“Only it seems to me that once in your life before you die you ought to see a country where they don't talk in English and don't even want to.” -Thorton Wilder, Our Town
The paper quivered in my nervous hands, but as I scanned the page the twitch turned to calm.
I had just received my homestay assignment, which had been a source of anxiety since I had found out homestay is the only option on SIT abroad programs. It isn’t that I don’t believe in the merit of living with a local family, it is just that it already seemed like a leap of faith to travel to a country I didn’t know any language or culture. Living with a family seemed like it would be less a cool cultural dip in the plage de Rabat, and more a bucket of cold culture shock dumped over my head.
So far, it seemed I had hit the homestay jackpot. The Ougamouus: a mom, dad, two daughters, speak English, Spanish, Arabic and Darija, with a western style toilet. Plus, they have a super cool last name. What could go wrong?
We all clustered like kids waiting to be picked for the kickball game at recess, SIT lined up on one side, homestay families on the other. We nervously tittered amongst ourselves, throwing out ridiculous worst-case scenarios to break the tension, but laughing a little too loud at the exaggerations, knowing that for all we knew, those scenarios could actually be reality.
One by one, the families found their students. Adorable children quietly tapped students on the hand and led them away with shy smiles, mothers with big smiles and bigger djellabahs strapped travel suitcases on their backs without a second thought, and one by one the SIT students were carted off to their homes for the next two months.
After a half hour, and dwindling numbers of students left without a family, I started to get a bit nervous. What if my family never came? What if they got a white piece of paper that said “Hustad, speaks ONLY English and Survival French, Not okay with Turkish toilet” and decided it ain’t gonna work?
Finally, I heard my name and bounded up to my new homestay mother Malika. About my height (short), stoic expression and plain djellabah, she hoisted by carry on bag on her tiny back and with a “Yellah” (let’s go), we were headed off to my new home.
Quickly I learned that a white piece of paper means, well, pretty much nothing.
Here is a quick wrap up of my homestay thus far:
Family: I have a mother (Malika), a father (Mohammed) and two sisters (Rizlan, 30 and Btisame, 27) who live at our house. However, we always have a rotating group of other siblings coming through to say hello or to stay for a night or two. My family is very close knit and very loving, and they have quickly welcomed me into that feeling despite the fact that we can’t communicate on any complicated language level. My host mother says she wants to come visit me in America and has told me that I am no longer American but adopted Moroccan. Sorry mom, I guess I am an Ougamouu now.
House: Our home is a comfortable two-story medina house with a small rooftop terrace. I sleep in the living room with the TV, which means someone is pretty much always occupying it with me. There is a central open air courtyard covered in a giant porous sheet (for when it rains). There are three formal living rooms lined with padded couches covered in intricate patterns.
Language: My host family only speaks Darija with spatterings of French, and my host sister speaks about as much English as I do French (very little). Thankfully the first day, one of my host brothers (who lives in another town) who speaks French was around and helped me get an internet stick and translate the very little French I know into Darija for my host family. Since then, I have come to actually enjoy the language barrier. First of all, it makes nearly every second I am home a learning experience. For example, I quickly learned how to say “enough” and “full” in regard to food (safi/baraka and shabati, hamdallah). Second, it allows me to have a bit of time alone with my thoughts while they all speak Darija at the dinner table. Third, it provides a lot of hilarious situations for my family to mock my butchering of the language, which I am very willing to let them do since I speak less Darija than my four year old host nephew.
Toilet: Also, the toilet is western in style, but Turkish in flushing. This means it looks like a normal toilet, but to flush it, I turn a hose on full blast and let the water pressure push the waste to the sewer and (as we unfortunately discovered at the beach one day) out to the ocean.
Shower: A bucket plus a tap for cold water and a tap for hot water. No frills, to say the least, but I've actually been pretty surprised at how clean I can get using this method. I also usually go the hammam (a public bath) once to twice every two weeks. The hammam is sort of like a sauna: there are three rooms, a cold one, a warm one and a hot one. You get a bucket for hot water, a bucket for cold water and then find a place to sit and wash yourself, often for hours. A unique part of the hammam experience is that you can pay a woman who works at the hammam to scrub you down with an exfoliating mitt. Let me tell you, laying nearly naked on the ground of a sauna, while another nearly naked woman scrubs all the dirt and dead skin off every inch of your body surrounded by a room full of alo nearly naked women is a very unique experience. But I guarantee you will never feel cleaner.
Meals: on the first day my host brother assured me that my host mother’s food is zwina (delicious). That has proved wonderfully true. For breakfast I usually have a croissant or bread with cheese and coffee, and my host mom generally packs me an extra snack for school of fruit and bread. She has motioned several times that she would like me to be fat by the end of the semester. This could be the case as Moroccan eat huge portions of oily and sugary foods. Meals have included beef or chicken tagine (a stew with vegetable and a savory sauce), spicy hearty soups, fried fish and omelettes, plus fruit for dessert. On Fridays, as with Moroccan tradition, we eat couscous heaped with beef and vegetables. Delicious doesn’t even begin to describe it. The staple of every meal, however, is khobz (bread). We eat with our hands by ripping off a little piece of the bread and grabbing from the main dish. I am a fan of bread, but khobz for breakfast, lunch and dinner is a feat for even the most die-hard fan of carbs. Another staple of every meal is my host mother placing all the dishes around me and when I do not have a bite of food en route to my mouth, repeating “Kuli! Kuli!” meaning Eat! Eat! This is typical of all Moroccans, who take food and eating very seriously. Even after a 10-course meal they would be insisting you continue to eat. I am not sure that I have been hungry for a minute since I have been here since I am stuffed at every meal. Definitely not complaining.
Home life: Moroccans are extroverts by nature. This means that being alone generally means you are sad, angry, sick or a combination of the above. As a natural introvert, I thought this might be a bit of a challenge, which has sort of proved true. My room is the living room and TV room, so when guests arrived they are usually entertained in my room, and we also will occasionally have meals there as well. I have found that it isn’t rude for me to be on my computer or reading or writing while they are in the room, however, so mentally I am able to have a bit of time to myself. Otherwise, if I really need some space I go to a cafe or the beach, or take a really long time to fold my laundry on our rooftop terrace.
Overall, my homestay has been one of the best experiences of Morocco. I feel like I actually have a home in the medina, rather than just a destination to explore. I think it has helped quell my homesickness as well: even though I miss aspects of home, I at least have a family here who will support me even if we can’t communicate perfectly through language. However, I only have two weeks of my homestay left before I leave for my Independent Study in Journalism (ISJ), which is a six week period where we pursue our own story that will turn into our final project for the semester. Regardless, I know I will always find a home at the Ougamouu residence.