Romans, Moors and Muslims

We spent the last 2 days in Fes, said to be the oldest city in Morocco. We travelled there via Volubilis, southernmost point of the Roman Empire (featured map blew me away),  the ruins of a city of 10,000. Like most Roman ruins, it is…ruined, and still only about 1/3 excavated (they have yet to find the amphitheatre) but the outlines are striking. As ever, I was astonished by the expertise and engineering capacities of the Romans: the baths, the “rest rooms” where families sat side by side to relieve themselves (hmmm), the aquaducts, the brothel (proof of which is still intact, see photo of well-rubbed stone), triumphal arch, temples, vomitoriums, etc. We visited the site at midday (mad dogs and Englishmen) and it was brutally hot.





Proof it was a brothel….

We then proceeded to lunch at AFER (Association of Rural Women and children), a non-profit devoted to improving the lives of rural women & children. Another massive lunch. We now recognize that most meals in Morocco follow the same format: a variety of small salads (eggplant, lentil, potato, carrots, fava beans, etc.), bread, olives, goat’s cheese, followed by one or more tagines (couscous & vegetables, beef, chicken and preserved lemons/olives, etc.), then fresh fruit for dessert. The food is absolutely delicious and spiced but not hot (except for a chili paste served alone). The Moroccans love sweets – so breakfast consists of cakes, pastries, jams – and sometimes eggs. The fresh orange juice is amazing!

At AFER we also got a lesson in Arabic (the alphabet, written right to left, and how to spell some of our names.) I am, of course, fluent now. HA!

In Fes, we stayed at a very nice hotel with an elevator, a bar (imagine our delight!), although they only served beer and wine, and that only by the bottle. We forced ourselves to adapt.

The first night we all went out to a dinner/show – to get a taste of Moroccan culture. The meal was as described above (so we were unbelievably stuffed after our large lunch). The culture consisted of traditional music and singing…and I have to say if I never hear Moroccan music again, it might be too soon. I mentioned that this was not to my taste, and one of the gents on the tour, agreeing, said, “But better than heavy metal, right?” I shook my head… (Conversation was difficult due to the din.) There was also belly dancing, a terrible, possibly drunk magician, and a mock wedding ceremony. Members of the audience were dragged up to participate in all these activities and two of our party were selected and subsequently embarrassed. The evening dragged on and all of us would have been falling asleep had the music not been so deafening and jarring. Ah well. I will pass on future offers of this kind of cultural experience.


View from our dinner location


Our group at the cultural event

Yesterday we went on a long walking tour of Fes: a fascinating mixture of Muslim, Jewish and Moorish cultures. The Moors and Jews came to Fes when they were expelled from Spain about 800 years ago. The grandson of Mohammed lived in Fes and his home/palace is now a holy place as he is buried there. It is home to the world’s oldest university. The Medina is surrounded by a 15 km wall, and has 9000 streets! A smaller Jewish area is attached to it. We visited the kasbah, and walked to tiny streets of the medina for a couple of hours, a crazy warren where one could easily get lost (or robbed.) Although our guide kept apologizing that many of the shops were closed because it was Friday, Muslim holy day, we were relieved and could scarcely imagine what it would have been like on a weekday. We visited fascinating workshops where we spent too much money): ceramics & mosaics, weaving (silk threads are pulled from the fibers of the agave plant), and the tannery (where we were handed bunches of mint to help us handle the atrocious odor – and viewed the immense vats of natural dyes). My impression was that these workshops have likely altered little in several hundred years.


Jewish quarter (I think)



View of the medina from the kasbah



In the medina



Enter aInside a student residence at the university 



Dye vats at  the tannery

At the end of the day, we stopped at a supermarket to stock up on wine and beer for the desert. I then took a walk along the main, new boulevard in Fes.



While the Moorish architecture and mosaic work is gorgeous, most Moroccan buildings are unimpressive: square, yellowish, stained and crumbling flat-roofed mud/clay construction. As a result most cities look like slums. Even the mosques lack the teardrop minarets of Turkish mosques; they have square towers – because the Turks never came to Morocco. Cats abound, crying at night, snoozing in the sun, crowding fish sellers’ feet. But in the medina, at last, aromas of spice and cedar filled the air (in some places anyway).

We now leave cities behind and head for the Middle Atlas Mountains, Sahara Desert, Todra Gorge, High Atlas Mountains and seaside! 10 hours in the van today. Sand dunes tonight.


Tangier, Chefchaouen and Moroccan Chocolate…

Getting to Casablanca was a tad more challenging than anticipated. The day prior to my departure I received an incomprehensible email in Portuguese from Air Portugal, which, upon deciphering, revealed that my carefully planned flights, scheduled to arrive mid-afternoon so I could join my group for a welcome meeting and dinner, were cancelled. I’d been rebooked on a direct flight which got in later – and even later after a delay. (NB: avoid Air Portugal if you can! Impossible to reach by any means.) Fortunately I’d booked an airport transfer to the hotel but it was 9:30 before I was ensconced in my lightless room. A note from the tour guide said we were to depart at 8:00am the next day.

It is a lively group on this G Adventures tour: 7 Canadians, 5 Aussies and 2 Americans. All but two are women, vast age range. Our tour guide is a charming young man named Driss, who has conveyed a ton of information about Morocco already…a dictatorship, corrupt, where the king has pretty much absolute power and is very rich as a result. (He mostly lives in France, not Morocco, though he has several palaces here.)

IMG_2503fullsizeoutput_117dWe drove about 5 hours to Tangier, most interesting for its view across the water to Spain and Gibraltar (which are very close!), then did a walking tour though the Kasbah (fort),  Medina (old town) with Grand and Petit Soccos (markets). Dreadful lunch at a restaurant where most of the menu was unavailable  (because, our guide said, they do not get many customers. He also told us not to eat the salads.) The water here is suspect, so we cart around big bottles of mineral water & avoid uncooked food unless Driss gives us the thumbs up.


IMG_2530As expected Tangier is very colourful, not too clean – but to my disappointment did not smell like cinnamon and hashish, but, like many older European cities, urine and tobacco smoke. While Morocco is largely inhabited by Berbers and is almost entirely Muslim, French is spoken widely (yay!) – and in Tangier especially also Spanish. English has yet to gain the firm foothold it has in so many parts of the world.


After our tour of Tangier we drove another 2 hours  to Chefchaouen in the Rif mountains, home of “Moroccan chocolate” (hashish). Gorgeous  mountains – and the town of about 45,000 is famed for its blue buildings…apparently they did not all used to be blue but there were a few, and then it became known as the blue town and everyone started painting houses blue. Chefchaouen means “look to the mountain” and they tower all around it.


IMG_2550We checked into our hotel (described as very nice by Driss, I guess standards differ…) and then he took us all out to a fabulous dinner of goat’s cheese olives & fig jam, cooked and raw vegetable salads, 5 different tagines (beef, chicken, vegetable, shrimp, sardine) and a yogurt, almond and date desert. It cost each of us about $15. The only drawback: no alcohol. Muslim country, small town. This was, shall we say, a disappointment to vacationing Canadians, Americans & Australians… we have subsequently figured ways around this … and will likely be over-prepared in the future (better safe than sorry, right?)


dinner in Chefchaouen

Yesterday we had a “free day” in Chefchaouen – with optional activities. Most of us chose to go on a 4 hour hike into the mountains. Our guide, Mustafa (emphasis on middle syllable) has lived in the town his entire life and leads many hikes – often several day journeys with overnight camping. He thought we were a slow group as we huffed out way to 1000 meters, past several mosques, goats, women carrying massive piles of branches on their backs, bent almost double (feed for animals), goats, mules, dozens of cats, chickens, sheep, herd dogs and amused children. We were instructed NOT to photograph people.



view of Chefchaouen

IMG_2599We were all eager to see marijuana growing (as it is a major crop in the mountains), but alas, there has been a lot of rain  so seed had just been planted – and we could see (and smell) the seed scattered everywhere in small fields, with scarecrows guarding. We also saw but did not interfere with “hashish factories” – which looked like small greenhouses covered in dark plastic…not currently in operation.


The Rif mountains are where most of Morocco’s hash is grown/produced. For over 1000 years the inhabitants have enjoyed smoking it – then in the 1960s suddenly it became a commercial venture and internationally renowned area, a destination for hippies. It is legal to grow marijuana (keif) and to smoke it, but not to buy or sell it. Go figure…


our guide on the hike

IMG_2594IMG_2598By the time we reached our lunch destination, we were hot, exhausted and sunburnt but quite elated. Stunning views all along the hike, and good company. Last night a few of us passed on another major Moroccan meal (we had one at lunch!) and chose to go to a hotel where we could obtain wine IF we ordered food. We did so, minimally – but did not skimp on the wine.

Today we head towards Fes…


Solo Travel

I will shortly change the title of this blog to Across the Sea, as that is where I am heading later this week, and I’ll write about being older, single, retired and TRAVELLING – a bit more lively!

I have recently discovered there is a thing called “singlism”: the stigmatization of adults who are single. Hmmm. I don’t really feel stigmatized EXCEPT when it comes to travelling on tours. Bad enough that one is travelling without the company of a partner, when almost everyone else on a tour has a partner of some sort, but the single supplement charge on many tours can make such travel unaffordable. Truly adds insult to injury.

But travelling alone has its perks too –  not financially, but in terms of freedom. You can go wherever you want and do whatever you like. While it can get lonely, there are lots of ways to avoid becoming isolated.

In planning my upcoming trip, I looked for ways to obtain a  balance between much-cherished time on my own and time with others. I started by looking at river cruises in Europe (big cruises seem like a recipe for loneliness, so easy to get lost/isolated in a crowd that large), thinking it would be lovely not to have to plan every step of a journey, and be with a smaller (though far from intimate) group of like-minded people, where I might make friends. I gagged at the cost. The cheapest I saw was about $3500 for one week, and with single supplement the price skyrocketed to $5000-6000.

Somehow in the course of that exploration I came upon G Adventures (of which I’d heard positive reports) and up popped a Morocco tour, maximum 14 people, two weeks, for $1500 – and solo travelers could avoid the single supplement by sharing a room. Now being older and single, I value my privacy, so I did not choose to share, but even with the single supplement, the tour only cost $2000 – two weeks, perfect sized group, for about 1/3 of the cost of one week on a river cruise. I booked it.

After Morocco, I will spend the better part of a week on my own in Lisbon and Porto but I will participate daily in Airbnb “experiences” with small groups… a Fado tour of Lisbon led by a Fado singer, historical walking tours, food tasting tours. Then two friends I have known since I was 15 will join me to walk the Portuguese Coastal Camino for a week. Then I’ll visit new and old friends in Leon and Barcelona and spend a week in London, seeing shows, staying with a good friend.

I may be single but I won’t be lonely, coping in this particular geographical fashion! Stay tuned for the adventure…



Filling the Time

Last post I talked about how when you retire, life can feel bereft of purpose and meaning. Part of the problem is that when one is retired, one has rather a lot of time to mull on such matters. Too much mulling can turn into a downward spiral – and possibly the conclusion that one’s life is meaningless, empty, etc.

So filling the time is very important. Not easy if you are at the bottom of that downward spiral, but it is the first step to improving your perspective (because if you are lying face down on the floor, your perspective is definitely limited.)

In some ways it doesn’t matter what you do…just do something, to avoid all that mulling. But obviously if you do things you enjoy, you will be more distracted. (Movies and books work very well!) In my case I also felt activities that put me into face-to-face contact with other people would help distract me and provide me with company and perspective. Other people don’t see my navel quite as I do (in fact they are not at all interested in it.)

Friends are an enormous help, but most of my friends are busy working – so, eventually, I started looking around for groups I could join in order to participate in activities I like (or that I thought I might like.) It can feel awkward joining a group of strangers, but only briefly. Then you realise a lot of other people are joining for the same reasons you are.

So I joined Probus, a group of retired people who get together monthly to hear speakers and discuss. I joined the Avon Trail, and go hiking with about 20 people once a week. I started taking free exercise classes. I offered to help coordinate volunteers for the soon-to-be-constructed Stratford Hospice. I ran a 4-week program on Shakespeare at the public library. I began volunteering at the Local Community Food Centre. And I continue to play bridge a few times a month, Mahjong weekly and go cross-country skiing with the Avon Trail when weather/conditions permit.

I don’t adore all these activities; none has been life-changing. But I have met a lot of people I never would have encountered if I’d remained in my safety zone, only hanging out with the same (diminishing via death) group of friends I’ve known for thirty years. I am slowly figuring out which kind of volunteering activities I like and which I do not. I have discovered I really love hiking. And most days I have something to get me out of the house into the company of others.

So much depends on what you want to do – which can be a thorny question. I have no pressing goals, nothing I desperately want to accomplish. Others may feel an urgent need to contribute or make a difference. I know a lot of people who fill their time caring for their grandchildren or taking an active role in their churches. Some who have no financial restrictions travel a great deal (and I am envious!) But as long as you have something to fill the time, you’ll be less likely to sink into a quagmire of despair.

Maybe, as we age, our greatest contribution to the world and to those around us is to remain positive and cheerful. It is possible (if not always easy) to do that even when we have little energy or drive – as long as we keep our spirits buoyed. And that is best accomplished if we’re enjoying life.

Addendum: I recently saw this headline: “When You Factor in Family Duties, the Average Working Mom Works 98 Hours a Week”. Today I suspect the same is true of most dads. So by the time we retire, we are TIRED, right? Surely it is time to relax, stop being so busy, and enjoy life.


The Quest for Meaning and Purpose

One the greatest challenges people have upon retiring is feeling they now lack purpose in life. For decades, they have worked. The work itself may have had purpose: especially if they worked at something which demonstrably adds quality to the lives of others (teachers, doctors, emergency personnel, researchers, artists, charity workers, even politicians – many occupations fall into this category.) Others work in order to provide for their families or loved ones. The work itself may not obviously contribute to the greater good or feel particularly meaningful,  but there is an important purpose in working: to pay for food, housing, education, entertainment.

Giving up work, even if one has lots of interests and dreams to pursue, can leave one feeling … useless. No one depends on you for anything; no one needs you. Your life may be pleasant but it lacks meaning and purpose.

No wonder seniors get depressed (even if they still have partners, and of course fewer and fewer do.) You’ve spent your whole life striving to accomplish things, make your mark, contribute meaningfully – and now you no longer need to do so. In fact it can be hard to see how to do so, especially if one also wants to live a few of those dreams.

We are societally conditioned to achieve and be productive. Yet as we age we may not be capable of the same kind of productivity. We’re older and possibly a bit tired and may really want to just take it easy. Yet it somehow does not feel right to be unproductive. People expectantly ask, “What are you up to?” “Not much” sounds lame.

Some people retire and then return to work because they can’t stand meandering along, without purpose. They may then get very tired or, worse, fail to perform to their own (and others’) expectations. They may hold jobs younger people could do better. They may make a mess of things. But they are responding to an in-bred cultural imperative.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, at retirement, we could somehow be absolved from the responsibility to contribute? In theory we are, but inside our own heads, absolution does not come easy.

It takes time to adjust to a new rhythm of life, without deadlines and strict duties – and it is easy to see this as giving up, possibly even on life. Perhaps the most important thing one can do is to work on altering that world view, and to realise that it is okay to be less active, to play a less important role in the world.

However,  to make peace with retirement, it is also essential to find meaning and pleasure in life –  the last thing you want to do is sink into a mire of self-pity and spend your days bewailing your own uselessness. Trust me, I’ve been there. Not pretty.

In a nutshell, you need to fill your time with activities that you enjoy, some of which may well contribute to society, but not necessarily. Do the things you always wished you’d had time for. Try new things. Meet new people. Avoid spending too much time alone, staring into the void. Some people want or need to be busier than others. But likely we all need to find a balance of time spent gloriously alone and time spent with people, between recreational activities and ones that are meaningful (if not earth-shatteringly so), between activity and relaxation.

You can find the sweet spot, but it does time…

More thoughts on ways to overcome this challenge next post.

Our Culture: Mad About Romance

It’s funny the things you notice when you suddenly become single, for example how practically every song ever written is about love. Singers celebrate the joys of being together, of finding the right person, of being made complete, of being on a path together, of how life is enriched and made glorious by finding or being with the right person – or of the desolation and heartbreak of losing that special someone. Romantic love appears to be the be-all and end-all of life.

I’m not saying romantic love is in any way a bad thing; if it were, surely so many people would not be writing and singing about it! And, as with most cultural norms, there is probably some practical basis for the lauding of romantic love: it helps perpetuate the species, build dependable community, etc.  But for the newly bereaved it can feel like salt in the wound. For the less recently bereaved and the single-by-choice, it can be downright irritating to listen to the whole world endlessly suggesting the only happy state is that of being in love.

Now we have internet dating to ensure that, even if we rarely go out or have opportunities to meet people, we can still potentially attain this cultural pinnacle. I know people who have met wonderful partners online, but I am surprised at the way people rush to this possible “salvation”.

Being in love can be a wonderful experience (also very disorienting and painful, let’s face it. Not all romances lead to heaven.) But our society does seem obsessed with the idea. Surely there is more to life?

The inference seems to be that if you are not in a state of romantic bliss (okay, okay, in a relationship) something is wrong. Probably you are miserably unhappy. But perhaps, just perhaps, you are flawed in some way. If you protest that you are really okay and not all that interested, people look dubious, as though you might be lying, to conceal your pain or that fundamental flaw.

Where did this mode of thinking come from? Many societies do not share our worship of true love, although most uphold the institution of marriage. In many cultures, arranged marriages are the norm (how horrifying we find this, yet apparently people around the world manage just fine in arranged marriages). The glorification of true love seems to be largely a Western phenomenon, time out of mind.

I am sure there are loads of people who are quite content being single, in fact prefer to be that way. Yet the very notion strikes some as almost sacrilegious. I never thought much about this when I was in a long-term relationship (guess I drank the kool-aid), but now … I find this obsession with romantic love just a tad questionable.

Oh and by the way, Happy Belated Valentine’s Day!


Will You Marry Again?

Within a few months of Jay dying, people started to ask me this question. It was the last thing on my mind.

I guess some people feel a partner is essential, and soon after losing a spouse, they start thinking about finding another. Perhaps a life alone seems unbearably lonely.

I do not feel that way. I miss the companionship but perhaps above all I miss having someone who has shared so much of my life. When you have been with someone a long time, you develop a short hand way of speaking. You don’t need to explain references to the past. You can look back on events, remember and laugh together. You are on the same page. I could never re-capture that with another person.

While I am not inherently opposed to the idea of another partner,  it would be challenging. I remember Jay saying (perhaps to my father after my mother died) “You don’t want to have to train another one, do you?” While I don’t think I ever “trained” Jay, I would have trouble adapting to someone else’s lifestyle, habits, idiosyncrasies, etc.  A successful relationship requires a lot of work, and compromise. I have, as they say, been there, done that – and the notion of doing it again is … exhausting.

The very thought of internet dating – or any kind of dating – is a bit horrifying at this age.

I miss Jay, but having a new relationship would not be the same as having him back. Besides, there are things about living alone that I enjoy a lot, like not having to worry about (or even consider) what anyone else wants or needs on a daily basis. I can do whatever I like.  I do not have to keep in mind that it might bother someone else if I suddenly went out for the afternoon or wanted to read instead of talking.  I can leave the house in a mess when I go to bed. I can eat odd meals at odd times. I can watch or listen to whatever I want. And by now, I am quite used to being on my own.

Will I marry again? Highly unlikely. Such a lot of work!