Ninety days outside the Schengen area – sacred geometry in Morocco

It was in the Nejjarine Museum of Wood Arts in Fès that the thought struck me. The chaos of the crumbling medina, the vibrancy of the souks, the noise, the pollution, the exploding energy of the colors, and the sheer quantity of stuff –

Souk, medina, Marrakech

– is beautifully balanced by prevalence of the purposeful geometry, sacred geometry, everywhere.

That’s why Morocco is so enchanting.

Souk, medina, Fès, Morocco

Doorway, Marrakech Musèe

Wall, Palais el Mokri

Islam takes the prohibition of worshipping graven images seriously, and discourages figurative art. Like all of life, art should be dedicated to God, and God is only describable as essence. Geometry is essence.

Fountain, Palais Glaoui, Fès

Who can resist being centered by such design?

All my years of studying sacred geometry, beginning even before my Ganesh Baba days, and then Dan Winter and most deeply with Alice O. Howell, peaked at that moment in the museum. I stood at the center of a ideally proportioned room surrounded by mandalas, exquisite symmetry, perfect curves, rhythmic repetition, and profoundly satisfying rectangles and squares.

I wanted to take dozens of pictures, but photography was not allowed, so I was forced to confront the serene beauty of that room face on. It was transformative.

Since then I’ve consciously attuned myself to noticing and letting the geometry take me in.

Palais el Mokri

Medina, Marrakech

Palais el Mokri, Fes

Pastry, souk, medina, Fès

Even contemporary Moroccan design uses the elements of sacred geometry to create beautiful calm spaces, as exemplified by our current Airbnb in the new part of Marrakech.

Magical!

Detail, lamp, Marrakech apartment

Detail, lamp, Marrakech apartment

Dining room table and chairs

Dishes

Bedspread

Gate to new apartment building

Light fixture in our Airbnb apartment in Tnine, Ourika

Ninety days outside the Schengen area – the medina, Fès

For several days, Tom and I stayed in the Bird’s Nest, an upper room in Palais el Mokri, which is truly a palace, on a hilltop above the medina in Fès.

The view from our “dining room”

It was a little like staying at Miss Haversham’s place. Built in 1906 for the Pasha of Casablanca, his descendants are now restoring their magnificent inheritance, an enormous project, and renting out rooms on Airbnb. They’ll also cook for you, and bring very decent meals to your rooms.

The place is magnificent. Dilapidated, but magnificent – and worth every penny of the $23/night we spent to stay there!

Our dining room
The windows in our bedroom
Coming up the stairs into the Bird’s Nest
Doors in the Bird’s Nest
Looking out over Fès from our room. See the grass on the roof tiles?

Palais el Mokri is about a ten minute walk from the souks, museums, and restaurants of the medina, or old city, of Fès.

Here’s a peek into what we saw there:

The kitchen at Glaoui Palace
Artist at work
Pieces for sale
The souk in the medina
Snails for sale. Lots of them.
A man who was sitting on the ground shelling peas
A woman begging
Vegetables for sale
Dye pots
Newly dyed clothing
Street musicians
Supplies for making slippers
Cats are everywhere
Carrying a pile of empty sacks
Donkeys are common

Ninety days outside the Schengen area: Casablanca and Rabat/Salé

By early September, it became clear that the papers necessary for me to acquire dual Austrian/American citizenship, and in turn an EU passport, were not going to arrive before our Schengen visas ran out. I’d diligently supplied the set of required documents to the Austrian consulate in Los Angeles but at each step the rules seemed to change, and there were more hoops to jump through. Our 90 out of every 180 days spent in the Schengen area would be up by mid-October.

The Schengen Area is a zone where 26 European countries abolished their internal borders. It covers most of the EU countries, except the UK, Ireland and the countries that are soon to be part of the EU: Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Cyprus. Although not members of the EU, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Lichtenstein are also part of the Schengen zone.

Our 180 days began when our visitor visas were stamped on our entry to France in May to explore the possibility of living there. Every time you go through passport control, your passport is scanned and a computer tells the border agent your Schengen status, so there’s no getting around obeying the rules.

We decided to apply for long term French visas, and we booked a trip to Morocco.

Ocean view from Salé

Casablanca is a noisy, dirty, sprawling, port city in the midst of major reconstruction. We rented an apartment between the port and the center city, a few blocks from the area along the ocean where many big hotels have been built and many more are coming. We could walk to the old medina where we enjoyed an outstanding meal at La Sqala, and sat at a lovely cafe on a small park.

In front of Hotel Central in the old medina

La Sqala

La Sqala

Lunch at La Sqala

From cafe near Hotel Central, old medina

Though it rained a little, we walked for hours, checking out Rick’s Cafe, an elegant reconstruction of the movie set, and Le Cuisto Traditionel, an excellent traditional/modern fusion restaurant in the downtown area. We also visited the Hassan II mosque, which was incredibly enormous and struck me as soulless.

Rick’s Café

Le Cuisto Traditionel

Hassan II mosque

Mosaic tiling at the mosque

Next, we took the train to Rabat/Salé. Rabat is the capital of Morocco and Salé is the huge mostly residential city across the river from it, Oakland to San Francisco.

Our Airbnb apartment was in a middle class neighborhood in walking distance from the old medina, the ocean, and the tram to Rabat.

Tom relaxing in our spacious living room in Salé

Our street in Salé

Three flights up and down

Salé is clean, relaxed, and very friendly. The first afternoon we were there, we noticed some construction going on next door. From our fourth floor windows we could see a long tarp over the narrow street below.

That night – it was a Friday – a crowd gathered and a sound system was tested. It was a massive tent they’d set up. From 8 pm that night till long past midnight, our flat was filled with the voices of two men singing long, exquisitely beautiful prayers, interspersed with poetic speech. We fell eventually fell asleep, enchanted.

Morning view from our apartment

The next day was beautiful. We bought food at the neighborhood stalls and planned to stay at home, relaxing and cooking.

Vegetable stall around the corner

In the early afternoon, though, the tent filled up again, the sound system was turned up, and the celebration began. It was a wedding! The music was live and very loud. Western music would’ve been harder to take for such a long time, but still. In the late afternoon we took the tram into Rabat for a few hours. The routine noise of the busy city seemed wonderfully quiet to us.

Wedding tent

When we came back and Tom peeked into the back of the tent.

The wedding went on till just before midnight. Clearly, everyone had a great time – even without alcohol!

Over the next days, we made friends with the cashier at the local grocery store, visited the old medina, and sat at a fish restaurant across from the ocean enjoying an enormous meal.

Old medina, Salé

Cart near the old medina, Salé

Wall around Salé

We also explored the beautiful city of Rabat, a stunning combination of ancient and modern. Such an adventure! And now we’re off to Fes.

Almohad necropolis – 12th century

At the gas station near our place

Entrance to Chellah: Phoenician, Roman, and Marinide ruins

old mosque near Roman ruins

Cats are everywhere. These are waiting for the remains of eels near the mosque at Chellah

At the old medina in Rabat

Verveine

Spices at the old medina at Rabat

Living in Cordes – Mornings

Most mornings I wake up before sunrise, open the shutters, roll out my rug and light a candle, and then do some stretches, breathe, and meditate for a while. When I open my eyes, the sun is up – or on its way up – and the view is so lovely, I try to save it in a photo.

These are some of the morning pictures I’ve taken. They begin in early August. The last one was taken this morning, the first day of fall.

Living in Cordes – Beauty all around

Perhaps August is the most beautiful month of the year in this medieval village in southwest France, or maybe it only seems so because it’s the beginning of our new life here and we’re seeing everything with fresh eyes.

Either way, here’s a series of pictures from our first two weeks. A few, like the one above, were taken from our bedroom window first thing in the morning; the view is enchanting.

After dinner we usually climb the hill behind our house. This picture was taken about half way to the top.Our neighbor, Lilliane, who comes from Paris every summer, tells us the best restaurant in the village is at the Hostellerie du Vieux Cordes. Rochelle, Tom, and I sat on the patio there, shaded by a 300 year old wisteria, until a thunderstorm chased us inside. Even inside it was dramatic. As I took the last bite of my oeufs brouillé au truffes (the English menu called them “blurred eggs with truffles”) one of the tall casement windows blew open with a bang, startling everyone in the room.

Later we sheltered under the roof of Les Halles, the covered square at the top of the village, and watched as lightning lit up the sky above the museum of contemporary art, once one of the grand houses of the village.When taking the footpath from our house to the lower village, bring a bucket for all the wild fruit: blackberries, plums, quince, apples and grapes.

I think my favorite meal is soup, salad, and bread, with a Gaillac rosé.

One day we were greeted by traditional Occitan music and dancing when we got off the bus from Albi.

Another view from the window:

A doorway on our street:

After Rochelle left, Garrett, Chris, and Ed visited. Garrett cooked us a spectacular Sichuan Chinese meal.

A walk in the upper village:

And a visit to the Musèe Charles Portal, the history and archeology museum, which rises high above the western gate to the city, the Charles Portal.

Lace-making machinery from the early 20th century:

And more morning pictures:

Including some hot air balloons which floated gently over the village at daybreak.

Really, what more could anyone ask?

Arrived: Cordes-sur-Ciel

Who would have guessed that the line to rent a car at the Bordeaux airport would take 2 1/2 hours? Or that not one of the three agents would adjust their customary style to – at the very least – shorten the conversations they usually enjoy with each customer? Imagine how exciting the story of our journey from California would have been. Arnaud at Avis was particularly skilled at drawing out his clients’ stories, but I kept looking over my shoulder at the dozens of families with small children behind us: a sea of impatient grimaces, hungry whines, and tapping feet. I’m not sure it made any difference.

It took us close to three hours to get onto the road.

Outside, it was 38C, record-breaking heat, but the thoughtful GPS took us along the back roads, so we enjoyed the ride –

– even the muddy track through the cornfields that saved us a good two minutes over the more conventional route.

Eventually we arrived at the office of M. duMartin, the notaire (real estate lawyer), in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, where the couple from whom we bought the house and our real estate agent were waiting.

I will be eternally grateful that Tom is fluent in French! M. duMartin, jowls and chins indistinguishable, thick steel-colored hair brushed back and plastered to his head, melted into his ornate chair behind the expanse of his ancient desk, and read aloud document after document after document. Do we understand that there can be no changes to the outside of the house, not even to the paint on the blue voleurs (shutters)? And here, this is very important, you see where the back of the house goes under the one on the street above? The well is in your house, but a shaft goes up into the house above…

Periodically a young assistant in short shorts, long legs, and assorted tattoos brought more documents, or copies for us all the sign. M. DuMartin’s wife, gray hair in braids circling her head, appeared behind him from time to time, ghostlike.

It was stiflingly hot in the room. I struggled to follow, using all the skills I’ve acquired from years of hearing loss: catching enough words to get the gist, applying what I know from similar situations, and watching everyone else’s responses very carefully. Still. French legalese!

We signed the papers at last and went to the house with the agent and the sellers for a few lessons in house’s quirks.

And now we are here!

We woke to a gentle breeze coming through the wide open window.

Such a view! Come see us!

Farewell Tour – Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York


After lovely lunch in Albany with old friends, Heather and Norm Mendel, we stopped for coffee in Stockbridge, MA. The former Alice’s Restaurant was closed, but we had the best coffee of our trip at Stockbridge Coffee and Tea.

You can get anything you want…

We spent the night at Kathleen Becker’s beautiful studio in Northampton. What a meal we had at Coco in Easthampton!

Dinner and the next night were spent with Tom’s Neuhaus cousins in New Canaan, CT.

After dropping our trusty rental car in Stamford we took the train into New York City, where we stayed three nights with Elise in Park Slope.

On James’s birthday we took the ferry to Rockaway, and then back to the UN where he gave us an after hours tour.

On Wednesday we met Lenya for breakfast and then went out to Queens to see Mary Kuzma and Tomas Tisch at her studio.

And today it’s packing and organizing for our midnight flight to Bordeaux.

We’re off!

Om is Home

Ganesh Baba used to say that. Such a delightful aphorism – so full of broad and deep meaning.

To me, it means wherever you are is exactly the right place for you to be. The central secret is at your center. The treasure is buried in your own garden.

We didn’t move. Tom and I are still living in the same house, and working at the same business, Mama Ganache. The house, in my mind all ready to be someone else’s, wanted to be ours a little longer. Everything seemed to be in place, and I’d done all kinds of symbolic, metaphoric, ritual,  and inner work around letting go—I even led the session called “Letting Go” in a Year-to-Live class I co-teach—but the fates had it that we’re here, at home again.

It’s a fortunate thing, although fraught with difficulties and very hard work. This house is filled with light and beauty. And now it’s clean and repaired! What a gift!

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During the weeks the house was on the market and the first few after, I was tired and depressed and sick. Not all at once. Yeah, all at once.

Still, underneath all that physical, biological and psychological stress, I managed to retain a small, frequently imperceptible, sense that everything was going to be alright. It’s true I was wearing my little ceramic disk that says THIS TOO SHALL PASS, which always helps, but it was the way life itself unfolded that gave me the message most profoundly.

The very moment Tom and I decided that we would stay here, a text arrived from a friend, who had another friend, who was in need of a furnished room or two. Our new housemate moved in an hour later. Best housemate we’ve ever had. It would have been enough.

Events had almost inevitably been turns for the worse over the weeks before that. Things broke down, big things, the water heater, the sewage pump, the washer, all within a short time. The toilet overflowed and needed to be replaced when Airbnb guests were here. Everything took forever and cost too much. Then, in a flash, a helpful, upbeat, mature, and kind housemate moves in.

A week later, Mama Ganache lost both of its weekday shop employees at the same time, and it became clear to me that I should step back into the business. So here I am, Mama Ganache again.

I spent the last month on a new website: mama-ganache.com. I set up a chocolate club and free delivery service to hospitals and nursing homes. Tom and I are hosting two weekly events at the shop, a tea on Sundays, and a conversation on Thursday afternoons. We’re hosting two parties a month, Art after Dark on first Fridays, and the chocolate club pick-up party on second Fridays. I’ve been crazy busy.

In the middle of all that, Eva came on Thursday last week. She and I already have a long relationship with hummingbirds, so I knew the hummingbird who flew into the living room just before Luana dropped her off, had some message for me.

It was another rufous hummingbird, West Coast parallel to the ruby-throated hummingbird. It was trying frantically to fly out of the window above the dog’s bed. Lily Bear thought it was very exciting indeed, but she backed off when I asked her to. Almost immediately the bird fell, stunned, onto the window sill. When I tried to lift it up gently, it awoke and dashed into the upper corner of the window again. In my hand were three tiny hummingbird feathers.

As I stared at them, astonished, the bird fell again, very nearly into my open hands. This time I could lift it and carry it outdoors. I put it in a flower box and went to get a succulent leaf to make a sun shield for it.

When I came back with the leaf, the hummingbird looked at me with one eye and took off, circling around once and then landing high in the oak tree.

The feathers must have slid out of my hand when I put the bird in the flower box.

IMG_8285 (1)

I picked them up and put them in a special box. Hummingbird feathers, so tiny, so exquisite. Extraordinary.

These are hard times. The large, slow-moving astrological configuration (Uranus/Pluto) that’s been putting so many obstacles, small and large, in my path, will affect us all in one way or another. But surely something bigger is afoot, or, perhaps I should say, in the air.

 

Letting go

Our beautiful house is on the market at last. It took me well over a year to sort and organize before releasing it into the world to be enjoyed by new occupants. Almost eighteen years in a place is a long time.

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At first the house was filled with our growing family: three of our five kids, my mother, and, for a while, our oldest daughter, her husband and their new baby. Then we let rooms to new faculty, especially from the English department, grad students, and younger students, too, to mothers with young children, and many friends, older and younger.

IMG_4393For four years the house was full of Servas, Warm Showers, and Airbnb visitors from all over the world. I just took down the map because the hundreds of map pins were crowding each other put and falling onto the floor.

IMG_3686Because we had the space to do it, we hosted hundreds of community dinners, house concerts, book groups, women’s circles, poetry readings and book signings, political meetings, trunk shows, workshops, cooking classes, and celebrations of all kinds.

IMG_7504.jpg Just last year, we hosted a series of neighborhood potlucks that involved knocking on on 250 doors and hand-delivering invitations.

IMG_6432

Letting go, then, is more than selling the house. It’s a lifestyle change. We’re looking a houses a third the size of this one!

Nonetheless, I’ll still be me and Tom will still be Tom. Monday night dinners will continue, the first Friday salon will continue. I’ll have less cleaning to do, and more time for writing. We’ll take what we really need and love with us, and pass the the rest on.

Here’s what we’ll leave behind. May it serve its next owners as well as it has served us.

(If you’re interested in buying our place, it’s listed here.)

 

Slowing down in SLO redux

Guests enjoy themselves in the dining room.

Recent pictures of the Airbnb part of my life

all three rooms and Lily Bear too
Lily Bear is finished inspecting Juliet’s room. Trudy’s room is on the left, Linnea’s on the right.
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I just moved Meg Johnson’s pretty little table into Juliet’s room.
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The sun pours in Trudy’s room in the afternoon. The print above the bed is new.
Linnea's roomLinnea’s room is ready for tomorrow’s arrivals.
Aras's girlsSome guests play in the dollhouse
Monday Night Dinnerand others join us for Monday night dinner, a potluck Tom and I host once a month.
Pillowcases on the linePillowcases dry on the deck
IMG_4396where sweet peas bloom.
Easter tableGuests from Vienna join us for Easter dinner. Tom makes a spectacular meal: fresh local pastured leg of lamb, ratatouille and pommes dauphine.
ClafoutisFor dessert there is clafoutis with raspberries and apples and gently sweetened whipped cream on the side – as delicious as it is beautiful.

 My cup overflows.