Friday, October 03, 2014

Public Transportation, Relativity, and Utopias

Public Transportation: On my commute home from work yesterday, I sat next to a woman carrying a package of eucalyptus stems. I couldn't help but thank her for the beautiful aroma she brought to the el train for us all to enjoy on our ride home. Just before she exited at her stop, she pulled a stem from the package and shared it with me. What a treat. I noticed, though, that my one stem of eucalyptus was not able to create the ambrosial effect that the entire bouquet had. It was a pleasant smell as I held it up to my nose, but the single stem was incapable of affecting the air of the entire train car. I thought to myself, "how perfumed the air would be if everyone carried one stem of eucalyptus with them."

Relativity: Yesterday evening, discussing with Barrie about the trials and tribulations of the world, he questioned the relativity of poverty. What does it mean to consider my lucky position in relation to those worse off than I? Any good deed I push out into the world seems inane as I return to my well stocked refrigerator and heated apartment despite the starving masses across the world. What happens if we admit that there is no end to the relativity? If I were to give up everything I own and live in a mud hut, there would still be someone worse off than I. And, anyway, what is helpful about forcing myself in to poverty? It's defeating to think that there is little I can do from a position of poverty and also little affect that my good will can do from a position of affluence (or relative affluence).

Utopia: I believe, though, that acting with kindness, making benevolent decisions about how to interact with fellow humans, and using compassion as a life compass will have an impact. It will not save the world, it will not cure Ebola, it will not end world hunger. But, like the eucalyptus on the el train, if everyone carries a blossom of kindness, perhaps the air across the world will smell a little sweater. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

European Window Hanging

There are seven things that signify hanging out of a European window.

  • Two shutter windows open inward by turning the handle to unlock
  • There are no screens
  • There are also no bugs
  • The breeze is invariably perfect
  • The sound of a water fountain is not far off
  • Neither is the clanking of cafe cups and spoon
  • Ambulance "bee boo bee boo" floats in from time to time

Friday, September 19, 2014

Swiss Things

I am traveling for work on behalf of the University of Chicago and I currently find myself in Switzerland.

First things first: I had a steak frites for lunch that will make you believe in entrecĂ´te. My hotel recommended two restaurants. Each serves only one dish: steak frites. My self determination in the matter was whether I wanted butter or wine sauce. I went with the wine sauce at a restaurant called Wine & Beef. You are given a menu when you sit down but it is for wine selection only. Beyond that, the salad, followed by the infamous beef dish is brought to you in due time. No ordering needed. One of the many things French cuisine has work out: do one thing and do it well. And do it in a turn of the century architectural beaut with glorious wrought iron tables and chairs.

Second: Since starting this job with UChicago, I spend a significant portion of my time hearing stories from our alums. Being a university that admits a high caliber of students combined with the sheer volume of folks I talk to from around the world (literally), I've been fortunate to hear some intriguing stories and perspectives. Two of them included here:

Cows can walk only up stairs. Why do humans insist on going up and down continuously?

I met with an alum who was in Chicago from his home in Madagascar. Beyond his place of current residence, I knew little about him. Over breakfast in Hyde Park, he nonchalantly told me his story which included living in California and New York working in mathematics and the stock exchange industry. At some point he decided to give it all up, travel the world for a year and then settle ultimately in his favorite place as it would surely be discovered during his travels. This place was Madagascar. His entire life story was extremely interesting and what has stuck with me most is his perspective on the flow of life. I asked how he dealt with being an expat. Had he intended to stay abroad forever? If so, did he ship his things abroad? If not, is he storing things state side? He responded that, for him, all of those things are anchors to the past and life is a forward moving experience. What matters is what's next and with whom you do it. The artifacts keep us from experiencing the next. This forward looking outlook was inspiring as I, myself, struggle with how to be mobile while carrying along with me 300 books and furniture built of memories.

Philosophical big bang

Sitting on the banks of lake Zurich watching the sun set on the Swiss Alps (terrible view...), a nearby (non-UChicago alumni) group drew me in to conversation. With the input of a drink or two, the conversation quickly turned to perspectives on human interconnectedness. One particularly inspiring idea is that we must recall that we are all, in fact, one in the same. Physically, it all started with the big bang. One piece of matter exploding and thus launching the cycle of evolution that brings us to where are are today. But fundamentally our physicality existed as the same molecule (prior to big bang) and are, then, fundamentally the same as everything around us. And our physical selves, these overdeveloped particles from the big bang, are houses for our transcendental spiritual selves. This perspective is enticing given the aforementioned grappling with how to deal with "things" in my life as I simultaneously am compelled to be nomadic. Also appetizing is the language it gives us for being compassionate to fellow humans. No matter cultural, linguistic, or even physical differences, there is a connection.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Reflect, Refresh, Restart

This past week was my 30th birthday and in the necessary nostalgic and reflective mood that comes with a milestone birthday, I subconsciously found my way back to this blog. I was blessed with having some very dear friends join in throughout the week for various celebratory experiences. One of those dear friends that came to Chicago from California, Daniel Hoffmann, is also the person I mention in my very first blog posting. It has been nearly 10 years  since Daniel and I set out on our Euro adventure and his friendship and our travels were and continue to be life defining. We sat in my kitchen this past Tuesday night drinking wine, eating homemade chicken and dumpling soup (a dish I wish forever associate with the Hoffmann family for no logical reason) and read through our blogs. It was such a joy to bring forward those memories, reflect on who we were and where are find ourselves on this journey of life, and wonder what comes next. In looking back, it is apparent that my blogging fits are synonymous with adventure. However, in reflecting on what I've learned about myself throughout and in between all those adventures, I do know that I enjoy writing. It is time that forces me to be quiet and slow down, something that gets away from me more often than not. In an attempt to channel the self that found solitude at the base of a mountain in the middle of Austria and who spent hours upon hours reflecting on my experiences somewhere in the middle of Morocco, I'm back to blogging.  

Friday, July 08, 2011

Media coverage of the Arab world

I found this today in an al Jeezera article.

"The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) is an organisation set up in the US that specialises in providing translations of Arabic-language broadcasts. It has become a useful tool for many a journalist covering the Middle East with a limited, or in many cases, zero understanding of Arabic. So in its purpose lies its problem.
MEMRI is a source for journalists that do not understand Arabic, but because they do not understand Arabic, they cannot validate the source. When you consider that the source is the brainchild of a former Israeli intelligence officer and has been caught selectively translating Arabic broadcasts that would reflect negatively on the Muslim world, the problem increases ten-fold."

Notable Links:
Arab Voices

Morocco Youth Uprising

Calm Morocco

Morocco Riots

Palestine Veto at the UN

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Talking 'Bout the Revolutions

Here is a short list of Sunday’s happenings in North Africa.
The son of Libya’s president Muammar al-Gaddafi gave a speech to the nation in which he threatened the citizens of his own country with civil war, colonization and  a government imposed infrastructure failure should Libyans refuse to accept the course the government chooses.
Despite internet and cell phone connection outages, news is coming through of army and sniper attacks on protesters and a massacre in el-Bayda by both Libya’s army and government hired mercenaries.
Protesters came out across the country: Rabat, Casabalana, Merrakash, al- Houseima and Tetuan.
Despite the success in maintaining a day of peaceful protests, under the cover of night pro-government groups and police began attacking protesters.  Watch the video here.

There is news, excitement, fear and hope flooding into my life about the possibilities for the Arab world and humanity within these countries. Having experienced the corruption first hand in Morocco, I am emotional about the change, of course. But I also must admit that my sentiments can be nowhere near as tumultuous my Moroccan friends and family. Yes, I am American and proud to be but in the scheme of things, that means little. Our history is relatively short. Americans have no single ethnic background. Our traditions are multitudinous which in the ends amounts to diluted.  I can respect that my neighbor is from Korea and we can celebrate being American together and the diversity that affords. But there is something necessarily shallow in that common identity.
In Morocco I could smell the aromas of dinner coming from my neighbor’s kitchen and know what she was cooking because it was part of the repertoire of rich Moroccan traditional cuisine. To be fluent in Moroccan I had to know these dishes. The traditional music playing for a car window is the same tune their grandmother sang to him. There is, of course, new trendy music that teenagers bebop to but there are instruments and sounds unique to Moroccan history and identity. And, also, there is the ever unifying religion. While some are more devout than others, there is an unspoken connection between even the most remote strangers. You may not understand anything else about a person but you can relate to their religion if not as a belief, as tradition.
Another piece of this historic puzzle I cannot relate to: being oppressed. I have never been scared to say what I think or denied access to information.
All of this is pouring in on the radio and facebook and Ismail is radiating with news blurbs and energy. We sit next to each other in our study chairs. I’m trying to immerse myself in rhetoric studies and I find myself at strange intersections. I spend much of my time enjoying the beauties of life – good food, dainty tea cups, splendid conversations, literature. I think ahead to the future and how this beauty will be woven in to myself. And in the same moment I am confronted with the injustice and insult being protested across northern Africa and the Middle East. How much better it would be to listen to the news reports, think critically about the issues and return to my rhetorical theory and spinach soufflĂ©. Never have I been confronted with an issue that is so current and so proximal that it seems to trivialize everything else I do. Yet there is little I can do short of going back to Morocco to join the protests. 
Morocco’s King Mohammed IV is a fine figure head but his ownership of the Moroccan economy and nepotistic habits are reproachable and scandalous. On the other hand, Liberian president Muammar al-Gaddafi is unfit to lead a people. Anyone who posits an army against its own people is not a leader but a despot and should be recognized as such by the international community.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Teacher teaching

My appologies for not updating anyone in quite awhile. What I thought was going to be a quiet two years, tucked away in a sleepy Moroccan village has turned out to be action packed days filled with travel, work and lots of friends. Just recently my mom and Patrick came and we had a most enjoyable time speed vacationing through Morocco followed by a lazy week on spanish beaches. Just what I needed! When not vacationing, I am working here in my town teaching English. I have just started teaching the primary school children which has been a joy, to my surprise. They are so eager and excited! Nothing is cuter than a room full of 7 year olds screaming the ABCs with the innocent enthusiasm that only kids can produce. There are two orphanages in town here: one for girls and one for boys. I have started classes at both. Again, such a joy to work with students who are so eager to chat with me about anything, in any language. My other big project is a resource center at the local high school. It was started five or ten years ago when the previous volunteer was here and closed promptly after his departure. I convinced them to blow the dust off the keys and open it. Now I am working on conniving a way to ensure it will stay open once I leave. I'm thinking of duplicating the keys fifty times and spreading it throughout Ben Ahmed (kidding...maybe.) This is where I elicit your help. If you have any fashion/automobile/gossip/etc magazines or select pages from magazines that would be nice eye candy for the walls or potential topics of conversation, I would much appreciate them. I want to excite the kids about learning english, so think high school girls and guys. I need "hip American" stuff: posters, advertisements, etc etc. Even funny cards or postcards can be great wall paper. THANK YOU in advance!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Really just a semblance

Where haaave I been?! I ask myself the same question from time to time. Or, rather, where am I.

I have been traveling about for work and otherwise. I find it more and more difficult to give a proper sociological report on life here as the strangeness has normalized. Freshly slaughtered chickens and horse draw carriages are a part of my daily life. I couldn’t picture it any other way at this point. Work at the Dar Chabab has been slow mainly because I haven’t been here. Last week I was working in a beach town called Azemour at a language immersion camp. I learned a lot about my own capacities as well as the dimensions of Moroccan youth. My students were from a beach city and were both extremely progressive and highly motivated. It was a great experience but didn’t always feel like proper Peace Corps work. Nonetheless, I spent some time on the beach with a few PCVs so all’s well that ends well.

The big news, I suppose, is of romance. ‘Tis true. They say it happens when you least expect it. In this case I was completely blind-sided. He showed up in my class at the dar chabab and began challenging my philosophical interpretations of “Hotel California.” Caught off-guard by both his English and his insight, I insisted on further conversations. Eh, voila. He cooks, cleans and is full of fun and interesting ideas. What more could a girl want! It has been a bit of a challenge in my town. Apparently there is a lot of jealousy so we go about justifying ourselves and trying not to act excited about each other in public. I must say, I appreciate American freedom more than ever!

Vanessa and her friend are coming on Saturday and my mom and Pat are coming Tuesday. I am so very very excited to have a little piece of home near. Not to mention the traveling about and visit to Spain!

Friday, February 08, 2008

This is how it goes

Just an idea of how my days pass:

(However, the only constant seems to be the surprises: I wake up without water, I am last minute invited to any number of celebrations, the police are requesting my presence to assure my safety, classes are canceled because there is a football game, there is a meeting of the messenger pigeon association at my Dar Chebab, etc, etc.)

8-10: wake up, stretch/yoga, prepare breakfast and listen to podcast.
10-1: run errands. i.e. drink tea with various people, go to the market, ongoing problem solving- electricity, internet, etc., check email
1-2:30: Lunch - usually I see someone during my morning errands who invites me for lunch.
3-4:30: prepare lesson plans, study Arabic
4:30-8: teach at the Dar Chebab
8-10ish: cook dinner, watch a movie, read, write. Anything at home because it is dark out and it is not a good idea for me to be out and about.
11ish: Heat water on the stove to wash up for bed, read under the covers to keep warm

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Christmas Kbir - A cultural melange

In preparation for Christmas, I will be killing a sheep. This week, Muslim’s all over the world celebrate L’Aid Kbir or The Big Feast or The Feast of the Sheep. Now, of course, all of us good Catholics will remember immediately that Abraham was ask by God to sacrifice his son for the remission of his sins. Having tested Abraham’s devotion and found him a true disciple, God gave him a sheep to sacrifice at the very moment he was prepared to kill his son. This story is in both the Bible and the Quran and is the basis for this Friday’s activities. Islam runs on a lunar calendar and therefore the religious holidays change each year. This, last month in the Islamic calendar, is “du l-Hijja” and, in addition to this annual sacrifice, is when people make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Our news broadcasts are littered with pictures of the sacred space jam-packed full of worshipers. It’s quite a sight.

As I understand it, the events of the next few days will go as follows:

First, we will fast for a couple days in preparation. This simply means not eating between sunrise and sunset. Everyone buys new cloths. Houses and bodies are cleansed and purified. The Hammam (public bath houses) will be jammed all week and almost every piece of furniture and blanket in the house will be hauled onto the roof for sun purification. My family has already bought their sheep and it is resting peacefully in the countryside, awaiting dooms day. On Friday it will be brought to the house (or many Thursday nights) and kept on the roof. Friday is when things get fuzzy. They (being the family) will doing the actual killing. As my family is wealthy, they have hired the butcher to come rip it apart. Other families do all the dirty work themselves. According to local custom, there is an order in which the animal parts are eaten. The first day is lungs, heart, and several other internal organs. Day two will be feet and head (yes, all of it – eyes, brain, et all) and then moving on to more basic cuts as the days progress. They are concerned about this reconciling with my vegetarianism…

In addition to all of this holiday cheer, I have been incessantly listening to my three Christmas CDs and am feeling very jolly. My wonderful community is exceedingly concerned with giving me a proper Christmas and has planned quite a feast (in addition to the sheep.) While the meal will be entirely untraditional, the volunteer from Berrchid (a thirty minute taxi ride from here) has been invited to come overstuff himself with me on the 24th in proper Christmas tradition. A local friend has even offered me a bottle of red wine for the occasion (remember, any alcohol is forbidden in Islam thus making this gift a real treat.) I am going to attempt a semblance of Christmas bakery but it will no doubt turn out looking Moroccan. It will taste great all the same.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Bzzaf news

Here it is December and I have failed to write in over 2 months. My only excuse is that I have been desperately learning Arabic, overcoming my bafflement, and starting a new job. The short of the long is that I have been (in no particular order) between Fes, Sefrou, Ben Ahmed, and Mrirt all the while having language and technical training. The reality of it is that I have spent the last 2 months hanging out with some extraordinarily interesting PC trainees, volunteers and Moroccans just generally having a good time. You see, this is the beauty of being a PCV: if you pass a whole day without doing anything that would be defined as “productive” in the American sense of the word, but you managed to mail a letter or get an important point across in Arabic, you have had a successful day. Other “productive” projects include drinking tea (if with another Moroccan or if had with cross cultural conversation), attending sessions regarding Moroccan politics, education and religion, and learning the ins and outs of bike maintenance (included with this activity is a well stocked, customized tool kit). If, for any reason, I should need medicinal, linguistic, or general support, there is an outstanding team of people with cell phones in pocket just waiting for my call. The support, thus far, has been unsurpassable.

A large part of these first three months is building relationships with the staff and the fellow volunteers in my stage. There are only three times during my service that we will all be together. One of them was the last three months. We meet again in 6 months and then again on our way out. Most of us came to the Peace Corps with an appetite for solitude and distance from everything and anyone American. We were all surprised to find how enjoyable these last three months were, in close proximity to upwards of 30 other Americans. We are like-minded in our expatriation but our specialties range from politics and business to the arts and women’s development. Our discussions are diverse and very well informed. When we are not in class, on the road or in the community, we keep ourselves warm with heated conversations and tea. Several of us have started a long distance book club that will reconvene for discussion in six months. Our first book is War and Peace.

There are five of us who have taken particularly well to each other: Ami, Adam, Pedja, Clark and myself. Inchala (God willing), we will be meeting up for a little Christmas celebration on the beach. I moved “home” on Tuesday and am certainly feeling the distance from the people I have taken comfort in. Fortunately, though, I was well forewarned of the shocking disparity between training and the beginning of service. I have equipped myself with books (War and Peace ought to last awhile), yoga, and writing to ease the transition. So far, so good. The people here are incredibly welcoming and I look forward to working my way into a comfortable life here.

In other news, I was elected “Volunteer Advisory Committee” representative for my stage. I will act as the liaison between the Peace Corps staff and the twenty-seven volunteers I swore in with. I will have the opportunity to travel several times a year for meetings, among other unforeseen possibilities, and work intimately with my programming staff and country director.

We finished language and technical training on Saturday, Sunday was our day off, and Monday was the big day: swearing in. We woke up early and put on our one clean, business casual outfit that has been sitting in the bottle of our suitcase for 3 months, and hopped on buses that took us to the most upscale hotel in town. It is the quintessential, colonial Morocco setting, complete with waterfalls and Moroccan style cabanas. Many of our host families were able to join us. Also among the crowd were several high level Moroccan officials, the US ambassador to Morocco, and, of course, all in country PC staff. Our language training has been split between three different languages; each of which was represented by a speech given by the volunteer who has shown most progress in their respective language. All other announcements and speeches were translated multilingually. It was a phenomenal experience to be a part of something so intensely cross-cultural. Finally, we gallantly raised our right hands and pledged our commitment to ourselves, the Peace Corps and, most importantly, to the people of Morocco. This lovely affair was followed by a delicious meal and charming conversation. Much of the food disappeared into host family handbags and only Americans conceded the concept of a line for pictures with the ambassador. A good time was had by all and now it is time to get to work!

It hardly feels like the holidays here but I listen to Christmas music and think of you all often.

Mrs H., Dad and Clara, You may never know how comforting it is to receive your letters. Shukran Bzzaff!

Mrs. H - Do give the whole family a hug on my behalf.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Well here is Sefrou I am busier than a bee in honey season so I will give a brief update. This past week has been full of language and good food (they feed me like a queen) and a trip to the public bath house. This has to be the highlight of my week. My host family does not have a bathroom per say so we packed up our buckets, towels and soap and stripped down in the Hamam. I scrubbed from head to toe by my host sister and I came out radiant as a sunbeam. We head back to Fes to meet up with the rest of the volunteers and debrief about our experiences. In between my own language endevours, the other volunteers and I are working on programs at the youth house where we spend our evenings. I am developing a poetry class that should be presented within the month. I guess I have to do some real grown up things - hoot!!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Fes encore - enshala

Today was an incredible day. A group of us stumbled our way to the “mdina” with small widgets of Arabic and a keen sense for adventure. Alas, we ended up with a guide despite our commitment to avoid such a cost. We weaved in and out of quiet to clamorous and ended on the roof of a building looking down on a tannery. While it is a sight I have seen before, I felt much more cognizant than 2 short years ago. I suppose drinking local tap water somehow makes me feel more “branche.” A friend was charmed by a snake, I bought a hijab and we all just short of died of thirst. It is Ramadan and drinking or eating in public is a major faux pas since any good Muslim is fasting.

We eat 4 meals a day. At night we get a baggy of “breakfast” so anyone fasting can eat at 5am at the call to prayer (before sunrise) or eat when they wake up for those who are not. Lunch is prepared for those who are not fasting (myself included.) At around 6:45 there is the 4th of 5 calls to prayer. At this time there is a meal called the “break fast.” We join to eat a special meal to celebrate breaking the day’s fasting. There is a soup of sorts (lentil, carrot, or chick pea thus far) special bread, pastries, dates and, of course, tea. Finally, after the final call to prayer at 10, there is the official dinner. I have made a habit of skipping this since 3 meals serves me well and I am usually sleeping by 10. As you can see, the call to prayer is a sort of public school bell system, at least throughout Ramadan.

The language lessons are amazing. Volunteering for 2 years is worth its time in language (among many other wonderful things) and I praise Allah every day for speaking French. If I were to stay in Fes (which I will surely not) I could comfortably go 2 years without Arabic, for French is enough. I bargained down a hijab 50 dirhams, in French, and helped a friend from being scammed, L-Hamdullah for French. So, besides some slight stomachal adjustments, things are still wonderful. Cell phone is soon to arrive.

New photos @

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Well I hardly know where to start but I will say that I am finally here along with the other 66 of me. So far being a PC volunteer has only demanded that I live without a hairdryer, eat great food 3 times a day and have Moroccan mint tea and cookies twice daily. O yeah, don't forget the fresh squeezed OJ. It is tough but someone has to do it. Don't worry folks, they are only keeping us comfortable and healthy so they can give us extensive sessions on how to deal with the imminent diarrhea and/or dysentary as well as how to ward off harrasment and the feeling of living in a fish bowl. The training is extensive and incredibly thorough. They really do know how to do this right. Honestly I cannot even begin to describe what has been happening the last few days. I have met the US ambassador to Morocco (Tom Wiley), done yoga while listening to the call to prayer, walked through the medina and wanted to dive into the sights and smells of this incredibly beautiful country. I am lucky to be working and learning alongside such intelligent, articulate and compassionate individuals. And, the icing on my cake, once I get to my site, the Peace Corps pays for me to hire a language tutor for up to 20 hours a week in whatever language I wish (or 2 or 3). I am planning on doing some major work on my french and, of course, my arabic. I leave for Fez tomorrow and I will meet my host family in a little over a week. Hope all is well back aux Etats Unis.