I see palm trees, I see water...

Sunday, June 20 2004, 00:00:00

It all started back in 1993. After 8 years in Tokyo I was getting ready to start working for the foreign service arm of the Department of Commerce. I was surprised I wasn't assigned to the Embassy in Tokyo, but excited about going to Prague, Czech Republic after a year of language training in Washington that was to start in August. An Australian psychic, Manfred, came through town and I took an appointment, anxious to see what the future held with this drastic turn my life was taking. He told me I would be leaving Japan, going back to the U.S. where I would buy a house and live for a short time before moving on in another direction than Asia. I wouldn't return to live in the house again, and would eventually sell it from overseas. Nor would I live permanently in the first country, but there would be a second place. The country where I was to settle was in a warm climate and I'll never forget his words, "I see palm trees, I see water." So here's what unfolded over the last eleven years. When I saw Manfred I had already been back to Washington house hunting and had found a house in Bethesda, Maryland I was in the process of buying. I left Tokyo in August and my son Kyle and I moved into the house that September. Kyle was 4-1/2 when we moved to Tokyo in 1985 and was anxious to experience life in America - coed public school, English language TV, books and magazines. What a reintroduction to America that year was...starting with the Lorena Bobbit case, then Tanya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan and ending up with OJ Simpson...steeped in American culture Kyle and I arrived in Prague July, 1994. Three years into my assignment the renter I had in my Bethesda house said he was moving to Chicago, and I decided I would sell the house.
Manfred's predictions had been pretty accurate thus far. In bidding on my second assignment I had been promised Bombay, but someone else got the assignment. I was learning about our government system. After some scrambling and jockying with schedules, Casablanca suddenly became available and I was assigned. Kyle and I went on holiday to Morocco and visited Casablanca and Marrakech. I much preferred Marrakech and thought of it as an ideal retirement spot. I arrived in Casablanca in September 1998 and travelled to Marrakech whenever I could. In spring 1999 I was in charge of Marrakech when Hillary Clinton visited Morocco and the following month was back in Marrakech frequently with visiting friends. In my favorite shop one day the shopkeeper said I came to Marrakech so often I should buy a house. I told him I loved the idea of living in a restored riad (courtyard) but didn't have the patience to put up with 2 years of rennovation. He surprised me by saying there was a small house nearby that was nearly finished when the Singaporian owner ran out of money. She was offering it at an attractive price. Friends from Portland were with me and we went to see it together. One look and we all knew I had to buy it - it was ideally located, the right size and had been done architecturally and in colors I would have chosen myself. There was only one thing missing. If you've been following this narrative closely you'll be saying: But where is the water? Up to now all of Manfred's predictions had proved true, but while there were plenty of palm trees the ocean was two hours away. I bought the house and left Casablanca most Fridays to spend the weekend in Marrakech.Years passed and I received my third assignment - back to Tokyo, to leave in the summer, 2002. Meanwhile I began to appreciate Casablanca more. I moved to a downtown apartment walking distance to the Consulate, loved buying fresh food items at the Marche Central and began to learn more about Casablanca's architectural richness. In July, 2001 King Mohammed VI made the bold decision to strengthen the authority of the regional and local governors - the walis. In increasing their powers he named accomplished technocrats, men outside the Ministry of Interior.
Suddenly some of my best contacts were walis of Casablanca, Marrakech and Fes. Ironically I had just had a conversation with Driss Benhima, then the CEO of the National Office of Electricity, in which I asked him if he'd ever considered running for Mayor of Casablanca. While it would be interesting, he gave me a number of reasons why it would not be possible. When I called him that afternoon to congratulate him on being named the wali of Casablanca he said, "I just said to my deputy, 'perhaps Kathy got me nominated!'" Then came September 11, 2001. Literally in shock I continued working on details for a Moroccan delegation I was accompanying to an African Business Summit to be held in Philadelphia at the end of the month, while the TV in my office continued to describe the shock and horror of the attacks. In the days that followed I worried how Morocco would be perceived following the tragic events. I arrived in an empty Marrakech the first Friday night and was invited on Saturday by the wali and his family to the opening of a night club at the Meridien Hotel. We were the only party. In the three years since my arrival, Morocco was starting to change. I worried that in the reaction to September 11 there was the danger this country that I'd come to appreciate so much would be misperceived and lumped together with extremist Arab states.What makes Morocco unique is the hospitality, openness and tolerance of its people gained from its proximity to Europe and mix of Arab, African, European and berber cultures. King Mohammed VI had made tourism a priority industry with programs put in place to attract more tourists to Morocco...now what would happen to these initiatives?
I began to consider staying in Morocco and giving up my career with the U.S. government. I had the potential to buy the house across from mine in Marrakech and create a guest house. But another idea came to mind...develop a Rick's Cafe in Casablanca. It seemed so obvious - what better way to demonstrate Morocco's uniqueness than for an American woman to realize a project that hadn't been undertaken since the release of "Casablanca" in 1942. I made an appointment with Driss Benhima and told him I was going to stay in Morocco and build Rick's Cafe. He asked where and I said maybe it could be in the New Corniche which was planned for development. "No," he said, "You're going to put your cafe in the Ancienne Medina (old city) so that it can be a magnet to attract other investors." This idea excited me as I love historic preservation and have seen first hand how it can add to the richness of cities - my home town of Portland a case in point. He made a member of his staff available to help navigate through the Ancienne Medina and we set off on a Sunday in January, 2002 looking at properties. I saw an old hotel and a large house, neither one having the location or the architectural characteristics I was looking for. I told the agent I wanted to see something bigger and closer to the sea, preferably with a view. The next weekend we visited this house - I knew it was perfect when I set foot inside. I could see lights, plants and their shadows on white walls and arches and I could imagine the piano and the bar and beaded lamps on tables. Plus it was across the road from the sea, and had a large terrace where an apartment could be built for me. It was like a dream. And - if you're still following this closely - looking out the windows, at last, "I see palm trees, I see water."

- Related links:
- Article about Rick's Cafe in CNN web :
- AP press article about Rick's Café...
- Reuter Article