Goodbye Geneva

14
Apr
2014

It has been really lovely staying here with Jonathan and Michael in their gorgeous home, catching up with Jonathan and getting to know Michael. In a few hours, I will board a flight back to New York. Although I have only been gone 12 days, somehow this time felt a bit longer than that. Perhaps that is because I packed so much activity into that time between work and play. In any event, I am looking forward to being home (for a while, anyway), and the bloom of Spring in NYC.

Heidi in France

13
Apr
2014

Since Geneva is so close to France, Jonathan took me to a little town in the French Alps today, a place called Chamonix. The weather was perfect, the drive there beautiful. The town itself was not so stunning in architecture, but was in a beautiful setting with mountains all around. We had a walk around and then I ordered some heavy but yummy Swiss dish called a croute, which was kind of like a baked monte cristo with chicken and artichokes. Along with the white wine, I was feeling pretty good for the rest of our walk around the town.

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From Geneva weekend

Swiss Napa

12
Apr
2014

Today we went on a little trip around the local wine country. We had an excellent lunch followed by some very nice wine tasting in beautiful surroundings. Apparently Swiss wines are known locally to be quite good but are not well known abroad because they are almost completely consumed domestically. So I bought a couple of bottles to take back with me to the US.  At one of the wineries in particular we had a very good salesperson. She spent a lot of time talking about how to really bring out the flavor in the wine, how to roll it around the mouth, what foods each one would go with  best. She clearly loves what she does and is very good at it. I especially liked that she dispensed with the flowery flavor words (chocolate, raspberry, etc) in favor of the experience of how to make the flavor penetrate, and then to allow one’s own judgment about likes or dislikes.
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From Geneva weekend

Geneva anew

11
Apr
2014

Today I took a great, self-guided tour (wandering, really) around Geneva. I started near the UNAIDS office where my friend works, and walked through the Botanical Gardens, along the lake into the heart of old Geneva. There I visited the St Pierre cathedral, followed by the extensive ruins excavated beneath. It is amazing how many times that site has been built on over the millennia. After that I visited the Museum of the Reformation, which I highly recommend if you are coming to Geneva. One really can’t separate the history of Geneva from the history of the Protestant Reformation. Geneva has been described at the Rome of Protestantism, and certainly after visiting this museum, one understands why. In particular it was fascinating to see how intertwined so many of the facts of the day were which allowed Protestantism to thrive, such as the (then fairly new) existence and use of the printing press. In the space of only a few years, Geneva took in so many religious refugees that the population of the city doubled, and the architecture of Geneva became one of much taller buildings (still needing to be inside the city walls for protection, the only place to go was up). After the museum, I headed down to the restaurant at the Bains des Paquis, a jetty that sticks out into the lake. There I met Michael for a quick bite, before heading over to the station to get a train back to Versoix. I was impressed how easy it was to find everything and get around and use the trains. That rumor about Swiss efficiency seems to be true. The weather could not have been more beautiful today, about 70 and sunny. You can check out the pics from the day below…

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Arrivée à Genève

11
Apr
2014

Since I always have to stop through another city on my way to Marrakech (there are, after all, no direct flights from NYC), I always look at it as an opportunity to take a mini side vacation for a few days. This time I noticed a route through Geneva, and that gave me an opportunity to  catch up with my friend Jonathan who I haven’t seen in a few years. He picked me up at the airport yesterday and then brought me to his beautiful house in the suburb/town of Versoix. Everything about his place is perfect, beautiful, and of course in order (as one would expect of the Swiss. Needless to say, I am in heaven. :)) And I finally got to meet Jonathan’s husband Michael for the first time, and we shared a tasty meal in the charming nearby town of  Carouge, followed by a gelato and short walk around.

Today I will go to the city center and have a general tourist walkabout. The last time I was in Geneva was over 20 years ago, and the only thing I remember about it from that time is that it was exceedingly boring.  I suspect that I will find it more interesting this time around, but I will let you know later tonight.

A somewhat frantic race to the finish line

9
Apr
2014

I really should plan for longer trips here, there is always so much to do, and today in particular I was running around like a mad man. I did work in time to have a couple of nice meals though, highlighted by pastilla and mechwi and friendly fun talk with friends and colleagues. I will probably be back again in a month or two for another round of project work, there is so much to do. That said, I am very happy with all that we accomplished, and it was nice catching up with people while here, and experiencing warm and sunny days for a change.

Tomorrow I will head to Geneva to visit my old friend Jonathan (no, not the other one) for a few days, and then I will finally head back to NYC.

How do you say “please don’t cut me” in Arabic?

8
Apr
2014

My trimmer broke in my suitcase on the trip over from the US, so I had been growing an ever longer, unintentional, almost-beard while here. But after over a week of not shaving down to my usual close stubble, I could not take it anymore. The combination of the increasing heat (we have been at 90 the last couple of days) and itchiness was getting to me. Several people suggested I go to a barber to have it trimmed, and always being the adventurous type, I went this evening. They didn’t speak French all that well, but I was pretty sure I got the point across by pointing to my face, then doing a kind of back and forth call with them over the number depth of the trimmer. They kept saying “1″ and I kept saying “.5″ and through trial and error we came to an understanding.

The guy leaned me back in the chair and attacked my face with zeal, pulling and pinching the skin to get it to shave as requested. But of course it was hot and I was sweating and his hands were all sweaty, which made the whole thing rather more difficult, and made the metal of the clippers drag across my skin. In addition to that, at various moments I had the clipper blade, his palm or his fingers just about all the way inside my nose. I don’t want to read too much into his personal habits, but I can tell you he is a smoker and probably had lamb tagine for lunch eaten in the traditional way (with one’s fingers and bread). Overall, he managed to do a fair enough job (for the price anyway, it was only about 5 dollars). They then threw a wet, piping hot, smelly towel on my face which had come from the floor or perhaps the bathroom, and then sent me on my way. While I won’t win any beauty contests, I am more comfortable now without the beard, and should be ok until I get back home or break down and buy new clippers at a different voltage.

Upscale feast by accident

8
Apr
2014

Last night Anthea (the garden’s graphics consultant who is also in town and staying at the same hotel) and I decided to have dinner together, and asked the concierge for a recommendation close by. Without paying too much attention to the details, off we went to the hotel/restaurant nearby, a place called Dar Rhizlane. Upon arrival, my companion and I had the slightly horrible realization that this was probably going to be quite a bit beyond our means, everything was impeccable, opulent and just screamed call your bank to make sure you have enough to cover this. But since we were already there, and the place was so lovely, we just went with the flow. After ordering the wine, we were informed that there was only a tasting menu offered, and they would be bringing that out to us presently. What followed was the appetizers course, which looked like this:

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Each and every dish was delicious. I have had many meals in Morocco where they serve a variety of little plates or salads as appetizers, but this was hands down the best I have ever had. This was followed by a small chicken/mushroom entree, and then a lamb entree, then a pre-dessert sorbet, and finally dessert. Or should I say plate of several desserts, each one quite tasty.

We waited for the bill and played the money guessing game, but by that point I really didn’t care what it cost. It was one of the best meals I have had in Morocco, and one of the most beautiful settings:

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I really couldn’t have been more pleased. Or so I thought, until the bill arrived and it turned out to be less of an extravagance than I had feared. If you come to Marrakech, I would highly recommend having a meal at the Dar Rhizlane.

 

Sunday fun

7
Apr
2014

Yesterday I took a break from work stuff and hung out by the pool for a bit, then took a fascinating side trip with Madison and Jai to visit a local pottery manufacturer. It is a pretty small and very artisanal operation, with six guys working there doing everything. They get dirt from various places in Morocco, they crush and sift the dirt, then add water in several steps to produce clay, then put it in a dark room until it is cured and ready to spin, then make all kinds of large and small pots on the wheels, then dry them, then fire them. It was pretty fascinating to see the whole process and hear their story.

After that, we drove towards a nearby dam, then got a little lost on some very rough but beautiful side roads before finally making our way back (with the help of google satellite imagery) to the main road and back to Marrakech. We ended the day with the best French meal I have had in Morocco, which included a couple of the courses being flamboyantly prepared at our very table.

Maroc Telecom internet activation hell

6
Apr
2014

Last time I was in Morocco, I marveled at how easy it was at the Casablanca airport to buy a SIM, get it installed on my phone and activated (by the guy at the shop btw). Voila, for about 24 USD I had unlimited internet, calling and texting for a month. Returning this time, I thought how easy it would be, because I already had the SIM chip. I inserted it, bought  a recharge card for 100 dirham, sent the activation text and received a response. Voila…or so I thought. My problem was that this time, I had no internet. So, I consulted the Google from my hotel where there was wi-fi to try to get an answer. Nothing I tried worked, and it just got worse and worse.

First, it seemed that I didn’t have the APN correct on my phone, and I was advised to send “Config Internet Jawal” to 505, after which I received a response telling me (in French) to use wap.iamgprs.ma as my APN. I entered it, but nothing, no internet. So I restarted my phone several times, and…nothing.

I thought perhaps I didn’t have enough recharge credit to get internet, so I bought another 100 dirham card hoping it would give me internet. I hurriedly scratched off the silver part to reveal the code, but unfortunately damaged the number and entered it wrong a couple of times, which resulted in an SMS telling me my account was blocked and to call 888 for help.

So I called 888 for service, but the first 50 or so times I tried, it was always busy. This went on for the better part of a day. I noticed a strange thing though. It would ring through sometimes if I was connected to wi-fi. Unfortunately, the phone tree on the other end was in Arabic, and I could not understand anything. After calling about a hundred times and frenetically pushing all buttons, I hit upon a combination that proved useful. Hitting 2, then 2 again after a message change, the messages were suddenly in French. Hallelujah! I was finally able to understand what they were saying. I got through to an operator, who explained to me a couple of things. One, my account was locked by the system for 24 hours, and there was nothing I could do until then. And two (very very important), to activate internet using a recharge card, one needs to send the code FOLLOWED BY *3 to indicate internet activation instead of plain phone activation. I am mostly writing this here in the hopes that it will help some other poor fool traveler like me, who searched and searched in vain and never once saw this CRUCIAL piece of information written ANYWHERE on the internet, and not on the recharge cards themselves.

So, after dutifully waiting 24 hours, and having purchased another recharge card (this time for 50 dirham which would give me 10 days of internet), I tried to enter my new code which I had very carefully and lovingly scraped so as not to damage the fragile card. Unfortunately, I got the same fucking message back about my account being blocked. Once again, I called the (ironically named) service number (this being old hat for me by now) and spoke with an operator who told me to wait 24 hours. When I informed her that I had already waited the 24 hours, she looked at the records and said basically “Oh yeah, that should work by now. Hm.” She then made a note in my file and told me someone would get back to me.

Of course, no one ever did, and I continued to try my code in vain throughout the day, but nothing. Just the same message about my account being locked. So, having completely given up on ever having internet on my phone this trip, I tried my code one last time this morning (48 hours after original lock) and OMG. I now have internet!

Again, this post is mainly a public service by me to help out others who are probably pulling their hair out and eyeing razor blades with longing.