Crossing Another Threshold: Becoming the Hangout Spot

We have always enjoyed having our children’s friends hanging out in our home. Indeed, we long ago opted to know where our kids and their friends are and what they are doing by having them at our place, rather than not know because they are elsewhere. The happy consequence of this is that we get to know their friends, whom – more often than not – we have found to be delightful.

Over the years, this has meant everything from neighborhood kids feeling free to pop in any time and feeling comfortable enough to consider our house as their other home, with some even rising to take on “third child” status in our family, to hosting huge teenage events like a Halloween party for more than 60 kids, or a Chinese New Year party in which over a dozen international students at Audrey’s last school turned our kitchen into a Chinese restaurant that prepared a feast for dozens (and ex post facto took Brian only eight hours to disinfect completely after raw chicken and pork had been sliced and diced and left to sit on virtually ever kitchen surface). After 18 months in Morocco, we think we have achieved that status internationally as well as we had it domestically. We suppose it was just a matter of time: Morocco’s warm Culture of Marhaba (“Welcome!”) fits perfectly with our own inclination to welcome people into into our home. Those who may be strangers when they first arrive will be friends when they leave.

We are both sick. Bronchitis sick. Gobbling antibiotics sick. The kind of sick where the one thing we wanted last night was to make chicken soup and eat it with fresh a baguette from Amoud Boulangerie et Patisserie and fine French butter. (Living in Morocco DOES have its benefits!) It was a good plan…But it was not the only plan for our house last night. The other plan was not ours; but, being the parents we are meant being open to weaving it into our own plan for quiet chicken soup and good bread.

All week long, Charlotte and her posse of non-GWA Moroccan friends had plans to throw a surprise birthday party for their friend Zak. Zak is a good kid whom we have gotten to know as Charlotte has allowed us incrementally to know him. He is respectful, funny, silly, grounded, hard-working, and lives in the moment while beginning to shoulder a view toward what comes next in life. We like him very much, and Zak knows he is welcome in our house any time. Culture of Marhaba. Last weekend, Charlotte said she and her friends were looking for a spot for this weekend’s surprise party, and asked if our home could be an “if we have nowhere else to do it” location. Both of us being a long way from amoxicillin at that point, “Of course!” we said. Through the week, we experienced as second hand onlookers the great teenage drama of where the party might be, how to keep it a secret from Zak, whether to have it or not after Zak learned of the plan, etc.

On Friday, both of us having moved into “very sick” mode as the week progressed, we asked what the party plan was. Charlotte semi-chortled, semi-choked at the silliness of our query. Of course, asking about Moroccan teenage plans is a humorous act of willing self-deception, for most Moroccan teenagers do not make advance plans. Life is on the fly. And should some semblance of a plan actually take shape, it will change 17 times through the course of implementation. This is at once part of the “Joie de Vivre” charm of Moroccan life for westerners and a frequent irritation to westerners seeking something on which to ground broader plans more solidly than the ubiquitous “Inshallah!” provides. All Charlotte knew was that a big cake was coming to our house on Friday to hide in our small refrigerator until the party on Saturday, wherever it might happen to occur. “I don’t know where the party will be; we’re trying to have it in lots of places, but so far we haven’t found a place where we can do it,” she told us. We prepared our sick selves for teenage company on Saturday.

On Saturday afternoon, Brian left Audrey to her sick bed and went shopping solo for a scrawny one kilo (2 lbs) Moroccan chicken, an onion, carrots, [blink, blink] CELERY (see our last post for the wonder of that!), and a few baguettes hot out of the oven, then headed home to begin making soup. While Audrey put away the other groceries, Brian set to work boiling the chicken to make stock.

SIDE NOTE: As a teenager, Brian learned from his father how to make soup from stock, stripping every bit of meat from a chicken so as not to waste a morsel. Audrey has come to soup-making more recently in our 21 ½ years of married life. So it was more than slightly ironic, and a circumstance requiring saint-like patience, when Audrey spent virtually the entire soup-making time as the culinary equivalent of a backseat driver telling Brian how to make soup stock, the order in which to cut the vegetables, the shape in which to cut the vegetables, how to sauté the vegetables before adding them to the stock, even how to strip the meat, then complimenting him on what a fine meat-stripping job he did. Audrey is not easy to have sick.

Meanwhile, with Brian cooking and Audrey lecturing in the kitchen, Charlotte took Zak – who had met up with her at our apartment – into town as a diversion while other conspirators had responsibilities to fulfill in preparation for the party. Audrey called the guards at the school gate to let them know we had a bunch of young visitors heading our way. Before long we had a knock at the door, and Brian opened it to find a quartet of bearded and mustachioed Moroccan young men smiling in the entryway. “Marhaba!” he greeted them, and they came inside. Charlotte called almost immediately to say there was a bag of decorating supplies in her closet. Audrey fetched it, also gave them the bags of décor that we brought home from a New Year’s Eve party last weekend, and the setup team of Amine and Amine (running around like the Cat in the Hat’s “Thing 1” and “Thing 2”), Mokhtar, and Ibrahim went straight to work blowing up balloons and taping them to the wall. Every couple minutes we would hear a loud POP and a mess of giggles and know that another balloon had gone to Balloon Heaven. They had a plan to spell out Zak’s name in balloons on the wall, but that plan changed 17 times before they finished decorating. One big question: What to do with the cake, a chocolate whipped cream affair on a ¼ inch thin chocolate cake base? Should it stay cold in the fridge? Should it come out and start to warm? Audrey suggested brilliantly to Amine-that-is-Thing-1 (Amine-that-is-Thing-2 is nicknamed “Gucci Gang” – no explanation is forthcoming) that they could put the cake outside on our balcony table – warmer than the fridge, but not too warm, and hidden from Zak at whatever point he would return. The boys loved the idea, and the cake went outside.

While they were decorating, more people started to arrive. Soon, the place looked rather festive and full of a dozen Moroccan youth, most of whom Audrey had seen before. While Brian did not know any of them, he played the role of dithering Welcoming Father as each entered and he greeted them with a redundant “Marhaba!” from his soup station by the stove. Initially, Brian would resist their respectful bizous on each cheek by holding up a hand and saying, “Je suis malade” (grammatically bad French for “I am sick,” really with a worse meaning). Audrey, on the other hand, was bizou-ing up a storm with each new entry. After a while, Brian just started the bizous as well as the kids came to him to pay their respects.

Finally Charlotte called to say that they were on their way back and almost home. The crowd bantered about where they should hide and asked to turn out all the lights, including in the kitchen where Brian continued making soup. Brian complied with all but one counter light going off, wondering all the while why they were hiding when Zack knew he was having a surprise party. Soon, Zak and Charlotte entered the front door. There was not much surprise, because the entire group had at the last minute lurched en masses into the front hall to greet them when they entered. They sang Happy Birthday to him in English, then group-shuffled back into the main room, and the festivities finally were alive.

Alive, though, is an ironic description of what followed. While Audrey and Brian continued souping in the kitchen, the kids group-shuffled into the living room and group-flounced onto every piece of furniture available. This is what Moroccan teens do. French and Arabic rap pulsed from Charlotte’s speaker and lubricated the conversations. And that was a party. Audrey looked at Brian and said, “You know, this is what they do wherever they hang out…” Brian gave a knowing nod. Then the kids decided it was time to sing Happy Birthday. Charlotte went out to get the cake, then came back in cackling with laughter: “IT’S RAINING ON THE CAKE!!!” Perhaps it was not such a brilliant idea after all to put the cake on the balcony. Amine-that-is-Thing-1 disappeared outside, then came inside to place a soggy box on the kitchen island. Everyone held a collective breath while he opened the box lid, then a collective sigh emerged as everyone saw the cake was unharmed by the rain. He pulled the floppy cardboard base out of the box and carried the wobbly cake carefully to the dining room table. There, they decorated it with candles and a couple big shower sparklers, then gathered around with everybody’s phones glowing as brightly as the flaming sparklers while they sang Happy Birthday in French.

Shortly afterward, not long after 8pm, the soup was finished and we escaped to our bedroom with a couple bowls and half a baguette. As we receded, one of the kids bid “Goodnight!” to the old couple that seemed to be retiring for the evening, but instead was going to watch “Man of Steel” on Netflix. Despite having received good wishes for our old-people-sleep, we emerged a few times through the continued evening, and noticed the numbers dwindling as the night progressed.

Eventually, being old people, we slept. Then we woke this morning and found two bodies – unidentifiable under blankets and pillows, but later revealed as Zak and Nezar – sleeping soundly on our living room couches, and two more – Amine-that-is-Thing-1 and Ibrahim – in our guest room. Charlotte was awake and talking with Amine and Ibrahim. We laughed heartily when we discovered subsequently that all four guests were wearing pajama bottoms belonging either to Charlotte or to Audrey. Mess was everywhere. At some point in the night they had made full use of the New Year’s Eve contraband we had supplied, so there were confetti and ribbons and other bits of mess across every inch of floor from the front door across the apartment. We smiled, and thought how nice it was that we would not be cleaning this. Going into the kitchen, we discovered that also during the night a swarm of teenage locusts had eaten our cupboards bare. That was okay as well, for we are happy to make sure they are fed. After a while, we heard the vacuum running and laughter among the kids. “God, I love that sound,” said Brian to Audrey, not specifying the vacuum or the kids…and meaning a bit of both. As parents, we feel quite blessed that Charlotte is fully comfortable in her Casablanca world. She was not merely the only expat kid in the group; she was the only GWA kid in the group, with everyone else having no connection to GWA Island other than Charlotte herself. Most spoke at least some English, and did so readily with us – taking pity on the old parents still building their multilingual skills. Conversation with each other (including Charlotte), though, was in French and Darija, not in English. Yet we feel confident the kids felt welcome, and hope they felt at home in our corner of this big small world. After cleaning up, Charlotte made them Cajun Alfredo pasta, with Tony’s from Louisiana and animal-shaped pasta from the local Marjane grocery store. Then Charlotte introduced them to Yahtzee, and all was good with the world.

On your mark…get set…here we go!