"You have beautiful eyes," the Moroccan sweet-talker said to me in his tourist English as he handed me one of his sugary confections. Never mind a napkin or piece of wax paper to transport his offering in. He used his bare fingers. Was this a special form of intimacy or merely questionable hygiene? Weren’t those the same fingers he used to take people's money? It didn’t matter. This was a gift, and I felt obliged to eat it.
After a few days in Morocco, I had come to expect their overly familiar fondling of my food. The surprise here was that this was the first good-quality sweet I had tasted. Many of them foreshadowed the promise of almond paste, but this one actually delivered. After throwing my wheat-free diet to the wind while on an international adventure, I was desperately seeking the French influence in Moroccan breads, pastries and sweets that had eluded me thus far. They had simply not proven to be French enough, but this particular stand-in was the closest. "I'll be back," I sweet-talked the sweet-talker. But would I really go back for pastries that this stranger in a strange land purposely pawed?
I didn't mind that bees were cavorting on his confections. After all, they weren’t flies, and with colony collapse disorder, frankly I was happy to see them cavorting anywhere. But the shopkeeper's cavorting fingers? Not so happy about that cavorter disorder.
It’s not that I’m a grumpy germophobe. Okay, maybe it is—but not enough of one to stay away from North Africa and to eat from the market stalls in the souks. Yet even the neuroses-free visitor should have a beef about the way Moroccans handle their food. The large plastic scoops in the dried fruit, nut and olive bins? They're just for show. Not that those are sanitary anyway, but let's just say they are closer to godliness than some of the ungodly things I witnessed. Yet from my observations, European tourists weren't bothered by any of this. Was there something wrong with my germ logic?
Those olive pyramids didn't build themselves
Moroccan shopkeepers are so involved with their fruits, nuts, olives, candies and pastries, they are like overprotective parents holding their children's hands before sending them off to boarding school. I was surprised they didn’t kiss each one goodbye. And the passersby, like proud uncles, give each fig, date and nut a little squeeze for good measure—even if they’re not in the market for a fig, date or nut. It’s a small affirmation as if to say: Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.
Once I ordered some snacking garbanzo beans that I was really excited about since there was a scoop in the bin. But the shopkeeper bypassed the scoop—as if that were too formal for our budding relationship—and grabbed some with his bare hands, tossed them in a tray and lovingly caressed each one before bidding them adieu. Suddenly I freaked out and told him I changed my mind as I quickly left his stall. Who was I to come between a man and his garbanzos?
What gives Moroccans carte blanche to roll food around in their unwashed hands, no matter how gooey, sticky, salty or powdery? It's in their DNA. They are endowed with a tactile propensity that Louis Braille would have marveled. Consequently, their DNA is in their food. If the authorities need fingerprints, I’m pretty sure they go to the food souks to find them.
Meanwhile while I was there, I read about a hepatitis A outbreak from organic berries in Oregon. The article said hepatitis A is usually spread from food in North Africa and the Middle East. Yet I hadn't gotten sick in Morocco. Apparently it would have been more dangerous to stay home and eat USDA organic. And then my epiphany: I have no control over anything. (But still, do they have to fondle everything?)
So I returned to the sweet-talker and gave him money in return for some freshly groped sweets. Afterwards, I heard him say to a British woman, "You have beautiful eyes," as he handed her a sugary confection with his bare fingers.
"Two-timer," I thought. If it weren’t for the almond pastry that would soon caress my lips, I would’ve felt jilted.