Parking in Casablanca: The Chivalry of the Curb

Our last post introduced the experience of driving in Casablanca. Related intrinsically, yet distinct as an experience unto itself, is the matter of parking.

First, we have heard that roughly 70 percent of Morocco’s economy is unofficial duty-free commerce…aka, black market…aka, free market in its truest form. Unemployment is high. The idea of a high school student working a summer job at McDonalds (or, McDoo, as we noted in a previous post) is out of the question, because every job at McDonalds or Pizza Hut or wherever is a career position. An opening will garner a few hundred applications. So industrious and motivated people who cannot find jobs do what such people have done as long as there has been commerce: they find a need in the market and fill it.

The Need: Some things in Morocco are not scarce, such as sheep and donkeys and scooters and streetside Hanouts that collectively sell anything and everything. One thing that IS scarce in Morocco, and especially in Casablanca, is available parking. Imagine parking in New York City on a bad day; that’s a good day parking in Casablanca.

It is not that no parking spaces exist, but that available parking spaces can be very hard to find. Casablanca’s streets are often narrow with parked cars crammed into every nook and cranny where they can be shoehorned to fit. Even in a parking lot, lines are painted so closely together that pulling in or out of a space may require people to wish their Drivers Ed class from years before included instruction in the Moroccan 16-point turn. You cannot drive in Casablanca without the ability to parallel park…and to do it well. Correction: you should not be permitted to drive here without that skill; but, people do.

To make matters more complex, it takes a while to learn the rules of where you can – and, more importantly, where you cannot – park your vehicle. Naturally, you cannot park in a way that blocks a driveway or garage. Beyond that intuitive element, though, drivers new to Casablanca may get confused by the No Parking signs, comprised of a blue circle with a red border and a red “ \” or “X” through the center of it. Typically, they come in pairs, marking the front and back boundaries of a No Parking section of curb. Sometimes, though, one has difficulty finding the second sign, so you do not know on which side of the sign you can see it is okay to park and which is not. Or, sometimes, there are No Parking sections mixed with sections where it is okay to park, but you do not know which signs mark the okay parking section and which signs mark No Parking.

Yet another parking challenge is the Yellow Curb, which only works well to discourage parking when it is not faded and difficult to see as yellow. It also does not help convince drivers to avoid yellow curbs when so many others ignore their parking prohibition. Do this at your own peril, though. Twice in recent weeks, Brian parked on the yellow curb in the CIL to pop quickly into the French grocery store O’Self. This weekend, though, when we went to the CIL to shop at O’Self and some Hanouts, there were blue-uniformed police handing out tickets and towing vehicles from the yellow-curbed median packed with cars. Good thing we had found a legal spot this time, or we would have had to taxi home (a subject for another post!).

Violating any of the No Parking rules can result in finding The Boot attached to one of your wheels, like a metal sandwich that keeps you from driving away because your wheel cannot rotate. Unlike in the U.S., where getting unbooted is often a highly bureaucratic process, here you just find the guy who booted you, pay him, get unbooted, and drive away chagrined that you did not see the faint traces of yellow on the curb. Far worse is getting towed, which can take long hours and many dirham to break your car out of Bad Parking Jail.

The Solution: Back to our initial comments about free markets filling the needs of consumers, the answer to the problem of parking in Casablanca (and elsewhere in Morocco) comes in the form of the Parking Guardians (ou, en français, les gardiens de parking). An entire service industry has grown around the need for drivers (1) to find good, legal parking spaces, and (2) to feel confident that their vehicles will be safe during their absence from petty vandals and thieves. We are sad to have read some naïve and unflattering descriptions of the Parking Guardians online. In reality, these men are not shysters and charlatans. They provide a real service, at a negligible price, which makes life here easier and more enjoyable. Indeed, part parking attendant, part traffic cop, part 3-D Puzzle Master, and part bouncer, with yellow safety vests and an option to wash your car while you are gone, les gardiens de parking are Morocco’s Knights of the Chivalry of the Curb mixed with a sort of pure capitalism that would make Adam Smith proud.

For as little as 2Dh (2 dirham is about 25 cents) they will find you a spot to park on their stretch of curb and help direct you through the process of parking. This could mean directing your parallel parking with wild left and right wheel-turning gesticulations that somehow help fit your 3 meter vehicle into a barely-bigger 3.25 meter curbside opening, while the Guardian simultaneously holds up honking traffic with a Moroccan wave. It could also mean having you drive your vehicle halfway up onto the sidewalk perpendicular to the roadway to sandwich more cars into a small stretch of curb, this time likely holding up two lanes of honking traffic for you while you park. Last weekend, when we went to shop in the CIL and DID NOT PARK ON THE YELLOW CURB, it meant that as soon as we parked curbside in a free space, a Parking Guardian appeared with a 2 dirham ticket from the automated streetside parking pay box (that we had not seen), instructed us in pantomime to put it on our dashboard, and ensured that we were not towed while the local authorities were towing yellow curb cars left and right. After an hour of shopping to get fresh basil and broccoli at a Souk, fresh Moroccan bread and baguettes at the bakery, skewers for the grill at the hardware Hanout, and an assortment of butcher meat, cheeses, and more splurgee items at the French grocer O’Self, we gave the Parking Guardian 10Dh plus 2Dh for the automated parking ticket that he had given to us. Where could we shop for an hour stateside and pay only $1.25 to park? And these guys will even remind you to turn your mirrors into the side of your car – or just do it for you – to keep passing traffic from taking them off as drive-by collateral damage. As difficult as it may be to remember which of the handful of Parking Guardians huddled together in the median of the roadway is taking care of your car, they always remember which cars in their care go with which drivers.

A couple weeks ago we were headed to meet a mixed group of Moroccan and expat friends at someone’s flat for a Moroccan Movie Night that featured a Moroccan film presented (and, after finishing the viewing, discussed) by the film’s Moroccan producer/director. On the way, we stopped at Chez Paul, a fancy French restaurant, to pick up some things we could contribute to the group’s potluck refreshments. Having to zip in and out because we were running late, but with no streetside parking available, we explained in a mix of English, French, and pantomime to a Parking Guardian who spoke mostly Darija (Moroccan Arabic) that we needed just a few minutes to park and run inside. Our mission explained and his duty accepted, we just got out and let him figure out what to do with the car. Less than 10 minutes later we emerged with a box of savory treats as we wondered if we would find our car anywhere. There it sat, pulled into a driveway about 20 meters away. The Parking Guardian saw us and brought over the keys. When we asked, “Combien?” (How much?) he shrugged his shoulders and smiled broadly. We gave him a 10Dh coin, and he blessed us as we zipped off to our evening.

The Parking Guardians can be your friend or foe. Friend is much better. Shortly after getting wheels, Brian headed into town to get a haircut at The Palace salon. Pulling onto a side street off major drag route Boulevard Ghandi, he was stuck behind a slow-moving, very pink-faced German driving a big BMW SUV. In slow motion, the German ignored the Parking Guardian directing him to a spot further down where the street was wider, and pulled over to the curb in such a way that it blocked anyone else from getting past on the street. The Parking Guardian and Brian exchanged bemused glances from meters away and shrugged at each other as the German got out of his Beemer. Then the Parking Guardian turned his corrective attention to the German violating the Chivalry of the Curb, blowing a whistle loudly and repeatedly, and berating the German until – duly shamed – he got back in his SUV and drove ahead another 10 meters so Brian could park. Again they exchanged glances, rolled their eyes at the lack of decorum showed by the German, and smiled at each other for each doing their part to respect and preserve the Chivalry of the Curb.

On your mark…get set…here we go!

Driving in Casablanca: Darwin’s Playground

Audrey says that Brian was born to drive in Casablanca. Brian agrees…while noting explicitly that driving in Casablanca is not for the faint of heart. To set the tone of this post, watch this brief “tutorial” on driving in Morocco – – then read further.

Prior to completing our first week here, we got wheels. In this first year here, we are leasing a 2001 Honda CRV from a local expat with a reputation for providing good and reliable vehicles to other expats. It is a great deal, as buying and insuring a vehicle here – new or used – is quite a challenge, for all kinds of reasons. During our first days, we spent a fair bit of time as passengers in other vehicles on Casablanca’s roads and experienced enough to find the video in the above link hilariously true to life. One of our first observations was that Casablanca must have a terrible problem with post nasal drip, because seemingly at every intersection we stopped we had kids walking between cars selling boxes of tissues for a 10 Dirham coin (Moroccan currency equal to about $1 USD). Putting our post-graduate degrees to work, we subsequently wondered about the direction of supply and demand causation between these street corner agents of the Moroccan tissue syndicate and the box of tissues found on the dashboard of every taxi in Casablanca.

Emboldened by the accumulation of experiential roadway knowledge, Brian felt sufficiently prepared to get behind the wheel of our CRV and chauffeur the family to a celebratory dinner downtown. God bless GPS, because one thing jumps out immediately upon trying to navigate here: there are no street signs. Nope, none.

Perhaps this derives from historically being largely an oral culture instead of a written one. In most places we have lived, directions might sound like, “Take Boulevard de la Grande Ceinture and stay on it when it becomes Boulevard Sidi Abderrahmane, then turn left on Rue d’Ifrane and continue until you arrive at O’Self in the CIL.” But directions here sound more like we encountered when we lived in Louisiana, with landmarks taking precedence over streets. So the Moroccan version of those same directions would be, “Take the tram road past where it bends, then turn left when you reach the CIL Mosque and keep going until you see O’Self.” That works for people – even expats – with roots here. But newcomers, with no idea where the tram starts or which mosque is the CIL Mosque, need GPS…

…Except that GPS does not always take you where you want to go. For example, when Brian used his phone’s GPS to find Monsieur Bricolage (the closest Casablanca comes to a Home Depot) on a quest to buy a gas grill, it took him on a wild goose chase through neighborhoods and open air markets with carts and donkeys and produce stands clogging narrow streets, then told him he had reached his destination when he was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Quickly, he tried Google Maps and shot a kilometer or two further up the road to find Monsieur Bricolage waiting for him. Lest Google start feeling superior, Google Maps has misdirected us plenty as well, such as when we planned to attend an art exhibit and ended up on a street corner by a construction site instead of at Ville des Arts. The challenge comes – in addition to no street signs – from the lack of any street numbers in addresses. Addresses may give a business or building name and a street name (yes, the streets have names, just no signs to tell what they are), and GPS usually does a miraculous job finding your destination with just that information. But more than rarely you may find yourself on the correct street without knowing if you have gone too far down it or not far enough along.

But none of that GPS stuff is why Audrey says Brian was born to drive here.

Driving in Morocco is not just a matter of getting used to kph instead of mph. Driving here is an exhausting, all-senses-on-high-alert, full-contact sport. Take the first lesson of driving here: No matter how many lanes exist on a road, a turn can be made to either the left or right from any lane. As you approach an intersection in the left lane with plans to go straight through it, be wary because the drivers in the middle and right lane may swerve suddenly in front of you as they make left turns from your right side.

Not to be trite, but this, of course, implies that lanes matter.

They do not.

This is particularly true around traffic circles (aka, roundabouts), which typically are a death challenge every time you enter one because it is always unclear who has the right of way and from which lanes people may come to turn or to go straight. Daytime is better for entering traffic circles, because you can try reading the faces of oncoming drivers to gauge how committed to playing chicken they are; at night, all you have is their headlights and a prayer. Even on straight roads, though, we have seen a three-lane road swell to eight “lanes” of cars packed side by side, with vehicles on the far right trying to turn left and vehicles on the far left trying to turn right, and a taxi stopping to pick up passengers in the middle of it all. As a consequence, yes, traffic can slow to a standstill. At such times you can hop out of your car and buy a helping of snail soup from one of the three or four dozen women lined up roadside with their snail soup stands. People behind you will honk, but that is okay.

People honk their horns all the time. They do so not in aggravation, but to make their presence known in a sort of roadway existentialism: “I honk, therefore I am…so get back in your own lane before you dent my fender, or before I dent yours.” While honking wins the “favorite Moroccan pastime while driving” award, the “Moroccan Wave” comes in a close second to it. Rather than honking, drivers may use the Moroccan Wave out the driver’s window – a wave of the hand that might swoop out with intentional warning, might wave quickly then disappear, or might shake emphatically to declare gesticularly that someone intends to change lanes/pull out/turn/etc. in front of you. The appropriate response to the Moroccan Wave varies from waving back, to making a nasty face, to honking, to gunning the engine in a sudden game of chicken.

Fortunately, the right-of-way code minimizes the frequency of games of chicken. Put simply, the bigger and faster vehicle has the right of way. The driver of a teeny vehicle crammed with a family of six does not challenge a large truck ignoring lanes as it prepares to turn right by getting into the left lane. What happens if one vehicle is bigger and another is faster? See previous “game of chicken” as the slick Mercedes with tinted windows tries to weave between others to get ahead of the bigger Dacia van.

The exception to this code is scooters. Scooters are the top of the roadway food chain. For our purpose here, a scooter is anything from a mo-ped (most common) to a motorcycle (rarely seen on the city roads, though Casablanca has a Harley dealer). Scooters are the über-gnats of the Casablanca roadway: ubiquitous and entitled. You may pass them as they putt-putt along, only to have them swarm you from all sides when they catch up to you at a stoplight and they weave between cars to move to the front of the line. To protect scooter drivers, legally they always have the right of way. Yet, as history again and again proves Lord Acton’s claim that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, scooters take full advantage of their superior status. Some scooter drivers even look for “safe” accidents they can create to make a quick buck. Generally, though, those are not the scooters with dad, mom, and a couple kids pressed between them as they enjoy good family time riding on one scooter.

A few other things to beware while driving here:

  • buses (usually packed so full of passengers that the doors cannot close fully, so people may hang out the door close enough to adjust your driver side mirror as you travel next to a bus)
  • red petit taxis (three passenger maximum, and they stop to pick up more people until the three person limit is reached)
  • white grand taxis (an old Mercedes sedan with two passengers sharing the front passenger seat and four passengers crammed into the three-seat back; also stopping to pick up more people until it reaches the six person limit in four passenger seats)
  • pedestrians popping out from anywhere and eschewing crosswalks while expecting traffic to yield to their jaywalking across the street or arterial or highway
  • taxi drivers – or others…one day we saw an entire car of four guys – pulled most of the way off the road and positioned by the back right tire in a ¾ turn away from traffic while relieving themselves
  • three-wheeled flatbed carts laden with fruits, vegetables, prickly pear cactus fruits, melons, machinery, recyclables, people, you name it
  • sheep, cows, turkeys, goats, donkeys, dogs, cats, or other animals eschewing crosswalks and expecting traffic to yield to their jaywalking across the street or arterial or highway
  • donkeys pulling carts laden with fruits, vegetables, prickly pear cactus fruits, melons, machinery, recyclables, people, you name it
  • people walking individually or en masse along the side of the road, or even in the road
  • people pushing carts laden with fruits, vegetables, prickly pear cactus fruits, melons, machinery, recyclables, people, you name it
  • And, last but not least…wrong way traffic (especially brightly-colored three-wheeled truck taxis cramming as many as a dozen people into what is basically a small box open at the back, with a guy on top smiling as he waves oncoming vehicles away with glee)

After reading this, one might wonder what role law enforcement plays on the roads. Have no doubt that they exist prominently. They stand on corners, in intersections, on roadsides, and at guard posts in their blue uniforms with stiff white plastic sleeve protectors on their forearms. Driving along a road, you may see suddenly a police checkpoint channeling people through with strategically-placed panels of high metal spikes laid on the road. Or you may pass a radar team of at least three officers operating one radar gun placed on a tripod, making you wonder if someone could zoom past them and be gone before they packed up their gear and rushed after the speeder in their radar team truck. If you get pulled over for some reason, any fines must be paid on the spot, so it may be a good idea to keep extra Dirham in the car.

Fortunately for us, Brian honed his Darwinian driving skills in Washington, DC, which has proved a good preparation for driving in Casablanca. Audrey has been brave in the passenger seat, but has yet to give driving here a whirl. That is coming soon, though, and then we will have a competition to see who can go longest without putting a dent in the CRV’s body or a getting pulled over for a ticket. Inshallah.

On your mark…get set…here we go!

Settling In

We have come to the point in our Moroccan expedition at which we can start counting our time here in weeks (albeit only three) instead of days. Happily, in that still-brief time we have made good progress settling into our new northwestern African home.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow published his “Theory of Human Motivation” paper that first established his now-ubiquitous hierarchy of needs. More than anything else in our lives, moving to Morocco has given us a deep appreciation for Maslow’s primary needs of things like food and shelter, safety, and relationships.

While finishing our packing last month, we made sure to include among our 25 boxes and bags some basic foodstuffs – like pasta, sauce, and Mac & Cheese – that we could access upon arrival. If nothing else, we figured, we could ensure that our tired stomachs would not have to sleep empty. It was a good plan.

Upon arrival, first we found shelter in our comfortable faculty residence. We had resolved before our stateside departure to have low expectations of our quarters, leading to the pleasant discovery of our spacious 3BR/2.5 Baths unit with a long entryway, a large balcony deck, terrific cross breezes to give us God’s air conditioning (since we have none made by humans), and a beautiful view of the Atlantic Ocean perfect for enjoying African sunsets (though when we arrived at after midnight we could only guess where the ocean was). Next, with much-appreciated help from other school staff, we finished lugging boxes and bags up the “Moroccan elevator” – known as stairs – to our third floor apartment very, very late. When faced with going to bed sooner with empty stomachs or still later with full ones, we pulled out Brian’s handy package manifest to see where we would find a box of Mac & Cheese…or, in this case, two boxes. The three of us gorged, and then we slept.

The next day, we kept climbing Maslow’s pyramid when someone came by with a school phone for Audrey (Brian would have to wait for his) and a router to give us home wifi. Then we piled into a school vehicle with an HR staff member who dropped us at the Morocco Mall, not far from our school and home. Our first stop there was a Meditel store to get Charlotte’s phone a Moroccan SIM card and data plan that would allow her to connect with her friends stateside and elsewhere around the globe. Next we went to Fnac, a sort of Best Buy downstairs and Barnes & Noble upstairs, to buy Moroccan-plug chargers for our iPhone and iPad electronica. Having procured the technology to connect with friends and family to let them know we had arrived safely, only then did we go to the Mall’s Walmart-like Marjane Supermarche to begin outfitting our new home with the basics of home operation (Item #1: Fans!) and food supply so we could eat and survive the next few days.

We must admit, ever so reluctantly, that beyond the tangible satisfaction of our primary Maslow needs, shopping at the Mall helped with our incipient sense of belonging as well. Stateside we are not mall rats, yet on our first day in Casablanca we drew a measure of comfort from easing into our Moroccan acclimation by walking around a western-friendly setting that included some stores we would see in Scottsdale’s malls (albeit with a Moroccan style), and even a food court that mixed Moroccan establishments (where from a display you can choose a skewer of meat or vegetables that they will grill for you) with the western extremes of Dominos, Pizza Hut, KFC, Burger King, and – of course – McDonalds (or, as advertised on billboards and signs here, Chez McDo).

Efforts to establish HOME continued on Day Two with a field trip to IKEA with two other newly-arrived families. Piling into a yellow school bus, a school driver ferried us to the familiar blue and yellow. After more than four hours that included an IKEA café stop with tajine instead of IKEA’s famous meatballs, our three families had nearly bought out the store and filled the entire bus with enough “LEGOs for Adults” projects to max out three impressive “honey do” lists.

Despite the perception this western-leaning time might create, not all our early day activity focused on western familiarity and 1WPs (First World Problems). On our third day, we decided to take a family walk to the beach a mile away. Settling upon the “shortest distance between two points” manner of navigation, we shot out straight from the school gate toward the water and traipsed through a pasture of mostly-dried grass, dust, manure, and a few cows for good measure. Seeing a black-topped parking area by what we presumed was a high upper class residence, we redirected a few dozen meters to the right for easier walking. No sooner did we set foot on the blacktop than an official-looking guard approached and stopped us. In Arabic, he nicely but firmly asked where we were going, and chided us for speaking no Arabic. After a couple minutes of gently dressing us down, he indicated – with the ever-useful Moroccan pantomime to make up for foreigners’ language deficiencies – that we should go back to the road and take a different route to the beach. Only later did we discover that we had traipsed onto the property of the King’s summer palace. Oops!

After a few days of acquiring and using western comforts and a bit of peer get-to-know-you time, as quickly as possible we sought to expand our local universe and discover real Casablanca. Near the end of our first week, thanks to the generous offer by another school hand to show us around town, we counter-balanced our Morocco Mall and IKEA experiences with an exploration of everyday shopping in Souks (open air markets) and Hanouts (Moroccan versions of NYC bodegas) so fascinating that they merit their own soon-to-appear post. Now we felt like our real acclimation had begun.

Our world expanded further as the 15 year old car offered to us in a private lease for this year by a friend of the school got delivered to us and we could venture out on our own. As with Souks and Hanouts, we soon will share a post dedicated to driving and parking in Casablanca. For now, suffice it to say that getting keys and wheels made us feel liberated and daring enough to head downtown – utilizing Brian’s “D.C. Driving” skills from Capitol Hill days – and go to a restaurant that Charlotte picked with technology using the newly-acquired SIM card in her phone. It would have been better if, in our excitement to be independently mobile, we had thought to dress more appropriately for a nice restaurant downtown. Instead, Brian looked the most like an American sightseer with his cargo shorts and flip-flops. Upon our walking into the restaurant, the English-speaking maître d’ swooped over and handled these American tourists himself, saving his staff from having to manage with them.

Another important piece of settling in for us was getting a grill. As foodies, a grill expands significantly our culinary repertoire. After finding Monsieur Bricolage, the closest Morocco comes to Home Depot, Brian bought a grill, hose, and clamps and set to work turning its million pieces into a working grill. After several hours, he had a working grill that did not explode when he lit the burners, and Audrey had plans for what she would give Brian to grill over the next few days.

Perhaps the last piece of starting to settle in came with our outreach to start networking beyond school life. We had read, in our preparation this spring for a successful experience living abroad, of the importance of building relationships with three groups: at our school, with native Moroccans, and in the expat community. To facilitate these latter relationships, we joined an online-organized community called InterNations. Already we have attended several events and met a number of interesting expats and Moroccans who have helped us leap forward in what we have learned already. We even found an expat living the last 30 years in Marrakech interested in showing us around when we journey there later this fall.

Through all this, while Audrey had a phone, office, keys, and a computer, Brian had none of these. As a result, Audrey could also start settling into her job role, while the good feelings Brian felt about home life stopped short of extending to his job role. In Morocco, though, one of the earliest and most important lessons is about patience. “Moroccan time” means things happen when and as they are supposed to, a reflection of the Muslim fatalism that God controls all. Lhamdo Lillah (“Praise be to God”), eventually Brian got office-outfitted in time to be ready for new faculty orientation.

So, after three weeks, we feel very much at home here. We have learned much already, as people here have already learned much about us. One longtime staff member commented on how difficult it is to predict what incoming faculty and staff will be like, saying with apparent relief after meeting us, “You guys are remarkably normal.” More recently, he paid us a high compliment when predicting whether we are more likely to succeed here or to disappear (like some do when their experience teaching abroad fails to be what they hoped it would be), saying to Brian, “I think you guys are going to be here a lot longer than you think you will be.

Perhaps most telling of our settling in is that we feel perfectly at ease with getting around on our own. We have had both failures and successes; but, even the failures can turn into successes. For example, last weekend we hoped to attend an InterNations art exhibition. However, when Google Maps took us to a location nowhere near where we wanted to be (but we did not know how to get where we wanted to go), we just shot an apology email to the woman hosting the event and used our suddenly unscheduled time to drive to the Cil neighborhood for a car wash (lest “Moroccan Dust” become the new paint color for the car) and shopping at the Souks, Hanouts, and the French grocery store there. Likewise, after not even three weeks in Casablanca, Brian got to share his new competence getting around by playing “Basic Survival Tour Guide” to a family that arrived last week, taking them to the supermarches, Souks, and Hanouts, and letting them in on handy advice that can help make their settling in easier.

To be certain, much learning and excitement, as well as many challenges, lie ahead for us. Maslow’s secondary goals stand far off for us as we look someday to achieve them. Indeed, we keep hearing about how culture shock starts to hit hard around October. For now, though, it feels good to say confidently after just three weeks that we are settling in, that we are happy, that we love living in Morocco.

On your mark…get set…here we go!

Getting to Morocco: Preparations, Challenges & Anxieties

Before our posts move forward from our arrival in Casablanca, we want to backtrack a bit and mull our preparation for moving to Africa. Bear in mind, while younger and/or single educators can make more spontaneous decisions, this is not something we could just wake up one morning and decide to do. After years of talking about going abroad someday, and having international job offers that we declined at times in our past, we started looking for the right international school opportunity about a year ahead of our arrival in Morocco. Working together on such a big decision was of primary importance to minimize the chance of one of us backing out and killing the move – which could lead to resentment from the other wanting to proceed with the plan – or, even worse, going along without buying in fully so that our arrival would lead quickly for at least one of us to buyer’s remorse, resulting regret, and disharmony. With two very different personalities and planning styles, this posed a big challenge. Yet, through much intentional effort to consider and include each other at every step along the way, we stayed together pretty well throughout the process. By December we had found the right school and signed contracts that would take us abroad for at least three years.

Once we signed our contracts, our excitement shifted from that of looking for an international school to that of preparing to go to one. We googled and searched and read and watched in manic effort to learn what we could learn as quickly as possible about Morocco, about Casablanca, and about our school. The wonderful HR people at our school fed this habit by emailing us with lists of worthwhile resources, and even a “Casablanca Survival Guide” designed to help steer incoming faculty and staff through the substantial culture shock that new expats encounter after the “honeymoon” period wears off. Some, apparently, do not make it. “The first year is pretty tough,” one person told us back in December, “But after that, people love it here!” The key, many told us, is your attitude as you come in. If you are open to the Casablanca experience, you will embrace what it has to offer. If you want merely to replicate the U.S. experience living abroad, you will find disappointment. We suspect this truth applies at international schools around the globe.

Before long, while that preparatory excitement remained, we also felt the challenge of preparing to go as the reality of our commitment started to set in.

One early aspect of this challenge was deciding how to downsize our lives to what we could take with us on the flight to Morocco. Multiple sources advised us not to send anything by cargo ship; instead, we should check everything we want onto our flight. How to arrive at that goal feasibly was a mystery. We lived in a very comfortable 3500 square foot house in Scottsdale, AZ, with four bedrooms and four bathrooms; a huge kitchen and large walk-in pantry; nice furniture in our living room, dining room, and master bedroom; antiques; artwork. We would never fit everything into our faculty housing apartment in Casablanca, to say nothing of the impossible cost of shipping it all across the Atlantic. Likewise, it would be cost-prohibitive to keep everything in storage units.

First there were the cars. Brian’s beloved 2001 Jeep was not welcome in Morocco, where a few years ago it was decreed that no vehicles more than five years old could be brought into the country. Audrey’s 2013 VW CC made that cut…then we learned that beyond shipping costs we would have to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of a 35% import tax: not on the current value, but on the ORIGINAL purchase price! We decided to leave Brian’s Jeep with his folks for when we would return stateside for visits, and Audrey’s CC we would sell sometime before we departed in mid-July.

Once we had a car plan, we turned attention to our voluminous stuff. We purged and repurged. We inventoried. Audrey read books and articles about minimalism, while Brian leaned toward holding on to things that we would want at whatever point we returned from abroad or that our kids may want during or after college. In the end, working together and with both of us giving ground to the other, we prioritized what was (1) important in our new jobs, (2) nostalgic, (3) irreplaceable, and (4) otherwise special. The rest – over 80 percent of what we owned – went to the dump or to an estate sale auction house for sale (albeit with a return of about four cents on the dollar that did not come to us until two days before we took off, and that was only after weeks of pestering them to send us our overdue check before we disappeared to Morocco). So after vacating the house we rented and downsizing the majority of our stuff, our material life of 20 years of marriage now is based in a couple UHaul storage units.

The next big challenge we had was not physical, but emotional. Things we read told us to expect that not everyone close to us would share the excitement of our plans, and some might even vent their frustration over our leaving with highly negative input. Many friends and family reacted to our news positively, with some even declaring their desire to visit us in Morocco as soon as they could. (Months before we left the U.S., our first visitor reserved her spot in our guest room for this coming September.) Others seemed perplexed, but wished us well with a “better you than me” attitude. Yet, still others had quite negative reactions that took some wind out of our sails. The world is a dangerous and scary place today, and some people worried that we were moving far away – and away from them – to what they considered an unsafe and incompatible part of that dangerous world. Emotionally difficult as this was, we were determined to keep moving ahead, while hoping that naysayers and critics would fall into line over time.

Another hassle came with the need to review and update legal documents – e.g., wills, medical directives, etc. – especially choosing whom to name Power of Attorney for us while we are overseas. We were quite blessed with a lawyer friend of ours agreeing readily to be our POA, and with other family and friends who willingly shouldered other important roles that made us feel much better about the status of our stateside lives.

After handling the bigger-picture, longer-term challenges, the last few weeks before we left included anxiety over several matters of logistics, finance, and timing.

  • First, after spending liberal transition time with Brian’s family in the Pacific Northwest, we had to figure out how to get all our bags and boxes from the apartment where we were staying to the airport where we would depart. From Brian’s meticulous measurements of the cargo volume and of the space available to transport it in his Jeep and in his parents’ pickup truck bed, it seemed he could make it all fit. Not until loading it on departure day, though, did he know actually that the pieces of this 3-D puzzle would fit in the two vehicles heading to SeaTac. Then, of course, there was Brian’s “Will they take all our bags and boxes?” worry, the ending of which we covered in our previous post. Fortunately, the measurements were sound, and all fit perfectly with enough room even to include the people who needed to accompany the stuff.
  • Second, the need to manage finances was and is a source of great anxiety as we gear up in Morocco. Not only did we have to marshall our funds to cover costs (especially the extra bag fee!) for getting here, but we also have to manage both our U.S. and Moroccan funds carefully until we can get set up with (a) a Moroccan bank account – which could take a couple months – and (b) the ability to convert Moroccan Dirham (MAD) into U.S. dollars we can wire to our U.S. bank and pay stateside bills (like for our storage units, insurance payments, credit card statements, etc.) – which may not happen until December! We should be fine, but there is a bit of angst that comes with not being able to add to our stateside cash for as many as five months.
  • Third, as mentioned above, we needed to sell Audrey’s super-fun Volkswagen CC, known to her as “Precious.” We explored private sale and dealer buyback options. For a variety of reasons, these proved to be less-than-desirable scenarios in this case. But Precious still needed to go away in order to avoid continued finance and insurance payments on it. Two weeks before departure, we contacted an independent dealer who had been recommended to us. He sold lots of cars on consignment, and offered us a great price well above what VW dealers had offered. Even better, he suggested we hold on to Precious until our last full day in the states, at which point we could drop the car with him and he would take care of all issues of title transfer, payoff of financing, even do some scheduled maintenance and a thorough detailing to make it sparkly and ready for a buyer. Auto issue: Gone.
  •  Lastly, another logistical timing issue hit from out of the blue during our last month in the states, threatening suddenly to keep Brian from getting on the flight to Morocco with Audrey and our daughter Charlotte. After what Brian thought would be a routine wellness visit with his doctor, the PCP sent a message a few days later saying he wanted blood work repeated to ensure some bad results were due to lab error instead of bleeding internally. BLEEDING INTERNALLY? You gotta be kidding me! Certain that a second blood draw would exonerate his internal plumbing, Brian was shocked when his return visit instead confirmed iron deficiency anemia, a sign that something was likely awry inside. The exchange between PCP and Brian: “We need to know if you are bleeding internally before you get on a plane to Morocco. But what if things cannot be scheduled before my flight in mid-July? We need to know if you are bleeding internally before you get on a plane to Morocco.” [Microphone…drop.] Naturally, this opened up the “it sucks getting older” element of bodies not being what they used to be, and Audrey being worried about Brian while Brian worried about losing crucial packing/prep time in our final weeks and possibly having to delay his own arrival and orientation at the new school. More practically, this created a sudden and serious problem of scheduling and executing a battery of tests by various doctors in different departments at several medical facilities (to say nothing of getting insurance pre-authorization of all the procedures) to check him out stem to stern and see if he was leaking blood from his __________ (fill in as needed: liver, aorta, stomach, spleen, intestines, colon, etc.). Somehow, some guardian angel must have taken over the case as what normally would have taken many weeks to schedule instead got scheduled and performed in less than two weeks. Better still was that the snout-to-tail results, the last of which came days before our departure, revealed nothing out of the norm, and a scrip for iron supplements got things back in proper order. Cleared to go!

And so we went. And now we are here. In nearly two weeks since our arrival, we have already seen and done much. Our jobs started this week, though they are beginning with a couple office setup days followed by several days of admin team orientation. Meanwhile, Charlotte has discovered the joys of surfing, for which she has been taking lessons at a Moroccan surfing school on the beach. We know there is a honeymoon phase to this move, and that this phase will come to an end. For now, though, suffice it to say that all three of us love living in Morocco. Through the humidity and the large cockroaches that fly and the need to scrub your fruits and vegetables to avoid getting sick, we enjoy the warm people who daily welcome us to Morocco. All three of us came in with positive attitudes and desires to embrace what Casablanca and Morocco have to offer. We are happy, and we are ready for so much that lies ahead in the intentional adventure of our Expat Expedition.

On your mark…get set…here we go!