Caitlin Trotter, a junior at the University of Alabama and Boren Scholar, is currently studying with AMIDEAST in Rabat, Morocco for the academic year. This post recounts her first week in the city, some cultural adjustments she’s experienced, and her hopes for the upcoming 9 months. It was originally posted on September 12, 2011.
What a week. Eight days ago I was anticipating everything that I would experience in the last seven days. Now I feel like that was years ago. I can’t believe I’ve only been in Rabat for six days. I feel like I’ve known most of my 24 classmates here for months. I feel like I’m living a completely different life now than I was a week ago. I’ve always thought it was so cliche when people say this, but studying abroad really is going to be a defining aspect of this stage of my life. It’s really hard to put into words how I’ve felt since Saturday night when I arrived in Rabat, but this is my attempt.
First, I love Morocco. I’ve only been here a few days, but I love so much about this country. I keep comparing it to Egypt, because my expectations for Morocco mostly resulted from my experiences in Egypt. Not that I hate Egypt, but I love Morocco so much more than I would if I hadn’t been to Egypt because pretty much everything is better here.
The weather is beautiful. It’s been somewhat hot during the day for the past few days, but it cools off at night. The night I got here it was very chilly out. My house doesn’t have air conditioning – we just leave all the windows open, and while it’s a little warm when it’s this hot out, it’s completely bearable.
Rabat is a much smaller, more navigate-able, less crowded city than Cairo. It almost feels like a small town. You can pretty much walk from one end to the other. There are green things all around the city: palm trees, trees, bushes, even some grass. Transportation isn’t too hard, especially because of the new tram that was recently built. Taxis have meters, and the buses are nice.
People are nice and helpful here. The harassment is not nearly as bad as it is in Cairo. I still experience catcalls, stares, and overly friendly strange men trying to talk to me when I’m walking on the street alone or with a small group of girls, but it’s definitely not as bad in Agdal, the upscale neighborhood where I live and go to school. The souq here in the old medina is much more laid back than Khal alKalili in Cairo. It’s less crowded, the shop keepers don’t hassle you, and I generally feel more comfortable.
Rabat seems to just be a really nice city to live in. It’s not touristy, which is really nice. It’s on the ocean so there are some incredibly beautiful beaches and beach scenes. The night life is not what it’s said to be in Casa or Fez, but I’ve been out to a few really cool places. Giving up a little night life is definitely preferable to the hassle of living in a touristy town. All of the city that I’ve seen so far has been decent. The prices don’t seem to be as cheap as in Cairo, but everything is still comparatively very cheap. Rabat is somewhat less conservative than Cairo is, as far as what Moroccan women wear on the streets.
The food is amazing. Tagine, harira, and bastini are some of the best traditional Moroccan dishes I’ve had so far. Explosions. On. Your. Taste. Buds. I’ll have to write a separate post on the food soon. Oh, and because there’s such a huge French influence here, the pastries are amazing. Nutella crépes at the restaurant right beside my school: incredible. Enough said. Even though almost all the food is amazing, I’ve had a few weak moments of craving Cracker Barrel. I miss southern cooking, what can I say?
Definitely one of the best aspects personally of living in Morocco is that everyone speaks French. My French sucks, but man, when it’s either pull on my two years of studying French or my few days of studying Darija (Moroccan) Arabic, the French definitely saves the day. I haven’t had too much trouble communicating. And even though I’ve always been terrible at speaking French and I’ve forgotten a lot since April, it’s all coming back and I’ve picked up so much in just a couple days. Thankfully I brought my French textbook, so in addition to studying Darija and Modern Standard (classical Arabic), I’m also studying French. Brain overload.
While I am so, so thankful that I know French so that I can communicate with people (especially my host family), I’ve realized that my French will completely handicap my Arabic if I’m not very careful. Right now it’s sooo much easier to communicate with my host family in French, but I talked to them about having French days and Darija days once my Darija is somewhat conversational, and they agreed. And when I go out, I read the French on signs and menus instead of the Arabic. It’s going to be so hard to overlook the French and force myself to practice Arabic.
That’s basically all the good stuff about Morocco. There’s plenty of bad stuff. I walk. A lot. The sidewalks are an obstacle course of steps and ramps you slip down and rubble and broken cement and parked cars. My shoes get really dirty. I can’t/don’t wear anything I normally wear in the summer (shorts, tank tops, sundresses, short skirts). Being in a new city is hard. I don’t know where anything is. Being in new place where I barely speak the main language and can just kind of get by on the second language is very hard. I have to ask to find pretty much anything. I have to adjust to new cultures and habits and customs. I don’t know how to interact with some people. I don’t know how to draw the line between a stranger on the street being helpful or a stranger with an ulterior motive harassing me. Meal times, body language, my bed, sheets, space, the concept of privacy, the shower, shower length, the bathroom, toilet paper, eating, internet, wearing or not wearing shoes in certain rooms in the house, etiquette when eating with bread instead of silverware, how to interact with males, etc etc etc. It’s all different. I can’t go to Wendy’s for a frosty and fries. I can’t go to Sokul park and ride my bike alone in the woods. I can’t drive to Panera to study in peace and quiet. Pretty much the only familiar thing I’ve done so far is eat at McDonald’s (it was amazing and it tasted just like a burger from home). I didn’t really understand culture shock before I came, but now I do. It can be really hard to adjust. Sometimes I like the way things are in Morocco better, and sometimes things here drive me crazy. That’s the way it goes.
On my way here I was questioning why in the world I had ever decided to do this. Truth be told, I just came because I thought it would be cool and romantic and exotic. I didn’t really know what I wanted out of this year abroad. I still don’t. I know the honeymoon stage will wear off soon and I won’t think it’s cool or romantic or exotic anymore. I know I’ll get frustrated and I’ll miss home. But this is where I am, and I’m so thankful to be here. I already feel like I will have changed so much after this year. I’ve learned a lot already, and I’m going to learn so much more. For now I’m just taking one day at a time.