Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Tunisia lesson #6: The only thing better than lablabi? Lablabi sandwiches.

A few weeks ago we left for our northern excursion. Having been sick and not allowed out of bed for the past weekend, I was looking forward to crashing in the back of the giant tour bus and getting some good recovery sleep. I still felt pretty disgusting. When I got to SIT that morning, though, it turned out we were being transported by a far less spacious vehicle. When we packed ourselves in, humans and backpacks alike, we discovered that we were in very close quarters. Luckily the driving in the north was not as extensive as in the south.

We departed for Utica, another ruins site. Originally a Punic city, Utica used to lie on the coast, but the Mejerda River has since silted the site back inland. Always at odds with Carthage, Utica supported a mercenary rebellion against their rival city during the First Punic War and during the Third Punic War, Utica sided with the Romans and was rewarded when Rome took over Tunisia. Utica was also the site where, during the Roman Civil War between supporters of Pompeiius and Caesar, Cato the Younger threw himself upon his own sword having been captured by Caesar's men. A proud man, Cato preferred suicide to accepting the clemency his enemies offered. Impressed by his bravery, Uticans erected a statue in his honor by the sea.

Here are some photos of Utica, including a Punic tomb with a skeleton still inside:

After we left Utica, we stopped about a half hour later to get lunch at an outdoor "meschui" or grill. The meschui only consisted of a little stand with hanging pieces of lamb, some bread and salad meschuia, and an assortment of bottled beverages. There were also some scattered picnic tables and a playground. So while our lamb cooked, we played on the swings and the teeter totter. It was one of the best meals i've eaten here which is saying something given how good Tunisian food is. The lamb was spiced just right, and the khobs tabuna (a delicious Tunisian round bread) went perfectly with the salad meschuia. Our fingers got pretty dirty by the end of the meal but it was definitely worth it. Here's the playground:

Still on the road to Bizerte, we made another stop at Ghar el Mehl, a gorgeous white sand beach surrounded by reddish tree covered cliffs. In the cliffs sit two shrines of Islamic saints and we hiked for about an hour up the cliffs to visit one of them. Guarded by a "three headed dog," according to Mounir, which actually happened to be three dogs who lived on the roof (Mounir has quite the sense of humor), the shrine is cared for by a very old woman. The women in her family have been taking care of the shrine for decades. The woman could not have been more than four and a half feet tall, and she invited us in while she sat barefoot and cooked mint tea for us. She explains that people will often visit the shrine and bring decorations for it and that sometimes visitors even stay the night. After the hour long uphill trek to the shrine, I wondered exactly how dedicated these visitors must be. Here are some pictures of the shrine and the beach:

Mounir agreed that after we finish up our independent study projects that we should come back to the beach when it's warm enough to swim. I can't wait---it's the prettiest beach I've seen here. When we reached Bizerte that night, it was already dark. We walked around the medina and along the canal and explored the fort that looms over the city. Bizerte is an interesting place, the most European of any of the cities in Tunisia, and a strategic Mediterranean port. After Tunisian independence in 1956, the French continued to hold Bizerte, afraid of losing foothold in the southern Mediterranean. The Tunisian army and navy blockaded the city in 1961, sparking a 3 day battle that left 700 Tunisians and 24 French dead. France finally let go of the city under international pressure in October of 1963.

I wish we had had more time to explore Bizerte, we only had a few hours that night. That was enough time, however, to discover the wonder that is the lablabi sandwich. You might all remember lablabi from the recipe entry I posted a few months ago. It's a chickpea soup with spices and mashed up pieces of bread---looks disgusting, tastes delicious. Well Bizerte is apparently the only place where you can find lablabi in sandwich form, inside out, if you will: bread on the outside filled with the chickpea slop, harissa, cumin, and some olives. It's SO good. Knowing we had dinner back at the hotel in an hour, Emily and Ryan and I still couldn't resist splitting one between the three of us. It was an experience we absolutely could not miss out on. Unfortunately I don't have any pictures of camera got a lot of sand in it at Ghar el Mehl and didn't stop acting up until I got to Tabarka the next day.

We returned to the hotel that night, trying to get some sleep in before our departure to Tabarka the next day.

Nheb Sidi Bou Said Barsha

I have fallen absolutely, completely and irrevocably in love with my little blue and white village on a hill. Sidi Bou Said is home to me here, and even when I go back to the U.S., I will get homesick for my other home across the ocean. Every day on my walk to school, I have a smile on my face because something about this town is magical. It's captivated many before me; artists, writers, French philosophes... One of my favorite lazy afternoon activities is to sit, barefoot and crosslegged on a mat in the famous Cafe des Nattes, journaling on a napkin and sipping mint tea. Cervantes, Paul Klee, Simone de Beauvoir, Andre Gide, Focault, all spent time in Sidi Bou, and some sat on those mats, barefoot, just like me. It's humbling, drinking tea where some of the world's most brilliant minds have left their footprints. On my frequent trips to the snack shop just beyond des Nattes, I wonder if these artists, writers, and philosophers indulged in a daily bambalouni like me, too. At 10,000 calories a bite, Sidi Bou's version of a Krispy Kreme (only way better), might actually be the equivalent to a mouthful of paradise. Even the poorest starving artist could afford one, too. They're only 400 millemes.

One of my friends here is from MN and goes to the U of M. He teases me, saying that I only love Sidi Bou because it's the Edina of Tunis. Despite my protestations to the contrary, there are some similarities. Sidi Bou Said has always been one of the wealthiest Tunis suburbs. The President has property here, the U.S. Ambassador lives across the street from me, the town is filled with overpriced cafes, snobby restaurants and chic boutiques. It is true that Tunisian cake-eaters (makroud-eaters?) make Sidi Bou their home but there's a culture here Edina obviously lacks. Despite being one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Tunis area (you should see the town on Wednesday and Saturdays, when the cruises from Italy, Spain and Greece dock here), it has preserved it's authenticity. Sidi Bou Said will never be Hammamet, and I love it for that.

Most the shop owners on the walk up the hill to Cafe des Nattes know me now. No longer do I hear "You, beautiful girl, enter my shop, everything for nothing!" Now I get a friendly "Asslama" and an invitation in to hear stories of the latest tourist they've ripped off. The owner of the sandwich shop down the street from SIT knows my order by heart---chawarma (grilled, spiced lamb) sandwich with keftaji, fromage, barsha harissa, and frites. And the glass of orange-banana juice, of course. Extra chocolate and honey cookies from S'lim are still one of the benefits of visiting Coste for a cup of coffee. Even the young men that used to try to flirt with me on the street on the way to school are starting to be satisfied with a friendly "Sbah la khir, le bes?" Good morning, how are you? The cashier at the supermarket knows I buy a bar of dark chocolate with almonds every week. She asks me how school is going every time I hand her money for the chocolate. And she tells me each week how much my Arabic is improving.

So does my mother. Every Wednesday I have a late start, 1:00 instead of 10:00. Every Tuesday night I used to remind my sister in English. Last night I told my mother at dinner that "ghoudwa besh nimshee lil makteb a mahdi sayah." Tomorrow I will go to school at 1:oo.  She clapped her hands. 

I feel safe whenever I hear the call to prayer emanating from the minaret of the mosque up the hill. It's one of the most beautiful, comforting sounds I've ever heard. I've heard the call to prayer from a dozen different mosques but the one from the one in Sidi Bou is my favorite.

When I need some time to myself, I wander down the road away from town and walk to the little beach. The two best places to study here are on my rooftop or on the little beach. I find the same butterfly shells I collect in Florida on this beach but I haven't seen them anywhere else here.

One of my other favorite spots is the Dar Dalaji, another cafe. During the day we can sit on the roof and drink milkshakes or coffee or strawberry juice and in the evenings we can smoke shisha and listen to live music. On the weekends it's the place to be. A very happening place.

All I know is that I love it here and somehow, someday, I want to find my way back here. One of the difficulties of traveling somewhere alone is finding a place you want to share with other people. I know my sister would love it here. I know my parents would fall in love with Sidi Bou, too. Even my boyfriend, who isn't much of the traveling type, (at least not yet!) would be charmed by Sidi Bou. I know it. So many times I'll experience or see something here and want so badly for someone to be here with me to see it, too. I want the world to know about my little slice of heaven in North Africa. Well, maybe not the world. It's a well kept secret and I think that's part of the attraction. All I know is that I will get back here someday, and next time I plan on dragging people with me.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

You know you belong to Tunisia when:

So one of the other girls in this program, Karen, found a great blog by another American living in Tunisia. If you're looking for another woman's perspective on being an expatriette in Tunisia, check it out. Her stay has been a tad longer than mine! Her blog also includes a great collection of recipes and music.

One of my favorite posts of hers is her "You know you belong to Tunisia when" list. There are 24 points and I thought I'd include the ones that, even after just 2 months here, already apply to me. 

1. If you spend half the day in the cafe, smoking shisha and (she says playing rummy, I mostly just get hopped up on espresso or mint tea).

2. If you go to an office to ask for an important paper and they tell you: "Arja, ghoudwa (come back tomorrow)" (I should also note that this is a daily occurance. Whenever you need something, it'll always be ready tomorrow. And then tomorrow you hear the same thing.)

3.  If you tease every hot girl you see in the street (This one goes both ways. You all know I've seen my fair share of being the one teased in the street, but at the same time when I see some blonde french tourists walking down the street in a tank top and short shorts and wondering why Tunisian guys won't leave her alone I do laugh to myself about it).

6. If lablabi and kaftaji sandwiches are your favorite fast food.

7. If you say "mush normal" (not normal) when something surprises you (ALLLL the time, even when I'm speaking to people in English back home and they don't know what I'm talking about).

8. If you can't have a meal without khobs (bread). *make that half a baguette of khobs*

11. You say "Inshallah (God Willing)" as a nice way of saying NO

12. You think traffic lights and signs are colorful decorations for the streets (because trust me, I know they aren't directing traffic!)

13. Your relatives alone could populate a small city (I can't keep track of all the "cousins" I've met...they can't ALL be related!!!)

15. You put olive oil in and on everything (we have also taken to carrying around little bottles of olive oil to take to restaurants who give us canola oil instead, assuming we're tourists and don't know the difference. Embarassing them by saying "atina zit zituna, mnfudluk," or give us olive oil, please, has gotten a little old)

17. If you say "yaishek" to say thanks. (Directly translated, it's a blessing, but Tunisians use it all the time as thank you)

18. If you start talking to someone about a friend and realize they know them too. (Everyone knows everyone here)

19. El car essafra (the yellow bus) is a convenient place for flirting and hooking up. (I haven't experienced this personally cause I have a boyfriend but a lot of my friends have. The train is the same way. One girl in the group is dating a Tunisian guy she and I met on the train!)

20. Weddings usually last a week or more (henna kbira, henna sghira, el hammam) (I haven't gotten to go to a wedding yet but some of my friends have and they really are lengthy events. The women spend all week getting the bride ready).

24. If harissa is present in all your meals.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Tunisia Pet Peeves list

Let me preface this by saying this: I love this country. But I feel like I'm at an interesting part of my experience right now in the sense that I am getting sick of some aspects of the culture here. Some of the things are silly and probably not worth being annoyed with. Others probably deserve my frustration. So without further ado, in no particular order, I present to you the

TUNISIA Pet Peeves List

1. Most cheese is so expensive here. A wedge of parmesan at Carrefour, (Tunisia's version of Walmart) is 88 dinars. True story. Oh and good luck finding mozzarella. This shouldn't be a big deal but I really like cheese.
1B. Because of this, Tunisian pizza tastes really strange. Not bad, just different. 

2. As long as I'm on the topic of food, there aren't any tortillas here. I wanted to make my family tacos but all I could find was pan Libanese, this Libyan bread that isn't really close to a tortilla at all minus the fact that it is flat bread. No cilantro either. And all good tacos require cheese, too. I've been craving a taco since February.

3. Many Tunisians are just plain loud. I'm sort of a loud person myself so this doesn't usually bother me. But when the rest of my family is up at 7AM on a Saturday morning and yelling to each other through the three floors of my house, I wish I had more pillows to put over my head. A lot of times ordinary Tunisian conversations sound like angry arguments, as well, just based on volume and intonation...When my host mom yells at my host brother it sounds the same as when she asks him about his day at university. It's weird to adjust to.

4. I hate it when vendors and shop owners assume I'm a tourist. I know I'm not Tunisian either but please don't try to tell me that necklace is worth 4o dinars when I bought one in Tabarka just liked it for 5 dinars. I am not an idiot. I will argue with you about in in Arabic and then YOU will feel like the idiot for trying to jack the price up in French.

5. I would like to be able to walk down the street without having to cast my eyes down when I pass men in the street, because apparently eye contact is interpreted as a come-on here. I've been hit on by 10 year old boys and 60 year old men alike and all ages in between. I don't know where Tunisian men get off thinking they're god's gift to women but I am sick of it. I would like to be able to walk 2 blocks from my house to school without 5 different men trying to get me to give them my phone number or go out with them. 
5B. To their credit, they're always sneaky in getting your attention. A popular technique is to ask "Semahni, kadesh al wacht?" which means "excuse me, what is the time?" I used to stop and let them know only to realize there's a watch on their wrist. The next line is usually "you have beautiful eyes, would you like to go on a walk with me?" Ley, yaishek. No thank you.

6. In a similar vein, I miss some of my freedom. I can only go running in certain parks at certain times of the day. I can't be in the medina after dark because that's when the drunks and the thieves come out. I can wear a bikini on the beach but not without some creep telling me he wants to "get to know me better." My family is very overprotective and treats me a lot more like my 17 year old sister than my 21 year old brother. I'll be 21 in November. But it's because women have fewer freedoms here. I shouldn't complain because it is far worse in other places in the world, and it's not like it's safe to walk alone in Des Moines at night either, but at least I can go to a cafe in the states by myself without some guy inviting himself to sit down with me.

7. Drivers here are terrifying. I thought Iowa drivers were bad. I will be extremely lucky if I make it out of here without being hit by a car at least once. Walk lights mean nothing, stop lights mean nothing, Tunisians cross the street in the middle of traffic unscathed but drivers don't break for foreigners.

8. My homestay coordinater, Rym, approached me the other day telling me my family was concerned that I "don't eat." I burst out laughing. I couldn't help it. For dinner last night I had a giant bowl of couscous, half a baguette of bread, a whole orange, a whole apple, keftaji, and a whole fish. I ate it all and when I declined seconds my mom asked if I was feeling well or if I didn't like it. This is the story of my life when it comes to meals here. Interestingly, though, my little sister can eat a bite of her fish and three spoonfuls of couscous and it's OK for her to be "hamdullallah" or finished.

In the grander scheme of things, 8 complaints ain't bad. If I had to come up with a United States pet peeve list it would probably take me a month to write everything down. I needed to vent, though. Thanks for reading :P