The University of Iowa

Bucket list

August 28th, 2015

Claire Jacobson is a 2018 sophomore from Iowa City, Iowa, majoring in French and Arabic with a certificate in writing at the University of Iowa. She is studying abroad this semester on the ISEP Al Akhawayn University program in Ifrane, Morocco. 

Selfie on the Seine, just because it's alliterative. I spent a long layover in Paris before heading to Morocco.

In preparation for studying abroad, I was able to cross an item off of my bucket list: I got an international driving permit.

It doesn’t matter as much if I actually use it, although that would be great, too. (After two days in the country, though, I’m already more than a little hesitant to get behind the wheel.) It’s just the fact that I could legally drive in Morocco if I really wanted to that is exciting. 

I guess this whole study abroad trip is a bucket list item, too, since it counts for “travel to North Africa.” But during my first three hours in the country, I got one more item that I didn’t count on happening until years from now: I was mistaken for a native French speaker.

When I reached the baggage claim in Rabat at 23:30 (or 11:30 pm– I’m trying to get used to this army-time situation), I stood waiting for the taxi that I had reserved through my hotel for over an hour. As the terminal emptied slowly, a fellow traveler approached me and asked me if I needed anything, and offered me his cell phone to use if I needed to call anybody. I took him up on it. I called the hotel, explained the situation and made sure someone was coming, and gave the phone back. His next words were, “Vous êtes canadienne?”

Oh, right. That was all in French. I’d been stumbling through stilted French over the previous eighteen hours (first on an Air France flight and then in Paris), trying to get the French part of my brain back into gear after several months of disuse, but by then it was coming out more naturally. I even managed that phone conversation in French, something that has always made me nervous because I like to be able to see the other person when I’m listening. Apparently it came out so naturally as to sound native (but with enough lazy vowels to sound Canadian, I guess).

At length, my taxi arrived, and after a few minutes of conversation, the driver asked me if I was French. It might have had something to do with the fact that although he spoke fluently, French is no more his first language than it is mine (when he answered his phone he answered in Arabic), but I don’t think I’ve ever received a more welcome compliment in my life.

Photo of the welcoming lawn at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, my host university.

I’ve always known that no matter how well I learn Arabic, I will never be mistaken for an Arab person (I’m too pale and Irish-looking.) But being mistaken for a French person has been one of my language-learning goals for years, ever since I heard the story of my dad being mistaken for a Malaysian guy when he was in Jakarta, Indonesia.

I guess that’s parallel to being mistaken for a Canadian in Morocco, right?

It helps to have a given name like “Claire” (although I’ve never heard anyone butcher my surname quite as impressively as a French speaker can). I’m not fluent in French, not yet, and without a doubt a few more minutes of conversation would have exposed the gaps in my ability. It is progress, though– a tangible mark of progress, better than any grade that a professor could give me.

In both situations, after I laughed and explained that no, I am actually American, both men said the same thing. They congratulated me on my language skills, and said, “Bienvenue au Maroc.” 

Welcome to Morocco, indeed.