Monday, November 24, 2008

Lakeside French

My Marrakshi Sunday became a Francophone one: my friend and I rendez-vous’ed with the group we had met the night before – that strange trio created by the suave French-Moroccan, his anachronously hip associate, and the latter’s young Moroccan girlfriend. After a coffee at a trendy café in the Ville Nouvelle, the five of us took the suave French Moroccan’s car to a lake about an hour outside of Marrakech. It was a beautiful scenic drive, and the lake itself was even more breathtaking. Small enough to see the entire span of its coastline, it lay there, smooth as a plate of glass, before a background of white-topped mountains and gray hills. Far enough away not to break the peaceful silence around us, a shepherd led his flock of sheep to the water, and elsewhere, groups of young boys played around with miniature boats, remotely controlled.

We had driven to a luxurious waterside restaurant/resort – a place seemingly trying to invoke a sort of Moroccanized Caribbean spirit, complete with tiki bar and Caribbean music. Contrary to what I expected when we arrived, this place did not detract from the serenity of the lake. As the middle-aged hipster drank a Heineken, the rest of us had a round of tea and lounged in our easy chairs. Like last night, as well as this morning, everything was paid for by this trio. It made me slightly uncomfortable and I kept offering my funds, but it was turned down every time. And so I finally sat back, relaxed in the sun, and laughed a little at the fact that on my first weekend of independence after two months of Moroccan family life, I had let myself be taken under the wing of this clearly wealthier group of Francophone visitors.

All communication with this trio took place in French. It was exhausting and a little scary, but it went well, and I realized how able I am to express myself in French. Mine is a French riddled with errors, but a French that gets my meaning across nonetheless (quand-même!). This progress is exciting, and makes me yearn for more…

Drinks finished, it was time to head north and home. The trio hailed from Casablanca, and graciously offered to drive us all the way back to Rabat – to which we eagerly said yes. The drive was pleasant and quiet. The toll-way connecting Marrakech to the north is clearly not much used, and we made swift progress. Leaning back in the back seat next to two sleeping girls, I lost myself in the scenery again and floated away in thought. We were in Casablanca in no time.

I was home at nine, exhausted. I said hello to my host family – all of them congregated under blankets in the sitting room – and sat down to answer their questions about my trip, my head so full of French that I was unable to say much in Arabic without getting confused. What they were interested in, it seemed, was not so much what I had done and where I had stayed, but how much it all had cost. How much was my hotel? How much had I paid for food? How much had the movie ticket been?

I actually find myself being asked about money a lot by this family. Every time I do something by myself – go to a restaurant, take a day-trip somewhere, visit a landmark – and every time we discuss in more depth what I am doing in Morocco, they want to know how much I pay for things. And this always makes me slightly uncomfortable.* Because I am worried about sounding like I spend a lot of money, about coming across as a rich spendthrift who is unaware of how unaffordable things can be for Moroccans. Because I am worried that I will come across as naïve if it seems to them that I have paid too much for something they can get for much less. And often, before I can even stop myself, I have already given them a sum that is less than what I actually paid for things. Because money, in my head, is a bit of sensitive topic when I am in Morocco: even if I don’t have much to spend, I come from a world that runs on a much higher financial level, and am therefore much richer than the average Moroccan. There is always a disparity between my means, and those of the people around me. And perhaps I project onto them a sense of discomfort at this difference.

But maybe my discomfort is also cultural. This kind of questioning is not something I am used to from either the United States or the Netherlands, and certainly not for people I have such a relatively superficial relationship with. Maybe this is an area of slight culture shock. But what are the rules about money-talk in Morocco? Is this generally something people often talk about, or not? Is my family an exception?

* Money is the unspoken link that connects me to this family, but in a very unspoken way. I never pay the family directly; it all goes through the center I take classes at. This arrangement makes me feel as though all financial matters should be left out of conversation. Yet they are not.

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