Though I’m sad to be leaving California behind, I’m filled with gratitude that our long term French visas, good for one year, have come. Dual Austrian/American citizenship is still in process, but I’m optimistic about that too, especially as reading The Viennese – Splendor, Twilight, and Exile makes me feel so very Viennese.
Once, when I told our retired psychoanalyst friend, Joe Abrahams, that it was my mother, my very Viennese mother, who finally pulled me to the top in a long series of dreams about mountains, he responded without hesitation, yes, that’s your purpose, to fulfill your mother’s dreams.
I’m deeply thankful that my mother passed on her dream of living in the south of France to me, as well as for my rich life in the United States till now. THX MoM.
You know the sensation you get when you feel profoundly thankful – when the tests come back and you’re okay, when the car doesn’t hit the dog, when you realize what you’ve got, that tingle that spreads outward from the back of your head, as the hypothalamus releases all those healing hormones? As the possibility of putting down roots in Cordes for a good while becomes more real, I feel deeply grateful more and more often. When I am there, I feel it every day as I open the shutters.
Such gratitude cannot be conjured, though it can be courted. Like meditation, it isn’t something you do; it’s something that comes. Practice readies the heart, the mind, and the body; but true meditation and deep gratitude are states that arrive only by grace.
The cycle of giving and receiving gratitude is at the heart of the Iroquois belief system – the prime responsibility of the people to keep the cycle turning.
The next few days will be our last in California for a while. I am grateful to so many of you for your love, laughter, and light during our years in San Luis: twenty years of learning, sharing, and growing.
As things seem pretty much in order for our departure, Tom and I plan to spend our two last afternoons in San Luis at Mama Ganache, where you are welcome to join us. One or the other, or maybe both of us, will be there between 2 and 5 on both Tuesday and Wednesday, January 8 and 9. Stop by.
After four weeks in Morocco, outside the Schengen area, Tom and I were home in Cordes-sur-Ciel for two delicious, story-filled weeks. How that place fills my heart!
The view from our bedroom
Walking to the hardware store
My reading place
Full moon over Porte de la Jane
A garden gate in Quartier du Bouisset, Cordes
We visited the market just before the yellow vest movement ruined it, disappointing holiday shoppers and devastating the vendors, many of whom depend on the holiday season to pay the whole year’s bills.
The yellow vests have legitimate complaints. The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Surely change is needed – indeed it is upon us in full force – but I grew up in a mom and pop store, and I just spent several years pouring heart and soul into Mama Ganache. I feel for those vendors who just lost the years’ profits. A peaceful vigil would not have caught the attention of the world, but violence is not the answer.
The next steps in our long term visa and my Austrian citizenship process required flying back to California, also outside the Schengen Area. We spent the holidays with beloved family and friends.
After nearly three weeks in the big cities of Morocco, Tom and I headed to the mountains.
Atlas Mountains from the road from Marrakech to Ourika
Tom had visited the Ourika Valley in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains before, so we booked a room at in Tnine, the village he’d visited with a souk where the Berbers came by donkey. We planned to see that on Monday, the day of the week it happens. We arrived on Friday.
Our hosts in Morocco have been very hospitable, but Abdurrahman at the Secret Atlas is by far the most generous and friendly of them all. Using a translator on his phone because he speaks only Arabic, he served us delicious thyme tea on our arrival, told us about his family, and shared beautiful passages from the Koran that explained his exceptional hospitality. For 11€/night, we have a spacious bedroom, living room and kitchen. The extraordinary breakfasts Abdurrahman cooks for us each morning are a few euros more.
Tiles on the wall and floor of the Atlas Secret
The apartment is elegantly spare and spotless, the bed excellent, and views spectacular.
View from the Atlas Secret
We were a little surprised, however, to find that the Secret Atlas is in apartment building on the relatively busy street that connects the two parts of the village. On Airbnb, it’s listed as a “farm stay.”
On our first afternoon in Tnine, we explored the part of the village near the river. It was hot, the pollution from all the cars and motorcycles hung low, and other than offering a window into the lives of ordinary residents of the valley, there wasn’t much to see there.
Street scene, Tnine, Ourika
The next morning, we discovered that other than a couple nice places for tea or a meal, the other end of the village had little to offer either.
We looked on the internet to see what else we could do. Everything looked like it would require another expensive taxi ride. The taxis to and from Marrakech are a bargain because they’re shared by up to seven people, but to call one to go from point A to point B requires paying the fee for the distance traveled to where you are and to where you’re going at the full rate.
But wait. It looked like at least one destination was close by, and it was something neither of us had ever seen: a saffron farm!
Le Jardin du Safran is an easy walk from the Secret Atlas. We’d passed by the dirt road that leads to it the day before.
What an enchanted place! We found the front gate open.
Entrance to Jardin du Safran
A sign told us we were free to wander around but not to pick the fruit or flowers. Pretty soon the farm manager found us and took us on a tour that lasted a couple hours.
Pathways, Le Jardin du Safran
Synchronistically, we’d arrived the day before the four best and busiest days of the year: the saffron harvest. Every year, from November 4 – 8, when the flowers of the crocus sativa bloom, dozens of local women are hired to do the delicate work of pulling the bright red pistils out of the flowers, nipping off the yellow end with their fingernails just so, to produce the tiny strands of highly aromatic spice so highly valued throughout the Mediterranean, and the world.
Crocus flowers harvested the morning of our visit
Instead of watching the women at work, we sat down on the stools around one of the round tables and learned how to pull the pistils out of the flowers ourselves! Then we saw the drying process and smelled the exquisitely freshly dried product.
Saffron before drying
The second part of the tour was a leisurely walk through the farm, where a wide array of other herbs are grown, and trees: olive, walnut, persimmon, pomegranate, date, apple, and argan for oil, all arranged around small square plots in which the crocus bulbs were planted. The day’s harvest was already picked, but a few flowers were left for the tourists.
Tom and our guide
Roses in November
There were also goats and donkeys.
Tomorrow we’ll visit another local farm, one that calls itself the bio-aromatique, organic-aromatic, farm. After today’s surprise, I can’t wait.
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
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.
Detail, lamp, Marrakech apartment
Detail, lamp, Marrakech apartment
Dining room table and chairs
Gate to new apartment building
Light fixture in our Airbnb apartment in Tnine, Ourika
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!
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.
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 theEU 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
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.
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.
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
Cordes-sur-Ciel was built as a safe haven for people who lost their homes in the nearby city of Saint Marcel, which was razed during the Albigensian Crusade. Said to be the first of the bastides, it has five walls built in concentric circles.
(More about the history of Cordes-sur-Ciel can be found here.)
A neighbor recently told us that the stone wall across from our home is the unfinished fifth wall. Indeed, our house is just below the Porte de l’Horloge, the eastern entrance to the medieval city, which is in the fourth wall, built between the 14th and 16th century. Our neighborhood, quartier du Barri, is a 17th century suburb of the medieval village.
Cordes sits on a rocky outcropping, and is entirely built of local stone: limestone, sandstone, and dolomite. The houses are stone and the streets in the medieval village are cobbled. Walls surround every garden and line every street.
There are walls upon walls upon walls.
Living without a car gives me plenty of time to appreciate stone walls all around. One of the most delightful things about Cordes is its authenticity: it looks like and is a place that has been continually inhabited since the 13th century. The walls reflect its history.
They bring me peace, connectedness, and a sense of stability. They are the keepers of the stories.
I never tire of their variety, their richness, their complexity.
In a village of art, the stone walls are perhaps the greatest art.
Although it is a dog, a wonderful dog, who came to us almost immediately upon our arrival in Cordes, the village is better known for its cats.
Almost everyone in Cordes-sur-Ciel has a cat. And, like a mini-Istanbul, Cordes is home to many feral cats.
In addition to doing their regular work with the rodent population, these wild cats drink water from bowls left out for them and eat kibble sprinkled on people’s doorsteps. (Mocha is also a big fan of the kibble, and has to be convinced daily that it’s not for her.)
There’s an organization, Le Chat D’Oc, that catches, spays and releases, finds homes for, or keeps as many of the feral cats as they can, and individuals do their part, but there are still plenty of cats.
Mocha, at this point in her life, is a rabid cat-chaser. She’s not great with certain dogs either, but I haven’t seen a cat that doesn’t run from her yet. This one was coming up the Pater Noster stairway very confidently – until Mocha gave him the eye.
The next moment, he was gone.
Most of them keep their distance.
This guy, who lives along the footpath where we take our regular evening walk, has been getting braver daily.
I’m working on Mocha.
I don’t know how long I’ll be able to live here without a cat in the house.
Cordes-sur-Ciel, population roughly 1000, sits on a hill overlooking the valley of the Cérou, which flows into the Aveyron and then into the Tarn. Our house is on the south side of the hill; the Cérou is on the north. Just to the northwest of the village there is another even smaller village, Les Cabannes, though which the Cérou flows.
The Cérou in Les Cabannes
Les Cabannes, a fifteen minute walk from our house, is the home of the local quincaillerie, hardware store, a very important place when one is just moving into a new house.
At the post office, there’s a community center where you can print a page for 15 centimes, which makes getting a printer seem wasteful.
Tom enjoying a beer and the paper at the café in Les Cabannes
There’s also a bistro we like, Le Petit Café, with a dog called Luigi who’s in love with Mocha. This isn’t as endearing as one might think. Luigi is very passionate. He recently followed us to the post office with such enthusiasm that Mocha and I had to take refuge until the post mistress phoned the café to send someone to pick Luigi up. No one could come in or out of the post office until he was gone. Now one of us goes to the café in advance to ask them to hold onto Luigi while we’re there or when passing by.
About halfway between Les Cabannes and Cordes is our favorite grocery store, Prim’Frais,which specializes in local products. They have a nice selection of relatively exotic items, like fresh herbs, too.
Vegetables at the Prim’Frais
Lately, we’ve been going to Les Cabannes almost every day.
In addition to the Prim’frais, there’s a gas station along the way. The mechanic has a junk yard for parts, and an eye for interesting stuff.
There’s the nose and cockpit of a crashed plane for example:
Here’s what it looks like inside:
There’s also a Renault that’s been there so long it’s getting covered in moss.
And, if you take Rue des Tanneries home, you might see a goat or two!