Street Smarts Abroad

"Md.Boualam Souk in tetouan (Popular market)" by ???? ?????? ????? - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons

Md.Boualam Souk in tetouan (Popular market)” by Md. Boualam – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons

I am, right now (August 8th), sitting in a farmhouse in Normandy, France, drinking coffee and watching a friend’s daughter stalk flies.  My friend Ellen, in celebration of her 60th birthday, rented the farmhouse for a month and has been holding court here for a series of visitors.  I’ve been here for a few days, and tomorrow we return the house to its owner and head off to London and the Worldcon. But right now I’m thinking of my first trip to Europe.  I am a child of the 60s, and came of age in the mid-70s (which was still holding on to that 60s vibe), and my first trip across the Atlantic happened in 1976.

I always, secretly, felt a little gypped about when I was born.  Too young to be a hippie (which I aspired to, because it was what you aspired to if you were a NYC kid in 1968), I watched the antics of my slightly-elders as they went off to Woodstock and protested the Vietnam war, and…  Well, traveling around Europe in 1976 was my shot at being the free-spirited adventurous soul I’d always wanted to be.  When adventures presented themselves, I would by-God take them!

I wound up traveling around Greece and Britain for six weeks, then living in London for four months.  About then, I met two women at the hostel where I was staying, who had met a guy from New Zealand who had a VW van and was looking for riders to go through France and Spain.  Adventure? You bet.  Sign me up.  And that is how I came to be riding around Europe with Donald (the owner of the van), Michael (also from New Zealand), Gail (Australia), and Yvette and Gayle, both from South Africa.  As it happens, the only non-English language any of these folk spoke was Afrikaans, which was not going to be helpful.  So I became the translator (me with 2 years of high school French and three years of Spanish).  Panic, or a little vin ordinaire, can be a remarkable aide to language.

We crossed the channel at Calais and drove down the western side of France into Spain, and through Spain to Algeciras, the port city from which the ferry to Morocco left.  On the way we camped on beaches, gawked at the cathedral at Chartres, bathed in a French creek (until we discovered leeches. Ick), wandered the streets of Toledo, and stopped every day at 4 pm for tea.  It was weird and revelatory and fun and exhausting and unforgettable.  When we got to Algeciras we parked Gayle and Yvette (the South Africans, who at that point were personae non-grata in the rest of Africa) and the van for a week, and the rest of us went off to the ferry.  Waved at Gibraltar.  Arrived in Ceuta, a Spanish port and thence to Morocco, and Tetouan.  Here we were adopted by Ric, a local guy of about our age, who took us around, found us a hotel room (hotel room, here and elsewhere in this story, is not meant to imply Holiday Inn: we were all traveling poverty class, and the toilet was the sort which you flushed by running a bucket of water in the tub and pouring it down) and probably got kickbacks everywhere. He earned them.  We stayed for two nights, then took the train to Casablanca (a big, gray industrial city, at least what I saw of it, and sadly disappointing) and then the Marrakesh Express, which is not, as I had thought, a train, but a bus.  Remember that hotel room?  It was kinda that sort of bus.  Yes, there were chickens. Yes, it was jam-packed.  And a gentleman in the seat behind me kept “falling asleep” in such a way that he flung one arm over the back of my seat, groping for my breast.  Colorful.

Marrakesh was wonderful.  Busy, deeply unlike anywhere I’d ever been.  It was the first time on the trip that I gave up at least trying to sound out the signs, because they were all in Arabic, which did not register with my brain as “language” in the same way that even the Greek alphabet does.  I watched weavers weave, I watched men using an elaborate foot-powered lathe, I ate camel tripe stew (failure of translation on my part, and not an experiment I will repeat).  When French and sign language failed, smiles helped. After four days, the guys decided they wanted to go to Fez, and Gayle and I headed back north to Tetouan.

We got there about six.  It was August, and stayed light quite late, so we tromped back to the place we’d stayed the week before.  No room, we were told.  We could sleep on the roof if we wanted.  Well, that sounded dodgy.  So we went off looking for another hotel (this time without the assistance of Ric).  No luck.  Everywhere was full–you might have thought a Worldcon was in town.  At about 8 Gayle announced that she was starving, plunked herself down at a cafe, and refused to move until we were fed.  On the one hand, I was hungry too.  On the other hand, I was concerned about finding a place to sleep before night fell.  Still, one woman ought not to leave the other all alone in a strange city.  I sat down and had couscous.

It was close to ten when dinner finished.  Gayle had got into a conversation with a young man nearby who, for reasons I do not perfectly remember, struck me as dodgy.  So when he said “Oh, I can find you a hotel, no problem,” I did not much want to go off with him.  The week before, when we’d been accompanied by our guide around town, we’d also had Donald and Michael there.  This time, it was just us, and my NYC-raised radar was pinging steadily.

But while I was thinking “going down a dark alley with a strange young man–no, two strange young men, one just joined us–in a city where only one of us speaks the language, and that imperfectly, in a dusk that is rapidly darkening, is perhaps not smart,” I was also thinking “I can’t just let Gayle go off with these guys.”  So when she got up and grabbed her suitcase (big, hardshell, Samsonite) and began to follow the young man down the street, I–radar now yodeling anxiously–picked up my rucksack and followed.  The second guy fell in somewhere between me and Gayle.  Our new guide led us down one street–the streets were not only narrow, but many of them were arched, and none of them had streetlights–and then another and another, and now and then another young man would join the party.  I tried very hard to remember the way back to the plaza where we had dined–if worse came to worst we could have slept by the fountain–and when I next caught sight of Gayle’s expression she was beginning to look a touch concerned too.  “Where is the hotel,” she asked.  “Oh, just around the corner,” our guide said, and took us around two more corners.

Just at the point where 1) I had decided I would never be able to find my way back to the plaza, 2) the number of young men accompanying us had reached eight or nine, and 3) I was beginning to imagine the call my parents would get when my broken and battered body was discovered behind a stall in the souk, the crowd went around another corner, and from out of a doorway stepped Ric.  We did not quite fall on his shoulders with tears of joy, because first he and the guy leading our current party had a tense few moments muttering things to each other.  At last the new guy stepped back, Ric stepped forward to take up Gayle’s suitcase, and said, as if we’d parted an hour ago, “I’ve been looking to find you everywhere!”

We offered to pay him something directly, which he demurred. He took us back to the original hotel, where there were still no beds, but he assured me the roof would be quite safe.  At the door, he winked at us and said adios* and vanished, and we went upstairs to unfurl our sleeping bags on the roof.

We woke the next morning to the sun rising over the Atlas Mountains. It was spectacular.  We  met up with Donald and Michael at the bus station that morning, caught the bus to Ceuta, the ferry to Algeciras, then traveled down to the place where we had parked the van and Yvette and Gail, to continue on the Mediterranean coast of Spain up to France.  We had more adventures.  It was great.

That night in Tetouan stands out, though.  It taught me to trust my NYC-inspired warning system, and to listen to it when the pluses of adventure are outweighed by potential minuses.  Free spirit is one thing. Dumb is another.

*Tetouan used to be a Spanish colony, thus, Spanish.  The south of Morocco uses French.  I was equally dreadful in both.


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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Street Smarts Abroad — 8 Comments

  1. Yes. I envy your trip, but I would have told Gayle she was going to get us killed, and we weren’t going.

    I hope Ric managed to have a long and happy life. I’ll bet he took care of a lot of tourists.

  2. So relieved this story had a happy ending — as all good stories about youthful adventures should.

    But the cranky martial artist who lives at the core of my being started to scream, “Trust your instincts” as I was reading.

    • I trusted and believed my instincts. But I also couldn’t see leaving Gayle (who apparently had had her survival instincts surgically removed at a young age) to her fate. So I went along. And didn’t say anything loudly/forcefully enough. Today I would do differently.

      • I would likely have done the same thing rather than let her do something so foolish on her own. I am not emphasizing the point to criticize you — lord knows I did equally foolish things in my youth (see hitchhiking across the US) — but to hammer home your point to those who haven’t thought about it much.

        Caveat: Rant ahead:
        Trust your instincts. It doesn’t matter why something’s giving you a bad feeling. Get out of there first and then figure it out.
        Rant over.

        • Amen. This is one of the cautionary tales I told my daughters as I was growing up. Without my spider sense, and some luck, and Ric, I–and therefore they–might not be around now.

  3. You two could have been lucky. When the French used Moroccan auxiliary troops in the recapture of Italy from the Germans during WWII, the word “marrochiate” 8″the Moroccan tribulation” i should think) became an Italian word and now stands for the worst atrocities committed by any warring party during that war, at least in Italian memory (I won’t go into the details, the term can easily be looked up via search engines).

    • Yikes. Even without knowing about the marrochiate, I had a wrong feeling about the situation. I think we were lucky. Maybe they were on the level (all eight of them?). Maybe they were hoping to rob us (of the tiny amounts of money we had?). Maybe things much worse. But it’s years later, I am years older, and I believe in trusting my instincts.