Our First Family Visitors: Triumph of the Parking Guardians

Recently some friends in this year’s cohort of new faculty asked us what purpose Morocco’s parking guardians served and if they actually did anything beyond directing you how to parallel park in a space half the size of your vehicle to earn the few dirham people pay them. Beyond referring them to our blog post on the subject from our first year in Morocco for more details, we gave our friends examples from the last two years of parking guardians protecting our car from hooligans and from people trying to put a tire boot on our vehicle when we forget to buy a ticket at the ubiquitous parking machines for two dirham (a whopping 20 cents). In case those reasons were not enough to convince our new friends, we will have to revisit the conversation with them in light of our Fall Break experiences this week, giving us two great “Triumph of the Parking Guardians” examples of why they are a great feature of living in Morocco.

While the photo accompanying this post highlights our first family members to visit us in Morocco, a long-awaited and much-anticipated time in our expat lives, in truth their visit serves to give an expansive backdrop to the two-act parking guardian drama we enjoyed with them.

As prologue, we should note that when we announced to family in the Spring of 2016 our intention to be expats in Casablanca working at GWA, the news met with various reactions. More than two years later, we continue to encounter various family reactions to our ongoing expat lives, ranging from expressed desires to visit for an exotic vacation to bewildered curiosity to active disinterest in reading our blog in order to learn what our lives here are like. People thinking of moving abroad, let alone moving to Morocco, should prepare themselves for such an array of reactions from friends and family. Some people close to you and with whom you want to share the exciting things you encounter in your expat experience will show great interest in how your life differs in some ways and not in others from theirs; others will want to know if you are happy and if life is good, but will have difficulty sustaining interest in details that stretch too far beyond the borders of their own life experience; still others will not hide their disinterest, and in some cases even resentment. As much as these latter sentiments may stifle your excitement to share your expat experience, it is important to remember that some close to you may not realize the hurt you feel from their reaction because they, in turn, take your departure as your choice to move further from their lives, not only geographically but in other ways as well. So all three of us – Audrey, Brian, and Charlotte – have looked forward for months with great anticipation to the arrival of Brian’s Auntie Lisa and Uncle Dan during GWA’s weeklong Fall Break as our first family visitors.

Last Saturday we left Charlotte in Casablanca to earn money pet-sitting for several GWA folks heading out of town for the weeklong Break (Morocco’s high unemployment rate making it practically impossible for teenagers to find jobs for extra cash, since working at McDonald’s can be an adult-level career move). For 4 ½ hours we drove north and then east along Morocco’s Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts to enter Ceuta, Spain. Ceuta exists as one of two historic Spanish enclaves on the Mediterranean’s African coast that Morocco claims are remnants of colonialism and seeks for Spain to return to Moroccan control. For expats in Morocco needing to leave the country every 90 days while waiting to receive their residency paperwork, Ceuta offers a way to enter Spain without paying for round trip ferry tickets to Tarifa or Algeciras in Iberian Spain. For us, Ceuta provides a means of Charlotte getting a Spanish prescription for meds unavailable in Morocco. After two years of effort, we finally got a Moroccan doctor to prescribe the medication she had in the U.S., only to discover that pharmacies in Italy, France, and Spain (and presumably the rest of Europe) would not honor the Moroccan prescription. So last month Brian took Charlotte to a Spanish doctor in Ceuta who wrote prescriptions for six months. They brought back a one-month supply from a pharmacy, and now we headed back to get more after coordinating a pickup day with the pharmacy by email.

The only problem was that after arriving mid-afternoon in Ceuta and going to the pharmacy before checking into our hotel, we discovered that the pharmacy from which we had ordered the meds had closed at 1:30 pm and (with Spain as a Catholic country) would remain closed on Sunday and not reopen until Monday…but we had to pick up Auntie Lisa and Uncle Dan in Tangier on Sunday to begin their Moroccan expedition. Oops.

We enjoyed an evening in Ceuta, shopped at Ceuta’s giant Carrefour megastore for supplies not available in Morocco (dried pinto beans and black beans, canned poblano peppers, Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce for us, Ken’s Steakhouse Honey Mustard Dressing for Char, a particular juice for which Char begged, roasted-salted sunflower seeds for Brian, a couple high-end bottles of bourbon and rum, and…FINALLY…light bulbs for ceiling fans!), and called Auntie Lisa and Uncle Dan in Sevilla (their last stop after a month in Europe before ferrying from Spain to Morocco) to gauge their interest in comparing Iberian Spain with Moroccan Spain…in order for us to make a second effort at getting Char’s meds. Thankfully, they were intrigued by the idea, including experiencing the border crossing from Morocco to Ceuta and back again. After our breakfast on Sunday of Iberian ham and Manchego cheese toasted on a baguette, we headed back along the Mediterranean coast to Tangier to meet them at the ferry terminal.

We had a brief blast with them in Tangier, though Auntie Lisa came down with a bad cold that she picked up in Spain and which depleted her energy for too much Moroccan exploration. On the Atlantic coast just outside Tangier we visited the famous Caves of Hercules, where legend has it that Hercules rested before undertaking his 11th Labor to steal the Golden Apples of the Hesperides and more recently Def Leppard gave a concert in 1995. In the evening we walked from our hotel through the Medina and up a steep climb to the Kasbah for a spectacular dinner. On Monday morning, while Auntie Lisa rested we went with Uncle Dan on a Medina tour. Setting it up through the hotel Concierge, Audrey wisely specified that we did not want any high-pressure sales stops in Medina shops; we just wanted a great tour and were willing to pay our guide more for it. That was exactly what our tour guide Abdelmajid gave us, rich with detail and history (from visiting an historic synagogue in the Jewish sector to dropping in to Café Baba where the Rolling Stones used to hang out). The highlight was touring the American Legation house, given to the U.S. by Sultan Moulay Suliman in 1821 as a symbol of the historic friendship between Morocco and America (dating back to 1777, when Morocco became the first nation to recognize the newly declared United States of America), which served as a legation and consulate for nearly 140 years and remains U.S. property inside Tangier’s Medina walls.

Following lunch, we hopped back in the car and drove east for Ceuta Run #2, crossing the border, picking up Char’s meds, and heading back across the border again. Heading back from Ceuta to Morocco at the end of our mini-excursion took considerably longer with both foot and vehicle traffic backed up quite a distance. From the perch of our car, Auntie Lisa and Uncle Dan got to view the parade of pedestrians and drivers loaded with boxes and bags and blankets and more blankets and virtually anything else one could imagine (including an auto’s front end someone carried on his scooter until – apparently not wanting to go through Moroccan customs inspection with it – he untied it, left his scooter in a vehicle line while hauling his parcel to the border fence, then heaved it over the fence to his confederate on the other side to scurry away with it while he returned to his waiting scooter).

Finally through the border and back in Morocco, we headed off to our next stop of Chefchaouen, the famous “Blue City” in Morocco’s northern Atlas Mountains. Our Ceuta detour and border crossing delay meant we did not arrive in Chefchaouen until well after dark. Then we had to find the owner of the Booking.com apartment Audrey had rented for the night (more below). By the time we settled into our low-brow 39€ “You (almost) get what you pay for” somewhat disappointing apartment, all the cafés and restaurants were closed. Uncle Dan and Brian ventured out into the Chefchaouen night as hunter-gatherers to pick up some yogurt, fruit, chips, juice, and Moroccan cookies from hanouts around the apartment and bring them back as something somewhat resembling dinner. In the morning, with Auntie Lisa’s cold getting worse we packed up our things and hauled them through Chefchaouen’s beautiful blue streets, taking lots of pictures along the way, and stopping to eat a Moroccan buffet breakfast at a hotel just outside the blue Medina. Trudging on to our car, we bid Chefchaouen adieu and continued touring Auntie Lisa and Uncle Dan from the mountains down through agricultural lands and a rain-soaked farmers market as we moved toward Kinetra, then headed southwest on the A1 highway to Casablanca.

Once in Casablanca on Tuesday afternoon, we made our apartment at GWA home base. While Auntie Lisa continued to rest up, Audrey made chicken soup for dinner and Charlotte got to visit with the folks she knows and refers to as GAL and GUD (Great-Auntie Lisa and Great-Uncle Dan). On Wednesday morning, we all went to the Habbous neighborhood to shop for mementos GAL and GUD could bring home from their Moroccan adventure, stopping at the olive souk for some local flavor. From the Habbous we moved to Rick’s Café for culinary flavor, the admitted tourist spot with great food and service that was high on their list of things to see and which we are always happy to have an excuse to enjoy. After another early night, we got up Thursday morning, walked down the hill to print out boarding passes and do a quick tour of GWA’s Library-Media-Technology Center, and headed to Mohammed V Airport so GAL and GUD could bring their trip to a close and wing back to the U.S. after gracing us with their wonderful visit.

What does this have to do with parking guardians?

Twice during the Great Family Visit adventure, parking guardians came to the rescue to keep the trip from falling into chaos. First, after picking up our guests at the Tangier ferry terminal we drove to the El Minzah hotel where we had made reservations. That morning we received a text from the El Minzah confirming the reservation and wishing us a happy stay there. Yet, when we arrived at the El Minzah, we discovered the door locked and the place dark. A beggar sitting on the curb kept saying, “fermé” (“closed”). Initially we thought she meant it would open later in the afternoon, but slowly we realized she meant it was just CLOSED! Puzzled, perplexed, and looking silly standing on a busy Tangier street with luggage and no place to take it, a parking guardian appeared and explained in French that the El Minzah had been closed for several months for renovation, during which time all El Minzah reservations move automatically to its sister hotel several blocks away. He then helped us load the bags back into the car and told us to follow him in the vehicle while he ran (in his flip-flops) several blocks down one street and up another to lead us to the Grand Hotel Ville de France, where he then explained to the hotel staff that we were El Minzah transplants. For his great help, as well as his flip-flop marathon, Brian gave him a 20 dirham note (about $2 USD). We marveled through the end of the trip days later how he saved the day.

Second, the next night as we approached Chefchaouen on a dark and windy two-lane road with oncoming traffic that often crossed the center line on sharp turns, Audrey called the owner of the apartment she had reserved through Booking.com. He spoke no English, and she had trouble following his French but agreed to call him once we actually arrived in town. Pulling into Chefchaouen and finding what seemed to be a public square, we parked so that she could call him again. He gave vague instructions for us to drive toward the Medina, find a place to park, and call again to meet up with him. Following signs for the old city with parked cars lining both sides of the road as we drove, we finally found a underground parking garage run by a pair of teenage parking guardians, one wearing what looked like a high school letterman’s jacket from the U.S. and the other in a t-shirt, jeans, and flip-flops. While Letterman Guardian told Brian that it cost 50 dirham ($5) to park overnight, Audrey called the apartment owner to see how and where we could meet up with him. As she still struggled getting helpful details from his French, Flip-Flop Guardian grabbed Audrey’s phone and started talking with the apartment owner, negotiated a meet up spot, then grabbed a couple suitcases and started to lead our troop through a drizzly night uphill on a rough-stoned sidewalk. After several blocks, he somehow located the apartment owner and introduced Audrey. Following the brief introduction, the apartment owner grabbed a bag and continued moving rapidly uphill and into the Medina, turning along different streets and alleys and not paying heed to the tired and sick Americans in his wake. Brian finally called to him, “Monsieur, s’il vous plaît, ma tante est malade!” (Sir, please, my aunt is sick!) Rather than abandoning us to our new leader disappearing into the night, Flip-Flop Guardian continued after him – two bags in tow behind him – intent on seeing us through to our destination. As the apartment owner continued deeper into the Medina, Flip-Flop Guardian ran behind him close enough to follow where he went while stopping and looking back that to ensure that we did not get lost bringing up the rear. Not only did he deliver us to our destination building, but he helped haul our bags up the multiple sets of stairs to the actual apartment and made sure we were set before heading back to his parking garage with an appreciative tip from Brian in his pocket. The next morning when we returned to the car for our drive to Casablanca, the guys seemed nowhere to be found until Brian discovered them sleeping on cots in a small office with the window cracked just enough for Brian to reach through and leave 50 dirham for parking on a desk without disturbing their slumber.

We loved hosting our first family visitors in Morocco, and we look forward to more coming to see our lives here and spend enough time – whether a few days or a few weeks – to explore Moroccan culture enough to see why we love living here. When they do, as part of that understanding we certainly will show them what great assets parking guardians are for making life here enjoyable.

On your mark…get set…here we go!

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