which treat women unfairly, which persecute minority groups, which employ child labour, which have the death penalty, which imprison people without trial, which govern secretively and inject fear in their citizens, which do untold damage to the future of the planet (eg destroying forests)? What countries are left? Do I want to visit them? What is the impact of tourists not visiting these countries?

Perhaps one should just stay at home? After all, the other argument against travel is that going anywhere is likely to involve energy issues, particularly if you fly. (It was so much easier in the days before mass tourism, when to travel was a minority interest, and flying was not doing serious damage to our planet.)

My problem is I love travelling. I even like the actual process of going from one country to another (though I draw the line at enjoying airports). I love seeing other ways of living, meeting different people, eating different food and enjoying the history and architecture of other countries.

I would have liked to have travelled more during my life, but was constrained, like most people, by lack of cash and demands of family and work. Further, Chris did not like travelling. When the children were young, once we arrived at the campsite every summer, he was happy not to budge another inch. Again, in retirement he was content to stay put. Since he died I have had a series of health issues which have inhibited my wanderlust, though I have of course been to Italy a couple of times, Istanbul, and this year, Lisbon and Barcelona.

Because I love travelling I am tempted to play the devil’s advocate when faced with objections about the ethicality of going somewhere. I find it is not a black and white question, there are nuances.

It matters, for example, if you can distinguish between the behaviour of a regime and the attitudes of a significant number of its citizens. So when we went to Istanbul I considered that much of its population were not Erdogan supporters and did not deserve to be boycotted.

There are other instances when most citizens side with the regime. You could argue that this was the case in South Africa in the days of apartheid, and in Israel and Myanmar.

I have to confess that aged 23 I did in fact go round South Africa, at the start of my journey through the continent. My friend, Wenol, and I went in order to see apartheid for ourselves, and compare it with Nigeria, where we had been living and working. Indeed, we had the good fortune to meet some of the leading opponents to apartheid and to see for ourselves some of the worst aspects of the regime, but still, I wonder now if I should have gone.

You could argue that I should go to Israel and Myanmar for similar reasons, to see for myself. But I think I would be too uncomfortable with this. I would feel that going would be condoning systems to which I am totally opposed. In these three cases I think the value of a general boycott to demonstrate disapproval does bear some weight.

So if there is a line of places where I should not visit and those where it is OK, where is the cut-off point? It is completely subjective, I think. If you boycott all places with one of the no-noes on my list, there are few places left in the world. So for me it is a question of being comfortable with my visit not being seen as condoning the abuses.

So I suppose if Israel and Myanmar are at one end of the scale (with China and the US not far behind) and Finland, say, at the other, Istanbul, Iran- and indeed now India with its Hindu nationalism – are in an uncomfortable position in the middle. I would visit these countries so long as my visit was not seen as validating a regime or principles to which I am opposed and so long as I expected the people I met to be largely welcoming and open to other ideas.

So what now in the Autumn? I am thinking of going to Morocco.