A Hammam in Marrakech

 

Some consider a hammam to be the ultimate Moroccan experience.

A hammam is a steam bath where you wash yourself down, sweat out the dirt of the day and then scrub, with an optional massage afterwards.

Because I’d heard the scrubbing can be a bit too strong for fair sensitive skins like mine, I chose the massage-only option. I’d had a good scrub under the shower back at my riad.

My massage at La Maison Arabe in Marrakech (pictured above) was the most luxurious massage I’ve ever experienced. A big strong woman used scented oil to massage every inch of my body (apart from the privates) – around the stomach, around the breasts, all over the place. It was SOOO relaxing and very sensual.

‘In past centuries hammams were the only source of hot water in the medina. Traditionally they are built of mudbrick, lined with tadelakt (satiny hand-polished limestone plaster that traps moisture) and capped with a some with star-studded vents to let steam escape.’ – Lonely Planet

For many Moroccans hammams are as much a social occasion (particularly for women) as they are about bathing. In some of the public hammams non-Muslims are not accepted. Or you can go to a private hammam.

‘Public baths were first introduced to Morocco (and the rest of Africa) by the Romans and adapted to fit in with Islamic ablution rituals – foregoing the communal Roman bathing pool to use running water to wash under instead – after Islam gained a foothold across the region.’ – Lonely Planet

On my 5 day visit to Marrakech I stayed at Riad Daria in the Kasbah. A perfect calm retreat from the chaos of the souks. The souks are the medina’s market streets, criss-crossed with smaller streets lined with storerooms and cubby-hole-sized artisans’ studios.

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Riad Daria in the Kasbah

Riad Daria is an authentic riad with a courtyard garden divided in four parts, with a fountain in the centre.

So here I am back in France on my month long writing-retreat-for-one after a short visit to Marrakech needing to concentrate on WIP again. Who knows? Maybe my trip to exotic Morocco will inspire me to write a book about loneliness, madness, love and existentalism like ‘The Sheltering Sky’ by Paul Bowles.

 

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“How fragile we are under the sheltering sky. Behind the sheltering sky is a vast dark universe, and we’re just so small.”
― Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

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“Paul Bowles masterpiece reminds me of some alternate, trippy, version of Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, but instead we see the other side of the Mediterranean. Tangier and the deserts of North Africa take the place of the South of France. A different love triangle exposes different forms of loneliness, madness, love, and existential expats.

The thing I love about Bowles is he brings a composer’s mind to writing. His novel isn’t propelled forward by a strong plot (although it has plot) or attractive characters (none of the characters are very attractive), but the music of his language alone pushes and pulls, tugs and compels the reader page after page. It felt very much like I was floating limp and languid in Bowles prose as his hypnotic sentences washed over me and drifted me slowly toward the inevitable end.” – Darwin8u, Goodreads.

Hope you too get to travel to exotic places for inspiration and rejuvenation.

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Writing Tip: taste life twice

writer at work at typewriter

Writers live twice. They go along with their regular life, are as fast as anyone in the grocery store, crossing the street, getting dressed for work in the morning. But there’s another part of them that they have been training. The one that lives everything a second time. That sits down and sees their life again and goes over it. Looks at the texture and the details.”  – Natalie Goldberg

quote by Anais Nin against a night sky

So here I am on a month away from my Sydney home wanting to recharge the creative batteries. I’ve just had a 4 night visit to Marrakech, Morocco. I got back to Villefranche sur Mer, where I’m renting a writing studio, last night. It’s a 3 hour flight between Nice France and Marrakech. So seeing as I’d traveled all the way across the world, I thought it a good time to visit Marrakech. Wow! What a creative experience. All the senses are awakened. Maybe I’ll live life twice and write something set in Morocco.

For now I’m feeling grateful to be able to travel and experience other cultures. The Marrakech-born people I met have never left their country. In the photos you can see me and Morad, the night manager at Riad Daria in Marrakech, one of the very kind and welcoming Moroccon’s who helped me during my stay. We’re pictured on the terrace of the riad. After the chaos of Marrakech’s souks, there’s nothing like a calm retreat. Below us is a corner of the rooftop terrace.

The first pic is the famous Jardin Marjorelle, the beautiful garden once owned by Yves Saint Laurent and home to the Berber Museum. He gifted the garden to Marrakech, the city that adopted him in 1964. Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge bought the electric blue villa and its garden to preserve the vision of its original owner, landscape painter Jacques Majorelle, and keep it open to the public.  A memorial to the French fashion designer was built there. This year a new museum dedicated to him was opened next door to Jardin Marjorelle. I was lucky enough to visit. The museum retraces Saint Laurent’s forty years of creativity, the world of fashion he created, some designs influenced by his life in Marrakech. He too tasted life twice.

 

 

Does solitude enrich creative work?

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I’ve been living for two weeks now in Villefranche sur Mer a small fishing village on the French Riviera. This is the fourth year I’ve rented an apartment here and had a month to  myself to read and to write and go for long walks around the stunning coastline of the Cote d’Azur.

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I’ve had my ups and downs, but what’s new? I love being in this magnificent part of the world but find it challenging being alone in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language. I have tried to learn French, but languages aren’t my forte. It’s certainly a good opportunity to dig deep in silence.

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Check out this article in the Huffington Post on Why Silence Is So Good For Your Brain.

As our internal and external environments become louder and louder, more people are beginning to seek out silence, whether through a practice of sitting quietly for 10 minutes every morning or heading off to a 10-day silent retreat.

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It’s mild early winter here on the Mediterranean and on sunny days people still swim and sunbake on the beach. The Bay of Villefranche, reputed as one of the five most beautiful bays in the world, is anchored by two major cities – Nice and Monaco – on either side. Villefranche is still a traditional Nicoise fishing village, pedestrians-only in the Old Town.

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Twice a week there is a fabulous fresh market in the garden square. I especially like the cheese man on a Saturday where I buy Roquefort and Camembert. On Wednesdays I buy Italian Parmesan from the Italian man. Villefranche is close to the border with Italy, so we are able to enjoy a few special Italian treats like pizza and capuccinos. The Wednesday Italian man sells charcuterie and fresh pasta too. Another man cooks and sells socca and pissaladiere, two traditonal favourites of this area. And then there’s the man selling tapinades. The black olive tapinade is my favourite. And, of course, being a fishing village, there’s the fish monger with his freshly caught catch of the day.

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fisherman

Surrounding Villefranche’s large bay are cliffs and steep hillsides, brimming with olive and citrus trees, Mediterranean pines, bougainvillea and flowering plants. The lush vegetation meets the water’s edge where the shades of blue are dazzling.

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The stunning light levels here on the French Riviera have long attracted the artist and writer community (Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, Renoir, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chanel, Cocteau and Nietzsche, to name a few).

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I’ve gone a bit overboard on the sunrise and sunset shots as seen from my apartment Sur le Toit (under the roof), but the colours are so stunning they are one of the highlights of my time here. Inspirational.

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‘In the neutral state of aloneness, the psychoemotional line between solitude and loneliness can be as thin as a razor’s edge and as lacerating to the soul. How to draw it skillfully in orienting ourselves to the world, exterior and interior, is what poet, novelist, and memoirist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) explores in a beautiful poem she penned ten days after her twenty-sixth birthday, decades before she came to contemplate solitude in stunning prose. Originally titled “Considerations,” the poem was slightly revised and published the following year as “Canticle 6” in Sarton’s second poetry collection, the altogether sublime Inner Landscape (public library).’ – Maria Popova

 

CANTICLE 6
by May Sarton

Alone one is never lonely: the spirit
adventures, waking
In a quiet garden, in a cool house, abiding single there;
The spirit adventures in sleep, the sweet thirst-slaking
When only the moon’s reflection touches the wild hair.
There is no place more intimate than the spirit alone:
It finds a lovely certainty in the evening and the morning.
It is only where two have come together bone against bone
That those alonenesses take place, when, without warning
The sky opens over their heads to an infinite hole in space;
It is only turning at night to a lover that one learns
He is set apart like a star forever and that sleeping face
(For whom the heart has cried, for whom the frail hand burns)
Is swung out in the night alone, so luminous and still,
The waking spirit attends, the loving spirit gazes
Without communion, without touch, and comes to know at last
Out of a silence only and never when the body blazes
That love is present, that always burns alone, however steadfast.

I’ve brought with me to France on this writing-retreat-for-one the first 40 pages of my novel-in-progress and am working on the story, line by line, to add depth and characterisation. Am having difficulty concentrating on my manuscript though as I struggle with the emotional rollercoaster of jetlag and then a leaking apartment. Feel more settled today since I moved out of Sur le Toit and down to the waterfront. A good night’s sleep helps.

I returned to my manuscript and wrote a new sentence 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Tip: Slow things down

woman in blue tennis dress position to hit big forehand

So, here’s the thing:  choose something in particular to write about. For example, what it felt like having a tennis lesson after a twenty year break. Give us the specifics. Dig deep for the details, but at the same time be aware of the world around you. As you focus on what you’re writing, at the same time stay conscious of your surroundings:  the white painted cane Bentwood chairs in the café, the cool breeze from under the door on your sandaled feet, the hum of the traffic outside. Just add a sentence every now and then about the trees that overlooked the tennis courts while you were having a tennis lesson. When we focus on our writing it is good. Seeing the colour of the sky when you toss the ball gives breathing space to your story.

If you are sitting in Meditation you calm the butterfly mind by paying attention to your thoughts, giving them space by acknowledging them before returning to the breath, in and out through the nostrils. In the act of slowing down your breathing, as best you can, you remain open so that you are receptive to awareness of sounds as they arise: sounds near, sounds far, sounds in front, behind, to the side, above or below.

With every breath you take, you feel the air, the sound of the ball as it hits the racket, the players on the other courts.

To slow myself down in tennis I often use the one, two, three method when serving or when receiving a ball from the server. I count ‘one’ as I prepare the service swing, ‘two’ as I toss the ball and ‘three’ when the racket connects with the ball. When receiving a serve I count ‘one’ as the server tosses the ball, ‘two’ when the server hits the ball, ‘three’ when I hit the ball to return the serve. It helps. My tennis coach Chris at Wentworth Tennis suggested I do this, to slow things down.

We should always be living in the present, not by ignoring the world around us, but by paying close attention. It is not easy to stay alive to ‘what is’. When we slow things down in our writing (and in our tennis), it is good practice.

What about you? Do you find a daily meditation practice assists your writing practice?

The older woman in fiction

men and women dancing

My new book, The Usual Story (Ginninderra Press) is due for release mid 2018. Like The Crystal Ballroom, The Usual Story is set in the dance world and will add to a small pool of literature that addresses the issue of the older woman in fiction.

‘In this unusual book Libby Sommer puts women’s psyches under the microscope – their hopes and dreams, fears and foibles – yet always with a deft touch and a sympathetic ear.‘ –  The Crystal Ballroom review, Women’s Ink! magazine , November 2017

two tango dancers in red black and white

The Usual Story touches on the stages of a woman’s life:  childhood, adolescence, marriage, motherhood and grand-motherhood. It’s created from asides, snapshots, glimpses, encounters and memories. The numbered sections provide a container for the chaos as we meet this woman in mid-life change. How will she come to terms with the truth of her aging in a culture that has very little use for anything that is not young?

Set partly in a seaside suburb of Sydney the story is played out against a response to nature, using the poetry of the Australian seascape to celebrate the beauty of this country. The presence of the sea throughout suggests the enigma at the heart of all life processes, the fact that certain things can’t be captured in words, can only be hinted and gestured at.

Together with many other developed countries, Australia’s population is ageing. Over the course of the 20th century, the proportion of people aged 65 and over has tripled. The baby boomer generation form a prominent part of Australia’s population, and as most fiction readers are women over forty the book will reach a group of people who are increasing in number but who are often ignored in literature. Most novels, if they have a heroine at all, depict her as young and beautiful, whereas middle-aged women, the majority of the readership, have no role models.

Although publication of The Usual Story is still more than six months away, we are looking at ideas for the cover. It will probably have a similar look to The Crystal Ballroom, perhaps in red, black and white with a dance theme. The publisher will make the final decision.

So then comes reviews for the back cover. Any suggestions for reviewers?

Header image Pinterest:  Beryl Cook – Dancing the Black Bottom

 

 

Writing Tip: Tell It Like It Is

speech bubble: I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse
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Use clear declarative sentences. This assertive statement was spoken by Don Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) in the movie The Godfather (1972).

It is not uncommon for women and other minority groups to add qualifiers to their statements. Such as ‘Parents need to stop organising every minute of their children’s spare time, don’t you think?’ ‘I loved that movie, didn’t you?’ In our sentence structure we look for reinforcement for our thoughts and opinions. We don’t always make declarative statements. ‘This is wonderful.’ ‘This is a catastrophe.’ We look for re-enforcement from others.

Another thing we do without realising it, is use indefinite modifiers in our speech:  perhaps, maybe, somehow. ‘Maybe I’ll take a trip somewhere.’ As if the speaker has no power to make a decision. ‘Perhaps it will change.’ Again, not a clear declarative sentence like, ‘Yes, nothing stays the same.’

It is important for us as writers to express ourselves in clear assertive sentences. ‘This is excellent.’ ‘It was a red dress.’ Not ‘The thing is, I know it sounds a bit vague, but I think maybe it was a red dress.’ Speaking in declarative sentences is a good rehearsal for trusting your own ideas, in standing up for yourself, for speaking out your truth.

When I write poetry I read through early drafts with a critical eye, taking out indefinite words and modifiers. I attempt to distill each moment to its essence by peeling off the layers until the heart of the poem is exposed. We need to take risks as writers and go deep within ourselves to find our unique voices and express ourselves with clarity.

Even if you are not 100% sure about your own opinions and thoughts write as if you are sure.  Dig deep. Be clear. Don’t be vague on the page. If you keep practicing this, you will eventually reveal your own deep knowing.

I hope this post is useful. Do you have any tips you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it. 

Writing Retreat for One

 

houses and clock in Villefranche sur Mer
Villefranche sur Mer

Am preparing for departure to my yearly Writing-Retreat-for-One in the south of France.  I feel very privileged. A month to myself in Villefranche sur Mer, a little fishing village on the Cote d’Azur. I go to this beautiful part of the world to regenerate, to read and to write and to go for long walks along the coast to St Jean Cap Ferrat or up up up to Mont Boron. That is the view from the top of Mont Boron in my profile pic.  Italy to the left and Nice, France to the right.

‘Overlooking one of the world’s loveliest natural quaysides, a privileged anchoring spot for the most prestigious cruise ships, Villefranche-sur-Mer has maintained its historic cachet with its port, the colorful façades of the Old Town and its Citadelle. Jean Cocteau, amongst other artists, fell under the spell of this enchanting site. Bathers and divers especially appreciate its beaches lapped by clear waters.’ – Cote d’Azur tourist information

I am able to fly directly to Nice from Sydney, Australia so I don’t have to pass through big airports like London and Paris. The small apartment I rent in the pedestrians-only fishing village of Villefranche sur Mer is a 20 minute cab ride from Nice. All very manageable considering it takes 24 hours sitting in a plane to fly across the world to get to Nice.

It will be early winter in France (summer time back home in Australia) so rents are slightly cheaper. Also, booking for one month gives a reduced price.

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Riviera Cote d’Azur

I will be seeking inspiration on the French Riviera just like the many artists who’ve been influenced by the sparkling blue waters and scenic streets, many of whom are now regarded as the world’s most influential and important. These include Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse and Edvard Munch. Cezanne was the first to arrive in the early 1880s.

‘Since the mid-19th century, the Cote d’Azur (French Riviera) has been luring aristocrats, the rich and the famous, and esteemed artists to its picture perfect cliff-lined coastline. After France acquired this territory in 1859 and then with the arrival of the region’s first railway system, the Riviera rapidly evolved into a popular vacation locale. The Mediterranean seaboard’s mild climate appealed to socialites looking for a retreat away from the dreary winters elsewhere in Northern Europe, and this destination also captivated the hearts of numerous prominent painters. You too can experience the very same radiant sunlight, breathtaking countryside, and vibrant hues that inspired the great works of Cezanne, Monet, Munch, Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh.’ – auto Europe

We all need time out to regenerate. I’ll be taking with me a print out of the first draft of my novel ‘Lost In Cooper Park’. I hope to make some progress on the book at my Writing-Retreat-for-One in the south of France. The perfect place to call on the writing muse.