My holiday season commenced with a road trip to Rock Hill, South Carolina where women of all ages gave and received gifts that nourished the spirit. Ruth Surface of Mended by Hand Massage and Wellness organized the event which benefited Keep It Real, Mommy, a nonprofit organization empowering women to care for their emotional, physical, and spiritual needs.
KIRM Founder Danielle R. Adamczyk shared her story and goals for the community she has created–women brave enough to be transparent about the challenges of motherhood. Plans include a life coach, chaplain, and counselor on staff to support women through miscarriage and grief, overcoming childhood trauma, and learning self-love. Danielle wants mothers to know they are not alone. A fast-growing organization based in Charlotte, North Carolina, KIR plans through expansion and legislation to positively impact women’s lives nationwide.
Ruth asked me to read travel tales of living in Morocco and offer guests ways to chart their own adventures–local or global– in the new year. Bonus was meeting Ruth’s friends and family while spending time with her mom, Sally. Sally and I have been soul sisters since kindergarten, and she was driving down from Virginia. I couldn’t wait to see her newest jewelry line, Chérie, inspired by the photos I’d taken on my journey in Africa–a continent Ruth and Sally called home for nineteen years.
I shared that self-care was foreign to me until I unexpectedly became a single mom when my children were one and three. I hated the times when they were away, but wise women convinced me to use the space to recharge. Over the years, baby steps—lunch out on a pretty patio, walking through the woods or a museum —eventually turned into strides—an overnight stay at a B and B, learning Latin dance, leading students and volunteering on trips abroad. Beauty and adventure infused me with superpowers moms, teachers, and creatives need–wonder, confidence, calm. And when my kids grew up and flew away, God called me to fly away, too. In Africa I felt like a girl again and a woman much loved. Chérie means “cherished” in French, the language of Niger and Morocco where Sally, Ruth, and I lived.
Some who attended were young moms. Others were grandmothers caring for their parents. Most said wistfully they’d like to travel solo, with a spouse, or a friend. I offered a calendar to intentionally schedule timeouts in the new year–be they massages, art classes, trips abroad or across town.
Practicing what we preached, Sally and I explored Rock Hill, a southern city just south of Charlotte reminiscent of the Kentucky hometown of our youth. First stop was Ruth’s new salon smelling of newly sprouted grass, essential oils, and fresh paint. At Milk and Sugar, Owner Yolonda Licea, as delightful a lady as you’ll ever meet, makes staff and clients feel like family. Though busy preparing for the official grand opening, she sat cross-legged on the floor telling me the story of her heaven-sent space. I believed her. After my long drive from Tennessee, the facial from Jess James and massage from Ruth were as soothing as naps under angel wings.
We drove to East Main Guest House Bed and Breakfast Inn which proved to be the place to stay. Though the Rock Hill square rocked with live music (Food Truck Friday), we opted not to walk into town but to relax in our beautiful surroundings. Once the home of the town doctor, the inn is now a healing haven of southern hospitality. Our room was perfect–pretty and overlooking the garden. The twin beds brought back memories of my sharing a room with my sister and birthday sleepovers (called slumber parties when Sally and I were kids). We enjoyed meeting other guests at breakfast and seeing signatures from around the world in the guest book. If you want to experience a charming, quiet getaway or need a venue for a southern wedding or women’s event, this is your place. Tell gracious Innkeepers Scott and Donna Peterson I sent you.
For more information on Chérie, please see brochure. And in the new year, remember to follow your heart, walk in faith, choose adventure, wonder at beauty, seek and find.
Thank you to East Main Guest House Bed and Breakfast Inn and to Ruth of Mended by Hand for your hospitality. As always, the opinions here are my own.
Last spring when my friend Caroline offered me her holiday home as my private writing retreat, I was thrilled. Though we’d never met in person, we’d been in contact since 2016 just before I left Morocco. After I moved to the Dominican Republic, she bought the house and sent me photos of each phase of its restoration. I was returning to Marrakech in June and couldn’t wait to finally step into the haven she had designed. She’d be working out of the country but would leave the key for me.
Months before the trip, I started envisioning myself wearing a kaftan again, journaling mornings on her rooftop couches and clicking afternoons on my laptop in her jade courtyard. The color she chose for the entrance tile and kitchen reminded me of the Emerald City. Appropriate, I thought, because Magical Marrakech had been Oz where I’d lived over the rainbow for two years. I couldn’t wait to return.
I imagined scouting the souks in her neighborhood for wedding quilts–my most prized Moroccan treasure– and eating next door at the hotel she frequented. As I’d done before, perched on ramparts above the African Coast, balconies on the Mediterranean Sea, and atop other medina guest houses, I’d watch sunsets. And as the moon rose, though a female solo traveler, I’d feel safe so high in the dark. The panoramic views at sunrise and star-filled heavens at night– beauty breaks for the soul– would give me new perspective. I’d feel protected, closer to my creator, and thus more creative.
An inspiring place to write is always top of my list when choosing accommodations. When traveling with children to Florida beaches, I’d book stays with pretty ocean or pool side patios where I could work before they woke up. Writing for me is a sacred space, and to do so in an Edenic location makes my heart sing.
But like Amanda Wingfield, despite all my “plans and preparations,” things sometimes went awry. My 2013 trip to Costa Rica to write like Hemingway in a Caribbean jungle was rattled off course by an earthquake and ER visit. On the 2016 Girl’s Trip to Tuscany rather than writing in a vineyard villa the flu or pneumonia forced me to bed. I then finished the week like the walking dead. Spring Break 2017 in the Dominican Republic I was to write on a terrace by the sea. Instead, a man hiding in the jungle in a mask marred my sense of safety for the two months I had left to teach in the country. God protected me and I’m forever grateful, but I’d discover in Morocco over a year later that like Michael Myers in the Halloween film, fear had stowed away in my luggage to stalk me.
I felt him, faintly, in the distance when I met Moni in Madrid on my way to Marrakesh but thought I was just rundown from a rough interim teaching gig or exhaustion from the last two years. Seeing her would be good medicine as would be seeing Kate and Jasna in Morocco where, before, I’d felt so free. But while making my way one afternoon back to a hotel I was reviewing, I thought I was lost. Though I’d shopped and riad-hopped for two years in the medina, turning onto a deserted street–like the stretch of beach where the man grabbed me–I became terrified. I hurried on–as it turned out, on the right route–and turned down another deserted alley where I knew the hotel entrance would be. When a man on a motorbike turned down the same street, I began stabbing my key, hands shaking, to hit the hole. I stumbled over the threshold and pulled the bolt behind me. In my room, I shook and cried. Was this what people call post traumatic stress?
The next trigger was when I went to Caroline’s. Kate said she’d see me settled but couldn’t stay. We took a taxi to a part of the medina we weren’t familiar with, then were told by the driver we’d have to walk the rest of the way. A young man heard us talking about the hotel where we would get the key and pointed down a narrow street. Though the hotel was there and the riad just around the corner, by the time we unlocked the door I was racked with anxiety.
Two of Caroline’s friends from London stopped by to give us the tour. They said they were staying next door until the next day and while Marylynn, a flight attendant, chatted with Kate in the salon, Martina, a hair stylist, took me up three more floors. She unlocked each gorgeous bedroom and the stairway to the roof.
“Caroline said to choose the room you like best.”
“They’re all so pretty,” I managed to say. I tried not to start crying. And failed.
“I apologize. Something bad happened to me in the Dominican Republic. I love Morocco. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Caroline was so sweet to offer me her home. I wish you two were staying here. ” I was thinking, I AM VERY, VERY AFRAID. I DON’T WANT TO BE ALONE. Somehow, she knew.
“Listen. We will be right next door. You can wave to us from the roof.” She kindly smiled and nodded, shaking her curls and, now animated, pointing to the neighboring restaurant.
“We are going to dinner there and you will join us. We leave tomorrow so I have to do a bit more shopping. My daughter’s getting married and I need to buy some things to take home. Relax and we’ll be back in a couple of hours. We’ll have some Prosecco on your rooftop and head over. Tell me what you’d like and I’ll make you a reservation. We’re having lamb. Do you know tapping? I’ll show you how to be free from those bad vibes.”
And with that the three women were gone. Caroline checked in by phone to be sure all was well, and I unpacked and shortly Martina and Marylynn returned. We talked children, travel, tapped, and toasted the sunset. Then laughed, a lot, over dinner. They were fun and so very sweet.
They walked me back to the riad, and the next morning, before we met for breakfast, I took photos of the hotel to remember yet again time I’d been able to depend on the kindness of strangers. I hated hugging them goodbye, but we have stayed in touch and hope to meet again on one continent or another. I’d love to host them and Caroline in Nashville.
The remainder of my stay whenever I was afraid, I prayed. I wrote of how God had protected me–in the DR and throughout all of my life–and thanked Him for a place where He had again given me roses in the desert.
I knew last summer my time for living in Morocco had passed, but I hope to return there often. Next June I hope to show others on a writing retreat this place that moves me and so many.
And on the last night at Caroline’s, I climbed to the rooftop. I’d been saved from a predator on a faraway shore. I could have been harmed, even died, but he hadn’t taken me down, made me too afraid to be alone or to travel. Fear had almost made me miss staying in Caroline’s lovely home and meeting her friends. God was still protecting me and blessing me with people who make me feel less alone. I had fresh hope that one day I may travel with not only amazing women friends but also someone else.
I felt him out there. Not the guy I’d dreaded, but the one I’ve been waiting for. The one who waits for me. And then I found the poem below by Hafiz Shirazi, a 13th Century Persian Poet. I twirled and smiled.
I SAW YOU DANCING
I saw you dancing last night on the roof
Of your house all alone.
I felt your heart longing for the
I saw you whirling
Beneath the soft bright rose
That hung from the invisible stem in
So I began to change into my best clothes
In hopes of joining you
I live a thousand miles away.
You had spun like an immaculate sphere
Just two more times,
Then bowed again so sweetly to
You would have found God and me
Standing so near
And lifting you into our
I saw you dancing last night near the roof
Of this world.
I feel your soul in mine
Calling for our
The house is a metaphor for the self, of course, but it also is totally real. And a foreign house exaggerates all the associations houses carry…. And, ah, the foreign self. The new life might shape itself to the contours of the house, which already is at home in the landscape, and to the rhythms around it.–Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun
I love a love story, a happy ending, a dream come true.
In 2016, three weeks before I left Marrakesh, I received a message from a blog reader, a woman from Kerry County, Ireland. She’d lived in London twenty years, eleven as a flight attendant, and was then working in the Middle East. She reached out as a kindred spirit:
I have visited Marrakech every year for the past five years and am totally in love with it. I stay in the same riad, eat in the same restaurants, Pepe Nero, Le Foundouk, and relax in the same spa. Why change somewhere you love going? I am convinced in a previous life I lived in Morocco. Anyway, I am thinking of buying a renovated riad in Marrakech…
She wondered if I had European friends who had bought riads there as well. She wasn’t buying as a business venture but as a holiday home for herself, friends, and family. We bonded over our favorite films, Under the Tuscan Sun and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, stories of women who restored houses and made new lives in faraway lands. She finished:
…actually felt the need to email you as you remind me so much of one of my friends, Jo, who is just so like you with her outlook and is always taking herself off to Italy.
PS I adore Italy. Tuscany & Venice are too of my favorite places.
And with that, we were friends. I connected her with homeowners in Marrakesh who had fulfilled the same dream. Over the next two years, we stayed in contact.
I looked forward to her photos and updates:
It was so much fun house hunting in Marrakech online in my living room. After much research, I contacted Chic Marrakech, an estate agency, and viewed options on my visit in October 2016. The moment I crossed the door at Maison No. 71, I knew it was the house for me. The house was in good condition, but I could imagine vividly how beautiful it could be…
When I set foot on the rooftop terrace I could see the snow- covered Atlas Mountains in the distance. It was idyllic. It just felt right. I could see the potential, and immediately I made an offer on that day.
Realistically if you are going to buy in Marrakesh, you need to evaluate the state of the dwelling. Many of us fall in love with the property and we don’t want to suppose that the water tanks could burst or that there could be a damaged chimney. In my case I had no roof or canopy over the courtyard and of course when I returned in February 2017 to sign the paperwork for the house and collect my keys, it rained and rained and rained. It was cold and wet and I was not prepared for the wave of emotion which came over me. It only then dawned on me, “What have I done buying a house with no roof?”
Luckily I had a friend with me who calmed me down. The next morning the sun shone and everything fell into place. The seller was a very talented Italian man named Adriano who actually restores Moroccan properties and was so generous. He shared his workers with me and also gave me his valuable time and now it has lead to a wonderful friendship. I had to rely on photos of the work which was going on, especially when I decided to replace the doors and entrance tiles.
She forwarded me photos documenting the restoration, a labor of love.
From February 2017 to present I lovingly restored the house, from furniture to tiles, everything I sourced locally. I wanted to keep it traditional with pops of color as Marrakech is bright and colorful. I replaced my doors with glass doors to let in more light which is really lovely in the warm days to open the doors and hear the Medina sounds around.
There were some mad impulsive buys like the brass princess bed which I bought without thinking it through. However it is now a much admired bed by many of my guests.
In the souks many purchases were made from Zouak artisans who made colorful Moroccan wooden tables and other crafts.
Everything was done slowly and I decorated room by room. Hours were spent in Bab El Khemis, a huge antique flea market, sourcing everything– Indian paintings, French chandeliers , Moroccan lanterns and furniture which I restored. Rugs, cushions, and blankets I purchased from a local shop on my street, of course bartering which is key in Marrakech and which I enjoyed.
Since Spring 2018 my friends have visited Maison 71 and I celebrated my birthday there. They all love it as much as I do.
I focused on finding a home, a project to work for, a focus and that became Maison 71. Passion and persistence is what really matters. Dreams are achievable with hard work and focus. I made my dream my reality in my early 40’s. I found and bought my haven in a foreign land. My dream holiday home.–Caroline
Last June, Caroline invited me to stay in her riad as a writing retreat. It was truly an honor and blessing. More on that in the next post…
I’m thankful for modern-day Pen Pals. Women who share their journeys, transform houses into homes, create beautiful spaces for the soul to breathe.
Maison 71 is in the heart of the Marrakech Medina and occasionally allows guests to rent the full house for retreats or long weekends. If interested, reference this post and make inquires here: email@example.com
Asheville, North Carolina makes a great girl getaway destination–not only because of the beautiful Biltmore mansion (which housed the Glamour On Board: Fashion from Titanic The Movie exhibit I LOVED) but also because of five other fabulous finds.
Reason 1: The Downtown Restaurants
Reason 2: The Shopping
Reason 3: Biltmore Gardens and Grounds
Wonder beckons as you enter The Biltmore Estate through what seems to be a primeval forest. Here one of my favorite films, Last of the Mohicans, was shot. Nearer the house are 2.5 miles of garden paths to wander and a conservatory full of orchids and other delicacies. On this estate Frederick Law Olmsted, father of American landscape architecture, created his last masterpiece after designing New York City’s Central Park and Boston University campus. Gardeners wanting inspiration can plan a visit by the Biltmore Bloom Report and share with others by posting photos on social media at #BiltmoreBlooms.
Reason 4: Blue Ridge Mountains
The Blue Ridge Mountains and Asheville create quite the artist community. Two famous novelists, Thomas Wolfe, author of Look Homeward, Angel, and Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain, are from Asheville. The Waltons television series was set in the Blue Ridge and The Andy Griffith Show’s Mayberry was based on a nearby North Carolina town.
Reason 5: Grove Park Inn
Not to be missed is The Grove Park Inn. It’s no wonder F. Scott Fitzgerald thought such a setting would inspire a comeback. Ten years after writing The Great Gatsby he rented a room during the summers of 1935 and 1936 to recuperate from tuberculosis and a gin addiction. Nearby at Highland Hospital, his wife, Zelda, an Alabama girl, was in a psychiatric ward. She died there in a fire in 1948 with eight other patients. Though even the Grove Park Inn couldn’t save the Fitzgeralds, it is today a honeymoon and anniversary haven. It also made a great place for old friends to relax.
Its stone fireplaces in the great hall are legendary, but we were thrilled to have a warm day to sit on the back veranda and catch up for hours. Sally had driven from Virginia and I from Nashville. We made a feast of a cheese plate, wine, and conversation in real time. We’d met in Head Start–friends since five– in Kentucky. We kept in touch by letters and cassette tapes while she raised four children in Africa and I raised two in Tennessee. I’d moved to Africa when she returned to the US and we hadn’t seen each other in years. Though we only had 24 hours in Asheville due to work schedules, we went go for it–what real friends do–grabbing the time and picking up as if there had been no time apart.
Thank you North Carolina for your charm and hospitality. Readers, where do you recommend for getaways with old friends?
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” –Maya Angelou
On a February Sunday in 2016 I sat calm, spent on the shore of Sidi Kaouki. Two of my closest friends, Kate and Ritchie, were with me eating salads by the sea. We were aware that our time together was short—a hazard of expat life that bonds people fierce and fast. I had told the school I wouldn’t be returning to Morocco in the fall. When offered another contract, I was tempted to stay longer because leaving the kids, friends, and country would be so hard and no job had opened at home. But I missed my kids and though they were adults, I felt they needed me.
We had completed a writing workshop at the Blue Kaouki hotel in a rural area twenty-five miles south of Essaouria. Jason, a writer and our co-teacher, had led the workshop of faculty members. He and his fiancé often surfed at the quiet beach town, so we stayed at their usual hotel, which had a terrace and sunroom where we could meet shielded from the February wind.
We had left school on Friday and while the ride through the rural countryside was beautiful, my gut churned. A policeman stopped the van and climbed aboard, asking us one-by-one where we were from and where we were going. Satisfied with the driver’s papers and our answers, he waved us on. I checked my phone again to see what was going on, and it seemed a terrorist cell had been discovered and members had been arrested near there a few days earlier. Even so, this was not what upset me. After living in Morocco almost two years I knew the country’s vigilance against terrorism — the teamwork of the people and the police meant eyes and ears were always protectively watching and listening. No, I was worried and felt sick about what was going on at home.
My plan had been to return to the same address of twenty-one years after my time abroad, but circumstances had left my house standing empty for a couple of months. I’d hoped to get a renter until I could move back in late June, but no one was interested in such a short lease. I couldn’t afford to let it set empty until then, and I didn’t want the stress of renting it for a year, leaving me with nowhere to live. Given the upkeep of a large yard and an old house, I wondered if it was time to downsize. After months of praying and discussing with my family, it seemed time to let it go.
In 2014 before I left the US, I read an article written by an expat that said there would be great gains from living overseas. I knew I was meant to go to Morocco, but the article said there would inevitably be losses, too. I never dreamed our family home would be one. Today, almost a year since the house sold, I am thankful and believe God worked out all things for good, but I still sometimes wake from dreams where I’m on my deck with my dog or in the kitchen with my kids, and my heart hurts. A year ago… the heartbreak seemed unbearable.
I hated that the huge job and burden of getting the house ready to rent or sell had fallen on my brother-in-law, sister, and daughter—months of fielding phone calls; meeting potential renters/buyers; cleaning; hauling; painting; upgrading; waiting on installers, repairmen and inspectors. A back-breaking and agonizing feat, a sacrifice of precious time–all for which I will be forever grateful and humbled by.
I also hated that I couldn’t say goodbye.
So when Jason sat us down and explained we’d be writing from the part of us called our “Crazy Child,” I felt grateful for release and terrified of what would surface. The last two months I’d cried into my prayer journal—pages of countless question marks and pleas for answers from God. The day before we left for the workshop, I prayed He would strengthen my family over the weekend for the final phase of preparing the house to be sold. I asked for stronger faith for us all from the outcome—whatever would ultimately happen. But as my guilt for being away mounted and grief grew, I felt physically sick.
The Crazy Child is an aspect of your personality that is directly linked to your creative unconscious. It is the place in your body that wants to express things. It may want to tell jokes, to throw rocks, to give a flower to someone, to watch the sunset…
To convulsively weep and throw up simultaneously? I wondered, hoping so, because that was what mine was about to do.
The Crazy Child is also your connection to the past. Everything in your genetic history, your cultural history, your familial history, and your personal history is recorded in your body—in your nervous system. Your Crazy Child has direct access to it all. Everything you have done, and everything that has been done to you, is in its domain…
When the Crazy Child writes, it’s a raw, truthful part of you that reveals itself. It has not been civilized…Your Writer and Editor …are valuable aids to writing. But the Crazy Child—your creative unconscious—is the source.
I had thought the workshop would be good for me. I was thankful for a chance to focus on creating something rather than losing everything.
I knew the “Editor”—the critical voice—all too well. It always spoke in “shoulds” and kept reminding me that I should be home in Tennessee this weekend, though logic told me there was no way I could get there and back from Africa in two days. So when Jason sent us off to write from our Crazy Child—not the Writer who wants to organize or the Editor who wants to polish—I felt relieved. Alone I could cry and cleanse my stomach of everything souring there. There would be time to revise the draft others would see later.
When we reconvened I felt weak but better. The dry heaving had subsided. But then, to my horror, Jason said we would share THIS PIECE…NOW. To reassure us, he read from Bird By Bird written by one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, on the value of what she calls “shitty first drafts”:
Now, practically even better news than that of short assignments is the idea ofshitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)
For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.
Normally the “Mr. Poopy Pants” part would have made me laugh, but I just wanted to cry. Again. I felt as I had so many years ago—naked and exposed. My paper was worse than undigested food mixed with stomach acid. Following Anne Lamott’s lead…I told Jason my draft was not only shitty. It was liquid diarrhea. How could I not clean it up? It was sure to smell up the place. As the sharing began I realized I had no other choice but to let it go. To let her go. My Crazy Child would wait her turn, then share like the others.
One-by-one we read. Around the table our crazy kids showed themselves. They were from Canada, France, Australia, The Philippines, England, and the US. Collectively they made us giggle, laugh, nod, sigh, and weep. We asked them questions and repeated back their words—their wisdom, their courage—as their writers took notes. When I finished reading, some were crying and Ally, our guidance counselor and one of the most sensitive souls I’ve ever known, got up, walked over, and hugged me from behind. We all left lighter that day because we carried home something of substance—of ourselves and of each other. Our sharing made us vulnerable, and for that we left stronger.
Yesterday I saw on Pinterest writing prompts my daughter had pinned. She and her brother are doing great, and that makes me happy. Recently I took the online class by Brené Brown, The Wisdom of Story, and have finished the first chapter of the memoir I’ve needed to write, it seems, my whole life. I get up at 5 AM before work and continue after school till I can work no more. Glennon Doyle Melton, Brown’s co-teacher, says we must write from our scars, not our wounds. This morning I reread what I wrote at the workshop a year ago. It was stream-of-consciousness–the gushing flow of multiple losses over many years, allowed to surge when the locks were lifted on the dammed pain. It will be there– in my book—because it covers chapters, decades, of my story.
In some ways I’m where I was a year ago. And not. Then I had no idea I’d end up teaching in The Dominican Republic. I’ve told the school I’ll be moving home this summer to be with my family, though no job has opened there. Whatever happens, I know I’m to continue working on my memoir and that my Father loves and has a plan for this Crazy Child, Gypsy, Writer, and Southern Mom–all me.
*I know many of you have told me you want to write your story, too. I have also found these resources to be helpful:
We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.–David Mamet
I am not a glutton. I am an explorer of food.–Erma Bombeck
Santo Domingo has surprised me with its wealth of food choices– from mega groceries full of imports to familiar chains and international cuisine. While many coworkers have cooks and cars, I have neither, so I try to do a big grocery trip on Saturday or Sunday as I did in Morocco to make comfort food–cold salads for lunches and seafood chowder, chilli, Irish beef stew, or jambalaya for dinners–to last the work week. But come the weekend (or sooner when I miss my deck and grill so much I have to find a place to sit, sip, and socialize outdoors), I head up the street in my Piantini neighborhood to an area that after four months here finally feels like home.
Sweet Spot: La Cuchara De Madera
Two blocks from the apartment–dangerously close for sugar overload– is a bakery/brunch/tapas/coffee destination. A coworker took me to La Cuchara De Madera (The Wooden Spoon) last August promising it “feels like visiting a friend’s house.” She was right. On a second visit, I met the owner’s father who gave me a tour. I have always loved baking, but in the heat (only the bedrooms are air-conditioned) up until the last month turning on the oven was done on a must-do basis. Knowing cheesecakes and cherry pies are just around the corner is a lovely thing. To locals, La Cuchara is Birthday Cake Central, cozy quarters for a late breakfast, battery recharge station for afternoon coffee, and gathering spot for evening wine and tapas.
The pages-long sweet list includes churros, bagels, muffins, cheesecakes, and ice cream. Also on the menu are tea sandwiches, beer, wine, and breakfast. Above is the typical Domincan breakfast–eggs, fried cheese, grilled ham, and Mangú de Guineos (green plantains cooked with onion and olive oil). They also serve omelets, crepes, pancakes, and waffles and tea sandwiches.
Piantini Patios: Bravo Forna, Maria Bonita, City Market
A couple of blocks beyond are three patios illuminated by twinkling lights and friends’ laughter.
Bravo Forna offers Italian dishes, fresh salads (Insalata de Pollo Santa Fe below is my fav), fantastic sangria and great music in a relaxed setting.
Next door is Maria Bonita with gourmet Mexican dishes, seafood, and grilled beef and lamb. The service here is five-star from friendly and attentive waiters who make solo diners feel welcome. In fact, the staff allows locals to camp out on laptops here and I’ll never forget the kindness of the chef who, after I’d had a bout of illness and decided to brave solid food again, made me plain grilled chicken and rice–not on the menu.
Just beyond is City Market, a small grocery with fresh produce and a popular deli of cheeses and meats. Packed into their few aisles are imported foods and wines. Here locals gather for lunch or after work for sandwiches and salads. I stop in here as often as my family did at the minute market just around the corner from where I grew up.
Some nights there are free samples of food and wine. My favourite find, the bees’ knees, is this local honey (miel in Spanish and French) which ties for the best-I’ve ever-tasted at La Maison Arabe’s cooking school. I love it in my coffee.
On the Grill
Another place I’ve enjoyed my weekly fix of grilled steak is Sonoma Bistro–always full of locals. They have a deli and wines, cheeses, and Angus beef in the market next door. But of course the ultimate treat is meat on a grill surrounded by friends under the stars. For a cookout on our friend’s rooftop terrace, we bought some ribs and Italian sausages at Sonoma and turned them over to our friend, Master Chef Moises. Between the meat, the view, and Dharma’s hospitality (and potato recipe) it was the perfect night.
Moises Cordero now caters for Destination Weddings at Punta Cana, Samana and beyond (for catering, call 829-944-1521), but when I first moved here he was the man behind the grill at Shorthorn at Galeria 360 just past Agora Mall–both within walking distance of my street brimming with beautiful (though out-of-my-budget) boutiques. Below are photos of our feast there last summer with Steve, Sana, Taylor and Mariya, our friend and coworker who is marrying Moises in January.
Moises also took us to his friend’s seafood restaurant next door, Pier 47 , which was delicious and and just around the corner from the mall’s Margaritaville.
Recently I took Griselda’s advice (below) and checked out Ciao–a great place in our neighborhood not only for healthy soups, wraps, and salads but also a great American-style burger. And around the corner just before Blue Mall is a popular trio of restaurants where folks frequent for food and drinks at 2 for 1 prices–Francesco Trattoria, La Posta Bar, Julietta Brasserie (beautiful indoors and out).
Everyone here has been gearing up for Christmas since trees sprouted all over town November 1. It’s almost 11 PM here and outside my window speakers have started blaring from a party in the courtyard next door. Think I’ll check it out…salsa music calling…
(Added the next morning…So The Who may still hold the title for the World’s Loudest Band by the Guinness Book of World Records for a 1976 concert, but the DJ under my window until 4 AM last night blasted that record with speakers we used to call “mind-blowers” (this from a girl whose hearing was maimed by bands like Aerosmith, YES, and Pink Floyd back in the day). The good news is the rooster that crowed from the same apartment building starting at 4 AM hasn’t been heard since Thanksgiving.)
Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order. – Samuel Beckett
For those wanting the ultimate Dominican experience, check out Las Ruinas in Santo Domingo where every Sunday night locals gather to dance merengue, bachata (both invented here) and salsa—the world dance popular from Asia to Africa to Australia.
I love hearing Latin music played daily in taxis, groceries, and restaurants and hearing it played live in the Colonial Zone feels like home. When in Nashville I danced weekly—sometimes biweekly—with people bonded by a shared passion for dance and music. From Colombia, Chile, Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Cuba, Panama, Canada, Spain, India, France, Ethiopia, Syria, and Jordan, strangers became friends and made my life richer by teaching me about cuisine, art, and celebrations from around the globe. Dancing has always brought me pure joy and freedom. It makes me feel alive.
Las Ruinas is also symbolic of the spirit of the Dominican people. Flanked by food trucks and under bright, colorful lights, Las Ruinas is a backdrop to a sea of laughing faces and twirling bodies. It is a testimony to tenacity. Formerly called The Monastery of San Franciso and built by Nicolas de Ovando in 1508, this first monastery of the New World has been battered by nature and war. First it was stormed by a hurricane, then sacked by Francis Drake. In 1673 and 1751 it was shaken by two earthquakes. French troops collapsed its ceiling by placing artillery on its roof and Cyclone San Zenon in 1930 destroyed much of the building. In 1940 it was converted into an asylum.
Today Las Ruinas is the site of the biggest dance party on the island. The days when Dictator Rafael Trujillo censored bachata are gone and now friends and families gather to sing and see older couples show young ones how it’s done. The weekly ritual is a reminder that despite daunting times the human spirit can rise from ruins. Together we can celebrate and dance on.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
“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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.