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When coming home is even better than going away
I still remember the moment, nearly a year after I relocated, that I realized San Francisco felt like home. I was returning from a visit to Chicago, and as the plane banked over the peninsula and the thin green fillet of Golden Gate Park slid into view, neat Outer Sunset Avenues marching away to the south, Pacific Ocean frothing to the west, I felt it. A shiver, a hum, a deep-down delight that all of this was mine now. That all of this was home.
I would disembark from the plane and the airport would be as familiar as the 20-minute drive to our flat. A flat that would be cozy with all our most-loved things. As night came on, we would order out for dinner. Thai food, from the restaurant down the hill. And then tomorrow, there would be friends. And the day after that, my job. Because this was where my life was now, but more than that—this was where I belonged.
It was a surprise, that belonging. Not unwanted or unexpected. But a surprise all the same. I had spent so much of my life feeling like I didn’t fit anywhere. And then, suddenly, I did.
The sense of belonging in Portugal eludes me still—and maybe always will—but the sense of home, of a small safe place that’s mine, is growing stronger.
We returned from our week in Morocco in the dark. Because we traveled to Fès in the off-season, direct flights from Lisbon weren’t available. We tried some schedule tetris with a variety of airlines and airports: Lisbon to Madrid to Fès; Lisbon to Casablanca to Fès; Lisbon to Barcelona to Tangiers to Fès. With lengthy layovers and multiple security checks, it all started to feel too unwieldy.
But Madrid is only a six-hour drive away. We looked at the map, looked at each other, shrugged and booked our airline tickets from Madrid to Fès. An easy 90 minute flight, we thought.
Planning feels different than doing, however. Our return flight to Spain landed after 16h (that’s 4pm for the Americans). The walk from the runway was long, the baggage carousel took forever to spin out our luggage, and then we couldn’t find the shuttle stop for our parking garage.
The sun was sinking into dusk when we finally pulled our car onto the M-40 freeway. Filha snuggled in the backseat with a pillow and blankets that had been tucked away for just such a homecoming. Marido sat behind the wheel as I searched the horizon for friendly fast-food neon. But unlike the US, Spain doesn’t have a handy hamburger joint situation off of every other exit.
We ended up cobbling together dinner from the aisles of a random Cepsa petrol station. A day-old baguette, potato chips, a couple of sad bananas, vending machine sandwiches, peach iced tea (melocotón in Spanish).
It was nothing like a Michelin meal or even like the simple but deliciously spicy Thai food we enjoyed in Madrid the night before we flew to Fès. But we were exhausted and homeward bound, so we didn’t much mind the mobile picnic. Especially since it wasn’t tagine: the ever-present Moroccan combo of couscous, meat, and overcooked vegetables that we all were heartily sick of.
The clock ticked off the miles slowly, slowly, and Filha loudly questioned the wisdom of our drive-to-Madrid decision. But then we crossed the Portuguese border and soon the landscape was familiar, even in the dark. First Évora, then Setúbal, then finally the A2 exit for Palmela, and the gates to our quinta.
Oliveira do Paraiso has only been home for eight months, but in that time we’ve all done so much to make it feel like it’s ours. The late-night homecoming was a joy. Our house- and bird-sitters left just enough lights on for the windows to wink out a warm welcome.
Here at last were our comforts. Our own beds and pillows. Our much-loved art and books. Fresh pajamas and familiar snacks and FeeBea the parrot, shrieking her delight at Filha’s return.
Adventures are amazing, and necessary too.
But nothing feels as good as coming home.
A Bit More Morocco Before I Go, Though…
I wrote my previous post from our riad in the ancient medina of Fès El Bali, just about 36 hours into our trip. We had already covered a lot of ground, and several readers commented that they were planning their own trips to Morocco based, in part, on my accounting. So I feel I owe you a wrap-up on the rest of the trip. Especially because, just hours after I posted we all got terribly sick.
We don’t know exactly what made us sick, since all three of us had very different symptoms. I was exhausted and had one of the worst sore throats of my life. Filha was running to the toilet every 10 minutes. And Marido was shaking with cold and a spiked fever.
We assume it was something we ate or drank although we were careful with bottled water. Whatever it was, all three of us were laid out flat for 24 hours with little to no energy and appetite. I had to cancel a day trip we had scheduled, and we spent all of November 14 lying around our hotel room in various stages of misery.
I’m not going to lie, there was a serious discussion for an hour or more about the wisdom of packing up our stuff and heading home several days early. It was that bad.
Because being sick far from home is the worst. You’re without the usual comforts, but you also have no idea where to go to get the things you need to help you feel better. Luckily, Ahmed who ran our riad was more than helpful when he heard we were sick.
He sent out to the local pharmacy for meds (117 dirham or 11 euro for immodium and cipro for three people!) and cooked a comfortingly bland dinner of couscous with a side of fresh apples and bananas, which he delivered to our room with multiple fresh bottles of water and a steaming pot of mint tea.
By the following day we were wobbly but better and extremely bored with our room. We ventured outside the medina and had the good fortune of meeting a wonderful driver/tour guide named Ahmed Nouichi (I’ve listed his contact information at the bottom of this post for those who are planning travel in Morocco.)
We told Ahmed the tale of our sad stomachs and our half-baked ideas of a few sights to see. He made a few additional suggestions and whisked us away to see some hidden gems, including a locals-only restaurant in Mellah (the historic Jewish quarter) for simple but incredibly delicious kofta sandwiches. And mint tea. Always mint tea—for which I have zero complaints. In fact, all that Moroccan tea has inspired me to plant a sizable mint patch in my garden this spring!
By the next day, we were back on track with our itinerary and traveled 95km outside of Fès to Middle Atlas mountains because we wanted to see some monkeys. There are wild Barbary macaques roaming the cedar forests outside the town of Azrou, and they are partial to people who feed them peanuts.
On our last full day in Morocco, we made the long (four hours one way) trek to Chefchaouen. I had seen photos of the blue-washed city years ago, and dreamed of visiting. This was the day trip we had missed because of our 24 hour sickness, but Adil from Tours from Fès (also listed in trip recommendations below) was extremely kind and let us reschedule our outing.
Honestly, anything would have been a pale encore after our perfect day in the Middle Atlas with the monkeys (and bonus baby camel visit on our way back to Fès!). But even giving it the grace that no monkeys were present, our trip to Chefchaouen was not idyllic by any means.
The day was drizzly, and the road was often treacherous, so we were white-knuckling it in the back of the van—partially to keep from whacking our heads on the roof during the bumpiest parts of the trip.
Also, the sad truth is that a glut of tourists ruins everything, even when they are essential to the local economy. So while Chefchaouen is picturesque, it’s also become a beacon for the kind of Instagram influencers who dress in riotous pink midriff-baring onesies on chilly winter days just so they can pose like hothouse peonies against the blue-washed walls.
Even in the rain, in the off-season, you can’t avoid them.
The other reality of Chefchaouen is that if you’re making it a day trip from Fès, you spend 8+ hours in the car for 3 hours wandering the azure streets. If you really want to soak in the city, it would be better to spend a night or two there. You might be able to avoid most of the daytrippers that way, as well.
So in sum: Chefchaouen makes a beautiful backdrop, but the cedar forests of the Middle Atlas are much more serene. Just don’t do what I did and wear pants with an elastic waistband to the forest—and then fill your pockets with peanuts. You will 100% be de-pantsed by a demanding monkey! All part of the adventure, though.
And this was an adventure we’ll talk about for a very long time.
I’m glad we went. I’m glad we stayed through the sick day and didn’t pack it in early. I’m also glad (so very!) to be home.
I’ll wind things up with a second photo dump—because you really need to see those baby camels. I’m also including some audio recordings I made in Fès and a list of recommendations for anyone interested in making the trek to northern Africa themselves.
It’s all below, just scroll down and keep on scrolling. (Tech tip: If you’re still reading via your inbox, you might have to jump over to the web version to get the entire post.)
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Sounds of Morocco
The evening call to prayer, as heard from the minaret near Riad Sayeda al Hora:
A wedding procession winding through the Fès medina:
The fourth call to prayer of the day as heard from multiple minarets in Fès:
Oud musicians in Cafe Clock, Fès:
Sights from Fès
Sights from Azrou
Sights from Chefchaouen
Trip Recommendations | Tour Guides
+212 772 838 994 | email@example.com
Ahmed provides transportation and guided tours anywhere in Morocco. Although he carted us all over Fès, he specializes in desert tours. Ahmed speaks excellent English, and is a super thoughtful and resourceful guy. We enjoyed our time with him.
Tours from Fès
+212 663 565 088
(talk to Adil)
on Trip Advisor | on Booking.com
If you go to Azrou to see the monkeys, ask for a driver named Mostafa. He’s funny, kind, thoughtful, and plays great music.
This is one of the songs Mostafa introduced us to: “A vava inouva” by Idir (Hamid Cheriet), who is known as the king of Amazigh music.
Trip Recommendations | Fès Accomodations
Riad Sayeda al Hora
+212 667 367 941
Ask for Ahmed
*One caveat to this recommendation: We stayed at the riad for an entire week and although it’s lovely, we wouldn’t stay again for that length of time. Confining yourself to the medina can be exhausting, given the relentless tourist hustlers who wait in the narrow streets of Fès El Bali. In retrospect, we wish we had booked the riad just for a couple of nights and spent the rest of our time in a hotel in Ville Nouvelle for a chance to see a different and more modern side of the city—or even spent a night in the blue city of Chefchaouen so we’d have had more time to explore.
Trip Recommendations | Fès Restaurants
Charming restaurant, delicious food, great waitstaff
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