Hand in hand

Translated by Susan Ouriou

With a string bag for groceries in a pocket, a colourful cloth bag in one hand, and my little hand holding Maman’s, the two of us set off for the marketplace. Along the sidewalks, we seek out the shade of the bitter orange trees. The air is fragrant with the scent of jacarandas and acacias. The purple bougainvilleas stand out against the limestone-covered walls behind them. It’s already hot despite the early hour.

We need to buy some fresh mint. A rough-hewn board serves as a counter. The merchant in his filthy apron, a cigarette hanging from his mouth, is barely visible behind his mountain of green leaves. Maman fingers the bouquets, picks one, then exchanges a few words with the placid man who finally agrees, “Ouara!”.

Farther along, we find mountains of scented oranges. Maman’s hand is expert at this, “Jouj kilograms!”. An old, noisy, rusty Roberval scale is called into service. The oranges are tipped into the basket. Maman bargains with the merchant who offers her peppers, grapefruit, mandarines, dates, guavas, kumquats and pomegranates. “Choukrane, not today, we’re in a hurry, inch’ allah tomorrow!”

An old man wearing a jellaba is half-asleep in his chair, on his lap a copper plate of cakes dripping with honey. Using a sheet of newspaper, he holds out a honey-almond briouat that has been dipped scalding hot into boiling honey. Tomorrow, there will be a griouch made with sesame, saffron or orange blossom. Another time, there will be a sugar crescent cookie or a butter ghoriba. A few dirham change hands. He places the money in his turban.

We need lemons, coriander, and cumin for the tajine stew as well. The display is magnificent under the bright sunshine. Multicoloured spices, ground with care and displayed in small pyramids exude various aromas: nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric. Beside them are jute bags full of peppers, maniguette, lavander, citron tree, bay leaves, licorice and aniseed. The merchant holds out three small newspaper cones full of spices.

Finally, a few olives: green, purple, and black. Plump, oily, tender, stuffed with anchovies or almonds, macerated in hot red pepper or fennel seeds, always aromatic. “Zitoune,” a word I know both in Arabic and French. We finish with a bouquet of anemones, mimosas, or marigolds placed on top of the basket. Off in the distance, we hear the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. The enchanting aromas accompany us on our way home. Spices, herbs, and fragrances are a prelude to all that is joyful in Morocco.

Holding onto my friend’s arm under a black umbrella, we make our way slowly through the crowded market pulling our wet caddy. Hens, ducks, and rabbits patiently await their fate in small, overcrowded cages. The fruit and vegetable displays announce the seasons. Wooden crates are full of apples, pears, medlars, figs, quinces, leeks, cardons, and beets. Over here, pumpkins of every size, over there a mountain of Swiss chard. We fill basins with huge dark green Webb lettuce. The electronic scale shows the price, which is rounded off by the merchant. An old woman’s miniature display offers pine honey, a few walnuts, thistles, and chestnuts. The smell of fruit, dampness, poultry, and cheese. Umbrellas collide. A small donkey and its owner, stoic despite the rain, offer up honey lozenges. A small boy wearing a yellow raincoat stands in the centre of the bustling marketplace trying to sell his two kittens. We plough our way through the crowd engaged in talk of the bad weather, children or politics. Mud-spattered street pedlars call to housewives huddled under plastic tarp awnings, lured there by the promise of the spoon of the century—“a cook’s third hand”—or by dishcloths capable of cleaning anything and everything without the benefit of detergent, all for the modest sum of . . . We enter the covered part of the market and shut the drenched umbrella. We’re off to get bread: a huge, dark ball with a thick crust. And a spongy Saint-Genix for dessert, chock‑full of red pralines in melted sugar. A few francs for the baker. The smell of roast chicken fills the air. To our right, the horse butcher’s and the vendor for pork, fatted chicken and rabbit. Why not stop for a few fresh quenelles, pork sausage, and some crozets. To our left, the fishmongers. We’re jostled and our caddy gets stuck on a display stand. Farther down, the gentle country aroma of cheese; creamy Saint-Marcellin, runny reblochons, aged beaufort, tome in brandy. How about a raclette tonight? A tartiflette? Some matafans? New words for me in French, my mother tongue. A girlfriend makes her way over to us, we exchange kisses and share the latest gossip. A colleague waves. A neighbour greets us and invites us over for coffee. With a bouquet of dahlias on top of our weighed-down caddy, we make our slow way home. Sainte-Chapelle’s bells ring, announcing twelve o’clock. Housewives make their way back to their kitchens. The rain has stopped. The Chilean trio is about to start up again on their pan flutes. Under the sun’s light, Chambéry’s market brightness will assume its full éclat, a veritable impressionist painting come to life.

My young son’s hand in mine, we make our way into the supermarket pushing a huge cart. The fruit and vegetable display is meticulous, in tidy rows, and colourful under the neon lights. Everything is clean, immaculately so. The displays are calculated as to their height, presentation, quantity, juxtaposition, and groupings. No aroma, not of bananas, peaches, or even mangoes. Likely the fruit was picked before it had ripened for the trip across the world in sealed containers to arrive in a presentable state on our plates. Automatic sprayers deposit artificial dew, giving the fruits and vegetables from around the world a reprieve. I reach for the products I’m familiar with, laden as they are with memories: coriander, clementines, dates, pomelos, pomegranate, persimmon, and sweet potatoes. I discover a host of other products: durians, cranberries, cantaloupe, okra, cherimoles, pecans, granadilla, rambutans, star fruit, mangosteens, physalis, tamarillos . . . So many words that I learned in English first, and only in French later. Around the world in sixty seconds or less. I imagine the bunch of grapes being packaged in Chile, the avocado leaving Mexico and the mandarins exported from Japan, their long trip through the crush and refrigeration gases, and the climate shock of their arrival in our snow‑covered lands. No apparent sign of the seasons: strawberries, peaches, cantaloupes, raspberries, and bananas are offered year‑round. I hurry, my shopping cart is full of plastic bags to protect the tastes and colours I love so much. I inhale the scent of the coriander as I set it down on the cashier’s moving belt. I weigh the firm red pomegranate in my hand. The cashier smiles and asks me to identify the contents of several bags. What strange tastes I have! “I’m from Morocco . . . and from France.” In her eyes, I’m as exotic as the contents of my bags. We exchange dollars. I carry my plastic bags. So unlike the string bags, the cloth bags, the wicker baskets and caddies. My little boy carries a bouquet of tulips imported from the Netherlands. We return to our car, incognito in the Canadian city that has become my home for the past twenty years.

The taste of Morocco, France, and Canada come together on my tongue . . . my mother tongue. I dip into one then another to meet my gustatory and linguistic expectations. I close my eyes, I taste and I remember . . . Heat versus cold, the snow versus a scorching sun, sweet and salty, and yet, together in me, all the blends of scents, spices and colours reach a place of harmony. A single scent or colour transports me to picturesque Morocco, the French countryside or the Canadian expanses. The three cultures live inside me, hand in hand.

Susan Ouriou translates fiction from French and Spanish, edited the 2010 anthology Beyond Words – Translating the World, and is the former director of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre. Her translation, Pieces of Me, won the 2009 Governor General’s Award for Literary Translation. She is also an award-winning fiction writer.

Odile Rollin first discovered the taste of citrus and the subtleties of spice in Morocco, the country of her childhood. The new and bittersweet awaited in West Berlin 14 years later and in France. Yet the strongest taste of exile, and the most lasting, came in Calgary where she began teaching in 1983.