Welcoming the Newbies

On Saturday we took Becky, GWA’s new Upper School Principal, to tour the downtown apartment of Dave, GWA’s new Director of Finance & Operations, and to get a tour from Dave’s rooftop of the neighborhood he is coming quickly to love – grocery store across the street, coffee shop around the corner, pâtisserie a block away, lots of restaurants with different cuisines, etc. The rooftop tour included seeing the numbered water stations – assigned like parking spaces in the garage below the building – for washing one’s sheep after killing it for the Eid al-Adha celebration coming next month, or for any other occasion (like celebrating the birth of a new child) that might require killing, cleaning, and roasting a sheep. Though Dave made two trips to Casablanca through the Spring to begin transitioning into his role and arrived permanently in early July, his apartment remains – by intentional spousal consideration – a bachelor pad while he waits for his wife to arrive from Washington State in time for next weekend’s start to our New Faculty & Staff Orientation. When we had toured with Dave and admired his very own rooftop water station, we brought them both to Grand Sud Import, our favorite place among Casablanca’s limited locations to buy wine. After stocking up, with Fareed marking Dave’s boxes with “D” and Becky’s boxes with “Bacy” and Brian’s boxes with “K” because he though Brian was another GWA administrator named Kevin, and enjoying the Moroccan tea that Fareed served us while we were there, we all went to lunch at Au Four A Bois (literally “In a Wood Oven,” a great French-named Italian restaurant by the U.S. Consulate); took Dave home; then introduced Becky to weekly shopping at Carrefour Gourmet, a mini-Casablanca version of Whole Foods and our default one-stop shopping place when we do not go to the souks and hanouts for comestibles, so that she can feel confident about basic survival in Casablanca. It was a long day of chaperoning two new members of GWA’s Senior Leadership Team through their post-arrival adjustments to Casablanca, and a good day of the same. This is what we do for “newbie” expats coming to GWA, and it gives us pleasure to do such things.

Over the next week our school community will welcome the incoming group of newbies joining us for the 2018-2019 academic year. This ritual marks the end of summer each year at GWA and international schools around the world. Following the yin of some people leaving at the end of a school year, the yang of summer’s end brings new faculty and staff for the coming year. We had about 45 newbies with us in our incoming class of new faculty and staff two years ago. Last summer, when we were one-year “veterans” who still felt like we had so much to learn, we welcomed a cohort of about 35 newbies. This summer, after working last year to improve stability and extend people’s tenures, we have only about 25 newbies arriving for our August orientation.

GWA does a great job orienting and on-boarding new faculty and staff. While many international schools offer newcomers an orientation of a couple days spent listening to policies and expectations while leaving new people to sink or swim adjusting to their expat lives, GWA spends two weeks acclimating new expats first to Morocco and Casablanca – complete with daily lessons in French and Darija, daily outings around town and even on the train for a day trip to Rabat (Morocco’s capital), and a variety of sessions about acclimating to life abroad generally and to Casablanca specifically – and next to life and school at GWA. Each day begins with a leadership reflection by someone from the Senior Leadership Team. And our HR and Staff Services folks show great care for helping our new expats adjust successfully to what will be their new home for the next two years (or more, inshallah).

This year, our Staff Services people formalized a Newbie Buddy program that had existed informally through recent memory, making sure to pair each new expat with a returning expat (or new family with a returning family) to help folks find their way to places to shop, make sure they have what they need to survive, serve as a friendly face with whom to share thoughts and concerns, and just serve as a general resource as our newbies get started as new members of our community.

We had kind people adopt us and daughter Charlotte upon our arrival two years ago, demonstrating good “pay it forward” behavior that we have replicated with our own flavor and style. With the formalization of such intentional welcoming, we volunteered to be Newbie Buddies for Dave and Becky. While the bulk of our newbies will land in Casablanca in the coming week before our August 6 startup to Orientation, Dave (coming from the U.S. where he did the same finance and ops job for multiple public school systems) arrived earlier this month and Becky (coming from an international school principalship in Shanghai, China) arrived last Monday. We fit well as their Newbie Buddies most importantly because we really like them and look forward to working with them on GWA’s Senior Leadership Team, but also because we were actually here when they each arrived, as opposed to most veterans who are still traveling or visiting friends and family during the Summer Break.

Last week while Audrey was the Summer Administrator on Duty for the week, Brian spent some time helping Becky get established. She arrived on Monday morning, when Dave (already getting into the pay-it-forward spirit) went with Abdellah, our Transportation Manager, to welcome her at Mohamed V Airport and bring her to her campus apartment. Brian saw Becky shortly afterwards when she came down the hill to pick up some bags she had left in someone’s office a month before durning a quick stopover in Casablanca on the way to a few weeks of vacation in the U.S. from her previous billet in Shanghai. She had engineered that quick stay to kennel her dog and cat here during her U.S. vacation. This proved to be a good call, subjecting not only her pets but also her fellow passengers to only one pet airline junket. Leading up to her Chinese departure with them she spent uncountable hours getting all the shots, paperwork, and other bureaucratic requirements to bring the pets to Morocco. During the journey from Shanghai to Casablanca, her dog travelled crated in baggage but her cat – much to the chagrin of her cabin mates – went in a travel bag with her on board and “yowled” for the entire 10-hour flight. Then when she landed, she found her pup-in-crate had ridden the circuitous route of the baggage conveyor belt the entire time it took for Becky to deplane, walk through the terminal, get through Passport Control, pass through a final security checkpoint, and finally get to Baggage Claim to retrieve her dog. To top it off, after all the effort and time to clear the path for her pets to win immigrant status in Morocco, no one checked her pets’ paperwork. As she wheeled her collection of bags and pets through the exit and past the last security check x-ray machine that ensures people do not bring more than two bottles of alcohol each into the country, she wanted to grab someone, thrust the paperwork in his official face, and say, “LOOK AT THIS…MY PETS ARE LEGAL!”

Anyway, when they met on Monday morning, Brian took a break from an Admissions & Marketing strategy meeting to welcome Becky “home” and scheduled a later time when he could run various startup errands with her. In the afternoon they joined up for a run to get the pets and, on the way out to the apartment buildings’ parking lot, took care of another piece of startup business when they encountered the sister of our house helper – a chance meeting that allowed Becky to secure yet another sister as her own house helper a few times a week. Then we hopped into Becky’s car that she bought as a hand-me-down from an administrator who departed in June and set Google Maps for a jaunt to Cabinet Veterinaire La Corniche to pick up her dog and cat. Because she had not driven a car with a stick in years, Becky’s first encounter with Casablanca driving required not only norming with the standard roadway etiquette here (see our previous post on driving in Casablanca from our own newbie experience two years ago), but also doing that while reacquainting herself with driving a standard transmission vehicle. Not far from school, but a world away, Becky drove up a narrow road of varying severities of “narrow” with a fair bit of traffic coming the other way, requiring her at one point to stop, back up to a wider part of narrow, then have a “You first…no you first,” pantomime conversation through windshields five meters apart. Add to that all the pedestrians sauntering along the small road as if they had right of way to everything (because they did) with the car’s clutch not a friend on the ascending incline. Slowly, she went up a little further and saw the sign for Cabinet Veterinaire La Corniche and pulled into an open dirt space with cars parked, having to navigate around a small goal that designated one end of an otherwise unmarked dirt soccer pitch and circle back to where the cars were parked. Entering the metal gate of the kennel, Becky successfully secured her dog and cat from the genial and smiling staff that had no English, and took them – cat yowling the whole way – back to campus.

After Becky and Brian introduced the pets to their new home, even enticing them onto her third floor balcony to survey their new domain, they headed out again so that Becky could buy pillows at Morocco Mall as the final requirement for a much-anticipated sleep after having been awake for more than 24 hours. She drove with increasing adeptness with the clutch through Casablanca traffic, with cars and trucks and scooters and tissue boys and all the other daily highlights weaving around her, negotiating roundabouts with right-of-way rules that some people follow and others do not, and with cars and trucks and scooters and tissue boys encroaching from left and from right into lanes where she drove. She passed Snail Corner and turned toward Morocco Mall, drove the length of the mall and looped around the roundabout by the IMAX theater because one cannot make a left-hand turn into parking, chugged back up the rise, made the right-hand turn into parking and got a nod from security to proceed past the vehicle check point (being profiled as an expat has its privileges) and down to the underground lot. Along the way Brian told her that Morocco Mall is Casablanca’s high end Mall, with Anfaplace by the Corniche being less pricey. The first stop was BMCE Bank, where Brian explained his confidence in some unknown-to-us logic about tellers sometimes being present to facilitate cash withdrawals or exchange money and sometimes not, and sometimes tellers being present but responding to a request to make a withdrawal by explaining that they have no money available to be withdrawn. (In this case, no tellers present, but happily the ATM had cash for withdrawals.) On the way up to the mall’s second floor (or, in non-U.S. terminology, the first floor because one goes up one floor from ground level) they waded through a parade of people led by a very loud drum corps dressed inexplicably in green and yellow Brazilian national colors and waving large Brazilian flags. Rising on escalators above the din of drums, Brian led Becky to a French home store in search of pillows. The French home store, naturally, had neither pillows nor anything related to bedrooms. Next door stood a Moroccan home store that did, indeed, have bedroom supplies. Becky found a pillow sample she liked and asked a clerk if they had more than just the sample. The clerk spoke no English, but communicated that he understood and that he could retrieve the four pillows she wanted from the storage room. He then disappeared for 15 minutes, returning at last with one pillow that was not the kind she wanted, apologizing that they actually did not have a supply of her pillow of choice but should have some soon…inshallah. Becky asked Brian if they should just comeback another time, to which Brian said that someone who always leaves to come back another time to get something not available when they want it will never buy anything in Morocco because each time one comes back there will always be another delay. Instead, Brian suggested going to Marjane, a superstore in Morocco Mall (and elsewhere) akin to the Walmart-like Carrefour Hypermarche. Exiting the Moroccan home store, Brian directed them to the far end of the mall, “First because that is the direction of Marjane, and more importantly because that route takes us away from the Brazilian drum corps” that had settled in the central court of the mall.

So downstairs they went to Marjane in search of pillows. Then it happened…that moment in a newbie’s new reality when they see the confluence of all the things they think they need for setting up their new home with the opportunity to procure such things. It might happen at Carrefour Hypermarche. It might happen at IKEA. It might happen on a street with various hanouts with different specialties. For some, it might even happen in all those places. It is at once an intimidating yet glorious and triumphant feeling as the newbie processes all the things they want but did not know where or when they would find them, laid across a mental landscape painted by the often-shared encouragement from veterans to buy whatever you think you might need when you find it because later when you KNOW you need it you likely will find it gone. (Hint: When you arrive in Morocco in August and see fans in the stores, buy however many you want then instead of thinking you can wait a week or two to get settled and then buy them.) For Becky, it happened in Marjane. Entering in search of pillows, she first stopped by the fans and – with Brian’s encouragement – put two into her cart, then metagrobolized her way into buying laundry baskets, a steamer, a vacuum, an iron and ironing board, mop and bucket, floor cleaner, garbage pail, etc. With a full cart, they started toward checkout when Becky remembered…she still needed pillows. With a quick flank across a few aisles, the capture of four nice pillows, and steering an overflowing shopping cart, Becky declared victory in her two hour startup campaign and headed for the checkout aisle.

Once back on campus, Becky hauled her victory spoils up to her apartment, then we took her to dinner at Le Relais de Paris, one of our favorite restaurants between the Corniche and the Casablanca lighthouse. From arrival to pets to house helper to supplies, she had achieved a very successful day – all after a red eye flight from the U.S. – and deserved not to have to worry about what to prepare for dinner. Besides, we knew she still had a long week of settling in ahead of her, among other things as she sought to claim her shipping container – sent from China with an apartment’s load of furnishings and supplies – from Customs at the Port of Casablanca. That proved to be another entire story unto itself, full of stereotypically Moroccan quirks and officials battling each other in a bureaucratic turf war navigated for Becky by GWA’s guardian angel in bureaucratic entanglements. It ended on Friday, though, with another victory when a semi hauling her container climbed the hill and a team of hard-working guys hefted 46 boxes and crates up three flights of stairs to her apartment. Best of all for us, we got to retire our status of being the people who brought the most to Morocco, with her 46 boxes and crates trumping the 25 boxes and bags that we checked onto our Royal Air Maroc flight two years and ten days ago.

Everyone starting their own expat expedition in Casablanca has their unique experience. Yet, whatever the particular details, everyone’s seems to share some version of a meandering tale that blends excitement and obstacles and jet lag and fulfillment and bureaucracy and hucksters and shopping and fascination and exhaustion and achievement and new people and craziness on the roads and tea and sheep/donkeys/chickens/cows/turkeys and the welcoming spirit of Marhaba that makes moving to Morocco such a wonderful thing. We love living here, and we love welcoming others joining us from around the world to share our expat expedition with them and theirs with us.

On your mark…get set…here we go!


Three months flew by since our last post as we finished our marathon sprint through the end of the school year. Now well into summer, over the next few short weeks we will welcome the incoming set of faculty/staff/administration newbies to join GWA, with much big picture and strategic work to do before new staff orientation begins in August. With a great need to process one year’s closing activity while making a new year’s startup plans, we took advantage of the brief nexus between the two to implement a rapid “massive decompression” phase that first got us away from school and then allowed us enough time upon return to retrench for what lies ahead.

The 2017-2018 school year proved brutal – not in substance, but in pace. Its constant and frenzied activity started in August and continued through June. Everyone felt it, perhaps especially GWA’s leadership team. Such is often the case in the first year of transitions, and the progress achieved proved very satisfying. But the body and mind can take only so much, and we needed the opportunity to process all that happened and all the changes that resulted. Our second year abroad offered us insights different from Year One. Leading the change with Audrey as the “buck stops here” Head of School and Brian overseeing institutional advancement efforts is different from merely contributing toward change as we did in Year One. As we have experienced repeatedly at other schools where we have each been heads, the job has to get done. So at the end of the day, we often find that “the end of the day” is a lot later than we would like. And weekends might last only for a few hours on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon amid other school responsibilities. Moreover, even after we leave work and walk the 300-step commute from our offices to our delightful apartment, we have to be diligent about not continuing to talk shop too much through our evenings. As much as we love what we do, we need to recharge periodically to stay fueled for the 60-80 hour weeks we typically invest in helping GWA achieve its Vision Statement to equip minds and build character so that our graduates can serve Morocco and the global community with wisdom and compassion. The Fourth Quarter was a blur, as was Graduation…both things through which we had to steer more than things we could enjoy with people we enjoy.

Then we had the goodbyes. GWA stands as no exception to the modus operandi of transitions at international schools. Like last year, we had to say goodbye to good people in June. But goodbyes in Year Two overall came with greater difficulty than in Year One. In addition to a number of faculty, some of our senior leadership people who had been here for as long as half the school’s life decided it was time to move on to the next chapters of their own lives. Saying farewell to people who had helped us with our transition to Morocco and GWA and who made administration here both more successful and more fun hit us especially hard. Additionally, our own transition into next year no longer has the sheen of combined excitement over having survived our first year and eager anticipation over taking the helm as we steer toward the future. The year was good, but the honeymoon is over and the hard work continues into next year. And the end of the school year was so busy that we barely had time to say goodbye to these people who mean much to us before they disappeared from our daily lives.

Through all this, we craved time to process all that happened in order to assess what went well, what we could improve, and what greater significance of things we should maintain for broader context. But the pace of closing out the year simply did not afford us that luxury. So we snatched the opportunity available to us as soon as the year finished and escaped to Umbria, our favorite part of Italy.

While our rising-Senior daughter went stateside to visit grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, her working-college older sister, and pre-Morocco friends, we secured a 624 square foot 11th Century house in the heart of the Medieval sector of Orvieto, Italy, on Bookings.com, and spent two weeks exploring Umbria, Tuscany, and Lazio. It served as a vacation, but also as a first stage exploration of potential retirement locales. (We plan to be in Morocco for the next 10 years, then find another school opportunity to call Home for the better part of the next decade until we reach retirement age. So we have lots of time, but it never hurts to start the due diligence work to ensure we land well.)

Italy was great, and we turned off as much as we could. A couple school Skypes and keeping tabs on emails and texts, but mostly steeping in the history and natural beauty around us in Orvieto, Assisi, Spoleto, Gubbio, Lago di Trasimeno, Montalcino, Lago di Bolsena, and more. Brian has long felt a strong connection to St. Francis of Assisi, who from 1206 until his death in 1226 lived his vocation commissioned by the Cross of San Damiano to rebuild the Church (founding along the way the Order of Friars Minor, the Order of Poor Ladies, and the Third Order for lay people). We satisfied our “foodie” selves by shopping at local public markets to cook delicious meals at the house, as well as sharing multi-course lunches at restaurants in the towns we visited as our main meals of the day. And, of course, there was gelato…and more gelato. Perhaps that explains how – according to Brian’s Fitbit – we could climb 500 flights of stairs, walk 158,000 steps, and cover 70 miles on foot in two weeks without losing any weight before we came home. People keep telling us that is because it turned into muscle. Yeah, we have LOTS of muscle. Besides feeding our bellies, we fed our minds with great history – Etruscan, Roman, Feudal, Church, and more – everywhere we went. And we fed our souls as we followed St. Francis loosely through the region. It was not a true pilgrimage, but at times – such as when we looked into the original eight foot square cells of a hermitage Francis had built with his friars on a mountaintop overlooking Spoleto in 1218, and when we joined a small group we happened upon saying the Rosary in the Porziuncola below Assisi that he rebuilt by hand and where he died in 1226 – it had that feel. For the first time in months we allowed ourselves to be completely in the moment and enjoy fully what we experienced, rather than never escaping completely from school affairs.

Yet, the time away merely gave us the first part of what we needed. Massive decompression requires more than turning off. The purpose of the decompression is to create a circumstance with the time and space to process what previously the lack of time and space did not allow to process. We had a great trip; we saw and did much; we fed our bellies, minds, and souls. We recharged. But we boarded our flight home at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport merely pleased to have enjoyed a magnificent two weeks, but not having processed what we need to process.

Arriving late on a Saturday night, we came home to find our apartment a mess, our car in pieces with the mechanic, and a lot on the agenda to tackle for the new school year. But those seemingly disappointing things catalyzed the processing we needed. Our wonderful house helper was midway through her summer deep clean of our apartment and did not realize we would return as soon as we did. We did not even have a bed in which to sleep because she was airing out the mattresses. So we rebuilt our bed and threw sheets on it. It was hot and humid, so we had three fans blowing on us as we slept. We drove a school car to shop the next day to put food into our empty refrigerator. We bade farewell to the stay-in-your-lane order of driving in Italy and reacclimated to driving with donkeys and vehicles going the wrong way in Morocco. We bought fresh produce and other groceries for cheap and delicious meals that we took the time to cook and enjoy fully, still bring in the moment. We were happy to be home.

And the cleansing time in Umbria washed away the built up residue so that we could finally process the now-finished school year. In the week since we returned, while we worked in our offices and at home, as we technically were still on vacation we did not hold ourselves strictly accountable to GWA’s summer hours schedule. We processed the year. We planned for the coming year. We played cribbage. We cooked and ate. We took naps. We had a quiet celebration of Audrey’s 50th birthday, going to Chez Marie Jean (one of our favorite restaurants) for a Funk Party where we were the only people who danced as the DJ spun James Brown and Kool & the Gang on vinyl. We gave ourselves the time and space back at home that we needed to complete our recharge and to process all we needed to process.

We loved our time in Italy. Someday we may retire there. For now, we love living in Morocco and feel richly blessed in so many ways – apartment, food, cost of living, transportation options, sunsets: the ability to feed ourselves a splendid meal and enjoy it together as we watch the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean. Thinking back to our lives exactly two years ago, as we put the finishing touches on our preparations to start our lives in Morocco, so much has happened and so much has changed. We are at once the same people we have always been, and are different at the end of our second year here than we were at the end of our first a year ago let alone two years ago before we left the U.S. to begin this adventure.

We will miss our friends and colleagues who have left. We will tackle the summer agenda to prepare for the 2018-2019 school year. And we will welcome the newbies who currently prepare for their own arrivals to Morocco and GWA with a likely mix of excitement and a little apprehension. As we prepare to start our third year of this Expat Expedition, we feel more like the veterans we did not feel worthy to call ourselves last year. And we continue to feel blessed to live in Morocco.

On your mark…get set…here we go!