A teenage Moroccan girl in her school uniform of white shirt, navy blue tunic, backpack, and ponytail artfully carries several trays of flat rounds of dough covered in checked tea towels. A little boy scoots by her, his backpack slung over his shoulder, a tray of unmade bread balanced high on one hand like a waiter carrying drinks through a crowd.
At the intersection of our skinny alley and the slightly larger lane that it meets, we pause to let an old lady pass before us. Wearing a bold red jellabiya, matching red headscarf and a black veil tied across her lower face, she carts her rounds of dough on wooden serving trays.
They are all headed for the neighbourhood bakery at the end of the lane where the local community bakes its bread each day, rolling out the dough at home just the way they like it, dropping it off on the way to school, work or the market, and collecting it later. If you walked by once you probably wouldn’t notice it.
There’s no sign, just a dilapidated doorway (padlocked when not in use) leading into a blackened cavernous room, illuminated only by the flames burning from the hole in the mud wall that is the oven. From early in the morning until early afternoon the ‘baker’ monotonously manoeuvres the loaves of bread into and out of the oven in the same way those skilful Milanese pizza guys do, ensuring they are just right.
These are the little details of everyday life that we delight in here in Marrakech‘s medina, and more generally when we rent a place and settle in for a while, the things that are often overlooked or not possible to see when you stay in hotels or hostels in the tourist zone, because these are the things that happen in ordinary, living-breathing neighbourhoods.
It was actually in Milan, a city misunderstood by many travellers, who rarely venture further than 500 metres of the Duomo (except to see Da Vinci’s Last Supper), that we truly came to appreciate the value of staying a while and becoming privy to the intricate patterns of everyday life. It was there that we really began to understand the ebb and flow of daily life in Milan, and in Italy, in a way we hadn’t before.
From our floor to ceiling French doors up on the fourth floor of a centuries old apartment block, we looked down onto the Navigli, or canals, after which our neighbourhood and its main thoroughfare were named, watching the locals going back and forth across the bridge day in day out as they went to work, school and university, and out shopping, eating, and dining.
We knew when Fashion Week was on, when skeletal, clean-skinned youths in tight jeans and t-shirts would slide across the bridge, hips swaying, on their way to calls. And we knew when there was a football match on when the televisions became the focal point of the bars, so full, locals spilled onto the footpaths, cheering or groaning in unison.
It was here we realised how obsessive the Milanese are about exercise as we observed the same people jogging, power-walking, riding bikes and walking their dogs at the crack of dawn each day; how passionate they are about food (as if we didn’t know already!) as we saw the restaurants fill with locals for lunch and dinner every day; and how fond they are of a night out drinking with friends, as we watched groups bar hop until the wee hours of morning, singing as they strolled home drunk as the sun was rising.
The main artery of our Marrakech neighbourhood, Rue Bab Doukkala, wasn’t the location of exercise, gastronomy or revelry, but as we walked the length of the ramshackle street, sometimes up to four times a day, it was just as fascinating to observe the locals go about their day-to-day life, dropping their bread off for baking in the morning, shopping for vegetables, meat, poultry, eggs, herbs and spices from the specialist hole-in-the-wall shops or carts on the streets, and snacking on grilled meats, steaming hot bowls of harira soup, or piping hot tajines for lunch or on their way home from work.
Rue Bab Doukkala was alive from early morning until around midnight when the last stalls were being packed up and the garbage was being swept from the streets. There was no way we could have known any of this had we have stayed at one of the city’s hotels. You might pick up some of the rhythm, but you never lock into the groove.