Get into Fez was surprisingly easy. I got a cheap flight from Barcelona on Vueling. The airport is tiny, maybe the smallest I’ve ever seen. From there I took the city bus to the train station. And then a taxi that I split with a couple tourists from the bus to the famous Bab Boujloud gate. The old town (medina) of Fez still has intact city walls pretty much all the way around. I had directions through the medina (no cars can go inside) to my guesthouse and that’s where I ran into trouble. Landmarks don’t really exist. Or rather they are all over the place. It’s hard to tell the carpet shop from the shawl shop from the shoe shop from the date seller. It all blurs together. They are a myriad of signs. The directions said to look out for a green fountain at the end of the street but the streets aren’t straight so you can’t really see to the end until you are well into the street.
The other major problem is the constant hassle from the “hustlers” here. My backpack was like a honey pastry to flies (yes, you will see lots of flies landing on these delicious treats being sold all over Fez). And they have probably the best English of anyone in town. They will run through multiple languages asking you where you are staying and where you are from. Later when I left the backpack it was like they disappeared though occasionally one would pop up to try to sell me ganja. At least during my first day I felt like I couldn’t slow down or make eye contact with anyone. I also felt like I was constantly being ripped off. I don’t mind paying extra as a Westerner but it’s still a psychic drain to try to haggle.
The main streets in the medina are wide enough for about four people to walk through, not including a bit of space for some vendors who have their stuff right on the street. But some of the smaller passages are narrow enough where your elbows could touch both sides.
The guesthouse I’m staying at is run by a guy who has the manner of a gentle stoner – drawling and speaking in sing-song. But I think he could have been a gangster. He almost always wore a suit, knew many languages and was pretty young to own so many guesthouses. And of course the most important sign, he has a scar running up from one of his lips, what one of the travelers called a “Glasgow smile”. Doha, a woman who works there speaks Spanish with a few words in English.
For all my worries about traveling I should remember that I’m still relatively new to it. I decided to treat it as an RPG and I’m a level 1 character. Every time I get lost and find my way, succesfully bargain, ask directions in a foreign language etc. I can treat like earning some XP points. So I shouldn’t freak out if I’m not very good at things at first.
When I get stressed I read some Sergey Dovlatov. There was a review of the latest translation of his in a recent New York Review Of Books and I pulled up some of his works. I first read him on a trip to Israel so it feels appropriate. The way his fictional self handles the absurd situations he often finds himself in – with humor and decisiveness despite a claimed inborn lack of confidence – makes me forget my worries. Maybe I find comfort in the zingy dialogue. I wonder if language like his is already dying. I have little connection to current Russian culture so it’s hard for me to tell. But then people don’t exactly speak like Sam Lipsyte characters either.
Spending four nights in Fez was probably too much. There’s not that much to do because a lot of the sights are just facades and are not open to the public. Maybe a guide can get you in? But even a guide won’t get you into a mosque and those are some of the most magnificent buildings in the medina. After the clutter and grime of the streets it was such a contrast to see the bright white, open space inside the mosque (I peeked through the door during prayer time) and smell its perfumed air. The hustle and bustle also gets to you.
On the third day in Fez I took a tour of the Roman ruins at Volubilis – reportedly the most extensive preserved remains of Roman architecture, Meknes – a town similar to Fez but less crowded and intense, and Moulay Idris – a small town near Meknes. It was a good way to see a lot at once but I decided that I will avoid these kind of tours in the future. It felt like I was spending as much time in the car as out and it felt like I was just checking things off a list.