Author: Becky Sue Epstein, Fathom
She was an aficionado on a mission: to saber a bottle of bubbly at her friend's birthday. She crossed the Atlantic from Boston to Marrakech to do it, but that turned out to be the easy part.
MOROCCO – A few months ago, a friend posted a photo of me sabering the top off a bottle of Champagne. It was taken at night during a bonfire party, and my friend Jean-Marie, who lives in Morocco, liked the post. So I commented that I would saber Champagne for his Big Birthday, which I knew was coming up in a few months. Jean-Marie is married to my high school friend Joyce, and I figured I'd see him in the spring when they came to New England to visit Joyce's mother. Instead Jean-Marie replied with an invitation to saber the birthday Champagne in Morocco in March. Of course I said yes.
Jean-Marie is a Frenchman born in Morocco and raised in Marseilles and Aix-en-Provence. He and Joyce were introduced by her landlord when she took a French course in Aix. Now, a few decades later, they spend most of their year in the remote Atlantic fishing port of Sidi Ifni in Morocco. They make regular forays back to Europe, the United States, and the remote places that Jean-Marie favors, like Russia in winter and the back roads of Turkey. A solid man with a boyish streak, he's always dressed in colorful checked shirts. Joyce seems very matter-of-fact about her life of peripatetic travel — perhaps because she has mastered the French art of the elegantly draped scarf.
In the weeks before our trip, the subject of a suitable sword was the topic of many emails. At first I thought I'd bring the shiny new Italian-made sommelier saber that I ordered after I used one to decapitate a bottle of prosecco in Italy. It has a shiny white tassel on the handle and is beautiful. Then I considered all the explaining I'd have to do to get it through airport security in three countries. There must be plenty of Champagne-appropriate sabers in Morocco. Haven't I seen pictures of Berbers racing in the desert wielding swords? Is that just a figment of Hollywood's imagination?
Joyce and Jean-Marie assured me there would be swords in Morocco. So my husband and I packed carry-ons, leaving room for the bottles of Taittinger we'd pick up in the duty-free shop in Madrid before connecting to Marrakech. This wasn't about saving money so much as ensuring quality: Morocco is a Muslim country, and its citizens are not officially allowed to purchase or drink alcohol. Foreigners can, but the supply is uncertain. (Though there is a growing wine industry in Morocco, which I sampled every chance I could. It's promising.)
When we landed in Marrakech, Jean-Marie and Joyce assured us that their friend Hassan had been tasked with finding a sword.
On the drive into the city, I was astounded at how familiar Marrakech felt, though I had never been there before. The arches of the architecture, the arid Mediterranean landscape, and especially the traffic reminded me of the time I spent in Tel Aviv as a child. Roads were filled with late-model cars, tricycle trucks, bicyclists, and donkey carts. It was enchanting. Even more so when we walked down the street from Hotel du Pacha and sat at Café Les Négociants in the early spring sunshine, drinking small glasses of ubiquitous Moroccan sweet mint tea, knowing that back in Boston yet another snowstorm was brewing.
A few days later, more people had assembled for the birthday from the US, the UK, France, Germany, Serbia, Italy, and Morocco. A group of us spent the morning browsing the endless medina — tinsmiths, leather workers, wool dyers, coppersmiths, spice merchants, clothing vendors, and purveyors of household goods and food. Shops overflowing with rugs, bowls, slippers, and other tourist wares were interspersed with the practical stores where locals shopped.
The souk in Marrkech. Photo by Branko Gerovac.
For several hours, we feasted on colors, sights, and scents, ambling down alleyways and dodging swiftly moving donkey carts. We visited the beautifully tiled Medersa Ben Youssef, a restored 16th-century school for boys. Two of Jean-Marie's friends, both named Ahmed, accompanied us. One was short and along for the ride; the other, very tall, served as our guide, occasionally striding beside me whispering bits of Moroccan history into my ear. ("Did you know that the French only occupied Morocco for forty years?")
When we arrived at the metal and antiques section of the medina, I tried to buy my own Moroccan sword. In my rusty French (everyone speaks French), I explained my quest to the Ahmeds, who immediately had all the shopkeepers rustling through their merchandise. After many attempts, I realized the shops carried two options: newly-made, short, curved knives for tourists, and antique Berber swords worth hundreds of dollars. The knives were too flimsy and the swords were too fine, so I admitted defeat and moved on. (Besides, Hassan was on the case.)
For a few days I forgot about my quest while we toured Marrakech and drove over the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. We arrived in Sidi Ifni, a fishing port on the Atlantic Coast with great tracts of desert to the south and west, in the late afternoon. Jean-Marie and Joyce spent a few years renovating a centuries-old adobe building into a Moroccan-style home with bright touches of native materials and folk art. It took several years because property titles are often impossibly tied up in Moroccan and Spanish complexities. Sidi Ifni was the northern border of a Spanish African colony until it became part of Morocco in 1969. Evidence of this remains in the Spanish street signs tiled on corner buildings.
The harbor and the beach at Sidi Ifni. Photos by andrez_1 / Flickr
The streets were filled with people of every size and shape. Most women were wrapped in colorfully patterned cloth, a small percentage wore burkas, and an equally small number wore Western attire. In addition to Berbers and Moroccans, Sidi Ifni is home to a small group of artistic European expats as well as retired Europeans on a budget. The latter set up RVs by the park in the winter. In their uniform of capris and T-shirts, they shop for their daily bread and loll in the town's cafés and, on Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m., assemble at the bank of telephones in front of the main post office to shout greetings to their relatives back home in France and Germany.
By this time we had been in Morocco for nearly a week, so we asked Naja (the maid who came with our rented apartment) to wash our clothes. The apartment owner had left strict instructions that no one but Naja could touch the washing machine. The washing part went fine, but nobody has dryers, so Naja strung our clothes on the rooftop. Sidi Ifni is a misty, seaside town, and I pretty sure we would have to buy something to wear before our clothes dried. When we woke up the next morning, the air was entirely different. A hot wind had filled the town, and our clothes were dry before breakfast. The hot wind was the beginning of a sandstorm called chergui, which strikes a few times per year. By the time we left the apartment, we had to hold scarves over our noses and mouths to breathe amidst the flying dust.
Over at Xanadu, the small B&B we visited for the WiFi, I took up my sword quest again. I asked the young manager if he knew where I might buy one. Out the door in a flash, he trotted up the hill to the fish market in the sandy wind. I followed, breathing hard through my scarf. Most of the shops were closed due to the weather, but the young man asked a friend to open his souvenir shop for us. The sheathed swords and knives were the same as in the medina: trinkets for tourists and fine swords for collectors.
When Joyce told me that Hassan hadn't found my Champagne saber either, I was crushed. So much for my big dramatic moment for the big dramatic birthday.
The party was held at the newly opened Logis La Marine. We feasted on lovely hors d'oeuvres and toured the hotel, ending up on the rooftop overlooking the city and the ocean. The sand had abated, but the winds were still high, so we went back into the dining room and watched the winds whipping the palm trees on the patio outside.
It takes a steady hand. The author at work, before and after. Photos by Daniel Molinier.
It was time for the birthday Champagne. I looked around for someone to open the bottles. Jean-Marie looked at me. In a move that was either desperate or inspired, I rushed into the kitchen and found a substantial chef's knife. Not very ceremonious, but it would work. A cook hastily cleaned the knife and handed it to me.
The only way to do this safely would be out on the patio, the wind still lashing at the palms. I opened the door, and we all trooped out. I held the bottle up by the base, took a few experimental tries, and thwacked the top off. Everyone oohed, aahed, and applauded. People held out their glasses and I poured. The bottle I crossed an ocean to open had been sabered. Who needed a sword?
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