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!

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