Phillipe’s grandfather Pierre had been buried one year, but Elodie his grandmother could still be heard sobbing at night in her room.
Phillipe grieved for his grandfather, but he knew it was not the same as the grief his grandmother was going through. Yes he had been an important character in Phillipe’s life but not for 65 years. Elodie was now without her soul mate after 65 years together.
One day he came up with an idea to try and cheer his grandmother up. He would take her back to the city where they had met and fell in love. The city made famous by the star crossed lovers played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca.
At first when he mentioned it to his family, they were doubtful, especially his wife Peggy. “How will that help her? She has not been back there in over 50 years. How can you taking an old frail lady to Casablanca help her with her grief?”
Phillipe thought about it for a moment and then said, “The memories will bring her some joy if nothing else.”
His father was doubtful too, “Casablanca, it’s not the city she grew up in. She won’t remember it. But maybe just a trip away will do her some good.”
When Phillipe suggested the journey to Elodie, he was sure he saw for the first time in a year a sparkle in her eyes. “Yes, yes I would like that. Casablanca, that’s where I met your grandfather. He was so handsome in his army uniform. The Boulevard de l’oiseau blanc.” A dreamy look had now crept across her face.
His grandparents story had although not been as stormy as the lovers in the film Casablanca, it was fit for a film with the same title.
They had met in 1953, France had just deposed the Sultan Mohammed. It was to be a time of change for the country of Morocco. The evening after they met Pierre was sent by the French to Algiers. But he came back to Casablanca for Elodie. And eventually after living in France they came to England.
When Phillipe began to make plans for the trip he encountered the first stumbling block. He was looking for a suitable hotel and was thinking somewhere need the boulevard where his grandparents first met. He typed the name into google and nothing came up, not in Casablanca anyway.
He frowned, Elodie had been so adamant about the name. Perhaps after independence, street names were changed. Perhaps it was now a more Moroccan sounding name.
He asked Elodie exactly where was the boulevard. And she became vague, In the Ville, near the port, near the park, close to the square. Phillipe was more confused than ever, it sounded by his grandmothers’ description near to everywhere but close to nowhere.
Not to be defeated Phillipe wrote by email to the Casablanca tourist board. Their reply although polite, was pretty final. “There was and never has been such a road called the Boulevard de l’oiseau blanc. We do have the Boulevard Mohammed V, Boulevard Victor Hugo, Boulevard Des Almohades and Boulevard Moulay Youssef.”
Phillipe decided they would just go and maybe once there it would all become clear. He even thought that perhaps it was something to do with Mohammed V, perhaps he had an aviary of white birds and they all died so the name of the road was changed. Or perhaps it’s one of the streets with the art deco buildings the white buildings that looked like tiered wedding cakes.
At the last minute Phillipe’s nephew Jonathan asked if he could come. “I want to trace my roots.” He sagaciously said. Phillipe smiled at the thought. At the age of 11 he was sure the boys’ roots were not yet that deep to be traced too far. But he would enjoy his company anyway.
So with high hopes of making his grandmothers days just a little bit more bearable, Phillipe, Peggy, Elodie and Jonathan flew to Casablanca.
Phillipe was surprised at how French it all looked. Not really Moroccan at all. Cafes just like you would find in Paris were everywhere, all with groups of men sitting outside chatting and smoking. There were not he noticed that many women in the café’s and remembered how his grandfather had said once. “This is a man’s domain, no woman would have the nerve to go in one of those places.”
Peggy would though, thought Phillipe and smiled. How things change.
They had booked their hotel near the medina and it was from here that Phillipe hoped his grandmother would begin to remember things and places. He tried not to be too disappointed when as they drove in the taxi from the airport into Casablanca, Elodie had said, with a total look of bemusement on her face, “What City is this? This is not Casablanca.”
Peggy had looked across to her husband and had softly said, “I told you so.”
The receptionist in the hotel had given them a map and directions to some of the main sites. She told them also that the “Parc de la Ligue Arabe” was under rejuvenation. Phillipe thanked her and they strolled round to the nearest café. Peggy and Elodie had a few tuts and cold stares but other than that they were left alone.
Phillipe spent many hours in café’s asking the waiters and the customers did they know of the “Boulevard de l’oiseau blanc.” And each time a shake of the head and a shrug of the shoulders and the affirmative, “Non”.
One night they went to eat at “Ricks Place”. That ironically did exist. A place from a film about a man and a woman, neither of which really lived, loved or existed. Yet Ricks place was there in bricks and mortar. And yet the place of his grandparent’s first meeting, two people who had lived, loved and existed was still as elusive as a genie from the lamp.
Elodie did recognise a few places and mentioned how the Place Mohamed V did not have a fountain the last time she had been there. They sat feeding pigeons just as evening was coming on and the fountain suddenly lit up and music began to play. For the first time in ages Phillipe saw his grandmother smile. The trip was worth it he mused if only for that precious moment.
They were coming to the end of their trip and Phillipe had resigned himself to failing on finding the Boulevard de l’oisseau blanc. When suddenly Jonathan, who had been on his phone shouted out, “I know where it is. I have found it. Come on, follow me.”
There was a few minutes of furious activity where coats and hats were found and Elodie was unceremoniously taken out of the hotel back onto the street. And the three of them followed Jonathan, who was now in a rush. “Slow down Jonathan. Elodie can’t walk that fast she is old and frail. Slow down.” Peggy admonished.
Jonathan slowed his rush marginally but then speeding on ahead again, then stopping for the three of them to catch him up. Phillipe noticed they were heading towards the “Parc de la Ligue Arabe”. There was boarding up showing how the Park would look after the rejuvenation. A picture which showed animals suggested there would be some kind of zoo.
Jonathan then stopped at the beginning of a road, a place called Boulevard Moulay Youssef. An avenue that cut through the park lined with a few café’s. Phillipe was confused. It was a street made less ordinary by the avenue being lined with trees. Parked cars all the way along, suggested just another street in the city, nothing unusual. He could see the bulldozers and piles of earth further down and the entrance to the park blocked. But then it became apparent to him. How had he been so stupid? Of course it was now immediately obvious.
As Jonathan led Elodie under the first few trees, there was a sudden activity up in the higher green branches. A flapping of wings and a collective squawking. And then there rose into the air a flight of white Ibis.
Elodie was already back in 1953. She was now dragging Jonathan under the trees. She was smiling and her hands reached up in the air. Phillipe could hear her saying. “See here this café along here that was where I met him. He was so handsome in his uniform. His hair so dark. His eyes laughing and gay.”
Phillipe saw the birds hovering in the early morning air. As they flew the sun caught the tips of their white wings and they burnished copper and gold. He thought it was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.
But then when he looked at Elodie he saw something more beautiful, his grandmother was happy. If only for a few minutes that would stay with him for his lifetime. Her face transformed with joy and the memories that were now flooding back to her. He watched as she led Jonathan his young nephew down the, “Boulevard de l’oiseau blanc.”