The Commissary: A Thanksgiving Blessing

This weekend we celebrated our first Thanksgiving in Casablanca. Having invited our friends the Chbany family to join us for their first Thanksgiving ever, we wanted to give them a good, down-home, traditional American Thanksgiving experience. But how to do that in Morocco? Lots of planning, good research, a bit of luck, and membership at THE COMMISSARY!

When we first arrived in Casablanca last summer, we heard from veterans at our school about “The Commissary” as a if it were a wonderland of delicacies. Images of a Moroccan Wonkaland, where every fantasy about food you miss from back in the States comes true, began to form in our heads.

[Cue Gene Wilder: Hold your breath / Make a wish / Count to three / Come with me / And you’ll be / In a world of / Pure imagination / Take a look / And you’ll see / Into your imagination…]

Because our school is one of five in Morocco affiliated with the U.S. Department of State, U.S. employees have the opportunity to join The Commissary connected to the U.S. Embassy in Rabat. Just an hour’s drive north from Casablanca, we envisioned a Costco-like membership that would let us wheel a pallet through warehouse aisles and get industrial-sized containers of all our American hearts could desire that we cannot otherwise find in our daily Moroccan life. While at the residence of Casablanca’s U.S. Consul General in August for an American school mixer, after Brian lamented to the CG – who hails from New Orleans – that he would miss making gumbo with Tasso and andouille sausage, she told him she can special order them through The Commissary when she makes jambalaya. Hope, hope. Drool, drool.

But then we started getting a more realistic scoop that dashed our culinary dreams. One administrator told us, “Yeah, The Commissary is good to have, but it is really not Sam’s Club or Costco…more like an over-glorified 7-Eleven.”

Hmmm, should we join? Is it worth it? Driving all the way to Rabat just for 7-Eleven?

Ultimately, we decided to give it a try for a year and then decide whether to renew. If nothing else, we thought, at least we might be able to get Thanksgiving supplies.

And so began our wait. We submitted our application back in September and were told we would get our membership card in a few weeks. September went, October followed, and we had no card. October went, November followed, and still we had no card. With Thanksgiving approaching quickly, we asked the person in charge of sending our application to The Commissary when we might finally get to start using our membership. In early-November we went to Rabat for Charlotte’s MASAC (Morocco American Schools Athletic Conference) volleyball tournament – which her team won, becoming national champs! – and had no membership card to get us into The Commissary while we were in town.

Like so many things in Morocco, like getting a bank account and obtaining residency papers, this was a test of patience. As Thanksgiving drew nearer on the calendar, we were able to build our menu. We ordered a hefty 8.5 kilo turkey through the school kitchen (to be picked up fresh the day before Thanksgiving). Of all unlikelihoods, we found Rome apples (that Brian likes to use for pies) with Zwil, the proprietor of our favorite Souk in the CIL. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, fresh bread from Amoud Patisserie, all no problem. But Audrey had to search for some way to mimic Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup and French’s Onions for the Green Bean Casserole that Charlotte demanded, we had no idea how we would roast our huge turkey, and staples like stuffing and cranberry sauce did not seem likely to make it to the table. We had plans to make Thanksgiving happen, just not as completely as we would have liked.

Then, finally, a week before Thanksgiving, we got word that our membership card was ready for us to pick up in Rabat. The timing could not have been better, as we were abandoning Charlotte on her “Sweet 16” birthday weekend to attend the U.S. Embassy’s 241st Marine Corps Birthday Ball.

If only it were that easy.

Asking at school for The Commissary’s address, we were told folks did not have the actual address, but they could show us where it was on a Google map. So it was, and we starred the spot for easy location once we got a to Rabat. Sure enough, despite having a spot starred on a Google map, it was impossible to find. Buildings all around, and nothing looking like a commissary, a Costco, or even a 7-Eleven. About to give up, and figuring the star had been misplaced on the map, we made a final desperation call to the friend who had marked our map. She walked us around by phone until we found the unmarked gate, and she told us what to tell the guard to gain entry. Going through the gate with a burst of excitement, sounds of Gene Wilder floated through the air again while walking across the compound toward the entrance.

[We’ll begin / With a spin / Traveling in / The world of my creation / What we’ll see / Will defy / Explanation]

And then, going through the door, at long last, with no Oompa-Loompas, THERE IT WAS…an über 7-Eleven. A 7-Eleven to beat all 7-Elevens. Not merely because it had a few more aisles than a regular 7-Eleven would have, but because the stocking selection was almost exactly what we were looking for. Coasting with a shopping cart easily, not hurriedly, through the aisles allowed for genuine discernment over what would have the most positive impact on our limited budget, limited car space to transport back to Casablanca, and limited storage space in our apartment once we got back home.

We picked up some staples we cannot find in Casablanca’s stores (brown sugar, 409 cleaner, Log Cabin syrup, black beans, Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce, and NyQuil tabs); some general splurgee things (Rold Gold pretzel sticks, maraschino cherries, Pop Secret microwave popcorn, Tostitos, and CHEESE CRACK – aka Tostitos Salsa con Queso); and some Charlotte splurgee things as supplemental birthday presents for her (several four-box packs of Kraft Mac&Cheese, Hot Cheetos, Fritos, various Classico pasta sauces, and more) since we were returning home on her actual 16th birthday.

But the real jackpot was the seasonal supply of Thanksgiving items. On one end cap there were cans of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup. Down the next aisle was a stack of French’s Onions canisters. Next to that, boxes of Stovetop Stuffing. On another end cap, Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce. Further on, a large disposable aluminum turkey roasting pan and more baking pans perfect for Green Bean Casserole and sweet potatoes. They even had Crisco sticks for Brian’s pie crust so that he did not have to substitute butter for it in the traditional family pie crust recipe. After a 2500 MAD ($250) shopping spree, in Moroccan style a clerk wheeled our cart out to the car and loaded up our bounty. It was a good day.

That good day then helped make possible another good day as we celebrated Thanksgiving with our friends. The Chbanys have adopted us into their family, hosting us for the wonderful cultural experience of a traditional Moroccan dinner a couple times and inviting us to attend a Moroccan wedding with them. We were happy to reciprocate with a traditional American Thanksgiving to return the cultural exchange favor. Welcoming them into our apartment, we explained our extended family tradition of laying out the food and having everyone fix their own plates buffet style. We told them how we had considered serving them at the table as honored guests, but instead opted for the more informal style befitting family, and they were touched. Before eating, Brian gave a brief telling of how the first Thanksgiving came to be. Then we kept another family tradition of going around the table so that everyone could share something about which he or she is thankful, with Brian noting that though we brought two different branches of religion to our table, our prayers went to the same God. The Commissary was a Thanksgiving blessing, but one that paled in comparison to the blessing of sharing our first Thanksgiving in Morocco with good friends.

On your mark…get set…here we go!

Heading off to Rome

Education conferences provide educators with the ability to practice continuous improvement and model lifelong learning for their students, as well as to bring best practices and research back to their campuses to share with peers in professional development. While conferences are myriad in the United States, Morocco offers a sliiiiiiiightly smaller number of conference opportunities. Fortunately, our school belongs to the Mediterranean Association of Independent Schools (MAIS), with schools in 16 countries from Lebanon to Portugal and Britain to Morocco, which leads the region with an annual conference we both attended a couple weeks ago in Rome. Suffice it to say, having attended conferences large and small in the U.S. and internationally, we both were quite impressed with the conference quality and look forward to returning to future MAIS conferences. The focus of this post is not the conference itself, though, but our experience flying to Rome for it is yet another hallmark of our new Moroccan life.

We have flown lots in our lives, traveling domestically and internationally, so our trip from Casablanca to Rome offered us good comparative perspective. First, with our most recent conference before moving to Morocco in Atlanta for the annual Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ASCD) gathering, our MAIS trip reminded us again just how easy it is to get around here. Morocco is roughly the size of California, and Italy is a relatively short northeastern hop across the Mediterranean. So the jaunt from Casablanca to Rome took less time than when we traveled to Atlanta from out west in the U.S. last spring. Oh yeah, and when we landed, instead of being in Atlanta we were in Rome.

While the flight was a cool 2 hours 50 minutes, getting through the airport to board the plane was not your typical American airport experience. Waiting in security lines at U.S. airports does not hold a candle to the process here. Anyone at the airport to drop off or pick up someone cannot even go into the airport at all. That is a privilege for passengers only. So our queueing activity began in a very, very, very long line outside the airport doors to go through the first of what ultimately became six different checks of our passports and tickets before we finally got seated on our flight. Moroccans are both very good at waiting in lines because they are used to much bureaucracy with lines for many things, and very bad at waiting in lines because they look for any chance to cut ahead (to minimize their time in line).

Outside the airport one woman had paid a porter to handle her bags for her, and he led her past the back half of the line of people to slip in just ahead of us. A policeman saw them cut in, came over to scold them, pulled the porter out of line and banished him from the airport, but left the woman in her spot burdened with having to roll her own bag along. As we snaked slowly along though various stages of the line to get in, go through check-in, pass through security and passport control, and other checkpoints along the way, there was a constant push from people trying to worm their way ahead. With four people from our school traveling together, we formed a human barrier amid the crush of people channeled Disney-line fashion through stanchions and ropes, so that not even the 4 ½ foot tall grandmotherly woman who kept testing the strength of our wall could slip past on a hairpin turn.

At one point, security officers questioned people randomly – including Audrey – about how much money they had with them. The Moroccan Dirham is a closed currency, so it is illegal to take Dirham out of the country. We have heard of folks having to turn over significant sums of Dirham at the airport when they forgot to exchange it or leave it at home. But exchanging Dirham for Euros (or Dollars or some other currency) can be a complicated affair. While Brian exchanged ours for Euros we could spend in Italy, a fellow traveler did not have her flight ticket to show at the exchange kiosk and had to double back after getting her boarding pass…which meant getting out of the regular sequence of queues and worried the rest of us that she would miss the final boarding call. It ended up fine, but was a lesson and reminder to us all to have all the paperwork we needed handy at all times.

Making us feel a bit like Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund searching for letters of transit so they can fly out of Casablanca, another bureaucratic paperwork element of leaving Morocco was filling out the quarter-sheet slips for passport control with name/Moroccan address/passport information/destination/reason for travel/etc. not only to enter Morocco, but even to leave. This, like all things paper in Morocco, must be stamped and written upon by a government official. The task requires writing on a little piece of paper (after finding or borrowing a pen) while shuttling baggage forward in line, and holding any carry-on bags, all while continuing to block line-jumpers in their nonstop efforts to slip ahead. Another member of our party told us she keeps a stack of them at home almost completely filled out and just adds the date to one she brings to the airport when she flies out.

Finally we got on board – no chance of sitting anywhere close to each other – and we were pleased to find the plane was clean, not trashy like our flight from JFK to Muhammed VI Airport last July. That put the summer flight into perspective, leading us to think now that it was less people coming to Casablanca that trashed that transatlantic plane than people connecting through Casablanca to other locations. But while the plane was clean and untrashed, there was an interesting human odor in the cabin, a condition remedied – or at least suppressed – when flight attendants walked down the aisles spraying air freshener (not pesticides, as I have seen alleged in some places). Intercom announcements were made first in Arabic, then in French, and lastly in English. Likewise, interactions with the flight crew could be in any of the three languages: “Monsieur, quelque chose à boisson?”Coca s’il vous plaît.

We took off heading northeast over Meknes, Moulay Idriss, Fez, the Atlas Mountains, across the northern tip of Africa past Oran and Algiers, out across the Mediterranean, over Sardinia, and on toward Rome. Descending through the clouds, we saw the red and brown ground of Morocco was replaced by farms and villages surrounded by the green grass and trees of the Italian coast, sparking flashbacks to leaving behind Arizona desert on flights out of Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport and landing amid the lush green of the Pacific Northwest around SeaTac Airport in Seattle. Throughout our flight, the flight map on the video display showed a compass that showed not only the direction back to Casablanca from which we had come, but also to Mecca. The meal on board: chicken or fish (we both had chicken with saffron and cumin), broccoli, rotini with olives, bread with cream cheese instead of butter, and some sort of cake that we assumed was made with almonds (which would have been good) but which instead seems to have been made with hazelnut or some other nut that made Brian’s allergy alarm start bleeping before he put it in his mouth. The big disappointment of the flight was that we have become quite used to Moroccan mint tea when someone offers us tea, so we were sad that what they poured out was basic Lipton-type stuff.

We landed just shy of three hours after takeoff, and coasted easily through the open, spacious Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport instead of Casablanca’s comparatively small, crowded Mohammed VI. Still a long way from being local language proficient in Morocco, it was refreshing to see English as the second language on signs, not the third or fourth (if you are lucky) back home in Morocco. A driver had been set up to shuttle us to our hotel and conference location at the Crown Plaza-St. Peter’s five minutes west of the Vatican, and we set out for what proved an impressive conference with excellent sessions on assessments, grading, service learning, PD, school culture, integrating technology into the curriculum, and many more topics.

Oh yeah, and did we mention we were in Rome? As with our September trip to Spain, we consumed much ham and bacon, and we enjoyed an array of Italian wines. Both of us enjoyed greatly Brian taking Audrey to dinner at Il Sorpasso (where Brian and Charlotte had a New Year’s toast of Prosecco last December 31 when they were in Rome for Charlotte to sing for Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica for the New Year Papal Mass of Peace). Even better was enjoying it with the company of new friend Jocelyn Cortese, the Rome-based wine consultant friend shared with us by Brian’s goddaughter Grace Castro’s father (and our daughter Margaret’s godfather) Bob Castro. Even more betterer was Jocelyn leading our Italian wine shopping spree at Enoteca Costantini across from Piazza Cavour the next night. MAIS then brought everything to a grand crescendo with a gala dinner – never been to an education conference with a closing gala dinner for all participants, let alone one like this! – in a private palace a few blocks from the Capitoline Hill that houses the largest private art collection in Rome. Not a bad way to wrap it all up before heading home to Casblanca.

On your mark…get set…here we go!