Still here in Fes, Morocco. Forty-four degrees today, Sunday. Going outside is like entering an oven. We long for a welcome breeze flowing through our flat, as back in Edinburgh in April I longed for some heat. Sixteen degrees there on Friday, and rain all day. Oh, for a happy medium.
I feel strangely detached from all my normal routines. My sense of what's happening in the world comes in fragments. An endless repetitive loop of half a dozen key stories daily from BBCWorld or France 24 or Al Jazeera. The Platinum Jubilee was the only cheerful despatch amid the dreadful ongoings from the war in Ukraine, the tragic Texas shooting, Boris's confidence but no real confidence vote, and now the Congress hearings into the 6 January 2021 Capitol riots.
Only Al Jazeera dealt in depth with the murder of the Christian Palestinian journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, in Jenin, allegedly by an Israeli sniper, and the appalling behaviour of the Israeli police at her funeral. Little to inspire one's faith in humanity. Conflict is the only news.
As for Covid, no-one's talking about it here. No-one wears a face mask. Lots of people, including most of my husband's family, have not been vaccinated, unless their work required it or their medical condition advised it. Whatever the fatalities of the past few years, none have been reported lately. However, the economic consequences on businesses and ordinary folk are still being worked through, just as in the UK. People keep their distance more. There's less exuberance somehow.
Last Thursday, I visited for the first time in several years the old medina of Fes, the UNESCO World Heritage site that is the main tourist attraction here. Ryanair has no direct flights from the UK. Fes is a serious place. It has none of Marrakesh's flamboyant glamour and lively street entertainers, nor the sea air and sandy beaches of the popular tourist resorts down the Atlantic coast. It's an ancient city. Founded in 789 along the banks of the Oued Fes, it still has a spiritual and cultural cachet, although it has jostled for primacy as the actual capital over the centuries with Marrakesh and Meknes, and since 1912, when the French established their colonial Protectorate, with Rabat.
The medina is the oldest part of the city, Fes El Bali, a teeming warren of steep winding cobbled streets and tributary alleyways narrower and darker than any Edinburgh medieval close. Barely visible mosques, medrasas and caravanserai attest to its spiritual significance as a long-established centre of Islamic study, but what vies for your attention these days along the main descent from the impressive blue tiled gateway of Bab Bou Jloud are the small shops selling predictable souvenirs of the fridge magnet/keyring variety, cheek by jowl with gravestone engravers, carpet bazaars and other artisan products in wood, metal and ceramics.
Perfume and Argan oil products compete with stores selling traditional indigenous clothing or European and American style biker gear and trainers. There are even bookshops, although, between the sacredness of the Quran on the one hand and the ubiquity of smartphones on the other, Moroccans are not great readers. They'll talk theatrically and vociferously instead and half the time no-one listens.
The medina is fun to browse, except the moment something catches your eye a salesman is at your elbow with his insistent pitch. Covid has affected sales here considerably, so they're more than ever desperate for your business.
Deeper into the medina you reach areas where craft workshops coalesce in sectors like medieval guilds. There are whole areas devoted to carpenters, metalworkers, leatherworkers, perfumiers, ceramicists and finally, like the depths of Dante's Inferno
, the Chouara dye works. Viewed from a height, the round stone vats filled with an array of colours look just like a series of oldstyle children's paintboxes. Near at hand, the smell is noxious and you wonder how the dye-workers cope with it day after day, year after year.
Tourists still come. If we're not in guide-accompanied tourist groups, we're immediately visible by the way we dress. Not so much ladies of a certain age in denim skirts, navy T-shirts, brimmed cotton hats and trainers, but a much younger generation of slim, active back-packers, travelling light and adventurously in singlets and shorts.
You need to be fit to travel in this country. Even when I was young I was aware of that. Now I'm at a stage when I need a stick to negotiate steep slopes and stairs. Road and pavement surfaces are often rough. You don't see people in wheelchairs or driving mobility scooters, even in the posh avenues of the French built Ville Nouvelle. At least I've never seen any. People are tough here. They have to be. You can't afford to be ill, for, despite some recent reforms, there is no NHS free for everyone at the point of need.
It's now nearly 40 years since I first came here in a tourist group of young professionals touring the country in an open-sided truck, combining a couple of hotel stays in Fes and Marrakesh with camping in the open air. From Malaga, we crossed to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta and drove as far south as the desert outpost of Zagora, 54 days by camel from Timbuktu in Mali. I was never a bold adventurer, but every so often I've managed to escape my comfort zone. Little did I guess where that particular adventure would lead me.
My husband and I finished our visit consuming almond milkshakes in a curious little white-tiled café and cake shop that is a bit of a legend in the medina. Forty years ago, visitors were welcomed by a small, eccentric elderly man, dapper in a dashing bowtie and jacket, his white hair dyed a distinctive orange. He died some years ago aged 84. But his assistant is still there, old too now, but still recognisable, gently spoken, friendly and polite.
We had a pleasant day, despite the risks of Covid. My husband, who was born near one of the old gates of the medina, revelled in his own memories of a deeper, more localised past, his mother's impeccable cooking, and family togetherness spiced with sudden eruptions of soap opera tensions. We walked all the way. There are no cars in the medina. Along with the rumbling carriers' carts heralded by their warning cries of 'Balaak', we encountered six donkeys, three sheep and several goats with their young. No dogs, but a number of thin frail cats crept about like forlorn ghosts.
Many things have changed in the past 40 years, yet in Fes medina many things remain much the same.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh