(I dedicate this post to Michelle, Kyle and Kris: the experts at hanging with the important peeps in DC.)
(This is a long post)
When Joe asked me a few weeks ago if I wanted to come along on a working weekend in Fes (without the kids) to hang out at the Sofitel Palais Jamai while he squired some senators around town, I readily agreed. He suggested a spa treatment, afternoon by the pool, a nap and then I could possibly join the group for dinner. I am usually a sucker for politics and current events, but I have kind of (happily) put that part of my brain on the back burner since we moved here. So looking back now I'm not surprised that my only thoughts for the weekend ahead was relaxation and FREEDOM from my little friends (love you, boys!) However, I'm now a little ashamed that it didn't even cross my mind that, hello, you might be hanging with some awesome people (I know Gail, I know).
A part of Joe's job in Morocco is that of Control Officer, the designated coordinator from the embassy for delegations coming to Morocco from the States. Joe and his co-workers rotate being Control Officer depending on any number of factors.
This weekend, a Congressional Delegation (CODEL) came through Fes for a re-fueling stop. Five senators, their wives, and a few staffers had spent the last 8 days making 7 stops in countries in Southern Africa: Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, etc. They are all on the HELP committee (Health, Education, Labor and Pension) and spent time visiting hospitals and other places we are unsure of because we were focused on their time in Morocco.
Anyhow. Usually a CODEL spends their time in country at official meetings or events, going nonstop. However, this was a unique situation in that they were in Morocco to let the aircrew rest, so they had 24 hours to sightsee and shop- no meetings, no officials, no Ambassador. Therefore, Joe and our friend Sam, a Cultural Affairs Officer, were as official and “important” as it got.
What follows is our perspective of CODEL Harkin/Enzi/Udall/Wicker/Conrad (all times approximate):
8 am: Depart for Fes. Ash spends 2 hour drive to Fes emailing (for Joe while he drives) back and forth with CODEL's military escorts firming up schedule and plans. Blows my mind to think about all the correspondence Joe has had with them this week and then multiplying that by 7 times for the staffers...for each stop they made.
11 am: After a long and bitter fight with the GPS on the back roads of Fes we finally arrive at Sofitel by paying a cab driver to lead us there. Joe gets to work on logistics with hotel and team from embassy; I head to the spa.
1 pm: Lunch on terrace that costs approximately 2 arms and half a leg. I try to calm my financially responsible husband by reminding him that we haven't had a date in a long time. And don't worry, your tax dollars did not pay for lunch.
4:30 pm: Upon CODEL arrival, Joe and Sam take the group to the medina for a tour and shopping. Sam served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Fes so he knows the medina like the back of his hand. Evidently this was one of the first chances that the group had time to shop on their trip, so it was like trying to herd cats (toddler cats) as people ducked in and out of shops and narrow alleyways. Harkin (Iowa) wanted to stop at all the nougat stands and Senator Udall's wife was interested in the beauty products. Adding to the chaos is the fact that it's Saturday evening, so all of the locals are out to take their leisurely stroll. Sam and Joe breathe a huge sigh of relief when their charges are safely back on the bus.
8 pm: We meet the group to go to dinner and while I try to blend into the wall (what am I supposed to do in these situations?!) each Senator and his wife comes up and introduces themselves to me. We board the bus to ride to dinner a few minutes later, a group of 15, and Senator Harkin asks me by name to sit near him. Shocked at him remembering my name, I realize that he's a politician and being personable and charming is part of the reason he has gotten so far, and I'm not saying this in a negative way. I was truly impressed. We speak to Sen. Udall and his wife (of NM) on the bus and they love that Joe grew up 30 minutes from NM. Sen. Udall gets on to me for picking some alleged bird poop out of Joe's hair, because Sam told him on the medina tour that to the people in Fes it is good luck if a bird drops on you. I have clearly just brought bad luck on Joe.
8:30 Arrive at dinner. Just like any group, everyone hems and haws about where to sit and with whom. We end up at a table with the Wickers and the military escorts. The Wickers (MS) are excited to meet some fellow Baptists who also enjoy an occasional glass of wine. And, bonus, they also haven't been around southerners in over a week and were going into withdrawal.
Second course: During the presentation of the food I am tickled to death when Senators Harkin and Wicker pull out their point and shoot digital cameras and start taking pictures of the food and people. (A staffer was acting photographer) We eat a traditional Moroccan chicken dish, and everyone raves. Joe and I don't know if they are just being kind, because we both agree after conferring at the end of the evening that it was only OK.
Third course: Musicians join us and play what Sam describes as spiritual music: you might hire these types of musicians to come play at your house if you need to get rid of some ghosts (or djinns in Morocco). One plays some sort of stringed instrument and the other sings while hopping around with castanets. They do a nice job. More picture taking by the Senators.
Dessert: It's getting late. The Supreme Commander (as Harkin has dubbed himself) pushes back the meet-up time in the morning. Other nicknames thrown out for the Senator include “El Capitan” and “The Big Dog”.
11 pm: Back on bus headed for the hotel. I realize that I have had no idea all evening which political party each Senator belongs to and yet have found commonality with each of them. (There are 3 Democrats, 2 Republicans, I find out from Joe later) I loved that the Senators and their wives have talked and laughed equally with each other and are not above taking good-natured jabs at one another. (“Oh, there's a royal family here? That's like being a Udall!) And then, out of nowhere from the front of the bus, “Ashleigh? Where are you from?” It's Harkin, and like all the others he is a natural people person and wants to know more.
11:20 pm: Back at hotel. Sen. Udall wants to know how my kids are doing living here. Do they have access to good medical care? Can they drink the water? Sort of and yes. We say our goodnights. Mrs. Wicker says she'll see me at breakfast. (There goes sleeping in, but I'm not one to pass up Mrs. Wicker)
4:30 am: First call to prayer of the day. Oh dear me, I swear the muezzin(s) is right in our room. The hotel is located at the top of the medina and directly below us are no less than 700 mosques. I am used to hearing the call 5x a day, but not at this volume.
7:30 am: Breakfast. Everyone slept well and is ready to go on another short tour before boarding the flight home. The buzz is about who did and did not sleep through the 4:30 am call to prayer (I still can't believe ANYONE did). Mrs. Harkin, “I thought there was a man singing in our room. And he just kept going and going.” Senator Harkin is upset that he slept through and wants to hear it before he leaves. (Somehow they didn't hear it on Saturday) Tough luck, sir, your plane will already be in the air for the second call. Mrs. Harkin wins points for having to explain to the Senator that A&M just joined the SEC and how it was scandalous. The Wickers are concerned that A&M is just one more team that is going to come beat up on Ole' Miss. We assure them that, sadly for us, that probably won't be the case. Joe and I have a conversation with Senator Conrad (ND). He is a little sassy this morning, and he asks if he can go back down in the souk, knowing full well that there is not enough time. Joe says, "Sir, we could sit you on a donkey and send you right back down into the medina, and no one would ever hear from you again." In reply, the Senator asked Joe how attached he was to his job.
9:00 am: Everyone gathers to leave the hotel. The Senators again pull out their little cameras. Sen. Wicker lines Joe and I up for a shot with his wife. He is wearing the perfect preppy gentleman outfit for sightseeing (in my opinion): sport coat, tennis shoes, ball cap. I tell Joe that's how I want him to dress when he is that age. He's not convinced. I say my good-byes and the group profusely thanks the rest of the embassy team for all their hard work, etc. They board the bus with Sam and Joe.
9:30 am: Stop at overlook of city and the King's palace. Sam does his tour guide thing. More picture taking. Group shot at palace gates. (Lack of info because I wasn't there and Joe is dead tired right now)
11:00 am: Arrive at airport for departure. Plane boards. At this point, Senator Harkin clearly notices I'm not there, and the last thing he says on Moroccan soil is, “Where's Ashleigh?” Poolside, sir. And is it wrong that little ol' me considers his statement to be a personal achievement?
11:30 am: Wheels up CODEL.
So here's the thing, in hindsight I'm a little sad at how surprised I was at how nice and genuine every single person was. They all asked us many thoughtful questions and expressed their admiration for the work of families in the foreign service. This after working and traveling for a week straight- practically a different country every day. (I couldn't do it!) Maybe I was surprised because we usually only hear the negative stuff about politicians, I don't know. But Joe and I were honored and grateful to spend time with and get to know these couples this weekend.
And to the Senators and their wives, who are most certainly not reading this, thank you for a great time.
|My new BFF, Mrs. Wicker, and me. We bonded as southern women are wont to do.|
|Senator Harkin on the right with his trusty camera.|
|Medina view from the hotel|
|Senator Wicker and Joe in the romantic lighting at dinner.|
|Joe, the Wickers, the Harkins, the Udalls, Sam, the Enzis, and the Conrads|
And here's your bonus clip- for anyone who has never heard it, I recorded the call to prayer around noon above the medina. You can hear the muezzins competing LOUDLY with one another. Great at 4:30 am.