After month and a half in South America we were ready for a little convenience. When we got off the plane in Madrid we were towards the head of the pack stampeding for the customs area, which I was grateful for when I saw that there were only 2 manned booths. But it made almost no difference because they were stamping the passports as fast as they possibly could and we were out of there so quickly that I made a mental note. Always enter Europe via Madrid...
Then we caught the subway from the airport, made one transfer and 30 minutes later were at the outrageously cool apartment in the malasaña neighborhood. It was one of the great old buildings that had an elevator fitted inside the turns of the spiral stairway and was probably powered by steam initially. The elevator was so small that it could fit Laura and I, or our luggage. But not both. And we travel carry-on. So we met our luggage on the 2nd floor. Which is really the 3rd floor because the Europeans count the ground floor of a building as '0', not '1'. And yes, I did try to enter the apartment on the wrong floor once. English is easy, math are hard.
Madrid was a reminder of all the Western things that I take for granted. Like being able to understand a menu, having the prices match the ones on the bill, and the food match what I thought I ordered. Being able to decide to go get a coffee. Actually finding a coffee. Getting coffee that tastes like coffee. Going to the Prado and being completely overwhelmed by the quality of the art, the condition it is still in after so many hundreds of years, and the overwhelming quantity of it. Having Laura come back from a yoga class stoked because the instructor and the class knew what they were doing and were very into it. Seeing a lot of very cool motorcycles everywhere. Basically, Madrid is great, and while it sucks to be a Spaniard in the current economic crisis, it has a fantastic quality/price ratio for anyone who wants to visit.
After 4 days in Madrid we jumped back on the subway, went to the airport and hopped on a plane to Casablanca. From the Casablanca airport we boarded a connector train to the station in town and then changed to a train to Marrakech, where we stayed for one of the most stressful 36 hour holidays of my life.
My first interaction with someone in Morocco quickly devolved into yelling and shouting, name calling and fist waving. Apparently the local cab drivers take offense when you suggest their prices are too high and ask them where you can find a cab that has a meter. We drew quite a crowd, I was having a great time hollering 4 letter words and generally giving Canadians a bad name. Laura was totally mortified. (Sorry Canada, I can’t resist stating 'That’s not how we do it in Ottowa' when I’m being an Ugly American).
After I made a public spectacle of myself, and blatantly went to the most beat up cab in the row, to prove that I would rather ride in a beater than have anything to do with the first cab, we finally made it to our Riad. (Laura still mortified) A Riad is basically a small fortress with ugly but strong looking walls and 2-3 floors with rooms facing an inner courtyard, which is usually very nice. Ours was deep in the Medina, which is the old area that has no streets, just tiny alleys, so we had to haul our luggage a few blocks, down alleys the width of a typical hallway, being passed by scooters and donkeys. We loved it. No, really.
Once we were settled in Riad Al Karama (which was excellent, btw) we set out in the early evening to see the Medina and Jemaa El Fna square. For the first hour or so it was fantastic. There were so many people and so much activity all around us. We went to the Cafe De France and sat there drinking Moroccan mint tea.
The Medina is interesting because there are 2 completely separate worlds colliding. It is still the central marketplace for the locals. They go down when it cools off in the evening to buy groceries, shoes, iPhones, and hang out with their buddies. And it’s also a huge tourist trap. Imagine combining Walmart, Disneyland and East LA.
To sit at a cafe and watch the amazing madness of the Jemaa el Fna square is one thing. To actually enter it and become a part of it is very different.
The food court, in the middle, seems to have 3 types of restaurants. I’m told there are 450 restaurants, or food stalls, but they all basically have the same thing. What differentiates one from the next is the quality (aggressiveness) and skill (smooooove) of their 'Touts'. The most common technique was to grab my arm and step directly in front of me, slightly inside what most Westerners consider the 'comfort zone', then smile wide and say 'Bonsoir, Deutsch, Hi Boddy, Where from, good food, best' while steering me to the picnic table that clearly had the very best food in all of Morocco.
Every single food stall seemed to have 2-3 of these guys, all competing for the commission on a seated customer. It was not uncommon to have one on each of my arms, each leading me to a different stall, which I found confusing. Interesting point, they all seemed to understand the expression 'she has no money' and generally left Laura alone.
Also, having spent the last 15 years living in Brooklyn (mostly), I do not react well when someone grabs my arm and steps inside my 'comfort zone.' Mentally I knew that it was no big deal, but it was very difficult not to strike out and yell 'Ottowa!' When we would return to the Riad it was a huge relief and I totally get why you would want to have a walled fortress, with one very small door to the outside in that town.
The next day we wandered around, saw some ancient mosques, some really old graves, really great and intricate tile work. We were ushered into a 'secret' store that sold all kinds of magic potions and powders, and had a private consultation with a guy in a lab coat that showed us magic powder aphrodisiacs. Powders that would remove body fat from certain places, but not others. Wrinkle removing powders, age reducing powders, more aphrodisiac powders, and even ancient Kohl eyeliner that would give Laura ‘Gazelle eyes.' It totally worked.
We had so many locals trying to 'help us' that we wound up wandering out of the Medina and getting lost near the Royal Palace (they hate it when you take pictures there, but I think they are very photogenic regardless). We made it back into the Souks in the Medina and noticed a shop that seemed to have really old jewelry and flint lock pistols, urns, and other various things that visitors would like. That was my first exposure to what I have begun calling 'the method.'
1.Act busy. Polish something, take something apart. Put something back together. It’s okay to have the television playing a rerun starring David Hasselhof, but only if it has been overdubbed in Arabic.
2. Notice the customer and usher them into your little store, close door behind them to signify that you don’t like to be disturbed, but you’ll make an exception for these fine people.
3. Tea. You can refer to the superiority of all things Berber, and make general small talk while the tea is brewing, but don’t speak about anything in the shop. If questions are asked, divert.
4. Pour a cup of tea for each customer, and insist that they take it. Do it. Tell them it is rude to refuse Moroccan hospitality.
5. Ask personal questions. Use each question as an opener to tell them about yourself. How you would love to visit The Canada (Go Ottowa!), or any other place the customer has an interest in. Tell them the names of your children, how old they are, their dreams and life goals. Support with photos.
6. At this point you pretty much own them and they are ready for the Next Level pitch, the one where you notice what they are looking at and show them something similar, but lower quality, and suggest a really, really, really high price, so that when they ask about the first one you can quote a really, really high price and it seems like a good deal to them.
7. Damn, that Canadian jerk of a husband has left the store to check the interwebs and his wife only has $20 on her! Insist that you are losing money by accepting the $20 price for the $2 trinket, but that since you like them so much you are willing to make the deal.
I wonder if I can use this technique and apply it to online sales…?
Marrakech was amazing, unlike any place I have ever been, but by day three I was a beaten man and was willing to pay whatever they asked if it would result in our being on the bus to Agadir.
For the next 7 days we were basically in a summer camp for adults, just North of Agadir and South of Taghazout if you want to Google Map it.
Wake up at 6:30, maybe jump in the truck and go surfing, maybe take a yoga class, maybe don’t. Have breakfast. Jump in the truck again. Surf. Lunch. Surf some more. If internet is working get some work done. Or nap. Dinner. Sleep, repeat.
Day one we went out for a dawn session, but the surf was small so we took a field trip to Paradise Valley for the afternoon. Unbelievably beautiful. (See attached photos) Like a desert oasis, with deep clear pools and little cliff jumps. And turtles. Little ones.
We had a couple of unfortunate experiences with localism in the waves, but other than that it was a pretty contained experience. The few times we went into Awrir or Taghazout it was nice, little Moroccan beach towns, with a much lower stress level than Marrakech.
We weren’t sure where to go from Morocco, so we did some general searches on flights to major European cities, and Paris was only $200, so that was a no brainer. Airbnb.com had an apartment at a good price listed in Montmartre, home of Amalie and Le Sacré-Cœur, and advertised as ‘near the Gare du Nord’ so we booked it and took a cab there from Orly. Easy Peasy.
The apartment was very nice, and the owner was great, but the neighborhood was actually Goutte d'Or, and is commonly referred to as the 'worst' neighborhood in Paris. Not being a Frankophone (No Hablo Francais), I can’t be sure, but I suspect that 'near Gare du Nord' loosely translates to 'lots of dodgey hookers'.
The area is comprised of many tight, small streets and right angles are frowned upon. Laura suggested that wandering around with our faces buried in a tourist map, or following the blinking dot on our $500 smartphones were both classified as 'not good' in idea-land.
We wandered around a lot, and made some friends, saw some interesting markets, discovered the shops that supply pimps with their awesome suits, and learned that West African hookers, while very sweet, are terrible at giving directions.
Paris was great. We saw some old friends, had some great meals, took some photos that could theoretically be from the perspective of the rooftop of a Cathedral that was built in 1509 has been closed to the public for 'a long time.' And taken late at night.
Then it was time to hit the road and explore Europe. We rented a car through Hertz and because Laura is kind of a big deal around there, we got upgraded to a Citroen Picasso, which looks like a minivan, or space shuttle, or maybe a brick. But its diesel and we get about 800 Kilometers to a tank. And don’t need to worry about speeding tickets because it is not very fast.
Our first stop out of Paris was Fontainebleu. About 55 Kilometers South of Paris, but a 3 hour drive at 1 PM because of the hellish Paris traffic. Now I understand why the public transportation is so good. And there are so many scooters and motorcycles. And French people in LA.
Laura had an appointment to tour INSEAD, and I joined her for the day. It was amazing. I was so impressed with Fontainebleu and INSEAD that I would consider going back to school for their one year MBA program. Maybe. Maths are hard.... but it’s tempting.
After Fontainebleu we were going to head towards Normandy and then drive South along the French Atlantic coast. But then we found out that some friends of Laura’s were performing in Vienna, so we pointed Picasso to the East.
We planned to make it to Geneva, but were so distracted by France that we only made it to a small town named Saint Claude around 11 PM. We woke up to an amazing view of a phenomenal little French Alps town and to the news that only one of her friends would be in Vienna, but both would be in Lisbon on the 13th.
Strike Vienna, add Lisbon to our vague and generally unspecific plans, which at this point probably shouldn’t be referred to as ‘plans.’
Then we went to Geneva, driving through some spectacular mountains. Really amazing. Geneva was great, really beautiful. A lot of million dollar cars driving around. The water in the lake was so clear it looked like it had been filtered. And we continued, around lake Annecy, and up into the Alps, on the French side of Chamonix and Mont Blanc, through Grenoble, to the tiny little ski town of Villard de Lans.
Which is where we are now. And loving it.
Today we plan to head towards Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe because there was something interesting there. I don’t remember what, but I’m pretty sure we will find it. Then we intend to continue on towards North-Western Spain and the French Atlantic. Crossing through Rocamadour, Dordogne, and Bordeaux on our way to San Sebastian. Which is very close to Pamplona. The Running of the Bulls week begins on July 6. Think about it.