Adventures in Gynocology...er, Merry Christmas!

So I make the appointment with the fancy shmancy gynecologist in Casa, right? I show up a few minutes before my appointment so I can zip in and zip out. It’s been a rough day, no, it’s been a rough week. Work has been stressful, I’ve had two doctor’s appointments already this week for something other than the nasty cold that is still hanging out in well, my face,and now I’ve been waiting in a crowded room for about 40 minutes. After a few diplomatic inquiries as to what the hell is taking so long, we are informed that this doctor doesn’t really take appointments. He has a few slots during the day when he tells groups of people to come and then he sees them on a first come first serve basis. When our nurse practitioner from the consulate comes back to tell me this and that there are still about 6 people in front of me I burst into tears. Why this happens, I can’t quite say. Perhaps the buildup of a stressfull day and the bubbling forth of nerves regarding my visit with this doctor who will, hopefully, unlock the secret to my skeewhompish raging hormones, WHICH, are probably to blame for the crying anyway.

“If you need to cry, you just cry” our sweet Moroccan nurse says to me in a motherly way and holds me around the shoulders. So I do.

 I finally get into the doctor’s office, and I’m staring not only at a strangely balding but friendly face, but at a ginormous painting of a well endowed mother breast feeding her child. Strange. We talk for a minute and he instructs me to change my clothes in the small dressing room at the other end of his office so he can do an exam.

I shuffle into the dressing room and see a dressing gown with the back cut out waiting for me. I know the drill.   I struggle to keep it together as I pull off my boots and work suit. I long ago lost the “bum in the air” shame of doctor’s visits and as soon as I tie the strings at the back of my neck I'm at the door turning the handle to come out.

But it’s stuck.

I pull harder. It’s still stuck. I twist the knob both directions and it won’t unlock. I knock at the door ever so slightly but no one hears. I try the handle again and it is definitely stuck. So I knock louder and the office nurse comes to the door to try and pull the door open. Niether of us can get it open so then the consulate nurse, who thinks I’m freaking out behind the door, comes over to help pull on it and calm me down.

 “It’s ok my darling, don’t worry, don’t worry!” She says in increasingly higher pitched tones.

 THEN the doctor himself leaves his position in front of the bare breasted painting and come to the door to fiddle with the handle. At this point I’m laughing hysterically. After a terrible horrible no good very bad day, I got locked in the dressing room with basically a sheet tied around my neck. This is hilarious and just what I need. But the more I laugh the more the nurse thinks I’m freaking out and everyone is in a frenzy. 

At one point the doctor says in a very commanding voice, like one would a puppy, “Brooke. Get a towel and hold it against the lock. Push it down as hard as you can.”

 Eventually the lock breaks free , the door opens, and I am in much better spirits on the way to the stirrups. Unfortunately, the exam that follows is not very encouraging and by the time I am back in the dressing room I am feeling my eyes well up again. But halfway through dressing I look into the full length mirror and I am stopped in my tracks at what I see. Black leggings, black half shirt I wear under my sweaters so I don’t have to tuck them in and David Bowie’s haircut from the movie Labyrinth staring back at me. Tina turner called, she wants her back up dancer back on set. Did I forget to mention that I got the worst haircut of my life this week? What I said to Jean Pierre was I would like a Bob with a few layers at the bottom, here’s a picture. What I got was David Bowie from the movie Labyrinth (Poofy mullet for those of you who haven't had the pleasure.)

For some reason, Bowie mullet notwithstanding, a giant grin spreads across my face. You know what? Life gets hard, haircuts go wrong (very wrong), bodies malfunction, and work can get to you – BUT things are good. There is something in our church we refer to as “Tender Mercies” – moments when you get a reprieve from the sadness or pain of worldly things.  I don’t know if getting locked in your doctor’s dressing room with your fanny out or being caught by surprise by your back up dancer ensemble will ever make it into a Sunday school lesson, but they were certainly tender mercies to me!

Merry Christmas to All! 


Ah, that's the funk I've been expecting...

You know what happens when you have the stomach flu and/or food poisoning followed by a nasty cold and/or sinus infection?  Well, almost nothing.  Max and I have experienced what I'm pretty sure is a marvel in modern medical science - we had mirror image health catastrophes this week.  His started at the top and worked its way down and mine has worked in the opposite direction.  It has really knocked us out and besides watching what I fully recognize is an awesomely silly guilty pleasure - Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 1: Episodes 1-7 - our week was entirely uneventful.      

But it does seem like a good time for an update!  

This wasn't our first Thanksgiving overseas but our post is itty bitty and without any other members of our church in Casa like we found in Jerusalem we were feeling a bit homesick.  But the great thing about the overseas community is that people come together - no matter how small.  We had dinner at someone from the consulate's house without a dozen or so other people and it was just lovely.  Thanksgiving at our respective familial homes has always been a mad house of half eaten pickle plates and screaming children.  We love that.  Thanksgiving this year was an adults only candle light affair and we loved that too.  Perhaps the best part was the turkey triple threat: American with traditional herbs and stuffing, deep fried turkey (amazing for the record) and a Moroccan turkey with cumin and turmeric, stuffed with oranges.      

I sometimes worry that my blog isn't "honest" enough.  That I ought to be chronicling every bad traffic day or when I can't find something at the grocery store, but you know what?  I don't really care about those things.  (In part, I realize, because we practically live in Europe and I can find most things.  I hear you Conakry!)  It's my nature to be positive and to look for the best.  Is there a growing homeless shelter/inhabited garbage city at the construction site just outside my front door?  Yes, there is.  BUT there is also an amazing French bakery around the corner and I live close enough to walk to work every day.    

But we pulled out our Christmas tree a few weeks ago (as in, a few days before Thanksgiving) and I got my first whiff of the funk I'd been expecting to feel since arriving here but hadn't.  Life in the Foreign Service has many benefits but it's hard to be away from family and familiarity sometimes.  We feel especially homesick at times when family and friends come together and we worry about maintaining strong relationships with our siblings and parents.  We put up our Christmas tree and decorated it like sad sacks but after sitting in front of our fire place for a little while with hot chocolate and a few phone calls home we felt a lot better.  These are the trade offs.  From Casa to Caracas Foreign Service officers work hard to stay in touch with family and to construct holiday traditions that will ground us.  

But there are perks to holidays overseas as well. (I can't help it - even in my funk my glass is pretty full) The things that traditionally “get us into the spirit” back home are almost completely commercial.  When you are on the streets downtown in any American city you see bells and Christmas trees and winter displays…to sell clothes or spaces or other attractions.  Television adds puts an extra bounce in our step with commercials about Disneyland announcements on Christmas morning, semis full of Coke barreling down the snowy mountain, and wives getting just the perfect diamond necklace on Christmas eve.  I’m not saying you can’t celebrate a less secular, less commercial Christmas in your homes and in your hearts, but it’s been interesting for me to see just how much of our holiday celebrations are driven by commercialism.  But seeing Santa at the Mall is fun!  And A Christmas Story is one of the finest films ever made!  I know, I know (and I agree).   My point is, living in countries that don’t publicly celebrate Christmas or Thanksgiving means you have to construct your holidays from scratch.   You have to/get to decide what aspects of holiday celebrations are important to you and which are not.  It's actually a lot easier to avoid the commercial aspects of Christmas when there is only one store that sells Christmas things and the advent calendar you bought there tastes like soap :)

Ironically, in all this "How can I make Christmas meaningful to me" business the answer that has come up again and again is to make it meaningful for other people.  We are trying to reinvent our Holidays overseas and that has been a rewarding practice so far.  In fact, a certain Mr. Red beard is playing Santa tomorrow at the consulate party...  Pictures forthcoming!  (That is, if Mrs. Red Beard can recover enough to play photographer...)     


Combat Fit

Combat Fit sounds like a version of kickboxing, doesn’t it?  Punch, kick, kick, punch.  Well, if you’d shown up to my aerobics class under that assumption you would have been as wrong as I was.  It was less like kick boxing and more like…dance aerobics.  No, in fact, I’m pretty sure it was exactly dance aerobics.  A class I never would have signed up for.  A class I never would have attended.  A class I never would have dared to stand at the back of and shake my groove thing.  And yet, a class I thoroughly enjoyed.  

Moroccans like to dance, to sing, to move.  They are generally a life loving people who express their love through movement and music - among other things.  (I on the other hand am a life loving person who expresses it through reading and quiet contemplation….hhmmm…)  This aerobics class was packed full of women of every age, shape, and size who just wanted to move.  There were, of course, very complicated steps that I messed up every time; but if I tried to avoid watching myself fumble around in the room length mirror then it was all good. 

I like to exercise, but to dance for joy is something foreign to me.  Ask my dear friend Jen.  When we went to church camp the summer before our junior year of high school I spent the twice weekly dances sitting in the foyer saying things like  “Please don’t let me ruin your fun.  I’d hate to inhibit the way you choose to engage with music in a social context!”  (Nerd alert, anyone?)  She, bless her, tried to teach me to dance by having me first tap my index finger to the music and then move my hand and then my whole arm but without fail when it got near the shoulder I would call the whole thing off.  (Remember that Jen?  You are nice.  I was lame.) 

But anyway, this class was wonderful and I’ll probably go again next week.  I need the week to recover! 

But what else have we been up to besides going to the gym? 

Christmas shopping requires sustenance
Christmas shopping! A few weekends ago I had to work in Marrakesh got to work in Marrakesh on a Friday and so we made a weekend out of it.  We got a screaming last minute deal on a riad and spent the weekend combing the souks of Marrakesh for Christmas gifts.  I won’t go into details since my family are sneakers and they would try and figure out what I bought them, but suffice to say I have never wheeled and dealed so much in my life.  In fact, and I’m one part proud of this one part ashamed,   I actually got kicked out of a rug shop for haggling too much.  I worked the carpet seller down a grundle, but I was blinded by my own ambition and pushed it a step too far.  As we walked away I realized that his last offer was about 8 bucks more than my highest offer and I felt sick to my stomach.  8 bucks for crying out loud!  Keep it together Brooke.  What would that have cost you?    But as we were about to turn the corner the teenage shabb who had been showing the rugs for his shopkeeper tapped us on the shoulder and invited us back to another store.  Evidently the neighboring shopkeeper got wind that we were willing to buy but that we’d been given the boot by his sober neighbor and sent the boy to chase us down. 

The shabb brought us back to the same street and motioned for us to enter a dark set of stairs lined with carpets.  Is this our death?  Have they brought us back to kill us for shaming their profession?  I whispered to Max “um, is this okay?  Should we go in?”  And the little shabb from behind us whispered in a similar tone “Yes you should, it’s good.” 

After some additional wrangling to get the shopkeeper to honor our previous price  and some baksheesh (tips) for the errand boy we walked away with two red/orange Berber carpets.  What’s Christmas shopping without a little something for yourself? 

On the way home we accidently took the long way around Marrakesh back to Casablanca and got caught in an incredible rain storm.  We had black rock hills behind us and the snow capped Atlas Mountains behind them, the open yellow plains in front of us, and intermittent patches of bright blue sky and black rain clouds above us.  I’ve heard Morocco described as a place of paradox and this moment was certainly illustrative.  Like a total goober I stuck my camera out the window from time to time to catch a few photographs.     


November: Spain

When we moved to Morocco I discovered that several European discount airlines flew in and out of Casablanca for something akin to bus fair...I went a little crazy.  In one night I bought tickets for both of us to Lisbon and Madrid...for about the price of two fancy dinners out.  Max stopped me just before I bought tickets to Milan, and it's a good thing.  Who knows where I would have stopped?  I was out of control.

But I do not regret my impulsive travel bargain shopping.

We loved Madrid for the following reasons:

The Spanish Royal Palace & Cathedral
The churches in Spain are pretty much like free art shows - with some extra pizazz...the Catholic kind, I guess.  The Royal Palace Cathedral has some beautiful stained glass and vibrantly painted ceilings.

The Royal Palace was nothing to sneeze at either.  It was a much welcomed honest-to-gosh blustery autumn day and we were glad to make our way through the line into the Palace after an hour or so.  One of the 2,000 plus rooms, the Stradivarious Room, contains the only matching Stradivarious quartet in the world (two violins, a viola, and a cello).  I sneaked a picture of one of them before being tsk tsked by an attendant.  Which, of course, made me very embarrassed.  I hate pushy tourists who think their picture of priceless art is more important than the preservation of said priceless art.  I was just swept up in the Stradivarious moment!
The Royal Palace
 Outside of amazing free art in the Spanish churches we went to a few museums in Madrid that were terrific.  We stood in front of Picasso's Guernica for some time at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.  It is massive - about   137 inches by 305 inches.  Even better than seeing it in person was seeing it in Spain where the tragedy of Guernica actually happened - to read about the history, see part of the country in which it occurred, and then see the art it inspired added another level of appreciation for me.  ...and sometimes, let's be honest, adds the first level of appreciation.  I like art, but I'm not afraid to admit I don't always get it, you know?

El Greco!  El Greco was born in Greece (hence the name) but painted during the 16th century in Spain.  The wikipedia describes his style by saying  

El Greco has been characterized by modern scholars as an artist so individual that he belongs to no conventional school. He is best known for tortuously elongated figures and often fantastic or phantasmagorical pigmentation, marrying Byzantine traditions with those of Western painting.  

His religious figures are sinewy and sad and always painted as if part of this world and part of the next.  I didn't know much about him before this trip and we were lucky to see his work in several museums in Madrid and Toledo.      

Which brings me to Toledo!

Tagus River Surrounding Toledo on Three Sides
 We took a short 30 minute train ride from Madrid to Toledo and spent a few days wandering up hills (only uphill it seemed) into churches, and mosques and synagogues and having a generally wonderful time.  Toledo was once a haven of relative tolerance and co-mingling of Moors (Muslims from North Africa), Christians, and Jews alike.  We saw many remnants of Toledo's golden age including a Sephardic Synagogue and Museum (the name for Spanish Jews), a Muslim Mosque, and my favorite, the Cathedral of Toledo.  I think this may be my favorite church of the any I've seen in Europe.

The Cathedral of Toledo
Oh, hello.
Toledo's cathedral not only boasts a dozen El Greco's and a handful of Goyas depicting Christ and the Apostles, but also carved stucco in geometric patterns and muqarnes - both very traditional Muslim architectural arts found in Mosques all over the Middle East.  The sacristy contains tapestries and clothing of previous cardinals, including golden banners covered in Arabic writing.  No where else have I seen such a mixture of religious iconography.  Granted the choir seats in the nave of the church depict the violent recapturing of Granada and its surrounding cities during the Crusades, but there are still whispers of a moment where art and devotion were universally appreciated in Toledo regardless of faith. 

Is it wrong that after learning the tiny misericords in the choir (small benches what you lean on while praying) illustrate various naughty activities frowned upon by the Catholic church we tried to figure out what each of them was?  Surprisingly enough, the only one a little blush worthy was a man peeking on a nude bather.  Most of them depicted dragon fighting and animals playing cards together... Strange days, those Middle Ages.    

The amazing gold plated altar piece in the Toledo Cathedral
A peek into the courtyard of one of the monasteries we visited in Toledo.
Best Gargoyle Ever. 
The horseshoe door speaks to Toledo's Moorish past

Toledo at Night
Don Quioxte
Love me some Don Quioxte.  Toledo borders on Don Quioxte's region of windmills and you could find little statues of him everywhere.   When Max bopped into a local shop to ask the shopkeeper the name of Don Quioxte's trusted companion he looked a bit aghast and said "Sancho.  Of course!  This is very important here."  So there you go.  If you go to Spain you'd better know your Sancho.  

I think I found my food heaven.  I am a plate sharer and I like to sample everything at the table.  Enter Tapas.  These tiny portions are usually ordered at bars and people will have a bite and a drink at one bar, mozy down the lane and eat another tiny plate and have another tiny glass of beer and so on. But the experience is equally as good for teetotalers like ourselves.  We prowled the streets looking for tasty menus and then popped in for small plates of sausages, cheese, jamon, grilled veggies or fried fish.

For the record, I had the best garlic shrimp of my life in Madrid.  I watched them dump a handful of shrimp in a small dish of olive oil and oodles of garlic and slowly heat it up until they were cooked.  Max had to stop me from tipping up the bowl of garlicky goodness and drinking it when we finished. We compromised on me sopping it up with a chunk of bread.

Other food highlights include copious amounts of Spanish ham called "Jamon Iberico" - think little four seasons piggies fed on acorns and other lovely things their whole life - spicy chorizo sausage (see a trend?), plates of Manchego cheese and perhaps the finest meal I have ever eaten.  After touring castles and walking up hills all day in Toledo we stopped for an early dinner at the base of the Castle.  After about three hours we had cleaned up a dish of partridge served with giant white beans, roasted red peppers with cured deer meat, roast suckling pig with mashed garlic potatoes and bacon wrapped fillet Mignon stuffed with a fig dressing (respectively).  We finished with a mango moose topped almond custard as well as a chocolate "St. Geronimo" cake.  Once a decade my friends.  I don't know if my waist line (or my wallet) could handle much more than that kind of excess.            

And the hot "chocolate" with dipping churros!  Best. Dessert. Ever.  On more occasions than a weekend really demanded we partook of hot chocolate - really more like pudding - and tiny churros for dipping into the pudding/chocolate.  I'm reliving my food coma just thinking about all the good food. 

On Speaking Arabic
Why would my Scottish looking American husband speak Arabic?

That must have been what our waiter at the Museum of Ham was thinking (Please note that the restaurant is really called The Museum of Ham).  When we struck up a conversation with our waiter and he learned that we were from America he said "Well, I am from Baghdad.  You know, things are hard here.  I work and I work and at the end the day I just don't quite have enough to make the ends meet"

Too bad for him said Scottish looking husband responded in modern standard Arabic "You are from Baghdad!  Well, it's nice to meet you.  How long have you been in Madrid" 

To which our waiter did not respond, so Max repeated it and then the waiter smiled nervously, ducked his head and walked away.


Playing on the sympathies of traveling Americans in regards to the war in Iraq.  Shame on you Mr. Spanish Man.  Shame on you.  But props to my Mr. Red Beard.



I’m a swimmer.  But I don’t come from a family of swimmers.  We have kept our feet firmly on the ground for decades kicking soccer balls.   I estimate my sweet mother has sat through at least 1,000 soccer games in her life…that’s a lot of hooting and hollering.  But during the 2004 Athens Olympic games I became obsessed and started swimming in our local pool.  As my skills improved I purchased goggles and a cap – because I felt ridiculous doing the dog paddle in full gear. Overtime it became my go to for exercise.  To the point that high levels of chorine in the University pool ate away the backside of my swimming suit in college… I didn’t notice for some time.  Good thing it was my college bum and not my almost thirty bum.

When we got to Morocco I was very excited to start swimming again – between the move from Jerusalem, our temporary status in DC, and fertility injections that made me sick, it had been a long time.   Surprisingly enough I couldn’t find a lot of lap pools in the area!  There are pools along the ocean front corniche, but most of them are filled with ocean water and accessible only with expensive club memberships.  And really, like I want to swim laps in front of people wearing diamonds with their bathing suits.

Another, larger concern of mine in Morocco is interacting with actual Moroccans.  For my job I do a bit of it, but it’s always in a work capacity.  Max and I have come to realize it’s a lot harder to have regular conversations with people now than it was before as students.  We drive a car so we aren’t interacting with bus drivers and fellow passengers, we have a housekeeper who buys our groceries during the week so we only talk to people at the markets on the weekend, and we work with Americans all day long  (with the noted exception of locally employed staff who are awesome – thank goodness for them). 

When we set about looking for a gym we wanted three things 1) a gym with a pool 2) a gym with different floors for genders instead of different days like most places in Casa and 3) a local gym where we could engage with actual Moroccans.  Thanks to the help of my Moroccan office-mate we were able to accomplish all three. 

A few weeks ago we showed up for the first time on a women’s swim night – even though there are floors for men and women the pool is separated by gender each night.  I pulled my stuff out of our shared gym bag before Max disappeared into the men’s floor and I made my way down to the pool.  As I descended I heard crazy loud disco music and all manner of yelling and splashing.  To my delight, and a bit to my nervousness, I discovered a water aerobics class in session. 

“Venez! Venez!”  the drill instructor/aerobics teacher hollered from her position at the front of the pool.  Come, Come

I dutifully ducked into the changing room but when I unrolled my towel it revealed I had somehow packed only my tankini bottoms….  Bad news bears.  My options were to stick it out in the dressing room until Max was finished in an hour and try to explain myself in broken French to the class, or act like it was normal to wear a high wasted tankini bottom with a hot pink sports bra to water aerobics.   Some of these women were wearing knee length swimming suits and I already stuck out as the only non-Moroccan, but what’s living overseas really about if not feeling uncomfortable from time to time?

I tried to drop my towel and sneak into the water as inconspicuously as possible and it was well worth it.  They know how to work it out here!  When you think water aerobics you think of retirement home pools full of swimming-suit-skirted-empty-milk-jug-swinging 70 year olds, but at the risk of sounding cliché, this wasn’t your grandma’s water aerobics class.  A young Moroccan ran the length of the pool and back the entire time shouting for people to work harder and on occasion even reaching into the water to push someone’s head down, making water treading more challenging.   And she didn’t shy away from bossing me as the newcomer. 

“Plus Dur!  Plus Vite!”  work harder, work faster!  she yelled, squatting next to me in the pool. 

Somehow it wasn’t a confrontational kind of yelling, everyone was laughing and having a great time – kicking their legs about and yelling jokes back to the instructor.  Every once in a while she stopped for a small dance break and then got back to the pool.  It was awesome.  

In the locker room afterwards the 15 + women where having multiple conversations with each other in a web across the small space and passing dates back and forth to eat.  Most were sitting in wrapped towels telling stories and illustrating them with exaggerated hand movements.  At this point they had switched to Arabic and I had little idea of what they were saying, but it was nice to witness, if not be part of in a small way, the camaraderie and intimacy that happens with Arab women behind closed doors.   It is much stronger than I have ever experienced in an American women’s locker room where everyone faces the wall to change clothes and then bustles out before the sweat has dried on their foreheads.  I realized that my swimming suit bottom/sports bra combination didn’t matter a bit and what matters here is being together.

One particularly jovial woman handed me a date.  “B’saha” she smiled from behind her sopping wet hair.  To Your Health   


Morocco at the Met

Love This.


Our Time in Lisbon Comes to an End

We spent our last full Lisbon day in Belem checking out the "Age of Discovery" monuments in honor of Christopher Columbus - the founder of our 3 day weekend feast.  We hit the Monastery of St. Jerome - some of the most beautiful cloisters I've ever seen - oh to be a nun!  Reading, walking about, thinking...eating broth, staying single forever, waking up for prayers several times a night  ...wait, actually that sounds terrible.  Nun I shall not be, but cloister appreciator I shall.  The adjacent church actually houses the tomb of Vasco De Gama.  Vasco De Gama!
Monument to Discovery
Then we hit the "Monument To Discovery" (just what it sounds like) and sampled a very tasty treat called "Pastel de Nata" - a special custard cooked in a sweet filo dough type crust.  Divine.

For our last night we went to the Gulbankian Musuem where I accidentally bought an amazing book about all of the books from all over the world in the collection in Portuguese.  I was very sad indeed when I pulled it from my back pack and discovered "De Paris A Toquio" instead of "From Paris to Tokyo" like I thought I had purchased.  Not to worry, a sweet friend of ours in Portugal is going to swap it for us.

The museum, containing the late Mr. Gulbankian's personal collection, is really stunning.  My favorite section was the room comprising Persia, the Middle East, and Turkey.  At one point I looked up from a fabulous 3 x 5 yard, 400 year old Persian rug to see a small toddler making his way around the corner from the previous room.  He was running towards the rug from the opposite side of the rug I was on.  (If you see what's coming then hold your breath like I did.)  I waited for a few seconds to see who was with him and an old woman with moccasins and knee highs came toddling through the door, too many paces behind him.  Just then it dawned on me that she wasn't going to catch him in time.  I let out a pre-gasp gasp.   And then the small child jumped onto the platform, peddling across the 400 year old rug.  I must have let out a serious cry because Max ran to my side to ask what was the matter.  Not wanting to loose this fun game of cat and mouse the child ran a bit further (the threads!) and fell right down in the middle of the rug.  I didn't know I had such strong feelings for historical artifacts - but I guess I do.  The guards ushered both the child and the old woman out of the room and Max had me sit me down for a minute so I could get it together.

Perhaps that hidden (or not so hidden) compulsion to preserve cultural artifacts explains why I can't really talk about the looting of the Iraq National Library and Archive after the 2003 invasion without getting very sad.  Look it up.  Be very sad too.  Anyway, this particular rug did make it through the toddler invasion of 2011 and for that I am glad.
Tiles from the Gulbankian Museum
As we were packing up the next morning and recounting the many things we'd seen Max said to me "I thought this was going to be a relaxing trip" with a grin.

"But this was a relaxing trip!  This was me, low key planning." I said with a bit of panic.

To be honest, I'm a planning maniac.  I think we'll just see one thing today and spend the rest of the time milling about but then I realize that historical sites A, B, and C are all on the way so we should just stop there for a little while and this amazing church is only open for a few hours that afternoon so we should probably stop there too.  ooh, and wouldn't the perfect Brazilian dinner (which we ate at a place called Brasuca) be a great way to end our relaxing day?  And then! We'll walk down by the river front and see the ships come into port... you get the picture.

But I have promised, crossed my heart and hope to die, that our next trip will be a bit slower paced :)


Lisbon, Day II

Lisbon has a weekly flea market in the shadow of the 17th century Church of Sao Vincente de Fora.   After exiting the rickety tram that wound us up through the Alfama the next morning we wandered towards the church.  We found our way by noting the increased number of University students lugging antique mirrors and carved side tables back to their apartments as we moved further down the hill.   The sprawling market has an eclectic mix of old world book sellers, hairy legged hippies making hemp bracelets, Guinean’s hawking African statues, antique furniture with navel carvings, and the usual ‘junk from my closet’ collections of television remotes, half sets of china, empty chipped frames, and old shoes rubber banded together all spread across an old bed sheet.  I bought several black and white postcards of Lisbon from the early 1900’s but I found my haggling skills much diminished in this non Middle-Eastern country and I’m sure I paid too much.

Many of the churches in the Alfama share a roving preacher and are closed to the public much of the time.  We were very fortunate to catch the Church of Sao Vincente de Fora open for a few minutes after the flea market.  One of the enclaves has a pretty gruesome statue depicting a man, hands shackled but outstretched, and his heart plucked out – blood gushing down his chest.  My training in Catholic saints in minimal so we asked the caretaker about it as she ushered us out the doors to close for the day.  She told us that Sao Joao Do Brito was a Portuguese Jesuit who preached in southern India during the 17th century.  After a significant amount of success he was martyred – slayed through the heart.  My reading revealed that when he instructed a convert to divorce all but one of his wives one of the unhappy (an powerful) women began a campaign against Sao Joao Do Brito and he was later killed as he became increasingly unpopular among the upper class and religious Brahmin.  Funny though, in all my reading I couldn’t find anything about him being stabbed through the heart.  It’s a great story all the same.   I think that kind of history meets legend meets symbolism meets religious expression is what is so fascinating to me about religious iconography. 

After a lunch of pork chops – the first in months – and grilled sardines – which I’m slowly becoming obsessed with – we headed up to the Sao George Castle for a few hours.  This castle was first built by the Moors in the 12th century.   We spent quite a bit of time taking in views of they city and reading up on Lisbon from a shady spot we found…down in the dry castle moat.   It was good to rest our feet, but we spent a considerably amount of time trying not to get busted by the grounds police and making jokes about the number of dead bodies/animals/garbage and sundry things that had no doubt made their way into the soil through the moat.

 After that we checked out the School of Portugese Decorative Arts --an awesome old house full of enough patterns, prints, tiles and carvings to make your head spin—ate a mediocre Indo-Portuguese Curry and, shame of my shame, caught an American movie in English.  In my defense, all of the movies in Casablanca are in French or Arabic and never subtitled in English.  For a few moments I felt like I was back home at Movies 8 with a purse full of smuggled in candy. 

I guess sometimes travel is as much about discovering home as it is about discovering new places.


A Rough Start, But...

It was a double puking.

I probably haven't seen someone throw up for 15 years when my younger brother threw up in the back seat of the minivan on the way to Grandma's.  My sisters both rolled the windows down and held their faces out, wailing the whole time that they too were going to be sick and how would they survive?

The flight from Casablanca to Lisbon is very short and the plane size is commensurate to the journey.   When the man behind us suddenly passed out and vomited into his shirt pocket I traveled back in time to the minivan's backseat.  I, however, didn't attempt to stick my head out of the window -  for the obvious reasons but also because I wanted to help.  Too bad I don't know anything about helping other humans in need of physical aid and I could only sit there holding my puke bag out lamely... in case he needed another one?  Note to self: take a first aid class for crying out loud.  

I'm not sure what actually happened, but after someone roused the cabin crew the man came to, changed his shirt and everyone went back to their Portuguese Sky Mall equivalents like nothing had happened.

Very strange. 

The second puking occurred on the church steps next to our guesthouse.  4:30 in the afternoon seemed a bit early for drunk street puking, but what do I know about Lisbon?  (And actually, I later learned that "street drinking" is a legal and popular activity in Lisbon.  It's just what it sounds like.  Yikes.) 

That's not a very good way to start off describing what was a wonderful trip we had in a wonderful place, but sometimes people get the idea that travel is all about leisure and glamor.  Sometimes you have to wade through a bit of street puke to get to the "leisure" part....and I'm not speaking metaphorically here people.

ANYWAY, all grossness aside, we arrived at our guesthouse overlooking the Tagus river at about 5:00 PM and were greeted by what sounded like a Brazilian dance party.  A retro jukebox blasted a mix of classic American Rock and rhythmic Brazilian Forro.   Pedro, our host, worked a juicer to the beat - churning out two tall glasses of orange juice for us.  Do you ever feel like you are the least cool person at the party?  That's certainly how I felt in my librarian sweater (it's a bonafide, honest to gosh librarian sweater we are talking about) and Rick Steves guide book sticking out of my camera bag.  But whatever.  If you worry about not being "cool enough" for the Europeans, or the Jet Set, or the World Travelers or whoever you'll never go anywhere.  Who cares.  Wear your librarian sweaters with pride I say!

Lisbon. Is. Beautiful.  We keep coming back to the adjective "easy".  It was easy to get to and from the airport, easy to walk in the streets at night, easy to find something cheap to eat, easy to ask people for help.  Our first night we took the quaint city tram (not unlike San Fran's) up to the top of the Alfama neighborhood - where sailors and salty sea characters of yesteryear once rousted.  This area was one of the few places in Lisbon not destroyed by the 1755 earthquake that leveled most of the city.

That night we wandered down the steep lanes and stopped at lookout points to take in sweeping views of the Atlantic as the sun set.  We sampled Lisbon's famous Bacalhau - fried salted cod fish - and the Pastel de Bacalhau - a kind of codfish cake with potatoes, parsley and eggs all fried together in a delicious ball of goodness.  The Bacalhau tasted a bit like beef jerky with breading - only made of fish..  In its defense, we did stop just before closing time when the Bacalhau had been sitting under a heat lamp all day.  Mea Culpa.

Bacalhau Shop
For our actual dinner we took a ferry across the river to the other side of the bay and dined on squid stew and a cod fish and cream dish.  Even though squid isn't at the top of my 'love it' list, I feel very strongly that you just have to eat the things the locals eat when you travel.  Have I ever gotten sick?  You'd better believe it.  But I have also discovered many new things I like - the stew was actually quite good and the squid very tender.  But the best moment of the night was when Max asked the waiter if they had anything with pork on the menu.  After months of pork-pravation in Casablanca when he brought out a large dish of mixed Chorizo with flames still licking up through the sausages we knew we were going to love Lisbon. 


How to Celebrate a Birthday

...I know, I know,  I always post a teaser when we go somewhere and (usually) follow up with a more substantial post a bit later when I have more time.... today is no different :) 

 Any guesses? 


"Give it Up Y'all!"

Brooke: "No, no, no, I can't say that!"

Max: "Make some noise?"

Brooke: "No, I can't say that either..."

Max: "What about put your hands together!

Brooke: "...well... oh, no. That will never work."

Max: "Well, what do you feel comfortable saying?"

Brooke: "Well, something like Hello and Good Evening.  I'd like to welcome you to what is sure to be a great show.  Please enjoy your evening."

Max: "At a hip hop concert?  You want to say hello and good evening?"

When I started my new job in the Public Affairs section a few months ago I knew I'd be well, interacting with the public, but I didn't know I'd be called upon to emcee a hip hop concert.  If you know me you can confirm that I am, in fact, a huge nerd.  I like to read, I like to make and appreciate art, and I like documentaries.  I like to stay home and parties make me really nervous.  I like fogey rock and indie music that you could sleep to.  But when a Muslim Hip Hop band from America comes to Morocco and it's your job to introduce them in front of several hundred people - you do it.

Just before I went on stage one of the band members, nice as pie, gave me a little pep talk about gettin' my groove on.

"You just have to be a little vulnerable"  he said

"Yeah, that was it, that laugh you just did - it's relate-able and engaging.  You can do this!  ...Just don't be a...librarian..."  he finished with smile.  

I'm happy to report that with only one minor mess-up my gig, as the kids call it, went very well.  


Blogger, You Know Me So Well

I was wasting some time tonight on the computer before reading Stephen King's The Shining out loud with Max and going to bed (ebitty jibitty that is a scary book!  And out loud?  At night?  Awesome) and I came across some of the search terms that lead people to my blog.  Most of them seemed obvious, but one of them at once made perfect sense and no sense at all.

More than one person has found my blog after searching for "girls in sweatpants".

I feel both offended and profoundly understood.

I do indeed own many pairs of sweatpants, BUT also many pairs of pointy toed heels.  So there. 


How NOT to Respond to a Groping

It happens, I guess. 

It happens in America and it happens in the Middle East (and elsewhere I'm sure) but it had never happened to me.

Before Max and I went to Amman for our first overseas experience we were informed that, unfortunately, I should be prepared for an unwelcome pat on the rump or a fully-intentional-accidental brushing up against in public spaces from time to timeI was so prepared for such an event that the first words I learned in Arabic meant "Shame on you!" and I practiced a hand swat that would surely deflect any wandering perverts.  Perhaps as a result of my precaution (or just plain old good luck) such an occasion never befell me in Jordan or Jerusalem.  I did get spit on by a small boy at the Kalandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem once, but that's not quite the same thing. 

A few weekends ago we traveled to the southern coastal town of Essaouira via Marrakesh.  We spent one night in a lovely Riad so our visiting friend could experience the madness of Jemaa El-Fna - and madness it was.  Feeling a bit more confident than our first time in the square I led our posse of three right to a circle of people gathered around traditional musicians.  The three of us stood on our tippy toes and shuffled back an forth to get a glimps of the musicians' hat tassels orbiting their bobbing heads.

Just as I settled into a little perch where I could see the action, I felt an arm/shoulder/hand brush past my backside quite forcefully.  My immediate, unthinking response?  I swung around to see the punk, mid 20's, as he was slinking away and gave him a two handed, open handed shove from behind.  Me!? Shove a stranger!?  Knowing the level of his guilt he, of course, didn't even turn around but kept on walking.  (That's how I knew it was him - would you just keep on walking if a stranger shoved you out of the blue?)  But as I was mad dogging him, my back turned to the circle, a felt another close encounter from the circle and after swinging back around (hands at my side this time) I felt another one from yet another direction.  Good night!  (And not 'good night' as in isn't a triple groping awesome?  but 'good night' as in Good Hell People!)

"We gotta get out of here!"

I yelled to Max and our friend over the drums and general chaos of the square.  We made it to safety in a nearby cafe and as I explained to Max what had happened including my completely automatic (and un-recommendable) response his eyes got big.  I think he was one part proud that my instinct was to fight back, but also one part horrified about what I might have done had he actually turned around to face me.  It wouldn't have been pretty.

Anyway, don't get groped.  And if you do...I'm not sure that starting a fight is the best course of action...

...but to each their own I say.            


Last Days of Summer

But really, when is it not mostly summer here?

We've been busy bees here in Morocco...


Anatomy of an Iftar

Well Ramadan is over but I figure, no time like the present to talk about it anyway. 

A refresher: Ramadan is a holy month where Muslims fast from sun up to sun down, eating only in the early hours of the morning and late at night when the sun has gone down.  This daylight abstinence is not only from food, but drink, cigarettes and sex as well.  This demonstration of devotion is commanded in the Koran and also commemorates the month during which the Prophet Mohammed received the Koran from the angel Gabriel.  It is a time of fasting, reflecting on ones blessings by experiencing what hunger is like for the poor, and much prayer and devotion.  After Ramadan (and to an extent during) Muslims give Zakat or alms to the poor.

At the end of the day, around 7 (7:20 ish in Morocco this year) the call to prayer sounds and participating Muslims break their fast at a meal called Iftar.  Max and I were very fortunate this year to attend a couple of Iftar's during Ramadan.  There are a few traditions associated with Iftar that we were not aware of before coming to the Mahgreb.  

To begin with, a date and/or something sweet is traditionally eaten first to end the fast.  We sat around a table heaped with pastries, dates and dried fruit at one dinner and I have to say, sweets first is my kind of meal.   

Other traditional iftar foods in Morocco include hard boiled eggs, harrira soup - a tomato based soup with herbs, chickpeas, vegetables, sometimes meat - and something called shpekia.  How you spell it is anyone's guess, but it is a small sticky pastry made of fried dough, sesame seeds and honey.

At one iftar we were served fried fish caught in the sea that very day along with kefta (spiced ground meat) and various yummy bread/sauce concoctions.  At the other iftar we tried our first dish of Kalia.  We first spotted Kalia in the Fez medina and I said to our tour guide "...what is that stuff that looks like chunks of meat that have been curing in fat for months without refrigeration?" and she said "Oh, that's chunks of meat that have been curing in fat for months without refrigeration.  It's called Kalia."  I later learned that it is common to eat Kalia in a tajine that has been slow cooked with eggs.  Sounds like a groovy breakfast catastrophe, doesn't it?  I was a little skeptical when I saw it sandwiched between layers of fat in the open air markets, but served in a lovely tagine and sopped up with a fresh baguette I actually quite liked it.  Will I make it at home?  Probably not.  Would I eat it again?  Absolutely.  

The meal is finished, of course, with the ubiquitous mint tea found in every kitchen, stoop, cranny, and street corner in Morocco.  Our friends have been gracious to prepare a special no-tea-tea for us on such occasions.  

In light of all this food obsession, I'll leave one more food related anecdote that a wise Moroccan told me before Ramadan began.  He said to me You know, Ramadan is really special for women.  And I thought But surely its special for everyone, what do you mean?  He went on to ask me how I felt when I prepared food for Max and I said I liked to do it because I like to cook but more importantly I like to feed Max, to look after him and care for him.  He said that Ramadan can be hard for women because they have to cook all day for what are often elaborate iftars while fasting and they are tired.  But then he related the cooking of the iftar to my feeling when I cook for Max. 

You do this because you love him, because you want him to be happy.  If the woman makes her family food during Ramadan with this kind of love it is a very special thing. 

A very special thing for her relationship with her family, but also her relationship with Allah, with God.  Anyway,  it was a lovely sentiment that the labor involved in the fasting and food preparation could be a kind of devotion to her love for God and family.     


Busy is as Busy Does

I feel like I've been posting about our last trip for weeks because nothing has been going on.  Wait! That's not true, it's because everything has been going on lately!  A short list of goings on are as follows:

1.  I started my new job at the consulate and I am loving it.  Capital L.  It's a bit of library, a bit of public affairs, a bit of social media, a bit of programming, a lot of wonderful people, a bit of French, a bit of Arabic, a bit of.... you get the idea.  I feel really blessed.

2.  A few of my new colleges have been helping me learn a some Arabic and it has been awesome.  I think they get a real kick out of my 'look-what-I-can-do' silliness, but they are gracious when I mispronounce something as simple as good morning and that means the world to me.  

3.  It's Ramadan!  I'll post more about the holy month of fasting later, but it changes the pace of life drastically in this part of the world.  Shops are closed and the streets look like ghost towns until about 10:30 p.m. when things really pick up and go well into the night.  It's been a much different experience than in Jerusalem and we have learned a lot.

4.  I pulled something gnarly in my back whilst working it out to a Denise Austin exercise video.  No matter, I've started a regiment of physical therapy including what feels like a mild form of electro-shock therapy.  Adventures in health care indeed.  

5.  I've started driving.  You heard right, driving!   Remember the left turn I told you about where everyone lines up 10 cars across (instead of behind one another) and then races to funnel into the single lane that T's with intersection?  I have made several such left turns and so far so good.  It occurred to me that going from being and American driver to a Moroccan driver would have been really stressful, but going from being an American walker (without a car) to a Moroccan driver makes total sense.  You just have to behave like you are not driving a several ton machine full of gasoline but a regular person who can squeeze through tight spaces, back up at will, go in the wrong direction, and park on sidewalks (which I've done on several occasions).  

6. My youngest brother moved to Hawaii to play soccer as a college Freshman and I'm so proud I could burst.  Even though I'm thousands of miles away from him I feel like I have personally sent him off to school all by himself and Max has had to talk me down from my worry several times.  In my most extreme moments of anxiety I will cry out  "How do parents do this?!  How can we ever do this?!"  I'm ridiculous.  

7.  I signed up for French class through the Foreign Service Institute, gulp, in the intermediate class.  I may have lost my brain.  We'll see how it goes.

8.  You've been watching the news, right?  Lots of stuff has been going on around these parts and further east.  My heart has been heavy for those who have and are experiencing very hard time these days.

I'll leave you with a few pictures of the last leg of our trip to Marrakesh from the Atlas Mountains.  We took a day trip up and around several windy bends to the Berber town of Imlil.  We ate an amazing Berber tagine in the shadow of the highest mountain in North Africa, Jebel Toubkal, and watched the local children play in the rivers that trickle out of the mountains.  The perfect getaway from our getaway.  So postmodern.

Small villages in the Atlas Mountains


Evening Falls

After our mighty lamb lunch we toured the Bahia Palace - an enormous moorish complex with gadzillions of rooms and courtyards and flowers, etc.  It was lovely.  
Bahia Palace Courtyard - one of them
We finished our second day in Marrakesh with a hearty meal of sausages, pastilla, and grilled veggies at several different food carts on Jemaa Al-Fnaa.  I had this idea that we would enter the tangle of carts pushed together to form a kind of outdoor cafeteria and peruse several menus before prudently selecting the best looking dishes with the best prices.  No dice.  We entered through one of the main entrances and were immediately swarmed by pushy men shoving menus in our face.  We got about three carts in before we relented and sat down on the edge of one of the metal tables.  But we were not disappointed.  The square is amazing and Max only almost got in a fight once when a younger menu hawking soup seller grabbed me by the arm.  What can you do?

Snail Soup.  It's actually on our list of things to try, but not in July.  

If you know Max, this picture could be titled "Of Course!"
 We finished the evening with ice cream and flan at the Andalusia Cafe overlooking the square.  I read that it is the largest square in Africa and that doesn't surprise me.

On our way out of the square