Actor Ben Miller on how being stranded in Morocco for four months improved his appreciation of family
In March, when everyone in the UK was still quite blasé about coronavirus, we flew off on a family holiday with friends and their three children to a villa in Ourika in Morocco, a country I love. It was supposed to be a 10-day break with my wife Jess and our two small children, Lana, four, and Harrison, eight, before I went away filming for three months. We wanted to do a couple of road trips. But the next day, Morocco went into a really strict lockdown and we were stranded. No one was allowed to leave the country, and only one member of the household – that was me – was allowed to leave the house to buy food.
The father of the other family was training for a marathon and he got us walking round the tiny Berber villages in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.
The police checkpoints were on the main roads, so we figured we could go for a walk if we stayed off the grid. At first, people thought all Europeans had coronavirus. When you walked into a village, people would shut shops and close windows. Kids would run after you shouting “coronavirus, coronavirus”. But after we’d been there a while, they started waving.
The countryside is stunning: lush and green, with fields full of olive trees. The houses are made of almost-pink mud bricks and chickens are running round the courtyards. It was fascinating seeing old women working in the fields with sacks on their backs, or people apparently taking their cow for a walk along the road.
But what was really amazing was seeing the amount of stuff people could carry on a moped. I saw one man carrying chickens, another carrying what looked like a fridge and one man carrying a ladder sideways.
I’d never normally go wandering around a Berber village. But, instead of a tourist visit, we experienced what it was like to live there.
I first went to Morocco as a student and had the best time. I’ve been back a lot since. The people make it for me. They’ve got the greatest attitude. They want to laugh and make a joke about everything, and their kindness bowls me over. It’s very sensual; everything is about smell and taste. In Marrakech, the souks are an assault on the senses. There are mounds of dyes in amazing colours and huge pyramids of spices. You get bundles of very sheepy smelling hides and then the smell of Moroccan coffee, which they mix with nutmeg and cinnamon.
You see people smelting metal and making intricate lanterns with tiny pieces of coloured glass. And there’s lots of shouting. We were looking forward to showing our friends all of that. But every place was closed.
Lockdown was challenging at times but we had fun in the house. We were all mucking in with the chores, schooling the kids and doing Joe Wicks’s workouts. Both my kids learned to swim in the pool and we did online raves where we’d dress up in our weirdest clothes and dance in the bedrooms. We’d gone slightly crackers by that point, but it was brilliant.
One day, we even persuaded a man who had camels grazing in a field to let us go for a camel trek round the villa complex. Riding a camel is uncomfortable, like sitting on a kitchen table, but the kids loved it. A few days later, we discovered a camel spider had taken a sabbatical in my wife’s shoe. It was pink, the size of your hand and faster than a gecko.
We were stuck in Morocco for four months. The other family got out halfway through, when they heard British schools were going to open, but they had a horrendous journey so we felt we couldn’t do that with our kids. When they left, we hit a real low because we’d loved being with them.
I found online schooling really difficult. My wife was going nuts because she’s a film producer and suddenly got very busy, and I was wondering when I was going to see my son from my first marriage again. But I had a book to write and I wrote every day, which I loved. Maybe because of the situation we were in, the story ended up being very fantastical. Then, in the middle of July, Morocco said stranded foreign nationals could leave the following week. For our last few days, we eventually had our holiday. We went to Oualidia and stayed by a lagoon. Then we managed to get on the second flight home from Casablanca.
The trip has altered my outlook enormously. I’m the sort of person who has to work but I love life at home more than ever. Spending that downtime together brought us closer. I never appreciated before how much my wife does at home. It took trying to do it myself in Morocco to understand how exhausting it is. Both of us are much more engaged with our kids’ education than we were. And it has made us want to travel more off the beaten track in Morocco. We might do that at Christmas if we can.
As told to Caroline Rees
Ben Miller’s book, The Day I Fell Into A Fairytale, is out now