Have you ever had it happen that you tell the abridged version of a story so many times, you start to forget the actual details of what happened? I realized recently that this was starting to occur whenever I explained to someone why I ended up living in Tangier, of all places. It is not the simplest or most straightforward story, so I have had to try to find ways to sum it up and have it make sense to someone who may not know me well. The details of how I came to be here, however, are the real meat of it. The texture and base of who I am here today.
I felt like it was probably time for me to share the whole thing with you all.
How in the world did I end up in Tangier, Morocco?
For the true beginning, we have to jump way back in time, to summer camp 2002-2006. The camp I went to during those muggy Minnesota summers was not your average canoe-in-the-woods sort of deal. It was a French immersion language program called Lac du Bois, run by Concordia Language Villages. One thing that stuck with me from this experience, besides a not-half-bad accent when it comes to speaking the language, was that there are so many countries besides France where French is spoken, and I was much more intrigued by those. I liked the sound of Senegal, Morocco and Cameroon and always loved the stories of the camp counselors who came from these places.
I kept this little yen in the back of my mind while I planned my Europe backpacking trip in 2012. I was planning to be gone for 9 months, but because of Schengen laws I was only allowed to be in the EU for 6, so I had to find some places nearby to hang out for a while. I chose Morocco, because of proximity and because of French camp.
Being young, knowing barely anything about the country, and wanting a little bit of security when going there, I decided to try to find an internship or something to do. Through some pretty random connections, I ended up in touch with the Cinématheque de Tanger (also know as Cinema Rif), had a Skype interview with the director during Christmas and flew down from Belgium in February 2013 to spend two months in Tangier as an intern.
My first month in Morocco was rough. Safe to say it was a low point in my self-esteem, health, adaptability and overall well-being. I was completely culture-shocked, having trouble meeting anyone to really connect with, knew zero Arabic, realized that my French was not as good as I thought it was and got berated for that by one of the cinema directors. I ended up spending most of my free time sitting on my balcony, mildly depressed and looking out over the rooftops of this strange and chaotic city that I had landed in, asking over and over, why am I here?
Sometimes, all it takes is one person to completely change an experience. In this case, it was my dear friend Nadir. We met at the Cinema Rif cafe, through some mutual acquaintances, and hit it off immediately. He showed me the young, under-the-surface side of the city, taking me to the best Moroccan restaurants, showing me Chefchaouen- the famous blue city- for the first time, and introducing me to some local aspiring artists. I began to finally relax into the flow of this seaside place.
My work at the Cinémateque, on the other hand, was still a bit confusing and unclear to me, so eventually I decided to take matters into my own hands, urged on by the little community I had fallen into. I told them very decidedly that I am a contemporary dance choreographer by main profession (despite the fact that I had only ever choreographed school and university showcases and was 20 at the time) and handed the directors a proposal for a performance to be mounted on the small stage in front of the movie screen. By some miracle, they said yes. I found a group of 8 local Moroccan performers and threw together a show in 3 weeks. The quality of the show, looking back, is perhaps a bit questionable, but the fact was I had done something on my own in this foreign place meant a lot to me and at the very least, I had impacted a couple people interested in dance in the community. One woman in particular, a fellow American who had been living in Tangier for 30+ years, gave me her contact, saying she had always loved dance, had done ballet as a young girl and was interested in working on a project with me if I ever wanted to return.
I left on a high note, feeling accomplished and quite fond of the city that I had felt so estranged from in the beginning. There was a small voice in the back of my mind telling me “I think you should come back someday.” I just didn’t know it would be so soon.
After my nine-month adventure I returned home to Minneapolis, full of energy and momentum, but followed immediately by the plunging realization that I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I booked a one-way ticket to Iceland on a whim, spent 2 weeks there and then flew to Berlin, where I thought I could try living for a while, doing the whole artist, ex-pat Berlin lifestyle thing. I immediately realized that it was not for me. I found the city cold, unwelcoming and surprisingly a bit stagnant and lifeless in its cultural and creative energy. I was having dreams of sunshine and palm trees and people with generous, warm smiles and boisterous, expressive language. After three months of following Berlin into the grey winter season, I had made up my mind to return to Tangier.
With that American woman’s words in mind, I sent her an email to see if she was serious about wanting to work on a performance together. She replied almost instantly, we put together a grant proposal and miraculously got it approved by the US Embassy’s Cultural Department. In January 2014, I was on a plane from Berlin to Paris and then Paris to Tangier, ready to dive into a new dance piece and a new Moroccan adventure, completely unsure of how long I would last there.
The project was supposed to last just four months, performing and wrapping up at the end of April. However, in that span of time I landed a job at a local conservatory (where I still love teaching to this day) and was working as an intern for some local business owners who needed help launching a language learning website. Plus, through our final performance which we showed in Tangier, Tetouan and Rabat, I also was able to make contacts with other people in Morocco working in the performing arts or who were interested in sponsoring more dance projects. Suddenly, I was a big fish in a small pond: a contemporary dance choreographer in Tangier. Organizations and institutions were thrilled to bring more new art forms to the local community and I was equally thrilled to fill the role of making that happen. The opportunities that popped up for me at the early age of 22 were incredible, especially compared to the average, competitive, contemporary dance career track that I had envisioned for myself in the states.
Naturally, I stayed.
Four months turned into four years.
Of course the story wouldn’t be complete without the other reason for my staying. I’ve had quite a few people ask me, “so, the reason you are in Morocco- is there a love story involved?”
And the answer is yes. Something just kind of clicked when Marouan walked into the audition for that second dance performance back in 2014. He was by far the best dancer in the group and the American woman and I chose him immediately for the piece, but my little back-of-the-mind voice whispered, “I think this guy is going to be trouble for me.” Here we are, four years later, married for two out of those four. Trouble is right, and of the most wonderful kind.
I laugh sometimes about the fact that I came to Tangier and fell in love three times. First with the country, then with my work, then with a Moroccan man. Really though, it is not just a joke. It is precisely what happened and if that is not fate working its magical weird web that catches us in whatever and wherever we are meant to be, I don’t know what is.