Tables of the World


From the Book, “What the World Eats” by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluision. This family represents Mexico.

In Casablanca, I tutored a Coca-Cola executive. He told me they’d run an experiment to see how people of different economic classes spend their lunch money. They gave 20 dhs, roughly $2.30, to a few people with the goal of buying lunch for their family. The wealthiest participant balked: what would 20dhs buy – hardly even a sandwich! The middling participant managed to do just that – to find a satisfying lunch for himself only at 20dhs. The poorest of the three went to the souk. From the vegetable stand, she asked the purveyor to give her 5 dirhams of mixed vegetables appropriate for couscous. She bought 10 dirhams of chicken and with the remaining 5 dihrams, she bought semolina, spices and a little leben (buttermilk). For 20 dhs, the poorest woman fed her whole family lunch.

The Coke executive told me that one of the people watching the experiment was from Atlanta. He said the woman started crying when she saw how much fresh, healthy food 20 dhs could buy, compared to what low-income folks in Atlanta had at their disposal.

I think of this story often, particularly when we come home from our weekend shopping trip the local farmer’s market. I’ve been obsessed with these photos for a few days now. The photos come from the book ‘Hungry Planet: What the World Eats’ by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluision. Time has two series from the book, which also includes how much the families spend: What the World Eats, Part 1 and Part 2

I’m lucky to live in a place where whole, fresh foods are cheap, local, and seasonal. Sometimes I groan about lack of variety (Mushrooms, please! Asparagus!), but after looking at these photos, I’m so grateful the  packaged items on my table are few.

My wish for the world is what I’m already lucky to have: cheap fresh vegetables, meats and bread that goes stale quickly.

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Bab Tales

Bab or  باب, meaning gateway or door.

Outside the bab in Essaouira, an amateur, amateur photographer lies in wait:

I heard about Mogador before I landed in Africa. An older adjunct at the university where I taught in Brooklyn narrated the story of adventuring with his family through Morocco in a VW van. “Essaouira was great in those days,” he said. “It was the 70s. About five minutes after I rolled in, a kid asked me to buy him booze. You could only buy it with a foreign passport, you see. I told him sure I would if he’d score some kif for me. He did. It was that easy then.”

I heard more stories, too: supposedly, Hendrix wrote Castles Made of Sand while he was in Essaouira. This turned out to be untrue, but I liked the story for egocentric continuity; in one college apartment, my rooomates and I adorned our living room wall with paper and spent weeks working on a pointalist portrait of melting castles.

I forget sometimes, now that I’ve lived here for a few months, that I’m just a visitor. I forget that most of the American writers who loved Morocco lived here much longer than I have. I forget that grants and studying abroad and being an expat is like borrowing a library book whose pages you can climb into. And for a little while, you write yourself into those pages, effectively changing the narrative of the place, of your own life. There are options, of course: return the book, renew it, allow it to become overdue. Still, the original story belongs to someone else. Or does it?

Ultimately, Essaouira was disappointing. Likely, this is because I had so many preconceived ideas about what I would find there, most of them sourcing from the idealized orientalist perspective of beat-generation writers. But what I’ve come to love about Morocco is how bizarre and mystifying it is, how hard I have to work to get through each day, how generously and kindly my neighbors and friends treat me.

An example: a few days ago I received a pink slip under my door. Since I cannot read Arabic script, I guessed it was a notice about my water bill from the illustration in the corner. At the time, my cell phone wasn’t working and various trips to the local Maroc Telecom had resulted only in some customer service receipts and instructions to wait a few more days. When I needed my friends, I went to their houses, and like the Moroccans in my neighborhood, I called out for them until they poked their heads out the windows. The point being, I couldn’t call my landlord. So, I went to the cafe on my corner, had a conference with four or five of the regulars and the waitress until we decided my water would likely be shut off that day. It wasn’t. When I did show my landlord the notice he said, mashi mushkil. And then he left. I still have water. This is my enigmatic Morocco.

In Essaouira, I didn’t feel the spirit of cultural emersion I’ve grown so accustomed to. I watched a lady in linen scarves breeze onto a rooftop bar where the band was playing Bob Marley, and I said to my companion, “She’s one of those whispy women who believes in the magic of Morocco.” No less than five minutes later, the woman cornered me. She talked about her experience playing with “native children who couldn’t even speak French.” She went on to explain that she, “liked Morocco better than South America. There’s just so much more magic here, I guess. It’s raw. It’s untamed.”

The thing is, it’s not my right to criticize this woman. After all, I am an American charmed by Morocco. I barely speak the language. I chose to sit on a rooftop where I sipped an alcoholic beverage and listened happily to a band that played old-school reggae. And it’s not fair to say that Essaouira is overly touristic when I was only a weekend tourist myself. The truth is, I met a wonderful young woman named Charifa who told me, in Arabic, about her upcoming wedding this summer. I laughed with some ladies about my silly-sounding Arabic at the port. I went strolling and watched Moroccans buying papers of chic peas, just like they do in El Jadida and in many other Moroccan cities. I have to remind myself to look closer.

Because this trip, for me, is all about narrative. I’m writing my own and listening for new stories. And when I look closely, I see them intersecting everywhere. My favorite memory from Essaouira? Hanging out next to a bab and watching the world go by one story at a time.

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Categories: Activities, fulbright, Morocco, Ponderings, Uncategorized, wanderings | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Passing through Banana Village

Outside of Agadir, on the back of a moped: I had Paul Simon stuck in my head — my pavlovian response to the open road, thanks to Graceland having been one of the few tapes (along with Legend and Forever Your Girl) that my family could count on during car trips when I was young. I was singing about ghosts and empties while we ziped toward Taghazout, a town that promised to be a little bit hippie, a little bit surfer, and a whole lot Berber.

“This is Banana Village,” my friend shouted into the wind, halfway to our destination.

“What’s a banana village?” I called back.

He didn’t answer, but I figured it out when we stopped in the middle of Aourir for a bunch:

There’s a Moroccan joke about how hard it is for tourists to pronounce the word for mint, which is na3na3. And in the joke the tourist orders atay b’na3na3 (mint tea), but because they can’t pronounce the eins, the waiter brings out banana tea. The tourist is, of course, appalled — “This is Morocco! You’re famous for your Mint Tea!” — And the waiter is equally appalled: “But you ordered atay banana!” Cue the symbols.

Beyond Aourir, the coastline upgrades from beautiful to spectacular:

And at the bottom of one of these cliffs we found a small beach cafe, perfect for enjoying our bananas…with tea, of course.

Categories: Activities, fulbright, Morocco, Uncategorized, wanderings | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

EAndi partama zwina u sghirra

EAndi partama zwina u sghirra: meaning, I have a beautiful and small apartment.

On Patios:

On Sunday morning, my courtyard smelled of sardines, a local specialty. I heard them sautéing from at least 3 nearby windows. Still, I’m not a convert. Here, it seems people don’t use their patios like we do in the States, though I’m not totally convinced of my own generalization. I am one of the few people in the building with their own terrace, and certainly the only one who uses the patio like an extra room. My first attempt at air-drying laundry on my newly hung lines was an epic failure. After a day and a half, my clothes were not quite dry so I left them on the line. This morning, I awoke to the sound of rain.

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On neighbors and friends:

I have been in El Jadida for a week. It’s a charming small city of about 250,000. I live downtown, 2 blocks from the beach, 1 block from a park, and approximately 5 minutes on foot to the Centreville markets. I am starting to recognize a few people on the streets, mostly waiters from cafés where I’ve ordered a café nus nus. I have enough Arabic so that I could knock on the door of my neighbors’ apartment and feel comfortable introducing myself to the pair of women in repose on the couches. When one told me that the older was her mother, I said I missed my own mom who is far away in America. “Don’t worry,” the older said, now you have a mother down the hall. My super, Aziz, told me that if I needed anything, I should ask him because I was his sister. And my new friend Naima, who is responsible for me finding an apartment, has told me 15 times last week that I am family now.

I met Naima in a bike shop where I was considering negotiating with a man named Abdullah over a yellow bike that I knew would cost me more than it was worth. Naima tried to help me negotiate even though I wasn’t quite ready to buy the bike. She is a teacher at a local culinary school, where they train people to cook for the hospitality industry. She travels and collects friends from all over the world. She took me home that afternoon, served me coffee and croissants and introduced me to her 3 lovely daughters and her niece. Since then, she has helped me to accomplish almost everything I needed to accomplish my first week as a resident of this little seaside town, from finding an apartment to applying for my carte du sojuour (residence card). Though Naima’s English is far superior to my French and Arabic, we often struggle to communicate fluidly. This meant that I couldn’t always express what I really meant while looking for an apartment. Once I wanted to say that a dark apartment would make me feel sad in the winter; I could only offer that I thought the place was beautiful, but too large for me alone. And, negotiating the price of the apartment was an incredible affair with lots of nonsensical scribbles on my notebook. While our get-to-know you conversations are still quite limited in scope, I am so grateful for this woman who housed me, fed me cous couse and introduced me to the hammam. It’s true what they say about Moroccan hospitality.

And, school started today. I guess it’s about time to rejoin the ranks of the gainfully employed.

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The Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church: Doing Good in the Hood Since 1650

Mawkish: Adjective, meaning sickly sentimental, or falsely and excessively sentimental. Etymologically, it comes from the Middle English word for maggot.

Packing makes me mawkish. So does passing by the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church, which I’ve been obsessing over for the last year, and which I will surely miss almost as much as my Troutly tribe.

So, here’s some history:

In the early 1650’s, Peter Stuyvesant, director of the Dutch West India Company cum peg-legged Director-General of New Netherland – let’s call him Governor of New Amsterdam, shall we? – thought to alleviate the brutal commute of church-going Long Islanders. So he sent his Dutch brethren to the middle woods of Breucklyn to establish a church in a small Dutch community that had been forged there in the 1630s. This area, the 5th settlement of the County of Kings, was indiscriminately called Midwout (I’ll let you work that one out), or Vlacke Bos (eventually anglicized to Flatbush), though the charter that would define the boundaries and make things “official” would not come for thirty more years.

By 1660 a church was erected that adhered to the strict guidelines of peg-legged Pete: a cross-plan measuring 60 or 62 feet long by 28 feet wide. The project cost a whopping 4,637 guilders, or approximately $1,800. The dates I’ve found vary, but one can fairly assume that the church was in use by 1654, especially since this handy plaque inside decrees that it is so:

A second church was built around forty years later. One account says the congregation grew too large 40 years later, while another references the second structure existing during the revolutionary war and sounding warning signals that the British were nigh. These dates don’t coincide, but most accounts agree that the church, as it is now, existed by 1796. A more astute historian than I may have more academic conjectures. Today the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church is the oldest church that has continuously operated for religious purposes in New York City. I learned the church’s delightful slogan, which I’ve used as the title of this post, when there was a fire in the community building on the property a few months ago.

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The cemetery, though, is my true love. Creepy, perhaps, but you must understand that I come from people who like to picnic amongst their dead. Because Nana might as well be social even if she has been dead for 40 years, am I right? In any event, there’s rarely a day that I don’t detour through the Dutch cemetery. There are somewhere around 108 graves in the lot, though one of those is a mass grave for the soldiers who died in the Battle of Flatbush during the Revolutionary War, bringing the resident count up considerably. The graves date back to the 1660s, but some of the more notable dead are the folks who settled Brooklyn, and whose names you’ll likely recognize from local street names. These include Lefferts, Lott, Ditmas, Dimars, Clarkson, Cortelyou, Martense and Vanderbilt. Indeed, Senator John Vanderbilt, who died in 1796, gave the Church its bell.  And it’s still in use today. Vanderbilt also established Erasmus High School across the street, a famous landmark in its own right – the land was acquired from Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, Peter Lefferts, Robert Livingston. The high school was the first secondary school chartered by the New York State Board of Regents – and has a number of very famous alumni including Mae West, Babs and Sweet Caroline’s crooner. But that’s another post all together.

The graves that have not been entirely worn away, splintered or toppled over are quite lovely. Many of the inscriptions are in Dutch and I found a few translations online, though my favorite is the staunch protestant taunting by Mr. Phillip Nagle, who was once a member of the Provinical Congress:

Behold and see as you pass by,

As you are now, so once was I;

As I am now, you soon will be,

Prepare for death and follow me.

And the saddest grave belong’s to a boy named Tommy. This sounds like a bluegrass song to me:

Little Tommy was our darling,

Pride of all our hearts at home;

But the  angels floating lightly

Came and whispered Tommy home.

And so faithful and patient readers, we’re back to mawkish me. I describe myself as such partially due to my hyperbolic tendencies, and partially because as sad  as I am to leave all the parts of Brooklyn I love so much, some of this is false sentimentality. Because I’m thrilled to depart on my grand adventure, and beyond excited about discovering Morocco’s hidden historical wonders that will make my lovely church seem like a toddler.

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