The first time I actually spent money on a piece of furniture was while living in Fez, Morocco.
The estate agent had given a few days to running us around town in his old Renault 4, showing us one grand apartment or villa after another. He couldn’t quite bring himself to believe that this young American / Canadian couple, recently arrived to do a course in Arabic at the local language centre, did not have access to buckets of money to spend on rent. Finally, after seeing us shake our heads at yet another multi-roomed, well-appointed – and expensive – apartment, he said, “Well, I do have an acquaintance who has an empty servant’s quarters on the roof of her villa at the edge of town in Hay Adrissa. I don’t think you will like it, but I can show it to you.”
We loved it. Sure, the chickens had made a bit of a mess, but once that was cleaned up and the offenders removed to the storage shed, we had what we were looking for: a wide, airy room with a single window and concrete floor, plus an adjoining kitchen area boasting a sink with a cold water spigot and a short countertop. Next to that was a WC with a squatty potty and another cold water tap. No hot water; we would have to warm water in a pan on the gas burner we bought from the corner shop, and if we wanted a “shower” it would come in the form of two pours from a bucket while standing over the squatty potty, one to soap up and one to rinse off.
But the view! Our little abode, four stories up, was surrounded by about 100 square meters of flat rooftop made of terracotta tiles. At the edge there was a parapet, and beyond that we looked out over shepherds tending their flocks in ancient olive groves and in the distance the blue-green mountains of the Midi Atlas range. We were the last house at the southern edge of town and at night there was little light; we had forgotten what a true starry night looks like. Gazing at the crystal clear stars on a warm spring night while listening to the mournful call to prayer from the local mosque was, we found, genuinely romantic. Our first child was conceived here.
However, the place was completely bare when we moved in. Renata, ever resourceful, quickly found some fabric and hand-stichted curtains which we threaded onto a length of cord and hung. We purchased a large, round metal tray to use as an eating surface on which to balance our plastic cups and plates and we slept in our sleeping bags on top of a layer of folded clothes. The poor man’s mattress was, predictably, not a success. After a few nights we were sore, cold and grumpy. We needed a bed, something with a proper mattress and legs on it.
We reasoned that we should go for a Moroccan “frash”, a sort of narrow bed with a decorative base that can also double as a sofa, using cushions for back support. We should get two of them and, when we had guests for dinner (yes, we did regularly), we could put the beds together in an “L” shape in the corner; at night we would put them side-by-side to make an almost double bed.
Our walks into town had taken us through another neighbourhood which seemed to have a good number of woodworking businesses, small storefront shops producing all manner of furniture, so we decided to make our way there and see what could be found. We timed our visit poorly, for as we approached the crowded little street we noted that everyone was busy closing up shop. How odd, we thought, we have never noticed any sort of siesta habits before; maybe this is something peculiar to the furniture-makers trade?
Never mind. We quickly spotted what we were looking for and haggled the price for two simple frame frashes with foam mattresses. But how to get them home? To have them delivered would be an extra charge, of course, but also much more hassle: how would we explain where we lived and how many days would we wait for the delivery? We were tired of sleeping on the floor. Eyeing the beds again and lifting an end to judge their weight I said to Renata: “You know, between the two of us, I think we could carry these things home; if you grab one in each hand on one end and I on the other, we should manage just fine.”
Now yes, we were fit. Fitter than we’ve ever been before or since. We were both 24 years old and accustomed to walking many kilometres every day. I remember paying to use the pool at one of the fancy hotels downtown and wondering why the group of women, Spanish tourists lounging at poolside, were paying me so much attention; I looked damn good in those days, that’s why. So, on a normal day, although carrying our beds a couple of kilometres up the road would be a strenuous proposition, it was certainly within the realm of the can do. And think of how well we will sleep tonight.
The furniture-maker and his gaggle waved us off as if we had gone mad, and promptly shut their doors. We headed out, wondering again why the shops were closing and the roads had gone quiet. Well, it didn’t take long for us to realize our scant knowledge had nothing to do with the local culture and everything to do with the local weather. The wind that had been blowing all that day and all the day before was coming from the southeast, a direction which it had never come from before in our experience. This continental current, as opposed to the normal Atlantic one from the west, had warmed things up nicely we thought; the clothes on the line were drying so fast in this wind and heat.
If that had been the sum of it, we would’ve been fine. But as you suspect, gentle reader, that was not the sum of it. What the locals knew and what we did not was that the Sahara Desert, just the other side of the mountains, had the potential not only to warm things up with a strong southeasterly wind, but to get things very, very sandy. Within half an hour of heading out from the furniture-maker’s the sky had gone dark and Renata and I found ourselves walking through the middle of a serious sandstorm, gasping for breath, squinting our crying eyes against the sand, and clutching for dear life to our precious purchase.
Yes, we did make it home, and how we slept like royalty that night! And although our car-less existence for most of our lives has meant I have plenty of other furniture-carrying yarns to tell, I will never forget my first ever furniture purchase, in Fez.
In Fez, April 1987