Sunday, March 30, 2008


I’m back from vacation and had a great time! My head is spinning a bit, but I’ll try to sort out some thoughts. First of all, on vacation in general – it’s always good to get away. It’s just good for the soul. Yes, I was in a groove work-wise and now it will take me a while to get back in the swing, but I feel uplifted spiritually. I just bought my ticket for the next trip, in fact – for Reunions. I think the ticket cost 50 to 100 percent more than it did last year, but so be it….

UNESCO – we had a chance to see several World Heritage Sites. In Lisbon, I saw the Monastery of the Hieronymites, with Manueline architecture that features nautical themes, while everyone else was at a playground, and we passed the Tower of Belem, a chess-piece-like structure which commemorates Vasco da Gama’s expedition. I also spent some time at distinctive monument to Prince Henry the Navigator, and we went to an old pastry shop for their secret-recipe egg custards. The Cultural Landscape of Sintra is also a World Heritage site – we went there on a day that also included a coastal fishing village and the westernmost point on the European continent; I don’t feel I got a feel for Sintra, but it was nice to walk around its cobblestone streets. The Historic Centre of Evora is one as well – we stayed in a Pousada, one of the state-run hotels; in our case it was a former monastery (or convent?) that was right across from a Roman temple ruin. The city itself has (per the UNESCO web site) whitewashed houses decorated with azulejos (tiles) and wrought-iron balconies, and was once where the kings of Portugal lived. Also near Evora we saw a Neolithic stone circle! I had seen the one in Morocco for New Year’s – and this one at the spring equinox! That has to mean something. Near the stone circle (but a drive and a walk away) was a dolmen, a solitary stone over four meters high. We felt the vibration!

In Spain, we saw the Cathedral, Alcazar and Archivo de Indias in Seville, or parts thereof. The Cathedral contains the Giralda minaret from the mosque that had been on the site – rivaling the Koutoubia in Marrakesh and the Tour Hassan in Rabat; it was nice to see it after reading about it and seeing the other two. And we could go in this one! Rather than steps it has ramps where horses used to take the muezzin to the top for the call to prayer, and we climbed it for the view. The family isn’t so much into churches (though this cathedral is the third-biggest in the world and has the largest transept of all) but we ducked inside to see the tomb of Christopher Columbus. The Alcazar is the royal palace and it contained an interesting mix of Islamic architecture (the usual tile, stucco and wood) and Christian elements (lions and castles) and beautiful gardens. The Archivo de Indias was the first world trade center, from the time when Seville had an exclusive on trade with the Americas; it was closed but we saw the outside. Cordoba’s great mosque (also now a cathedral) was spectacular – row upon row of red-and-white brick arches on marble columns, and different from anything else we saw (see photo). In Grenada, the Alhambra was the last site on our itinerary and though it wasn’t least, it wasn’t most either – as Valerie said upon seeing the Islamic architecture and the reflecting pool, “we’ve been here.” She was right – it did look a lot like the palace in Seville! The Generalife, the summer palace of the Alhambra, had nice gardens and fountains. On the next hill (Grenada is has two steep hills, with the snow-covered Sierra Nevada providing a dramatic backdrop) is the Albaicin, the old Moorish quarter, with lots of churches that were former mosques, Roman walls, ancient water reservoirs, and dramatic views of the Alhambra. The UNESCO list contains a lot but not all of what we saw – I’ll list some other impressions and then fill in some blanks in the next post.

On culture shock – I felt that it was pretty easy to get used to paved streets and the lack of trash, hotels with towels and western toilets and no need to wear flip flops (I have been saying for a while that I think it will be great to turn on a hot water faucet and have hot water come out, and indeed it was). On the other hand, I walk in the street a lot of the time in Morocco and found that I was walking in the streets there too – cobbled streets and cobbled sidewalks look similar, at least until a car comes along. I was ever-so-slightly taken aback at first by the fashions in the stores – short skirts and sleeveless blouses. Then on my last day I went to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave surrounded by Morocco, and it was an adjustment to see jellabas again. While I don’t plan to wear jellabas on my return to the states (unless I am giving a cultural exchange talk) I do kind of like the long skirts that I’m wearing – but maybe when I get back I should go for a different look (or at least add other things to the long skirt repertoire). As for culture shock on the way back, I walked across the border and immediately there was a rush of people – some beggars, some crowding into grand taxis, some walking along dirt paths or on donkeys, some just milling with no apparent purpose, or just whiling the time away – and I thought yep, I’m back. I do think culture shock will be much more of an issue when I return for good though! I find that I am dreading the thought of returning to winter (not that I haven’t been cold here, but it sounds so cold and snowy there in Chicago, where my stuff is in storage) – but also of working in an office, waking up to an alarm clock, and having so many things going on. Perhaps I can simplify my life when I get back, but for now I am anticipating having a hard time!

On family – it was really good to see my family. My sister sends articles and goodies but only short emails and we don’t talk often, so this was a good chance to catch up on how everyone is doing! I felt sad to leave them though. But even when I was in Chicago I didn’t see them that much more often – and even if I were in New York I would still have to live my own life to some extent…I felt even sadder when they related stories of the trip that they took to see our relatives in Holland last June. It seemed wonderful, and they are such nice people, and the kids are growing and they sound so cute! I just didn’t have the vacation days to go. Never seem to have enough vacation days! Okay, so my list of desires is becoming clearer….mild winters, less structure, fewer extracurricular activities, more vacation time…though hearing about the classes and lessons that the family takes makes me think about what new things I would like to learn when I get back.... I should mention that when I got back I received so many warm welcomes – from Abdou and from the artisans and from other people around town – that I found myself teary-eyed. I’ve already thought about how hard it is going to be to leave the people I feel are family here. I was glad that my sister said she wants to do another trip to Morocco – I certainly see myself coming back to visit.

Speaking of which – that is, speaking of speaking – usually when we go somewhere I try to learn some phrases in advance. My “big three” are good morning, hello and thank you – I find that those get you far. I didn’t bone up on Portuguese in advance but cribbed while enroute. I found it fun to speak a little but very difficult to understand when people talked amongst themselves (and other people say the same thing so I am not alone). Spanish I was looking forward to because that is the language I studied in school. In Spain they use a “th” instead of “s” sound that is a little tricky, but even trickier was the fact that (as in Azrou!) there were so many English enablers – the driver and guides, the hotel personnel, almost everyone we spoke to spoke English. Trickier still was that I kept speaking in Darija when I wasn’t speaking in English – I had to correct “shukran” to “gracias” (that is, “gra-th-ias”) several times. Many years ago, my grandfather lived in Spain and I went to visit him and his wife, who spoke only Spanish. By the end of my visit, I felt that my comprehension was pretty good and that a lot of my vocabulary had come back and that conjugations were getting there and that if I had more time and more immersion, I would really improve. Now I wonder - I have comprehension of darija much of the time but don’t know how much more I’ll really improve! When I got back to Morocco after just ten days I felt I had lost a step. I think I’ve regained it already, but I do find myself ready to add (if not switch to) French. Maybe I am destined to know some words and phrases in a lot of languages and none fluently? Or – getting back to the lesson thing – is language something I want to keep working on when I return? Something to think about.

Food – I had a couple of chicken Caesar salads in the hotel in Lisbon, which were most welcome, as were the aforementioned egg custards. Then I went on a gazpacho quest in Andalusia (“Andalu-th-ia”) and found something even better – salmorejo, a thicker form of gazpacho, that can be found at tapas bars; of course, each place makes theirs differently. I got a recipe from one of the guides and have already made it for myself; this might become a signature dish:

6-7 ripe, red tomatoes
bread (I used the inside of one baguette)
4 tbsp olive oil (I was told it had to be Andalusian olive oil – since Andalusia is covered with olive trees and 80% of the production is for oil – but used Moroccan)
1 tsbp vinegar
½ - 1 clove garlic
salt to taste

Chop up tomatoes. Put everything but the bread into a blender and blend. Add bread, a little bit at a time, and blend to desired thickness (should be thick but still spoonable).
Garnish – in Spain they used hard-boiled egg, cured ham, and tuna, just a teeny bit of each…I used none of the above and it was still well-received! Serves four.

Another food find – Magnum chocolate! Here in Morocco we just have the Magnum ice cream bars, and only double chocolate and double caramel. Well, it turns out there are several more flavors of ice cream – and there’s also chocolate! I didn’t have any ice cream (either it was chilly or I was full – not too full for a bite of chocolate, that is, but too full for an ice cream – plus I was trying to be good – though again, not too good for a bite of chocolate) but I did try the caramel, dark and hazelnut. These were plentiful in both Portugal and Spain – it made me realize that some of the best of the See The World trips have been to countries with a chocolate culture.

More to come!

Hi Sharon. Thanks for posting the picture. Brought back great memories of our trip to Spain a couple years ago. I remember the Mezquita at Cordoba being one of the most amazing buildings I'd ever seen. Glad you had a great trip!
I am glad! I thought it was amazing too - the most different from anything else (if that's phrased well grammatically...). Tough to choose a picture - there were a lot of good ones - so thanks for reinforcing my choice! I did think of you and your trip often!
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