My experience of seasonal living has been deepened immensely since living in Fes, and I never realised quite how revolutionary this would be to my body, heart and soul.
Embracing the seasons, as I have learnt to here, has been one of the most beautiful and unexpected experiences of connection to mother Earth.
It’s laughable that many consider Fes a “hot” place, as it has a hugely changeable climate and experiences four very distinct, different seasons. Living day to day in these seasons is distinct and different too, and it has taken me these four years and more to work out how to navigate this. It has been a process of discovering many beautiful and strange secrets from the people of Fes as I master the transition from one season to another.
Having grown up in the UK, I can safely say that the seasons of Fes are for more real than the seasons I experienced growing up. If we consider UK climate, it is largely of two varieties. Cloudy with rain, or sunny with rain. Island climates are of their own variety anyway, and the UK experiences some of the blurriest of seasonal changes anywhere I know.
Regardless of regional differences however, there is still something very unique about living seasonally in Fes. The first reason for this, is one of culture and economy. In Fes, the seasons are embraced. In the summer you get hot, and the winter you get cold. Most families don’t have heating or AC, so you are exposed to the elements of the seasons whether at home, work or outside.
Many friends of mine who know Fes well HATE winter here. It’s strange, because you’d think (or at least, I would) that 45 degree heat in August would be worse. However, if you’ve grown up in a cold place that has central heating, it’s very rare for you to REALLY experience cold. The kind of cold that you can’t escape. Coming home to a warm house or going to a warm office, it’s easy to just bundle up in a coat on the way and forget that it’s actually winter.
In Fes, you put on your woollen Jallaba and get on with it. Have Bissara (bean soup) for breakfast, drink lots of tea, and find a sunny spot on a quiet afternoon to heat up your cold bones. But you do always feel the cold, and there’s no real escape from this. In particular, old medina houses have their own battle to fight, with courtyards open to the elements and damp rising up through the tiles! Even if you conquer the courtyard by covering it with plastic, it’s still a feat short of impossible to actually heat a medina house. Huddling round a gas heater is probably your best bet.
Regardless of the extremes of heat in summer and cold in winter, the transition from one season to another can often be an overwhelming experience in itself. The seasons of Fes, as well as requiring you to embrace what they bring, come suddenly. It’s as if, waking up one morning, someone twists the dial and turns autumn “on”. The temperature might drop 10-15 degrees overnight, and you go from wearing flip flops to hats and coats within 24 hours.
In the process, everyone starts getting sick. You hear the proclamation in the streets, “3andak al-bird!” (Mind the cold!) and children get bundled up in coats and hats which are clearly still too big for them. The strange thing is, it’s still 20 degrees and sunny, but the change is startling to the body.
I recently read on an online friend’s post a list of signs that Autumn had come (check out @theolivetreesandthemoon). I agreed with most of them. Two days or more of rain, the summer crops slowing down. But it was only when I saw my father-in-law wearing his woollen Jellaba that my heart cried, “Hark! The season is upon us!”
Autumn, as it is now, can still be a season of change. It comes with strong winds after the still hot air of summer, and whilst the day may still be warm, there’s always a sense of chill in the air, which descends in the hours before sunset. The market starts to look different too, as suddenly bounty returns after a few days of rain. Herbs which were sold like precious gems before suddenly are found in abundance and sold on the cheap, and soft summer fruits are replaced by artichokes, cardooms, and the precious olive.
The nights start getting longer and the days shorter, tempting you into the house earlier, throwing root vegetables into a pot for dinner. The colder nights make you swap out your sheets for blankets, pulling out all the woollens you stored away for summer.
Autumn sings its song all around you. It’s inescapable. Your shopping changes, your clothes change, and your body might be tired and achey for a week. But in the coffee shops or in the afternoon at home, the greatest herald of cold has arrived.
Shiba is the beautiful silver herb we call in English artemisia, or absinthe. It is a majestic, austere kind of herb that fills a room with its heady scent. Shiba is a classic Moroccan herb for tea, and is considered immensely “warming” for the digestion. Whilst it is available at other times now due to intensive farming, culture considers shiba an Autumn-Winter herb.
I was sat the other day in the courtyard of our home, recovering from my seasonal illness and wrapped up, for the first time in months, in woollen clothes. The experience was unusually heady and romantic and for a while I was wondering what was going on. I could smell a beautiful scent and thought a neighbour might be burning incense, until I realised it was just the artemisia sitting sculpturally in a vase in the middle of the table in front of me.
I identify so much with this melancholic sort of herb, silver and feminine and unapologetically “different”. As I ran my fingers through her beautiful branches, it helped me to reflect on the wonder that is seasonal living. Before living in Fes, my body wasn’t connected to the changes of the seasons. My wardrobe didn’t change, my food stayed the same, and I rarely associated the changes of my moods and health with that of the earth.
But now, as I look at the leaves changing colours on the trees, I notice changes in myself. As the nights darken, so do I go deeper into my own internal worlds, settling down into creative work I couldn’t penetrate during the distracting heat of summer. I let my body rest through its tiredness, just as the land relaxes at the touch of the rain. Wrapping my small hands round my glass of tea, I inhale the intoxicated smell of artemisia, who I greet after a long period of separation.
Now, when I travel back to the UK (ever more irregularly), I find it so unsettling to find the houses so burning hot in mid-winter. I prefer to put a jumper on and open a window, as ridiculous as that sounds! To live winter and not listen to its winds seems a waste to me.
When the winter rains descend on us, I know it’ll bring its challenges. 40 days of cold and rain hit in the mid-winter, called “layali”. I buy in supplies in bulk from the market and try not to leave the house. Although the seasons bring hardships of sorts, living them and enduring them in their own way punctuates my own cycles with meaning and life.
I always thought gardening was the best way to connect to the seasons. Certainly, a connection to the land brings the reality of the seasons forth in the most striking of ways, but life in Fes, however urban it might be, has done its own work in connecting me to the Earth.