Some memories, in pictures and words, from Christmases spent in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France; Fez, Morocco; and Kisumu, Kenya. One month past Christmas isn’t too late for a Christmas post, is it? 🙂
As countless Christmas songs and Hallmark movies remind us, home is the place to be for the holidays. “For the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home.” And yeah, you kind of can’t. Without baking Christmas cookies with my grandmother at her house, without hanging stockings over my parents’ fireplace, and without my mother’s Christmas Eve beef wellington feast or our annual Christmas morning family brunch after transforming the living room into a sea of wrapping paper, Christmas just doesn’t feel quite like Christmas. But we all grow up, and maybe we live overseas for a time, or we get married and have a whole new second family to split holiday time with. I’ve spent three out of the past nine Christmases far, far away from my home town. Something felt a little off about those three Christmases… and yet, not in a bad way, for they have remained my most memorable Christmases. There’s no place like home for the holidays, and there’s also no place like not home for the holidays.
Christmas 2009 in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France
There was a frosty train ride north from Paris. There was a buche de Noel cake, log shaped and hiding tiny treasures, and festive table settings made by my host family’s kids. Their grandmother cooked all day and we ate like kings, and the kids put their shoes out at night to be filled with candy and gifts by morning. We made a snowman and came inside and the grandmother made us the most amazing hot chocolate I have ever had. It tasted like a scrumptious Swiss chocolate bar melted straight into a cup of hot cream, and maybe that’s what it was. There was a walk through a grove of snow-decked pine trees to midnight mass at a tiny old stone church. And there were World War I monuments rising out of fields still pockmarked with the craters of century-old shells.
Christmas 2014 in Fez, Morocco
There were twinkling strings of lights on orange trees across the border in Ceuta, Spain. There was a university strike in Tetouan, doors barricaded and guarded by students, classes cancelled, and a sudden day off on December 25th. There was a bus ride through rolling mountains, through blue Chefchaouen, to Fez, where the air was icy cold but indoors it was toasty warm and we cooked pasta and exchanged gifts while Handel’s Messiah played in the background. There’s no Christmas in Morocco, but there was for the six or seven of us in that dar in the Fez Medina. There were roof terrace views, mountains in the distance, walks through winding medina paths dodging donkey carts and tea kettles and leather goods, and a cozy fire in the Ruined Garden Cafe.
Christmas 2017 in Kisumu, Kenya
There was a road trip from Eldoret to Kericho to Kisumu, big family piled into two cars, stopping for tea and mandazi and scenic overlooks along the way. Family outings are a common way of celebrating Christmas in Kenya. “Like the first Christmas,” my grandfather, a pastor, said. “Think about it. Everyone was on the road.” The national park was full to capacity, with lines stretching far out the gate, so we skipped it. We took a boat ride on Lake Victoria and ate whole grilled tilapia with ugali and sukumawiki on a hilltop overlooking the lake. It was eighty plus degrees and felt like July. On the drive home, everyone was out, happy people walking along the side of the road, kids in fancy new Christmas outfits, young men who’d done a little too much partying, and families like ours heading home. Everyone outside on the road under the moon on that warm, warm Christmas night.
We’re leaving for the airport early tomorrow morning. Home for the Holidays, here we come! Boston Logan is typically a relatively calm and uneventful airport, but around the holidays, traveling is like a box of chocolates. You don’t know what you’re gonna get. While I procrastinate on my packing and present-wrapping, here are my all-time best airport stories, a sequel to my weird stories on trains and buses. Moments in airports that just made me do a double take and think to myself, “Wait a minute, did that actually just happen?”
Cairo International Airport, March 2015
With my cohort of fellow Fulbrighters, I boarded an EgyptAir flight from Casablanca to Cairo to Amman for a spring conference. Here are some highlights from our EgyptAir experience:
The plane food looked very questionable, so I did not eat it and was starving by the time we got to Amman. But that was okay because…
Everyone who did eat it got food poisoning.
The plane was dirty.
The pilot said a prayer over the intercom before we left, and I had very mixed feelings about this because on the one hand I entirely support praying for safe travels and often do so myself, but I also want some reassurance that the pilot has confidence in himself and the plane, you know?
We flew home in three separate groups (as some left directly after the conference while I and a few other stayed to wander around Jordan). The second legs of ALL THREE flights were canceled, no explanation given, and we all got stranded in Cairo overnight.
So there we were in the Cairo airport late at night, in need of visas to leave the airport and go to a hotel. We’d thought this through beforehand, as we’d heard about the cancellation before our flight left Amman. While we were waiting in the Amman airport, we had traded our leftover Jordanian dinar for Egyptian pounds rather than Moroccan dirhams. So we all had enough Egyptian cash on hand to purchase our visas.
An airport officer pointed to six currency exchange kiosks surrounding the baggage claim area and told us we could get our visas at any of them.
So we approached the closest kiosk.
“Hi, could I get a visa, please? Our flight was canceled. We’ll just be in Cairo till tomorrow morning.” (hands over passport and form)
“Certainly. That will be twenty-five dollars.”
“Actually, can I pay in Egyptian pounds?”
“No, just dollars or euros.”
“I don’t have dollars.”
“Yes, but I’ve been outside the U.S. for the past seven months. I don’t have any American money.”
“How about euros?”
“I don’t have euros. I only have Moroccan dirhams and Egyptian pounds- how much does the visa cost in Egyptian pounds?”
“I’m sorry, I can only accept dollars or euros. You can try one of the other kiosks.”
So we made our way from kiosk to kiosk, and this conversation repeated itself at every kiosk, and when we finally desperately tried the sixth and last kiosk, I lost it and yelled, loudly enough that everyone in the baggage claim area could hear me- “You’re telling me that I can’t purchase an EGYPTIAN visa with EGYPTIAN currency IN EGPYT?!???”
The man behind the kiosk looked around nervously, slid an Egyptian visa across the counter, and said in a hurried whisper, “Ok, ok, just this once, and just for you. You can pay in Egyptian pounds.”
So, PSA, if you’re going to Egypt, bring your dollars.
Mohammed V International Airport (Casablanca), March 2015
As I sat in the domestic terminal, waiting for my flight to Ouarzazate, a stray cat wandered calmly through the departure gate waiting areas. People reacted exactly how they should have: They glanced at the cat, shrugged- just a cat- and went back to their newspapers or cell phones or coffee cups. A totally normal response that felt excessively strange to me because, let’s be real here, in an American airport this cat would have caused a terminal-wide code red freak-out. It’s a terrorist cat. There’s a bomb inside it. It’s an improvised explosive cat. It’s a cat full of drugs. Where is its passport? Where is its owner? It’s about to detonate! HELP! Run for your lives!
Marrakesh Menara Airport, April 2015
This is the story of how I learned a very valuable life lesson called you get what you pay for.
A friend invited myself and two other girls to go to Italy with her to spend Easter with her cousins. We all readily accepted. We found a $16 flight from Marrakesh to Rome on an airline called Vueling. A deal almost too good to be true. We snapped it up. We’d never flown Vueling before, but we knew Ryanair pretty well and we were cool with those super-cheap no-frills European airlines. We bought a second (and equally cheap) flight from Rome to Lamezia- our final destination in southern Italy- on Ryanair.
Marrakesh was a ten hour train trip away from where I lived, but trains in Morocco are inexpensive and comfortable and I had no problem making such a long trek if it meant that $16 flight and being able to travel with my friends. I took that ten hour ONCF journey, meeting up with one of the girls in Rabat along the way and traveling with her for the final four hours, and we all ended up in the Marrakesh airport by midnight to catch our 2:00 a.m. flight.
Yes, you heard that right. Our flight had a two a.m. departure time. Whatever, it was worth it for $16. And ours was the only flight departing from Marrakesh at anywhere near that time, making a delay less likely.
Oh, wait. Take that back. Two o’clock became two thirty, two forty-five, three… and we were still waiting at our departure gate. No explanation was given. Just as we were starting to get worried about missing our connecting flight in Rome, we were finally allowed to board.
So we boarded…
…and proceeded to sit on the runway for another hour.
Once again, no explanation was given for the delay.
We found a flight attendant and asked her what was going on. We told her we had a connecting flight on another airline that we were likely to miss at that point- would Vueling be able to do anything about that? Could she give us a ballpark estimate of when we might be taking off?
The flight attendant simply shrugged at us- “like a sassy diva,” my friend said, and I can vouch that that is a very realistic description and no exaggeration.
It was now past 4:00 a.m. and passengers were getting very antsy and starting to complain loudly.
A man in an orange vest came on the plane and told us, and I swear I am not making this up, that they would have to turn the plane off and turn it back on again. He quickly ducked out of the plane before anyone had a chance to ask questions.
Rebooting a plane apparently takes at least half an hour.
So we continued to wait.
Some passengers got out of their seats and loudly demanded to get off the flight. They argued back and forth with the flight attendants and the man in the vest who reappeared out of nowhere and another airline guy in a suit. The guy in the suit and the guy in the vest disappeared, then reappeared, and announced to everyone that the mechanical problem had been fixed and the plan was ready for takeoff, but since some passengers wanted to get off the plane there would be another forty minute delay while their baggage was retrieved from the hold.
And that was IT.
Pandemonium broke loose.
Passengers were screaming and yelling in Italian, Arabic, and English. Yelling at each other, yelling at the people getting off the plane, yelling at the man in the suit and the man in the vest and the flight attendants, who were of course all yelling back. Babies were crying. Some guys shoved each other. Someone punched the back of my seat. It was nuts.
So the pilot employed an age-old trick passed down from kindergarten teacher to kindergarten teacher for generations. He turned off the lights for five minutes until we all calmed down.
We missed our connecting flight in Rome and had to cough up sixty euros for a train ticket to Lamezia and then sit on a train for seven or eight hours.
At least we made it in time for Easter dinner!
You get what you pay for. And sometimes what you get is a good story.
Abed Amani Karume International Airport (Zanzibar), July 2015
My husband and I flew from Nairobi to Zanzibar for the second half of our honeymoon. As we stepped off the plane, we were immediately greeted by giant, bright yellow signs: All travelers must show proof of yellow fever immunization. I had my yellow WHO card with me, but my husband did not have his, though he’d been vaccinated about eight years before. We were given two options. “You can wait here for the next flight back to Nairobi, or we can vaccinate you here.” My husband chose the latter option. So the TSA officer- and, I repeat, not a nurse, the TSA officer- opened a mini fridge, took out a needle, showed my husband that it was sterile, and proceeded to jab him in the arm right there by the baggage claim.
I like to end this story with “annnddd now he’s autistic.”
PSA, get your yellow fever shot before you go to Tanzania and don’t lose your WHO card cause they don’t play.
George Bush Intercontinental Airport (Houston), August 2014
The man in line in front of me at Starbucks was wearing cowboy boots and a giant cowboy hat completely non-ironically. Maybe that’s normal in Texas, but I’m an urban New England girl. It was weird.
Philadelphia International Airport, May 2016
On my way home from a girls’ weekend away, I was strolling through the Philadelphia airport in the direction of my gate, casually looking around, when, as I passed an information desk, the woman at the desk called out to me, “Starbucks is over that way!”
Should I be amused or offended? Do I really give off that strong of a “basic white girl” vibe? Should I work on that? Siiiiigh.
(The worst part: I actually was looking for a Starbucks.)
There are some other good ones too, but that’s it for today!
… you can’t watch any film set anywhere in the Middle East without yelling out, “Hey! I know that place!” at some point.
As much as I adore Tom Hanks, I just couldn’t take the trailer for “A Hologram for the King” seriously. It’s supposed to be set in Saudi. I kid you not, at 1:54 they didn’t even bother to edit out the Moroccan flag! It’s so convenient for Hollywood that Americans are bad at geography.
I have a huge amount of respect for the Moroccan students and professors with whom I had the privilege of working last year. My colleagues were incredibly kind, knowledgable, and welcoming. They insisted that I join them at their gatherings at cafes after work, and even invited me into their homes to share dinner and meet their spouses and children. Although I was much younger than my colleagues and the only foreign teacher in the department, they made me feel like I was a full member of the faculty. I taught many bright, hardworking, passionate and motivated young people. I learned a lot about Moroccan culture from my students’ presentations, debates, and essays. They shared all kinds of thoughtful insights in our class discussions. They showed me around. I sometimes ended up in a taxi with a few of my students after class, and the twenty-minute taxi ride would turn into a lively conversation. I still keep in touch with some of my students and I have wonderful memories of teaching them English.
Now that I’m back in the U.S., teaching high school English Language Development, I’ve been thinking a lot about my experiences teaching in Morocco and America. One thing in particular stands out to me- a common issue in Moroccan public universities as well as many American public schools. Let me start with an incident that happened at my university in Morocco about halfway through the school year.
On December 25, 2014, I bought some baghrir with jbn for breakfast and jumped into a taxi for the 20 minute ride from the town where I lived to the smaller seaside college town where I taught. I got out at the university and hurried through the gate, dry erase marker and folder full of photocopies in hand. But it was not going to be a normal day. A crowd of students was milling about outside the huge main building, talking quietly and looking at the door. The door was barricaded with boards and what looked like part of an old table and a few students stood just in front of it, guarding the entrance.
One of my colleagues, an older Moroccan gentleman who spoke English in a flawless British accent, walked toward me on his way out. He did not look happy.
“No classes today?” I asked.
“No… Actually you’d better go,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
I wasn’t sorry. It was Christmas morning and some Fulbright friends were gathering in Fez to cook a meal together and exchange gifts and I had been a little sore about having to work. What perfect timing for a strike! I went straight to the bus station in Tetouan, bought a ticket to Fez, and soon I was on a bus winding through the Rif mountains, ETA six hours from now, destination Christmas.
The protesting students had been building up to that strike for nearly a month. They had spent three weeks parading around campus, chanting, and gathering around to hear an older student give speeches full of fiery passion for change. During the second week of December, they took it up a notch. They brought the slow marching and chanting into the buildings, stopping outside each classroom door. I was talking about The Great Gatsby when they got to my door. There was a loud knock, then the door swung open and the student who was always giving angry speeches in various corners of campus (my colleagues had identified him as the head of the student union) walked in.
“May I speak to your students for a moment?” he asked me very politely.
“Of course,” I said. I’d been warned not to interfere with strikes. “It’s not your strike. Stay out of it,” my program director had said.
The minute I gave permission, the student union rep turned to my students and launched into a tirade in rapid-fire Darija of which I understood the following:
“There is a big problem… problem… this university… There are many problems… classes… exams… scholarships… problem… the scholarships… exams… dates… exams… This is a big problem… professors… university… scholarships… exams… problem… problem… problem…”
Then he walked out as suddenly as he had walked in. “All classes are dismissed. Go home,” he said on his way out the door.
“Well everyone, have a nice vacation!” I laughed.
“We don’t actually have to leave,” they said. “You can keep teaching.”
“Yeah, they mostly just want to make their point. We can stay in class, it’s fine.”
But I remembered what my Fulbright director had said, and an anecdote about a guy in my program a few years back who’d gotten into an altercation with the strikers because he’d refused to stop teaching, and I insisted that they take a day off.
This pattern continued for the rest of the week. My students would show up with their notebooks and pens, ready to learn, I’d get about halfway through a lecture, and the chanting would grow louder and louder until it was right outside the door and then the leader of the protestors would come in, give his speech, and that was it for the day.
And then, for three mornings, the doors were barricaded and guarded and classes did not meet at all.
I never understood exactly what that strike was about. It had something to do with the government promising scholarships and not delivering. It had something to do with the final exam schedule. Tests scheduled too close together with no time to prepare, I think. Every university system has its problems. In the U.S., we have our sky-high tuition costs and staggering student debt.
The thing is, I would protest too, if I were a student in Morocco. And this is what I would say:
Hire more professors. Lower the student-faculty ratio. Give us regular feedback on our work, not just a cryptic number between one and twenty once or twice a semester. Give us teaching assistants who can work with us in small groups. Help us improve. Make us feel like our professors and teaching assistants notice us and want to help us learn.
Unfortunately, those things cost money.
I was supposed to be a teaching assistant. But since the Moroccan public university system is overcrowded and underfunded, I found myself automatically promoted to “stand-alone professor with five hundred students and no teaching assistants.” That’s right, the Eager-But-Highly-Underqualified-For-This-Job Me stood up there and taught five big lecture halls full of college students and graded everything myself.
My colleagues told me I didn’t have to give my students individual feedback on their work. I didn’t have to show them their graded tests. All I had to do was administer a final exam and maybe also a midterm (optional) and post their grades, on a scale of 1 to 20, on the wall. Well more like from 1 to 16, because, as they say, 20 is for Allah and 19 is for His Majesty the King, as in these grades are very very very rarely given out because no one is perfect. (I did give out one 19… for a student who’d lived most of her life in Canada and spoke better English than I did.)
It goes against all my principles as an educator to give students a number at the end of the semester and nothing more. How can students improve if they don’t get regular and specific comments on their work so they know exactly what to fix to do better in the future?
Some of my colleagues took pains to give their students feedback on their work. Some didn’t, but I don’t judge them. They’re not bad teachers. The system is against them. How can you possibly give regular individual feedback to five hundred students? You can’t. You just can’t. I tried to and I did my best, commenting on homework on long bus and train rides. I held office hours. I think I did as well as I could have under the circumstances. But my students should have had smaller classes, or at least teaching assistants who could meet with them outside of lectures, once or twice a week, in small groups of ten or twenty. They should have had more individual attention from instructors. They deserved that. And I and my colleagues should not have been responsible for such a whopping number of students.
This issue of class size is not unique to Morocco. It’s an American problem too, at the K-12 level. I taught at a large urban public high school for three years. I taught Algebra and Geometry to English Language Learners, many of whom were refugees or unaccompanied minors with trauma history, some of whom had just arrived in the U.S. and spoke no English, most of whom came into my class at about a fourth grade math level or even less. In that type of setting, there should be no more than fifteen students per class. In some of my classrooms I had nearly thirty. Thirty kids at vastly varying math and English levels with lots of major stuff going on outside of school, who all needed lots of individualized instruction and attention. It wasn’t impossible, but I struggled and burnt myself out and after three years I just couldn’t do it anymore.
At my current school in the U.S., I teach a small group of ninth grade English Language Learners. I have eight students. Eight. I differentiate my curriculum for each individual kid’s specific needs. I am intensely aware of each student’s specific level, strengths and weaknesses, and learning styles. I can do this because I have such a small number of students. Earlier this year, I realized that several of the ninth graders at my school had major gaps in their math backgrounds. In response, I taught a basic arithmetic and number sense intervention class to four students for two months. In two months, the four of them brought their grades in their Algebra class up to passing. They went from adding on their fingers at the beginning of those two months to being able to correctly solve at least 48 out of 50 mixed addition, subtraction, multiplication and division problems in three minutes. This did not happen because I’m some genius teacher or anything. It happened because I had four students in the class. I know such a small teacher-student ratio is too good to be true in most districts. But class size makes a huge, huge, major difference. It really, really does.
So, there you go, that’s what I’d strike for if I were a student at a Moroccan public university. Maybe also if I were a student at an American public high school in an overcrowded, underfunded, high needs district. Students deserve attention, individualized instruction, and lots of feedback. Worldwide.
I’ve been married nine months… or maybe seven. I’m never quite sure what to say. My husband and I had a wedding in his hometown in Kenya and another two months later in my hometown in Maryland. Once in awhile, I go looking for something in my closet and see my wedding dress there in a corner in its white garment bag. The bold black letters on the front of the bag- “D’Novias Ceuta”- are faded and half rubbed off, and the bag has grey smudges from the dust and dirt of taxi trunks and bus seats and airplane overhead compartments. The dress itself has plenty of its own smudges, the souvenirs of two outdoor receptions. I’ve wondered now and then if I should get the dress dry cleaned and folded neatly away in a special box with whatever they do to preserve wedding dresses. I went to a dry cleaning shop once and looked into it. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It just wouldn’t feel right. It wouldn’t be mine.
As you probably know if you’re reading this, my husband and I spent our entire engagement on different continents. Long distance wedding planning was surprisingly easy. We browsed photographers’ blogs and DJs’ websites and skyped with our favorites before making a choice. We skyped our way through premarital counseling sessions with our officiant. Registering online was a breeze. There was one thing I was worried about, though. Moroccan brides wear ornate, colorful kaftans at their weddings, and though I think Moroccan wedding dresses are beautiful, I wanted something a little more of the poufy white ball gown variety for my wedding. I didn’t know where I could find such a thing in Morocco.
I described my dilemma to my Arabic tutor, and she helpfully took me on a spontaneous field trip to every kaftan shop within a two-mile radius. But none had my kind of dress for sale. And then I remembered Ceuta, the Spanish exclave not far from where I was living. By google search, I found a store called D’Novias, which sounded promising. On a breezy Saturday morning in January, I climbed into a “grand taxi,” a 70s era Mercedes Benz that regularly carried six passengers plus the driver, handed the driver fifteen dirhams, and I was off on my mission to say yes to a dress.
After a half-hour drive along the gorgeous blue Mediterranean, we stopped just short of the border crossing. I climbed out of the taxi, passport in hand, to walk through the checkpoint on foot.
Crossing from Morocco into Ceuta is always interesting. It feels a bit like the border crossing between the U.S. and Canada. You have this weird feeling that you should still be in Morocco, because you haven’t boarded a plane or crossed an ocean, but your passport is stamped and handed back to you and suddenly there’s a big blue sign that says “Espana” and you have to exchange your dirhams for euros and you can drink wine in cafes and wear short sleeves without being stared at.
That morning, for some unexplained reason, the typical pedestrian window was closed and everyone entering Ceuta on foot had to walk up to the drive-through window. There were a good fifty people in line, mostly Moroccan women in colorful hijabs on their way to jobs or shopping excursions, and in typical Morocco fashion, no one was standing in a straight line one behind the other, but rather in more of a blob. In the middle of the road, with car horns honking and border officers trying to direct cars and pedestrians to somehow get through the same line. It was a mess, but I eagerly joined the blob because I had an appointment at D’Novias at 11 and there was no way I was missing this chance.
I could barely breathe or move my arms in the crowd. I asked a woman ahead of me in line to hand me one of the forms Morocco makes you fill out any time you enter or exit the country. She did and asked me for a pen. I fished two pens out of my bag, handed one to her– the crowd pushed and shoved each other forward but had a weird sense of camaraderie at the same time– and filled in my name, nationality, profession, and address in Morocco.
“That’s my wife,” a man behind me told me in Arabic, pointing at a young woman in a red coat, who was almost to the window. The man was moustached and at least in his fifties; the woman was my age. I obligingly started to step aside, but a woman beside me in a pink hijab screamed, “No!” and gave the man the dirty look any scheming would-be line-cutter deserves. That wasn’t his wife.
Then the woman in the pink hijab tried to sweet-talk me. “Please, let my friend go ahead of you. She’s late for work,” she said to me in Spanish. I’d been waiting in that line for a good half hour at that point, I was going to be late to my own appointment, and I had just almost let a man get away with cutting in front of me and this woman in the pink hijab seemed like a nice person but I wasn’t about to let that happen again.
“I have to work too,” I said.
She looked down at my American passport very skeptically. “You have to work?”
Okay, busted. But I still wasn’t giving up my place in line. “I have an appointment at eleven,” I said. At least that was true.
She looked at the clock. It was ten till eleven. She begrudgingly shrugged and let me keep my place in line.
I finally made it to D’Novias and apologized in broken Spanish, trying to describe the craziness of this morning’s border crossing. The young woman working that morning was kind and I was the only customer. I looked through a binder of the store’s dress selections and zeroed in on the 2013 dresses on sale for 500 euros. I couldn’t afford a brand new dress from D’Novias, and how much do wedding dresses really change in two years anyway? I wasn’t looking for anything fresh off the runway. I just needed a wedding dress.
I tried on four dresses while the D’Novias lady snapped pictures with my phone and I texted them to my friends. The first was a billowing ivory monstrosity that drowned me in a sea of ruffles. Nope. The second was form-fitting and my weight fluctuated too much during my year of traveling for me to take a risk with that. The third looked great on the rack but not so great on my figure.
I had mixed feelings about Dress Four when I saw it on the hanger. It was strapless and I didn’t think I wanted a strapless dress. I was in love with lace cap sleeves. But this dress had a beautiful, intricate beaded bodice and a skirt that I couldn’t look away from- creamy tiered chiffon ruffles. I tried it on and the skirt swayed gracefully when I walked and I felt like a Disney princess. I didn’t want to take it off.
Half an hour later, I was walking back across the border with Dress Four in a giant white garment bag almost as big as I was. “This is my wedding dress,” I told a taxi driver proudly as I carefully arranged it in the trunk of his taxi and crammed myself into the car with the usual six other people.
There was one glitch though. The Dress was five sizes too big. I knew of a good tailor in Tetouan, but I couldn’t just walk right in there. I had to mentally prepare myself for this. Because I would have to do this in Arabic, and that was scary.
It took me three months to find the courage, but in April, I finally walked into that tailor shop. I greeted the tailor, a middle-aged woman with kind eyes, in Arabic. “I have a wedding dress,” I told her. “It’s too big, and I want to change it. I want it to be smaller. Can you help me? The dress is at my house right now. When can I bring it here?”
“Of course, of course. You can bring it any time today. I’ll be here. I’ve altered lots of wedding dresses before, and made dresses too. I used to work in a bridal shop in France.”
So much relief and happiness. She understood me! And she could alter my dress! AND SHE SPOKE FRENCH!
I was back twenty minutes later, giant white garment bag in hand. And then there were pins and tape measures and billowing white chiffon and ooohs and ahhhs from the tailor’s mother, a sweet little Moroccan grandma on a chair in the corner. I was speaking French with the tailor and Grandma was making comments about me in Arabic- “She’s a tiny little thing. She needs to eat more. She’s pretty though. Does she live here? Where’s she from?” When I looked up and told her in Arabic that I did live here and I was from America, she gasped. “You speak Darija?”
Two weeks later, the dress was my size and had the delicate lace cap sleeves I’d dreamed of. On to the next challenge: getting it to Kenya and then to the States.
In July, I bought two bus tickets to Rabat. One for myself, and one for The Dress. I wasn’t going to let it out of my sight. “Going to the chapel” played in my head as the bus wheels turned and Tetouan slipped away out of sight for the last time.
I arrived in Rabat five hours later and struggled with my two heavy suitcases, backpack, and wedding dress, pushing and shoving and lugging everything out of the train station and toward a taxi. The taxi driver looked skeptically at all my stuff and gestured at the two people already in his taxi.
“I don’t have room for your luggage, but my friend, that guy over there, he can take you.” Before I could say anything, my bags were being loaded onto……
Whatever. Sounded okay to me. I gave the driver the name of a friend’s neighborhood in Rabat and asked how much he’d charge me. He named his price. I said I’d pay him exactly half of that and not a dirham more. He said okay.
I kept looking back during the drive, at the white garment bag bouncing around on top of my suitcases. The driver assured me it would be fine. “I’m a good driver. There’s no problem. Your things are okay. Don’t worry.”
“I know, I know. But that’s my wedding dress.”
“Do you have children?”
“No, not yet. I think I should get married first.”
“Yes yes, but right after the wedding you need to have children. How old are you?”
“Twenty-five. That’s a good age. Yes, get married and then have children. Congratulations.”
After a night in Rabat, I woke up early and loaded The Dress and everything else into a taxi to Casablanca. The Emirates flight attendants congratulated me and told me that my dress would be riding first class. The placed it carefully into a locker near the front of the plane. I love flying Emirates.
I argued with an airport security officer in Dubai because I didn’t want to cram my dress through the x-ray machine. He insisted that it could not be inspected by hand, but apparently they have another, special, bigger x-ray machine, and he put my dress through that.
Sleepy and jetlagged in Nairobi, I paid for my visa, garment bag in hand, and picked up my luggage. A customs officer stopped me. “What is that?”
“My wedding dress.” I unzipped the garment bag halfway and he peered inside.
“How much did you pay for it?”
“Not much… I don’t remember, I’ve had it a long time, maybe like 200 dollars.”
“Oh, okay. Go ahead.”
Heck no, you’re not going to make me bribe you to bring my own wedding dress into Kenya. No way, Mister.
That dress survived the winding, bumpy four-or-five-hour car ride from Nairobi to Eldoret, a nervous walk down a church aisle, a joyful walk down a dusty road surrounded by women singing, welcoming me, and many hours of dancing in the grass with my husband and my family and my brand new family and what must have been half the town. It survived the car ride back to Nairobi and another twenty hours on an airplane. In September, when I boarded another flight to bring the dress to Maryland, I asked about where to store it and the flight attendant told me the overhead compartment was my only option. I thought about it for a moment, shrugged, folded the garment bag, and stuffed it up there. After all this dress has been through, what’s one more wrinkle?
In one of my favorite pictures from my American wedding, I’m lifting up the hem of my dress to walk, revealing my coral shoes. My husband is playfully holding out my bouquet to me. It was a candid picture and I love it. We’re laughing and being our goofy selves. In that picture, the hem of my dress has visible dirt and grass stains on it. In some of our other pictures- from both weddings- my dress has clearly visible wrinkles. I don’t care. Those wrinkles and grass stains and dirt smudges tell a story. A story of a fifteen thousand mile bus, train, taxi, miniature-truck-thingy, and airplane journey to happily ever after.
I kept up with this blog till November and then let it fall to the wayside… for a couple of reasons. One, exam time came around and I was suddenly consumed with grading… although also with buses and trains and planes and adventures. Two, as you probably know if you’re reading this, I got engaged! And all my internet time was taken over by pinterest, weddingwire, and theknot. But since it’s spring break and I’m already bored and I’ve been missing Morocco lately, here is a pile of my fave photos from winter and spring 2015!
Morocco’s Mediterranean coast is beautiful. So blue!
By this time, I have a favorite bakery, a favorite butcher shop, a favorite vegetable souk, a favorite hanoot, and a favorite place to get rghayef with amlou on a Saturday morning. Two weeks ago, I found my favorite egg store.
You can find eggs in some hanoots, souks, and the mini supermarket. But this is a shop that sells eggs, eggs, and only eggs. A garage door opens into a small room full of brown eggs in open gray cartons on tables, sorted by size- small, medium, large. I never knew chicken eggs came in different sizes, but they definitely do.
I had been traveling a lot and I hadn’t been there in two weeks, so I didn’t think the shop owner would remember me. But he answered my Darija request for “six of these, please” with “Speak English, remember? You’re my English teacher and I’m your Arabic teacher.” Sure enough, I had told him exactly that in my broken Arabic two weeks ago when I’d discovered the egg store. “I’ll be your English teacher and you’ll be my Arabic teacher, ok?”
“Alright,” I say in English, “What’s the Arabic word for egg?”
“Six eggs, please.”
He wraps the eggs in newspaper and puts them in a plastic bag. He waves goodbye. “After!”