Reviewed by Liz Fanning (Morocco 1993-95)
I loved this book. The Couscous Chronicles: A Peace Corps Memoir was a delightful trip down memory lane just when I needed it most. Hard to say if I would have enjoyed it as much if I hadn’t served as a PCV in Morocco myself, 20 years after Richard. I imagined a similar memoir written about a vastly different place, like Vanuatu, Namibia or China, and yes, I believe I would have enjoyed it just as much! Maybe even more, because I would have learned a ton. For me, this book was an important acknowledgment of the power of the Peace Corps — I the friendships, experiences, and the earnest good work that is universally synonymous with “PCV.” I’ll keep my dog-eared copy on the shelf with my Peace Corps pictures.
It’s always interesting and important to read experiences of other PCVs because it puts your own in perspective, even all these years later. The details he remembers are impressive, like the names of all three hotels that PCVs stayed in when they first arrived — gads. He describes everything from the application process to the parent’s visit, to making the hard but practical decision to early terminate. There’s a whole chapter just on his last few days in Morocco. (All I can remember of my last few days is hanging on the beach in Essaouira.) I wish I had such detailed memories and philosophical reflections of my service — but I’m in luck, I can share Richard’s! So much was exactly the same as when I served in the 1990s. Site visits, negotiating with landlords, the hardworking and gregarious shopkeepers, even El Bahia restaurant — “the hole in the wall place in the medina” in Rabat and Restaurant Dolphin in Casablanca, still places PCVs congregate. Richard and his “Peace Corps wife” Becky lived in the capital city so had a never-ending stream of PCV guests overstaying their welcome. I was a “bleddie” (in a rural site) myself, and dreaded being a burden on the city PCVs, but did it anyway. (Sorry Ed. Sorry Michele.)
Reading Richard’s Peace Corps stories was like reliving it myself — cooking dinners from the Peace Corps cookbook, spontaneous parties and gripe sessions with other PCVs, traveling “flexibly,” enjoying wacky opportunities (like Richard directing Arsenic and Old Lace at the Very Little Theatre Group of Rabat – how cool), reading Paul Theroux (a PCV must!), demoralizing and frustrating work issues (Richard’s was waiting endlessly for film to arrive – argh!), buying furniture from outgoing PCVs and then selling to the newbies when you leave, celebrating with simple treats from America like Kraft mac & cheese and warm American beer – these things were the same when I served 20 years after Richard. At this point they’re cliché, but I hope they never change,
The writing was clear, succinct, and entertaining — artful without being maudlin, detailed without being monotonous. Like a personal diary should be, it’s complete with phonetic instructions; i.e. “SHOW-kron” (thank you) and “fa-TEEM-a” (Fatima), and endless anecdotes, reflections, and basic facts about living, loving, and traveling around Morocco.
This book was clearly a group effort. Every few pages, there’s a “one volunteer remembers” breakout featuring a powerful, amusing, and/or mundane story from a fellow PCV. My favorite was from Steve Long, who wrote a vignette about his third-year extension as a teacher. Peace Corps had a strict policy that extensions must be based on basic human need (good for Peace Corps for having that requirement!). Steve came up with an idea to get himself trained in therapeutic massage so he could work once a week in the local clinic in Midelt to help polio victims mitigate the palsy. During training in Tetouan, in the summer, “. . . we would take the kids to the beach. They were thrilled at the chance to swim in the Mediterranean, stripping off their braces as they crawled to the surf. The able-bodied patients would swim first and then form a human chain to keep those less able to float safely. With some of the most disabled, we would motorboat them around in circles, hearing their squeals of delight at the sensation of the water slipping over their twisted frames. . . .” Sounds like an excellent project.
The foreword, written by the legendary Ambassador Paul Hare, set a friendly, upbeat tone with just the right amount of gravitas. The epilogue was maybe my favorite part because Richard describes how all the PCV characters turned out. I feel like I know them all — and wish I did! The perfect bookends to a wonderful book. Anyone who reads The Couscous Chronicles will want to join the Peace Corps, if they haven’t already served. Or maybe serve again. SHO-kron, Richard!
Liz Fanning served as a PCV in Morocco (1993-95) and is the founder and executive director of CorpsAfrica (www.corpsafrica.org), an NGO that recruits, trains and sends college-educated young Africans to live in remote villages in their own countries for one year to facilitate small-scale, high-impact projects that are identified by local people. With offices in Morocco, Senegal, Malawi and Rwanda, it’s a private effort to create an African Peace Corps.