My taxi ride through Casablanca in 2017

Casablanca 2017 - 56
Hassan II mosque

Before cruising to the Canary islands (Spanish), Madeira (Portuguese), and the cities of Málaga and Alicante along the coast of Spain, we stopped in Casablanca, Morocco, on the north coast of Africa. There they spoke Arabic and, lucky for me, French. I ended up speaking and listening to people who spoke to me in French and got along quite well. Many of them also spoke English. After walking all the way from the old medina to the Hassan II mosque, we were ready for a Taxi ride to a restaurant for lunch. Just then, at the steps to the plaza of the mosque, a taxi driver introduced himself to us in English and said, “I am taxi driver here for 27 years. This is my city. I will show you my beautiful city, take you to places you want to visit, and wait while you eat or look around. Here is my taxi; please come with me and let me give you beautiful tour of my city.”

Casablanca 2017 - 82.jpg
Sitting in the restaurant L’Etoile Centrale

I usually might be wary of such offers, but he seemed quite genuine and trustworthy, so we took him up on it. While getting into the taxi I asked him if he spoke French, and he said “Oui, bien sur” (yes, of course). I told him I would like to practice my French with him and he said he would like to practice his English with me and we could each speak to the other in our second languages. That is what he said, but in practice, we ended up speaking mostly French. He did prove himself trustworthy by first taking us to an authentic Moroccan restaurant called L’Etoile Centrale as well as running in with my husband’s phone which had been left on the backseat of the unlocked taxi. We had a delicious meal, heard Arabic, French, and English spoken around us in various turns by the same people, and got back in the cab with Mumu (that was what he told us we could call him though his given name was Muhammaed).

The only thing Mumu did that I really, really didn’t like was take us to a rug store. I told him before he took us there that we weren’t interested in rugs, but he said we must go look at this “textile cooperative” because it was their culture. I hoped it might be like a living museum. When we got there, they took us into this showroom, brought us a silver tray of mint tea, and said, “This is Moroccan hospitality, you will please accept our offer of tea.” Then they proceded to show us various kinds of rugs— thicker, thinner, rougher, softer, this one of silk and this one of wool, of this design or that design. They asked us which one we liked the best, and there was a soft silk rug with a background of blue decorated with yellow, orange, red, and green. I said I loved it and it was beautiful. They said this was valuable, the more you use it, the more valuable it becomes, it becomes more valuable with age, we will cherish it forever, they will ship anywhere in the world, and “How much you will pay for this?” I explained I was simply answering their question about which rug I liked the best, but I couldn’t afford to buy it. There was a lot of pressure, and my husband even thought seriously of buying it (with money we don’t have), but I insisted that we did not come into the shop or even on our vacation to buy a rug, that the rug cost more than our whole vacation and we had to save for months to afford to travel, etc. They kept pushing and pushing. Finally, I decided the only recourse was to be rude, so I said “goodbye” and told my husband we were leaving.

Then Mumu took us to an oil and spice shop across the street. This I could do. I had already been thinking of buying Moroccan argan oil for my hair, as I have been growing it out, so I bought a bottle for 10 euros. Not bad, considering what they charge in the states. We walked back to the taxi and the manager of the rug store accosted us again. “I make you deal. How much you pay? How much?” “No much” I said, and he finally left me alone. Mumu then drove us around, and I have neglected to say how riding in a taxi in Morocco felt terrifying, even death defying, as the streets were so narrow and twisted, and our driver had to wind his way through them past double-parked cars and opposing traffic turning around curves with double-parked cars on them. Anyway, he took us past various impressive areas including the king’s palace to the new medina.

I had told him I wanted to buy some authentic Moroccan pastry. He very wisely took me to a shop called Pâtisserie Bennis Habous (pronounced the French way, Benny Aboo). This place was like a little walk-in closet covered with bins of all kinds of pastries along every short wall. They have these beautiful boxes and they cram whatever you want into them as fast as robots with ten arms assembling a circuit board. I asked for one of just about everything in a little box. Oh my God they were delicious! I must admit they all tasted about the same — a kind of marzipan filled dough baked to perfection — but it didn’t matter. This place more than made up for the rug store (sorry, “textile cooperative”). And they cost something like 3 euros altogether (or maybe 5 €; I don’t remember).

Me in fez, kaftan, and shoes
Me in fez, kaftan, and shoes. I did buy the kaftan!

After getting pastries I said I’d like to get a couple of souvenirs “not made in China.” We went to a little stall where they had clothing and other items. I liked the kaftans, and the shopkeeper showed me the one I picked out in blue and insisted on putting on me a fez and shoes to go with it. I didn’t want the fez and shoes, but I did take the kaftan. We haggled in price and he didn’t come down as much as I thought he would, but it seemed fair enough, except we didn’t have enough cash and he didn’t take cards. We discussed with our driver about going to an ATM and he said he could pay the shopkeeper and then take us to an ATM and we could pay him back. He handed the shopkeeper to twenty-dollar bills and I said, “Oh, I have two twenties” and handed my twenties to the driver. They then argued in Arabic and I couldn’t understand why. I looked up the French word for haggling in the car and said to Mumu “j’ai reconnu assez beaucoup de chipotage là-bas,” (I noticed a fair bit of haggling there), and he explained that they looked at the date on the bills and valued the currency based on the date of mint. I asked him why, that there was no sense in that at all, and he said, “mais c’est comme ça” (but that’s the way it is). Something my husband said to me this morning reminded me of that resignation to the way things are even if they are make no sense, and I thought to myself, “mais c’est comme ça.” I think that phrase will be one of my lasting souvenirs.

I was very glad to know French because it made our time together much more interesting. At one point he had a lot to say about his family in response to my questions and he rattled it off quickly in French and said “Wait! Don’t tell him yet!” when I was about to interpret to my husband; then he kept telling me his story and said, “Et maintenant vous lui expliquez!” (and now you explain it to him!). His insistence on holding court made me laugh, as well as his control of me as an interpreter, which I am not quite used to experiencing even when I’m doing it for a living. I was proud, though, that I understood him and was able to interpret what he said, even though I wouldn’t have been able to say even half of what he said half as fast as he said it.

Casablanca 2017 - 87
Andy & me with our taxi driver, Mumu

All-in-all we were glad we went with Mumu. I told him I felt like he threw us to the sharks back there at the textile cooperative, but other than that we had a good time. Between our walk by ourselves and our ride and stops with the taxi driver, we had a decent time in Casablanca. I don’t know what it would have been like if I hadn’t spoken French, but I think it helped that I did. I imagine he earned a commission of some kind at each place he took us to, or at least some sort of kickback. At the restaurant he got a sandwich, and I imagine he would have gotten a lot more if we had bought a rug– or maybe he owed them and that would have cleared his debt; I really don’t know how it works there. At any rate, I felt what we paid him (I think about 50 Euros, though I don’t recall) was worth it. We had a good time. He did what he said he would. I asked for this selfie to remember him by.

See more of my photos, as well as videos, of Casablanca.

Mise-en-place your life– I know I need to!

Mise–en–place (French pronunciation: [miz ã ‘plas])

Mise en Place for Scallops with Shallots, Pasilla and Chard
Mise en Place for Scallops with Shallots, Pasilla and Chard by Don LaVange, on Flickr

Yesterday morning, I listened to a story on NPR called “For a More Orderly Life, Organize Like a Chef,” which talked about applying the French culinary concept of mise–en–place (literally, “put in place”) in everyday life. One chef told how he uses mise–en–place for his daily “list.” He said:

What I used to do is, let’s say I had 23 items of mise-en-place I had to do every day. So I’d take a pad and I’d write them all down on the way home. And then I would crumple the list up and throw it out.…On my way to work I’d write the list again. And you become one with your list. You and the list are the same, because the list is scorched into your head.

–Wylie Dufresne, chef and owner of New York restaurants wd~50 and Alder, as quoted by Dan Charnas, NPR.

I’m all over the place

This got me to thinking about my schedule. As a freelance interpreter, I work for several different agencies and drive to many venues to interpret for classes, consultations, and conferences. In a hectic week, I often can’t remember where I’m going from one job to the next without looking at my calendar. I use GPS to get places; I look at my phone once I’ve arrived at an address to see what suite I need to get to, and even what the name of the venue is; I look at my phone again when I get to a venue before I can tell the front desk the client’s name.

Putting myself en place

I’d rather be like a chef who knows where everything is and how he’s going to get from one thing to another than a rock star who can’t remember what city he’s playing. I need to mise-en-place my schedule. Case in point: I recently had a morning job that I knew was medical and far away. I left in time to get there early. Fine. However, I did not remember the name of the patient, the medical office, or even what kind of specialty it was. I also didn’t realize I was scheduled to come back the next morning. I had taken the jobs separately and not seen the connection. When I showed up, another interpreter was there because the office accidentally booked two interpreters for the job. I just figured I would let her do it because she got there first. What I failed to consider was that I was scheduled for the follow-up as well, and it would have been better for me to stay so I could provide continuity to the clients.

If I had it to do again:

I should look at my schedule for the week and note that I was scheduled to interpret for the same patient at the same doctor’s office two mornings in a row– this would remind me of the patient’s needs and preferences and alert me to the repetition; I should look at the name of the venue and note the specialty– this will help me find the venue when I arrive at the building or complex and I can spot the name on the outside, and it should help me prepare myself mentally for interpreting in that specialized setting; I should note the suite number– this should help me locate the venue either from outside the building or inside. I should call the venue the day before or the morning of, the latest, to confirm the appointment– this would have either alerted me to the double-booking, saved the clients the change in interpreters, and saved one of us the drive.

Mise–en–place = Me at work

There’s another big reason to mise–en–place my schedule: so I can get more work! The way I get jobs is the agencies I work for send out mass emails with the dates, times, and locations of jobs they need to fill. I have to have my smartphone with me at all times to get the mass-emails the agencies send out, and I have to respond instantly or the jobs will be snatched up by those who respond faster. There have been many times I have responded in two minutes only to get the reply “covered, thanks” a minute later. I have spoken with many interpreters in the area who report the same experience, so there might be more to covering these jobs than speed-of-response; still, to speed up my response time, it would help if I had my schedule memorized. See, it takes me a minute or two just to switch to my calendar app and see whether I’m available before I can even reply. If put my schedule in my head, I might put myself in the job.

My “list”:

  1. Memorize my schedule, including:
    1. Day (so I know what I’m doing “next Tuesday”)
    2. Date
    3. Time
    4. Venue name
    5. Venue geographical area
    6. Venue suite or room
    7. Client names (have I worked with them before? how do I work best with them?)
    8. Specialized setting (environmental goals, tone, mood, protocol, barriers to communication)
    9. Topic (specialized vocabulary, sensitivity, overarching theme)
    10. Pattern (does this job repeat? how often? how many times? have I done this job in the past?)
    11. How to get there (routes, alternate routes, time to location, security or other hurdles to cross before getting to where I need to be on time)
  2. Confirm the job with both the agency and the requestor (call or email to make sure it’s still on, and let them know I will be there — this would save double-booked interpreter hassles and pointless drives)
  3. Check my phone and email before I leave for a job to see if I’ve received a cancellation (this could save a lot of pointless drives too)
  4. Keep intouchbysmartphone:
    1. Keep the ringer on whenever I can
    2. Listen for notifications
    3. Respond immediately
    4. Check my smartphone at every break
    5. Always check my email before anything else (like Facebook, which can be a distraction from getting jobs)
  5. Inform interpreting agencies of my schedule as often as possible
  6. Call or email interpreting agencies to see what I can do for them
  7. Let agencies know if there is to be a follow-up appointment and let them know I am available for it (if I am)

I could probably go on, but it would be a start if I could just memorize my schedule for each day, let alone each week. I think I might try what the chef did and see if I can write my schedule by hand without looking at my calendar. Even if I could just have the details of a single job memorized before I get to it, that would help.

I believe in sharing my failures and successes, problems and solutions, and I write about them so others might learn from my experience. I would love to learn from others’ experience, too. Please comment if you have any mise–en–place practices you find helpful in your daily life.

Fun with French — a language learner’s laughter

I just got home after staying in Quebec for a week, and I encountered some words and phrases I found very funny. Here are some of my travel notes.

Life is a Cabaret — And so is a tray!

This tray is a cabaret!
This tray is a cabaret!

When I ordered two coffees at a Starbucks, they asked me if I wanted a cabaret — « voudriez un cabaret? » Like “Come to the cabaret?” I thought. No, it turns out a cabaret is a little tray– that molded cardboard thing you can put four cups in. Who knew?

Just Want to Do It

"Bienvenue - VOUILLEZ ATTENDRE _ICI_, S'il vous plaît! Please wait here." - a sign at the front of a restaurant we went to in Montréal
“Bienvenue – VOUILLEZ ATTENDRE _ICI_, S’il vous plaît! Please wait here.” – a sign at the front of a restaurant we went to in Montréal

There is a polite way of telling someone to do something in French; you tell someone to want to do it. For example, « veuillez attendre ici » means, literally, “want to wait here.” Of course, a more equivalent translation is “please wait here,” but I think the literal grammar is very funny.  The closest analogy I can think of in English is a sentence like, “You will want to be on time tomorrow.” This is something a boss might say to an employee, the implication being “if you want to keep your job.”

Daddy Has Reason

Jane Wyatt & Robert Young - Papa A Raison
Jane Wyatt & Robert Young – Papa A Raison

We were talking with the friends we were staying with about US TV shows in Canada and Canadian TV shows in the US. (For example, did you know that Rookie Blue is a Canadian show?) Well, the conversation got around to classic US TV shows translated into French, and one of our friends said his mother looked like Jane Wyatt in “Papa a RaisonDaddy Has Reason?” I had to laugh at his quick translation, and thank God I knew French, because I realized he was talking about Father Knows Best. See, in French, avoir raison (literally to have reason) means to be right. It makes sense that the French would translate knows best to a raison. It just sounds funny in English to translate it back. I suppose they could have translated Father Knows Best to Pere Sait Meilleur, but I guess it doesn’t sound as good or have quite the same flavor as Papa A Raison. Anyway, I got a great laugh out of that. Daddy has reason!

Rhyming Neighborhoods

One There Thinks

Richard, Louis, Daniel, & Andy at Le Saint-Amour
Richard, Louis, Daniel, & Andy at Le Saint-Amour restaurant

Our waiter at this beautiful restaurant in Quebec City cracked me up when he gracefully approached out table after we had eaten our main course, and said « Maintenant on arrive tout doucement à la croisée des chemins — fromage ou dessert? » It was funny in itself that he said, “Now we have gently arrived at a crossroads: Cheese or dessert.” What I got even more of a kick out of is what he said after we asked some questions of him and each other: he took his leave graciously by stepping back with a sweeping hand gesture to us, smiling and saying « On y pense » (literally, one there thinks). I had never heard this expression before, but I knew enough about French to know that the word y means more than just there; it can also mean on it. Thus, he was ever-so-suavely saying, “one thinks on it.” I just love the way people contrive language to tell you to do something without telling you to do it (like veuillez). Our waiter really was a sweet and funny guy — not the American stereotype of the stuffy, prissy French waiter.  I could imagine an English waiter saying, “I’ll leave you gentlemen to think upon it at your leisure,” but how much more elegant is it to convey the same meaning in three syllables? On y pense. Love it!

Who Woulda Drunk It?

qui lait cru!?! fromagerie - who would've thought!?! cheese store
qui lait cru!?! fromagerie – who would’ve thought!?! cheese store

When we went with our friends to a huge farmer’s market Marché Jean-Talon,  we walked by a fromagerie (cheese store) called Qui Lait Cru!?! One of our friends told me the name of the store was a jeu de mots (play on words) of the phrase qui l’eu cru!?!, which means who would’ve thought!?! What is different is the word lait means milk. Pretty funny! Well, allow me to suggest an equally funny translation for them in English: Who Woulda Drunk It!?! See, it rhymes with who woulda thunk it, an even quirkier way of saying who would’ve thought, and drunk it refers to the milk. In other words, who would have drunk the milk when we could make such delicious cheese out of it? You’re welcome, qui lait cru. I take PayPal. 😉