Your heart knows the way. Run in that Direction.–Rumi
Write what should not be forgotten.–Isabel Allende
Travel to have more to remember.–Cindy McCain
Do you need time away to jumpstart or finish a writing project? Do you have travel tales you need to tell?
Did you vow in 2020 pandemic lockdown that you would make travel a priority? Do you need to feel alive on new adventures… meet kindred spirits… fulfill new or old dreams?
Whether you’re a novice writer or pro honing your craft, on this retreat you’ll journal your journey with proven tools, inspiration, and a creative, supportive community in an exotic land. You’ll tell your best story and leave with the ultimate souvenir (remembrance). Your personal essay or memoir chapter will transport others and you back to Morocco (or whatever place you need to write about and never forget).
Though I’ve journeyed across 27 countries, nowhere like magical Morocco has provided me as much rest, adventure, creative energy, and beauty. While living there 2014-16, I fell in love with diverse landscapes, rich cultural experiences, and wonderful people. For me, the time was a life reset. If you follow this blog, you know that I returned to Marrakesh during the summer of 2018 and began planning this retreat. The pandemic placed it on hold as it did so many of our dreams. More than ever, I want to return and see the rest of the world because I’m not getting any younger and who knows what the future will bring.
I hope you’ll join me for opportunities your soul might need…
Journaling to the sound of courtyard fountains and on outdoor terraces of a private riad. Reading your work at a literary salon by the sea.
Truly, Morocco has been a creative hub for generations of artists, each meeting his or her respective Muse there. Edith Wharton, Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles… Josephine Baker, Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens … Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas. Here Laurence of Arabia, Indiana Jones, Gladiator, and Game of Thrones came to life. Teaching, writing, and wandering there, my life felt epic, too.
Join me in Morocco for some of my favorite local experiences from the Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh to the African coast. Choose what your soul needs.
4 Workshop Sessions: Craft Study & Workshop with Feedback
Private Transportation to Essaouira, High Atlas Mountains, and Palmeraie
Mule trek and lunch in a Berber village
Luxury Resort for Lunch, Botanical Gardens, Pools, and a Camel Ride
Medina Guided Tour, Bargaining Assistance, Photo Walk, and Entrance to Bahia Palace and Ben Youssef
7 Breakfasts, 2 Lunches, 2 Dinners
*Does Not Include:
Travel Insurance (required)
3 Group Meals (order from menu): Rooftop Lunch in Medina, Dinners in a Former Pasha’s Palace and on a Rooftop by the Sea
Free time options and transfers (Suggestions: Amal Cooking Class, Lunch at Museum of Confluence, Hammam/Spa Day, Jardin Marjorelle, Lunch at other locations with gorgeous pools and gardens, volunteering if possible)
“What will be your moment this summer?” asked Jodie as eighteen coworkers sat Indian style on our apartment complex rooftop under a full moon.
A packed school year had ended with high energy and emotion— Moroccan Heritage Day, ASM’s 20th Anniversary Celebration, Graduation, our final faculty meeting sending some of us off for summer…others for good. Tears, hugs, and kisses had given way to a mellow mood. I’d sat in circles with colleagues over the last two years not only discussing work but life. Good times gathered around turkeys at our annual Thanksgiving dinners, birthday cakes, desert camp fires, and pools…challenging times around family members sick at home or a loved one in a hospital bed in Marrakesh after an emergency appendectomy…confusing times as we wondered what was going on with sad world events and the US Presidential race. The next day we’d disperse all over the globe—many traveling for ten weeks and some going home for summer. I couldn’t imagine not seeing these people again in August at our annual Welcome Back rooftop cookout.
“So…your moment? What will be that thing you can’t wait to do?”
“Hang gliding over the fjords,” said Sylvie. We’d hiked in the mountains together and she biked to school—a trek that took our bus 30 minutes to make. She’d been to Nepal last Christmas, hosted our annual Thanksgiving meal in her apartment, and shown me an amazing French cheese store and bakery in our neighborhood.
“What about you, Jodie?”
“Driving a scooter on the coast of Crete,” she beamed. “You know, I can’t believe we are living this life. We’re going to Greece! I always thought if I did do something like that it would be the trip of a lifetime. Now we take school breaks and say, ‘Want to go to Paris? Tickets are $20.’” She sat beside her husband, Jordan, as she did daily on the bus. They had raised four children and now the empty nesters were loving their first year of freedom abroad. Their summer plans also included doing the Camino de Santiago alone. Both witty, she’d sit on the outside on the bus each morning energetically singing, laughing, and proposing we contact the show, “Pimp my Ride” to enter our bus for a makeover. By afternoon his soft –spoken zingers, naturally timed with hers, made them a comedy duo. Both have huge hearts and when they’d kiss each other bye as she turned down the kindergarten wing and he headed to the middle school to start their days, I smiled. Jodie and I had bonded as moms and bloggers. She’d recorded my southern accent reading a children’s book for her students and we’d held babies together at the orphanage.
“Jordan?” We looked at the other half of the Dynamic Duo.
“I’m excited about the history in Greece and I also look forward to just reading books on the beach.”
“Mike?” He’d taught in Ecuador last year and we all loved his one-of-a-kind laugh.
“Having a beer made at a monastery that has produced it since 1050.” He was meeting his dad in Germany and then would continue onto several other countries.
“Jason?” We turned to half of another kind couple.
“Seeing my new nephew who is now six months old,” he grinned. Jason had taught middle school in our English department, would be upper school principal next year, and headed a writing workshop at the beach last spring. I’d taken yoga from his Irish fiancé from Belfast, Siobhan, a doctor, blogger, and all-around Renaissance woman. They’d met in Costa Rica where he was teaching and both have hearts of gold.
“Thelma?” Thelma and Laurance, also empty nesters, had been in my yoga class and writing workshop. They’d owned a café in Nicaragua where she was from and had given me valuable tips on The Dominican Republic where they vacationed. Their daughter, pretty and sweet like her mother, was studying close by in Nice. Both dedicated teachers, Laurance was a talented screenwriter and made us laugh. Both helped me lighten up by encouraging me to sell my house as they had done to allow for travel and expat life in this new season.
“Seeing a national park Laurance and I have always wanted to visit in Croatia.”
“Rachel?” The age of my daughter, she sat beside me as she did most mornings on the bus. Eliza was sleeping strapped to her chest. She’d taught me how to do a bun I now call “The Rachel” because it saved me from heat and bad hair days. Her husband, Jon, had tutored me in photography and painting. He’d led the Marrakesh Photo Walk last fall and was an amazing artist who first came to Morocco to do commissioned work. I’d seen Eliza grow from a month old infant to a toddler in dog ears. We’d laughed and prayed together and I’ll miss them so much. They are moving to Casa.
“Seeing my mom again who has been sick. It will also be special for Jon’s grandmother to meet Eliza for the first time.”
Other destinations included Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar, and Korea. We traveled every school break during the year and traded stories to plan future trips. My coworkers were from ten countries I can think of—probably more: Canada, Russia, Scotland, England, the Philippines, Australia, Portugal, France, Morocco, and the US. Fellow Americans were from Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Virginia, West Virginia, Michigan, Texas. They’d attended schools like Berkeley and taught previously from Alaska to Las Vegas to Harvard. Overseas they’d taught in the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Europe, Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia, the Middle East….
I hope Tennyson was right when he said, “I am a part of all I’ve met.” Though we are from different places, backgrounds, and religions and teach students aged three to eighteen, we are all committed to being part of something bigger than ourselves. Together we worked hard and tried to love each other and our kids well. We respected each other. We collaborated. We listened. We lived out hope before our students. To be part of the solution rather than shout and shame others over the problems. To mute voices that promote negativity, fear, hate. To believe in and fight for a world of peace and understanding. I’ll miss these guys and am forever grateful for the community.
“I’m glad I met you Cindy McCain. What’s your moment?” Jodie asked before I hugged her bye and headed down to my packed apartment. “Hanging out with your kids–a movie night in perhaps?”
“Exactly,” I smiled.
That was just over a week ago. As I post this I see on Facebook Ritchie thrilled to be with her aunt in Milan, Emily having a big time in Germany thanks to the kindness of strangers, Todd and Jose on the beach in Portugal, Jodie surrounded by statues in Crete with hands in the air giving Julie a shout out for her signature pose. Moments in Morocco and beyond. We’ll remember.
I will miss Ritchie, my dear friend, and my sweet neighbors across the hall, Christopher, who kept my Mac running and provided karaoke for everyone, Bevs who fed me Filipino cuisine, and their three little ones who grew so fast and made me laugh.
Just before our 7:15 AM commute, teachers dashed to the hanut (mini market) next to our apartment complex for egg sandwiches, clementines, or whatever else we needed for the day. Likewise, when we dragged off the bus at 5 PM needing water, gas for our stoves, vegetables for dinner, or fresh mint for tea, this young man welcomed us in with a smile and asked about our day. He and his brothers work seven days a week until 10 PM–always friendly no matter how high the temperature or how many locals stormed the counter.
Mary (below) and her husband own Les Jardins de Bala–my favourite Sunday lunch spot where Anu, another teacher, celebrated her birthdays and my guest including my kids loved. We taught Mary’s sweet son, and I enjoyed her French flair for fashion. On the right is a chic dress she designed for 200 DH/$20 USD which included the cost of fabric and a tailor. She is beautiful inside and out.
How I miss Sayida. She kept the Woods and me organized and was nanny to their three children. Coming home to a spotless apartment, clothes and sheets washed, and dinner ready and mint tea brewed was a treat I’ll never forget. Just before I left, she surprised me with this beautiful gift. She was a Godsend and a great friend.
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty; To find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived;
This is to have succeeded.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
Growing up southern, I’d hear my Mama Sargeant and Grandaddy say when they greeted the grandkids : “Give me some sugar.” A couple of weeks ago, I exchanged eighty-eight kisses Moroccan- style, one on each cheek, with forty-four sweet girls as they excitedly entered the Project SOAR gates as they do every Sunday during the school year. My students and other volunteers were all smiles and laughs, too.
Last week the last session ended the season for summer break, but sadly, for me, it was another marker of the end of my season in Morocco. Lord willing, or as Moroccans say, Inshallah, I will be teaching students in the Caribbean when Project SOAR resumes in the fall. I will miss the girls, my students who love working with them, and the wonderful people who started and sustain Project SOAR. I am forever grateful for the hospitality shown to me by Maryam and Chris and the opportunities to teach their son, Tristan, and to serve Douar Ladaam girls. I believe in Project SOAR’s mission to “empower underserved Moroccan girls through art, sports, and health education…(and to) help keep girls in school, breaking the cycle of girl marriages and early motherhood, and preparing girls to have productive and fulfilled futures.”
From afar I will continue to invite others to get involved in person or through financial support. Though it is time to be nearer my family and leave Morocco, a country I have come to love the last two years, I will carry this place, these people forever with me in my heart.
Last winter students Abla, Najma, and Kenza also volunteered with me. Project SOAR was chosen to pilot the Be Girl program in Morocco–the first Muslim country that is keeping girls in school by providing them with a hygienic, eco-friendly, vital product.
Volunteering with the girls of Project Soar has been good for students of The American School of Marrakesh as well. They love laughing and playing with the girls. Below, they demonstrated ballet moves and then asked the girls to strike a pose. I am so thankful for their beauty, innocence, and enthusiasm.
When people ask How? Why? I moved to Morocco sight unseen, I think to myself, I didn’t. Though I’d never been to Africa, my soul brimmed with vivid images from exotic Arabian tales my grandmother read to me from my dad’s childhood book.
I was lured by sultry desert tents, regal riads, and secret gardens where princes and princesses lounged in plush, cushioned comfort. In my imagination birds sang- by- day and lanterns glowed- by- night in arched Andalusian courtyards of fabulous fountains, mosaic tile, and intricately carved woodwork. I was meant to come here–a place where so many desires of my heart have been fulfilled for which I am forever grateful.
Likewise, for some time I felt drawn to Riad Star, former home of Josephine Baker, Queen of the Jazz Age. I was first attracted by the place and a moment in time–the blending of beautiful Marrakesh design with an era I’ve loved since I was a little girl dressing up in my grandmother’s drop waist dresses and pumps. As an adult obsessed with Post- World War I Paris expats and Harlem Renaissance artists, I teach The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and Jazz, and when living in the US had students play dress up, too, for annual ’20s Day events.
Recently I finally stayed at Riad Star and met “Jazz Cleopatra,” the legend for whom the boutique hotel is named.
I now realize that what drew me there was more than one period of history. It was a Renaissance Woman who before and beyond Harlem and the 20s never stopped changing, growing, giving, and overcoming. A woman of tenacity and tenderness.
When Aziz greeted me at the taxi, walked me to the riad, and placed my bag in her very suite, The Josephine Room, I was in awe. There, under a photograph of her close friend, Grace Kelly, my favorite American Hollywood actress since I was a teen…
I devoured Josephine’s biographies found in my room and the library downstairs.
In the afternoon sun on the rooftop
near the cool courtyard,
and under the covers at night,
like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris I was transported to another time.
There I discovered a new treasure in Marrakesh..the “Black Pearl”…the “Bronze Venus” who Ernest Hemingway, her fellow expat in Paris, called “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”
Or Angelina Jolie…
A dancer, singer, movie star, and mom energetically entertained crowds for fifty years and raised her “Rainbow Tribe.”
Baker was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, Zouzou(1934) and to become a world-famous entertainer. A superstar before Marilyn or Madonna, Josephine was named in 2012 Time magazine in the Top 100 Fashion Icons of All Time.
Likewise she was muse for artists and intellectuals of the 1930s such as Picasso, Pirandello, Georges Roualt, Le Corbusier, and e.e. cummings. Dance Magazine explained the allure of Josephine –the “geometry” of her oval head and lithe body–during the Cubist and Art Deco movements, both influenced by African art and sculpture.
A World War II spy for the French Resistance, Josephine Baker was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’Honneur by General Charles de Gaulle and the Rosette of the Résistance. At her death she was mourned in Paris by 20,000 people including Princess Grace who gathered for her funeral procession. She was buried with military honors in Monaco, a place she and her family visited often as guests of the royal family.
A civil rights activist, she was the only woman who spoke at the 1963 March on Washington alongside Martin Luther, King. She told the crowd that day: You are on the eve of a complete victory. You can’t go wrong. The world is behind you.
Later she said of her personal victory:
Until the March on Washington, I always had this little feeling in my stomach. I was always afraid. I couldn’t meet white American people. I didn’t want to be around them. But now that little gnawing feeling is gone. For the first time in my life I feel free. I know that everything is right now.
And for a time, she lived in Marrakesh in a room I just stayed in.
Mike and Lucie Wood, British owners of Marrakech Riad, added Riad Star in 2010 to their collection of boutique hotels in the medina. Mike explained their mission:
We bought our first riad (Riad Cinnamon) in 2005 after I was introduced to Marrakech by a Moroccan friend. We are passionate about introducing our guests to Moroccan culture, especially first time visitors. As well as the riads we are very involved in a charity which we founded with another English couple. It’s called Henna Cafe and has an active programme of education.
The Pasha Thami el Glaoui formerly owned what is now Riad Star, a guest annex to the palace which is now the Marrakech museum. Mike says he learned Josephine Baker stayed there when talking to a neighbor. The people of Derb Alilich still remember her warmth and she appreciated theirs. In the Josephine Room there’s a window looking onto the street–nonexistent in most riads where windows, doors, and balconies face inward toward private courtyards. It is believed the Pasha of Marrakech paid children to sit outside Josephine’s window and read for her while she was convalescing after a nineteen-month stay at a hospital in Casablanca in 1941-42.
Mike Wood says of the purchase:
The restoration was extensive and took two years with a team of highly skilled local craftsmen. We did not really change much except adding the rolling roof which is very practical and putting in more bathrooms.
Ah, but the details the Woods added are symbolic of a spirit whose beauty, sensitivity and toughness transcended adversity. There are nine rooms at Riad Star, each named for a part of Josephine’s life, such as the Jazz room, Paris room, Chiquita room, and Rainbow room. Though historically themed, each room has modern conveniences, such as refrigerators, WiFi, and flatscreen televisions.
Josephine was born in 1906 in St. Louis to Carrie McDonald, daughter of former slaves, and vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson who carried her onstage when she was a toddler but left the family soon after. She cleaned houses and tended children for white families who told her not to kiss the babies. One mistress burned her hands for using too much soap when washing clothes. At age twelve she began a waitressing job at The Old Chauffeur’s Club which led to being married off unsuccessfully at thirteen. At fifteen she was noticed for her street dancing and recruited for vaudeville. After witnessing the St. Louis race riots and experiencing abusive treatment which led to a time she lived on the streets and ate from trash bins, she moved to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance and performed at the Plantation Club. As the last girl in the chorus line, her role was to make the audience laugh–something she loved doing her entire life. But in 1925 Paris she moved from last to superstardom overnight when she opened in La Revue Nègre at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. Continuing to amaze crowds with her sensual dances, costumes, and charisma, by 1927 she earned more than any entertainer in Europe. And then she took on another continent…
In Josephine: The Hungry Heart, Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase wrote of Josephine’s “Arabian Nights” when “she came to Northern Africa with twenty-eight pieces of luggage and her animals.” Before she adopted twelve children from various countries (she suffered miscarriages and “many surgeries” trying to have her own and a complication that confined her to the Casablanca hospital ), she had a menagerie consisting of Chiquita, her famous leopard she walked on a leash; Ethel, a chimpanzee; Albert, a pig; Kiki, a snake, and a goat, parrot, parakeets, fish three cats and seven dogs. In Morocco her monkeys played in the orange trees.
Baker records accounts of his mother’s time at Riad Star :
Every morning, as soon as the birds started singing, Josephine was up and running around in the buff going to the kitchen to help the servants cook… The house had four bedrooms—one which had her big brass bed from France… She adopted Arab customs. She liked eating with her hands, wearing the loose djelleba, going with her maids to the hammam, the Turkish baths, once a week.
….And wasn’t it queer that Josephine, who had spent her childhood dreaming of kings in golden slippers, should find herself there? In a place where, even more amazingly, racial discrimination did not exist? Thami el Glaousi, pasha of Marrakesh and the most powerful tribal chieftain in French Morocco at that time, was himself black.
From northern Africa Josephine was safe from Nazi racism. Langston Hughes wrote she “was as much a victim of Hitler as the soldiers who fall in Africa today fighting his armies. The Aryans drove Josephine away from her beloved Paris.” Nonetheless, while in Africa as she’d done throughout Europe, Josephine continued entertaining troops for Charles de Gaulle and carrying information for the Allied forces from Spain. Among dignitaries who visited her while in the hospital in Casa was Jacques Abtrey, Head of Intelligence against the Germans. Outside as a military parade with American, French, and Moroccan troops marched by, he and Josephine toasted with champagne. He recalls: “We raised our glasses to America, to England, and to our eternal France.”
Bennetta Jules-Rosette, Director of the African and African-American Studies Research Center at the University of California – San Diego and author of Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image wrote of Josephine making Paris her home and learning not only French but Italian and Russian:
As a black woman, had she stayed in the United States, she could not have accomplished what she did….She never made a Hollywood film. But at the same time she was recording in France, you had the likes of Hattie McDaniel playing maids in Gone with the Wind…[She] was among the early path-breakers to use performance celebrity for political ends.
When in the US she refused to perform in venues that did not admit minorities. Says Jules-Rosette: “She was the first person to desegregate the Las Vegas casinos, not Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.”
Still, in 1951 she was refused admittance to some hotels and restaurants, and when she charged the Stork Club in New York City of racism when the owner would not serve her, she was placed on the FBI watch list and lost her US citizenship rights for over a decade. In 1963 she returned with the help of Attorney General Robert Kennedy to speak at the March on Washington. She told the crowd:
You know I have always taken the rocky path…I never took the easy one, but as I get older, and as I knew I had the power and the strength, I took that rocky path and I tried to smooth it out a little. I wanted to make it easier for you. I want you to have a chance at what I had.
Summing up her journey, Josephine said: “I did take the blows [of life], but I took them with my chin up, in dignity, because I so profoundly love and respect humanity…I believe in prayer. It’s the best way we have to draw strength from heaven.”
When not reading at Riad Star, I chatted over dinner with a lovely group of ladies on holiday from England. All moms, they had decided to treat themselves to a girls’ getaway. For information on package deals including a Girls Getaway and other specialty escapes, go here. I spent breakfast with a little bird by the pool, then took off with Aziz to see two other properties owned by the Woods.
Though all guests are provided a downloadable App and cell phone to navigate the medina, after two years here and still taking wrong turns at times in the medina, I was thrilled Aziz was happy to walk me to and from the taxi as well as show me two other riads.
Riad Cinnamon has five suites, each named for a city in Morocco: Fez, Essaouira, Chefchaouen, Casablanca, and Meknes. Since I’ve been to all but Meknes, four of the rooms transported me to fine Morocco Moments across the country.
After raiding my grandmother’s trunk for dress up clothes, I’d wear them out into her garden to watch butterflies playing in the flowers. At Riad Papillon (Riad Butterly), imagination takes flight in rooms named for blooms, such as Bougainvillea, Jasmine, and Rose known to attract those feathery-winged wonders. The riad is just off Dar El Bacha, one of my favorite shopping streets in the souks, while Star and Cinnamon are just around corners from Merdersa Ben Youseff, a medina must-see. All are also near the Spice Square and Henna Cafe.
I enjoyed the morning and my Midnight in Marrakesh experience. HBO’s 1991 movie, The Jordan Baker Story, winner of five Emmys and a Golden Globe now tops my list of Must-see films. In “My Josephine Baker” her son explains in The New York Times how and why he had to write a biography of her: “When she died, something was taken from me. I suffered a loss and I wanted to know who she was, that woman I had seen in so many ways, sometimes a criminal, sometimes a saint.”
When she passed away in 1975, no doubt there were mixed opinions of her because she was– and her critics are– after all, human. Her legacy lives on in Riad Star in the Red City where others find rest and shelter and at the Henna Cafe that promotes appreciation of diversity, cross-cultural communication, and understanding. Though Josephine left school to work as a child, she later learned French, Russian, and Italian, an inspiration to language learners everywhere.
Thank you to Riad Star for the hospitality. As always, the opinions here are my own.
There’s a power struggle going on across Europe these days. A few cities are competing against each other to see who shall emerge as the great 21st century European metropolis. Will it be London? Paris? Berlin? Zurich? Maybe Brussels, center of the young union? They all strive to outdo one another culturally, architecturally, politically, fiscally. But Rome, it should be said, has not bothered to join the race for status. Rome doesn’t compete. Rome just watches all the fussing and striving, completely unfazed. I am inspired by the regal self-assurance of this city, so grounded and rounded, so amused and monumental, knowing she is held securely in the palm of history. I would like to be like Rome when I am an old lady.
—Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
‘I sometimes fancy,’ said Hilda, on whose susceptibility the scene always made a strong impression, ‘that Rome–mere Rome–will crowd everything else out of my heart.’
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance
I first met her in the movies in the ’60s when my family spent Easter week watching Ben-Hur and The Robe. Later I sighed at her heroes in Gladiator and King Arthur, and still turn to Roman Holiday and Three Coins in the Fountain for escape, classic style, and fun frocks. And though recently I giggled at Brit wits, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip to Italy based on their pilgrimage to places Shelley and Byron lived, I do love teaching literary legends–particularly The Romantics–who moved to Rome. Long before the Left Bank of Paris brimmed with expat genius, Rome was muse to so many who for centuries have transported readers to the The Eternal City via memoir, fiction, and poetry. Still, nothing is like being in Rome for real. I was there last week on a detour; but as with many of life’s detours, I realized Plan B was To Be.
Since moving to Morocco in 2014, I began planning my Dream Week for Spring Break 2016. I didn’t know if I’d stay abroad after my initial two-year work contract, so I saved the best for last. I’d fallen in love with Italy in 2000 and have since returned eight times; but in 2004 I was swept away by the Amalfi Coast and hoped this year to perch on a Positano terrace across from Capri, the island that enchanted me more than a decade ago. A Mermaid in Marrakesh, I felt I’d find my muse staying between the Path of the Gods and the ocean below. Nothing moves me like the sea, and I couldn’t wait to live like a local and go no farther than a boat ride to a restaurant I’d read about. I’d write in the sun. I’d breathe.
I had booked the perfect villa last August beside the iconic Le Sirenuse, the set for Only You, a 1994 film my sister and I love . The plan was to join friends from the US in Tuscany the first week of the break, then travel alone by train to the coast. Sadly, an unforeseen circumstance that has caused much stress forced me to cancel that second week, but a colleague offered a Plan B. She suggested I stay with her in Rome and catch the Ryan Air flight on Tuesday for $26. My flight and stay at a hotel inspired by my favorite painter, Modigliani, cost less than changing my original ticket.
Lately I’ve been faced with huge decisions and it seemed all roads were, indeed, leading to Rome. I’m passionate about several paths–family, travel, writing, education–and have been praying for a way they can all convene. Birthdays are when I pull over to reevaluate the map of my life journey. While in Tuscany I celebrated the one that was my father’s last. He died at work. So young. So missed.
Roaming, resting, relaxing in Rome in my favorite neighborhoods (near Piazzas of Spagna and Barberini) proved to be poignant. I loved seeing friends in Tuscany (many pictures to come), but I’d spent the week fighting the flu. Being in Rome on Easter and finally visiting The Keats-Shelley House—where Keats, too, came to Rome seeking a kinder climate for his health—moved me. I’d always loved Keats’ “When I Have Fears I Will Cease to Be” where he confesses concern that he’ll die before writing all he felt placed on earth to write or before marrying his beloved Fanny Brawne. I thought, too, about Lord Byron who said “If I don’t write to empty my mind I go mad” and Henry David Thoreau, an American Romantic, who said, “the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” I’ve never wanted to be one of that mass. Keats died after just three months in Rome beside the Spanish Steps at twenty-five; Shelley was living in Tuscany when he drowned off the coast of Italy at twenty-nine. Byron died from exhaustion in Greece at thirty-six. All so young. So much more to write. To live. I returned to Marrakesh with a renewed gratitude for my health and the warm climate I enjoy daily. And I continue to seek the best way to live what’s left of my life.
Second generation Romantics Percy and Mary Shelley, Byron, and Keats followed fathers of the movement, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Blake, in philosophically opposing tenets of the previous period, The Enlightenment– institutions, tradition, conformity, science and reason. Romantics were (and are) the Carpe Diem Crowd, idealists who value individualism, democracy, experimentation, emotion, imagination, social reform, change, and nature. Other European Romantic artists were Pushkin, Hugo, Turner, Beethoven, Schubert and Berlioz–all influenced by the philosophies of Goethe (who lived in Rome for a time), Locke, and Rousseau whose tabula rasa (man is a blank slate made by society that writes his story) meant respecting the “noble savage” be he a Native American or Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein who became a monster by the doctor who recklessly created and abandoned him and villagers who feared and abused him, and the social contract (fair play between the governing and governed which fueled the French and American Revolutions).
I thought about how the tension between Reason VS Emotion, Duty VS Passion, Fact VS Feeling VS Faith affects decisions. Just as I lived the questions while wandering Venice three months ago, I roamed Rome believing I’ll live into the answers. Meanwhile I’m learning to wait in passionate patience.
I brought back writing inspiration from the vibrant literary landscape that is Rome. I walked the streets off Via Condotti where writers gathered around wine at restaurants and coffee at Antico Caffè Greco. In the area around The Spanish Steps known in the 19th century as the “English Quarter” lived not only the Shelleys, Byron and Keats but also Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and William Thackeray, Henry James, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne, the subject of my Master’s Thesis, wrote The Marble Faun based on the Faun of Praxitelesdisplayed in Capitoline Museum. I returned and read Wharton’s “Roman Fever” and plan to read Dickens’ Pictures from Italy and Henry James’ Italian Hours.
I loved studying filmmaker Federico Fellini in grad school who said:
Rome does not need to make culture. It is culture. Prehistoric, classical, Etruscan, Renaissance, Baroque, modern. Every corner of the city is a chapter in an imaginary universal history of culture. Culture in Rome is not an academic concept. It’s not even a museum culture, even though the city is one enormous museum. It is a human culture free from cultural faddishness, or neurotic trendiness.
One thing is for sure. From the bizarre to the sublime, Rome is human history. I’d enjoyed seeing the Forum, Pantheon, Colosseum, Catacombs, and Vatican City on two prevous trips, but this time it was nice to do what Romantics do best. Feel. Truly Rome is an Ode to Joy, a Sonnet called La Bella Vita.
Near here in Palazzo Barberini was the home of William Wetmore Story, an American sculptor, poet, and art critic, where expats gathered from 1819-1895.
I’m grateful for roaming Rome which confirmed two things. I’ve been missing my children since December and want to travel and do life with them again more than anything. In Positano a gorgeous villa awaits, but I hope to go when they or my sis can join me one day. And, like it or not, the only constant is change. The Romantics knew this and thus seized the day knowing too soon the day ceases. I’ve experienced adventure, beauty and new relationships aplenty. So much in my life has changed in the last two years. Places. People. Paths. My comfort is knowing the One who holds this gorgeous globe, my family, and me. He has already picked our next path. It’s good to be at peace with peace.
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”—St. Augustine
No history text or virtual tour can compare to cycling through Medieval hill towns in a land where BC structures and prehistoric cave paintings remain. Nor can a classroom feel like wind tangling my hair, smell like lavender abuzz with bees, or taste like fresh bread in an olive grove. Such was my escape to Emporda, Spain.
Each time I leave the classroom to travel–to breathe history, literature, life–I return a better teacher.
I”ll never forget finally touching the wall William the Conqueror built in 1066, commencing the Medieval age of castles, chivalry, and courtly love. Homer and Sophocles were beside me when I climbed a hill in Athens to the Parthenon and roamed the Coliseum in Rome. As a teen I’d studied about partygod Bacchus and Christian Paul. But blushing at pornographic paintings in Pompeii VS standing in an amphitheater in Ephesus where the latter preached faith over religion made what I know to be true feel even more real.
Last month while in Catalonian countryside, I saw a wall older than all but one of the ancient edifices I’ve experienced. Built only one century after Delphi’s Temple of Apollo, Ullastret was the first Iberian establishment raised in 6th century BC in Girona.
In the following centuries, as Romans, Visogoths, and Muslims invaded, more walls, castles and towers would be raised for protection from attack.
Sentries watched for pirates, but even when the coast was clear, in the wetlands below marshes bred malaria which claimed lives. Today, Costa Brava still isn’t tame though locals no longer fight to survive. It is a place of adventure and natural beauty. Here one can thrive and feel alive.
Rather than a trusty steed, I powered through stone villages and past poppy fields on a burricleta, an electric bicycle named for its burro-like benefit of providing horsepower to handle high altitudes.
First stop was a famous bridge, rutted from wagon wheels.
We pedaled our way through Fontclara, Sant Feliu de Boada, Peratallada, and other towns. Five hours later we parked for lunch in Pals.
Chef Jordi, of Hotel Mas Lazul met us in the grove after rising early to bake loaves for the tasting and for us to tote home. The master baker formerly worked alongside Santi Santamaria, chef of 3-star Michelin restaurant, Can Fabes. We sampled six types. My favorite was the dessert bread with pumpkin and raisin. He said children are given bread with wine and sugar as a treat. Each recipe takes 24 hours counting the rest and rise times. While he taught, our hosts made fresh aioli. The bread and spread…delicious.
Surrounded by olive trees, lavender bushes, and mustard-colored blooms, we painted, stretched like yogis across the tent panels of the Project SOAR art area. Too cold to fan their plumes, the namesakes of Peacock Pavilions perched, watching us work to Dave Matthews with a rooster crowing as backup. Maggie requested a Lionel Ritchie encore.
She said she had talked to the President surprisingly easily until asked to show him the portrait she’d painted of him. Then she became emotional. With tears in her eyes (which triggered tears in mine), she extended her arms to show how she had presented her work to him as an offering. All she had been able to say was, “I made this for you.”
On Sundays the girls now see our offering to them– newly painted walls of blues and greens on their sports court and walls left for them to finish in their art tent. Project SOAR is a beautiful space for beautiful girls. It’s a community of volunteers who cultivate confidence and nurture creativity through arts and sports.
Over lunch Maryam Montague, always the perfect hostess and founder of Project SOAR with her husband, Chris Redecke, shared stories of life in Marrakesh and needs for the girls and the village. The Be Girl program, a success in South America and South Africa, will roll out soon with Project SOAR chosen as pilot for Muslim countries. Health initiatives such as dental care and designs for trash pickup and a hamam for the village were discussed. If you’d like to volunteer or donate, please see how you can help here.
I left with new friends, like my painting partner, designer Adrienne Chinn, visiting from London. As her Twitter page reads, “Life isn’t about finding yourself. It’s about creating yourself.” And bringing together creative people who care.
She and other creatives are flying in to decorate welcoming spaces at Peacock Pavilions and the non-profit’s new Dourar Ladaam village center. There girls and their moms will take classes in health, sports, and yoga. Also coming in 2015 is a Big Sis program and a Be Girl pads launch. Learn more about how you can help.
DC-based fine artist Maggie O’Neill paints works inspired by fashion, travel, and music. She also specializes in interesting Washington places and folks from Uncle Sam to Honest Abe, Teddy Roosevelt to President Obama. Partnering again with Maggie are the girls of Gypsy Mint, a Minnesota-based company donating stencils for the weeklong mission. Committed to giving back and eco-friendly best practices, painters and designers, Alicia Danzig, Kelly Fee, and Peg Malanaphy worked with O’Neill at Project SOAR in December 2013. You can be a part of ongoing support provided by Maggie O’Neill Fine Art and Gypsy Mint.
Showing girls how to discover their own passions means also modeling pursuits of our own. I’m thankful that since moving to Africa to do a couple of things I love– teach and travel–other passion paths have aligned. Writing, serving, finding community, even painting again. For all of us, taking the road less traveled does make all the difference.
Like many who come to Morocco, I have stepped off a camel onto sand soft as powdered sugar. I have stepped onto a balcony overlooking nothing but ramparts and sea. I have stepped around a corner in the mountains knowing that more blue alleys await. All marvels and memories under the Moroccan sun. But one of my best Marrakesh moments was stepping into a circle of girls who show up Sundays at Peacock Pavilions ready to SOAR.
Since before moving to Morocco I’d been following the award-winning lifestyle blog, My Marrakesh. I loved the author’s story of moving to Morocco and building a beautiful oasis for guests and girls. Maryam Montague, a writer, interior designer, and international humanitarian aide specialist, founded Project SOAR with her husband, architect Chris Redecke. I hoped to meet them one day when I moved to Africa but had no idea it would happen so soon. They are parents of one of my students and this fall the American School of Marrakesh began volunteering with the nonprofit organization, Project Soar, whose mission includes working with girls from the village Dourar Ladaam. From that first Sunday when I caravanned through gates where girls gathered excitedly, I saw all the good growing in an olive grove, hugged girls SOAR serves, and met students and adults of all ages volunteering. From near or far there are ways we can all help here. Led by a college mentor (her interview below), they filed in, took their name tags from the board, and joined hands with volunteers from Chicago to Texas, New Zealand to Austria. We all introduced ourselves and then, through wide smiles, the girls said their mantra: “I am strong. I am smart. I am capable. I am worthy.”
Outside, the other half of the girls learned teamwork as well as ASM student, Mehdi, and Upper School Principal and Basketball Coach, Todd Stiede, taught them drills and how to run relay races.
It takes a village to raise a child. Likewise, children inspire us to rise to our best selves. On any given Sunday one finds community, creativity, collaboration, and global citizenship here. Two ASM volunteers explain. Chama: “It’s important to share special moments with people from different cultural backgrounds. We open their minds to a bigger world and the idea that we girls in Morocco can do big things….The SOAR mantra is true, and no one can take that from you.” Says Sophia when asked why she regularly volunteers: “We have to. It’s the least we can do. As much as the girls learn from us, we learn from them.”
The great teachers fill you up with hope and shower you with a thousand reasons to embrace all aspects of life… The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights…–Pat Conroy, author and former teacher
Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling, William Golding…writers who were also teachers. The latter based his classic, Lord of the Flies, on his classroom experience. The Harry Potter creator began her saga as an English teacher in my now-neighboring country, Portugal. (So almost did a legendary songwriter from my home in Nashville, Kris Kristofferson, who after studying literature at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, took an English position at West Point. Though he resigned to move to Music City it’s a fun fact for me to remember that he and Conray have Southern accents, too. I first worried about having the only drawl on staff until some of my new coworkers told me they like it.)
I have to remind myself that despite the demands of teaching, there is no excuse not to keep up with blog posts. As Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat told me in an interview when I asked how she managed to teach and write: “The way anyone finds time to do what they most want to do. The time is there. It’s just a matter of priority.” By the way, she taught at the school of one of two of my brilliant new English department colleagues, who, like the rest of the faculty, work really hard daily and care deeply about our students. One of the many firsts this new school year is being the only female and non-Brit of the department.
I’ve been teaching as long as I’ve been writing. After elementary school each day, I’d run from the bus to play teacher to my sole pupil, Granddaddy Ladd. My grandmother, Mama Lou, had taught in a one-room schoolhouse before she married, at a home for special needs children after my grandfather died, and in an elementary school until she was eighty. She gave me my father’s book, The Arabian Nights, from which I’ll teach a story this year alongside The Alchemist, a book that inspired my move to Marrakesh. Although I’ve been at this teaching-thing more than thirty years, the first day of inservice I felt like a kid again. Like a first grader, I had little idea of what to expect, and not since a ninth grader had I boarded a bus for school. Most of the teachers live in the same complex and ride the bus into work daily. Our stop is just around the corner. Since our school doesn’t have a cafeteria, teachers who don’t pack lunches pop into the hanuts to grab fresh baked bread or snacks for the day on the walk to the bus stop. I either take leftovers or, more often, though I’ve never been much of a bread eater I find myself stuffing a loaf into my backpack and pinching off pieces throughout the day; that, a Fanta, and a 1.5 liter bottle of water are plenty for me in summer heat.
My thirty-minute commute has rendered many firsts–passing a neighborhood mosque, posses of pigeons in parks, donkey-drawn carts of chickens, weary workers gathered around tea in an alley before work (we leave for school at 7:15 AM–an American school schedule that lasts till 4:30–atypical of Morocco where families eat dinner/sleep/open shops later). Terra cotta apartments topped with satellite saucers give way to suburban living– villas and turnoffs into spas and luxury hotels along a boulevard lined with bushes trimmed into poodle tails, palm trees, olive groves, and walls laden with cascading bougainvillea. As we turn off the now -country highway, the guards swing open the huge wooden gates. Our bus driver parks, we gather briefcases and bags and walk through the school’s orchard. After two weeks I still marvel at the beautiful building and massive grounds– the arched doorways, long stone hallways, private alcoves, scrolled iron balconies, and olive trees on the playground tempting children to pelt each other with olives. On Day One new teachers meet off the courtyard for inservice where most of the children eat lunch. Our headmaster reminds us we’re one of only five schools in Morocco recognized by the US State Department. We discuss the Mission Statement which begins, “The American School of Marrakesh is a multicultural community of learners.” True. My colleagues from Morocco, France, England, Scotland, Singapore, the Philippines, Russia, India, Canada, and many US states and assorted countries do work and life together, whether interpreting for the French and Arab teachers at faculty meetings; discussing curriculum on the bus or movies or vacations together at our Friday night rooftop gatherings; cheering on a colleague’s son who rides his bike without training wheels for the first time in our complex courtyard; or taking a coworker’s daughter home so Daddy can play Friday afternoon soccer after school with the faculty and staff. Like many 21st century schools, ASM strives to “foster excellence through critical thinking and creativity; build resilience and character; promote responsible, global citizenship, and encourage lifelong learning.” But unlike most international schools, students are expected to not only master English and their native language but also become fluent in French and classical Arab (different from Darija, the local language). My room, which I now affectionately call “the annex” has its own private entrance. It’s beside the basketball courts and has its own rose garden at its doorstep. Last summer I made posters for “windows to the world” using my travel pictures to entice students to read world literature and embrace global citizenship. They want to know where I’ll take them and when, and I’ve assured them class trips are being discussed. My students are high energy–most movers and shakers (kinesthetic learners and/or highly motivated), social and warm–and they all greet me each period with a “Good Morning/Afternoon/Hello, Miss!” and bid adieu with a, “Thank you and have a nice day, Miss!” I really like them. I have 15 in my 9th Grade Advanced, and a dozen in my 10th Grade Standard, 11th Grade AP, 12th Grade Standard. I also teach an elective, Journalism.
And though my first couple of days the temperature was 108 degrees and I wondered how we’d ever manage without AC, the weather has dropped to the mid-90s and become bearable. In fact, the mornings have been 70 degrees and I love preparing for my day, windows open to nothing-but-green– soccer field in the front, flowers in the back– as my daily visitors, wee birds, fly in, land on the floor, and say hello. It also helps in a new place to be surrounded by not only new friends…but old ones, like Bronte and the crew, as well. The library is full of classics and other interesting reads. Teachers check out books regularly for pleasure. During inservice we were treated to hot mint tea, pancakes, and pastries, and catered lunches of traditonal Berber tagines served on china. Yesterday we celebrated our first week of teaching with a high tea–mint tea, chilled strawberry and avocado drinks, pastries, and assorted almonds and other local nuts.
As students and teachers we get two new starts each year–one in January, the other now. Then again, we all can learn something new everyday for the rest of our lives. From the land of oranges, pomegranates, and figs, here’s to a fruitful year.