Shopping, Buying et Une Rallonge

In Moroccan medinas, there’s a store every ten feet. They’re packed in like stalls at Playland. Or the average North American mall, if each store had one-fifth of the usual frontage.

Malta taught me a valuable lesson in shopping outside of North America and mainland Europe: what you need probably isn’t in plain view. Morocco has reinforced this idea. Most of these shops aren’t ‘shops’ in the way we think of them in North America. They’re stalls, with all of the inventory behind the counter.

That shift took me a while to make. You just hazard a guess at the right shop–few have signs–and ask the proprietor. This week in Essaouira I guessed correctly while seeking un marteau et des clous (“a hammer and some nails”–be careful to use ‘clous’ and not ‘ongles’, for the latter refers to fingernails).

Last week I incorrectly visited an electronics store to ask about une rallonge (a power bar). They directed me across the street to what I can only describe as “the wire and cable shop”. He hooked me up.

The Shop Comes to You

In our small village on Gozo, the shop came to you. Each morning you’d hear a tooting horn grow louder as the vegetable man drove into town. He’d park his truck in the town square, and sell vegetables to the local women. And me. There was likewise a fish man who had a different horn, and also yelled a lot in Maltese. On Tuesdays, the gas man would come through to replace propane tanks. In bigger towns, you’d also see other trucks–hardware, dried goods and so forth. Like whale dialects, we’ve come to recognize the distinct honks of each mobile seller.

There’s a similar kind of culture of announcement here in Morocco. The gas man says something in Arabic (I’m guessing “gas”) as he pushes his laden handcart through the narrow alleys of our medina. Likewise, the garbage men call out as they come by to collect the refuse twice daily.

No Queues

Julie just spent ten days back in Vancouver, and we were discussing the radically different retail models. She pointed out that whenever you bought anything in downtown Vancouver–clothing, coffee, groceries–you stood in a line.

The opposite is true here. In fact, ‘shopping’ is a bit of a misnomer. You’re pretty much always shopping–as in browsing–when you walk down any street. The wares–particularly for the tourists–burst forth from every stall. More accurately, I never stand in line when I’m buying.

Why are there no queues? You almost always buy with cash, and, despite the medina’s dense population, there seem to be too many shops per buyer. There’s also far less customization–nobody orders “a half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon”. They have coffee. Full stop.

If I were busier, I’d probably crave the order and sterility of a Canadian mall or grocery store. This year abroad has really reinforced my ascetic tendencies. I’ll never look at shopping, buying and consuming the same way.


  1. You’ve wonderfully described one of my favourite things about experiencing new cultures. The scenery, landscape, language and landmarks are obviously different, but it’s the daily life differences (like shopping) that can be the most fascinating.

  2. What an enjoyable read. There’s something wonderfully quaint and lovely about the shops and stalls that you mentioned. It makes the culture of the country very much alive. Standing before one stall, you realize that one hundred years ago, this was how the market looked like. This was how people shopped and bought items. I’m probably getting carried away by my imagination now.

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