When I Grow up I Want to be a Polyglot

As I mentioned in a previous post, next year we are going to be living in the U.S.  I’m doing a masters in clinical social work with a specialization in trauma counseling and refugee issues.  If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know how important these issues are to me. I have already chosen my classes, and I am in the process of finding a field placement to start in September.  Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I think, if it were next year already, I’d be on my way to learn about human behavior or to meet trauma patients!  I’m excited about it.
During these last few months, I am trying to enjoy the things I’ll miss about Morocco (like pomegranates), and to prepare for next year.  One thing I’ve been doing is studying Spanish at the local Instituto Cervantes.  I studied Spanish in school, but I want to be at a level where I’m comfortable having a conversation or giving information, as I think that will be really useful as a social worker in the U.S.  I’m also enjoying the opportunity to study another language now that I have more language learning tools under my belt.  Here are some things I’ve learned from studying French (more info on that process here) and from teaching English.
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I hope I am going in the right direction.

  • There is no reason to be embarrassed about making mistakes.  When I was learning French, I felt like it was like riding a roller coaster because I would get so emotional about successes and failures.  It might be easy to worry whether my fellow students like me or think I’m smart, but it is more important for me to practice speaking Spanish than to not say something stupid in front of a group of people I don’t know that well.
  • Motivation is perhaps the most important factor in language learning.  Learning a new language takes time, so it is crucial to be dedicated and to put in time studying, listening to music, reading, and reviewing.  Three hours a week of class isn’t enough for anyone to learn a language, so it is really up to the student to learn or not.
  • Personally, I study best alone.  I think everyone needs to find how they learn best, and I make the most progress reading and doing exercises by myself.  I love to read, so finding books I like makes a huge difference for me.
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I would like to study on this lovely rooftop in Rabat.

  • You don’t need to find a special method or spend a lot of money to learn a language.  I find that one of the best ways to practice is just to try to describe a situation in my head in Spanish while I’m walking to work.  For example, I’ll imagine that my teacher might ask me what I did last weekend, and I’ll go through my answer in my head.  Once I get a chance, I’ll look up whichever words I wanted to use but didn’t know.  This is a good way to expand useful vocabulary.
  • Finally, language learning is a lot of fun.  Once I got to the point in French where I was no longer translating in my head but instead was just coming up with what I wanted to say, it started to be so much fun to speak in French.  Once I realized that I could read novels or watch movies in French and enjoy them, a new world of culture, literature, film, and friendships opened up to me.  I can’t wait to have the same experience with Spanish!

Things I Wish more Moroccans Knew about Morocco

A while ago, I wrote a list of things I wish more Americans knew about Morocco.  Here’s the complementary post; what I wish more Moroccans knew about their own country.

  1. There are a lot of foreigners.  There are not just French expats, but Americans, Africans, Asians, and other Europeans.  And not all of them are rich, contrary to popular opinion.
  2. It is incredibly difficult for those foreigners to get visas.  My explanations of what I have to go through to renew my residency are met by surprised looks from Moroccans, and knowing nods from other foreigners.  I heard that the majority of French expats in Morocco just don’t bother getting visas, and leave every few months in order to continue living on a tourist visa.
  3. There is a big Christian presence in Morocco.  There are churches in every major city, and there are several different denominations represented.

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    Seats for the wedding guests at our church

  4. It is much easier and much more useful to learn French than to learn Arabic.  I came to Morocco with the intention of learning more Arabic, but ended up learning French out of necessity.  Speaking French has allowed me to make friends, communicate with others, and be a better English teacher.
  5. It is not dangerous to walk by yourself in Casablanca.  I walk to work every day, and have never felt unsafe (although I do often get annoyed by the traffic and by men).  I am occasionally told that I should not walk, but I think it’s actually safer than putting my life in the hands of an impatient taxi driver.

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    This Meknes taximan was ready to pick us up, but we wanted to walk.

  6. There are a lot of wonderful things that Morocco has that the United States does NOT have.  For example, vacation homes for big companies, maternity leave and generous vacation day policies,  cheap organic produce, and cleaning ladies who will clean your apartment once a week for a small price.  Which explains my first point, that there are a lot of foreigners.

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    Also, beautiful weather

Why We Do Not Want to Stay in Morocco

When I first came to Morocco nearly four years ago, it was love at first sight.  The weather was perfect, the people were friendly, the food was delicious, and every day was an adventure.

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Beautiful rock formations in Oualidia

I thought my husband and I might stay long-term, to keep taking advantage of Morocco’s beautiful diversity of cultures.  I was so much more in love with Morocco than any of my colleagues, most of which I thought would leave after a year or two.  But as it turns out, my close friends from my first year will probably stay significantly longer than I will.  Here’s why:

  • There are not many job options outside teaching, which is not my career.  I have also worked part-time in two NGOs, but both were pretty shockingly disorganized.  I don’t think I ever attended a meeting that didn’t start at least an hour late.
  • Getting a visa is a yearly challenge, especially for Africans.  My first year, my employer did everything for me, so I never even knew how difficult it was.  These past two years, I’ve had quite a bit of trouble renewing my visa due to unhelpfulness both from my new employer and from the staff at the prefecture.  And my husband has been working for almost three years on a student visa because his employer doesn’t want to pay the fees for a foreigner’s contract.
  • It’s just really hard to walk down the street.  I’m lucky enough to be able to walk to work, but feel so much less lucky when men comment on my clothes or appearance, or especially when they try to follow me.  It’s better when I walk with my husband, except on the occasions when people (men) yell racial slurs at us.  And then there are the broken sidewalks….
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A surprisingly well-organized slum

  • The rising culture of materialism is exhausting.  Like any fast-developing country, Morocco has become more and more focused on material wealth.  The thing to do on the weekends is to go shopping, and having a car has become a status symbol.  I struggle to explain to my students that I don’t have a car because I like to walk, not because I can’t afford one, that I don’t eat at the most expensive restaurants because I actually like to cook, and that I want to become a social worker because I genuinely find that profession fascinating, not because I got rejected from programs in technology or finance.  My idea of a good career is one that I find rewarding, not necessarily one that pays a lot of money.
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This guy probably gets his hair done in a salon every week.

There are things I love about Morocco too; the community I’ve found here, the opportunities I’ve had to meet new people and learn new languages, and the chance to experience another way of life.  The ocean in Casablanca is beautiful, the vegetables are always fresh, and my husband and I have wonderful friends.  But there’s a time for everything, and I really feel like it’s time to find a place to live with more trees than cars, even if it is somewhere with cold winters and no pomegranates.

 

There are Chatty Women in French Classes all over the World

When I entered the classroom, there was one Moroccan woman sitting ready in her seat, new course books in front of her. She looked to be about ten years younger than my mother, and was wearing a beige and blue veil that almost matched the blue of our course book. I whispered “bonjour” to the woman before sitting in my own seat and arranging my own books on the desk, two blue paperback books for French as a foreign language. More students filed in, mostly Moroccan women. About half were the same age as the first woman, and about half around my age. We were all students in the high intermediate class at the French Institute in Casablanca, Morocco, although were all there for different reasons. Once the class was nearly full, everyone started quietly flipping through the course book, waiting for the class to start. The teacher came in about 5 minutes late, bringing an abrupt end to the silence in the room.

“Bonjour les enfants!” She waltzed into the room, not pausing for a second to check if anyone had been offended that she had referred to them as children. “Vous allez bien? Vous n’avez pas froid? Il fait vraiment froid aujourd’hui, je l’ai dit ce matin, et je continue à le dire. C’est vraiment l’hiver!” The other students smiled and nodded, still a little shy. The teacher set down her bag and arranged her coat and scarf on the chair before beginning to walk around the circle of desks to ask for introductions. The first student to speak was a Moroccan university student, still living with his parents, but thinking about studying in France. As soon as he finished his introduction, all shyness seemed to have dissipated from the room, at least from the Moroccans. One of the older women began a story about a Moroccan girl she had known who left her family at 18 years to study in France and who became an alcoholic. “But that’s not typical,” she explained. “My daughter is 20 years old, and she is studying in Belgium. She’s a good student, very sure of her values, knows where she comes from.” The teacher stopped the introductions to give a quick description of the French language exams we could take and what would be required for university studies. Her description was punctuated by frequent comments from the students, who already knew a few things about the exams. The next woman then introduced herself; a 30-year-old housewife, married to a doctor, and four months pregnant. Everyone congratulated her, and another one of the older women gave a quick and unsolicited warning about not consuming too much sugar during the pregnancy.

The next student was a student of medicine. She said she had already been accepted to do the preparatory years in France, but her parents wouldn’t let her go. She had therefore lost one year of study, and had been obliged to do the program in Morocco, but wanted to reapply the next year to go abroad. The three older women were next; all three were housewives, and all three had grown children. I was last, since I had sat at the far end of the circle, furthest from the door but close to the board. I knew I had a soft voice, so I figured I would be more likely to be heard if I sat near the teacher. I gave my name, described a bit about my job, explained where I am from in the U.S., and how long I had lived in Morocco. “C’est tout,” I said, and shrugged my shoulders.

As soon as I finished, one of the older women called out, “Are you married?” I smiled and said no, not married, but engaged. The woman next to her shouted out, “to a Moroccan?”

“No,” I said, “not to a Moroccan.”

“All the better for her!” Called the student of medicine. The teacher jumped back into the conversation at that point, shushing the building commotion.

“Les enfants! Calmez-vous! We are going to speak one by one. Why do you say better for her? What is wrong with marrying a Moroccan?”

Five hands shot up. One by one, the other students explained that the Moroccan Man is lazy, does not know how to wash dishes, and sits watching TV while his wife works in the home. The two male students in the class objected briefly, but after some prodding, revealed that neither of them had ever washed a dish. “My mother doesn’t even let me wash dishes at home! She knows I would just break them.” One of the older women admitted to being ashamed for having to ask her husband for money for the French classes, but said that he preferred that she not work. The medicine student said that Moroccan men are spoiled by their mothers and expect the same from their wives. The pregnant woman finished by telling me that it’s really much better for me to marry an American anyway.

The teacher, noticing that everyone in the French class had spoken a lot except me, asked me if I could say how I met my fiancé. In giving the story of how we met at our church in another city in Morocco, I mentioned that he is not in fact American, but Central African. The teacher moved closer to me and asked if I could say what country he was from. “La Centrafrique,” I repeated.

“Il est noir?” the medical student asked. The teacher said, “ah ok, le centre d’Afrique. Il n’est pas Americain alors.” I wanted to jump in again and clarify that he is in fact from “La Centrafrique,” or “La Republique Centrafricaine,” a country that is in the center of Africa, but I didn’t because I always have difficultly pronouncing all the syllables the name of the country and didn’t want to trip over my words on the very first day. The class was no longer erupting with new comments; it was totally quiet for a few seconds. Then the pregnant woman chimed in again to give the last word. “My husband is a doctor, and he once worked in Senegal. He said that his coworkers were very kind. Well-educated, gentle, respectful; yes, they are really nice people.”

I wanted to answer her by saying that I have never known anyone from Senegal, and that I have no idea whether that’s true or not. But I decided to hold my tongue; that was enough excitement for one session of French class.

Short Story

My fiancé’s brother dished up one cube of melon on to his plate and looked around the table to see if we had noticed how little he took.

“Do you know why I took just one?” He cocked his head for dramatic effect.

“To try it out first?” I asked.

“Yes. Why? Because I sometimes have a bad reaction to melons. It first happened in France when I tried a green melon, and it really was not good. If this doesn’t go down well, we’ll know right away.” He smiled knowingly, then gingerly placed the cube of light green melon in his mouth and chewed slowly. We waited in silence on the edge of our seats.

“Is it okay? It looks like you don’t like it,” I asked.

“No, no, it’s fine. I think there’s no problem. It’s maybe just the fruit in France that I have a problem with. Those pesticides they use are bad for the stomach. Bad for the health. I have to be careful.”

I was relieved that he had no problem with my melon; it was the appetizer to the meal I had carefully planned out for my mom, my fiancé, and his brother, who was the first member of his family I had met. With my fiancé’s mother unable to travel outside of her country, Central Africa, his father deceased, and his siblings dispersed throughout Europe and Africa, a brother was all my fiancé could muster for meeting-the-family. And the sweet, round, bright yellow melons that had just come in season in Morocco were the best things I could think of as an appetizer.

We sat around the long table together, and started eating my meal of stir-fried carrots and peas, peanut chicken, and rice. I had tried to mix foods I thought we would all like, yet play to my strengths as a cook. Peanut chicken is an African dish, but I had made this particular meal using American peanut butter. I mentioned that to our guest, saying that my fiancé had taught me how to make peanut chicken, but my mother, who was visiting me in Morocco for two weeks, had brought the peanut butter from the U.S. because it is my favorite food. My fiancé’s brother’s comment was just what I had been hoping for; “What a gift God has given us with the incredible diversity of cultures in our world!”

The carrots, however, did not elicit any mention of God nor His gifts.

“Normally, I don’t eat carrots. I’ve had the same problem with them as with melons. They don’t pass through, so I try to avoid them.” He gave his pile of carrots a menacing look.

I wondered if I should have asked my fiancé about his brother’s eating habits beforehand. I had bought more carrots than I needed, so there were also thin slices of carrot in the peanut sauce, and round boiled carrots in the rice. A meal unified by carrots.

His brother looked up at me. “But maybe it’s just in France. In Morocco the food just looks fresher…not like those French grocery stores. I’ll give the carrots a try and see what happens.”

I was eager to get the conversation off of the foods he couldn’t eat, especially the ones I had just served him. I racked my brain for other topics to shift to. I breathed a sigh of relief when my mom jumped in.

“So what is it like to live in France? I know you’ve been there for thirteen years, but how does it compare to your country?”

“It’s a very nice country to live in; very organized and clean, and the university system is excellent. But unemployment is increasing every year. Unfortunately that comes along with racism, and is getting to the point of being quite dangerous, especially for foreigners.”

Our heads nodded at this assessment of what it is like to live in France, or more accurately, what it is like to live in France as an African immigrant. We all knew about how the French are stereotyped as being proud, and had read news of political conflicts surrounding growing discomfort with immigration to France from North and sub-Saharan Africa.

“Even after thirteen years and going through the visa process, I still can feel like an outsider. My name gives me away, my skin color, the way I talk…just having a French passport doesn’t make me French in their eyes.”

“I experienced the same thing,” said my mom, “when I was studying in France as an exchange student. I was always treated as an outsider. Even though I’m white, my name is French, and I even had a French boyfriend. That’s why I didn’t stay; it felt too hostile to me.”

My fiancé’s brother nodded knowingly. “Do you know what? I don’t even have any French friends. Why? Because they aren’t interested in mixing with people like me.   Sometimes I don’t even bother to greet my neighbors. I know they don’t want to be associated with me.”

I thought about my neighbors in my apartment building there in Morocco. I usually greeted them, but we weren’t even really acquaintances. I kept thinking that some day I would try to have a conversation with one of them, when the time was right, but that moment hadn’t come yet. I assumed they were friendly people, but I had never really put that to the test.

The dessert I had decided on was Moroccan-made yogurt with chocolate chunks mixed in, also a product of Morocco, which was a country he had come to for the first time only two days ago. That, I hoped, would be something he could digest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My English Class is like Casablanca at Rush Hour

Last night when I was being driven home from my church, our car got stuck in the middle of a traffic jam caused by five cars driving the wrong way through an intersection.  Everybody was honking and making wild gestures.  At one point a man got out of his car to yell at the driver in front of him, which only slowed everyone down because no one behind him could move.  Everybody was honking, swerving, and yelling all at the same time.  The stop light nearby changed to red and back to green again, totally irrelevant to what was actually happening on the street.

Everybody's going somewhere.

Everybody’s going somewhere.

This morning I taught my English class for young adults.  Since it was the last class of the week, I thought it would be fun to play a game.  I introduced a guessing game where one person would think of a food and the other students would ask a yes/no question to figure out what the food was.  My students’ desks were arranged in a circle, so I told them to ask the questions one by one in a circle.  It worked fine for the first round, but once all of the students understood the game, they stopped waiting their turns.  I would ask one student for a yes/no question, and three people across the room would be shouting out,

“Is it eggs?!”

“Rice!”

“It’s a fruit? A vegetable!”

The game quickly became chaos because before one student could answer the questions, someone else would have already shouted out the answer.  I stopped the game after a few rounds because it was just too much of everyone talking all at once to continue to manage.  I tried to slow them down and get them to go one by one, but even when I achieved calm moments, they didn’t last.  I felt like the stop light that no one was following.  Which makes me wonder; if we changed the way teachers and Moroccan schools manage their classes, would Moroccans be better drivers?

Chefchaouen

After a long stretch of working with no breaks, we finally got a week off from school to travel or rest, and my mom came back again to visit me.  And after several instances of nearly getting run over by cars and motorcycles, we were happy to spend five days up in the quiet of the mountains.

We went to Chefchaouen, which is in the north of Morocco, up in the Rif mountains. It is known for it’s blue walls, beautiful scenery, and expansive reefer plantations. My mom and I thoroughly enjoyed the two former aspects of the town, taking lots of pictures and getting daily calf workouts.

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I never knew how many shades of blue there are.

Coming from a very flat place (Illinois), I’ve always loved trips to the mountains. Every time I visit a mountainous area I start to make plans for how I can live in the mountains in the future.  However, we quickly found that mountains are beautiful but inconvenient. In Chefchaouen, produce is brought in from across the mountains and sold only on market days, Monday and Thursday. To buy produce, you must go down to the lowest part of the old city, and then lug it back up to your home. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of the fruit and vegetable carts in Casablanca, and that kind of convenient fresh produce was not available in Chefchaouen.

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A beautiful yet strenuous hike between mountain villages

Finally, I decided to return to my life in Casablanca in lieu of setting up in the mountains and going on long hikes every day for the rest of my life. I missed the melon man, the whole-wheat bread seller, the Philadelphia cream cheese corner store, and the daily vegetable truck.  I also thought it might be a good idea to go to work on Monday.  But it was a wonderful and restful week, and fun to see the countryside of Morocco.  The ocean breeze welcomed us back to Casablanca, and I feel just a little bit more confident about dodging motorcycles on the way to the vegetable cart than I did before.

Pretty view, pretty windows.

Pretty view, pretty windows.