Patrick O'Grady - French in Morocco
It was hard to believe that a short three hour plane journey could remove me completely from the world I had left, but looking out of the plane window and seeing the greens turn to yellows and then to browns, I had to believe it. As well as the landscape, the language was different, the religion and certainly the pace of life.
After the relative serenity of passport control, where I was asked with a friendly but definitely unexpected smile and a wink whether I 'grew my hair myself', I was confronted with the rush of people I was to become familiar with in Morocco. However, waiting patiently in the mass of frantic heads and limbs was the trusty Projects Abroad logo and staff member Adil waiting to take me from Casablanca to Rabat.
On arriving in Rabat, I'll be honest - my first thought on seeing the walls of the Medina was 'Where have I come to?'. I had traveled alone before, but not outside Europe and there was something about those walls that was unsettling. They were orange, too orange. What lay inside the mysterious arched gate or 'bab' was what I had been preparing myself for; the clamor of people fighting their way through streets to buy herbs for tea, to the mosque for prayer or back to the calm of their homes and the smell of mint and the sound of the call to prayer which will always bring back memories of Rabat.
Waiting outside the door of the family that would be mine for the next month was terrifying! After what felt like an age though, I was welcomed in by the mother, brothers, cousin and even the bird that would wake me up every morning! The anticipation of what my host family would be like took up most of my worrying before traveling to Morocco. I didn't have anything to worry about, as in Morocco, if you are staying with a family you do in fact become a part of that family and I was definitely made to feel like that by my host mother.
Although held back by my lack of Arabic, I quickly picked up the most important basics such as 'I'm full'! Having said that, the food was as good as I was expecting (breakfast aside) and it was strange when I returned to be asked simply had I eaten tajine. In fact the language barrier was not as difficult as I first imagined it would be; we easily made ourselves understood often without needing to enlist the help of the English speaking sons.
Actually living with other volunteers also made the experience a lot better as it provided a great way of helping new volunteers become part of the group, we could show them around the town and laugh as we failed to understand certain Moroccan traditions. It was a far more welcoming set-up than a previous experience I had in France where I was living on my own with a family 40 minutes out of town.
On my first morning, after my first of many Moroccan breakfasts (bread, honey and very milky coffee), I was catapulted into the cosmopolitan district of Agdal and the Project Abroad offices. This was my first real view of Rabat, and the tour saw me and another volunteer strolling down the palm-lined Avenue Mohammad V with its gleaming new train station, the imposing Parliament building and La Comedie, where the other volunteers and I indulged in many a milkshake.
The first week meant work, actual work, which I hadn't done since leaving school almost a year before. It was worrying how much French I had forgotten since staying in France last fall. The French classes were so helpful because they really impact on your life in Morocco, so there is a definite incentive to improve quickly! Being taught in a one-to-one setting was completely different for me than sitting aimlessly in a classroom of thirty as we are used to in the UK. My teacher even took me to see the famous Tour Hassan and Mausoleum of Mohammad V and Hassan II, where I sneakily took some photos whilst pretending to be purely focused on learning French.
My learning was not simply grammar exercises, pointless sentences about pen friends and which household chores I do not like. I ate crepes and croissants whilst discussing the differences between Paris and London with my teacher's Parisian sister, forgetting my British manners as I tried to argue with a mouth full of pain au chocolat. It was amazing to think that what stretches over years at school can be covered in days when you have such intense teaching and are living in a country where you use your French every day.
There was plenty of time to relax at the weekend as we caught the night bus down to Essaouria for the annual Gnaoua festival. It started sooner than we expected, with what seemed like the whole bus producing instruments and playing throughout the night. I loved it, but obviously some were less happy to hear music in the early hours than others! The weather was great, as was the music and the greatest miracle was finding a hotel, having left Rabat with no more to help us than the bus times in our bags.
One of the best things about my time in Morocco were the weekend trips with other volunteers, in fact we formed such a close group that we all traveled together every weekend and descended on whichever town in a Projects Abroad pack. Aside from the exotic allure of Marrakech, Fez and Casablanca, there are many other beautiful sites in Morocco, including the small village of Chefchaouen, impossibly glued to the side of a hill. I couldn't decide whether the buildings were more like sugar-cubes or igloos, but either way the breathtaking soft blues and whites of the covered alleys were a cool and welcome escape from the heat, often reaching over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
What also made my time in Morocco so unforgettable were the other volunteers. All of us were living just minutes away in the labyrinth of the old Medina, and were all part of the Rabat bubble so helped each other get used to the more mysterious aspects of Moroccan life (for me, the enigma of crossing a road, which comes as quite a shock after the fields and tractors of Lincolnshire) and contribute our linguistic capabilities or simply our company. It's a unique opportunity to be thrown together with people from all over the world who all want to make a difference and experience this modern yet almost untouched culture firsthand. I made many friends I am still in contact with from across the planet, and some who coincidentally are not far away at all.
I loved every second of my time in Morocco, and for my final day I took my last trip in Morocco (having successfully, if selfishly, bullied my friends into staying in Rabat with me) to the nearby Plage des Nations, a long strip of yellow sand along the Atlantic.
I couldn't just finish my Moroccan adventure there and returned only a few weeks later with a friend I met in Rabat with Projects Abroad. However this time we did not leave England for the sounds, smells and streets of Rabat but instead for the dunes of the Sahara…