It’s near the end of June 2009, and Alexander Blackwell is between a rock and a hard place. After his substantial year-end bonus in January the worldwide financial crisis hit France. Also, in January the CEO of the communication agency where he works set higher objectives for all of the project managers. For six months now Alex hasn’t been able to reach his objectives and has had very little commission-based pay. This is terrible, because his base salary isn’t sufficient; he relies heavily on the commissions and bonuses that make up about a third of his revenue. For six months now, he has had €1000 more in monthly expenses than in pay, and just counting the basic necessities. He’s sinking quickly into debt. He’s tried finding a better job, but his efforts have been in vain. He’s 49, and in France, that’s too old. Companies prefer hiring young managers (not too young either; under 30 is too young, and over 45 is too old). “I have to find a solution. This can’t continue.” He tells himself daily.
His love-life has stagnated since his last let down on Valentines Day, and he spends a lot of time on dating sites. He’s finally switched from Myspace to Facebook, and has even been able to reconnect on Facebook with his first love in the USA, Shelley, from the summer of ’67, when he was only 7 years old. What could push someone to search and find a childhood love from over 40 years ago? Anyway, even though their reconnection is a good thing and they’re both pleased about it, of course she’s happily married.
On one of the dating sites, he makes contact with Shen Qiu Hua, a 30-year-old Chinese woman living in Paris, and like usual, paints her portrait from her photo. He takes a photo of the watercolor and sends it to her and suggests that they meet so that he can give her the original.
On Sat, Jun 27, 2009 at 8:25 PM, Alexander Blackwell <email@example.com> wrote:
Hello Shen Qiu,
I hope you like it...
Are you free tomorrow?
She responds, sending a private link to about 200 professional photos:
Date: Sat, 27 Jun 2009 20:38:09 +0200
Subject: Let’s meet
How are you today? Hope you are doing well!
Well, I am really amazed by how much it looks like me!!! It is astonishing to me!!!
And I really like it, really, a lot!
Alexander, tomorrow is the birthday of a Chinese friend and I am invited to her home and also many other friends we will be together with her and her husband.
From next Monday to Friday, I work in a French company, so, how about we try to meet maybe one night during the week?
Have a nice evening Alexander, hope to see you soon in person!
Thank you very much for this beautiful painting, I absolutely love it!
e-mail response from Alex June 28:
Dear Shen Qiu,
Thank you so much!
I believe that you are the most beautiful woman that I have ever seen...and I haven't seen you yet. You said you would send me a few pics... I couldn't ask for more! There are enough to do a hundred paintings! I think I'm falling in love ... I hope my saying that doesn't scare you. We have to meet soon, I cannot wait too long as I think I will go crazy if not, but I will try to be patient. I think I've finally found the muse who could give me endless inspiration.
Alexander has to work late every night of the week because of a big event. His client Armani has a Private High-Fashion show for the Fall 2009 collection on Monday July 6, and all the invitations have to be hand-written by calligraphers and sent out before Friday. His disappointment is enormous when Shen Qiu tells him that now they won’t be able to meet until September, because she’s leaving for vacation in China for July and August. Her flight leaves Saturday the 4th. He gets to attend the Armani show with Lilou, his colleague (that he’s had a secret crush on since day one at his job), which gives him some consolation, but September is too far away.
Shen Qiu hasn’t been gone a week before he meets someone new on a dating site. Fatimazahra Idrissi is a young Moroccan student who lives in Azamour, a small town south of Casablanca. She’s 22 years old, intelligent, beautiful, speaks English, and she’s just finishing her studies. He spends at least an hour every day chatting with her for the next three weeks. He buys an Arabic phrasebook and learns how to say “I love you” in Classical Arabic. He doesn’t know that the population speaks a dialect, but she informs him, also saying that it’s really nice of him anyway and that all well-educated Moroccans do know Classical Arabic. He uses his gift of seduction and sings a few old crooner love songs to his newfound infatuation over the phone. Fatimazahra is charmed. He’s handsome, smart, and probably rich. All Americans are rich, aren’t they? The lovebirds make plans. He’ll come to Morocco for a 10-day vacation from Friday August 7th to Sunday the 16th and they’ll meet, perhaps even get engaged and marry. He books his flights and a Hotel in El Jadida, close to Azemour.
He paints a watercolor portrait from one of Fatimazahra’s photos (of course) and brings it with him to Morocco. His plane leaves early in the morning, and after catching a train in Casablanca, he arrives late Friday evening at his hotel. Fatimazahra meets him the next morning. The Hotel is on the Atlantic shore, and she waits for him outside. She tells him that she can’t come to see him in the hotel. He discovers that in Morocco, consented sex between adults outside of marriage is a crime punishable by imprisonment. We learn something new every day, don’t we? Alex has been rehearsing his dialectal Arabic and says “Allah’s Peace be with you, (common greeting) Good morning.” Followed by a word that translates loosely to “You’re pleasing to my eyes”. And It’s true, she’s ever so pleasing to see, so young and fresh! Her smile radiates her happiness. She’s got an American on her hook!
They walk down the beach and sit at a beachside terrace café where the effect of face-to-face fulfills and enhances both of their expectations, because you never know…sometimes virtual meetings bring disappointment when reality enters the scene.
The ten days fly by, Alex rents a car and they go up to Casablanca and back down the coast, staying at rented Riads. For Alex the nights are a bit frustrating, because she wants to keep her virginity until after marriage, and while he can accept that, their sleeping together makes him feel like a teenager who wants so bad to have sex but has to restrain himself. Alex thinks nonetheless that she’s worth the wait. For Fatimazahra everything is new, and she experiences excitement like she’s never known before. They go to a seaside fair with a Ferris wheel and it’s her first. For Alex it’s nothing special, but for her it’s incredible…and that Ferris wheel ride is an excellent metaphor to understand their relative life experience. Alex gets a kick out of seeing how young and inexperienced she is. It keeps him laughing daily, but not at her, with her, because she’s having the time of her life. Alex’s oldest daughter is her age, but he’s over the hurdle of age difference now and ready to start a new life.
Speaking of a new life…Alex begins to realize that perhaps he has stumbled upon the solution to his financial worries. Everything in Morocco is 10 times cheaper than in France. They talk about it, and he’s sure that he can get a good job and they can live an easy life. Fatimazahra assures him that his age isn’t a drawback in Morocco, and his being bilingual French/English on top of being American will almost ensure him employment. There’s something else he has to do; she tells him that if they are to be married in Morocco, he will have to become a Muslim, at least on paper, for by Moroccan law, a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man (a non-Muslim woman may marry a Muslim man though). He will have to officially swear that he believes that there is only one God, and that the prophet Mohamad (PBUH) is his messenger. He doesn’t see any problem with this. They discuss a Muslim name for him, and he asks her what name she’d like him to have. She tells him that she loves the name “Ali” What’s more, Ali was married to the Prophet Mohamad’s (PBUH) daughter Fatimazahra. So, Ali it will be they decide.
Alex promises to return as soon as he can. They’ll marry and live happily ever after. He confides to her that he’s known 12 other women in the last 31 months since he left his wife Michèle. She laughs and says “So I’m the 13th and the last, 13 is a lucky number!
It’s Sunday, August 16th. Fatimazahra accompanies Alex back to the airport in Casablanca, and he arrives an hour late, but fate is with him. There’s a strike at the airport and all the flights have been delayed. He doesn’t have cash to pay the taxi, and also, the security guards won’t let Fatimazahra go into the terminal, so Alex goes in, finds an ATM, withdraws 2000 dirhams, and goes back out both to pay the taxi and give her 1000 dirhams. They hug a last time (they don’t kiss because it’s not socially acceptable) and Alex goes back into the terminal. He really is fortunate, because not only does he get a flight when he was late, but he gets to ride in Business class for the price of his economy class ticket.
Back at work on Monday morning, instead of doing his job, he starts to look for work in Casablanca. The next day he already has a skype interview with a Moroccan Cinema magazine that’s looking for a Sales Manager. By Friday they’ve settled and agreed to work together. Monday the 24th he gives a month’s notice to leave his job in Boulogne Billancourt, and just in time. He’s to start his new job at the International Women’s Film Festival in Salé, Morocco, on Monday September 28th, and it will take him three days to drive down from Paris. He starts to sell everything he can, and he buys a 20-year-old Ford Courier Van for €700 just to move with.
But wait…didn’t I forget something?
Date: Mon, 31 Aug 2009 10:05:50 +0200
Subject: Let’s meet
How are you? Hope you are doing well and that you had a great summer!
I had a wonderful time with my parents in Xiamen and I’m back in Paris. We can finally meet. I’m so impatient, I thought about you all the time these last two months.
I’m back at work during the week, maybe can we meet this weekend?
Have a nice day Alex, hope to see you soon at last!
Thank you again for your painting, I can’t wait to see the real one! And with all of the photos I sent, you can make so many more.
e-mail response from Alex August 31: (after much thought, and after looking at the 200 photos once again and rereading their mails…wow, she is really something, maybe…)
Dear Shen Qiu,
Happy to hear that you had a wonderful summer. I went to Morocco and had a good time too. I’ll be more than happy to meet you this weekend and finally give you your portrait.
How about Saturday? I’ll meet you at the Round fountain in the Tuileries Garden at 10 am and we can spend the day together if that suits you.
They meet on Saturday, Shen Qiu is delightfully fresh in a blue and white cotton liberty dress that flaunts her perfect silhouette and highlights her lovely legs, and she knows all too well how attractive she is. Alex is relaxed and classy at the same time, with a dark blue linen sports jacket, a grey Tunisian shirt and new indigo jeans. He’s trying to stay calm, but his mind is full of contradictions. What am I doing? Why am I doing it? As soon as they meet, they do the 4 French cheek kisses and Alex is even more confused, her perfume is going to his head and his desire is kindled by the softness of her cheeks and hair and the touch of her lips.
“Here’s your portrait Shen Qiu. It doesn’t do you justice though.” He takes it out of a large shopping bag to show it to her.
“Thank you, Alexander. You got it framed! How nice of you. It’s absolutely marvelous!”
“You’re absolutely marvelous, That’s Flowerbomb you’re wearing, isn’t it? I love the fragrance of bergamot, in fact Earl Grey is my favorite tea.”
They ask a passerby to take photos of them with the framed portrait. Their hands join naturally and they stroll through he gardens. Alex is lost, he doesn’t know what the outcome of this will be. They lay on the grass side by side gazing into the sky, talking about childhood dreams and other trivial things, and occasionally gazing into each other’s eyes. Shen Qui senses the trouble in his mind.
“You met someone this summer. Am I right?”
Alex is thinking, my impulsiveness could make my future bright, or ruin it completely. There’s a tone of sadness in his voice that should be a happy one. “Yes, I did.” Should I tell her everything? Here goes nothing… “Her name is Fatimazahra. We’re engaged to be married. I’ve found a job in Morocco, I’ve given my notice at work, and I’m leaving the 25th.”
“Congratulations.” She smiles tenderly, but wasn’t expecting this. “I guess I won’t be your muse after all.”
They say goodbye and go their separate ways. Alex posts the photos on Facebook to show off his painting skills.
Alexander leaves as planned, he drives his van down to Morocco, Paris-Bordeaux Friday evening and Saturday, with a stop-over near Le Mans to say goodbye to Michèle and his three children. Michèle gives him a small red metal box with souvenirs of their 23 years together. Sunday Bordeaux-Salamanca, Spain, and Monday Salamanca-Rabat Salé in Morocco. He gets to the Film Festival too late for the opening ceremony, but not too late to meet people and socialize. He spends the week at the festival and then drives straight to El Jadida, where he has already rented a furnished apartment through the internet. His new life has begun. When he sees Fatimazahra, he gives her an engagement ring that he bought in Paris, engraved “Alexander and Fatimazahra” in the inside. She’s thrilled to see him, and he’s happy to see her too, but somehow, the magic of last August is gone. He has to get down to business. The financial solution might work, but he realizes that it won’t be as easy as he had imagined. He’s in a completely new environment, where people have a different perspective. The culture shock is heavy, even if Alexander is a fairly adaptable person.
Will Fatimazahra and Alexander get married and live happily ever after? What do you think?