Ceuta

While GWA’s Fall Break makes for a quiet campus this week, we savor the serenity of our balcony and the Call to Prayer that complements the placid scene of our staycation…Notwithstanding the work we are doing every day from home and/or office…and except for the crazy two days we had on the front end of this break when we went on an overnight trip to Ceuta, one of two remaining plots of Spanish Africa surrounded by Morocco and the Mediterranean coast.

First settled by the Carthagenians in the First Millennium BC, then ruled in succession by the Romans, the Vandals, the Muslims and Berbers, and the Portugese, these vestiges of Spain’s colonial history in Africa have roots stretching back over 350 years.  Our history in Ceuta stretches back only a few years when we had our first overnight escape to this city of 85,000 Spaniards, Moroccans, and Spaniaroccans.

Many expats at GWA drive the four and a half hours to Ceuta for different reasons.  Some go just to taste a bit of Spain (read: PORK and RIOJA) without paying the FRS Ferry line to carry them across the Strait of Gibraltar to ports in Tarifa or Algeciras and other destinations further north.  Others go because until their Moroccan residency paperwork becomes official – a process that can take several months – they have to leave the country every 90 days, with Ceuta as the easiest and cheapest way to get that all-important passport stamp.  For us, except for that sightseeing trip in our first year, it has been for meds.

Morocco is pretty easy for getting medications.  We can get allergy meds and antibiotics without prescriptions.  (The merits of that, from a world perspective of creating/combatting supergerms, are dubious; but the ease of getting Amoxicillin when strep throat or nasty bronchitis inhabit your household certainly has its advantages.)  But some medications simply do not exist here. We have a great doctor in Casablanca – did her residency at GWU in Washington, D.C. after medical school in Morocco – but she can not steer us to meds not available locally. For the last three years, Brian has brought Epipens back from travels in Europe to GWA’s nursing office as emergency meds for students having serious allergic reactions to undiagnosed allergies; and some other prescription meds we had in the U.S. for Charlotte or us we cannot find in Morocco.  That requires our traveling outside Morocco’s borders to get them, and often requires first setting up a doctor’s appointment in the source country to get a prescription that country’s pharmacies will accept (because they will not honor a prescription our Moroccan doctor writes). So after that first trip when we went Ceuta to go to Ceuta, and happened in the process to discover the convenience of picking up meds we cannot find at home, the handful of times we have gone since has been to renew prescriptions and pick up meds.

Such was our overnight excursion to Ceuta last Friday and Saturday.  Audrey needed to restart a prescription she had in the U.S., and our Spanish doctor – based in Cádiz southeast of Portugal on the Gulf of Cádiz coast – comes to Ceuta only one Friday each month.  Over time we have established a routine. If our appointment with the doctor is in the morning, we make the journey to Ceuta on Thursday afternoon or evening; breeze through the border crossing heading into Ceuta (because the big border holdup typically is coming back into Morocco with vehicles being searched for contraband); overnight at the centrally-located Hotel Ulises on Calle Real (Ceuta’s Main Street); hit the doctor and the pharmacy on Friday morning; then go on a shopping spree at Ceuta’s big Carrefour to buy pork, alcohol we cannot get back home like Cointreau for margaritas and good rum (two bottles allowed back into Morocco per adult), pork, other things we cannot find in Morocco like black beans and sweet potatoes, and pork; toss the pork and some ice into a big cooler we always bring for such purposes; then head to the border to wait in a long border-crossing line as Moroccan police search cars for excess alcohol and other contraband; and finally drive four and a half hours back to Casablanca.  If we have an afternoon or evening appointment, we head up on Friday morning, check into Hotel Ulises, go to the appointment, overnight in Ceuta, hit the Carrefour the next day to fill the cooler with pork and the rest of the car with other things, and head back across the border and home.

Last Friday we had a 1:00 appointment:  early enough that we thought we could leave on Thursday if we could break away from school, but late enough that – as busy as we have been at school – we figured a very early Friday morning departure would get us there in time to cross the border and still have time to kill before going to the doctor’s office.  So we made a reservation at Hotel Ulises for Friday night and set alarms to wake up at 4:45 am on Friday morning to begin our trek by 5:30 am.

Our drive up was uneventful.  We stopped in Bouznika on the south side of Rabat to fill the gas tank and pick up breakfast (an egg and cheese croissant from Chez Paul for Audrey, and an Egg McMuffin with beef bacon from McDonalds for Brian).  We made good time shooting north almost to Tanger, then banked eastward along the north coast past the huge Tanger Med port and over the north Atlas mountains to Ceuta (or Sebta, as Morocco still calls it). As we drove down the mountain pathway to the Mediterranean road that leads to Ceuta’s border, we felt great about having two hours to kill before the appointment.

Then we hit the border.

Not even.

Rather, we hit the roundabout that intersects with the road to the border, and saw traffic backed up all the way to the circle.

In our half dozen previous trips there, we had never seen such a backup trying to get into Ceuta.  As we sat in barely-moving lines of traffic that narrowed to two lanes before swelling to five before collapsing down to one, we watched as several boys diverted from their panhandling and took turns trying to squeeze under an old and low-riding camper being hauled by a car, hoping to stow away into Ceuta hanging from the camper’s undercarriage.  When that did not work, they tried the camper’s door, but found it locked. Then they tried without luck to boost each other onto the roof of the camper. Had they succeeded they would have been caught before entering Spain because every square centimeter of the camper – inside and outside, top and bottom – got tapped and searched both by the Moroccan and Spanish police after leaving one and before entering the other.

While we watched the boys try and fail to stow away, we also watched the minutes count into hours.  The longest it had taken previously to cross into Ceuta was less than two hours. On Friday, it took us three long hours before we finally entered Spain at the time the doctor’s appointment was scheduled to end.  Why? Because Spain apparently has decided recently that they should have only one police officer checking all vehicles coming across the border from Morocco, so that the border gate closed everything except a single lane through which every vehicle must bottleneck and pass through to enter Ceuta.  Plenty of police around; but only one checking vehicles before they continue on to get Spanish passport stamps. We are used to such bureaucracy in Morocco; seeing it in Spain was new to us.

Fortunately, as time ticked away into helpless frustration, we had communicated our circumstances to the doctor’s office by What’sApp and they told us not to worry.  Once we crossed into Spain, it was a quick drive to the doctor who then fitted us into his next appointment just half an hour after our arrival.

We went from the doctor to the pharmacy where we have a connection who speaks English.  Having let him know by email earlier in the week that we would be coming on Friday, we gave him our Spanish prescriptions; he gave us our Spanish medications…and more Epipens for Brian to take to GWA’s nurses.  Then we checked into Hotel Ulises, where they recognized us as they always do.

One element of expat life is having special places and people from travels abroad that folks stateside do not get to enjoy the same way.  Recently a friend at GWA told us about a shop in Venice that he and his children loved to frequent, so any time he returns to Venice he has to go there.  Similar conversations spotlight favorite places and mutual appreciation for specific spots in Europe, the Persian Gulf, various airports worldwide, etc. The stories share not a touristy connotation from sightseers abroad, but a sense of ownership earned from familiarity.  Well into our fourth year of life here, we have such spots in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, and more, to say nothing of places around Morocco.

We have added Ceuta to our list of such places:  from the public squares covered with pigeons, to Charlotte (not our daughter, but our favorite place for breakfast of pan con iberico y manchego), to Hotel Ulises, to our farmacia, to knowing the best and second-best underground parking garages, to strolling along Calle Real and people-watching as we go, to Brian’s favorite building across the street from the Iglesia de San Francisco – named Casa de los Dragones because of the dragons atop the Medieval corner balcony on its second floor, to knowing that east of a certain north-south road in the middle of town is very Spanish and west of it is very Moroccan, to knowing the particular hanout on the way to the border back to Morocco where we can buy the brand of edam cheese from the Netherlands that Charlotte’s in-laws adore.

And then there is George.  George is the owner and chef of El Bistro de George.  He makes clear that is not Jorge; it is George. George is a Moroccan chef who grew up in Tanger.  He takes good care of his customers, making them feel at home in his small bistro. He speaks English, Spanish, French, Darija, and – like many people in Morocco and elsewhere, but rarely in America – probably more languages.  We first found George on our second trip to Ceuta and have returned each time both of us have come (as opposed to when Brian has brought Charlotte for her own doctor’s appointments). Dining with George is one of the things that completes our expectation of going to Ceuta.

So after rising at 4:45 am, driving four and a half hours, sitting at the border for three hours, going to the doctor, filling prescriptions at the pharmacy, and checking into our room at Hotel Ulises, we were happy to walk a few blocks along Calle Real and down the steps toward Paseo de la Marina Española.  Being Americans, we listened to our rumbling stomachs instead of looking at our watches, and arrived at George’s door 10 minutes before he opens for dinner at 8:00 pm. Eyeing us as we peered in to see if they were closed for the night, George opened his door and welcomed us back, then told us he opened at 8:00 and would be happy to reserve a table for us.  We told him we would wander for a bit and come back. We went next door to the Charcuteria shop, marveling at the beautiful thin slices of Iberico ham carved masterfully by one of the two men – from their matching bald heads and full noses, they must be brothers – while the other cashed out customers.  Among the other offerings on shelves around the shop we found a bottle of Moët & Chandon Nectar Imperial, the Champaign we first drank on our honeymoon. So we bought it, because we rarely have found it since our honeymoon 23 years ago, and intend to pop it once our plan for the next leg of our expat expedition gets finalized.  That consumed the 10 minutes we needed to spend, so we went back to George who sat us at the same table where we always sit. He knows that Audrey wants seafood and Brian does not. That night he brought Audrey muscles and Brian his new fusion sukiyaki, with Spanish Albariño and Tempranillo wines to pair with each. After a very long day of driving to another country, it was nice to end it catching up with George as he filled our bellies and satisfied our palettes.

Having accomplished all other tasks on Friday, when we woke on Saturday morning our only remaining job was to stock up at Ceuta’s huge Carrefour.  This, like crossing into Ceuta the previous day, proved more difficult than expected. Unlike our previous trips, the store was understaffed and understocked with aisles full of frenzied shoppers.  The multiple bottles of Cointreau we had planned to buy – in order to stay stocked for making margaritas – were nonexistent. Bummer. Meat cases were largely empty…with no packs of pork ribs at all!  Brian grabbed a number at the butcher counter while Audrey orbited through other aisles. After waiting more than an hour for the one butcher on duty to finish filling a handful of large orders, Brian finally astonished him by asking for four pork tenderloins and eight huge pork chops to load into our cooler for the return trip home.  (In explanation, he told the butcher, “Vivimos en Casablanca, así que venimos a Ceuta a comprar carne de cerdo.”  The butcher smiled in reply.)  Add to that the pork sausages, pork meatballs, Serrano ham, and Italian mortadelo for good measure that Audrey picked up amid her orbits, and the cooler was filled.  We just needed to get ice to keep the meat cool on the drive back.

Oh oh…we could not find ice.  Maybe they moved it to a new location?  Brian finally went to the information desk and asked, “Donde esta el hielo?”  They guy led Brian over to a case where we had already looked in the freezer aisle…It was empty.

Lo siento.  No hay hielo.”  How could there not be ice?  Perhaps for the same inexplicable reason they had no pork ribs.

Hay más que puede sacar?”

No hay nada.  Lo siento.”

This required quick thinking, because $50 of fine pork required some manner of refrigeration going home.  Audrey set her brain to the task and instantly uttered words to make readers of our last blog post chuckle:  “Why not buy frozen peas?  They are just as good as ice.”

So began our resumed hunt for frozen peas, this time in a speck of Spain in Africa, but this time with quick success!  This was a good day to buy peas!!! So we bought four bags of them, plus a large insulated freezer bag, and packed the meat and peas into our cooler.  After checking out and loading up the car, we made another quick stop at the Mercadona grocery store on our way toward the border and bought two bags of ice there to add to our meat protection.

Our border experience heading home was the opposite of the previous day’s logjam, breezing through both Spanish and Moroccan checks in 20 minutes, then gassing up and heading home.  It was a whirlwind two days; but we updated and filled our prescriptions, enjoyed familiar Ceuta, and unloaded everything when we got home to find both pork and peas in great shape, ready to join our freezer for future consumption.  Not a bad preface to our working staycation.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

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