Traveling as an American Expat: Morocco & Seville

My New Backyard (Europe and Africa)

 

 

Happy New Year! It’s nice to be back after a couple of weeks of celebrating and traveling.

If you prefer a travel blogger who provides the easiest way to get there and all the places to go, stay and eat; that’s not me. I’ll give you a glimpse of what I experienced and then some thoughts on culture, value, ease, etc. I may occasionally plug an exceptional restaurant and/or hotel. I want this to be fun and it won’t be if I have to chronicle my trips from start to finish.

I titled this piece “Traveling as an American Expat” because I noticed that each time I have left Portugal it has been very easy to exit and even easier to re-enter. I’m not stating that every American has the same experience that I have, but I have admittedly been pleasantly surprised. I have left Portugal a dozen times and I have only had to show my resident visa once and that was in Edinburgh and it took all of three seconds. I look around at border patrol/customs and I notice others do not have it as easy; this is especially true for middle easterners and that makes me sad. I won’t go into political implications and biases, but suffice it to say that I am ashamed of how many in this world are treated because of their residence or religion.

Allow me to come clean about a few things before I begin:

  1. I am extremely fussy. I like things a certain way and I’m rarely if ever completely satisfied; ask my friends.
  2. I often learn as I go. Because I sometimes make impulsive or rash decisions, I usually make a mistake and then try not to repeat it.
  3. I don’t take pictures of everything and I don’t go on social media every time I have an experience. I’m trying to be more present and that means less time on my cell phone.
  4. I don’t rely on TripAdvisor or sites where people share their opinions. I find that the average person’s standards are not up to snuff. I’m feeling somewhat hypocritical because I have been known to share my dining critiques on social media. Some people will write nice things because they can never say anything bad. Some people will always be nasty because they have no idea how else to be. Some people will write about food:  quality, taste, value, and so on and they know nothing about food.
  5. I truly love traveling off-season. The deals are hard to beat and there are so few tourists, you get a true sense of what it’s like for the locals. You may discover that some places are closed off-season or hours might be curtailed; a minor inconvenience I am willing to put up with. Be sure to research the weather if that is a factor for you. I prefer to travel to places where temperatures are mild in winter.

 

Asilah, Morocco

 

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I took this photograph from the living room  our Airbnb in Asilah

 

I took a day trip to Tangier over 15 years ago. I have always felt that since I had a guide and I only spent eight hours there, that it wasn’t fair to say much about Morocco. The last time I took a ferry from Tarifa, Spain and to be honest, it was more about stepping foot on the African continent. I wanted to travel to Morocco the same way this time; however, the ferry schedule off-season is sporadic and getting to and from Tarifa would have been no easy task. Instead, I took a comfortable and very affordable (34 Euros roundtrip) bus to Seville, Spain and then a flight on RyanAir (120 Euro round trip with checked bag). RyanAir is a no frills airline. Check-in is sometimes chaotic; however, the staff is efficient and travel is a bargain. I had a new airplane on my return flight which was very comfortable. Honestly, the flight is 30 minutes and the best part of that is that if you have to pee, you can hold it in. When you arrive in Tangier, you breeze through passport control because there are no other people at the airport. I don’t believe there are more than 10 flights going in and out of that airport in a 24 hour period; it’s almost eerie it’s so void of people.

My friend Patrick rented a car to get to Asilah and there were no other people at Avis so we got our car in five minutes. Again, we left the airport without seeing very many other people. Take note that if you decide to drive on Moroccan highways (toll roads) you need Dirham because they don’t accept anything else except Moroccan money at the toll booths. The roads are new and easy to drive on; except for the very strong winds that Patrick was forced to navigate.

When we arrived in Asilah we followed our GPS to the house, but it took us to a huge public outdoor bazaar. There were hundreds (maybe thousands) of Moroccans participating in an outdoor festival. When were a little lost looking for our Airbnb. The crowds were walking in the streets and the people did not really seem to notice our car, nor did they care to move for us. It was a strange experience. We had to crawl through the crowds of people. We eventually got hold of our host who told us that we could not park outside of the house which was located inside a walled city — the Medina (not the famous one). The Medina was filled with shops and homes and very narrow streets. We had to park in a paid lot in the middle of the festival and walk to our house. It was only meters away from the parking lot, but prior to setting out to find our place, we had no idea how far we’d have to lug our bags.

 

We found our house, which was not quite like the photos, but isn’t that usually the case. Still, it was a beautiful house with ocean and Medina views. We would all have been happier if it wasn’t so cold in the house. It took us 24 hours to figure out how to make it warm and we only had 48 hours. The best thing about the house was Fatima. Fatima and her husband are caretakers for the house and they truly did take good care of us. We had a terrific breakfast and they made us a fire. Fatima quietly disappeared and made-up my bed during breakfast. I’m nearly 60 years old and I’m not sure anyone has made-up my bed since I was five years old — that was a real treat.

The house was in the Medina (not the one in Saudi Arabia), a walled city in Asilah, (click for more from Lonely Planet).

We had a full day to explore the Medina and the surrounding area. Fortunately, we are all walkers and so we walked. The Medina had narrow streets and pathways and lots of artisan shops (see my big purchase below).

We decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve at a restaurant in Asilah and we stumbled upon:

Port IV (click) Restaurant

This is probably Asilah’s best place to eat right now and we enjoyed it immensely. The service was good and almost all of us were happy with our choices (no photos, sorry). Having a full bar was a bonus and the owner made me a very authentic gin martini. I was one happy fella. Although I was unable to stay up till midnight, I did enjoy being with friends and being in Morocco; it’s a night I won’t soon forget.

 

Tangiers (Tanger for the locals)

 

 

As I mentioned earlier, I visited Tangier years ago. I had only seen a small part of the city and from what I have heard, it has changed quite a bit. I stayed at the Movenpick Hotel and Casino for two reasons:  First I got a great off-season rate for this four star property and second, I was in the mood for some blackjack. Both paid off. My room was spacious and beautifully appointed (some really nice bathroom products as well) and the casino was pleasant and on the second day, I celebrated a small winning streak. I had a nice meal at Miami Restaurant which was nearby. Their French pastries were especially lovely. Most Moroccans speak French and there were French pastries at every turn (you see smatterings of French culture). There was a great deal to enjoy and celebrate. I went home a winner in every sense of the word.

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The two official languages are Modern Standard Arabic and Amazigh (Berber). Moroccan Arabic (known as Darija) is the spoken native vernacular. The languages of prestige in Morocco are Arabic in its Classical and Modern Standard Forms and French, the latter of which serves as a second language for many Moroccans.

Languages of Morocco – Wikipedia

 

 

Note:  I walked into the center of the city and if I’m going to be honest, although the city was clean and no one warned me to be careful, I did not feel safe. Beggars follow you and they do not take no for an answer; it can be off-putting and disturbing.

 

Seville, Spain

 

 

I am in love. Seville is a beautiful, culturally rich, culinary mecca, just three hours door-to-door from my place in Faro. I only just returned home, but I have already booked a hotel for the end of February. I now know that Seville will be my home away from home. I am delighted to have rediscovered this breathtaking city.

You will enjoy these two pieces written by my food writer friend Joanna Pruess. She wrote about Seville for Specialty Food Magazine. Joanna primed me for my Seville adventure with her delicious point of view and fabulous recipes:

Tasty Bites of Seville (click for article)

Savoring Seville (click title)

The Seville bus station, train station, and airport are all linked by a four Euro bus that has many stops throughout the city and runs every 20 minutes or so. The bus and train stations are centrally located and easy enough to get to. These days Uber rides are very inexpensive and although I love to walk, you can’t beat a five Euro Uber ride across town. The drivers usually speak English and they are (for the most part) good drivers.

I stayed at very nice Airbnb for 65 Euros a night. It was a two bedroom apartment in a great area — 20 minutes by foot to just about everywhere.

Note:  I have mixed feelings about Airbnb (see one of my earlier blogs). Some hosts are gracious and generous and truly want you to have a great stay. Others, seem to only care about making a buck. Be sure to read reviews and check for amenities. After awhile, you become better at discerning the true intentions of the hosts. They also have a review policy I totally disagree with:  both parties have to complete a review in order for the review to be posted. If you write a warranted poor review and the host does not review you as a guest, the review will not be posted by Airbnb — it seems like a way to ensure only good reviews get posted. I’m not sure how Airbnb gets away with this.

The weather in Seville was great for walking around the city and spending time outdoors. I don’t believe it snows in Seville and when the sky is blue, it is an intense blue.

Shopping

I had one objective as I explored Seville. Paella is one of my favorite dishes to cook and I was determined to bring two ingredients back to Portugal:  Bomba (click) rice and saffron. I’ve tried many different kinds of cooking rice and Bomba is by far the best for paella (https://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/rice-recipes/chicken-chorizo-paella/ Jamie Oliver’s recipe.

Also  . . . Spanish saffron which is less pricey in Spain. I paid 14 Euros for about an ounce of saffron — it’s fresh and beautiful and I can’t wait to cook with it. I use it when cooking rice with meat dishes as well. I also purchased hand sliced jamon (Spanish cured ham) and some homemade nougat. Purchasing food in other countries is one of the best things about travel and there are many items that you should only purchase in the country where it originated or was made. Note:  if its fresh food and you’re flying, be sure to have it vacuum sealed.

There are many shopping areas throughout the city; small boutique shops are my favorite. I was also impressed with the number of small art galleries. The artwork I looked at was quite beautiful and not outrageously expensive. A plug for El Cortes Inglese, a big chain store where I can spend hours just milling about. It’s like the Harrod’s of Spain. I’m praying one comes to Faro or the Algarve soon; hey we have an IKEA and Zara, so . . . what are you Spaniards waiting for

 

Don’t miss out on Contenedor if you visit Seville. It’s fresh, delicious, quaint, and well priced. Make a reservation (click for website).

I have already booked a hotel for a few days at the end of February and beginning of March. I did not book an Airbnb because I do not plan on cooking and I’d prefer amenities like a gym and indoor pool when I’m doing a quick culinary exploration trip. Yes, I’m spoiled, but after 40 years of busting my ass, I deserve it. I will write more about Seville after that trip.

My big purchase in Morocco:

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I purchased this hand-woven Moroccan runner in Assilah. The merchant said, “I don’t haggle,” but I got the rug for about 80 Euro less than ask. He didn’t know what he was in for when I walked into his shop. I have all the information about where the rug was made and how it was made.

 

Running From Demons — Part II

 

 

 

 

Greg was feeling confused, let down, lonely and lost; all new for him. He  reminded himself that he had confided in someone. One person who would never come looking for him and never tell anyone. His ex-wife Sarah hated him, but she would protect Greg to his death. Twelve years of marriage had tied them together forever. He considered calling her to tell her he was about to become someone else. A part of him wanted her to know so that no matter what, there would be one person alive who knew the truth. Greg also knew that he’d be putting Sarah in danger by sharing his whereabouts. He had always admired her strength and tenacity; despite his better judgment, he’d give her a call tomorrow. For now, he had to get back to his room.

He meandered through the streets of Lisbon, ducking in and out of crowded cafés. He needed to return to his hotel room before 5:00 p.m. or he wouldn’t get the money to Slim in time. He realized he’d never know the names of these characters who were helping him. Greg had no choice then to give the guy what he asked for.

He counted out the $10,000 and wrapped the bills in a plastic grocery bag. Slim had asked for Euros, but he figured he’d take dollars; everyone wanted U.S. dollars. The exchange rate had never even occurred to him. He quickly wiped down the room with some disinfectant wipes he found at a store on his way back to the hotel. He hoped that he’d only have to spend one night in this filthy room. Greg locked the door and checked the knob twice.

He looked around the outside of the hotel to be sure he had not been followed and headed for the pawn shop. Pawn guy and Slim were watching the game when he entered the shop. He smiled and handed Slim the money. Slim did not smile back; he grabbed the bag and headed to the back room. Ten minutes later he returned looking extremely unhappy.

“I told you Euros. What am I going to do with your fucking dollars? You have any idea what the exchange rate is these days? This is 25 percent less than what I told you.”

The last thing I needed was to piss this guy off, but it occurred to me that it was time to play hardball.

“Take it or leave it. You’re not the only guy in Portugal with access to passports. I’m paying you more than enough. Give me back my money if it’s not good enough.”

Slim studies Greg for a solid minute. Pawn guy never takes his eyes off of the game. Slim motions Greg into the back room. Greg reluctantly follows, thinking perhaps he’d gone too far. Slim gets uncomfortably close to Greg’s face and whispers,

“Considering where you’re going, I guess I can settle for less.”

“What do you mean, where I’m going?”

“The best I can do is Morocco.”

It was like he’d been punched in the stomach and kicked in the head. He had to choose his words carefully or this wouldn’t end well. It was Casablanca or he’d be back at square one.

“Is it ready now?”

At this point Slim is incredulous. “Are you fucking crazy man? Tomorrow morning if you’re lucky.”

Greg turned around so he couldn’t see his rage and disappointment. He pulled it together and walked toward the door. He turned and spoke and his words were sharp.

“I’ll be back at 11:00 a.m. tomorrow. If my passport isn’t waiting for me, there will be hell to pay. My connections in the States are not as forgiving as I am.”

Greg was so pissed off he’d forgotten to lose himself in the dinner crowd filling the streets. He stopped off at one of those international calling stores to telephone Sarah. The shop was packed with women in Hijabs, reminding him that he’d soon be in Morocco.

Sarah didn’t pick up on the first try. Not recognizing the number, she probably ignored the call. He hoped she’d realize it was him and answer the phone. He tried her again and this time she picked up.

“Who is this?”

“Sarah, it’s Greg, I’m in Portugal.”

“What the hell Greg, I told you to leave me alone. I’m gonna hang up.”

“No, no Sarah, please just give me two minutes. I’m not asking for anything.”

“Ninety seconds and I’m cutting you off.”

He’d be the worst husband and didn’t deserve ninety seconds. When they met, Sarah was naive and sweet and he’d made into a bitter woman. Greg didn’t cheat on Sarah. He didn’t physically abuse her. He didn’t stop her from buying things; he didn’t tell her she was worthless. What he did was inexcusable; He spent every penny Sarah had saved since she had her first job. There was always that business that was going to make them rich. Greg would focus on that next scheme and forget the rest of the world existed. It was a reckless way to live and he knew it, but he couldn’t stop himself. She watched him destroy his own life and take her down with him. Greg’s parents, friends and anyone he did business with tried to stop him, but he didn’t see it — he only saw green and more green until all the green ran out and than all he thought about was a way to get more. Sarah was the only one who stuck by him, until she’d had enough.

He knew that someday Sarah would be a force to be reckoned with, but today, she was done. He tried to soften her up a bit.

“You know how much you mean to me Sarah?”

“Greg, you asshole, you told me you were not going to ask for anything.”

“Alright, I only have a few seconds left so let me say something I need you to remember. As of tomorrow morning, I will no longer be Greg Torino. I’ll be leaving Portugal and hiding out for a while. I’m not going to tell you where I’m going because it’s better for you not to know. I don’t know how long it will be before we speak again so I wanted to tell you that I know I was a shitty husband. I never meant to hurt you, but I know that I hurt you badly and for that I am sorry. I hope to someday make it up to you Sarah. You’re a good woman and I never deserved you.”

“Greg, you didn’t have to say any of that, but for the first time in your fucking wasted life, you’re right, you were a shitty husband. I would wish you luck, but that would be a stretch.”

“Goodbye Sarah, I love you,” and he hangs up the phone.

He realizes a woman is banging on the phone booth door and trying to get his attention. He can only see her eyes and her fist pounding the glass. He turns away to wipe away tears. Greg cannot recall the last time he wept. He leaves the booth and walks toward his new life.

When he wakes the next morning after a fitful sleep, he recalls his conversation with Sarah. He feels good about apologizing; she deserved some closure and he was finally man enough to give it to her. He felt a little stronger and more resolute. He’d make a life for himself and perhaps someday he’d find a way to forgive himself as well. For now, he had to see if his passport was ready to be picked up.

Knowing that was his last night in that stuffy room made him smile for the first time in days. He locked the door and headed to see Slim. As he was leaving the hotel he notices someone watching him from across the street. He remains still for a moment to see if the man continues to look over at him. When he casually glances back that way, the man is lost in the crowd of street traffic. He wishes he’d left the hotel earlier; he’s made too many mistakes. He shrugs, chalks it up to paranoia and walks toward the pawn shop.

Greg immediately notices that Slim is not there. Pawn guy comes out of the back room and approaches Greg.

“He’ll be right back — you wait here.”

Greg doesn’t like it, however once again he’s at the mercy of these bottom feeders. He sits and considers his past. He has always been a near-do-well, but he wasn’t a crook.  He’d never stolen from anyone or cheated anyone. He had taken a lot from those he loved, but he always asked for it. He had cheated himself out of a decent life. He could have had so much more than what he ended up with.

It’s twenty minutes before Slim walks in with the passport. He barely looks at Greg and offers no apology. Greg asks him if he has the passport. Slim takes it out of his jacket pocket and hands it over.

“I’d leave the country soon if I were you.”

I’m confused about the sense of urgency. I thought I would spend some time traveling around Portugal and Spain before going to Morocco. After all, I had years of hiding in front of me.

“It’s not safe here for you,” Slim adds.

Greg grabs the passport and opens it to see who he is. He checks out the photo first; that’s fine. He thinks to himself, this looks pretty real. He’s not sure he likes the name Joseph Campos.

Slim says, “You have Spanish relatives; it’s a good name — suits you.”

At this point Greg just wants to get out of the shop and away from these lowlifes. He thanks Slim and gives a thumbs up to Pawn guy.

He decides to leave the hotel with the money he has left and head for Morocco where he can blend in with the locals. He’ll book at flight to Casablanca or Marrakesh at the airport, pay with cash and start fresh. He realizes he’s smiling again, having been resourceful enough to accomplish his first big task. Greg finds himself almost giddy with excitement. He feels lighter and hopeful.

When he gets back to his hotel, his smile disappears. He finds his door ajar and there is no one in sight. He enters the room and everything is turned upside down. He goes right to the dresser which is on its side. His stash is gone. This is exactly what he feared might happen. Greg’s only thought is now what and he falls to his knees.

To be continued next week