Monday, July 17, 2006

A couple of weeks ago, I met with my Peace Corps recruiter – I had seen her at the Nomination Party and decided to come downtown for a chat now that I knew where I was going. She had been to Morocco too, in the early ‘90s (so not everything is relevant – for example, the literature says to bring a Walkman – surely in the 21st Century they would recommend an iPod! Anyway, she recommended some books, which I have since ordered from Amazon – Understanding Arabs – A Guide for Westerners, Living Overseas, and A Traveller’s History of North Africa. I also have Culture Shock: Morocco on the way, some French and Moroccan Arabic language books and CDs (more on that in a minute) and some Peace Corps downloads on Morocco, cultural adaptation and on working with a school. As for the language, I am also working on French through Rosetta Stone and have some elementary Moroccan Arabic lessons from the Peace Corps web site. They will teach me more Arabic or a Berber dialect when I get there but they said to work on French before I go, so I am spending more time on that. Moroccan Arabic is not all that similar to Arabic that might potentially lead to a State Department or other job later – that’s OK. The recruiter said that she never really learned the Arabic but got by on her French – but she was in a big city, teaching English. I asked her if she knew where the artisan program was and she said it was centered in the middle Atlas Mountains, near Fes, a beautiful region of the country. It’s about a four-hour train ride – on a fast, reliable train – to Casablanca and the coast. So not TOO far away. She said that the artisans in the program are women, rug makers. She also said that the Peace Corps evacuated in 1991 after Desert Storm began and again in 2003 after the Iraq war started, and that in each case people were gone for about six months. They were given a choice of another assignment, coming back or leaving the Peace Corps entirely. I’m watching the recent escalation in the Middle East carefully – so far I don’t believe it will impact my assignment but it potentially could.

Last week, I had coffee (actually, neither one of us had coffee) with the woman I had met at the Sister Cities festival. She goes to Morocco once or twice a year. Chicago has been very active with its sister cities program. The mayors of all of the Sister Cities came to the National Conference of Mayors held here last year, and the mayor of Casablanca was very interested in the parks. So the parks person there has been here and the parks person here has been there, and Chicago is helping them. She said that Fes is the intellectual and cultural capital of the country, known for the finest thinkers and crafts, but that in general the quality of the workmanship is mediocre, and that I can bring to them the idea of standards of quality. She said that the rugs from that area are more for art than for floors, that they have very geometric patterns, that they are made from all-natural materials and that they often use orange and white (wonder if they can combine the orange and black? In that case, I may have a new market!). She told me what hotel to check into in Fes for a day of reading a book – it has a swimming pool. She said that in Morocco everyone invites you for dinner, but you do not have to always accept – you can maintain boundaries and a sense of your own space. And she said they feed you course after course – when she was there they all gained 10-20 pounds, because the food is good and there’s a lot of it – so to learn to push food around my plate. They eat late, too, which I do not like to do. More on both of these meetings as I think of more to tell!

It's hard to believe that on August 31, I leave the country for two and a half years. A couple of months ago, I would have ruled out moving back to Chicago when I return – after all, I’ve been ready to leave for at least 12 years (i've lived here for 19! All in the same apartment - except for six weeks at the Holiday Inn Elmhurst when I first got here). I’ve done everything here and within an eight-hour radius. I’m ready for a change and probably need one for personal growth. But as I walk around this summer (and I’m well aware that there is winter here as well as summer) I realize how much I do love Chicago. I love where I live – by the lake where I swim, bike, sun and take walks. Near the Magnificent Mile – even though I am not that much of a shopper, it’s a great walk – and the Hancock Building, which I learned about in my first day of my first civil engineering class, before I switched to major in it. The museums and orchestra and zoo and Ravinia and the Botanical Garden and boat rides – at least I have taken advantage of all of these things. Walking everywhere – the architecture! The free concerts and movies and fireworks – I can see Navy Pier fireworks every week from my roof! The Cubs and the White Sox – there was that one year when I went to sixty games, but I’ve averaged 20 – one a week or so – for years! Easy to get to and a fun outing if not always good baseball – but I did see both teams in the playoffs, and the Blackhawks and Bulls there as well. Trips all over the Midwest – exploring Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, Indiana. And I know there are things I’m leaving out. My apartment – I know that through the eyes of others it’s small and cluttered, but I love it and will miss it a lot. Going into the Peace Corps is hard enough, but it is 10…100…1000… times harder because I am moving out of my apartment and putting everything in storage. And my friends – I may not see most of you often – and I know I don’t see any of you often enough – but when we do get together we have a long history and a wonderful time. That said, I still would think the odds are that when I return, it’ll be to somewhere else. I will still be a part of your life and you mine, of course, but if I don’t move back to Chicago, it won’t be the same. No matter what, I’ll come back to visit and you’re welcome to visit me where I am. I thank you and appreciate you for being a part of my life and of my Chicago experience. I’ll miss you!

I've been perusing the Peace Corps web site and I came across the Paul Coverdell World Wise Schools program. This program pairs a Peace Corps Volunteer with a class in grades 3-12. You would hear from your volunteer on a regular basis, and correspond with your volunteer. This could add to a class on culture, geography, economics, or any subject, actually.

I'm pairing up with my nieces' school, but I thought I would let you know about it and perhaps take advantage of the opportunity too. Maybe you can even request someone in the Morocco artisan program - you wouldn't get me, but you might get someone who is having an experience similar to mine. This has to be requested by a specific educator in your school. Here's the link:

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

On June 14 I attended a Peace Corps nominee party. I had been to this event before. Two years ago, the keynote speaker was a mid-career professional who described his decision to go and what a difference it made. This was right when I was thinking of applying, so it was inspirational to me. Last year I missed the speakers, but I spoke to some of the recruiters, who were mid-career, and again, felt very positive. This year the focus was more on families - there was a panel of parents who had children serving; their main points underscored that they felt their kids were well-cared for, medically and safety-wise. Then all of the parents with kids currently serving (and other relatives, including the niece of a 68-year-old currently in Botswana) spoke for a few minutes. This was somewhat sobering - I would say that maybe half of the volunteers had electricity. Maybe 80 percent had cell phones, which is good news. But all were very positive about the experience. Then all of us new volunteers stood up - I would say 20 different people were going to 20 different countries! There were a couple of other mid-career people (including a married couple - the man broke everyone up when he said, "my mommy is worried about me too" - nobody else going to Morocco! Someone in the audience had a niece-in-law (or something like that) who had been in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco working on water quality. No electricity, no running water, no cell phone. She was cold, and nice sweaters sent did not get to her - only more beat-up clothing did. So the woman said not to have anything nice sent. She said English-language books would get through - but for cultural sensitivity no romance novels (not a problem). Batteries won't make it through. I am going to call her to see if I can get more specifics but that was good info. Plus, I got a Peace Corps mug to match the one I got at this event last year - now I have a set!

And a couple of weeks before that, I went downtown to apply for my Peace Corps passport (you need a separate one, though I’m not sure why – plus, my regular passport will expire while I’m gone, so I have to get that renewed too. I just got my driver’s license renewed at Taste of Chicago so it is now good through 2011! So many things to think of…absentee ballot next). Outside the city/county building there was a Sister Cities festival. Casablanca is a sister city of Chicago so I had a chance to examine the artisan wares - carpet, ceramics, jewelry. One of the women manning the booth had been in Morocco in Peace Corps 3! (I wonder what number I'm in - it's 45 years, I know that, but I wonder how the numbering system goes). She loved it there and goes back every year. I am going to set up a coffee date with her. Both my original and my next recruiter were in Morocco, and I spoke to them at the nominee party. The president of the Returned Peace Corps Club (or whatever it’s called) of Chicago was ALSO in Morocco. I asked them how the Peace Corps has helped them in their careers and they all had kind of blank looks. Not the answer I was hoping to hear – after all, I am thinking of this as a career move, albeit an unconventional one. I guess that means it’s up to me to make something of it! The Peace Corps will give you a job afterwards if there’s a suitable opening. I looked at the web site and the salaries are OK - so maybe that’s an option, while I complete the Non-Profit Certificate and start the Family Foundation!

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