Thrifty Morocco: The Land Where Nothing Goes to Waste

Our grandparents came from very different backgrounds. Audrey’s grew up and lived in comfort; Brian’s grew up and lived without advantages. Both sides of our family, though, came of age during the Great Depression, which molded their world views and ensured a solid work ethic and thriftiness that steered them daily for the rest of their lives. They would have been good Moroccans.

Regardless of socioeconomic status, Moroccans abhor waste and elevate penuriousness to a level of accolade seen rarely. Those who have little guard it sparingly; those who have much do the same. (The exception in both cases, of course, comes in matters of hospitality when all pecuniary restraint disappears in the spirit of “marhaba,” or “welcome” to guests treated better than family.) Charlotte, who spends our money freely but parts with a Dirham of her own most reluctantly, has established an honorable reputation among her Moroccan friends as a skinflint. They used to compliment how easily she has acclimated to life in Morocco by saying she is a red-headed and blue-eyed Moroccan. After getting to know her Dirham-pinching habits, though, they started giving her the ultimate compliment by saying, “We thought she was Moroccan; now we know she is Berber” (referring to the nomadic people of northwestern Africa who make up the historical foundation of Moroccan culture, and are known for bartering to the last Dirham and getting the last bit of possible use from anything they or someone else may possess).

Last November, while leading a delegation of our faculty at a MAIS (Mediterranean Association of Independent Schools) conference in Valencia, Spain, Brian learned something from the Moroccans on the trip. Arriving post-conference at the Valencia airport for the trip back home, the Moroccans in the delegation immediately started hunting for the office in the airport where they could reclaim the taxes they paid on their shopping purchases while in Spain. While Brian – whose main concern was ensuring that no one missed the flight home – stood in line, checked in, and waited for the missing folks to do the same, they spent the better part of an hour searching through the airport and finding the fabled office, turning in their receipts, and getting reimbursed a few euros for their effort.

Such thriftiness naturally extends into the realm of business as well, though it may require some measure of flexibility. Some friends of our bought a house last year with some open community space next to their property. One day we saw that an oasis of mature palm trees had been planted in the open space, as well as around their property. They told us that they bought them for a small fraction of the normally hefty price for palm trees from someone they knew who had planted a forest of palm trees on unused public land years ago. After all, no one else was using the land, so why not plant a palm tree nursery there. It was a good plan, until the government came along and told him he had a few days to get rid of all the trees or they would bulldoze them, so he was getting what he could for them.

Morocco could boast as its national motto: “The Land Where Nothing Goes to Waste.” For decades the waste management trend of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” has gained ground in the U.S. Meanwhile, Morocco has no recycling program of note because it accomplishes the first two stages – reduce and reuse – so well. The prevailing tendencies favor using available resources minimally – thus not much need actually to reduce, because Moroccans do not pursue extravagance except in celebrations like marriage, graduations, and hosting people in their homes; and what people do use gets reused over and over and over, even after discarded by a first owner…or a second…or a third as long as someone can find some use for it in some way. This thriftiness both saves money and saves resources in a culture that wonders why someone would squander either one.

Remember that Morocco is the land of argon oil, ground and pressed from the kernels of the nut that grows on argon trees. In southwest Morocco, goats still climb the argon trees to eat the nuts the way they have done for as long as anyone can remember. While today argon oil producers employ commercial production methods, once upon a time long ago some industriously thrifty Moroccan thought, “Hey, I bet instead of trying to crack argon nuts by hand it would be easier to sift through goat poop to find argon kernels that I can press into oil.” Driving on the A7 highway from Casablanca past Marrakech and along the edge of the High Atlas Mountains down to Agadir, one still passes tree-climbing goats and people following behind hefting sacks of their herds’ droppings. Not even goat poop goes to waste.

On GWA’s campus, what is waste for many gets picked through in search of things that someone could still use or that someone could sell. When a cheap lounge chair from our balcony broke last year, Brian put it out by the garbage barrels. It disappeared before the end of the day. And each Spring, as the school year draws to a close, the apartments’ parking lot becomes a Garage Sale filled with tables of items changing hands from people no longer needing them to people who can make use of them.

Last Spring, GWA’s Class of 2017 unleashed a senior prank that included releasing a bunch of chickens into classrooms and hallways of the Upper School. Beyond the shock value of surprising teachers and students with the arrival of unexpected poultry, every one of the chickens went home that day with someone from the cleaning, kitchen, or other staff to become the guest of honor on a dinner table.

Heading into the souks one passes people with their assorted used wares laid out for people to buy: used clothing, shoes, small appliances, large appliances, furniture, bicycles, lighting, and more. You want it? Someone somewhere is selling it used and cheap. It is not unusual to see someone riding a scooter or driving a donkey cart with a hundred or so empty five liter plastic water jugs tied together in a bundle on the way to repurposing.

The Hay Hasani neighborhood’s Souks Ouald Mmeni, what we call the furniture souks, are filled with adornments – furniture, mirrors, paintings, wall mouldings, archways, windows, huge doors from churches and mansions and more – taken from old buildings that get picked through as well. An item may sit for years before someone buys it. No problem; there is plenty of time, but not plenty of whatever it is that someone may want someday.

So it is on a large scale as well. When we arrived in July 2016, a massive public works project had just begun to upgrade Boulevard Abdelhadi Boutaleb (renamed recently for a former Moroccan Ambassador to the U.S., but formerly named ingeniously Route d’Azzemour because it was the road down to Azzemour a little more than an hour to the south). Nearby GWA, at the roundabout that marks the start of the southwest ring road called Rocade Sud-Ouest (i.e., “Southwest Ring Road”) stood a high bluff of loose material placed there when the route for the southwest ring road was built a few years ago. Over the last 19 months that mountain has fallen almost to street level as dump trucks have relocated load after load for use as fill in the new road construction project. Driving around, one often sees similar deposit areas where what gets removed from one demolished or excavated site sits around until someone can use it in some building or road construction project somewhere else.

During the last couple weeks, we have witnessed this process happening right across the street from GWA’s gates and guard house. An abandoned building has sat there, giving a bit of old Casablanca character to the intersection at our school entrance. But developers have plans for the neighborhood, and the building and the simple potholed, quasi-paved cross street apparently does not factor into those plans. Slowly over the last couple weeks we have seen the building bulldozed in sections. The fascinating and very Moroccan thing about it, though, is that as more of the building comes down, people scavenge the site. While driving in and out our school gates we see people on the site carrying pipes for plumbing, wiring, slightly bent or dented sheets of corrugated metal, even long and heavy I-beams. And the crumbled concrete walls get trucked away to some site where they will sit waiting to be used someday as another project’s fill.

Rather than employing America’s “reduce, reuse, and recycle” tactics, Morocco does just fine with “use only what you need, then use it again and again and again.”

On your mark…get set…here we go!

The Balcony

And just like that, Spring surrounds us.

The weeks of the long Ayiali’s cold melted away and transitioned Casablanca in a single day into blue skies, warmer temperatures, grassy fields starting to boast a rainbow of wildflowers, and a common disposition of appreciation for the weather change among friends and strangers alike. People just seem cheerier, like a nationwide case of Seasonal Affected Disorder has lifted. Ironically, Ash Wednesday fell in the middle of that first warm week, inviting Charlotte’s explanation of Lent to a Muslim friend perplexed by the concept: “It’s like Catholic Ramadan.” She has become a TCK – Third Culture Kid. But not even the start of six weeks of atonement and sacrifice can dampen the spirit of this uplifting; we have had enough damp over the previous weeks already.

After lamenting the long cold season, we found ourselves lunching outside last Saturday on the patio of an Indian restaurant downtown. Platters of tandoori chicken and naan, steaming pots of dahl, and much more fueled hearty conversation with a GWA family that had invited us. Amazing to think that just seven days before it was too cold even to imagine doing this. Now the weather is perfect, our favorite time of year in Casablanca.

One reason is that now we make use of our balcony again. Brian, a rain or shine all-weather griller, goes out to the balcony year-round to satisfy Audrey’s desire for grilled meat. But beginning now, and through the next nine or ten months, we will enjoy time sitting on the balcony for the pleasures it offers.

From our third floor perch (what Audrey calls “our penthouse view”) we have a 180-degree view of the Atlantic’s eastern sands a mile away, including the beachside summer palace of our neighbor, His Majesty the King. The ocean breeze gives us a steady supply of fresh air instead of stale stuff from a claustrophobic city choking under diesel and gasoline exhaust.

Our balcony also overlooks GWA’s school buildings just a 300 step commute from home, including our admin offices on the ground floor of the new Library-Media-Tech Center that GWA inaugurated in September. Looking at the LMTC’s dome on the roof reminds us of the beautiful library that it tops (the largest children’s library in Morocco) and the cool Robotics lab, MakerSpace, and LEGO Education Innovation Studio (the only LEIS in Morocco and one of only two in Africa) on the middle technology floor.

Around the campus and stretching downhill to the coastline are rich fields that in a few months will have threshers cutting hay, but now have grazing cows and sheep happy to have grass and wildflowers again instead of having to paw for stray straw shoots left from last year’s reaping (like the poor creatures do from June through December and into January, no wonder that they are so lean).

We enjoy sitting on the balcony at our little folding wooden table and chairs in the evenings. We watch the sun set over the ocean, followed quickly by hearing the scratchy-amplified Call to Prayer echoing from the minarets of nearby village mosques. Then there is quiet stillness. We share a bottle of wine as we play cribbage, or perhaps just sit in the quiet to balance our otherwise nonstop lives. We watch the stars come out, and marvel at how many more stars fill our Moroccan heavens than we have seen in nearly two decades since we lived on the 1600-acre wooded campus of The Miller School of Albemarle on the eastern slope of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

And Brian, the puttering king, will putter day or night around the plants in our balcony garden. Audrey, whose culinary endeavors more than compensate for her horticultural black thumb, likes to cook with fresh herbs. Brian obliged happily last year by ringing the balcony’s rails with hanging boxes of mint, rosemary, thyme, basil, oregano, chives, parsley, and cilantro. On the balcony’s floor he tended containers with a steady supply of beefsteak, roma, and cherry tomatoes, and succeeded with a few eggplants as well. Casablanca’s sunny but mild climate allowed him to keep his plants producing throughout the Fall, with some herbs even surviving the winter. Looking up to our apartment from school last year Audrey thought it looked like we had a rain forest on our green balcony. But eventually the garden grew tired of the cold as much as we did. Audrey’s rain forest became Audrey’s eyesore as long, brown tomato vines – staked and strung along the balcony railing – and stiff brown basil and mint poking up from boxes begged for renewal.

Last week’s awakening colors encouraged Brian to spend all of Sunday afternoon preparing our balcony garden for the new growing season. For Audrey, such investment of his time means the start of a new garden. For Brian it is therapeutic time steeping in God’s gift of nature, if but a balcony-sized snatch of it. Weeks ago he started seeds indoors in peat pots sitting in a large plastic tub on our dining room table. The shoots have been stretching daily toward what overcast light they could find through the balcony’s glass doors. With warmth and sun now having arrived, the time finally came to take them to their outside home. That satisfying task came after a trip to nursery chain Arborescence for more hanging boxes and planters that will expand our container “farm” this year with snap peas, rainbow carrots, green beans, and – vegetarian Charlotte’s special request – kale. While at Arborescence, Brian also grabbed some new thyme, rosemary, parsley, and cilantro to refresh the mature stock that limped through winter. The old rosemary still had enough life in it that he repotted it, after pulling it from its boxes, and gave it to friends living in other apartments on campus. Meanwhile, the return of green on the balcony is most inviting for us, calling us back to our perch to enjoy the gift it is to us.

It was a good day for Brian that will lead to many good days for all three of us as Audrey snips our “estate herbs,” let alone when harvesting begins.

On your mark…get set…here we go!

Alyiali: Waiting for the Warming, or Just for the Dang Cold to be Done

Having lived in various climates across the U.S. before moving to Morocco, we know how greatly seasons can differ from one place to another, and how people’s perspective on such can vary greatly due to different experiences. When we arrived in Casablanca people told us that we would freeze in winter time because it gets so cold and wet – and without central (or even baseboard or radiator) heating, the temperature inside of the ubiquitous concrete buildings tends be even colder than the outside temperature.

Then we went through our first winter last year and thought, “That’s not so bad.” The typical daily weather turned noticeably colder in November and the rains started in December. January continued a rainy and cold default, like winter in London or Seattle; but we found it quite tolerable as long as we had a nice fire crackling in the fireplace to warm our apartment. By the end of January, it had started to warm and by this time last year we had wildflowers bursting bold colors across fields everywhere we went.

Not so this year.

Instead, this year seems colder and windier and wetter and rainier than last year; and that condition seems to have lasted longer than it did a year ago. Indeed, looking around we see Morocco greening, as it does in Winter; but that process seems to move just a bit more slowly this year than what we experienced in our first go-round with Moroccan seasons. Heightening further our sensitivity to the clammy cold, the tarp Brian put over our firewood supply on the roof got blown off by the strong winter winds and our entire abundant supply of more than a ton of firewood got soaked by the prodigious rains. In other words, while the cold season has continued, our fireplace season ended over a month ago. In other words again, it has been very cold in our apartment for over a month. We have a space heater in our bedroom that does a nice job keeping our teeth from chattering all night long while we sleep. In the common areas of our apartment, though, we have adopted the typical Moroccan practice of wearing 93 layers of clothes to stay warm in Winter.

Sharing our meteorological observations and household status of apartment-as-refrigerator with some long-time expats we know, they smiled and taught us about the not-quite-season of “Alyiali” in Morocco. “Alyiali is that time from the end of December for a few weeks when it is cold, windy, wet, and rainy. Sometimes it lasts 30 days…sometimes it lasts 60. This is a longer Alyiali this year.

So, it lasts from New Years until the weather gets warm?

“No, mostly just until the dang cold is done.”

For weeks we have had dang cold. It rained with howling winds beating raindrops against the windows every day this week. Again.

It is not that we do not know cold or that we cannot endure it. Brian’s parents both came from hearty Minnesota stock, and we and our girls made it just fine through half a decade of Cleveland winters. During our Cleveland days, Brian used to call his 90+ year old grandmother outside Minneapolis in a regular contest to see who had colder temperatures. We have both closed schools for COLD instead of for snow. (Side note: In Cleveland, the magic number on the thermometer for closing school because of cold is -20°F.) But one can escape Midwest winter cold simply by going inside (a building, a car, etc.), while in Casablanca this DANG COLD is everywhere: from the cold tile floors to the cold cement walls to the very cold water left for a shower after your 17 year old daughter uses up all the hot water.

So Audrey was very happy to escape the Dang Cold last week by traveling 27 hours each way (Casablanca to Paris to Atlanta to Cedar Rapids, then back reversing the route) to and from Iowa to recruit teachers for GWA at the University of Northern Iowa Oversees Recruiting Fair. Our Academic Team felt great accomplishment last month when teacher contracts for 2018-2019 came back and we had only 11 spots to fill. (Contrast this with the roughly 45 spots in our class two years go and about 35 spots last year.) Not only do we have fewer spots to fill this year, but we also have moved far ahead of previous years in jumping to fill them. While we have seen people hired as late as July in the last couple years, we hoped to complete our hiring early in order to snatch up good candidates and then be finished with a process that typically has taken lots of time and resources through the Spring here. When one thinks about the best places to go to hire international school faculty, the town of Waterloo in northern Iowa probably does not garner the attention of most folks. But the annual UNI Oversees Recruiting Fair is an unexpected gem that features several hundred teachers speed-dating with over 120 international schools to land overseas teaching gigs. After causing much excitement in Waterloo by popping a champagne bottle in attention-getting celebration every time another teacher signed a GWA contract, Audrey returned from Iowa on Monday night with almost all our faculty positions filled for next year with a spectacular crew of student-centered 21st Century educators anxious to join our already excellent teaching staff.

Perhaps the hire that excites us the most, though, is that of our new Upper School Principal. Audrey felt conflicted deeply over hiring someone to replace her as Upper School Principal. We both served as heads of schools stateside and know the glories and challenges (most heads of schools will admit to far more of the latter than the former) of HOS life. By contrast, Audrey relished her time last year as the Upper School Principal, able to focus on students and teachers instead of on less people-oriented institutional matters. So while serving satisfactorily this year in both the HOS and USP position, and as much as she loves the student proximity a Principal gets to enjoy, she knew she needed to hire someone for the USP position if she wanted to keep her sanity and have an occasional moment to breathe in her new HOS role at GWA. After spending the Fall exploring candidates, in December Audrey and the search team she led chose a person whom we know will be not only a great Principal at GWA, but also a great addition to our leadership team. Since then, she has Skyped and traded emails with members of our leadership team with regularity. Better still, last night she arrived from China, where she is currently a principal at an international school, to spend a week getting to know GWA and our team well in advance of actually starting with us next summer. Through the week she will meet students and teachers, and parents and experience the warm community that GWA offers even amid Alyiali.

Perhaps as a sign, the Alyiali weather broke yesterday. After a few raindrops in the morning, the clouds parted to share clear sunshine and temperatures climbing shwea-shwea (little by little) toward the warmth of Spring. Bring it on…We are ready!

On your mark…get set…here we go!

Moments of American Awareness

A couple weekends ago we were on on our way to do our weekly grocery shopping when Audrey declared her desire to stop for lunch. Her suggestion for where she would like to eat shocked Brian, for it was an eatery we had not visited even once in our year-and-half of living in Morocco.

Audrey wanted to eat lunch at…KFC.

Driving downtown to Casablanca’s Maarif neighborhood, we cruised along with no place to park, yet without worry: Brian knows a parking guardian who takes particularly good care of him and our car. Arriving at his block-long side street territory packed with parked vehicles on both sides of the road, the parking guardian recognized our car instantly and waved to Brian as we stopped in the middle of the street; got out; shook hands and exchanged greetings in French (“C’est va?” “C’est va, merci. Et vouz?”) instead of in Darija (“Kif dayer?” “Hamdulillah. Unta?”) because he is sub-Saharan instead of Moroccan; handed him the keys; told him (again in French) that we would be gone for about 30 minutes; and walked away with no more than that to give us total confidence that we would find our car parked safely and well-watched when we returned.

We walked a couple blocks to the Maarif’s Kentucky Fried Chicken, one of many in Casablanca; ordered the spicy “piquante” chicken, cole slaw, and fries (alas, KFC has no mashed potatoes and gravy in Morocco); and sat down to eat. To no surprise, most of the branded signage inside was in French. Next to us, though, was a timeline of KFC milestones listed in English, including a bizarre milestone about Colonel Sanders’ death in 1980 placed eerily next to a photo of him waving goodbye from the window of a railroad car. The chicken tasted significantly better than we had expected, and as we ate we steeped in a little corner of America.

We find ourselves in such moments of American awareness from time to time. Sometimes, like our KFC lunch, they result from intentional action. Other times, though, they sneak up on us to wallop us from out of the blue. Case in point: on Friday evening Brian went to Orange – like Morocco’s Verizon – to pay Charlotte’s monthly mobile phone bill. Walking in, he said, “Bonsoir. Je dois payer la facture pour le téléphone de ma fille,” and presented her phone number to the woman sitting at the desk that is the only furniture in the small store. All was good until he told her that he also would like to add some hours to her credit and the woman responded with a barrage of French that immediately made his eyes roll backwards on his head. With his brain stuck in White Noise processing mode, the clerk smiled – not patronizingly, but encouragingly – and asked in a perfect American accent, “Do you speak English?” Brian almost cheered in his relief, but instead smiled back at her and joked with her in his own perfect American accent, “Well, if it would help you I suppose I could switch to English.” It was a good moment of American awareness, and she did not humiliate him.

American awareness strikes not only in Morocco. It creeps into time spent stateside as well. While Brian tends to GWA this week, Audrey is in the booming metropolis of Waterloo, Iowa, at the University of Northern Iowa’s Overseas Recruiting Fair, with over 120 schools from around the world recruiting teacher candidates who fly in from around the country for what actually is a premier event to hunt for our next great crop of faculty to join GWA in August. After a 27-hour day to fly from Casablanca to Paris to Atlanta to Cedar Rapids before a long bus ride to Waterloo, then sleeping for a few hours and going through a whole day in Iowa, Audrey rewarded herself with a steak dinner. It was great moment of American awareness, relishing American beef and its marbled goodness that we only dream about in Casablanca. (While Moroccan produce is tops, Moroccan meat tends to come from animals that look like they just finished a marathon – too much lean means not as much flavor and not so tender.) To share her moment of American awareness, as well as to taunt him with her American steak, she texted Brian a picture of her juicy ribeye slathered with onions and mushrooms. (In response, he texted her a picture of the French Bordeaux he was enjoying after picking it up for a fraction of what it would have cost in Waterloo, Iowa, if it were available at all. But we are not competitive with each other, really.)

The important realization we have had about these moments of American awareness is that they are part of being here. They are not bad; they are not good; they just are. When we first arrived we could not wait to start shopping at souks and hanouts. We spent every Saturday battling traffic on the road for hours as we hit four or five different places to find all we sought for the coming week. We did not merely accept this as Moroccan shopping; as newbies we prided ourselves on our exhausting shopping escapades because it meant we were surviving in our new life. After a while we settled into an easier routine of shopping in the CIL instead of criss-crossing Casablanca. We love buying produce from Zwil and his son Khalid at their souk, getting meat from our Berber butcher friends in their butcher shop, and stopping into the hardware hanout to see if they have anything we might want (because in Morocco, if you see something you might want sometime you should buy it when you see it…since it may be gone the next time you go back). But more recently, as swamped as we have been at school, we regularly have covered our weekend errands at the hoity-toity Carrefour Gourmet store in order to do one-stop shopping. While not a stereotypically Moroccan shopping excursion – no wonder that a large proportion of the Carrefour Gourmet customers are European and American expats – we go there when we opt for convenience over experience. And convenience is a very American priority.

Make no mistake, we still love living in Morocco and look forward to being here quite a while. Yet, after cutting our teeth on the Moroccan experience last year we do not feel any need to prove empirically and demonstratively that we are emphatic expats. We are just expats who are quite happy living where we live for all the Plus-Factor reasons that entails. As (admittedly still very new) veterans in our second year we no longer feel a need to rationalize or justify our presence in the Kingdom by pushing ourselves into something other than what works for us at any given moment. We think that is progress, ironically helping us feel a little less like foreigners and a little more like we are home.

On your mark…get set…here we go!