Under the Moroccan Sun: Restoring a Holiday Home

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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. 

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Photo provided by Maison 71

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…

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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.

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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.

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Photo provided by Maison 71
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Door Delivery Photo Provided by Maison 71
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Photo provided by Maison 71

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Photo provided by Maison 71

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.

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Photo provided by Maison 71

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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.

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In the souks many purchases were made from Zouak artisans who made colorful Moroccan wooden tables and other crafts. 

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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. 

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Latest update Photo provided by Maison 71

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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

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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: admin@maison71marrakech.com

 

 

 

Surf Berbere an Endless Summer Camp for Adults

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A brilliant beam lasers through the blue wooden shutter. Now awake, I push open the window to catch the sun rising slowly, then bursting boldly from behind buildings on the beach. I’m singing Cat Stevens. He loved the Moroccan coast as I do.

Morning has broken like the first morning…

Mine is the sunlight, 
Mine is the morning,
Born of the one light Eden saw play.
Praise with elation, praise ev’ry morning,
God’s recreation of the new day.

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The afternoon before, I’d been picked up at the bus station in Agadir and driven along the coast to Taghazout. The stretch reminded me of the route my kids and I took one summer in a convertible from Santa Monica to Malibu. We’d stopped to watch surfers at Zuma Beach. This time my destination was Surf Berbere to practice yoga, learn about surfing, and live in community with the people who do it.

As we rolled into town I smelled fish sizzling. Minutes later at reception I met a friendly blond girl the age of my daughter. She, like everyone, was dressed in shorts and a tee shirt and radiated sunshine. In Marrakech it was sweater and boots weather, but here, just three hours south, it was summer (my favorite season) again. Since moving to Morocco I’d gotten serious about yoga, and when my instructor spoke of retreats on the coast, I added another destination to my Bucket List.  I’d wanted a fertile climate where my inner flower child could bloom. Here banana trees abound, the sun shines 300 days a year, and people relax.  Seemed I’d found the place.

She led me to the Vista Apartment all shiny clean and spacious. Flinging my suitcase on the bed, I turned and was stunned by the sight of nothing-but-sea out my window.

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As on my first beach solo trip to Costa Rica, I felt broken by beauty.   I’d planned to rest or write before yoga class and dinner, but thoughts began churning within like the waves without.

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Reliving our California trip had made me again miss my children in Nashville. Simultaneously experiencing this amazing Moroccan place made me again realize how much I’ll miss this country one day. My thoughts were like the tide mightily pushing and pulling me in two directions. How can I live abroad much longer so far from people I love across this ocean? How will I go back after all I’ve seen and felt here? How will I give up the beauty and adventure of this place? 

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Thankfully, by morning future fears robbing me of the present had washed out to sea, leaving diamonds—not smoke– sparkling on the water. The night waves pounding the shore below my balcony had somehow soothed my soul as nature and its creator always does. I woke rested and ready.

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As the campers of Surf Berbere had gathered around burgers on the rooftop grill the night before, we shuffled toward breakfast from our apartments to the café terraces that morning. Under clear, blue skies, fat cats chilled and a cute puppy begged as beginners and intermediates wondered which beach our instructors would choose for the day. The pros—many who had lived there for months—mapped their route for chasing waves as well. Van Morrison sang “Into the Mystic” as I finished my coffee.

I’d loved summer camp when I was a teen, so much so I became a counselor. I’d learned to ski on Kentucky Lake as many learn to surf on Hash Point. Nights at both places we circled up to tell tales of days on the water. Here some seemed to be old friends, but most campers were traveling solo and had only recently met. It seemed they, too, had decided to stop waiting for someone else to rock their gypsy souls and had shown up confident they’d find what they were seeking with strangers who’d bond over shared passions for sea, surf, and yoga.

By nine we were grabbing boards and suits at the surf shop, then bouncing on Taghazout’s main street (really only street) toward Anza Bay. In our van the campers were as eclectic as the playlist. Two girls from Cologne, Germany and another from London—aged 27-31—were excited for their first lesson.  A guy from Ghent, Belgium had surfed the Great Barrier Reef. New friends from Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland were in the other van. All were on holiday from careers or retired from public service, as was the man I met from the same area of Wales as my grandmother’s family. All identified me as the only American but were surprised I now live in Marrakech—a city all travelers described as too intense and frenetic.

Later that afternoon two experienced surfers traded stories of battle scars–one a West Australian travel blogger whose fin sliced open his butt. Though it still hadn’t healed completely, he had recently gone swimming in the Nile.

“So you have a gnarly scar!” laughed the UK girl who’d been in wine sales, moved to Surf Berbere, then Sri Lanka, now Surf Berbere where she is taking the surf instructor’s course. She’d had a friend whose board rope wound so tightly around the tip of his finger, it popped the joint off. Both were energized rather than afraid of injuries, but when he said he was traveling a year, she sighed and said the same words another woman spoke at lunch the day before: “I don’t know if I can ever go back again to the western world.”

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The Moroccan surf instructors, Imad and Rashid were patient, skilled, and fun. After warm ups and the lesson, they stayed in the water for one-on-one coaching throughout the day. I quickly understood the close relationship between surfing and yoga. Upper body strength, flexibility, and balance are key.  Like dancing, surfing can be graceful and beautiful once techniques are learned and practiced.  Like life, it’s about being in the moment rather than over thinking.  It’s about catching the wave when it comes and riding it out.

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Fueling us was Chef Mohamed who served huge portions of home cooking including the best burgers and spaghetti (packed for lunch) I’ve had in Morocco. Friday I enjoyed the international fusion of favorites– traditional cous cous with apple crumble for dessert. Managing with Hamza and Beth for James, the warm and welcoming London owner, is Marie. Like many creative campers I met, she is a travel blogger from Frankfurt (where I’ll go next month as well as to Cologne thanks to the girls who said the Christmas markets in their hometown are must -sees). When Marie  isn’t custom planning each guest’s daily schedule, she’s writing her Masters thesis in Brand Management.  She gave me a sneak peak of her  uber-cool line of surfing tights. You won’t see her without a smile.

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Marie (front) and Clare (back)

As for all the campers, they were tenaciously teachable, grateful, and kind. Truly some of the nicest people I’ve met in one place.   Wherever I am living a year from now, I’ll remember beginning yoga with sun salutations that were literal goodnights to the golden orb as it turned orange and melted into the sea. I’ll remember ending class with Savasana under a navy-black sky of stars above.  And I hope I (and single empty nesters like me) remember the words of the instructor: “It’s not selfish to take care of yourself.  It’s not selfish to love yourself. It’s necessary.”

Check out pricing and book here.  Apartment rentals are here.

Thank you to Surf Berbere for an amazing retreat.  As always, the opinions are my own.

And thank you, Marie, for my first Christmas card of the season.  Peace to all from another traveler, Odysseus:

“Come, my friends, It is not too late to seek a better world.”–Tennyson

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Luxury Tent Experience…Camping in the Country

Koutoubia Tent at Manzil La Tortue
Koutoubia Tent at Manzil La Tortue

Whispers within as lanterns flicker, casting silhouettes on white canvas. Stars without, winking from an ebony sky at the palm grove beneath. All is silent but green leather leaves rustling in a restless breeze.

Since I was a child, Hollywood has fueled my love affair with tents. Though Tarzan never slept in one, the adventurous women on African safaris did. So did leading ladies in my favorite romantic movies–Beyond Borders, The English Patient, Lawrence of Arabia. At Manzil La Tortue my adult fantasy of nomadic nesting made chic by sheiks was finally fulfilled. Merging my love for camping and country (Dad’s only idea of vacation involved a campfire, and our grandparents took us every Sunday to visit relatives on farms), my stay at this rural retreat was heaven. As Paula (see video below) said after welcoming me with mint tea, “This is our own little piece of paradise.” I’m so grateful they shared it with me.

I had booked a Sunday pool and lunch day with friends the weekend before. My fish was delicious, the molten chocolate cake amazing, and the pool was perfect.

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I couldn’t wait to return for a weekend stay when I’d wander and photograph the property. When I arrived last Saturday with my friend, Jasna, who photographed me for this post, Paula walked us past the herb gardens. Outside our tent we could smell the orange and lime trees, but the breeze also carried mint, thyme, lavender, rosemary, and scented geranium which reminded me of home.

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As we passed the hen house I thought of my cousin, Sonjia, who showed my sister, Penny, and me how to gather eggs. I remembered my cousin, Brock, who showed prize rabbits as we passed the thatched area where bunnies were munching on breakfast.

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We passed through a gate to a private area where our tent awaited. I hadn’t looked online to see if because I wanted to be surprised. My mind flashed back to last fall when my friend, Monica, and I rode camels to a campsite in the Sahara Desert. I had expected a white canopy cloud blowing in the instead. Instead our guide disappeared to fetch dinner so we stumbled by the light of my phone into a pitch-black tarp where we slept on 2- inch burlap mattresses tossed on the sand.

As I walked inside, I was stunned.  By contrast, Manzil La Tortue provided so much more than I expected… glamping at its finest.

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Tour the deluxe Koutoubia tent in the video below– an immense 61 square meters/656 square feet.  Waking up to morning light illuminating the colorful canopy was as delightful as falling asleep to the wind’s breath causing the canvas to rise and fall.

The rest of the weekend I felt like a kid again in my own secret garden.

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As a Southern girl who values beauty breaks in bucolic settings and family, I love that this peaceful place is owned and run by a team of great people: Fouad Housni and his wife Meriame, manager of two companies, Unitours Moroc and Morocco My Way, providing excursions for guests; Fouad’s mother, Paula; and two adorable girls, Lina and Salma. I enjoyed hearing Paula’s romantic story (video below) of passing through Casablanca in 1970 headed to Canada but never making it. She moved to Marrakesh with Fouad in 1981.

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Tents of many sizes are available as are rooms in the villa or even “camper cars” for those who want to rough it.

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Breakfast is included, and half board and full board is also available for lunch and dinner. As a mom who grilled nightly on my deck in Tennessee and a girl whose dad grilled on every camping trip in Kentucky, I was excited to try their specialty, Planchas, plates of food grilled by guests at the table. Not quite sure what to do with so many olive oils and spices, I was assisted by Brahim, the waiter, then Chef Abdelhaq, who showed me how it is properly done. From Abdessamad, pool tech and security, to Naima who served breakfast, the staff made us feel welcome.

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Seafood Plancha

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Beef fillet with mashed potatoes, apples, and apricots

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Moroccan chicken tagine with prunes
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Gazpacho with home grown tomoatos

Marrakesh is a frenetic place–a speedway of honking taxis and zooming motorbikes.  Malls and even grocery stores blare “disco” music, and at my last pool in the Palms, the speakers that hung over every lounge chair vibrated from a DJ who made relaxation impossible.  Sometimes we need wide, open spaces…especially when the road ends here.  Fouad can assist with transportation.

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Manzil La Tortue, thankfully, is a No Noise Zone.  All I heard were brilliant blue birds singing; fat, white doves cooing; and hens clucking.  Whether your “tent thing” is Gatsby, Game of Thrones, or a childhood version in the backyard, here you can play.

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Lina and Salma watching a child’s program on a tablet

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For the Manzil La Tortue picture gallery, go here.

Thank you, Manzil La Tortue, for a wonderful experience!

 

Native Son and Mom on a Mission

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Andrew, Stephen, and John

Teaching has brought amazing students into my life. And families. The Gentuso clan is one gang I’ll never forget. The three boys’ ACT scores were in triple digits while their wrestling pins racked up powerful points. I loved that they were avid readers, creative, interesting, and best of all, all heart. Knowing them has made my life richer.

Stephen, the eldest, was part of my AP English “Dream Team.” He was an incredible writer… articulate, thoughtful, and sensitive. In a word…perfect. Then came John– energetic, curious, fun. He was in my daughter’s class and became my son’s hero. He still coaches Cole in wrestling. John didn’t just think outside the box. Long before I met him, he’d scaled it, jumped over its side, and never looked back.

And now I teach Andrew, a high school junior, who I met as “Monkey” when he was in the seventh grade. He and Cole wrestled off to the side as his older brothers were at varsity practice. His first big paper for me is below. Be ready to be moved. The pictures were taken by their mom, Tammy, the lady behind the camera at every match…except when she’s in Africa as the official photographer for Hanna Project, a non-profit humanitarian and medical aid NGO.

I saw Tammy’s first photography exhibit when I taught Stephen. A freelance journalist, she describes herself as “a registered nurse by training, who traded in her stethoscope for a diaper bag more than twenty years ago; and then traded a worn-out diaper bag for a pro camera bag in 2005.” Her portfolio may be viewed here: http://www.gentusophotography.com.

Tammy and Paul are a cool couple. They lived in Africa as medical missionaries and now make hours at wrestling invitationals all the more fun. Tammy’s my go-to mom for advice on practical parenting with eternal impact. I’m sharing their story–Andrew’s through words and Tammy’s through pictures–because their mom/son team is a picture of loving others well by serving side-by-side.

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The New Responsibility

by Andrew Gentuso

The reek of rotting flesh and infection assailed my senses, smothering all else as the makeshift splint supporting the mutilated leg was taken away. The appendage was contorted and tattered, much as I imagine a motorcycle accident victim’s leg would look. But there aren’t many motorcycles, or roads for that matter, in the savannah of Northern Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. The injury must have been a severe break at one point, but infection and a lack of medical attention had caused it to steadily worsen until the leg was well outside the limits of our small open-air clinic, which was nothing more than a few tackle boxes filled with first aid equipment. The owner of the mutilation was given oral antibiotics after my mother cleaned off most of the mud and maggot-ridden flesh. He was then directed to go to the closest hospital around, which was luckily only about a dozen miles away. Our surgeons there could hopefully be of more assistance.

Next in the line was a small baby being held by his mother. I hadn’t noticed at first, due to the general ruckus of an entire excited village being gathered in one place, but the child was wailing. It became apparent for what he was crying when the mother pointed to a short, puckered gash on his distended stomach. It was a part of a pattern of cuts around the baby’s naval like the rays of the sun. However, unlike its seven other companions which were now healing into keloids, this slash had ruptured. I cleaned the wound gently with betadine, applied bandages and gave the mother medicine to help with the malnutrition and parasites causing the swollen belly. She, like all the others receiving medicine, was given instructions on when and how to take the pills by one of our translators.

During the van ride back to the hospital compound I asked what the pattern of cuts on the child’s stomach were, although I thought I had a shrewd idea. As it turned out, the slices had been made in an attempt to alleviate the distension of the abdomen by providing an exit for evil spirits, the obvious culprits. This was apparently a common practice and one deeply rooted in the fetish worship practiced by the Lobi tribe. This is the tribe from which I obtained my name as a baby: Olo Dablo, which means “third-born son, white boy”. This is the name African children who I had never met would call out to me as I rode by in the back of a truck or walked past on some errand. It seems that the American boy born in their village was still famous almost ten years after he had left Doropo—the largest village in the region and the location of the small bush hospital my parents ran many years ago.

It was partly this love shown to me by the people of Doropo, whether through a cheerful greeting or a gift of a carved and painted wooden bird made by a man who was my parents’ friend of old, which brought me to the reality about the vast need in places where clean water and a quality education are precious commodities, and simple medical aid is in such high demand. Each face I had seen in these situations was a distinct individual, just as much a human being as I. These weren’t just villagers waiting for the privileged Americans to swoop in and save them; they are our brothers and sisters who fight everyday for their very survival, against starvation, disease and war. I have been impressed by the urgency of their plight. We, who have so much, need to remember those who have so little. And not just remember, but assist in every way possible. The thought that the people of Africa, South America, South Asia and other suffering places are our fellow human beings and deserve just as much as us the love and saving grace of the God who created us all equal should stir some emotions and produce some actions.

This trip to my birthplace during the school year of 2009 opened my eyes to the needs felt by so many outside the borders of what the average American teenager sees. It has given me a new standard by which to judge hardship and kindled within me a desire to serve my God through serving needy people. My throat may be sore, but I at least don’t have a bone tumor the size of a football extending from my mouth and breaking my jaws apart, as one of our patients did. You know, that’s the kind of perspective I mean. Now that I know the realities of life in other places, I am more responsible to do something about them. This is a responsibility that needs to be fulfilled through whatever path I may take and is one that will help shape the remainder of my life.