The two and a half weeks I spent living in a homestay in Rabat while taking intensive Darija classes were by far the two hardest weeks of my experience abroad so far for a multitude of reasons.
On my homestay and the language barrier
My host family consisted of a late-middle aged couple, who were both complete sweethearts. However, they were completely not what I was expecting.
From reading about other experiences, I expected to have kids in some form, whether they were young or teenagers. Not having this hit me really hard, and I was pretty disappointed. I normally tend to have a lot of fun with kids, and I find it really easy to go a little bit wild and to play with them. It’s also a whole lot easier to practice language skills with kids than with adults.
The mother spoke a little bit of English, but the father spoke none. This was bad. I initially thought it would be a good thing as I thought it would force me to practice my Darija; however, my pronunciation was too atrocious for the father to comprehend me, and the mother switched to English every time.
I missed out on a lot of Rabat because of the language barrier. As I was a guest in their house, it was important for me to let them know when I would be in the house and when I’d be gone. I had a couple of days off and on these days I found myself waiting around for meals so as not to keep them waiting for me later. The one day I had planned to be gone all day, my host mother decided we were going out, and as such, I missed out on my plans.
I felt like I was living in a bed and breakfast. I’d get to their house, offer to help with dinner, and get ushered to my room. Half of the time I’d eat with them, but the other half, the mother would make dinner just for me. After, I’d offer to help with the dishes, only to be ushered into my room again. I was skyping once or twice a day not only because my friends were free for the holidays, but because I felt so isolated.
The couple were both complete sweethearts, and were always smiling at me and asking how my day was. (“Le bes?” “Le bes!”) I felt really bad when I left for a weekend to go to Spain as they were really concerned about me. If I had known a little more Arabic, I would have had an amazing experience with them. Unfortunately, the language barrier made it really hard.
Fear of missing out is real, and something I’m perpetually dealing with because there are always other lives I’d love to be living. However, New Year’s this year was particularly hard. A huge shout out to my friend in LA who I skyped at midnight my time and who took a shot of Nutella with me for making me feel much better, but it was still hard for me knowing that my friends in San Francisco were all together (actually, there were three parties I would have had to decide between, but still) and catching up without me. It’s irrational, but very real for me.
I sent my friend who’d lived in Morocco a message emotionally on New Year’s Eve and her advice was to try harder, and specifically she suggested I ask to learn how to make mint tea.
While my family didn’t drink much mint tea (sigh!), my host mother often made her own bread. She had refused all of my offers to help with dishes, cleaning, and food prep, but she responded positively when I asked if she could show me how to make her bread. During this time, I explained how at home I was always responsible for drying dishes. From then on, she allowed me to at least sit in the kitchen while she made dinner.
The next day, she invited me to come with her while she went grocery shopping. Finally, I thought. Though she had me stay in the car while she bought the vegetables, she let me walk around the fish market with her.
I wouldn’t say I made big bounds, and I still was rarely able to practice Darija, but I at least made a little progress. Perseverance definitely was key.
On my inability to learn languages
I think it’s absolutely horrible to go to a country and to not try and learn their language. However, after two weeks of intensive Darija, I’m so glad I decided not to take Arabic at university this semester. I knew I’d come out of my semester of Arabic in Dubai with very little, but I didn’t realise just how little until my first class learning the Moroccan dialect of Darija when my teacher began writing on the board in Arabic characters and I realised that I still couldn’t pronounce the vowels to save my life.
I was in the class with one other guy who had many years with Fousha, the standard dialect of Arabic, and as such I constantly felt as though I was holding him back and that he would have learned much more without me there. Though my teacher was incredible, I was very slow, and despite even (gasp) studying in the evenings, I was still using my notebook as a complete crutch to reply to simple questions.
I am glad I did the course and I am able to comprehend at least the basic conversations in Darija (given they speak slowly) but I found it immensely frustrating that I couldn’t remember words that I knew I’d learned the day before, that I could picture exactly where in my notebook I’d written down a phrase but couldn’t recollect the words.
As I probably won’t use Arabic in my future career and as I’ve hated both of my Arabic classes, I’m sticking with my decision not to take Arabic this semester.
Morocco is legendary for its men harassing women, but I did find myself mildly surprised at just how common it was. (Even when I stuck my hair in a French plait because I hadn’t washed it in over a week I STILL got catcalled…)
My first day, the country director for the program told me that Rabat was basically as dangerous as Sacramento (read: not very dangerous) and 95% of attacks happened late at night when drunk people were walking back from bars. I was advised not to wear earphones.
For the most part, it was easy to ignore the catcalling and such, but I did have one incident that left me a little shaken. When I was returning from Madrid, I was in an exceptionally emotional mood and decided to walk from the train station to my homestay, about a half hour walk, instead of taking the metro. It was about 5:30PM, and the sun was beginning to set, and the route was all along main roads except for a two block stretch. I was walking along that stretch when a little boy, about ten, stopped me. We were unable to communicate, so he stopped a car. Normally, I’d have ignored anyone trying to talk to me from a car; however, I was concerned about the boy (which, of course, was dumb; he could have been a pickpocket easily.) The guy driving told me not to walk alone by myself and I was like ‘duh’ but thanked him and made to move on. He offered me a ride, and I respectfully declined, walking on. That was when he got nasty–he drove next to me for a bit, yelling out the window that it wasn’t safe for a woman to be walking alone. I ignored him, but when he persisted, pulled out my cellphone, ready to call for help. Thankfully, he eventually left me alone, but he left me shaken. Most likely he was well-intentioned, but that was definitely my most negative experience.
I actually found that walking with earphones lessened the harassment, even when I wasn’t actually listening to music–it just meant that people knew I wouldn’t respond to their calls. However, that was when walking in the morning and early afternoon between class and my homestay, and I’m used to walking with purpose through cities. I wouldn’t recommend walking with earphones at night or if a little lost.
Though a lot of this has seemed negative, I found Rabat to be quite quaint. I’m really glad that I was able to do a homestay experience, and I think with a more extensive time, I would have found more common ground with my hostparents. It was definitely intriguing to see their way of life.