Rounding Out Year Three

We have not posted on our blog in months.  Typical of the workload calendars we have experienced as heads in our previous schools, we are right on track with this year stretching our personal and institutional bandwidth as we forge ahead with continuous improvement efforts.  Our first year in Casablanca, with Brian in his current Director of Curriculum & Program Development role but before Audrey moved from Upper School Principal to Head of School, saw concentrated efforts focused on moving the academic program forward.  Last year, when Audrey assumed the HOS role and wrapped institutional advancement under the “program development” half of Brian, we expanded that program focus to include the school’s admissions, marketing, and alumni activity. This year, the focus expanded further to update the operations and HR elements of running a school while furthering and solidifying the previous years’ efforts and keeping the school on track with its ambitious School Improvement Plan being implemented in our current accreditation cycle.  Oh, and the daughter who came with us to Morocco three years ago will graduate next week after a senior year full of senior year things integrated into our daily lives.

Needless to say, though it seems we say it all the time, we have been busy.

But, with no shortage of potential post topics jumping to mind, busy-ness does not explain fully our lack of posts this Spring.  The less-evident but nonetheless stronger influence on the paucity of posts emerges from our status as third-year expats who continue to evolve in our expat experience and our interaction with the host culture in which we live.

Moving to Morocco three years ago brought much change as life bloomed with new experiences.  In our second year, those blossoms grew into new fruit that brought even greater excitement for our life here.  This year, it has ripened as our expat life continues to mature. Lots of things seem different this year, and that has affected us in many – mostly positive – ways.

Perhaps easiest to note, after hosting exactly one guest through our entire first two years – she coming to stay for a couple days just weeks after we arrived – our 25-month drought of guests ended as we moved into Year Three.  Brian’s Auntie Lisa and Uncle Dan Hall started the new flood last October when they finished a month making their way through Europe by ferrying across from Tarifa (Spain) to Tangier. We picked them up there, showed them the Caves of Hercules (where long ago Hercules rested before stealing the Golden Apples of the Hesperides as his 11th Labor), and stayed overnight in Tangier to tour the Medina and Kasbah the next day.  We then shot across the north coast of Morocco to Ceuta (one of two Spanish dots in Morocco, with Gibraltar and Spain visible due north across the Mediterranean) to pick up some meds for Charlotte not available here. We spent less time actually in Ceuta than we did sitting at the border beyond Spanish passport control waiting to re-enter Morocco, giving our travelers the experience of watching long lines of Moroccans walking through enclosed foot-traffic channels from Ceuta across the border back into Morocco laden with bags and packages…even saw a guy hauling the front bumper/grill of a car tied on the back of his scooter until he stopped in the middle of a traffic lane, got off, untied the enormous chrome, carried it across five lanes of waiting vehicles and hoisted it over the chain-link barrier fence to his buddy waiting for it on the other side.  On we went to “the Blue City” Chefchaouen for an overnight, marveling at the beautiful blue walls and art while declining politely the enthusiastic offers of hashish, then drove down from the north Atlas Mountains through agricultural lands and back to the Atlantic coast at Kenitra to head south to home for a couple more days in Casablanca. It was a short visit, capped with an obligatory tourist trip to Rick’s Cafe and its homage to Hollywood’s classic “Casablanca” (which really was about Tangier and had not a single scene shot in Morocco), but it was so good finally to have visitors again.

Two months later we hosted Brian’s college friend Lyle Frink (whom we had not seen in 20 years) and his family visiting Morocco from their home outside Prague, including a day-trip to the Roman and Arabic ruins at Chellah in Rabat.  Two more months later Brian’s parents arrived at the peak of Spring colors for a three-week stay that included exploring Morocco (reversing the Chefchaouen/Tangier stops) before ferrying across the Mediterranean for a couple days in Granada and a couple days in Sevilla.

Now, as we get set for Charlotte’s graduation in another week, a load of Graduation guests will arrive, including our girls’ former au pair Emma Kleinschnitz coming from the Canary Islands for our first time together in 10 years, and Brian’s Capitol Hill soulmate (and daughter Margaret’s godfather) Bob Castro and Brian’s goddaughter Grace Castro stopping off for Charlotte’s graduation on their way back from home in Oman to the U.S. for a couple summer months.  At the end of this month Charlotte’s godparents Sharon and Ken Forziati will join us with their children (including Charlotte’s godson Cono) for a few days on the tail end of their tour of Spain and Morocco. Finally on the docket are more of Brian’s college friends Nic and Kathryn Nelson and two of their children starting a multi-week tour of Morocco and Spain with a few days in Casablanca in July. (Of note, though not in Morocco, also is the first half of July that we will spend in Italy meeting up with good foodie friends from Cleveland John and Barb Savage.  Prosciutto and wine await!) Enjoying hosting people as much as we do, it heartens us finally to have people join us in Morocco to see our life here.

But what is different is more than finally having visitors.  Perhaps it is good that people waited to visit us here, because the Audrey and Brian introducing them to Morocco now are very different expats than the ones who hosted Scottsdale friend Annie Groth not two months after we first arrived.

Then everything was new, and we prided ourselves on being quick experts about everything in our small bubble of life in Casablanca.  Annie good-naturedly got the brunt of our freshmen fascinations with how people drive, how Morocco Mall stores advertise with western-friendly optics, how produce changes in souks by seasons, how people dress, how people drive carts the wrong way down busy streets, how commonly one can see a sheep ferried in the back seats of a BMW on its way home for Eid al-Adha, how people do whatever they do differently here than what we would see in our stateside lives…all “mastered” with the fresh eyes of newbie expats adjusting to our new lives by celebrating overtly adjusting to all we found new in our new lives.

During our new staff orientation three years ago, we said over and over, “It’s not bad; it’s just different.”  That strategy for managing culture shock loses intensity, though, when things just do not seem different any more.  We have learned better how to navigate the pathways of life in Morocco. We have routines. Things that may fluster new expats now do not fluster us as much, if at all.

For example, this week we finished our third holy month of Ramadan.  We remember how we began our first Ramadan two years ago with a mix of eagerness, intrigue, and serious intimidation.  We talked with others in our newbie cohort about “preparing” for Ramadan. Wanting not to offend our fasting Muslim colleagues, we wondered if we should hide away in our offices to eat lunch instead of going to the cafeteria as usual, and what other adjustments we should make to demonstrate what culturally-sensitive expats we could be.  Knowing that all sources of alcohol purchases would be closed from a few days before the sliver of moon marked the start of Ramadan until a few days after the next moon sliver marked its close and the start of Eid al-Fitr, we calculated carefully how much wine and other such supplies we should buy in advance to preserve our good hosting practices while entertaining friends without curtailing our own personal supply during the month.  Having heard about raucous streets full of grumpy people who had nothing to eat or drink all day careening down roads in their vehicles to get home before sunset, we wondered if we should venture out in our car.

As our third Ramadan rolled around, we did not think about the potential for insanity on the roads; we just knew to avoid driving before sunset if possible, and waiting until just after sunset (during ftour or iftar when people break the daily fast) meant owning the roads for an hour or so.  We know folks who this week took their children rollerblading and skateboarding at sunset in one of Casablanca’s largest intersections – at the Kenzi Towers, like Casa’s own Times Square in NYC – to enjoy the wide open space without a single vehicle anywhere in sight during the ftour that launched Eid al-Fitr and brought Ramadan to an end.  Overall, the extent to which we “prepared” for Ramadan this year dealt pretty much with ensuring proper logistical alignment for GWA’s schedule to account for the change in time:  abandoning Daylight Savings Time for the month, as happens nationwide, and delaying the start of school for an additional hour as a pragmatic acknowledgement that many parents – and even many students – stay up most of the night.  Oh, and once again we stocked up on alcohol…so we can be good hosts, of course.

Beyond that, now we find Ramadan a good time for reflection even for us non-Muslims, with the extended calls to prayer reminding us gently of things greater and more important than ourselves.  We tell stateside Christian friends and family that it is like Muslim Lent (as we also explained earlier this Spring to Muslim friends that Lent is like Christian Ramadan). We enjoy invitations from friends to join them in their homes for ftour, feasting on their good company and heaping plates of dates, eggs, almonds, chebakia, slou, chourchouka, zaalouk, msemmen, baghrir, khobz, roasted meats and vegetables, and mountains of fresh fruit, all washed down with Moroccan mint tea.  Contrasted with “preparation” for our first Ramadan, the hardest part of this third Ramadan for us will be starting school after the Eid break next Monday two hours earlier than what our body clocks have relished for a month as clocks in Morocco “spring forward” back to Daylight Savings Time and our school day begins again at the regular time instead of with an hour’s Ramadan Schedule delay.

As one major GWA graduation requirement, Charlotte conducted a capstone project with independent research into how acculturation strategies and sociocultural adaptation impact the ethnic identities of adolescent TCKs (“third culture kids”) in which she explored through interviews with current teenage TCKs and adult former TCKs  their “home culture” vs. “host culture” ethnic identities; self-efficacy of sociocultural adaptation; “vacation” vs. “living” modes of acculturation; and their prospective use of assimilation, integration, separation and marginalization as acculturation strategies. Applying this back to Charlotte, after living three years in Casablanca we see her as having adopted with great comfort the home culture of Morocco and acculturated easily into “living” mode as a TCK who seeks to “embrace the confusion, embrace the culture, embrace the richness of it all” as she finds herself not fully at ease with either American or Moroccan culture.

Charlotte’s adaptation exceeds ours greatly, and we have not yet progressed to the point of thinking of Morocco as a permanent home where we plan to retire.  (High on our list of retirement considerations is some Umbrian town in Italy, but we have many years of running schools ahead of us before that point.) Yet, as maturing expats we have moved past “vacation mode” to embrace the lives we are building here for as long as we stay at GWA.  We have family back in the U.S. that we like to visit, but we do not think like some expats we know of going “home” to the U.S. while we base our lives here. We have not assimilated, but daily life here is daily home here instead of everything being new, curious, and generally different.  Meanwhile, the strong relationships we have forged with Moroccan friends serve as interacting variables that both influence and result from our evolving “expatness.” These relationships with Morocco’s people and land alike make it less easy to see things and describe them in ways that stand out as, literally, remarkable.  Our desire to share posts remains strong, but we have not finished recalibrating our approach to doing so. We promise to continue our efforts and share this exciting expat expedition as it keeps steering us in ways we could not imagine three years ago. Meanwhile, stay tuned…

On your mark…get set…here we go!