Archive for the 'Study Abroad' Category

Recap: Weekends in Rabat

November 16th, 2010

So, I haven’t spent all my weekends abroad gallivanting across the country or strolling through Europe.  Some of the time I’ve just stayed put in good old Rabat, or as it is written in Arabic, الرباط .  Ever since I’ve discovered that Macs have built in Arabic QWERTYs I’ve been practicing like crazy and writing all my friends’ names in Arabic characters and showing them over skype and facebook.  It’s a really nerdy thing to do, but it’s actually pretty good practice.

So what goes on in Rabat over the weekends?  Not much actually.  Rabat is a great city, but it’s not very touristy.  Which is actually really great for study abroad students because touristy places like Fez and Marrakesh can actually be really overwhelming.  Therefore, what I do in Rabat on weekends is do all my homework, and go to bed early and get a full night’s sleep.  It’s a great routine, I feel well rested and energetic during the day, and my house gets wonderful natural sunlight which actually makes doing homework a lot more enjoyable!

Interspersed among the homework are trips to cafes, sometimes to do more homework, shopping adventures in the markets in the medina, and generally hanging out with friends.  Often times American students studying abroad in Spain will spend one or two nights at my house when their study abroad program comes to Morocco for the weekend.  That’s a really cool experience because I can show them around the city, and share my experiences with them.  I also end up doing a lot of translating since these students generally don’t speak any Arabic or French.  One weekend, the student from IES Abroad-Grenada were in Spain, and I actually helped give these students formal tours around the medina.  While doing so I also get to meet other Moroccan university students who volunteer to take these Americans around the medina.  It’s a really great intercultural exchange because we have three different perspectives going on, the Moroccan perspective, the perspective of the American living in Morocco, and the perspective of an American who has been living in another foreign country and who is visiting Morocco for the first time.  It would be even better if we had a Moroccan whose visited the US or an American fresh off the plane from the states who hasn’t had time to get accustomed to another culture.

Last weekend, I actually had a really interesting weekend.  On Saturday I went with some Moroccan friends to a concert.  It was a really interesting experience because even sit-down concerts in theaters are different in Morocco.  For instance, you can take pictures during the performance, with the flash on!!!  That definitely wouldn’t fly in the US where they have nice little reminders before the show starts to “turn off all cell phones, cameras, and other recording devices.”  The concert consisted of performances by two different bands.  One band was a gnaoua/jazz/funk fusion band.  It was really cool, they played a lot of traditional Moroccan music (gnaoua), but spiced it up with trombones, trumpets, saxophones, and an electric bass.  The second band was a Spanish jazz/funk awesome band.  Both bands has Spanish dancers accompany them, and the gnaoua band also had break dancers.  It was a really cool performance.  I’m so glad I got the opportunity to go.

On Sunday, it was time to get to business and DO SOME HOMEWORK!  I have several term papers due soon so I thought I’d get a jump start on them and find some sources for the papers.  I got bogged down in work for my internship though, so I didn’t get a lot of term paper work done.  I was however, interrupted from my studies by my host mother telling me to go over to my neighbor’s house, who also happened to be a student in IES Rabat as well.  So, I threw on my hoodie, and some flip flops, and walked over.  Turns out they were having a party.  All the women were wearing caftans and dancing, and I was in jeans, a sweatshirt, and mismatched flip flops.  Turns out it doesn’t really matter that much whether or not you are dressed for a party.  If you can dance, they will love you.  There was a live band too, which was really cool.  The party was to honor the birth of a baby.  I think it was a boy, but neither me, nor my friend knew for sure.  Anyway, I had a nice time dancing, clapping along with the music, drinking mint tea, and eating lots of cookies.  All in all, it was a good way to spend the weekend.

Work weeks in Rabat are pretty low key as well.  I go to school, I go to my internship, I do my homework, occasionally I will meet up with some friends for tea at a cafe.  I might engage in some sort of cultural activity that is planned by my program.  I almost always eat dinner at my home stay because home cooked meals in Morocco are where you can get the best food.  Yesterday I walked along the beach and it was beautiful.  The waves were so big!  It’s actually getting pretty chilly in Morocco.  The nights are quite cool and I’m definitely thankful for the giant blanket my mom gave me a while back.  At the time when I first got it there was no way I was going to sleep under it…i could barely tolerate a thin sheet, but now, well, I’m glad it’s there.

Also, I have Wednesday through Friday off from school this week.  Tomorrow (Wednesday) is the Eid Kabeer, the Muslim religious holiday where they commemorate God’s intervention when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Ishmael (or Isaac if you talk to Jewish or Christian people).  As Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, God sent a sheep to Abraham to be sacrificed instead, and Abraham is thought to be the first Muslim, so this is a very important and significant day.  So what does one do on the Eid??  To be honest, all Muslim families, if they can afford it, get a sheep and slaughter it.  So, the week or so before the Eid the streets are full of people taking home sheep.  There are currently two sheep tied up outside my room right now.  I’m doing my best to not get attached in any way, I’ve avoided looking at them, and have interacted with them only briefly because I know they will be killed tomorrow.  In kind or a weird way, I think that most people who eat meat (especially Americans) could learn something from watching an animal being killed, cooked, and eaten.  Just reading about meat production in the United States is nauseating…I mean, making chickens so fat that they can’t even stand up, and then killing them, and selling the meat in the stores after it has been washed in chlorine??  Ew.  Also, I think people need to be reminded of the process of obtaining meat is pretty messy.  Maybe this is just my way of thinking after five years of vegetarianism, so you can feel free to form your own opinions on the matter.

Regardless, I’m super excited for Eid tomorrow.  It’s supposed to be one of the best times of the year!  It will definitely take the place of Thanksgiving, which is not celebrated in Morocco.  We’ll have a small celebration at our study abroad center, but no holiday unfortunately.  I can definitely empathize now with the international students who come to Wooster and have to miss cool festivals like Holi and Eid.

¡Me gusta España!

November 12th, 2010

Wow, have I gotten terrible at updating this blog.  I just find it really weird that I technically have a lot of free time, more free time than I’ve had in a while (ok, since I’ve been to college) and I can’t find 30 minutes to sit down and write about Morocco.  Actually, this post will be a little different because I’m going to write about Spain.  Cordoba and Grenada to be specific.  Yes, the long awaited, and much needed trip to Spain took place last weekend over a span of four fun-filled, action-packed days.  We left Rabat at 7am, heading for Tangier where we would take a ferry across the Mediterranean Ocean to Tarifa, Spain.  Our program director surprised us by informing us that his visa had expired just days ago, and therefore he would be unable to come with us.  Fortunately, IES Abroad has a program in Grenada, so we just had the IES Grenada staff meet us in Tarifa, and then take us around Cordoba and Grenada over the next four days.  The IES Grenada staff were amazing.  They were so nice and cool, and extremely flexible with us.  I think they were surprised at how small our program was.  There are only 19 of us studying in Morocco, and there are 120ish students with IES Grenada.  That’s a big difference.  I know the full name and several childhood anecdotes of many of the people in my group, whereas some of the Grenada kids aren’t sure of each others names.

Anyway, we got to Tangier, filled out the little Customs paper that you fill out when entering or exiting Morocco, passed through “security” and boarded the ferry.  Yes, security was a little comical.  There was an x-ray machine, that had nobody watching the images as they came through, and metal detectors, with nobody monitoring those either.  You could literally just walk right onto the ferry if you wanted.  The ferry was really quite nice.  There was a bar, a snack bar, comfy seats, and two levels.  It was really really big too.  I’m not quite sure how to describe it because the only ferries I generally travel on are the ferries that cross Lake Champlain between New York and Vermont, and they are by no means luxurious.  Our amazement at the grandeur of the ferry was short lived though, because it only takes about 30 minutes to get from Tangier to Tarifa.  That’s right, Morocco is only 30 minutes away from Europe.  It takes me 30 minutes to drive from my house to the other end of my hometown.  There’s perspective for you.

When we first got to Spain, we were immediately hit by reverse culture shock.  I was amazed at how fast it hit me.  I think it started with the garbage free streets.  Soon we were all pointing out all the differences between Morocco and Spain.  “Where are all the cats?” “Why don’t I hear any car horns?” “The cat calls, what happened to the cat calls!” Things of this nature.  We also kept mixing up languages.  I remember distinctly struggling to thank a waiter at the hotel restaurant.  I stuttered between Arabic, French, and English before I could spit out the Spanish “¡Gracias!” but by then he’d been gone a while.

Our first day was spend in Cordoba.  We spent the day touring the city, wandering through the old Jewish quarter, snapping pictures of the oldest synagogue in Cordoba, and rubbing the shoes of the statue of Maimonides, one of the most famous Jewish philosophers ever, who lived in Cordoba, and is coincidentally buried in Fez.  We also got to see one of the most famous sites in Cordoba, the Mezquita.  When the Muslims controlled Cordoba they built an amazing mosque, capable of holding over 40,000 people.  When the Christians reconquered Cordoba instead of destroying the mosque, they built a Catholic cathedral right in the middle of it, and even today it is still being used as a church.  The Mezquita was absolutely beautiful, it very clearly used to be a mosque.  It was built with an exterior courtyard, beautiful arches, and tessellating geometric designs, but then as your eyes wandered along the walls, there would be little shrines to Christian saints, and other altars that were clearly Christian.  There was also no mistaking the cathedral in the middle of the mosque for a catholic one either.  It looked just as beautiful as the churches and cathedrals I’d already seen in Europe, and in some cases, much more ornate.  It was so interesting to see how much of an influence the Muslims had in this part of Spain.  I swear, when Morocco becomes a developed country I think it will look very much like Cordoba.

After visiting the mezquita, we had a delicious lunch of tapas and sangria.  I’m so glad I discovered how much I like tapas.  I didn’t have to sit and debate which dish I wanted, I could just get two or three tapas.  I also discovered that it’s actually easier to be a vegetarian in Morocco than it is in Spain.  In Spain they like to sprinkle your food with bits of ham, which is fine, if they tell you they’re going to do it before you actually get it.  I swear, I ordered a tapas plate that was very traditional to Cordoba, a sort of tomato paste; it reminded me of  Campbell’s tomato soup in color, but it tasted better, and I got the tomato paste, and the ham they had sprinkled on top of it.  Wasn’t expecting that.  Fortunately, I could pick it off.  Later on, I found that fried eggplants in molasses is a particularly delicious vegetarian option.   Also, churros dipped in chocolate while sipping Irish coffee in the middle of the afternoon is probably one of the best things ever.  For those of you who are wondering, churros are long strips of fried doughnut.  Yes, fried doughnut, and you can get a cup of melted chocolate to dip them in.  Can someone say WONDERFUL?  I know I can.

So, after Cordoba we made our way to Grenada, another wonderful city in southern Spain.  Nestled right in the mountains, Grenada is actually really cold at this time of year.  Our group spent a lot of time in between exclamations of wonder and amazement complaining about the cold weather.  I personally don’t know what they were talking about, I thought the weather was great.  So in Grenada, there’s this old city called the Alhambra that was built by the Muslims when they still controlled southern Spain in the middle ages.  Like the Mezquita, the Alhambra is absolutely beautiful.  I felt that each room of the Alhambra we went into the more ornate and beautiful it got.  Quranic versus were carved into the walls of these rooms in beautiful calligraphy, and the roofs were painted with beautiful designs and motifs.  One of the roofs was painted to represent the seven levels of Heaven the Prophet Mohamed traveled through the night of his ascension.

Oh fun story, when I was at the Alhambra this elderly couple started talked to some of us, I assume because they heard us speaking English.  Anyway, I found out they are from Vermont!  When they found out I was from Vermont too I got a big hug from the wife.  They were retired, on a nice little vacation; the husband was a chemical engineer and the wife was in the advertising business, or may it was professional fund raising.  Something like that.

Another way Spain is different from Morocco is that Spain has a much bigger night life.  It was kind of funny, we were all really set to experience this hoppin’ night life, but the first night we were all ready to go to bed by 10:30.  In Morocco, most of us go to bed by 11:00pm because we have to get up before 7am to get to school on time.  This makes us an extremely well-rested group of college students, a rarity, and a feeling I’ve been savoring because I know that sleep will soon become a coveted commodity next semester when I’ll have to balance two Junior Independent Studies, two other classes, a campus job, and chorus rehearsal four times a week.  So anyway, the first night was a bit of a dud, but the next night we all manned up and went out, and most of us didn’t go home until the wee hours of the morning.  I believe my bedtime that night was actually technically a “morning time” since I didn’t go back to the hotel until 5am, and didn’t actually go to bed until 6am.  At 8:30am I was back up and all set to go walk around the Alhambra.  It was a little rough, but ultimately, I didn’t really feel the two hours of sleep until the day after, when we were heading back to Morocco.  That was fine since our day was filled with bus and ferry rides, so I got in plenty of nap time.

Okay, that was pretty much my Spain adventure.  I thoroughly enjoyed the few short days I was in Spain.  The cities and countrysides were beautiful, the people were friendly, the food was great, I would definitely go back in the future.  Still, I’m glad I didn’t study abroad in Europe.  For one, it’s really expensive.  Europe is not gentle on your wallet like Morocco.  Another thing is that I don’t know if I could have kept up with the Spanish nightlife, which as far as I can tell, is a huge part of youth culture.  I mean, I can stay out until 5 or 6am once, but multiple times a week?  My body might not like that too much.  Additionally, living in a country where the culture is so different from the United States gives you so many new experiences and so many new perspectives and insights that I’m not sure can be attained as fully in Europe.  I mean, I’ve stayed in towns where the cows live in the houses with the people, and here in Rabat when it rains, it literally rains inside my house.  Can you have those experiences in Europe?  I’m not sure, maybe, but it would be difficult.

Wedding!! (Moroccan Style)

October 27th, 2010

So, as I mentioned in my last post, I had made plans to stay in Rabat last weekend.  I was serendipitously invited to a wedding last weekend!  Go me!  S., a classmate of my host sister invited me.  I had met her a week or so before when walking home with my host mother and sister, and she invited me for coffee.  Then she invited me to a wedding; quite the leap I think.  But I was like “Oh my gosh I get to go to a Moroccan wedding!!! Who’s getting married?”  I didn’t learn that bit of information until the first night of the wedding.  Yes, I said FIRST night.  This wedding lasted two days (technically three).  The first night is the henna party.  The bride is dressed up in a beautiful caftan, and henna is put all over her hands and feet.  The groom also presents the dowry to the bride, and if she accepts his dowry, they exchange rings and are officially engaged.  According to the Quran, it is the man who must give the woman a dowry because in the case of a divorce the woman should be left with some property of her own.

So, that first night, I went to the groom’s home first because S. is related to the groom.  She called him her “uncle” but I think he was actually her mother’s cousin.  My logic governing this presumption is because she calls her aunt, who is only 23, her “sister.”  Moroccan families are so tight knit that it really doesn’t matter how you are related to each other, but just simply that you are related to each other.  So anyway, we got to the apartment, and sat down in the salon where a bunch of women were sitting.  A few of them were playing small hand drums, and all of them were singing marriage songs.  The songs generally translate to something along the lines of “your sweet-heart is coming,” I think, according to what S. told me.  I can’t be sure, my Arabic’s not that good.  Then we loaded the bride’s dowry into the bed of a pick-up truck.  Women carried down trays and trays of beautiful clothes, make-up, even lingerie.  There was also a cow in another pick-up truck, also part of the dowry.  Best wedding present ever!!!  So after that was all set, we stood behind the trucks, along with every member of the family and then some, and a group of men armed with drums, bells, and horns.  When the men started playing we started singing, clapping, and walking towards the bride’s house.

The bride’s family was waiting outside for us, and we serenaded them for a bit.  Actually, it was more of an ensemble piece because they were singing right along with us.  We unloaded the truck and brought the dowry into the salon where the bride was sitting, faced covered in a lacy green veil one might wear to a St. Patrick’s Day party in the USA, and a woman was busy applying henna to her hands.  Both the soles and tops of her feet had already been covered in swirly, flowery henna designs, which had been bedazzled with jewels and sprinkled with glitter.  It was beautiful.  I then got dragged into another room by S. where she applied make up to my face, and I changed into the ghandoura (a kind of traditional Moroccan dress) that I had brought with me.  When I went back into the salon, someone had pulled the veil back off the brides face, and taken the dowry somewhere else.  The bride looked beautiful!  She wore an ornate caftan, mostly cream colored, but withe green highlights and jewelry to match her veil.  She and the groom exchanged rings, and then fed each other dates and milk (much like when American couples feed each other cake at the reception).  For the rest of the night we just sat around, and took pictures with the bride and groom, and ate couscous.  It was my favorite kind of couscous too.  This couscous is served with onions, raisins, cinnamon, garbanzo beans, and other foods to give it a very sweet flavor, in contrast with the vegetable couscous I usually eat (which is also very good).  That was the end of Day 1.

Day 2:  I leave my house with S. and her mother to go rent a nice caftan for the actual ceremonial part of the wedding.  I got a very pretty caftan that was royal blue, with a gold inner skirt and embroidery.  Caftans are dresses that generally have bell sleeves and belts, and look as though you have two dresses layered over each other, and in some cases you do.  You could tell if you looked at the skirt of my caftan that it was two layers because the blue skirt opened up at the bottom to show off the gold under-dress.  We went back to the groom’s home where we ate dinner, put on our caftans, and did hair, make up, etc.  I also ended up wearing about six different perfumes to the wedding.  Hold on, I’m sorry, that’s an exaggeration, I think I only had five different perfumes.  People just kept coming up to me and spraying me with whatever bottle of smelly stuff they just happened to have on them.

So we all squeezed into a car that took us to the rented hall where the ceremony would take place.  Think how American weddings, alright American weddings based on Judeo-Christian tradition, have a ceremony, and a separate reception following the ceremony.  Okay, now imagine combining the ceremony and reception into one big event, and that gives you a base line, minimalist idea of what to expect at a Moroccan wedding.  What I’m saying is the dancing and eating are interspersed throughout the ceremony, if not directly part of the ceremony itself.  The hall itself was beautifully decorated with lots of tables and chairs for the many guests, a band, a TV crew to film the wedding, which would then be re-watched countless times by relatives in the future, and a big gold couch at the front of the hall where the bride and groom get to sit.  As guests poured in, they were all greeted, and kissed my the bride’s mother.  Then they were given dates and milk.  In Morocco, it is customary to feed special guests dates and milk.  It is actually delicious, I highly recommend it.  I watched all the women come in dressed to the nines in beautiful, colorful caftans.  I also watched the men file in, some in traditional djellabas, others in suits, a lot in jeans and hoodies.  It was quite a difference compared to the extravagantly dressed women, but then again, the bride in this ceremony was WAY more dressed up than the groom.

The happy couple didn’t even arrive until midnight.  They were drummed into the hall by the same drumming, bell ringing, horn blowing guys who had escorted the groom to the bride’s house the night before.  The groom was leading the bride who had her face covered in a lacy gold veil this time.  The couple was also surrounded by these guys dressed in red and wearing long white cloaks, which they held up to shield the bride and groom.  The bride then got in a little domed box thing, and then the guys in red lifted her up in the air on their shoulders and danced around with her down the aisle.  Guests crowded around this procession, trying to get pictures.  The bride smiled and waved back, looking a little nervous.  I don’t blame her, I would be a little nervous if I was getting married too.  I also wouldn’t want to be dropped by the guys that were carrying me around.  She was soon set down, and the couple adjourned to the couch where they sat for a lot time as people crowded around to take pictures.

The rest of the wedding basically consisted of a lot of picture taking, dancing, and the entrances and exits of the bride and groom.  Each time they returned, the bride was dressed in a different caftan, each one as beautiful, if not more beautiful that the one before it.  I saw her in six different dresses that night.  At one point, both she and the groom got back in the little box thing (one at a time, of course) and got another turn being hoisted onto the shoulders of these four men, and danced around the hall.  This time, people threw rose petals at them, and often, the bride or groom, whoever was in the box at that time, would throw the petals right back.

There was a lot of food consumed at this wedding too.  For the first course of dinner, each table go three chickens.  Three.  In Morocco you eat with your hands, so it was really interesting to watch people sit and tear the meat off the carcass.  It would have been completely inappropriate in the United States, and therefore it was so totally awesome.  The second course was a beef tagine with prunes.  It’s actually really delicious, at least, the prunes are.  I’ve been a vegetarian for 6 years, but decided to be polite, and culturally sensitive, I would suck it up and try to eat just a little meat while in Morocco.  If a Moroccan offers you meat, he or she is offering the most expensive part of the meal, and it’s not very polite to refuse.  Anyway, I’ve been able to stomach chicken and some fish, but that’s it.  Red meat is a no-can-do.  It just makes my stomach churn, so I eat around it, and that is how I discovered that the prunes in that beef tagine were really good.  We then ate fruit, and cookies.  Later we got more sweets, and at the end of the wedding we finally got to eat the wedding cake, which was sweet, but light.  The ceremony culminated in the bride and groom sharing a dance together, and with the rest of their guests, and then throwing little packets of chocolate at us.  The time was 6am Sunday morning.  As I mentioned before the wedding lasted two, technically three, days.  As I stumbled back to the groom’s family’s house, I changed out of my caftan and into a nightgown a grandmother had given me, and completely passed out on one of the couches.  It had been a great weekend.  I was so glad I had this opportunity to get to experience firsthand such a special ceremony, which is pretty much unique to every culture.  It was funny, throughout the night everyone was asking me if I wanted to have a Moroccan wedding when I got married.  “Mumkin” (maybe) I answered, and to be honest, it could be a lot of fun.

Chefchaouen, and a little taste of Scotland

October 20th, 2010

Last weekend was spent in a little city nestled in the Rif Mountains.  Chefchaouen is probably one of the prettiest cities I’ve been to in Morocco so far.  It fully satisfied my insatiable thirst for mountain scenery, a geographical feature I really miss when I’m in Rabat, or even back at Wooster. Chefchaouen is built on a mountain, so the streets slope steeply, which is either really good if you’re going down hill, or a really great work out if you’re going in the other direction.  Chefchaouen is know in Morocco for three things, water, textiles… and hashish.  While wandering around the medina it was not uncommon to smell the hash that shop keepers or tourists were smoking.  It was an interesting experience to say the least.  Another really cool thing about Chefchaouen is that the medina is painted almost entirely blue.  All the houses, doors, windows, streets, stairs, everything, was painted some shade of blue.  It was very mellowing, I felt like I was under the sea, like I was the Little Mermaid or something.  If you know me well, you’ll know that The Little Mermaid was probably one of my favorite movies as a little girl, so this was a lot of fun for me. 🙂

The Hotel we stayed at was called Hotel Scotlandy, and it was run by Scottish people.  It was really interesting, not to mention a little surprising to find these Scottish family who ran this hotel in the middle of Morocco.  They had a son who was the same age as my brother, and actually also had the same name as my brother.  It was weird, and kind of funny because my brother was actually voted “most likely to become British” by his eighth grade class, although I don’t think that Scottish people technically think of themselves as “British.”   So, anyway, the son was really cool and didn’t mind showing us around the medina (or making us tea).  Seriously, I had forgotten how good Earl Grey tea is.  I’ve been drinking sweet mint green tea every since I came to Morocco, and don’t get me wrong, it’s delicious, but sometimes it’s nice to drink something unsweetened.

On Saturday, we ventured into the Medina to do some shopping and sight seeing.  We got invited to a rug factory.  The owner picked us out of the crowd and led us to his factory where they made us mint tea and spread many Berber rugs in front of us.  They also had beautiful fabrics and really warm looking sweaters.  We sat on couches and picked out the stuff we wanted, and then spent a really long time bargaining them down to reasonable prices.  I mean, they asked for 700 dh for a small area rug!  Really?  I’m not paying that, so we spent a long time bargaining the rugs down to half the original asking price.  Not bad.  A couple of us also hiked to the outer edge of the city where there was a small waterfall.  It was really cool because they had built these cement structures at the waterfall that collected the water as it ran down the water, and the women were able to wash their clothes.  It was really cool!  We hung out at the river for a little bit and then walked (up hill) back to the hotel.  I did some more shopping, picked up some gifts for people.  It was a good day, and we had a very delicious dinner at a nice Moroccan restaurant.  The meal cost 85dh, which in US$ is still only about $10.  Win.  Even though goods and services in Morocco are inexpensive relative to US prices, it is still too easy to spend too much money, so be careful.

Saturday was really the only day we had in Chefchaouen because the only bus back to Rabat left at 7am.  So we woke up early and drank some espresso, or as our host called the “Turkish Eye-Openers” and ate some toast, and then boarded the bus back to Rabat.  I personally slept for the majority of the four hours, so I couldn’t really talk about the scenery, although I’m sure it was beautiful.  My Sunday concluded with a glorious visit to the hammam with my mother and host sister.  I got the full scrub down.  You buy this brown gel soap and rub it all over your body, then you rinse it off, and then you use this scrubbing cloth to scrub your whole body, and the dead skin just peels off.  It’s disgustingly satisfying, especially since the hammam is hot and steamy like a sauna so you are comfortably warm.  After you scrub all the dead skin off your body you can wash your hair and soap up like you would in any shower.  Let me tell you, I’ve never felt cleaner.  It’s definitely something you must do at least once if you ever visit Morocco.

So, that’s about it.  I don’t have any pictures to post because my camera batteries died on me the minute I got to Chefchaouen.  Hopefully, I’ll have something fun to write about next week.  I’m planning on staying in Rabat this weekend.  Who knows what might happen? 🙂

The Middle Atlas Mountains, an Experience like no other

October 10th, 2010

It’s a little embarrassing to be making this post a week late, but a week late is better than two weeks late.  Last weekend, almost all the IES Rabat group went to the Middle Atlas Mountains to hike, explore some of the cities, and spend some time in a Berber village.  This weekend excursion revealed the huge disparity between urban and rural Morocco, and reminded us all that Morocco is definitely still a developing country.  Last weekend was definitely one of, if not the most culturally enriching and spiritually satisfying experiences I’ve had in Morocco to date.

On Friday right after Arabic class (and the purchase of some avocado juice), the group headed out of Rabat towards the center of the country and the cities of Azrou and Ifrane.  I had already been through Azrou before; we drove through the city on our way to the Sahara desert.  Although I’m pretty sure I’ve already said this in an earlier post, the name of the city is a Berber word meaning “big rock.”  Why?  Well, there’s a really big rock in the middle of the city, that’s why.  Azrou is also home to a lot of monkeys who live in the mountains and grow fat from eating the cookies the tourists give them.  We didn’t stop to see the monkeys this time, we had other plans.  Instead of stopping to see monkeys were were stopping to see trout.  Yes, that’s right, I got to visit a trout farm.  Let me describe a trout farm for you.  It is a place with a lot of different pools of water, and each pool of water contains a lot of trout all at different stages in the development process.  This trout farm had two kinds of trout, Rainbow trout (imported from the United States), and the Moroccan Golden Trout.  I got to feed the trout too.  That was fun.  I threw some fish pellets into the water and it was like all the trout in the entire tank descended on the handful of small pellets I threw in.   There was a lot of frenzied splashing, and I got a lot of water on myself since the fish were practically leaping into the air trying to get at the food.

After seeing the trout farm we all clambered back on the bus and headed to Ifrane.  Ifrane is an interesting city, I think it would be more appropriate to call it Little Switzerland.  It was built by the French during the Protectorate, and you can definitely tell.  All the houses have peaked roofs.  This is mostly for practical purposes because Ifrane gets a lot of snow during the winter.  However, the layout of the city, and the details of the buildings give it a distinctly European flavor.  Al Akhawayn University (http://www.aui.ma/) is also located in Ifrane, and certainly adds a little bit of flavor to the atmosphere of the town.  We didn’t really explore the town too much, we only really had time to walk around one of the little garden ponds and take awkward group pictures in front of a big statue of a lion.

We spent the night in a little village called Ben Smim.  The people in this village spoke Berber as there first language, Arabic as there second, and a few words of French and English if we were very lucky.  We were also very lucky to have electricity and running water inside the house.  Really, I’ve come to the conclusion that after electricity and running water, everything else is an extra added luxury here, like having a western toilet, and toilet paper.  I had brought a box of tissues with me for my allergies, and I quickly became one of the most sought out people in the group because most people had forgotten their own TP.  Additionally, the concept that Americans have of having your own bedroom is something that people just don’t have here.  I have my own bedroom here in Rabat, but the rest of my family sleeps on the sofas in the living rooms.  It was the same in Fez, and it was the same in Ben Smim.  In Ben Smim though, my roommate and I didn’t have a bedroom, but we did sleep in the nice salon.

Our host family in Ben Smim was fantastic!  My host parents spoke Berber and Darija (colloquial Moroccan Arabic), and they had very little French and no English.  My roommate and I speak English and French, “survival” Darija, and only the Berber words that we were given on a sheet today by our director.  You learn a lot about communication in situations like these, if you don’t know the word you can act it out, or draw a picture, or point, whatever gets your point (haha) across.  You also learn how to be in uncomfortable situations.  For example, we knew when our host family was talking about us, but we had no idea what they were actually saying, and it was a little uncomfortable.  It’s just something you have to become accustomed to.  I am accustomed to being the object of amusement at times when I clearly misunderstood something, or didn’t pronounce something correctly.  It’s just something you have to have a good sense of humor about, that’s all.

So anyway, my host mother dressed us both in these beautiful caftans before dinner.  Mine was an olive green with black embroidery around the cuffs.  It looked like just the kind of caftan my sister Maggie would look gorgeous in.  My roommate had a nice azure blue caftan to wear.  So, we got all dressed up for a beautiful dinner of couscous, fresh eggs (one of the most delicious foods ever!), bread, jam, spices, you name it.  The food was so fresh and delicious, I knew it was going to be really hard to go back to eating “regular” food after this.  After we had eaten our fill, we were invited outside to watch what they told me was a “Berber tradition.”  My roommate and I sat outside on small stools and kissed all the neighbors hello and watched a group of caftan-clad women walk slowly down the street playing drums and tambourines, and singing at the top of their lungs.  The music was so joyous, both my roommate and I were caught up in the moment, and I think we both secretly wanted to jump up and join the crowd of women who were now dancing right in front of our house.  We asked out host brother, who thankfully spoke French, exactly which tradition it was that we were watching.  He looked a little confused, and told us that he didn’t really know the words for it in English or French, so he started to describe it to us.  He began with “It’s an Arab tradition, with a small boy…” Okay, yes, I figured out what we were watching…a circumcision party.  Muslims, like Jews, circumcise boys as part of religious ritual, however, Muslims circumcise there sons between the ages of 4 and 8 years, not 8 days old like Jewish baby boys.  It is a sign of a  boy entering into the Ummah (universal Muslim community) and it is an occasion for much, much celebration.  I’m not going to lie, it was a little bit startling at first, but we figured this was part of our cultural immersion, so let’s just go with it.  We actually didn’t stay outside long after that because we were both tired, so we pretty much just passed out in the salon.

The next day we visited a number of NGOs in the village.  We visited a women’s organization that sold medicinal herbs, made rugs, and honey.  I bought some honey and some extract of thyme, which is supposed to help with colds and other respiratory ailments when drunk mixed with tea.  We also hiked for about an hour to eat lunch (couscous of course) with a bunch of school children who were of course, adorable.  A Peace Corps worker stationed in Ben Smim also ate couscous with us, and he talked with us about his experiences in the Peace Corps and in Morocco.  After lunch (an naps) we visited the Aïn Ifrane bottled water factory.  It was funny, nobody was really interested in seeing how they bottled water, we were more interested in their super duper nice bathrooms 😉  The bottled water factory isn’t really on good terms with the surrounding villages because they are basically stealing their water from them, and selling it to tourists.  After our bottled-water-bathroom visit we went back up the mountain to paint pictures with the children we had just eaten lunch with.  I must say, it was very therapeutic.  I had a wonderful time painting a giant flower.

By this time, I would say that it was about 5pm, time to head back to the village.  Our director had rented the village hammam for us for two hours, so when we got back to the village we were supposed to ask our host mothers to come with us to the hammam.  However, when we communicated with our mother about the hammam she told us we couldn’t go until we had eaten first.  So my roommate and I sat down in the salon and ate malawi bread, bagharir (a kind of pancake), and drank hot atay b’nAnA (mint tea).  Only when we were finished eating were we allowed to go to the hammam.  What’s the hammam?  Oh yes, I forgot, the hammam is the public bath house.  In a place where nobody had baths or showers inside, the hammam is a very important place where one goes to bathe and socialize.  Socialize you say??  Yes, I absolutely mean that.  From what I can tell, the hammam is a hip and happening hangout spot for men and women of all ages (although not at the same time of course).  So my roommate and I went to the hammam, and we walked in and it was basically like a mosaic version of a YMCA locker room.  Benches ran down both walls, and there were shelves where you could keep your clothes while you were bathing.  The first thing we did was stand around awkwardly because nobody was sure what exactly we were supposed to do.  My host mother answered that question for me.  While at the hammam the only thing you are allowed to wear is your underwear, no tops, and even those are optional.  The actual place where you wash is steamy and hot, like a sauna, and there is a place to fill buckets of hot water, which you take back to your spot.  Then you get scrubbed from head to toe, until all the dead skin peels off your body.  One of the women scrubbed me down, and then dumped a big bucket of water over my head to rinse me off and I was done.  Let me tell you, if you are ever in Morocco, visit the hammam.  It is definitely WAY outside most American’s comfort zones, but isn’t that the point of visiting another country?  And it is definitely one of the most intimate ways of experiencing a culture.  And it wasn’t bad, I’m still alive, and you know what?  I’d go back.

Anyway, that night we got dressed up in even NICER caftans, and our family laid a traditional decorative rug with fuzzy things and silver sequins and embroidery down on the couch for us to sit on, and then they did henna on our hands.  It was such a hospitable thing for them to do.  I felt so welcome.  If there’s one thing Moroccans do REALLY well, it is hospitality.  They are just so warm, friendly, and generous, it really helps soothe the culture shock you might feel jumping from American culture, to a culture of predominantly Arab influence.

Our last day in the mountains was spent actually hiking up the mountains.  I was so glad we did though, because the view from the top of the mountain was TOTALLY worth the three-hour hike up.  Spending time in such a rural setting is eye opening.  You are surrounded by so much natural beauty, and at the same time living in such primitive conditions, by American standards.  It is oddly refreshing to be without all the headache and stress that comes with all the technology we are constantly surrounding ourselves with.  More than once on this trip I thought I would be perfectly happy moving to the country and growing figs for the rest of my life, but I also would not give up a good education like the one I’m receiving at Wooster for anything.  Both worlds have good things to offer, and I think the trick is to find an appropriate balance of both, although isn’t that the key to everything in life?  Finding the perfect balance.

OH MY GOODNESS! Matt Damon was here! This is hallowed ground…

September 28th, 2010

My weekend excursion to Tangier was my first “independent” trip since I’ve been to Morocco.  By “Independent” I mean that it wasn’t sponsored by IES Abroad (my study abroad program), and not that I went by myself, because basically everyone else from IES decided to visit Tangier as well.  So on Friday after our morning Arabic class at 8am, nine of us left the center for the Rabat-Ville train station to board a 10:47 train that would take us to Tangier within four hours.  In Morocco it is so worth it to spring for a first class ticket because the seats are bigger, you have more leg room, and the cars are less crowded.  My first class ticket to Tangier cost 145 dh (dirham).  I think it was the first “Première Classe” ticket I’ve ever bought for anything ever in my entire life, and it cost less that $20.   That being said, my hotel room for two nights cost 300 dh, which is less that $40.  Now, the exchange rate wasn’t the reason I decided to come to Morocco for my semester abroad, but I like being significantly richer than I would be in the United States or Europe.  That being said, it’s still way too easy to spend way too much money in Morocco, especially when you get to the Medina because all the little shops are just calling to you, so you go and look around, and then the shop keeper insists that you buy something, and you haggle a bit and finally reach a price you are both happy with, and you walk away with a new souvenir.  Then you do the same thing at the next shop.  You can see the vicious downward spiral you can get yourself into if you’re not careful.  Additionally, if you’re not sure you want to buy it, don’t ask for the price, because then the shop keeper thinks you want to buy it, and he or she will be offended if you walk out after they give you their highest possible price.

Okay, I digress…what can I say about Tangier?  Well, it’s a lot like San Francisco.  It’s very sunny, there are beautiful beaches, and tons of steep hills.  For every hill you walk down you must walk up two (at least that’s what it feels like, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating much).  I also gathered from the Lonely Planet guidebooks that several members of my group brought with them, that Tangier used to host many gay bars, but now I understand that those hangouts have all moved to Marrakesh.  Like everywhere else in Morocco there is no shortage of cafes and restaurants, but unlike Fez and Rabat, nightclubs and discotheques are clearly visible and openly advertised.  My cab driver told me that Tangier has over 50 night clubs!

Okay, I promise there’s more to Tangier than hills and bars.  Did you know that the very first United States Embassy is located in Tangier?  Well, it is.  It is called the Tangier American Legation and is the only “historical landmark of the United States abroad” according to the plaque on the wall of the legation.  It isn’t a functioning embassy anymore, but it has been made into a very nice museum.  There’s a letter written by Georges Washington to the King of Morocco, and another letter from the American Ambassador back to the US state department asking them what he should do because the Moroccan government keeps trying to give him two lions as gifts.  No joke.  It was probably one of the funniest letters I’ve ever read.  The man was clearly at his wit’s end.  He couldn’t really refuse to accept the gifts, but what is he supposed to do with a pair of lions??  I think the plan was to eventually sell the lions to a zoo back in the United States.

What else what else?? OH YEAH!  So basically the random weekend we picked to go to Tangier turned out to be a most fortuitous coincidence because it just so happened that the TanJazz Jazz Festival was going last weekend as well.  That means….oh yes….free outdoor concerts.  So that was just something really exciting and cool that just happened to be going on while we were in the city.  I was really happy to discover that these concerts were really excellent.  The concert we went to had a huge turnout, Moroccans from all walks of life seemed to have shown up in this park and were enjoying the music.

OH!  Another cool thing I did last weekend was eat at Cafe Paris.  I’m not saying that actually eating there was particularly amazing.  It has decent coffee and croissants, nothing special.  It was the location itself.  In the third installment of Jason Bourne films, Matt Damon goes to Morocco, and those scenes were filmed in Tangier, and at Cafe Paris in Tangier.  I was walking on the same sidewalk that Matt Damon walked on!  Hahaha, my little sister would be so excited, she loves those movies 🙂

Additionally, in Tangier you can stand on the beach and look out across the water and see Spain.  It doesn’t always feel like I’m this close to Europe when I’m in Morocco sometimes, but looking out across to Spain made me realize how far away Morocco really is from the heart of the Middle East and Arab world.  Tangier especially is probably the most “European” city I’ve been to in Morocco.  Part of this is the significant increase in the number of actual tourists I saw in Tangier.  Most of these tourists are fresh off the boat from Spain, and consequently Moroccan business owners are much more likely to speak Spanish than French.  That was difficult for me because my Arabic isn’t very good yet, and my Spanish is worse.  I got through the weekend though, and even made some impressive gift purchases using a French/Arabic hybrid language.

So in conclusion, go to Tangier, it’s great.  I felt very comfortable as a western person walking around the city.  Of course I was cat called, but that happens everywhere in Morocco, but aside from that the city was great.  It was pretty easy to navigate, and the surroundings are wonderful.  You can also hear many different languages and expose yourself to many different cultures since so many tourists and expatriates come to Tangier.  It’s definitely a city that’s worth another visit.  Not this year probably, but in the not-so-distant future…insha’Allah.

Kids, Camels…and Thunderstorms?

September 20th, 2010

So, about my trip to the Sahara Desert….it was probably my most favorite experience in Morocco so far.  I really relish the time spent far away from the hustle and bustle of city life, and student life for that matter.  It reminded me of my spring break trip to West Virginia: no cell phone service, no computer, just you, the people around you, great big mountains.  We left Rabat on Thursday and spent most of the day traveling to our destination.  We did make a quick stop outside of a small town called Azrou to feed some monkeys.  That’s right, I got to see some monkeys up close and personal.  They were so cute too!  After a full eleven hours of travel we stopped at a really amazing hotel to spend the night.  This place had absolutely everything, an indoor and an outdoor pool, sports fields, a spa, a bar, Berber music and dancing, hookah, and camels.  So, after an absolutely fabulous evening of good food, swimming, and dancing I could go back to my giant room for a good night’s sleep before our excursion into the desert the next day.

Before we actually got to the desert we some other appointments we had to make.  We went to the ruins of Sijilmassa, what used to be the largest city in Morocco, but now has been reduced to a few crumbling walls.  That was interesting, but then we also had to go visit a local NGO that provides an after school program and backpacks to children in rural villages.  When we got off the bus we were immediately mobbed by all the children in the village.  These children don’t get a lot of foreign visitors, and so they all swarmed around us, reaching out to kiss our hands and ask us our names.  I think this is what celebrities must feel like when they go out.  I was amazed by how much excitement our presence brought these kids, and I was so glad that they had this NGO who was providing them with school supplies and a better chance at an education.  The president of the NGO also fed us lunch at his home.  One thing I love about Morocco is that their sense of time is a lot more relaxed than it is in the United States.  Therefore, lunch lasted several hours, and included tea, a salad course, two meat courses, and a desert of fresh fruit.  Then it was time to head to the SAHARA DESERT!

One thing that really surprised me about the desert was that it looked basically just like what movies and pictures of the Sahara desert look like.  Basically there was nothing but red sand dunes, and tufts of desert grass as far as the eye could see.  I was amazed by how well our Berber guides could navigate.  I would have been lost five minutes into my journey because there’s really no landmarks anywhere.  We all rode in a camel caravan, complete with blue turbans to keep the sun off and sand out.  I also figured out why, in addition to protection from sandstorms, people in the desert cover their faces.  Camels smell.  Most of us were covering our faces to keep the stink out, because the desert was actually pretty calm.  It had rained earlier (yes, I’m serious) so the sand was pretty settled.

We spent the night in a Berber encampment in a small oasis.  The tents were very low to the ground and had about six sleeping mats in each one.  Our group shared our camp with a group of very friendly Dutch tourists.  We ate dinner (Berber food is really good) and danced to Berber music.  I even got to try to play some of the drums, but failed pretty miserably at it.  I found the guides really interesting to talk to.  Most of them told me they hadn’t been to school at all, and yet they all could speak (at least a little bit) multiple languages.  Ask any of them and they’ll say, “I speak Berber, Arabic, a little French, a little English, a little Spanish, a little Italian, some Japanese, and even a bit of German.”  They weren’t educated in the sense that they could engage in academic discussion about nationalist movements in colonial Africa, but they were definitely smart (I can’t speak eight languages, or navigate in the desert), and full of practical knowledge, which I think is just as important (if not more in the long run) as the amalgamation of knowledge one gains in college.  Additionally, I can also confirm for you that the desert gets really, really, really cold at night.  Definitely bring a blanket.

The next day we rode the camels back and left the desert for another hotel where we would spend the night before finishing up our last leg of the journey.  While in the hotel a most curious thing happened.  There was a massive thunderstorm.  Truth.  It was just surprising to me that the desert could experience such large rain storms.  We lost power in our hotel for several hours.  I was actually pretty psyched because I got to carry a candle around the halls like someone from the eighteenth century.  At the hotel we were again treated to a lovely performance of traditional Berber music and dancing and then basically everyone went to bed because they were absolutely exhausted.  Although I’ve been getting pretty close to eight hours of sleep a night, I don’t think that it has been enough, and the late dinners make my body think that it’s earlier than it really is.

So in conclusion, everyone needs to visit the Sahara Desert.  It’s an absolutely amazing experience and I’m already thinking about when I can go back. 🙂

Salaamu alaykum! Welcome to Morocco!

September 15th, 2010

Okay guys, this pretty much the first time where I’ve had readily available, decent wifi service since I’ve arrived in Morocco almost two weeks ago.  Morocco is amazing, incredibly hot and humid, but amazing.  As I was looking back on my entire life I’ve realized that Morocco is the only place I’ve been where giant palm trees grow naturally.  In addition to having a completely different selection of trees, flowers, shrubs, and other vegetation, Morocco has an entirely different array of sounds, smells, tastes, you name it.  When I landed in Rabat I was surprised by how modern the city was, yet how traditional it seemed as well.  I saw both men and women wearing in jallabas, which are long robes with pointed hoods, and pointed leather shoes, and men and women wearing very western styles clothes.  I arrived during Ramadan, the holy month where Muslims fast during the daylight hours, so the streets were not as busy as I had expected.  I was very, very excited about experiencing Ramadan in a Muslim country.   I’ve fasted for Ramadan before in college, so I had some idea of what it felt like to abstain from eating and drinking for a whole day.  Not eating anything all day is actually a lot easier than it seems, but not drinking anything (even water), now that’s the challenging part, especially in Morocco where temperatures hovered around the high 80s and 90s.  After Moroccans break their fast in the evening the city exploded with activity that lasted until 2am or so.  It’s quite a different feeling to go from a quiet, low key day to an explosion of festivities that last the entire night.

My study abroad program has a 10 day orientation period in Fez, so the day after we all arrived in Rabat we drove to Fez to spend a week listening to lectures ranging from the linguistic situation in Morocco, to the Muduwana (a new family code which greatly increases women’s rights) which was passed only a few years ago.  We also spent our mornings taking intensive classes in colloquial Moroccan Arabic (darija).  Each Arabic speaking country has their own unique dialect of Arabic, so Moroccans traveling in Saudi Arabia or Iraq would probably not be able to understand the Saudis or Iraqis they meet on the street.  However, Modern Standard Arabic is the written form of the Arabic language, and is universal.  This means that educated Arabs all over the Arab world can communicate in Modern Standard and understand each other.

In Morocco, basically almost everyone speaks French, which was extremely lucky for me since I didn’t speak a word of Arabic when I arrived.  However, I learned from my experience living with a host family that although French is widely used, it still is better to learn Arabic.  My host mother in Fez spoke some French, but it was clear that she was much more comfortable communicating in Arabic, which was why my Darija lessons were so important and helpful.  In Morocco, it is very important to know how to greet people and ask about their health.  The second most important thing you should know is how to ask about their family.  Finally the third most important thing you should know is how to say “please,” “thank you,” and “I’m full” because you might be invited to enjoy some absolutely delicious mint tea and cookies.  My host mothers (both in Fez and Rabat) always tell me to “Kool!” (eat!) so I’ve gotten quite good at saying “I’m full” in darija.  They will nod and say okay, but 10 minutes later they will put another plate of food in front of you and tell you to eat more.  This morning as I was leaving to go to school my host mother led me back to the breakfast table because I had not eaten enough, or so she thought.  Food is a very important part of Moroccan culture.  It is a time to socialize with friends and family and the more you eat, they happier they get because it shows you appreciate their hospitality.  Moroccan food is great, especially during Ramadan, so it’s not really that hard to eat a lot of food.

What else have I done since I’ve been here?  Quite a lot actually now that I think about it.  I’ve toured the medina in Fez (an absolute MUST if you’re ever in the country), went to the ceramics factory in Fez, seen the mausoleum in Rabat, and toured the Roman ruins at Volubilis (super duper cool).  Tomorrow actually, my study abroad group is leaving to go to the Sahara Desert for four days.  I’m really looking forward to this visit because I will get to ride a CAMEL for several hours into the desert!  Once we’re in the desert we will get to spend the night in a Berber tent, eat Berber food, and listen to Berber music.  The next day we’ll get to ride the camels back to and chill out at a really nice hotel for the rest of the day.

Wow, I haven’t written nearly as much as I thought I would.  I haven’t written in a while, so I feel like I should make it up to you by writing an extra long post when I get back from the desert trip.  I’ve also got an amazing amount of homework, and I’ve literally had only two days of real classes since we’ve only been back in Rabat since Sunday.  So I will transition from the blog writing to the walk home (approximately 30 minutes) to the Arabic learning and backpack packing.  I bit the adieu and look forward to recounting my four day visit to the desert in full detail! 🙂

My first plane ride, chocolate, and Germany…

August 29th, 2010

Hallo!  This is how they say it in Germany.  I was happy about that because I know probably no more than 10 words in German.  At least I could understand a friendly greeting!  Also, I’ve found that German and English are very similar, so you can generally get the gist of road signs and train maps.  So yeah, the flight from New York’s JFK airport to Frankfurt International in Germany was my very first plane ride ever.  Fortunately, I liked it.  I think it might have also helped that I flew with  Singapore air, and they are quite a nice airline.  I was handed a hot towel by one of the flight attendants before the plane even took off.  I was also impressed with the vast selection of American and other international movies I could watch on my personal 6×8 screen.

So when I landed in Frankfurt, I was obviously extremely jet lagged (it was 10:30 local time, but 4:30am back home) but I was also super energized.  It kept going through my head over and over “I’m in a foreign country, I’m in a foreign country!”  I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting, but I definitely was surprised to find that the Germany was full of white people, just like Vermont, and that the landscape was very green and mountainous…just like Vermont.  I guess I had expected to feel more out of place, if that makes sense.  I think I would have if I hadn’t been picked up at the airport by my aunt.  When we got on the Autobahn to drive to Stuttgart, where my cousins live, I was fighting to stay awake, but I was also like, “Oh my gosh I’m on the autobahn!”  Actually, my perception of the autobahn was that it was this vast highway with lots of cars driving at ungodly speeds, but what I found when I was actually riding on it was that yes, there is a speed limit (usually between 100km and 120km per hour, or 65-75mi/hr).  There are some stretches of highway where there isn’t a speed limit, but most people don’t seem to speed up too much.

I’ve actually seen a lot of sights in the short time I’ve been here.  I’ve been to the oldest concrete television tower, which is located in Stuttgart.  That was pretty cool.  The tower itself pales in stature compared to the tower in Toronto, but it is still very impressive.  You can see absolutely everywhere from the top of the tower.  Another day my cousin took me to the Ritter Sport Chocolate museum, but there was a mix-up and we ended up in a modern art exhibit.  We walked into this big room with a painting with a white background and a single word printed in the middle that translated from the German as “painting.”  Needless to say we were kind of confused, but decided to make the most of it and take a look at the exhibit.  There was a piece that looked like a giant version of the game Pick Up Sticks, and an exhibit of five painting that were all the same sized square shape, and were all painted the same color blue, but had different titles underneath.  That’s interesting….I guess.  Actually it was kind of cool, and the important thing is that we did get to the Chocolate Museum eventually, and we each bought WAY too much chocolate.

I also visited Strasbourg, France yesterday as part of a day trip I took with my aunt, uncle, and cousin.  It was only a two hour car ride, which I thought was really awesome, and entirely new country in only 2 hours!  Then I realized that Montreal is only a two hour car ride from my house, and that’s in a foreign country as well 🙂  I did not realize that the Parliament building of the European Union was in Strasbourg, and I really wanted to go and see it, but the tourism offices said that the tours were by reservation only.  Too bad.  Still, I got to see a good part of the center of Strasbourg, which is absolutely adorable.  The central part of the city is situated on an island with a small canal running around its entirely.  The streets are winding and many are cobblestone.  It feels like one of those stereotypical European towns.  The Cathedral in Strasbourg is one of the most impressive buildings I’ve ever seen.  I really love going into old churches because the whole thing is just one grand piece of art.  The details are so ornate, and the entire church is extremely detailed, not just one section or one window, but the entire cathedral.

Today, I went into a little university town called Tübingen with my uncle.  This was an extremely picturesque village.  It was built on a hill below a fairly sizable Schloß (the German word for castle).  The old part of the city has lots of winding streets and you are either going up hill or downhill on these cobblestone roads.  We walked up to the Schloß, which was still being used for academic lectures.  How cool would it be to attend class in a castle?!  The cool thing about Europe is the age of your environment.  You walk past these buildings that were built in 1488, and are STILL being used as restaurants or shops or whatever.  If a building in the US reaches its 200th birthday its basically closed down and reopened as a tourist attraction.  The buildings were actually a lot taller that I had imagined.  In some places I had a really weird feeling of being shrunk down a couple sizes because the buildings were so tall.  I guess I’m used to skyscrapers being that tall, but tall houses with peaked roofs was quite unfamiliar to me.  Another thing that Tübingen has that I think is really cool is they give gondola rides down the river.  Now, I’ve always assumed that all gondolas “live” in Venice, Italy (another city I would love to see), and never expected to encounter the boats in Germany.  Apparently it’s a pretty popular tourist attraction.  I think it would be fun to ride in a gondola some day, but we didn’t because we were to busy strolling around town.  My uncle pointed out to me that Germans like to take walks, and he’s right, I saw a lot of people out strolling through the park and along the streets.  I guess when everything is so close by walking is the only logical form of transportation.  I wasn’t complaining.  I wish I could walk more places back home.  It would be healthier, and would make not having my own car not as bad.

That’s really it for now.  I’ve been in Stuttgart six days so far, but it seems like a lot longer!  In the next couple days I hope to explore some of the museums that are in down town Stuttgart before I leave for Morocco.  It won’t be such a big deal if I don’t get to them because I will be coming back and spending the Christmas season here before heading back to the States in mid January.

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