Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hammamet: The Disney World of Tunisia

Today my family took me to Hammamet, a resort town down the coast from Tunis. It's a beach community but also the most touristy spot I've been in all of Tunisia. The location is beautiful but as soon as you step through the gates of the "medina," all feeling of authenticity is lost. At the entrance sit two live camels. The baby one caught my eye immediately and the man standing with the camels told me I could pet it. Then he kindly asked if I wanted to take a picture of them. As I started to get out my camera, however, he told me it would cost me 3 dinars. This seems to happen a lot in tourist traps here. Everyone demands money for the right to take pictures. I thanked him and passed. I'm going to the south tomorrow and I get to ride camels in the desert. I'd have plenty of photo opportunities.

The souks only sell to tourists...stuffed camels, calendars, post cards, "Tunisian" outfits that no one here actually wears. Everything is a fixed price, as well. What kind of souk is a souk without bartering? The medina is dotted with overpriced restaurants, boasting Italian fare or fresh fish or couscous and performers take the various stages. Today I watched a snake charmer. The cobras were very cool and I took pictures, but the show itself was over the top. The guy wore an outfit that resembled something from the movie, Aladdin. Afterwards, he passed around a hat to everyone who watched, and under that kind of pressure, who doesn't give a dinar? Regardless, here are the real stars of the show:

Advertisements for belly dancing performances dotted the Medina as well, offering dinner theatre-like shows. This, along with the giant hotels that resembled desert structures or palaces, made me start to wonder if Hammamet was more like Disney World...or Las Vegas. Everything is made to represent the stereotypes held by Western tourists and to perpetuate Orientalist views of the Middle East and North Africa. Those seeking sea, sun and sand will be more than happy in Hammamet but I'd hope tourists don't see the resort town as a real representation of Tunisian life. I know the country's economy is dependent on tourism to a significant extent but Hammamet sells a stereotypical view of the Arab "other," of an exotic world that doesn't exist here in Tunisia if it even still exists at all. Suddenly I was so frustrated with my interpretation of the misrepresentation Hammamet had to offer that I forgot the real reason I was there--- I was supposed to be enjoying a day at the beach.

So for the moment I sent my criticisms to the back of my mind and appreciated the change of scenery. My family is beginning to notice my camel obsession. They bought me a cute stuffed camel and a gold plate with a camel and my name engraved on it. Finally, when we were leaving the medina, my host dad insisted I get my picture taken with the camel. I told him it was not a big deal and that 3 dinars was an atrociously expensive price for photographs but he wouldn't hear anything of it. The next thing I knew I was sitting on a kneeling camel. What I didn't know was how camels get up once they have someone on their back. They lift their back legs up first. I wasn't exactly ready, nearly toppling face first down the front of the camel. Luckily, his front legs went next and I was able to regain my balance. It was a challenge, but I'll be ready for it in the south when we get to ride camels across the desert. This particular camel's name was SamSam and he was especially nice for letting Wesjdene snap pictures in his face with me on his back. Here are a few:

So like I said, tomorrow I leave for the south. We get to go to Kairouan, the 4th holiest city in Islam (and the only one in North Africa) tomorrow and then spend the week making our way further south. We'll see more Roman and Punic ruins, head into the Sahara desert, visit oases and Star Wars sets (scenes from the Star Wars movies were filmed in Tunisia. Remember the planet where Luke Skywalker grows up? That's the Tunisian desert). Finally we get to spend a few days on the island of Djerba, off the coast between Tunisia and Libya. It's nicknamed "the Polynesia of the Mediterranean" and it's supposed to be gorgeous. It's also reportedly the island of the Lotus Eaters in Homer's The Odyssey. I really don't know what my internet access will be like there (if it exists at all) so I may have to wait to post until next week. I get back next Sunday.

On that note, I'll leave you all with another beach view. Here's a photo from La Goulette, a northern Tunis suburb known for its delicious seafood.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Where in the world?

So if you didn't know where Tunisia was before you looked at a map, don't sweat it. At first I was annoyed when no one in the states knew where I was going this semester. I'd say Tunisia and they'd either go "Where's that?" or "Indonesia?" No...not quite. When I told them it was an Arab country in North Africa, I was often asked very intelligent questions like "Will you have to wear a burka?" "Do you get to see giraffes on a Safari?" "Isn't there an AIDs epidemic there?" or "Watch out for terrorists." When I explained that Tunisia was a progressive country with a secular government on the Mediterranean (far away from the Serengeti), they were skeptical. When I explained the country had significant European influence and flair and that it was a hop skip and a jump away from Sicily, they didn't even believe me. It was incredibly obnoxious.

Two and a half weeks later I was sitting in Coste, the cafe beneath SIT. One of the waiters there, S'leem (I don't really know how to transliterate it from Arabic, that's my best guess), loves serving my friends and I when we go in there. He asked us all where we were from. My friend Emily was then dubbed "Boston," my friend Lindsay nicknamed "New York," and then he came to me. Minneapolis, I told him. "Miami!" He replied. No, I explained. Minneapolis. It's in Minnesota. It's up north, a few states away from Chicago. It borders Canada. "By Montreal?" He asked. Not really. Not by Montreal at all. Sort of by Winnepeg, I suppose. I guess Winnepeg didn't ring a bell either. I got him to finally be able to say Minneapolis and left it at that. The next day we walked through the door at Coste and were greeted with "Boston! New York! Miami!" And I don't have the heart to tell S'leem he's off by almost the entire length of the country. 

We've become quite the commodity at Coste. S'leem always insists on serving us, gives us 50% off drinks, and tells me every day that I am beautiful. About 20 times per visit. Every day when he brings the check, it comes on a tray with a handful of wrapped candies. And every day he dumps the entire tray into my bag. The other day he asked me to marry him. I told him I didn't think my boyfriend would approve, but he's still persistent! My friends all give me a hard time about it, saying how great it is to get coffee at Coste with me because of the VIP treatment. The other day, a few of us were craving chocolate croissants but they aren't on the menu. Lindsay speaks French so she asked S'leem if Coste had pain au chocolate, the French term for chocolate croissants. His reply? "For you, no. For Miami? Of course!" Two minutes later we had a tray of chocolate croissants. We always get a plate of complimentary cookies with our coffee as well. When we ran out the other day, everyone joked that I should ask S'leem for another plate. Before I even got a chance to ask, he walked over, asked "Encore bisqui?" brought over another plate, and pushed it over to me. "For you, Miami," he winked. "No sharing."

So we all ended up with another plate of cookies!

I think we're a little spoiled at Coste because when we go to other cafes and actually have to pay full price for our coffee, don't get extra cookies and can't order stuff that isn't on the menu, it just isn't the same!

At the end of the day, however, I'm a little less judgmental of those Americans who are oblivious to Tunisia's existence. S'leem isn't the only Tunisian who has never heard of Minneapolis or Minnesota. Most people I've talked to here seem to know both coasts and Chicago, but anything beyond that is a mystery to them. I'll have to have my family send some pictures of snow and cold and ice rinks. Then maybe they'll understand.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Can I get some harissa with that?

I decided that instead of just telling you about all the wonderful food i'm eating that I'd share some of the recipes I've been picking up! Here are a few of my favorite meals I've had on the trip so far.


*WARNING: Lablabi looks like cafeteria food gone bad when finished. It tastes, however, like yummy goodness. Do not let the appearance sway you from eating it, I assure you it's delicious!*

A note about harissa: harissa CAN be found in the states in specialty food sections of luxury grocery stores. Apparently Crate and Barrel and Williams Sonoma also have excellent varieties.

Ingredients (serves four):
2 cups dried or canned chickpeas (cups/tbsp are all rough estimates)
2 baguettes
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 tbsp harissa (or more if you like spicy foods. I'd recommend doubling that.)
1/2 tbsp cumin
pinch of salt to taste
1/2 a lemon (or equivalent amount of lemon juice)
3 tbsp olive oil
4 poached or soft boiled eggs

1. Wash chickpeas and soak overnight (this is if you're using dried chickpeas like we do here. If you've bought them in a can, skip this step.)
2. In a large pot, cover chickpeas with water and bring to a boil. Cook for about 15 minutes or until chickpeas are tender. (And again, if using canned chickpeas, drain them, rinse them and heat them up in about 4 cups of water).
3. Break each baguette in half and break up each half into little pieces. Divide the broken up break evenly among four bowls.
4. Add garlic, harissa, cumin and salt to chickpeas and water. Simmer for 10 minutes. 
5. Immediately add olive oil and lemon juice before serving. Pour soup over broken up bread.
6. Here's the tricky part. When I've seen lablabi made in restaurants here, the cooks break a raw egg over a steaming bowl of lablabi and the egg cooks on its own. I know that sounds a little sketchy so if you'd rather, my host mom recommends poaching or soft boiling the eggs and putting one egg on top of each bowl.
7. Mix it all up and enjoy!


Tunisian couscous is much spicier than other versions of couscous found in the Maghreb (North African) region. Try a little harissa before you decide how much to put in and remember that you can always add more, but it's a little harder to take it out. 

Ingredients (makes 4 cups):
2 cups uncooked couscous
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, cubed
1 large green pepper, cubed (We use a mild green pepper different from those found in the U.S. here but I don't know the name of it. Regular green peppers should make a fine substitute.)
1 large zucchini, cubed
2 potatoes
2 carrots
2 cups chickpeas, canned or dried (if dried, soak them overnight)
4 tbsp tomato paste
1 to 1 1/2 tbsps harissa
1/2 tbsp paprika
1/2 tbsp cumin
1/2 tbsp cinnamon
1 cup tomato sauce
pinch of salt, to taste

1. Saute the onions and the olive oil over medium heat.
2. Add tomato paste, chickpeas, and cup of water. Boil for 15 minutes.
3. Cut up veggies, add them the pot and bring back to a boil. Add spices as well. Cook for 30-45 minutes or until vegetables are cooked well.
4. Prepare couscous as directed, except when adding water, substitute a cup of tomato sauce for a cup of water. For instance if your couscous box says to add 2 cups of water, add a cup of water and a cup of tomato sauce.
5. Pour veggies and sauce over couscous and enjoy!

Note: This type of veggie couscous is used as a base for all couscous recipes. I have eaten it like this but I have also added chicken (rotisserie style), fish, and lamb. Feel free to experiment.

One more recipe...this one is a good appetizer for either of the other two recipes!

BRIK (pronounced breek)

Ingredients (makes 4):
1 6 oz can of tuna
2 tbsp chopped parsley
2 tbsp grated parmesan cheese
4 eggroll or wonton wrappers (this is a substitute. The dough used for briks here is a lot like a wonton wrapper only it's much larger. Usually briks are folded over into a triangle but if that is impossible given the size of the wrappers, I'd put one on top of the other and make a sort of pillow.)
4 eggs
Olive oil for frying
4 lemon wedges or lemon juice

1. Mix together tuna, parsley, cheese, salt and pepper.
2. Spoon about a quarter of the mixture onto one half of the wonton wrappers (if you think they are big enough to fold over after you add the egg too. Otherwise just put it in the middle.)
3. Make a dent in the tuna/parsley/cheese mixture to hold most of the egg in place and break the egg into the nice little holding place you've created for it. 
4. Fold the wrapper in half into a triangle shape (if it's big enough) or put another wrapper on top to form a "pillow." Seal the sides.
5. Fry in about a half inch of olive oil until the briks are golden on one side then flip. Remove from heat and sprinkle with lemon juice and serve!

*WARNING: Briks can be a challenge to eat without the egg yolk trickling down your chin. I've had lots of practice, but don't worry if it happens. It's a learning curve!*

Ok so try some of these out and let me know what you think! Enjoy!

Tunisia lesson #4: Don't forget to tie your camel!

I got a really good walk in yesterday from the flea market in Gammarth to the beach walkway in La Marsa. It felt great to exercise. My friends Sarah, Courtney, Toney and I went to a sandwich place Mounir recommended to us and then walked down to the beach. It was sunny during our walk to La Marsa but by the time we reached the beach, big grey clouds had started to cover up the sky and the temperature dropped off. I am amazed how much the sun makes a difference in temperature here. When the sun was out yesterday it was gorgeous but as soon as it hid behind the clouds again we all put our sweatshirts back on.

We wanted to walk along the beach anyway so we bundled up and took a few pictures. Here's a picture Toney took of Sarah, Courtney and me. In case you couldn't tell, it was pretty windy.

After we got too cold at the beach we decided to head home but as we were walking back, Rachel called me. She had stuck her scarf in my bag earlier in the day and was with another part of our group on the street overlooking the beach. I let her know we were down ON the beach and on our way up. "Sounds good," she replied. "We're over by the camel." Rachel has quite the sense of humor so I kind of laughed her comment off, thinking I had missed a joke.
Sarah, Toney, Courtney and I walked up the beach toward the street where Rachel was and couldn't find the road up to it. I guess it was on the other side of the beach, but we decided we could just climb up the hill and jump the fence. La Corniche, the street overlooking the beach, has a white stone balcony with columns and we had to figure out a way to get over that. After a little scrambling and some rock climbing, we got up to La Corniche, jumped the balcony ledge and walked to where Rachel was. Then we saw it. There was definitely a camel on the beach.

I had expected to see a lot of camels when we take our excursion to the southern part of the country next week but you just don't see camels walking around La Marsa every day. This one had been left with its front legs tied together so it couldn't run off. I had read that this is what Tunisians in the desert do to keep their camels in one place but still allowing them to graze. This one was walking around with the limited mobility it had with a rope around its legs, chewing on some grass. Here's a picture of him.

Tunisia is TP Free...

Tunisia has really gone beyond my expectations of modernity in many ways. My family has a billion TV channels and wireless internet, American music plays on the radio. I forget sometimes that I am in a different country. At least until I use the bathroom.

Most Tunisians don't use toilet paper. Yeah, you heard me. In fact, they find it disgusting. Attached to every Tunisian toilet is a little hose with water that comes out when you turn a knob. Instead of toilet paper, they just wash with the hose and then wash their hands. They see it as far cleaner than just wiping with toilet paper.

You can buy T.P. in the stores, but it's mostly immigrants, expats and tourists who buy it off the shelves. Our host families got it for us, so there's toilet paper in my bathroom at home, but there's no guarantee it'll be there anywhere else. Once my friends and I went to use the bathroom at a cafe and there was a man working there who handed us a few squares before we walked in. Then, we found out, he wanted a tip.

Other places don't even have waiters to sell you some toilet paper. There isn't even a holder for it in the public bathrooms at the mall in La Marsa. They are hose-only facilities. Most of us have had to use the hose a handful of times and it is a very interesting experience. I can see eye to eye with my Tunisians on many more things than I expected, but bathroom customs aren't one of them. We've all just learned to hold it until we find a T.P friendly place!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A few facts about floose

A note on DT vs. TD...I've seen the Tunisian currency abbreviated both ways but from here on out I will be using DT, which seems to be the more common of the two.

So "floose" is Tunisian Arabic for money. I know I've talked about the DT before but here's a rundown of how currency works in Tunisia. It's definitely different from anything I'm familiar with in the western world.

The Tunisian Dinar is split into 1000 millemes, so prices look like this (a Tunisian sandwich for $3,530 DT) instead of this (an American sandwich for $3.50). I've never seen so many coins in my life. There is a 5 DT coin with a silver center and a gold edge, a 1DT coin that is the same size and all silver, a smaller 500 milleme (half a DT) silver coin, a gold colored 10o milleme coin that is the same size as the 1 and 5 coins, a gold colored 50 milleme coin that, to my eyes is indistinguishable from the 100 except for the number printed on the front. A smaller 20 milleme coin is gold colored as well and the 10 is even smaller than the 20 and feels fake. There are apparently 5 milleme coins circulating as well, they are small and silver, but I have yet to see one and it doesn't matter because you can't buy anything with 5 millemes anyway. Even a piece of candy is usually at least 50. 

The paper money is far simpler. There are 5, 10, 20 and 30 DT bills. That's what we get out of the ATMs here, but that means that we end up with a LOT of change. When a train ticket is less than a dinar and we usually have 10 DT bills as our lowest form of paper currency, we'll end up with at least a 5 coin and 4 dinar coins, plus whatever small useless change is left. 

Everything is very cheap here, though, if you know where and how to shop. In the Medina, the souk owners will barter with you. Today we went to a flea market where we had to do the same thing. When the shop owners see foreigners, they'll often start much more expensive than the item is worth, but if you know better, you can get whatever you're buying down to a far more reasonable price.  For instance, I am taking an oriental dance (the politically correct term for belly dancing) class at a local dance studio in Sidi Bou and all the students in the class were told to buy the scarves with the jingly coins on them (I'm sure they have a real name but I don't know it) to tie around our waists. The instructor told us not to pay more than 10 dinars for them. When we went to the medina to buy them, the first souk we went to sold scarves to a few of my friends for 6 DT. I wanted to look at other colors, so I kept looking in other souks. When I found the one I wanted (black with gold coins), I asked the souk owner how much. He told me 12 dinars to start out with. I laughed, thanked him, and started to walk away. Then he dropped his price to 10. At least now I was in the suggested price range, but it still wasn't good enough. When I told him that my friends got their scarves for 6 and that I'd just go back there, magically he dropped the price on his scarves to 6 as well! 

Taxis are also amazingly cheap here. The meter starts at 400 millemes and today my friend Courtney and I got to Gammarth, a few suburbs north of Sidi Bou Said where we both live, for 1,430 DT. Split two or more ways, taxis sometimes end up being cheaper than the train or the bus.

In a way, we're all becoming rather frugal. One of my favorite stories happened when I went with two friends to recharge the minutes on my phone. We all put 5 DT worth of time on our cell phones and I walked out of the store to wait with some other friends and Courtney and Lee came out of the store with disgusted looks on their faces. Turns out they wanted to buy a pack of gummy bears. The guy behind the counter just said "three" and they assumed he meant 300 millemes. That would be about right for the size of this pack of gummy worms. No, he wanted three dinars for them. "Three dinars?" Lee said to us, later, outside the store. He was exasperated. "For gummy bears? They're just regular gummy bears, they aren't even sour! Or worms!" I guess the guy at the candy store/phone recharging stand wasn't into bartering because he ended up without a sale. Keep in mind depending where you go you can get a sandwich for 3 dinars. You could get more than three round trip train tickets to Tunis for 3 dinars. That's the equivalent to 2 cups of gelato or 9 or 10 bottled waters or a couple kilos of blood oranges. 3 dinars for a pack of gummy bears? You have to be kidding :)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Tunisia lesson #3: Socks + marble staircase = disaster!

So I toppled down about 15 stairs this morning.

The Tunisian family I live with has a townhouse with a steep staircase with marble steps that leads up to my bedroom and the rest of the second floor. I guess I wasn't quite awake this morning because I ended up slipping on one of the first steps and falling most the way down. I was OK, not injured minus a few scrapes, but my host mom immediately ran over to me, frantically fussing in a combination of Arabic and French I only sort of understood. Her mother also jumped up from her seat on the couch and my brother rushed over to see if I was OK. When I finally conveyed to them through broken Arabic and a quick game of charades that I was, in fact, unharmed with the exception of my ego, the mood quickly changed. They all burst out laughing. So if nothing else, I can guarantee their new American daughter provides some pretty good entertainment! My mom gave me a pair of slippers to wear after that. The next few times I walked up and down the staircase, all eyes were on me to make sure I didn't face plant again.

I absolutely love my family! Wajdi takes me to Coste, the trendy cafe underneath the SIT building, to hang out with his friends, almost every night. Last night I ran into Ryan, another SIT student and his host brother and he, Wajdi and their friends taught Ryan dirty words in Arabic while my overprotective brother covered my ears :P  My sister, Woosdehn, excitedly showed me the A she got on her test yesterday. She also made honor roll and has the certificate to prove it! She's 17 and speaks the most English out of my whole family. She's also learning Spanish and we studied together last night after she figured out that I still have bits of high school espanol floating around my head. My mom owns a few shops, including a lingerie store in a mall in La Marsa, and she bought me a polka dotted pajama set yesterday! My dad does something regarding imports and exports between Europe and Africa though I don't know the details thanks to the language barrier. All I know is that he wakes up very early (around 5AM) to go to work every day. My grandmother (my host mom's mom) lives close and spent the night last night. She was actually born in Algeria.

I still live in Sidi Bou Said, which is really nice. I only have a three minute walk to school every day, and in my opinion, this is the most beautiful suburb of Tunis. I already know where the best places to eat are, where the supermarket is, where I can recharge my cell phone with more dinars, and how to get to Tunis or any of the surrounding towns. It's definitely convenient.

My bedroom is actually bigger than my room back in the states and I have a desk, a large bed and a big closet. The house itself is actually three stories. The living room and dining room/small kitchen are on the first floor, the bedrooms are on the second floor, and there's another kitchen and a terrace on the top floor.

Last night after I got out of my shower, Woosdehn asked if I wanted to dry my hair. Usually I just scrunch it and let it air dry curly but my mother absolutely refused to let me go to bed with my hair wet. I expected her to just show me where the hair dryer was, but instead, she sat me down and did my hair for me. Then she promised to do it every night. I was a little taken aback by such pampering, especially because my hair is thick and takes a long time. With a little translation help from Woosdehn, my mom told me that I had pretty hair, that I was beautiful and that she loved having me as a daughter and wanted to keep me. So my guess is that I've made an OK impression! My hair also happens to look fantastic today. When we talked about our host families in class and shared our stories, I told everyone about my mom doing my hair and Mounir explained everything. It turns out that a lot of people in Tunisia believe that if you go to bed or outside with wet hair that you will get very, very sick. Not just a cold, but something gross and evil. So most Tunisian parents refuse to let their children go to sleep without dry hair.

The only challenge has been conveying the fact that while the food is very good, I am not a bottomless pit (despite popular belief to the contrary). For breakfast this morning, my mom gave me a bowl of cereal and some OJ. After I ate that, she made me a giant sandwich with cheese and marmalade and a mug of coffee. After that was gone, she asked me if I wanted a banana and when I tried to tell her I was full, she handed it to me anyway. This is usually how most meals go here, I swear I had 7 different plates in front of me for dinner last night!

For gifts, I brought some photo books from Minnesota and a bag with Minnesota phrases and towns on them. The best part was trying to explain Minnesota speech to my siblings. Wajdi says uffda all the time now and Woosdehn likes to respond with "you betcha!"

The other "twin cities": The European Quarter and the Medina

The city of Tunis happens to be split into two distinct parts. From the train station that runs from the northern suburbs to downtown, the European Quarter stretches ahead. A large French cathedral anchors the middle and cafes, patisseries and high end shopping dot the main street. I've never been to Europe (minus the Paris airport) but it's easy to tell that this part of Tunis has a very euro feel, influenced greatly by the country's past under French control. Tunis, of course, isn't the only part of Tunisian culture with French flair. Most native Tunisians speak using "code-switching," a linguistic term for using more than one language in conversation. It's not unusual for a single sentence to switch from Arabic to French and back to Arabic again. I'm learning French as quickly as I'm learning Tunisian Arabic.

Blocks and blocks in from the train station, however, you reach an arch called the Porte de France or Bab el Bahr (which in English means 'door to the sea'). There used to be an entire wall separating the modern city of Tunis from the Medina but it was broken down when the two worlds of Tunis grew closer together. The Bab el Bahr yields to a maze of souks ("markets," basically, but there isn't a sufficient English word to describe them) which form concentric circles around a central mosque. Historically, each souk had a trade associated with it. The "purer" trades like perfumes and books made up the closest souks to the mosque while less "pure" trades (tanned hides, meats, and these days electronics and plastic 'junk from Libya' as Mounir likes to say) could be found in the souks closer to the outskirts of the Medina. On my first visit to the Medina, I ate excellent rotisserie chicken with couscous and french fries (of course). The street vendors have great food, too. Another day we ate chapatis with harissa, thon (tuna) and omelette inside. I can guarantee you I remember exactly where I got them because I will be patronizing that particular chapati stand rather frequently :P From the very center of the Medina rise two minarets. One is rectangular and plain, a typical Tunisian design. The other is Turkish from when Tunisia was under Ottoman control and is more lavishly decorated. Here are pictures of both:

The best view of all of Tunis is from the rooftops of the shops in the Medina. Take a look at this view!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Tunisia lesson #2: Tunisian pre-teen boys got game!

Sorry I haven't updated for a few days! Internet access (especially reliable access) is hard to come by here! I hope my host family has internet.

* host family DOES have internet, which should make blogging regularly a lot easier! We had to figure out some bugs with the WIFI but it's working now!*

On Thursday morning we visited Carthage, which was one of the places in the Tunis area I wanted to see the most. Here's a short background, for those who don't know. Around 800 B.C., a Phoenician princess named Elissa fled Phoenicia (modern Lebanon, though the empire extended into parts of Syria, Israel and the former state of Palestine) because her brother wanted sole rights to the throne and had already murdered her husband. She founded Carthage in 814 B.C. Carthage peaked under Hannibal, and the Carthaginian Empire was Rome's biggest threat to expansion. Tensions over control of the Mediterranean led to the Punic Wars and during the 3rd Punic war in 146 B.C. Rome razed Carthage to the ground. By the 1st century A.D. the Romans had rebuilt Carthage when the nearby city of Utica failed to serve as an adequate new capital.

Carthage came under control of a number of different empires following the fall of Rome. The Vandals captured Carthage in the 5th century A.D., and Muslim conquerors took over the city 200 years later.

Both Punic and Roman ruins remain and we got to see the Roman Baths and Punic mausoleums, shrines, tombs and aqueducts. It was so cool to be able to see broken Roman busts and columns and the tombstones that were placed over the victims of Carthaginian sacrifice.

When we were at the Roman Baths, a group of Tunisian school kids were visiting the ruins and wanted to show off their English skills to us. They introduced themselves to us and followed us around asking us questions. When they saw my camera, one of the boys asked if I could take a picture of them! So here they are:

They were so cute, but the funniest part is how brazen the young boys around here are. They've all got game by the time they're 10 or 11 years old! One of them, who couldn't have been older than 12 asked me for my phone number! I told a little white lie and said that I didn't have a working phone in Tunisia. I thought that was kinder than "I think I'm a little old for you, kid!"

After our visit to the ruins we went to a restaurant that serves fresh fish. It was a little hole in the wall but I had really delicious sea bass. I've never really eaten fish that hasn't been de-boned and cut into a filet before this trip, so I was a little unnerved by the eyes and head and tail. Once I got past the visual, though, I realized how good fresh fish really is. The meal also came with bread (hobs in Arabic, at least here in Tunisia), a salad with eggs, and french fries. Fries are almost as ubiquitous as harissa here. They come with every meal, it seems. Before I left the states I was convinced I was going to eat less and maybe even lose weight. Man, was I ever mistaken! Tunisians love to tell you "tcoul, tcoul," which, roughly translated, means "eat more"!

We've also been taking "survival Tunisian Arabic" classes to help us learn the Tunisian dialect. It's very different from fus'ha (Modern Standard Arabic), so this class has been crucial in being understood better here. It came in especially handy Thursday night when we met our host families at a reception.

My brother was the only member of my family able to make the reception. His name is Wadje and he's 21 years old. He attends a university in Tunis. Wadje is learning English at school but his English is the equivalent of my Tunisian Arabic---minimal. I also don't speak French, which doesn't help! He loves soccer, though, and he wants to take me to the stadium to see a match!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Tunisia lesson #1: 5 TDs will not QUITE buy you a panini

After landing in Tunisia, we met with SIT staff including Mounir, the Academic Director. Mounir happens to be the coolest person ever, but more on that later. We boarded a tour bus and left for Sidi Bou Said, a northern suburb of Tunis. Ironically, Sidi Bou Said was the picturesque Tunisian background I put on my computer before I left. Now I get to live there for orientation! All the buildings are blue and white and the city sits on top of a hill overlooking the Mediterranean. Our hotel only has 8 rooms and we take up all of them. Here's my door:

Adorable, right? I share the room with two other girls, Sara and Rachel. And when we wake up in the mornings we get to see THIS:

I'm basically in paradise.

After we dropped our stuff off at the hotel we got to explore a little bit. The town is surrounded by markets and shops and everyone wants to sell you SOMETHING---carpets, plates, stuffed animal camels, jewelry, the list goes on and on. And we're a little conspicuous walking around as a group of 20 something Americans so everyone tries to get us to buy something. We stopped at a sandwich shop a few blocks from our hotel for lunch. I got a chicken sandwich with harissa (a spicy pepper spread that Tunisians put on everything) and vegetables. They put french fries in it, too. When I went to pay I grabbed a bottled water as well and through a bout of miscommunication, all of the other SIT students and I realized that our sandwiches and drinks came to at least 5.5 TDs (Tunisian Dinars). We pulled out the 5 TD coin we were each given for lunch and they gave us our food anyway. We were the most business they had seen all day, though, so they didn't even seem to care. It reminded us to stop at the ATM, though.

After lunch we took a bus tour of the Tunis suburbs---Sidi Bou Said, Carthage, La Marsa, etc. Then we headed back to Sidi Bou Said to drink mint shai (shai is arabic for "tea") in the cafe connected to our hotel. It also happens to be a hookah bar and Mounir has promised to pass the hookah around with us later this week.

That evening we ate dinner in La Marsa at "the best pizza place in all of Tunis" according to Mounir. It WAS pretty good. And our bread came with harissa. No surprise there. I put some on my pizza, too. Tunisians eat it on everything, why can't I?

By the time we got back from dinner, we all wanted to sleep. I took a cold shower (still haven't been able to get hot water yet) and got ready for bed when a giant cockroach walked across our floor. Luckily I was in a room with two girls who aren't totally freaked by bugs. One actually happens to be the daughter of an entemologist. In fact, she even knew what kind of cockroach it was. Whatever it was, it was big and FAST. We spent 5 minutes straight trying to catch him in the lid of Rachel's deodorant but finally we did and we let him outside.

Exhausted, we curled up and went to bed.

Air France=THE best way to fly internationally

My day started at 4:00 AM on Tuesday, February 3rd. That's when I woke up to catch my 7AM flight to JFK to meet the group for travel to Tunisia. I happened to overpack my backpack so lugging it around everywhere did NOT help my stress level. I ordered a mango iced tea and a piece of coffee cake from Caribou while I waited in the gate for my plane but was so nervous that I didn't feel like eating or drinking anything, which is funny because I love to eat.

Once the plane took off, however, my stress level dropped off significantly. I was going to live in Tunisia for 3 and a half MONTHS. I was going on an adventure! And I was excited.

Once we landed in JFK I realized I needed to get to Terminal 1 and had no idea how to do that. Luckily, the girl I sat next to on the plane lived in NYC and she showed me how to hop on the airbus to get there.  When we were getting on to the elevator, a guy who also happened to be looking for Terminal 1 asked if he could follow us. When he said he was looking for the AirFrance desk, I asked where he was going. His name was Jeff and he was going to Jordan with SIT. We were on the same flight to Paris. Jeff and I were relieved to find each other and grabbed lunch before we got our tickets and met with our groups.

Everyone in my group seemed really friendly. We all chatted politely while waiting for the plane, finding out where everyone went to school, their majors and why they chose the SIT Tunisia program.

But now for the highlight of the day. The meal we got on AirFrance was actually GOOD! I mean, it should have been, it was a 7 hour flight (not to mention the fact that we had to wait on the plane for an hour before takeoff while the plane was "de-iced".) But I have no confidence in the hospitality of airlines anymore. This was a surprise. We got to choose between beef and mashed potatoes or cheese ravioli. I opted for the ravioli, and it was delicious, but I also got chocolate cake AND chocolate pudding AND bread AND a 7 grain middle eastern salad with chicken (also very yummy) AND cheeeeeese. I love cheese.

Even the drinks were free. And I'm not talking ginger ale, either. I mean they gave me a whisky and 7 UP for nothing. (Apparently there's no drinking age on AirFrance flights, sorry Mom!) :)

They served us breakfast, too. On both flights. AWESOME.

The only problem with the flight to Paris was that my feelings started to get the best of me. I don't know if it was the length of the flight or the fact that it was so late or what, but I started second guessing things. I missed my boyfriend, I missed my family, I missed my puppy and I wasn't going to see them for more than three months straight.

We got on our final flight from Paris to Tunisia at 8:45 AM Paris time and as soon as we started the descent into Tunisia 2 and a half hours later my mood did a 180. The view was spectacular and I knew that everything was going to be OK. More than OK, in fact. I was in for the trip of a lifetime.

We got to Tunisia at a little past 11:00AM on February 4th. It was a beautiful, clear day (which doesn't always happen here...the sand has blown up from the desert today so it's a little foggier.) and it was about 65 degrees!

I knew the minute I stepped outside that I wanted to be here and was going to have an amazing time.