Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lucky Me.

I could never have imagined the difficulties I have faced in adjusting to life in Morocco. It’s easy for me to fall into a negative spin when my monkey mind decides to enumerate all my grievances and hard lessons.

And then I stop myself and realize just how lucky I am that I came to Morocco when I did.

I was in a financial tailspin by the time I decided to leave the U.S. Ever since September 11th, I was having trouble finding a financial foothold, in spite of all my efforts to support myself. About a year before 9/11, I had bought an antique business. One problem after another arose until I finally sold my lease to the multi-millionaire who owned the neighboring raw vegan restaurant. It was the construction on the restaurant which caused many of my problems with the shop. That, and the fact that the town decided to dig up and lower the street in front of my business. The construction going on beside me and in front of me totally obscured the view and the access to my store. Anyway, I sold the lease (which I fortuitously renegotiated and extended when I bought the business) just in the knick of time and never did relocate the business because of the economic situation following September 11th.

After consigning my antiques, doing a few marketing projects here and there and even trying my hand at selling advertising space for a new age magazine, I took off for Paris where I lived and worked on my own personal growth for 5 months. Upon my return to the U.S., I eventually sold my condominium and everything in it. I made a nice profit because the real estate market was still skyrocketing. Unfortunately, my intention to relocate to Annapolis, Maryland never manifested. I wanted to buy something there and possibly engage in some business venture with my brother and his wife. Tragically, my sister-in-law died the day after I arrived on the east coast and the summer was spent standing watch over my brother, who was devastated by his wife’s untimely death. Meanwhile, real estate prices continued to climb all over the country and I just couldn’t get back into the market. With no job I had little chance of obtaining a loan. And prices were out of my reach now.

And then, at the request of my brother, I stayed in his house during the winter months while he traveled and grieved and I wrote a business plan for a retail business. It was a consignment business which specialized in selling costumes and theatrical wear. I called it Caravan Costumes.

Armed with a business plan, some seed money from the sale of my condo, and a big consignment from someone heading off to Egypt, I eventually found a location and opened my shop. But within days of opening the store, a flood hit the town and my shop was inundated with water and mud.

Not to be deterred, I took everything out of the shop, cleaned it, repaired it and reopened in the same location a month later. But the town was slow to recover from the disastrous flood and I wasn’t making enough money. After moving my shop back into my apartment and trying to sell exclusively to the Burning Man market, I was told about an ideal location next to a live performance theater. I took a short-term lease (it was twice the rent and half the space), once again lucked into a consignee who had a tremendous inventory of gothic type clothes, I re-opened in my new location for the Halloween season. The store did phenomenally well.

But by this time I was out of steam and money and couldn’t keep it going.

So I abandoned ship, so to speak, and decided to leave the country. I had been moving non-stop during that last year in the U.S. I began Caravan Costumes in an apartment in San Rafael. Next, I moved to the flood zone (alas) in San Anselmo. Just after the flood, I moved my residence across the street from my shop. After several flood warnings after the flood that ruined so many businesses (talk about closing the barn door after the horses are gone) I moved my entire inventory in and out of the shop on three separate occasions. Then I moved everything into my apartment and finally, I went to Mill Valley and reopened the store. I decided to share an apartment with a friend to save money. That lasted just a short while before I was on the move again. The shop closed, I returned the inventory and began house sitting throughout the Bay Area. More moving, and packing and unpacking.

Finally, I decided to get my certification to teach English as a second language and travel outside my country. I had a teaching degree and thought I would fall back on this to support myself for a while. Also, I felt all the too-ing and fro-ing was a message that I was to travel.

I had accepted a job offer teaching in Instanbul but had already booked a flight to Morocco to study Arabic in a 3-week intensive course. I arrived in Morocco in January of 2007 and I was a miserable student of Arabic. Nothing seemed to sink in. I was one of three students (the other two students were fresh out of college and excellent at learning the alphabet and sounds) and soon dropped the classes all together. I was embarrassed by my inability to absorb the lessons. And anyway, I was headed for Istanbul soon, so why bother? They don’t speak Arabic there.

But destiny had another path in store for me and I was offered a job at the school where I was studying Arabic. I accepted the offer simply because the hours were better. Full-time teaching here is 15 hours a week. In Istanbul, it was 35 hours a week. I didn’t want to work so much so I stayed.

And I got married to a Moroccan within 4 months of my arrival. Within 6 months I had purchased a house and a car. And for the past 2 years I have been teaching and restoring the house. Every dirham I make goes into the house. And it’s still not finished.

BUT … and it’s a big ‘but’ and here’s where the lucky part comes into the story … I own my own house and I am able to live entirely within my means. I have no debt and feel I am building nice equity even though it may take a while to realize the gains. I am employed in a school where there is a waiting list so, at least for the present, there is a semblance of job security. Were I to have kept the money I invested in the house in my portfolio back home, I’m sure I would have lost a significant portion of it. As it stands now, the money seems more secure in the house. My house is in an excellent location (I finally learned the lesson about location) and I can see a light at the end of the tunnel. I feel I can realistically expect to complete the restoration by June of next year. Three full years of work!

On the personal side, my marriage has not been without great challenges, but I married a man with a good heart. He’s a wild card at all times, but he has always done the right thing when push comes to shove. I am really, really lucky to have chosen him even though we challenge each other every day and in every way.

So when I read the emails and the news reports about the economic situation abroad, I can only give humble thanks for being saved from financial ruin, for surely I would be running scared by now had I stayed in San Francisco.

I am in the right place for now. With all the difficulties and all the differences, I am confident I am where I should be.

Lucky me.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Straight Talk

There are so many experiences and reactions to those experiences that I am tempted to write about in this blog. I used to write absolutely everything I felt. But I have come to know that my American ‘directness’ is neither appreciated nor well tolerated here.

And so I weigh the pros and cons of being direct in my mind. Not just here in Morocco, but in every circumstance in life. And, as always, I come to the conclusion that the best path is in the middle. If I can learn to express my feelings in a more ‘cultured’ manner, I will have more peace of mind. And by this I mean with more consideration and forethought about the ‘culture’ I am living and operating in. And I don’t think of culture as something necessarily foreign, unless it’s to realize it’s something foreign to my experience. An experience I haven’t lived or a view I didn’t grow up with, for example.

Too often I just shut up instead of practicing a more thoughtful approach. This, too, is a mistake because I replay imagined and real dialogues in my head. I can’t find peace. So my lesson is to temper my tongue. Develop ‘Right Speech’. This is rather a challenge coming from a culture where speaking one’s mind is more often than not seen as an admirable trait. And coming from a family where the barbed ‘come back’ was admired, often applauded and tacitly encouraged.

What a Petri dish this place is for me. Without close friends or family or even someone who can offer wise counsel I find I am left on my own to figure out how to be. These days I am my own guide, my own teacher.

It helps immensely if I keep reminding myself I am where I should be. And, too, remember the gestation of the idea to visit Fes. Back in San Rafael, I had seen a documentary on the Sacred Music Festival and it was from this film that I learned Fes was considered the spiritual capital of Morocco. I wanted to grow spiritually, so visiting Fes seemed like a good place to further my growth.

Ahhhh, it’s so true what they say.

Be careful what you ask for …

Monday, October 19, 2009


I’m feeling old and creaky lately. Not enough exercise to limber up and I have to climb too many stairs of varying heights in my house. It’s all beginning to take a toll on my body. I feel like I need a hip replacement, although I’m sure that’s just an exaggerated response to the inevitable aches and pains that come with advancing age. When I wake up each morning, my feet and joints are stiff and I hobble to the bathroom. I’ve noticed that after sitting for a while in a café or at my desk, it takes several yards of steps before the joints lubricate and allow me to walk without a noticeable limp. Aging does humble one, doesn’t it? I keep telling myself I’m lucky to know the effects of aging. But sometimes I’m not very convincing and I reach for the ibuprophen to reduce the inflammation and pretend I am still in my middle years. That could be true were I to live to the ripe old age of 112.

One sure sign of getting older is talking about your aches and pains. I’m going to stop this conversation and change subjects right now.

Last month I had 3 weeks off between semesters and I was able to pick up some extra cash doing odd jobs. Of course all the money went straight into the house. My house is always hungry and greedily eats all I am willing to give her. I vacillate between thinking I am almost done restoring the house and thinking it will never end. When I look at the house, I see there are just a few jobs remaining – install sinks (3), plaster and paint the walls from the stairwell up (it’s a big ‘up’ however), tile the floors in two small rooms, build and install a few doors, plus complete a little bit of electrical work. Then I tally up the cost for all of this (not counting the need for about 2 dozen wall sconces and appliances for the kitchen) and I lose heart. How long will it take me to make enough money to do what remains to be done? And how many hours of cleanup must I do after each project deposits layers of dust over the entire house?


But, I must remain hopeful and positive. This week alone, Hassan and I managed to get the shower upstairs tiled and finally, finally, finally, all the stairs have had zeliig installed. The entrance is now getting zeliig around the bottom edges which the last worker left unfinished when he walked off the job over a year ago. Tomorrow, Insha’Allah, another worker will bring 5 windows for a variety of locations and one door to install on a utility closet. I’m particularly happy about the windows because they will help to keep the house warmer throughout the winter months. Plus there is the added benefit of muffling some of the street noise and keeping some of the dust from the streets out of the house.

But then I remember the cleanup required after each project and I grow weary before the work even begins.

{deeper sigh}

And to what end? Why am I doing this? Am I going to run a guest house? I really don’t think I have the proper temperament to host tourists on a regular basis. Lately I’ve been thinking of setting the house up as two separate ‘apartments’ or suites and renting each floor in its entirety. This means looking for longer term rentals. If I can rent the house for several months at a time, I am free to travel back to the U.S. I am aiming for this by summer.

(a sigh of contentment and hope}

But plans are meant to be changed and who knows what will ultimately happen?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Profile of American Tourists

I’ve observed several categories of American tourists here in Fes. These tourists usually stay in Fes for 2 or 3 days and are really among the minority of the various cultures that visit here. We get a lot of European tourists due to the proximity and cheap airfares. We also get a surprising number of Australians. I’ve found Australians are great travelers and the fact that it takes up to 24 hours to reach their destination is just part of the journey for them. Eastern Europeans, Japanese, Koreans, and even one or two groups of Mexicans all find their way to Morocco. But it is Americans I want to write about because I am one of them and so I am keen to observe their behavior outside of the U.S.

One group of American tourists includes the blissfully naïve. Often, they are quite young and seem to make their way through their time here with blessed aplomb. They might get taken advantage of by some seasoned hustlers, but more often then not they are befriended by some Moroccan or another with a truly kind heart who takes them under their wing and provides them with great experiences and touches their heart.

There is another group of tourists who are found in organized groups. They travel in herds and follow the prescribed path of their official guides. They, too, leave with a smile on their face. And while this group most assuredly overpays for any trinket or carpet they have purchased, they have either accepted that this is just the way business operates here, or they remain unaware and truly believe their guide was negotiating on their behalf and received a good price for their purchases. Either way, they are happy.

The next group is the back-packing crowd. They carry their complete needs on their back and front, like a camel laden with necessities for a long trek through the desert. They are the bargain hunters with basic needs for shelter and high expectations for experience. They are a hardy lot and make their way across the country in pairs or small groups. They go with the flow and either know what they want, or accept what they get. This group seems to have a happy experience here, too.

Another group is made up of two distinct subgroups. These are the Americans with money. Some are quite well-off and this group has a great time here. They can afford all the special offerings like excellent 5-star hotels, specialty tours for cooking, wine-tasting and calligraphy classes. They never really experience the nitty-gritty part of life in a medieval city (except the occasional power outage or water stoppage that just somehow adds to the charm of the experience) except from a comfortable distance. Their sheltered experience is full of color and charm. And if something happens to ‘go wrong’ – like some unrelenting street boy who won’t stop pestering them to buy his hand of Fatima key rings – they turn the experience into an entertaining story to regale their friends and family. They are incredibly adept at rising above the fray and keeping perspective.

And then there is the ‘not-so-rich, but ‘better off than most’ group of American tourists. This group lacks the charm of all the other groups because this tourist is always on the lookout for being taken advantage of. Armed with their Lonely Planet, they challenge every exchange and want it to be known they are nobody’s fool. They reject, judge and seem to label everything as either good or bad. They are so intent on ‘coming out ahead’ or ‘being in the know’ that they miss the journey completely. I see it so clearly because I, too, have been guilty of this guarded attitude that seems to guarantee an unhappy response to one’s experience. They insist that people behave according to their standards. And of course this is a recipe for disaster when trying to immerse oneself in a different culture.

Take it from me. I’ve learned the hard way. But all-in-all, I think my fellow Americans are open to the Moroccan experience and I am always happy to see them.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Tomorrow After Tomorrow

Often, when I ask when something will be done, or begun, or arrive I am frequently told ‘tomorrow after tomorrow’. Now I have grown up with the exhortation that tomorrow never comes. So then ‘tomorrow after tomorrow’ becomes a truly nonexistent date. And often it is nonexistent. But then sometimes, the event or project or product really does arrive. Not exactly ‘tomorrow after tomorrow’ but it does arrive.

Accepting ‘tomorrow after tomorrow’ has been just one of the lessons I have learned whilst living in Morocco these past three years. My ‘to do’ list is useless. Time and time again I have learned that my timetable is never the same as anyone else’s timetable. So, a list of things I want to accomplish or acquire and the desire to tick off everything on the list just becomes an exercise in frustration. I’ve found the easiest thing to do is give up the list.

Now having an intention is different. I have great long lists of intentions that I dare not put down on paper lest I become wrapped up in actually realizing them and – God forbid – have a mental ‘due date’ associated with each intention. And lo and behold the manifestation of these intentions actually happens sometimes. It seems kind of magical.

Take, for instance, my intention to limit my time in Morocco each year. One more gruelingly hot summer, accompanied by a month of Ramadan, has brought me to the end of my rope. I can’t bear the idea of another summer in Morocco and want to find a way to return to California for several months next year.

Here’s what has happened since voicing that intention:

The Director of my school said I could work 4 semesters, rather than 6, and still keep my job.

In 24 hours, two parties have approached me about renting my entire house --- one for a year and a half and the other for up to two years.

Another party has expressed interest in partnering with me to finish the restoration of the house and help operate it as a guest house.

Now the trick is, as I see it, to avoid pushing for any one solution but keep my mind and heart open as to what will happen next. This is tricky for a task-driven person such as me. I try to weigh all options and have contingencies all planned out. Of course this approach has never really been effective --- especially in Morocco where ‘tomorrow after tomorrow’ rules the happenings (and non-happenings) of the day. But what is rather fun to observe is how intentions give way to opportunities which may or may not come to fruition. And the real fun comes in observing my reaction to the rise of opportunities (“oh wonderful”, I gleefully tell myself. “This must be the Universe’s way of telling me this is the right action”) and my response to the slamming shut of doors that once seemed wide open (“how could I have been so wrong? … What should I have done to make this thing happen?”). In other words, I masochistically observe myself drive myself crazy until I finally surrender to the wisdom of “Insha’allah”.