Ramon Baeza Diary (English)
My departure is made easier by the grey sky that covers Barcelona.
At the boarding gate I glance at my fellow passengers:- a small group of Spanish businessmen with their briefcases - an older woman, alone and in traditional Moroccan dress - an attractive man with Arab features, young and nervous and who looks like he has spent many years in Europe - a young Spanish couple who are tourists....
I'm sitting next to the young man, who is pleasant and speaks the most perfect Spanish. As per usual, I fall fast asleep as soon as we take off, and only wake up when an announcement is made that we will shortly be arriving in Casablanca. The young man next to me, called Aziz, strikes up a lively conversation with me. He tells me that he has spent 15 years in Zaragoza, he is married to a native woman and is the father of a baby who is a year and a half old, and he is on an unplanned journey due to the death of a relative....He offers to show me the most interesting places on the map in my travellers guidebook, and manages to clear up a few practical queries that I had. It was really lucky to have met him.
Before landing, we all have to fill in a landing card. When I stand up to get a pen out of my rucksack, mistaking me for a Moroccan, another passenger asks me in Arabic 'Can you help me to fill out this card?' I reply in French how sorry I am that I do not understand, and Aziz manages to help him instead.
As soon as we land, there is a smell that seems familiar to me - that mix of poverty, humidity, dust and aviation fuel; it's the familiar smell of Cuba, of Israel, of the Philippines....
At Passport Control there is a long queue, with staff who seem extremely serious and authoritarian - it's the same in every country. I say goodbye to Aziz and we exchange mobile phone numbers, you know, in case I have any problem, if I end up visiting Zaragoza....
Supposedly, Miriam (the daughter of Latifa my neighbour in Barcelona), for whom I have brought 11 kilograms of presents, will be there to meet me at the airport, however, there's no one there. I wait for a while, decide not to let it bother me, and I take a taxi. It's a Mercedes from the 1980s, large and pretty clapped-out, and I am pleasantly surprised to discover that it's ok to smoke a cigarette in it!
It's as if the first landscapes are already in my memory, in the same way that the first smells seemed strangely familiar to me; the military grounds, neglected roads, arid plains, concrete, statues of the country's leaders....
I get to the right (if rather run-down) hotel, and call Miriam who is very apologetic and we agree to meet up a bit later on.
It's not a particularly nice day, but I am unable to wait any longer before exploring the old part which is known as the Medina, the walled part of these cities. It's a souk of intricate alleyways crammed full of every kind of commerce that you can imagine, with different areas for food, clothing, craftworks.... I realise that the food goods are the same as those in the markets of mainland Spain, such as cooked vegetables, various olives and pickles, dried fruits. I keep myself entertained in the area of musical instruments where there are elaborately intricate lutes and guitars, strange stringed instruments and those of percussion. In a small shop which appears to be a rather odd mixture of an instrument shop, a repairs workshop and a music school, a young boy and girl are learning the violin; she is playing it in a classical style, over her shoulder, he is playing it in the style of how musicians play in Andalusia, supported on his elbow.....
Surprisingly enough, the heat is not totally stifling, and I lose myself in these winding alleys without anyone paying me any particular attention. I buy a couple of things, amongst them, a black and scratchy flannel to rub my body with, essential so as not to appear a novice when visiting the Hamman, and a small piece of natural soap (rather nasty smelling stuff made from olives).
Finally I meet Miriam, an educated young woman who speaks in very good Spanish, clearly due to the fact that she studies Spanish Philology at University. She is petite and curvy, with a beautiful face the spitting image of her mother's (my neighbour in Barcelona). I give her the parcel of presents and we agree to meet up the following day.
I have a light bite to eat and take a siesta. I wake up just as it is beginning to get dark. Of course, before dinner, I have to go to the Hamman.
I decide to go to the one that, according to my guidebook, is the cleanest, and bravely go for the whole treatment. After leaving me to sweat for a good while in the steam bath, a thin and sinewy boy rubs my whole body with the flannel, of which I was so proud of up until this moment......It seems like he is sandpapering me completely deliberately, and my complaints make no difference....then back into the steam again and then a visit from the masseuse who pummels me for half and hour....then a shower and just when I'm beginning to recover from it all, they lie me down on a bed and cover me in a burning paste that itches and burns horribly....When I finally leave the place I feel like a battered wreck, yet with a strange sensation of lightness in my body.
I get lost among the badly lit streets without any signposts, but eventually I find the restaurant that I was looking for; Almounia, a traditional place with a little garden and the typical décor of a city restaurant consisting of plaster, wooden carvings and tiles with intricate designs. I choose a spicy vegetable soup and quail with grapes, and everything washed down with mint tea - simply exquisite.
I go to sleep with the sensation that I have had a wonderful day.