Tuesday, November 30, 2010

You Took Your Kids to Morocco for the Week of Thanksgiving?

Seriously, have I lost my mind? Yeah, I totally did drag my kids to Africa for a week during the Thanksgiving Holiday. And actually, the good far outweighed the bad. There was some serious bad. But when you haul a three year old and a one year old 5000 miles away from home and across an ocean, what can you possibly expect?

Last February, pre-blog, some dear dear friends and their children relocated from New York to Morocco. It was a devastating blow to lose such a good friend, and even more difficult because their Things are the same age as my Things. In fact, Thing 1 is all but carrying on a torrid love affair with their three year old daughter. They play, they fight, they share, they kiss, they make up, they hold hands everywhere they go. I cannot think of anyone that Thing 1 plays so well with. So, needless to say we were very sad when they left New York. Yet we all must make lemonade out of lemons. And our lemonade came in the form of a trip to Morocco, a mysterious place that has always been on my top 5 places to go before I die.

We left New York the Saturday before Thanksgiving. We were booked on a direct flight from JFK to Casablanca. The flight was overnight and the Things both slept the whole way. What a relief. They even both got enough sleep that they were in decent enough moods all day Sunday. Mommy did NOT sleep on the plane, nor did Daddy. Daddy took a nap when we arrived at our friends' home, but Mommy stayed up. I was good and loopy by the time we went to bed Sunday evening.

Monday morning we all drove to Fez to stay for two nights. Fez is an absolute must see if you travel to Morocco. Fez is known as the spiritual heart of Morocco. And I can see why. Winding streets, the best artisans in the country, and all around you the juxtaposition of modern living amongst centuries old cultural traditions. We stayed in a lovely Riad on the outskirts of the Medina. A small short door on a slim quiet cobblestone street opened up into a towering three story home/ hotel surrounding a central "garden".Though the garden is all inside and there is no dirt, it is mostly like a beautifully tiled living room whose ceiling extends all the way to the roof of the building while the guest rooms form the outside of the home. It was exquisite.
The food in Morocco was also lovely. A third world country because of it's lack of development, farming and agricultural are the main work of the country. Though there are modern grocery stores, most Moroccans shop in the much cheaper local medinas, or city centers, where local farmers or traders sell fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, grains, nuts and dried fruits. In Fez I saw a man selling raw milk fresh from urns on the side of the street. No joke. Interestingly enough, organics abound, but maybe not for the reasons you might think. The average farmer living in the countryside is too poor to use fertilizers and pesticides on their produce. They are too poor to buy their cattle grain feed. So most meat is organic and grass fed by default. Processed foods do not hold a place in the basic Moroccan diet, except for the more wealthy modern people who are eager to westernize. It was very different to be in a country where the poor ate healthful unprocessed organics while the wealthy ate more prepackaged, low nutrient foods. Very different from home! Though one thing is the same as the west, sugar reigns supreme. Sugar is added to yogurts, mint tea, tagines, b'stillas, honey soaked cookies, you name it. I felt like everything was tasted slightly sweet.

Another thing I was kind of amazed with is that the concept of convenience foods are almost unheard of in Morocco. To go coffee or take out dinners do not exist in your average restaurant in Morocco. I did not see one Starbuck's anywhere I went. And while I am sure that in the more modern wealthier areas such things do exist, such as in the more upscale areas in Casablanca, the only takeout we found in Fez was one restaurant who wrapped up some of their items loosely in tin foil. But hummus wrapped in tin foil is a challenge to even the most organized eater. But it is still easier than having 2 three year olds and 2 one year olds, a couple of whom were overtired and jet lagged, sitting in a restaurant. Even in the other cities I visited, sitting down to a meal with others was the preferred custom, not grabbing a sandwich on the go. Street food was really the one exception. But I did not see every corner covered in hot dog carts like you do here in New York. I only saw inexpensive street fare in the medina, and they are concentrated in certain areas. I definitely found that I could not get what I wanted everytime I wanted it. I wouldn't even have noticed that I had so many silly food cravings until I wasn't able to act on them. By the end of the week, we fell into a groove. We started to relax and take things they came. If we came across a snack, that was our good fortune. If we didn't, then we just waited. OMG, we were unable to have everything we wanted. And we survived. It might have taken some getting used to, but it was worth it to expand our viewpoint.
The amazing side effect of no convenience or to go food is way less garbage. When you are not constantly eating food on the go, there are few wrappers to throw away, no to go boxes, no disposable napkins, no individually sized plastic bottles. We did find a place that would give us to go coffee, espresso with a little steamed milk. It was amazing, and we got it in an Afriquia gas station. But their to-go cups consisted of two double stacked solo cups. Not exactly what I am used to. We had very little to throw away. In fact everywhere you went, you saw that poverty forced recycling. Homes were reinforced with tin sheeting, coke bottles were reused to contain everything from milk to argan oil, as in the picture below. I saw reused coke bottles all over.

Recycling in the US means comforting sterility. Melting down plastic and then remaking an exactly similar bottle. I think the conventional wisdom here is that empty bottles (aka-garbage) hold deadly germs that put us at great risk of disease. But a strong hot wash with soapy water most likely kills everything that could be present. Moroccans, I found, had a very different definition of what it is to be dirty. In fact, most of what I saw, from cities to people, was very clean.

Our friends also took us to their local grain market where one can purchase all manner of bulk flours ground at different levels of coarseness. There dried beans, seeds, dried fruits and oils can also be procured. Whoa. This place rocked my world. For such little money, one can get all local goods. It was brilliant, I got teary eyed. There must have been 6 or 7 different vendors at this market, all selling much the same items. But in Morocco, it is all about who your know, getting to know the person selling your food, you know, personal relationships.

On Thursday, we had a truly typical American Thanksgiving (more on that tomorrow), but since everyone had to work and go to school, and no one else in the country was celebrating, it was anything but typical! And our last few days were really about staying local and relaxing with friends.

Unfortunately, the kids struggled a bit with all the changes. Sleep happened, but bedtime involved alot of screaming and fighting. While everyone ate reasonably well in the first part of the week, by the end of the week, we were down to bananas, toast and milk. Thing 1 was occasionally eating ground beef, and Thing 2 still accepted eggs. While I am thrilled to say that Thing 2 started really talking on this trip, I was irritated that what he learned to say was "No, No, No!" as he shook his head and pushed a fork full of food away. I am not sure if it was the big changes, the unfamiliarity or the stomach virus that eventually all the boys succumbed to (including DH once we got home). Thankfully after we returned to New York, eating recommenced.

This Thanksgiving I felt particularly thankful for dear dear friends, the kind that even an ocean and several months between visits can't turn into strangers. I am also particularly thankful that these same dear dear friends can put my whole crazy family up for a week, even when Thing 1 threw up on one couch cushion, had an accident on another, and I spilled a glass of wine on a third. I mean, what are we some kind of pack of wild animals? Although we are a handful, we do offer fun stories you can tell your friends.

This trip was an unbelievable opportunity to immerse ourselves in a different culture. The times I have been to Europe, I have always noticed a certain simpatico. American ideals of high culture are based upon the European model. Yet while Morocco is very European in feeling, much of their culture and architecture is very Arab influenced. And I think just about everyone here in the States could use a lesson what it means to be Muslim. I found the whole experience delicious, intoxicating, thought provoking and beautiful. The entire trip was a huge paradigm shift. It might be a while before we take another international trip with our kids. The trip home involved several hours of screaming from Thing 2 and a very rude woman who turned to me only halfway through our flight to say "You know, the next time you make travel plans, you should really consider other people." Really? Like I enjoy being trapped on a plane with a screaming one year old? I only wish that Thing 2 had thrown up on her after she was so rude that she made me cry on the plane, instead of waiting until after we got home. But hey, there ain't nothing like the view from the high road folks.


  1. People like that rude woman on the plane really insense me! What a B! Like people with kids are supposed to give up seeing their family and friends because they have small children?! It's not pleasant for anyone when a child is crying, but we do what we have to. I love how instead of doing something to help the situation they just make the parents feel worse!

    Anyway, about the food! A) so jealous. B) Morocco sounds (not surprisingly) a lot like Mexico. The Tianguis, or open air markets, look just the same. Huge burlap bags filled with flours, beans, seeds, dried chilis. Etc. Did I ever show you the scrap book I did of this? My MIL shops at the same stalls every week from the people she knows. The colors and smells are all so stimulating. And the same kind of tin siding or a lot of times just some poles with plastic tarps draped over for cover provide shelter from the blazing sun. The same kind of recycling. My MIL brings with her old coffee tins and plastic bottles to buy things like coffee, or oil. In their current home they have the same kind of 5 gallon water bottles that we see in our Poland Springs dispensers here. The difference is that the return them to the water vendor who just refills them. The bottle does not sit in a nifty dispenser with hot and cold tabs. Rather it rests in a swinging cradle on a structure made of iron bars. To get water you tilt the cradle and pour the water from the jug into your glass or pitcher. They don't have tupperware in Mexico either. Got leftovers? Put a plate or lid over the pot you cooked it in and put it in the fridge. Or in winter months you can even let it sit out on the counter. I could go on forever. But my trips to Mexico were also shifted my paradigm. Sadly, being so close to the USA, Mexico is being infiltrated by processed food all wrapped in plastic. It breaks my heart. Mexico is recently experiencing their own obesity epidemic. Please explain to me how there is an obesity epidemic in a country where most of the people can barely afford food!


  2. Wow. what an amazing adventure for your family!

    P.S. I have traveled abroad with littles too, just ignore the few rude travelers out there and thank the ones that offer understanding smiles.

  3. I am extremely jealous, although not of traveling with the little ones. I'm not that brave just yet. I can barely put up with myself on a long flight. Sorry that woman was rude, though. It's just uncalled for to make that situation more stressful for you.

    Anyway, Morocco is on my list as well. After having lived in Southern Africa and traveled through many countries worldwide, I know that most of the world lives that way. They buy local because that makes the most sense. They buy from their neighbors, who also buy from them. After my 5 years in Zambia, I really miss the markets. That's why I've become so fond of the farmer's market, despite it's limitations in variety, as it's the closest I can get to the feeling there. The chatting with the tomato lady and haggling over beans and choosing the perfect pineapple.

    Glad you had this experience and that it tied in so nicely to your current real food initiative!

  4. I am also jealous -- you are so intrepid to go with the kids and to weather the jet lag! Yay you! Can't wait to read more about what happened and the food!