Transition: Leaving Morocco

Last Wednesday we left Morocco, six days shy of a full four years since arriving at Casablanca’s Mohamed V Airport at midnight in hot and humid July.  The warm and sticky air that whallopped us that night as we emerged from the plane to descend the mobile stairs and shuttle from tarmac to terminal proved a physical representation of crossing a symbolic threshold into expat life with much change in store for us.  Since then we have learned much, grown much, made friends for life, and given our daughter to this beautiful country and its magnificent people.  We had planned to title our final Morocco post “Moving to Panamá.”  That plan had just one flaw:  We departed Morocco on Wednesday, yet we still do not know when we actually will arrive in Panamá; so we focus in this post on leaving Morocco and the mix of emotions it contained, and save arriving in Panamá for a post to follow our actually getting there.

We left also just days shy of Charlotte and her husband, Zak, presenting us with our first grandchild.  With her actual due date approaching quickly, we had hoped still to reside in Morocco for that event; but in the Age of COVID-19, making prudent plans and calculations does not work as it used to work.  Likewise, we had hoped airports in Morocco and Panamá would open from their respective quarantine closures at roughly the same time so that we could route from Casablanca to Panamá City with just one or two layovers, depositing us in our new home just a day’s travel after leaving our old home.  That, too, did not happen.  So, after waiting two weeks past our originally-planned departure date to see (1) if Charlotte would pop and (2) if both airports would open, we opted to exit Morocco on a repatriation flight, arranged by the U.S. Consulate in Casablanca, to Dulles International Airport and to twiddle our thumbs outside Washington, D.C., until we can make the second half of our transition journey to Panamá.

Through our last month in Morocco we had much time to prepare for our departure mentally, emotionally, practically, and logistically.  We organized our apartment into things movers would pack on June 1 and ship in a container to Panamá; GWA-owned things staying where they were; things we would give to Charlotte and others; things we would sell; and things (weighed to the last ounce) for us to pack into the two suitcases each allotted to us for commercial international flights.  Still, with mental, practical, and logistical preparations made and remade to adjust to revised pre-departure circumstances – first, when it became clear we could not leave at the end of a June; then, when we reached the tipping point of deciding we should take the State Department repatriation flight with hopes of getting to Panamá soon – emotionally our departure day hit us hard as we left a school and community to which we have given our full devotion for four years.

We had a tremendously hard time saying goodbye to the people of GWA.  Typically we close the school year in the large Multi-Purpose Room with an all-staff celebration that recognizes each academic and operational division’s team members; lauds individuals marking their five/ten/fifteen/twenty year employment milestones at GWA; says goodbye to staff members departing at the close of the year; and with great applause echoing through the big space accompanying each part of the celebration.  Instead, as the end of school drew near with Morocco’s quarantine ongoing, we often stood on our on-campus apartment balcony and looked forlornly out over the empty campus feeling deeply our impending separation…made stronger still by the physical separation we had all endured since Morocco’s quarantine began in mid-March.  Since we never returned to on-campus operations after starting online school, the HR office replaced that physically-present MPR celebration with an online video that simply could not substitute fully for the bizous, hugs, and good wishes from the Housekeeping, Maintenance, Kitchen, Groundskeeping, Bus Driver, HR, Finance, and other academic and operational teams that fill about half the time of the usual closing celebration.  Not being able to say goodbye to the hundreds of people with whom we worked to move GWA’s Vision Statement forward made us deeply, deeply sad.  We did, though, at least enjoy one final gathering of our on-campus apartment “neighborhood” in a socially-distanced goodbye picnic that culminated with the viewing of a surprise farewell video featuring goodbye messages, photos, and video testimonials from dozens of teachers, TAs, administrators, and staff.  (You can watch it on this link and see if you bawl through all 34 minutes and 8 seconds of it like we did.

Saying goodbye to friends also proved almost completely impossible under the quarantined circumstances, even after Casablanca started opening up slowly, because we kept such a low profile to minimize exposure that might end up keeping us from traveling to Panamá once airports opened up.  We did get to see a number of women at a baby shower for Charlotte that friend and GWA teacher Tanya organized with Audrey a week before we left.  Brian also got to see most of his Admissions & Marketing team at a farewell dinner that they organized for him.  And on the morning of our departure, friends Rachid and Nisrine shared a quick but delicious Moroccan breakfast with us in their home before we rushed to the airport.  But we felt terrible for not being able to say goodbye to so many friends, whether from GWA or around Casablanca.

The hardest goodbye, of course, was to Charlotte and Zak.  On the Friday before we left, we went to their Oulfa neighborhood to share couscous with them and Zak’s family.  (Friday couscous in Morocco is like high family time Sunday dinner in the U.S.)  Spending time with Zak’s family embodies for us the expat experience, with warmth, laughter, and understanding between Zak’s dear parents (not able to converse in English) and us (not able to converse in Darija or French) thanks to translation by Charlotte, Zak, and Zak’s siblings, and to basic human-to-human interaction between us all.  Through our closing weeks we spent lots of time with Charlotte, who regularly visited or spent the night in our GWA apartment or in the rental where we went after leaving our campus home, and Zak, who sometimes accompanied her on daytime or overnight visits.  Such time never seemed enough, though, while preparing for the real goodbye approaching us.  We practiced a soft version of empty-nesting over the last year, finding Charlotte back with us regularly from her new home 10-minutes away for an afternoon, an overnight, or several days as she took advantage of our internet bandwidth and our bathtub; but leaving Morocco would mean real empty-nesting with Margaret launched in Arizona and Charlotte starting her own family in Casablanca.  So many emotions coursed through us and Charlotte, and in our closing days together we all agreed to back away from getting too mushy with each other for fear of the dike bursting and inconsolable tears flooding our remaining time.  Thankfully we live in an age when we can text and talk and video chat any time with either of our girls wherever any of us may be in the world, shrinking slightly the knots in our stomachs over how much we miss them.  Still, talking daily with Charlotte since we left does not undue the great sadness of driving away from her on our way to the airport.

Apart from the emotions of goodbyes, the weeks leading to our departure provided strange times, great stress, and the opportunity to hone 21st century pedagogy skills:  maximizing flexibility for nimbleness; practicing grit; seeking comfort with ambiguity over leaving Morocco and departing to Panamá; and utilizing digital literacy to stay abreast of all that is happening in our daily life craziness and the craziness that seems to engulf the U.S. and the world.  Meanwhile, Audrey kept meeting virtually with her new staff and board at ISP as they continued preparations for classes starting this fall, and we spent time processing the often-Kafkaesque craziness of our final months at GWA.

After waiting for airports to open to let us leave on our schedule, then recasting expectations for when airports would eventually open to let us transition easily from Morocco to Panamá, we finally recast them once again as we reached the tipping point of taking a repatriation flight to the U.S. without knowing when we will proceed to Panamá.  That meant having to replan our travel packing from the two bags each we could take on a commercial flight to the single bag each we could take on the embassy-organized flight.  (Zak quickly offered for us to store the suitcases we could not take with us in his family’s house for Brian to bring to Panamá when he returns, once airports open this fall, to see our new grandson.)

Our charter flight out of Morocco ended up being an extremely long travel day.  It took nearly four hours to check in and board, even with seven counters open for a flight with about 300 passengers.  The Consulate General staff were out in force.  Passengers experienced a slow but fairly standard procedure for checking in and boarding our flight; but our Foreign Service staff in charge of the chartered flight followed a protocol more like an evacuation, ensuring that everyone supposed to be on board was actually on board before pulling back from the gate.  We had lots of time to talk with State Department friends as we worked slowly through the long check-in line.  Upon seeing us, more than one consulate staff member said different versions of “Hmmm, I don’t see your name on the manifest…guess you’ll have to stay” or just “Nope…sorry, we’re not letting you leave,” making us feel, in our final moments as Moroccan residents, one more nod of appreciation for what we have done over the last four years.

Despite signage to the contrary all over the airports, we experienced only minimal social distancing at best, whether in Casablanca’s airport, on board the flight, or after arriving and deplaning at Dulles.  A basic tally of people around us at any point revealed roughly one third of people not wearing their masks properly…if they made any effort at all.  The most common annoying mis-mask was “nosehanger” people with masks covering their mouths but leaving their noses completely uncovered.  Why even bother or pretend?

Our 2:15pm flight finally took off at 3:45pm, and London-based cargo carrier Titan Airways whisked us across the Atlantic Ocean.  The flight – with every seat sold – was definitely “no frills” and without social distancing.  Seats did not recline and looked more like bus or metro seats, but they were not much more uncomfortable than seats in many airlines we have flown recently as they seek to cut costs any way they can.  We had bag meals with bottles of water waiting for us in our seats, and no other food or beverage service throughout the eight hour flight; so with no airport vendors open past security to sell us water before boarding, we rationed our water carefully.  But the plane was clean, maintained well, and kept at a comfortable temperature throughout the journey, and the flight crew were very nice despite not rolling beverage carts through the aisles during the long flight.  How happy we were when Audrey pressed the call button just on the off chance that they might have more water available if we asked, and they actually brought us each another cold bottle.  The least enjoyable aspect of the flight – other than being thirsty – was the large number of little ones flying with us.  Maybe it just seemed like a large number because every small child we could see within a few rows of us (which totaled at least eight) was doing its appropriate job to make lots of noise, produce attention-grabbing smells, kick seats, and scream at the top of his or her lungs for extended periods.  It was like “the nightly canine social hour” at twilight, when one outdoor dog starts barking and then another joins in and another and another throughout the neighborhood.  In our case, one baby would start screaming and then another would join in and another and another throughout the plane.  And it was not baby social hour; it was baby social eight hours, with a near-constant handoff of high-pitched screaming from one cherub to another from takeoff to landing.  In such circumstances – when one has no way to quench a thirst or to stop babies from crying, the best thing to do is try sleeping, even in the flying bus seats that do not recline.  So that is what we did in order to make the flight seem to pass more quickly.  And we read on our iPads.  And we looked at the virtual map on the flight’s online app, AirTanker Entertainment, trying to will the flight further along by putting a finger on the map’s virtual airplane over the ocean and moving it toward Dulles…to no avail.

Eventually we landed at Dulles outside Washington, D.C.  Then it took the better part of an hour for us to deplane because they let only 50 people off the plane at a time before waiting for the lone tarmac-to-terminal bus to do a round trip for its next group of passengers.  Then, with reduced staffing to fit the small number of international flights, it took more than 90 minutes to get cleared by Customs & Border Patrol for re-entry to America.  Then, thankfully, our checked bags were waiting for us and we had only a brief wait for our hotel shuttle to take us ten minutes away to our self-quarantining home until we leave for Panamá (whenever that will be).

We have kept even further under the radar here in Northern Virginia than we did during our closing weeks in Casablanca, going out only to walk to a grocery store 15 minutes away for supplies.  When we do not cook in our residential hotel suite, we have DoorDash deliver from area restaurants.  We have working internet and can get whatever we need with relative ease, letting us survive this cloister easily enough.  But we feel stuck in purgatory between Morocco and Panamá more than we feel like we have returned to the U.S., expats not quite fitting with native culture even here while we wait to finish the transition to our new Panamanian home.

We know that once we get to Panamá, our call to international education will continue to enrich our lives in fulfilling ways.  Rarely can one find a profession that provides evenings like a dinner last year with GWA’s external International Baccalaureate consultant and our IB development team gathered around a long restaurant table with at least four languages flying back and forth and switching out as best fit different conversations.  More broadly, in international education we seek to make the world a better place one student at a time.  We have great excitement for what lies ahead in Panamá once we finally get there.  Audrey has started working full time virtually in her new role as Director of the International School of Panamá; Brian has started transitioning from school administration into writing and other long-neglected projects; and together we have started transitioning from the professional team relationship that dominated both our work and home lives at GWA back to the marriage team supporting each other’s separate professional pursuits that we have had for two and a half decades.  Nonetheless, we had…we still have…a hard time saying goodbye to our wonderful Moroccan home and everyone in it.  That stands perhaps as the greatest downside of international school educators living as expats:  each year, whether among those staying or leaving, you have to say goodbye to people for whom you care.

As we left our Moroccan home on July 15, we barely noticed that the air once again was warm and sticky.  Certainly, it paled in comparison to the warm and sticky rain forest air that awaits us in Panamá.  That much we know.  What we cannot know, but look forward with great anticipation to discovering, is what adventures Panamá has in store for us.  Longer term, we have excitement for what lies ahead once the world can move beyond the upheaval that started months ago and appears intent to continue disrupting everything for who knows how long.  Practicing what we preach about 21st century skills, we are ready to step forward, deeper into ambiguity, buoyed by the support and affection of friends and family from our years in Morocco, and ready to enjoy the thrills that this roller coaster ride of life gives us while we move, together, along the track.  A friend posted on Facebook that a theme park in Japan has discouraged screaming on roller coasters to hamper the spread of the Coronavirus.  Instead, it says, “Please scream inside your heart.”  With our hands stretched out as far as they go, eyes wide, and wind tossing our hair while we plummet down the track, we feel the excitement and are screaming inside our hearts.

We thank you, Morocco, for all that you gave us during our time living there.  We love you, and we will return soon.  We not only have left pieces of our hearts there; we must come back to see our flesh and blood.  Charlotte captured us in a photo looking wistfully at the last sunset over the Atlantic Ocean that we watched from our on-campus apartment’s balcony.  We think it portrays well our hope, inchallah, that this is not goodbye; it is only à bientôt and bislama…We will see you soon.

On your mark, get set, here we go!