Casablanca: No Such Thing as a Free Lunch?
There’s no such thing as a free lunch? Well Casablanca begs to differ. On our second day exploring what has got to be the most underrated city in Morocco, we decided to walk to the Hassan II Mosque. As we made our way down Boulevard D’Anfa a graffiti wall caught our eye and temporarily veered us off of our path. It was unclear whether or not this was an official public art installation or just some amazing street art, but either way we loved what we saw.
A helpful local informed us that many of the images were commentary on life here in Morocco and that one was done by a famous Spanish artist (the image of the young girl). Much to our surprise once he was done with his explanation he simply said goodbye and walked away. Adam and I immediately smiled at each other, relived by that fact that there was no extended hand for a ‘tip’, offer of a day tour by taxi or invitation to a brother/uncle/friend’s shop…what a pleasant change from India.
After some time spent enjoying the display we headed into the Medina to seek out some lunch. Almost immediately we felt visually transported back to India. The narrow lanes were filled with shops selling everything from birds to house wares to clothing, the biggest difference however being the crowds, or lack thereof. While we were occasionally greeted with a variety of ‘hellos’ (French, Italian, Hebrew and English), for the most part we were left alone to wander in peace. Once we had assessed our options we made our way towards a butcher shop. Shop is probably the wrong word though since it was really just a small counter on the side of the road. Nevertheless the meat looked good and the fired up grill made our stomachs growl.
I took a deep breath to help boost my confidence and placed our order in French. Luckily at a place like this you can get by pretty easily with elementary sentences and lots of pointing. We had also made sure to learn the words for garlic and onion in both French and Moroccan Arabic, as well as the phrase ‘I am allergic’, so with little effort our lunch was ordered.
The shop owner, Aziz, hearing that we were foreigners came out to greet us and ask questions about our stay. Ironically he launched into French, despite the fact that my lack of fluency was what caught his attention in the first place. While much harder than ordering, I managed to hold a decent conversation with him, albeit riddled with laughter and charades on both sides. We learned that he lives in Casablanca with his wife and four children (the oldest of which is 22 and studying to be an engineer), but that his family is back in Marrakech. When I told him that was where we were headed next he was very excited and wanted us to meet his family (or possibly stay with them), but since my French is weak I only caught every 4th or 5th word.
He pulled out a table and two chairs and served us some delicious lemonade as we waited for our lunch. About 5 minutes later two fresh off the grill chicken sandwiches were placed in front of us. Adam had ordered the ‘spicier’ ground chicken and I got the plain (not my first choice, but the others had garlic). The chicken was served on toasted baguettes topped with green olives and onions (just olives for me). While neither of us really like olives we figured ‘when in Rome’ and dug in. To our surprise the olives we wonderful and really added an amazing layer of flavor. Within minutes we were done and were promptly offered an ‘encore’, which we refused (although I found out later that Adam didn’t realize that was what had happened and would have gladly eaten another sandwich).
After a few more minutes of ‘conversation’ we realized it was time to go so I requested the bill. Aziz put on a huge grin and simply said “pourquoi?” (why?). Confused I took a moment to scrape together enough French to reword the request, sure that I must have misspoke. In long form I asked what the price was for the sandwiches. Again he just smiled and just said it wasn’t necessary. I was convinced that there was a miscommunication happening and began to worry that my lack of verbal comprehension was causing me to miss something. He continued to insist and I just kept asking why. He then told us, still in French, ‘Welcome to Morocco and enjoy your stay’.
I realized then that I wasn’t misunderstanding. I was offering to pay and he was refusing to accept. I smiled and laughed again and, despite my suspicion (an unhappy leftover from India), thanked him profusely. We told him we would come back again before leaving Casablanca (which we did) and then headed back towards the city. Hand in hand, with huge smiles on our faces and happy bellies we recounted the incident all the way back to the main road. We couldn’t believe it, did we really just get a free lunch for no reason? We speculated on all of the reasons for his generosity: he didn’t see a lot of tourists in that area, he appreciated how hard we were trying with French, his shop does very well and he didn’t need the money, the local customs of welcoming strangers is taken to heart. In the end we realized we would never really know (especially thanks to the language divide), but that we were grateful nonetheless for our new friend and a delicious lunch!