156: Morocco: love, cats and tips

The tiny restaurant had no indoor dining, an obvious boon in the warm summer months, but this was late fall, and it was cold and windy. I was only the second customer. The first, a young couple huddled deep into their winter coats, had already commandeered the best location, partially sheltered from the gusts of arctic air by the chicken rotisserie rack and the tagine brazier, both of which still radiated heat. I chose the second-best table, close by the couple, in the hopes of obtaining some warmth, too. The waiter, a slim teenaged boy who looked hungry himself, brought me the menu, and stood by shivering in his too-thin jacket as I quickly made my selection – a chicken sandwich and hot coffee. When I returned the menu, our fingers brushed accidentally, and his touch was cold.

He returned momentarily from the kitchen area, bearing the order from the young couple seated at the warmer table. They had both ordered a steaming tagine, a traditional Moroccan dish prepared and served in a small, one-person-sized ceramic oven. As they each lifted the conical lids that served as covers for the food, twin fragrant clouds of hot steam rose appetizingly. The young lady and the young man began to eat, in the breaks during their animated conversation. Moroccans often speak with their hands, and their lively conversation slowed somewhat with the arrival of their food, but continued in spurts between bites.

I soon realized the two were not engaged in an amicable discussion. It might have begun that way, but as the conversation progressed, the expression on the animated face of the young lady darkened to a steady scowl, and the young man became increasingly remote and distant. I recognized the symptoms of a lover’s spat, and tried not to watch. It is difficult, however, to completely ignore a simmering volcano, especially when you are sitting right next to it, and I snuck furtive glances at them from time to time as the battle of words grew steadily more heated. Moroccans typically think nothing of venting their anger in public, and this lover’s disagreement was working up to an impressive display.  At the point where it occurred to me that a retreat to a safer, if chillier, spot might be the wisest course of action, the young lady delivered to her gentleman friend a stinging retort in staccato Arabic, and even I, who do not understand Arabic well, could clearly ascertain her meaning. At the conclusion of her announcement, she dramatically tossed her cutlery into the tagine with a clatter, rose from her seat with offended dignity, and huffed away. The young man, equally but more quietly offended, also rose, threw a bill on the table and himself departed in the opposite direction as his former lady-love.

Presently the waiter appeared from the kitchen to bring my sandwich and coffee. He appeared unsurprised at the vacant table, still set with mostly uneaten tagine, now attended by several hopeful stray cats, one orange-striped, one handsome tuxedo black and white, and one motley calico. He began methodically to clear away the remains.  He picked up the payment, and with barely a glance at it, stuffed it into the pocket of his jeans, hoisted the load of crockery and uneaten food, and departed again to the kitchen.

He reappeared with a carafe of hot coffee, which left a visible trail of steam behind him as he brought it to me and offered a refill, which I gratefully accepted. He then wiped the now-clean neighboring table and retreated.

As I ate my sandwich, shared the generously portioned chicken filling with the patiently waiting cats and drank my delightfully piping hot coffee, I considered the young lovers, and wondered if I had witnessed the end of the relationship, or only a temporary pothole which would soon be patched over. I wondered if the waiter had gotten much of a tip. Probably not. I left a good tip, anyway, and three happy cats.

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