Conceptions of Community

Sweater weather has come to Casablanca, and with it has come a load of firewood to heat our apartment this winter. Hicham, as GWA’s industrious Housing Coordinator, coordinated the delivery of two truckloads of firewood to the apartments for residents that ordered it. (Of course, all our residents ordered it because – with no other heat source in our on-campus apartments – that is what will keep us warm during winter.) Brian, having paid Hicham a few days earlier for a full metric ton (1000 kilos/1.1 U.S. tons/2205 U.S. pounds) of beautiful olive wood, stood two nights ago on the roof of our building with Hicham to direct a pair of sinewy guys to where they could stack 25 large blue plastic bags each stuffed with 40 kilos of cut wood.

Last year we bought two tons, but burned only half of the well-dried wood; hence this year’s smaller purchase that adds to the leftover supply enough extra to ensure we can heat our apartment, even if this year’s winter proves longer and colder than last year. Watching the younger men hump the load on their backs a dozen times each (plus one) from the pile in front of our building up 54 stairs and onto the roof to drop it next to our year-old supply, Brian jokingly told Hicham with faux bravado, “I could carry an 80-pound bag up here, and I could probably carry 25 of them up here before my legs gave out, but the wood digging into my back would kill me.” Hicham, avoiding cynicism in his response to his 50-year-old expat companion, said simply and kindly, “Yes, that wood is very hard to carry on your back.”

It is good that the wood has come, because the drop in temperatures just these last couple weeks has brought the evening smell of fireplaces waking up for the season. Last week on a suddenly-chilly night, with our new wood shipment not yet arrived, a friend from one floor below us knocked on our door asking if he could buy a bag of our leftover wood in order to satisfy his wife’s pleading for a fire. We love being part of a community where someone feels comfortable getting wood from us to start a fire, and people generally are happy to share what others may need. A few days ago Charlotte discovered mid-baking that our pantry was short of vegetable oil, so she brought a measuring cup down to our friend Megan on the first floor to borrow some. We laughed later as Megan hung out with us in our apartment and told us how she had filled the measuring cup, not thinking just to give Charlotte the bottle of oil, and then watched Charlotte climb the stairs carefully to the third floor trying not to spill precious oil along the way. Another time, Charlotte borrowed a sweater from our Kindergarten teaching next-door-neighbor to cover the spaghetti straps of a dress that she wanted to wear to a formal function. We share things with people; they share things with us. Folks here are deeply generous with their time and their stuff. Case in point, on Friday, Brian went out with the Admissions & Marketing Office to a staff appreciation lunch at a nice restaurant by the Corniche area of Casablanca that juts out into the Atlantic. Each course, from appetizers to entrees to dessert, began with plates moving around the table so that everyone could have a bit of what everyone else ordered. Polonius’ caution to his son Laertes in Hamlet, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” may fit Denmark; but he clearly never spent time in Morocco, where the prevailing culture is such that if you tell someone whom you barely know how much you like his [fill in the blank], he is likely to ask if he can give it to you.

Living abroad as expats on campus at the American school where we work, we exist at once as members of multiple conceptions of “community” that intertwine. We feel fortunate to have landed on our first foray into international school life abroad in circumstances that fit us well amid this mix of community conceptions. That said, they sometimes complement each other, sometimes conflict, and sometimes just require a healthy dose of Dissociative Identity Disorder to navigate.

One conception of community that we live is as Expats, which manifests in three different ways. First, as American expats, we find community with other Americans we encounter here. However misplaced our American likes and peculiarities may seem in Morocco, we find comfort in enjoying them with others who understand our preference for Heinz ketchup over Moroccan ketchup; who feel a bit of national pride standing in the historic Map Room (where FDR, Churchill, and DeGaul planned the 1943 invasion of Sicily) when attending an event at Villa Mirador, residence of the U.S. Consul General; and who get excited not about Star Wars: The Last Jedi opening worldwide on December 13, but about being able to see it the next day in English instead of with Arabic dubbing at the Morocco Mall’s weekly Thursday English movie day.

Second, we have found friends from around the world in the general expat community, many through the group InterNations that we joined when we arrived in Morocco 16 months ago. One of our favorite evenings in this vein was a Moroccan Movie Night last year that a Moroccan friend set up, with 14 people from eight countries gathered in an Egyptian’s flat to watch a Moroccan film and then discuss it with the Moroccan producer/director who was the guest of honor for the night. Like the American expat community, this general expat community keeps changing as people move to or from Morocco; but, even as people depart, our list of people we can visit while traveling around Europe and elsewhere grows.

An interesting third manifestation of this expat conception of community is as legal residents of Morocco. When our original one-year credentials expired this Fall, we applied to renew our cartes de séjour for the maximum 10-year term. While we do not stop being Americans, we do find ourselves sympathetic to things Moroccan. We love shopping in souks and hanouts. We nod our heads knowingly when someone talks about getting stuck in traffic waiting for a donkey or cow or herd of sheep to get out of the way. We salivate when we hear that another staff member at GWA will host a lunch of rfissa [see our Rfissa post from last year] in the Board Room for all to share in celebration of a new baby in the family. And today we celebrate the Moroccan national team’s 2-0 victory last night over Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) that sends them to Russia for their first World Cup play in two decades. (Happily, Morocco gives us cause to keep cheering after Team USA embarrassingly bombed out of World Cup competition for the first time since 1986 last month.)

School defines the next conception of community in which we exist, and this again manifests in different ways. From an external view, the sense of a School Community unites us with all GWA stakeholder groups as we cast our school in the broader Casablanca, Moroccan, and international school environments. We cheer for our boys and girls soccer teams that this weekend each one championships in the nation-wide MASAC (Maroc-American Schools Athletic Conference) Tournament, and for our Speech & Debate team that travels to Fez next weekend for a national competition. We represent GWA when we participate in events in Casablanca and Morocco, or in venues such as the Mediterranean Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) annual conference to which Brian led a delegation of GWA faculty last week. The bifurcated conception of School Community, though, also includes an inward view that includes several elements different from – and sometimes at odds with – each other, such as academic vs. operations, or expat staff vs. Moroccan staff. As administrators working with a team to steer the school toward GWA’s vision, the “healthy dose of Dissociative Identity Disorder” mentioned above most comes in handy here.

Narrowing from the general Expat Community and then the less broad School Community conceptions, the final conception of community into which we fit is our Neighborhood Community. Just like our Moroccan staff, all our expat staff live in neighborhoods of one sort or another, regardless of where in Casablanca they reside. In preparation for the arrival of this year’s crop of new expat faculty this summer, “Housing Hicham” consolidated the location of many off-campus apartments GWA facilitates for staff to rent into a neighborhood off the CIL so our folks would not be as spread out across the city and can have an easier time getting together. Another sizable group of our expats live 15 minutes south of GWA in the oceanside suburb Dar Bouazza, where they carpool, socialize, surf, and otherwise interact in neighborly ways.

Meanwhile, those of us living on campus have a thriving neighborhood community. We have couples, families, and singles living alone or with roommates. We have people from the U.S., Canada, South Africa, England, Mexico, and more. We have faculty, staff, and administrators. We have people new to GWA and who have been here for years. One common quality amid this diversity is a strong intention NOT to live on “GWA Island.” We love the school, but if we spent all our time on campus the wall marking its perimeter would quickly squeeze us into claustrophobia. That said, having our neighborhood community makes life here quite supportive and sustaining.

Some families, like ours, have older children with lives and friends that may take them off GWA Island. Other families have younger children whose daily reality is the area around the apartment buildings and for whom a trip down the hill to the playground equipment by our track and field is a major expedition. (Remember from previous posts that we have a mere 300-step commute to our offices.) In both cases, with exceptions, both parents typically work for GWA because single-income families generally have a harder time on the international school circuit. We have younger singles seeking friends for a social life while also becoming quasi-members of families that give a home feel, support, and an occasional family-style meal. We have middle aged and professionally mature international school professionals seeking professional and social camaraderie on their latest overseas gigs. Both types provide us with company, conversation, and support in ways akin to an extended family when they drop by to visit or for a meal.

Living on the top floor of our building, one of the best parts of this neighborhood is being able to look down from our windows or our balcony at the younger kids below deep into their very important work of being kids. In the grassy space behind the apartment buildings we watch and hear sword battles between chivalrous knights or Force-wielding Jedi (depending on the weapon of choice on any particular day). In the rough area across a fence from the grass there are great expeditions to find sticks or hunt for large game. On the other side of the buildings lies a race track, disguised as a parking lot, where bikes and scooters and roller blades roll down the drag strip. On one Disney “Frozen” bike with basket on the front, forward movement apparently comes exclusively from propulsion supplied somehow by the constant ringing of the bell on its handlebars. Propulsion for a toddler’s scooter comes Fred Flintstone style as he zooms fearlessly at Mach speeds, even zooming into unsuspecting adults standing around that he presumes will get out of his way. Helmeted kids with pads on their elbows and knees and wheels on their feet play roller tag and jump like daredevils from curb to street while one mom cruises calmly back and forth on her own roller blades like a roller rink referee missing only a b/w striped jersey and a whistle. The coordination of kids’ vehicles all happening at once sometimes rivals that of a Shriners Drill Team in their mini-cars in a Memorial Day parade. Whether pulling out of a parking space to head off campus or driving home up the hill after an outing, cars need to move slowly and be on high alert to avoid kids and their modes of local transportation left strewn anywhere and everywhere on the sidewalk, on the stairs, and in the parking lot.

Our block parties stand as a perfect example of our neighborhood at its best. Sometimes they arise from careful planning; sometimes they just happen spontaneously following a long week of teaching. The most recent one occurred two weeks ago on Halloween. A week before, our friend Emily sent around an invitation to participate in Trick-or-Treating in the apartments. No pressure, just leave your front door open if you want to participate or closed if you do not. Almost everyone really got into it, with several adults wearing costumes and playing spooky music for the kids who came around. For an entertaining half hour, we were treated to a dozen kids from toddlers through Fifth Grade parading through as superheroes, a bee, shepherds, and the requisite princess and noble knights. Afterwards, everyone gathered outside for a Halloween Evening “BYOBowl-and-spoon” Soup Potluck block party with Groaning Tables cluttered by eight pots of soup, bread, salads, desserts, and drinks. As a school night, it was all planned to end by 7:00 pm; however, it carried on almost to 9:00 pm because everyone was enjoying the evening and the company.

When we began making plans for life in Morocco almost two years ago, we decided we would live on campus for our first year so that we had time to explore and decide where we wanted to live after Year One. As we went through last year, we realized how much we valued being part of the community on campus and decided to stay. (We also really like our 180° view of the Atlantic one mile straight out from our balcony.) Our friends who live off campus value their neighborhoods as well. Any particular place can work well for some people while another place works best for others. As we sit by the dwindling fire tonight, having just spent another evening catching up with Megan when she came upstairs to drop by, we appreciate greatly living where we do with friends around us here on campus, around Casablanca, around Morocco, and around the world. It is good to be so blessed.

On your mark…get set…here we go!