*Disclaimer: I’m actually posting this first one a few days after the fact. I realize it’s a little melancholic – but I promise, it gets better after day one…*
I am sitting in my hotel room in Casablanca. It’s almost eight, I’m exhausted, but I’m here, and so it’s time for my first notes.
My trip went well – apart from some slow lines for checking in at Royal Air Maroc, it went really well. No delays, no turbulence, no annoying neighbors, no luggage issues. My bags were too heavy, really, to handle on my own, but I got help, and so I made it from airport to train, and from train to hotel – two endeavors I had dreaded – with everything in tow.
But I’m exhausted, and the trip was difficult, emotionally. This is what I wrote down during my first flight, from Chicago to Amsterdam: “I’ve been in the air for about thirty minutes, and have to boost my spirits a little. Leaving was difficult. The moment I walked through the gate toward the plane in Chicago was the worst; I could not hold back my tears. As though that moment represented everything that makes this trip so difficult. I’ve tried to figure out in the past 30 minutes what this feeling really is and where it’s coming from. It’s different from the first time I traveled to Morocco, nearly four years ago. Back then, it was all nerves. This feeling I have now is heavier, deeper. I think it comes down to the fact that I’m not ready for an adventure yet. This summer – the summer I had so counted on for a little much-needed relaxation and a recharging of my batteries – was not what I had hoped. It was stressful, personally as well as professionally, and caused a fair amount of upheaval in my vision of the future. I was starting to get back on my feet, but I’m just not ready to leave yet. I haven’t recharged enough yet, I’m not ready to be so alone in such a persistently alien country, leaving behind everything that is comfortable and familiar. But if that’s what this feeling is, that also means I’ll be ok. I had to go, and in all honesty I don’t think I’d ever be completely ready for Morocco and its foreignness. I know from my previous visits that it always retains a frustrating and exhausting element of mystery for which it is impossible to be completely prepared. And at the same time I also know that I’ll find my way here after a little while, like I did before. It is good that I went, and the adventure itself is going to be a good one, too. I have nothing to prove to anyone and can do everything in my own time. I am free to make this into whatever I want it to be. I can relax and recharge here in Morocco. Everything will be ok; I just have to accept all this and let it – Morocco itself, but also my feelings, my sadness – wash over me. I am proud of myself for doing this, and it’s going to be great.”
I spent about 4 hours in Amsterdam on my layover. They were four awkward hours – I was in the city that I grew up in, but could not leave the airport. I tried, as well as I could, to get in touch with the city, the familiar feelings, and went through customs to search for it in the stores on Schiphol plaza, the airport’s main entrance hall. There is a Hema there now – a Dutch chain I can only compare to Target, but way, way cooler. It was there, and it looked like Hema, but it wasn’t. Not quite – it was a Hema adapted to an international zone, situated in that no man’s land that is an international airport. Being at an airport never truly counts as a real visit to a country, precisely because it is part of the country only in a very superficial, ambassadorial way. It’s like a preview of the place. It’s a tease, an invite or a portal – it’s meant to invite you in, and it was frustrating today to be lured by the appearance of all familiarity without really being able to taste it. I think it may have only added to my sense of alone-ness – that sense of floating in no-man’s land with nothing ‘real’ or familiar to grab hold of.
So I headed back upstairs to check back in, and turned my focus from Amsterdam to Casablanca.
Casablanca, by the way, has a new arrivals hall – or at least it was new to me. Instead of the dark, narrow, brown and gray halls, I was met by light, airy whites, tans and sleek chromes in wide walkways lined by massive windows and clearly marked with signage. In a striking artful symmetry, the new hall featured series of modernist paintings along the wall where the old one had had traditional Moroccan craft artifacts on display. It set a different tone and in some sense it made me feel better, I think – the anticipation of the darkness of the old hall had been part of my dreaded feeling of arrival.
And really, even though I broke down in tears once I had my parents on the phone, and even though my voice didn’t seem to work all day and only came out in the merest whisper every time I tried to speak, things really did look up once I made it to that new arrivals hall. For instance, one big difference from the first time I arrived in this city: I was able to communicate in French. To actually communicate, and for the first time in my life I was not nervous about it, not worried about being misunderstood or making mistakes. I simply spoke, I didn’t care. And another difference: I was not taken aback by people trying to make contact with me. I was expecting it, and so I could answer – in my whispery faltering voice, but I could answer. I could explain: I’m here to study Arabic, this is my third visit to Morocco, my bag is so heavy because I’m here for three months, no I don’t need a taxi because my hotel is right there across the plaza.
And once I had settled in, dried my tears, and gone downstairs to find something to eat, the sight of that thick harira being ladled into a bowl actually filled me with a hopeful, comforting warmth. Something Moroccan is rubbing off on me, perhaps. Harira, by the way, is a very thick tomato soup with chickpeas, vegetables, and various other fillings. It has a distinct taste that I had to get used to four years ago, but apparently have come to appreciate. It was served tonight because it is still Ramadan, for another 4 days more or less, and this is what Moroccans eat (drink?) to break their fast. It was exactly what I needed. And it did the trick. Its warmth made me feel a little stronger, and its Moroccanness and my familiarity with it made me feel a little more confident about my ability to navigate and further get to know this world.
But now I’m back in my hotel room and momentarily halting that endeavor: I’m watching a re-run of last night’s presidential debate on CNN. I’m going to brush my teeth, wash my face, get into bed and surrender to my exhaustion. Tomorrow I’m off to Rabat.