Karen Mills


Trying to Learn Moroccan Arabic (Darija)

When I was young, I had a dream to learn a foreign language. It seemed so romantic. I struggled through Spanish for four years in high school and only used it a handful of times when I visited Mexico on vacation. Una cerveza mas por favor!

I was forty before I traveled abroad. What I found in Europe was that most people could speak a handful of languages. The desire to learn another language intensified and I felt stupid around these bi, tri, and multilingual Europeans.

In 2007, I moved to Italy to accomplish two bucket list items, learn another language and live in another country. Who knew that eleven years later I would be on my fourth foreign language? Italian is the second and strongest foreign language I’ve learned. Spanish is weak, but I often have opportunities to speak it in Tangier and often words pop up that I didn’t know I remembered. Speaking Italian to a native Spanish speaker usually works. I’ve learned French and find that while most Moroccans in the country speak it, many in Tangier do not.

I am happy to have learned French and all of the signs in Morocco are in French and Classic Arabic. Rental contracts, bank documents, grocery store products, and all printed materials include French so it has been valuable. However, if I really want to fit in with the Moroccan people, and speak to my husband’s family, I must learn Darija. Darija is a dialect of Arabic and not considered a true language. It is not a written language, only spoken.

It’s not easy to find courses, but finally, I found a private teacher at an organization called WorldUnite. I will see her for an hour two times per week for a while to see how it goes. My husband assures me it’s “easy”. None of the grammar and tenses like in Italian. Nevertheless, I’ve already found that my mouth, tongue, and throat don’t make some of the needed sounds. It’s going to take a lot of practice. Wish me luck.

The Cinema

Going to the cinema has always been one of my favorite pastimes. I remember when I was very young and RC Cola offered a deal for six bottle caps to get into the Saturday morning matinee at the Donelson Theater. My brother and I saved up, contacted our friends and set out for a morning at the movies.

When my sons were small, Sunday afternoons alone or with a friend in the dark quiet of the movie theater was just what I needed for relaxation. Even though I am an avid reader, there is something about being entertained with little to no effort that can be very appealing.

Hot summers in Boston with no air-conditioning pushed me to the cool, dark cave of the cinema to enjoy the air-conditioning and the latest in filmmaking. Whether it’s hot weather or cold, sitting in the theaters dark, usually with not many other people around, staring at the screen can really take you away.

Why don’t people go to movies anymore? I guess with the wide assortment of movies available on TV, internet, Netflix, Hulu, DVDs, etc., combined with movie screen like TV’s in peoples home makes it feel like an unnecessary effort and expense. Yet for me, it’s an entirely different experience. In the theater, dark and void of distractions, I can really let myself step into the big screen and become a part of the film. It takes over all of my senses and emotions.

Watching Casablanca at the Cinema Rif
Watching Casablanca at the Cinema Rif

In Tangier, we have the Cinemateque RIF. It’s a historic art deco theater which hosts film festivals and has an archive of films all its own. We sometimes see the latest Hollywood films, as in First Man, recently, but generally, there are foreign films of French, Spanish, and Arabic origin. The cinema also hosts a monthly series of English films on Sunday evenings, most recently Francis Ford Coppola films.
Cinema Rif
Cinema Rif

Over the years, I have enjoyed my share of Hollywood films, but have become bored with the predictability of most. I steer towards indie films and foreign ones now, which may lack the special effects of Hollywood, but have deeper, more interesting, emotionally charged topics.

The last time I went to a matinee in the United States, it cost almost $25 for the ticket, small popcorn, and a drink. That is probably another reason people don’t go anymore. The cinema here costs 50 dirhams or $5. The café inside doesn’t sell popcorn, but you can get a glass of wine, beer, or tea. If you really want popcorn you can buy it from one of the street vendors outside for 20 cents a bag, sorry no butter.

As winter approaches in Tangier, I’m looking forward to my movie nights at the theater.

Thanksgiving 2018

Thanksgiving is the time to be thankful. It’s come and gone and I haven’t even celebrated it yet. It’s been on my mind though. I’ve had a horrible cold this week so have stayed in bed. There’s been lots of time for reflection. Last year, newly arrived in Tangier, we decided to try out one of the most famous restaurants here, El Morocco Club. We enjoyed it immensely and have had many meals there since. We planned to repeat that for our Thanksgiving celebration this year but I was too ill to leave the house.

This week Morocco also celebrated Mohammed’s birthday so things closed for two days. Because of that, I didn’t teach at all, so it was not the worst time to be sick. Every year at Thanksgiving, as well all do, I reflect on my many blessings. This year was no different.

It’s been many years since I celebrated Thanksgiving with my family. I think the last time was in 2012. When my sons were young, we lived in another state and it was too far for a short holiday so we rarely visited extended family at Thanksgiving choosing instead to have a quiet one at home. Thanksgiving is, however, my favorite holiday.

Unlike the obligations and requirements at Christmas around gift giving and religious significance, Thanksgiving for me is just a time to reflect on what it is you are thankful for. I hate American football and the food associated with it is not my favorite, so it all boils down to that for me. However, that is a big thing.

I’m thankful for so many things I hardly know where to start, which is a nice place to be. Of course, for my wonderful husband and two amazing sons, I am always grateful. Fortunately, my parents continue to live productive, active lives. My health has improved over the years amazingly enough. Diagnosed with lupus in 2002, I went into remission when I moved to Italy in 2010. My egg allergy disappeared as well (or at least I am not allergic to European or Moroccan eggs). These things are high on my list of blessings. I live in a wonderful tolerant country, which has a low cost of living, low crime rate, and wonderful fresh fruits and vegetables and seafood.

I’m thankful that I had a successful career, but that I didn’t die still doing that work. Also, I’m thankful that I was able to achieve one of my life goals of writing a book and continue to enjoy the art of writing. Without a doubt, I’m thankful for all my friends here in Morocco, in Italy, and in the United States. In addition, I’m thankful to have known those dear friends who have already parted from this world.

I’m thankful to have been born in the United States, but that I have the freedom to live elsewhere. Additionally, I’m thankful for the government there with three distinct parts and in particular, the judiciary branch which still manages to show some level of decency and adherence to the constitution and all that was intended when it was written.

I’m thankful that I can write what I want to write here on my blog about what I think, feel, and observe. I’m thankful that I have a readership who appreciates my thoughts. My life is by no means perfect but I’m thankful that it’s damn near. I hope yours is too. Happy Thanksgiving. Count your blessings.

A Visit to Florence, Italy and Bergamo, Italy

Recently, I returned to Florence, Italy to visit old friends and take care of some final business. I was a little worried about returning. I had spent years of aching and longing to live there before I moved permanently in 2010. Since I had been gone, I had not missed a lot about Florence, but would returning spark that old flame?

Arriving into the train station at Santa Maria Novella in Florence, I stepped off the train. I knew immediately that I was at home. Everything was welcoming, familiar, and beautiful. However, my heart was no longer here. My decision and the timing to move to Tangier was the right one.

I enjoyed a lovely week of visiting friends and walking in the city. Museums or exhibits were of no interest to me this time and had no desire to visit them.  I felt saturated with the “things” that the city had offered me and just being there was enough. My friends and I breakfasted, lunched, and dined together and even had an aperitivo or two. I closed down my bank account, which oddly was the only sentimental or emotional moment of the week.

As I sat in the chair across from the bank manager, I remembered when I had opened the account years ago. It had been quite the accomplishment. In order to do so, I had to have my permesso di soggiorno and my residency. It had taken a little over a year to do it. In the meantime, in order to pay bills like rent, water, and gas, I had to go to the ATM machine and withdraw money.

The day I opened the account I entered the bank nervously. I had practiced my still struggling Italian to indicate that I wanted to open an account, but was fearful of the questions that might come my way and if I would understand them. When I left the bank that day with my account opened, I cannot describe the feeling of accomplishment. So, closing it down brought all of that to mind. I was closing the last chapter of the time in my life when I lived in Florence.

When I left Florence to return to Tangier, I had a flight out of Bergamo, a city that I had not visited before. I went there a day early in order to explore and found another Italian gem. Bergamo has a citta alta (upper city) and a citta bassa )lower city. You get to the upper city on a funicular or cable car that goes up the hill.

It’s a lovely view going up and a beautiful pedestrian well kept. The upper city is medieval with Venetian Walls and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Narrow cobblestone streets and a sweeping grand piazza characterize it. I would like to spend some more time in Bergamo. It is one of those Italian towns straight out of a fairytale.

The Mosque of Hassan II

The Grande Mosque of Hassan II is a must see when visiting Casablanca. We are returning to pick up my passport, but, we won’t be sightseeing this time. However, it occurred to me that I hadn’t told you about this incredible site.

For instance, this mosque is the only one that non-Muslims can enter in Morocco. Additionally, it is also the largest in Morocco, the second largest in Africa and the fifth largest in the world. The minaret is the tallest in the world.  It is 689 feet or 60 stores and on top is a laser pointed toward Mecca.

The mosque was designed by Michel Pinseau and completed in 1993. The mosque stands on a promontory looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. It will hold 105,000 worshippers. The ceiling is retractable and the walls are built of handcrafted marble. It truly is a remarkable sight and like most religious structures is awe-inspiring.

Most importantly, Morocco’s artisan woodworkers, zellij artists, carved stucco moldings, and marble workers all outdid themselves in the work in this mosque. For example, there is cedar from the Atlas Mountains, marble from Agadir, and granite from Tafraoute. Murano glass chandeliers hang from the domes in the central hall.

The cost of the mosque was 585 million euro, which was a highly controversial sum of money for this low-mid income country. The funds were acquired from public donations, business entities, other Arab countries and construction loans provided by western countries. Twelve million people contributed to the cost, ranging from contributions as low as 5 dirhams.

The cost of entrance is 120 dirhams. Additionally, it includes a guided tour in a variety of languages. On the other hand, entrance to the museum is 30 dirhams. It is well worth a visit. The museum has more information about the artisan work in the mosque. There is a school of artisans located on the premises. You can check the website here for more information about opening times.

The Caravan is Coming

The caravan is coming. I saw that on the news today and could not believe that is what some people in the United States are afraid of. Pipe bombs sent to our leaders, people gunned down as they worship, and children shot during school, but people are afraid of the caravan.

I stood in line at the airport a few weeks ago with my passport, a permesso di soggiorno from Italy, and a carte de sejour for Morocco. I have three documents that allow me to live in three different countries. In my opinion, the best education comes from traveling and experiencing other people and their cultures. In this day and age, it is easy to travel, but walls are being built, obstacles raised, and borders are being blockaded against that.

America’s mighty military is being sent to the border to prevent mostly women and children escaping from crime ridden and war torn countries from entering. They will be corralled into tent cities and treated like animals. Can you say, “Kick them when they’re down?”

I knew I would not be living in the United States all my life when George W. Bush was elected for the second time and I saw the true colors of the American people. A president waging war, lying about why, and still gaining the support of the majority was more than I could bear.

Today, with this election, we get to see the true colors of the American people again. Are they willing to be led by lies told by a racist, misogynistic, fascist, fraud, traitor, and criminal? We know who he is. He has shown us time and time again. I am forever hopeful for my country but fearful just the same. The world is watching.

A Piece of Ocean

Seeing a little piece of the ocean each day gives me such a boost. I lived most of my life in “landlocked” places. Even when I lived in the Washington D.C. area and in Boston, my glimpses of the ocean were rare. Growing up in Tennessee, we spent a lot of time on the lake. We fished with my father or skied behind a boat. We often vacationed at the Florida beaches nearby.

When my sons were growing up in Alexandria, VA, we vacationed at the sea of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The sea has always been a great getaway. It’s relaxing, the air is salty but clear and the power of the waves is mesmerizing.

Out of my new apartment windows, I can see three pieces of the sea. I can see the Tangier Bay and two spots of the Strait of Gibraltar on the Mediterranean. Every morning I get out of bed and stroll to the window to get my morning dose of freedom. That’s what the sea represents to me, freedom. Visiting the sea while vacationing was freedom from my daily work life in the office and at home. As a child, visiting the sea meant new things to explore like sandcastles and seashells.

As an adult, I’ve traveled back and forth across the Atlantic, cruised the Mediterranean, the Baltic, Adriatic, and Ionian seas, swam in the Ligurian and Tyherranian, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean seas. I’ve taken ferries down the Bosporus from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. Being on the sea is always exhilarating and exciting.

Today, my small piece of the ocean reminds me of those trips and future possibilities. Walking throughout Tangier you can catch glimpses of the sea at the end of streets and the tops of hills. I’m invigorated with every sighting. My freedom is alive.

Finding an Apartment in Tangier

Well, I’m back in Tangier and moved into a new apartment. Our lease expires on November 1. We loved our original apartment, but maintenance issues (by way of a leaky roof and ceiling) caused us to decide to look elsewhere. We will miss our dramatic sea view.

Looking for another apartment is interesting in Tangier. Apartment buildings are normally high-rises with door attendants. The door attendants are the key to many things in Tangier. Along with providing some security to the building, they gather trash from outside each apartment door, do some light maintenance or call someone for repairs to the common areas, watch who comes and goes, and they know everything about who is living there and what apartments are available.

Yes, there are some listings on the internet and with agencies. Those seem to be mostly for tourists and of course, if you don’t speak the language, you will have to have an agent. Agents charge fees from the renter and the owner so many owners avoid them. They choose, instead, to give the key to the door attendant who by word of mouth will let people know there is something available.

So, our search began. We identified buildings in the area which we liked the look of from the outside and were conveniently located to the area where we wanted to live. Our wants/needs were relatively simple, a two bedroom with an outside space and a sea view. Most apartments come furnished, but we’ve lived with other peoples “stuff” for a while now, and I left open the option of finding something unfurnished.

My husband went to all the door attendants in the buildings that we had identified and we saw around 15 apartments. Usually, one thing will lead to another and one door attendant might not have what you want, but he knows another in another building who might. In our case, the door attendant identified an apartment in his building and we looked at it. We thought it was too small and the décor was strictly Moroccan, which didn’t suit our lifestyle.

The woman who showed us that apartment was showing it for her daughter who lived in Finland. When we told her our concerns, she said she knew of another apartment in the building that she lived in. Later we learned her sister owned it. We ultimately settled on that one.

The apartment is two blocks away from our original apartment. Staying in the same location was important to me. I know the shops and vendors and learning them was no easy feat. The neighborhood is convenient to restaurants, bars, the medina, and shopping. We have a view of the Bay of Tangier as well as the medina and the Strait of Gibraltar.

The apartment is three bedrooms and unfurnished. An unfurnished apartment in Morocco means no water heater, no light fixtures, and no appliances, not to mention the furniture. We put a four-year contract on the apartment starting October 1 to allow time to buy and deliver furniture and appliances and install light fixtures and a hot water heater. Thankfully, my husband could do the electrical bits.

Shopping for these things wasn’t easy. There are plenty of shops but they were all so unfamiliar. Western furniture is not the primary demand here and the appliance brands were not all familiar. We finally settled on some things after a few shopping trips and I was amazed at how quickly they were able to deliver. Within 2 or three days and on the outside one week, everything was in place.

That left packing up our goods from our house and transporting them to the new one. We had some boxes left from our move last year and we started to fill them with the things that we don’t use often. It wasn’t difficult because most of the things that we brought, art, books, and clothing were not being used at the time. We brought forty boxes with us from Italy and we probably added 4 more with some kitchen items. My husband transported everything by hand from one apartment to the other over the month and we unpacked as we went.

I will miss that beautiful dramatic sea view that stole my heart in the other apartment, but not the leaky mess during the rainy season. In its place, I have a lovely open view of the city and sea outside the principal windows, a newly furnished space with my own things, three bedrooms, two and a half baths freshly painted and with some remodeling for $450 a month.

We have a nice guest suite with its own bath. You’re always welcome here!

You’re Not Forgotten

No, I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth, nor have I forgotten you. I’m still here, but oh so busy. Just after our one year anniversary in Tangier, we started apartment hunting. We took a trip to Casablanca to renew my passport, we found an apartment which is unfurnished, and I started teaching and have six students. Whew!

When you get an unfurnished apartment here in Morocco, there is no water heater, appliances, or light fixtures. Additionally, no furniture, cooking utensils, pots and pans, dishes, and other creature comforts. We have always rented furnished apartments. So we’ve had to shop and shop and buy and install and wait for deliviries, etc. Our official move date will be the end of October.

My teaching started up with a bang and I’m loving it! I have one adult student who is a television journalist for the most important Moroccan station in the country. She is a high-level speaker with aspirations to return to school in London. I have another class of five people with a division of a Spanish International Bank. They also are high-level speakers who want to refine their skills to write documents and deal with international customers over the phone and in person.

Teaching has turned out to be just what I wanted it to be, a way to meet wonderful diverse people, learn more about different cultures and feel a real part of the Tangier community.

In the midst of all that, I’m off to Italy. I’m taking a trip back to Florence to visit friends, finish some business there, and take a little side trip to Bergamo, a city I’ve not visited before.

So, I will be away for a while, but when I return, I will have lots to tell you. You’re not forgotten. I still haven’t told you about the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca which is fantastic! Stay tuned!

A Year in Tangier

It’s been a year now since we embarked on our Moroccan adventure. We got on the ferry in Genoa and landed at Tangier med 49 hours later. It was exciting, exhilarating, scary, and stressful as big changes can be.

After a year here, I am reliving those memories of our arrival and examining how I’ve adapted (or not) to the customs and culture. The call to prayer echoes through my apartment and the city five times a day marking the passing of the day. Sometimes I am soothed by it. Sometimes it is such a normal part of the background sounds that I hardly notice.

Shop owners smile and welcome me now. Usually they know what I’ve come for and are ready to help should I decide in my schoolgirl French to ask for something different.

Still, the language continues to be my biggest challenge. I’ve studied French for a year and a half and feel confident in my reading skills. These are important since menus, instructions, products, signs, and most printed materials are in French. Speaking is another matter. My pronunciation is poor, not as many people speak French in Tangier as I had thought. Sometimes I speak a little Spanish or resort to Italian for Spanish speakers because they usually understand it. This year my goal is to learn more Darija which is the Moroccan Arabic dialect spoken throughout Morocco. I know about 70 words now but can’t string a full sentence together.

The weather is a highlight of living here. Hot summer days with cool nights, sunny winters with moderate temperatures, a short rainy season, and the time in-between with perfect 75-degree temperatures and lovely breezes.

Seeing the sea every day is now a necessity. It is easy to do, as there are glimpses almost everywhere you go and every street you are on in the Medina and in Centreville. Still, none of the views is as stunning as the one from my apartment window.

Daily life is slow and lovely here. The days start late and the shops think about opening around 10:30 or 11:00. Lunches are normally at 2-3 and dinners at 9-10.

Additionally, fresh vegetables, fruits, and lovely fresh fish appear at the market every day and on Thursday and Sunday, individual farmers make their way into the city to sell their wares. The quality, size, colors, and tastes are incredible.

I’ve learned about the necessity of the hammam experience and it is a part of my routine now. The bathing and cleansing ritual serves as a physical and emotional detoxification and releases stress, anxiety, and allows deep relaxation.

There are things that I don’t like. Some areas of the city need improvements in sanitation pickup and trash removal. Sidewalks and roads can be in a state of disrepair. Also, poor people with disabilities, injuries, or mental health issues ask for money on the street. Stray cats that are unhealthy or injured are left to fend for themselves. All of these usually found in large cities throughout the world.

Overall, the year has been full of wonder, adventure, education, and pleasure. I love living in Tangier.

Above all, we’ve had many friends and family to visit. We’ve made new friends here and settled into a social network that includes meals out with friends, dinner parties, movies, day trips, beach and pool days, volunteer work, and I’ve taken on a new part-time job teaching English.

Most importantly, I can’t wait to see what the coming years in Morocco will bring.

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