On Mountain Climbing

It’s been just about two months since I re-landed in Italy, and as I pack my bags, clean the house and get ready to join the annual migration of Southern Europeans to the beach, I’ve been taking stock. I had such big plans for this summer: dreams of idle, yet focused writing, flow-filled productivity and disciplined creativity. From my seat on the airplane, crossing the Atlantic, I imagined myself hitting the ground running again and transforming my life in Italy, making it something even more amazing and bigger than last time.

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From the beginning of a hike we took together in July, looking up to the mountain we’d summit the next morning.

This is not how my summer has been. Instead, I am weary. Wrung out.

As I’ve already written about a bit, this summer has been humbling, worrying and stressful. I have been frustrated with a system I can’t quite understand and caught up between the conflicting stories of how those around me have found their way through this mess. I have grown tired as I try to speak a new language, stuck in the consistent loop of realizing with each layer I break through in comprehension how far I still have to go. Gabriele and I – now legally married, yay!, and planning two more ceremonies and parties to celebrate this family we’re creating – have felt the swelling waves of stress pass between us, like tides on opposing shores; one of us standing strong and certain while the other crumbles and flounders. Back and forth as the to-do list grows. I am almost always the blubbering, floundering one, he the reasonable rock that tethers me to the big picture.

And nothing has made me feel so vulnerable than sitting next to my freshly-minted brother in law (bless his heart) in the immigration office, finally before the officer of the state who could process the paperwork I need. In that critical moment, my growing understanding of Italian failed me, was drowned out by anxiety and the pressure of the moment. I clung desperately to the papers that we had been told were enough on the phone, understanding clearly without knowing the exact words being said that they were, in fact, not right. Not enough. Every time we thought we’d done everything, it seemed we were always missing one more thing. One more thing that required another visit to City Hall, or 20 more euros or another official seal from a different official.

I have waited in many muggy, anxiety-filled rooms this summer, trying to piece together what exactly I need to prove who I, my new husband and his family are, and that we intend to be family here. I’ve struggled to comprehend the staticy voices on intercoms, joined the rush of bodies who all but mob the stressed immigration officers when they emerge from their office to call the next person into their appointment.

Never did we get a straight answer. One person told us we needed this on the phone, so we showed up with two copies of this, only to find out what we needed was that. I rushed back to Legnano, got to an office that I was told would help me before they closed, waited in line, presented them with the paperwork, and they handed me a piece of paper with a website scrawled on it.

This summer has been late nights filled with chamomile tea and copying documents. Moving forward, preparing my resume, purchasing plane tickets, putting down deposits on reception venues like we know what the next year will hold, with faith that things will come together as they always have. Because that’s how my husband and I have always operated: made plans, decided on dates, chosen the outcome we need and worked toward it. Things have always changed (often times pretty dramatically) between where we started and how it came together, but we’ve always come to the place we intended. And this time won’t be different.

I feel like over the course of the last two months – and let’s be honest, the years of back and forth and false starts leading up to this – I’ve been stripped bear. I’ve waited in so many lines, cried so many kinds of tears, gnashed my teeth in the night and lost myself between so many versions of what I think life should be right now.

I have been torn between myself as I am and my vision of my greatest self. What I tell myself I should be doing and what I actually can do on any given day. The challenge to be my best self and to listen to my true self.

Gabriele and I have climbed a few physical and metaphorical mountains over the last three years. In early July we went together to Monviso, in Piedmonte, for a surprise birthday weekend away he planned for me. (A fine example of why, a life with this man is worth all the stress.) Some of the mountains, like this one, we’ve prepared for, thought about and scouted before we started, and some we just found ourselves climbing because the trail looked interesting, like last fall in Valle D’Aosta.

The problem with climbing mountains is that you never can be sure where exactly the summit is. You think you might see it above you, where the rocks give way to sky. One should never assume, and definitely never say aloud “I think we’re nearly there!”, though. First of all, space is deceptive at such a great height, and you probably have farther to go than you anticipated. Secondly, the peak that you currently see is not necessarily the final one: you could easily summit this, only to see one more, with the possibility of other, even steeper peaks waiting behind that. The higher you go, the thinner the air gets. The bigger the fall is you lose your footing.

But we climb mountains anyway, even though we sometimes run out of breath, even though we never know where the top is, even though those enjoying a cocktail at sea level may find it crazy. We climb these mountains for the ever-changing view, for the challenge. Because the accomplishment of summiting even one peak is beautiful and worth it, even if just to the two of us who have done the work. It has brought my new husband and I us closer together, this practice of mountain summiting, especially this summer, when the peaks and surprising steepness have been difficult in ways we didn’t anticipate (because, yes, before you say it we knew this wasn’t going to be easy).

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Looking up to Monviso in early July, from the summit of the much shorter, opposing mountain.

And now, in this last week of July, I think I can say we’re at least reaching a plateau and will be able to walk without too much of an incline for a while. We can just enjoy the view and catch our breath. Have a conversation without panting and breaking down in tears (though, let’s be honest, I’m always liable to do that…).

I don’t know if my visa will work out the way we hope. But I can’t do anything about that now. It’s processing. The stressed out immigration officer finally told me we’d given him enough evidence, put the stamp on the paper, ran my fingerprints and told me to come back in a month.

So we’re waiting. And while we wait, we’re going on vacation. I don’t think I’ve ever needed to take a vacation more: to get off the grid, away from even the possibility of accomplishing anything besides several good books and enjoying time as newlyweds. We’re going back to Sicily, the hot, magical island where I knew, when we were there together two years ago, that I wanted to marry this man and create my life and dreams alongside his more than I’d ever wanted anything in my life. And now, as legally-bound newly weds, we’re going to take the opportunity to daydream some more about this life we’re creating, and plot out our path to the next summit we want to reach.

On Legalities

My mom called me the week before I came back to Italy and asked, tenderly “So, how are things going with the bureaucracy?” What a delicate question this has been: in the month before I got on the plane, one couldn’t be sure if it would make me burst into tears, growl with frustration or giggle with glee. (Insert blanket apology to all well-meaning coworkers who were probably just being polite and didn’t know what they were stepping into here.)

One day, I would be delighted, finally feeling the glee of getting to be with my fiance again in just a few days, knowing that our wedding was fast approaching (though we still don’t have a date). The next, after another seemingly insurmountable hurdle showed up – how in the world am I supposed to get a codice fiscale before the atto notorio if a codice fiscale is one of the benefits of getting legally married, which I need an atto notoiro to do? – I’d be anxious and broken down.

The ever-changing nature of our knowledge of the process we’ve been wading through and my rapidly-pivoting moods made my mom joke that I “need a Caring Bridge website for the current status of the situation.”

But that’s what I have a blog for, right? Too bad I’ve been pretty bad at updating for the last few months.

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Back home in Italy, exploring yet another angle of Lago di Como from Bellagio.

I’ve been using the word “move” loosely over the last year. It’s been a fun flag to wave: “Ciao tutti! I’m moving to Italy now!” I did come to Italy for 5 months last year, did leave most of my things in the closet when I left. Facebook even says I live here, not there. The plan has always been to return and make this my permanent home with Gabri. But until we are legally married, I cannot get permission to stay or work or receive healthcare. I cannot stay more than 90 cumulative days in any 180 day period. In short, I can’t technically move here.

So, we need to get legally married. We are also absolutely committed to one another already, love our current life together and feel so ready to continue to work towards our shared goals, and are utterly clear that we would marry one another and spend out lives together regardless of my legal status.

But there’s nothing like having to grapple with frustrating bureaucratic hurdles to ensure you’re really, actually, positively serious about this relationship and life choice.

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My final toast to Minnesota over Memorial Day Weekend.

People often ask why we chose Italy. Only recently I realized that for the average person saying “why not choose Italy?” is enough.

I kept saying “Immigration-wise, things are easier in Italy” or “There are more roadblocks and legal battles to fight in the States”. I keep telling myself that we’ve chosen the easier path, listing the reasons that we chose Italy over the United States to strangers who’s curiosity is genuine but it’s probably not their business.

I’ve watched friends marry non-Americans in the United States, seen the binders of plane tickets, Skype call logs, personal photos, Christmas letters addressed to both of them, private love letters between the two of them; all submitted to the US Government to prove that their relationship was real. I’ve helped them turn the affidavit of their love story into a cute “How We Met” section on their wedding website. I’ve heard how much money they paid not just the government, but the lawyers, and the lawyer’s printer. Held the bride while she cried a month before the wedding when, though her fiance was given a visa, the Department of State wasn’t processing any visas worldwide due to a glitch and she had to leave him in his home country and hope he made it to the wedding.

I didn’t want to have to do anything like that.

And, for all intents and purposes, it DOES appear to be easier here. You don’t have to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees (though free it is not), and once you get to the point of being legally married, you don’t need to wait 6+ months for the right to work legally. You can also leave the country within the first year of your marriage (something you have to petition the US government for with a Fiance Visa) and there’s the whole public health insurance thing. All in all, once you’re legally married (and in a heterosexual relationship), you’re set up pretty darn well here.

For all of that, though, “easy” isn’t exactly the word I’d use to describe the process, thus far. There is a set of regulations you must move through in order to marry an Italian as a straniera. But, that’s fine: give me a list of documents to prepare and the address of the offices I have to go and and I’ll gladly wait in those lines, pay the fees and sort it out so we can say “lo voglio” and sign the paperwork. The real annoyances have hinged upon the slight variations in the ways each municipal office you interact with may or may not read these rules. No one has a straight answer. There wasn’t a single clear person to call, and sometimes when we did get someone on the phone, it was with a strict warning there was only time for three questions and and abrupt end to the call when that number was reached.

And even if we ultimately have it easier and cheaper than if we had decided to start our lives stateside, the nagging doubts, the skype calls which turned into tearful worry sessions as a new issue was put before us, my inability to do anything to help sort this out given my language abilities and distance, the ultimate fear that in the end, something’s inevitably going to come up and we’ll be back at square one: me on my way back to Minnesota at the end of August for 90 more days of waitressing, have all been pretty exhausting to bear. All things considered, the process of leaving again, along with all this extra worry has been a real bummer.

But here I am: time passed, as it always does. I’ve been back in Italy for just over a week. I didn’t forget as much Italian as I was afraid I would. I got the chance to attend a friend’s wedding, which was really wonderful (and insightful, as I begin to plan my own Catholic Italian wedding).

Here’s the thing I’m reminding myself again and again in this process, when I start to loose heart in things coming together the way we’re hoping (and there are plenty more big questions after we get this phase sorted out): You have no idea what the inbetween will look like, or how long it will take to arrive at the goal. But so far, no matter what has changed in the details in the last three years, the goal of being together has remained the same, and we’ve found our way here. Some research, preparation and patience is half the battle. A lot of faith in the journey that seems mad, a willingness to follow the dream that just won’t let go and a deep trust that if things have worked out so far, they’ll keep coming together has gotten me this far, and I’m planning on following it through.

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Traveler’s Notebook: Jordan

December 31st, 2016

Writen in Madaba, Jordan

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The view from Mount Nebo, looking north towards the Jordan River Valley.

Yesterday afternoon, after standing on the edge of Mt. Nebo – where Moses is said to have finally seen the promised land before dying – we set off across the neighboring hills to find the ruins of a cluster of pilgrimage churches. We were quiet and introspective; I don’t think we had anticipated the effect that hillside would have on us as we curiously walked up the cement pathway, past a few monks, past commemorative signs, a declaration from the Pope that this was, in fact, Holy Ground.

I can’t say I know what it takes for a place to become spiritual and meditative. Is it the other tourists (or lack thereof) around you feeling the same thing, a sort of collective rising of consciousness? Is it the centuries of pilgrims who have walked and prayed before you, filling the air and ground with an intrinsic sense of stillness? Or has it always been there, drawing people in, silencing their hearts and minds, inspiring them to build churches and way-side rests in this place?

Perhaps, it was just this evening in particular, settling in early and chilled: golden pink sunlight softening the desert hills, glittering off the Dead Sea below and shadowing the hills of Israel and Palestine beyond.

Even living in Italy, even traversing the grandness of that epic Roman empire, we have been realizing that we are in the face of something more ancient to humanity than those columned temples and marble-paved roads. These hills have seen, cultivated and given more than we can contend with or imagine today. Life, crops, religions. Inevitably, war and grief. Perhaps this is what stuns and silences us, as well.

Before the sun fully set, as as the tour groups cluster along the cliff side which makes “Mount” Nebo a mountain rather than a quick fall to hundreds of meters below sea level, we leave to seek out one more nearby ruin that we’ve read about. The area surrounding Madaba is known for incredible, Byzantine-era mosaic floors which used to decorate homes and churches alike, remains of which are hidden throughout the hills and still being discovered. True, we’ve seen a lot of them in the last few hours, but nights are long this time of the year, and we want to experience as much as possible before dark.

We take a right off the main road – a two-lane paved street laced with potholes and with herds of goats and sheep grazing dangerously close to moving cars without a guardrail – and drive a few kilometers along a single-lane drive tracing its way across the top of the hillsides. We pass by a group of teenage boys setting themselves up to watch the sunset along a line of tall pines, a hookah and pot of tea balanced between them all. They wave as enthusiastically as little children, shouting greetings. We have been pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming hospitality of the people we meet here: the men who pull over on the highway and offer to take our photo as we appreciate a great view, the passersby who rush to assure us that the sounds we hear are not bombs, but fireworks celebrating the New Year, the many conversations about European football my fiance has with taxi drivers. There is a genuineness to the people here, an ease and openness that goes beyond the service industry standards which I do not often find when traveling. Probably, it comes with a culture sitting at the crossroads of the earth: nomadic desert folk who need to be opened to strangers in order to survive as a species. It has taken work for me to fight against an intrinsic fear I’ve been taught when the images of men in the traditional clothing of the Middle East are standing before me, going about their lives. There are constant reminders that this is just not a given, that taught fear wont serve me here or anywhere.

As we pull up to the farm at the end of the road, a Bedouin groundskeeper and his son appear, waving to us, then telling us he had closed for the day. We apologize and move to get back into the car, but he shakes his head and assures us “You are welcome, you are most welcome,” shaking my fiances hand.

He leads us to a covered cement structure, unlocking the heavy, bolted door. In the dim light, we can make out the mosaic patterns of what used to be the floor of a church. In the center, the colors are scared by burn marks, and he tells us that before the priests came and discovered the ancient workmanship, his family had used the convenient (and beautiful) flat surface as the floor of their tents when they arrived in the area. When the priests came to inspect the work, the paid for a proper home to be built for the family, as well as this structure over the mosaic to protect it.

After we leave the artwork, our guide catches my wandering eye and leads us to the crest of the hill to show us the neighboring ridges spotted with tents and ruins, even a sliver view of the Dead Sea, still reflecting the deepening sunset. Through broken English, he offers us each a cup of sugary tea which his son had already brought, then instructs us to sit down cross-legged together on the hilltop.

“Breathe.” He mimics slow, long intakes of breath with a pause between inhale and exhale. We all follow suit, in the same meditative silence we found on the top of Mount Nebo. The sounds of sheep bleating in the distance are drowned out as the final Call to Prayer of the day echoing through the hills. Our host mutters a few Arabic prayers as the sun slips below the horizon, the clouds become rosy and brilliant for a moment longer, and darkness starts to truly descend. The air becomes chilly, delicate.

We’ve finished our tea. We stand and his son takes our cups. As we linger a moment longer on the way to the car, the father stops, looks us in the eye and tells us that the real Muslims of the world are nothing like DASH (a regional name for ISIS). They are peaceful, welcoming and should not wish for warfare. My fiance and I nod. Syria and all the horrors being experienced there, is less than 75 kilometers away. It is strangely always the darkest, stormiest spot on the horizon: the north. It is a world away, yet always present. We don’t have enough shared language to discuss this, to speak to nuance. But we nod. We heard him, and will tell others. I think this is what he needs from us tonight.

As we drive back to the main road, the teenage boys are still sitting, smoking at the line of trees. When they see us approaching, they jump up, wave again, signalling us to stop and join them for a cup of tea. We smile and wave but keep driving: we’ve already learned that here in Jordan, if you stop for every cup of tea you’re offered, you probably won’t make it anywhere.

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For more reading on our trip to Jordan this winter, check out the full itinerary here, and tips for winter travel in the Middle East here.

Traveler’s Notebook: Home

After bouncing back and forth between two continents for nearly 3 years, I – and lots of people around me – have a lot of questions about what “home” even means any more.

I bought another one-way plane ticket (the fourth in three years). I’m going “home” again. May 29th, at 9:00 pm, I fly out. For “good” this time. Well, for residency (and hopefully work), at least.

I haven’t written about it much – I like to pretend it isn’t happening, to put my nose down, work as much as possible and try to squeeze in significant conversations with all of my friends in between – but I’m not actually in Italy these days.

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The central square in Legnano, the city in Italy I’ve been calling “home”.

I’m “at home”. Which is to say I’m in St. Paul, Minnesota. Living in the country which issues my passport, where I am a legal resident and currently allowed to work, and to whom I will always pay taxes, apparently. Living in the house I’ve lived in before (shout out to friends who have their lives together, have bought houses and offer me affordable rent without a long-term contract!), working at the restaurant I worked at before and waiting for my time on my tourist visa to renew again, as well as saving money for my wedding and the first few months in Italy when I’ll be job hunting.

This time, though, most of (or at least half of) my stuff is officially in a closet in Italy. My backup jeans. My favorite shoes. My camera (that one was actually an accident, but whatever). This, time, when I go back to Italy, I’ll be becoming a permanent resident, really living in Europe. Expatriating. Or immigrating? Which am I doing? What do they each mean? Semantics matter.

Which is making me consider my language a lot. There are a lot of subtleties that mean a whole lot to me right now, and which no one seems to notice but me. All of my coworkers asking me how my “trip” to Italy was when I got home in January, for example. (Not a trip! I wanted to shout: I lived there. I celebrated Christmas with a family that is becoming my own, I took the same bus every day! I’m going back! Life! Not vacation!) And I just don’t know what to say about the many meanings of “home” in my life. I can already hear my Papa, assuring me that he will always keep the fire lit in my childhood home in the forest of Northern Minnesota when I need it. And, of course, as anyone who had a beautiful and fulfilling childhood, I will to some extent always need it. But I’m also an adult woman who recently promised to marry and redefine family with another adult man, and home is shifting and changing yet again because of it.

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The yard of my parent’s house, January

This last week I went to visit friends who just bought a house in Fargo, North Dakota. While going around the table, trading stores over coffee, I was asked the question I’m getting asked over and over again lately: “What are you most excited about for going back to Italy?!” (Besides the obvious answer of seeing my fiance, everyone quickly giggles.)

I looked around at my friends who are truly doing amazing things. Buying homes. Starting graduate degrees. One has begun an impressive and essential career which involves trying to bring biodiversity back the prairies of North America in the face of climate change and invasive species. It’s so hard for me to grit my teeth and tell them that I am a waitress right now. OK, some days it’s great and I make amazing money. I appreciate the restaurant I work for, and with my current lifestyle – zipping in and out of the country for months at a time – I couldn’t be doing that much to build what I had of a career anyway, given my life choices. But most days (I should say nights), I’m working when my friends are free. I’m feeling physically tired, degraded and ready to do something bigger with my life.

I feel like I’ve watched my career, a career I was proud of and excited to see continue to grow, fizzle and slowly die out in the corner. Yes, yes I know: left. I quit and walked away, and chose to keep dating the handsome foreigner, which ultimately lead me to all of this. I’ve had agency all along. And I know there are flames I can coax back to life there. After all: I grew up in a house in northern Minnesota without an automated central heating system. I’m really good at building fires (aka finding a way to make the next step work), but for the moment, this is what I must keep doing. This is how I make my next step work.

And I get to say it: this part of the process really sucks.

The answer to the question my friend’s asked really is: I’m most ready to feel like my life is starting again. After the transition between place to place. The inability to fully commit to anything (besides a marriage) for the last three years. I’m ready to have routine and new purpose. To know how much money I’ll make in a given month and budget. All those boring things I had at 24, the things I walked away from and let slowly die and which I am now craving at 27.

Maybe all of that is what home means.

One reason travel works for me is that I’m good at adaptation. I’m good at nesting, getting comfortable, building routine and making myself “at home.” This is both beautiful and confusing to myself and those around me.

So, is home where I grew up, or where I most currently live? Is home where your blood flows through the people around you or where the love of your life sleeps at night? Is home where my Facebook profile tells you I live? Where most of my stuff is? Do I have to speak the language fluently to say it’s my home? Can I call the airplane seat or hostel bed I’m trying to fall asleep in a home?

I guess the simple answer is that lately it’s been all of that.

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Touring Morocco, From Marrakesh On (Part 2)

I just spent a week in Morocco – my first time in the country and my first time in Africa – and for such a comparatively short amount of time, I have a lot to say about this incredible place. This is my third post on the matter, so if you need to get yourself caught up, check out Touring Morocco Part 1 or enjoy some travel-log-style writing with this post.

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To continue with my advice and thoughts on my own and any future journeys into Morocco, here are some lists, because who doesn’t love a good list in a blog?

Morocco Tips

  • Find yourself a good riad or hostel, because you’re gonna need an oasis as you acclimate. I stayed at Equity Point Hostel which was AMAZING. For 12 Euros a night, I had a bed in an all-female dorm, access to a pool and rooftop terrace and hung around in a beautiful riad setting. The hostel has a hammam, organizes daily excursions to surrounding areas and had some of the friendliest staff I’ve met in a long time. No matter where you stay, you’ll be headed back there to regroup after a day in the heat and chaos of the city, so consider papering yourself a little.
  • Have plenty of small coins in your hard-to-break-into purse for tips. From street performers who catch your eye to a local who helps you find your hotel (trust me, you’ll probably need this the first time so it’s better to just let it happen), to restaurants and bathroom attendants, tipping is an integral part of life here. And really, with 10 dirham being about $1, you can probably spare a couple of coins here and there to show your appreciation.
  •  No matter who you are – but perhaps especially as a woman – it’s best to cover your knees and shoulders in deference to local customs. Yes, even men. Yes, even though it’s god-awfully hot out there. Especially if you are traveling outside of the tourist centers of major cities, you’ll blend in a little better and show respect to the locals (and hide more skin from the hot sunlight) with a little more fabric.
  • One of the many delights of Jamaa el-Fnna in Marrakesh is the nightly extravaganza of restaurants which spring up out seemingly of nowhere. They don’t have names, just a number, and all the food is priced the same, so there’s no need to try hunt for a deal. The eager menu-brandishing staff members of this area were some of the most intense salesmen I came across in the country, so it’s tempting to just sit down at the first place you get swept into, but look for where the Moroccans are sitting. The stalls that start empty tend to stay empty through the night. I don’t think any of the food here is going to blow you away, but by following the crowd you’ll find the best that’s out there.
  • This is an untested hypothesis, but if you are generally allergic to farm animals and/or dust, bring some meds. I was sneezing and sniffling my face off and there wasn’t much plant life to be found which would make my allergies flare. I have been allergic to horses for a long time (much to my personal horror since I adore bareback riding) and with the donkeys wandering the souks, horse-drawn carriages clopping around and general dust of the desert concentrated on such small streets, some Claritin might just have given me some relief.
  • Let yourself get lost in a Medina. Trying to keep yourself straight is probably a hopeless cause anyway, and part of the experience is letting yourself get swallowed in and thrown back out somewhere new, like a tannery, or a neighborhood clean on the other side of town, or the place you were looking for yesterday that you gave up on finding. Also, yeah, there are signs pointing out some landmarks, but I found those pretty unhelpful and often sent me on very roundabout journeys.

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Here is perhaps the question I’ve been asked the most since I’ve come home: Would I recommend Morocco for another woman traveling alone? If you had asked me my first full day there, after a hot afternoon of wandering lost through the Medina and being cajoled and shouted at and even followed for several hours, I would have told you that I honestly didn’t know. Now that I’m back at home, safe and relishing the challenge and adventure of it all though, I’d say: yes of course you can.

No matter what, no matter who you’re with, no matter how seasoned of a traveler you are, Morocco is one of many countries in the world where you’ll need a thick skin. Everyone will talk to you, give you unsolicited directions, try to pull you into their shop, walk up alongside you tell you about a market or a museum you need to visit nearby (“But I’m not asking for money! I promise!”) or just outright ask for money.

And yes, I even got the dreaded “Mademoiselle! You should be smiling! You’d be more beautiful if you smiled!” calls from shopkeepers while I made my way through the maze of streets.

Perhaps it was my inability to understand any Arabic slurs thrown my way, perhaps I got lucky and perhaps as a tourist I was shielded from the worst of it, because this article came out (and was shared with me more than once) while I was in the country. It’s worth a read for a better understanding of the situation Moroccan women face daily, which I think even a tourist should take a moment to recognize.

Trying to balance not being rude with actually moving from place to place without getting sucked into any sort of scam or pushy conversation was hard for me. In the end, all of the advice I heard beforehand was right: the best thing to do is answer politely but forcefully “No, thank you” and walk away. This didn’t mean I was actually left alone. Sometimes, there were shouts from behind, usually there was a moment of pleading, of false promises, then a scoff. Once a faux-guide followed and followed me, asking followup questions about my dismissal of being shown to an argon factory nearby.”But why? Where have you seen something like this? You must. You are in Morocco. Don’t you like Moroccan people?” Showing a vague interest and implying that I’d come about around later didn’t really help. (However with a Minnesota, the real meaning behind “Sounds interesting. Maybe I’ll come back” couldn’t be more clear.) When I finally said “I feel sick and I’m going to my hostel” he insisted he had medicine for me. I finally got away and, though I was flustered, shook it off. I was going back to the hostel anyway and could breathe a bit. But Marrakesh isn’t that big of a city, and I ran into said local every single day. He would come up behind me, inquire about my heath, thank me for finally coming back, accuse me of being an ungracious guest in his country, demand I acknowledge him, follow me asking questions for several meters. I couldn’t help but think that even if I had a girl friend with me, it would be more of an annoyance we could roll our eyes at and less of a daily gut-level worry of how long it would take to shake the guy and his comments.

I will say sincerely that even in the annoyances, the Moroccan people felt genuinely kind. They usually told me “Welcome, you are most welcome to your second home!” and it didn’t feel like they were just saying that. But I also just wanted to shout “Listen, can you just give me a second to enjoy your country?” If I had followed every direction or answered every call shouted in my direction, I’d still be in Marrakesh right now. I felt like I couldn’t pause and take anything in, or so much as glance at a shop (dark sunglasses were my best friend) or snake charmer or juice stand without being cornered and it was exhausting.

Though I never actually felt in danger, got pickpocketed or was groped, in the end, I did spend a lot of the time I was alone wishing someone was with me. But this was where my choice of accommodation did what I needed it to. The beauty of a hostel is there are always other travelers looking for new acquaintances. At night, I always ventured out with others and I was much more comfortable even in the day when with other people. I also got better prices bartering when I wasn’t on my own.

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In the village of Ait Benhaddou, east of the Atlas Mountains.

I won’t lie: there were times when I found myself on streets that were really interesting, in places the guidebook recommended, but where when I looked around and realized I hadn’t seen another tourist for 15 minutes, I turned back. If I had a friend with me, even another female friend, I wouldn’t have been worried, but the situation felt as if it called for a little prudence. I kept thinking about my boyfriend’s recounting of his time in Morocco and felt jealous of how in so many of his stories he described being a part of the local culture, of really immersing himself, of hopping in a petit taxi and riding to a village and finding a guest house and meeting locals. I on the other hand, felt like I had to keep myself at a little bit of a distance for safety and sanity’s sake.

ALL OF THAT BEING SAID, I thoroughly enjoyed Morocco. I met other women who were traveling farther and more bravely alone. I often did find genuine kindness from the locals: even in their cajoling there’s a bit more interaction and welcome than one finds on the streets of Paris, for example.

And there is no where else in the world quite like Morocco. Any traveler is rewarded for their intrepidness here with stunning, star-filled nights in the Sahara, the sounds and sights of Jamaa el-Fnna day or night and the particular madness that is a Moroccan Medina, which, yes, includes a fair amount of cajoling.

Traveler’s Notebook: Moroccan Daydreams

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I went to Marrakesh for many reasons. I went because I needed to leave the Shengen Zone of the European Union for at least 24 hours. I went because it was a cheap plane ticket and cheap cost of living. I went because I’d been tantalized by the colors, lamps, patterns, cushions and architecture which I’d seen recreated in prom and themed parties my whole life. I went because I knew it was a place I had wanted to go for a long, long time, even if I didn’t really know why.

Until I got there.

dsc00223Marrakesh is a dream. A hot, smokey, magical dream. Wandering through the mess of souks that is the Medina is like stepping into another world. You’re dodging motorbikes and donkey carts, passing under dusty slats of sunlight that slip through the ancient or makeshift roofs, looking over shops with leather goods, lanterns, scarves, wooden camels, golden lamps that might as well be hiding genies and a million other treasures. It is a city rich in life and history. Rich in smells – the very human, the very exotic, the very enticing and then suddenly the very familiar and intimate: the musty, leather, cigarette smell of my father’s office. Rich in sounds – the flutes of snake charmers, the drums of Berber dancers, the bells and clinks of horse-drawn carriages, the raspy shouts of the call the prayer, the merchants all around you trying their luck at guessing your mother tongue with, “Bonjour! Hello! Ciao! Excuse me! Ca va?”. Rich in history and intricate beauty: no detail goes unnoticed in the ancient architecture of Marrakesh, from painted ceilings to flowing script across walls and mosaic designs, you cannot trust a dusty, unremarkable building not to be hiding splendid treasures within the inner courtyard.

From Marrakesh, I went east, then west. East on a 10 hour bus ride over the beautifully-named Atlas Mountains through the ever-changing desert to the edge of the Sahara. There we spent the night in a Berber camp. We sat around a campfire under the stars listening to traditional (and some not so traditional) music, rode camels into the hot sunrise and explored ancient mud-caked cities and gigantic palm oasis along the caravan roads crossing the imposing landscape.

West, I went to the Atlantic, to the windy city of Essaouira where I wandered the 18th Century ramparts, looked down into the heart of a busy harbor and fish market, got a little less lost in the Medina and ogled amazing woodwork and a plethora of argon oil products. I cannot remember a time when the sun shone more brilliantly than in this port town of white-washed, blue-tinged buildings, not even in the Sahara just days before. Gulls flooded the air and the street cats looked remarkably happier than in the pandemonium of Marrakesh.

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But at the heart of it all was Marrakesh, an evocative place that sometimes overwhelmed, but mostly inspired me.

Begin in Jemaa el-Fnna (“The Assembly of the Dead”), the sprawling, oddly shaped square at the center of the ancient, walled city. By day, it is a passageway, an entry point, or an “oh, thank god I know where I am again” point. You’ll find henna artists, fresh orange juice hawkers, snake charmers, monkey handlers, musicians and acrobats vying for your attention and change. Past a line of horse-drawn carriages for rent, you can see the Koutoubia Mosque, who’s minaret has stood watch over the market since the 12th Century and reminds us of the importance of detail and a compass: the mosque which was originally built there had to be destroyed and rebuilt because it did not properly align with Mecca.

Choose any of the streets leading off of the north end of Djammar el-Fna and you are quickly swallowed into the Medina. An ancient mess of alleyways that snarl like a spool of thread unwound and left in a heap on the ground, you haven’t visited Marrakesh until you’ve been lost in these shops. Suddenly you’ll find yourself in the pungent tannery, watching leather being dyed, or the handful of stands devoted solely to olives, then among opulent carpet sellers, then a butcher surrounded by hungry cats, then emerge into the florescent-lit tourist souks where faux guides will offer you unsolicited advice and directions. You come upon small squares filled with local produce for sale, or hit a dead end and retrace your steps, twisting back until there’s another road to follow. Dark sunglasses were my best friends here, even when passing under ancient archways or the covered souks, so my eyes could wander without catching anyone’s attention.

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                                It is impossible to capture the energy and magic of an evening in Jemaa el-Fnna in a photo, but this might be a taste.

Return to Jemaa el-Fnna and watch the sun set from a terrace while sipping sweet mint tea, because once evening sets in, the real magic happens here. I think the true spirit of Morocco was most clear in this place in the busy nights: here you can realize that it’s not just a show for tourists. Yes, maybe the snake charmers and the people hawking magnets under florescent lights in the Medina are aiming to get the non-locals to stop by, but as the evening approaches and the final calls to prayer silence the music momentarily, lines of open-air restaurants are constructed, the air fills with the smells and smoke of frying meat, the snakes and monkeys are packed away and the cross-dressing dancers – yes, the men wear makeup, a hijab, skirts and clinking belly dancing gear while they shimmy around – and the storytellers show up.

The thing about Marrakesh that made my heart sing loudest was that every night you could watch ancient traditions come alive as the storytellers would arrive with a bench and a lantern, set up shop and wait. Quickly, crowds would gather around them, leaning onto one another, pushing into the heart of the circle to listen.

I longed to understand Arabic, just for one night, to be able to join in these circles.

Of course, in hindsight, things all look glossy and delightful. In the midst of the magic and sensations, I also find myself challenged as a traveler; truly thrown out of my comfort zone for the first time in a while. There were a lot of overwhelming moments, when the heat, the crowds the maze of covered roads, the approaches from the locals all got to be too much as I wandered alone. But, I would, one way or another, find my way back to my riad, and relax in the courtyard for awhile. And really, I was ready to challenge myself a little, to see another side of history and corner of the world and expand my inner map’s borders.

This short tour was not nearly enough to so much as taste the rich Moroccan culture and beauty, but luckily for me, it’s one of the boyfriend’s favorite places in the world, so I can trust that we will most certainly be back