Saturday, January 21, 2017


There's a project management rule that things can be any two of the following three: Good / Cheap / Quick. Now, bear with me, but this sort of applies to holidays in Morocco. The values would be a mixture of Cheap, Friendly, Luxurious, Shambolic, Scary and Criminal.

You kind of pick from the menu and there's your holiday. Tangier, for example, provided us with an unbelievably beautiful Riad with a junkie who slept on the door outside and a housekeeper who turned up every day to try and sell us hard drugs. Marrakech, in contrast, was really friendly, safe, and cost a little bit more.

We went to Fes wondering what it would offer.

Moroccan Passport Control is always fascinatingly horrible. In Tangier one man stood in a booth, daring us to complain as he slowly, slowly, processed an entire plane. In Marrakech eight people stood around watching two officers try and cope with several flights. If they weren't fast enough they'd nudge the Border Officer in the ribs, make a joke, then go for coffee.

And Fes? Fes features a quiz. On your job. In French. I shudder to think how my friends in internet social engagement roll-out uptake management and cross -platform delivery would cope. Turns out, if you're claiming to be a writer, it's quite easy:
"Monsieur - les thrillers?" (He mimes a plane crash and an explosion)
"Er, oui."

We got to our riad. The owner had, in a rare moment of efficiency, decided that as we'd rented all of it, but there were only three of us, he'd hire out the other bedrooms. He actually was hoping we'd all share a room. "This is my old family home," he said with the pleasantness of a viper. "You will enjoy."

We did not enjoy. We also did not enjoy realising that his definition of it being his old family home didn't stop it from also being his new family home. From dawn the place filled with a cluster of women and chainsmoking old men, all of them taking several hours to very loudly wash up three mint tea cups.

We found somewhere else to stay. It was a lovely riad, recently refurbished, and (oh joy) with two resident cats. Also, the housekeeper would welcome us and then move out, leaving us in wonderful silence.

Only, being Fes, it didn't work out that way. Nothing works out that way in Fes. The riad was so recently refurbished that the plumbing wasn't finished. Nor were the splendid fireplaces (for keeping your room cosy in those sub-zero desert nights). And the electricity (which Mr Diss assured us was "the very best electricity") hadn't been finished either. No hot water. No heaters. Actually, do you have to turn on that lightbulb?

Our rooms were splendid. Huge and splendid. But you suddenly appreciate life in the Middle Ages when you're trying to heat something the size of a Norman Church using two tealights and a samizdat lightbulb.

I have childhood memories of a film where an heiress is kidnapped and told by a gloating voice "You can have the light on, but it does wake up the killer ants in the walls". I found myself thinking of that a lot last week.

By day we were in baffling five star luxury - basking on a sun terrace full of books and cats. Then night fell and sprained its ankle. Life was suddenly a vampire movie - picking our way back to our icy rooms, waiting to find the presents the cats had left us (I forgot to mention the poor things weren't house trained. Everywhere stank of cat piss. My friend Tim found a turd swirling around his feet in the shower. They tried their best. But without a litter tray, the cats picked what worked. One of them managed a decent job of pissing in the drain).

The beds were unique - instead of proper mattresses, we had blocks of styrofoam. They were so hard that, if the place had caught fire, you'd ask your rescuers to politely move the waiting mattress out of the way before you jumped from the window. Imagine crawling into bed, wrapped up in all the new thermals you've bought, plus all your tshirts, and trying to make yourself comfortable on a brick.

Sometimes we'd go out at night, seeking heat. This was not a wise move.

When you're walking through a Medina, you can expect a baffling amount of hassle. It's just cheery tourist bants. Of course it is. "My friend - that is closed! My friend! This way! This is good restaurant! You fat English shits."

Fes took the Moroccan inability to accept English people pottering to extremes. While Joe Orton waxed lyrical about the dusky beauty of Moroccan youths, it's really completely uncharming being followed by a group of them down a narrowing street. Sometimes it turned out to be a cafe and you could duck in for tea. Sometimes it was a dead end, and you stood there, working out how long you could wait, shivering in the dark, before tiptoeing out.

Back at the riad, we were making the best of it. The kitchen had yet to be renovated - but, with the practicality of a make-over montage, we went out and bought crockery, cutlery and spray bleach and made the best of it. We even learned to cope with the half hour it took the hot plate to make a cup of coffee. It was like Middle Class Hell: "Darling, we've an espresso maker and all the couscous but I just want to die".

The problem was that our quaint English ways met no favour with Mr Diss. He used our crockery to feed the cats. So we hid it. I came in one morning to find he'd taken the coffee pot off the stove and was boiling tea instead. "You have this first, it is better." He also produced some green lentils and insisted we ate those for breakfast. It was very kind of him, but it would have been nice if he'd washed the cat plate before serving the lentils in them.

Mr Diss's gentle tyranny continued. Instead of leaving us to it, he was everywhere. You'd think it would be okay, and then he'd appear out of the shadows, treading that neat line between hospitality and the call is coming from inside the house. So worried was he about the precious electricity that he'd follow you down the stairs, turning off the lights as you went, plunging you into neck-breaking darkness. "Mr Diss!" you'd protest.

"You good! You good!" he'd laugh from the darkness.

Fes had some nice things. It had a very very nice out-of-town shopping centre. It was lovely and warm and was clearly near an international school - the staff there all spoke Weary English as a default. We realised why - the international school seemed to be completely full of American Students - either impossibly beautiful waify girls, or 19 year old versions of those old gay couples you find bickering their way through Waitrose. Best of all, the Carrefour had the prices written on everything.

There's sometimes a joy to being ripped off in Morocco - the little light in a child's eyes when he knows he's got away with charging you 10p rather than 5p for a loaf of bread. But Fes takes this to extremes – the word “Special” acquires a sinister new meaning. “Special Price for you”, “This includes Special Service Charge”, and “Special Tourist Taxi Meter” (as in, I’ve just switched it off).

The taxi to the airport skyrocketed in special special ways. The taxi driver’s manager was terribly apologetic about it all but just knew that we’d understand. It transpired that, since the journey had begun 20 minutes ago, the driver had enjoyed a payrise. Also, there was the high cost of fuel. And, sadly, so sorry, but also the cost of parking the taxi to wait for the next fare. So sorry, but still special price for you and you are welcome welcome to our lovely country.

Bugger off, Fes. You make a man glad to crawl onto a RyanAir flight. Sometimes it's good to go on a horrible holiday. It makes you love the others more.

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