There was a nest of birds outside the kitchen window. I heard the little ones peeping, their cries rising in urgency when one of the children in the yard climbed the ladder to prod them with a finger. From my terrace apartment, I could hear the mother shouting to her children. They responded with a shriek: “LA!” they said, the Derija word for “no.” It came from the house with come frequency. The mother would call again. Something wooden would clatter on the concrete floor of the back area where the laundry was hanging to dry. I did my laundry too and dried my clothes on the rack outside, but everything came out stiff. Those children were monsters. Like other children in Morocco, a designated bedtime was not on their schedule. I heard them up and screaming at all hours, harassing the swift nest. I saw bird cages around Tétouan, holding the sad animals with featherless heads and thin wings. Stressed birds are ugly birds.
Evenings were otherwise pleasant on the terrace. My apartment was small but the view spectacular. I brought a chair and sketchbook outside and drew the tops of buildings around me. Seagulls cried and swifts bounced through the air. Once in a while, the sky grew quiet as a single crane went gliding by, backlit by vermillion clouds. The street below livened in the evenings. I grew familiar with the distinct calls and voices of each vendor competing for the most airtime. A river of locals pushed through the street and in and out of the medina. A few times I braved the crowd on my own, but the speed and urgency of the shoppers (people who actually had a purpose in being in the busy market) overwhelmed me.
At the busiest hour, I was invited by another resident to wander around and we wove like bees around the maze of the medina. Actual bees were trapped under film-wrapped sugary pastries. Everything in Morocco is dipped in honey and rolled in nuts or seeds, but I don’t have a sweet tooth. I do have cravings for heat, but I never encountered a decent hot sauce. I ate olives everyday and never got sick of it.
The vendor outside the studio has peddled several different kinds of fruit, from peaches to cantaloupes, onions and strawberries. I became most familiar with the sounds from the vendors below the studio, who started their days closer to noon, allowing me a few morning hours of relative peace. One young man’s aggressive calls boomed above the others, cutting through their words with his important message. The weird thing was, the vendor shouted (what sounded like) the exact same phrase over and over since I arrived. I thought he was calling out the price of peaches, but then the food changed to apples and the calls were the same. I looked down over my balcony and try to make out what on earth he was saying. My best guess was he was calling out price by kilo, which apparently never changes (at least not to my untrained ears). After deciding this was right, I peered over the rail the next day, only to see the man leaning over a cart of watermelons.
When the voices of the street vendors don’t drown it out, taxis honk and screech along the other road. There seemed to be a custom of holding down the horn for as long as one can to get someone to move. No gentle taps here on this side of Tétouan. Sometimes, although it was rare, I heard cats meowing or fighting with each other. Most of the cats were pregnant, nursing, or leading a parade of kittens down the sidewalk. In the evening, everything gets loud. The birds screech overhead, cutting the sky with their pointed wings, sharp like the edge of an arrow. The streets fill with vendors, raising their voices over one another in competition. Cocky students leaving the language school for the day enter the crowd walking abreast. Men came in from the desert and spread out blankets in the square. They had very black skin and wore deep blue—lapis lazuli blue—robes. They brought objects from the edge of the Sahara into town, statues of men and animals beside huge neck pieces with rough stones.
The tortoise shell cat had her babies outside of my studio. She was so pregnant, and the day before she had the kittens, I saw her lounging in a doorway, the pink nipples on her fat belly poked out toward the street. When I returned to studio from the medina one night, the man who sold fruit under my studio handed me a newborn kitten, a little orange one with tiny flaps for ears and eyes that were not open. It didn’t make noise, but searched for a nipple as I held her. Her mouth was hardly anything more than a little hole for sucking. She fit right in the palm of my hand.
At the end of my time in Morocco, I wanted to cast even my beloved jeans into the ocean. They made my flea bites itch and I still wasn’t allowed to wear shorts. I wanted to shred the long, sensible dresses I thrifted from Kansas City and change into a crop top. It was hard to tell if I was gaining weight or losing it. The Moroccan diet is a strange one. I reminded myself it would be easier to eat well in Spain, where I wouldn’t have to sterilize my fresh foods, or watch out where it came from. I frequently saw greens on the street, on pieces of cloth, as the man from the shop next door swept particles of dirt from the street landing on the dark leaves. My heart sank a little each time. I went to get ice cream on the corner by the plaza. The girl had a spot of chocolate on the back of her hand. She lifted it to her mouth and licked it off, flashing her braces, before diving back in to scoop my order. It was uncomfortable, but I knew I couldn’t be too squeamish. I also couldn’t be too careful, as I’ve been sick abroad before. I took a risk and ate my ice cream anyway.