July 09, 2005

Small Victories

After a week in Tunis, I finally managed to find a plug adaptor, which means I can actually use the electrical devices I brought with me. This accomplishment feels like an immense linguistic success. I have basically been floundering around this country with a two-year-old’s grasp of the language, and I was quite pleased that I managed to get the thing I needed.

After several days of not seeing plug adaptors in any store windows, I looked up the Arabic word for it (muhawwilon, from the root hawala, meaning to change or be transformed) and started asking shopkeepers in my broken Arabic where they carried such a thing. They didn’t have it, but I asked where it could be found, and they suggested other streets where I should look. I figured out where those streets were, and went from shop to shop there looking. This process spanned several days.

Significantly, I finally found it the first day that I decided to go off on my own rather than sticking close to my group of fellow Americans. I had walked around enough to figure out that plenty of Tunisian women walk around downtown on their own, and I’m not going to attract any more attention as a single women than in a gaggle of foreigners. So I told the other kids I’d meet them at home, did my thing.

I finally located the holy grail. When the shopkeeper told me it cost one Tunisian dinar (about 75 cents) and I was so thrilled I didn’t even bother to haggle.

It turns out the Arabic word I learned was completely useless. Tunisians call it an adaptor americaine, and ultimately I only got the concept across by drawing a little diagram in my journal. But still, it’s something of a victory.

July 08, 2005

Getting to Know the Locals

The neighborhood we live in is somewhat of a ritzy suburb by Tunisian standards, but it’s nice to come home to a peaceful and semi-quiet place. I say semi-quiet because Tunisians beach-goers are still partying in the streets at 2am every night. Everyone takes a long nap during the hottest part of the afternoon, but it’s still not clear to me how people manage to answer the 4:45am call to prayer which comes from the local muzzein, which, fortunately, I have no trouble sleeping through.

The sun shines from about 5:30am to about 9pm, and it’s in those early nighttime hours that there’s the most community life… people come out to visit the cafes and shisha bars and do their grocery shopping. My roommates and I go out around this time to grab a cheap dinner at local kiosks, and buy the fresh eggs, bread, croissants, olives, cheese, and figs which form the staple of our diet here. In the shopping area of town there is a fruit shop, and a honey shop, and a few butcheries, and a bakery, and several corner store, and my favorite dry goods store which sells everything from enormous loofah sponges, to dry clay (Tunisian shampoo), to whole wheat with the chaff still on, to exotic spices measured out by the gram on old-fashioned scales.

We had a great Arab cultural moment the other evening when Adam and I were out getting groceries. There is a man who stands on the corner across the street from the dry goods store, selling traditional hair adornments made out of dozens of tiny jasmine flowers tied together. Women (and sometimes men) wear these behind the ear, and they smell wonderful. He is probably in his sixties, and dresses up for his job in a traditional red chechiche hat and vest, and is just very cute. So a few days before I had bought a flower from this guy (actually the one I am wearing in the picture) and Adam and I had had a conversation with him.

When he saw us again shopping yesterday, he came over to say hi to us. He wanders over, and just slips his hand into Adam’s and begins to ask him how we’re doing and make small talk. Now, it is actually an very normal thing in Arab culture for male friends to hold hands on the street, but I turned around from buying eggs to see my six-foot-tall very-American friend holding hands with an old man in a chechiche hat and just about peed my pants. I wish I had a picture of it!

Overall, Tunisians have been very friendly to us. People smile at us, strangers are happy to help us with our Arabic, and every barista, shopkeeper, taxi-driver, and ticket-person goes to great lengths to make sure we get an Arabic language lesson along with our coffee, gum, taxi ride, or train ticket. They think it’s sweet that foreigners are trying to learn their language, and the reputation of the Bourguiba Institute precedes us.

However, there’s also a little bit of overwhelming attention as foreigners. We stand out so much, and are such an oddity culturally. People do a lot of staring, random strangers call to us on the street with “touriste, touriste,” and both the men and women get approached by strangers and peppered with odd questions. It’s quite weird to people here that five young people not married to each other would live in an apartment and travel together. Young men in particular are very forward and any glance in their general direction seems to be interpreted as a sign of potential interest, likely to provoke a waggling of eyebrows or a huskily whispered “c’est belle!”


I’ve been in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, about a week now. Initially the language barrier initially felt as impenetrable as the great wall around the medinah at the center of the city. But now the conversations I overhear on the street are smattered with familiar words and I even manage to communicate a few basic things in Arabic.

The language school we’re attending, the Bourguiba Institute, is a Babel of languages. There are a lot of people from Italy and Spain and France, plenty of Brits and a few other Americans, as well as a smattering of folks from Turkey, Korea, Japan, and elsewhere. I came here expecting to work on my Arabic, not realizing the school would also offer plenty of opportunities to practice my Italian and Spanish.

Local Tunisians, too, seem to speak a lot of foreign languages, and I often end up resorting to Italian or my own special form of French (Spanish with different inflection) to communicate with people when my Arabic breaks down. Of course, everyone wants to practice their English as well.

July 07, 2005

Jasmine in Her Hair

This picture was taken in the stairwell of our apartment. The hair adornment is made of dozens of tiny jasmine flowers tied together. They're commonly worn by both women and men (usually in a smaller size for the men), and they smell fanstastic. The plant with the white flowers to the right is a jasmine vine.

The Cultural Mixing Pot

Tunisia is a clear mix of Arab and French influences. Most people can speak fluent French with you, and the boulangerie is an omnipresent institution. The country is a true cultural mixing pot. Basically any style of clothing you might see people wearing in America, Europe, or anywhere the Middle East, you’ll see people wearing here.

But there are definitely areas of life in which one or the other cultural heritage dominates. For instance, in an office or restaurant, people will always address you in French; food is a mixture of the two cultures, but the music people listen to is only Arabic.

The architecture in our neighborhood seems to be basically Mediterranean Colonial, by which I mean that there are only minor details that distinguish it from what I’m used to seeing in Central America. It’s the little details, though, that are interesting, like the four-fingered hand symbol engraved on a neighbor’s garage (many Mediterranean cultures believe it offers protection from the Evil Eye).

This is a view of our neighborhood from the bedroom window...

July 06, 2005

Fourth of July in Tunisia

Yesterday afternoon, I moved into an apartment with four friends from Yale. The apartment is located in the suburb of Carthage, about a 20-minute ride away from downtown Tunis on the metro-rail, a quaint but efficient streetcar system which crosses the port of Carthage on a bridge of reclaimed land. Tickets in the “first class” section cost about 1 Dinar (75 cents) each way.

Quick geography lesson. Tunisia is located on the northern coast of Africa, between Algeria and Libya, or slightly southwest from Italy. The modern city of Tunis, the country’s capital, is built on the ruins of historical Carthage, once the center of power in the Mediterranean until the Romans sacked it in 146AD. The suburb now known as Carthage is actually at some distance from the city.

The key feature of our apartment is its location. You can walk barefoot to the beach. This picture is taken from the bedroom window...

We spend the evening cleaning a layer of grime and fine beach sand off of everything in the apartment. We had heard earlier that there would be a Fourth of July party at the local Marine’s base, but it turns out the real party was yesterday and today is just for the diplomats. We’re all too exhausted to go anyway. Feeling slightly homesick.

July 04, 2005

Hotel Majestic

I get into the Tunis airport around midnight of July 2. A friend from home is kind enough to meet my groggy, smelly self, and make sure I get safely delivered to the Hotel Majestic, where I stay the night.

“Majestic” is probably a bit of a misnomer. “Hotel Slightly Less Run-Down than the Other Hotels You Can Afford” or “Hotel Probably Used to Be Rather Majestic” would be more accurate. A single room with an uncomfortable bed costs me $30. The bathroom doesn’t have a lid on the toilet, but it does have a bedet.

Flight to the Medinah

It seems like the apex of convenience to begin an international journey at an airport only ten minutes from your home. This, certainly, was what I was thinking when I booked my ticket to London out of New Haven Tweed Airport. Sure, it was $100-150 more than a direct flight out of one of the New York airports, but by the time you figured in the expense and time of public transportation between New Haven and New York, it seemed a small price to pay for the added convenience.

New Haven Tweed is a great little airport, and its quaint size is directly responsible for most of its best characteristics. For example, the airport parking lot is full of ordinary parking meters. Twenty minutes per quarter, and you can almost always get a spot within ten yards of the front door. At the ticket counter, seven people is an unusually long line. And, it won’t take more than thirty seconds to walk to your gate.

The drawback of this Lilliputian economy is that if your flight is cancelled or delayed for any reason, you are pretty much not going to get where you planned to go. Tweed only flies to two cities---Cinncinnati and Philadelphia---and only four flights a day to each. So, if, by chance, your flight to Philadelphia were delayed for two hours due to “heavy air traffic,” causing you to miss your connection to London, there would be pretty much no options for rerouting you to another flight in time to catch your connection to North Africa eight hours later.

Or, more precisely, your option is to get yourself by bus, train, or automobile, to some other airport in the northeast corridor. Yes, exactly those full-sized airports you paid the $100 premium to avoid the inconvenience of traveling to. Thank you, U.S. Airways.

So I’m standing at the New Haven Tweed ticket counter (yes, “the,” singular) as the travel agent tries to reroute me. After I convince him there’s no way the train is going to deliver me to Philadelphia in time to catch my intended flight, he checks the availability of flights to London out of Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. One spot on the last flight out of JFK tonight---my only chance to get to London in time to make my connection. It leaves in three hours.

So it was that around 8pm on Saturday, July 1, 2005, about when my plane to London was taking off from Philadelphia, I was hurtling down I-95 to New York City. My boyfriend, who thought he had volunteered for the half-hour task of taking me to the local airport, casts me a sideways look that says “you owe me big-time,” as we take off on what will be for him a five-hour round trip to deliver me to JFK.

In retrospect, it was a harbinger of things to come. Almost everything in Tunisia will turn out to be more complicated than imagined.