Tangier, Morocco: Stop And Stay A While

Tangier
Almudena Alonso-Herrero

Every now and then in my travels I find a spot where I want to stop for a while. Damascus, Harar and the Orkney Islands have all captured my imagination because of their rich culture and laid back atmosphere.

Damascus is lost, sucked into the maelstrom of a country intent on destroying itself. Harar and Orkney are far away. So I’m lucky to have discovered Tangier, Morocco, less than an hour’s flight from my home base of Madrid.

Set in a broad bay next to the Strait of Gibraltar, it’s been an important spot since ancient times. On a high hill stands the Casbah, once the domain of the Sultan but now an exclusive neighborhood for rich Moroccans and an increasing number of expatriates. Below lies the medina, a jumble of houses and labyrinthine streets that are home to shopkeepers and laborers. There’s also a sprawling new city thanks to the booming port.

Tangier is a fascinating city. You can see all the tourist sights in two days and spend the rest of your life figuring the place out. Tangier has one of the most mixed populations I’ve seen. Arabs rub shoulders with Berbers from the Rif, Sahrawis from Western Sahara, and an increasing number of Senegalese and other migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. The men dress in everything from the traditional djellaba to T-shirt and jeans; the women in everything from the niqab to miniskirts. There’s also a long-established expat population of French, Spaniards and British.

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This ethnic alphabet soup means you hear half a dozen languages as you walk down the street. The local Arabic is called Darija and is distinct enough that my rusty Levantine Arabic is almost useless. Berber is often heard too. If you don’t speak either of these languages, chances are that any individual Moroccan will speak French, Spanish or English, or perhaps all of them. I’ve never met an African who spoke fewer than three languages.

It’s often hard to know which language to use first. I generally start conversations in Spanish because that’s more widely understood than English, although one young guy immediately switched to English and asked, “Why are you speaking Spanish if you’re from an English-speaking country?” Conversations often slide from one language to another. This is a place where you can end up using four languages just asking a waiter for a cup of tea!

Speaking of tea, sitting in a cafe with a cup of Moroccan mint tea (cloudy with sugar and with the mint leaves still floating in the water) is the best way to see Tangier. The locals love to relax with friends and watch the world go by. My favorite place to sit is the Petit Socco, a small square in the center of the medina through which everyone seems to pass. Not far off and outside the old city walls is the Grand Socco. It’s even more lively but the blaring traffic makes it less relaxing.

You won’t have to sit long before you’ll get in a conversation with someone. Moroccans are very social and you can learn a lot about life in their country by spending a couple of hours lounging in a cafe. I’ve been treated to everything from Berber tales of spirit possession to catty gossip from longtime expats.

Tangier used to have a bad reputation for hustlers and touts. They’ve been mostly cleaned out in recent years although you’ll still have young guys coming up to you asking to be your guide. A polite “no” will work if repeated two or three times. This doesn’t work in Marrakesh or Fez! Once you’ve been around a couple of days they’ll all recognize you and stop asking.

There are other advantages to staying for a while. Most visitors spend only a day or two in Tangier, or come as day trippers from Gibraltar or Tarifa and disappear after a few hours. The locals quite understandably see these people only as sources of money. Once the folks in Tangier have seen you around for a few days they start getting curious. Soon you’ll get to know the people who hang out at your regular cafes. The kids will start following you to get English lessons. You’ll start getting invitations for lunch or parties or day trips.

This, of course, works most places. What makes Tangier special is the diverse range of people to meet and the vibrant feel to the place. It’s a place of constant movement. People come here to make their fortunes or to use the city as a launchpad to get to Europe. It’s welcoming to newcomers because so many people are newcomers. You’ll meet a lot of interesting people with interesting dreams in Tangier and to become part of the scene in this endlessly interesting city requires only a bit of time and an open mind.

Tangier
Almudena Alonso-Herrero

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: What Impact Does Moving Have On Children?

movingIf you’re a parent who is interested in an international career, you’ve probably worried at one point or another what impact your peripatetic lifestyle will have on your kids.
One of the most common questions I get about the Foreign Service is how the lifestyle affects children. Careers in the Foreign Service can take 1,000 different directions around the planet and the only predictable factor is that Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) will move every 1-4 years. Over the course of a 20-year career, one can expect to move 5-10 times, and these days, almost everyone can expect to endure at least one unaccompanied posting, away from family members.

This rootless lifestyle can be tough on kids, who have to get used to being the new kid on a regular basis (though they attend international schools where most are in the same situation). There isn’t a lot of research out there on how moving, on a domestic or international basis, affects children, but one study, conducted in 2010 by a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, might give pause to any parent considering joining the Foreign Service or indeed embarking on any type of international career that will involve frequent moves.The study concluded that frequent moves during childhood – domestic or international – can have a lasting, negative impact on kids. According to a New York Times piece that summarized the study, “Serial movers frequently reported fewer ‘quality’ social relationships, and the more times people moved as children, the more likely they were to report lower ‘well-being’ and ‘life satisfaction’ as adults. And adults who had moved a lot were more likely to have died when researchers did follow-ups 10 years later.”

The study also concluded that moves were hardest on middle school children, and asserted that introverts have a much harder time coping with moves than extroverted children, who tend to adapt more easily. (Another study, conducted by researchers at Cornell earlier this year, concluded that frequent moves before the age of 5 were detrimental to poor children.)

When I was in the Foreign Service, I didn’t have children, but my anecdotal observations lead me to conclude that there are no easy generalizations when it comes to predicting how well kids will adapt to the expat lifestyle. Some kids excel while others struggle, just like in the U.S., and it’s not always easy to predict how kids will do.

rebecca grappoIn order to try to get a better feel for the issues that affect what are referred to as Third Culture Kids, I reached out to Rebecca Grappo, an educational consultant who raised three children overseas as a Foreign Service spouse and previously served as an education and youth officer in the State Department’s Family Liaison Office.

What would you say are the advantages to raising children in the Foreign Service, or for that matter, any international career?

These kids get to be around a lot of interesting people, and they are exposed to some really interesting issues being in the Foreign Service family. Our kids develop a keen interest in international affairs, and they love diversity and multiculturalism. They learn to love to travel and explore.

The kids who thrive tend to be resilient and flexible; they have a three-dimensional view of the world. When they see something on the news, they might know something about it from personal experience. They know people who have been affected by the news from having lived in different parts of the world. And attending international schools, they get to meet some incredibly interesting people. For example, when we were in Jordan, we got to meet King Hussein and Queen Noor. Their two daughters were in school with my children, so they became friends.

Do kids in this lifestyle learn to be resilient and flexible or is that something you have to be born with?

That’s a tough question. The kids who do really well are the kids who have a strong sense of identity, who know how to connect and plug into their new communities very quickly. They have something, like an interest or talent that helps them be recognized, and feel like they belong.

But do you think kids can learn to be flexible?

It’s like a muscle you have to strengthen. For some it’s easier than others. It depends on the circumstance, the age, the post. There are a lot of variables. Kids can thrive at one post and not in another. Sports, music, drama, hobbies can help them plug into their new community. Kids who don’t thrive sometimes have learning challenges or socially they don’t fit in, or they start to become invisible and no one recognizes them.

Is it hard for FSO parents to “Keep up with the Jonses” at these International Schools? Government employees don’t have huge salaries and some of the parents at these international schools are extremely wealthy.

Most Foreign Service parents try to keep their kids grounded. They want their kids to remember where they are from and what they’ll be going back to and not let them get caught up in the privileges of expat life.

Is it hard for parents to predict whether their kids will thrive or struggle with frequent moves?

It can be, but the kids that have recognition, connection, belonging and identity are the ones who thrive.

How hard is it for parents to evaluate international schools when they are in the bidding process?

It’s very hard. Right now, I’m counseling a family that bid on a post specifically because it is a large school that is considered one of the crown jewels of the international schools system. It’s considered one of the best, but this particular student, who did really well at his previous post, which was a much smaller school that isn’t as highly rated, just isn’t doing well. There is no way to be certain what a school will be like for your children, and even within one family, you can have a situation where some kids thrive and others struggle.

What are some of the disadvantages of this lifestyle for children?

It’s very hard for kids to move and leave their friends and the older they get, the harder it is. The continuous cycle of loss and adjustment starts to take its toll on kids. Sometimes they get to a point where they just can’t move one more time. There is loss and grief. Everything you knew in your life is over when you move. We don’t have our extended families with us, so we bring other people into our family folds. But you lose people along the way. The parents try to stay positive, but sometimes kids just need to be comforted before they are encouraged.

And these days, unaccompanied assignments are more common than ever, so that must be hard on kids as well?

You see the spouses who are left holding up the fort being exhausted. My spouse was on two unaccompanied tours where I had to hold down the fort and it’s hard. We don’t talk about the things that scare us in the Foreign Service culture – its soldier on, stiff upper lip. Our community culture is to keep calm and carry on no matter what is going on around you and that’s hard for some people.

Do you buy into research that indicates that moving is detrimental to children?

I don’t think there’s solid research on that. It depends on the nature of the move, but you do have that feeling of rootlessness and restlessness. When someone asks you where you’re from, you watch their eyes glaze over as you give them such a complicated answer. Foreign Service kids have a hard time answering the question – where are you from? My daughter on Facebook listed a place that she’s not really from as her hometown, but it’s where she’s been longer than anywhere else.

Coming back to the U.S. can often be the hardest transition for expat kids, right?

Absolutely. I call it TCK (Third Culture Kid) land. We live in our expat world, where everyone is from somewhere else. Everyone is mobile. Everyone has traveled, so you can talk about your life without feeling like you are bragging. But back at home, they feel like they have to suppress that because it seems like boasting. It’s kind of sad that they have to be very cautious in sharing these incredible experiences they’ve had overseas just because they want to fit in and seem normal in the new environment.

Is there data on how expat children perform academically compared to the U.S. average?

Expat kids tend to better than the national average. If you look at the average SAT from students at the American international schools, they tend to be higher than average. A lot of Foreign Service kids can be very high achievers. Many of them also end up in international careers.

I know one FS parent who told me that it was easier for kids to move on to a new post before the era of Facebook, where kids can stay in closer contact with people from their old posts. Do you believe that?

It depends on how the kids integrate. I’ve seen some kids who have had hard time making friends and it’s easy for them to go in the basement and lose themselves in the world of social media, video games and what not. Some of them hide behind substance abuse. But I do see kids who aren’t able to connect. It’s easy to lose yourself in the Internet.

If I asked your children how they enjoyed growing up in the Foreign Service what would they say?

My kids have been generous with their feedback. The one thing they told us is that we really were too much cheerleaders and didn’t spend enough time just listening and saying, ‘we understand.’ Some parents have such anxiety over wanting their kids to be happy, and they try so hard, that they haven’t really listened. But looking back, I think my kids valued the experiences they had; they realize they’ve had an incredible life already. They appreciate it more now I think.

Do you believe that every FSO has to, at one point in their career or another, make hard choices about what is best for their career or what’s best for their family?

I think so and families sometimes find themselves in a place where it isn’t working. For example, I worked with a family of four kids, and three were deliriously happy, but the fourth was in a major depression. He had anger issues, substance abuse issues as well, and he made their lives very challenging. What do you do? Do you curtail? Have a separated tour? Pretend it doesn’t exist? Of do you say, there are six of us, and the one who isn’t happy maybe needs more support?

That’s also when boarding school can sometimes be a godsend. It’s not shipping your kids off for someone else to deal with. People make decisions thoughtfully. No one sets out to screw up their kids. People try to be good parents and fulfill everyone’s needs.

Any other advice for those considering international careers who are concerned about how it will impact their children?

In general, kids tend to do well in this lifestyle. Kids realize they’ve had incredible experiences; they travel and attend international schools, which brings a lot to their lives. Educationally, they do well. You can stay in your hometown and face challenges in raising children too. However, sometimes it’s going to be a hard road to hoe for the Foreign Service family, especially those with special needs children. At some point, they will find it extremely challenging and they need to know that going in.

Read More From “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.”

‘House Hunters International’ Offers ‘Scripted Reality’ Tailor Made For Vagabonds

house hunters internationalI’m addicted to “House Hunters International,” the HGTV reality show that profiles people who are moving to another country or buying a vacation home outside the U.S. Aside from the fact that the program whets my appetite to visit the places that are profiled, I love the way it plants seditious seeds in my head about places that were never previously on my radar.

If you watch enough HHI – and the show is on about 14 times per day – the idea of picking up and moving to Buenos Aires, Bruges or Kathmandu on a whim seems downright normal. As someone who has moved to and from three foreign countries and several U.S. states since college, I find it comforting to learn about people who are even crazier and more transient than I am.

The show is what the network likes to call “scripted reality.” It’s essentially based on a true story stuff where they take a real situation and jazz it up to make a more cohesive story. Travel writer Matt Gibson, whose move to Taiwan was featured on the show in 2012, wrote an amusing take on his HHI episode entitled, “House Hunters International is Fake, So What?” in which he catalogued all of the details of his story that were changed.
I watched the episode, then Googled him and saw the post. I probably should have felt cheated, but I didn’t. The fact is that I got a chance to see what $200 a month buys in Taiwan and I don’t really care about the details that were scripted – when he left Canada, who his real estate agent was, when the decision was made to rent the apartment and so on.

For those who haven’t seen the show, the outline is as follows. First, a narrator shows the couple in their native habitat and explains why they are moving, against the backdrop of some annoying but very catchy music. Then they meet with a real estate agent – who may or may not be an actual real estate agent – to outline what they want and how much they have to spend. Then they see three properties and take a walk, usually somewhere scenic, where they hold hands, weigh the merits of each place, rule out one property, make the decision and then share a kiss.

The show concludes with a tour of the new home some months later, after they’ve had time to pretty the place up. Here are some observations from someone who has spent way too much time watching this show. (They apply mostly to expatriates, not people who are buying vacation homes, as I tend to skip those episodes.)

You’re Moving Where?

Many of the expatriates featured on the show fell in love with a place while on a vacation but some move to a place solely based on Internet research. And most who are moving to a place more or less for the hell of it, rather than for a specific career move, are going from some place cold to some place warm.

Slow Down and Simplify

It’s remarkable how often couples and families say that they’re moving to country x to “slow down” and “simplify” their “hectic” lives. But is this their actual motivation or do the producers of the show ascribe this narrative in order to appeal to the legions of “busy” Americans who have time to watch six hours of TV per day but claim to be too busy to do much else?

You Need What?

There are some people who want to completely go native and find a place abroad that isn’t at all like what they have in the U.S., but others have a list of amenities they “need” that can be somewhat hilarious. I’m always amazed by people who are adventurous enough to move from say, Kansas City to Antigua, Guatemala, but insist that they need an in-ground pool, four bathrooms, stainless steel appliances and 4,000 square feet of living space, all for $100,000 or less.

But our Dog Needs His Own Swimming Pool

I’m a dog lover myself but people who seem to have no criteria for house hunting aside from what their cocker spaniel, Fritz, might prefer crack me up.

Cheapskates of the World Unite

One of the appealing aspects of HHI is how it gives viewers an idea of what it costs to live in a variety of places around the world. And when you watch an episode where Americans move to a dirt-cheap country it’s hard not to feel the temptation to leave the country. For example, I remember watching an episode where a couple found a not-too-bad looking apartment in Potosi, Bolivia, for $200 per month, and thinking, “I can’t afford NOT to move to Bolivia!” despite the fact that I had previously never given a moment’s consideration to moving to this landlocked Andean nation of 10 million.

And HHI episodes can also reveal cheap places to live in relatively expensive countries, like Italy, for example. Recently there was an episode that featured an American travel writer named Valerie who bought a $40,000 apartment in Trivigno, in Italy’s Basilicata region. The place looked like a dive, but after the couple put $25,000 into a renovation, it looked pretty darn nice.

Your Kids Aren’t the Reason You Are Moving to Belize

HHI tends to gloss over the logistical aspects of an international move, but as the father of two young children, I always wonder where families who move to off-the-beaten track countries will send their kids to school. I don’t think the U.S. has a monopoly on good schools, far from it, but on several occasions I’ve seen parents justify their moves to obscure places based upon a supposed desire to “do what’s best for their kids.”

One episode in particular stands out. A family was moving to a remote area of Belize and I remember the dad saying that they were doing it because it was somehow better for little so-and-so, their son, who, as I recall was about 10 years old. Maybe so, but I found myself shouting at the TV screen: “No! You’re moving to Belize because YOU want to live in Belize. Be honest and quit trying to claim you’re doing it for your child!”

Nothing But Happy Endings

I love the show but my biggest gripe about it, other than the fact that they leave out important details (visa status, where will your kids go to school, etc.), is that they offer nothing but happy endings. In the final shot of each episode, where the expatriates show off their new homes, they almost always rave about how great the place is and claim that their decision to move to Puerto Banana or wherever was the wisest one they’ve ever made.

The truth is that moving to a place you fall in love with on a trip doesn’t always work out. Any place seems nice while you’re on vacation and have no responsibilities or work to do. It’s always nice to hear about people who moved abroad and love it, but I think it would be even more interesting to feature people who moved somewhere and hated it, or bought a house that turned out to be a complete disaster. Let’s face it; Americans like a happy ending but schadenfreude can be just as sweet.

[Photo credit: HGTV]

The Kimchi-ite: Life As A Foreigner In Asia

As a tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white American living in Asia, I tend to stand out in a crowd. It’s an interesting and bizarre thing that has become a part of my everyday life. Even living in Seoul, one of the biggest cities in the world, where more and more people of different ethnicities come every year, children on the subway stare at me unabashedly, store employees sometimes get visibly nervous when I come to pay at the counter and my students frequently ask me why I have gold hair.

When I was living in the smaller Fuji City, Japan, my presence as a foreigner was much more pronounced. While waiting at a crosswalk one day, a high school girl beside me turned and jumped, screeching “ah! Gaijin da!” “Ah! A foreigner!” I remember once at a hostel in Fukuoka, Japan, a middle-aged Japanese woman was asking the staff for directions to a certain temple when I popped into the conversation and told her, in Japanese, what train station it is near. The woman gave me a confused look, then asked the receptionist, “did he just speak Japanese?” To which I responded, “Yes, that’s right.” Again, to the receptionist, she replied “Wow, that’s interesting.”

Be sure to check out all the other Kimchi-ite posts here.No matter which Asian country you live in, there seems to be a certain subset of questions and comments that the foreign community constantly received. People will ask if you are capable of using chopsticks. Any use of the local language will yield extremely flattering praise, regardless if you simply said “hello” or if you gave an in depth appraisal of surgical medical equipment. Sometimes, white Westerners may get a little bit of superstar treatment, people coming up to them at bars, buying them drinks and saying that how much the Westerner looks like a movie star with a “small face” (the above photo is the result of a night like that).

But, the good comes with the bad. Once a friend of mine here in Seoul tried to set me up on a blind date with his female friends, and more than a couple turned me down simply because of the fact that I am a foreigner, saying that I am simply passing through Korea and not looking for something serious. Also, a foreigner can live in an Asian country for the majority of their life, get married, have kids, obtain citizenship, but to the public at large, they will always be seen as an outsider first. This comes with the territory. It’s important to know that people are often not intentionally being rude or discriminatory; they are just unfamiliar with foreigners. This possibly being one of the few times they have ever had to interact with one, having grown up in a homogenous society where 99% of people are of the same ethnic or racial background.

Growing up, I remember more than a few times when my teachers told the class, “You wouldn’t want to live in a world were everyone was the same race, with the same hair, skin and eye color, would you?” The truth is, not everywhere is a soup of diversity, even within the United States. The world is certainly heading in a much more connected, multi-cultural direction and it’s exciting to be bridging that gap between east and west.

[Photos by Jonathan Kramer]

The Kimchi-ite: The Culture Shock Of South Korea

When I moved to South Korea, it was my first time in the country and I had no idea what to expect. Going from the airport to my new apartment, differences from my prior life slowly came into focus. Signs were now written in lines and circles I didn’t understand, brand new glass skyscrapers were poised next to traditional tile-roofed houses and all the cars were made by Hyundai. As I walked around my new neighborhood at 4 a.m. on a Wednesday recovering from jet lag, I was expecting to be alone on the streets. Instead, when I walked around there were plenty of people out in the city, eating and drinking at cafes, going to work, doing their shopping or just stumbling out of bars. This constant, 24-hour activity is something I haven’t seen anywhere else. As the sun came up, more and more people came to the streets. Crowds seemed to form everywhere and I would quickly learn that they are a big part of Korean life.

South Korea is a little larger than the state of Indiana but with eight times the people. About half of South Korea’s 50 million people live in the greater Seoul area, making it one of the biggest, most populated cities in the world. Subway cars overflow as people push their way in, which is when I learned that the Korean words for “excuse me” and “I’m sorry” are almost never spoken. Even when trying to get out of the city to do some hiking, crowds of thousands will be there too.

When moving to a foreign place, there are so many moments that you feel completely lost and worry that it will become overwhelming. Am I going to accidentally offend anyone due to our culture differences? Will I be able to make new friends? What if I get sick of eating kimchi everyday and just want some food from back home?

Soon, however, everything starts to feel normal and you realize that life isn’t really all that different. You still do laundry, McDonald’s is always around the corner and cash comes out of ATMs. There are still minor differences in daily life – you have to spend an hour online trying to find a translation of your washing machine, McDonald’s offers free delivery and you can transfer money directly to a friend’s bank account from an ATM – but it becomes difficult to imagine a life without these idiosyncrasies.

This constant flux of familiarity and strangeness is part of what makes life as an expatriate so exciting. Constantly experiencing new aspects of cultures, learning about different trains of thought, meeting interesting people, eating food that looks make believe and just constantly being surprised by the world.

[Photo credit: Jonathan Kramer]