Finding Myself in Asilah

Finding Myself in Asilah - student project

There I am, standing on the edge of the North African continent, staring out at a moody Atlantic Ocean from the medina’s old jetty rampart. The sound of gulls overhead and the lusty smell of the sea rolls over me. A mixture of excitement and nervousness, clarity and calm swirl within.  I feel alive and supremely like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be and who I’m supposed to be at that moment.  The wet clouds break, and a rainbow emerges above the frothy surf.  It takes my breath away, and like the magic of youth, I take it as a strong, clarifying omen that I’m on the right path, and a sense that there is no going back.

I came to Morocco for the purpose of extending my visa for my year-long stay in southern Spain. My student visa for taking Spanish language courses in Granada had expired and I needed to leave the Schengen area for a few days in order to return to the EU on a tourist visa.  I also needed to getaway alone, to take some space and feel out what was devolving into a tense and unhappy relationship.

A year and a half earlier I met Max at the peak of Midwestern summer glory in Madison Wisconsin. He was handsome, charming, and worldly (having just returned for the summer from Egypt and Syria) and the afternoon light reflecting off the lake and our cold beers touched everything with a bit of gold. However, at the end of summer he was leaving the U.S. again for Granada, Spain to pursue a Masters degree in Moorish literature.  I thought that too would be the end of our summer fling, but Max, a translator of romance languages—Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic—wooed me from afar that fall with his email poetry. I felt cherished and loved and excited about the possibilities and allowed something warm and new to bud within my heart. At Christmas I was purchasing a last-minute two-week ticket to Granada, and by New Year we were making plans for me to join him living in Spain.  The whirlwind had begun.

 

This wasn’t the first time I was enchanted within the walls of this fairy-tale city. I fell in love with Granada during my solo backpacking adventures after finishing graduate school a year and a half earlier.  Of the seven-week trip across the northern Mediterranean coast from Spain to Turkey, I spent nearly half my time in Andalucía (southern Spain), even eating the cost of a plane ticket to extend my stay in the city of the famed Alhambra palace. The Alhambra had intrigued me since my architecture studies as an undergraduate.  It was the last stronghold of the 700-year magnificent reign of the Moorish Empire, an Islamic caliphate on European soil known for progressive and peaceful religious tolerance and an opulent and advanced society. This all came to an abrupt end in 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabelle, the Catholic King and Queen, snatched the keys to the palace, and vanquished the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula forever.

After two weeks of catching bull fights in Madrid, tracing flamenco to its roots in Sevilla, and climbing the craggy peaks near Rhonda region, I finally arrived in Granada at the feet of the Sierra Nevada range.   Opposite the Alhambra in the historic Albaicin neighborhood, I found a backpacker’s hostel lost among the white-washed historic Moorish living quarters. The intoxicating perfume of orange and jasmine blossoms from hidden gardens wrapped around a happy band of travelers. In the warm night air, under the glow of the Spanish moon, a strong desire welled up within me to live here someday. The reality of returning to Granada with my love seemed like the fairytale ending I had been waiting for, and I was ready to take a leap of faith.

If only the leap were that simple.  Spending two weeks—or up to three months—in Spain is easy enough but staying longer requires a work or student visa.  It also requires figuring out how to pack up your life—like what to do with your career, car, scooter, furniture…stuff.  Getting permission to be there was also a process. I needed proof of good health from doctors, and golden-sealed notarized documents to assure that I wasn’t a danger to society.  Most of all I needed a good reason to be there, and to the Spanish government, ‘following love’ was not a viable option. In the end, I decided to enroll in Spanish language lessons in a quaint school in the Albaicin.  I’d need to learn Spanish to get by having foolishly taken French in high school. In May 2013, after five months of planning and packing, the Spanish Consulate in Chicago approved my visa.  We were finally ready to embark.

 

I learned quickly that vacationing somewhere foreign and residing there are two very different things. The fuzzy high of vacation morphs into an off-kilter sense of culture shock as you fumble around learning how to grocery shop, process a government ID, and setup a cell phone in a city where speaking the language is its own challenge. Andalucía is still a region where a large percentage of the population doesn’t speak English (apparently because of a decision decades ago to dub American TV shows in Spanish, unlike their neighbor Portugal).  I decided to begin my language program immediately, to get some basic phrases under my belt and to have some normalcy of routine.  

My very first language class was attended by one other student, a nine-year old Italian boy, where we struggled through the weather together, hace calor?  As in any good full immersion curriculum, the instructors didn’t speak English in the classroom, or much outside of it either. Even when I felt like I was making leaps of comprehension with my peers, I would find myself grasping to form words from sounds coming out of the mouths of the Andalucian vendors at the market. The Andaloosi accent is known as difficult to comprehend (even for the Spanish) with long vowels rolling around the mouth like an avocado pit, and the ends of words completely cut off or exploded out of the mouth (he cortado = he cortOW!) Most of those early weeks in Granada I would find myself back at home in a mental stupor by siesta hour, proudly presenting a freshly-baked loaf to Max and face-planting on the bed after lunch.

Max and I lived in the grandparent-style apartment of Mercedes, a well-off divorcee and self-proclaimed artist in her condo community hugging the high contours outside the Albaicin.  The complex had a large community pool (which perplexingly was closed during the hottest time of day) and a large grassy lawn—a rare green oasis in Granada’s dry climate. I have fond memories of an alley mutt squeezing his way between the steel bars of the gated entry and speeding in mad gleeful dizzying circles around the lawn… But to Max and me our treasure was the tennis court right outside our terrace. The two of us would play daily during the scorching siesta hour (after watching Nadal crush it on Spanish sports), as our neighbors looked on in disbelief. 

The apartment was an open space plan on the ground level with exposed brick walls and glass shelving. I loved it. A big bathroom and small kitchen were the only closed-door rooms in our space.  There was a classic hearth in the corner where we built fires with twigs and branches Max hand-collected in the forest above us, both for ambiance but more critically for warmth as Spanish homes are not well heated.  A sliding glass door opened up to one big living room and bedroom area and to a split-level terrace above where we ate our home-cooked meals with long views out to the valley below.  

Despite living in what felt like a small paradise, Max and I were starting to have difficulties.  He was particular about his work environment and would become annoyed easily if I was working quietly in the same room.  He often would get up early and take his sole furniture possession (a leather rocking chair that he carried on his head up the mountain) to the kitchen to make coffee on the Italian press, and type away.  He often would leave on epic walks alone and come back moody and withdrawn.  He was working on wrapping up his Masters thesis and it was taking all his energy and focus.  And while he had a defined project and sense of purpose, I was still grasping around trying to figure out my way in this new land and relatively new relationship.

Mid-July Max submitted his thesis and, in a blink, his year-long graduate program was over. I think the uncertainty of what was next weighed upon him.  The original plan was to pursue a Ph.D. at the University, but doctorate funding was increasingly competitive, and he wasn’t accepted into the program (Spain was in the midst of a recession too.) It left us in a dilemma of what to do.  Meanwhile, we had purchased plane tickets to visit my father in Verona, Italy where he was vacationing for a month with his second wife. It was an opportunity for Max to finally meet my father.  But with the expiration of his graduate program, also came the swift expiration of his student visa, and the risk of flying meant the potential risk of being deported back to the States. So, I was off to Italy alone.

 

 

After a stressful week with my estranged father and step-mother in Italy, I came back and Max had it all figured out. He would ask me to marry him in December, we would get married that summer—maybe before or after his sister’s wedding (a detail to sort out)—we would move wherever I could get the full-time job, and oh by-the-way, we should start getting pregnant…like NOW. Needless to say, my head was spinning.  We had just spent six months planning and executing the move to Spain, and had only been there three months, and now Max had the next foreseeable future of our life all mapped out.  How had I been included in his thought process, and what had happened to our plans for living in Spain for three to five years?

In the early whirlwind romance, we had talked conceptually and dreamily about getting married and having a baby…someday. Up to this point in life, I had never strongly desired a child, but I was still keeping myself open-minded for that major shift to occur.  After all, from my late twenties to mid-thirties it seemed that every happy bride or mother provided the same steadfast assurance, “by the time you’re so and so age, you’ll want one; or when you meet the right man, you’ll want one.” But here I was verging on 36, with a man I love, and not one fiber in my body was telling me that a baby is what I wanted. I was there, at all the major milestones, and the maternal frying pan hadn’t hit me over the head. 

It wasn’t that I feared being pregnant or the physical ordeal of giving birth, I just never desired my own baby. I simply wasn’t interested in them.  And what I learned so far in life is you have to follow your interests. There I was being faced to answer one of life’s biggest questions for women, and it wasn’t clear, and it seems like the ultimate question you need to be clear about. I was going to have to land one side of it. In my head, I wanted the partner and family and fairy-tale ending. I wanted this to be it! But I couldn’t make myself feel what I needed to feel to get there.

 

For the next few months we tip-toed around the subject, but it was during our Christmas trip to Portugal that things really came to a head. Without a legitimate visa for Max, flying was out of the question, so we decided to rent a car and road trip.  In theory it sounded fun, except for the fact that the responsibility of both driving and navigating were on my shoulders. (Max could get lost in his own neighborhood and managed to total my car right before we sold it in Madison.) Although the feel of driving stick-shift was coming back to me, it had been fifteen years since I regularly drove a manual car. It was especially challenging in the narrow, steep, maze of streets of the small castle towns we traveled through. Add to that I was also the navigator relying on paper maps—we didn’t have smart phones—and reading road signs now in Portuguese.  I needed help and wasn’t getting it from the man sitting shotgun.

The cold, gray, wet, winter weather suited or maybe exacerbated my damp and frustrated mood. Even meeting up with Madison friends for savory bacalao and grilled pulpo with Porto’s famous port wine and visiting the spellbinding bookstore that inspired the Harry Potter books failed to take the edge off. In Lisbon, Max became moody, walking ten paces in front of me around the piles of trash bags stacking up during the garbage strike. It was New Year, one year after our romantic meetup in Granada and our decision to move there together, and now we were feeling miles apart. When we reached our final stop in the southern coastal town of Faro, Max was ready to call another trip quits and we drove home early and defeated.  Even though we lived abroad together, traveling together felt disastrous and twice in five months ended abruptly and unhappily.

January 15th, 2014, the last day of my Spanish language program was also apparently the last valid day of my student visa. Although I applied for a year-long visa, which was pasted in my passport, the local government used the final day of classes as the end of my hall pass in Spain. Researching what others before me had done in this situation, I decided my best course of action was to leave the EU and return on the three-month tourist visa. Great Britain’s territorial Rock was just a couple hours south of us, and one good option, but even more alluring was Morocco, just a short ferry ride across the Strait of Gibraltar. I originally wanted to bookend my post-graduate backpacking trip between Marrakech and Beirut, but as my first time traveling as a solo female abroad (and perhaps caving to the pleas of my anxious mother) I decided against it.  But now the exotic land whose mountains I could see in the hazy horizon from that craggy peak in Rhonda two and a half years earlier was calling me.

 

I boarded the train alone and stared out the rain speckled window as the landscape smeared by. The stippled tapestry of miles of undulating olive groves shifted to watercolor greens as we moved through river valleys of mountainous landscapes to the coast. In Algeciras I alighted the giant ferry barge and found a place indoors near the bow of the ship to watch the Spanish coastline recede in the gray mist and the Rock of Gibraltar loom ahead. The ferry dropped us outside the City of Tangiers, but I was headed to Asilah, a small coastal fishing village just 45 minutes south of the city.  I booked an Airbnb room there and the gal had instructed me to take a ‘grand taxi’ from downtown, and not to pay more than 150 dirhams for the lift, though they would try to haggle me for more. I hailed one of the black vintage Mercedez-Benz cabs, negotiated my price, and climbed in the front seat. I was cheek-to-cheek with another passenger practically sitting on top of the stick-shift and peered over my shoulder to find another ten eyeballs staring back at me. I looked ahead, hugged my backpack to my chest like an airbag, shrugged and thought, ‘here we go.’

To my relief, I arrived in one piece in Asilah, and found the Airbnb through a twist of dusty alleyways outside the historic center.  The place was clean, well-furnished, and full of light. I immediately felt at home and relaxed.  Sally, a Spanish art-restorer by training, was managing the place for Christina, the Swedish-Brit property owner. Sally left Madrid in search of employment, as touching up church and palace frescoes was not a high priority during the crippling recession. I also shared the house with another pair of young gals traveling together from Australia.  It felt a bit like a women’s retreat as we took our breakfast on the veranda, swapped stories from our love lives and travels and shared in a ritual weekly women’s-only bathing experience inside the local hammam.

During the day, I wandered down to the deserted beach and through the dusty streets and open-aired food markets.  In the evening I strolled through the white maze of the historic medina, dipping through cobalt-blue doorways into narrow storefronts to check out the colorful tooled leather sandals and goatskin bags.  But it was the carpets that I fell in love with, and I passed a good deal of time in Omar’s rug shop, drinking mint tea with the owner and admiring the mesmerizing colors and patterns that distinguished the different Berber tribe’s craftmanship.  There was something so relaxing about being completely surrounded by gorgeous textiles, and I felt at once both in an exotic land but very much at home. It was from this inner place of contentment and connection that I found the winding passageway that led me out to that jetty rampart overlooking the sea...

 

Although the three-day getaway did not leave me with a clear sense of direction for motherhood or marriage or my relationship with Max, it did reconnect and redirect me to my internal compass. I felt more alive, more present, more confident. Now, it was time to return to face what was next, whatever that was. I thought taking the train would be a safer route back to Tangiers but did not account for the Moroccan trains running notoriously behind schedule. I rushed as politely as I could through ferry terminal customs for the stamp that would secure my legal stay in Spain for the next three months and dashed down the landing just in time to watch the ferry diminish in its infinite wake to the size of a matchbox.

I entertained myself in the old Medina until the next scheduled ferry that evening. The wind was howling and sea rough.  The passage across was a tippy beat of horizon, water, horizon, clouds, and vomit bags for those who didn’t care for the tempo. I was literally blown into the castle port town of Tarifa, Spain, one of the windiest places on the planet, and a kite-surfing mecca.  My hostel was just a block away from the ferry port, and I checked in at the front desk, peeling off my soaking wet rain jacket and thumping down my sodden backpackers’ bag. The sound of flamenco guitar drifted towards me from the common area, a warm room with a fireplace and a few other hostelers cuddled on the couch staying cozy and dry. I peeked into the room and instantly felt something electric charge through me.  The flamenco guitarist and I caught eyes. It was just a fleeting glance, but in that moment my heart skipped a beat and hairs stood on end. I knew in that instant that there was a much larger force at work here. I told myself to try to avoid him, but the group was small, and the town was small, and we were all heading out to the one bar that was open on this tempestuous night.

Inside the darkened bar an Irish duo sang a ballad, something about meeting your true love but marrying another and realizing too late that you missed your great love. I remember being grabbed by the lyrics, like it was a message in a bottle washed up just for me.  A week earlier in Granada, I walked into a shop that was playing Seal’s “Kiss by a Rose” and it sent me spinning back to Brooklyn, NY at the age of seventeen, on a rooftop at night, falling deeply in love for the first time with a blue-eyed Ecuadorian boy. An electrical current connected us too when we caught eyes in the college cafeteria that first afternoon of Pratt’s summer art program.  The feeling of floating on the subway, and feet barely touching the ground all summer in his presence is still an indelible memory and came swirling up as fresh as yesterday inside the Colors of Benetton.  What we had was intense, special, even the other students could sense it. We knew from a place of deep knowing that we loved each other, as if we’d loved each other for lifetimes. I turned to face the dark-haired, hazel-eyed flamenco guitarist knowing that I could not avoid what fate had just blown in.

 

 

* Interesting epilogue:  The flamenco guitarist was a Moroccan man born and raised in Asilah! He'd regularly play guitar on that very same jetty rampart...

Lauren V. Brown
Ecological Restoration Designer
Teacher