Category Archives: Rabat

“Strangers on a Train” by Shante Fencl

For this week’s blog post, I wanted to talk about personal connections I’ve made in Morocco in these first three weeks. I wanted to tell you all about the students studying with AMIDEAST this semester that have quickly become my friends. I wanted to talk about the Moroccan friends I now have that refer to me as their sister and truly mean it. I wanted to show off my adorable host siblings that spray silly string in my face almost every night and sing to me in French and Arabic. I wanted to talk about all of these things, but I witnessed something the other day that deserves an entire blog post to itself. At first I didn’t think much of it, but now I think about this one small moment almost every day. Please stay tuned for future posts because all of the people I mentioned will be discussed at some point throughout my semester here in Morocco, but I need to share this story that had a lasting impact on me.

Earlier this week, I was taking the tram home from my last class at the AMIDEAST building. The tram in Rabat is the most efficient mode of transportation I have seen in my life. The sun had already set, and I found myself waiting on the platform with very few people around. As the tram car approached, I saw a man pushing an elderly woman in a wheel chair. The man was obviously some kin to the woman, as he helped cover her with her blanket to protect against the January air. The doors of the tram car opened and he accompanied her inside. I continued to watch the pair as the tram left the platform. I take this thirty minute tram ride twice every day and gazing out of the window has gotten old, so now I people watch to pass the time. I couldn’t figure out the relationship between the man and the woman. Was this her son? Her grandson? I could not be sure, but I remember thinking how sweet it was for him to care for his loved one like that.

Before long, I heard the familiar sound over the loud speaker, “Al Mahattat Caadima.” As the pre-recorded voice informed passengers we were approaching the next stop, the woman motioned to the door. As soon as the train stopped the man opened the door, helped the woman out, and went back to his seat. I was completely caught off guard. It took me a moment to realize that the man was of no relation to the elderly woman at all, he was just helping an old woman get to her destination. As the tram car pulled away, my eyes stayed glued to the woman on the platform. To my amazement, I saw another man begin to push the woman without being asked. My heart was instantly warmed.

In my first week of orientation in Morocco, we discussed the importance of community in Moroccan culture. That night on the tram, I saw what it truly meant to be a part of that community. This was not just an act of kindness between one Moroccan and another; it was an interaction between two people. I know that if I were that woman, those men would have done the same for me. Community encompasses everyone around you, not just those of the same race, religion, nationality, or any other ways of identifying who you are. In a culture with a strong since of community, it is the responsibility of everyone to lend their hand.

After seeing this simple action, I am trying to make myself an active member in this community. It is sad to think my immediate assumption when seeing that man help another person was that they must be related. I hope I never make this assumption again. So for all of you reading this post, I challenge you to do something nice for a complete stranger today. Treat them as if they were someone you loved. Maybe you will inspire someone to do the same.

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Morocco, Rabat, Shante Fencl

“First Impressions of Rabat” by Elyse Desrochers

If there is anything that I know after being in Rabat for almost a week, it’s that there is so much I don’t yet know or understand about this city, its people, and daily life here. I do, however, have a lot of first impressions (enough to fill about 5 pages in my little journal).  I’m sure these impressions will develop further as I start to learn more and more about life in Rabat, or perhaps they’ll completely be overturned as I start to get a better sense of the environment I’m in.  For now, they are all I have to rely on as I go about my days, navigating multiple languages, the medina, and an unfamiliar (but very welcoming) culture.

One of my first experiences in Morocco gave me a sense of just how welcoming the culture and the people of Morocco are. Arriving at the Casablanca airport, AMIDEAST had organized a driver to pick up me and another girl in my program who were on the same flight. We were greeted by Yousef, a young Moroccan working for his dad’s company as a driver for tourists or people traveling from the airports. Even though it was the middle of the night, Yousef approached us with a smile and was also all too willing to volunteer to take both of our 50lb. bags. The drive to Rabat, where I expected little conversation due to our fatigue, was filled with conversation about Morocco, the US, and even sports rivalries. He attempted to teach us some basic words of Darija and laughed at our attempts.  By the time the ride was over, I had forgotten the fact that I hadn’t slept in over 15 hours and already felt welcome in a very unfamiliar place.

King's Burial E. Deroschers

The site of the king’s burial. Inside you can look down from an observation area. The room is extremely well decorated and there are guards on horses at the entrance.

All of the other people I have met have lived up to the expectations set by Yousef on our ride from Casablanca. Everyone is hospitable, interested in where I am from and what I am doing, and ready to answer my questions and ease my anxieties. My 13-year-old host sister is definitely the most concerned about any anxieties or problems I may have. She has already asked me three times how I find her room, which I am currently living in. Its walls are bubblegum pink, but the best part is the Hannah Montana clock hanging above the bed. I tell her pink is my favorite color.

I’m excited to continue to discover new things about the culture, practice my language skills, become more comfortable in my home stay, at the center, and navigating the city, and actually convince my host sister that I really do love the dolphin poster, the Hannah Montana clock, and the Belle nightlight.

By the way, did I mention Rabat is beautiful?

Plage de Rabat E. Deroschers

The Plage de Rabat is one of the best places to see the sunset in the city. I’ve only been able to see the sunrise on the East Coast of the US!

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Filed under Elyse Desrochers, Morocco, Rabat, Regional Studies in French

“The Emotional Roller Coaster” by Shante Fencl

Is it possible to love a new country after living there for less than a week?

A. Yes
B. No
C. Maybe
D. All of the Above

The correct answer is: D. At least in my short time of being in Morocco, my thoughts have ranged from “I am never going back to the United States,” to “When is the next flight back home?” Luckily, most of my thoughts have been closely related to the former. I had a bit of a bumpy start to my adventure. My flight was delayed twenty-one hours, and I arrived to my orientation late. I began to wonder if this rough start would lead to a rough semester, but I quickly saw my luck changing. I went from having the worst possible day one could imagine to staring out at the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean and thanking the stars for my fortune in life all in a matter of hours.

Ocean S. Fencl

This is me at La Plage de Rabat.

While I found myself on an emotional roller coaster during my first few days in Morocco, I am grateful for the skills I was forced to learn almost immediately. Some of these skills were simple:

  1. Do not stand in a single file line at the store if you want to get served.
  2. Do not assume a car will stop for you, or as I like to think about it, assume every car wants to hit you.
  3. If someone offers you tea in their house and you say no, you will still get tea.

I have noticed that Moroccans are very hospitable. They aim to please their guests in all ways. Offering their customary drink upon entry to their home is second nature, but they are also very insistent. We had just finished up a big lunch with more food than I could finish, and I was offered tea at the home of one of my friends. After saying “no thank you,” I found a glass in front of me. It was then I remembered the warning we got at orientation: You must insist multiple times if you do not want something in Morocco. No does not always mean no and yes does not always mean yes here. It is going to take some getting used to, but the tea was delicious and I am very happy I was misunderstood.

Chellah S. Fencl

This it the Chellah in Rabat, the Roman ruins located in the city.

Other skills were not as easy to grasp:

  1. Do not smile at random strangers on the street.

Growing up in the Midwest, I was constantly instructed to smile and say hello to passersby when in public. I never assumed that this would be taken in a completely different way in another country. Saying hello to a man on the street is seen as an invitation to a conversation or even a date. After understanding this new cultural norm, I found myself walking the streets with a scowl on my face in the attempt to avoid any unwanted attention. I still find myself smiling from time to time out of habit, but I am quickly getting the hang of it.

Language is the most useful skill of them all. I have no clue what is going on around me 99% of the time, but that 1% is an improvement. I do not intend to leave this country after four months having achieved fluency in Arabic. I don’t even expect to say I am close to fluency. I do want to walk away knowing that I learned something. If that is having a conversation with my taxi driver for five minutes in Arabic, or reading a children’s book with ease, I will be happy. This program is about so much more than language acquisition. I know that my constant miming to get my point across will come to an end, but I also know my struggle with the language will never stop. I just want to adapt linguistically and culturally by immersing myself. Next week I am starting my classes for this semester. I am thankful for this week of orientation, but I am ready to jump in and get started!

Chellah 2 S. Fencl

This is the entryway to the Chellah.

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Morocco, Rabat, Shante Fencl

Introducing Elyse Desrochers – Spring 2016 Morocco Blog Abroad Correspondent

Sitting in my living room, looking out at the snow banks and piles of ice that Mother Nature dumped on my hometown of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and thinking about the not-yet-unpacked suitcase from my last semester abroad that is collecting dust upstairs, I cannot believe in a little over a week I’ll be flying across the Atlantic to spend 4 months in Rabat. It’s a surreal feeling- especially because a little over two weeks ago I returned from a semester in Paris, and just now feel as though I conquered reverse culture shock. I only just got used to seeing people in sweatpants in the grocery store, only just readapted my palate to accommodate the taste of American bread, and I only just stopped accidentally saying words in French that I meant to say in English (I get it, I sound like a snob. You will too after you study abroad, it’s inevitable). How am I going to go through culture shock all over again?

I suppose that before I get into all of that, I should introduce myself. Elyse Desrochers here, a Bostonian turned Washingtonian (DC), turned (fausse) Parisienne. I grew up in a suburb outside of Boston, where I experienced a quintessential American small town life up until the age of 18. It’s this quintessential American small town life that first made me catch the travel bug. After 18 years of the same routine in the same place, I felt I needed to switch it up. I moved to DC, where I’m a student at Catholic University (THE Catholic University of America, if you want to get technical), majoring in Political Science and French, and focusing on Middle Eastern Studies. I love DC and all that comes with it- the most agonizingly slow metro in the world, the weekend brunches, the cherry blossoms in the spring, and of course, the politics. But after two years I was ready to say goodbye to DC and bonjour to my next adventure, Paris. And now, after saying au revoir to Paris, I’m saying salaam to Rabat.

Blog 1 Photo 1 - Elyse Deroschers

My sister and I in front of the US Capitol in DC. I’m on the right.

Aside from traveling, I have many interests and even more wanna be interests. I love learning languages and I love the idea of being able to have conversations equally-well in many different languages. This makes me very jealous of anyone who know 3 languages just because of where they grew up, like Europeans or a lot of Moroccans, and it makes me angry that French, which was my grandparents first language, was not carried on to my generation. My hope is to learn as many languages as is possible. I’ve even started every language on my duolingo app, so I’m basically already there, right? I’m also a yoga fanatic, which my disgruntled roommates will tell you all about. (There may have been some incidents where I woke them up because I fell out of a headstand onto a chair). I also love outdoorsy things- like kayaking, hiking, paddle boarding, or skiing. Camping falls into the wannabe interest category- I really want to like camping but the only sleeping in tents I’ve ever done was in my backyard as a kid.

Blog 1 Photo 2 - Elyse Deroschers

Taking in the view on top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

My biggest interest is meeting people from different cultures and becoming more aware of other cultures. I’m sure that you could have guessed it, since I’m dedicating a year of my life to it. A lot of people ask me why I want to go abroad to two different places, and especially why I want to study abroad in Morocco. When I was first looking into study abroad, I really just couldn’t narrow down my options. One of my biggest goals was to improve my French- so France seemed like the obvious answer. But I had also been studying Arabic and really wanted to devote some time to learning one its dialects. In addition, I wanted to have an experience in a country that is culturally very different from the United States and Western culture. That’s not to say that study abroad in other Western nations has little value. Studying abroad in Paris was one of the most important learning experiences of my life to date and was an extremely valuable experience. However, I personally find it very important to explore other ways of living and learn about how perspectives differ and are similar around the world in various cultures. I do think that studying in Rabat will give me a very different perspective of life and allow me to explore cultural differences in ways that would not be possible in a place like Paris.

Sometimes, when I think about the next four months in Rabat, I feel very calm and not at all apprehensive about what my experiences will be like there. I think that already having studied abroad has helped prepare me for this. Paris was like dipping my toe into the pool, it warmed me up for what comes next. Rabat is like jumping off the deep end. Other times, I’m a bundle of nerves. I realize that I know how to study abroad. But I know how to study abroad in Paris. Not in Rabat. And there are so many things in Rabat that I don’t know. I’m not going to be a master bartering in the souk the first day, I’m going to get lost more times than I can count, and I’m going to make a lot of cultural mistakes that will be really embarrassing. The only thing I can do is embrace the fact that I don’t know anything, I will make mistakes, and I will be embarrassed at times, but that I’ll come out of this with one of the most valuable learning experiences of my life.

See you in a week, Rabat!

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Filed under Elyse Desrochers, Morocco, Rabat, Regional Studies in French

Introducing Shanté Fencl – Spring 2016 Morocco Blog Abroad Correspondent

“Shanté is a world traveler! She is going to study in Moscow for a semester!” I try to correct my mother and sister as they talk to their friends about my upcoming adventure. Even when I tell them I will be in Morocco, not Moscow, I can still see the excitement in their eyes. They may tell people the wrong destination, but just to say I will be on my way to a distant land makes them proud.

Blog 1 Photo 2 - Shante Fencl

My name is Shanté Fencl and I am a 21 year old college student from a small town just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. I am a junior at American University in Washington, DC studying International Relations with a focus in the Middle East and Northern Africa. My favorite things to do involve acting, testing how much coffee I can have in a day, and watching an overwhelming amount of TV shows. I also love exploring the beautiful state parks of Ohio with my friends, and singing (poorly) in my car as we drive around on Midwest roads. Above all, I love to travel. Ever since I was a little girl my dad would teach me how to navigate my way around my state. Now I am preparing to find my way in a place I have never been before. I am writing this blog to record my semester abroad in Rabat, Morocco with AMIDEAST. In just a few days I will get on a plane to start this new chapter of my life and while I am very excited, I am so nervous. The inability to communicate in Arabic is what scares me the most. I know my language skills will improve, but those first few weeks are always the hardest.

The concept of study abroad is not new to me. I was an exchange student in high school to a town outside of Mantova, Italy. I lived there for a year with a family that spoke no English and my level of Italian stopped at “ciao,” and “pizza.” The experience not only allowed me to become fluent in Italian, but I walked away with a new home and a new family. I still go back to visit them often and I talk to them just as much as I talk to my natural family. I guess you can say this is my major motivation for studying abroad this semester in Morocco. I am looking for an opportunity to create another home away from home. Having friends and family from different cultures allows me to see the world from multiple perspectives, and I can’t wait to see what will come of my time in Morocco.

Aside from gaining a new perspective and making new friends, I hope to give something back during my time abroad. This semester of my life will not only have an impact on me, but those that I come in contact with while on program. I want to give them a glimpse into my culture as well. I already plan on bringing along tons of buckeyes, a chocolate and peanut butter delicacy in my home state of Ohio. But sharing culture is about so much more than passing out sweet treats, it’s about being a representative of what it means to be from that place.

Blog 1 Photo 1 - Shante Fencl

This is a photo of Ohio Buckeye chocolate candies.

Representing my nation is one of the reasons I decided to study abroad in the Arab World. I want to bring a positive image of my country abroad, all while showing my friends and family back home the beauty of different cultures. This is why writing this blog is so important. I encourage all of you reading this to follow me along my journey and see for yourself the wonderful things you can discover outside of your comfort zone. I invite you to watch as this story of mine unfolds, even if I, myself, have no clue what is in store for me. I guess we will find out together! Before I get on that plane, I want to say thank you to my family, friends, teachers, and supporters. I could not have made it here without you.

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Morocco, Rabat, Shante Fencl

The Final Countdown

Knowing that I’m about to leave a place I’ve loved makes all the little idiosyncrasies that used to go unnoticed become suddenly the most important details in the world. My final week in Rabat passed in a haze of lasts: last train ride, last tea and “la vache qui rit” cheese with my host family, last couscous and henna. Now that I’m finally back on the sofa of my family’s house in Massachusetts, it’s finally hitting me exactly how long I have been away (for someone used to trimesters seventeen weeks in one place feels like a decade) and how much, in the cliché words of every study abroad brochure ever, this experience has changed me. For one thing, I can now converse comfortably and relatively confidently in Arabic. I have also become much more friendly in my greetings, something I hope to continue even now that I am back in America. I’ve discovered that in this regard at least a little effort goes a long way and asking people how they are doing is almost always a net positive exchange.

Post 10 Photo 1 - Mika Chmielewski

Already missing my wonderful host family and roommate.

There are, of course, all the small details of Morocco that I am already beginning to miss: kissing friends in greeting, the call to prayer, taxi rides, even the messy sidewalks and lack of personal space. But in a more general sense, Morocco has taught me to not fear the unknown. While I have traveled before, lived alone, organized my bank account, I have never before dealt with such a large onset of new quantities at once. When you grow up in a place, the customs come naturally and the big things get learned slowly, sequentially. But when you jump to a new continent, a new language, it’s like growing up seventeen years in seventeen weeks. I went from learning complex integrals to learning how to buy conditioner.

Post 10 Photo 2 - Mika Chmielewski

Enjoying snails and corn in Casablanca.

Beyond the mundane details of daily life, this term has taught me to embrace the unknown in an even broader sense. I went to Rabat without knowing what I was getting myself into, and yet everything turned out just fine. Human beings are resilient; we can get through all sorts of situations. I have learned throughout my travels to trust myself and to rely on my own judgment. I have also learned a lot about the kindness of strangers. From the man who offered me his food on the train to the one who helped the lady next to me when her coat got caught on the door to the complete stranger who held my friend’s hair back when she was throwing up, people have been overwhelmingly considerate and generous.

Post 10 Photo 3 - Mika Chmielewski

Yellow slippers in Zawiya Ahnsal.

I am glad to be home. I am glad to see my family, my cat, and yes, Mom, even that terrifying advent elf. But I wouldn’t trade these past few months for anything, not even a lifetime supply of pastries from Abtal, my favorite bakery in Rabat. I am going to try my best now that I am home to not be one of those annoying people who only talk about their study abroad experience and who relate every conversation back to “when I was in Morocco…” But I also know how hard this is going to be because I have so many amazing stories of Morocco. Morocco has definitely changed me. It has become a place I cherish, and a place that I want to share with anyone who is interested in listening.

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Mika Chmielewski, Morocco, Rabat

Four Months Later

Most evenings I take a taxi home from school and most evenings I repeat the same few phrases about what I am studying and where and why. I have overcome any initial inhibitions I had about sounding silly when speaking Arabic, and I make sure to greet taxi drivers enthusiastically whenever I’m getting into a cab. One distinct difference I have noticed between the interactions with strangers that I have had in Morocco and America is how much more outwardly friendly, or at least willing to engage with others, Moroccans tend to be. Not only in taxis do people chat amiably; people entering train compartments always greet everyone else and anytime I meet host family members or friends we always kiss once on each cheek, or sometimes twice on the second cheek. These small pleasantries might occasionally seem tedious, but I have found that they generally put me in a very good mood.

Post 9 Photo 1 - Mika Chmielewski

A typical city hanout, corner store, supplying everything from bread to shampoo.

Having to explain my existence at least once a day is a good way to practice Darija (Moroccan Colloquial Arabic), or Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) depending on the taxi driver, and it also forces me to reflect on who I am and why I really am here. Because it’s a good question. The woman I spoke to in a taxi the other day was thrilled I could understand her, but also explained that we American college students are doing the opposite of what many Moroccans do. Her sister is learning English in the hopes of studying in America, whereas I am here in Rabat learning Arabic. Beyond the simple fact that I wanted to study Arabic in a country where the language is actually used, my reasons for coming to Rabat include wanting to experience a new place and to push myself to learn about a different culture, one that on the surface appeared vastly different than my life at home.

Post 9 Photo 2 - Mika Chmielewski

A delicious Moroccan breakfast with harcha, a type of fried bread, as well as a variety of jam, cheese, olives, and other toppings.

Before coming to Morocco, I read about the country and learned what I could about Moroccan life, but there is no way to really understand a place without being there in person. One of the most important aspects of study abroad for me has been being able to experience firsthand many of the complex aspects of Moroccan culture, at the same time as I am taking classes about this culture and language. For example, though I knew about basic ideas such as bargaining and drinking sweet mint tea before living here, I knew nothing about the complex history of Amazigh identity in Morocco until talking to my host family and visiting Zawiyat Ahnsal, a rural Amazigh village in the Atlas mountains. Or I knew only the basics about the political system until visiting Parliament and learning firsthand how representatives from all different areas of the country are elected.

Post 9 Photo 3 - Mika Chmielewski

In front of the Parliament building in downtown Rabat.

So when taxi drivers, or other passengers, want to understand why I am here, I usually just tell them I am studying Arabic. But what I really what to say is more complicated. I want to explain to them that I believe now is an extremely important time to be here, that by studying a language and discovering a culture that is at first glance so different from my own, we are furthering our own college educations but we are more importantly finding connections between people and reinforcing our empathy and humanity. There is still, and will always be, much about Moroccan culture that I don’t understand, but after nearly four months of living in Rabat the rhythms of life here have become more natural to me. I have gone from worrying about how to ask my host mom to pass the milk to having a deep conversation with my Fusha professor about the role of women in different societies. Morocco will never be as familiar to me as the small Massachusetts town I grew up in, but after having lived and studied here I can confirm that there are more similarities than I realized.

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Mika Chmielewski, Morocco, Rabat