Learning to Crochet

My work at the women’s center has recently been put on hold due to some construction in my classroom. But this means that I get to sit and hang out with the women instead of teaching, which is something I’ve actually been enjoying much more. Plus it means I’ve finally gotten a chance to do something I’ve been wanting to do all year – learn how to crochet the Moroccan way!

I’d been working one a couple things at home to sharpen up my skills so that when I started learning in front of the women I wouldn’t look like a total idiot. The first time I went to sit with them, I brought a hat in that I’d been working on. They were fascinated by it – not by the pattern, but by the size of my crochet hook and of the yarn. Check out this picture:

The ones I got in America are on the left; the ones I got here are on the right

The ones I got in America are on the left; the ones I got here are on the right

You can see that the standard Moroccan stuff is waaaaay smaller than what I was using. They all wanted to try my American supplies out, so I taught them the stitch I was doing and my hat got passed around for the rest of the afternoon – they finished about a quarter of it for me!

Hat! Finished with thanks to about 5 other women who helped me.

Hat! Finished with thanks to about 5 other women who helped me.

It’s a very communal atmosphere there – everyone lends out their supplies for others to practice with, and those who know a skill teach it to everyone else. It’s a stark contrast to how I’d craft in the states – I was always open to learning from others but when it came to my own projects, I wanted to be the one to do them.

This communal crocheting is very much in tune with other communal aspects of the culture here – like how people should never have to sleep in a house alone (which people always remind me of when Matt’s traveling) or how doing any activities alone is considered kind of sad. I had a hard time with that during homestay, when I’d want to read but didn’t want to have to explain it to my host family. I was a little wary of sharing my crocheting at first, but it all turned out well. And now that my hat is done I get to start learning how to use those small hooks – here’s to hoping I don’t look like a total noob when I go in there today!

— Cori

Life After Homestay

Big news — after nearly 3.5 months of living with families here in Morocco, we finally have a home of our own!  (Pictures will come soon.)  It’s something we’ve been looking forward to for months and we’re really excited to have finally moved in.  Don’t get us wrong; we’ve been extremely fortunate with our amazing host families, and we’re really excited to continue to enjoy couscous Fridays with our family here in Azilal… but there’s something about living on our own terms that is really, really nice.

For example, we can cook for ourselves again! We’ve both really been enjoying getting back in the kitchen and having control over what we eat again. Cori is glad to decrease the amount of bread she eats from approximately 2 Moroccan loaves daily to maybe half a loaf, Matt has been enjoying having eggs for breakfast every morning, and we’ve both been glad to get fresh fruits and veggies back into our diet. This also means that we can finally translate all of the Moroccan recipes that we (kind of) learned during homestay into American measurements and instructions and share them with you!

Other examples of things we’re excited for include not having to live out of our suitcases anymore, being able to read or watch tv shows without feeling super rude, listening to music out loud, working out, having time to relax on our own, and generally feeling like adults again. It’s amazing how much easier it’s been to get up and go work at the Dar Chebab when we know we have our own place to go back to.

We did have a bit of a reality check yesterday that reminded us that moving into our own apartment won’t be as easy as we kept making it out to be. We went to the big weekly market alone for the first time, and it was pretty overwhelming. There are tons of food stands, all selling more or less the same thing, and tons of people shopping at all of them. We have the language to ask for what we need, but it’s tough to use in a stressful situation like this one, with Moroccans constantly coming up next to you and interrupting (the concept of a line is a very foreign one here). In the end, although we’re not sure if we got any kind of a decent price, we got most of the food that we needed, and that’s good enough for week one.

Market trip aside, life after homestay is going pretty well so far. We’ll definitely face more challenges related to living alone, but we also now have a personal space to go home to if we need to. And our trip to the market does mean that we have all the food that we need to make tacos tonight to celebrate a fake American holiday – Happy (late) Cinco de Mayo!

A Bittersweet Good-bye

This week we’re having our Swearing-In ceremony, which is our first big landmark of Peace Corps service. It signifies the end of our training period and our transition from being Peace Corps Trainees to being actual Volunteers (which is actually a pretty big deal although it might not seem like it). This is one of those parts of service when Peace Corps people like to reflect about how far they’ve come and all that stuff… so hang on with us the next few weeks if our blog posts get a little cliché.

We left Taounate on Saturday to come to Rabat for our Swearing-In later this week, and leaving ended up being an extremely emotional experience.  We thought that integrating into the community and learning Darija would be the most difficult part of our training period, but it turned out that leaving our host family was pretty difficult and painful as well.  Our family has been amazing for us (which is not something that can be universally expected in the Peace Corps – it wasn’t even the experience for all of the trainees in Taounate) and we really felt like we had become part of the family. There were lots of hugs, tears, invitations, and promises to come back and visit in the days before we left. The final morning Mama Naima even got up at 5:45am to walk with us to the bus stop so she could give us each one last long hug before we left.

The whole experience of leaving really emphasized the power of making connections in the communities where we live. The Peace Corps has been telling us this from the start, but it wasn’t until we left our first homestay experience and looked back on it that we really understood the experience of connecting with a Moroccan family and their community. As Mama Naima has told us at least 20 times, we are welcome in their home for the next two years and probably for many years beyond that, which is pretty amazing. We might not be able to converse above a 2nd grade level, we might have miscommunications on a weekly (if not daily) basis, and we might not enjoy being told to “KUL!” long after we’re full at the end of a meal, but a Moroccan household has accepted us as part of the family. We’ve shared meals, laughs, and a mutual respect for each others’ cultures, and that makes up for a lot of what we’re lacking in other areas. And the fact that we made such a deep connection with our family in just two months really put in perspective what the friendships we’ll make during our years in Azilal have the potential to be. We need to make strong connections so we can put down roots in the community, so we can offer useful assistance, and so we can stay sane while living so far from our family, friends and fellow volunteers.  After living in Taounate for a couple months, we’re finally (mostly) confident that we can accomplish that.

We’ll end this post with a half-sad, half-funny story from the night before we left:
We made a handwritten card to give to Mama Naima and the family along with our thank-you gift to them, and we wrote it in Arabic script to make it a little extra special (she can’t read but we figured the rest of the family would appreciate it). When we brought it out to give it to her we wanted to read it out loud for her, but we were both so teary and emotional that we had a really hard time deciphering the Arabic script in the first place (even though we had written it) and pronouncing it correctly after we figured out what each word said. We interrupted our gift-giving to run and find our notes that we had used to write the card, but we still didn’t end up making much sense, so Anass had to re-read the card for Naima. I’m sure you all can imagine us sitting around crying a little, laughing a little, and hugging each other as this is all going on – it was a sad moment, but also something nice to be a part of. Hopefully Naima and Anass felt the same way.

Can’t wait to head to swear-in on Wednesday and head to Azilal to start the next two years on Thursday!
-Cori and Matt

Biding our time…

There’s not much new happening this week – we’re still just anxiously waiting for the 18th to come around so we can find out our final site placement. With that in mind we figured we’d write up a few quick stories for you this week to illustrate a little bit of what homestay is like on a day-to-day basis.

***

Moroccans looove to compare people to each other. We hear a lot about how Anass is crazy, but his older brother is way crazier, or about how Naima’s youngest daughter is the best student of the family. It took only about a week until we were also included in these comparisons. Here’s a sample of the comparisons we’ve gotten to be a part of:

On our Darija –
Ahmed has good Darija! Layla, yours is just ok.” Naima said this until one of her kids pointed out it was actually the opposite, and then it changed to…
“Layla has good Darija! Ahmed, yours is just ok.” Which eventually morphed into…
“Layla has good Darija and Ahmed dances well.” Our best guess is that this reflects the fact that Matt communicates well with his face and with acting things out, so Darija’s not really that big of a deal.

On food –
“Kul!! (eat!!)” *pats hips and shoulders* Naima’s way of saying ‘eat more so you can be fat like me!’
“When you first got here you were skinny, but now you’ve gained some weight.” Naima said this to Cori yesterday (approvingly) to express how glad she is that we’re happy here (Cori’s pretty sure she hasn’t gained any visible weight, but if it makes Naima happy to think she has, then that’s no problem).
“Whose food is better?” When Naima’s daughter was in town, she cooked for us a bunch and we got this question from both her and Naima. We quickly learned that the answer is whoever is asking the question, of course, unless they are both in the room in which case the answer is Naima. Matt was unlucky enough to be asked this question about a dish that Cori, Naima AND her daughter had all cooked on separate occasions, and when he answered “Naima” she threatened to beat him with a sandal (a normal joke of hers) because of course he should praise his wife’s cooking above all else.

***

A couple of weeks ago we realized that the Darija command to eat (kul!) sounds exactly like the English word “cool!” We noticed this because Naima was wrapping up different cuts of meat she had bought to put in the freezer, and she held up a pair of cow testicles to see if we knew what they were. Matt’s reaction was to laugh and say “cool!”… at which point he immediately made the connection between the two words and regretted what he’d said. Naima didn’t seem to notice (although I’m sure she would have just laughed) but ever since we’ve been a bit more careful about using the word “cool”, so we don’t end up telling people to constantly eat the things that we think are interesting.

***

One of our fellow trainees wrote a cartoon recently about how we’re basically “Pet Americans” to our host families since they feed us, take us on walks, etc. Ever since reading that, Matt and I have noticed that our family has definitely taught us a few tricks that they can show off to their friends.

Naima’s favorite trick is that Matt’s name is not “Ahmed”, but actually “Si Ahmed” (the English equivalent would be something like “Sir Ahmed”), and everyone in the family, Cori included, has to call him this. Whenever she takes us to meet someone new, she’ll explain this to the new person and tell them to get his attention by saying “Ahmed”. Matt’s responsibility is then to ask “Who? Who is Ahmed?” until the new person says “Si Ahmed”, at which point Matt is supposed to make his “Sir” face and acknowledge the new person. This is sometimes accompanied by Matt asking people to do menial tasks for him because he’s too important to do them himself, depending on how well Naima knows the new person. She thinks this is pretty much the funniest thing ever, and it gets a pretty good reaction from everyone else as well.

Matt's "Si Ahmed" face

Matt’s “Si Ahmed” face

We miss you all! We’re looking forward to next week when we hope to post some positive information about our site placement!

– Cori and Matt

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)