Rabat, Morocco Report of what it's like to live there - 11/17/11

Personal Experiences from Rabat, Morocco

Rabat, Morocco 11/17/11

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Fourth diplomatic assignment, Middle East and Europe.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Rabat to Paris to an airport in Chicago or NY or DC is about 14-15 hours total. If you are going to a different city in the U.S., as we do, that adds a 3rd flight and a few more hours. There is a direct Casablanca - New York flight on Royal Air Maroc, but most people don't like it.

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3. How long have you lived here?

3 years.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Affiliated with the U.S. Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Most singles and some couples live in apartments in wealthy neighborhoods, and families and many couples lives in houses in these neighborhoods. The housing is generally good. Most people have good yards and plenty of space. Our house is enormous, but has almost no yard. Commutes are quite reasonable, like 10-20 minutes.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

The local grocery stores are good for a developing country, supplemented by butchers, fruit/veggie stands, fish stores, food markets and bakeries. You can get a lot of great stuff if you are willing to cook like a local (same ingredients at least). If you want more obscure ethnic dishes, you can online shop or use the (American) commissary or bring stuff back from Spain or elsewhere. As an example, it is possible to get rice noodles and rice paper (for rolls) here at local grocery stores, as well as (mediocre) chips and salsa -- which you couldn't say about many posts.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Some bulk items or dry food goods would have been fine, but here at the Embassy you can have large items shipped in commissary containers for a small extra fee, so people have ordered pianos, auto tires, playground equipment and stuff like that.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There is a good, but not exhaustive, range of restaurants. The best ones are, obviously, Moroccan or French, but there are also some Spanish, Italian and Asian options. Casablanca has a much more vibrant and extensive restaurant scene, so when one goes there for work (or fun) you can scratch various itches.

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

Well, a lot of things are naturally organic and I guess there are vegetarian options. Otherwise, not much special in this regard.

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6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Fairly bad problems with ants and cockroaches. Some people have good luck combatting that with poison, some don't. We have to take very defensive measures in the kitchen to keep ants out, and for two-thirds of the year have to kill a couple cockroaches a week in the house -- despite having a lot of poison and spraying the entrances.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

At the U.S. Embassy we have pouch and DPO, which are usually quite fast outside of the holiday season.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

The situation here is quite good. A gardener is about US$20/day (most people have once a week, some people twice a week). A maid or nanny is that or slightly more (depending on her quality--one able to speak and read/write in French would be high-end, one able to only speak Moroccan Arabic and illiterate might be the cheapest), and it is possible to get full-time help, or just part-time. Of course, the wealthy Moroccans and certain of the expat communities -- like the French -- pay far less and demand much longer hours.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Yes, there are a range of options at different price points and neighborhoods. Also the Marine House and the Rabat American School have rooms. There is a very large park where most people go to run; there are plenty of people around there.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

I feel okay using ATMs in normal places, although most U.S. Embassy people cash checks with our cashier. Credit cards are not very reliable; some fraud has been perpetrated, and many places say they take them but then look at you horrified and the whole grocery line comes to a halt for 15 minutes while they try to make it work -- and then it doesn't.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

There is a pretty good range of options. Many Catholic services in French, English, and Spanish. Some Protestant options (French and English) and a Mormon community (English). Jewish options as well.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

There are some newstands with some English magazines like The Economist. There is a bewildering range of satellite channels, some of which are English but it depends on which package you buy. On a monthly rate, it isn't expensive (US$15-20 for a couple hundred channels, mostly Arabic with some French and a couple English).

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

English is not widespread. Almost all signs and packaging are bilingual, so if you know some survival French that should be okay. That being said, it isn't like the average taxi-driver or store clerk is fluent in French. You might face some difficulties. Standard Arabic speakers have problems as the local dialect is very different, and, unfortunately, in a way that makes it hard to comprehend (words are shortened and vowels cut out; much vocabulary comes from Berber/Amazigh or French or Spanish).

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Pretty much what you would imagine for most developing country cities.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

I don't know any expats who use buses. Some use trains for tourist trips; they are okay but not great. Taxis are old and dirty, but cheap.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

You can feel safe with a range of options. Terrain isn't a factor unless you want to go deep out into the hinterland. Parking space or road width isn't much of an issue either. The main consideration would be service, but even then many expats have makes that aren't locally available and make do with parts that are shipped or ordered by the garage.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes, it is pretty fast and not that expensive. Something like $30/month.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

It isn't anything I've had to think about -- pretty easy.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

I don't think so.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

We don't have pets, but lots of people do; I assume the situation is decent.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Not on the local economy, but there is a good range of options in the Embassy (in addition to the usual CLO, Mail Room, Commissary jobs, there are some "EPAP" jobs doing FSO-like work) and at other institutions around town, like the school.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Work is suits or something slightly less depending on your job. In public, most anything goes except for the extremely revealing. I don't think a woman should walk around in a bikini at a restaurant next to the beach, for example, but I've seen plenty of Europeans doing it.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Security here is quite good. There is some non-violent crime, I had a visitor spoil an attempted bag-snatching and I know non-Mission people who have had break-ins, but our houses have good protection and alarms and most places I know of have worse problems than here. There was a home invastion murder of an EU couple (in front of their children) 5 or 6 years ago, but that was an isolated event that could have happened anywhere.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

The American Embassy currently has a good medical unit, although that might vary based on the quality of the person in charge. There is a solid range of specialists for various complaints, many of whom speak English. If you need something significant done, you get medevaced. The only major concern is emergencies -- if you have a car accident and need life-saving trauma care, the quality of ambulances and emergency rooms is not reassuring. But you could say that about most any non-1st World country.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Air quality, in terms of pollution, is good. However, many kids (and adults) here have allergies to something or another--for example, olive tree pollen. I have a child on several daily medications to keep that manageable, and I am on three myself.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

The climate is close to ideal. Summer is hot but not overwhelming--usually just a couple weeks in the 95-105 range, with the rest in the 80s. Fall and spring can be rainy here and there, but many beautiful sunny days. Winter does not get harsh at all. The only problem is that Moroccan housing, even in the most elite neighborhoods, is very light on A/C and heating. I have lived in the hottest and coldest parts of the U.S., but always moderated by machines. I have never felt as cold as in our house here during the winter.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Most everyone of school age goes to Rabat American School, although some kids are sent to one of the many French schools because their parents want them to become fluent in French. RAS is very good, we feel. There are lots of activities and quite a student:teacher ratio (in the elementary school, there is a teacher and teacher's assistant for each class of around 15 students).

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

I know that RAS is accomodating of physical disabilities, but not sure how it handles mental/learning issues; probably well.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

For the littlest ones, most people use an in-home nanny/maid, as the cost is cheap and the quality decent. For 3 and 4 year olds, there have been various options, including some in-home preschools run by expats and various private English, English/French and French/Arabic choices. Generally, if you pay less (say $200/month), you get 20 kids in a room and a lot of chaos. If you pay more (maybe $400-600/month), you get better quality.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes, RAS has both after-school activities and more official sports teams that play against other schools.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Quite large. I believe that there are 100 embassies; the French are said to have 1,000+ here from all walks of life, the U.S. Embassy has 100 families/individuals plus other affiliated Americans (schoolteachers, for example).

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2. Morale among expats:

Wide range. Among the official American community, most Department of State people are pretty happy as this is an easy assignment compared to most developing countries. But the Embassy also a lot of different agencies present with employees who have never been overseas before, and (generalizing) they are often quite negative about how this compares to Washington or New York or elsewhere in the U.S. -- or to their previous travel experiences in western Europe.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Representation responsibilities are standard. Official events are fairly formal. For non-work socializing, there is a large range. Families with little kids have lots of playdates and birthday parties. Adults have dinner parties and backyard cookouts and night parties. If you want to mingle with the non-Anglophone expat crowd, then French becomes a must as that will be the language of a party of mixed Moroccans and expats, or expats from various countries (obviously two Swedes and two Americans having dinner are going to speak English, but a party with people from 10 countries and with 20 Moroccans is going to mostly be French).

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

It has a reputation as a family post and this makes sense. There is also plenty for couples to do -- socialize with others, explore Morocco and so on. Singles can also make themselves happy, but the dating options are scarce. Almost everyone we know who came here with a long-distance relationship married that person months later, which wasn't true of previous posts!

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

It would take pages to describe the complexities of Moroccans' views on this. I don't think anything particularly bad would happen (no one is going to beat you up for holding hands, considering the locals do it), but can't speak for how the dating scene goes.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Yes. Moroccans range from red hair and green eyes to sub-Saharan African in origin, but despite claims to the contrary, darker skin tends to mean less social status. Women get a lot of sexual harassment; I know several blondes who dyed their hair another color, but of course it doesn't just happen to blondes by any means.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

We tend to either travel hours away to another city or spend time at kids' parties or restaurants; haven't pursued a lot of hobbies. But I know people who play golf avidly, surf, ride bikes, ride horses, take various lessons, shop a lot, cook (with some great ingredients available), etc. There are some good swimming options in range.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

A huge range of stuff. We came here with no furniture to our name and will have many pieces. Rugs and carpets of course. Some clothes. Many small decorative items. Lamps. It's Morocco--you probably have some pre-conceived notions and you are probably right.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

The weather is quite good, with lots of sunshine and few truly hot or cold days. Of course we have easy access to famous Moroccan tourist destinations like Fes, Marrakesh, and Tangier. There is some amazing shopping available. For a developing country's capital, Rabat is pretty low-stress. However, in the American system we also don't get any "hardship allowance" currently.

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11. Can you save money?

We save a lot, despite having full-time nanny/maid, a gardener, and usually having 1 kid in a school we have to pay for. But, we both have jobs and I get a language bonus. For couples with one spouse working, I think it is less likely, depending on one's habits.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes, definitely. Except for the aggravating driving habits of Moroccans, it is very easy to get through a week here, and you have plenty of options to entertain yourself. I am not worried about getting mugged or carjacked or coming down with malaria. Morocco is a fascinating country with so many influences, and rich cuisine and arts and decorations/furniture/architecture and music to delve into.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Classical Arabic? Assumptions (if applicable) that Morocco is like Egypt or Saudi Arabia? Assumptions about a 0% hardship differential post?

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3. But don't forget your:

French study books. Willingness to explore. Taste for new foods.

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4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

None about Rabat... the usual suspects about Morocco.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Nothing about Rabat, but there are plenty of books about Morocco to read. Amazon has at least a dozen novels translated into English, several history books, and a couple current events books. Read them all over 3 years.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

1. Because Morocco has a good reputation and is a tourist destination, you will get a lot of friends/relatives who want to visit. Also as a consequence, the Embassy (and other embassies) gets a lot of official visitors from Washington. Not as many as Istanbul or London or Paris, but a pretty steady flow.

2. Morocco is very heterogeneous in many ways, but very homogeneous in one critical way: Islam. I have lived in a few majority-Muslim countries, but they had minorities and people were aware that not everyone was like them. Moroccans are all Muslim except for a tiny Jewish community and Christian expats. Ramadan is extremely important. Eid Al-Adha is extremely important. If you live a surface, expat, lifestyle this only causes minor obstacles. But if you dig deeper, sometimes you can feel very excluded because you will never have that in common and Moroccans have a hard time imagining anything being different.

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