Flashback: Dinner with the Princess of Morocco

It’s been a month since I had dinner with the Princess Lalla Hasna of Morocco (and 250 other people,) but the details of the evening will forever be emblazoned in my mind. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and nothing like I expected.

The dinner was part of the World Environmental Education Congress, as the Princess was the President of the congress committee. But of the 2500+ people who attended the congress, only 250+/- got to attend the formal event. We applied in advance, and didn’t really know until the day before if we were indeed invited or not. There were a lot of disappointed congress attendees who didn’t get a ticket, despite their registration months in advance. I wonder if it was due to security issues, or fluctuating numbers, or what. But in any case, the day of the dinner I stood in line for an hour, and was rewarded with my formal dinner invitation.

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I had planned and planned what I was going to wear, and got all dressed up the night of of the dinner.

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The dinner said 8 o’clock, and there was no way I was going to be late. So at 7 o’clock, I grabbed a cab to the Congres du Palais and boarded a bus with my fellow attendees to the Palais El Badi, an ancient palace in ruins. Here is a picture of it during the day.

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When we entered the palace around 8:15, they told us all not to take pictures, and I was glad I had not lugged my huge camera. But as soon as we were in, everyone took tons of pictures for the rest of the night. And I was kicking myself that I had not brought my camera. The following photos are from friends of mine from Lebanon and Spain… Thanks R and J!

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We made a red carpet entrance. All the Moroccan ladies were in beautiful traditional dress, as well as some dignitaries from other countries. It was funny though, because we were an environmental crowd, there was some discrepancy in what people considered formal. Some of our granola crunching members (ok, so I fit in with them but I had a dress!) were in cobbled-together outfits, with a rumbled cotton hiking shirt under a borrowed jacket, or a sundress. But whatever. There were many people in formal wear and everyone felt welcome.

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Don’t my friend J and I look dashing?

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The palace was absolutely fabulous. The crumbling walls were all lit up with coloured lights. A brisk wind blew right through the ruins… later we found out that it had been designed that way, to cool off at night. There was a huge platform over the pools you see in the picture, and the tables were glamourously laid out in the huge open centre of the space. I went with my new friend from Lebanon and her thesis supervisor from France to a table where my buddy from Spain and his Catalonian friends were seated. We chatted for almost an hour, until finally, just after 9pm, the Princess arrived!

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She was escorted in by music, and as soon as she was seated, the show began. It was a wonderful musical show based on the elements of the earth, with traditional Muslim songs, fire dancers, drummers and an amazing singer from Mauritania, and child and grandfather narrating the whole show. Obviously, no expense had been spared, and it was very grand and lovely. Our Lebanese companion speaks Arabic, so she translated the dialogue and songs into French for me and her supervisor, then I translated it into English for my friend J, and he would translate into Catalonian for his friends. It was fun because we were constantly chatting just to understand what was happening.

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After an hour, the show finished. Man, we were getting hungry! It was after 10pm, and I hadn’t had supper. Our waiter started bringing out pretty tangine pots full of sauces and preserves. One waiter per table? We wondered why, but were soon to find out why. Next came out the huge haunch of lamb! Delicious! We were all prepared to eat with our hands, as we knew Moroccans generally did, but the waiter waggled his finger at us, and told us when dining with the Princess, forks were the only way to go! The Princess, by the way, was sitting with Vandana Shiva, Wanjira Maathai and other speakers and dignitaries (including one of my old profs, nicknamed “Jickles” by his students) just three tables away.

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But no later than ten minutes after the lamb arrived, the platter was whisked away. The waiter hurriedly cleaned up all the tangine pots of condiments, and then arrived with my favourite dish of the night, the seafood! Hmmmm.. Squid and shrimp to die for. But then again, almost comically, not everyone was even served at the table, before he came to whisk it away. We had no idea! But the tradition at these formal events is to burn through the courses. I kid you not.. We ate five courses in less than an hour flat! We were all stuffing our faces, laughing, and enjoying the heck out of a totally different cultural experience. Each course, we treated our bustling, sweating waiter with applause and enthusiasm, which he thought was hilarious.

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The fruit course arrived, and just as we started peeling bananas, the Princess was ready to leave. So we all stood while the music escorted her out. Our table sat down again, but then realized that all the Moroccans were leaving out the doors too. Huh? We asked the waiter if we could spend a while eating our fruit course. He smiled, shrugged and said “Well, you can stay for two minutes.”

Well then! We all let the fruit go, got up, and made our way outside of the palace. As we were walking back towards the square where some of us were getting cabs, we couldn’t stop laughing. What an awesome experience… But nothing like we had imagined!

I’ll never forget the glamorous, hungry evening… having dinner with a Moroccan Princess.

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Our Marrakech Neighbourhood: Mosquée and Maison Arabe

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Our great riad, Dar Vedra, was about a fifteen minute walk from Place Jmaa El Fna, up the road near the Bab Doukala Mosque. It was actually nice staying a little ways away from the nightly craziness of the main square. No part of the medina is devoid of tourists, but they (we) were in lesser supply up in the northeast corner.

It was Jason’s first time stayIng in the vicinity of a mosque. The first morning, he was a bit shocked by how early and how loudly the call to prayer came across the loudspeakers. But we soon got used to it, and wi half a pill of melatonin, I slept right through the 3:30am wake up.
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Another benefit to the neibourhood is that it houses the Maison Arabe. This was the original riad of note in Marrakech’s medina, and it remains a luxurious destination for sleeping, eating and relaxing.

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Jason and I had a gorgeous dinner there one night. I convinced him to try the pigeon Pastilla, which was possibly the best thing we tasted in Marrakech. The deserts was also delicious… Just an insane chocolate dessert!

We also had other tasting of Moroccan wines. The maitre d’ even gave us a glass of gris to try… Is like a ultra lightly pressed rosé. Not impressive, actually, but still interesting. There was a Medaillon brand that I really liked.. Tons of complexity and depth in the red Shiraz blend. 20130618-184628.jpg

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Jason’s Marrakech walkabout / Moroccan Arts

From two days ago: Today I faced down my two presentations at the conference. Both of them went really well… Despite all the language challenges. Honestly, I know my stuff forward and backwards but to do it in French and English with Spanish slide? Yikes! It was a bit of a challenge.

Anyway, I spent an interesting day at the conference, sharing ideas and meeting new friends. I am eased to realize that my higher education research is still at the forefront of the field.. I have to get this stuff published or something! It does inspire me to try to do more, maybe go after another grant or two…

Today while his translator and guide was out (that would be me,) Jason decided to get the lay of the old town. He discovered that all satellite dishes face south, and so he set out with a map and confidence on his side. Jason walked from the west to the south to the north of the medina today, and even found his way home. Now, there were a few mishaps along the way… He got swindled for lunch ($22 for street food!) and perhaps paid double for the gifts he bought for my mom. But the point is that he found his way through the medina maze… An impressive feat! And picked up inlaw gifts in the process.

Tonight we are celebrating the completion of my presentations. We groggily had stumbled down to the El Fna square last night to meet J, so tonight we will pick up our reservations at the Maison Arabe and having a romantic evening of it.

Yesterday, we also went to the Musée des Arts Moroccains and the Maison Photographique. the phtographs were awesome… and the stereo-vision glass plates were super cool. The odd highlight of the Musée des Arts was the architecture itself. Jason is pretty fascinated with the tiles here, since he’s turned into a tile master at home himself.

Tomorrow I’ll stop by the conference again and we’re going to the Saadian Tombs. And the dinner with the Princess is tomorrow night! So I’m excited.

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Our first really delicious dinner at Café Arabe… Hmmm… Tangine! Not the best we’ve had, but it was the best breadsticks. I also discovered Moroccan wine! 20130614-202215.jpg

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A traditional Moroccan pharmacy.20130614-202238.jpg

Our street at night…
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A lovely breakfast with two lovely guys..20130614-202302.jpg

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The main square El Fna at night…20130614-202858.jpg

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Hello from Marrakech

Warm greetings to all from Morocco! Warm is right… It’s roasting outside! But I’ve been running around town with cotton from head to toe.

Today I was walking back from the congres past the mosque beside out riad, with a shawl over my head and sunglasses… My most blending in attire. A man shouted at me in French, “bonjour madam! Today you are Muslim; yesterday you were not! I am confused!” I laughed, and replied I was simply showing respect. Obviously, the locals keep a bit of an eye on the tourists for him to notice my garb.

So Marrakech is as I remember, but also very different. It’s not as busy or exotic as I remember.. But honestly, my first trip here was my first trip to Africa. So in comparison to, say, Ethiopia, it’s neat, tidy, and dare I say, somewhat westernized. However, Marrakech is also as I remember. Full of food, extremely friendly people, and with beautiful design in every doorway and tile. It’s a sensual voyage just to walk down the street.

I had to get some photocopies made this morning, and I sat in a cafe-restaurant while I waited for the elderly gentleman to lay each piece of paper on the glass and push the button 15 times. Jason is laughing at me, writing this… But seriously, I have developed a lot of patience working in Ethiopia! So I sat in the cafe, and took unobtrusive pictures of the mechanic shop across the street, the passerby, and even the canaries singing blythly about my head.

I drugged Jason with melatonin last night, and he is apparently a complete lightweight. He was so groggy this morning, he went back to bed after I hauled him to breakfast upstairs. This afternoon I went to see a friends’ presentation (and a few others) at the congres, and now Jay and I are going out to do touristy things. Now that he’s awake.

Mostly, he says.

I’ve been doing fine in French, now that my head is in it. The presentations today we in Spanish, French, and English, so my friend is translating my materials into Spanish for me, and I’m speaking in Franglais in true Canadian fashion on Wednesday. I don’t mean the lazy melange of the two.. But switching back and forth! I’ll have to do some vocab research before then, though!

À demain!

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Jason’s first tangine.
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The restaurant’s ceiling…
20130610-165149.jpgThe breakfast, sunning and top floor of the riad.20130610-165154.jpg
At our riad.. Our bedroom is on the second floor.
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Our neighbourhood.. We are right beside a mosque, and hear the prayers starting at 3:30am!20130610-165326.jpg

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The bedroom lantern… It’s probably four feet tall!20130610-165332.jpg

The tea and sweets I am eagerly consuming as I write this post.20130610-165338.jpg

Hi form mommy! To my girls!!20130610-165343.jpg