Tag Archives: food

“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

“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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Filed under Dan Dan Fitzgerald, Morocco

How is Morocco different from the US? by Sofia Deak

As my first month in Morocco comes to an end, I am starting to be accustomed to life here. I feel more comfortable with the food, am able to have an entire conversation in Darija with my host mom (albeit with many mistakes, I am sure!), and easily know my way around Rabat. As I talk to my friends and family from home, I am constantly posed with the question of “How is Morocco different from the US?”

Initially, I brushed this question off as way too broad to even begin to tackle. “In many ways they are the same!” I usually reply. Mothers walk their kids to school, taxi drivers honk in the streets, couples stroll together by the beach. I am very accustomed to looking for ways in which I am the same as other people; it is in my nature and part of my personal philosophy to focus on shared values and traits rather than the things that divide people.

However, as I have thought more about this question, the more I have come to realize that it needs to be answered. Many friends and family members expressed their shock and worry when I told them I was planning to study abroad in Morocco — a response that baffled me, as all I felt was excitement and some nerves. A cousin asked me if I would be forced to wear a veil while in Rabat, and my doctor asked me why I was not studying in a “safer” and “more Western” country. These questions, I have realized, come from the lack of an answer to that greater, vaguer, question of how Morocco and the United States differ. Even highly educated Americans might be confused about life in a Muslim-majority country and what that life might look like for a twenty-year-old American college student with a Christian upbringing.

So, with only a few weeks experience to draw on, here are a few special moments that strike me as distinctly Moroccan:

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Each Friday, my host family gathers with cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents for a couscous feast, chatting for hours before the meal without the distractions of cell phones or television. This is pretty foreign to me, because my family is spread out all over the US and only gathers like this for major holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving. I was amazed and touched by the closeness of Moroccan families. My family loves to dance, and oftentimes my host sister Fatima Ezzahra plays music on the TV so she, her cousins, parents, aunts and uncles can all dance and sing together in the living room . . .

One late Sunday night, I arrived at the train station with friends, returning to Rabat from a weekend trip to Essaouira. It was dark out and pouring rain; a woman sitting in our train compartment insisted on driving us home, making sure we got inside safely, and invited us to share a meal with her family. She even gave us her daughter’s phone number so we could meet some Moroccans our own age (Rim is a university student in Rabat, like us) . . .

Upon seeing my friends and I walking around in the rain, a woman rushed out of her shop selling wood crafts and dragged us indoors. She pulled a large plastic tarp from a back room, cut it into five equal pieces, and made a hole in the middle of each — homemade ponchos for us all! She gave us tea, saying we reminded us of her daughter, and sent us on our way . . .

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These are just three examples of the Moroccan values of hospitality, friendship, and family that the people here seem to really exemplify in their day to day life. I feel very lucky to be studying in such a welcoming, friendly country, and want everyone reading my blog to know that these outward acts of kindness are just one of many things that makes Morocco so special!

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Filed under Area & Arabic Language Studies, Morocco, Rabat, Sofia Deak

“That’s a Wrap!” by Shante Fencl

Five days have passed since I left my life in Morocco behind. This is exactly how I feel, as if a part of my life decided to stay there wandering the streets of Rabat while the rest of me got on a plane. After I said my goodbyes (that are actually just “see you laters”) and shed more than a few tears with my friends, I got on a train to the Fez airport to board my flight. As I made my way through the train cars with my luggage, I continued to think of all the people I met over the past four months. Every face that entered my mind was accompanied by a memory and it made me want to burst into tears. I sat down in my seat and immediately pulled out my headphones to block out my thoughts with music, but as I searched my purse I realized I left my headphones at AMIDEAST! I did not care much about the headphones (that were already broken) but without music I had to face my fear of being alone with the thought of leaving Morocco.

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Rooftop overlooking Casablanca.

At that moment, a woman next to me asked me why I was going to Fez. In Arabic I responded with the word for “airport,” trying hard not to show interest because I did not feel like talking to anyone at the moment. The woman continued to talk to me and eventually her husband entered the cabin. They could obviously see that I was travelling alone and wanted to know my story, so I had to build up the strength not only to force conversation, but to do it in Arabic! The couple spoke no English and I knew within a few minutes I would exhaust all the Arabic I know and they would stop talking to me; but, to my surprise, almost an hour had gone by and I was still conversing without issue! My spirit had been lifted by the realization that I had accomplished one of my most important goals: I can carry on a conversation in Arabic! We talked about culture, food, politics, religion, and family. Each minute that passed made me feel as though I had done something great with my time abroad. This was the ending I needed to wrap up my experience in Morocco. I left the country proud of what I accomplished.

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Me with two of my closest friends Alae and Sam.

I did not return to the US after leaving Morocco. Instead, I am in Italy with my Italian host family from when I went abroad in high school. Every year or so I come back to spend a month with them. I always planned to come to Italy after leaving Morocco and then return to the U.S. from here, but one of my best Moroccan friends invited me to celebrate the end of Ramadan with his family. Yes, this mean I will return to Morocco in less than two months!!! Now that I know I will be back in Morocco so soon, I have something to look forward to. But I am afraid to see what happens after I leave the second time. I don’t know where my life will take me after graduation next year, but now I know I have a place in Morocco if I choose to return. These four months have given me so much. I am so grateful for the opportunity.

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My little Italian cousin Beatrice and I finally reunited

Now that I have completed the program, and therefore this blog, I want to thank you all for following along. It has been an honor to share my experience, and I hope I have inspired those reading to do the same! Until next time!

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

“Relearning Table Etiquette” by Elyse Desrochers

Food. Like dance or song, its ability to unify extends beyond the limits of border or language. Good food is good food, no matter if you’re American or Moroccan, English speaking or Arabic speaking. B’neen. Delicious.

But there is one thing that gets in the way of food’s mystifying power of unity: table etiquette. Just as food brings people together, table etiquette rips us apart. I often feel confused or at loss for how to properly navigate different situations involving food, so I’ve decided to piece together some of the most puzzling table etiquette situations that I’ve experienced so far.

  1. Explaining food allergies

Ahh Morocco, the land where food allergies rarely exist. Food is fresh, all-natural, and organic, without the hassle of going through the certification process to prove it and the soaring cost. Without all preservatives in food (and I am sure lots of other scientific reasons that are above my understanding of the immune system), few Moroccans have allergies and many don’t understand what it means. A typical conversation with a Moroccan who is offering me food that has nuts in it goes like this:

-Here, please, take some

-Oh, thank you very much, but I’m all set.

As they hand you the food with nuts, “No, just take some, no problem.”

-Thank you but I can’t, I have an allergy. I can’t eat nuts.

They stare blankly at me and wait for me to explain.

-It closes my throat. I can’t eat nuts, or I have to go the hospital. I could die.

Often, this same conversation happens two or three times. Eventually, they stop trying to serve me and decide that no matter what, I am not going to eat what they are serving me. This is the most common miscommunication I have experienced in Morocco. It is partly because Moroccans are so hospitable and do often serve me food. It is also because allergies are not common here and many people don’t know what they are. I don’t blame the people here who don’t know why I can’t eat nuts. On the contrary, I am often scared of offending the person offering me food. They often seem offended that I won’t even just try a little of what there offering me. I gladly would, if that wouldn’t mean heading to the hospital on a regular basis.

  1. When and where to eat on a shared plate

Traditionally, Moroccans share meals from the same large plate or platter. The group gathers around the table, and each person eats the portion directly in front of them with bread from their right hand. This is something you learn at the beginning of orientation.

Blog 7 Photos 1 - Tanjia - Stella Cooper (permission to use on Elyses blog)

This is Tanjia, slow cooked lamb. It’s a tradition dish in Morocco. Photo Credit: Stella Cooper.

If I am home for lunch, I eat with my family in this way. Typically, lunch is the most filling meal of the day, and we often eat couscous, tagine, or kefta. Couscous is small grains cooked in a delicious broth, typically with chicken and vegetables layered on top. Tagine is typically meat and vegetables slow-cooked in a sauce, while kefta is meatballs cooked in a sauce. These foods are all eaten from the same platter.

The first time I ate with them, I still had so many questions. I know you’re supposed to eat with your right hand, but I’m a lefty. I made a very big point of saying “I’m a lefty” during the meal so they would excuse me from eating solely with my right hand. I also wasn’t quite sure how to go about dividing up the portions. You eat what is in front of you, but do you leave a little bit of food in between your section and the next person’s section? How did my host mom so skillfully get the meat off the bone with a piece of bread? I tried and it took me 5 minutes.

Blog 7 Photos 2 - Couscous- Dorian Cupero (permission to use on Elyses blog)

This is Tanjia, slow cooked lamb. It’s a tradition dish in Morocco. Photo Credit: Stella Cooper.

I have gotten more skillful at eating in this style. It only takes me three minutes to get meat off the bone with a piece of bread, you don’t really leave food in between your section and the next person’s, and as long as I wash my hands before dinner, I don’t feel the need to constantly remind everyone that I’m a lefty.

That’s not to say that I’m sure of everything when it comes to table etiquette. Today, my host mother had set aside my dinner because I had told her that I was coming home late after finishing up some work. I go to sit and eat and look at my plate. It’s a normal dinner, plus one big addition. An entire artichoke. I looked at the artichoke unsure. While artichokes are eaten in the US, I had never seen a full one.  People always talk about artichoke hearts, so I was guessing what I had to eat was in the middle. But how would I get there?

I start to eat the rest of my dinner, too hungry to think about my artichoke problem. Finally, I’m about halfway through my meal. I decide now is the right time to ask. I head to the living room, get my host mom’s attention, and ask her to show me how to eat it. She laughs and has me bring it over. She and her sister show me to put the leaves in my mouth and scrape the part you eat off with your teeth. I head back to the table, and start scraping away. But, not wanting to make her think I wasted any of the good part, I slowly and carefully scrape each leaf.

A long time passes. She comes in to the kitchen, and to her surprise, sees me with my artichoke.

Elyse, you haven’t finished yet?! She asks in disbelief.

-It takes a long time!

-Elyse, you have to take a bunch of leaves at a time! Well, it’s fine, just put it on the counter.

Her voice carries the hint of exasperation.

The best way to handle miscommunication concerning table etiquette, from my experience, has been careful observation and asking when necessary. But, as in the case of the artichokes, even that can backfire.

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

“Rabat: City of…” by Elyse Desrochers

They say that every city has a personality. New York is loud, crass, the city that never sleeps. Paris is romantic, nostalgic, the city of lights and love. Humans breathe life into a city and the city emanates the life its people have given to it. So what’s the personality of Rabat, my city? This question doesn’t have one clear answer. From what I observed in Rabat, there are at least four different personalities that have evolved and molded together to form the city as I know today.

There’s Chellah, an ancient roman city. This sight is the first remnant of civilization in Rabat. While today Chellah lies in ruins and the government has converted it into a historical site, its history is that which marks the debut of permanent settlement in the Rabat area. Walking around Chellah in present day, it’s hard not to imagine that a woman, or a child, or a Roman soldier has also walked along the same path centuries ago.

Blog 5 Chellah - Deroschers, Elyse

What I think of next when I think of Rabat is the Kasbah of the Udayas and the old medina. The Kasbah is a walled city that sits along the Atlantic Ocean. It was built during one of the first dynasties of Morocco. Walking through the Kasbah, with its pristine white and sea blue houses and the sound of waves crashing in the distance, it’s impossible not to think of the place as a sort of refuge to the people living during the dynasty’s reign. Walled to protect its people from war, pirates, and conflict, the Kasbah represents a tumultuous period of Rabat’s history. Like the Kasbah, the old medina of Rabat is a walled city. Upon entry, every product imaginable is at your fingertips, as long as you’re willing to haggle for it. Soaps, perfumes, clothes, carpets, lighting fixtures, leather products, and artisan goods are available at the shops of the medina. Street food is always beings sold, and the smell of roasting chick peas and chestnuts fills the air. The old medina is the heart of every city in Morocco- the point from which the rest of the city grows. It represents the evolution of this century old city and Morocco’s uncanny ability to safeguard its culture and tradition as it evolves over time.

Blog 5 Kasbah of the Udayas - Elyse Deroschers

The Ville Nouvelle, or the new city is yet another part of Rabat that forms its personality. The Ville Nouvelle was built as a separate entity to the city by the French during colonization. It’s wide streets and terraces mark a change from the winding streets of the old medina, but it nevertheless has become a part of the city itself. The Ville Nouvelle reflects the values of a European city- shops with mannequins displayed in the windows and clothes being sold at fixed prices from European and American brands, cafes with large terraces ripe for people-watching. French is the language of menus and billboards. Walking around the Ville Nouvelle, it’s hard not to think about the impact of colonization on the country and the way in which it continues to impact the city during the postcolonial era.

The Ville Nouvelle was built as a separate entity from the medina of Rabat, destined to be a place exclusively for French citizens that came to live in Morocco during colonialization. However, since independence, Moroccans have reclaimed this neighborhood as their own and continue to expand the city around it. This reclamation of a place once built to exclude them is a huge part of how I see the personality of Rabat and other Moroccan cities. Morocco is place where cultures collide- African, Arab, Mediterranean, European. These identities express themselves in different parts of Rabat- Chellah, the Kasbah, the Old Medina, the Ville Nouvelle, and the growth of the city since independence. It’s the ability of Rabat to claim each of these identities as its own, to mold them and form them in its own way, that culminates in a multi-faceted Rabat personality.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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