Saturday, July 18, 2009


My travels through Southern Spain, Morocco and my weekend in Paris afforded both an inner and outer journey. At times what I saw and chose to photograph functioned largely as a backdrop/diversion from my deeper thoughts. Sometimes I was trying to sort out culture--how did Roman culture transmute into the cultures of Spain, Morocco and France? And then what about the Moors and the Jews? What traditions did they generate....and apart from architecture, what of their worldviews still remain?

I allowed myself to entertain observations about ethnicity--how is the expression of French culture different in Morocco than it is in Paris? And what happens to the French West Africans, the Middle Easterners, the Indians and the Asians who make France their home? Quickly I sensed that being French (like being American) is a cultural identity/a point of view that has nothing to do with genetics. On the plane back to America I sat next to a woman who looked decidedly Asian and she told me she was French. As her story unravelled I noted that she was born in Korea and at the age of nine was adopted by a French family. She no longer speaks Korean--her entire worldview is that of a French woman. She was coddling a small baby, speaking to it in French and soothing it with French nursery rhymes.

The more I thought about her story, the more I faced that today, more than 500 years after the European Conquest, ethnicity/identity are completely separated from physical appearance. The peoples who the Europeans conquered can now be found living in Europe as Europeans. While my grandparents hailed from Russia and Roumania, my identity is that of a baby-boomer American feminist whose influences include academic anthropology, sexology and certainly California naval-gazing!

Much of what concerned and confounded me on this trip were the distinctions between tourism, independent travel and cultural anthropology. Much of how I've engaged the world is that of a self-styled anthropologist/seeker. I throw myself into odd/unknown circumstances, get batted around and then sort out what happened--what that might reveal about me and of course this new/odd culture. While at times painful, it's also what I live for. Probably my most intense engagement of this approach was going to the Hammam (public bath) in Essoira, Morocco. In that moment I allowed my body to be handled in whatever ways were considered normal by my fellow bathers. Still, much of this trip I lived in the safe, momentarily captivating world of tourist sights and pleasures. While my couch-surfer hosts provided me access to other worlds, I largely found myself more interested in the tourist stuff. In Barcelona my hosts invited me to attend a vegetarian potluck massage-exchange and I bagged it, figuring I could do that any time I wanted at home...and that while in Barcelona I'd rather go walk down the Rambla (quite like Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade) and explore the old city. Now home in LA, I'm hosting couch-surfers from Europe who would much prefer going to Disneyland, Universal Studios and photographing the stars on Hollywood Blvd. While they might give lip-service to attending vegetarian potlucks, I understand fully why they probably won't.

Having signed up for an organized tour in Morocco, I was largely fed through the tourist sights and activities. I struggled. It was so not me. While some members of the group bonded into a family, I was forever wandering off...trying as best as I could to have my own experiences. And the Moroccans I'd met on these brief wanders were kind, friendly and engaging. Certainly there were the numerous young men who believed that befriending a foreign woman might provide them access to something good! (It was all playful and nothing problematic ever occurred...) One of my sweetest moments was in an Internet Cafe in Marrakesh when I asked the young woman attendant about who wears headscarves and why. She was in her early twenties and dressed in Western garb and without a headscarf. She described a friend of hers who had just started to wear one. Then that friend came in and we began to talk about how her life has changed since starting to wear one. Suddenly, the woman took off her scarf to show me her short curly locks, we all marvelled at her pretty do, and then we giggled as she replaced the scarf. I suppose it is access to those inner worlds that makes travelling special to me.

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