Thursday, December 21, 2006

Best Fishes*

A Cat in Rabat update:

Hola from Andalucía . Mr. Cat in Rabat & I arrived on Monday, a little green around the gills after sharing perhaps too much Christmas cheer with Mr. N et al. and effectively eliminating several bottles of vodka and a blanc de blanc from the world´s supply of alcohol. As a wise woman once said, never ever drop by for drinks with Mr. N the night before travelling. We are such morons.

Over the past few days, there has been much drinking, eating in honest-to-goodness vegetarian restaurants, (where chicken & tuna are not considered meat substitutes) , and fits of giggling when cars stop for us at crosswalks. Tomorrow, Mr. Cat in Rabat and & I will be on the road again, this time to spend the holidays in Lagos & Lisbon, which for the geographically challenged are in Portugal. If you check the average December temperature for Lagos and find that it´s a balmy 34 degrees, then you´re probably looking at Nigeria like I did. Jeez honey, pack the sunscreen! Now, this is my first visit to Portugal and my general accummulation of knowledge about the country thusfar is:

a) it´s not Spain and they take umbrage at being confused with their Hispanic neighbours,
b) my dearest childhood friend´s dog was rumoured to eat Portuguese people (or more specifically, individuals of Portuguese descent who had moved into her neighbourhood),
c) Steve Martin had once referred to Portugal when he listed the Atlantic Ocean as one of many things he was thankful for, because if it were not there, the Portuguese would walk right into the United States,
d) I can probably get pie-eyed on port for pennies.

I suspect that my view of Portugal will change significantly (although hopefully not #D).

It is unlikely that I´ll be able to blog on the road, so I´ll take this opportunity to wish everyone a fab holiday & a healthy, prosperous New Year. General snarkiness will return in January. Cheers all!

*Yes, I know that dolphins aren´t fish. When I was 11, I wanted to be a marine biologist. I know everything a 11 year old can know about dolphins & whales. I have acquired no additional knowledge about sea creatures since that time.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Cat de Sejour: Part the Fourth

"Our permanent cards will be ready in a few weeks."

Those words are from a simpler time. A time of hope & promise. A time that will never be.

I know that many of you have been on tenterhooks for the past month, waiting for the conclusion of our carte de sejour folies and it does seem a little cruel keeping my dear readers in suspense. As yesterday marked the day (plus 1) that Mr. Cat in Rabat's (pictured left) residency card was due (mine was supposed to be ready the previous week), we decided to brave the rush hour traffic, jumped into a taxi, and headed downtown.

Cartes de sejour are collected in the carte de sejour office which is not to be confused with the office where you apply for one, but it is in the same building. Experience nudged me to a non-signed door on the building's opposite side where the helpful hints from the
Living in a Post 9-11 World brochure had been whole-heartedly adopted, including barricading the street from traffic (although you can still park on the sidewalk), a pair of security guards (who were chatting away merrily, oblivious to our approach), and a metal detector (which exploded in a fussilade of pretty colours and trills as I passed through, unnoticed by its attending guards). Up stairs and around to the left and we found ourselves in a lifeless, cloyingly depressing corridor reminiscent of an insane asylum or delinquent boy's institution (both circa 1936 or earlier), cheerily lit by a neon strip of lighting.

Outside the door, helpfully marked "carte", milled a group of Sullen Silent Automatons;
seemingly, no one was willing to knock on the door and interrupt the Dispeptic Civil Servant who works in the large and poorly furnished office. I am beginning to think that you can learn a great deal about an individual from the royal portrait he chooses to hang in his place of business: the nastier bureaucrats & merchants I have met all have fly-blown, jaundiced, time-wrinkled photos of King Hassan II squinting & scowling from their walls, while their less malevolent colleagues toil away under the decidedly less sinister and usually slightly off-camera gaze of M5, snapped while he's in mid-sentence or adjusting himself.

Pops was glowering from the Dispeptic Civil Servant's wall. I shuddered.

I vividly recalled from last year's Carte de Sejour folies that the self-same Dispeptic Civil Servant is not loath to admit that misfiles might actually exist in his long metallic grey card drawer, let alone look for them. He searches by file number, not name, not photo. If he does not find your number where it should be, then you're shit out of luck. Consequently, the drawer is very very full. So full in fact that I suspect that several library cards, an ONCF train schedule from 1999, a bus ticket or two, and possibly the letters of transit stolen from the 2 German couriers in Casablanca might have found their way into that drawer. It is advisable, therefore, to pray to the god-of-your-choice (although Allah holds more sway here) a fortnight or so before visiting the
Préfecture de Police, perhaps burn a little incense, sacrifice a few unbaptised infants, burn the toenail clippings of a sub-Saharan refugee.

As we had little time yesterday to become one of the Sullen Silent Automatons, I walked into his office, only to find that he was indeed "helping" one of the silent Stepford Wives - in this case a husband - shuffling about the hallway. Duly chastized, I waited outside and watched as he perfunctorily leafed through his tray and called out "pas encore" - "not yet". The Automaton's face fell; my heart ached
for him a little.

No one else dared enter the office of lost hopes. Having already pissed off the Dispeptic Civil Servant, I had nothing to lose. Mr. CinR & I approached, temporary cards in hand. Please sir, I want my card. In less than a few seconds, my carte de sejour was extracted from the file. Hum dee laaaa. True, the person who mounted my picture to the card had inexplicably felt a need to cut & snip my photo in a rather haphazard keep-the-scissors-away-from-the-spaz manner, performing a sort of trepanation on my head that made me look not unlike Gumby. Emboldened, Mr. CinR passed his chit to the Dispeptic Civil Servant who, after a cursory glance at the spot where
until recently my card had occupied, announced "pas encore". Mr. CinR's face fell; my heart ached for him a little. I was about to suggest that the Dispeptic Civil Servant check the tray for a "possible" misfile but then thought better of it. After all, it was still December. Two thousand and six. We'll try again after Christmas.

I now realise that by adding one scant revolution of the earth to the due date of Mr. CinR's carte de sejour, I was not only grossly optimistic but also a bit arrogant. Who was I to hold the Moroccan government to their word? Once again, the Bureaucracy God of Morocco (call him Allah if you will) has smote me for my hubris. When will I learn?

Stay tuned for the what-better-goddamned-well-be the final instalment of "the Cat de Sejour".
Coming to theatres in Winter 2007.

Monday, December 11, 2006

UnMystic Pizza

Last autumn, to commemorate Ramadan, Pizza Hut in the U.S. introduced a new pizza so that its diners might "discover the Exotic Flavours of Morocco" - a catch-phrase best translated as "to further ensure that families never eat together at home and that American children become increasingly obese". Along with this so-called Mystical Moroccan Pizza - a square pizza, the import of which elludes me - patrons received a gameboard whose spinners sent players towards one of the board's four quadrants, each representing a holy site of Islam. Oi vey ...

I'm not quite certain how this celebrated Ramadan in any significant way, since practising Muslims would have been fasting until sunset and then, for the most part, would have broken their fast with family & friends (and a bowl of soup & a handful of dates). Perhaps Pizza Hut was hoping that non-Muslims would pick up the slack while at the same time, this otherwise evil multinational conglomerate could make lasting inroads to peace, mutual understanding, and religious tolerance while increasing sales for that quarter. And if you can't afford to go on the haj, a spin of the arrow might - if you've been a very good Muslim - land you at the kaaba.


I live in Morocco and I eat a crapload of pizza; at the risk of sounding a little immodest, over the past 15 months I have become a bit of a pizza pundit. Make no mistake: I am not particularly proud of this culinary accomplishment. But as a vegetarian who likes to dine out, my options are pretty much limited to:

1) pizza (fortunately, there is always a pizza margarita on the menu. Unless there isn't. Then I'm screwed.)
2) cheese paninis (at most restaurants, this is a special request, as in "I'll have the chicken
panini without the chicken")
3) spaghetti (only if it's on the menu).

... so yes, I've eaten a lot of za. And why not salad? They too are a special order, for most salads in Morocco include tuna, chicken, and/or seafood, and egg, and are woefully light on those unconventional crazy rogue salad-y ingredients like lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, and celery. Consequently, I shy away from salads unless I trust the waiter implicitly. Last night for instance, I ordered a house salad at a rather upscale restaurant and told the waiter to hold the shrimp as I was a vegetarian. The salad arrived draped with a paper-thin slice of smoked salmon. I trust very few waiters implicitly.

Not too surprisingly, none of the pizzas that I've seen here hold a candle to its Pizza the Hut counterpart, this Umm al Bizza, with its "golden slices of dried apricots, roasted onions, olives, and chicken or beef marinated with exotic herbs ... all topped on a spread of savoury and sweet Moroccan sauce ... get a taste of Morocco with every bite!"

The Morocco that I know - or more accurately, the Moroccan pizza that I know - doesn't look or taste anything like that Mother of all Pizzas. Common pizza toppings include tuna, corn (corn? - only my brother would find this appetizing), olives, halal "ham" (sham ham), egg, every variety of seafood, chicken, beef, and lots of canned mushrooms. And the sauce is often a few pinches shy of "savoury and sweet". Generally, I order a margarita (and not its frothy green namesake that comes in a salt-rimmed glass): a plain-Jane cheese pizza. I probably eat 2-3 of these a week. Thin crust, thick crust. Fresh sauce, tinned sauce. Well-cooked, under-cooked. I haven't sampled them all, but I've eaten enough to get me through my next 83 incarnations on this planet. Spin the wheel of fortune, and I'll be back in Rabat eating pizza in the year 2152 (1577 A.H.). Spin the Pizza Hut wheel and you're off to the sacred city of Medina.

All pizzas are equal, but some pizzas are more equal than others. True, my gastronomic life has plummeted to an all-time low, but as a sentient human being, it behooves me to find some sense, some meaning in this, my Dark Night of the Stomach. I therefore offer the following public service to my dear readers: should you ever inexplicably find yourself hankering for a pizza - as well as wandering through the streets of Rabat - here are the city's Pizza Luminaries (in random order):

1) La Mamma (downtown) - order the onion pizza. Order the wine. Order more wine.
2) Don Pino (Agdal) - omigod! a pizza primavera and - are you sitting? - fresh mushrooms, not canned! You pay for the freshness of its mushrooms by its lack of liquor licence.
3) Weinmar Cafe (Goethe Institute, downtown) - big pizza, big glasses of draught beer.
4) California (Agdal) - it's taken me 9 months, but its head waiter grudgingly smiles at me now. Definitely worth his surliness.

.... and honourable mention goes to:

1) Couleur Café (Agdal)
2) Sale Sucré (Agdal)
3) Pizzaki (Agdal)

Morocco's Pizza Huts are conspicuously absent from my 'Za Zagat. Not only are their notoriously pricey pizzas served by uniformed sloths (try asking for a glass of water - try! try!), but exposing their patrons to MTV Arabia at ear-bleeding decibels should be added
as a definite no-no to the United Nations' International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Just after genocide & before arbitrary detention.

Bon appetit!

Thursday, December 7, 2006

My Darling Clementine ...

Christmas has come to Morocco. Not in the shape of reindeer or Santas or nativity scenes but in something far more resonant of the holidays, something that hints at a reprieve from a long dark frigid Canadian winter ... the Moroccan clementine.

When I was a girl - falling roughly sometime between the Industrial Revolution and the advent of the Gameboy - Christmas was a thing of wonder. My parents always made certain that everything that my brother and I could possibly want was under the tree Christmas morning. And then some. Christmas was sacred to my mother - she took it seriously and threw herself into every aspect of celebrating the holiday with complete abandon, enthusiasm and an eye for detail that bordered on disturbing. My father's chief duty lay in anchoring the Christmas tree to the wall with the help of an electric drill and a series of eyelet screws and twine. Sometimes it worked, sometimes our mountaineering family cats prevailed. Over the years, Dad maintained that my mother still believed in Santa Claus, and maybe he was right. That would go a long way to explain her ability to infuse our home with the Christmas spirit.

Having said that, it used to drive me crazy that my parents would go on & on about the freaking oranges which, if they were lucky, bulged at the base of their Christmas stockings when they were kids. And yes, I understood then, as I do now, that in the 1930's & 40's, the appearance of citrus fruit during the depths of a dismal December was truly a remarkable thing. My brother and I invariably found oranges in the big toe of our stockings (making our already over-stuffed stockings look like an anaconda in the latter stages of digesting a wild boar) but we dismissively deposited them into the crystal fruit bowl. Oranges - in tale and in the flesh - were tiresome and just not that exciting, especially when an Easy-Bake oven was awaiting its inaugural batch of brownies.

Up until my father's death, both of my parents always ensured that a gargantuan orange lay hidden at the bottom of the other's Christmas stocking. They even ate them.

Not that long ago, in response to a devastating cold snap in Florida which annihilated its orange crop, wooden crates of Moroccan clementines began to pop up in Canada. The first clementine, however, appeared in North Africa at the turn of the last century - or the next to last, depending how your internal clock is set. Legend has it that the modern fruit is a descendant of a mandarine and a sour orange, a hybrid produced by Father Clement Rodier, an Algerian priest, in the garden of his orphanage; however, the Chinese claim that they discovered the clementine first. With the complete absence of a poignant anecdote, any etymological evidence (however spurious), and in light of their flagrant human rights abuses, I am dismissing China's claim to the fruit. In 1925, the tiny tangerines crossed the Med and rolled into Spain. The rest, as they say, is history.

Now they are in the Great White North; in 2004 alone, Canada imported almost $39 million worth of these well-travelled fellows. I for one rejoiced at their arrival: I never could get the knack of peeling oranges and I still can't. In my mind, oranges are too labour intensive and are just as likely to disappoint the taste buds as not; frankly, they aren't worth it. But inside these wooden treasure chests, kept secure with plastic mesh, dozens of brilliantly coloured & head-reelingly aromatic clementines - each bearing a little black diamond-shaped "Maroc" sticker - promised untold gastronomic delights.

And they did not disappoint. With peels that even I - the citrus-retard - could open, and 12 (an auspicious number, no?) succulent seedless wedges of North African sunshine, all enveloped in (what seemed to me then) the heady exoticism of Morocco, this David of fruits elbowed its way into the Christmas market, eventually surplanting the Goliath Florida orange and becoming a holiday staple. The first sighting of the little wooden boxes from Morocco is quite coveted, and is consequently widely broadcast through word of mouth as well as on the radio. In towns bereft of a Santa Claus parade, the arrival of the clementines signals the Christmas season in earnest.

And now the mandareen are here. In abundance. Stacked in boxes outside of hanoots, arranged in pyramids in grocery stores, vying for sidewalk space with beggars, or piled in baskets suspended across the bicycles of itinerant fruit-sellers - they are everywhere. For weeks to come, clementines will be heaped in bowls in our kitchen and living room, suffusing the air with their fragrance. Locals claim that the choicest fruit is bestowed with the much desired Maroc label and then exported to foreign tables, leaving Moroccans with the dregs. But oh such dregs! To my uncultured palate the Mahgrebi homebodies are just as sweet and just as juicy as their jetsetting compatriots. In fact, ours have something better than those little black labels: stems and leaves - an umbilical cord if you will, linking my Christmases past and present, a cycle which begins in my adopted home and finds fruition in the place of my birth.

And at such ludicrously cheap prices - less than 50 cents a kilogram - Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad and I will be eating them until we can't bear the sight of them. Fortunately that won't happen - they'll disappear long before that.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat ...

It's that time again when the streets of Agdal suddenly appear considerably less populated. No worries: the Not Very Nice Men still abound, trawling the streets & cafés for prey. I'm referring to the vast majority of Agdal's cats. They have gone missing; more accurately, its kittens, who should now be about 12 weeks old, have seemingly pulled a Keyser Soze & disappeared into the night.

In the past week, I have not had to replenish the ziplock bag of Whiskas cat food that I keep in my purse. Frankly, my purse is getting a bit whiffy.

In truth, I don't want to know what's happened to the city's kittens. It's *just* possible that something quite malevolent happened in the deepest dark of an Agdal night. Something involving trucks and sacks and villainous men. Rather, I prefer to delude content myself thinking that Agdal's cats are all off on some wonderful adventure in the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps they all trotted down Follow the Leader, popped into Majestic Tours, and booked an all-inclusive vacation to Puerto Vallarta. I would wager to say that at this very moment, scores of tabbies & calicoes are sipping Mai Tai's by the floating bar & batting langorously at catnip mice.

Having said that, there are herds of very pregnant females with their pendulous teats lumbering about the streets, hiding under cars, and peeking out of underground parking garages; their advanced state of pregnancy making them eschew human contact and - by extension - my baggie of kitty kibble. Thus the cycle continues. Morocco's ubiquitous storks will soon be making a visit, bringing with them a gazillion mewling kittens from the heavens, and plonking them down in Agdal where they (the kittens not the storks) will wander the streets starving & abandoned. In anticipation of the next influx of feline holiday-makers from Rabat - because there will be another nocturnal round-up vacation en masse - this season's missing kittens will soon be dog-paddling across the pool to order another round from Juan the bartender.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

A Momentous Morocco Moment

Yesterday morning, in the relative comfort of a grossly overpriced sidewalk café, Mr. Cat in Rabat & I sat in wonder as we watched a driver successfully parallel park his vehicle.

Let there be no mistake: he was completely unaided; he manouevered his car alone with nary a parking jockey in sight.

True, one wheel of the vehicle edged itself ever so slightly onto the curb after its hub cap ever so gently scraped against the concrete ... but still ... !

Hats off to you intrepid but unknown driver! Mr. CinR & I salute you!