Staycation in Nashville…Fond Farewell

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One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.–Henry Miller

I’ve always enjoyed staycations in Nashville, my home for almost thirty years.  After two years of living in Morocco, I am in town for the summer, and, as friends said I would be, stunned by how much this It City has grown.   In a week I move to The Dominican Republic–this time with my daughter who  wants a new adventure, too. Thanks to Omni Nashville–the premier location for enjoying downtown  — we had a perfect celebration as Taylor bid her birthplace a fond farewell for now.

Nashville, voted #1 for Girlfriend Getaways by Travel and Leisure, draws women of all ages with its southern hospitality, great food, shopping, and entertainment.  Here females have fun and feel safe whether gathering for bachelorette parties or mother-daughter escapes. Opened in 2013,  Omni Nashville is within walking distance of Music City’s best–its 800 guest rooms and 54 luxury suites offering a gorgeous place to relax before or after a big night out.   It shares multiple levels with The Country Music Hall of Fame ,  is next door to the Music City Center, and a short walk to The Schermerhorn,  The Tennessee Performing Art CenterThe Ryman,  Johnny Cash Museum (Taylor and I are big Johnny and June fans),  Ascend Amphitheater and world-famous Broadway.

 

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Soon to be TWO Southern Girls Gone Global

 

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When the carriage driver assumed we were tourists and asked if we wanted a ride, Taylor said, “I wish.”  I said, “Let’s go.”

 

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Photo provided by Omni

We loved our room with its amazing view.  After checking in, we took a short walk and had a delicious and relaxing lunch at Country Music Hall of Fame’s  Bajo Sexto recommended by Nashville Lifestyles.com and others.

 

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Back on the Omni property we visited Hatch Show Prints, a Nashville institution.

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Rotated from Country Music Hall of Fame are costumes worn by icons–one that brought back memories from my childhood of the Harper Valley PTA.

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The Five and Tenn stocks local products from  Jack Daniels to Goo Goo Clusters, from Col. Littleton leather goods to Lucchese boots.

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Forgot something?  Like going to the general store, you can find what you need.

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Barlines is the Omni’s live music and sports venue.  With the hearTV app inside or on the patio patrons can stream live audio from any TV in the restaurant from their own iPhone or Android.

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Onsite is Bongo Java–Nashville’s oldest coffee company.  Taylor was impressed with the playlist here and throughout the hotel.

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The Omni brand prides itself in designing each hotel to reflect the character and culture of each host city.  Local artwork was chosen to represent the multi-genre world famous music scene that is Nashville.

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The Ryman

Though we had hoped to use the pool, the weather didn’t cooperate, so after exploring we decided to take a nap before our night on the town.

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Relaxed and rested, we headed toward the lights of Broadway for music, dinner, and a last look for awhile at an amazing city.

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The next morning I was given a tour by Tod Roadarmel, Area Director of Sales and Marketing, and his team to learn more of Omni Nashville’s story.

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We headed to Kitchen Notes, The Tennessean’s 2016 TOAST Reader’s Choice Awards as one of the contenders for the Best Sunday Brunch.  If you’re a local or tourist who has fallen in love with their biscuit bar or brunch, today is the last day to cast your vote here.

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The property has 80,000 square feet of meeting and event space.  Above is one of two ballrooms where wedding receptions are held.  Below, bridal parties and other guests can choose from many services at Mokara Spa.  Locals can also book spa days which includes use of the outdoor pool, named as one of the Top Ten Pools of 50 Omni international hotels.

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Photo provided by Omni

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Photo provided by Omni

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Within a year of its opening in 2013, Omni Nashville was ranked #4 of US Hotel Meeting Spaces.  Here  from the band stage to the boardroom creativity is ubiquitous.  When Tod asked Gibson to donate guitars to be used in the conference room, he didn’t expect to receive pieces played by B.B. King, John Lennon, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Billy Gibbons.

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At Bob’s Steak and Chop House patrons include Reba and Vince.

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Photo by Omni
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On my tour I imagined a bubble bath with a view in the Johnny Cash Suite.

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I remember the night Keith Urban was hanging out on Demonbreun.  He set down his drank and took the stage.  One day I hope to run into his wife, Nicole, who shot the Queen of the Desert in Marrakesh.

Distance gives fresh perspective, bringing life into sharper focus.  With our eyes filled  with the wonder of tourists and our hearts with the love of locals, I said hello again to a town I’ve missed and will always be a part of me as Taylor said her goodbye.  Nashville was a great place to raise my children…a place that gave us all roots and wings.

Thank you, Omni Nashville, for a wonderful stay.  As always, the opinions here are my own.

 

 

 

Farewell Brunch at The Selman

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Leaving Marrakech was like leaving Oz– a technicolor, over-the-rainbow dream that brought together traveling companions from faraway places who became lifelong friends. Like me, Kate from Australia, Jasna from Canada, and Synovve from Norway discovered within us unexpected courage, wisdom, and heart.  I learned so much from these three Baby Boomer single ladies about reinvention, growth, and joy.  They are still in Marrakesh, and I miss them madly. Though I considered a hot air balloon ride as our final outing together which would have been more in keeping with L. Frank Baum’s classic, Kate suggested The Selman Sunday Brunch (my favourite meal out) which was truly the perfect choice to the end of an era.

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Photo by fellow blogger, Kate

I had forgotten how much I love horses.  In another life in the early 80s I lived as a newlywed on a Kentucky thoroughbred farm where I saw foals born, mares bred, yearlings sold, and champions raced at  Keeneland.  Later we moved to Tennessee Walking Horse country where our children were born.  Last Friday I smiled at the symmetry of watching my daughter say goodbye with love to Nashville from a horse drawn carriage  as we saw downtown Music City with the wonder of tourists.  In August we move, two single Southern girls, to the Dominican Republic.

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At the Selman, a family owned and operated luxury property in the top tier of Marrakesh with La Mamounia (also designed by Jacques Garcia) and Royal Mansour, Sunday brunch guests can enjoy the “Horse Ballet.”  Mr. Abdeslam Bennani Smires’s private collection of twelve horses, some international champions, graze as guests feed on the best brunch–actually, the best food in terms of quality and quantity I had in all of Morocco.  He says of his showplace:

“I wanted to create a unique hotel project that offered the traveler a strong portrayal of our culture.  The horse, profoundly linked to our history, seemed to me to perfectly encapsulate the spirit.  I’ve had the chance to visit the most beautiful stables in the world.  And each time, it was an incredible experience.  I wanted to be able to offer people the chance to gain access to and share in this otherwise closed equestrian world, to which access is normally only afforded by the invitation of horse owners.  I want the guest to be able to enjoy the experience in all its glory.  Through doing so, the guest experiences a sense of sharing which is a principle so dear to the Moroccan people.” 

Though “thoroughbred” refers to any purebred horse, the Kentucky racehorse is an English breed developed in the 18th and 19th centuries derived from Arabian ancestors. Arabian horses originated in ancient Persia on the Arabian peninsula more than 4,500 years ago. Via trade and war dispatching the animals worldwide,  the Arabian’s genetic code is found in almost every modern breed of riding horse. Developed by desert nomads who often kept them in tents forming a natural bond with humans, Arabians are intelligent, strong, fast, and eager to please owners. They are subject to more health issues than other breeds and, like Kentucky thoroughbreds, considered hot-blooded, making them more sensitive, spirited and high strung and thus recommended for those with advanced equine experience.

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The afternoon was relaxing.  As horses made a grand entrance from the stables to Sting’s Desert Rose and performed, we feasted on an amazing buffet and enjoyed live Spanish music.  After lunch, guests are welcome to wander the gorgeous property or enjoy a Sunday nap by the enormous pool and tranquil fountains.

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Check out Kate’s Facebook link above where she shares photos and musings on life in Marrakesh.
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Incredible salads (loved the roasted eggplant) and octopus
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The seafood was fresh and delicious.
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Lobster and steak grilled to order

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We all agreed the best chocolate mouse was the best we’d had anywhere.

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In those Lexington, Kentucky years we purchased our first artwork–an equine print.  At the Selman, suites are decorated with equine artwork throughout the hotel.   Friday while touring the Omni Nashville I photographed the Johnny Cash Suite where the statement piece is a wall-sized portrait of a horse’s face.  Art represents life.  Including mine.

I was sad leaving Marrakesh.  On the ride home, I saw  Nicole Kidman in the film, Queen of the Desert, the true story of  Gertrude Belle.  Though it was set in the Middle East I recognized scene-by-scene shots done in Marrakesh.  In a paddock, she talks to a man with an Arabian steed.  It was filmed, of course, at The Selman.

 Desert Rose by Sting

 I dream of rain, I dream of gardens in the desert sand
 I wake in pain
 I dream of love as time runs through my hand
 I dream of fire
 These dreams are tied to a horse that will never tire
And in the flames
 Her shadows play in the shape of a man’s desire
 This desert rose
 Each of her veils, a secret promise
 This desert flower
 No sweet perfume ever tortured me more than this
 And as she turns
 This way she moves in the logic of all my dreams
 This fire burns
 I realise that nothing’s as it seems…

Why I Love International Teaching and ASM

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.—Charles Dickens

The best thing in my life is my family and friends. The worst? School is kind of stressful. I still don’t know what I will major in.

I love how the older I get the more freedom I get. The only problem I have is that I want to do lots of activities outside of school but I don’t have the time for them.

The best? Friends, learning, freedom. The worst? The fact that we are getting closer to the end of high school and I feel I don’t have enough time to prepare.

The best is growing, maturing, learning, focusing on my future. The worst is stress over AP classes.

The best of times is having as much fun as possible my last year in high school; the worst of times is all the college applications and SAT exam.

The best is knowing in order to be happy, you have to accept change and the fact that if you do not make yourself happy, nobody will. I always keep in mind that if I am not happy with what I have now then I will not be happy with what I want to have. The worst of times? I wish I could change this cruel world we live in and create a world that welcomes people and doesn’t despise them. Anyways, I can say that I am positive 99% of the time but to the other 1% I am not because I know I cannot change the world by myself and make it better.

Neutral.

The best is I am on good terms with nearly everyone and I know my nails are always on point. The bad? Nothing.

These were my students’ responses last fall on the first day of school to Dickens’ quote. I had taught all but one class the previous year, so after hugs hello as we filed in from summer break, they wrote how they were feeling about the 2015-16 school year.   I taught an American college preparatory English curriculum so we read, discussed, and wrote about nonfiction, poetry, and classic protagonists from Oedipus to Oscar Wao. We discussed the connection between literature and their own life stories.

Unlike the students I’d taught in the US, they were all fluent in Arabic, French, and English and all would greet me with a “Hello, Miss! How was your weekend?” and most leave with a “Thank you, Miss. Have a nice day!” The majority came to class discussing the latest news in world politics. At the beginning of the US Presidential race they knew more about the candidates than I did and when one candidate said all Muslims should be banned from entering the US, they asked why he hated them so. Since our school prepares them for acceptance into US, Canadian, and European universities, they wondered how this would affect them in the future—how they’d be treated if they attended school in the US.   But overall, they were like all teens I had taught.  Their concerns shared with me most often involved relationships with friends and family and the desire to do well in school.

Student life in Marrakesh represents a tale of two cities. The disparity between opulence and poverty is immense. My students were incredibly privileged compared to most of Morocco where over 60% of females don’t attend school past primary grades and many children of both genders don’t finish school. My students had drivers and maids who got them to class and parents who expect them to attend the best universities as is the tradition of our school. Many plan to bring the education they receive outside Morocco home to improve conditions in their country for all. Their clothes, movie, and music choices are influenced by western culture but they observe the practices and holidays of their country’s religious and historical culture. They are tolerant of and respectful toward the beliefs of foreigners.

Morocco is known for its tolerance of other religions and in Marrakesh, Muslims live and worship beside Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. Likewise, the King and his forces are determined to protect the country from terrorists and subjects work together in a way Neighborhood Watch function in the US. They look out for one another and in Marrakesh areas where tourists frequent are under high security. And just as schools in the US have emergency drills, we prepared our students should intruders ever get past our guarded gates.

Our students enjoyed showcasing their art, music, and acting. They competed in Model UN conferences collaborating over global problems, did community service, and hosted soccer tournaments. The end of the year included senior skip day, water fights, outdoor games and an assembly where those of us leaving were sat on stage to be roasted about our quirks and classes. Their personal, public thank yous made me sob. We laughed about stories of them as well—such as the shark that kept eating my AP students (those who went MIA with senioritis) or the Alice in Wonderland Mad Tea Party scene my drama students performed for the kindergarten kids. Though very talented they became a mad tea party since up until the day of the performance only one student showed up for rehearsals in proper costumes (though the March Hare said he had one but had washed it and it was still wet.) When it was showtime, the White Rabbit (out two months with a knee injury) taped paper ears to his hair, the Mad Hatter borrowed a wool, tasseled cap, and our original Alice ended played the Caterpillar while the original Queen of Hearts played Alice. Their audience loved the performance and I loved working with them.

At the end of the year, I asked my students grades 9-11 (the seniors had already graduated) what they wanted the world to know about Moroccans. Most had lived in Morocco their entire lives, but a few had moved there from other countries, such as Italy, Spain, the US, Russia, France, and Canada.

We don’t ride camels.

We are Muslims but we are not terrorists. We are very peaceful and friendly.

Most Moroccans are kind and caring.

Moroccans give a lot of importance to family.

We are very fun and energetic. We like to go out with friends all the time. We enjoy company.

Moroccans are very grateful for what they have and always thank God.

Moroccans always help people from other countries even if they can’t speak the language.

Moroccan ladies cook very well and usually cook a lot even if there are only a few people eating.

Our food is amazing. We eat cous cous every Friday.

Moroccans are very generous when it comes to sharing stuff with others.

Not all Moroccan women wear Hijabs.

There are a lot of people who are poor and need help.

People always give you a warm welcome and help each other.

We tend to love larger women and having kids is a blessing for us.

It is not always hot here. We have snow on the Atlas Mountains.

Men love cafes.

We accept people for who they are regardless of their religion.

We tend to be late.

I want people to know that not all Moroccans are late.

Answers like the last two are reminders that not all students or people from the same country—any country–see everything the same way. It’s natural, I suppose, to try to quickly assess a place—“get a read” on the culture when moving abroad in an attempt to assimilate. I did. And I was often wrong. Many of my students were bursting with energy and highly social—too talkative in class I felt at first. But as is always the case in the classroom, a closer look and listen led to relationship that always brings a deeper understanding. As teachers we are often so busy with the more vocal students we miss those who are silent. Two of my quiet students wrote of their fears for a new year, reminder again that when we say “All teenagers are …” or “All Americans or Moroccans or People are…” or when we assume speaking up is easy for everyone we are sadly mistaken.

Anxiety is something you can’t really control.  I am a very shy and anxious person.  I don’t like being put on the spot, presenting, or talking to a crowd of people.  When I do I get flustered, my heart rate rises, I turn tomato-red, and I can feel the blood run through my face.  I try to do things to reduce my anxiety but I still feel the same way.

Being a teenager in a a world where you get judged by the slightest mistake you make doesn’t make my life easy and then comes the part of having to impress everyone which makes me have anxiety and panic attacks.  My anxiety is starting to take over my life by making me cancel plans and not do things because there will be people that I don’t know.  I’m happy for my friends. They get me through the bad times.  They are my family. The other thing I’m happy for is the fact that I can go to school and I’m healthy.

When asked what they’ve learned by attending ASM , my ninth graders, a gregarious bunch said…

I’ve learned multiple languages and about the history of the world.

I’ve learned about other students’ cultures outside of Morocco–how they live, what they wear, what they eat.

No racism or bullying allowed.

Accept people for who they are and work hard.

I think that if I grew up in another school I would not be as open as I am today and by open I mean to new ideas.

Being in an international school is fun and interesting. You get to learn about other cultures.

And they made suggestions for tourists in Marrakesh—a must-see list and safety tips on which they generally agreed:

Visit Djemma El Fna and Sidi Youseff Bin Ali.

Eat as locals do at Bejgueni and Cafe Extrablatt.

Relax at Aqua Water Park.

Shop at Menara Mall, Carrie Eden Mall, Almazar.

Splurge at El Mamounia or stay in a riad in the medina.

Visit orphanages.

Do excursions to Terres d’Amanar , the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara. Visit more cities if possible because each has its own story and character.

Mind your purse and don’t walk and talk on your phone.

Taxi drivers and some salesman in souks will try to charge tourists more.

Mint tea and Argan oil make nice gifts to take home.

As I was writing this my daughter read all their responses and asked me to express gratitude to my students for the kind treatment I received. To them I say again, thanks for the memories!

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Anissa, AP student for two years–a dancer and one of the hardest workers and  sweetest spirits I’ve ever known.

ASM Mission Statement
The American School of Marrakesh is a multicultural community of learners.
We offer an American-style education with a thorough grounding in the Liberal Arts, Sciences and Technology, and a highly competitive preparation for university acceptance around the world, especially American universities. Our students strive for mastery of English and fluency in Arabic and French. Our mission is to foster excellence through critical thinking and creativity; build resilience and character; promote responsible, global citizenship; and encourage lifelong learning.

For Those Interested in Becoming an International Educator Abroad…

If you want to make a difference/ be changed as an international teacher at ASM, go here and here. For more on life for teachers at ASM, go here.  For how this journey began at a Search Associates Job Fair in Boston, go here.

Amazing Resources for Finding Your Fit at an International School

Professional Services

SEARCH ASSOCIATES represents most of the best international schools in the world.  In the last twenty-five years they have placed over 32,000  primary and secondary administrators, teachers, counselors, librarians, and interns in schools abroad.  Their school profiles list demographics of student and faculty population, teacher-student ratio, core curriculum, extracurricular activities, salary, benefits, living accommodations and moving allowances, estimated savings, and VISA information. Each candidate is assigned a representative to advise him/her on what to consider when seeking a school abroad and how to navigate interviews, job fairs, and contract negotiations.

Very similar to SEARCH, International School Services is another great option for seeking work abroad.  Several friends and colleagues have used and recommend this service.

For my upcoming international assignment in the Dominican Republic I used TIE Online, another good resource for finding international schools around the globe and staying on top of issues and trends in global education.

School Services/Networking

Some schools, like ASM, provide candidates an online guide for new teachers on visas, cultural norms/history, shopping, medical services, gyms, social life, etc. Schools should offer personal email/Skype information for connecting with teachers at the schools to which you are applying. Talking to someone on the ground about cost of living, the quality of community among teachers outside of school, safety issues, whatever questions you have is invaluable.  I was relieved to learn other than the FBI background check done beforehand the school would handle medical exams/residency card procedures, but remember every school is different and expats have different requirements according to their countries of origin.

Most international teachers sign two-year contracts.  While some may want to stay in a school/location longer if offered another contract, many chose international education to see more of the world. Regardless, from the first international assignment, you will have a network of colleagues and supervisors who can put you in touch with schools where they have previously worked or where friends currently are employed.  Because many teachers lead students on athletic or academic competitions abroad (as I did when I chaperoned the Model United Nations delegates in Russia) as well as attend professional training/conferences, connections are made at other schools/events as well.  My main reason for taking the job in the Dominican Republic was its close proximity to family in Nashville, but I was tempted to accept an offer from a school where a former colleague teaches in Brazil.  Once you make the move, you discover a world–literally–of job opportunities.

Moments and Memories of International Teaching

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Jen, Emily, Bethany, Julie, Rachel, Eliza, Ali, Audrey

“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.

1st Year…

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2nd Year…

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Hope to see Ali again in Nova Scotia one day
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Hope to see Ymane when she visits Texas and makes a stop in the Dominican
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Hanane offered her home should I return to Marrakesh.

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Julie from VA, Jodie from Colorado, Siobhan from Belfast and Andrena from Glasgow do Girl Power classic, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

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Jon’s Art Class

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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.

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Jasna, my ASM bestie on one of the few occasions she allowed herself to be photographed.
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Writing workshop at Sidi Kaouki. Photo by Siobhan Graham.
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Photo of bus buddies, Rachel and me, by Julie Tumasz

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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.

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Ismail was our go-to driver for excursions around the country (like our trips to the Atlas Mountains and Ouzoud Falls; social events; and airport drop offs and pick ups.  He also transported our families and friends who came to visit including a last-minute cameral ride for my niece, her boyfriend, and me.   If you’re ever in Marrakesh, contact him at Morocco Desert Adventures.

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.

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Nick, Anu, and Steve at our going away pool party
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Bringing in 2016 in Venice with Jasna and Anu

Gyrations of a Girly Girl: Palais Namaskar for Everywoman

                                          A thing of beauty is a joy forever. –John Keats

                                 The only lasting beauty is beauty of the heart. –Rumi

                        If I’m honest I have to tell you I still read fairy-tales and I like them best of all…For me the only things of interest are those linked to the heart. –Audrey Hepburn

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I’ve never been anywhere that provided more beauty breaks than Marrakesh.  I don’t mean all the lavish spa treatments and signature Moroccan hammams here.  I instead refer to respites for the soul and playgrounds for the imagination.  In the “country”or Palmeraie, many hotels and villas stimulate the senses, quiet the mind, and move the heart. Friends who have lived in Australia, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and the Americas agree that there is no city offering more sumptuous masterpieces of architecture, landscape, and design to eat, sip, sleep, or swim than does Marrakesh.

When I moved to Morocco, one of my first outings was to the Taj Palace (now Sahara Palace) hotel where the movie, Sex and the City 2, was filmed. I’d vowed to walk in Carrie Bradshaw’s shoes, and as I crossed that splendid threshold I echoed her sigh,”Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”  Last week I had the same surreal experience as I did a pool day on the recommendation of my friend, Julie, at sprawling, stunning  Palais Namaskar.

Though the entrance was as long and mysterious as the Yellow Brick Road and stopped at a door worthy of The Emerald City, after two years here I walked the resort more comfortable than ever in my own shoes and my own story.  In fact, even before I waded into the pool I felt transported to the Orient, the ancient Arabia of my dreams on another adventure, so I kicked off my sandals and felt the sweeping lawn under my feet.

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Since opening in 2012, the property has garnered numerous accolades, the most recent being named by Prix Villegiature as the 2015″Best Hotel in Africa.”  The pool, grounds, and rooftop form a fluid sanctuary where the only sounds are lapping lakes, chirping birds in flight, and waiters scooping crushed ice from shiny silver buckets.

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The four acres of Oriental arches and epic waterways serve  not only as backdrops for blushing brides or runways for models but also welcome every woman–even those there just for the day– to  gyrate like a girly girl, to dream, to fly where her fantasies take her, and to thank God for this big, beautiful world.  Since two I’ve loved twirling in tutus. Here with bare feet and  a big smile I sashayed across waterway walks, swung in a hammock, played in the pool with friends, and made memories caught on camera, souvenirs of once upon a time when I lived in magical Morocco.

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Thanks to Ali for the photos of me.  Jasna, hiding from the camera as always, was thrilled to get a break.  Love you Canadian girls!

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We climbed to the rooftop for sunset and had dinner lit by moonlight.  It was a good day.

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The moon doth with delight /Look round her when the heavens are bare; /Waters on a starry night/Are beautiful and fair.–William Wordsworth

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I leave Morocco knowing that beauty comes from where we choose to look– not into a mirror probing for wrinkles or blemishes nor through a magnifying glass scanning for defects in others.  Wherever we are, we can find beauty, whether  looking up at sunsets, down at cool waters, or around at new or familiar faces. Gazing on beauty makes us happy, and happiness makes us beautiful.  Audrey Hepburn said, “Happy girls are the prettiest.” Truly we smile brightest when we see ourselves and others as incredible, radiant creations.

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For beautiful eyes, look for the good in others.  For beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge you are never alone.–Audrey Hepburn

Joy is the best makeup.–Anne Lamott

 

Getting there: A night in this 5-Star resort averages 500 Euros this time of year, but most hotels in Marrakesh offer pool day specials which they seldom advertise.  We paid at the time of this post $60 USD which included pool use for the day and dinner with the choice of a starter and entree or entree and dessert.  Pools in more modest hotels can start as low as 100 Dirhams ($10 for the day) which does not include food/drinks.

Branson, Beldi, and a Birthday

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Before moving abroad, my friend, Dana, told me how important–how vital–my expat community would be.  She and I were part of the same school family  in the US, and she had a network of close friends at church.  Still, having already taught in Morocco and having lived in France, she said the way friends live together, work together, do life together when family and old friends are so very far away is one of the blessings of living abroad. She was right.

I met Kate, my Australian friend and riad manager, a couple of months after moving to Marrakesh.  She later moved to the apartment complex where I live with other teachers and locals.  Moroccan sorority sisters, we have done meals on rooftops and by pools; walked the souks snapping photos and shopping; relaxed in riads and even a luxury tent.  Baby Boomer moms, we have talked about leaving our empty nests to fly to Africa.  About  wanting and finding more.  We talk about our greatest gifts–our children–and recently I met Amy, her youngest who visited Marrakesh a couple of weeks ago.   They graciously invited me to join them on the Imlil trip and to celebrate Amy’s birthday at Beldi Country Club.  Seeing the two of them together made me more excited than ever about the adventure ahead on the other side of the Atlantic for my daughter, Taylor, and me.  More on that later.

On the way back from our lunch and mule tour in the Atlas Mountains, we stopped at Kasbah Tamadot, the luxury resort owned by British billionaire and philanthropist of the Virgin empire, Sir Richard Branson.  Two days ago he gave Sylvia Jeffreys of The Today Show a tour of Makepeace Island, his newest property called “the most beautiful spot in Australia.” Many would say his place here is the most stunning retreat in Morocco.

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A champagne cocktail to toast an amazing day.

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The next day we were off to Beldi Country Club–a place I’d wanted to see since my former British colleagues, Louise and Richard, recommended it before moving to Abu Dhabi.  They had celebrated a birthday there last year and said the bucolic setting was beautiful and relaxing.  Indeed it was!  IMG_2137IMG_2138

Fields of poppies I saw last year in Spain…strawberry fields forever I heard about from the Beatles (natives of Louise’s hometown, Liverpool)…but seeing at Beldi fields of roses was breathtaking.

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There was also an abundance of Bougenvilla, my favorite native flower here which grows as wild as foxglove in England or as lavender in France.

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The spring rolls were fresh and delicious.
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The grilled lamb was great, too.

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These girls reminded me of my daughter and nieces once upon a time.

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French owner Jean-Dominique Leymarie bought these fifteen acres in 2005 for a farm.  After hosting a wedding party for his daughter, Géraldine, he received so many requests to use the property for weddings and events that he made it into a haven of several pools and gorgeous gardens where expats and tourists gather.  Beldi means “traditional” in Arabic.  A southern girl who grew up on big family dinners and visiting relatives in the country on lazy afternoons, I felt at home and happy until late afternoon shadows signalled the end of the weekend and time to go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four Seasons Marrakech: Pool Days for Tourists and Expats

Last Monday the temperature in Marrakech reached 108 Fahrenheit/42 Celsius making it the hottest day so far this year. Here pools can be enjoyed year round, but in May when temps typically range in the 80s and low 90s, the burning question expats and tourists are asking is where to find a cool pool. In my Southern -Girl -Gone- Global Guide to Marrakesh I will feature the best pools and, of course, hospitality in town.  A Mermaid in Marrakesh, I love doing this kind of research.

At the end of March I returned to Morocco from spring break spent in Italy, packed away the down jacket I’d been wearing, and grabbed my bathing suit.  I was treated to a pool and spa day at Four Seasons Marrakech.  Truly, the name of the world- revered brand couldn’t be truer than in the Red City.  Here spring, summer, fall, and even most of winter, there’s nothing but blue skies, green gardens, and birdsongs.  I relaxed by the Quiet Pool…a peaceful place for adults.

Four Seasons Marrakech offers a safe haven and the best of all worlds… a place to gather with friends and family…a romantic retreat…a space of one’s own. The 5-star luxury resort is designed with the serene, palatial gardens of the Palmeraie yet is only minutes from the magical medina, Marrakech landmarks, and New City of Gueliz.  Here  tourists– especially solo travellers– concerned about navigating a new city will feel secure and experience exceptional service for which the brand is known.  Expats living in Marrakech seeking a way to spend a birthday or simply self-care day can choose from many services the spa offers.

A single mom for twenty years, I decided to fly to Morocco when my children left the nest.  Such a move two years ago could only happen after learning self-care in increments.   It began, when single again, I went to movies alone, then restaurants, then a B and B annually in the Tennessee mountains.  It progressed as I went to Ireland and Italy with people I’d never met, then culminated when I went to Costa Rica alone and later landed here.  Four Seasons is not only for weddings, honeymoons, or anniversaries.  It offers a way to celebrate the sacred relationship we have with ourselves.  Currently the  pool day package for guests not staying in the hotel includes lunch–a starter, entree, and dessert ordered à la carte–and pool use for 800 Dirhams/$80 USD.  For further information contact Concierge.MRK@fourseasons.com.

Years ago I began taking the advice found in Veronica Shoffstall’s poem, “Comes the Dawn” (printed below).   I wanted–and would still like–to be be married again, but until that person comes along I don’t wait for a honeymoon or husband to enjoy beautiful escapes, to live the life I’ve been given.  Shoffstall writes, “Plant your own garden and decorate your own soul, Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.”  In Nashville I once had a garden of fifty roses.   Here, I enjoy them, too.

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“Comes the Dawn”

After a while you learn
the subtle difference between
holding a hand and chaining a soul
and you learn
that love doesn’t mean leaning
and company doesn’t always mean security.

And you begin to learn
that kisses aren’t contracts
and presents aren’t promises
and you begin to accept your defeats
with your head up and your eyes ahead
with the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child
and you learn
to build all your roads on today
because tomorrow’s ground is
too uncertain for plans
and futures have a way of falling down
in mid-flight.

After a while you learn
that even sunshine burns
if you get too much
so you plant your own garden
and decorate your own soul
instead of waiting for someone
to bring you flowers.

And you learn that you really can endure
you really are strong
you really do have worth
and you learn
and you learn
with every goodbye, you learn…

© 1971 Veronica A. Shoffstall

Thank you to Four Seasons Marrakech for a wonderful pool and spa day.  As always, the opinions here are my own.

Jazzed about Josephine Baker and Riad Star

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Riad Star, Marrakech Medina
Photo Courtesy of Riad Star

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.IMG_8289

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.

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Photo Courtesy of Riad Star

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.

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Recently I finally stayed at Riad Star and met  “Jazz Cleopatra,” the legend for whom the boutique hotel is named.

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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.

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Josephine’s photos smile at guests throughout the house, and in the dining area her costumes invite us to try on her life.

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More shocking than flapper dresses in 20s America was Josephine’s skirt of artificial bananas which she wore in Paris for her performance in Danse Sauvage.  In France she was an overnight sensation.

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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…

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I devoured Josephine’s biographies found in my room and the library downstairs.

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In the afternoon sun on the rooftop

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near the cool courtyard,

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and under the covers at night,

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like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris I was transported  to another time.

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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.”

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Before Beyonce…

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Or Rihanna

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Or Angelina Jolie…

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A dancer, singer, movie star, and mom energetically entertained crowds for fifty years and raised her “Rainbow Tribe.”

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Josephine:  “We must change the system of education and instruction.  Unfortunately, history has shown that brotherhood must be learned, when it should be natural.”
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Josephine said when called “beautiful”:  “Beautiful?  It’s all a question of luck.  I was born with good legs.  As for the rest…beautiful, no.  Amusing…yes.”

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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.IMG_1738

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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.

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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. 

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Josephine in Washington with Lena Horne

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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Thank you to Riad Star for the hospitality.  As always, the opinions here are my own.

Must Do in Marrakech: La Maison Arabe Cooking Class

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La Maison Arabe Cooking Class

Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.—Maya Angelou

We are great believers that if you have peace, you have everything.

                       —Wafaa Amagui, La Maison Arabe Marrakech

Excitement swells as two enormous doors slowly swing open. I remember entering this haven of hospitality the previous fall when I first saw La Maison Arabe Country Club.

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But this time I’ll be the one in the kitchen, and I can’t wait.

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Our van journeys along the long lane lined with olive trees until the driver brakes. We follow the path through a green garden of palm trees swaying to a convivial choir of birds soaring, sitting, and singing. A bouquet of herbal heaven on the breeze—the scent of rose geraniums, rosemary, sage, and lemon thyme– beckons us to pinch, rub, and smell the distinct fragrances of each plant. Gracious and gregarious, Wafaa, La Maison Arabe’s Cooking Workshops Manager, greets us as we take our seats around the tented table.

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Organic artichokes

Wafaa explains the power of food as the product and source of cultural connections: “Food is for humanity. We can live together. We are more alike than different in food tasting.”

She asks each classmate where we call home. Illustrating her point, we reply: “London… Lisbon…Ontario…Boston…. Colorado…Tennessee… Kentucky.” (It was the first time I’d met anyone from my birth state of Kentucky since moving to Morocco.)

She then says the best food is multicultural and is made from fine ingredients and a great civilization. Moroccan food, derived from Berber, Jewish, Arabic, and Spanish influences, gives us a taste of how diversity can create unity.   With pride she recounts the mission of La Maison Arabe as Ambassador of Peace and of Morocco’s history of respect for their own culture and that of others.

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Pit for roasting meat

La Maison Arabe, the first restaurant in Marrakech, was started in 1946 by a French mother and daughter, Helene Sebillon and Suzy Larochette.

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At a time when the country was very conservative, Wafaa says, “These two brave women really opened the door for all women in Morocco.” Here Winston Churchill, Jackie Kennedy, and Charles De Gaulle dined often.

In 1995 Italian Prince Fabrizio Ruspoli bought the restaurant and after three years of renovation opened La Maison Arabe as the first boutique hotel in Marrakech.

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I had been to La Maison Arabe before as well, but before the van arrived to take guests to the class held at the Country Club outside of town, I enjoyed seeing the hotel again, beautifully beaming in the morning light.

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Breakfast Buffet

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Wafaa said opening the first hotel in the medina dispelled fears of the foreign as guests lived among locals:

The idea was a real adventure. .. Being inside the medina next to local people day and night seeing how people live…the smell of food… children playing all the time, women who run between work at job and work in house, men all the time in cafes gives people outside an opportunity to ask questions and to know a lot about Morocco’s style of life.

This first riad hotel led to thousands more, transforming Marrakech into a popular tourist destination which employed many and enhanced cross-cultural understanding:

People from outside Morocco see Moroccan people.   We have families.  We are very protective of our children. And we have this respect…. Moroccans are very tolerant, flexible people. You don’t feel isolated. People are ready to serve, to help, even to practice language.   Whatever language you are speaking, we are very eager to speak it with you.

As is Moroccan tradition, we were served mint tea with bread, which we helped bake, honey, and jam.

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Moroccans, unless diabetic, drink tea with a lot of sugar. It comes in large blocks and is broken into chunks.

Into the kitchen…  (Photos by Jasna Finlay)

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Ayoda, the Dada (Chef)

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For the base of the Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemon and Olives, my favorite meat dish in Morocco

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For the Zalouk, my favorite dish of the day, we “zebraed” the eggplant and cooked with  tomato, garlic, and fresh herbs.

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Two hands are better than one for stirring the tagine and Taktuka, Moroccan tomato and roasted green pepper salad.

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Picked from outside the kitchen
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The Dada showed us how to cut a lemon peel into a decorative leaf.
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She also demonstrated how preserved lemons are made. They are slit, filled with salt, and partially covered with olive oil.  As they age, they turn darker.

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Custard for the Milk Pastilla served for dessert

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I left the class and headed for the pool ready to nap.  But first, I thought of all I’d learned. I already knew that wherever I live in the future, on Fridays I’ll crave the comfort of couscous.  Yet the class renewed my interest in all Moroccan food.  Though I’d been served tasty tagines by private cooks, I’d eaten in some restaurants where dishes were bland; but as Wafaa promised, we learned to cook as Moroccans do in their own kitchens.  To this southern girl, home cooking–seasoning to taste with as much spice and heat as I like–made all the difference.   I left with a tagine and recipes I’m ready to repeat, but perhaps, more importantly. I left with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for my host country.

From my first visit to the medina I learned of Morocco’s vibrant Jewish quarter and continued hearing the  history of the kingdom’s pledge to protect and to respect all people. Wafaa told tourists of Mohammed VI’s social reforms favoring women and of the late Mohammed V who protected 250,000 Jews from the occupying Vichy French forces and the Nazis during World War II.  When asked  to enact legislation discriminating against Jews, Mohammed V refused and responded: “There are no Jews in Morocco, only subjects.” Last December in New York City the late king was named first recipient of The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. – Rabbi Abraham Heschel Award given by KIVUNIM:  The Institute for World Jewish Studies at their 10th Anniversary Conference.

Moroccans I have met not only love food but also allow guests their own tastes.

In Morocco, though we are conservative, we live and let other people live. Morocco as a country is very tolerant. It accepts people’s traditions.  Whatever your religion is, whatever your ideas…whatever your way of life, it does not matter to us. We respect our culture and we respect other people’s cultures.–Wafaa

A Typical Saturday in Marrakesh

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My Saturdays in Marrakesh are spent hunting and gathering, hanging out and sometimes haggling.  Though I may have errands to run,  there’s no yard to keep, house to clean, or car to wash.  Shopping in stores, on the street, and in the market followed by lunch in the mix or above it is a time to stock up, catch up with friends, relax.

Grabbing Grub in Gueliz

Moving to Morocco meant giving up a car and Kroger to fill my trunk with food for the week.  It also meant leaving my deck grill–which I used for most meals come rain, snow, or sunshine.  In the suburbs of Nashville we drove everywhere for everything. Though Target was the distance of about a city block  away, it never occurred to me (or anyone I knew) to walk there and lug groceries home.

I’d always romanticized the way Meg Ryan in movies set in New York City built her dinner bag-by-bag as she strolled home from work. I thought it would be fun to live in the Big Apple, no worries over car insurance or repairs and fresh produce on every street corner.  I never dreamed I’d get a version of that in Africa.

In my neighborhood of Gueliz, “the New City,” I can do a Meg Morning–picking vegetables from sidewalk carts (though here they are pulled by donkeys), choosing meat from the butcher’s display case, grabbing a loaf of bread from the bakery, and buying roses at flower stalls (a dozen for $2 ).  For birthday treats or holiday feasts, there are French-style specialty shops selling cheeses and desserts.   To save time, I still  default to a weekly one-stop-shop, either Carrefour (a French chain that carries imported prosciutto/other pork and wine) or Acima whose citron (lemon) tarts are amazing.  Though I know to buy only what I can carry in my backpack and bag for several blocks, I optimistically  overstuff both.  Harnessing a too-heavy backpack too many times has led to a torn shoulder over the last two years, but I’m stronger for the walking and enjoy the fresh air.

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“But my favorite remained the basic roast chicken. What a deceptively simple dish. I had come to believe that one can judge the quality of a cook by his or her roast chicken. Above all, it should taste like chicken: it should be so good that even a perfectly simple, buttery roast should be a delight.” —Julia Child, My Life in France

For a dinner with friends, I bought a whole, herb-roasted chicken with potatoes from La Maison du Poulet.  The owner proudly said his birds are free range and organic.  The taste would make Julia Child shrilly shriek with pleasure.

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On a Saturday morning Sylvia showed the two Mikes and me the French bakery above and the cheese shop below.  We happened upon the chickens; the samples were so good we all took one home.

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With no rent, utilities, or transportation to work to pay, my weekly budget is $100 which covers  groceries (I cook a dutch oven of beef stew, shrimp chowder, chili, or coq au vin on Sunday that is dinner until Thursday and make salads or pasta for lunches), a restaurant with friends or takeout on weekends, a pool day here and there, weekly yoga (or my first year, Moroccan dance lessons) and having the apartment cleaned twice a month.  Some coworkers have ladies who clean, cook, or provide childcare multiple times weekly, but my one bedroom only requires cleaning/clothes washed every other Friday for 200 Dirhams per month ($20).  When I want Moroccan food, for an additional 50 dirhams ($5) and 70-80 dirhams ($7-8 for groceries), Saida, an amazing lady, cooks so much chicken couscous  and vegetables that I have enough for 8 meals so must freeze some.   Lack of preservatives in meats, breads, vegetables, and fruits means I have to use what I buy faster and shop more often, but I’m healthier for that.

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Sometimes I eat from the hanut next door–fresh strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, lettuce, and lemon year round.
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Carrefour Supermarket located on bottom floor of Carrie Eden Mall in Gueliz
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Fresh Atlantic seafood at Acima located near Jardin Marjorelle often includes sharks and stingrays.

 

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The central flower market is a couple of blocks up the street from my apartment.
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I love when friends  in my complex (coworkers and Kate) join me on the balcony for mojitos (a variation of the fresh mint tea Moroccans drink daily), wine, or Tai takeout.
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When we get a Friday off, we can take advantage of couscous  (made fresh in Moroccan homes and restaurants as the traditional Friday family meal)  at The Amal Women’s Center which is open for lunches and by appointment only.  Ritchie and I went there on a 3-day weekend in February.

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I can always count on Kate for finding (and cooking) the best desserts in town.  Though she manages a riad in the Medina, she is always ready to meet for a treat like Cassanova’s chocolate mousse below.

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Jasna and I at our go-to rooftop, Chez Joel, for a Saturday sweet tooth.

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Chez Joel’s Caesar Salad

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On walks to and from the mall I passed this cute cat…till recently.  My favorite boutique for inspiration recently closed.

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Haggling and Hanging Out in the Old City

Sometimes I saunter through the souqs in search of great shots.  Below are guys I was thrilled to find.   Pillow cases and poufs are ubiquitous but it took me a year to find someone who sells stuffing.  Some coworkers paid their maids to have it done, but I was determined to find the place myself and with Kate’s help finally did.

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A picture of the king as a child, youth, or adult appears in every business and building.
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Jemma Fna Square is a place I’ll never forget.

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Loved this spring green purse but passed.

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My shoe guy had my favorite sandal design in a new color for spring.  Morocco is hard on shoes; at best sidewalks are uneven and dusty and at worst they are under constant repair or don’t exist. It was time for a new pair.

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The first place a colleague took me to eat in the medina after moving to Marrakesh was Cafe des Epices.  Since then I go there almost every trip to the souks.  When my children visited they loved it, too.  Located on Rahba Lakdima, the Spice Square, it is a place to people watch, hang out with friends, and eat great food.  The salads and mint tea are the best.

 

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Since I moved here in 2014 it has been expanded to double the size to accommodate all the customers.

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My wedding carpet guys located two doors down from Cafe des Epices.

 

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After seeing Nomad across the square for almost two years, Jasna and I decided to give it a go. I’m glad we did.

 

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Nomad has good food, too, and three levels with amazing views.  The music and couches make it a great place to lounge.

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The gift shop is cool,too.

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By one o’clock the place was packed.

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My favorite feature of Marrakesh is the rooftop bars and restaurants.  Gorgeous at sunset and perfect for Saturdays, they offer an escape to to exhale the week before and breathe in a new perspective.

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