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Lynn Sheppard, Essaouira

Who are you?

My name is Lynn Sheppard.I am a postgrad student (of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic), travel writer, virtual PA, mum, wife and maroc-o-phile.

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

I have lived abroad for about a third of my life, in Belgium, Germany, Japan and most recently in Essaouira, on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast. I moved to Essaouira in 2012 after taking a voluntary redundancy from my career in government and international diplomacy. I chose Essaouira because my now husband was based there and my intention was to start a business there. I did start a business, but quite a different one from the one I intended! We are now a family and we divide our time between Edinburgh, UK and Essaouira – two seaside festival cities!

What challenges did you face during the move?

I took time to get to know Essaouira, the town and its people before I made the move to live there full-time. I think that’s really important and helped equip me to deal with some of the biggest challenges around creating a new life for myself in a very different cultural context. Being on holiday in a place is nothing like living there every day.

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It’s important to build up a support network and have a realistic idea of what you will do all day, whether that’s personally, professionally, socially or as a volunteer. Even though this gradual process helped me adjust to my new lifestyle, it still had its challenges, not least the lack of social and cultural offer in Essaouira. Moroccans tend to socialise in the home and in gender-segregated groups.

Essaouira is a small town without a cinema or theatre and the main entertainment is people-watching from the terrace of one of its many cafes. It took time to find my tribe and for us to create our own fun, but we did eventually.

Are there many other expats in your area?

Essaouira has always been popular with French expats, as Morocco is a former French colony and very accessible from Europe. In the 1990s, foreigners started buying old townhouses and turning them into holiday homes and guesthouses. This trend continues today and is largely responsible for the preservation of many old architectural gems. With the increased accessibility due to low-cost airlines (including a direct flight from London), more and more British people are discovering Essaouira and buying property there. It is also becoming popular on the digital nomad circuit. I am the admin of a Facebook group for Essaouira Expats and Friends and we have over 1,200 members sharing their experience and offering tips to those living or wanting to live in the town.

What do you like about life where you are?

Life in Morocco is pretty relaxed, which can come as a welcome relief when contrasted with life run by the clock at home. But this can be incredibly annoying if you are used to achieving things on schedule. Flexibility and adaptability are essential for maintaining sanity!

Moroccans are incredibly hospitable and are always happy to offer their time, food and ideas to visitors, even when they may have little to give. I have been made very welcome in my husband’s family, and those of my Moroccan friends.

What do you dislike about your expat life?

I am particularly irritated by expats who complain that life is not like back home. That is the reason we move, because we want something different. Many expats seem totally unaware of their good fortune to be able to move around the world freely with limited immigration restrictions and with the safety net of savings, a support network and skills or employment. Life can be frustrating in Morocco, but it is equally or more so for locals. The advantage an expat has is that when it gets too difficult, s/he can move on. This is not the case for Moroccans. In general, I think most of us expats could show a little more humility and understanding for our neighbours when living abroad.

What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?

Change is slow in Morocco, and some interests are very entrenched. This makes it hard to achieve projects and plans. This is true for locals as it is for expats. Helping disadvantaged Moroccans though my work with non-profits such as the High Atlas Foundation or Association Bayti Essaouira was fulfilling and helped me integrate into the local society. However, there were days where I felt that in order to achieve change to the material conditions of Moroccans I was swimming against the current, which was exhausting!

What do you think of the food and drink in your new country? What are your particular likes or dislikes?

Most people associate Moroccan cuisine with tajines (stews cooked on a stove top or charcoal in a cone-topped earthenware pot) and couscous. However, if you explore beyond the tourist restaurants or are fortunate enough to be invited into a Moroccan home, you will see much more variety. The fish and seafood in Essaouira are fabulous, especially Atlantic sardines fresh off the boat. I also like salads made with cooked vegetables such as boiled beetroot, roasted peppers or char-grilled aubergine. Moroccan cakes and cookies are also great, especially the almond paste-stuffed gazelle’s horns.

What have you learned from living abroad?

Every time I live abroad, I learn a little more about myself. From putting ourselves in the shoes of others and testing ourselves we also gain a little more humility and understanding for our fellow humans.

What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?

Morocco is a great destination for a vacation or for an extended stay for a change of scenery. However, it is a developing country with a very different social, political and economic structure to Western Europe or the US and what seem charming as a visitor might grate if it were part of daily life.

My strong recommendation is to rent before buying and for prospective foreign residents to really try to immerse themselves in their chosen town or city to give it a ‘test drive’. Anyone thinking to set up a business or invest in Morocco, should consider carefully the risks and opportunities and research their market very carefully. The market here is not like back home and the employment regulations can be very strict.

What are your plans for the future?

I am currently studying for a Master’s in Edinburgh and plan to submit my dissertation in 2018 based on research I am conducting in Essaouira. My husband and I are bringing up our son bilingually and it is important for us that he gets a chance to experience as much of both cultures as possible. Following my Master’s, I hope to use my the knowledge and skills gained living in Morocco and elsewhere and during academic study to work in a company with business interests in North Africa. One day, I would also love to establish a business based around my love of Moroccan food.

You can keep up to date with Lynn's adventures on her blog, Maroc-O-Phile, and on Instagram and Facebook.

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