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La Vita Grassa

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Location: Aarhus, Denmark

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Sewing Demons & Humility

So... I thought I would be a wise-chick and start teaching the girls at the Neddi (girls' training center that I've sworn I would never enter) how to really sew. (Read previous entries on new projects for further explanation.) I've started with a project making a small, white-satin purse out of the materials they use for their wedding/party outfits, called Takshitas. I got the materials donated from local seamstress' shops, bought lining, thread and made a simple pattern. I showed them how to make the pattern with a piece of paper folded in half, measuring everything precisely to make it exact. I was a bit too nervous to just start off with a class, since I haven't touched a sewing machine in a decade. Much less made a purse before.

So here I was trying to be the expert... and then realized why I'd left off sewing years ago. There is little in life that can anger me more than the mishaps of a sewing project. We don't get along. We really don't. The second I come near a machine to commence some ambitious project the demons begin to hover. Needles break. Seams require removing and resewing about four times. My cheeks start to turn red. My plastic smiles melts.

So this week.. I had about 1 hour a day between 3pm (when it opens) and 4pm, when I teach a computer class at the Dar Chebab (youth center). 1) I wait for Lkibira, my host mother to wander in 20 minutes late and open the office where my bag of cloth, pens, machine feet, etc. are stored. 2) Then I realized that everyone had their own needles. I had to borrow a needle. 3) Then I needed scissors to cut the cloth/threads. Everyone brings their own. And everyone's pairs that I borrowed had apparently never been sharpened, nor were intended for cloth. I would have to hold the cloth very tight just to get the material shaped to something resembling my precise pattern. 4) No one used pens to hold the cloth in position when sewing. I searched around forever, not knowing the word for it (in fact, for each new item or action, a whole new vocab list developed and I am constantly dashing to my notebook and jotting a word in it). There was a box of them in the office drawer. I pinned the cloth together. Girls would wander by, "What are you doing that for? We've never done that. Are you done yet?" "Oh, no.." I would choke (not hardly done, not hardly started). 5) Everyone brings their own thread. The girls kindly let me use a machine, but by the time I re-threaded it and then broke the thread, spun a Qanit for the bottom thread (forgot what it's called in English), I was already ten minutes late for the Dar Chebab. I sewed one seam and gathered and returned all the items. And left. That's been the story the whole week.

The process of making my "invisible" zipper was more than I bargained for. First, at night, I'd checked online to make sure I remembered how to do it correctly, so I could keep up the fa sod that I knew what I was doing. Then, there was no such thing as a machine foot that was only one-sided (made specifically for sewing zippers). Finally Amina produced one. However, it was not manufactured well and would not align correctly with the needle. Hence, the needles kept breaking, and I had no pretty, straight seam tight against the zipper, as hoped for. Then, I discovered another frustration: the sewing-machine pedal. It would either not go, or once pressed sufficiently hard with my foot, would zoom ahead. I could find no in-between. Then, after finally making one 8" seam, I realized that 1) one layer of material had creeped into my seam, and the whole thing would need to be removed (one girl, noticing my smile quite removed, asked "is your blood boiling?" ... ummm.. yeah, more than you know), 2) due to stopping and starting, combined with an intended very-tight seam, removing it was next to impossible. No one in the Neddi used a seam-ripper. So I had to use dull fat scissors or bend needles. Today I didn't have to teach in the Dar Chebab, and looked forward to making some progress. Lkibira didn't show up for an hour. So I sat and watched the other girls embroider or experiment with the sewing machine. She arrived. I was still in the process of removing the seam. My beautiful white satin ripped and ruined.

Girls kept coming by and asking what I was doing and where was that purse I had made and when I was going to teach them how to make one. I would laugh, "I'm still working on it, and far from done." Another girl wandered in, "Oh, you're learning how to sew too?" She queried.

"Yes..," I laughed. "I'm learning how to sew."

Development work - at least my piddling experience so far - seems only a constant reminder how incompetent I am. In a 1,000 ways.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Time is expensive

Today was my first day "back at work". Schools and youth centers opened. I knew attendance would be low at the various places I planned to work, as attendance is voluntary, but I decided it was worth making an appearance.

Nadia, my host sister, to whom I teach Accounting/Excel at the girl's dorm, was still tallying figures and eating lunch at the house. I had a late lunch with her and her husband and then wandered over to the dorm house. However, she had much else on her mind. Apparently 65 of the 165 girls the dorm houses were kicked out this morning. Their budget only allows for 100 and they could not afford to feed all of them. Without dorms, these girls have to return to their remote villages and cannot continue their junior high/high school educations. Many of them were crying at the news, Nadia said.

I answered a few quick questions she had about an Excel sum, and then departed for the Neddi -girls' training center. My host mother, who is president of this center, had reiterated over the holidays that she was hoping a volunteer would work with her in arts and crafts in the Neddi. I informed her that no one else would be coming from my sector until I left, and my replacement arrived. "Do you really want help in the Neddi?" I queried her. I felt it was time for an honest conversation. "What kind of help? What exactly do you want me to do? I'm not an artisan, as some are, in my sector, and prefer to focus more on advertising, websites, computer and technical business skills. But tell me what you want me to do." She wanted help with their embroidery and sweaters. "What do you want to do with them?" Sell them. "To whom? tourists?" I gently, but candidly informed her that tourists would not buy embroidery; they were not interested in it. And that Americans and French can buy all the cheap sweaters they want from China; that unless they were of distinctively higher quality, no one would give them a second look. And carpets. Maybe, but why would someone go to a girls' training center to buy the one or two random carpets available when they could visit the local four-storied carpet bazaar in the center of town, or better, the overwhelming plazas in Marrakesh? "Do you want to sell to Moroccans?" Yes. "Do you sell anything now?" No. "That's a problem." Her son-in-law tried to convince me that if I helped them do advertising on the Internet or big signs, that people would come and buy things. "But," I countered, "even if you get them to come, if they do not like the products, they still will not buy. We need unique, quality products. Color schemes that tourists would be drawn to are a far cry from Moroccan melanges. I discussed that there would be a wide chasm between appealing to Moroccans or tourists, and that a product would need to be produced to appeal to a specific group. I mentioned little purses. Lkabira and Nadia lit up. Ah..we have a nice one at the Neddi. I'll show you next week. "That could be something to work with. But..it must be different, new, attractive. Maybe small purses for just a cell phone and wallet." Then, I remembered the hammock-idea that had never gone anywhere with the artisan family in old Agdz. Hemp hammocks? Antoine, also present, mentioned a friend who had manipulated a sweater/carpet loom to make hammocks out of hemp. I translated for Lkibira. We agreed I would visit the Neddi the following week to play with ideas.

Today, leaving the dorm, I found Lkibira on the main street near the Neddi. We kissed her sister goodbye, sent her off to Zagora in a taxi, and headed over to the Neddi. It was still vacant, most girls dally a few days before returning to knitting classes after holidays. Together we wandered around pulling random embroidered pillows or crocheted pieces off the display walls. The pinks and turquoises and golden yellows clashed, but there were lots of pieces with a stitch or pattern, material or border that drew my eye. We pulled ideas together and I kept wandering around, asking to see available thread colors. I wandered into the sewing room, picked up a burgundy cord. "Oh," she said, "that is for a sewing project. It is Jalaba sabor trimming thread. We can't use that. I looked at her pale blue jallaba. It had beautiful matching trimmings, and the typical tiny corded buttons closing the center seam. An idea struck. "Lkibira! Where did you get that jallaba?" From the seamstress place. "So you didn't buy it at a hanut or boutique?" No. She bought the material, cording, and trimmings and brought it to them. "What if we made matching purses." No. Women here don't like matching purses. They want black or white leather ones. "In America girls buy purses to match their new outfits." I know, she responded, but not here. I persisted. Amina and Arkia walked in (the other teachers; friends of mine. One older, one younger.) "Where did you buy your jallabas?" I pounced, carrying out the same line of questions. They drew to the idea more. Jallaba cloth scraps materialized, while I sketched out a dainty, elaborate little purse. Moroccans like elaborate. They cut sample patterns and I kept grabbing their sleeve trimmings or corded button seams, asking the vocab and incorporating them into my sketch. After a bit, I realized I had four minutes to hurry off to the youth center for my girls' computer classes. "I'll come back in the morning!" I ran out.

I beeped a couple girls on the way. One faithful said she was doing laundry and would come tomorrow. At the youth center, the director had not showed. I called him. I'll be there in 2 minutes! He excitedly affirmed. I paced like a soldier in front of the door, ignoring little clusters of children playing across the street, with intent to stare at me, or the gangs of boys that strolled by and took at shot with "Ca Va, Gazelle. Bonjour?" He arrived. I realized no girls were going to show. I sat for thirty minutes. I was tempted to leave, but then beckoned the eager teacher sitting in the director's office to come see the typing lessons I'd developed in Word. He was an eager student, and was soon punching keys while staring into space, recalling what letter lay beneath each finger and typing "jjj fff jjj fff" with amazing alacrity. Every once in a while, he would stop, eyes lit up, and go off on a tangent about something.

"Time is expensive!" He declared in English. "I studied English in college. My family said it was a waste of time, so I switched to Geography and History. I now have three baccalaureates. I still study English at the American Center in Meknes during the summer with my brother and his children. It's a family affair. I've trained in computer informatiques and when my mouse stopped working, I taught myself to navigate the computer via keyboard. You can never go to the past. A human is made up of seconds and minutes and hours and days. They must be used!" His eyes shone. He was inspiring. I laughed and nodded heartily in agreement. To use our minutes wisely...it is not a "dorky" thing to do, nay, a noble endeavor. That, I realized, is why I respect people who take advantage of their hours to devour a new book, set a personal running record, wander through the woods enjoying the beautiful nature. Because it all passes away, and the hours lost in foolishness can never be regained. And here, was a young man embellishing the joy of learning and blessing every minute.

On Sunday, I did nothing but read. I finished Jack and Jackie, a biography of the relationship of Jacqueline and JFK. Yesterday I spent 12 hours staring at my computer, entering survey results into Excel and developing charts and graphs; researching online how to make an accurate bubble chart and was elated when I succeeded. At 10:30 P.M. I finally finished, and ran a hot bath. "Ah!" I thought, "I can start a new book." I browsed my waiting stacks and picked out MiddleMarch by George Eliot (whom, I did not know, is actually a girl.) The prologue and 23 pages into it, my bathwater cooling, I sighed. My brain still hurt from the exertions of the day; the book was not relaxing. Rather, every paragraph or so, she referred to some obscure figure and then sent me fetching to the back notes to learn what significance said person played in the dialogue. I felt, after a time, that these diversions were more a representation of the trivia of her brain than improving upon the work I was reading. My brain needed rest, not more names and dates to memorize. I finally cuddled in bed and watched 20 minutes of Shrek2 to ease the pressure upstairs.

The point of the last paragraph, and how it actually relates to the former, I'll explain here. Time is expensive, and every minute valuable currency. However, in spending it, each dollar should not be thrown to pursuit of knowledge just as it should not be flung about in mind-numbing entertainment. Rather, enriching one's mind and life requires a balance of play and laughter, along with mind-bending trivia; new languages and historic tales of old to open our eyes to the wider world. Quiet pensive strolls through dappled shade trees, and braving infuriating early-morn, rush-hour traffic to make one's presentation fully prepared. Playing with a baby and marveling at each new syllable; listening intently to the professor's lecture and dwelling on a theory. Wrestling a friend to the floor and dreaming up new outfits. They're all a part of life. They all are opportunities on which we can spend our currency of time. None should be neglected, nor any overborne. For each lends appreciation to time given to another. And each makes our lives more rich. Spending wisely, our investments bless us.

Time, indeed, is expensive. Let us not wish it gone, nor dole it out recklessly.

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Winter Scenes

Kowtar, aka April, in her typical Berber getup, chowing down on my leftovers.

My little Christmas tree in the corner. Tree donated by Jessica Morrison's Grandmother, and lights sent in a Christmas package from my family.

A typical evening with April, bundled up under the covers watching a movie on my laptop.

There are many ironies of life here. One of which, regards temperatures. When I'm at home, I'm usually bundled up in many layers (usually around 50's in the house), sometimes with hats, scarves, and gloves on. There is a heater going when I'm stationary, and preferably, a blanket as well. Then I'll make a snack or grab a book, head to the roof and strip down to my underwear to bronze myself on the sheltered, sunny rooftop. Layer up again to head back inside, and then take off several to make visits or work in town. Yes, you are comprehending. It's usually colder inside than out.

Hauling in greens from the palmerie for Christmas festivities.