Sugar

sugar granules

Sugar, sweetness, rush. Smile for the beet and the cane, but too much sugar and you get just a black beam, with the sugar-lump-like teeth gone from the grin. Ah, teeth. Just a smile can reveal so much about social status, about struggles and tastes. There is that typical top and bottom post-braces smile of those with the private dental plan and the private education. Then there is the embarrassed closed-lip smile of the four-year-old in my fieldwork site who has already lost all her front teeth to a diet of sugary tea, bread and donuts.

It’s time to write about sugar. Not just because I am bouncing off the walls with the stuff in its caffeinated accompaniments of tea and coffee. Not just because sugar in the UK provides such a clear comparison to one of the key cultural ingredients of life in Morocco. The main reason that I have come to be thinking so much about sugar in recent days is that I have been taught about it: by my students.

I’m not sure that there is sufficient recognition in academia, or in education in general, that teachers learn from students. You might already be an expert in climate change but surely if you get 60 essays considering the same data from different perspectives, and filling in the gaps, you’re going to come away all the more confident that you know what you know.

And so I now know about sugar. Over thirty student reports into the connection between Bristol and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade have left me in no doubt that the wealth of this city (Bristol) is at least in part founded on the trade in sugar, and slavery. Bristol, with its access to the Atlantic via the Bristol Channel, its shipbuilding trade, and its merchant class, not to mention its burgeoning financial sector, was a hub for commerce of all kinds that linked back to the slave trade.

Bristol managed to find its corner in this ‘triangular trade’. We can hold Bristol ships and merchants to account for selling an estimate of 500,000 Africans into slavery on the plantations of the Americas and the Caribbean. That was 1/5th of all British slaves. This put Bristol in a perfect position to develop a sickly trade and a sweet tooth. The sugar processing, the rum, the glass-blowing for the rum bottles. These and many other industries were helped along by these ventures and the money that sloshed up the Avon with them.

I would point out, that like any good academic, I am not simply relying on the things that I have learned from my students, but on my first hand research. That’s right, I have been eating a lot of sugar and visiting a lot of buildings which were built on the shillings of the sugar merchants. It’s not hard in Bristol. I don’t have to even leave my own institution in order to find an example of that trade on which it was at least partially founded. The University doesn’t explain the providence of its founders’ wealth in its own narrative history though, so we’ll have to be more specific.

The Cabot Institute and the Wills Memorial Building are both named after philanthropists who were slavers first. Wills dealt in tobacco rather than sugar, but it’s not such a big difference. Too much sugar and you are sick. Too much rum, the same. Too much tobacco and your teeth are stained rather than rotten. Bristol is sick of the sugar. There is a petition at the moment to change the name of at least one of those magnets that brings people to Bristol year around: Colston Hall. The national media are even interested in the debate (Guardian, Telegraph, BBC).

Perhaps it could be re-named. Why not? Hally McHallFace could work well. If that doesn’t go down well with Bristolians, I think I know a group of students who could come up with some very good counter proposals. One pointed out that the Hall wasn’t even built and named until well over a hundred years after Colston had died. So, so much for editing history, this seems to be more about revising the bad revisionism that led to the Hall having this name in the first place.

With sugar on the brain it’s quite difficult to write a thesis. Teaching though, is every bit as much a part of the PhD process as is thesising. Too much and you get very tired. A little and not a lot of teaching, like sugar, is a welcome luxury that takes the bitterness and the loneliness out of the 80,000 words: to be written.

Lettuce con courgette spaghetti

courgette-spagetti-tescoAs it is valentine’s day, I will start with something very un-politically correct in the post-grad-researcher world. We are naturally expected to complain, over-heat like any over-used computer and more than anything, suffer for our doctorate. Well I defy you culture of suffering, this is fun. On a day of love and emotion, I admit it: I love my PhD.

Yes, OK, I am in the post-fieldwork honey-moon period, pre-thesis and post research proposal; no, I haven’t yet entered the hell of synchronising data charts with pages of contents, and no, there are no chapters ready to go in the book. Let’s be honest, there are pretty much no chapters at all. That, however, my PhD and more normal friends, is not the point. The point is, that even though hard days in this relationship are still to come, I am still interested.

This last month or so, everyone else is interested too. There has been a #lettucecrisis and a #courgettecrisis and questions are being asked. “Why are Tesco rationing lettuce?” people are asking. “What can I do without courgettes for my veggie no-calorie lasagne?” And (big jump here), “Why are we even eating all this salad in the middle of winter?” And so the nation makes the mental jump from Tesco over to the greenhouses of Southern Europe, perhaps even beyond.

Now, since I don’t yet feel ready to move on to serious data analysis, I thought I’d go and do just a last little spot of fieldwork: a research trip down Park Street, in Bristol’s city centre. Sites visited were: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose. Clearly the limitation of the study is that Park Street is not representative of an average UK shopping street because it is big and really quite posh. Nevertheless, let’s see what we find.

A man in Tesco confirmed the national news, and what I have personally verified about summer vegetables really and truly depending on the situation in Southern Spain and not just on what we expect to see all day, every day, without exceptions. “Haven’t had lettuce for about six weeks” he said. Now lettuce is interesting to me, because it is counter-seasonal. That means that it is grown for us abroad at exactly the time when we can’t grow it here. So we can forget about seasons altogether and pretend that lettuce just is. Full stop. Thought stops there.

But no, during these last six weeks, the thoughts haven’t stopped there and in the UK people have been thinking about where their lettuce comes from and even briefly considering how the farmers of our food produced at the wrong time of year might be struggling to do that. But even more than that, there is discussion and help on how we might deal without lettuce in February. Personally I’d prefer porridge on the beach in August, but I’ve already admitted I like my PhD so we shouldn’t let my proven-radical opinions deter anyone from the crunch of an iceberg whilst shivering next to the radiator.

More interesting than lettuce however, to me and my counter-seasonal blinkered brain, are courgettes. Courgettes are vegetables that are not just counter-seasonal, but that are grown as part of the same supply chain as tomatoes. So in Spain from around the end of September until late June, and in Morocco from the beginning of November until the end of April, we get not just tomatoes but also courgettes, peppers, aubergines and more.

 

Tesco didn’t have any courgettes when I visited. Or did it? That depends on if we count the ‘courgette spaghetti’ that sat pre-prepared in a plastic box next to the loose veg. Sainsbury’s did have courgettes, for the quite considerably higher than normal price of £1.90 kilo, and also had the [ridiculous] spaghetti version too. Finally, Waitrose, rose above the spaghetti trend but also only offered the re-valued crop in semi-packaged form, this time in a nicely designed bag of three for the notable price of £2.59, or £5 a kilo.

The courgette spaghetti, or ‘courgetti’ is interesting – I can understand Tesco’s choice to prioritise its few courgettes for courgetti production because you get to sell it for a far higher price (£4 kilo) and perhaps just as importantly you can get away with absolutely no information about where the trapped and grated courgette comes from. So profit is accumulated in our humble convenience supermarkets on Park Street, and we don’t get any further forward in this radical process of thinking about where the courgette in the box is from, let alone who grew it.

Tomatoes will at some point get a blog of their own, but for the moment suffice to say that those I found on my little jaunt down Park Street were without a shadow of a doubt produced by firms and people that I encountered during my (proper) fieldwork in Morocco. The location confirms it, as do the codes on the packaging. We don’t know where the spaghetti courgette originates but I suspect it is from not so far away. On valentine’s day, I’m more than happy to think about this, and I’ll sacrifice the courgetti dinner for two.

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Coffee

coffee-to-goCoffee to go. I went. But I didn’t go without passing through the tourist Morocco that allowed me go to get here in the first place. I bought the presents, had the breakfast on the terrace, and in the airport I had a… coffee.

Coffee isn’t really a girl’s drink in Morocco. We’re supposed to drink tea, or perhaps a very milky Nescafe infusion. The modern Moroccans will disagree with me here, and they’re right, of course anyone can have a coffee, what decade are we living in!? Any woman who knows her place however, will also know to use discretion when choosing a coffee shop.

Coffee shops in Morocco are like pubs (were) in the UK. They are the place where men go to smoke, talk, get away from the house, relax after work, watch football and drink… coffee. At the language school last year I had to read a text which started, ‘between coffee shops and coffee shops, there are coffee shops’. A Moroccan joke which sums up the sight of rows of men in plastic chairs smoking and watching the world go by in small and large town centres. So of course we are allowed in coffee shops, but like a rough pub in the UK (a couple of decades ago?), or a dirty little bar somewhere else in Europe, you reflect on your gender before going into this particular ‘public’ space. I’ve been into a few of these coffee shops but being allowed in doesn’t mean you are comfortable. I’d far rather have a tea in someone’s (or somewoman’s) house, thank you.

So the airport coffee isn’t just a caffeine boost before a journey, it’s a place where my gender loses some significance and my mind begins to relax. Even the coffee cup speaks to me in English. It’s also a moment of loss. All that work, all that miming, all those words I’ve struggled to understand and build into comprehension, all that work is about to languish unused, for months and months. The rewards and sense of accomplishment after everyday interactions aren’t there when you return to your default self. But we are entitled to time off for a reason, and I think I need some.

I wasn’t going to write about coffee until I came back to work. It’s something I associate more with work friends and old friends and new friends, and even supervision meetings. Perhaps it’s fitting though that despite travelling between Morocco and the UK, two countries famous for tea, it is coffee is what comes across the globe with me. Not very original, I know. I was going to write about Harrira, a lovely warm soup with tomatoes and chickpeas and herbs. It’s cheap even when everything else is expensive, and would probably keep you alive if that was all you had. But I didn’t have my camera on me for the last bowl of Harrira. And somehow it hasn’t made the shortlist of ‘local products to be made available in the airport’. Not high-class enough, too much work, not admitted to ‘global’.

So coffee, with an imperfect colonial past (tea being no better), and an imperfect addictive future. Culturally though, it’s become a means, a code, a facilitator of better things, some of them really great, even precious. A means to connect, to think, to wake up, and most importantly right now, to have a break.

Out of Office

Thank you for your e-mail. I will be on an extended coffee break until the New Year with friends and family. Thank you for keeping me company with my research in Morocco.

All the very best,

Lydia

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Harcha

ready-to-eat-1

Harcha. It’s made of a harsh kind of flour called smeeda. I’d wondered for a while what that was, but of course, it’s semolina, hence the name smeeda, which isn’t so different. Another type of durum wheat, another variant on the ingredient used for Couscous. So what is so special about harcha? Well, it’s a semi-sweet snack which usually comes with good company. For a slightly special breakfast, or an afternoon tea merienda.

In this case, I made it! I made it with a friend. A research friend, but a friend all the same. With a short time to go, I’m starting to tally up the things that I have and haven’t done, but more to the point, I’m starting to reflect on the connections I’ve made and whether they end here or not. A research friend is still a friend, just like a school friend, or a Uni friend, or a friend with any other descriptive word in front. So it’s nice to be able to say that I have not just done a little research, but I’ve also made a few friends.

There’s something special about these friends. Our worlds are so different that it’s difficult to imagine them in my context, or us in another context. We’ve made friends in this context though, so like a Uni friend might share their washing liquid or their lecture notes, here, we’ve made sense of each other through what we are doing now, and why. We’ve seen how we can help one another or accompany one another through our different daily challenges at different times. I’ve made dinner for friends who worked late and used to live in my house. Others have made me breakfast, or tea and explained how things work here. How the school system works, or the way people find a job, or why they have two phones. The insightful things and the practical things are often the small things.

Research isn’t just about making friends though. It’s also about stepping forward and going out and asking after your research topic. With a research topic that is on people’s minds there have then been more questions back to me and lots of opinions about where I should be. Surely, looking like a tourist, I should be somewhere more set up for tourists? Surely, I should be mixing with the ‘ex-pats’ and the middle classes, not people who buy their ingredients in little scraps of newspaper. Surely, I should be just a little further away from my research topic. An hour might do it.

If there is something that I have learnt from traveling and living abroad it is to be ready to change plans. There is no point in digging your heels in with fixed dates and fixed plans. Especially when those dates were plucked from thin air based on an understanding far more shallow than the one I have now. The first time I properly traveled I spent two months rushing from hostel to hostel, only to realise afterwards that I could quite easily have stayed another month. Money wise, time wise, flights wise. So now that the forces that be are pushing me away from spending much more time with new friends here, I’m learning from these previous experiences and have found out that it only costs £30 to change my flight. I won’t be changing it by much, but there is a limit to how long I fancy changing roles: from researcher to tourist, from friend to client.

Some friends last though. You might lose touch, you might not coincide again, but you don’t un-meet people. I might not remember the recipe. I might never make it. But the next time I see a harcha, I will know more than just how much it costs and how it tastes. I will know how it was made, and how to make it if I fancy sharing in good company.

Bread

bread-coooking

Bread. Or ‘hobbz’ to anyone in the Arab world, including Morocco. I was sure I’d heard ‘Hobbs’ in relation to bread before, was it a brand? Here, in any case, it is much more than that.

Women in Morocco make bread. Clearly not all women, but a lot more women than I would have expected. A mother of five children, with a family shop that sells bread, nevertheless makes her own bread. The husband says it’s her job. The bread in their shop is just bought in for selling to customers (like me). My neighbour who often works a 10-hour shift packing peppers to go to Europe, makes her own bread. This isn’t just the occasional loaf, it’s enough to eat with every meal, every day. When I say eat with, I mean instead of a fork, and as an accompaniment to the meat, veg and dried apricot if you are lucky. Even an academic with two children, a full time job and writing her thesis, makes her own bread.

Obviously the double shift for women is nothing new to us. Although just because it isn’t new, it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth noticing. That’s what I’ve been doing recently, noticing things. Other people work and make bread. I notice things. People also notice me. So it’s not a one-way process. Sometimes I notice people noticing me. In every country I’ve been a foreigner there is a word, you just have to listen for what it is. I’d recognise myself as ‘la Gringa’ in Latin America, ‘Guirri’ in Spain, or ‘Gainjin’ in Japan. I now recognise myself as “l’Goeriya”. Or, in the Spanish pronunciation even better: “Goerilla”. In hindsight, I think Gringa sounded pretty good!

If you want to understand something I sometimes think it’s worth skirting around the edges first: what is not the thing you want to understand? I want to understand seasonal work. So what do people do when they aren’t at work? Maybe that’s what I’ve been noticing recently: the bread-making, the floor sweeping, the hand-washing of clothes (I get to take part in that one). It means things are coming more into 3D. You don’t just see a worker you see a person in their context.

The same goes for the Goerilla. I’m fast losing novelty value, so if I expect people to continue having patient conversations with me, I’d better get 3D fast. People don’t want to talk about their work all day. The art of staying put is quite different to the art of travelling and arriving. For a start if I’m not making bread I can at least make some salad. However, I have found something that is more interesting to people than my (lack of) bread-making. I have found a job.

I was tempted to go for a job picking veg, but I think that could lead to trouble and I’m told to be careful several times a day. So English teacher it is, only a few hours. It costs me nothing to share my ‘goerilla-ness’ in Thursday and it doesn’t cost them either. Languages are the currency of social mobility in Morocco. In all major cities middle class children go to bilingual or trilingual schools and have private tutoring and classes in the evenings, adults too if they want to. There is no after-school tutoring in my town, people with good language skills tend to socially move themselves elsewhere. So you could argue that I’m helping a process of westernisation and globalisation, which would be true. I might contribute to people understanding the terrible songs that are on the radio. However, this isn’t preaching in an untouched village, it’s sharing words with people who don’t want to pick Europe’s tomatoes forever.

There’s one more thing about bread. It gets recycled. It’s the one thing. Other things might be re-used, if they are put in the bin and perhaps taken out again. Or more likely all the disposable stuff will just begin to blend in with the rubbish and rubble on the streets. So the bright pink yogurt pot will slowly fade as it’s trampled into the sandy ground. That’s not the case with bread. Bread is separated and saved. It has a detectable ecological cycle. The crusts and end are collected up, dried out in the sun, collected on a horse driven cart and taken to be eaten by the ‘bugra’ – the cow – as I was told my landlord, but I think the horse gets a bite too.

Conflict of interests: The writer admits to disliking yogurt, and enjoying her daily bread. Personal preferences may therefore have affected the analysis above.

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