Almost every interaction I have here in Morocco involves speaking a minimum of two languages in the same conversation. More often than not, I find myself using bits and pieces of three or four languages in a single sentence every time I get into a taxi, or order at a café, or complete basically any other task that involves interacting with people.
This everyday challenge truly speaks volumes about Morocco’s culture and history – though Morocco fought off colonization for longer than most North African countries, it was ultimately divided up between the French and the Spanish for the first half of the 20th century, until gaining independence in 1956 – just 61 years ago. As a reflection of their colonial history, French is still one of the two official languages of Morocco, along with Arabic. Spain is still only 8 nautical miles from the most northern point of Morocco, so Spanish is still very prevalent, especially in the north.
Sometimes it’s by accident and communication error that I end up sewing together French, Arabic, and English to ask directions to the post office, but a lot of the time it’s just part of Moroccan culture. Bargaining in the souk, for example, will start off in Arabic (the few phrases that I know give me a semblance of credibility with shopkeepers, a tactic I use to avoid getting entirely ripped off), and then quickly transition to French when the vocabulary gets a little more complicated and the bargaining gets a little more theatrical (“C’est beaucoup trop cher!”). The French in Morocco is smattered with Arabic words (and vice versa), and the Moroccan accent is so strong that I sometimes have to strain to figure out what language is even being spoken. Once the shopkeeper inevitably realizes that I’m American, the French bargaining will dissolve into whatever varying level of English that they speak, and end once more with a few words of Darija – “shukran!”
My host family here in Rabat luckily speaks perfect French, and not a word of English, which is exactly what I was hoping for in order to improve my proficiency. I live with a host mom, dad, brother, two sisters, and apparently a small dog, though I’m not totally sure because I haven’t actually been allowed to see it yet. My host mom assures me that I don’t want to meet it because it’s very “méchant,” so I try not to ask any questions.
During the first week with my host family, there were definitely some issues with the transition to speaking French all the time. The first was when my very sweet host mom wanted to know what I ate for breakfast – did I like omelettes? Fried eggs? Poached? Scrambled?? I really really don’t do eggs, but I was struck by how considerate she was being by checking in with me before making me breakfast the next morning. I didn’t want to be rude (and my French at this point had been frankly underused), so when I tried to wrack my brain for the most polite way to express my egg aversion, the only thing that I could think to say was, “J’ai peur des oeufs.” This means, literally, “I am afraid of eggs.” Not a great way to start off with the new host family. I’m pretty sure my host mom thought I was actually insane for a good 48 hours after that.
One of my favorite thing about the IES program that I’m on is that we do mandatory group trips around Morocco every few weeks. The first few were to Fez and Volubilis, and then last weekend we went to Chefchaouen (also known by many Instagram fanatics as “the blue city”), Tangier (one of the northernmost cities in Morocco), and Asilah. They were all beautiful, but I was especially struck by Chefchaouen – even the pictures can’t fully capture how amazing it is, but I’m attaching a few to this blog post anyway. How could you ever be sad if you opened your door and walked into a paradise of bright, identically colored buildings? I already want to go back.