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La Vita Grassa

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Location: Aarhus, Denmark

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Touch of Inspiration

Between travels, a couple girls from the Neddi will come over on the occasional late afternoon to work on a brochure for Mubarak's campground: Zahra, Nafissa and Saida. Zahra has proved most consistent and insightful.

We started by going to Mubarak's campground, and taking photos one evening. The goal was to make an advertising brochure for tourists. I explained the idea to all of them. And pulled out the camera. Each step along the way is a teaching tool: how to hold a camera, position it, using flash, framing a subject, excluding distracting elements. We even rearranged furniture in the Salon and stood on chairs to get a good angle.

She visited the other day and we looked through pictures we had taken and edited on previous occasions. I opened PowerPoint and we began discussing ideas of layout and what photos she might want to use - what she might want to portray in each section of the brochure.

For the cover she envisioned the front door of the campground, opened ... leading one to peer through the open door and catch a glimpse of the campground. We looked through the photos. None equated her vision. I got excited about the fact that she came up with her own idea.

So I suggested we hop on bikes and return to the campground straightaway to get the photo she wanted. "Now!?" She queried? "Yes, why not?" So we did. (She had not ridden a bike in quite some time, so that in itself was yet another "lesson" :) We rode to the campground, greeted Mubarak and friends, asked if we could snap a couple more pictures and adjusted the doors just so.

She stepped back and framed the door from a couple different positions. I took a couple more, and we discussed what we wanted to include in the pictures... stabilizing the camera on my bike for non-flash shots. Her hands were shaking. I realized that all this attention - two men holding doors for her and watching; me instructing and her handling a rather expensive camera - was a bit of pressure. I assured her the photos looked very promising. We laughingly took a posed "Greeting" shot of Mubarak and his friend and headed back home to edit and crop the best of the batch..

We're still a long way from a brochure, but the joy comes in seeing a young girl's mind in action. Allowing her to use her creativity and imagination, and then capture it in some form. Shwiya b shwiya (little by little..).

Celebrating 25,000 Visits

Thank you to all my visitors over the past two years.... all 25,000 of you!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Efficiency on its worst behavior

Yesterday efficiency was on its worst behavior. It put the idea in my head to get up at 6:30 A.M. instead of the standard 10 A.M. I obeyed.

By 10 A.M. I had already gone on an hour run/walk, with the quiet morning air rustling palm leaves and the sun twinkling gently on the river. I haven't been on a run in six months.

I had taken a shower, made breakfast, and done the dishes from the day before. I laid in the hammock in the cool morning air, reading the Bible and praying for a while.

Somewhere in the process 10 A.M. passed. I washed several loads of laundry by hand, hung them on the line, they dried, I took them off and hung more clothes on the line.

My computer refused to works as usual (it turns off at an interval of every 30 seconds most days), but I studied GRE words. When I finished, I'd narrowed down the "500 of the Hardest GRE Words" to 18. I proudly showed April, my friend, who was camped out for the weekend here to take a practice MCAT test. (Yes, I know you wish you could be here. No other house pulsates with so much life.) I resumed the Durant's 700 page tome on the Age of Napoleon ... which compelled me to take a nap. My friend Frank S. called several times throughout the day and I paced the roof chatting as sprinkles moistened my shirt from gray clouds above. I picked up my violin, ran through the scales and rehashed an Etude and technique builders.

Showers happened at frequent intervals to cool my skin from the pervasive heat.

A miracle happened. My computer turned on. And stayed on. So I edited the By-Laws for our VAC (Volunteer Advisory Committee) and sent my suggestions to the committee. I took GRE quizzes. I read emails. Responded to emails. I blogged. I read the news. All these things that intermittent shut-offs of 30 second intervals has not facilitated. I tried to Skype my sister several times to make plans for her trip to join me when I complete my service December 1. No luck.

Frank called again. It was now after 6 P.M. I had now done twice as much as I usually accomplish in two days. And it was only 6 P.M. I had the prospect of a whole evening in front of me and blustery winds to seduce me. But I would not be seduced. I had already courted the palmary for an hour that morning. I whined to Frank that I could not handle this day any longer. It was too long. If I went to visit a girlfriend, we would just sit in her house and stare, and make me feel even more restless. I paced the roof again. I paced my house. I danced to Bon Jovi. I sank to my knees to inspect little leaves pushing up through the soil in one of my pots - a wildflower mix I'm attempting to acclimate to the Saharan Desert weather.

Frank told me about the glorious thunderstorm pounding his house. I leaned out the window, breathing in violent winds, trying to appreciate the odd weather. But my body kept saying: "escape, escape!" With no where to escape to. Technically yesterday and today are Moroccan national holidays. I could have left for a four-day weekend, but I have 5 Dirhams ($0.60) to my name, and I have traveled abundantly. I head to Rabat in a few days for Close Of Service Conference anyways. So traveling was out.

I chided efficiency. He was the fool who had convinced me to wake up at 6:30 A. M. and get so much done. What a shame! That a person would accomplish a such a number of things in the stretch of one day, instead of spreading them out fairly over a week so that no day was exalted, no day left without a piddling bit to check off the list.

I started applications to the five graduate programs that I decided to apply to. I kept it up for a few hours. At 9 P.M. I decided it was time to make quiche. I went out to the corner hanut, my body breathing freedom as I left the doors of my house. The process took a while: rolling a butter crust, slow-sautéing onions and tomatoes, baking. I returned to Napoleon, curled in my hammock while savory smells seeped up the stairs. At 11 P.M. I devoured a real dinner. This always happens. No appetite all afternoon while the heat oppresses body and soul. And then in cool of the night the stomach attacks with a vengeance.

At 12:00 A.M. reveling in the cool air, I could not bid myself to retire. I had downloaded Friends, Season 3, and watched the next episode. And the next. And the next. And then Rachel and Ross were fighting.. I had to see what happened. At 1:30 A.M. my sister Tabi saw me online: "Shouldn't you be in bed..?" I gave her my lame excuse and hurried back to my hot chocolate, popcorn and Friends. By 2:20 A.M. my eyelids gave the clue and I meandered off to bed.

At 5:00 A.M. I woke at the impertinence of mosquitoes who were dining on my flesh and the heat that invaded my rest. I did what any normal person would do, watered my bed with a teapot of "cool" water (tap water in the summers would certainly be sufficient for any recipe calling for "warm water" ... or even "hot water"). I closed the curtains, smirking at the sun that threatened to sneak over the mountain in the next hour, enveloped myself and mattress with with the mosquito-net tent and sunk off into a deep sleep.

At 10:00 A.M. I lazily opened my eyes. And looked at the clock. Ahhh... 10 A.M. already. Four hours of my day already spent in luxurious slumber. Efficiency, you will have my ear no longer, I taunted. And lazily got out of bed. It's already 11:23 A.M. and I'm blogging and drinking tea. Yes, I washed a few dishes. BUT THAT'S ALL. The day promises a short existence - and my host family might even be back from vacation. A visit could equal a full evening's time!

I think I'm beginning to understand the logic of locals, who seem quite fond of their mattresses on a summer's day. No person should be expected to endure the heat and find ways to occupy themselves for twenty hours straight. Not unless they listen to that evil little voice called Efficiency.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Berber (Tashelheight) Weddings

Summer in Morocco brings many things, among them ...

- 100+ Temperatures (indoors and outdoors)

- The world shuts down between 10 A.M. and 3 P.M. (read: too hot to function)

- Fresh Figs

- Incessant evening drumming and chanting emanating from all corners: weddings

Usually I avoid wedding affairs as they usually equate shaking one's rear in a flurry of lace, ruffles, henna and mint tea until 5 A.M. Sometimes that can be exhausting.

But... I braved the streets one evening to pay a visit to a family whom I know well. The father had passed my house earlier in the day to inform me that the wedding would be going on from "3,4,5,6,7,8,9 P.M...." Usually it's advised to add 4+ hours to any time indicated; and most of the action gets going in the evenings. So, accordingly, I left my house at 8 P.M.

Approaching their home through dark alley ways, I grew worried. I heard no drumming, chanting or lights glowing around their residence. All was, in fact, eerily quiet. I approached the door. A young girl sat with several toddlers in a wide court-yard. Quite alone. "Have I missed the wedding!?" I queried. "No, no! It's upstairs!" She assured me. There was no noise, nor lights that I could see, as we wound up the stairs. She led me through dark mud hallways, and around to a backroom - a single bulb gleaming from inside. "The wedding is in there," she pointed. I cocked my head at hear, wrinkled my eyebrows in confusion and stepped in. A dolled-up bride, her mother and another lady sat on the Berber rugs, noiselessly pouring mint tea. They greeted me with weak smiles. The bride sat dabbing her coal-lined eye with a dirty rag, periodically.

"Oh we waited for you all day, Raja! M'barak said you would come, so we would make coffee. And drink it. And again he would say you were on your way. And we would make coffee. And drink it. Again and again. And you never came. Oh there were many people here today, a party!" My first urge was to prostrate myself on the ground in sordid compunction. It only occurred in my mind's eye. "I'm so sorry," I uttered, trying hastily to explain how I thought nothing would start until late at night. They seemed too exhausted to care.

All the relatives were gone. The groom came and sat on the bed with the bride. This, I had never seen before - a couple sitting together in such an intimate setting - on a bed! I wondered if - oddly as it seems considering this was probably night #2 of their marriage - if possibly they might want the audience to excuse themselves. The mothers sat contentedly, feeling no need to quit the room. So I sat a while, if nothing else, as penance for my tardiness. The room was lined with gifts of moo moos (all apparently bought at the same hanut, only in different bland colors); Takshitas and Jallabas; little pairs of shoes strung intermittently.

Finally I departed at the urging from another girl to meander to other weddings.

The next wedding was small, but rambunctious, with men, women, teenagers and children all dancing. Gyrating, as it were. The bride, groom and matriarchs sat sullenly on their lace couch at the edge of the ruckus. A video operator stood amongst us, filming. A television propped next to the bridal couch let us watch ourselves. So we stood, dancing, laughing, watching ourselves; being entertained by ourselves. Maybe the bride appreciated all eyes directed elsewhere. Funny how technology nudges itself into traditions. I discovered many girlfriends in the chaos, grabbed their hands and pranced about in circles with them. Little girls gazed wondering into my foreign eyes and grabbed at my hands. It suddenly occurred to me that I was thoroughly enjoying myself, and felt quite at home among them. This was a new sentiment. So we danced and danced.

Eventually I was dragged off to another Ahawash, where a hundred girls chanted in a circle. Samira and Fuzia sat beating massive stretched-leather drums at the center. "Raja, Raja!" rang out from many corners. I smiled and waived and hugged, pleasantly delighted to be amongst "my girlies" again. Most of our summer months have been spent hiding indoors from the sun or traveling. They chanted a melody about a certain "Raja" while, I stood laughing, clapping along, and helplessly blushing. Finally the attention moved to another girl and I melted in (as well as my white skin and blonde hair would allow) to the swaying circle.

At 11 P.M. I felt content with the evenings affairs, and decided to make an exit before my exhaustion crept into the perma-smile region.

Samira grabbed my hand and insisted I pass by her house on my way out. She has been begging me for months to visit. I think she instinctively felt that this was her only chance (at which, sensing, I felt like an ogre). She pushed open a wooden door, blue paint flaking off. Little tots, a sister and mother lay on the mud floor of the courtyard, somehow covered in blankets despite the 90-degree night air. She shook her sister: "I've been telling her about you for so long!" The girl shyly squinted up at me, mumbling a greeting in her torpid state. I laughingly chastised Samira for waking them and she hurried me off to unveil the latest gayly-colored carpet on their family's loom. I rubbed my hand over it, smiled and departed with a whispered lay luh saida! (goodnight)

A little Tashelheight "princess", pushed toward my camera by her proud mother.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Prancing about Italy

My friend Jen Hobbs (whom I haven't seen for four years!) and I have long dreamed of prancing about Europe together. It was always a maybe, someday, sounds like a good idea...

But she, in a spirit of Carpe Diem, took off two months this summer to travel extensively through nine European countries. And I, after a failed attempt in planning a trip to Italy with my parents and sister last spring, was still eager to see the fabled land.. taunting me from across the Mediterranean Sea. So we went to Italy.

Or Paradise, shall I say ... even on a slim budget.

Itinerary of Seven Days:
Fly into Milan and hop on a train for Venice.
Two days in Venice.
One day in Florence.
Three days in Cinque Terre.
Fly out of Milan.

Jen and I on Academia Bridge in Venice

Walking those cobblestone streets for the first time, passing over little bridges to see gondolas floating through the canals below me... I was positively sure I'd stepped into a fairy tale. I thought this place only existed in picture books. Tales of olden days...
Imagine your front door opens to a lamppost sticking out of water, your garage a dock with a rowboat at your feet. Let's row to a cafe for the afternoon!

And then one steps foot in the San Marco Plazza and discovers where all the tourist groups were ushered to. It's as if it was our designated roosting area... us and the pigeons.

Grandiose finery adorned every column everywhere you looked.

San Marco Cathedral was certainly a colorful spectacle to behold. It's amazing to consider the time and craftsmanship once invested in churches and institutions of State.

Ahh... masquerade balls. I think I belong in Venice. Jen and I went to try some on for fun... and the lady was quite keen on helping us find the perfect mask as if I had a masquerade ball to run off to. We played along. Imagine a world where your morning task constituted finding the perfect mask to match your gown for an upcoming event ...

The suburbs...

And the pricey way to travel... (we just rode the vaparetto ferries around for an hour instead)

One evening, wandering through the streets agonizing over having to make a choice between all the scrumptious (and overpriced) cafes, we heard euphonious melodies floating down the streets. A cellist played to an impromptu audience sitting on marble steps of a church. We grabbed a few slices of pizza, Bacardi Breezes and sat for an hour, drinking in familiar classics. I longed for my cello.

He's a New Yorker who travels all over Europe every summer, playing for ten days in one glamorous city after another ... the lady sitting next to us was also from NY, and met him last summer, playing in Venice. She came with him this time.

Seeing Jen was splendid. Meeting her in Venice: spendiferous.

We gasped at the shimmering sun hovering above the canals ... just as we were boarding a Vaparetto.

I credit the chance to take this shot to my lack of direction... or lack of straightness to Venetian streets. After dinner, confident I remembered our course back through cobblestone alleys and bridges to the hotel.. we meandered in a complete "U-shape" pattern and found ourselves back at Academia and burst into a fit of giggles. And then drew our breath, quiescent in the pulchritude before us. I leaned over the bridge gazing at the glowing lights and passing gondolas for a good while.

Finally we boarded a train to Florence leaving behind this island world. I was convinced that it was an evanescent dream that would vaporize as the train pulled away.

The Tower of Santa Maria del Fiore

I am not including a photo of the Santa Maria as a whole. It's enormous. A photo could not capture the grandiose acreage of this monument, completed after 170 year's work by Brunelleschi's Duomo in 1436. As we approached our eyes grew large. Never had I seen such a massive structure, so intimately fashioned together. Marbles of teal and pinks and whites, the rose window, the statues, carvings, columns, on and on it went for an entire block... It really is pointless trying to convey it's glory in words. One simply must go to Florence.

The famous Bronze Doors of its Baptistery, in the words of Michelangelo, the "Golden Gate of Paradise"; the gateway from Gothic to Renaissance eras ..

A random side door. Now fancy a building stretching hundreds of feet in each direction ... composed of such masterpieces.

In the morning, crowds stretched all the way around the Duomo for a glimpse of the inside (despite the fact that we'd heard the outside was the main event). However, at 5pm, we walked right in.

Jen gazing at prayer candles.

A side facing the tower.

The ubiquitous pigeons.

In the evening we took a stroll across the Arno River and up the hillside to Michelangelo's Piazza. The hike was worth it. Florence at dusk, was itself a spectacle to behold ... and an entire audience attested to it.

We sipped white wine, savored delectable pasta and spiked (we're convinced, though the waitress adamantly denied it) fruit salad ... watching the lights of Florence pop on, one by one.. highlighting domes, rivers, cathedrals.

And then we hopped on a train again... after getting up at 4:30am for the second day in a row; discovering a country-wide train strike that canceled virtually every destination but a little city near Cinque Terre. We hopped on, and to our delight, found a connection immediately upon arriving to La Spezia/CT. I think we were the only lucky tourists that day.

Apparently Italy is full of fairy tale villages. Cinque Terre boasts its own magical qualities.

We hopped off in a little village called Vernazza, descended to a leisurely cafe atmosphere with Oleandra flowering trees lining the cobblestone streets. Following the path, a little harbor full of colorful rowboats opened up before us... and to the left, the roar of waves pounded a stone pier.

Curious, we wandered over the cliffs to the crowds standing at the water's edge. We wondered why a whole row of people floated in the water, lined up off the concrete pier's edge. Then a huge surge swooped the whole mess of people up and thrust them out onto the pier. Hands and feet and legs clung to the edge as the waves pulled away again. So it was a game. Jump in... float along and let the waves roll you back onto the concrete platform.

We sat on the cliffs sunning ourselves and screaming in delight as waves rushed maybe 15 feet up the cliffs to tickle our toes and splash our cheeks.

I have never seen such aqua transparent water in my life. I thought the color was just edited for photos luring tourists to exotic lands. No folks, it actually looks like this.

We spent out afternoons hiking the steep cliff trails between the five villages, stopping for cappuccinos, gelato or pasta along the way.

They were charging for spots of sand to lay out.. so we wandered to the boulders and made ourselves at home.

Looking down to Vernazza..

blue turquoise blue aqua blue

A couple of Americans we met along a trail and spent an afternoon with (from the crowds and language, you would think Cinque Terre was an extension of America) ... Dan's in the Coast Guard and spends his days flying helicopters over the Caribbean on rescue missions. Nate is studying Environmental Science. We had a good many laughs watching Dan jump off ridiculously high cliffs.

And then went to dinner for Nate's birthday, only to discover all the cafes charged 16 Euros a plate or (the one we settled on) had literally two remaining slices of pizza and focaccia to split between us. We shrugged, and figured it could be our first course. And then the city went black. So we sat in the dark, chuckling and wondering if they were ever going to come back on. And trying to picture the street performer on his unicycle flopping around in the dark and crashing into frightened tourists. The lights came back on.

My new favorite place in the world.. Vernazza, Italy.

Go to Italy. It's necessary.