It’s been three months since I finished my Peace Corps service and arrived in Spain! It’s been a smooth transition and adjustment without any major culture shock. During my Peace Corps service I had visited Madrid several times since it is only a cheap hour and half Ryanair flight away from Marrakesh, and in those short visits I got used to transitioning. I remember how surprised I was at how quickly I could travel between two completely different worlds—my small, quiet, traditional Moroccan village to bustling Madrid—and how easily I could navigate the different countries, cultures, and languages.
When I first visited Madrid, I noticed what everyone was wearing. It was summer and hot, and the latest fashion was belly shirts and short shorts. I remember thinking, “Everyone is naked!” In my village I never saw nude arms or legs on the streets. I also noticed all the drinking in public places, and I thought, “Everyone is an alcoholic!” Though alcohol is prohibited in Islam, some Muslims drink privately.
During my extended visit now, I have noticed first how time is different. For example, when I meet friends, I need to plan in advance, sometimes even a week or more, instead of just showing up at their house and getting invited in for atay (tea) and bread and olive oil. I also have to be punctual. In Morocco, time generally is more flexible, especially in a small village. I know it would be different living in Rabat or Casablanca. At first the slow pace of life frustrated me, but now I miss it. I miss how people had more time just to hang out- laying on a plastic mat or sheepskin on the floor and filling up yet another glass of atay, talking about everything and nothing, and watching silly Turkish soap-operas. Here in Madrid, my friends are busy primarily with work and then in their free time with family, boyfriends, and classes. In Morocco…I find myself saying “In Morocco” a lot since I have been back. But in Morocco, again generally, work isn’t as easy to come by, and most females choose to stay at home and raise a family though even when there is work, there is always time for family and friends, and to relax.
I miss certain aspects of being the only foreigner and thus famous in my village. I am not an object of curiosity in Madrid. I am a girl with cool black glasses that wears Moroccan clothes sometimes. They were especially curious about me- at first thinking I was a French girl, lost in their village, because only French tourists were seen in Marrakesh. They would complement me on my Darija, saying they had never met a foreigner who spoke it. I haven’t said enough how Moroccans are so friendly, hospitable, and generous; they welcomed me into their homes and hearts. They would ask me, “What are you doing here, so far away from your family and country?” and call me meskina (poor thing). I would get stares every time I left my house and “Salam Rosana” or “Salam Teacher.” I formed friendships through invitations from my neighbors or the youth who attended the activities at the dar shebab (youth center). I’d be invited to their homes to meet their entire extended family and share a delicious tagine. They would order me to “Kuli, kuli, kuli!” until I couldn’t eat anymore. Afterwards I would be forced to take a nap on the bright, beautifully patterned ponjs (Moroccan sofas) before heading home with sweets or freshly baked bread wrapped in a beautiful cloth. I miss chatting with Omar or the owner of my neighborhood hanut (corner store). Many times running out to buy a half dozen eggs could end up in an hour-long conversation about the weather or gender differences in the US and Morocco. Here in Madrid, shopping at the supermarket conversation is limited to hola and adiós. This kind of hospitality and sense of community is hard to find in a large city.
I miss my friends. I am in touch through What’s app, but I don’t know when I will see them again. I also worry about them, and their futures. People ask me: “What most shocked you about Morocco?” Most people probably expect me to say the culture, but I tell them the poverty. In my village, I saw my friends struggling: not having enough money for medicine, their university fees, or the bus fare (8 dirhams or 80 cents) to Marrakesh to visit their family. Once while eating out at a restaurant with friends and Moroccan counterparts at a Peace Corps training, a little girl approached us to ask for food. I snapped at her to let us eat in peace, and my friend sweetly asked her what her name was, how she was, and then gave her his entire pizza. I asked him why he did that, and when he explained that he knew what hunger was, my eyes widened in disbelief. I worry about how my friends will break the cycle of poverty. Will they finish high school? Will they graduate university? Will they find a job? Will graduating high school even help them find a job? I continue to encourage them to work hard, to complete their education and to keep trying even when the obstacles are overwhelming. It is not a clear or easy path.
What gives me hope is the resiliency I observed. My friends know how to live with little and stretch their budget. For instance, if they go to the weekly souk (market) before it is about to close, they can buy vegetables and fruits much cheaper. They never throw out food; they fix and recycle everything like pots and pans that have lost their handles; and they mend torn or ripped clothes. There is a strong sense of caring in the community. Family comes first and extended families take care of each other. Neighbors are constantly supporting each other whether to take a meal to a sick person or help to clean a large area rug. They can buy on credit at the hanut and butcher. My friends find strength and explanation even more through their religion. I admire their fortitude.
I miss the simplicity of village life. I miss only having two types of jams, strawberry or peach, to choose from or going to the souk for seasonal vegetables and fruits. I’d have to kneel down to pick through the dirt-covered vegetables to select the best ones. Here in Madrid there are so many supermarkets in my neighborhood, and I’m overwhelmed by the variety and choice of jams, yogurts, and cheese! The abundance is in sharp contrast to basic necessities. However, I’m not complaining, and I have enjoyed stuffing my face with my favorite foods.
I am overwhelmed by all my possessions. I have too many clothes, books, knickknacks, etc. I’ve accumulated a lot in my almost 28 years from travels and adventures. Things that I brought back to remind me of my life-changing experiences now seem to weigh on me. In the Peace Corps, I enjoyed having only what I needed and could afford at the time; it helped me to live in the present. I had one pot, one pan, one spatula, one couch, one mattress, and I still lived like a queen in comparison to my neighbors. I called my apartment a palace. My downstairs neighbors, a teacher’s family of five, lived in the same size apartment as mine. This has caused me to reflect on my privilege and I think I can be fine living with less.
In two weeks I am off to the United States to catch up with friends and prepare for graduate school. I wonder what things I’ll continue to miss about Morocco and what culture shock I’ll experience. I haven’t been back in nearly three years!