“Oh, I thought you were ________”

I approach the crowd of grand taxis parked outside the bus station, and say to the man with the small notebook and pencil- in Darija, exactly the way I’ve heard Moroccans say it- “Tangier, one seat,” pronouncing Tangier the Arabic way. The man points toward a grand taxi. I hand him thirty dirhams. He asks me something in Darija, something I don’t understand. I look at him quizzically.

He switches to French. “Oh, I am so sorry. I didn’t know you were French. I thought you were Moroccan.”

I’m not French, but I don’t bother telling him I’m not. You find a language in which you can both communicate adequately and you go with it. That’s how it works here.

I’m not often mistaken for a Moroccan woman. I assume it was knowing the grand taxi system that made him think I was. People generally assume I’m Spanish or French.

*

I’m buying vegetables in the souk. “Are you Spanish?” asks the man selling me half a kilo of tomatoes.

“No.”

“French?”

“No, I’m American.”

“New York!”

“No…”

“California?”

“Boston.”

“Boston!”

*

“Buongiorno!” shouts a random man on the street. Well, that’s a new one. The funny thing is, he’s closer than anyone else.

*

Two friends and I hail a taxi in the touristy marina district of Agadir. We tell him our destination through the front passenger window. “Fifty dirhams,” he says, in French.

“No,” we say, in Darija. “The meter, please.”

“No,” he says. “Fifty dirhams.”

“It’s not far from here. It’s close. Fifty dirhams is very expensive. We’re not tourists. We know.”

He has also switched to Darija. “It’s night. The rate is double at night.”

“Double? No. Not double. More expensive, but not double. Twenty dirhams.”

“Okay, okay. Thirty dirhams.”

“Twenty-five.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll use the meter and you’ll see it’s not less than thirty dirhams.”

We get in the car. He turns on the meter.

We chat on the ride home, telling him we live in Morocco, we’re teachers, we’re visiting a friend, asking him what he thinks of Agadir. His tone has completely changed. We’re chatting like old friends. He gives us his number in case we ever need a taxi and can’t find one.

When we reach our destination, the meter reads twenty-nine dirhams. I point to the meter. “Look. Does it say fifty? Does it?” I can’t resist.

He laughs. “I thought you were tourists.”

“Yeah, we know.”

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“Bravo, America!”

My city is small, and people are starting to recognize me and realize that I live here. I’m that American girl. I’m not a tourist. I’m here to stay. And I now have a growing collection of unofficial Darija tutors holding me accountable for my progress, in the form of Maroc Telecom employees and vegetable vendors.

I walked into Maroc Telecom to pay my first internet bill. I didn’t think the man behind the counter recognized me, but he did. (Not the Bob Marley fan who drilled a hole through my wall. A different Maroc Telecom man.) I handled the whole transaction in French, because when it comes to money I don’t want to take any chances. And because, let’s be real, French is easy and I’m lazy.

“Elizabeth,” he said, giving me my change, and using my middle name as- for some reason- people here often do. Maybe because my first name means “me” in Arabic and that’s confusing. “How’s your Arabic? Are you learning Arabic? Are you learning the Moroccan language?”

It may have just been small talk, but I interpreted that as a “Use Arabic next month, when I see you again.” Homework assignment duly accepted.

I was buying beets in the vegetable market a couple days later. “Cinco dirham,” said the young man behind the counter.

The guy at the next vegetable stand shouted over, “She speaks Arabic!” And the conversation switched to Darija.

“You speak Arabic?”

Me (in Arabic): “No, I don’t speak any Arabic at all. At all.”

They thought this was hilarious.

“Yes, you do! Are you Spanish?”

“No, I’m American.”

“American?!?” (There are not many Americans here.) “Bravo, America!”

“But I live here now.”

“You’re studying here?”

“Yes, I’m studying Arabic and Spanish. And I’m teaching English.”

“Bravo, America!”

Lost in Translation

There’s this Darija phrase that I thought was just another way of saying “hello.” I just found out a few days ago that it actually means “good morning.” For the past three weeks, I have been cheerfully telling my neighbors and the local hanoot (shop) owners “good morning!” at 8 or 9 pm, and none of them have ever corrected me!

When I lived in France, most of my conversations happened in my second language (French) and the other person’s first language. When I was working with Spanish-speaking newcomer students in the U.S., most conversations happened in my first language (English) and the others’ second language. Here in Morocco, I often have to rely on my second language and the other person’s second language. At my university the other day, my department head introduced me to the Dean. His English wasn’t great, my Arabic was barely there, so we quickly switched to French. We understood each other perfectly.

But sometimes, when you’re both speaking your second or third languages, communication errors happen. The other day, I went to a café and asked for a coffee and a “pain au chocolat.” Now, in France at least, “pain au chocolat” refers to a chocolate croissant, but literally it means “bread with chocolate.” The waiter brought me exactly that. Four slices of bread covered in generous amounts of nutella. I wasn’t gonna complain, though.  It was delish.

Every conversation with a store owner, waiter, or cab driver in this city

Me: Very basic Darija phrase

Them: Very basic Darija phrase

Me: Very basic Darija phrase

Them: Something something something something something in Darija

Me: Uhhh… ha, yeah, you got me. I don’t actually speak this language.

Them: Vous êtes française?

Me: Non, mais je parle français…

Them: Español?

Me: No

Them: Are you English?

Me: Sort of!

Sometimes they guess my nationality/language in a different order. I like seeing what the first guess is. It’s always different.

Brb, off to the hanoot to buy some water with my fake-it-till-ya-make-it Darija!

Press 1 for French

Our first outing in Morocco consisted of dragging our jetlagged selves to Maroc Telecom to acquire new phones. Or, in my case, a Moroccan SIM card, since I bought my American phone unlocked. (Thanks, K.!) I bought a card with a “rechargement” of 100 “credits” for about 12 dollars. I’m not entirely sure what “100 credits” means or how long this will last me, but it’s been a week and I’ve made a few international calls and my phone is still kicking!

They told me adding the credits to my phone would be easy. Just dial 555, listen to the menu options from Maroc Telecom, select the correct option, and enter the code on the back of my “rechargement” card. So, shortly after getting my phone, I dialed 555. I heard a woman’s voice speaking Arabic. Inward panic. What is she saying??? Then another voice, in a language I could understand: “For French, please press 1.” I pressed 1. Sigh of relief.

I spent my first week here getting by with my French, metaphorically pressing 1 in every situation, restaurants, cabs, you name it. But it’s time to start giving Darija a try. If not now, then when? A couple of the girls in my program are awesome at launching into conversations in Darija with anyone and everyone, no shame, no hesitation, and asking them for help with the words they don’t know. I think that’s the way to do it!

My lunch break today provided the perfect opportunity. Two colleagues and I walked down the block to an electronics store in search of an adapter. (Pro-tip for travelers: Everyone reminds you to buy your adapters and converters, but don’t forget to check what kinds of plugs your chargers and appliances have! My laptop charger’s three-pronged plug wouldn’t fit into my adapter.) I didn’t know the Darija for “adapter,” but I did know the Darija for “do you have.” So I asked the guy behind the counter, “Wesh 3ndk (و١ش عندك) une prise americaine?” He understood my mix of languages and brought out an adapter. I asked him how much in Darija: “BshHal?” He answered “18 dirhams.” He’d understood me! I switched to French for the rest of the conversation. “This adapter has two holes; do you have one with three? Oh, you do? Excellent. And can I get a surge protector? Do you have a smaller one? Yes, that one. How much is it?” I walked out of that store with an adapter and a surge protector for a grand total of about eight bucks. Morocco is wonderful.

So I’ve used three words of Darija in a real-life situation! I’m looking forward to learning more and being able to use it, but for now, I’m happy to be able to “press 1” when I need to and fall back on my French.