Christmas in Morocco

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…in Morocco! With red and green displayed prominently 365 days a year, we have reminded ourselves regularly since arriving last summer that those are national colors, not a perpetual national state of Christmas. Yet, as in the U.S. and elsewhere that Yuletide commercialism makes a cultural mark, we have found the Casablanca march toward Christmas intriguing.

Today we fly to Paris for an overnight (a layover long enough for Charlotte to say she’s been to France) en route to the Pacific Northwest and Christmas with family. We began our travel prep yesterday at the Morocco Mall. Brian sat for an hour in Starbucks listening to piano jazz muzak and sipping Thé à la Menthe from a candy cane-festooned red Starbucks cup, waiting for the bank next door to open so we could exchange Moroccan Dirham for U.S. Dollars to fund our trip. Then, after it opened, he returned to his Starbucks seat for another half hour while the bank prepared further to exchange Dirham for Dollars. Morocco is a country that teaches patience. It is a country of inshallah.

The day before, Brian had gone to the downtown branch of our bank to withdraw Dirham that we could exchange to Dollars for our trip. Asking if he could exchange them for Dollars right there, he was told that the money exchange people had gone for the day and would return on Monday. But, the teller added, he could get Dollars at the Morocco Mall branch. So Brian went to Morocco Mall, much closer to our school and home and where he knows several tellers, and plunked down the stack of Dirham to exchange. “I’m sorry,” Aesha the teller told him, “I cannot give you Dollars.” When he shared that the main branch had said he could exchange for Dollars there, she clarified, “Sometimes…Not always.” Then, to explain a bit further after recognizing Brian’s befuddled look, “We have already sent our Dollars back for today.” Asking if he could return on Saturday to get Dollars, she said, “Oh, yes, we’ll have Dollars tomorrow…Inshallah.

While Brian waited at Starbucks yesterday morning to see if God willed that the Morocco Mall bank branch would have Dollars available upon his return, Audrey and Charlotte shopped to outfit Charlotte with winter attire befitting a visit to winter in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. While the Christmas impact in the mall was less intense than in any random commercial spot in the U.S. right now, we were still amazed at how Christmassy it was in this Muslim country. Moroccan elves had erected a number of thematic pens roughly five meters square bordered by picket fences amid the palm trees and other year-round décor of the mall: polar bears, Christmas trees, and signs (in French) pointing to the North Pole from inside a cheerful snow scene all invited mall rats to let the Season of Giving encourage a bit more spending on behalf of their fellow mankind. Lots of stores even had their own displays featuring Christmas trees, tinsel, wrapped packages, and more.

Just like used to be the case in the U.S. (before the start of the commercial Christmas season moved up to sometime around the Fourth of July), this Moroccan Christmas thing all started creeping up on us around Thanksgiving when we saw the first store decorated with a couple Christmas trees. Our favorite doff to the Season appeared a couple weeks ago when we made our weekly French bakery stop at Amoud Boulangerie to pick up m’semen for Charlotte. Parking on the curb outside Amoud and waving to the parking guardian who greets us with a smile every week, we turned toward the storefront and saw outside the store a very Moroccan Christmas display that featured a snowscape with a couple Christmas trees and Santa’s present-laden sleigh being pulled (of course) by a camel.

We have had our own share of Christmas prep to get ready for the holiday. Charlotte, who typically switches her daily music to Christmas carols in early October at the latest did not disappoint. By Thanksgiving, Brian was in the Christmas carol mood with the online AccuRadio channel for Holidays providing morning background music while getting ready for each day. A couple weekends ago we went to a Christmas party for expats at our school. Everyone wore holiday attire, we played Christmas games, and a makeshift chamber orchestra played Christmas carols for us all to sing. Driving home that night from Dar Bouazza, a suburb 15 minutes south of us, we saw lit up in one of the roundabouts of the main road a tall Christmas tree with big Moroccan stars on it. And there has been much anticipation for a major coming-of-age event on December 26 when Charlotte and her older sister, Margaret (who is flying up to Washington after her first semester of college in Arizona), will be the first of their generation in the extended family to sing in Seattle’s annual all-volunteer/Overture-to-Amen Messiah sing-a-long. Three generations singing together…Hallelujah!

We did not know when we began our adventure what Christmas would be like here. We have found it very familiar, and a good preparation for heading back to the U.S. Tomorrow. After we exchanged money, we headed to the Habbous neighborhood of Casablanca to buy Christmas presents for family Stateside. Visiting Ahmed, a merchant whose talent with languages approaches the broad array of things available in his Hanout, he recognized Brian instantly from the previous trips he has made to shop there for gifts or knick knacks. Brian explained that we were headed today back to the U.S., and Ahmed jumped in to say, “Oh, so you must buy Christmas presents and come to see your friend.” He then pulled three chairs and a serving table up into the main space of his cramped floor and, sitting on the floor himself, poured mint tea for us. After tea, he showed us his wares and settled on a very good price for gifts covering Brian’s extended family, then wrapped each gift in newspaper and wished us, “Have a Happy Christmas and be safe traveling.” With our bags packed, with presents stowed safely in luggage, indeed we shall.

On your mark…get set…here we go!

Ifrane: Finally Feeling Winter in Morocco

We have heard since before arriving in Morocco about the cold Moroccan winters. So far in Casablanca, though, winter seems to have been scripted by Pacific Northwest screenwriters back in the U.S.: lots of rain, so that the mild cold cuts through walls and clothes in ways that a good old sub-zero Midwestern winter does not.

Because all the buildings are made of concrete walls and tile floors, you cannot escape the dank chill. Towels and wet clothes do not dry, and mold is not the friend of things in your closet. With no central heating, last month we ordered two tons of firewood to minimize the chill during this winter rainy season. Of course, because we live on the top floor of our building, the wood got hauled up four stories to the roof by men carrying large and awkward 30 kilo plastic weave bags of firewood on their backs with no more than a thin layer of cardboard as padding. Brian first had to figure out a way to cover the 10 ft long x 5 ft wide x 5 ft high stack – lest the ample rain turn our supply of well-dried wood into a useless wet and moldy mess – and now has to carry the awkwardly heavy bags down to our apartment in order to make fires.

Still, while the expected rainy season has come to Casablanca, it pales in comparison to our concept of winter honed through our years living in Cleveland. Cleveland, where they do not close school for snow; they close it for COLD, and “cold” does not exist until the temperature drops to -20°F (-29°C). Cleveland, where our house’s poor old furnace at times could not keep up with the biting wind chill, so that running nonstop it could get our inside temperature up only to 50°F (10°C).

Yet, having spent the last several years in Louisiana and Arizona, we miss having REAL winter. In both those locations, winter is when you sit outside in shorts and tees with friends and refreshing beverages to enjoy the evening and ruminate on how that is what justifies enduring the summers there. So when we volunteered to chaperone our school’s Speech & Debate team at a weekend competition in Ifrane, four hours northeast of Casablanca through the mountains, we thought we might even get to enjoy snow. Such thoughts tantalized us as we sat on the bus outside our school’s gate waiting for the last of our students to board. With Casablanca’s afternoon sun beating down on the charter (schools cannot take their own buses outside the city), it felt like a furnace – likely over 100°F (38°C) – when Mohammed, our driver, finally turned on the a/c.

That roasting start served as a stark contrast to what we had in store for our weekend. We noticed a little chill in the air by the time we stopped at a gas station outside Khemisset to give kids a bathroom and snack break – 26 high school kids packed into a mini mart at the same time as a similarly-stopped busload of uniformed military, all vying to check out through one cashier. Twenty-five minutes after starting the 15-minute break, we had shooed the last of the kids back to the bus, but no one could get on because our driver Mohammed was still absent with the bus locked. Finally he came out of the bushes next to the parking lot. Apparently that was a better location to take care of business than the bathrooms inside.

Getting back on the bus, we tried checking with Mohammed to make sure he knew our hotel destination in Ifrane. After five minutes of not finding the right click between our broken language skills and his, we decided to wait until we got to Ifrane to pilot him to our spot. As we rolled through the mountains, ears popping from the changing pressure with our ascent, after the last hues of the sunset fell into the horizon, we realized that the bus felt COLD. While the temperature of our new environs had dropped, Mohammed’s blasting a/c had not. One of our students worked her icicled self brittley toward the front and asked Mohammed in Darija (the Moroccan Arabic dialect) if he would please turn off the a/c. He did, and we started to thaw as we passed through the open, broad streets of El Hajeb sporting trees with actual leaves, not frons. We could tell that autumn had come here, with leaves having changed color before dropping off.

Finally we rolled into Ifrane later than we had expected. Rather than check in at our hotel, we had to go straight to the restaurant where we had a reservation for our large group. As we disembarked from the bus we were greeted with a temperature below freezing…but, to our great disappointment, no snow. After The Forest restaurant impressed us at their ability to feed 26 high school students, three chaperones, and one bus driver in an hour’s time, dressed imperfectly for the cold we shivered back to the bus and headed for our hotel.

Fifteen minute later we arrived at our hotel, a sprawling resort that looked in the dark as if it had seen its best days 20 years ago. In Morocco, though, even new construction can look that way. Audrey and the Speech & Debate coach went inside to register the group and get keys, while Brian waited patiently with the students back at the bus. And waited longer. And still waited longer. While he and the students shivered, he could see Audrey across the street and through the glass doors, and wondered why she did not emerge with keys to end the night standing in the cold. Meanwhile, Audrey was inside arguing with the front desk people about how to pay for the rooms. Our reservation had been made for a certain number of rooms; yet, this being Morocco, they decided upon our checking in that now they wanted to charge us by the person. After more than an hour, Audrey finally got it resolved and led kids to their toasty rooms waiting for them.

Taking 26 kids from freezing temps to toasty rooms led Audrey to look forward to settling into our toasty room as well. As they say here: “La la la.” (No, no, no.) The other rooms were warm. Ours, which actually was a cavernous apartment that could sleep up to 10 people in various rooms, was stone cold…maybe 40°F (4°C) at most. Thinking systematically, first we closed the doors to the kitchen and other extra rooms so their cold would stay there. Then we turned on the wall heaters in the three remaining rooms (including our bedroom), and prayed they would warm things up quickly. The did not. We piled every blanket we could find onto our bed, and slept not only in our clothes, but in our coats as well, hoping that by morning the room would be warm. Yet, as cold as we were, we appreciated our good fortune for having a space indoors to sleep. Mohammed the bus driver slept on the bus.

In the morning, we discovered a few things. First, the buildings we thought looked dilapidated from the outside the previous night looked even more so in daylight. The setting could have worked for a Moroccan horror film. Much of Morocco could learn that a coat of paint makes a big difference. Second, despite this, Ifrane truly is a beautiful town: full of pine trees and broad-leafed maples and other deciduous tress with actual leaves that drop for winter to crunch when you trod upon them, and beautiful houses lining winding roads through rolling hills as you drive from one neighborhood to the next. Frost covered the ground, so that everything glistened in morning light and had a refreshing crispness. If municipalities could have parents, Ifrane’s cement chalets would result from a fling between Morocco and a village in the Swiss Alps.

So we got up in our still-not-warm flat and prepared for a day chaperoning and judging Speech & Debate events. At least we no longer could see our breath inside our sleeping quarters. Brian, who elsewhere is always warm, opted for Old Man fashion by wearing a pullover sweater underneath his suit coat and bow tie. While he is only 49, Audrey noted the Old Man thing more as an actual condition than merely as a visual image when she helped him pull his sweater all the way down instead of resting as a knotted mass bunched up around his midsection.

Off through the weekend, with two days of judging and overseeing our great kids, we were not as cold as we had been that first night. Still, warm never entered our minds as an apt concept. We had wanted winter, and we got it. Jack Frost did not nip at or noses; he was too busy laughing heartily at us for getting exactly what we asked for.

Back in Casablanca on Sunday night, nursing the colds we have fought since before Ifrane but accepted post-Ifrane as unavoidable, we did not feel the pre-furnace bus chill we felt when we left school on Friday afternoon. Having seasons for a weekend was mostly good. Expanding our appreciation for the diversity this country offers we liked even more. And then it was very good to come home. Our drizzly Casablancan winter chill has never felt so good.

On your mark…get set…here we go!
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Rfissa: One Plate Joins People Together

We have many things we like about our school:  the kids; our colleagues who have become friends; being one of five schools in Morocco that is recognized by both the U.S. Department of State and the Moroccan government; waking up to the sound of donkeys braying in the morning from adjacent land; the school’s ideal position for growth and improvement over the next few years; the beautiful ocean view that also overlooks the King’s summer palace; the chickens that waltz freely along the entry road and around the parking lot after slipping through the bars of the front gate; the chemistry of the new leadership team that our Head of Schools built with us and a handful of other key admin folks; and lots more. One simple thing that we like especially: working in the same school so that we get paid to lunch together regularly.

No longer mild competitors in schools across town, we now work happily on the same team with offices 10 feet apart. (That will change in April when the administrative offices will move into the new Library/Media/Technology Center edifice our school is completing this Spring. When that move occurs our offices will be about 40 feet apart, but with glass office walls we can wave to each other from opposite sides of the building wing.) It is quite easy for one of us to pop a head into the office of the other and ask, “Have you eaten yet?…Wanna go now?” And so we do, not every day, but usually three or four days a week as our schedules allow. Better still is that our food service is led by a person who spent years running restaurants and cafeterias in NYC before he brought his Vermont farm girl wife and their kids back home to Morocco. Poor us: In addition to lunching together, we have to suffer through meals like grilled swordfish, Rosemary chicken with a balsamic glaze, and lamb tagine with couscous.

Last Friday, after a long and busy week, we had planned to lunch together at noon. Then Badiaa, the high school coordinator, appeared around 11:30 am to tell us urgently, “Come now, there is rfissa!” Having no idea what that meant, we each dropped what we were doing to see what dire problem we needed to help her solve. Walking out from our offices into a common area, we saw a table laden with a huge clay tagine more than two feet in diameter filled with a culinary masterpiece. This was a really good problem to help solve.

Seven days ago our school received the joyous news that Aziz, Charlotte’s fabulous Arabic teacher and one of the nicest people we have met in Morocco, had welcomed into his family a new son. Badiaa explained that Aziz had brought in a tagine of rfissa that his mother had made for him to share in celebration on the seventh day after his son’s birth. (In fact, we learned, Aziz brought in not one but two tagines, one in our office area and one in the teacher lounge.) Unlike in the West, where people load gifts upon new parents and the biggest gift back is passing out cigars, in Morocco the seventh day after the birth marks a time for new parents to celebrate their healthy child and recognize their friends and family by providing rfissa. As we sat enjoying the feast, we learned that there is not unanimity on when to serve rfissa, with some families actually serving it on the third day after a birth, then slaughtering and roasting a sheep on the seventh day. We also learned that direct gifts to the family are often discouraged, but deftly slipping some paper currency into the clothes of a baby while holding him or her is perfectly acceptable. Still learning so much about Moroccan culture, and whatever the details such learning brings, we could not wait to dive into the tagine and start pulling golden pieces off the chicken and scooping up the accompanying goodness. As we approached the table, others gathered around as well, trying not to drool too much at the sight.

The tagine was loaded with a base of m’semmen (a sort of Moroccan layered flat bread that Charlotte has for breakfast most mornings) shredded into paper-thin noodles; cooked lentils piled on top of that; two golden-brown boiled-then-roasted chickens in the center surrounded by a ring of hard-boiled quail eggs; topped by scrumptious and ubiquitous tfaya (caramelized onions, cinnamon, ginger, saffron, honey, and raisins); with whole almonds scattered across everything. Some rfissa recipes we have seen online since Friday have the chickens boiled with the lentils and other ingredients, so that the result is a visual hodgepodge with flavors shared throughout. Our rfissa appeared to have each element of the dish prepared separately, then constructed into the magnificent presentation we saw and cooked in the tagine a bit longer to let the chickens brown and the flavors start to blend.

Badiaa and Rim, her middle school coordinator counterpart, had set up Aziz’s tagine with plastic forks stuck into the m’semmem noodles around the perimeter. This, Rim told us later, was so that the expats would not be grossed out by eating rfissa the real Moroccan way: grabbing handfuls of m’semmen and chicken and tfaya and lentils and almonds and eggs and putting them into your mouth before grabbing more handfuls for more mouthfuls, everyone gathered around the tagine reaching in and eating together. With the addition of forks for western comfort, that is what we did.

It was good. It was really good. It was really, really, really good. People would come into the upper school office because they smelled food, and they would grab a fork. Those who had never seen rfissa would eat in awe. Those who knew it would say, upon seeing the tagine, “RFISSA!!!” and then tear into the tagine. With each person who came to eat rfissa, there was more conversation: reminiscences of other times eating rfissa and who makes good rfissa; recollections of celebrating babies; special things about family, here in Morocco and elsewhere in the world. It was warm community time, spoken in English, French, and Darija (Moroccan Arabic). In the end, the tagine was decimated, our bellies were more full than even our school lunches could fill, and our hearts were flavored with Moroccan spices.

After celebrating Aziz’s new son by gorging on the rfissa made by Aziz’s mother, three things are clear.

First, we need to learn how to make rfissa.

Second, from perusing online recipes and their photos, none of which came close to measuring up to our feast celebrating Aziz’s new son, to learn how to do it correctly we will have to find a Moroccan mother or grandmother willing to school us in her kitchen on how to do it properly.

Third, and most importantly, rfissa is a metaphor for Morocco, a celebration of life and family full of rich flavors and health and passion. There is generous sharing, as there is also fighting over who gets the last quail egg or bit of tfaya. In the end there is satisfaction not only for having eaten, but for having spent time together in community and knowing you are better for being part of that community.

On your mark…get set…here we go!