A couple days ago we were talking about the impending end of our program and one of the other girls asked me if I was homesick. I think I surprised both of us with my answer because I said no. I said that since I go to college on the other side of the country from my family, I already don’t see them during a semester so I’m not seeing any less of them. And with Facebook and Skype I’m in contact with them just as much if not more so while I’m here than when I’m in Boston. The only difference is that in Boston I can pick up a phone at any time during the day and make a call to hear my mom and dad’s voices. I can’t do that here in part due to the six hour time difference and in part due to the expense of international calling. Instead I use chat and video chat and they follow this blog to hear about the day to day and special experiences that are just too long and involved to share during a quick conversation between classes.
That’s not to say I don’t miss home. I do. I miss being able to cook whatever and whenever I want. I miss the ability to walk out into the streets and be able to communicate fluently with every person I see.
To know exactly what is expected and what is appropriate and what is not is something that we learn during childhood. In this full immersion study abroad I have become a child all over again relearning how to interact with my surroundings.
Unlike most children however, I have even less of a vocabulary than a four year old learning right from wrong in preschool. I also have my own preconceived notions that I need to overcome and evaluate. Notions such as the appropriate reaction to a guy who cat calls me when I’m walking down the street being to laugh it off, make eye contact, and keep walking. In Morocco you are supposed to stay quiet, eye contact is seen as an invitation, and you definitely keep walking and don’t react.
Everyone misses something or someone at some point in their lives. For me, homesickness has always been a specter of overwhelming anxiety and a desperate urge just to return to what is familiar and known and therefore safe. I have felt this before on other international experiences. I felt this on my first day of college orientation when I was on my own in a crowd of four hundred other students on the other side of the country from my family and everything seemed to be happening at warp speed and I had no clue how to respond to any of the people around me, where to go, what to say, or who anybody was. I broke down in tears and was on the verge of returning to my dorm room to hide and curl up with a book and my phone when one of the older students saw me and came over to give me a hug and guide me through the process making sure to give me her phone number and introducing me to other students who were in a similar situation.
I had a professor once who told us to try to see the world through a child’s eyes. She said that children see everything around them as bright and new. Even their own hands and feet are a surprise to them. I have been forced to do that this semester. Living in a home without western plumbing and needing to go to the public baths once a week in order to thoroughly wash reacquainted me with my body in unexpected ways. Being unable to communicate with words and facing the difficulty of pronouncing those words that I should remember forces me to relearn the non-verbal communication that we all take for granted and may not even notice as adults. In a culture that was more similar or in more similar surroundings, this challenge of communication might have been seen as frustrating or embarrassing as I can’t even talk about basic needs. However, here where everything is so different, it seems new even as I walk through doors that have been standing for almost 1,000 years. There is no ability to compare the situations I find myself in here with the situations I face at home and so when I don’t know how to react, there is no anxiety. There is no safety net to fall back into, nowhere to escape to and most importantly when I fall I have to get up and keep going. People here are understanding and hospitable. If I fail, they will point out how and why but they won’t judge me as bad or wrong, simply different.
The last item on the packing list that SIT sent to us before our departure for Morocco was a sense of humor. This is the lightest item in your suitcase and the most important one. The larger your sense of humor, the better. After all, it needs to be big enough to cover you and all your situations, not just the external situations of others. So long as I can laugh at myself, laugh with others, then I know I’ll be just fine!
*Note: this graph on Culture-Shock shows the stages that many of our study abroad participants experience. It seems like Danielle has embraced the cultural differences (stage 5), so it may be hard for her to leave Morocco when the program finally ends.
Into the Moroccan Countryside
Our third and final excursion was to a small village near Beni Mallal in a region of Morocco known for high immigration rates to Europe. Even though it was a village with all that that entails: dirt streets, cows, and other livestock; it was still bigger than my hometown of 2,000 people by more than double. Another important fact to note for us was that nearly every family has at least one relative who is in Europe. My host mother there had three relatives abroad. More immediate to my experience though were the relatives left behind. My host mom, Khadija, lives with her husband’s family as is traditional. Her mother-in-law, sister, brother and cousins are in the home. She also has two adorable little girls, the elder is three and the younger is almost two years old.
Going to the village was a wonderful break for me. Despite going to college in Boston, I’m still not used to living in the city. It takes me a couple weeks to be able to sleep through the sirens and people and traffic at night and I escape to parks and open green areas where I can see the sky on a regular basis. Parks exist in Rabat – but most of them are full of trees and none of them are an easy walk from the old medina where I’m living. While there are not sirens in the medina, which is the oldest part of the city, there are still people at all times of the night and day. In the village I could count the stars and once the sun went down and dinner was served the sidewalks and dirt roads were empty and silent. I was also able to communicate much more easily. The most common language was still Darija and I did not suddenly wake up fluent (unfortunately) but many people also spoke Spanish. Spanish is a language I can communicate in efficiently though with little elegance! Once it was discovered that some among us could speak Spanish, those who spoke Spanish in the village sought us out to practice with and talk about their experiences in Spain.
One night at dinner, we had a guest who had recently returned from Spain after living there for over 20 years! As soon as I walked into the room, my host family motioned me over to him where he proceeded to tell me about his journey and is views on Morocco as a country. When my roommate came, he was more than happy to include her in the conversation as well. After a while, he noticed that I wasn’t talking. And he asked why since I had said I spoke Spanish. I told him I understood Spanish and knew what he was saying but had difficulty speaking. And of course, I said so using expansive gestures as befits my Italian heritage thereby causing everyone to laugh over how excitable I was. I did make more of an effort to formulate responses though instead of being an unobtrusive listener to his and Karolina’s conversation.
One thing that did surprise me however was how the return immigrants were viewed in the village. In a meeting with the village women, one of the other girls in the group asked the women what they thought of the returners. The women told us that no one who had made it to Europe would ever want to come back to the village. Therefore, all of the men who were there, who had returned, must be criminals who had done something bad enough to warrant deportation. Yet when we spoke to the men who had returned they told us that several of them had planned to return all along in order to retire in Morocco and the economic crises just forced them to return sooner than planned.
Despite the complex intricacies of communicating and learning from the adults in the village, the children were similar to children around the world. By the end of the first day, we had a big enough entourage to start a game of soccer with them and that attracted even more children! With the magnetic attraction my head has with all flying objects in sports, I wound up in the most useful position of: you guessed it, goalie. And no sooner did I get placed as goalie, when three more girls from the village joined me! There were four of us strung out across the goal and we made an excellent team. After the game, they tracked me down every day at some point just to say hello. No matter where we went in the village we had a group of curious children following us. We taught them games and songs such as “London Bridge” and “head, shoulders, knees and toes” and in return they showed us photos and laughed and tried to teach us new words in Darija. When I gave them presents of bubbles that I had brought from the U.S. they were excited and wanted to give me gifts as well. On the final day as we were getting on the bus, I saw them all right outside heads bobbing as they searched for someone and as I jumped off, they surrounded me for a final round of hugs and kisses farewell. I could likely write an entire series of blogs just about these girls and my host siblings, but it’s dinner time here in Rabat! Until next time (and I’ll try not to leave you hanging as much! ^_^ )
Interlude in Amsterdam
The fourth week (and the one month mark) of my study abroad program in Rabat was spent in Amsterdam for the second program excursion. According to the academic director, most students in previous semesters in this program saw Amsterdam as a welcome interlude… a coming back to semi-familiar surroundings, culture, and language as the vast majority of Dutch people speak English. However, of the two cultures, I found Amsterdam to be far more foreign than Rabat. Yes, Rabat is different. The faith, the smells, the language, and the clothes I see on the street every day. However, the brick buildings and seaside location of Amsterdam reminded me of Boston, which led me to expect reactions, ideas, and attitudes similar to those of the people I know in Boston and so every time I was in a familiar situation and the Dutch people reacted differently, it reminded me anew that I was in a foreign country. The impact was even greater when the person whose response surprised me prefaced their actions and comments with the phrase “you’re American, you know how it is.” In Rabat, it is so different that such a comparison is impossible and so there is no moment of realization that I am in a foreign country… it just is.
My first lesson in Amsterdam? A café is not the same thing as a coffeehouse! A coffeehouse is much less well lit, and smells like its prime product; you can buy coffee and food there, but the air is always hazy with the smoke. Since I don’t happen to like the smell, I avoided the coffeehouses like the plague once I found out the difference! The cafes on the other hand are wonderful! I went to a couple during our stay for lunch, including one right next to a canal and the Anne Frank Museum which I visited on my free day along with the Amsterdam Museum. The Amsterdam museum was exactly as advertised: a concise introduction to the history of the Netherlands and Amsterdam but I had no clue what to expect from the Anne Frank Museum. I have read her diary before of course, in elementary school. But to see the empty rooms where she hid with her family, and the original notebooks that she wrote in? Words can’t describe.
And while the first thing we ate upon arriving in Morocco was a traditional Moroccan meal, in Amsterdam it was Chinese food… then Pakistani food the next night! When we asked what foods were traditional in Holland later on, we were told just look for something with potatoes. The waffles are amazing though! I finally had some right before we left with whipped cream and strawberries. Every night we had dinner at a different restaurant, an Italian café, and Argentinean steakhouse, an Indonesian restaurant… no wonder the vast majority of people in Amsterdam ride bikes everywhere! There are actually three sets of street lights: one for vehicular traffic, one for pedestrians, and a final set for the bikes. Bike lanes are separate from the streets and the sidewalks and they will let you know when you’re walking in the bike lane with the handlebar bells.
After nearly a month in sunny Rabat, the 30 degree weather in Amsterdam was freezing, both figuratively and literally! Fortunately for us, it didn’t rain or snow while we were there until the final day as we were being driven to the airport. Walking between the tram and our destination wasn’t pleasant at all and layering was a necessity. Several people in our group wound up buying heavy coats when we were in Amsterdam because they hadn’t thought they would need one this semester. A few people also took advantage of the presence of familiar clothing stores, mainly H&M, to update wardrobes. In the pre-departure materials, we were given a packing list with suggested items and amounts. We were also given a very general guideline on what’s culturally appropriate to wear. However, when we got to Morocco, several of us (myself included) found out that it was much warmer, and what clothes are considered appropriate is a much broader range than we’d been led to expect. While I went to H&M with the others, I did the majority of my shopping in an open air market where everything was much less expensive and there were more off-the-wall styles. I also saw some very pretty fabric that I brought back with me to Morocco! The man I bought it from was from Morocco and had been in the Netherlands for 37 years. He told me that he was from Rabat and came back to Morocco every year during summer vacation. When he found out that I was studying in Rabat, he told me that he was originally from Rabat and he was extremely excited that I would be bringing his fabric back with me to be made into a dress.
All told a very nice interlude. But I was more than ready to return to my host family by the end of the week. I found that I missed Buba Mustafa’s teasing and Mama Fatima’s cooking!
A High Altitude Weekend
Excursion number one: Chefchouen, the blue city and Fnideq, the border town. Both were absolutely stunning! We left early in the morning on Saturday and after a four hour bus ride interspersed with stops to admire the flowers (and stretch our legs) and group presentations (my group talked about the history and culture of Northern Morocco), we reached Chefchouen just in time for lunch! Lunch was an amazing sweet couscous with almonds, caramelized onions, ginger, cinnamon, garbanzo beans, and based on how tender the meat was, I believe it was lamb. After that it was time to explore!
Chefchouen literally translates to “look at the peaks” and refers to the two mountains that the city is built between. Keeping with that, the medina is filled with steep, narrow streets and lined with buildings of all shades of blue. WARNING: VERY SPECIFIC DESCRIPTIONS AND SHADES AHEAD. Periwinkle blue was by far the most common shade around at the bottoms of the hill. However, as we climbed we saw variations from aquamarine to marine, sky blue to cerulean and even a few buildings that were a beautiful hue reminiscent of the Caribbean. Apparently, the region had once thrived on exporting wool and purple and indigo dies.
During our exploration, I decided to try out my non-existent bargaining skills! To my vast surprise, I was successful. I found a gorgeous black and gold caftan that the shop owner was asking 150 Dirhams for (that’s just under $20 US in today’s exchange rate). I then asked if he would be willing to go a bit lower. In orientation, we were told to make a counter offer at a quarter of the original price but naturally in the heat of the moment I completely forgot this, so instead I asked if I could have it for 100 DH. Of course, the next offer I received was 125 DH to split the difference. I knew that the natural step would be to increase my offer a little bit, but fool I am, I had told him the maximum I’d want to pay as my first offer. So instead I told him that as much as I loved the caftan, I couldn’t pay more for a present for my sister than I had paid for a present for my mom. He thought that was hilarious and promptly let me have the caftan for 100 DH. Apparently, I can bargain… go figure!
The hotel we stayed at in Chefchouen was a wonderful break from all of the blue everywhere; it was all shades of pink. All of the rooms were identical which means everyone (including the only guy in our program group of 13) slept in pink princess beds with white canopies. Breakfast was yummy Moroccan mint tea with various pastries, cereals, and juice in a hotel lobby decorated in shades of pink and then we headed off across the north of the country for two hours to Fnideq, a small town on the border of Sebta (or Ceuta if you ask the Spanish). Sebta is one of the two Spanish enclaves in northern Morocco. They are both city states that answer to the Spanish government though Morocco has asked to have them turned over to the Moroccan government as they are on soil otherwise claimed by Morocco. There is actually a lot of enterprise between Sebta and Fnideq though the fences surrounding the Spanish enclave are very impressive! This is one of the main points of entry for undocumented migrants to Europe, hence the heightened security.
After watching the border for a while (and having the police watch us to be sure we didn’t pull out cameras or make a dash for the gate) we went to lunch.
At lunch, I was laughed at for my reaction to the main entrée! I was fine with the calamari; in fact, calamari is one of my favorite foods. I was also fine with needing to pull the legs of the shrimp and having the sol fish looking at me while I deboned it. What I had a problem with was the eel. It had teeth. And it was very obviously showing them off. I was uncomfortable with this and I squealed. The program coordinator laughed. The eel tasted wonderful. One last four hour drive later, and we were back in Rabat and so exhausted that after greeting my host family I fell into bed and only woke up for dinner!
Exploring the City of Rabat & a Taste of Culture
Hard to believe that my first week is almost up. Today we learned basic survival Arabic – the Moroccan dialect is called Darija. Tomorrow we move into our home stays! Photos of the home stay to follow with subsequent posts, I promise. In the meantime, my post includes some photos of the converted home that will serve as my school for the next four months with a wonderful view from the roof. We also learned exactly where the library was, got dropped off in small groups throughout the city to find our way back to the Center for Cross-Cultural Learning (CCCL), started running early in the morning, learned how to bargain, and were treated to a Moroccan music and dancing.
Apparently, SIT has three different buildings that make up the CCCL in Rabat. There is the main building that we were at on the first day, and then there is Marassa where beginners (that’s me) take Arabic classes and Lograz where the non-beginners have Arabic. The library, which includes every independent study project written since 1992, some of them in handwriting, is located in the basement of the last. I can’t wait to get my hands on them to find out what students in past semesters have researched! Hopefully someone has done a research topic that will aid me when it comes time to do my own independent project. More about that in a future post.
On a different note, I managed to teach the program coordinator something about navigation when it was my turn to hop off the bus in an unfamiliar part of the city. My group was one of the first to return even after we decided to sit and enjoy the sun by a fountain for almost half an hour. My theory was this: Rabat is a coastal city; therefore we couldn’t have gone west unless the bus turned into a boat while I wasn’t paying attention. Since the oldest part of the city would have been right by the water and expanded inland as the city grew, and the CCCL is in the oldest part of the city (the medina), I used the sun to find west and started for the shore line! Lucky for my group and me, it worked and we didn’t get lost. I can indeed find west even when there are no mountains on the horizon to guide me. The program coordinator told me when I shared my strategy that she had never thought of trying that and now she would because she was always getting lost.
Of course, running in the morning has also helped me learn the city. I memorized a couple different routes to the beach and helped put together a group. We meet around 6:30 or 7:00 depending on when the day starts and head out. It’s usually foggy in the mornings this time of year and a little chilly so there’s no temptation to slow down. On the other hand, there is also no one around at that time. The beach is fairly well lit and empty. On the first morning the only people we saw were distant enough we couldn’t make out their gender and they both had dogs on leashes. Hopefully when we move into our home stays we’ll be close enough to one another that it doesn’t become a hassle to meet before heading out!
And while the home stays might be in the medina with wonderful markets all around, bargains are only for those willing to work for them. At least, in my case it’s work! I am not, to my great disappointment, a natural at bargaining. Of course, that might have something to do with not being able to speak any French and not nearly enough Darija. Haggling over prices is easier when you know what prices are being discussed. For orientation, each student in the program was given ten dirhams. One U.S. dollar is about eight dirhams. We were instructed to find something in the market and buy it for ten dirhams (and try to find something that started out as more than ten). I found a table of jewelry and hair things and got quoted something I didn’t understand. And what do you do when you don’t understand? In my case I turned to the other girls I was with and asked one of them to translate. She said he was asking for 30 dirhams and then turned right back and asked if he’d give it to us for ten. Luckily he was more interested in his phone than bargaining and he said yes. I won’t tell you all exactly what I got because I fully intend to give it as a present and I’d hate to ruin the surprise!
As a surprise on the part of SIT, for the final night of orientation we had a traditional Moroccan meal which was followed with music and dancing! We were told that traditionally utensils aren’t used. In previous meals, we were given stiff bread to use to scoop up and soak up the rest of the meal – it tastes a little like sour dough bread. Luckily we did get silverware for this dinner! There were various types of salads with carrots, eggplant, and potatoes. It was so delicious. Then they brought out the main course which was served family style. It was chicken, made with nuts and cinnamon and sugar. It was very sweet but also savory. After dinner, the dancing began and they pulled people into the center. They tried to grab me twice and I “stumbled” behind the people next to me who had to take the plunge. I was a little too self conscious to dance alone. More coming soon!
A final night in Colorado!
Packing is monstrous! Usually, I am lucky and fly with an airline that allows me two free checked bags at 50 pounds each… and usually if I’m a few pounds too heavy in one bag, I can adjust at the airport by shifting the excess stuff into my other bag. Not this time however. This time, I have one fifty pound bag and a second is $200. I spent 15 minutes weighing and re-weighing my one suitcase and staring at the scale as it said 50.75 pounds. Then I went back and removed hair things to make it light enough! It looks like I’ll be doing without my hair straightener while abroad, which is probably a good thing since there is no guaranty that I won’t cause it to blow up.
On the positive side, by keeping busy with my packing, I have thus far avoided becoming too nervous. I have also been busy allaying the nerves of my family and friends! Apparently, the idea of me being in a foreign country is a bit nerve-wracking for my mom and dad. Although, since I go to college over 2,000 miles away from home, they won’t see me any less than they do during a typical semester. All I can say is that I have been to the safety briefs at my school, and there are more safety briefs scheduled upon my arrival in Morocco. The first few days of the program take place at a hotel in Rabat and cover safety, cultural adjustment, and survival Arabic.
I have to say that the language component of the program is my biggest worry though. Languages have never been my strongest area and I have heard that Arabic is one of the more difficult languages to learn. I have never studied it before. Hopefully my Spanish will be of some help in communicating to the people around me until I can speak simple sentences in Arabic. Of course, that also depends on the family that I’m placed with. We won’t be told anything about our host family until we’re in the country during orientation. That is nerve-wracking for me since I like to try to personalize my gift to the hosting family as much as I can. I wound up making a batch of homemade English butter toffee with my mom: simple, delicious and something people of all ages can enjoy.
Just under 14 hours until departure now and spending my final night relaxing at home with friends watching a pirate movie marathon. Please wish me well on my journey, and I hope you all enjoy reading along with my travels!