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!