Friday, January 29, 2010

Water, water, everywhere


No, it's not Venice.  This is what much of Paris looked like exactly 100 years ago.  This photo is of rue de Seine, about a block and a half from where we're living, and it comes from the exhibition at the Galeries des Bibliotheques Nationales called Paris Inondé.  A combination of extraordinary weather events and progress, including the new Metro system whose tunnels allowed rising water to infiltrate deep into the city, caused flooding that lasted for several weeks and brought the city to a grinding halt.

The water rose to levels never seen before or since.  Here's where the water level usually is in January.

It's a fascinating exhibit and you can see much of it by clicking on this link Paris Inondé .

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Return to Paris

We returned to a Paris that had warmed up to more normal temperatures; a mild 40F was practically tropical compared to what we had left 10 days before, and we had apparently missed several freezing days while in Morocco. 

The first order of business was to go to the Grand Palais to see this years Monumenta exhibition.  We had seen the one by Richard Serra last year and the wonderful Anselm Keifer show the year before.  This last project in the cycle is by Christian Boltanski, an artist I've liked for many years, and I was excited to see it.  The Monumenta shows, called that because they are meant to fill the enormous space of the nave of the Grand Palais, are usually held in the fall but Boltanski asked for his show to open in the dead of winter. 

I wish I could say I liked it, but I was quite disappointed.  Behind a high wall of rusty metal boxes, each with a number, he has laid out multiple blocks of recycled clothing along the length of the space, all facing in the same direction, with low-hanging flourescent lights over each, and in front of them all is a mountain of additional clothes, some of which a mechanized claw is picking up and dropping randomly.  There are echoes of mosques, of death, of concentration camps, of missing people, and of futility.  But, to me at least, it was repetitive and boring.  There's an argument that the repetition drives the point home, but not to me.  I spoke about it today with an acquaintance who had visited the exhibition with a docent, and who had liked it.  Perhaps it needs some commentary.

Something that needs no commentary is the pleasure these children were taking in skating at the icerink set up in front of the Hôtel de Ville.  They have their own little rink separate from the larger one where families were skating sedately while hot dogging teens wove in and out among them.  I'm not sure how long the rink remains, but in this weather it's perfectly appropriate.

Because, yes, the Siberian cold is back.  White flakes fell from leaden gray skies yesterday morning and we walked as fast as we could from the Marais, where we saw a really interesting exhibit called Paris Inondé, about the historic 1910 flood that crippled Paris and left thousands homeless, to St-Germain, stopping for a hot chocolate on route.  Somehow the cold is easier to endure when the sun is shining, so I was thrilled this morning to walk out into a bright sunny day, huddled in coat and muffler and gloves.  Maybe I'm not meant for this winter stuff.  Next week we're back to California for a short visit.  Of course they've had record-breaking winter storms lately.  Out of the frying pan into the fire.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

More Morocco: Essaouira

Essaouira is colorful in a different way than Marrakech.  It is bright white and blue as opposed to Marrakech's rose.  From the ocean side it could almost be taken for a Greek island town.  There are surfers on the beach.  The camera is drawn to bright colors.

And to cute vignettes.

But although I felt freer in Essaouira than I had in Marrakech, I still felt as I had there: outside and unwelcome, as I had rarely felt anywhere else I traveled.  It's possible that the inwardness of the culture, the blank walls and closed shutters, contributed to this feeling, and the strictures of a Muslim culture underlying a tourist economy definitely did, but I felt uncomfortable in many ways.


I didn't feel free to hold Gene's hand in the streets or have his arm around my shoulders.  I didn't like seeing women bundled up as if their very existence were shameful, even if I assumed they didn't mind it themselves.  I didn't like the fact that nothing remained of a once large and vibrant Jewish community.  I didn't like the sense that, with only a few exceptions, I was viewed only as a source of income to most of the people I encountered, and not as a human being.   

To be fair I should say that Gene liked it much more than I did.  He didn't feel as excluded, or not to the same degree.  I wonder if being a man made him feel more comfortable.

I know others who have had different experiences, friends who love Morocco and return again and again, but my sense of otherness there was much different than the otherness I've felt in Asia, for example, where I never felt deliberately excluded. 

Of course I know that people living in a tourist destination must feel invaded and resent being seen as 'local color', but I wanted to feel that I could enter and learn about the place I was visiting.  Instead I felt that it was closed to me, and in some cases there was actual hostility, as when I turned down efforts to sell me something. 


I wanted to feel a welcome visitor and instead I felt locked out.  I'm glad I went but I doubt I'll return.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

More Morocco: Marrakech

Here are some photos that convey, I hope, a bit of what caught my eye in walking around Marrakech.  The majority of women wore coverings of some type, either a scarf with western clothing or progressively more, culminating in a full burqa-like covering with eyes barely showing.  Since most people actively avoided having their pictures taken, I can't show you most of these.

The tile around the door in the photo above is typical in the medina, something often seen on houses and storefronts.

Before King Mohammed VI dissolved his legislature recently there were 34 registered political parties.  Since a sizable proportion of Moroccans are illiterate, these painted panels serve as reminders, linking the party's number to its symbol, making it easier to recall.

There are lots of jobs in the souk, including cart drivers, either donkey- or human-propelled, sellers of wooden objects, sellers of clothing, sellers of pottery, sellers of olives and other prepared and preserved foods, sellers of preserved fruits like dates and figs and nuts, sellers of pastries, sellers of meat, and, in the huge Place J'maa el-Fna, sellers of orange juice by day and snails by night.  Yes, those are huge pots of escargot cooking.

The sellers of rugs were ubiquitous.  Like sellers of other products, they clustered together, shoulder to shoulder with the competition.


These boys were moving these oranges from place to place near the Koutoubia Mosque. 

Some people weren't working or didn't have work we could see, although a lot of living goes on on the sidewalks, so maybe this is a meeting of some sort.  When we came back to our riad at the end of the day, a group of women were invariable sitting there at the end of the alleyway, often preparing food, often just talking. 


There were few places without people, and that may be why those rooftop terraces are so appealing.  Looking up is your only out.

Monday, January 18, 2010


I'm sitting on the roof terrace of our maison d'hotes overlooking the beach, where the wings of kitesurfers and seagulls make graceful motions in the sky.  Behind me are the white walls and bright blue window frames of the houses in the medina, and in front of me the beachfront Chalet de la Plage, where I had fresh grilled shrimp for lunch yesterday.

Essaouira is much smaller than Marrakech. It's also quieter and, from an outsider's perspective, appears less strict in its customs.  I see some apparently Moroccan girls in short-sleeved shirts walking arm in arm (one dark-haired girl wearing a tee shirt proclaiming how proud she is to be blonde) and tourist couples holding hands without incurring the scowls of the residents.  Essaouira appears to be more used to decadent Westerners and more willing to tolerate them.

That's not to say we've left traditional Morocco behind.  This street singer is making the rounds of the cafés.

And these women are still veiled in the street, while carpets are still being sold to tourists.

There are cats everywhere, as there have been everywhere we've been.


We've been thrilled to be able to leave behind the inevitable tagines and couscous of the interior for the fresh fish of the coast.  Much as I love Moroccan food, it's become a bit boring to see the same offerings on every menu.  Last night we had excellent pasta at a strange little place called Elizir, a series of small rooms filled with an incredible mix of 1950's furniture, lamps and objets d'art.

Today we tried to buy our lunch from the line of fish stall grills near the beach, but even there one has to negotiate the price and we were too cranky from hunger to take part in the haggling.  Instead we walked up the beach to a more ordinary place where the clientele was a mix of French residents, tourists and surfers.

Tomorrow we leave for Paris, but I have so many more photos of our stay here I'll try to post some more on the next few days.  It's been quite a trip.

Atlas Standing

We left Marrakech behind and headed for the High Atlas.  At the end of our planning for this trip we had added a night at the Kasbah du Toubkal, a converted fortress at the base of Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa.  Run by Berbers, the people indigenous to this area, the Kasbah contributes jobs and cash to the village of Imlil, the point from which most treks in the area begin.

Most of you will have trouble putting me and trekking in the same sentence.  Don't worry, I didn't do it.  What I did do was to follow these donkeys up a rock-strewn hillside to get to the Kasbah.

They were carrying our bags.  Why they didn't also carry me was a question I didn't ask until I got to the top.

The Kasbah, once you get there, is comfortable in an appropriately primitive way.


Stone and wood and Berber carpets are everywhere.  Dinner is served by candlelight in an alcove lighted only by candles.  Once the candles in the lanterns along the paths burn down, there are few lights to guide you back to your room. 

But there is wi-fi and there are mountains and snow and villages from which the call of the muezzin is heard five times a day.  There are sheep herds and women tending cattle and kids walking many kilometers to get to school.

And there are the mountains all around and villages hanging from their sides.  And for non-trekkers there is no shortage of places to sit with a book and feel happy.



Saturday, January 16, 2010

Majorly Majorelle

A painter named Jacques Majorelle fell in love with Marrakech in the early 20th century and built a house and garden there which he lived in for many years.  In 1947 he opened the garden to the public, but some years later he returned to France and the garden fell into decay.  In 1980 Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé restored it and once again opened it to the public.  It is spectacular.


An extraordinary cactus garden greets you just past the entrance.  As you wander the paths you discover that there is a bamboo grove, many palm trees, buildings painted the bright blue called Majorelle blue, and a sheltering tearoom for relaxing with a drink or a light meal.

The colors pop against the plantings, making you feel a bit as if you are walking through a Matisse painting.  There are fountains making gentle plopping noises, ponds with goldfish swimming in the rippling light and frogs resting on the bank.


It would be easy to spend hours drifting through this garden, stopping for a mint tea from time to time.  So we do.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Hundreds of photos later, I think I can only give you a very limited dose of what we're seeing here.  On our first day we walked through the souk and searched for the Medersa Ben Youssef, an ancient abandoned Koranic school that has been opened to tourism, unlike mosques and other religious buildings, which are barred to non-Muslims.

The medersa's ground floor level is covered with brightly colored tiles called zellij and with gorgeous carved plaster designs setting off graceful arches and ceiling vaults.  The cool central courtyard with its tiled pool is deserted where once it was home to students living in the cell-like rooms on the upper level.  One could spend hours sitting quietly here, sheltered from the overwhelming bustle and noisy demands of the souk just steps away.






Monday, January 11, 2010

On the Marrakech Express

Yesterday we fled freezing Paris for Morocco.  We arrived in Marrakech after dark, checked into an exotic riad where we were offered mint tea and walnut-stuffed dates, and directed to a wonderful restaurant for dinner, where we had incredibly delicious salades marocaines, pastilla, chicken tagine and lamb couscous while listening to music and watching a stout middle aged belly dancer with a tray of lighted candles on her head.

We had definitely entered a different world.

This morning we woke to sunny skies, warm weather and a delightful breakfast before climbing up to the rooftop patio of the riad, from which we saw this nest of storks not far away.

All visitors to Marrakech head for the Jemaa Al-Fna, the large square in the center of the medina, known for its snake charmers, orange juice vendors and legendary hashish smoking, if I recall the '60s correctly. Having lived through them, I'm not sure I do.

So we headed to the square with directions from our riad.  Along the way we saw spice vendors.

We saw alleyways leading to who knows where.


We saw bicycles, donkeys, motorbikes, bright ceramic tiles, dirty streets, lots and lots of people, most of whom didn't want their picture taken, and any number of things for sale, including pottery, leather, food, clothing, spices, jewelry, etc.   Luckily we saw most of it before we had exchanged any currency.


And when we finally got to the square, we saw more of everything.  And an even greater variety of people.


It's going to take time to process.  Stay tuned.