One of the pleasures of traveling alone is the chance encounters you have with people. Without a companion to constantly talk to, there´s less of a social barrier between you and other travelers, locals. In Granada I had perhaps the most extraordinary chance conversation I've ever had. And it began (I'm not sure if I'm more mischievously amused or embarassed to write this, with my mother, in-laws and UM-Flint faculty reading) with a remark about my boobs.
At the foot of the Alhambra, in the Albazyn, the old Arab neighborhood, I stopped at a shop. There was a blouse hanging outside it: one of those tunic style things the Spanish girls wear, loose and flowy with a slightly scooped embroidered collar to show off your lovely collarbone (if you're a lovely Spanish girl, of course). Indigo with pale blue embroidery. But, a small. I asked the shopkeeper if there were any mediums. "No," he said, "But that will fit you." I asked if I could try it on. He considered this, looking over his shoulder into the small recess of his shop. "Okay," he said. "I will wait outside."
Alone in the shop with the lanterns and tagines, I wiggled it over my t-shirt and stood in front of the mirror, deliberating. A touch snug, as expected. The man came back in. "Very pretty!" he said. A little small, though, I insisted.
He considered this.¨"It is only because you have the...." He pinched the fabric above his nipples and drew the shirt away from his skin, creating imaginary breasts.
If I were an American heiress in a Henry James novella, I would have fainted and my chaperone would have come to collect me and fire off incensed letters to the ambassador. Being a Flint homegirl, I laughed. "I´m sorry," he said. "I didn't mean...." I assured him it was okay and we began chatting. Typically I find when you travel in major tourist areas people don't ask you much. They know why you're here, and they want you to spend your money and get out of the way. The Spanish are quite different, though. I get asked all the time-- wth seeming genuine interest-- what I'm doing here, what I make of it. It's heartening. So I told my Moroccan shopkeeper I was en route to Kenitra. And it turns out Kenitra is a few kilometers from the town where he grew up.
"I was born when your grandfather was there," he smiled.
He told me about the relationship the Moroccans had with the Americans stationed at Port Lyautey during the 50s and 60s. The jobs the Moroccans took on base, how they learned English from the Americans. The Moroccan girls wooed by GIs who were whisked off to the States, never to return. In his halting English, he told me about when he was a student in Tangier in the 80s, how he fell in love with a British girl and took her home to meet his family. In the town there was a familiar beggar, handicapped ("in a chair," he said, spinning imaginary wheels) and living on the streets. When he took his British amoureuse home the beggar began chatting to her in perfect English and as a young man it was a revelation: this tolerated charity case, this friendly bum had a flawless command of English. It changed his idea of the man, he said. From then on, when he returned home to visit he always sought the man out and gave him a little money and talked with him a while.
"But I think he is dead now," he said, shaking his head. "He was very unwell."
I asked him if he thought it was safe for me to travel to Morocco now. The protests on the 20th were largely peaceful and whenever I mention to people here that I've been nervously putting off my journey on to Morocco, they laugh at me (silly gringa, scared of the Arabs) and say Morocco is safe. Morocco is not Libya, not Algeria. My Moroccan friend said the same. "Safer than Spain," he said. I bought a different blouse a beautiful pomegranate color and continued my walk through Albazyn, swelling with happiness of our encounter but still not entirely at ease about Morocco's political climate.
And if I don't make it to Kenitra (again), what will that mean? Will I have carried this urn across Europe only to carry it back home? I don't know.
As another Papa pilgrimage, I took the train to Seville last night. I don't remember much about Seville, only that he was here, briefly. I've spent the day wandering this beautiful but vast and labyrinthine city. The largest gothic cathedral in the world. The Alcazar. The Golden Tower where Colombus set sail. Flamenco dancers performing in the square for Euros from charmed tourists. The sad streets of Santa Cruz, the former Jewish district wiped out during the plague and the Inquisition. The old Moorish minarets converted into bell towers, topped with defiant crucifixes. What streets did my grandfather walk down? Did he take his tepid beer standing at one of the high sidewalk tables? Did he eye the pretty girls walking under the orange trees in this vivid, extraordinary sun? Did he have his love for Don Quixote then, or did that come later in life?
Off to Barcelona tomorrow morning. Morocco next week. Hopefully.