Category Archives: Dan Dan Fitzgerald

“Friends and Bread” by Dan Fitzgerald

I knew making friends abroad would be difficult, but I never imagined how difficult it would be. Think back to your first time in high school or moving to a new city. Were you scared? Did you think everyone was staring at you because they knew that you had no idea what you were doing? Did you ever over-think every conversation and interaction you had with someone and assumed that you said something wrong? Well guess what, being abroad is about the same. I don’t have enough fingers on my hands to count the amount of times I talked to a Moroccan and probably made a fool of myself.  Not the best way to make friends abroad.

I’ve heard of stories of those who go their entire semester abroad without making one friend from their host country. That’s not a bad thing if that isn’t one of your goals, but I’m a social butterfly who needs new relationships. I wanted to have some kind of a connection with Morocco and prove to myself that I can make friends outside of my comfort zone. That’s when Nacera showed up.

I was halfway through the semester when our program gave us the chance to take a field trip to a local bakery and learn how to make Moroccan crêpes and breads. For those of you who don’t know me, I seriously love bread. I am a human dumpster for carbs, so when I found out about the opportunity to go make AND eat bread, I signed up immediately. On the day of the field trip, I walked into our meeting room when this 19-year-old, five-foot-five, spunky Moroccan girl walked up to me and spoke to me in perfect English. “Are you here for the bakery trip?” she said. “Of course,” I responded. Her deep maroon hijab was perfectly matching to her oversized maroon sweater, and I already knew that this girl had style. This was Nacera.

 

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We went to the bakery all the way out in Salé, the sister city of Rabat, and got put right to work preparing the dough, shaping the bread, and cooking it on the stove. Not to show off, but I was told that I’m a pretty great bread baker by the master baker herself, Nacera’s Mom. I spent hours with Nacera and her mom making dozens of savory crêpes only to consume all of them in the span of twenty minutes. What can I say, bread is life. I had so much fun with Nacera that we decided to swap our WhatsApp numbers and message about the next time we could hang out. Blog reader, was this the start of a friendship? It certainly was.

A few weeks later, Nacera messaged me and my friend Galey asking if we wanted to come visit her university and sit-in on her music class. This was my chance to meet and hang out with Moroccans my age and maybe not be a social disaster, so Galey and I said yes. For the next three hours, Galey and I sat in the music class listening to everyone sing some of the most beautiful Arab songs I’ve ever heard while not understanding a single word spoken in the class. At the end of class, we walked out of the classroom and Nacera introduced us to all her friends. Most greeted me in English and didn’t seem interested in us, but the minute I spoke some Darija to them, the entire group erupted in laughter and smiles, excited that I knew some Darija. I spent the rest of the time talking with Nacera and her friends about music, sports, jokes, life, and it felt like I was back at my own university hanging out with my friends.

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It’s hard living in a new place where you don’t know anyone while also learning the culture. But everything becomes easier when you find that one friend to help you along the way. Nacera has been that person for me, which is why I’ve dedicated this blog post to her. Thanks Nacera, you’re the real MVP.

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Dan Dan Fitzgerald, Morocco, Rabat

“Fun in the Sun” by Dan Fitzgerald

Studying abroad is a lot like going into a new relationship. You start out in that honeymoon phase where everything is new and adventurous, you are excited by every little thing, and you can’t possibly imagine what life was like before it. But then that honeymoon phase ends and you realize that the world is still spinning and suddenly things aren’t as interesting anymore. You finally realize your significant other has little quirks that annoy you and the spark that once arose in you by every little thing is going out. Typically, in a relationship one of two things could happen: you either break it off as there is nothing left to inspire you, or you find that raw spark in all the little things that truly makes you happy. If you haven’t caught on already, I’m talking about my relationship with Morocco.

I am more than half way done with my semester abroad in Morocco and I am certainly out of the honeymoon phase. I soon realized that outside of studying for class, eating, and sleeping, I have a lot of free time on my hand. I don’t know about you, but free time is my worst enemy, as I become bored and restless very easily. Most people abroad, especially those in Europe, would solve this by traveling more, but even extensive travel was starting to wear me down (as well as wear my bank account down). So where do I go when I need to cure my angst? The beach.

 

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I know what you are thinking. “Dan, that is so stereotypical. Of course, everyone loves the beach. This isn’t something unique to Morocco.” You’re right, but cool your jets, because the beach here in Rabat is much more than your average beach back in the States. I frequent the “Plages de Salé” so much that I will most likely go there today once I finish this blog post. It’s a large beach that lies next to the Oued Bou Regreg river and the Atlantic Ocean. The place is magical especially in the evening as the sun sets on the water and bathes the Rabat Kasbah in an orange glow. It’s also the perfect place to let loose with both my American friends and meet some new people, especially when it comes to volleyball.

One Friday in February, a bunch of AMIDEAST students and myself decided to meet at this beach after couscous lunch to play some soccer and volleyball on the beach. We all meet up, draw our volleyball court in the sand, and start the match. In all honesty, we all chose to play volleyball because we knew we would make fools of ourselves in front of Moroccans if we played soccer. But soon all the Moroccans playing soccer matches around us started watching us play volleyball and soon joined in a classic Morocco v. United States volleyball match. This match could have lasted until the sun set, but strangely enough a large cloud of fog blanketed the entire beach. That’s when we had to call the match a draw even though the Moroccans clearly beat us, but that will be our little secret.

 

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Besides the views and activities on this beach, my favorite things about Plages de Salé is that it is only place where I have found Moroccans outside of their comfort zones. I’m talking about real Moroccan couples enjoying time together, Moroccans playing with their dogs in the ocean, parents building sand castles with their children, the list could go on. What I have found is that Moroccans operate their lives very differently between the spheres of public and private, making it hard to see Moroccans as who they really are. But here on this beach, I see their vulnerability more than ever. I see them enjoying life.

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Dan Dan Fitzgerald, Morocco, Rabat, Uncategorized

“Food for Thought” by Dan Fitzgerald

Guess what? It’s the food post. Prepare your appetites because this blog post is about to be delicious. I have been thinking about Moroccan food more than usual as I vacation across Europe for Spring Break. France is known for their breads, cheeses, and wines; Germany is known for their beers and meats; but what’s the food Morocco is known for? Could it be tajins, full of vegetables and meat in small clay pots? Or could it simply be the large, bountiful fruit with every meal? These are all great contenders, however there is one food that means more to me than just taste satisfaction: couscous.

Let me start by saying: all couscous I’ve tried in the United States pales in comparison to the couscous I have in Morocco. Friends who previously studied in Morocco told me to prepare myself and my stomach for the weekly “Couscous Friday” lunches, but I never really understood the hype until I experienced it for myself.

It was a Friday like any other: my roommate Conner and I did our usual morning routine of showering, breakfast, and going to class. Our host mom Hajja reminded us to be home for lunch as she would be making couscous, but I didn’t think too much into it. Lunchtime rolled around- as we entered our home, a mysterious aroma of spices, meats, and vegetables hit our noses. We sat at the table and Hajja appeared with a giant clay plate the size of the table itself filled to the brim with couscous, various vegetables, and chicken. Hajja told us that it takes her over two hours to prepare this meal. She only makes it when they have host students, as this meal could seriously feed an army. Conner and I gave it the old college try to finish all the couscous, but it was just too much and too filling. Like all our Couscous Friday lunches, we ended by gathering some blankets, laying down to digest everything, and watching some Turkish soap operas that Hajja translated to French for me.

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While I adore couscous because it’s delicious and super filling, it’s now taken on a deeper meaning: not only does it represent my relationship with my host parents and roommate, but also Moroccan culture as a whole. An important part about the couscous dish is that it’s served and eaten all on one, shared clay plate between everyone. There aren’t any separate plates for yourself or silverware to use (unless Conner and I are making a mess and Hajja gives us silverware). It’s a community dish that brings everyone together to share this meal and, metaphorically, allows you to have a shared experience with others. That’s not something many Americans, including myself, experience back in the United States.

Now a lot of travelers to Morocco aren’t as fortunate enough as I am to stay with a host family, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t experience a Couscous Friday like this. One of the best types of restaurants Morocco offers are the living room restaurants. These places are as hole-in-the-wall as they come and can mainly be found in any city’s medina. They are small, one room places where the kitchen and the sitting area are joined together, and it is typically owned and operated by one or two women (typically a mother-daughter duo). These women will make you feel like you are a part of the family and cook you one of the most best meals you can find in Morocco. Again, it’s this shared sense of community and family around food that really brings you closer to Moroccan people. If food is for the soul, then Moroccan food is for the company.

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“You Had Me at Mountains” by Dan Fitzgerald

Have you ever been to a wave pool at a water park? It starts out like a normal pool where you stand comfortably with the water around you. But then a machine generates waves and they get bigger and bigger until the next thing you know a wave hit you and you’re under water. That’s what it felt like when culture shock took its effect on me this past week.

I was missing the little conveniences at home like access to a Chipotle and Target, a guarantee that if I walk into a bathroom there would be toilet paper, etc. I felt like I was missing so many important moments in my friends’ lives back home, and I was beginning to tire of bartering in almost every transaction I had in Rabat. My individualistic viewpoint of the world and comfort with convenience I was accustomed too in America was in conflict. I was not alone though in these feelings as my friends also felt stuck in a continuation of annoyance and conflict, and the fast pace stress of the city wasn’t helping. I knew I needed a cure and fast.

“Why don’t we go to Ouzoud?” my friend asked me. “It’s deep in the mountains far from the city and tourists.” I responded, “You had me at mountains.” I packed a backpack worth of clothes, some toiletries, a book, and some snacks for the journey ahead.

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Ouzoud is this small, rural town in central Morocco known for its cascading waterfalls, mountain hiking, and monkeys. The town itself was full of construction sites for new hotels and buildings when I arrived, but it was still secluded and calm with just locals. I must admit, I never really enjoyed or preferred nature or scenic beauty back in the United States just because I thought it was boring. I’m a fast-paced kind of guy that craves constant stimulation and activity, and I always wanted city life. But this time was different.

I stood on the edge of the cascading waterfalls, looking at the mist covered canyon below. The water flowing out from the streams was a soft red as the earth around Ouzoud was mostly clay, and the sunlight hitting the falling water created a brilliant rainbow across the canyon. Monkeys near the cliff climbed on my shoulders and played with my hair and I was happy to let it happen as my stress started to drift away. The world seemed to get bigger as I got smaller. Now here I am, writing this blog post on my iPhone as I sit on top of a rock mountain, watching the last glimpses of light from the setting sun hit the adjacent mountain sides.

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Before I came to Morocco, I was so obsessed with doing as much as possible and constantly over spreading myself as I always did back in the United States. I assumed that since the world moves fast, I too need to move just as fast. But since arriving in Morocco and visiting places like Ouzoud, I’ve realized that life will keep going on no matter how fast or slow you move. It’s okay to slow down sometimes and just enjoy the world around you.

I haven’t read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s works since high school, but a quote from him couldn’t be more fitting. “Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them?” For me, these mountains and waves and skies of Morocco signify that time may pass and things may come and go, but the world will still stay relatively the same as long as you accept it that way.

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On the Marrakesh Express by Dan Fitzgerald

I love trains. Actually, I’m obsessed with trains. As a kid, I always played with and watched Thomas the Tank Engine, I read piles of books about different kinds of trains, and when I was three years old I dressed as a train for Halloween. It’s one of the earliest forms of industrialized transportation dating back to the early 19th century, and even now I can still feel a certain magic about riding in one.  If you haven’t guessed already, I’m a nerd for trains. Putting my obsession aside, you would love trains too if you rode one in Moroccan. Many tourists typically don’t use the train system in Morocco and instead use planes, but I am about to tell you a train is the best “off the beaten path” experience.

My goal since I arrived in Morocco has been to meet with real Moroccans and experience Morocco alongside them. Tourists can easily afford to ride première classe in a train, but not many locals ride in that compartment. If I wanted to truly live like a Moroccan and talk to locals, I had to go where the locals would be. Let me tell you, deuxième classe is where the fun is. The best way to describe deuxième classe is like a game of tetras, where you see how many passengers and baggage can fit into a train car since trains are always over-booked and seats are a on first come, first serve basis. Not convinced yet to brave this journey? You will be after I tell you about my trip from Marrakesh to Rabat.

 

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It was a windy afternoon at le Gare de Marrakesh when my friends and I were literally running to catch our train back to Rabat as it is just departing. The train is a rustic style from its design in the 1920s-1930s with vibrant tan and orange patterns along its side. We were the last ones on the train that was clearly overbooked and we knew that we would never get a seat. Carrying our bags in the hot and crowded spaces, we walk through the first car with no luck finding seats. Second car, still no seats. By the fourth car, I gave up. I put my bags down at the end of the car by the train doors and sat on the floor. Best decision I’ve made in Morocco.

A Moroccan man sitting across from me propped the door with his foot while the train was moving and this gust of fresh wind hit my face. “C’est d’accord si la porte est ouverte?” he asks (“Is it okay if the door is open”). I responded with a cheerful yes as I watched the country pass before my very eyes. I saw patches of cactuses and the steep Atlas Mountains, roaming goat and sheep herders who waved to me, children playing soccer on dirt fields, secluded mosque towers in the middle of expansive fields of crops. I sat by this open door with the wind blowing on my face and the smell of the Moroccan man’s cigarette on me.

 

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Soon other passengers joined us as they too realized there were no more seats on this train. For the rest of the train ride I talked to an elderly couple from Casablanca about their life in Morocco and how excited they were that “a foreigner wanted to learn Darija”, and I played peak-a-boo with a small Moroccan girl from Mohammedia who shared her cookies with me. After a weekend in Marrakesh filled with tourists and classic tourist sites like the Jemaa el-Fnaa square, it was amazing to see and learn so much about Morocco just on this train. If you want adventure and to truly see Morocco, take the Marrakesh Express.

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Dan Dan Fitzgerald, Morocco, Rabat