Category Archives: Travel

Une semaine chez les français

Apologies for not posting these past few days. I heard about a week and a half ago that classes would be pushed back another week, so I jumped on the chance to go visit my family in France.

Being in France was not as bizarre an experience as I thought it might be after a month in Casablanca. I did get the chance to take some distance from my first few weeks in Morocco and reflect. And last night, I got to “come home” to Casa, to my apartment and wonderful roommate, and to a life which now seems much clearer than it did on September 30th when I first touched down.

* * *

Although I was born in France and have deep cultural ties there, it’s not exactly home for me. In the street no one would suspect that I didn’t grow up in France, but that only makes it weirder when I occasionally stutter or have to ask sometimes very stupid questions.

Visiting Morocco is a completely different experience. First of all, I can in no way pass for Moroccan. This isn’t so much a question of physical appearance, since my light skin could very possibly make me a Berber, or a Moroccan from the Rif region. As soon as I open my mouth, though, there’s no doubt that I’m a gaouria, a foreigner. So if I know any derija at all, if I’m starting to know my way around Casa, I get a gold star.

Of course this also reveals a cultural difference between France and Morocco…

While carpooling to Nantes from Paris, my sister and I shared a car with two Nantais and a woman from Rabat who remarked that “making friends in Morocco is easy.” (C’est facile de se faire des amis au Maroc) In France, people have a tendency to approach others more cautiously, as opposed to “letting it all hang out.” Affirmation is harder to come by in France, where even the American “think positive!” approach is often perceived to be naive or even dishonest.

I’ve spent my whole life navigating cultural differences between my French and American sides. It took me awhile even to understand that there were important cultural differences. Over the summer I read a book recommended by a close friend, a french woman who lived in Chicago–happily–for four years. The name of the book is Understanding Europeans. Don’t laugh! It’s illuminating.

Along those lines…I picked up a book in France that I’d heard a lot about in Morocco: Une année chez les Français (A Year Among the French) by Fouad Laroui, who’s Moroccan. The book has been well-received and even nominated for the prestigious Goncourt literary award. The only other Moroccan to have received this award is the famed Tahar Ben Jelloun (or “TBJ” for short so you know he’s a “grosse légume”, a big deal).

Une année chez les Français is a classic fish-out-of-the-water story that focuses on a painfully shy and bookish ten year old Moroccan kid, Mehdi, who gets a scholarship to study in the illustrious Lycée Lyautey in Casablanca. Mehdi, who really just wants to spend his days reading, has to grapple with the clash of culture, language, and socio-economic class while also overcoming his own very intense shyness. This all sounds dramatic but the book is actually hilarious, especially if you happen to have experienced the French educational system abroad.

Like Understanding Europeans, the title of Une année chez les Français seems to wink at an old-fashioned anthropological study, historically presented from an Old European point of view.



Filed under American culture, cultural diplomacy, cultural shock, cultural understanding, Moroccan fiction, Travel

This is where I’m going to live (for a year)

At long last, I am in Casablanca!

I got in “last night”–time is a little slippery these days, what with travel, time changes, and Ramadan on top of it all. I was cranky and disoriented from my short nap on the plane when we landed in very dense fog in Casablanca around 11:30 PM. By the time I was in the car on the way to Casa with my friend Ibtissam, her mom, her aunt, her sister, and her niece I was giddy from the waves of relief I got when a) I saw my suitcase on the baggage carousel, and b) I heard Ibtissam call out my name. In my nervous and sleep-deprived state that she was like a hijabi vision.

I’m staying with a friend and her wonderful family, though I don’t yet know for how long. My favorite is Ibtissam’s three year old niece, who I’ve nicknamed Batata. On the car ride from the airport, she was chattering about something or other and the only words I could make our were ‘batata,’ potato, and ‘mateisha,’ tomato. Batata is a goofy kid, and really lets loose around me, something she doesn’t normally do in front of adults. Of course with my limited derija I may as well be three years old, so I don’t blame her for the confusion.

It’s funny, five years ago when I first arrived in Rabat I experienced homesickness maybe once. I was well into my semester, and I felt much better after watching 40-Year Old Virgin with my host sister. Of course I had flown over with my American peers, and everything was taken care of for me. Still, I should have felt more disoriented then, when I had never stepped foot outside of the U.S. or France.

Although I’m well taken care of my first day has been difficult, emotionally. I feel much better now, sitting in front of a computer with access to the portal to the world that is the internet. Last night, though, when I should have passed out immediately after my travels, I stewed in my homesickness and tried to stay calm like an claustrophobic person tries not to lose it in a crowded bus. One minute at a time.

I am intimidated by this city. In other words the object of my studies, my general academic and professional interest, ‘the city.’ Today I took an overstimulating stroll in the neighborhood today with Ibtissam’s mom and sister and niece. We only walked around the neighborhood and visited the market, for maybe thirty minutes. I kept thinking of something I’ve pictured my Dad saying as a kid when his family was driving through the South Side of Chicago, where they were moving from Idaho: “This is where we’re going to live?”


Filed under cultural shock, Morocco, Travel, Uncategorized, Urban Morocco, اصهاب


It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to sit down for a few minutes and concentrate enough to post anything. I’m in New York right now, visiting with my sister and some friends before I leave for Casablanca on Sunday, August 29th. This turns out to be a nice buffer between Chicago, where I had some intense goodbyes, and Casablanca.

Morocco has been on my mind nonstop for the past year and a half, but in the last few weeks the closer I’ve gotten to my departure date, the less I’ve thought about my actual destination. Mostly I’ve been preoccupied with moving out of our apartment and spending some quality time with Karl, my family, and friends. As is probably necessary when planning a long stay overseas, I’d blocked out just how painful it would be to uproot and say goodbye to loved ones.


Filed under getting things done, Travel


I hope to one day look back at this post and laugh–Oh Kathleen, now that you’ve successfully enrolled in a Moroccan university in Casablanca, you see there was nothing to worry about!

This blogpost by a fellow Ambassadorial Scholar has gotten me very, very nervous. The abridged version of her story goes like this: Scholar has been planning on going to Tunisia, has applied through the normal diplomatic channels to a university, has a well developed idea of what she’d like to study in Tunisia. Scholar arrives in Tunis in late July to start taking language classes and pays a visit to the US embassy. Someone at the embassy announces that her chances of getting into a university in Tunisia (I think he says “in North Africa”*ALARM BELLS*) are slim unless she goes to a private school.

Cue my frenzied emailing of half my Rotary and Morocco contacts…

You see, I’ll be arriving in Morocco on the night of August 30th with no guarantee of enrollment in the University. That guarantee is one of the very few requirements for receiving my scholarship. The check that makes all of this possible, in other words.

Is a mirage too clichéd of an image to use when talking about Morocco? Answer: yes.

My heart is pounding a little softer after I received emails from a couple of people who assure me that things will work out. A former scholar to Rabat told me she attended public school (albeit with the help of some State Department contacts) so I know that it is not impossible to get enrolled in the public school system. My Casablanca Sister-Cities contact opened his email with: “I am sorry to hear about your nervousness. There is nothing to worry about.” Those are the sweetest words I’ve heard all morning.

I hope he’s right, because I have big, wonderful plans for Casablanca and they don’t involve turning back around and coming home.

1 Comment

Filed under Ambassadorial Scholarship, Casablanca, getting things done, Kafka...mumkin, Morocco, Rotary, Travel, اصهاب

Je m’en irais à Montréal?

I am still recovering from the trip I made a few weeks ago, which started with a drive to Pittsburgh for my Ambassadorial Scholars training

Phase II of my road trip was in Montréal, via Buffalo (where I stayed with friends, who helped me out when I managed to lock my keys inside the rental car). I cut my trip to Montréal short by a couple of days when I was reminded, at the last minute, that I had to make it back to the Chicago area in time for the Rotary District Conference (Phase III–update to come).

So, sadly I couldn’t make it to le Petit Maghreb, as I’d hoped I might.

I spent most most of my three-day visit meeting with current and former students and faculty of a few urban studies and urban planning programs in Montréal. I’ve been shopping around for a Masters program, probably for Fall 2011. This Ambassadorial Scholarship business has put me in the habit of planning things far in advance…

Why Montréal? Aren’t there great programs in the U.S., even in Chicago?

On a personal level, the bilingual French-English environment feels like home for me. Purists will say that Montréal is not “true Québec” because so much of the city is anglophone, but I love that mix.

I really appreciate how cosmopolitan the city is, on several levels. First of all I think a society where people speak several languages is automatically less insular. (Oh hi there, Tim James.)

Second of all, Canada’s relatively progressive immigration policy, combined with the strong and vibrant francophone culture in Québec, means that Montréal is the destination for immigrants from all over the francophone world. Haitians, North Africans, the Lebanese, Francophone Africans, the Vietnamese all have a strong presence in Montréal. I don’t have sufficient background information about Montréal to comment too much on its immigrants or the multi-ethnic character of the city, although this is a topic that really interests me. I do know that the result is a society that is very different from both the U.S. and France (those two countries being my frame of reference). It’s fascinating to look at immigration, and how it shapes a city, through a different lens.

Which brings me to my next point: Yes, Chicago would be a great place to continue my studies in urban sociology. In fact I’m pretty sure that part of the reason why I’ve been attracted to the cluster of topics that make up “urban studies” has been because the literature in the U.S. so often focuses on my hometown. This is a problem! First of all, as someone who’s grown up with each foot in a different continent and country, I don’t want to pigeonhole myself. Second of all, it’s much more intellectually stimulating to step into a different context, as a way of shedding light on and challenging the assumptions that I’ve picked up and taken as universal truths.

This is also my reasoning for going to Casablanca to look at urban issues. I’m hoping I’ll get to better understand not just what’s going on there in terms of urban development, but also how people conceptualize “urban development.”


Filed under Canada, Immigration, Montreal, Québec, Travel, urban development

Ambassadorial Scholars training 2010 (Pittsburgh, PA)

I have quite a lot to think and write about just from the past week or so. I’ll take it one update at a time…

Bridgeville, a working class town outside of Pittsburgh, and hometown of one Sr. Karl.

Last weekend I spent 24 hours with a handful of other Ambassadorial Scholars in Pittsburgh to train for next year, when we’ll all be out in the world as students, ambassadors, and young representatives of the Rotary. The most interesting part of our meeting by far was mingling with other scholars headed to Ghana, South Africa, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Australia, Jordan, Brazil… One person will be in Bogotá, Colombia studying regional development! Another will be in Rabat, Morocco, but just for the summer. (The Rotary no longer awards Ambassadorial Scholarships for short-term study, though.)

The Rotary calls this a training, but I think it makes more sense to think of it as a kick-off meeting with some rules and tips thrown in for good measure. Topics covered include: pre- and post- year of study duties (presentations to Rotary clubs for example), how to address sensitive questions about our culture and politics, and dealing with sexual harassment. The last two both fall under the general theme of “culture clash,” though the example of sexual harassment is a more personal and possibly traumatizing example. The official presentation on sexual harassment had mostly to do with Rotary protocol, but the session led to a more interesting conversation on how to communicate that what someone might consider harmless behavior is actually, “in my culture,” deeply offensive. (Of course assault can’t be relativized in the same way)

One of the more interactive sessions focused on how to address controversial questions about our country of origin. During my interview in August 2009, for instance, I was asked how I would respond to this doozy: “Can you explain this whole health care debate?” The trick is not necessarily to drop a ton of knowledge on them, but rather to give the broad strokes in a balanced and non-defensive way.

In the first few hours of our training, the facilitator of this session passed out a list of questions and called on people to answer them. Oh, it was heart-pounding fun! Here are some examples of what we were asked to respond to, questions mostly drawn from a book called Citizen Diplomacy: Responding to Questions about America (review to come–oh and take a look at the publisher!)

-Why is American culture so violent?
-Why does your government have such a laissez-faire attitude towards the economy, which has such damaging consequences throughout the world?

I’ve been answering questions about the U.S., especially in France, since I was a kid. Some questions are informed, occasionally some are profoundly silly, some come from strangers and some from my own family. Some questions are veiled accusations, and not everyone is as interested in your answer as they are in making a point. It’s a challenge to answer some of these questions without rolling your eyes, or without taking offense at the assumptions that they hint at.

Still, thankfully people are curious enough to pose a question, even at the risk of appearing uninformed. This kid once asked my sister and I if we lived in the “bourg” of Chicago–which is like asking if we live on Main Street. Poor guy was pretty embarrassed when we laughed, judging him to be provincial, I guess. Hey, we were kids.

This weekend at the Rotary District 6450 Conference (more on that later) I’ve been hanging out with a current Ambassadorial Scholar from South Korea about his experience so far. I’ve been pestering him with questions along the lines of, “What’s the weirdest thing about Americans?” He’s pretty good at politely deflecting those questions, but he does sometimes talk about the strange comments he gets from people about his country. Things like, “Korea, huh? So, why are you so evil?”

Readers, what is the most challenging or silliest question you’ve had to field about your culture (whatever that means to you)? I’ll kick it off with a question I was asked, and though a lot about, when I was in Paris, in early 2006:

What is wrong with the American people that they allow their government to kill innocent civilians in Iraq? Do they just not care about people who aren’t American?



Filed under Ambassadorial Scholarship, cultural diplomacy, cultural understanding, Rotary, Travel

le Petit Maghreb à Montréal

In a couple of weeks I’ll be in Montréal to see my sister and visit one of my all-time favorite cities.

There’s a large Moroccan and Moroccan-Canadian population in Montreal. (Gad Elmaleh is a famous–and hilarious–Moroccan with close ties to Québec)
I’ve been looking for places to visit and found this article on Canada : Les Maghrébins de Montréal ont leur quartier.

Anglophones can get more information in an article that reeks of a newspaper travel section-ese: A slice of North Africa: Petit Maghreb, along a stretch of Jean Talon Blvd. E., is where the Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian communities share the comforts of home.

Here’s my favorite line from that last article: “Now though, the street boasts…a Moroccan restaurant that specializes in tagines and couscous.” I have to chuckle because, well, there are few Moroccan dishes other than tagine and couscous. (not that those aren’t delicious…)

Years of lobbying by North African-Canadian businesspeople and cultural organizations have culminated in the official naming of “le Petit Maghreb,” a neighborhood that sits high on my list of places to visit when I’m not gorging myself on a Paris-Brest and cheeses so delicious they’re illegal in the U.S.

Leave a comment

Filed under Canada, Gad Elmaleh, Immigration, Montreal, Moroccan food, Travel