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Part Two: Choosing a Port

Aside: read part one here, should you feel so inclined.

At our first meeting, our shipping agent leans in confidingly. “I counsel you not to put hashish in your container,” he tells us. We agree not to, after sharing a highly amused glance. “Good advice,” says Donn seriously. Then we talk about ports.

Now one thing that is quite intuitive about a city named Portland is that it has a port. It is not a misnomer. Port-land has a fine port, right downtown and a little north.

But, says the agent, he can’t ship to Portland. You give him a zip code, which originally was all he needed, he said, but he takes you to his computer and shows you on a map—there are no little stars in Portland, and he can’t ship there. He suggests Seattle.

You don’t want Seattle. For one, the container will then have to be trucked to Portland. Your shipping agent says it will have to be tracked, and it takes you ages to figure out what he means. When speaking another language, it’s always the vowels that will do you in. You agree to Seattle eventually, but keep pushing Portland. And that’s where matters rest until you go in with all your Most Official paperwork and things have to move beyond the theoretical.

You sit in the empty office with the high chair and the interesting mold patches spread across an entire empty wall, and the agent shows you a copy of an email quoting a price to have the container shipping to New York and then trucked across the entire United States. “But we don’t want New York,” you comment.
No, he agrees. And that price is no good, he tells you. The price for the trucking (“tracking”) is more than getting it across the ocean from Casa to New York. “Much too expensive,” he says. He purses his lips and shakes his head.

“White,” he says, so you do. You wait. Eventually he returns with a printed Google map of the Western United States. There are little marks by Seattle, Oakland and Long Beach. “But we can’t do Seattle,” he tells you.
Why not, you whine, although you have promised yourself you will not whine, even when you keep covering the same ground over and over again. There is no reason. They just can’t. He suggests New York again. In fact, one might say, he pushes New York.

You do not agree to New York. New York is very far from Portland, you explain. You use hand gestures. You talk in kilometers. He agrees. “No, no, that’s no good for you,” he says. He disappears again. You “white.”

After a while he comes back. “So, about New York,” he begins.

Eventually you leave. You have agreed that the container will be shipped to Seattle. Demoralized, you have entirely given up on the idea of Portland. Seattle is fine. Fine. So much better than the East Coast, or even California.

In the morning, you have an email waiting for you from the shipping agent, telling you that the container will need to go to New York after all. It’s not his fault—he can’t find anyone who can ship things to the West Coast. “Or Norfolk, Virginia,” he suggests, but Virginia is as bad as New York.

“I don’t think he’s ever shipped anywhere else,” you groan.

Your husband calls him. “Seattle!” he insists. “Or at least Oakland.” You reach a new agreement, which lasts until the day the container is actually on its way from Casa to your house in Rabat. “It’s going to New York,” says the shipping agent on the phone. “Right,” says Donn. “Just cancel it. Forget it.”

But no. No, no, no. He will do his best for you. He understands that New York is not good for you. You are not opening a business; you are just shipping your household items. He will work on it.

Seattle. We have chosen Seattle. The ship is going to Seattle. Our stuff is going to Seattle.


Apparently the ship “siyled” a couple of days ago. We called and emailed Wednesday with our intention to go down today to get the bill of lading. (Note to those who have not shipped things internationally: you need this to get your stuff out of port at the other end.) He wrote back. “Ok! Come tomorrow (Thursday)!” We wrote back. “We’ll be there at 9:30,” we said.

So at 9:40, we arrived. He wasn’t there. The secretary called him and handed us the phone. “Have you had breakfast yet?” he said hopefully, obviously wanted us to go sit in a café for half an hour and not rush him. “Yes,” we said.

He arrived a little after 10. After much evasiveness, we established that the bill of lading was not ready yet but we could come back on Saturday. No, we can’t, we said. This was supposed to be our last trip to Casa. We have other things we need to get done.

Finally, he agreed that we could come back at 2. “Ok, we’ll see you at 2 to get the bill of lading,” we confirmed. “Maybe call me ahead of time,” he said. “Or we’ll just come at 2 to get the bill of lading,” we said. It was 11 a.m. at this point—just 3 short hours from the appointed time.

You already know what’s coming. I’ll cut it short. The agent came back, relaxed after a leisurely lunch and still chewing, at 2:30, and then he started to get the bill of lading ready. Donn emerged, triumphant, with 3 copies of it, just a little before 4:00

But it’s going to Seattle. And that bill of lading states the contents, and number one is: books.
Coming soon: Part Three, Fun With Bureaucracy

Hi. My name is Ms. Nomad and I’ll be your guide on this trip through the twisted bowels and darkest depths that comprise shipping your things and moving from Morocco.

Part One: Your Shipping Agent and You

Begin by choosing your shipping agent. You can do this by asking a friend who moved a year ago for a name and number. This will land you with a young man in jeans and tight shirts who speaks English less well than he believes, who will nonetheless want to conduct all your interactions in English (which, fair play, is his 4th language), and you will be in for a merry-go-round of failed communication.

The agent will begin by telling you what papers you will need. We will cover these in part three, so let’s just assume you’ve already lost a couple weeks of your life and have the papers now. It’s time to go back to his office, just outside Casa, one Monday morning. He’ll put you in an empty office with a really really tall chair that collapses down when you wriggle and sort of hop up into it. There you will begin the various rounds of negotiations about things you thought were settled on the last visit, when you sat interminably in the same office.

You might say, for example, “We’d like the container to come the 27th.”

“Ok,” he will agree. “Whenever you like.”

You will think, surely this is not right. Surely he should now say, ‘Well there’s a ship this day and this day so choose.” But instead, he smiles and nods and agrees. You move on. 20 minutes later, he asks you what date you want. “Well, the 27th, we said…” you flounder.

“Sure, sure,” he agrees. “White just a minute.” He disappears. You sit. You sit some more. You wonder why so few Moroccan offices have air conditioning. You ponder the irony of how so many Oregonians have air-conditioning while living in a temperate climate, and so few Moroccans and Mauritanians, living in heat and humidity, do. You sit some more. You have fun staring at the pattern of mold patches on the wall, seeing continents and islands and oceans as yet unmapped. You sit some more. After a while, you give up on keeping your husband amused and pull out a book, feeling a bit rude, but not much.

Eventually he returns, with a piece of paper with two dates on it. Neither is the 27th. “You have to choose,” he says, jabbing his finger at it. “What about the 27th? Like you said?” you begin, but you are waved aside. These are actual boats, actual sailing dates, so we choose one, and he gently but firmly guides us towards the other. “Choice” apparently has a slightly different meaning when English is your 4th language. This means that instead of having the 8 days we’d thought we had to pack our house, we have 2. Fortunately “Captain Stress,” as Donn is affectionately known in our family, has started packing far too early—or right on time as it turns out. I’ll never hear the end of this.

He disappears again, only to reappear to rehash the date—the one we’ve settled twice now.

Next he turns to your packing list. “It’s good, it’s fine,” he says. “But, what are CDs?” You explain. “And all these boxes of books?” Um yeah. Between Ilsa and I, not to mention everybody else, we have boxes and boxes and boxes of books. Like, um, over 40 or so. But, let me hasten to add, that these are small boxes, since books are heavy, and also that many of them are Donn’s big photo books. Many, I tell you.

But the agent is mystified. Why do so many lines of the list say, simply, “livres”? What are these livres? Is it normal to have so many? He doesn’t seem to think so.

The book in my purse helps. “I like to read,” I say. “We all do.” I pull out the book and wave it at him. “Ah, romans,” he says (novels). “Ok ok. I told the guy at the port you were nice people. No problems.”

Coming soon: Part Two, Choosing a Port

The year that we were in the US, I got onto a publisher’s list and got sent some free books to review. Which was awesome! However, I discovered that I am not really all that good at reviewing books on my blog. It’s mostly an expat blog, and I worry that my “audience” does not want to read book reviews. Tell me how you feel about book reviews. Also, I feel a flashback to my years as a student. Writing book reviews reminds me of the interminable essays I wrote about how Jane Eyre was not a typical Victorian heroine or how Christine de Pizan informed Simone de Beauvoir’s writings. Ya-awn.

But then a couple of months ago, a publisher sent me a list and said I could choose copies to review. Usually I don’t respond since, you know, international shipping, but this time I thought, “Why not?” So I chose two and put my Moroccan address and expected to hear nothing more of it. I was pleasantly surprised when the two books showed up in the mail.
They were both good books, both worth reading. I read them a couple of weeks ago and packed them, so my reviews might be slightly spotty, but I do recommend them.

The first was The Lost Girls, written by 3 women, all 28, who decide to take a year off from their successful New York-based careers to travel the world, and you can see why it would appeal to me. Their kind of travel is very different to mine, though. For a start, they aren’t dragging children with them and worrying about schools and pediatricians (or lack thereof) and housing; they simply heft enormous backpacks onto their shoulders and set off. They stay at hostels and go out at night to party; another thing families don’t tend to do. They also are just passing through. I’ll admit that sometimes I rolled my eyes a bit—their take on some cultural things seemed so shallow. Also, sometimes I wanted them to write more about what they were seeing, rather than their worries about never getting married or that they were commiting career suicide. Um, whatever. However, I understand they had a blog so maybe they did more of the sights-seeing end of things there.

I did appreciate their month volunteering in Kenya, and their insights into the lives of girls there. I liked their “voices” and enjoyed some vicarious travel of a different kind than I’ve done. It’s worth reading, especially if you enjoy travel memoir.


Stiltsville is a novel that spans a marriage. It starts when a boy and girl meet, and it ends when the marriage ends and I’m not giving you any details because it’s better not to know ahead of time, but enjoy the unfolding of events as they happen. It’s a lovely, quiet book, full of domestic details, capturing nuances of adult friendships and aging and events both big and small in ordinary lives. It’s written from a single point of view, and is told as memories are told, rather than following slavishly year after year. The title refers to a small group of houses built out on stilts in a bay near Miami, used as weekend and summer homes. The houses unexpectedly survive things like hurricanes, and yet are ultimately felled by an event no one could survive, and yes, that is symbolic. I’m pretty sure I could write a two-page essay on that quite easily.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Both are great summer reads.

Sigh…I have got to figure out how to reactivate my amazon account so that if anyone clicks on one of my links and actually buys something, I receive a tiny fraction of commission. Well I suppose it really doesn’t matter.

Ilsa is worried about going to school in America next year. “What if I don’t do well in conjugation?” she says. “What if they ask me to write a paragraph in the past simple and I don’t know what that is?” “Don’t worry,” I tell her. Conjugation isn’t likely to be a problem. I expect she’ll do fine, even well, but she’s not comforted by my vague answers.

She asks about the popular kids. “What is American school like? Is it like French school? Are the popular kids the smart ones? Or is it like in the movies?” “Like the movies,” I think, but I don’t say this. Maybe her junior high will somehow be different. I don’t know. I remember moving, at the age of nearly 12, from a tiny town on the Canadian prairies to a new town and new school in California, and how terrified I was, thanks to the movies, and scary books like “Blubber.” They proved to be accurate enough in my case, and I hated that California junior high. I don’t want her to hate her new school. I don’t want it to be like the movies.

In the meantime, I search for online school reviews. One says, “Before I came to X school, I got bad grades, but hear I get strate A’s.” This stresses me no end. No way can I send them to this school.

I shoot off frantic emails to friends. “What do you know about schools?” I ask them. I have a friend who’s an elementary school principal and she’s fantastic, telling me which schools are good, pointing me in the right direction. I find a review praising a junior high for involved teachers and high academic standards. Of course these new schools have requirements that families live within certain boundaries. I don’t know how we’re going to manage that in time.

When I was in junior high, I looked forward desperately to adulthood. I would see my mother, on her rare visits to my school, chatting confidently with my teachers. I wonder, now, if she was as worried for me as I am for my own children. Perhaps she wasn’t. After all, we all project our own experiences and backgrounds onto our present lives. Her childhood in a Welsh town, attending a school where the headmistress was a personal friend of my grandmother’s, experiencing WW2 and its aftermath, was very different from mine. I suspect when you are grieving the loss of a close cousin whose house was bombed, or helping refugee children from London settle in the area, you aren’t so worried about what’s in style and who’s not speaking to whom. Ilsa’s experience, again, is vastly different; although she’ll go to an American school next year, she’ll probably drop a few French words here and there, show up with a fountain pen in her trousse, and generally be exotic enough that I suspect she’ll enjoy at least some initial popularity. I hope so! Because I, too, am worried about school in America next year.

My friend Nancy, aka Wacky Mommy, is one of the main reasons I have this blog. We’ve known each other since we were student writers at the college newspaper, and I was drawn to this tall redhead with the hearty laugh and the larger-than-life personality. I haven’t kept in touch with many people, but I’m really glad we’re still friends.

Last time she tagged me in a meme it was 2007. We were living in Nouakchott and I used her meme to announce that we were moving, first a year in the US, then on to Morocco.

She’s tagged me again.

When we moved to Morocco, I got a lot of comments asking how long we were going to stay in Morocco. This surprised me. We were moving here for real; we were going to be here for at least 6 years, probably more. The kids would finish high school here and then we’d re-evaluate, decide whether or not we’d stay, but we probably would.

This is a case of the best laid plans of mice and men ganging aft agley, as it were. Or to put it another way, I am yet another victim of the Great Global Financial Crisis. Poor me.

So, without further ado, here is the meme. 7 Things About Me.

  1. I am a nomad, but I don’t want to be one any more.
  2. I move far too often. I could use some stability in my life.
  3. I hate packing.
  4. The other day we were at the Chellah with the inlaws. I stood there under the blue sky and light winds and looked across the expanse of wildflowers and ruins and I felt angry and unhappy and completely at odds with my surroundings. I like it here a lot. I don’t want to leave. This is my hardest move—every other time, I’ve been excited, ready for something new. This time I’m not.                                                                                                                          I stood there and stared out at a silver olive tree with a spiky palm tree behind it, swaying in the breeze, and listened to the incessant cawing of the egrets and creaking sound the storks make, and I realized: If I was here on holiday, for only three weeks, I would be ecstatic. Instead I am stressed and miserable because I only have another three weeks. Live in the moment, I told myself sternly, and set myself to enjoy the golden afternoon, the pleasant sea breezes, the spiky palm and the creaking storks and the ruins that speak in an unknown tongue of ages past.
  5. It worked. At least for the rest of the day.
  6. We’re going back to Oregon.
  7. But I don’t know how long we’ll stay. I get itchy feet. I hope to still be a nomad.

* title of Wacky Mommy’s post. Ironic, no?

We’ve lived overseas for 9 years now without our families wanting to come see us in Africa. It’s not for lack of invitations. It’s because, frankly, no one wanted to come to Mauritania. We were in France for 10 months and yet in that short time, both Donn’s parents and my mother came, plus some friends. Hmmmm. Then we came to Morocco, where we got plenty of visitors, all from Mauritania. Hmmmm. It’s evident that these visits depend on where we are, not who we are.

Things have changed. We invited Donn’s parents to come for Christmas. Oh no, they couldn’t possibly, they said. Too expensive, too far, health not good enough. Then in February, they called us on skype. “We’ve always wanted to see Scandinavia,” they said. “We’re going to take a cruise and then fly down to Rabat for two weeks.” So, we were almost the priority. I’ll take what I can get.

Their flight was scheduled to arrive Sunday at 10 p.m. in Casa. Donn headed off about 9 with Elliot, since we couldn’t all fit in the car. My father-in-law called me at 10 to let me know their flight was delayed. I called Donn but he didn’t answer.

And so began a night of Silence from the Airline Authorities on High. We found out later that their flight was cancelled, but apparently no one told the Casa Airport, which first announced the flight was delayed, and then simply took it off the arrivals board without further comment. Donn did call me back but then his phone died, and I couldn’t call his dad back because I didn’t have a number. I was chatting with my sister-in-law online. “The airline has lost your parents,” I told her. “Maybe it goes back farther than that,” she replied. “It’s possible they got voted off the boat.”

There was no news, nothing could be found, on the airline’s web site. I stayed up till 4 and then went to bed; Donn stayed at the airport till nearly 4 and then came home. He went to bed at 5:30, only to be woken by a phone call at 9. “We’re here!” they announced. “Come get us!”

They’ve been here a week and a half now, and it’s been quite quiet. My father-in-law got run over by a bicycle in Norway, and he’s having knee problems as a result, so we haven’t been able to travel as much as we’d planned. We’ve done some day trips, and seen things around Rabat—the Potteries, the Chellah, the medina, the beach. My mother-in-law tells me she’s so glad to be here. My father-in-law, whose tastes run to fast food and store-bought cookies, is addicted to fresh-squeezed orange juice, and takes seconds of grilled lamb with onions and tomatoes. They buy little dishes, and a Moroccan lantern for their entryway, and presents for their daughters. They promise Elliot a trip to TGIF’s for his birthday, which is tomorrow.

They leave again on Tuesday.

My father-in-law resting at the Chellah

Ilsa had loaned some things to a friend who’d forgotten to drop them off before school ended for the summer, and she stopped by one afternoon. I said, vaguely, that she should come play with Ilsa sometime, possibly Friday afternoon, and did we have her phone number? We didn’t, but Vera promised to send it to Ilsa on Facebook.

Friday morning at 8:30, the doorbell rang. I was expecting Khadija, but no, it was Vera. “You invited me to spend Friday with you,” she said in her clear, high voice. She arranged for her father to return at 5 to pick her up, and skipped merrily into the house. I had to wake Ilsa up. “Your friend’s here!” I hissed at her from the doorway, and then Vera waltzed past me into her room.

It worked out okay. Khadija didn’t come that day, so I cooked a big lunch and made salad and tried to pretend we eat like this all the time. I have learned the hard way that the children’s school friends expect more than a sandwich; both French and Moroccan cultures tend to eat proper hot meals in the middle of the day. One friend of Abel’s in particular has let it be known that he is shocked when he’s not fed properly, although his mother rolled her eyes when I mentioned it to her, and told me he never eats much at home.

So we had pasta with alfredo sauce with turkey ham in it, and salad, and yogurt and fruit for dessert, and I made oatmeal-chocolate bars for afternoon goûter, or snack. And Vera ate heartily and professed herself satisfied and the two dug out Ilsa’s black and pink copy of “The Double Daring Book for Girls” and decided to make a piñata, which meant boiling flour and water all over the stove to make papier-mâché. They walked up to the hanut and bought two balloons, in case one broke, and a lot of cheap candy.

The piñata didn’t dry before Vera had to leave, but Ilsa didn’t mind. She dressed it in old cut-offs and painted a face on it and hung it off the balcony, where the string (yarn) kept snapping. Melissa, an English friend, came over and the 2 of them, plus Abel, had a lot of fun banging on it until like all piñatas it burst and scattered largesse all over the driveway.

Humpty Dumpty hung from some yarn

Ilsa and stick

The yarn kept needing to be retied

Abel wore his roller blades

Baseball pinata

The saga of Ilsa’s toe continues.

My mythical longterm readers (I believe you are out there!) remember this started last December, when she had a toenail removed by a rather unimpressive surgeon. A couple of months ago it got reinfected and we went immediately to the doctor, who prescribed a terrible regime of forcing alcohol-soaked cotton wedges between the nail and the skin on either side. We did this faithfully, every single night, for weeks. The pharmacist took a look and gave us antibiotics, which helped, but the toe would not heal.

Last week we went to a new doctor, who was not impressed with the cotton-shoved-under-skin-with-toothpick mode of torture. She put us on a new regime of antibiotic creams, pills, anti-fungal pills, etc. It’s still not better, but we’re making progress. If it’s not better soon, she said to come back. Sigh.

Don’t worry—no pictures for this one!

July 2010

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