Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Journey on a Magic (Berber) Carpet

I know very little about Berber carpets. Do you? Well, I know a bit more now that I have been in a very rural part of Morocco (referred to as the 'Bled') and spent a day with an amazing Berber family, related to our family friend, Mohammed.  Mohammed has been a friend for 7 years and my sister, Luarena, has been up to his country family before, about 4 years ago.  Then, they had no electricity or running water.
They got electricity about a year ago and, of course, the first thing they did was buy a television! The running water is still not there but they have a lovely well with fresh water.  They also cook on open fires and made us some delicious pancakes served up with honey and butter. 

The drive up was long and arduous.  We stopped along the way for lunch in a small, clean cafe and then headed up higher and higher, round twisting and turning bends with long drops on one side. It was beautiful but you wouldn't want to be afraid of heights.  Along the way, we saw more and more Argane trees, which produce the wonderful,  health giving Argane Oil, now becoming more widely known outside of Morocco.  On several occasions, we saw goats in the Argane trees, munching on the spiny branches. They also use the tree as shade in the hot afternoon.

  As we approached the destination, we came across one of Mohammed's relations, Yusuf, who was there with a horse and cart to take us further. We were running really late so we decided to carry on driving. Later on, we realised it would probably have been faster in the horse and cart, in the river and then through the fields.

The road got narrower and narrower. The walls closed in. Those walls looked like the ones you see in the west of Ireland only of lighter stone. They criss-crossed the landscape and, in fields which were clearly meant for farming and planting, you could see hundreds of those rocks dotted about. I wondered aloud that it made sense that they still dug the fields with a cow and old fashioned plough as a modern machine would be broken up in no time. Here and there were what looked like small cairns of rocks and Mohammed told us these marked the boundaries within the fields of various families' crops.

Driving through the narrow lane, I thought for sure the car would not make it but Moroccan drivers are nothing if not intrepid. Eventually, we were driving through a field, twisting and turning to avoid those rocks and we made it to the compound of this wonderful family.

The welcome was like nothing I've ever experienced before.  Because Luarena had been there before, she was welcomed like a long lost relative and because we were her sisters, we were welcomed the same way. In Morocco, when you are a friend or family member who is not seen often, they kiss you countless times on each cheek. When I say countless, I mean just that - between 20 and 50 kisses on each cheek!  Between all the mothers, daughters and grandmothers, we were practically kissed to death. It was so warm and welcoming you couldn't help feel like you were now an honorary family member.

That's Arkia, 88, on the left.

The matriarch of them all is Arkia, who is 88 and Mohammed's aunt. Mohammed's father and Arkia are siblings and come from a family where their father had four wives so there were something like 29 children!  Arkia still cooks, works on the farm, weaves and does all the things that the other, much younger, women do there. 

They served us up a chicken couscous, made with polenta and the soured milk which they love but we all found a bit hard to deal with.  We ate our fill and then talked with them all about their lives and they showed us around the adjoining houses and outbuildings.  

More and more people arrived, more kissing and welcomes. We were shown the new foal, the new calf, the goat pen with thorny branches from the Argane trees on top of the walls to keep both predators out and the goats in.  We were shown the hens, cockerels and the baby chicks and were given at least a dozen eggs when we left, safely stowed in a big bag of cornmeal.  We thought perhaps they thought we'd never seen animals before as we ooh-ed an aah-ed on each new revelation and took photos of everything.

We showed them photos of Ireland and they were as fascinated with them as we were with their lives. Then tea and pancakes were served, having been made by the new mother with her small baby, Farid, strapped on  her back, squatting in front of the open fire.

Eventually, we brought up the subject of carpets. Jacquie and I wanted a carpet for our living room. We'd been living with a bare floor for months.  They showed us new and gaudy things first and then we spotted some old carpets on the floor and indicated our interest. They clearly thought we were crazy and when we offered to pay, they thought we were even crazier and wanted to give them to us. I am glad we insisted on paying for them as the carpets turned out to be far more interesting than we realised at the time.  

Part of Arkia's amazing carpet

Finally, after picking three rugs that were mostly woven in cottons and between 20 and 50 years old, we found the piece de resistance when we spotted one the matriach, Arkia, had made. It is 10 feet by 5 feet, at least, and of the most amazing colours and design. It's almost Navajo in colour and pattern.  It's made of wool and at least 60 years old. Turns out to be worth between €800 - €1000!! The others are not so valuable but are lovely, with intricate patterns and designs. I bought one for my bedroom that is made with tassles from old clothes all over in a colourful pattern.

Close of of the rag rug made from old clothes
We eventually left as it was getting dark and it was starting to rain. As we made our way back down the precarious mountains in the pitch dark, the heavens opened in torrents. Proper tropical rain. Luckily, they have painted the roads properly so we could see, just about, the middle and the edges. 
The whole rug.

On our way to the car in Essaouira we got completely drenched and drove home soaked to the skin. Walking back to our house in Taghazout at 2am, we got drenched again and had to take hot showers when we got in to warm back up. Most unusual weather for that time of year. It made the trip all the more adventurous.

It was, without doubt, the highlight of my visit to Morocco and a great ending to what had been an awful start. 

If you're interested to know more about Berber rugs, here is a great website with lots of information on the tribes and areas and the various styles: The View From Fez. We're planning another trip over to buy more carpets and perhaps sell them over here. If you're interested, let me know.
One of the cotton antique carpets

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

All The Celts in Carlow

Last night saw the opening of the Pan Celtic Festival in Carlow, Ireland. It's the first time Carlow has hosted this event, which has been going for 41 years already.

The opening was held at The VISUAL, our fabulous Arts Centre here in Carlow where my sister, Jacquie, and I volunteer when we can. For me, discovering the VISUAL has been a source of endless joy and excitement. We've been to plays, movies and spent hours poring over the marvelous exhibition on there at the moment.

When we arrived for the volunteer briefing last night, we didn't realise that the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, would be opening it so we were really thrilled to know he'd be there as he's a great supporter of the arts and a proponent of the Irish language.  Indeed, we heard all the Celtic languages spoken there last night.
The President flashes past me!

Our job was to make sure things went smoothly once the crowds started to arrive, partly because the President was coming and partly because of the art work in the main gallery. There were large screens erected around the building so that people who did not have tickets to the main opening event in the George Bernard Shaw Theatre (also in the VISUAL building), could see the events unfold.  

The show started outside with dancers from Ireland and Brittany as well as a group of musicians form the Isle of Man and some pipers mixed in for good measure. We had to man our posts so weren't able to see all that much but we could tell people were having a great time and we were really grateful that the rain held off.

I was called away from the Gallery to keep the crowds in order when the President arrived. This was only for security reasons and it was a thousand times more relaxed than if the President of the USA arrived!  The President arrived to huge applause and cheering and spent time greeting all the dignitaries of Carlow and then headed to the theatre with his wife and Bríde de Róiste, the unflappable and wonderful organiser of the whole event.  The people behind me were thrilled to have got great photos of the President and to be able to say they'd been only feet from him.

When I got back to the Gallery, I saw that about 10 people were sitting on one of the big stone artworks and I had to, unfortunately, tell them they couldn't sit there as it might collapse and do them an injury.  There were people from all over milling about and by far the most beautiful were the dancers from Brittany in their demure laces caps and black velvet, embroidered dresses with gold chains hanging from the front.  My phone ran out of battery so I was not able to take photos of some of them twirling about amongst Eileen McDonough's remarkable 'Cathedral' exhibit - giant trees made from papier maché, reaching their arms to the sky. It's my only regret of the night.

'Cathedral' by Eileen McDonough

Carlow will now be the centre of countless sessions of music, story telling, dancing and the Food Festival on the weekend. We're so excited to have been part of this and to see and hear so much talent. 

It makes me more and more happy that I ended up in Carlow, which seems to be the hub of so much art and culture. How lucky are we?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Real Coffee

I didn't really learn about drinking proper coffee until I moved to Sweden when I was 19. Before that, it had either been the white coffee with steamed milk in the small cafe in Bray we went to as teenagers with our boyfriends, pooling our pennies together to get it, or it was instant.

When I was a child, my mother and father went to Yugoslavia to spend some of my father's writing royalties. They weren't allowed to take the money out of the country so they shopped a lot while they were there. One of the things they brought back was a hand coffee grinder and some traditional Balkan coffee pots. The kind with the wooden handle, they were made of copper which we shone carefully to keep them looking new.

She would grind up the beans - god knows where she got them in Ireland in the 1960s! - turning the handle for a long time to get the coffee as finely ground as possible. Then she'd spoon the coffee into the waiting pot and fill it with cold water, place it on the stove and we'd wait. Once it started to heat up there were tense moments while I watched the coffee slowly rise to the top lip of the pot. One second too long and it would spill over.  I felt both anxious and excited waiting for the perfect moment when Mum would grab the wooden handle, lift it off, satisfied.  She stirred it till the grounds went down again and would start the process all over again.  Three times she did this and then would let the coffee settle to the bottom after the final stir leaving only the brown froth on the top.

She poured the coffee - fragrant and rich, a bit like chocolate - into the small cups and topped them with boiled milk.  There was a priest called Tom Stack who used to visit her just for the coffee.

I never tasted it. She left before I was old enough to drink coffee.

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Fateful Puppy

Some people believe they are drawn to a place for a reason, even though that reason might take some time to show itself.  Joel Brokaw, 58, knew the moment he saw the ranch house in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in California that he was meant to be there.  For him, it was like a lightning bolt, the message was clear. He had to live there.  And, as with these kinds of fateful messages, the whole move went so smoothly he was there and settled in no time.  He had moved from the glitzy clamour of Los Angeles to this quiet mountain retreat to start a new life as a writer.  In the Sierras, huge boulders dropped from the mountains above as the glaciers of the Ice Age retreated and came to rest in meadows and on slopes.  Up above Joel’s house were many such boulders, some the size of a small house, others as small as a pebble.

One night in late January 2008, around the time of the Superbowl, Joel and his daughter were hanging out. Joel is not a fan of American Football so he and his daughter were watching ‘Puppy Bowl’ instead.  A pack of puppies are let loose on a field the size of a football pitch and a webcam captures their every move.  For two hours.  After watching this, Joel’s daughter said, ‘Oh Dad, let’s get a puppy!’  Seeing as she was twenty at the time and Joel already had a dog, two cats and two cows he responded with a no.

That night they heard sounds coming from up amongst the boulders and thought it was probably coyote pups.  The following night they heard it again. The next morning it was clear to Joel that what he was hearing now was a serious distress call so he decided he’d better go and investigate.  

He climbed up through the boulder strewn wilds and eventually came upon the source of the crying. A small puppy was wedged and unable to move in a crack in a six foot tall boulder.  People often dumped their unwanted animals in the mountains for someone to rescue or adopt them or let them either die or fend for themselves.  So it was no surprise to Joel to see this little, brown mite in such a predicament. With some effort, he got the puppy loose and brought him to the house. 

They warmed him up and fed him but it was clear the puppy was banged up and somewhat in shock, so Joel headed down the mountain to the local vet.  This vet was someone he’d been to before but he had never had cause to stay longer than was necessary for an inoculation or minor check up. This time he had a chance to see the vet, Birte, in action.  The way she cared for this fragile puppy whose claws had been worn down to nubs from trying to free himself from the boulder, really struck a chord with Joel.  Her tender care and nurture of an animal that someone else had thought worthless enough to throw out made him look at her more closely and he saw there a woman of depth and worth.  Not to mention that she didn’t charge him for the treatment and threw in some free puppy food, too! 

‘I think animals which have been traumatized and rescued often very special.  They’re honest and direct and have a certain look in their eyes’, says Joel.  ‘Everyone says that Harvey is a magnificent dog, a special dog with a great spirit.’ 

  ‘If I were an actor and needed to cry for a scene all I would have to do is think of going up that mountain to save a puppy’.

The puppy was named Harvey and became part of Joel’s household.  So too did Birte, the vet.
The day Joel had brought Harvey into Birte, the receptionist at the practice had noticed how he had looked at Birte and, fancying herself as a matchmaker, suggested Joel get to know her better. Joel needed no prompting and, not long after, asked Birte if she’d like to go hiking some time. 

Joel had divorced several years earlier and then spent some time working on himself and he now felt it would have to be someone really special if he were to consider a new relationship.  After three months of going for hikes together, romance kindled.   It was clear to Joel that Birte was that special person and a year after their first hike, they moved in together.

Four years later, on December 27, 2011, Oliver was born to Birte and Joel.  

There is no doubt in Joel’s mind that the strong calling he got to live 230 miles away from Los Angeles, in this fairly remote and beautiful place, once a sacred spot for native Americans, was so that he would rescue Harvey and thus meet Birte and become a father again at 58, to Oliver. 


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