Into The Unknown | Pushing the Wave

Into The Unknown

Travel, 31 March 2023
by L.A. Davenport
Exploring Tangier, Morocco
Exploring Tangier, Morocco
Following on from last week’s ferry escapade to Amsterdam via the Hook of Holland, I want to carry on the theme of ferry journeys with a special one that I took a several years ago from southern Spain.

I was on holiday down there, exploring the area. The starting point had been Gibraltar, but instead of following the concrete coast via Benidorm, I went the other way, to Cadiz, staying in Tarifa.

I say the starting point had been Gibraltar, but our plane was blown off course as we came into the airport and we were forced to land at Malaga. Without leaving even the tarmac, we were then taken by bus back down to Gibraltar to go through customs, in a bizarre dance of territorial politics.

So having seen the overdeveloped tourist resorts that litter the eastern coast through the windows of the swaying bus, it was a very welcome surprise to find a slice of virtually unspoilt Spain on the western side of Gibraltar, just a few kilometres away from the all-inclusive package holidays and the anomaly of a part of Britain astride a rocky outcrop jutting into the Mediterranean.

Tarifa was a lovely place to visit, and a great base for seeing the area, but my interest was really piqued when I saw that, alongside the charming alleyways and whitewashed buildings, there was a ferry port, with boats that could take you across the Strait of Gibraltar and into a land I had never visited but yearned to set foot in: Africa.

You could see Tangier from the coast. Stupidly, I hadn’t even looked properly at the map before choosing the holiday destination and it never occurred to me that there might be an opportunity to visit not just another country, but another continent. Yet there it was, just across the way. How tantalizing.

The ferry itself was of course a delight. I said last week that sea journeys are typically a step into the unknown, where the horizon leads you on and on, away from everything you know and into a new adventure. But here, you could see the destination. It was right in front of you, and it seemed to draw you across the water with its own magnetic force, pulling the huge white, clanking boat towards it.

I had no idea what to expect in Tangier. I could have looked it up online and read about what to do there once I booked the tickets, but with so little time before the day itself I decided to be fresh and explore it with open, naïve eyes. And it did not disappoint. That short voyage across waters filled with history ancient and modern took me into a new world.

It was the first time I had left my sphere, so to speak, as I had previously travelled only in Europe and the USA. Yes, I had been to Eastern Europe many times, and taken a journey around Central Europe and the Balkans, but this was not the same.

Even before docked, I was aware of leaving my comfort zone, of stepping into a place where I did not how things worked, where I had no clue how to communicate, other than through sign language and the possibility that somebody might know a few words of English. It was disconcerting and thrilling at the same time.

There were so many experiences I had in Tangier that left an indelible mark on me, and the city and its people were fascinating. There was a mix of ancient and modern, local and international, rich and poor, urban and rural that I had never seen before in quite that way, and did not see again even when I later visited Marrakesh, all with that unique North African spirit and culture.

The people were laidback but friendly and helpful. The food was delicious, and the sights and sounds were a revelation to me. I had never seen Berbers in their traditional costumes before, and there they were, in the middle of town, right next to the modern world seeping out of the shops and television sets.

That sight, of someone from a community like that, dressed in that way and selling their wares, is almost gone from Western Europe. We have, by and large, lost touch with that part of ourselves. We rejected it because we thought it was old fashioned and we wanted to be modern, like the people we saw on screen and in magazines. I suppose the closest we can get to it is seeing people wear lederhosen or dirndl in Bavaria and Austria, and I admire them for keeping up their traditions. In the UK, to do something similar would be to invite ridicule.

But back to Tangier.

One experience stands out for me. Lunch had not been inadequate by any means but sauntering through a market near St Andrew’s Church, I happened to pass a small restaurant that caught my eye.

Peering into this tiny eatery, I saw people, lots of people, eating fried fish and shellfish at tall tables, perched on tall stools, taking to each other and the waiters animatedly. As they ate, they discarded the fish heads and shells on the floor, and the staff passed between the tables with long brooms and swept them up, like a hairdresser gathering up mounds of cut hair.

I wanted to step into this scene, to be a part of it. I convinced myself that I was hungry and I asked if I could eat. A waiter, who clearly didn’t speak a word of English, motioned me to a table with a big smile. With a combination of improvised sign language and exaggerated expressions, we managed to communicate and I placed an order for a plate of fried fish, similar to whitebait, as far as I could make out.

A huge mound of delicately battered fish arrived and I steadily worked my way through it, in spite of my dwindling appetite, all the while taking in the bustle around me. Finally finished, and definitely overfull, I asked the waiter for a cup of coffee. He looked puzzled and then asked me if I wanted sugar. It turned out that ‘coffee’ and ‘sugar’ were pretty much the only words we had in common.

He then disappeared out of the restaurant, and I wondered if his shift was over. A few minutes later, after another enjoyable session of people-watching, he came back, with a cup of coffee that he had fetched from a café in another part of the market. I was touched, and embarrassed to have unintentionally put him to such trouble. I hadn’t occurred to me that they wouldn’t have any hot drinks at the restaurant. How naïve.

But he made me understand that he didn’t mind at all, and I felt humbled. His thoughtfulness and kindness was something I didn’t really know existed, not to that extent at least, outside of novels and films. And that sharing of resources between two establishments, so I could have a coffee without leaving the restaurant, was a fluid sense of community that I had not experienced since my childhood years in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire.
I was going to talk about lots of other things this week, but I went on about Tangier much more than I expected. I’ll save them for next time.

While we wait, I was thinking about connections with the past and ancient traditions yesterday when I watched an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The one with Ethel the Frog and the Ministry of Silly Walks, if you’re wondering.

Monty Python is often billed as a surrealist comedy, which it often was, but I saw yesterday, having not watched any of it since my last period of binge watching maybe more than 10 years ago, how much it was a biting satire.

Every sketch is layered with double meanings and references to universal themes of frustrating against authority, the inefficiencies of local and central government and the ludicrousness of many things presented to us as serious and respectable. In doing so, it prefaces many great comedies that came later, including a favourite of mine: The Day Today.

But is also indelibly of its time. Like the Beatles did with music, the Monty Python team had the ability to weave myriad cultural references and symbols form their childhood up to their present day into something that felt entirely new and fresh, and yet somehow reassuringly familiar. I am just old enough to understand the detail, and when I was a student in the 1990s we enthusiastically discussed episodes from the series as if they had been transmitted for the first time only the previous week.

However, I wonder if teenagers today would be able to grasp everything the sketches are talking about. Perhaps not. It strikes me that the popularisation of the internet seems to have drawn a line in history and given the strange impression of a restart, in which everything that preceded it is now seen as quaint and old fashioned. The Second World War did the same thing. To me, the goings on of the 1960s were recent history, even though I was born after the decade ended, but events before 1945 were as lost to me as those from the Middle Ages.

It would be a shame if Monty Python’s Flying Circus is no longer accessible to current or future generations, but then again I don’t mourn the loss of Round the Horne from the collective cultural consciousness, the flame of which seems slowly to be flickering out.

On the other hand, maybe the show will remain as relevant as the Beatles, although somehow I doubt it.
Before I go, I added another recipe this week: Dairy-Free Gratin Dauphinois. I hadn't set out to make it dairy-free, but we wanted to use up some potatoes and fancied a gratin, yet didn't have any milk. So, I thought about it for a bit and had a go, and it turned out rather well. Enjoy!
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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Into The Unknown | Pushing the Wave