Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Day Trip to Casablanca

To celebrate Mau’s birthday and Valentine’s Day, we decided to visit Casablanca. This was my first time going into the city and my visit was much overdue. Mau and I took the train from Rabat Centre Ville to Casa Port.
The trip took about an hour. We arrived and immediately took a taxi to the Grand Mosque Hassan II in order to catch the last tour of the day. All but two of the mosques in the country of Morocco are closed to non-Muslims. The only way to see the Hassan II mosque is with a tour. The mosque sits on the coast and has the tallest minaret in the world. Having come from Rabat, where no buildings are really that big, the mosque appears absolutely giant. The tour lasted a bit over an hour. Our guide gave us lots of time for pictures and in my case, time for general gazing in wonderment. Most, if not all, parts of the mosque come from national resources. The hand-carved cedar frames for the balconies come from the Middle Atlas, the marble is from Agadir, and the granite is from Tafraoute. The building was finished just in 1993 (it started in 1980) and the construction cost more than half a billion dollars.

First we entered the prayer hall. I was first amazed with the detail of the design. Every last centimeter is intricately carved, tiled, or painted. The wood of the balconies is incredibly carved and it’s amazing to consider that despite the meters and meters of balcony, all of the wood was done by hand. Everything was so intricately designed: the roof, the pillars, the tiled walls, the doors, and the floor. The reason I find mosques so beautiful is the same reason why they are considered to be restricted in terms of design. The fact that idol representation (via paintings, statues, etc.) is forbidden, forces designers to use simple shapes, carvings, and script for decoration. Usually when EVERY corner is highly decorated of a building it is tacky and over-the-top. But in this mosque, the simple shapes and carvings allows the design to be intricate and still tasteful at the same time.

After visiting the mosque, we headed to the Blvd de la Corniche, known for its beach clubs and restaurants. It looked similar to the coastal area of Tangier but generally less run-down. Mau and I were starving at this point, so we had a quick lunch and then flirted with the idea of going to the movies. Rabat has no major movie theatre that shows the big movies that come out of the US and Europe. The problem with the Casablanca movie theatres, besides the fact that you have to go to Casablanca to see something, is that they’re all dubbed. We opted not to see a movie and decided to go on a short walk along the coast (which actually means along the massive construction projects overlooking the coast). I was impressed with the cleanliness of the beach and wondered how polluted the water of Rabat really is if the Casablanca ocean water seems cleaner in comparison. After enjoying a construction-free spot to sit and watch the waves and the people, we went into town to look for a nice café to have a coffee. We took a taxi to the Quartier Goethier. Along a tiny street called Ibn Rachid, we found some cafés. This particular area reminded me a lot of La Condesa in Mexico City. There were a few nice cafés and one Irish pub all tucked into a residential area with lots of trees and tiny tiny streets. The parallel parkers of this area must be equally as skilled as those that frequent La Condesa and La Roma in Mexico City. After a coffee and a tea à la menthe (my drink of choice), we headed back to the train station to catch the 8pm train. I’m glad to have finally visited Casa and I am anxious to go again (the train ticket is less than $10 round-trip) to either see a movie or to go to a nice restaurant.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Christmas Vacation Part 2

Mau and I spent Christmas with family friends who live in a town called Chens-Sur-Leman, on the French side of the Geneva area. Our trip there wasn’t as easy as one would expect from the high-speed TGV trains. The heavy snow leading up to Christmas caused a lot of delays with the trains. I think the combination of the normal Christmas hustle and bustle with the extra travelers who opted to visit families by train instead of drive in the snow made for a very hectic trip to the Haute-Savoie region. After barely getting tickets, Mau and I left out of Charles de Gaulle Airport on a delayed train. With only half-an-hour layover in Lyon, we knew we weren’t going to make the connection. Lots of people missed our train in Lyon so we tagged along behind the angry SNCF customers who were all fighting to get customer service to help them find a connection. We were able to get on another train and arrived to the Bons-en-Chablais station where Molly’s poor husband had been waiting for us for over an hour.

Our time with the Morizon family was fantastic. Molly and Alain made us feel right at home. It was nice to be in a tranquil town after the craziness of Rabat and Paris. The first day Mau and I went shopping with Molly. We had some more vin chaud from the members of the community who were giving it away out by one of the shopping centers we visited. There was also a Santa there giving away special French Christmas chocolates. We ended going to two different markets that day and in front of one of them they had alpacas on display. It was definitely bizarre to see them in France like that. I was way too intimidated by Molly’s cooking to offer any help in the kitchen. So, I did my best to help set and clear the table and wash dishes. A lot of our time was spent at the kitchen table, talking with Molly as she cooked. One night the three of us watched a movie (Atonement) together and I explained to eager Molly what a handheld camera is and why the camerawork in Atonement was so incredible. Our dinners and lunches were also spent chatting about different topics. Alain insists upon keeping this French custom of talking at the table well after the meal has finished.

One our third day (December 24th), Mau and I went to Geneva. The Red Cross museum, which was our main destination, was closed for Christmas. With the pressure off to do something “cultural” we were content to wander around the city and stop into places when we felt the desire. Our first stop was Starbucks. It was a nice treat after being away from it for a few months. We ordered in English from a cute Asian guy, who spoke back to us with hardly any accent. I chatted with a British couple that had ordered ahead of us. They had paid in the style of “here, I’ll show you the money in my hands and you take from them according to the price” and I commented that we were just there for the day and that I had no idea what the Swiss Franks were either. They thought I was Canadian, which I took as a huge compliment. Usually they would assume American based on my accent, but something about my personality must have triggered them to think that I was Canadian. Although, thinking back on it now, they should have know from all the layers I was wearing that I was definitely not from anywhere cold.

I was really impressed with the racial diversity of the people I saw in Geneva. In the always-packed-with-people-H&M, there was a Cuban family shopping for coats and a sub-Saharan African father and daughter also shopping (in addition to a bunch of Asian and white families). It’s obvious that a small city housing so many international organizations would be very diverse, but I hadn’t really thought about it until I actually spent time in Geneva. After stocking up on a few things at H&M, we continued to explore the city. We watched the ducks and the swans in the lake and took lots of pictures. Just before nightfall, we ended up at the St. Pierre Cathedral. Inside, there were carolers rehearsing for the Christmas Eve service happening later that evening. The director of the choir was instructing them in English, which I found a bit odd until I read the pamphlet explaining that they belong to the Anglican Protestant Church of Geneva. After watching rehearsal, I got a big craving to sing and convinced Mau to stay for mass. It was great! Soon the Cathedral was packed with upper-middle class and upper class families, all speaking English. It was such a trip to be with that population having been in Morocco, but also not having expected to be anywhere English speaking during that particular trip to Europe. For an hour that night, I felt like I was in England going to Christmas Eve Mass. One thing that I appreciated about the Cathedral was the simplicity of the cross. Having visited so many Mexican churches for the last few years, I felt a nice sense of relief to be in a church that didn’t have a humongous bloody statue of Christ on the crucifix. I always feel uncomfortable when I enter Catholic churches and see such monstrous replicates of Christ’s final moments. The statues with nappy cheap manikin hair put me particularly ill at ease. Anyway, the service that night was nice and there was lots and lots of singing. Mau was so happy to be there because it was his first time having mass in English. He was impressed with the amount of singing and learned lots of new words. I don’t know enough to tell him that Protestants are known for singing a lot but I do know that the Protestant church I frequented in Santos, São Paulo sang a whole lot. The most memorable piece of the night (a tribute to Swizerland) was a song sung in Italian, German, and French.

That night, we met one of Molly and Alain’s daughters, Anne. She had flown in from London to spend Christmas with the family. We got along well and I wish that she had been there a few days earlier so we could have spent more time with her. Christmas day was lovely. Molly had made a promise to herself to keep the meal and the festivities “low key,” so she made Turkey sandwiches to take on our hike in the mountains. The five of us drove for about 45 minutes before parking the car to begin the hike. Alain was dressed like an Austrian mountain guide. He had knee-high-socks tucked into thick dark green corduroy knee-length pants. His outfit and his determination to lead us to the monastery without following the path were the source of lots of laughter from us women. Mom and Phoebe and I could never have laughed at my dad the way Molly and Anne did that day. I came to understand and love Alain that day. Ultimately, we didn’t make it to the Monastery by foot that day. Our sandwiches of homemade mayonnaise, turkey, and mache (I had told Molly about my new discovery), accompanied with champagne were enjoyed as we hiked back down towards the car. By this point the shoes Mau was borrowing had completely fallen apart. The sole of the right one had come off from the heel just after we started the hike, but by the end, both of his heels were tap-tap taping along the pavement. He didn’t complain at all during the snowy hike. At one point Anne gave him one of her socks to wear since his was completely soaked. She had to offer it to him since he hadn’t said anything about being uncomfortable. He was such a good sport. I came to love him even more during that hike.

Later that afternoon, the Morizon family hosted some friends for champagne and lox. A very nice French Swiss family came. It felt good to speak French. One of the children of the family stuck around with us later that evening. He, Anne, Molly, Mau, and I played poker together by the fire.

The next morning Mau and I said our good-byes and headed to Milan via train. Molly was kind enough to drive us to the Geneva train station early in the morning. Her hospitality continued until the last second as she bought us a newspaper and a bottle of Swiss water for the ride. The train ride to Milan was spectacular. I got no reading done during the trip because my eyes were glued to the windows. The lake, the towns along the way, and the snow-covered Alps were breathtaking. Never before have I passed by a place with very little knowledge of it and wanted so badly to move there on the spot.

View of the valley from our hike.

French Christmas candy with joke included.

Molly with the alpacas.

View from the train to Milan.