Doors Like Breadcrumbs, Leading Me Home

A few days ago a friend of mine from university posted this message on my Facebook page — “Read this and thought of you this morning. Smooches bubbala!”

Every year, The New York Times recommends 52 Places to Go, one place to dream about exploring each week. The list is an ambitious forecast of which beaches will remain unspoiled, which starchitect-designed museums will live up to their renderings and which culinary treasures are worth hopping a flight to eat.

This year, we want at least one ambitious traveler to turn our wish list into an itinerary.

We are seeking a journalist who, over the course of 2018, will go to every destination on our list and tell us the story of each place and the story of life on the road. The ideal candidate is a permanent student of life and astute documentarian of the world. This person should have a well-worn passport, the ability to parachute into a place and distill its essence and to render a compelling tale with words and images.”

As part of my application, I had to write (only) 500 words on the most interesting place I’ve been to. It was fun to go back on the Marrakesh Express … Fingers crossed!!

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Marrakesh – I expect it to smell otherworldly like Tangiers, fragrant with spices mixed with sea water, but it doesn’t. Instead, I notice steam rising from the black-tar cement and yellow maze-like lines that direct us inside the airport where there is no air-conditioning, no Wi-Fi, not even a vending machine selling over-priced water.

Outside, under a white tent, wooden benches teem with drivers holding signs, like breakfast, it is included with the price of our riad.

We pile into the car and drive towards the old city. A woman wearing a cobalt blue kaftan and matching head scarf keeps pace with us as we circle the roundabout. The streets are lined with palm trees and resorts tucked behind colorful walls.

marrakesh scooter

We stop abruptly at an uninspired entry point to the medina. Our driver hands us over to a small man with a wheelbarrow, who tosses our luggage into it. We follow him down cobblestone streets with no names to an unremarkable door, behind it is a courtyard with a small dipping pool and our host, waiting with mint tea. He takes us to our room — white-washed and pristine with wooden shutters that look out across the courtyard to its mirror image and upward to the sky. He marks our location on a map with an X and shows us how to reach Jemaa el-Fnaa – the main square.

riad 107

We snake down dusty paths with no street signs, but that more or less match the design of the map, taking photos of the low archways we pass through and doors on each corner – my own version of breadcrumbs that will lead us home.

marrakesh doors

The streets are loud with a language I do not know. Tongue-y and shrill. Spices are piled in the shape of cones – mustard, orange and saffron-colored. Babouche, brightly colored slippers with pointed toes, line the walls. I have been advised not to look unless I am prepared to purchase, so I avert my eyes, the same way the women walking two-by-two avert mine.

The labyrinth-like streets drop us on to the main square where there are rows and rows of pop-up restaurants with metal picnic tables covered with plastic, checkered tablecloths. Each host carries a stack of laminated menus and tries to pull us in. “You are so skinny. You must be hungry. Come. Eat.”

There are tall stalls with men selling fresh dates, dried apricots, cashews and almonds. Sitting perched at the top, they grab their wares with long, metal claws and hand us samples, then fill cardboard cones with our purchases. We drink fresh-fruit smoothies served in real glasses at a make-shift bar.

Snake charmers sit on the warm cement playing flutes called pungis while serpents dance to their melody, as if agreed upon before the show. Monkeys on leashes pose for photographs. Amidst the pandemonium the Muslim call to prayer sounds from tinny speakers that crackle. It passes through me like a breeze and reminds me I am a long, long way from home.

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The Present of Being Present

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Wearing T’s marathon medal — the present of being present, of being here now.

I’ve been back in the United States for a little more than a year now.

In these 12-plus months I have made a conscious choice to put down roots, to “bloom where I’m planted” –  signing an apartment lease and buying furniture, dating someone who lives on the same CTA and Metra line as me, securing work and allowing myself to become “a fixture” there.

And yet, at least once a week I am greeted with “You’re here?!” or “How long are you stateside?” or “Where do you live anyway?”

The words reflect a life I’d always dreamed of – the bon vivant flitting from gorgeous here to glamorous there – and at times make it difficult to be where my feet are, here in Chicago.

Especially when Facebook reminds me that last year “On This Day” I was staying in a castle in Girona at a writers retreat; that the year before I was riding a rented bike to the beach in Valencia and sharing paella with new friends; and the year before that, I was volunteering at a chocolate festival in Umbria.

Especially when the second of two new bed pillows I recently purchased now goes unused, and I am no longer certain who will sit at my side next week when I see Patti Smith at The Music Box Theatre – an early birthday gift to myself.

Life on the other side of the Atlantic always sounds sexy — in these moments sexier still. The questions about my being here now – in Chicago — feel like a kitten rubbing its insistent head against my naked leg.

That is, until Monday at 4 pm — the day after the Chicago Marathon when T. gingerly walks into my massage room.

She and I started working together about a month ago, when a chronically tight hamstring had her questioning her ability to complete the 26.2 mile run – her first.

It was one of those easy, graceful connections where few words were necessary and those we did exchange were about our connections to Africa — my weeks in Kigali, her years in Nairobi, yellow jerrycans and her fundraising efforts to provide clean water there.

“Well?” I ask, hopefully, my voice upticking at the end of the second “L.”

Her mouth curls into a smile and she pulls a medal out of her bag.

“I did it!” she says.“Can we take a selfie? I never take selfies …”

Neither statement surprises me. I nod and say, “of course.”

Meanwhile, T. hands me the medal as she pulls her phone out of her bag.

“I think you should wear it,” she says.

I feel silly. It is her medal, her marathon. But she insists she couldn’t have done it without me. I slip the red ribbon over my head and hold the medal between our faces.

Click.

“I appreciate you,” she says.

“And I, you.”

The moment is a gift, the present of being present, knowing that being where my feet are has allowed hers to carry her 26.2 miles. I feel my roots begin to twist up and gnarl under the earth, finding their place … on this side of the Atlantic.

 

AWAY (alone)

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Nikki McClure 2017 Calendar

My friend Clover knows I love papercut artist Nikki McClure and has twice bought me calendars of her work. Each has a beautiful image of the season and a single word. BECOME for January. RETREAT for April. LINGER for September. This morning I turned the page to October –AWAY.

Yes, indeed.

AWAY (alone) is the gift I have learned to give myself each birthday (whenever possible), each October 20.

Forty-five began with breakfast in Rome and ended with dinner in Paris. That evening, crossing the Seine from the Right Bank to the Left, I looked out at Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower and thought, “Who goes to Paris for dinner?” and then, “I do.”

What followed shook me to my core. Alone on my birthday in arguably the most romantic city in the world I thought “I don’t wish a man was here.” “I don’t wish a man was here.” And then, “I don’t wish a friend was here or that I ate anything different or wore anything different or that anything was different.” It was a moment of pure contentment and total bliss – fleeting and remarkable.

That trip – specifically my time spent in Rome – catapulted me on to a trajectory that had me living in Madrid six months later.

I had met a woman a few weeks earlier while volunteering in Perugia. Upon my arrival in Rome, she insisted on throwing a dinner/birthday party in my honor. As I rode the tram from the residential Trastevere neighborhood to Pyramid station on a Saturday night, flowers in hand, I thought, “It’s like I live here,” and then, “I can do this.” I knew just what the words meant – although I didn’t yet know where I’d be going … or how soon.

Forty-seven found me back in Paris waking up to a text that read, “Yesterday’s kisses are still on my tongue. Delicious. Happy Birthday, Gorgeous!” I spent that afternoon on a walking tour of Montmarte with a woman I had met just that morning. We shared a chocolate tart before parting company and she sang me Happy Birthday. That evening, I walked back to the bridge where I had found contentment and peace two years earlier – alone, eating a falafel from my favorite stand in Le Marais, and equally blissed out.

The romance lasted a glorious six months. My friendship with the woman from the walking tour remains strong.

I’ve often said I am best on the road, on my own.

My internal travel clock grows loud and restless at about the five-month mark. My spirit calls for its sojourn. AWAY (alone). Some might call it running … but I don’t think so.

AWAY (alone) is a detour. It is a place where unfamiliar roads open my eyes and force me to pay attention to what is in front of me. I believe it is in that paying attention that magic shows its face and I am awake enough to notice and respond to it.

I leave for Montreal in 19 days – my 48th birthday – AWAY (alone) and wonder what gifts await me.