Friday, July 14, 2006

Reindeer in Rabat

(A Slightly Snarky Christmas Tale ... in July)

This past week, Morocco suffered through the desiccating heat (temperatures in the 40°’s), pore-clogging humidity, haze and dust of the chergui – a desert wind from the Sahara that can effectively bring life, as we know it, to a standstill and inspire such culinary delights as Diet Coke (or more accurately, Coca Light) for supper. Indeed, I am reminded that when I left Canada, I admonished my friends that if I were to ever complain about the heat, that they were to shoot me, without ceremony, between the eyes. With just a couple of weeks before my vacation home, I am now grateful for our gun control laws. So, in the hopes of offering a partial respite to this most noisome of natural phenomena – and to the Dog Days of summer for the rest of you – I humbly offer this Christmas story – soon to become a holiday classic. Meanwhile, think of it as a snowcone for the brain. Christmas in July ... I bet you feel cooler already ….

Reindeer in Rabat

One of my favourite stores on Follow the Leader is Ursine Direct, a heavily discounted factory direct shop that carries china and crystal from Portugal. Like most boutiques in my upscale neighbourhood, it is overstaffed with sullen and glowering salespeople whose withering stares serve to remind me that I am an inconvenience in a workday typified by volatile telephone conversations, languorous perusals through French magazines, and extended gossip sessions with family and friends who have just dropped in for an hour or so. But as my Achilles heel is made out of porcelain, I tend to spend a lot of time there, especially since their stock rotates regularly.

So shortly before Christmas, deep in the throes of Ramadan, I bought 2 coffee mugs that were bedecked with festive reindeer.
Sporting pompommed toques and scarves, and with ornaments and twinkly lights suspended from their antlers, their very presence suggested to me that Christmas did exist in Morocco in some bizarre if not kitschy way. And I can do kitsch.

With less than two weeks before Christmas, tragedy struck my home: one of my reindeer mugs slipped from my hand and crashed to the floor, its scattered chards displaying a ghoulish mosaic of anatomical quadruped bits and winter outerwear. I was devastated. Clearly all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Dancer and Prancer together again. At this late date, the chances of finding a replacement mug at the china shop were slim. At best the herd of reindeer would have been seriously culled, leaving only the sick and wounded; at worst completely wiped out. My sole remaining reindeer would be alone, friendless in a North African landscape devoid of traditional holiday cheer. Hoping for a Christmas miracle (miracle being synonymous with ‘a nice thing’), I returned to the shop.

I mumbled a hasty greeting to the doorman (who spends much of his time flirting with the salesgirls) and scuttled past the half dozen indifferent and underemployed salespeople to the back corner of the shop. Where my reindeer had once proudly migrated was now a display of Bart Simpson café au lait bowls. O the horror! I peered over, I poked behind and I prodded under the garish canary-yellow bowls but to no avail. Seeking more fertile retail tundra elsewhere, my reindeer had gone. A reluctant saleswoman came over to me and asked (I think) if she could help. In my addled French, compounded by the fact that I could not remember the word for reindeer (a word not used in my everyday lexicon of ordering coffees and croissants), I asked her if there were any mugs de Noël left. She made it painfully clear that she had no idea what I was babbling on about so I further humiliated myself by raising my hands to my head and wiggled my fingers mimicking antlers – a gesture recognizable by any Canadian four-year old. She looked at me dumbstruck but with just a hint of a French sneer and shrugged.

Another salesperson, perhaps recalling a customer service seminar in a past life, looked up from her magazine to see if she could help. Deciphering my shoddy attempt at charades, she barked something to her co-worker who went off to a storeroom and returned, a few minutes later, with three mugs. I suppressed my tears of joy and took all three. As another salesperson wrapped my purchase, I pointed to a reindeer and asked what the word was in French. Just in case. She looked at it and held it up to the other five salespeople in the store. No one knew and why, I asked myself later, should they? In Morocco, these garlanded sweater-wearing ruminants are purely decorative, at best hinting at something vaguely mythological and nothing more. They could have been unicorns or mermaids for all they knew or cared. The mug-wrapper looked at the mug, considering these ski-bunnyesque creatures with only a creatures with only a mild indifference.

“Ils sont les gazelles?” she suggested.

Gazelles? Gazelles!!?

I shook my head. “Non, ce ne sont pas des gazelles. Ils sont … ils sont ….” I gave up, cursing my limited French vocabulary, vowing to check a dictionary when I got home.With yet another in a long line of Gallic shrugs, she continued wrapping the mug. The thought of introducing my new herd to the solitary reindeer at home tickled me: my new family of gazelles, my gazelles de Noël. It was no great matter that the reindeer has no contextual basis in Moroccan culture; 'gazelle' would do just fine. And poof! - gazelles de Noël forever will they be: lithesome fleet-footed creatures eschewing the Arctic tundra for the Atlas Mountains, endowed with Alpine outerwear and possibly the gift of flight on Christmas Eve.


Addendum: to assist those who may suffer the same acute embarrassment and frustration in a North African country in some distant winter, take note: the word for reindeer in French is “renne”

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