Saving My Sanity in Italy: Florence

An exercise in relaxation.

The second day of my “Farewell to *Student’s Name*” tour I hopped on a train and zipped over to Florence.

Florence, Italy

Despite being a classic travel destination, I didn’t have much on my itinerary. Ok, I didn’t really have anything in mind other than finding my hostel and figuring it all out later. Depending on your perspective, this was either a great plan or a terrible one. I could have planned out my every move and whipped around the city trying to hit all the museums. Instead, I wandered around the streets and sympathized with all the tourists standing in line. Seriously. The lines. Every museum or attraction had a line out the door and around the block. In some places the line for people with scheduled advanced tickets was even longer than the regular walk up line. At that point, I felt pretty good about my decision to not plan and thus not stand in line. Most of those people didn’t look very happy.

Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy

So, no, I did not see David. I did not visit the Uffizi Gallery. I didn’t even go inside the Duomo at Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral.

Florence, ItalyReplica David

Florence, Italy

However, I did stroll down the streets and over bridges. I sat on fountains and drank cool lemon drinks. I walked up to Piazzale Michelangelo and enjoyed looking out over the city. I ate fresh sandwiches and crazy expensive gelato. Perhaps most importantly, I relaxed. After all, relaxation was what the “Farewell to *Student’s Name*” tour was all about.

xo, jill

Saving My Sanity in Italy: Pisa

The healing power of travel.

As much as I loved my time in Morocco, there was one big challenge that nearly sullied my experience. I suppose every teacher eventually comes across their nemesis. I met mine in Marrakech. If you know me personally, you’ve already heard the stories. In the interest of painting a picture for those who don’t already know but still remaining professional, I’ll just toss out a few snippets: pushing over a teacher (not me), standing/jumping on desks, drawing blood from classmates, and peeing on a classmate’s personal property. So… yeah. It was a rough year in the teaching department. Finally, in the spring when it became apparent that the school was not willing to make any real changes that would improve the situation, I decided to do the only thing I could think of to maintain my mental health. I booked a trip to Italy.

I dubbed the trip my “Farewell to *Student’s Name*” tour and tried to focus on my big reward during every stressful interaction, meeting, or student meltdown. It really helped. I felt like if no one (my amazing colleagues aside) was going to recognize my Oscar worthy performance with this kid, I might as well congratulate myself.

Pisa, Italy

A few days after school let out, I hopped a flight to Pisa. I arrived in late afternoon and walked over to the tower from my hostel. If you are in town just to check out the tower, Hostel Pisa Tower is a great location at a nice price point. I approached  the tower at golden hour, the perfect time to see it aglow. The leaning tower is such an iconic landmark that half of the fun is watching other visitors pose for and snap their photos. Everyone is smiling and feeling silly.

Pisa, Italy

Pisa, Italy

After getting my fill of the tower, I walked down through town to the train station to book a morning train to Florence. Unfortunately, I also used a sketchy ATM that skimmed my card number*. Super not fun to find out your debit card is being canceled while you’re (alone) overseas.

Pisa, Italy

And thus begins the “Farewell to *Student’s Name*” tour.

xo, jill

*At least I think this is where it happened. It also could have been at the train station kiosk buying tickets there.

Around the Neighborhood

Life in Gueliz.

I know that Gueliz is not the most exciting neighborhood in Marrakech, but last year it was where Mike and I called home. Despite having a few parents express sympathy that the school housed teachers in Gueliz, I actually grew to like the place. Gueliz is the modern French built area of the city so it lacks the unique character of the medina. However, I think it still retains it’s own charm.

Gueliz, Marrakech, Morocco

We were in easy walking distance to two grocery stores, the bank, good restaurants, several cheap cafes, and my yoga class. The train station and fruit/veg market were only a 20 minute walk away (although in opposite directions), and like I’ve said before, Marjorelle Garden was just down the street. Oh, and a good ice cream place was just a block away as well. Walking down the street you were just as likely to see horse drawn carriages and donkey carts as you were to see beat up taxis or brand new Mercedes.

Gueliz, Marrakech, Morocco

Gueliz, Marrakech, Morocco

Clearly, I took this picture right after garbage day. Throughout the week garbage piles up and spills over the dumpsters on a regular basis. It smells terrible but keeps the stray cats happy.

For me, I preferred living in the wide streets and open spaces of Gueliz over the cramped and labyrinthine medina. Whenever I felt overwhelmed on medina excursions, returning to Gueliz was a relief. (I know that there are amazingly peaceful riads within the medina, but let’s be honest, those places are not realistic choices for private school housing.)

Gueliz, Marrakech, Morocco

One of our favorite neighborhood places was a cafe called Mike’s Cafe. Ok, just kidding. It’s Frescobaldi but Mike was there so often that it earned a little nickname amongst our friends. The food is nice, though not amazing, but the real appeal is in the laid back atmosphere, people watching, and familiar waiters. (When one of the waiters got a new job, he made sure to say goodbye to Mike. So sweet.) We often spent long weekend breakfasts there sipping mint tea and grazing on olives and French bread.

Gueliz, Marrakech, Morocco

Gueliz, Marrakech, Morocco

Gueliz, Marrakech, Morocco

Our last Frescobaldi breakfast.

It’s funny how a place can start out feeling so foreign and different and then transform into a home, especially in the course of one year.

xo, jill

Ouarzazate’s Taourirt Kasbah

Beyond the studios.

Having spent our first afternoon exploring Atlas Studios, Mike and I split the rest of our time in Ouarzazate at the pool and exploring the Taourirt Kasbah. (There is a UNESCO ksar, Ait Benhaddou, just outside of Ouarzazate, but this is not it. We weren’t organized enough to get ourselves out there.)

Ouarzazate, Morocco

Ouarzazate, Morocco

Ouarzazate, Morocco

The Taourirt Kasbah dominates one end of town and is equally impressive inside and out. Of course, that’s just my opinion. Several people on TripAdvisor were disappointed that the rooms are unfurnished. Honestly, that’s very typical. I was once told by a guide that in the Muslim tradition, furniture and belongings of previous rulers/families are removed and destroyed. That’s why most fortresses open to the public are unfurnished. I tried doing a little research to verify that claim, but couldn’t find anything. Thinking over all of the fortresses I’ve visited in UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, and Morocco, only a couple had items in the rooms (Sheik Zayed’s former home in Al, Ain, for example.) I’m curious if anyone else has found this to be true.

Ouarzazate, Morocco

Ouarzazate, Morocco

Ouarzazate, Morocco

The kasbah is indeed a labyrinth inside and you won’t learn much without a guide. We weren’t in much of a guide mood that day, so we opted to wander the rooms on our own. Here’s a taste of what the kasbah is like, courtesy of a tourism company:

“The Kasbahs inside Taourirt are best described as a cobweb village of sun-kissed buildings elaborated with multi-level towers and turrets rising out of closely packed ksours (one family Kasbahs), ramparts with geometrical drawings and a series of alleys and gateways. 

Inside the Kasbahs themselves, you will be exposed to a myriad of mysterious stairwells leading into a series of uniquely shaped and sized rooms lit up by low windows. The larger rooms have plaster work decoration featuring floral patterns and are contrasted against white walls.”

Ouarzazate, Morocco

Ouarzazate, Morocco

Ouarzazate, Morocco

I could not have said it better myself.

Of course, there were some cute kittens around too.

Ouarzazate, Morocco

Here’s a little bonus of my disappearing pants!

Ouarzazate, Morocco

Ouarzazate was a great weekend getaway.

xo, jill

Morocco’s Hollywood

Well, maybe more like Burbank?

Even when you live in a top tourist destination like Marrakech, it’s nice to get out and about and see something new. Back in  May, Mike and I needed to get out of town so we hopped a bus headed to Ouarzazate. I’ve since been told that taking a coach  to Ouarzazate is not the safest choice, and I have to agree. A good chunk of the trip involves driving through windy roads without guardrails through the Atlas Mountains. I spent a lot of time trying to evade motion sickness and not looking out the window. It was a long way down. So, should you embark on a trip to Ouarzazate, I highly recommend hiring a driver or driving yourself. Once in town, your own private mode of transport will be much appreciated as well. The fabled bus running between town and the studios (I’ll get to that in a minute) never materialized while we were there.

Another way to visit Ouarzazate is as part of a Sahara Desert excursion. Ouarzazate is known as the Door to the Desert so most desert excursions stop here on their way to the dunes. I believe these stops usually involve a meal, a walk around town, and quick museum stop. Some may also include a trip to a nearby kasbah. Mike and I felt like we’d had plenty of amazing desert experiences in Rub Al Khali, so we prioritized other experiences while in Morocco. I still feel ok with that choice, but I do sometimes wish we’d had an extra few days to sneak out there. (Most trips involve a 12 hour day in the car which also made the excursion less appealing. Plus, riding camels is something I refuse to do again.)

Ouarzazate, Morocco

Because we were not en route to the desert, Mike and I focused on Ouarzazate’s other nickname, the Hollywood of Morocco. Quite a few films have been shot here including Lawrence of Arabia, Babel, The Mummy, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. There are two film studios in town and we elected to take a tour at the larger one: Atlas Studios. While it was fun to visit a film studio, the tour itself was a bit comical. Our guide was not too interested in his job. Although you’d expect to spend some time gawking at the sets, our guide was quick with the yallah-s. Spoken with his inflection, it definitely meant, “Hurry up!!!”

Ouarzazate, Morocco

Ouarzazate, Morocco

Ouarzazate, Morocco

Ouarzazate, Morocco

The commentary on the tour made us chuckle as well. It was a lot of:

Guide: Here, they filmed the English Patient.

Visitors: Really? Wow!

G: But not the famous movie, the tv show.

V: Oh…ok.

G: Here, they filmed Ben Hur.

V: Oooohhh…

G: But not the famous one. The 2010 Canadian mini-series.

V: …

Ouarzazate, Morocco

Ouarzazate, Morocco

There were also a few closed sets that were in use. When someone would ask what was filming there, the guide would reply, “Oh, some American movie.” as if we wouldn’t be interested. I’ll have to keep my eyes open over the next few years to see if I can spot any familiar scenes.

Ouarzazate, Morocco

Ouarzazate, Morocco

Ouarzazate, Morocco

Ouarzazate, Morocco

I had no idea before arriving in Morocco that it has such a strong relationship to Hollywood. While we were living there quite a few celebrities were nearby filming, including Nicole Kidman who reportedly looked into enrolling her children in my school. Also, one of my students had Tom Cruise’s people over scouting her house as a possible film location. I’ll have to actually watch the next Mission Impossible to see if it made the cut. In addition, one of the teachers at my school is also a well respected working actor in the Moroccan film industry. Exciting stuff.

xo, jill

The Endless Summer Road Trip

Our theme song. *

In early September, Mike and I took a week long road trip through Oregon and California. Highlights of the trip included: the redwoods, San Francisco, Big Sur, and Crater Lake. I decided to dust off my Fuji instax camera for the occasion. It’s been awhile! I brought it to Morocco but only used it a couple of times. At this point, all of my film is a few years old… which makes it even more exciting to watch the photos develop. You never know what the images will look like.

Not all of the photos turned out, but here are the ones that did:

Oregon/California Roadtrip
One lane covered bridge in Oregon

Oregon/California Roadtrip
Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

Oregon/California Roadtrip
Big Sur from Bixby Bridge

Oregon/California Roadtrip
On the beach in Big Sur

Oregon/California Roadtrip
Wizard Island and Crater Lake

It was fantastic way to bring summer to a close. Plus, I really do like showing off my pretty West Coast to my Ontario raised boyfriend.

xo, jill

*Ha, you know when you actually go read the lyrics then you’re like, “Wait, what??”

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