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!