Around this time last year, I rolled my duffel bag into work, excited that at the end of the day I would be rolling it into the Paris airport and a couple of hours later, out into Casablanca, Morocco.
A few days before, I told the people I volunteered with once a week that this was a big trip for me even though it was only a three-day weekend. I had never been to Morocco or anywhere in Africa. One volunteer, a French man who had spent three years in California, thought for a moment and then remarked that it was true that for Americans Morocco would seem more ‘exotic’ than for French people. Among French people who have vacationed abroad, Marrakesh and Essaouira are common destinations. Morocco is geographically close to France, and many people in its cities speak some French. Among the Americans I know who have traveled, many more have been to Rome, San Juan, and Beijing than to Marrakesh.
My decision to visit Casablanca over the more touristy cities in Morocco was easy, as I only had three days and my good friend was at the tail end of a two-year stay there.
Outside the Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport, “her” taxi driver was waiting. On certain occasions she called him ahead of time rather than hailing one, which was more uncertain. While she was inside the airport awaiting me and he was outside awaiting us, they communicated by text, which I found funny, as I reserve texting for friends and family.
We were whisked off into the dark and dropped off near my friend’s apartment, which she shared with a roommate. When we entered her apartment, I stared in disbelief at its large size. Having just come from a city where a two-person apartment could mean that one person sleeps on a fold-out couch in the living room, I was dazzled by the spacious living room, kitchen as a separate room, and two bedrooms flanked by two full bathrooms. Faced with this surface space stretching out before me in the darkened living room, I didn’t know where to put down my bag. My friend told me that typically a family would live in this type of apartment, rather than two young women.
The next day, as I took pictures of a vegetable truck and crossed the street gingerly while my friend adeptly darted among traffic, I realized how at home she was here. Though her physical attributes marked her as a foreigner, her ease in moving around and interacting with people made it clear that she was no newcomer. I, on the other hand, trailed behind her and marveled at the bustle of life, the buildings, the people, and the atmosphere. Above all, I thought, “Are you really going to cross now??” Arriving at the other side of the busy road was an exciting affair.
We took a taxi to Hassan II Mosque, which is the largest mosque in Morocco and one of the few tourist sites in Casablanca. My friend told me that the city is proud of the mosque, which was completed in 1993 after a seven-year construction. Unfortunately, a mist obstructed my first view of the building. However, we’d have to come back anyway. We had showed up for a tour, but the typed sign on the entrance displayed different hours that the web site had listed. My friend was not surprised.
In the time before the next tour, we had tajine for lunch at one of the only Moroccan restaurants my friend goes to. She said that she and her friends rarely ate Moroccan food outside. I suppose it is like how my friends and I hardly ate in French restaurants during our study abroad experience in Paris, trying Polish and Vietnamese and Ethiopian restaurants instead and eating French food at home. (This was not the case the second time I lived in France as a working adult—I had my share of confit de canard and moelleux au chocolat in brasseries and restaurants, although I did also later discover the supermarket and Picard versions of these).
Our lunch outside was lovely. We caught up under the gray sky that my friend insisted had been sunny the previous week. “Casablanca is never like this! We were at the beach last weekend,” she said. Okay.
I did enjoy my first tajine experience. My friend in Paris who is married to a Moroccan tossed around the word tajine all the time, but I hadn’t ever seen one until now. Meat and vegetables are cooked in a tajine pot, whose lid is narrow at the top and widens into a funnel shape. Lift the lid, and you can eat out of the bowl. They are used in North Africa and the Middle East.
Up next: We make it into the mosque.