Chilling in Dar Bouazza: The Hunt for Carrefour

This week our weather in Casablanca reached that teasing time that gives you just enough days of clouds and rain in a row to think that the wet journey toward Winter and the re-greening of Morocco has started, then flips around and tosses a day of clear skies and warm temperatures to keep you in climate confusion.

Brian broke out his sweaters and wore them to school instead of wearing his usual suit jacket and tie.  Audrey moved underneath the portico of GWA’s main building to stay dry during her morning greetings of students, parents, and staff.  By midweek Audrey asked when we could have our first fire of the season at home, and Brian happily employed his pyromaniacal skills to comply as we shared some 20-year port we had brought back from a Fall Break trip we took to Portugal two years ago.  Prepared for nightly fires and sweater weather, we welcomed the quick passage of Fall into Winter.

And then yesterday happened:  Clear skies, comfortable temperature, nice breeze, and no tinge of Fall (let alone Winter) in the air.  It was more like a beautiful Spring day bounding ahead of the cold and wet still to come.

We had a lazy morning with Brian sleeping in well past 10 and Audrey poring through recipes to plan how to use as much of this week’s Ferme Bleue basket vegetables before we give away our next installment of what we cannot consume.  Once Brian had risen and lounged for a while, and Audrey had finished planning “Chopped” with our fresh produce basket and made our shopping list, the flip from pre-winter back to beautiful weather enticed us to try something new today.

In June, Carrefour opened its new grocery store in Dar Bouazza, where a number of our expat faculty and staff live.  While many of our single expat staff prefer active city life in Casablanca, many of our expat families prefer Dar Bouazza’s quieter, comfortable lifestyle famous for ample beaches and waves that draw surfers from around the world.  Dar Bouazza is a coastal town about 10 minutes west of GWA along the Atlantic coast. Formerly a rural commune, it has grown from a farming and fishing community into a suburb of Casablanca that has seen its population grow from 45,000 just 25 years ago to nearly 300,000 today.  When GWA moved in the mid-2000s from downtown Casablanca to our current campus on the southwestern edge of town, Casablanca’s city limits had not reached out this far southwest and our largely-unincorporated location was considered the northeastern edge of Dar Bouazza. Since then, Casablanca has annexed territory past GWA, while at the same time built Dar Bouazza is growing toward the city.  In the foreseeable future, the two will be one strip connected by a roadway currently bustling with residential and commercial development projects (at the price of wetlands or dayas that are the last in the Casablanca area and are home to nearly 200 species of birds).

Chains like Mr. Bricolage (like Moroccan Lowe’s or Home Depot without the garden/nursery side), Arborescence (like the garden/nursery side of Lowe’s or Home Depot), and even McDonalds either have arrived or are moving into the area.  Carrefour’s announcement last year of plans to build the new store created quite a buzz in Dar Bouazza, but our driving to downtown Casablanca to shop at Carrefour Gourmet kept us from paying too much attention to the hoopla. Even after it opened in June and we began hearing how big and wonderful it was, we kept shopping at Carrefour Gourmet for its quality produce, in-house Amoud Boulangerie et Pâtisserie, staff focused soundly on customer service, and good-sized Cave for purchasing wine and spirits.

But yesterday we thought we would venture in the opposite direction to see what all the hubbub was about and, with the beautiful day encouraging more of an outing than a mere shopping run, to spoil ourselves by going out to lunch first.  Another place in Dar Bouazza about which we have heard much but also had not yet checked out is an eatery called Bike-Eat-Repeat. Driving down R320 and turning right onto P3012 past the iconic Crazy Park micro amusement park, we followed a familiar route past multiple entrances to prized beaches on the right and the Jardin De L’Ocean neighborhood (where lots of GWA student families live) on the left.  Turning onto a side street, we parked, walked over to Bike-Eat-Repeat, and got a table outside to make the most of the beautiful early afternoon. Its comfortable atmosphere, welcoming staff, and good food let us see why it is a favorite hangout place for Dar Bouazza residents that we know.

Bellies full after a long, slow-paced, and relaxing lunch, and not knowing if the new Carrefour featured an in-house Amoud, we picked up a couple baguettes at the shop next to B-E-R, then hopped back in the car to do our grocery shopping.  We wound down the long stretch of road to the old Tamaris section of town, all the way waves rolling up the beaches our various Dar Bouazza friends either cross the street or at most walk a few blocks to enjoy. Then we turned back out toward R320.  With eyes peeled for Carrefour, as we reached R320 Audrey looked to our right and said, “There it is!” Brian thought it seemed much smaller than the hypermarche he had heard about from so many people – huge store, lots of parking, big Cave – but here was Carrefour nonetheless.  He pulled a Moroccan road move and turned right into the smaller-than-expected parking strip from the road’s left lane, and drove the length of the strip finding no available spaces. At the end of the strip, though, was a guard station with a nice man pointing us toward an underground parking area.  So down we went, questioning why our Dar Bouazza friends considered this store such a big deal, but figuring they thought it an improvement over not having it at all. Parking, we headed up to the store and again thought it sufficient for buying groceries, but not anything comparable to the huge and Walmart Superstore-ish Carrefour Hypermarche in the Californie neighborhood of Casablanca with which our friends had compared it.  Nonetheless, we shopped and got most of what we had on our list. Then we saw the sign for the Cave, but going through the flaps in its doorway we found stacks and shelves of stock inventory instead of bottles of wine and spirits. Confused, we asked an employee where we could find the Cave and he told us there was not one; we had waltzed into a misnamed storage room. “Hmmm,” we said, “They must have decided to nix the Cave.” We paid for our groceries, took them down to our car and loaded them in.

Driving out from the garage, Brian pulled another Moroccan road move and drove 30 meters the wrong way on a road to get back to the left turn lane from which he had performed his previous Moroccan road move, then turned left on R320 to head back toward home.

Before we had traveled three kilometers Audrey said again, “There it is!” as suddenly she saw a huge big box building ahead on the right with Mr. Bricolage and…Carrefour.  Brian pulled into the spacious parking lot and we looked dumbly at each other, laughing at ourselves for going first to the wrong Carrefour on our misadventure. So we parked (now with no problem finding a place), grabbed our big woven basket from the back of the car, and went in hoping to find the last few things we had not found at the wrong Carrefour that we did not know also exists in Dar Bouazza.  Stepping inside, we were awed at its immensity. This was like the behemoth Carrefour in Ceuta, with departments for housewares, electronics, appliances, clothes, as well as broad grocery aisles not requiring expert navigation skills to get around laneless people who shop the way they drive, great-looking produce, long counters for meats and cheeses, and the big Cave that did not exist at our mistargeted Carrefour.  Now we understood the hubbub. This was a store for the small city Dar Bouazza is becoming in its own right. If we lived in Dar Bouzza, we would have no reason to travel all the way into Casablanca to shop for almost anything.

Yet, as impressive as we found it, and as much as we enjoyed our Dar Bouazza outing, we think we will keep shopping at our Carrefour Gourmet.  As we discussed at our table during lunch at Bike-Eat-Repeat, what we love most about Morocco are the relationships we have with people. One can do all sorts of touristy things here, but to know Morocco truly you must spend time with people.  We have good friends here whom we treasure, and now – with Charlotte married – we have good family here as well who invite us to their home and join us in our home for time together over meals. So going to Carrefour Gourmet satisfies more than a need to buy groceries.  We have relationships with people we find inside and outside the store: the woman who weighs and tags our produce bags with a smile and “Bon journee!” each week; the butcher who calls us over to his counter to let us know that he has a beautiful beef tenderloin that he can trim for us; the women at the cheese counter who slice off des goûts (some tastes) of what is good that day for us to try; the garlic man who looks each week for Audrey on the sidewalk outside the store and gives her a handful of fresh walnuts in addition to the garlic she buys only from him; Kamal the parking guardian who tries patiently to build our Darija vocabulary while he parks us or loads groceries from our cart into the back of our car; and others.  They make us feel like we belong there in their neighborhood, rather than pushing a cart through a megastore staffed by people too busy to know their customers.

All in all, we had a good day in Dar Bouazza.  Then we came home, put away groceries, and made some Aperol Spritzes to share on our balcony while looking out over our beautiful view of the school and fields across from us and, down the hill, of the ocean beyond.  The weather will change again soon, so we have limited opportunities to do that before we switch back to sitting in our living room by a roaring fire. Regardless of the scene, we do so love living here.

On your mark, get set, here we go!


While GWA’s Fall Break makes for a quiet campus this week, we savor the serenity of our balcony and the Call to Prayer that complements the placid scene of our staycation…Notwithstanding the work we are doing every day from home and/or office…and except for the crazy two days we had on the front end of this break when we went on an overnight trip to Ceuta, one of two remaining plots of Spanish Africa surrounded by Morocco and the Mediterranean coast.

First settled by the Carthagenians in the First Millennium BC, then ruled in succession by the Romans, the Vandals, the Muslims and Berbers, and the Portugese, these vestiges of Spain’s colonial history in Africa have roots stretching back over 350 years.  Our history in Ceuta stretches back only a few years when we had our first overnight escape to this city of 85,000 Spaniards, Moroccans, and Spaniaroccans.

Many expats at GWA drive the four and a half hours to Ceuta for different reasons.  Some go just to taste a bit of Spain (read: PORK and RIOJA) without paying the FRS Ferry line to carry them across the Strait of Gibraltar to ports in Tarifa or Algeciras and other destinations further north.  Others go because until their Moroccan residency paperwork becomes official – a process that can take several months – they have to leave the country every 90 days, with Ceuta as the easiest and cheapest way to get that all-important passport stamp.  For us, except for that sightseeing trip in our first year, it has been for meds.

Morocco is pretty easy for getting medications.  We can get allergy meds and antibiotics without prescriptions.  (The merits of that, from a world perspective of creating/combatting supergerms, are dubious; but the ease of getting Amoxicillin when strep throat or nasty bronchitis inhabit your household certainly has its advantages.)  But some medications simply do not exist here. We have a great doctor in Casablanca – did her residency at GWU in Washington, D.C. after medical school in Morocco – but she can not steer us to meds not available locally. For the last three years, Brian has brought Epipens back from travels in Europe to GWA’s nursing office as emergency meds for students having serious allergic reactions to undiagnosed allergies; and some other prescription meds we had in the U.S. for Charlotte or us we cannot find in Morocco.  That requires our traveling outside Morocco’s borders to get them, and often requires first setting up a doctor’s appointment in the source country to get a prescription that country’s pharmacies will accept (because they will not honor a prescription our Moroccan doctor writes). So after that first trip when we went Ceuta to go to Ceuta, and happened in the process to discover the convenience of picking up meds we cannot find at home, the handful of times we have gone since has been to renew prescriptions and pick up meds.

Such was our overnight excursion to Ceuta last Friday and Saturday.  Audrey needed to restart a prescription she had in the U.S., and our Spanish doctor – based in Cádiz southeast of Portugal on the Gulf of Cádiz coast – comes to Ceuta only one Friday each month.  Over time we have established a routine. If our appointment with the doctor is in the morning, we make the journey to Ceuta on Thursday afternoon or evening; breeze through the border crossing heading into Ceuta (because the big border holdup typically is coming back into Morocco with vehicles being searched for contraband); overnight at the centrally-located Hotel Ulises on Calle Real (Ceuta’s Main Street); hit the doctor and the pharmacy on Friday morning; then go on a shopping spree at Ceuta’s big Carrefour to buy pork, alcohol we cannot get back home like Cointreau for margaritas and good rum (two bottles allowed back into Morocco per adult), pork, other things we cannot find in Morocco like black beans and sweet potatoes, and pork; toss the pork and some ice into a big cooler we always bring for such purposes; then head to the border to wait in a long border-crossing line as Moroccan police search cars for excess alcohol and other contraband; and finally drive four and a half hours back to Casablanca.  If we have an afternoon or evening appointment, we head up on Friday morning, check into Hotel Ulises, go to the appointment, overnight in Ceuta, hit the Carrefour the next day to fill the cooler with pork and the rest of the car with other things, and head back across the border and home.

Last Friday we had a 1:00 appointment:  early enough that we thought we could leave on Thursday if we could break away from school, but late enough that – as busy as we have been at school – we figured a very early Friday morning departure would get us there in time to cross the border and still have time to kill before going to the doctor’s office.  So we made a reservation at Hotel Ulises for Friday night and set alarms to wake up at 4:45 am on Friday morning to begin our trek by 5:30 am.

Our drive up was uneventful.  We stopped in Bouznika on the south side of Rabat to fill the gas tank and pick up breakfast (an egg and cheese croissant from Chez Paul for Audrey, and an Egg McMuffin with beef bacon from McDonalds for Brian).  We made good time shooting north almost to Tanger, then banked eastward along the north coast past the huge Tanger Med port and over the north Atlas mountains to Ceuta (or Sebta, as Morocco still calls it). As we drove down the mountain pathway to the Mediterranean road that leads to Ceuta’s border, we felt great about having two hours to kill before the appointment.

Then we hit the border.

Not even.

Rather, we hit the roundabout that intersects with the road to the border, and saw traffic backed up all the way to the circle.

In our half dozen previous trips there, we had never seen such a backup trying to get into Ceuta.  As we sat in barely-moving lines of traffic that narrowed to two lanes before swelling to five before collapsing down to one, we watched as several boys diverted from their panhandling and took turns trying to squeeze under an old and low-riding camper being hauled by a car, hoping to stow away into Ceuta hanging from the camper’s undercarriage.  When that did not work, they tried the camper’s door, but found it locked. Then they tried without luck to boost each other onto the roof of the camper. Had they succeeded they would have been caught before entering Spain because every square centimeter of the camper – inside and outside, top and bottom – got tapped and searched both by the Moroccan and Spanish police after leaving one and before entering the other.

While we watched the boys try and fail to stow away, we also watched the minutes count into hours.  The longest it had taken previously to cross into Ceuta was less than two hours. On Friday, it took us three long hours before we finally entered Spain at the time the doctor’s appointment was scheduled to end.  Why? Because Spain apparently has decided recently that they should have only one police officer checking all vehicles coming across the border from Morocco, so that the border gate closed everything except a single lane through which every vehicle must bottleneck and pass through to enter Ceuta.  Plenty of police around; but only one checking vehicles before they continue on to get Spanish passport stamps. We are used to such bureaucracy in Morocco; seeing it in Spain was new to us.

Fortunately, as time ticked away into helpless frustration, we had communicated our circumstances to the doctor’s office by What’sApp and they told us not to worry.  Once we crossed into Spain, it was a quick drive to the doctor who then fitted us into his next appointment just half an hour after our arrival.

We went from the doctor to the pharmacy where we have a connection who speaks English.  Having let him know by email earlier in the week that we would be coming on Friday, we gave him our Spanish prescriptions; he gave us our Spanish medications…and more Epipens for Brian to take to GWA’s nurses.  Then we checked into Hotel Ulises, where they recognized us as they always do.

One element of expat life is having special places and people from travels abroad that folks stateside do not get to enjoy the same way.  Recently a friend at GWA told us about a shop in Venice that he and his children loved to frequent, so any time he returns to Venice he has to go there.  Similar conversations spotlight favorite places and mutual appreciation for specific spots in Europe, the Persian Gulf, various airports worldwide, etc. The stories share not a touristy connotation from sightseers abroad, but a sense of ownership earned from familiarity.  Well into our fourth year of life here, we have such spots in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, and more, to say nothing of places around Morocco.

We have added Ceuta to our list of such places:  from the public squares covered with pigeons, to Charlotte (not our daughter, but our favorite place for breakfast of pan con iberico y manchego), to Hotel Ulises, to our farmacia, to knowing the best and second-best underground parking garages, to strolling along Calle Real and people-watching as we go, to Brian’s favorite building across the street from the Iglesia de San Francisco – named Casa de los Dragones because of the dragons atop the Medieval corner balcony on its second floor, to knowing that east of a certain north-south road in the middle of town is very Spanish and west of it is very Moroccan, to knowing the particular hanout on the way to the border back to Morocco where we can buy the brand of edam cheese from the Netherlands that Charlotte’s in-laws adore.

And then there is George.  George is the owner and chef of El Bistro de George.  He makes clear that is not Jorge; it is George. George is a Moroccan chef who grew up in Tanger.  He takes good care of his customers, making them feel at home in his small bistro. He speaks English, Spanish, French, Darija, and – like many people in Morocco and elsewhere, but rarely in America – probably more languages.  We first found George on our second trip to Ceuta and have returned each time both of us have come (as opposed to when Brian has brought Charlotte for her own doctor’s appointments). Dining with George is one of the things that completes our expectation of going to Ceuta.

So after rising at 4:45 am, driving four and a half hours, sitting at the border for three hours, going to the doctor, filling prescriptions at the pharmacy, and checking into our room at Hotel Ulises, we were happy to walk a few blocks along Calle Real and down the steps toward Paseo de la Marina Española.  Being Americans, we listened to our rumbling stomachs instead of looking at our watches, and arrived at George’s door 10 minutes before he opens for dinner at 8:00 pm. Eyeing us as we peered in to see if they were closed for the night, George opened his door and welcomed us back, then told us he opened at 8:00 and would be happy to reserve a table for us.  We told him we would wander for a bit and come back. We went next door to the Charcuteria shop, marveling at the beautiful thin slices of Iberico ham carved masterfully by one of the two men – from their matching bald heads and full noses, they must be brothers – while the other cashed out customers.  Among the other offerings on shelves around the shop we found a bottle of Moët & Chandon Nectar Imperial, the Champaign we first drank on our honeymoon. So we bought it, because we rarely have found it since our honeymoon 23 years ago, and intend to pop it once our plan for the next leg of our expat expedition gets finalized.  That consumed the 10 minutes we needed to spend, so we went back to George who sat us at the same table where we always sit. He knows that Audrey wants seafood and Brian does not. That night he brought Audrey muscles and Brian his new fusion sukiyaki, with Spanish Albariño and Tempranillo wines to pair with each. After a very long day of driving to another country, it was nice to end it catching up with George as he filled our bellies and satisfied our palettes.

Having accomplished all other tasks on Friday, when we woke on Saturday morning our only remaining job was to stock up at Ceuta’s huge Carrefour.  This, like crossing into Ceuta the previous day, proved more difficult than expected. Unlike our previous trips, the store was understaffed and understocked with aisles full of frenzied shoppers.  The multiple bottles of Cointreau we had planned to buy – in order to stay stocked for making margaritas – were nonexistent. Bummer. Meat cases were largely empty…with no packs of pork ribs at all!  Brian grabbed a number at the butcher counter while Audrey orbited through other aisles. After waiting more than an hour for the one butcher on duty to finish filling a handful of large orders, Brian finally astonished him by asking for four pork tenderloins and eight huge pork chops to load into our cooler for the return trip home.  (In explanation, he told the butcher, “Vivimos en Casablanca, así que venimos a Ceuta a comprar carne de cerdo.”  The butcher smiled in reply.)  Add to that the pork sausages, pork meatballs, Serrano ham, and Italian mortadelo for good measure that Audrey picked up amid her orbits, and the cooler was filled.  We just needed to get ice to keep the meat cool on the drive back.

Oh oh…we could not find ice.  Maybe they moved it to a new location?  Brian finally went to the information desk and asked, “Donde esta el hielo?”  They guy led Brian over to a case where we had already looked in the freezer aisle…It was empty.

Lo siento.  No hay hielo.”  How could there not be ice?  Perhaps for the same inexplicable reason they had no pork ribs.

Hay más que puede sacar?”

No hay nada.  Lo siento.”

This required quick thinking, because $50 of fine pork required some manner of refrigeration going home.  Audrey set her brain to the task and instantly uttered words to make readers of our last blog post chuckle:  “Why not buy frozen peas?  They are just as good as ice.”

So began our resumed hunt for frozen peas, this time in a speck of Spain in Africa, but this time with quick success!  This was a good day to buy peas!!! So we bought four bags of them, plus a large insulated freezer bag, and packed the meat and peas into our cooler.  After checking out and loading up the car, we made another quick stop at the Mercadona grocery store on our way toward the border and bought two bags of ice there to add to our meat protection.

Our border experience heading home was the opposite of the previous day’s logjam, breezing through both Spanish and Moroccan checks in 20 minutes, then gassing up and heading home.  It was a whirlwind two days; but we updated and filled our prescriptions, enjoyed familiar Ceuta, and unloaded everything when we got home to find both pork and peas in great shape, ready to join our freezer for future consumption.  Not a bad preface to our working staycation.

On your mark, get set, here we go!