Saturday, January 12, 2013

Trading order and efficiency for chaos and value

Afternoon in December on my street in the neighborhood of L'Océan, Rabat

I was lucky enough to take a little over a week off from work to go home and spend Christmas with my family in the US.  After spending about four months abroad since my last trip home this summer, I found the cold bite in the air novel and waking up to the dusting of snow on Christmas morning to be a real treat.  The biggest surprise Christmas morning, however, was receiving a new laptop.  I had been using the same laptop since the beginning of college and it had really started to show its age. Between its geriatric speed, my lack of internet access, and a new full-time job, I had little time or motivation to keep up this blog. With this new computer, I really have no excuse to not continue writing regularly anymore. Here’s to hoping I can keep my own promise.

On Christmas Eve, my mom and I took a trip to the local Whole Foods to pick up some last minute ingredients that we needed for our family’s Christmas dinner at home. As anticipated, the entire store was a madhouse with others in the same situation. The chaotic and almost claustrophobic atmosphere instantly transported me back to my shopping routine in my neighborhood in Rabat. After experiencing the natural “shock” of returning to American grocery stores with their long aisles with well-organized products, beautifully polished produce, and bright fluorescent lights, this experience made me ease back into my usual shopping routine. I grabbed the shopping list and wove through baskets, carts, and small children with ease. I aggressively wedged myself through the crowd and up against the bin of tomatoes, taking a moment to pick them up one by one and feel for adequate firmness and inspect for blemishes.  This kind of shopping experience is the one I am now familiar with. I have traded physically beautiful produce and well-organized shopping marts for the open Moroccan market, filled with its squawking chickens, aromatic spices, bananas hanging from cart roofs, and overflowing piles of vegetables spilling out onto the street. I have my regular vendors who I like to patronize, partially for the quality of their product, and partially because of the conversation.

In addition, rather than selling their produce in dirhams (MAD), Morocco’s standard currency that has an exchange rate of approximately 8.5 to 1 USD, the vendors typically say the prices in riyal, a currency that dates back from before Morocco was a French protectorate (which certainly says something about the history of this neighborhood). Of course, when asked, the sellers will convert the price to dirhams, but most locals naturally do the exchange rate in their head. At first, it can feel very daunting when hearing that a kilo of vegetables will cost you “400 rial”, but there is no need to be alarmed - it is less than 20 dirhams, or about $2 USD. The exact exchange rate still remains a mystery to me, but that is part of the ex-pat experience, I suppose.

The area of the city where I live and buy my vegetables is a lower to middle class residential neighborhood. It is a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone else. I constantly witness (and sometimes even experience myself) the spontaneous crossing of friends, followed by obligatory bises in the middle of the street. Unlike the more professional/cosmopolitan areas where French is king, the language used on the street in my neighborhood is Darija. Usually, when Moroccan shopkeepers see a western-looking foreigner, their first instinct is to speak French. In my neighborhood, this is not the case. Not only does Darija reign supreme, but the socioeconomic bracket of the area would suggest that many of the people I interact with don’t have even enough education to know any French.

I have become very accustomed to this environment. I can see the ocean from my kitchen windows. In the summer, when the days are longer, I enjoy watching the sun set over the Atlantic as I cook dinner. Being at home made me consider the pro’s and con’s of the differences between the experience of grocery shopping in the United States versus Morocco. In the United States, we have long since traded out the small specialty vendors in replace of convenient supermarkets that sell everything on our shopping list. In Morocco, while there are small supermarkets that mimic this model, the majority of the population still adheres to the weekly cycle of the souk, where once a week, typically Saturday mornings, new shipments of produce, meat, chickens, and fish replenish the outdoor markets. Everyone has their preferred vendor for every category, and they build relationships with them. They will ask you about your friends and family.  If you haven’t been there in a while they’ll ask you where you’ve been. When Hurricane Sandy was all over the news, they all asked me where my family is in the US and if they were safe and well. They take personal pride in their products and are able to give you suggestions and help you pick the best ones. They will tell you what is fresh and what you should wait to buy. The bread vendor with carts piled high with khubz will direct you to the freshest bread. They will say “don’t take that one, it’s from this morning. Here are the ones baked this afternoon”.  The corner store by my house can even anticipate what I am going to purchase and even helps remind me that I forgot something (“no Coca Zero today?”). Sometimes if you are buying a great deal of things, they will even give you a small discount or throw in a small item for free.

Of course, there are benefits to each system. By living in Morocco, I have traded efficiency and order for chaos and value.  While every once and a while I wish that I could just go over to a Stop and Shop or Whole Foods, anonymously get everything on my list and silently check out, my current situation has consistently provided me with a loving (and necessary) nudge that helps me interact with my community on a regular basis.