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 single ladies about reinvention, growth, and joy. They are still in Marrakesh, and I miss them madly. 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. Thankfully, Kate suggested The Selman Sunday Brunch (my favorite meal out) which was truly the perfect choice for the end of an era.
I had forgotten how much I love horses. In another life in the early 1980s, 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.
Selman is a destination for equestrians and sports travel enthusiasts.
At 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, are considered hot-blooded. Because they are sensitive, spirited, and high-strung, they’re recommended for those with advanced equine experience.
The afternoon was relaxing. Horses made grand entrances from paddocks to Sting’s Desert Rose and performed. We feasted on a sumptuous buffet and enjoyed live Spanish music. After lunch, we wandered the gorgeous property and enjoyed a Sunday nap by the enormous pool and tranquil fountains.
I was sad when this day ended and sadder still when I flew away. 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 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…
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.
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:
Splurge at El Mamounia or stay in a riad in the medina.
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!
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
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.
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.
“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.
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
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.
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.
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.
We climbed to the rooftop for sunset and had dinner lit by moonlight. It was a good day.
The moon doth with delight /Look round her when the heavens are bare; /Waters on a starry night/Are beautiful and fair.–William Wordsworth
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.
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.
Before I moved abroad, my friend, Dana, told me how important — how vital — my ex-pat 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 was honored to celebrate a birthday with a family who now feels like my own. The Birthday Girl was given royal treatment Morocco-style: Lunch in a Berber home, a mule trek in the High Atlas Mountains, a toast at Sir Richard Branson’s Kasbah Tamadot, and a pool day at Beldi Country Club Marrakech.
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. (Update: Kasbah Tamadot was named #1 Resort Hotel in North Africa & the Middle East in the Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards 2021.)
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.
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.
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.
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. A Mermaid in Marrakesh, I love doing this kind of research — especially at an iconic 5-star hotel. Four Seasons Marrakech offers a spa and pool pass for escape and self-care for a week or a day.
At the end of March, I returned to Morocco from spring break in Italy, packed away the down jacket I’d been wearing, and grabbed my bathing suit. 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 only.
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 Gueliz. Here tourists — especially solo travelers — concerned about navigating a new city will feel secure and experience the exceptional service for which the brand is known.
Still … Four Seasons is not only for family time, weddings, honeymoons, and anniversaries. It offers women a way to celebrate the sacred relationship we have with ourselves. I was forced to learn self-care twenty years ago when I became a single mom. It was a slow process. I started with going to movies alone, then restaurants, then a B and B annually in the Tennessee mountains. I eventually traveled solo to Costa Rica. After my children left the nest, I moved to Marrakech. Here I’ve found fulfillment in my work, new adventures, and kindred spirits. I’ve also found at Four Seasons a much-needed beauty break for the soul.
I love Veronica Shoffstall’s poem, “Comes the Dawn” (printed below). I would like to find a life partner, but I don’t wait for a honeymoon or a husband to enjoy beautiful escapes. 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Some use walls to keep people out. Others use them to invite people in.
“Inclusion rather than exclusion is the driving force behind the festival,” says MB6: Street Art Curator Vestalia Chilton of ATTOLLO. Responsible for a myriad of murals in the medina created for the Marrakesh Biennale Edition 6, Chilton said the global collaboration began at the Marrakech TED Talks a year ago. There she asked Vanessa Branson, founder of the Marrakech Biennale in 2004, if she’d be interested in adding street art to the event ranked in the top 20 Biennales worldwide. The answer was yes, launching another first for Morocco.
Already a big year for the country, 2016 began with Morocco opening the world’s largest solar farm in the Sahara, and in Essaouira, unveiling North Africa’s largest mural (6400 square meters) painted by Italian street artist, Giacomo Bufarini aka RUN.
The 6th edition Marrakech Biennale–Not New Now– running until May 8 with free admission celebrates the city’s artistic and cultural leadership in building bridges between the Islamic world, the Pan-African diaspora and the West. The event is overseen by Reem Fada, Curator for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, who believes the multi-disciplinarian approach connects local and international audiences to “new ideas and artistic visions from Morocco and abroad.”
On display for MB6: Street Art in the Marrkaech Medina, the “Galery in the Sky,” are murals by Mad C (Germany), Dotmaster (UK), Giacomo RUN (Italy), Dag Insky (France), Kalamour (Morocco), Alexey Luka (Russia), LX.ONE (France), Lucy McLauchlan (UK), Remi Rough (UK), Sickboy (UK) and Yesbee (UK).
On a press tour led by Vestalia and a lunch interview at Kosybar following (video below), I saw the gifts left to the city and learned more about the genre.
A study in contrasts, the works convey not only innovation and change but also universal, timeless values. They juxtapose human diversity with commonalities.
“Street art has no ego. If people like it, it stays. If not, if goes. One mural is already gone,”Chilton explained.
Once graffiti artists on the run, painting where they weren’t allowed, this new generation of contemporary urban artists are critically acclaimed agents of restoration rather than rebels. The independent spirit and creativity of the underground scene which produced works accessible to the general public in urban environments has risen to become the biggest art movement since Impressionism.
The work of Alexey Luka, progressive Russian artist, can be enjoyed in the square of Café des Epices. His work have been exhibited in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Amsterdam, Lyon, Paris, Portland, Rotterdam, and San Francisco, and Rome. Alexey is a member of the creative association ‘Artmossphere’ which organized the 1st Moscow Biennale of Street Art in 2014, supporting Russian street artists and graffiti writers. Photo by Ian Cox
Worldwide acceptance has led to commissioned public works and inclusion in high profile galleries and art festivals. Mainstream culture and media has created demand for the sale of originals and multiples, which allowed street artists to break into the art world with access to galleries, museums and auction houses such as Christies and Sotheby’s.
Morocco’s Renaissance Man and the Biennale’s Native Son, Kalamour, has been passionate since childhood about drawing, photography, painting, and music. His paintings and sculptures have been exhibited in Canada and his home country. Also an award-winning video artist, Kalamour’s releases have been featured at festivals in Morocco and Portugal.
British born artist Lucy McLauchlan (below) has work in galleries and museums and on multi-story buildings throughout Europe, gigantic billboards in China, on walls outside Moscow’s Red Square, and on New York subway tunnels. She deeply respects nature and uses etches of leaves and other elements of her environment in her paintings.
Just outside the gate of Dar El Bacha is the work of the most famous participant in the project, MadC. Despite being booked five years out, Claudia Walde enthusiastically joined the Marrakesh project and created a fan frenzy on social media. Her mural was created with seventy cans of colors. Born in Bautzen, GDR and currently based in Germany, she holds degrees in Graphic Design from the University of Art and Design, Halle, and Central Saint Martins College, London. Her two books on sticker art and street fonts published in 2007 and 2011 are praised for their anthropological insight into the graffiti art movement. Her name, derived from her childhood nickname, “Crazy Claudia” encourages all to live their creative dreams.
RUN, Italian-born Giacomo Bufarini, is a beloved muralist of international street art. His Marrakesh mural is outside Palace Bahia. A lover of travel, the London resident’s epic-sized murals distinguished by detail and complexity, colorful faces and interlocking hands, stretch from here to China and attest to his playfulness and commitment to communication. His characters speak languages of diverse audiences, and while painting in Essaouira and Marrakesh, the artist impressed Moroccans with his willingness to take time for friendly chats. His measure of success? He says if a child likes his work, he is happy.
One of the most dramatic moments of the tour was turning a corner off frenetic Mohammed V into an alley car park and seeing the works of LX.ONE and Remi Rough canopied above.
In one week eleven painters completed the MB6 Street Art exhibition, but their contribution to the city and the world that enjoys it will be appreciated long after. Below Vestalia, joined by a member of her team, Elena Ivanova, speaks warmly of Moroccan hospitality, kindness, and the human spirit inherent in this city and this global collaboration.
Making a grand entrance must have originated in Marrakech. Crossing that first threshold from the manic Medina into a roofless riad respite– blue skies or stars above—is a moment no one ever forgets. I am still thrilled every time I follow surreptitious streets snaking through the medieval city… duck archways and dodge motorbikes, donkey carts, and darting cats… then knock on a heavy wooden door that slowly swings open into a secret, peaceful place.
One of those surreal experiences when so much of what my heart loves to see, hear, taste, and touch materialized like magic. Here classic French Elegance, Hollywood’s Golden Age Glamour, and Desert Dreams meet…a rhapsody in blue.
Welcomed warmly by owner Alexandra Richards, I could hear past the streaming foyer fountain Mancini crooning “Moon River” to a chirping courtyard chorus. Named for the Emberiza family of birds indigenous to South Morocco and considered sacred in Marrakesh, the boutique hotel that took two years to renovate was guarded by these feathered friends. They had comforted Alexandra who moved from Melbourne and found the process, like other expats building a new home in a foreign country, fraught with frustrations. A Barrister of Queen’s Counsel, the highest appointment and level of professional recognition in Australia, the Human and Civil Rights attorney is, no surprise, a strong, smart Leading Lady of her new life. But she is also a woman of beauty, style, wit and grace and reminds me of Big Screen legends like Lauren Bacall and Faye Dunaway.
When I asked what moving to Morocco taught her, she replied:
“One thing I have learned here is to ‘never say never and never say always.’ I believe Talleyrand said this of politics and war. I would say it of everything here.”
To a musical mix of Moroccan, French, and Frank (Sinatra), I wandered the riad as slowly as the turtles who live there, delighting in the details—gorgeous artwork, antiques, bedding, and baths. As I climbed the stairs to tiered terraces, then the rooftop, I could imagine Truman Capote working or Holly Golightly playing here. Riad Emberiza Sahari is a venue for artists’ retreats, weddings and social gatherings, solo or romantic escapes, and the ultimate girls’ getaway. Offerings include excursions, cooking classes, massages, yoga, or meditation.
As darkness descended the riad became even more magical–the pool and fountains dancing, flickering, reflecting lights and candle flames to classical music. We talked at table under orange and lime trees about our love for our children and for this strange, irresistible city.
I would return months later for Kate’s birthday and always look forward to seeing Alexandra. She inspires me as a woman of reinvention, as one who followed her dream and created an oasis where others can rediscover theirs. Riad Emberiza Sahari is the manifestation of who she is and what is right with the world– a dramatically beautiful, comfortable, and peaceful place.
Alexandra: “I agree with Winston Churchill that ‘Marrakech is the most beautiful place in the world.’ But a place of great beauty AND great ugliness, a place of contrasts and contradictions. Therefore it never lets you alone and you always know you are alive.”
Since meeting Charles Hantom and Susan Machin, Directors and Founders of Jarjeer Mules, last year at Café du Livre, I have wanted to see their sanctuary– a retirement home and nursery for aged, abandoned, and disabled equines and a learning center for visitors of all ages. See their story below of how stray dogs changed their mission from building a guest house to sheltering and rehabilitating donkeys and mules.
With a history of helping people–Charles, a retired solicitor honored by the Community Trade Union for his service to iron and steel workers and Susan, a practicing barrister, representing vulnerable adults in the UK– they now rescue animals, sharing the love by teaching empathy to children who ride the older donkeys and providing adults opportunities to be involved from near or far.
My coworker Fiona organized a van for us to travel 24 kilometers out of Marrakech toward the Atlas Mountains–a gorgeous ride. When we arrived, ten dogs, barking and tales wagging, met us at the gate. Inside twenty donkeys and four mules were having breakfast. Curious to see what we brought them for dessert, they nuzzled in to eat carrots, apples, and sugar cubes.
Above is Jerry who arrived as a tiny orphan, was attacked by a dog, but with extensive surgery and constant care survived and now thrives. Read his story and that of Alan, Sally, Tommy and the the whole herd here.
Before the ride back, we enjoyed mint tea and biscuits from a peaceful, pretty patio as puppies rolled in the grass. I have always loved the country–as a kid in Kentucky visiting family on weekends and as a newlywed living on a thoroughbred farm. I was out of practice and more skittish than the mules for fear of being kicked, but I’m really glad I went. Yet another reason to love Morocco.