Rediscovery v1: the queue

I have had a blog dilemma lately. About 75% of this dilemma is a lack of time to write the long, thoughtful posts that were characteristic of my past year in Morocco. About 20% is that this was originally a travel blog, and since I haven’t been traveling, I am at a loss of what to say. The last 5% or so revolves around writer’s block, which is probably due to a combination of reasons 1 and 2. Therefore, needless to say, I have opted for silence as  my primary solution.

However, my discovery of the utility of twitter has caused me to rethink this wordlessness. I don’t necessarily have to spend hours on a post to contribute to the ‘global blogosphere’ because sometimes there is such a thing as short and sweet. Also, I have said over and over again that the thing I love about traveling is the process of rediscovering your own culture. Therefore, I’m going to try a new model….short posts detailing my small American culture (re)discoveries.

Today on NPR, a civil engineer from MIT was discussing his new book about the psychology of queuing in America. In researching the mathematical processes involved with lines, he discovered that the way our minds think about is equally complex and intriguing. One statement he made really stuck with me, “A queue is a microcosm of the culture where it is.”

I remember my first line experience in Morocco. I had gotten off the plane and was ready to get my first Moroccan stamp in my passport. The airport in Casablanca has very nice lines set up to go straight to a control officer with a stamp in hand. However, like everything in Morocco, the lines were a suggestion and elbows were more useful than ‘wait-your-turn’ theories. So, after being pushed aside by 20 large women probably named ‘Fatima,’ I decided to take my turn instead of wait for it.

Upon re-entry into the US, I was again confronted with a line. This time, however, I saw things a little differently. I no longer imagined a wall surrounding the person in front of me preventing my passage. I saw the open space that my Moroccan counterparts saw, and I went for it saying to myself, “Ugh, Americans, all in the way.” This action had two consequences for me: 1)the person I ‘cut’ was very unhappy and choose to inform me as such and 2)I had thought of myself as apart from everyone by the sheer fact that I was willing to cut in line. After sufficiently apologizing to my compatriot in the line and assuring them that I meant no ill will by that maneuver, I stood there and smiled to myself. The invisible wall between of us in the line was starting to reappear. The importance of the ‘wait-your-turn’ philosophy was dawning on me once again, and I felt the full weight of American spacial culture materializing in that one, small airport queue.

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Sweet Tea and Sunshine

Tell me what you think of when you hear ‘the South.’ I suppose you recall of the war for state’s rights. I would wager you think only of red states. Do you think of fried chicken and ‘good ole country cookin’? Do you consider the world that simultaneously created Ray Charles, Martin Luther King, Booker T. Washington, and Jimmy Carter? Or do you only remember segregation, racism, inequality? Can you picture the rolling Appalachian Mountains? Or do you imagine poverty? Do you remember the glory of the trumpets in New Orleans and the saxes of Savannah? Or do Katrina and Georgia flooding crowd out and dim those beautiful memories?

As talk of flooding precipitates the news, I am reminded of how the North views the world below the Mason-Dixon Line. I am reminded that the only pictures you will see of the modern day South are in times of disaster or outrage. When else will Georgia permeate the news or Northern consciousness? If you don’t agree with me, if you don’t see how the Union is still divided then tell me – why is it that Katrina has become synonymous with New Orleans? Why has a city with so much culture, heritage and vivacity been reduced to a simple hurricane? Why is it that my state, the last of the thirteen colonies, the origin of the Nobel prize winning President, and the home of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games has been overshadowed by some water? Why is it that the vast majority of Americans have only seen the airport in Atlanta, yet do not venture out into the city?

I’m not here to answer these questions, merely to remind people of the beauty of my homeland before the rains came.

You want to know what I think of when I hear ‘the South’?

Sweet Tea and Sunshine. The feeling of sitting around a bar-b-q drinking my Auntie’s half tea-half sugar concoction and arguing over who actually let the hot dogs burn for the twentieth time. (My vote, my dad. I avoided all blame because I wasn’t ever allowed to touch the grill.) I see crowds at Chastain bringing their blankets, grills, and coolers, ready to listen to a concert in the cooling sunset breeze. I see baseball games as the bright lights of Turner Field seem to illuminate even the crowded highway.

Diversity and strength. The place that in a hundred years went from farms and slaves to segregation and cities to diversity and progress. I see a place where racial barriers still exist yet so does the capacity for dialogue. I walk down the street where you can find gay clubs, baptist churches, and Margret Mitchell’s home.

Complexity and simplicity. Coke and Cotton. Olympics and Tara. It is the birthplace of one most iconic American corporations that have stretched the entire globe. There is the city that hosted the world in a 100 year celebration of mutual cooperation through sports. I see fields of cotton, corn, soy, and peaches. I see the classical plantation, where all you want to do is sit on the porch and think about it all tomorrow.

Yes there are problems in the South. I will be one of the first to admit that. Racial politics still influence city organization, and poverty in some states seems third world in nature. I just get tired of questions such as, ‘So what was it like, growing up in the South?’ It was amazing. It was challenging. It was beautiful. I went to country fairs in the fall and the spring, and I spent my summers at so many barbeques that I refused to continue until the sauce finally exited my bloodstream. I encountered racism. sexism. homophobia. I experienced hospitality. warmth. generosity.

My rant has been a year in the making. I have met so many people that are so well traveled – they have been to heights of Manchu Picu and the depths of catacombs. They have shown reverence at the Taj Mahal, and they have partied in Europe such that Baachus would even be impressed. Yet, they have never been to the South. They don’t know what a plantation really looks like, and they never listened to a trumpet calling out to the Southern wind on a beautiful summer day. The closest they have come to southern hospitality is KFC, and they have no idea of the importance of a Waffle House on a Sunday afternoon.

I suppose I don’t understand that. I suppose I don’t understand ‘well-traveled’ Americans who have only seen my city’s airport. I don’t understand why the only time the South is considered is when FEMA is trying to redeem or defend itself. It’s a beautiful place. It deserves more consideration. So yes, my thoughts go out to all of my Southern brothers and sisters as the rains continue to come. But, my thoughts go out to all my Southern brothers and sisters as the clouds part, and  you can again enjoy the warmth of our sun and a cool glass of southern sweet tea.

Posted in Rantings and ravings, The US | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

A post about a cat

A year ago today I was walking around the Medina of Fez with my new roommate. We were excited because in 24 hours we would move into our new home and truly begin our life in Fez. I was taking her around all of my old hangout spots because this trip, for me, was like a coming home. I had lived there the year before and every turn produced a wealth of memories and feelings seemingly forgotten. I took her by my old apartment, which was coincidentally the first apartment I ever rented, in hopes of finding the family of cats that lived directly outside. I had become emotionally attached to them, and naively, I had thought that maybe they would still all be alive and well eager to see me again. Sadly, this was not the case, but as I was turning the corner to walk down my familiar street a new little family of cats had taken up residence on someone’s doorstep. One of the kittens, in particular, was quite interested in my roommate and me, and he did not hesitate to walk up to us and make himself known. Little did he know that his then blue eyes had captured my heart and that he would be transported to an entirely new life on an entirely new continent.

That’s how I met my kitten, Marley. He has been my companion over the past year, and despite his craziness, he has been the best cat I think I could ever have. I choose his name without seeing the movie Marley & Me, but it seems that all animals with that name seem to share the same quality: sheer badness yet unbelievable lovableness. Once he got full use of his jumping muscles Marley never let me or my roommates rest. He would be on the counter in a heartbeat and any left out food would be devoured instantly. Lemon juice, tin foil, double-sided tape – none of it worked. He was too smart and too crafty for our tricks. Sadly, counter-surfacing is not his only trick. One of his favorite games is ‘steal the pen’ and to this day, I haven’t found half of the pens I left sitting out for just a moment. Another game, of equal interest, is ‘find the q-tips.’ He would knock over trash cans just to get them, and I ended up having to hide my q-tips in the closet just to avoid their demolish by a certain black-and-white somebody. In general, nothing is safe from my playful kitten, and age (or weight) has not seemed to slow him down.

Yet through all of the annoying habits, there is a lovable companion underneath. He has charmed even the most die-hard of non-animal people, and after one night with him, almost anyone is willing to take him off my hands. I guess the thing is that Marley has the big, boisterous character so that even at your saddest moments his big yellow eyes and constant desire to play make you forget everything that could be or ever has been wrong. He got me through some of the loneliest months in Morocco, and he helped my mom forget that her entire family was overseas and that some were in harms way.

Now, as I am starting a new life and trying to again find my place in the world, Marley is here with me. He doesn’t let me sleep alone or get too serious (because who can be serious playing with a fish on a stick?). I still have to hide q-tips from him, and all pens are kept in a pencil bag well out his reach. Trying to ‘Marley-proof’ my apartment is probably one of the most pointless endeavors because no matter what I do something gets knocked over, played with, and then hid. I know this post isn’t about anything really, and it’s not an update on my life, but I think that sometimes we should take the time to just honor and appreciate. I’m always giving my opinions about culture and society, and I know through my own ramblings I forget that sheer appreciation is warranted as well. So, this is just a post about a cat, and a moment for me to share with the world how great my little black and white companion really is.

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Being a foreigner in your own country

I did it. I moved from Rabat, Morocco to Atlanta, GA and from Atlanta, GA to Somerville, MA. Safe to say, I’m exhausted. I could sleep for a week and be a very happy person. At times, I feel like my life in Morocco was a lifetime ago, and sometimes, I feel like I left yesterday. I have simultaneous urges to nest and to explore. I can’t seem to stop talking about that country where I felt at home, especially in a city where I feel like I am fresh off the boat. That’s what this post is about – I’m a foreigner, in the US.

It’s funny what going home can do to you. Although Atlanta is always under construction, the city never really seems to change. Peachtree is as long and confusing as ever, and the traffic on 75 could make you never want to drive again. All of the coffee in to-go cups was amazing, and ‘texmex’ is probably the best style of food in the US. I knew every street, and I was comfortable again, in a way that I had started to get comfortable in Morocco. You see, in Morocco, I was finally understanding how to do just about anything. If I didn’t know where something was, I finally had the experience and knowledge to know where to look or who to ask. I knew what the price of bread was and I knew where to get the best coffee and pannini.

I also began to understand the Moroccan legal/administrative system. I was able to switch the title of my bike without hassle, freight all of my belongings to the US, and successfully tell off a police officer who wanted to get a bribe out of me. These things, although seemingly small, were starting to add up and I was beginning to truly feel like Morocco was my home. Then I moved.

Now, I am in Somerville waiting for classes to start. I get lost without my GPS, and I still stand in the grocery store baffled by the high prices and ridiculous selection. I don’t know the shortest route from my house to my favorite coffee shop; in fact, I don’t even have a favorite coffee shop yet. I keep forgetting to stop for pedestrians in the sidewalk, and every time I walk into the store I smile and say ‘hi’ to everyone, forgetting that in the North, silence is golden.

I know all of this again seems trivial, but these little things add up. Just because I can speak the language doesn’t mean I understand 100% of what is going on. Actually, at the present moment in time, I’m lucky to be operating at 50%. That made me start thinking – what is the definition of a foreigner? My first few months in Morocco were spent just like this. I was generally lost and confused, and I was happy when I get one thing done on my to-do list without it taking an act of congress. I think that culture and understanding culture is just like this. Often times, because we are American, we disregard the concept of American Culture. There are ways of doing things here that are very different from Atlanta, and just because I’m American doesn’t mean that I have every city’s culture hard-wired into my brain. Granted, there are overall concepts of American culture, but I can be just as culture shocked here as I could in Morocco.

The problem is, sometimes I think we disregard this concept so much because we forget about this feeling of cluelessness. We have everything at our fingertips – we can use yelp to find the best local brewery and google lets me know the best walking, public transit or driving route to any location. This makes us forget that there is such thing as cultural confusion, and part of that is understanding the little idiosyncrasies that every city has. So, I am going to enjoy exploring on my own and finding the culture of Boston in the same way I tried to find it in Morocco. I am happy to consider myself as a foreigner because there is always something to discover and something new to appreciate. Even if that includes running through a parking lot waving like a mad man trying to keep my car from being towed.

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My Fulbright Advice 2.0

When I went into the office of my program director to turn in my final paper and get my final allotment, the director asked me to think about what I would say to the new class. What my advice would be. What I wished someone had told me a year ago. What I have learned. So, in thinking over the topic, I thought that my last post while in the country of Morocco should focus on that. The advice of a Fulbrighter getting ready to leave and start a completely new phase of her life.

Two words: Just breathe.

In talking to some of the incoming Fulbright Morocco Researchers, I realized that one thing we don’t learn how to do very well as undergrads is breathe. I don’t mean the physical aspect of inhalation and exhalation, that is something our body does despite our mental capability to engage in it. I mean the act of taking a moment to fill our lungs (and our brains) with good, old fashion oxygen (and by osmosis – relaxation.) As a child, all of us were taught how to breathe and count to ten when someone upset us. My question is  why don’t we use that principle more often as adults? Are we above counting to 10? Or do we just not have enough time in our over packed days to appreciate the beauty of the stillness of a moment?

That’s the other thing I want to mention – time. Throw your concept of time out of the window. Throw your concept of productivity alongside it. While you’re at it, just put all of your pre-conceived notions of reserach (even post-graduation life) in a nice big bag and toss it. I don’t mean this just for Mocco, this is a common idea throughout the Middle East. Most things that take 5 minutes in the States will probably take 5 days to do here, and they will most definitely involve sitting down and having tea with at least one person.

Learn that this is a beautiful way to live life. I can’t tell you how much more I learned from those cups of tea than from my formal interviews. In general, people not from the US spend a lot of time eating, drinking, and relaxing. Yes, three hour lunch breaks can be really annoying when you have a to-do list that is 5 miles long. That is why my to-do lists these days usually have one thing on them. In all honesty, I stopped making real to-do lists halfway through the year. It became more of an ‘idea list,’ That way, if I could cross something off then great, but it was just a guideline, not a requirement for my day, my week, or my personal sanity.

There will be days when you don’t do any research. Actually there will be weeks when it seems like nothing is getting done. There will be times when you have a notebook full of nothing but business cards and little slips of paper, yet no ‘real’ information. There will be days when the rain really gets you down and you forget that Morocco is the land of sun. You will stay in the house, make soup, and watch crappy American media. That’s normal. Life is normal. In fact, life is huge. It will take up most of your time, especially in the beginning. Just go with it. You’re an overachiever, the work will get done, just let yourself have a moment. (Maybe 10 moments, if that’s what you need.)

Over the past year, I think I learned more about myself than I did about housing restoration (and belive me, I know a lot about housing restoration.) Fulbright is a cross-cultural research grant, which means that somehow research ended up being second. Even on days when I had three interviews to complete, class to attend, and horseback riding to do, I still managed to learn even more about Moroccan culture and my own culture than anything else. Some days, it was just that I actually remembered the word for carrot at the vegetable stand (it’s khrizo by the way) or that I finally got the joke my grocer kept telling me. Those moments, those little moments, should be cherished throughout your experience. Granted, they’re not big enough to write a report on, and no they wont get you published in the Journal of North African Studies, but they will get you through the day. They will make you smile even its raining, and they will lift your spirits even in its darkest days. Just remember, you’ve got a year of those moments to look forward to, not just a year of reserach. So get ready to go, and even if you have to physcially write it on your to-do list, remember, just breathe.

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What’s in a name?

This post, sadly, will be less about Moroccan culture and more about me. Maybe that’s what the end is suppose to look like anyway – this is technically a blog about me, although Morocco is now intrinsically tied into my identity. I haven’t written much because I couldn’t think of what to say. I’m one of those people that needs a topic – I need to have something that causes me to focus, otherwise I will type and type and type without ever saying anything. Sometimes, if you’re a good enough of a writer, that nothingness can mean something, but for me it’s usually just rambling. So, lacking a topic and being incredibly busy (I moved yet again) have created yet another time gap in my blog. But, as I was thinking of the end (I leave in two weeks) and thinking of how far I’ve come, I realized that I have never really explained why I changed the name of my blog to ‘The Aesthetic of Lostness.’

I originally created this blog to record my first Moroccan experience for my friends and family. It’s a pretty straightforward reason to do so, and that’s the reason the url includes ‘Land of the Setting Sun.’ Morocco was the first stamp in my passport, and I was about as green as they could get it, in terms of traveling as well as blog writing. Read my original entries and you’ll see what I’m talking about. So, when I left Morocco, I also left my blog. I forgot that I had friends and family that I didn’t see everyday, who were still curious as to the comings and goings of my life. But thesis writing, college drama, and trying to survive one last year of undergrad didn’t seem important enough to record. I also just wanted to get through everything as quick as possible – I had no idea how painful return culture shock would be and the last thing I wanted to do was describe my anguish to the world wide web.

Strangely enough, though, I managed through all the insanity to apply for the Fulbright. After the year of craziness (anyone that was at my university from 2007 – 2008 will agree, crazy doesn’t begin to describe it), I received my acceptance letter. I was going back to a country that had altered the way I saw the world, and I realized again, I would want to record my experiences. However, the original title ‘From Atlanta to Rabat: My Semester in the Western Kingdom’ and the original intent: to describe study abroad were no longer valid and quite frankly a little boring.

Plus, I realized that traveling had become a part of me; I realized that friends and family cared about my life no matter where I was; and I realized that maybe even other people who I don’t know would be interested in what I have to say.

So, I decided to make my blog a permanent edition to my life, not just the Moroccan part of it. I knew, though, that the name had to change. It had become a travel blog, not just a ‘study abroad’ blog, and I had to become a blogger. I googled quotes on traveling and just couldn’t seem to find one that fit me. Until I found the perfect one by Ray Bradbury, ‘Half the fun of traveling is the aesthetic of lostness.’

You see, I am a planner. I can make to-do lists and excel spreadsheets that would put you to shame. I was the type of kid that you could always ask, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ and at any age, I would have a detailed answer complete with a plan on how to get there. I had colleges picked out by age 13 (granted, they changed by 18), but I could never look at the ambiguity of the future without some sort of plan on how to get through it all. Originally, I traveled like that too. I had itineraries and maps and plans and folders. I was big on the folders thing. I would get upset if we didn’t go to dinner at the planned restaurant because what was the point of a plan if we didn’t stick to it? I was obnoxious, to say the least. After about two weeks of study abroad, I realized the error of my ways. You can’t travel with lists. Or plans. Maps are useful though. Folders are kind of handy. I realized I was missing everything because my head was so far in the plan that I didn’t see what was passing in front of me. Plus, I learned that everything will go wrong and a sense of humor is the only defense against lost luggage and lost persons.

For me, this was the hardest thing to learn. This was the biggest change in my personality after Morocco, and it was the one thing I wanted to remember and keep with me. So, I titled my blog ‘The Aesthetic of Lostness,’ so that I would remember how much fun that impromptu trip to Pisa was. How I made the best friends from a night locked out of a hostel. And how run away donkeys make much better stories than folders and lists.

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Who said Derija was useless?

Before I came to Morocco, my various Arabic teachers and Arab friends warned me against the uselessness of learning Moroccan Arabic, or Derija. It was the least known the dialects, and Moroccans (as they said) had perverted the language so badly that it more closely resembled French than its Arab roots. Therefore, I was warned against attempting to learn the language, and as usual, I did not heed said warning. During my first sojourn in Morocco, I decided to add to my class load and take private lessons in Derija. I was already taking 3 hours a day of classical Arabic, but I had quickly learned that my friends were remotely correct – the Moroccan dialect was so perverted that speaking classical Arabic was almost useless.

I mean, honestly, useless. I would have been better off learning French.

Derija is a combination of Arabic, French, Spanish and random pieces from the Berber languages. Ever since the founding of Morocco, it has had a closer relationship with its European partners than its Arab ones. Constant Northern conquest (as opposed to conquest in the Eastern direction) has tied numerous words in Derija and Spanish together, and after the French occupation of Morocco, it’s almost silly to think that French would NOT permeate the langauge. Therefore, my knowledge of standard Arabic quickly rendered me a fish out of water, and I realized that despite the warnings, Derija was quite useful, in Morocco at least.

Plus, it turns out that my original effort was not for loss because I did end up returning to the-country-of-the-useless-dialect. I entered my Fulbright with a foundation in Derija so that after a few months of classes, I was perfectly conversational. I could do my interviews in Derija and I could have perfectly normal conversations with most anyone. So, I thought, ‘take that pessimists! see? this language is useful!’ again, in Morocco.

During my trip to Cairo, I could barely stammer out a few words in Standard Arabic, and evidently my Moroccan accent is now so thick that it was still impossible to understand me. I kept wandering around attached to my friend, who is fluent in Arabic, feeling rather silly and realizing that maybe, I should focus on Standard again, and maybe the pessimists were right.

However, during a recent trip to Europe, I realized that I’ve been missing the point of it all. I wandered into a shop looking for a cheap memory card reader, and while I was asking for this object (in very pitiful spanish, I might add) I noticed that the owner turned and spoke to his employee in Derija. Relived that my attempts at Spanish could now be put aside, I switched easily and comfortably into this seemingly ‘useless’ language. The shop owner, without even blinking, continued to talk to me, only really needing to inform me that they didn’t have what I was looking for. Afterwards, he expressed his surprise and joy at my switch to his mother tongue. In that moment, I had extended a friendly ‘hand’ to him, and although it wasn’t some monumental occasion, I realized that this was the point of learning Derija: to communicate.

Sometimes I think we place a large emphasis on the acquisition of language and less on the acquisition of communication. The point of communicating is just that, and when we stop attempting because we fear it might be ‘useless’ then I am afraid the concept of language in general is useless. Plus, I’ve learned that language, culture and respect all go hand in hand. Yes, maybe there is a finite number of people that I can talk to using Moroccan Arabic, but that is a group of people that I can talk to now that I was not able to before. Plus, as I have noticed, Moroccans are all over the world, and who knows when my useless Derija could get me out of a jam – or at least, out of a high price.

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