Sunday 30 January 2011

Hanging About in Norwich

I went to have my haircut yesterday by the young and lovely twenty-something Nina who shared the news that she’s pregnant. I don’t know why I didn’t notice – her tummy was almost eye-level as I sat in the salon chair. No wonder Doug says I miss 50% of what goes on around me. I guess I live too much in my own head. She’s only four months along, but there was a definite (and obvious) swelling. She seems proud and really happy about it.  When I was paying for my haircut, she stood by the till with a man I imagine to be the father. At least they were standing affectionately close to one another and I saw him discreetly touch the tips of her fingers. I guess I don’t miss everything.

It was a productive day. After I had my haircut, I met Nancy at The Forum, the modern glass library and cultural centre in Norwich, built to celebrate the millennium. We each ate a delicious grilled veggie sandwich and enjoyed a cup of coffee before heading off to the Apple Store. Nancy’s had some weird and frustrating little glitches with her Mac and booked an appointment for a consultation. After half an hour and a lot of fiddling, the bugs were sorted out and we headed off to have a peek around Chapel Fields – the very modern mall that outside is juxtaposed with 14th century headstones that appear to be sinking into the ground.

We jumped on the bus and headed back to the flat where I retired to my room to do some work and Nancy rolled up her sleeves and made us a delicious fish and rice dish that definitely falls under the comfort food category. We enjoyed it with a glass of French sauvignon blanc, and finished up with a sweet and juicy tangerine orange, which are in season somewhere and imported to the UK. Nancy has been here for just over a week, and this is the rhythm our days take. One or the other of us makes dinner and then we sit and chat until late. I’ve started jotting down the odd note to incorporate into my dissertation – little expressions and anecdotes that will enrich my text. She’s here in Norwich until February 15th, and I must say it’s wonderful to have her around (it is her flat after all).  I realize I become a wee bit of a hermit crab when I’m here by myself.

Today, Sunday, I went to Morrison’s, the local supermarket, where the nearly normal Norfolk folk were out in full force. I needed only to pick up some bread, but the isles were crammed with baskets and babies and Sunday shoppers with nothing better to do. One couple with gaping mouths was spending an inordinate amount of time standing in front of the shelves of laundry detergent, wondering which brand to buy. Too much choice! Another younger couple was wandering around like they’d been hit in the head, he wearing his knitted woolen hat with long felt ears hanging down. But they’re nice enough. It may sound to my Canadian liberal friends like I’m being anti-Norfolk, when nothing could be further from the truth. They make fun of themselves! When I was coming back from London on the train after my time in Morocco, at the platform I asked one group of young men, who were already on board, if this was the train for Norwich (just checking), and they said (in a strong Norfolk accent), “Yeah, they’re all inbred there, don’t ya know.” So it’s not just me. I wish I could imitate the accent, but try as I may, it eludes me. The closest I can come is to parrot, “Y’all right then, luv.” They don’t care if you’re all right though – it’s just something they say. In China, the equivalent is, “Have you eaten today,” while we in Canada just say, “How are you,” and we don’t mean that either. We really don’t care.

I don’t know where the last two weeks have gone, but I do know what I’ve been doing. The Business and Report Writing course is underway and I’ve been helping with that and other work for the Writing Centre, which is always interesting, and for which I’m grateful to have. And with Nancy here from Morocco, we’ve been busy designing a brochure for Dar Sidi Bounou and sorting out her growing client list. For my UEA program stuff, I’ve been reading Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being, the only truly autobiographical material she wrote, and the Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole, the autobiography of Mary Seacole, the intrepid Jamaican woman who travelled to the Crimean War to see if she could help with the war effort. Quite a story, written in a lighter vein (despite the subject matter) than Woolf’s, whose life was interesting but tragic.  I think I need to go back and read David Niven’s The Moon is a Balloon to get a bit of comic relief from reading about difficult lives. I remember thinking it was hilariously funny when I read it back in the 70s.

Today is cold and cloudy, and I’m yearning for warmer spring-like weather so I can ride my bike and sit outside the caf├ęs and read. Norwich is full of wonderful little places for doing just that. For those who haven’t yet read the article about Norwich in the New York Times it’s well worth a look and may even tempt some of you over here. The article also has some great photos, and given I am again not attaching any of my own here, will serve to entertain.

Sunday 23 January 2011

I'd Like to Report That I Have Nothing to Report

I haven’t taken any photos to go along with this post because I really haven’t been anywhere in the past few days. I did go with my course mate Thea and her partner David to Cinema City in Norwich, a beautiful old restored building near the cathedral. This is a particularly nice area in Norwich, untouched by modern architecture. The theatre has a bar and restaurant where you can not only have a drink and something to eat before the show, you can actually take your glass of wine or beer into the theatre with you. So very civilized. And they’re beautiful stemmed glasses, not plastic cups. Once inside, you sit in plush roomy theatre seats that all command a good view of the screen. It’s the most elegant movie theatre I’ve ever seen.

We had come to the screening of The King’s Speech, which we all thoroughly enjoyed. Colin Firth is not only intelligent and gorgeous to look at, his portrayal of King George VI with his speech impediment is flawless. It was also very moving to see 1938 footage of the period just before war is declared against Germany – masses of German soldiers goosestepping, and Hitler screaming insanely and rallying his people. There was also a very convincing scene where Firth comes out onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace to greet the thousands assembled on the grounds of the palace. Old film footage was used for the cheering crowds, everyone inspired by the king’s radio speech, relieved that he had pulled it off. I felt emotional looking around at the audience as they watched the screen, realizing that some of the older people could actually remember these scenes from childhood. It’s a great movie and has already won a number of awards.

So that’s pretty much all I’ve done besides reading Thomas de Quincy’s The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and putting together my presentation for Monday. I have to say something intelligent about the book and how it fits into the genre of autobiography. Like St. Augustine, it’s a self-incriminating invocation except that de Quincy is telling his readers about the joys and the horrors of eating opium. In those days, mid 1800s, they used to feed it to babies, so putting it in that context makes his addiction to the drug seem less scandalous. You could buy it freely at the corner druggist. What’s fascinating are his descriptions of the effects opium had on his dream world. I enjoyed reading this one (St. Augustine not) and feel pretty confident that I can hold my audience on Monday.

Looking out at the gray sky makes me yearn for spring. When the weather improves, I’m going to take my bike on the train and go up to the coast. There are lots of cycle paths along the sea, offering a great opportunity to take some photos – adding a nice touch to a blog.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Sunny Day in Norwich

Back in class today and it felt like Spring! When I left Norwich for Morocco on December 21st there was snow on the ground.

I've been working hard all week finishing up the two big essays and will hand them in tomorrow. What a huge relief. Yesterday was the first class for the autobiography module and today was the beginning of the publishing course, so I'm back in the saddle for the final lap. It was a bright, sunshiny day and I realized how different it's going to be in another month or so when the days get longer and it'll still daylight when I take the bus home. I could almost feel it in the air. There are even pink and white primulas planted in boxes around the campus. My friend Juliet reminded me though that it's only January and we could still be in for some nasty weather. I just don't want to believe it.

Walking to the bus for the first time since before Christmas, I saw the driver talking on his mobile phone about half a block away while three or four women stood by the door of the bus, which was closed. They told me that there was a suspicious bag left on board and that the driver was calling to have the bomb squad check it out. I'd just been reading in the paper on the weekend about the bombing of the No. 30 bus in London in 2005, so stepped back gingerly while the women gaped at the menacing valise through the window. Luckily, another bus came along in minutes and we left the driver to deal with the experts. I didn't hear anything on the news, so assume all was well.

Nancy has come back from Morocco for a month's stay in the flat and I'm realizing the benefits of having someone around. She's made dinner for me two nights in a row and I feel like a kid coming home from school, savouring the smells from the kitchen. It's also great to be able to talk about what went on in the seminar - a way of regurgitating all that made its way into my poor overworked brain. Yesterday in class we covered St. Augustine and his Confessions - he was born in 354 and his Confessions are considered the first Western autobiography. I found it really hard going though (boring) - memories of Plutarch and Suetonius last Fall. Then it was on to Margery Kempe, flash forward a thousand years to 1373 for the first female autobiography, although she didn't actually write it herself, but dictated it. Poor Margery spent most of her life wailing about God and making a nuisance of herself. Some of us in class thought that she just told people God had told her to do this and that because she wanted to escape her life as a woman, a wife, and as a mother of fourteen children. Being insane, or at least pretending to be, cut a woman a lot of slack in those days. Next week, we're covering Thomas de Quincy and his addiction to opium (drugs being a replacement for religion), then Mary Wollstencroft's autobiography A Short Residence in Sweden, which will be fascinating. We're having to read two books a week for the rest of the semester, so I'll have to really pick up the speed.

Yes, that's a Henry Moore on the bottom right corner.
I got some bad news this past week when I heard that a friend at home has been diagnosed with cancer. It's hard to be far away when you hear something like that, and there's nothing you can do except let them know you're holding them close to your heart and wishing them all the very best that can possibly come their way. I think that sometimes just hearing that and knowing it's true can help in some small way.

This is a short blog because I feel like I've been mainly just hunkered down with my head in the books since I got back from Morocco almost two weeks ago. That doesn't seem possible to me, but I've just checked the calendar and it's true. What I really wanted was an excuse to post a few pictures I took around campus today. A spectacular day. Makes me feel grateful to be alive and to be healthy and doing something that feels very worthwhile.

Monday 10 January 2011

Blog Break

Hi Everyone,

I have to take a week off from my blog because of the two huge essays that need to be completed by next Monday. I likely won't even be checking my email. But thank you for following along with me, and keep an eye out for next week's post.


Saturday 8 January 2011

Finally, a camel trek into the dunes! I’m not sure if my thighs hurt from gripping the camel’s girth or the walk back that I opted for because of the blister on my butt. I would have liked to have gone into the desert for a three-day trek, where the stars are brightest, but there just hasn’t been enough time. Hard to believe, given I’ve been here for two weeks - the days have galloped by. Speaking of gallop, I asked Nancy as we trekked along on the camels if she’d ever been to a camel race. She laughed and said, “Once only, but somehow there was confusion and only three of the camels knew where the finish line was – the other seven went off in all directions.” I was really impressed with the way our camel guides, walking ahead of us, watched carefully as the camels traversed the dunes, both descending and ascending. When we got to the last final dune, the tallest, my camel got almost to the top, but then stopped and complained loudly that she didn’t or couldn’t make the full ascent. The guide acquiesced and she was allowed to stay right where she was, next to a tamarisk tree. She cushed down and I got off with shaky legs, like I’d been aboard a boat on a tossing sea.

The sundown G&T, sitting on the dune, was pretty special. The silence in the dunes is spellbinding. Only a murmur of wind through the tamarisk trees broke the stillness, as we sat sipping our drinks in awe of the setting sun.

I was amazed how fast I had to walk to keep up with the camels on the return trip. When you’re riding in the saddle, their long rhythmic strides seem slow and easy, but they actually travel quite fast. I had to power walk/jog to keep up, and I didn’t want to lose sight of them in the fading light.

Approaching the auberge from the back of the property, we were greeted rather noisily by the pack of desert dogs – Cambo being the leader. Because I know them now, I just called out and they came wagging their tails. It would be terrifying if you happened upon them on your own though, at any time day or night, not realizing how friendly they really are.

This morning, as usual, Nancy and I sat and ate breakfast together out on the terrace. There’s so much I need to absorb here – I’m still making my way through Zelda Fitzgerald’s biography, making notes that will form half of the 5000-word essay. The other half will entail F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s biography, and then I have to compare the two. My thesis will focus on Zelda’s biographer’s treatment of Scott and Scott’s biographer’s treatment of Zelda. I’m hoping to see a difference in the attitudes each biographer takes towards their respective opposites. I assume Nancy Milford treats Zelda with more sympathy than Scott’s biographer, in this case Andre le Vot. There are four biographies on Scott, but I won’t have time to look at all of them.

Then there are the notes I jot down when talking to Nancy. I know I have to take advantage of this time with her here in Morocco, to record as much as I can of her story in order to write my thesis this summer. But it’s not easy fitting all this in – the reading and the writing. I know when I’m back at the flat in Norwich, I’ll have the absolute quiet and solitude I’ll need to complete the assignments. The second semester starts on January 18th, and I’ll need to read two books a week for that alone. I feel a creeping panic as I write this.

Tonight is my last night here in Dar Sidi Bounou. A group of four arrived last night – two young men from Switzerland and their women friends from Peru. A young couple from Croatia arrived late last night and have gone out on a camel trek. This is definitely the place to come for an authentic Moroccan experience.

I got up at 5:00 am and prepared to leave my little mud hut, which I’ve become quite attached to. When I got to the main house, Nancy, Rakia, and Nacer were waiting with coffee, fruit and cereal. The Croations, Ana and Evan, joined us in the dining room and after a quick breakfast, everyone walked us to the road to wait for the bus from M’Hamid. The sky was indigo and slightly lighter in the east, but Venus and Mercury were still shining bright. The bus pulled up, ten minutes late, and we bid our adieus to everyone. I’ve felt emotional lately, but I’m not sure if it’s because I’m having to break camp again, or if something deeper is at work.

The bus was only half full, so I picked a seat right in the middle this time, to avoid the swaying back section and all the motion-challenged passengers. At Zagora we stopped for about ten minutes where more people piled on, then another quick stop at Adgz. We made our way out of the valley and towards the Haut Atlas Mountain. The road is not unlike the one through the Fraser Canyon, the difference being eight hours of winding road as oppose to much less on the canyon road. On this return trip, the bus stopped in the nick of time for three passengers to stagger off quickly (holding their hands over their mouths) and empty their stomachs with an audience of bemused passengers who failed to avert their gazes until they realize too late what was happening (yours truly being one). Finally, five hours later, we stopped long enough for a pit stop and something to eat, somewhere between Ouarzazate and Marrakesh. Nothing appealed to me this time though, so I settled for a coke. The bus ride is a real challenge, but there really is no other way to get to Dar Sidi Bounou. As of this week, there's a flight from M'Hamid (4 km from Dar Sidi Bounou), but it flies to Casablanca, which is a three-hour bus ride from Marrakesh, so you're stuck with the bus ride no matter what. I would discourage anyone from making the drive themselves in a private car - the curves are extremely dangerous and it's wise to leave the driving to an experienced bus driver. Having whined about the journey through the Atlas Mountains, I found the scenery spectacular, and this comes from a Canadian who has experienced the Rockies.

Once at the bus station in Marrakesh, I jumped on a bus to the Djemaa El Fna and the Ali Hotel. It's right on the square, sitting at the edge of all the madness and circus atmosphere of the market. It reminds me of the bar scene in the first Star Wars movie - characters who you intuitively know not to trust. Snake charmers, hawkers of wares, perveyors of rugs, pots, fruit, and nuts. I was tired after my long bus ride, but hungry, so I braved the electric atmosphere and plunged in, following the smoky smells of barbecuing meats. I picked (or rather they picked me) a stall that looked promising and was immediately served something that looked like salsa while I checked out the menu that had been thrust into my hands. I decided on the screwers of chicken and some olives, but was also served a dish of steamed spinach, which I hadn't ordered but didn't have the energy or wherewithal to refuse. This is a place to come with a friend or a lover - a thrilling, swirling place of action. After eating, I walked around a bit, but decided my hotel room was all I had the energy for. The room was only £23 per night and felt like the home of a very poor but kindly grandmother. The sheets were thin, the coverlets scary, the room very tired looking, but there was plenty of hot water for a bath. The towels had definitely seen better days and were drab but clean. The window looked out onto a complicated maze of air conditioning and vents. I would compare it a little to staying at the Cobalt or Patricia hotels in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, not that I've been a guest in those establishments, but that's what I would imagine them to be like. There were however no bugs, at least none visible. I realize that I've lived like a princess for many years, and had to remind myself to "get over it." I wanted duvets covered in 600-count cotton, big fluffy white towels, and little chocolates on my pillow. I wanted little containers of shampoo, conditioner, and body lotion. I wanted room service. But I got over it. What I really needed was a good night's sleep, and that I got.

In the morning, I headed off to the airport in the hope of getting on the earlier flight to Gatwick, which I stupidly didn't book, thinking I could make the trip from Dar Sidi Bounou in one day and take the later flight, avoiding the cost of a hotel. No luck. I had to wait at the airport until the 7:20 pm flight which didn't leave until 9:15 pm. I got into Gatwick at 12:30 am and went straight to a yotel, which is a capsule-like hotel room, not unlike what you'd find on the Starship Enterprise. I was really surprised at the comfort level - and they had cotton duvets! It was cheap - £64. I had hoped to go straight from Gatwick to Pip and Selina's in Hampshire, but it was too late for any trains, and I hadn't realized they were waiting to hear from me and would have come to pick me up at that late hour. In the morning I called Selina and said I'd probably head straight back to Norwich and bury myself in the reading and writing I need to do for the essays. But she, in her winning way, talked me into taking the train to Guildford, where Pip would pick me up. I'm am so very happy I did. I arrived to a house full of wonderful young adults - all four kids are home from school for the holidays, and the chance of seeing them all together at once is rare. David's girlfriend from California, Emerald, added a different flavour with her irreverent good humour and edginess. They are all funny, bright, and endlessly entertaining. Pip and Selina have done an excellent job of raising four exceptional young adults. We stayed up late playing poker (with match sticks) and being silly, with Padstowe the dog and Misty the cat looking at us from their cushions of the floor by the fire, seeming happy that we were all enjoying ourselves. Tomorrow morning, I leave on the train for Norwich. I'm looking forward to the routine of study after two weeks of adventure, stimulation, and nostalgia.

Sunday 2 January 2011

Happy New Year!

New Year’s Eve day was a busy time at Dar Sidi Bounou. People kept arriving at the gate – Germans, Norwegians, and Americans, even though the place was full. Daoud had forgotten to tell Nancy about two groups, so room had to be found for them in the Berber tents. It’s amazing how everything falls into place though. Nancy seems to be quite calm about the whole thing. The cook, Rakia, is a magician in the kitchen, and plate after plate, bowl after bowel of delicious, steaming hot meals are carried by Said and Havid to the hungry guests in the “restaurant” – an open air thatched space. We were first served Moroccan soup with bread baked by Rakia. She also prepares the traditional tangine, a meat and vegetable stew that arrives at the table piping hot in its lidded clay pot. Tonight there were delicious skewers of spiced chicken done over coals. Nancy came back from the kitchen laughing and said that the deaf gardener and the one-eyed man with the donkey cart who collects the rubbish were standing together over the fire, fanning the coals for the brochettes. The salads are prepared by Nacer, the man who does all the chopping of vegetables for the fresh salads and the potatoes, carrots, onions and peppers that go into the tagine.

I asked Nancy what happens when the rains hit (like the day before I got here), and she said everyone is thrown into action and brings as much as possible into the shelter of the house. Rain, while rare, is a real problem because everything is made of mud and straw – the whole house. There are signs of erosion where the water has run down the walls, but a bit of slick mud trowelled over the damage by someone who knows what they’re doing is all that’s required to fix it.

The plumbing and electricity are incredibly fragile. There is only one outlet in the kitchen that works for charging laptops. Yesterday Nancy and I noticed a lot of water on the kitchen floor, and apparently the drain in the sink had come undone. But guests don’t seem to complain, and if they’re the type who would, they shouldn’t come here. The sunshine and pristine air, the delicious Moroccan food and the music all blend to make this the quintessential oasis in the desert. I feel that Nancy and Daoud are going to become quite famous here in Bounou, if they’re not already.  Nancy entertains guests with her encyclopedic mind and broad knowledge of Moroccan music and history. I don’t know where she finds the energy, but she bids the last guest adieu at night and welcomes the first ones to breakfast in the morning. She calls herself La Raine du Sable, and it’s a fitting moniker. The boys who work here adore her – she’s fair but firm with them, running a tight ship, or at least trying to. They desperately need a manager though so Nancy can retire to her new house across the garden to write and paint. Although the salary would be minimal, this would be a great place for the right person who wanted to be in the desert, living a simple life, with a laissez-faire attitude and not bothered by the lack of infrastructure. The expression used freely and frequently is In’challa – God willing.

Last night Nancy and I were sitting on the terrace, and along comes Cambo, the desert dog, who is incredibly affection. He just wanted a bit of petting, then settled down on the sofa and fell dead asleep. He’s in excellent shape with a taut muscular body, probably from chasing rabbits around the dunes. I’ve never seen a rabbit and neither has Nancy, but she thinks that’s what they eat. They also can be seen outside Rakia’s kitchen door at night, enjoying the leftover tidbits she serves them. The cats, who don’t seem to have names, come also and lie near the terrace, all seeming very relaxed and content - an ambience that pervades the whole place. Insects are minimal - it’s only the flies that can be bothersome, and only at lunch time when the temperatures are warm. Sitting here now in my mud hut, all I can hear is birdsong and the shouts of men working on Nancy’s house/studio.