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On sexual harassment and safety

The debate over the new TSA screening procedures has reached the shrillest heights of internet shrieking and blanket coverage by the major media. This morning, CNN is interviewing John Tyner, aka Mr. "Don't Touch My Junk."

I doubt my two cents will add much to the firehose, but I still want to say my piece.

I've received airport pat-downs. The American version, where I'm pulled aside and my body briskly checked for concealed items, as well as the Middle Eastern version, where I'm taken into a closet-sized room by a woman who put her hands firmly on most of my torso and legs. She knew how easy it is to hide small items inside a bra, but was able to search in a way that was professional and left me reassured that my flight was safe.

All of which is to say: I'm not morally opposed to pat-downs. In fact, after the most thorough one I got in an American airport, I made a point of stopping by the supervisor's table and saying that the (male) guard who had searched me had been professional and courteous in what couldn't have been a comfortable experience for either of us, and I wanted him to get recognition for doing a difficult job well.

Two weeks ago, I experienced one of the AIT scans while en route to DC for the Rally to Restore Sanity. Advanced Imaging Technology. Sounds so innocuous, doesn't it?

I'd never heard of them before, and had no idea what to expect - I may be a journalist, but I don't own a TV, so I still miss a lot of "what's current in America" - but as an experienced traveler, I obediently took off my shoes, emptied my pockets of everything, from keys to chapstick, stepped on the indicated squares, put my hands on my head, and waited.

I felt the strangest combination of pressure and vibration. The phrase that came to mind was that the air was ionizing around me, but I've forgotten enough chemistry that I don't even know if that makes sense. I just know that I felt the concussive force of something invisible, like I'd gotten a few-second version of standing in front of a speaker at a rock concert, combined with a buzzy, trembly, vibrating sensation that I imagine Star Trek's transporters would feel like (if someone ever invents them).

And then it was done. I took my hands down, put my keys and chapstick back into my pocket, and went off to my gate, trying to shake off the feeling that I'd walked through a wall - or that a wall had walked through me.

I now know that I'd been bombarded either by millimeter wavelength electromagnetic waves (seems likely, given the sensation) or by X-ray backscatter. Both are designed to render an image of my body under my clothes, so someone in a nearby booth or room got a view of me that I don't give to strangers.

Though I hadn't known it at the time, I'd had an alternative: if I wanted to opt out of the digital strip search, I could go for the non-digital equivalent, which the TSA euphamistically refers to as an "enhanced pat-down". This isn't the back-of-the-hand quick check of American airports in past years, nor is it the firmer palm-and-fingers search I got in Jordan and Egypt. (Morocco, interestingly, sticks to metal detectors.)

The "enhanced pat-down" gives TSA agents the right to fondle, grope, and rub my body. My whole body. Yes, that part, too. Through my clothes, true, but it's still a level of physical intimacy that I am absolutely not comfortable with.

My ACLU interviewee has observed that the sheer invasiveness seems designed to "drive" people to the AIT scan, which, given the options, does seem like the lesser of two evils. When TSA began pilot testing the AIT machines, 98 percent of passengers, presented with the choice of a big scary box and a groping, chose the big box.

But what has American passenger fear come to that we're choosing to let a stranger view us naked?

When I spoke to a Fourth Amendment scholar last night - being a journalist does have some perks, and one is that world-renowned scholars take my calls - he made a lot of points that I didn't want to hear, because I was clinging to the idea that this is an unreasonable search, performed without a warrant.

But the precedents he saw were in DUI checkpoints, where drivers give an "implied consent" - that is, as I learned in my high school legal studies course, where the act of driving on the road is a choice, which includes an implicit consent to take a Breathalyzer or walk a straight line when asked. Flying, the professor said, is a similarly chosen activity that provides its own implied consent to jump through whatever hoops the government deems necessary. "You don't have to fly," he kept saying.

But I live 3000 miles away from my loved ones, I kept silently retorting. I don't have enough vacation time to drive or take the train.

Sometime in the century since the Wright Brothers worked their Kitty Hawk miracle, air travel has come to feel like a right, available to anyone who can afford it.

And now my right to see my loved ones is confronted with the public's right not to have planes blow up.

The professor talked about the "balance" between society's interest and the individual's privacy interest. The only ground he gave me was just how very invasive this search is.

The ACLU spokesman I spoke with (who was actually waiting for my call - my job is pretty awesome) pointed out that neither the scan nor the pat-down can reveal anything concealed in a body cavity, nor is it particularly good at finding liquid explosives, which are therefore the logical next steps for terrorists. And I really, really don't want to imagine what security will look like after the first time a terrorist hides a bomb inside her body.

On Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, thousands of passengers (of the nearly two million who will fly that day, according to the ATA spokesman who, yes, took my call) are planning to opt out of the digital strip search in a form of not-exactly-civil-disobedience, but a show of civil obedience that will cause delays, longer lines, and, most importantly, show people who may believe that this is all just media hype that Americans are being groped in airports.

As one young mother said, after she was sexually assaulted by a TSA agent (and the agent's boss acknowledged it as assault only because the agent didn't tell the mother exactly where her hands were going to be, before putting them there), TSA agents are now freely encouraged to do things to American citizens, not charged with anything, without a shred of probable cause, that soldiers are prohibited doing to enemy combatants seized as prisoners of war.

After two years in Morocco, I've had every surface of my body fondled at least once, always by a stranger, usually in a crowd.

Not surprisingly, the regular gropings and grabbings and fondlings left me feeling remarkably unsafe.

I never thought the American government would repeat the process, in the name of my safety.


RPCV: Ragamuffin Peace Corps Volunteer

Saturday, I volunteered at Boston's Head of the Charles, the biggest regatta in the world. (Or so they claim, though I had a South African fellow-volunteer assure me that the Henley Regatta in England is still the biggest.)

Knowing that I'd be outside, on the water, exposed, for about 10 hours, I dressed carefully.

For the first time since leaving Morocco, I layered on multiple sets of long underwear, and kept layering up.

As I walked towards the subway in the chill predawn, I realized that for the first time since starting my new job (ie since buying work-appropriate clothing), I was dressed completely in clothes that I'd brought back from Morocco.

Two sets of long underwear: check
Thermal jacket: check
Polar fleece: check
Jeans: check
Hiking boots: check
SmartWool socks: check

And moreover, as I'd noticed while dressing, these clothes are RAGGED.

I wore. them. out.

Life in the Peace Corps is hard on clothes. I tended to wear them a lot of times between washings, and then to wash them, I'd soak them overnight (which is hard on the fibers) and then scrub the bejeebers out of them (which is hard on everything). But what damaged even more of my clothes than the heavy wear and tear and washing? Burns. Between sitting too close to my heater, wrapping myself around my heater, carrying my heater from one room to another, and using my sleeves as hot-mitts in the kitchen, I managed to burn virtually every piece of clothing at least once.

I'd forgotten this till I got dressed Saturday morning, and kept finding more damaged bits.

My favorite blue jacket? Hole in the forearm. Bigger than a quarter, smaller than a ChipsAhoy cookie.

My beloved green fleece? Sleeves mostly destroyed with multiple burns from (ab)use as hot mitts.

My trusty jeans? Hole near the hem from sitting too close to the fire. It used to be the size of a nickel, but it's growing.

My stalwart hiking boots? Scuffed and stained and trim-torn-off. Oh, and I'd forgotten that I have the slipperiest laces in all of creation: I have to quadruple-knot them, and they still tend to come untied every few minutes. Square knots, too.

And so on.

As I tromped in my trusty (abused) boots towards the T, I couldn't escape the conclusion that I was one raggedy-looking PCV by the end of my service.

And yet it seemed so normal at the time...


9/8/10 English is my native tongue. I mean my mother tongue. I mean ... wait ... my first language?

"Why does that not surprise me?" I typed in a quick message to a friend.

And then I looked at it.

Something was off.

I didn't know what, quite, but definitely something.

I said it again, in my head.

One more time.

I shook it off and tried to regenerate the sentiment.

"Why am I not surprised?" floated into my head.


Nailed it.

I erased my first fumble and wrote in the correct American idiom.

You know, I worked really hard not to lose my English.

I blogged most days. I watched American-made movies and TV shows on my laptop. I talked to my fellow PCVs.

And yet.

Yesterday, in my job as a cub reporter, I was rewriting somebody else's headline. The point of the story was that life is hard in Vegas, and people are moving out in droves. I toyed with some variation on "Leaving Las Vegas" and then thought of the phrase "Las Vegas goes bust."

And then I stared at it.

Goes bust?

Things go BOOM when they explode. But do they go bust?

I knew I was thinking of that expression from that card game where you lose when you go over 21. Was that 'going bust'? No. Yes. No.

I gave up.

I turned to the cubicle next to mine and interrupted my long-suffering co-worker (long-suffering, 'cause I interrupt him a lot) to ask, "You know how when you're playing that game, with the, um, Blackjack!, when you're playing Blackjack and you keep hitting and you go over 21?" He nodded. "Is that called 'going bust'?" He nodded again. "Are you sure?" I persisted. He nodded a third time.

I thanked him, and then felt compelled to explain that the idioms are just hard. My vocabulary is mostly intact, though I still grope for esoteric words sometimes, but idioms... Idioms are all about turns of phrase, and my phrases tend to twist and writhe, these days. They never sound right, whether I've caught the American expression or not.

And to be honest, it's not just the esoteric words. It's all the ones that don't get used commonly. Today, not three hours ago, I spent a few seconds trying to come up with the word germ. I was describing Lord Jeffrey Amherst's use of smallpox as an agent of biological warfare, so the word was necessary, and I just ... couldn't ... find it. Instead, gene kept coming in its place. I knew the words looked similar, had the same general shape, but no... And of course, the right word arrived.

Which idioms still sometimes don't do.

Am I the only one who finds that odd?

Or, I mean, who thinks it's weird?

Bloody American English. ::sigh::

9/7/10 On dwindling Arabic

A moment ago, I sneezed and an acquaintance who happened to be passing by said, "Gesundheit."

I thanked him, and then murmured to myself, "Rhummikallah...humdullah."

Which are, of course, the Arabic phrases for sneezes.

I'm not even sure of the literal translation of the first one, because people only ever use it after someone sneezes. It would be like a Martian visiting America and concluding that "God bless you" means "Oh, hey, you sneezed."

Rhummikallah what somebody else should say when you sneeze. You, post-sneeze, should say humdullah, to express your gratitude for ... I don't know, still being alive or something.

(I didn't say I actually *understood* the God-phrases, I just know how and when to *use* them.)

On the whole, though, moments of involuntary Arabic have steadily dwindled.

Last night, half asleep and on the phone, I murmured, "Mashi mushkil" when I meant "It's all good." They mean the same thing, and in my somnolence, the wrong one floated to my lips.

But other than those - the sneezes and the sleepies - I don't think I've spoken Arabic (let alone Tamazight) in a few days. Well, OK, last night at dinner I was telling a friend about some Moroccan history, and referred to the Amazighn and their language Tamazight. Which gave me a chance to roll my throat a little, which it likes.

Who knew I would miss the physical experience of speaking my crazy language?? The tongue rolls and throat rolls and throat flexures and such things that simply aren't used when speaking English.

Yesterday, I said, "Guten nacht" (and yes, it fit in the context of the conversation, but it would take too long to explain how), and realized that for the first time in a lifetime of (very sporadic) attempts, I can say it correctly. I had a sudden impulse to start singing "Silent night" in German, just so I could keep using that ch-ch-ch sound.

I can't wait to start wishing people Happy Channukah. Maybe I'll start baking challah and offering it to friends at work.

Maybe it's time to find an Arabic class around here after all.


8/21/10 Welcome to Boston

Tonight, I went to a "Games Night" at a friend's house. After several hours of Metro and Apples2Apples and Rock Band, those of us taking public transportation said goodnight, and headed back into the city.

We peeled apart, to our separate destinations, and I found myself alone on Boston's T. (For non-Bostonians: formally known as the MBTA, or Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, the public transportation system is informally known as "the bus" for the bus and "the T" for the subway/elevated rail system.)

A few stops down the line, a group of girls in little black dresses and strappy sandals clambered on. They'd been at a bachelorette party, and were now headed back to their hotel. Some hijinx ensued, and after they got off, those of us still on the T had a rare spirit of conviviality. I got off with several of them, and said a cheery goodnight as they headed to the buses and I started walking back to my apartment.

I'd checked the route repeatedly on the map, but there was one critical decision I needed to make. I needed to walk west, NOT east, ie in the direction of Massachusetts Avenue. So when I got out onto the street, I took a minute to figure out the compass points, and then head west. But I wasn't 100% sure of my process, so asked the first car I passed (driving in the other direction on a divided road, so as to ensure that he couldn't possibly follow me afterwards - City Living 101) "Is this the way to Mass Ave?" He confirmed that it was, so I continued briskly down the road.

A few intersections later, I saw a car pulled over to the side of the road. A beefy fellow - a textbook example of a Joe Sixpack - said, "Mumblemumble Mass Ave?"

I pointed the direction I was walking. "Mass Ave is this way," I announced with confidence.

"Ih day toe ya kah?" he continued.

I stared at him. Why was Joe Sixpack suddenly speaking Japanese? As though he expected me to understand it??

But I still wanted to be helpful, and the last thing I'd understood was "Mass Ave?", so I reiterated, "Mass Ave is up that way."

He tried again, with all the tolerant patience of the village women who had needed to repeat themselves for their poor pale friend. "I easkt," and suddenly I heard the thick Boston accent, and began calibrating my ear for it, "Did day toe ya kah?" And this time I understood him. Did they tow your car?

Turns out the same skills that helped me decipher the mumbled language of my illiterate neighbors are helping me here in Beantown.

I smiled and shook my head. "I'm walking from the subway," I said, gesturing back towards the T stop, now several blocks away.

"OK, well, bee kayuhful, sweedaat," he said. Be careful, sweetheart.

I smiled and thanked him and continued on my way, with a prayer of thanksgiving in my heart for all kind-hearted souls. I made it the next few blocks peacefully, exchanging greetings with the other folks still out on the sidewalks ("Weyah's the paaty?" "There's no party,"), and then let myself in through my wrought iron gate, suddenly so reminiscent of the steel door I'd lived behind during my years in Morocco.

I pulled it locked behind me with the same sweet comfort of knowing that I was home - for however long or short this apartment remains my home.

At no point in the half-mile walk had I ever felt unsafe, despite the hour, the setting, or the presence or absence of others on the street. Instead, I'd received help when I needed it, kind words from a stranger, and friendly conversation with some folks who'd blown their tire across the street.

Welcome to your first Saturday night in Boston, little Volunteer!

8/20/10 The "Real Arabic"

I'm settling into a new neighborhood, and therefore still learning my way around, learning the local amenities, etc.

The other day, in my first walk-about, I saw a sign saying "INTERNATIONAL FOODS". At first I walked by, since I was making a beeline for a major chain grocery story I'd heard was just up the road, but I glanced in as I strode by.

It took a couple seconds to register what I'd seen: two women in head scarves.

I stopped, turned around, and retraced my steps. The two women - apparently a mother and daughter, based on resemblance and interactions - seemed relieved and thrilled to have a customer.

I started shopping, and the overeager daughter (whose English is the best in the family, and so takes on the bulk of the customer relations) followed me around the store, chattering nervously. I stocked up in the spice section, because everything was so cheap! (Americans spend waaaaay too much on spices. 4 to 8 dollars for a small jar?? Go to any international foods store and get a small plastic bag with at least as much volume - and usually more - for a DOLLAR. It's still more than spices cost me when I bought them in souq, when this amount would have set me back 2 dirhams, or about 25 cents.)

When I went to check out, the mom and daughter started squabbling about the prices. I think the mom wanted to give me a discount so I'd come back again, but the daughter wanted to drive a harder bargain now.

I didn't catch every word (but then, I never really did in Morocco, either), but I did understand the numbers.

When they said, "Tlat", meaning 3, I echoed it. The daughter looked up at me. The mom had already turned to go into the back of the store, and I don't think she heard.

"I speak a little Arabic," I said. The daughter's eyes grew wider. "Shweeya, mashi bzzef," I added. A little, not much.

"That's Moroccan," she said flatly.

"Yes, I lived in Morocco for the past two years."

"I speak the real Arabic. I can't understand Moroccan."

I admit, I was put off by her high-handedness, but smiled and said, "Yes, Darija is different from Classical Arabic. But at least you recognized it. You understand some."

She seemed to find such an implication insulting, and went back to calculating my tab. I started asking a few questions. Turns out the shop is owned by an Iraqi family who have been in America for two years. The daughter's accent is the lightest Arabic accent I've ever heard. I had to listen carefully to even realize that there *is* one, because I'm so used to listening through much thicker Arabic accents.

By the time I was done, the mom had come back to the front of the store. As I left, I said to her, "Shukran jazillan." Thank you very much.

Her daughter tossed off a careless, "Afwan." You're welcome.

But the mom's face lit up in a way I haven't seen since Morocco, with the incredulous joy of finding a fellow language-speaker. It's a widening of the eyes and a dropping of the jaw and a radiance that suffuses the features. I hadn't realized till I saw it just how much I've missed it. How much I loved surprising people by treating them as members of a shared community, when they expected the condescension of the high-handed tourist to the local peasant (or, in this case, of the citizen to the immigrant).

As I walked out the door, the mom rushed forward a few steps to call, "Salaam-u alaykum!" Peace be upon you! With a big smile, I called back, "Wa alaykum as-salaam." And also with you.

Welcome to the neighborhood, Kauthar. :D


8/18/10 Employment

The continuing adventures of your favorite RPCV [that's Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, to those of you just tuning in]...

Emerging from the Peace Corps into America is daunting enough under the best of circumstances, as I've outlined in these posts. Emerging into the worst economy since the Great Depression ... has been its own challenge.

Virtually none of the RPCVs who finished with me, 3 months ago yesterday, have a job right now. Some are about to start graduate/nursing/business/medical school. Many, actually. But many others are caught in the same joblessness as 10-25% (depending whose numbers you believe) of Americans.

Which makes it kind of remarkable that I have found a job. Alhumdulillah! I'm so very grateful.

But that means that future posts are likely to be about issues facing me at work and at home. My home here in America. Since I created this blog to write about Peace Corps, I feel like I'm bait-and-switch-ing y'all.

I considered starting a new blog, for my new career...but all my friends and relatives [[and some loyal fans who are neither, but who I hope I'll get to meet someday. Seriously, people, introduce yourselves]] know this address and it seems unnecessary to abandon it just to start over.


You'll be hearing about my new adventures, as a journalist in Boston. I haven't yet decided whether I'll link to any stories I write (for publication). That would mean surrendering the anonymity I've clung to for three years.

But for now, let me just say how much I've appreciated all my readers. I don't know who you are (unless you've told me), but thanks to Google Analytics, I know how many of you there are. Knowing that y'all were reading me helped my service immensely. I can't tell you what it meant to know that I had a connection, however tenuous, to the world beyond my mountain village. That people cared about my ongoing experience.

But if you only signed on to hear Morocco and/or Peace Corps stories, I understand. Feel free to go on your way. No hard feelings. I hope you've gotten what you wanted out of my ramblings.

And for those of you sticking around...thanks for sharing my journey.

In the words of the immortal philosophers Calvin & Hobbes:

It's a big world out there. Let's go exploring!


8/19/10 Kalima

When I moved to Berberville, 27 months ago, one of the first people I met was a tiny little girl that Ama introduced as Kalima (left, with her sister and mine).

"Kalima" sounds like the word kalimo, which means word, so I figured her name was a reference to the holy scriptures in the Qur'an. It occurred to me later that our village's dialect blurs the distinction between l's and r's, and that the little girl's name might be "Karima", a common Arab name.

But since I never saw it written - her mother, like Ama, is illiterate, and even after the child started school, I never asked her to write her name - I simply had to pick a mental spelling, and I've always thought of her as Kalima.

Kalima's mother is Rebha - one of a thousand women in the area to carry that very common Tamazight name. This particular Rebha is Ama's next door neighbor, and her closest friend. Their daughters pour into and out of each other's houses, playing and giggling at all hours of the day and into the twilight. Kalima is the youngest of the girls, and tends to follow Noora and Fatima around with the eager delight that I remember following my big sister around with myself, when I was 5 or 6 like Kalima. (Ages are usually vague, too, because dates are as hazy as written words for the women in my village.)

Whenever I think of Kalima, who I haven't seen in three months, I first remember her sparkling eyes, dancing with mischief and innocence and delight. Sometimes all at once. I've never seen such bright eyes. They glowed with some inner radiance.

Next, I remember her ready smile, with its tiny white milk-teeth. Rebha is one of the better cooks in Berberville, but refined sugar is rare (except in tea!), which might explain why Kalima's teeth remain perfect, without benefit of western impositions like a toothbrush.

Many Berberville children were wary of the tall pale foreigner, but Kalima - like her older sister, Noora - accepted me immediately. After a long day of children clamoring for my attention or begging for candy, it was always restful to run into Kalima on the path by Ama's house, and relax in her undemanding presence.

Kalima and Noora could be found underfoot at Ama's house at least as often as any of my own little brothers and sisters, so she shows up in several of the pictures I shot in my host family's house. Here, she and my sister are reading (or at least looking at) books I brought back from Rabat:

I also took a few deliberate portraits of her on the day of my cousin Lucky's wedding, because she was dressed in her sparkling new caftan (and apparently trying to focus on a mote of dust a foot in front of her ):

For reasons that I never understood - despite repeated painstaking explanations using lots of words I didn't understand - one of Kalima's neighbors decided that he wanted to buy brand new caftans for Kalima and Noora, for the wedding.

Kalima in her new caftan:

Caftans are an Arab import into my Berber village, but they're hugely popular at weddings. Made of satin (or shiny polyester), embroidered with bright patterns, and often liberally sprinkled with sequins, caftans are long, tightly belted garments that manage to cover a girl or woman from neck to wrist to ankle, while still showing the general curves of her body and flowing gracefully with her movements.

Every young woman needs at least one caftan to wear to family weddings - and *somebody* gets married almost every summer evening in my little town. Of course, the entire town is always welcomed at any wedding - whatever you're wearing - but relatives of the bride or groom are expected to dress up. And in Berberville, wedding dress code = caftan. For women, anyway. For men, it's simply the white tunics they wear to pray in the mosque.

Wealthy young women own more than one caftan, plus girls tend to loan them out as freely as my friends swapped our gel bracelets in elementary school, so pretty much anyone who wants to dress up for a wedding will be able to.

The little girls aren't quite as lucky. Since little girls everywhere grow like pretty little weeds, buying custom-tailored garments that can only be worn a handful of times before they're outgrown doesn't make sense to most families. So little girls whose sisters or cousins are getting married usually have to make do with hand-me-down caftans, belted and cinched within an inch of their lives.

At our cousin Lucky's wedding, my little sister Fatima was one such cinched figure, tripping over a hem that trailed a good six inches on the floor, and nearly drowning in a garment meant for a girl at least twice as wide as my stick-thin sister.

But Kalima and Noora got brand-new, custom-fitted caftans. I think because their neighbor is related to the family of the groom, who is connected in some truly round-about manner with the mother of the bride...? Yeah, I never did figure out exactly how they scored new caftans, but that didn't stop me from beaming happily (and snapping lots of pictures) as they paraded around town in hand-tailored finery.

Here's Kalima (second from the right) and a bunch of other sleepy girls at Lucky's wedding. This picture was taken around midnight, when the festivities had been going for about 8 hours and had another 4 or 5 hours to go...

Why am I spending so much time talking about my tiny friend Kalima? Who I met when she was 4 or 5 and who I knew only two years?

Because last week, for no reason anyone could discern, Kalima lay her tiny body down, curled up into an implausibly small ball, and died.

Children die all the time in the Third World, usually from preventable illnesses. I'm truly grateful that none of my tiny friends passed on during the two years I spent in their village.

But that blessed bubble has now burst, and Kalima's shining eyes have closed for the last time.

Ajaar akom Allah.

8/18/10 Yuf Kauthar

A few days ago, I spoke to my host mother for only the second time since leaving Morocco.

I miss her.

And she misses me.

My little brothers and sisters mostly miss my cookies. :) Or at least, so Ama tells me. "They like Hassan [my replacement Volunteer]," she assured me, "but they liked you better. He doesn't bake us cookies. They miss your cookies.

"Today," she continued, "Mohammed [my oldest brother] was reminding me that when you came for l-ftor, you always brought cookies. Usually chocolate chip cookies, and sometimes ones you bought in Souqtown. 'Kauthar was better than Hassan is,' he said. 'Her cookies were great.'"

We shared a laugh. I confess I felt a little smug that, while Hassan has moved into my old bedroom in Ama's house, and my old apartment on the other side of town, he hasn't completely supplanted me in the hearts of my family members.

But if he figures out my secret chocolate-chip cookie recipe, that may change... ;)

8/1/10 D'oh!

Homer Simpson made famous the staccato "D'oh!", the exclamation of surprise and embarrassment and recognition-of-one's-own-failings, often accompanied by a face-palm.

I've had a fair number of D'oh! moments in my months back in America.

Moments where my Moroccan expectations don't line up with my Western reality, and leave me feeling like I've got egg on my face.

Like the time I headed over to my favorite coffeeshop in Amherst, MA, USA. Starting my day in a cafe/coffeeshop feels entirely normal to me, since I started most Souqtown mornings in my favorite cafe there, sipping a cup of hleeb b shokolat (hot cocoa, or literally milk with chocolate). That cafe also had the cleanest bathrooms in all of Souqtown, so I often arranged my mornings such that I could take advantage of them. Of course, being the cleanest and best in a small rural town still didn't include such over-the-top, luxurious amenities as toilet paper or soap, so I was always careful to bring my own. This particular sunny day in Amherst, as I strode through town en route to a delicious hot beverage, I suddenly realized that I'd forgotten to put any tissues in my pocket. I stopped in the middle of the street and started to turn back. And then - D'oh! - I realized that American bathrooms HAVE their own toilet paper.

A month later, I made breakfast for my sister and her housemates in northern California. I made one of the staples of my Moroccan mornings, pancakes. In the past two years, I've made enough pancakes to have long since memorized the recipe (which I take disproportionate pride in). So this sunny California morning, I scooped out the floor, sprinkled in the baking powder, poured in the milk, cracked the egg, tossed in the salt and sugar, measured the oil, then dusted in my favorite sweet spices (cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves and ginger) and whisked it all together. Humming under my breath, I ladled the batter into the frying pan, grateful that my sister's house, like my Berberville home, has a gas-powered stove. At least *something* is familiar. Round about the fifth or sixth pancake, I poked a finger in the dough and took a taste. The instant wrinkling of my features must have been comic. The batter was almost inedibly salty. I ran through my mental list of ingredients and confirmed that yeah, I'd used the right proportions. So whence the Dead Sea saltiness? And then - D'oh! - I remembered how, when I first started cooking in my Berberville kitchen, I found that I had to put three to five times as much salt into everything as I was used to, because the kosher salt (halal salt, technically) available there is soooo much weaker than the American variety I'd grown up with. So my mental Moroccan recipe included over a tablespoon of salt for each cup of flour. A TABLESPOON. While the recipe, made with American ingredients, should have needed no more than a TEASPOON. ::sigh::

Another time, in the same kitchen, I was making spaghetti for two. My sister walked in and asked why I was boiling the water in a 10-gallon stockpot. I blinked, looked at the pot, looked at her, looked at the pot again, and said, "Because it was the pot on the drying rack." Sis pulled open the cupboard doors to reveal at least a dozen pans (with their lids!) of every shape and size. Speaking as slowly as I'd been thinking, I said, "I'm used to making do with whatever pan is around. Most of my PCV buddies only own one or two pans, and most Moroccan housewives only two or three. You just ... use what you've got." My sister stared at me, her expression a mix of bemusement and compassion. "It really never occurred to me that there might be another pan around," I concluded, sheepishly. D'oh!

I swear, I became a good cook in Morocco. But nearly every time I've tried to prepare food here, I've run into another D'oh! moment. The ingredients are different. The tools are different. I'm 7,000 feet lower in altitude, so even the air is different. I've gone from being a skilled cook to barely able to boil eggs. ::sigh::

Shweeya b shweeya, little Volunteer, shweeya b shweeya...

7/1/10 Haggling in the Chinatown Souq

The first time I went to Chinatown, it was in New York City. I felt quickly overwhelmed by the foreign smells, sights (Is that really a carcass hanging in the butcher shop?!?), crowding, noise, bustle, and general feeling of barely controlled mayhem.

I've been to a few other Chinatowns since then - DC's has a special place in my heart - and then I spent two years in Morocco. Which, while not Chinese, has its share of open-air markets (called souq), complete with carcass-y butcher shops and dishonest vendors, adding up to its own style of a haggling, shoving, bustling mayhem.

So when I went to San Francisco's Chinatown a little while ago, instead of feeling out of place, like in my first NYC attempt, I found myself simultaneously homesick and right at home. Homesick for Morocco, where I learned to master the souq, to haggle with the best of them, to sneer at unworthy merchandise in hopes of scoring more worthy products...

Plus, some of the products were similar. Like the scarves. I had a two-year love affair with Moroccan scarves, and brought a few dozen back with me. And here, in San Francisco's Chinatown, I found hundreds more in the styles I've come to love! I looked at the prices, wrinkled my forehead, and quickly converted the prices into dirhams. Then my eyes widened with the delight of a shopper who's found a deal.

I did this a few times, for various products, before really consciously realizing what I was doing. And then I had to laugh at myself.

When I first came to Morocco, I converted prices into US dollars, to make sense of the incomprehensible dirhams and riyals. (Riyals are worth 1/20th of a dirham. It's like giving prices in nickels. I, like so many other Moroccan PCVs, am now capable of remarkable mental math feats as long as they involve multiplying or dividing by 20.)

And now, freshly back in America, I'm coverting prices into dirhams, to know if I'm getting a fair deal. Because I have no idea what scarves are supposed to sell for in America, but I know exactly how much I can get them for in Morocco. (25 dirhams apiece in Essaouira, 20 if you find the right guy in the Fes medina, and 40 in Rabat where they're made of better quality fibers. Tourists typically pay 5 to 10 times these prices, but that's 'cause they don't know what they're doing.)

I was in Chinatown with my sister and a friend, who looked up to see what I was laughing about. I explained it to them. My sister the scientist, always looking to make rational sense of the universe, loftily announced that this was entirely normal, and due to the fact that I'd had more scarf-shopping experience in Morocco than in the US. She's not wrong - I don't think I've ever bought a scarf in America - but that's not the whole answer, either. It's about familiarity. Comfort zones. Associations. Chinatown, with its bright colors and rapidfire negotiations and delicious smells, feels more like souq than anyplace I've been in a long time. So of course I'm going to react like I'm in souq - with a sharp eye for a bargain, a savvy sense of fair prices, and a comfort level in, yes, Moroccan dirhams.

In a related note - America money feels like play money to me now. Much like the multicolored Moroccan money did when I first got there. (20 Dh notes are purple, 50's are green, 100's beige, and 200's blue. These last are sometimes called "Big Blues" instead of "Two hundreds".) While I was away, American money changed color. The 5 turned purple. The 10 turned orange. The faces grew and shifted their locations slightly. The 1's retain their classic appearance, but have the buying power of dandilion fluff. How long have I been gone?!?


8/12/10 Mbruk Ramadan!

Ramadan has started, stirring up a host of emotions.

I miss breaking fast with my host family each evening, racing the setting sun across town as I hasten to get there before the moghreb prayer call announces the end of the day of fasting.

I miss the food that the women of my village serve for l-ftor, the fast-breaking meal: dates that my province is justly famous for; olives from the south; cookies (shebbekia and store-bought cookies and whatever else they'd concocted in their kitchens); sweet, herbed, milky coffee (the only time in my life I've drunk coffee without gagging on it); assorted nuts; crepes and pancakes and other bread products, served with honey and jam and oil; and the piece de resistance, fatbread. Mmmmm, fatbread. After you're stuffed, the hostess brings out the second course: harira, the delicious and distinctive creamy Moroccan soup with tomatoes and lentils and short noodles and beans and a dozen other tasty bits. Oh, and the drinks: milk and banana milkshakes and beet juice and fresh-squeezed orange juice...

I miss my large family crowding around a small table, hands and arms reaching past each other as everyone grabs bits of their favorite foods. I miss Ama ladling out a special serving of harira for me, since I'm the only one in the room who doesn't want a bit of meat floating in my bowl.

I miss the constant invitations from everyone in town to share their l-ftor meal. (You get extra brownie points if you share the meal.)

I don't miss the long, hot, thirsty afternoons without water.

Or hanging out with PCV buddies who aren't fasting and who therefore make it that much harder for me. (Let alone the PCVs who try to sneak food in public, to my abiding embarrassment.)

I don't miss the stepped-up efforts to convert me to Islam. You're fasting? And you pray? Praise God! You're practically Muslim already! Just repeat after me: 'There is no God but Allah...'

I don't miss people assuring me that it's healthy to starve all day and then gorge on cookies. (For the record, shebbekia, while delicious, are basically less-puffy glazed donuts. Make pie crust dough, twist it into a pretzel-like knot, deep fry it, dip it in liquid sugar, and then (if desired) sprinkle it with sugar or sesame seeds. Really NOT the best thing to jump-start your intestines with, after a long, dry, hungry day.)

So here I am, in America, after observing Ramadan - ie, fasting and then breaking the fast - for two years. And this year, I'm not fasting. Ur da-tazumagh. Which I feel sporadically guilty about, knowing that the migrating lunar calendar** means that this year is even hotter and harder for my observant friends than last year was.

I'm keeping an eye out for Ramadan foods, but haven't found them yet. My best lead - a restaurant owned by a Moroccan! - went out of business a few years back.

But I'm keeping hope alive. I *will* find fatbread before the month is out. Somewhere, somehow...

** Ramadan, like the rest of the Muslim calendar, uses lunar months, which don't align perfectly with the solar years of the western, Gregorian calendar. This means that each year, Muslim holidays come 10-11 days earlier than they did before, when scheduled on a western calendar. So my first Ramadan filled the month of September, last year's was late August to mid September, and this year's is early August to early September. Etc. In the next few years, Ramadan will continue to march backward through the summer months. Imagine maintaining a pure abstention from any water or any other beverage through the heat of a 130*F desert afternoon...


7/14/10 Giant Stores

I'm getting better at giant stores.

[[Giant stores = Target, Walmart, Safeway, CostCo...even a CVS or Walgreens if it has enough aisles.]]

I haven't attempted a mall yet, though. I didn't like malls even before Peace Corps, and my experience with stores tells me that I'm not likely to enjoy them any better, now.

The first time I walked into a giant store, fresh out of Morocco, I got dizzy. Lightheaded. Kinda lost it, a little bit. I couldn't find the edges of the store. Or even of the ceiling, because the shelves rose so high. I felt myself entering a foreign realm, whose edges reached off my mental map. Here, there be dragons.

Commercial dragons.

Who breathe fiery lies about the need for near-infinite selection.

At these giant stores, I can buy anything. Anything that has ever been dreamed of, constructed, and had a pricetag slapped onto it, anyway. And if they don't have it in stock, they can order it for me. (Or I could go home and order it online, myself.)

The number of choices available in these places ... blows my mind.

In Morocco, I'd count myself lucky if I found an American soda that wasn't Coke. ('Cause yeah, Coca-Cola has encircled the globe. Many, many times.) Here, grocery stores devote entire, 50-yard-long aisles to their soda selection. Same with shampoo. Or deodorant. Or ... sponges. Laundry detergents. Frying pans.

How do people make so many meaningless distinctions?

How much mental energy is devoted to distinguishing between essentially identical products, none of which we actually need??

In Morocco, I discovered that products labeled "shower gel" cleaned my hair at least as well as those labeled "shampoo", and usually better. It's handy, only having to bring one small bottle and a towel, and knowing I'll get nice and clean.

So when I stare down the shampoo aisle - or worse, wander through the shampoo maze in a drug store - I'm stunned both by the extraordinary number and types of products, as well as the very idea that people feel the need to have this selection.

Same with cereal.

At one point, when describing my reactions to an RPCV friend, I heard myself use the phrase "temple to consumerism."

Maybe it's because I've spent some time wandering ruins in northern Morocco (once Mauritania, a province of the Roman Empire) and in Rome and Jordan. I've seen temples, built to long-forgotten gods.

And the giant edifices screeching BUY HERE BUY HERE are almost as imposing. They certainly try as hard as any ancient culture to bully me into accepting that their vision of the universe is the correct one. That I'm a deeply flawed mortal, in the hands of an awesomely powerful authority, who will condemn me to eternal torments if I don't have this month's shoes.

(Forget sacrificing a bull - they've taken care of that step, and the ones after it, the sacrificing and butchering and tanning and rendering into steaks and belts and burgers and motorcycle jackets and ... shoes.)

So, yeah, I'm avoiding the mall. And while giant stores no longer make me dizzy, it's because I've gotten better at tunnel-vision. If I make targeted runs for whatever items I planned to buy, I can resist the crushing waves of the oceans of options roaring in my ears.

But I miss my corner hanut, with the limited selection that never felt overly limiting. The entire shop was probably 10 feet across and 15 feet deep, and my friend Ali knew every inch of shelves, and could find anything for me with a smile - or explain that no, he didn't have it, with a somewhat more rueful smile.

I remember complaining about the pressure-to-buy from overeager merchants (which Ali never was, lhumdullah), but it pales in comparison to the pressures that the multi-trillion-dollar commercial enterprises bring to bear.

I never thought I'd say it, but ... I think I miss souq.


7/2/10 One Step Forward...

Two steps back.

Or at least it kinda feels like that.

Last night, I hung out with some RPCV friends. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, with whom I'd shared a year or more of my service.

When we set up our plans for the evening, my friend happened to say, "Marhaba!" - one of my favorite Moroccan words.

And I felt a pang. I felt nostalgic and homesick and relieved and excited and grateful, all at once. Because I was finally talking to somebody who understands my crazy language.

When we all got together tonight, I felt a muscle unclench. Not a physical muscle, but a mental one. The tight rein I've been holding over my reflexive use of Tam and relaxed. Released. Freed.

I could drop phrases like, "Aynna trit," As you like / Whatever, or "Msh irra Rrrbi" If God wants, or even "Tnghayi taghufi l-Moghreb." I miss Morocco.

And as I used these expressions, and my friends understood them, I realized how hard I've been clenching this mental muscle.

It's like when you step into a jacuzzi and feel yourself relaxing body parts you hadn't even realized you'd been tensing. That same feeling of unexpected restfulness and ... peace.

I've been trying to act like a "regular American". Like I think in English all the time. Like I find cars and billboards and central A/C perfectly normal.

And I like to imagine that I've been pretty convincing at it.

But I do miss speaking my crazy language. I miss using those muscles in my tongue and throat. I miss hearing others speak it. I miss having people around who share my memories of crowding into a taxi, or battling miscellaneous transportation struggles, or haggling in the souq. Who understand what a blessed miracle hot running water is.

I understand now why RPCVs tend to gravitate towards each other.

Which is why now, this morning, I'm off to see them again. :)


6/24/10 Missing Morocco

So I've been in America almost a month now. (One month tomorrow, actually.)

And I already miss Morocco.

I don't miss everything. I don't miss the ice-cold tap water, or the never-ending language confusion.

But I do miss ... so many little things.
I miss my baby brother's smiles.
My host mom's hugs.
And her cooking.
Especially her couscous.
I miss seeing people light up when they realize I speak their language.
I miss the pace of my self-structured days.
I miss walking. (Here, all transportation is car-based.)
I miss having people understand me when I speak Arabic or Tam. ('Cause I still do speak them both, if I'm not thinking about it; just now, my sister asked me a quick question, and my reflexive answer was, "Isul l-Hal." Which I then had to translate to, "Not yet.")

And I miss the physical intimacy of Morocco.

I know I've talked before about it, but it's probably been a while, so here's a refresher:

In Morocco, you have to greet everyone you see. And by "greet", I mean touch and speak to. If you walk into a crowded room, you take a minute to walk around and greet everybody. (Unless it's really crazy-crowded, in which case a quick wave at the crowd can suffice.) If you pass a friend on the street, you stop. Extend a hand. If it's an opposite-gender friend, a quick touch of the fingers passes for a handshake, and you ask about each other's well being, then move on. If it's a same-gender friend, you grasp hands, kiss each other's cheeks, and keep hold of each other while you ask about each other's well being, the wellbeing of each other's families, friends, etc. Then you might even kiss cheeks again before saying goodbye.

And when you're sitting in a room with someone of the same gender, you sit *with* them. In each other's personal space. Usually touching them.

I miss that.

The firm press of a friend's/sister's/neighbor's leg against mine as we sit cross-legged against a wall. The weight of a little one leaning back against me.

When I first got to Morocco, I found myself oppressed by all the constant touching. I craved personal space and alone time. I still need both of those things, but now only in moderation - and I now find myself craving the friendly physical contact that is so readily shared in Morocco.

And couscous.

I really miss Ama's couscous.


6/22/10 Goal 3 Plug

As I've mentioned before, the Third Goal of Peace Corps is to share world cultures with Americans. In other words, help Americans broaden their perspective beyond their own borders.

And tonight, I have an opportunity to do that.

I know I have some loyal readers in Northern California. If you're free tonight, come to the Arden Branch Library in Sacramento, where I'll be speaking (along with a couple other RPCVs) from 6 to 7:30. Marhaba!

For logistical information:


6/13/10 10 Words I'll Miss

Earlier, I handled a honeydew melon, and murmured, "Aftiikh...just one of the many words that I'll probably never use again."

I spent two years trying to learn a language that's not used outside of Morocco, and not understood by most of the folks there, either.

And while I don't mind letting go of shpulel (snail) or abkhosh (black), there are a few words that are just SO HANDY that I'm going to miss them. Or maybe stubbornly insist on using them, despite the confusion and communication FAIL that results...

1. Marhaba. Usually translated as welcome, marhaba means a wealth of things. Make yourself at home. What's mine is yours. Help yourself. Be my guest. Do what you will.

"Hey, can I get the last cupcake?"

"I'll be in your town next weekend."

"Is this seat taken?"

2. Safi. This one short word (almost rhymes with "coffee", but the vowel is more of an ah than an aw) means enough, I'm all through, that's that, I'm done, that's all she wrote, etc.

"No more couchsurfing for me. Safi."

To a vicious pest (whether beggar child, harassing male, or overzealous clerk): "Safi! Safi-safi-safi."

"Hey, did you ever get that massive project finished?"

3. Yalla. It's used in all the ways that "Let's go" is in English. We're leaving now. Hurry up. Hey, c'mon already. In Iron Man, the bad guy uses it with his minions, when they're not working fast enough to please him.


4. Kif-kif. Same thing. Same deal. Same difference. It's all the same. Whatever. I don't care.

"Do you want ice in your water, or not?"

"Are you on Team Edward or Team Jacob?"

5. Maashi kif-kif. NOT the same.

"Folks keep saying, 'Ooh, yes, I've been to Morocco. It's just so Westernized!' And I have to explain that the tourist cities and the rural villages are maashi kif-kif."

"When I left for Morocco, phones had *numbers* on them. Now they're shiny blank plastic things. It's not a phone anymore, it's a Star Trek tricorder-communicator thing. Phone. Computer. MAASHI KIF-KIF."

6. Zween. Fancy. Pretty. Chic. Attractive. Deluxe. Elaborate.

"Ooh, check you out! You're all zween!"

"The public areas are full of zween features like 2-foot-tall cushions and store-bought rugs, but the family rooms have one-inch cushions and (imho, prettier) hand-made rugs."

7. Shweeya. A little bit. Also used in the expression "shweeya b shweeya", meaning "a little at a time" or "bit by bit" or "step by step".

"Are you readjusting to life in America?"
"Shweeya b shweeya."

"Do you want some more cake?"
"Shweeya, thanks."

"All the grass and trees growing everywhere make the air so oxygen-laden that I feel shweeya loopy half the time."

8. Inshallah. If God wills. As God wills. Idiomatically, hopefully. In Arabic and Tam, you can't talk about the future without adding the specific caveat that all plans are subject to the will of God. After 27 months, I can't make absolute statements about the future anymore. In English, I use hedges like, "I'm planning to..." or "I hope to..." or "Hopefully..."

"See you tomorrow!"

"Will you be in the Bay Area all summer?"
"Through August, inshallah."

"So Kauthar, you're going to go to America, find a man, and then bring your man back to Berberville so we can through you a big Berber wedding, right?"

9. Lhumdullah and al-humdulillah. Both meaning Thank God or Praise God, the former the more common, more informal version, the latter the more correct and more emphatic form.

"My father's cancer is in total remission!"

"I found that thumb drive I borrowed from you."
"Oh, lhumdullah, that's great."

"How've you been?"
"Lhumdullah." [Shorthand for "Fine, thanks to God.]

10. Bismillah. Technically, In the name of God, but idiomatically, it's more, OK, let's begin. When you start anything - a meal, a car engine, a journey, a new book - you invoke God's name, to establish that every action you take is done for God.

Climbing into a car: "Bismillah."
Taking the first bite of a meal: "Bismillah."
Taking the first bite of a really fabulous looking dessert: "Bis-miiiii-laaah!"

It's no coincidence that several of these are "God phrases". I *like* the God phrases, even more than most other PCVs. In America, at least in the major metropolitan centers where I've spent the past weeks, God's name isn't part of the educated white vernacular. In English, I feel like I'm taking God's name in vain if I say, "Oh, thank God!" or "God willing" or a half-dozen other expressions that I can routinely use in Arabic. And I *like* thanking God for all good things, and acknowledging that I'm submitting my will to God's, and all the other things that I can do in Arabic without a second thought, but can't do in English without feeling like I'm coming across as a "Bible-thumping Jesus freak," as one friend would say. (Yeah, you know who you are.)

Part of me wants to keep using these ten words/expressions, because they're just so handy...but the point of words, handy or cumbersome, is communication. And if nobody understands me, I'm not communicating anything.


6/12/10 On Re-Entry

I'm readjusting to life in America.

I still looooove hot showers, but I no longer flip out when I see *hot*water* emerging from the wall.

Tonight, I attended a fancy dinner, and while I did flip out over the leafy greens* (there was spinach in the salad, and swiss chard in the couscous!!), the table-full of flatware didn't bother me. (It helped a LOT that we only had one fork, one knife, and one spoon apiece.) We did each get two glasses, but there was still enough white space on the table that it didn't feel overwhelming.

Grocery stores are still overwhelming.

As are jumbo stores like Target and Walmart.

When I know I'm going to one of those, I plan ahead, take deep breaths, and carefully limit my field of view. I very deliberately shutter myself - add invisible blinders, so to speak - so that I don't see enough to freak me out. If I don't, and I let myself see the entire Temple To Consumerism, my pulse speeds up, my gag reflex engages, and I kinda hate America for a minute. (Seriously, people, how many kinds of white-flour-and-corn-syrup combinations do you need to eat breakfast??)

What else...

I almost never walk down the middle of the street anymore. Which is good, 'cause my friends kinda thought I had a death wish for a while, there. It's hard to make Americans understand that I'm more used to seeing sheep, donkeys, and pedestrians on roads than cars.

I still swoon over all the vegetation in America. I'm in the San Francisco area now, and I can't get over all the flowers and flowering trees. The air smells like perfume. The good kind of perfume. I'm breathing flower-laden, sea-level air...after two years living above 7000 feet, in near-desert conditions, this much oxygen (and *freshly*generated* oxygen, at that) kinda makes me permanently ... high. Happy and loopy, anyway. :)

I'm still bedazzled by how fast internet is in this country. I can upload photos in no time flat. I can watch streaming videos (which never worked for me in Morocco - they'd spool a few seconds, then get caught in a buffering loop they'd never emerge from). Ooh, hey, I bet Hulu will work for me now! I gotta get on that...

I'm still hopelessly out of touch with pop culture. Thanks to Facebook and PlanWorld, I've *heard* of shows like Glee and Dexter and all those vampire teen shows, but I've never seen a single episode, or even a preview for one. I've watched (far too much) downloaded movies and TV shows, but since I haven't watched American TV in 28 months, I really have no idea what's been popular. Who's Megan Fox, and why is everybody raving over her?

I don't trust my sense of style. I've spent two years trying to look like a potato. (It's far and away the easiest way to disguise the actual shape of my body: lots of layers of bulky clothes.) I've also spent two years in a different fashion culture, where women wear nightgowns as outfits, bathrobes as coats, and sequined capes as attention-getters. I think sequins are pretty, now. I know when I first got to Morocco, I found them tacky, but now they're just so shiny and zween!, which is why I no longer trust my own taste.

Alarm clocks. Unless I had a transit/bus/train/plane to catch, I haven't set alarms for two years. I tend to wake up when the sun makes it up over the mountains, around 7am in the summer, 9am in the winter. That's early enough for anything I needed to do. This whole obnoxious-noise-wrenching-me-from-sleep thing has GOTTA GO.

I'm still a little afraid of the dark, but more willing to recognize it for what it is, laugh at myself, and head out into the shadows anyway.

So, yeah, I'm adjusting. Bit by bit, day by day... Shweeya b shweeya.

*I don't remember if I've mentioned this before, but there are no dark greens or leafy greens in Morocco. The closest substitute is beet tops, and only if your veggie guy doesn't cut them off before putting the beets out for sale. There's no spinach. No broccoli. No kale. No collard greens. None of the frilly, nutritional kinds of lettuce. No lettuce at all, except for iceberg lettuce in the most expensive tourist restaurants. I'm hereby adding dark green veggies to the list of Stuff I Didn't Know I'd Missed.


6/1/10 Stuff I Didn't Know I'd Missed

When I was in Morocco, I didn't miss too much *stuff* from America. I've never been particularly materialistic (which drives people nuts when they want to know what to buy me for Christmas), and whenever people offered to send me care packages, I'd draw a blank as to what I wanted from the USA.

But now that I'm here, I keep seeing things and remembering how much I like them. I'm delighted to be reacquainted with things I didn't know I'd missed.

Like pretty cars. Most cars in Morocco look ... weathered. They're the rugged old cowboys of cars, the ones whose leathery, lined faces tell stories of thousands and thousands of hard, sun-drenched days. Replace sun damage with dents and dings, and you get the idea. But here in America, I keep seeing shiny MiniCoopers and classic Corvettes and VW Bugs (new and old, but all shiny and well-maintained). Cars that just make me happy.

And root beer. I hadn't realized how much I'd missed root beer until a year ago, when I was in the home of our Country Director, and he had a bowl of American sodas on the table (courtesy of the Embassy Commisary), and the root beer made my eyes bug out of my head and I found myself bouncing with excitement at the very idea of drinking some.

And bookstores. OK, I did kinda know how much I missed bookstores, but it wasn't till I walked into the Barnes & Noble on M St. in Georgetown - a store where I've spent many, many a happy hour - that I realized just how much. Smelling that unique scent of paper and ink, faintly overlain by odors wafting down from the upstairs cafe...hmmm... I felt positively lightheaded with glee. I spent hours wandering among the shelves, reacquainting myself with the printed English word, discovering what Americans are (apparently) buying these days, and rolling my eyes at the enormous Twilight exhibits. Bookstores make me happy.

And TREES!!!!!

I love my Berber village, from its scrubby prickly ifsi bushes to the top of its brown mountains, so I hadn't let myself dwell too much on what it lacks. Because while we do have poplars lining the stream/river banks, and a handful of apple orchards, Berberville is otherwise naked of trees. And nearly naked of grass. But here in America, trees are EVERYWHERE. So's grass. I'm getting drunk off all the fresh oxygen, and reveling in the profusion of green everywhere. These aren't carefully cultivated and irrigated lawns, or lovingly transplanted and handwatered trees...America's hillsides burst with a wild explosion of vegetation. (Well, eastern America. The great West is different, but I haven't gotten back out there yet.) I just can't get tired of it. I hope I never take it for granted, this profligate profusion of photosynthesis...

So, yeah, it's fun to rediscover all this. I think it's part of my generally positive disposition that I tend not to miss things when they're gone, but I'm still sooooo grateful to have them in my life again! :D


5/30/10 Cross-Cultural Moments

Some RPCVs have told me that re-entry to America is the hardest (or at least *one* of the hardest) part(s) of their service.

So far, my return has been smooth, but maybe it'll get harder as I get more settled in a routine so different from anything I've lived for two years. For now, I still feel like I'm on vacation. I've lived out of two backpacks for the past three weeks, and have traveled at least once every 2-3 days.

A few things surprise me - these plastic flat things y'all call phones (dude, what happened to the buttons!), the speed of cars on the roads, the willingness of folks to drink alcohol *in*public* - but I know those will seem normal soon enough.

But I do keep having moments of cross-cultural ... surprise? disorientation? confusion?

Little things, only lasting a split second.

Like when I hear a voice 5-10 feet away, speaking in American-accented English, and my head snaps up in excitement. ("Ooh, somebody I can talk to! From **America**!") And then I remember that oh, yeah, that's not extraordinary anymore. I'm *in* America.

Or when I see some long-inaccessible treat, like root beer, and get all excited, and feel that I have to buy it immediately. The other day, I wasn't hungry or thirsty, but I felt like I didn't buy the a can and stash it in my bag, I might not see another can of root beer for months or years. And once I'd convinced myself that yes, I can buy root beer *whenever*I*want*to*, I felt a little overwhelmed by the sheer availability of everything.

Or when I was halfway to the coffee shop where I'd said I'd meet a friend, and thought, "Oh, no, I didn't bring any tissues with me!" ...and then realized, Oh, wait, they'll *have* toilet paper in their bathrooms.

Or when I talk about the Moroccan city you know as "Marrakesh", and it takes me three tries to come up with the American-accented version of the name. (My Peace Corps buddies and I call it Kesh, which is how I think of it, but if I'm talking to a non-PCV, it's MarrrROKsh, and here I have to remember that it's MARE-uh-kesh.)

Let alone all the times I drop Arabic and Tam words into conversation, and then can't figure out how to translate them. For two years, everyone I've spoken English to can understand these handy little words, and now I get blank stares. Safi. Baraka. Inshallah. Marhaba. These words are *useful*, precisely because they don't have a direct translation. Their idiomatic connotation is the thing I mean to express...and I end up communicating nothing. Sigh.

So, yeah, there are a few bumps upon re-entry. But so far, I'm mostly just thrilled to get to see so many friends and loved ones again. :)


5/20/10 The Loiterers

Morocco is drowning in loiterers. If they hung "No loitering" signs, they'd half to arrest half the youth in the country. The male half.

While girls are expected to stay in the home, cooking and cleaning and doing various household chores whenever they're not in school, young men really have *no* demands on their time, apart from school. (Assuming they live in a place that offers school for people of their age, and further assuming that they haven't dropped out.)

Some percentage of young men are working, earning money to support their families. But in my experience, that's the exception. The rule is young men with nothing to do but hang around.

Thanks to the legacy of the French school calendar, school demands something less than six hours per day.

Some young men fill their leisure hours (and hours) with soccer, but most just ... hang out. Loiter. Linger over coffee and tea for hours. (This particular habit starts in the teenage years and lasts through adulthood and old age.) Lean on doorframes. Sit on curbs or front stoops. Gather around ... well, anything of interest, really. And then watch the world go by.

The cost in general productivity is nearly incalculable. Thousands of man-hours wasted in sheer idleness. The cost societally is that it's impossible to do *anything* in public without being observed (and, usually, commented upon) by this peanut gallery. And I mean anything. Walk down the street. Eat. Shop. Apply chapstick.

But sometimes there's an upside.

These loiterers always know what's going on. They're the human version of Wikipedia, at least as it applies to recent local events.

Today, May 20th, as I strolled out of Morocco (across the border into Melilla, a quasi-independent town controlled by Spain), the loiterers repeatedly protected me from my own ignorance, preventing me from making mistakes. They pointed the way through the bewildering array of checkpoints, half-finished walls, and idling law enforcement / customs officials.

And when I sauntered past the completely unmarked Border Control, the loiterers collectively shouted at me, "Al shtampa!".

My linguistically crowded brain replied with, "La timbre? Fin? Donde?" (The stamp? Where? Where? in French, Arabic, and Spanish, respectively.)

And they pointed and said, "Alli." (Ayi? As I've said before, I can speak some Spanish, but I can't write it *at*all*.)

A good 20 minutes later, on the bus from the border into downtown Melilla, I began dusting off my Spanish vocabulary. It was born in conversations in Middle School, when I compared notes from French class with buddies in Spanish class. My knowledge of the Spanish language was deepened, enhanced, and generally made useful by my years spent teaching in the Houston barrio. But it was from my own middle school days that I knew Aqui, Ayi, and Aya. (Or however they're spelled.)

The pieces clicked together.

I'd assumed they were saying some local variation on "Aji", which means "Come here!" in Darija. I figured that maybe since "Aji" meant come *here*, maybe "Ayi" meant go *there*.

But with my freshly reawakened Spanish making space for itself, I realized that these loiterers must have been Spanish-fluent kids who'd spent their lives loitering on both sides of the border. And they were telling me to go there - just as they pointed - to get my passport stamped.

Without their assistance, I'd probably have schlepped my 25 kilos of stuff a good half-kilometer beyond the border before finding an official who sent me back.

So for the first time in Morocco - and, I guess, the last time, since I was within moments of leaving the country - I found myself grateful for these loitering layabouts. There's a lot to be said for having knowledgeable folks with nothing better to do than help a stranger out. :)


5/23/10 Twenty-Seven Months

[[Yes, there will be lots of posts about COSing. Most are written, and just need to be typed up. But I'm only getting 2 hours of sleep tonight as it is, so I'm not typing them now. Just some thoughts from today...]

I've been out of touch for 27 months.

Not out of communication. Thanks to the miracle of teh intarwebs - with its gifts of Skype and email and Facebook and oh, yeah, my blog! - I've stayed connected to my loved ones.

But I'm out of touch with developments in America.

I hear about the big stuff. I watched Election Night and the Inauguration. I've heard about the tea bagger movement and the various economic crises.

But I've missed the other stuff. Like what movies have come out, and who's the latest "It Girl", and other things that honestly, I didn't mind missing.

I've also missed the recent waves of technology.

How much can change in 27 months?

A lot, it turns out.

iPhones. Dude, people can check their email and surf the web with their PHONES now. What's up with that!? Sitting in a cafe in Holland Park, London, I can confirm my flight and figure out how to get to Gatwick at 5am. Plus, with their built-in GPS and Google Maps and Enhanced Reality, people may never be lost again.

Computer chips embedded in ATM cards. This one's a bugger. I've been spending the remnants of my Peace Corps stipend, transfered into local currencies...but in order to get more funds, I need to use the ATM card attached to my American bank account. Problem is, my cute little twenty-seven-month-old card doesn't have one of these chips...which means that 90% of ATM machines reject it. Whoops.

Kindles. Which are just SO COOL. ::drooling::

How much can change in 27 months...

And in non-technology changes:

* The host cousin who was a silly 15-year-old when I arrived in Berberville is now married. MARRIED. (She's 17, he's 18. She met him the day before the wedding.)
* The host cousin who was a thoughtful 18-year-old is now married AND HAS A BABY BOY. (She's 20, he's 30. She met him TWO days before the wedding.)
* My host mom had a baby.
* My sitemate's host mom had a baby.
* My host aunt had a baby.
* My American nephews grew up from being a munchkin and an anklebiter to being a kid and a munchkin (respectively).
* I learned enough Tam to carry on complex conversations with nearly anyone. Well, any one of the 50,000 or so people who speak it. =/
* My American friends and cousins got married, had kids, graduated from their doctoral programs, and changed careers...without me being there.

Twenty-seven months.

In which I learned to walk down the middle of the street, how to eat *anything* with my hands, how to handwash anything, and other lessons that won't be terribly useful in the First World. (That first one has nearly killed me a few times already. Dude, you can't take me *anywhere*.)

Some cravings that have already been met:
* Mexican food
* Leafy green vegetables (including broccoli!)
* Seeing a movie on a screen larger than my laptop
* Lots and lots of cheese
* Root beer (including a root beer float!)
* Wearing a tanktop in public (and I have the sunburn to prove it - skin that hasn't seen sunlight in two years is *sensitive*, it turns out)

The "reverse culture shock" has begun. And will hopefully be of very short duration. :) 'Cause if I've learned nothing else from Peace Corps, it's how to deal with the unexpected with grace.


5/14/10 Berberville Says Goodbye

In its own, inimical style, Berberville has given me a goodbye present.

It snowed!

Yes, it's mid-May.

Yes, I had left laundry out overnight, since it was still damp after yesterday's clouds.

So, yes, snow piled up (about an inch deep) on every cranny of every recently cleaned garment.

But it's still the prettiest goodbye present it had to offer, and I'm taking it in that spirit.

And the sun came out this afternoon, so my clothes may yet dry before I have to pack them.

I'm leaving Berberville for the last time - for the foreseeable future, anyway, though I keep promising folks that I hope to return - in less than 24 hours.

This week has been filled with goodbyes - with PCVs and HCNs - and yet more giving away. Ama has a sister with eight children, so most of my clothes are going to them. (The thermals I'm not keeping are going to a newbie PCV, though.) I've made several dozen cookies, and have more to bake, 'cause that's part of the goodbyes, too....

Off for tea and cookies with yet another family!


5/8/10 Not all days are good days

When I was a child, I loved the book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day. Young Alexander starts by telling us:

"I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there's gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day."

Every once in a while, I know how he feels.

I went to sleep without doing the dishes and now they're all dried and crusty and when I woke up the water wasn't on yet, so I went back to sleep. When I woke up again, I made tea and yogurt with granola and sat down in the living room and then there was a knock on the door and I hadn't brushed my teeth or my hair or put on a scarf, so I put the dishes in the kitchen and opened the door and it was Ama.

And she reminded me I'd forgotten to do something and she tsk'd at me and she left while I sat down and took care of it. And when I finished I went to do the dishes but as soon as I'd put the gloves on there was another knock at the door and I still hadn't brushed my teeth or my hair or put on a scarf, so I pulled off the gloves and went down to the door and discovered that it was OPEN because Ama hadn't closed it.

And I showed her the work I'd finished and offered to make her tea but the teapot was still dirty 'cause I still hadn't done the dishes so she sat down while I started the dishes but then she said she'd go buy vegetables so she left while I washed dishes and then there was ANOTHER knock at the door and I STILL hadn't brushed my teeth or my hair or put on a scarf.

So I went down and my door was STILL open because Ama hadn't closed it AGAIN and there were two girls looking for Ama, who I sent towards the souq, but across the street was a truckful of men who saw my long blonde hair and my open door and got that look in their eyes that makes me want to break things.

And I knew it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.

So I closed and latched and locked the door and went upstairs and brushed my hair and tied it back with a scarf and started to do the dishes so I could brush my teeth ('cause I only have the one sink) and there was ANOTHER knock at the door and I went back down and didn't look at the truckful of staring men while I let Ama in and we went up to the kitchen where the teapot was STILL dirty and I started to cry.

'Cause it was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.

To be continued...


5/6/10 Word of the day: Dwr

Like many words borrowed from Arabic, dwr has just three key letters. And it's related to dur, which is spelled the same in Arabic (where o, ou, u, and w are all varying transliterations of the same character, "wew").

Dur means turn. As in, "Taxi driver, please dur right here." But if you linger over the central oo sound, stretching it from dur to duu-wer, it shifts meaning. Dwr can be used to mean "turn all the way around in a circle", but it's most commonly used to mean "walk around" or "wander" or "go walkabout".

Today, my visiting friend and I dwr'd town all afternoon.

At noon, we headed up to Ama's house for lunch. (Bread, mashed potatoes, and tea.) We hung out there for a while, then came home just long enough to grab a drink of water and change shoes before going for a walk through the fields. We wandered behind the caid's palace (perched on a jutting outcrop in the middle of town), down by the river, over to a nearby village, and back. We passed clover patches (which we promptly paused in, to hunt for four-leaf clovers), buttercup-filled meadows, dandelion fields, poplars, weeping willows... The perfect spring weather simply iced the cake of our perfect spring walk. :)

We got back, grabbed more water and a mikka of baby clothes (and I changed out of my mud-spattered pants!), and headed up to see the world's cutest 3-month old, who lives up on top of the caid's outcrop.

NB: My little brother is 10 months old. They're not in competition.

His mom fed us bread, jam, and tea.

Then we walked back down, swung by the house again, I picked up yet more baby clothes, and headed off to see a newborn. (And his mommy, my cousin.) First, though, I swung by Ama's house, so we could go over together.

An hour in a room full of chattering women, and I was finally free to go home. After eating a pancake, and jam, and tea. And a plate of aHrir (Moroccan mac & cheese, aka the food always served when a baby is born).

As I kicked off my boots, I told my friend, "I'm ready to not leave my house for a year." Or ever eat again.

Dwr-ing is fun, but 7 straight hours of socializing? Whew.


4/16/10 Travel Conversations

Whenever I travel, I strike up the most interesting conversations. We might talk about dance, books, my marital status... Here are a few snippets from conversations I haven't recorded before:

"So why are you here in Morocco?"
"I'm a Volunteer with the Peace Corps."
"So what do you do?"
"I'm an environmental educator. I talk to children and adults about the environment."
"Oh, teaching is good. You should be a full-time teacher. You could teach everything!"
"Yes, I could, but for now I'm working for the Peace Corps."
"But you could teach Hsb, arabiya, aud lbiya..."
"Yes, but I'm not a math teacher or Arabic teacher."
"But you could be!"

Another time, the jumper made me grin with a linguistic juxtaposition:
"Montez-vous parlez francais?"
At first I was saying "Montez-vous. Parlez francais.", which is French for Get into the transit already. Speak French. And that didn't make huge amounts of sense.
But then I realized that he'd said, "Montez!", ie Get in, followed by "Vous parlez francais?" Do you speak French?
'Cause if, unlike 90% of the foreigners he's ever seen, I don't speak French, I clearly won't have understood the first thing he said. Which makes it a better question to ask before, rather than after, he's ordering me around in that language...but better late than never, I guess.
Of course, I denied all knowledge of the language, as I do most of the time, so he repeated the instruction in Tam - "Alli!" - and I promptly climbed aboard.

Another time, when in a bigger city, a taxi driver began speaking to me in Arabic. I'd greeted him in Arabic - the greetings are the same as in Tam - so when I protested that I don't speak the language, he gave me a funny look. In my survival Darija, I said, "I only speak Tamazight. Do you know Tamazight?" He laughed and said no, then gave me a look and said, "Voluntaire de la paix?" I laughed, too, and nodded. Volunteer of Peace? Not my official title, but I like it. Clearly, he's driven around PCVs before, and remembered that the only foreigners who speak the language so little-known that even he and most of his fellow countrymen don't speak it...are us. Les Volontaires de la Corps de la Paix. Aka Peace Volunteers. :)

5/5/10 Best Pizza in Rabat

When PCVs go to the Peace Corps office in Rabat, we're often there for the whole day, which means we run into that critical lunch question. Over in the center of town, there are millions of food options, but back in the office's neighborhood, pickings are slim.

My first trip to Rabat, most folks advised me to visit the Ministry of Transportation's cafeteria. It's cheap (10-15dh a plate), but only has about 4 options on the lunch menu, so gets repetitive awfully fast.

Fortunately, another ministry (I'm honestly not sure which, but it's across the street from the PC office) has opened a huge cafeteria, with about a dozen options. Every day, you can choose between shwarma, pizza, salads, tagine, roast chicken, and some daily special. If you don't get a drink, expect to spend about 20dh.

But if you walk out the back door, and head towards Agdal, a bunch of other options appear. There's the usual assortment of sandwich places, plus a sushi restaurant and a few other fancy spots. My personal favorite, though, is a pizza joint.

Run by an incredibly nice guy who lived in the US for 15 years, the pizza is the most authentically American-tasting I've found in Morocco. It's not cheap - about 40dh for a medium, which will fill you up if you're hungry, or two people can split a 65dh large - but it's delicious. He flies in the ingredients from America, for the most part, with a few coming from Europe. His pizzas have real mozzarella, real mushrooms, real... real everything.

I promised him I'd tell my friends, which I have, and now I'm telling the rest of you. Next time you're in Rabat-Agdal, stop in at L. Y. Pizza!


4/21/10 Lincoln and Condy

I've been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Lincoln and the men around him, Team of Rivals. On the back is one of the more famous portraits of Lincoln, flanked by portraits of the title rivals - Seward, Chase, Stanton, and Bates.

So I was reading in the transit one day, and the man next to me decided to strike up a conversation.

I'd paused in my reading, to think about what I'd read, and let the book fall closed (my place still marked with a finger). He pointed to the pictures on the back and said, "Who are they?"

I pointed to Lincoln and said, "Ibrahim Liin-kon. The president of America, a long time ago."

Of course, as soon as the conversation began, the two of us became the most interesting thing around.

The moment I'd responded to his question, the peanut gallery began chiming in.

"Hey, she speaks Tamazight!"
"Hey, she's reading about the president!"
"Yeah, she speaks Tamazight!"
"Do you think the book is in English or French?"
"Probably French. Look at the letters - those are French."
"How long ago was he president?"

I answered the oh-hey-you-speak-our-language with a grin, and gave an actual answer to to the one about Lincoln. It took me a second to work out the numbers - I don't usually use numbers over a thousand. "He was president in one thousand eight hundred and sixty-one."

"Oh, eighteen-hundred sixty-one?"

Of course, they simplify the dates - silly me for forgetting. "Yes, eighteen-hundred sixty-one."

At this point, the peanut gallery began asking me the standard questions about my marital status, my age, how much I liked Morocco, whether I thought Berberville was too cold, etc, etc. When I got tired of fielding them, I reopened the book and continued reading.

A few minutes later, my neighbor poked at the page and asked, "Is that French or English?"

"English," I answered. "In America, we speak English."

"And this man was the president of America?"


"So who are these other people?" he asked, pointing to the gallery of faces on the back. [I tried to find an image of the back cover to post, but couldn't. You can see it here if you click on "Look Inside" and then "Back Cover".]

"They're his ... um ... ministers," I said, suddenly recalling the word from my trip to Rabat, when I spent the better part of a day taxiing between different ministry offices, looking for the secret trove of geological maps for sale (which I found! but that's another story).

I pointed to Seward. "This was his ... First Minister," I said, trying and failing to come up with a better translation for "Secretary of State." Then I thought of something. "You know how Hillary Clinton is the First Minister for Barack Obama? Kif-kif."

He still looked confused, so I tried again. "Seward was the same minister to Lincoln that Hillary Clinton is to Barack Obama. And remember how Hillary Clinton wanted to be president, but Obama won, so now she's the First Minister? It was the same with Seward. He wanted to be President - all these men [gesturing to the other faces on the page] wanted to be president, but Lincoln won, so they were his ministers, instead."

At that point, the peanut gallery began an involved discussion among themselves, in an incomprehensible mix of Arabic and Tamazight. When they'd reached a consensus, a designated spokesman explained the problem to me.

"But Hillary Clinton *isn't* the First Minister of America. We know who the First Minister is, and she's a black woman."

I blinked for a second, then figured out what he was talking about. "That was Condoleezza Rice. She *was* the First Minister, for President Bush."

The guy next to me put it together first. "You mean, when you get a new president, you get new ministers, too?"

"Yes! Exactly." A new president gets to pick a whole new Cabinet, I thought, but lacking the words for "pick" and "Cabinet", I let his explanation stand. And I really didn't want to get into the nuances, like Secretary Gates.

"So Hillary Clinton is not president, but she's the First Minister now? Like the black woman was?"

I felt a lot of muscles clenching at their repeated use of "the black woman" to refer to our former Secretary of State, but I took a deep breath and said, "Yes, Hillary Clinton is the First Minister, like Condoleezza Rice - the black woman - used to be." (By the way, the word for "president" in Arabic and Tam is raiis, a perfect homophone for Rice. So this was probably confusing.)

"Yeah," chimed in another voice, "America always has women for their First Minister. Before the black woman, it was the old woman."

More muscles clenched, but I calmly replied, "Yes, President Bill Clinton had Madeleine Albright - the old woman - as his First Minister. And then President Bush had Condoleezza Rice and now President Obama has Hillary Clinton." Then I thought of something else. "But it isn't always women. It can be a man or a woman. Yes, the past three First Ministers have been women, but it can be either."

At this point, the men wanted my opinions on the presidents, and tried to bait me into a discussion of the Gulf War. I dodged most of the bullets and returned to reading.

Just another day in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer...
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