Saturday, February 21, 2015

The saffron is good for the jiggy-jiggy, my friend.

Chefchaouen in the rain, probably my favorite picture of the trip.
The first thing I notice about Fez are the silent cats brushing by underfoot, a whole clowder of kittens tearing away at entrails from the butcher.

Touts are whispering "貧乏!" at me, probably the most articulate of the Asian greetings I got in the two weeks (binbou - 'poverty' in Japanese, presumably a shorthand for cheap).

I have about two weeks to make it to eight cities according to my plan, so the minor deities of bus and train better come through for me.

Landing in  my hostel
I stick to Talaa Kabira until the blue gate, thinking that the Fez medina is adorable for having two main streets: Big Climb and Little Climb. Overtaking two mules that look like movie props, I have a tagine in front of me a lot quicker than ideal, the ceramic is ice cold. 

One of the cuter cats and I tear at the stewed beef together, but then Mama Cat tries to jump in my lap.

The windows of the riad are so thin, you can hear everything on the street as you all lie under a jewelled panel ceiling. But then fjar, the first call of prayer, announces dawn is breaking, and birds start chattering and pooping by the window. 

The medina has a magic that ensures no one ever has to slow their walking to avoid collision. I watch a woman roll transparent dough over a massive dragon's egg; she's making fresh phyllo for briouat filled with honey syrup.

It's not hard to hand over a few cents for a few sticky triangles that go perfectly with a Moroccan espresso. Coffee machines are stashed in little nooks all over the medina, and one of them even makes avocado milkshakes.

One coffee guy hands me a knuckle of m'hanncha, an almond paste pastry curled into a snake. My fingers smell like orange flower and cinnamon for most of the day.

Two massive Swiss dudes and I have a baghrir eating contest (crumpet/pancake love child) on the roof before ignoring guides all the way until we're overlooking the tanneries.

Men are vigorously jumping into vats of colored water with armloads of animals skins, and it's all very purposeful, but I can't tell what's getting done. When the wind blows our way, it's the flat chemical smell of the skins, but nothing too bad. 

The Jewish mellah is somehow darker and narrower than even the medina, and the two synagogues are closed or just a museum now. I hear the first recounting of how the Jews just left for Israel and are simply no longer here. Nothing to do with the expelling, the burning, or the synagogue-destroying.

Peeking into the Jewish cemetery costs money, and when we decline, a woman asks, "No Jews?" We debated whether she was saying our decision was anti-Semitic, whether she was anti-Semitic and wanted compatriots, or whether she was just acknowledging our leaving. 

Moroccans speak at least three languages with various levels of skill, so we stop overanalyzing. In English, men end their sentences with "...., my friend." 

We walk by the Qarawiyyin Mosque, the oldest university in the world since its opening in year 859. Non-Muslims aren't allowed in, but I do get to gawk from the gateway at the shining marble.

جامعة القرويين‎
Everyone has a cousin who will prevent you from making the worst travel decision, someone who has a camel tour that if you're lucky, they might be able to sneak you into. I often feel like the frantic Ryanair sales team managed to set the tone in Morocco as well. 

A Canadian boy and I loop Hotel California while lying on pillow mounds in the courtyard, and then the Moroccans insist on 80s love ballads until I fall into bed again.

Bab Mansour el-Aleuj (Gate of the Victorious Renegade)
Meknes is a blur of gates, the ritual losing of all sense of direction in the medina, and then sticky hands from the honey-drizzled msemmen (paratha-crepes). The Aissaoua brotherhood was expelled from Meknes in the 16th century, but the cobra worshippers are still going into writhing trances for the tourists.

The monkeys wearing fez hats don't show up until five days later in Marrakesh. I learned today that they're wearing diapers not because the performers care about poop in the streets, but to hide the monkeys' constant erections.

A man on the sleepy return train wants to list for me things that Moroccans love; the list begins with fountains and ends with hashish and a belly laugh.

Even in Fez, I do start noticing the glazed paranoid look of hashish smokers, many of them tourists who have had it for the first time, packing nuggets of Ketama gold from the Rif Mountains.

I pick up my first of many kilos of tangerines, just so much fresher and juicier than any British citrus.

 And they make good gifts for bus and hostel friending.

Dar Jamaï Museum
At 10 pm, I'm knocking on an unmarked doorway in an alley, and a bearded man in a jellaba opens the door a crack, letting out swirls of steam. Five minutes later inside the hamam, I'm in my underwear, hauling two buckets, a bar of black soap, and an exfoliating glove into a tiled chamber covered in two inches of steaming water.

We all work together dumping endless buckets of water until vision is nil from the white steam, and then everyone is scrubbing everyone else's back. I'm given an acrobatic massage, and then I just lie down on the tiles for an hour watching clouds of steam float by.

I have to be out of the riad by 6 am to catch a bus to Chefchaouen in the mountains, but we're kept up until 2 am listening to what sounds like a woman being beaten. She's yelling hysterically, someone braver peeks out the door to investigate, and the noise cuts out. We convince ourselves it's just a movie as the gas can sputters heat into the room, and I fall into dreams about some giant made up of cages. 

Before I know it, I'm pushing onto a bus past the guys claiming to be guardians of the street, human obstacles on my way to Bab Boujeloud

The buses might be full of vomit (Moroccans seem to get carsick easily), but they're cheap, comfortable, and leave almost on time. 

The mountain roads are largely empty, goats scurrying off the road as the bus pumps out sugary pop tunes in Arabic. I'm reading a novel a day, switching out the books from hostel swap libraries. This is probably one of my favorite things about these places, how ratty paperbacks cycle from one traveler to the next.

Chefchaouen was part of Spain until 1956, so the locals speak more Spanish than French. The Irish woman who runs the hostel I'm at for the night growls directions at me that involve walking towards a pine tree and crossing the first bridge I see. While on this quest, I somehow run into the Swiss brothers I met in Fez, Manu and Fabi, as they take macros of cherry blossoms. 

We walk the rest of the way to the ruins of the Spanish mosque overlooking the mountain town, blue houses radiating across the white of the cloud banks. 

A Dutch girl named Lara and I wander the blue streets, and the scattered sunlight makes us feel like we're underwater. When it rains a bit, the homes seem to melt. 

I spend dinner wondering why people are insisting on eating fish in the mountains. Young bucks try to talk me into joining them on a hike into the mountains behind the domesticated waterfall to check out the marijuana fields and an actual cascade, but I've heard about locals getting antsy and stones being thrown.

Besides, the townsmen shadowing your steps and muttering about getting you some good stuff is enough to gross me out about drug tourism. Boys and girls alike are in tears as they sit on the wet steps from being violently stoned, and I just keep taking pictures of the blue stuff.

Maybe the place isn't blue because the Jews used to paint to keep away mosquitoes, but it's awfully calming.

Just one day in Chefchaouen was a good call, and I already have tickets for the bus bound for Rabat at 7 am the next day.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

It's all just gum art in Millennium Bridge crevices.

I landed in Heathrow with nowhere to live, and went straight to work. It wasn't smart, and I must have thought that if I were homeless by midnight, someone would just hand me some fruit snacks and send me on the next flight back. The providing universe and such, but sometimes I lean on my luck a little hard.

Running on sleep-fumes, I saw a place literally around the corner from work, where I could theoretically never leave the block on weekdays. The current tenant greets me with the news that he's moving out because his wife is taking him back, and I congratulate him.

The place is a shithole; it is also already rented. Disappointment and relief are strange feelings to bring together.

By 10 pm, Nina and Hannes are ushering me into their living room, making me tea, and I lie awake on the couch most of the night. It's weird not sleeping in a warm tangle of arms and snores.

The London rental market differs in such odd ways from San Francisco. Most people reply to my cheery inquiries about housing, and I'm at four or five flats a night. It feels like speed-dating, and I'm on a charm onslaught. I apply to everything in a four-mile radius of work, which is how far I'm willing to walk. A woman in Vauxhall cancels on me by text as I'm walking up to the door, but I stop by Ade's and see his new puppy Darwin.

I don't know what I would have done if Nina and Hannes hadn't let me impose on them for five days, talking me through the housing offers that I started to get. There's a house of older Polish hippies, and then a room in Bethnal Green behind the mega Tesco.

Nina tells me to hold out for one more interview, at a place across the canal from them that looks way too nice to be in my price range. With backup housing in my pocket, it feels so good to cancel on everyone else.

Next morning, I'm having tea with the girl who owns the place, and I leave with my hopes sky-high. There's a sunny living room with rocking chairs, the fridge beeps if you leave it open, and I would finally have a big boy bed. I would find out the next day on Sunday, so I just start walking west across London.

The city is ridiculous. I regularly spend my weekends here just walking, but it never gets old to see the sun set on the Thames. I walk through a furry convention, share spicy noodle soup with rowdy Australians, and then I'm in a cushion as long as I am, watching the walls flicker and spin.

The couple next to me gives me a shoulder massage, and I just sink into the music.

Wide red skies are still throbbing in my vision when I get the housing offer via text.

I don't expect to have nice things, so when it does happen, I'm awestruck. And I can move in the next day!

Nina & Hannes hug me when they get home, and it's like I've won some minor prize. It's a testament to what good hosts they are that I have a pang of missing the living room couch as I pack up. But then my stuff is out of the back of their van where it's been living since early December, and the least I can do is take them to lunch at the vegan cafe down the street from me now.

Moments where I forget I'm not in Berkeley
A board game housewarming takes place that night, and I'm a baby Cthulu rampaging across Tokyo Bay.
The prayer flags go up at first light, and I'm settled in pretty much immediately. And I have a desk!

Once I feel like a normal person with housing again, I wade back into London life.

Louisa has us over for a big pot of vegan squash stew and brownies, and it's the coldest night in the city so far, but my winter clothes are holding up to the chill.

Epping forest is a pretty magical place in winter. My first time wearing wellies!

I kept remarking how invincible I felt plunging up to my knees in cold mud, and we're giggling at every mud squish and plop.

I still don't quite understand the concept of lakes freezing over.

This one had a millimeter of ice floating on top, and we threw in everything we could tear off the ground.

Ikea meatballs finally. The beef/pork union is so perfect in texture that you're left disturbed.
The night ended in Dalston for Nate's birthday, where Passing Clouds had become too hip to be entered, POWERLUNCHES was a post-apocalyptic hipster diner, and Brilliant Corners had music that had us all gyrating. The place also doesn't serve Cuba Libres, but will make anyone rum and cokes. 

And I just bought a flight to Morocco since it was fifty quid, so...I have twelve days to wander the country by myself. 

Chefchaouen, here I come!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Moments later, the bear knocks us both unconscious.

After almost a year in London, I've never been so conscious of how many support networks kept me aloft in San Francisco, nor of how many people made my life all the shinier. And yes, I appreciate how oozy-cheese-filled predictable it is to not realize this until leaving across the Atlantic.

But being homesick is such a privilege in that you have a warm place where people miss you right back.

And when I do end up back in the Bay Area for good, I'm going to treasure and hug the poop out of all of you, likely never letting go, Jack.

I'll still want to see and do all the things, but I also want a home fort to fill up with our things, pictures, little herb planters.

A block from where I grew up, and this is the first picture I've taken of it.
I won't pride myself on only having enough to keep in two suitcases like now, and I really hate saying goodbye after each trip home.

That stuff sucks.

Hub city that it is, I'm usually surprised when people tell me where they're from. Home is always so vivid for people when they recount the beer their grandmother brews, the vegan shampoo they took for granted in Germany, and how beaches in England can never compare to anywhere in Brazil.

Until we pack up our things for good, London is a funny shared experience of a town, and there are so many conversations about how we love-hate the place:

"All buses are on strike, the ferry is at the bottom of the Thames, and the Overground will only be making one scheduled stop."

D'aww, are they competing for Cutest Couple prizes?
Thank god for generous vacation policies in Europe, so I was in San Francisco for almost all of December, where I held strong to a dumpling-based diet.

First thing upon arrival was pretending to be bovines on a grand Christmas tour of downtown. I kept being distracted by shiny lights, but David kept us on track, constantly reminding me that the herd had moved on, that we would probably die of exposure or the wolves would get us.


I miss such stupid things. Like reading the New Yorker with Thai takeout as the fog sweeps across the city and pushes all the gulls out to sea. Or how we manage to talk each other into a Hot Cookie before walking up the recognized hills and then the hidden hill.

"Hey, there are four circles in this diagram, and none of them are touching."

"Oo. Tell me more."

Exiting one of my favorite places at UC Berkeley
East Bay sunsets look like holy shit, what.
"Are you guys hiding from music? It's okay, you know, to be in the same room as it."

Santaneca is the core of the Dreaming for me, just the catfish soup with warm tortillas, and it would be the best place for naps after pupusa feeding time with curtido on the side.

And as usual, home time is heavily spent with amazing people eating amazing food.

Panchan that they don't charge you limbs for? Novelty.
We got our kink dance on, and watched a friend win a wet underwear contest.
It's hard crossing streets safely when the sky looks like this.
Christmas in particular was like training to be a foie gras bird (sorry, too soon in California?).

I had 360 degrees of food within arm's reach in a spinning chair.

And the boyfriend somehow became crown prince of Christmas Tinsel Town.

Birth of cheese is what we celebrated, and there were at least a dozen taunting my vow to stay out of the dairy trough. The house was open to friends drip-dropping by with custard pies, mushroom stuffing, beers to share, latkes delivered shining and greasy one by one from the skillet. We're grazing like ruminants, nibbling and dabbing neon jalapeno jelly onto communion wafers prior to becoming Jesus proper.

Reeking of latkes, we spend Saturday morning making coffee to go with the coconut coffee cake as Made in Heights croons away. Christmas eve itself had us watching The Family Stone with mulled wine while round with red jade. I briefly did think the Babadook was out to get me, but then the group Tinder session on the flatscreen cleared it all up.

Lightning round matches and bee-boops, and all you can mutter is, "What, I'd totally have talked to him.."

Graham's birthday was the official Christmas after-party, and then the Library for fancy little drinks before Yamasho sucked us into a vortex of karaoke and sushi. You never quite realize how repetitive some song lyrics are until you've had to sing them off a screen.

Britney, I have a newfound appreciation for your art.

Dinner with parents at Saigon in Richmond, where neither Vietnam nor Virginia were involved.
Bird's eye-view food porn
It was my first time being on a triple date for Korean food, and then a hexa-couple date for wine.

Last weekend of the year, so we made good life choices walking off the meat sweats. Through Golden Gate Park's frisbee golf courses and sunlight dappling towards the beach, towards grandmother's house we went.

Sandy-toed and squinting into the sunset, we gave up on Cliff House, picked up a lemon bar and hauled our leftover Korean home until it was time to go two doors down for Danny's booze hour.

Black Mirror and pigfucking, ugh, so much trauma.

There's nothing like the quiet that comes with the arrival of the mega injera loaded down with all our Ethiopian eats. I could eat anything really with injera, and the tej is such a nice boozy honey slick.

East bay living, I could do you, yeah.

Talia worships strange gods.
New Year's was as low key as I could have wished for, and there are jedi light batons, a countdown to fireworks by the Bay Bridge, and there's something about having your designated person for midnight macking.

We're in bed by 2 am, and I'm more than happy with my first hours of 2015.

What Bay Lights?
All we have to wake up for is an epic Southern feast, and you can smell the frying chicken from down the street. There's no point resisting the butter flood, and god, it's in my eyes. The little kid is taking the black-eyed peas traditions very seriously, and his year is going to rock. Meanwhile, we all just shave off slivers of persimmon pudding, and I'm just warm and comfortable from head to toe.

Southern spread on New Year's Day!
Round three was hot pot and it doubled as sauna time. 
And before I knew it, it was one last dinner at Limon Rotisserie before egg tart performance art with House on Haunted Hill. It's 6 am too quickly, and I'm hugging a very sleepy David.

I walk home through a spectacular sunrise to see Mom had cooked a full Chinese breakfast spread.

She walks me to BART, tells me I hug too hard, and I'm on the plane to London again.