Last weekend marked ten months since we arrived in Morocco. We love living here. Still, as much as this has become “home” for us, all our domestic moves through our first 20 years of marriage help us recognize that life changes like this are not events; they are processes.
Almost 40 years ago, William Bridges published the first edition of his classic Transitions, in which he presented any significant life transition as a balance between grief/loss and new beginnings. Such is the case with selling/storing/donating our belongings and moving to Morocco. So our process of transitioning from educators in the U.S. with friends and family from coast to coast, to expats starting anew in a country and culture very different from what we have experienced in the culture changes of our previous domestic moves, has been hyperbolically different. For the most part, we have enjoyed a spectacular experience. Yet, as a process and not an event, notwithstanding how happy we are with our lives here, at times we do feel the twang of missing people stateside. The thing of it is, you cannot sell, store, or donate the people in your life. They are pieces of you, and you bring them with you where you go…or at least you try to as much as you can. In reality, while the post-digital age allows for regular contact wherever a wireless connection exits, virtual interface suffices to maintain relationships but does not equal face-to-face and embracing-arms contact with friends and family.
So as Brian approached his 50th Birthday on May 22, he started feeling more homesick than at any time since we arrived. Not because he regretted moving to Morocco; but because he wished that he could share his milestone with people who had been in his life throughout his life. He thought about his parents moving from the Midwest to the East Coast more than five decades ago, leaving behind family (some of whom had never traveled beyond the county in which they were born) in pursuit of new horizons. As a boy, monthly telephone calls to/from grandparents kept relationships viable between summer trips back to see extended family and Christmas trips by grandparents flying eastward to see grandchildren who lived so many states away. Fast-forward to our move from America to Africa, and our world allows for much better and much easier contact with those we left stateside, and for cheaper than the “Reach out and touch someone” twenty-five cents a minute cost for an AT&T phone call. Nonetheless, the closer he got to his milestone birthday, Brian became acutely aware of the physical distance between him and so many people he loved back in America.
Wishing his turning 50 to be a wonderful experience for Brian, Audrey asked him what he wanted to do for his birthday to make it momentous. He said what he really wished was that he could bring together friends from his five decades and revel in the wonderful life he has had; but that would not happen in Casablanca. She was ready to buy him a ticket for the U.S. to celebrate with such a crowd; but overseeing end-of-year academic progress testing and evaluating senior capstone project presentations mandated that he be at GWA instead of flying west across the Atlantic. He did ask his mom if she would be interested in coming to Morocco on a whim to celebrate with him, but she likewise had commitments keeping her stateside. She did, though, appreciate his asking, and he appreciated that she wished she could come if she were not already booked.
Another factor that got him down was the juxtaposition of his birthday amid a very busy calendar time. The night of his birthday, a Monday, we both had to judge senior capstone projects. The preceding Saturday we both had to Chaperone the GWA prom. And the next weekend (now) brought the start of Ramadan, making a big 50th birthday celebration a bad fit culturally at the beginning of the month of fasting in this Muslim country. So there did not seem to be much opportunity to gather expat and native friends here.
A couple weeks ago, Brian started moving past his funk toward broader thinking, asking Audrey if she thought friends would come to a Friday night party, and if we could pull that off after working all day. She did, and so Brian started pondering options for a Friday party after work, rather than a Saturday party for which we could prepare all day. Brian did not want a big show; just a comfortable evening with friends to enjoy good people. He decided he would make chili; his friend M’hamed Rachad, GWA’s Director of Food Services, would make a chocolate mousse cake, and the assembled folks would play charades (hearkening back to our pre/post-marriage days when we hosted charades parties with friends).
So Brian made an invitation and Audrey send it out to a new crop of friends in our life here. All but one couple confirmed they could come, and Brian shopped for chili supplies. On the Friday before his birthday, as soon as he could leave his office and walk up the hill to our apartment, he headed home to make five gallons of chili (figuring also that we could enjoy leftovers for a few freezer meals). Soon our apartment was full of friends – with the special bonus of Charlotte prioritizing her dad’s 50th birthday party over high school teenager social things. Five gallons of chili disappeared. (There would be no leftovers for freezer meals.) Rachad’s cake was the best Brian has had in 50 years of birthday cakes. And, best of all, Brian’s charades team beat Audrey’s team by one point. It was a great birthday party. On his actual birthday three days later, the office staff surprised Brian with another birthday party…and another chocolate mousse cake.
After feeling homesick for a few weeks because he could not celebrate his half century with friends and family back in the U.S., Brian instead felt the blessing of having good folks here to celebrate with him. Feeling homesick was real, it was natural, and it was okay to recognize it for what it was without letting it put a big damper on enjoying our life here. Keeping things in the proper perspective is so important. Last Fall we wrote about “October” as an important month for new staff at GWA. Since then some people have actually left GWA after reaching a point when they felt Morocco just did not work for them or their families. Sometimes we wake up in the morning and think for a fleeting moment, “What are we doing in Morocco?!” Then we look around at the blessings that fill our life here and feel quite competent answering that question. While Brian felt homesick leading up to his birthday, he understood why he felt that way and never blamed Morocco for things not Morocco’s fault.
Two weeks ago, amid feeling homesick, Brian got rear-ended while stopped in road construction traffic directly in front of the entrance to the King’s summer palace that sits on the coast downhill from GWA. According to one of the King’s guards who witnessed the accident, a taxi driver plowed into the back of our Honda CRV because he was more engaged in talking on his phone than in looking for traffic stopped in front of him. The wrong perspective could lead Brian to blame Morocco for the accident and the nearly three hours afterwards on site waiting for an insurance agent to arrive (on a scooter) and write up an accident report. What makes such things happening here difficult is when we are not equipped with the skills or support to get through the things that happen: the language skills to understand what has happened and when life’s routine might return; and the familiarity with bureaucracies and procedures to know what to do when you get rear-ended, when your power or water goes out in your apartment, or when you get pulled over for making a left turn when the “No Left Turn” sign is obscured on the right side of the three-lane road and the car in front of you made the turn without getting stopped.
The truth is that Brian really could get rear-ended anywhere in the U.S. (or the world) by someone engaged in a mobile phone conversation instead of in driving safely. It is not a bad thing about Morocco; it is just a bad thing. Perspective. Regarding his birthday, Brian could miss people back in the U.S. while still appreciating the good people in our lives here in Casablanca. Last summer, during one of our orientation sessions, Brian commented to the group that the strange things we encounter here are not worse, they are just different. That perspective has helped a lot at times this year.
The photo at the start off this post is Brian’s favorite from the last ten months. It shows a shepherd sitting while watching his herd of sheep feed in the field by the road up the hill toward GWA. The field is just a field, not more than it is; yet, the scene prompts some deeper thinking. It is the same field that weeks ago was lush with tall grass and colorful wildflowers; now it is a brown feeding place for sheep and cows who come to eat the stalks left behind by the straw balers. The field keeps changing with the seasons, each stage fulfilling a different purpose. Likewise, Morocco keeps changing, keeps providing us with new circumstances and new adventures. We will continue to enjoy them as part of our process, just as we will probably have future times when we feel more homesick than other times. And that is okay, so long as we remember that despite that feeling we remain blessed with good friends and good lives right here as well.
Things happen here, as things happen everywhere. Just like anywhere, changes and transitions happen not as distinct events, but as cumulative processes. In our process, we feel very blessed. With good friends to push us forward, we can handle the emotions that pop up and into our lives.
On your mark…get set…here we go!