Our Favorite Subject…

There has been a grave oversight so far with the topics we’ve talked about on our blog, because we’ve missed something that is very important to both of us: FOOD! But never fear; we’re making up for that today.

The food we’ve been eating so far has been absolutely fantastic! Mama Naima is a professional cook, and pretty much everything she makes for us is delicious. Cori is basically in heaven because all the warm meals are made up of a combo of freshly cooked veggies and sometimes lentils, beans or noodles. There is also plenty of meat (either beef, chicken, or fish) in every dish to keep Matt happy.

The daily food schedule goes something like this:

  • Breakfast in the morning, which for us is usually some form of bread with any combo of oil, jam, cheese, egg, and olives to go with it. Also hot milk for coffee.
  • Lunch anytime between noon and 3. This is the main meal of the day and consists of bread, a salad (sometimes), a huge warm main dish, and fruit for “dessert”.
  • Cascroot (snack) in the evening around 6 or 7, which is usually similar to breakfast except accompanied by tea instead of milk. There may also be a cake, cookies, or a small savory snack.
  • Dinner anywhere between 8 and 10. For us this is usually a small warm dish, as well as some bread to eat it with. Sometimes if we all decide we’re not hungry we have banana smoothies instead (yum!).

You’ll notice that we have bread for every meal (which Matt loves). This is because for the most part, Moroccans don’t eat with utensils – they use little pieces of bread to scoop food out of a big central communal plate. For the most part we’ve adjusted fine to this style of eating, although on couscous Fridays they do still give us spoons so we don’t make a huge mess.

Bread!

A very helpful progression of pictures…

Moroccans are very warm and hospitable people, which extends to their food habits – they are always ready to serve you at least a snack if you show up in their house. We quickly learned we can’t expect to visit someone without getting served tea at the very least (this is why visiting more than one person in an evening can be dangerous). Most hosts here keep a close eye on how much you eat while you’re at their house to make sure they’re providing you with enough food. Mama Naima monitors us at every meal, and if she sees the slightest hesitation, she’ll tell us to “KUL!” (eat!). I don’t think either of us has gotten through a meal with Naima yet without at least 4 or 5 commands to “kul!”, which I think is mostly because she thinks we’re both way too skinny.

One night last week, we decided to explain to Naima that we didn’t want to eat late dinners anymore. We told her that in the U.S. we ate dinner more around 6 or 7, and that we just aren’t that hungry late at night (this is a much discussed issue for many of the PCVs here). She seemed to be fine with that idea and agreed that we wouldn’t eat dinner that night. We were surprised and pretty excited that it had been so easy to explain. She then got up and brought in some cake from the kitchen along with some banana smoothies, which we didn’t mind eating because at least it was something smaller than normal. We finished eating and got ready for bed, and were just about to go to sleep when Anass came home with some food from his aunt’s house and we heard the familiar command… “Ahmed! Layla! Come and KUL!”

Yes, we’d rather not eat fourthmeal every night. However, considering the fantastic food that we eat most of the time, if our biggest problem is that we have to eat too much of it, I think we can probably handle it for the time that we’re in homestay :).

Learning to cook what's called "hasha" - it's like a big cornmeal pancake

Learning to cook what’s called “hasha” – it’s like a big cornmeal pancake

We made a tajine! With lots of help from Naima of course...

We made a tajine! With lots of help from Naima of course… (This is a meal for 5)

Settling in

Hey all!

We’ve had an exhausting but great week here in Taounete. Some current volunteers came to work with us this week to lead a couple Peace Corps mandated activities with the kids at our Dar Chebab, and it’s been really helpful to hear first-hand from them about their experiences. Our activities were pretty chaotic – tons of kids showed up and we’re all still pretty limited in our language abilities so we had a hard time moderating – but they were great learning experiences.

The volunteers also gave us some great ideas for activities to keep us all sane here, which we took full advantage of. We had an American movie night, complete with popcorn – we were able to use one of the Peace Corps staff members’ projectors to watch (what else…) Casablanca. It was a really nice chance to get all of the volunteers to hang out together in an atmosphere that didn’t include any learning, and we all had a really great time.

Today was also an awesome day – one of the host families in the group offered to host our whole group for lunch. This is a great example of Moroccan hospitality considering our group included 18 people! They fed us basically a 5-course meal, which included salad, chicken, meat, fruit parfaits and then fruit for dessert. Then after we’d all finished eating (around 3), she informed us that she was also making us cascarot (teatime “snack”) at 5:30. Matt and I took the opportunity to go for an awesome hike up one of the neighboring peaks with a group of volunteers, and it was so nice to get out and do some physical activity, which is something we rarely have time for. Not to mention we had a beautiful view from the top. Then we got to come back to a massive snack that included some pretty delicious and surprisingly American-tasting pizza! So even though this week has been exhausting, it’s also provided us a nice break from learning Darija and some great opportunities to do more around Taounete.

Back to the grind this week – we have a trip to Fez for more Peace Corps training, and we should be back to regular Darija lessons as well after that. Miss you all!

Cori and Matt

Cori with Taounete across the valley (please ignore the goofy look on my face)

Cori with Taounete across the valley (please ignore the goofy look on my face)

A visit to Fez

So after being in Morocco for a little under a month and taking classes almost every day, Peace Corps finally gave us a (relatively) free weekend. We took the opportunity to take a break from our immersion in homestay by joining a group of trainees traveling to Fez. It was really nice to have the chance to catch up with people, relax a bit, be tourists, and just be in charge of our own schedule for a couple days.

One of the things we noticed immediately in Fez was how many other tourists there were. We still stuck out like sore thumbs in a city full of Moroccans… but so did tons of other people from all over the world. It was very freeing to suddenly be just another tourist instead of being one of 12 Americans living in a city that tourists never visit.

We did some of the typical Fez touristy activities, like visiting the tanneries and just wandering around the old medina:

Matt near the walls surrounding the old medina (the oldest part of the city).

Matt near the walls surrounding the old medina (the oldest part of the city).

One of the leather tanneries that Fez is famous for.

One of the leather tanneries that Fez is famous for.

Walking through one of the more commercial alleys in the old medina. The streets are mostly this thin, and they're very mazelike - very easy to get lost!

Walking through one of the more commercial alleys in the old medina. The streets are mostly this thin, and they’re very mazelike – very easy to get lost!

These massive doors are all over the place in the old medina - many of them are mosques, not sure what this one leads to.

These massive doors are all over the place in the old medina – many of them are mosques, not sure what this one leads to.

One of the more interesting occurrences was eating lunch with a group of Americans who were on a study abroad trip. It was great to hear about their trip and everything they’ve done, but it was obvious to both groups that we’re having very different experiences. This was underscored for Matt and I by how much the students spent for lunch (I know you’re all rolling your eyes because this makes us sound super cheap… just hear us out). They thought nothing of spending 95 dirham on a burger.  95 dhs is only about $11, but in Taounate we can get a sandwich for 12-15 dhs, so spending 6 times that in Fez seemed pretty ridiculous to us (although those burgers were delicious…).

So even though we enjoyed being tourists this weekend, we realized that after only one month of immersion, we’re already on a completely different page than most of the foreign tourists in Morocco. And as much as we would love to still be making American salaries and be able to splurge on all the fantastic things available in Fez, we’re definitely enjoying the immersion experience and the perspective we’re starting to gain from it.

“Communication!”

Learning Darija (Moroccan Arabic) has been one of the biggest challenges for us so far.  The hardest part has been learning to communicate while our Darija is still extremely limited. Here’s a typical conversation that happened the first couple days we were here for illustration:

Mama Naima: S-salam! Labas? * followed by more unknown words that we think are welcoming us home* (Hi! How are you? …)
Us: “Salam! Labas! Bixir?” (Hi! I’m great! How are you?)
Mama Naima: *Long string of sentences that could include anything. We usually guess they include: How was your day? What did you learn? Are you sure you’re well?  Is everything good?  Are you happy?  Are you ready for dinner?*
Us: Mzyan bzzaaaaaaaaf! (really good!!!!)
Mama Naima: Mzyan! *accompanied by loud laughing* (good!)

Now that we’ve been here for a week or so we’ve started to notice some very gradual improvement; the people we interact with are very good about speaking slowly enough to us that now we can usually answer at least one of Mama Naima’s questions when we get home. We learned to say “ma-fhmtsh” (I don’t understand) and “shwiya bshwiya” (little by little) to say that slowly but surely we’re learning and we’ll be able to communicate better tomorrow.

We’ve naturally come to depend a lot on hand signs and acting. Our host brother is especially good at acting out his messages multiple ways and giving examples so that we can understand. Sometimes, though, we just end up moving on if we continually can’t understand something. Here’s a sample conversation with our host brother Anass:

Anass: *Multiple sentences in Darija about our plans for later that day.  Maybe something about a café for watching soccer?  Or maybe about how our class went? Or maybe something more abstract?*
Matt: *Thinks for a bit, then tries a combo of signs, acting, Darija and English.*
Anass: *Shakes head, looks confused.*
Matt: Aud afak? (repeat please?)
Anass: *Tries again with a different combination of English, Darija and acting.*
Matt: Ma-fhmtsh. *shrugs* (I don’t understand)
Anass: *Throws hands in the air with a big smile and says “Communication!!” (one of the words he knows in English).
That usually ends the discussion and we all decide that the info exchange isn’t worth the time.

When we first got to Mama Naima’s house and introduced ourselves, she gave us Arabic names since our English names are difficult for her to pronounce. In Mama Naima’s house, Matt is known as Ahmed and Cori is now Layla. One of our foolproof methods of conversation is just an exchange of names: Anass says “Ahmeddddd!” and Matt responds with “Anassssss!”. Mama Naima and Cori sometimes join in, although Cori usually gets made fun of for being too quiet.

Despite these difficulties, we do actually exchange a lot of information and we usually have at least an idea what they are saying.  We’ve definitely noticed an increase in comprehension since we first arrived, and with 5-6 hours of Darija lessons each day we should be able to have real conversations at some point. Until then, it’s communication, shwiya bshwiya.

Matt and Cori

Image

Anass and Matt making dinner together. At least there’s one thing we don’t need words for!