Travel writing these days is usually about the ten best, biggest, fastest, must sees and do’s. When it’s your job you are expected to drop all life’s experiences into the lap of the reader in around one thousand words, allowing them to move on to the next enriching moment in a life cluttered with guide books and next stops on the adventure itinerary. Good in many ways, but frankly, quite boring if you are the one who has the job of writing yet another list of places to tick off, which was probably ticked off in the last magazine you read.
Sadly, there is no place these days for the ‘sit and watch’ observational article, the sort that almost every journalist loves to write, but rarely gets the chance. It’s our opportunity to paint our personal picture beyond the hurly-burly rush that most editors commission. So while Suzanna and Sandy are on the high seas somewhere between Rio de Janeiro and Venice, I’m going to take this opportunity to sneak in an extract from the notes I made as I wandered through the Medina in Fez.
Mid afternoon, Saturday, 14th April.
I’m hungry. I was up bright and early and have had nothing other than a couple of cups of coffee and a bit of nutty stuff I found on the side of a plate that was part of last night’s dessert but got overlooked. I’m at the top of Talaa Kebira, so stop at a food stall where the six-person table inside is full and a crowd has gathered, watching the young man with the wallpaper scraper-cum-spatula, flipping the assorted meats and intestines as they reach their final succulence. Always a good sign, a crowd around a food stall.
To the left of the hot plate a camel’s head hangs suspended from a hook. I’m not sure if it’s part of the menu or a modern-day version of the horse-head signs I used to see outside carneceria de caballos, horse butchers, in Spain. On the hot plate is a selection of merguez, spicy sausage, and an assortment of entrails and meaty things that I’m not about to question, although I find out later that the thick black pudding-looking one is stuffed spleen (there’s also a red version). I’m glad I find out later and not at the time, but at ten dirhams a sandwich it seems pretty good value.
While I’m waiting I look around. Opposite the hot plate is a bread stall with only a few loaves left. With a raised-eyebrow look of expectancy, the salesman’s eyes are focussed over my left shoulder. I turn and see he’s looking at the boss of the food stall, a bear-sized chap wearing a soiled apron and white hat, who, watching how his crowd of punters is growing, makes a slight sideways motion with his right hand, resembling the secret hand signals of a tick-tack man offering the odds at a horse race in England.
Bread boy grabs a pile of round flat loaves, and with three strides he’s at my side. With barely a look of recognition, boss-in-white-hat indicates a point behind the hot plate where a piece of plastic lawn in easy reach of short order chef lies naked of any adornment.
Bread boy skips back to his stall as the sandwiches begin to be served and lifts another pile of loaves with the same enquiring look. I miss the hand signal, but white hat has obviously said yes because bread boy is back at my side faster than you can say ‘butter on both sides, please’ and the second pile joins the first, just as the skillet king reaches out for a loaf to make the next sandwich. Precision timing without a word being said. I muse about when the baker will be bringing bread boy his next freshly-made batch, as BB is down to three loaves and skillet king’s hands are going like greased lightening as he fills his sandwich orders.
Is this a case of JIT, the ‘just in time’ production pioneered in the motoring industry, where no-one holds stock of anything, and where everything is where it should be at the right moment?
As the sandwiches are shooting off the skillet, white-hat calls to the chef and asks for one, which he sprinkles with hot sauce and wraps in paper. I think he is having a late lunch, but he hands it to me, and I wander away down the hill.
To take the weight of my feet and enjoy my sandwich, I sit on a low wall at the side of a narrow lane leading away from Talaa Kebira. A few minutes later a skinny man with a magnificent moustache staggers up the hill carrying a big cardboard box, a couple of wooden trays and an old orange crate. Behind him a young boy is weighed down with three bulging plastic shopping bags. They stop at the entrance to my alley and put everything down. The moustache leans on a crate to get his breath back, gives the boy and few coins and starts to unpack the box.
Chomping away at my sandwich, I watch the scene unfold. Moustache hasn’t got his breath back yet, but I begin to realise that the low wall I’m sitting on is part of his display area. I raise my eyebrows in question, he nods. I stand. “Shukran,” he says, smiling. I move on and leave him to go about his business.
I pass a beautifully fitted out shop, with grey laminate lining the walls and concealed lighting and shelf supports. It looks as if it has been designed as an elegant jewellery shop, but if it was it has evidently gone bust, because the stock on the shelves are nothing more than packets of chewing gum, lollipops, jars and trays of sweets in gaudy wrappers. A tasteful shop in all senses of the word.
Wandering through a clothing section I find it populated with some of the most grotesque mannequins I’ve ever seen. A group of child dummies in straggly blonde wigs are as terrifying as the evil midget in the red cape in Donald Sutherland's film Don't Look Now.
Outside a small bespoke tailor shop, an elegantly suited gentleman with a glorious head of well-coiffured hair sits on a low stool, acting, I assume, as publicity for his product. He wears a crisp white shirt and pearl grey tie fastened in a Windsor knot. He lays a white napkin over his knee and carefully peals an orange with a small pocket knife, separating the segments and placing them on a plate that sits on a small table at his side, before wiping the knife carefully on the napkin and putting it in his pocket. The only thing out of place with this epitome of corporate imagery is that he is wearing a pair of maroon carpet slippers – although admittedly they do have a horizontal stripe that almost exactly matches the grey of his suit. I couldn’t quite see it as the rig of the day in the boardroom of Maroc Telecom.
As I wander on I am amused by the care and attention someone will take over even the smallest display. Everywhere shopkeepers are flicking feather dusters over their stock, but I’m amazed when I see a man carefully laying out his tray full of dates in tiered rows. He carefully wipes each of them before placing them one on top of another in serried ranks. I think I’d rather stare vacantly into space than relieve my boredom in this way.
As lunch time and I wander on I spend long moments watching the shopkeepers while away the hours before evening and the return of customers. They play board games, with bottle caps and odd coins used as checkers. Passers-by stop and watch games in progress, offering a bit of advice – usually ignored – before moving on. When a game finishes with a flourish and shout, the battered cans with tired old cushions that serve as stools change bums and another game begins.
The proprietor of a stationery, wrapping paper and games shop lifts a game off the wall, still in it’s cardboard protective corners, and begins playing a dice game on its glazed surface, using the layout of the game beneath. When he has successfully thrashed the young man from the spice store next door the glass is wiped off and hung on the wall again to await a buyer.
Working my way downhill I find myself behind a heard of goats being driven down the alley, the four-legged kids getting a stroke from the two-legged ones as they pass. A voice behind me calls out, “Atencion!” I turn and look into the eyes of a mule, two steps higher. I’m trapped in a petting zoo!
As the day drifts into early evening I take tea and watch the world go by. Tired-looking guides lead their groups, their faces suddenly brightening as they turn to deliver their story to their flock. It surprises me how many people in these groups, who have presumably paid for the service, ignore their guides. I watch a man who is so concerned with looking at the world through the lens of his camera that he doesn’t notice that his group and another have crossed paths. Eventually he lowers his camera, turns around and tags onto the tail of the wrong group. Moments later he scampers back into the square, just in time to see his group hightailing it down another alley.
I finish my tea and go home.