Thursday, June 25, 2009

Checking in and heading out

Fun fact of the day: Sahara means "desert" in Arabic. Sahara, therefore, is not its name but its description. The way it sounds in Arabic is almost an onomatepia; it really evokes the dry wind over sanddunes, parched feel of the desert... "eh-ssss-aherr-ahhh....EH!"(the EH at the end being the hamza, a little glottal stop that sounds like a small gasp).

We leave tomorrow at 8am for our 4 day trip South, which will include camel riding, desert camping, visits to historic mosques, beach, and the oh-so-cool sounding Isle of Jerba. I'm excited. This week was one day short, but has felt just as long as the others, although the workload has definitely become a little more manageable as the Arabic starts to finally click a little. The only problem is that I feel like I'm getting sick. It would be terribly ironic (and unpleasantly dehydrating) to have a cold in the desert. Inch'allah I'll wake up tomorrow feeling fine. I don't have real high hopes, though...I'm one of the only people left on this trip that hasn't been pretty sick already, although most of the problems so far have been stomach-related and are sort of ongoing as we continue to munch on sandwiches from vendors full of super spicy harissa.

Nothing terribly interesting to report otherwise. The homestay is a continual challenge, and Kate and I are taking to staying at school until 8:15pm or so in order to take advantage of homework space and internet away from our undisciplined brat of a sister and our judgemental, unpleasant parents. I've also been enjoying the cafe culture of Sidi Bou Said, taking my book and a friend or two to go get a cup of mint tea and share a chicha. Afterwards I catch the 8:20 bus back, get home just in time for dinner, go to bed not long after, and get up early to finish work and enjoy the peace of the sleeping house. The routine is getting a little tiresome, but this weekend should be a nice escape.

Until next week!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Roaming the Ruins

On Saturday I took the TGM train a few stops over to Carthage where I met up with one of the guys on the program, Akira. The sites were oddly spread out and not that well marked, so we kind of just trekked around to see what we could see, with Akira identifying the components of every column and statue we came across (he’s a geological engineer). The coolest part was the roman baths area, which had the most complete ruins over a larger area, although my mind wasn’t as much on the history as it probably should have been. After a grueling week of work I was really just enjoying the exercise and fresh air, as well as the half hour plus conversation we had with an old Tunisian museum worker who taught us how to put a pen between our teeth to pronounce خ and forecasted that we would soon be married, taking a photo of us to “show your grandchildren someday, inchallah”.

After we got tired of sightseeing, we slipped away from the hoards of bus tourists and followed a few locals down a little path to a “beach” of big rocks bordering the sea. We found a place among the rocks to stash our stuff and stealthily changed into bathing suits. Standing on the rocks waiting to jump in, I felt a pinch on my foot and looked down to see a crab dangling off of it. In the process of trying to shake it off, I ended up slipping and hitting my hip on the algae-covered rock before splashing into the chest-deep water. Akira laughed at my clumsiness and totally didn’t believe me about the crab. Later, when we got back out and were sitting on the rocks to dry off, we saw about twenty more. Ha.

We took a taxi back to Akira’s place, where I was invited to have dinner with his mom and brothers (Mediterranean salad with olives, tuna and egg; cous cous with fava beans, meatballs and liberal amounts of the spicy harissa; dessert: this delicious melon that’s kind of a cross between a cantaloupe and a honey dew that I’ve never seen in the states). I talked for a long time in French with Akira’s mother and her friend, who was apparently Tunisia’s first woman lawyer. After my experiences with my own traditional host mother, it was fun to interact with an unabashedly smoking, gaudy-jewelry wearing, French-poetry spouting, overall spunky old lady. We had espresso in the living room following dinner, after which point I begrudgingly returned home to shower the salt out of my hair and head back out to a house party hosted by Nathan and Justin’s host parents: a Tunisian artist and his French wife.

Their place was AMAZING—a bright, airy celebration of a house, with yellow walls overflowing with the dad’s artwork, light fixtures sculpted from driftwood, and knickknacks from various corners of the globe. In short: everything I want my house to be assuming I ever grow up and settle down long enough to get one. The music was similarly eclectic—I recognized some Cuban rap from my Spanish class alongside traditional Tunisian tunes and Michael Jackson. My FLTA Ashraf taught me how to dance like a Tunisian, and the host’s huge dog Starsky joined in the dancing with the mother as his partner (apparently dancing is Starsky’s favorite past time). The food was also great, (Tunisian brique, tarte, watermelon, sausages, and even wine! Yay French wife) but since I was still pretty full from Akira’s, I stuck mainly to almonds, which in Tunisia come fresh in their fuzzy green shell. It’s almost a social activity to sit around eating them, as it takes quite a bit of effort and jaw strength to bite through the green covering and the tan shell, then peel off the skin to get to the fresh, moist, milky-colored almond fruit (apparently it’s the oxidization that makes them brown).

Overall, a great Saturday, and it was nice to see everyone looking so happy and relaxed for once. Sunday was pretty uneventful, but a nice chance for me to reorganize my notes a bit and review vocabulary. Today was work-work-work our time with the worse teacher seemed a little more productive today (she got on me for doodling though...grrr..I swear it helps me concentrate by giving me something to do with my hands). I also think I got something out of my one-on-one tutoring, even if it was a drain on my hw time. My this week's happy thought: our second excursion to the South starts Friday morning and ends Monday night. Translation: both this and next week will be only four days long! woohoo!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Linguistic reflections

Test #2 was Friday. I got the exact same score I did last week, not best, not bad, so I’m still feeling okay. Almost all the points I got off were for the writing section, though, so I’m supposed to talk to the program coordinator on Monday about how to improve my spelling. Judging by people that didn’t do so hot last week, I think that probably translates to a private spelling tutor, which, although it just means MORE work, should be very helpful considering my current frustrations with class time.

I have two teachers each day. One is incredible—enthusiastic, jolly, and great at not getting exasperated at incompetent Americans. The other—not so much. I don’t think she’s had much teaching experience, which doesn’t help, but she also just doesn’t seem to have a good concept of the efficient use of class time, or pace, and her version of “helping” is to rewrite your sentence for you or impatiently supply you with the word you’re in the process of sounding out. It’s frustrating, and in a program like this where speed and intensity are the name of the game, it feels like a major handicap. I’ve tried to refrain from snapping at her, but I have very little patience for bad teachers (or anyone wasting my time, really), especially because St. Mary’s really spoiled me in the teacher department.

It has been a lot more difficult than I imagined to learn Tunisian and FosHa side by side. In case anyone doesn’t know, Arabic takes very different forms in the different countries it’s spoken in. FosHa, or Modern Standard, is the “universal” form that is supposedly understood by all (it’s the language of academics, printing, news, etc) but spoken by none. The way I visualize the structure of Arabic in my head is like the dinosaur DNA in Jurassic Park—the basic structure, taken from the mosquitoes in amber, was dino, but they filled in the gaps with amphibian. FosHa acts as this ancient structure, but local dialects fill in the holes to create new and individual languages. With Tunisian, French filled a good number of those holes and so did Italian (ex. Pen= “steeloo”, like the French “stylo”; OK=“dack-wher-doo” like Italian “Dacuerdo”). Tunisians appropriate French so naturally that half the time they can’t remember the Arabic word for some things that they’re used to referring to in French. The longer I’m here, the more I just want to learn Tunisian, as it’s more the talking to people than the grammar that inspires me. Unfortunately, we only get about 30 mins of Tunisian a day, compared to 4 hours of FosHa.

Arabic itself is a mix of familiar and unfamiliar elements, and although the completely foreign writing system and sounds and lack of cognates make it harder to absorb/retain, the structure is actually much simpler than the languages I’m used to in many ways. Like romance languages, there are masculine and feminine nouns, although like Spanish (and unlike French) it is usually relatively easy to tell which is which from the sound/appearance of the word. There is no subject for formal address like the French “vous” or the Spanish “usted,” thank God, so it’s not quite so easy to offend someone by using the wrong one (although, interestingly enough, the Spanish “usted” comes from Arabic, where it is a title of respect for a teacher). Verbs are conjugated from BOTH sides, with a first person, second person and third person prefix and a suffix for plural. THERE ARE ONLY THREE IRREGULAR VERBS(!) (come, eat, and take) but there are oddly no infinitives—the base form is the imperative. Nouns are altered with suffixes to allow possession (walidy = mother, walidity = my mother) and, like romance languages, usually precede their adjectives.

I had a great lazy Saturday yesterday, but I’ll save that until later, because I need to use my precious café Internet to do my homework. Until then, here are the explanations for this post's pictures of the less touristy, less glamorous sides of where I’m living. Tunisia is like the Where’s Waldo of stray cats—they are literally everywhere, and if you stand still long enough you can usually spot several lurking under cars, in trash cans, etc. They’re fairly clean and tame, though, as many families leave out scraps for them (because they’re preferable to rats). Also, Tunis is a very littered city, with new apartment buildings next to piles of rubble and discarded trash, especially as you move into the more middle class areas. Last: the vendors who sell to tourists often use their children to try and boost sales, which is both cute and a little sad. Here are two boys who posed for me, who are selling little bouquets of Full and Jasmine--two wonderful smelling flowers that grow everywhere here, and whose aromas will forever after remind me of Tunisia. These little handmade bouquets are sold on every street corner here for about half a dinar, and are purchased primarily by men (either old men, who wear them behind their ears, or young men, who buy them for their lady friends).

Last but not least: I don't know if he reads this, but if so, here's wishing a very happy Father's Day to the best Dad I know.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

All Sahel that ends well

Last weekend we took our first group trip, to a central coastal region of Tunisia known as the Sahel. We first stopped in el-Jem, where we visited the ruins of a roman colosseum. Having seen the colosseum in Rome and another in the south of France, I wasn't particularly excited. However, this one beat the pants off of the other two--first for the lack of crowds, but also how much of the structure remains AND is fully available to the public. Without Western ropes and guards, we were free to scramble all over (and under--this was where Gladiator was filmed, so you could go through the gladiator/tiger chambers). Here's a picture of me and Drew doing just that. I also bought a necklace in el-Jem, which I apparently paid too much for--I need to get better at this bartering thing. (Good thing I'll actually be getting bartering "lessons" tomorrow).

Next we stopped in Mehda--a cute coastal town whose local boys were enjoying diving off little rocks en masse into the beautifully blue Mediterranean. Several of our guys stripped down to join them, much to the amusement of the boys, as did one girl (much to the rather creepy interest of the men on the shore and the older boys, who all began swimming after her...I opted to stay dry). Here are pictures of one of the boys as as well as just a shot of the cute town, which was bordered by a field full of white graves bearing black and green (holy color) Arabic inscriptions.

After that, it was down to the resort town of Monastir to spend the night at a 4 star hotel--thank you, State Department. The hotel bordered on a white sand beach with crystal blue water that stayed shallow for a long way from the shore. It was weird to be in a place so clearly geared towards tourists. Not only was there toilet paper, but there was NO hose (FYI: by and large, Tunisians use a little hose to wash up in the bathroom. TP is sometimes available in touristed areas but is considered dirty here and can't be flushed) and there was a bar with (limited) alcohol, where I purchased the first beer I've had since I've been here (while progressive, Tunisia is still a Muslim state and alcohol is difficult to find and often prohibitively expensive). The beach itself was a weird contrast between the familiar site of lobster-red, leathery, topless/speedo-clad European beach goers and Tunisian families with mothers wearing Burquinis (I kid you not--look them up!) which are surprisingly stylish swimsuits that include sleeves to the wrist, leggings to the ankle, and a waterproof veil.

The next morning we visited the ribat (fort) in Monastir which was much like Oxford castles except, like with the colosseum, we were free to wander in and out of rooms and stairs without the hindrance of safety bars or any of that non-adventuresome nonsense. Here's the view from the top of the tower. We also visited the mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's first and beloved president who lead the country through independence and is largely responsible for the non-secular, feminist nature of Tunisian poltics/society relative to the rest of the Arab world. I'm still trying to get a better grasp on modern-day Tunisian politics, which is proving difficult, as Tunisians are hesitant to mention Ben Ali (and when they do, they look around uncomfortably and end in elipses). At the least, I'm now very familiar with his face, as there is no shortage of images posted in markets, on the sides of buildings and in stores. On the one hand, I know that he's done a good job of continuing Bouguiba's policies towards religion/gender, which I approve of. On the other hand, the government blocks YouTube, which I definitely don't appreciate. It's a good thing I don't have any freetime here--I wouldn't know what to do with myself!

Hokay, back to homework now. Thanks to everyone who has been following along with me and leaving me comments from various corners of the world--and for those who asked, yes, the homestay situation is improving (although my French is only getting worse as my brain gets altogether over-languaged). !بسلام

Monday, June 15, 2009

I have clean underpants again!

Officially back from my first weekend excursion, which was a lot of fun. Pictures and details will be forthcoming as I have time this week. Returning home last night felt surprisingly comfortable, and it was nice to hear Lubna say that she missed having women in the house this weekend. I also have clean clothes again--Lubna finally got to our laundry while I was gone, with the exception of my underwear and bra, which I hand-washed at the hotel in Monastir (it's extremely offensive in Tunisia to have other people touch your soiled undergarments--apparently this goes for socks, too, which Lubna left untouched in the hamper). Feeling well rested for the first time since I got here, I was able to get up early enough to make my own tea this morning to avoid more of the disgusting whole-milk-and-Nescafé (instant coffee-like drink) that has been forced on me every morning so far, and even managed to avoid insulting my host parents with the (completely made up) explanation of how growing up in a Commonwealth country made me partial to tea. Here's hoping they take the hint.

Every Monday we have to turn in something called "Critical Incident Reports" detailing moments of revelation, culture shock, etc that we've had in Tunisia. Rather than give a full blog entry today, I thought I'd share what I'm turning in:

Mistaken cat calls

During the halftime at a Tunisian National futbol game I went up to the concession stand to buy a bottle of water. Rather than the many large, bright windows of overpriced hot dogs and beers that I would find in the States, this was a small, dark hole in the cement surrounded by a crowd of men shoving for their orders. Taking a deep breath, I dove into the chaotic crowd. After a few seconds, I started hearing the familiar harassing “Hey! You! English? Girl? Hey!” I did my best to ignore the calls, keeping my eye on the window, until I felt a hand shake my shoulder. I turned around, to see a man pointing at my butt, saying “watch, watch!” Uncomfortable, I pushed away, but he was near me again in a second, shaking and pointing: “watch it! Watch it!” Finally he found the word he needed: “money! Watch it!” I looked down and saw what the man had seen—not my butt, in fact, but a colored piece of newspaper sticking out of my pocket that looked an awful lot like a Tunisian bill. He motioned that I should tuck it in further, using “bad people” as his explanation as he motioned towards the crowd around us. I laughed, pulling the paper from my pocket to show him what it really was—the article from the daily paper saying that women could get in free to the game. He laughed too. I used the little bit of Arabic I could muster (this was only a few days in to the program) to introduce myself, before switching into French to thank him properly for his kindness.

My first big “whoops” and my first big “whoa!” in the same five minutes

One night, when I stayed after hours at SIT, a friend called me over to help him communicate with the cleaning lady (I’m fairly fluent in French, so I’ve been filling in where our developing Arabic isn’t yet sufficient). Confident, I repeated what the friend had asked me to say (“did you find my shirt in here last night?”) in French to the woman, who stared at me blankly. “Je ne parle pas français” she said.
I felt suddenly helpless—more than I had been anywhere since our arrival—and I realized how much I had been using my French as a crutch. After mangling Arabic trying to get the question across, I tried to excuse my inability to communicate with “Sorry, [my] Arabic is not good”—unfortunately it came out as “Sorry, Arabs are not good,” a pretty severe faux-pas if you ask me. Luckily, she was quick to understand that racism wasn’t my intention, and after an apology and another minute or so of gesturing, we were able to get the point across. My friend thanked the woman for the shirt, which she returned to him with a string of Arabic. “What was that?” he asked. “She says you left it out on the balcony yesterday,” I said. It took me a minute to realize that I had somehow understood her perfectly, but that she had been speaking Arabic. “How did you know what she said?” my friend asked. I’m still not sure, but what I do know is that it felt pretty amazing.

Cab ride revelation

I noticed the difference in license plates on my first day here—longer than ours, with some Arabic letters squished in between numbers. Not knowing how to read the letters, I assumed that they were, as ours are, randomly selected to create a wide range of possible combinations. On the cab ride home last night, after our first week of classes, I was staring absently at the car in front of us when my eyes fell on the suddenly meaningful letters: Tunis!

Friday, June 12, 2009

One week down...

I'm sure everyone has heard about the Egyptian method of preserving bodies by shoving a red hot poker up a corpse's nose, scrambling the brains, and pulling them back out in a melty mess. My Tunisian education thus far feels pretty similar (Egypt's only one country over, after all...). This week has been outright exhausting. I wake up at about 6:30 to get ready and get to school, which starts at 8:30. We have two two-hour sessions of class, a one-hour dialect lesson, and then hours of homework. However, what with the need for lunch in there somewhere and at least a little bit of down time, plus all of the activities we've had planned in the evenings, I never finish. I inevitably get home around 9, help set up for/clean up dinner, eat, and talk with the family, and by then it's about 10:30 and I have an hour or so to do what work I have the energy left for and get to bed.

We had our first test today, which I totally bombed (due to the time limit and not my Arabic ability). I'm not too concerned--I'm not getting graded after all. I feel pretty good about my progress thus far, regardless of testing. I can now read and write every letter, although I still have problems spelling, obviously, and I read at the pace of an electric company video from Sesame Street (Cuh----Aaaah----Tuhhh....Cuh--Aah--Tuh....CuhAhTuh....CAT!). I can also introduce myself, talk about my family, count money, order food, ask about the bathroom...pretty much do anything I would absolutely NEED to do. I'm also beginning to pick up words here and there in the conversation at home, which makes me sound rather like an idiot when I suddenly interject during dinner to parrot back the words I know (table! chicken! She doesn't want!). My host parents react as encouragingly as real parents would, smiling and repeating it back to me along with a string of other words I don't understand. Lina's five-year-old intellect has finally wrapped itself around the idea that my muteness is due to incomprehension, and she is now on a mission to correct everything I say, not that her choice of vocabulary is always helpful (she spent five minutes last night trying to get me to say something like Gahr-Gah Bool Zed...which turned out to be Dragon Ball Z, her favorite TV show). Asking her "shoowa hedda" (what's this) also has mixed results...I asked about a Tunisian flag and she said "aller aller!" (French for "let's go, let's go") and then started singing a Tunisian futbol chant. Ma'lesh. (Oh well).

Arabic itself is as fascinating as it is frustrating. I'm looking forward to next week, when we will progress beyond the alphabet and learn more about conjugating verbs and such. Not being able to string together sentences is killing me, as it's always the creative and structural aspects and actual conversation that I'm good at, not the memorization. As per usual, though, I'm still able to find ways to amuse myself, whether by the semi-orgasmic noises that emerge when a room full of students is practicing their "Huhhhh" (mine's getting pretty good, by the way), the fact that "sup?" translates into Tunisian as "penis," or that the Tunisian word for 15 is "mustache."

On the homefront: things are better, slightly. Kate and I are getting better about establishing our boundaries with Lina, and since we've been getting home around 9 we don't spend a whole lot of time with the family. Mustafa's brought up politics a few more times--apparently it's not just America and the Jews he hates, but also the French, the Chinese, the British... I slowly but insistently counter his opinions with "actually"s (actually, in America I have Chinese friends and....actually, I lived in Britain for a semester and...) Even if he's intolerant, he's at least giving me a little space to express myself--I just need to watch what I say, and not be the one to bring things up. On the other hand, I had a perfectly lovely (and long) conversation with Lubna last night about Islam--she was surprised to find out how much I new about her religion, and also surprised to find out that a lot of the Quaranic stories are also in the Bible and Torah. I'd love to pick her brain a little more...she's such a puzzle in my mind (educated and intelligent, but submissive, modern, but religiously traditional). I'm really looking forward to seeing where this friendship goes.

We leave at 8am tomorrow for our first weekend excursion to the Sahel--a central region on the coast. I'll check in again next week with pictures and a summary of how it goes!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The honeymoon had to end sometime

So the homestay is going to get harder before it gets easier, it seems. Lina is cute, but spoiled, and her brattiness is getting old quickly. She seems to think she has the right to anything she sees (translation: anything I'm holding) and has no problem going into my/her room to explore my belongings or even grabbing them right from my hand. If I refuse or take them away from her she starts tantruming. I'm learning some Arabic phrases today to discourage her...if her parents won't set the limits, I will, and I've already noticed that the Arabic "leh" has more effect than "no" so maybe broaching the linguistic barrier will help. We also got a hateful tirade from our host father last night about politics--how naïve we Americans are, how we believe Muslim stereotypes of terrorism that are ignorant, how the Jews are behind all of our politics, and are responsible for 9/11 and the war in Iraq...etc. Near the beginning I tried to divert him, but it became pretty clear that he was looking for an audience, not a discussion partner, and the fact that he was citing propaganda as truth made me realize that there was probably little I could do to change his opinions. The experience left me uncomfortable and Kate even moreso. We brought it up to the program leaders today, who have instructed us that next time we should just end the conversation when it starts, and gave us a number to call after hours if that doesn't work.

I'm determined to view this as a challenge, though, and an opportunity to let myself and my actions speak louder than the media when it comes to impressions of Americans. Inch'allah, maybe I can change some minds in the two months that I'll be here. Also, aside from political lectures, the family has been extremely hospitable, and the food is great--last night's dinner was a great Tunisian pepper salad called Mushiwya on bread, and a chicken and pea dish that reminded me of subsaharan african cuisine. Tonight is going to be some sort of Tunisian speciality involving spinach...mmmm!

And now, for the promised futbol summary:

After learning from a Mozambiquian guy from DC (small world, ain't it?) about the futbol match, me and a group of nine other CLS students climbed into our first Tunisian taxi (which was, like all others I have ridden in since then, a seatbelt-less, crappy-radioed, thrilling experience) and headed to the outskirts of town for the national Tunisia vs. Mozambique game. Women got in free--a little sexist, perhaps, but I was happy enough to save the five dinar. We decked out in headbands and Tunisian flags and did our best to follow along in the foreign chants, much to the delight of the Tunisians around us, who offered us commentary, snacks, and--in my case--phone numbers (from the taxi driver, then the widowed dad behind the cute Tunisian boy in this photo--I need to figure out an action plan for these sorts of situations.) It was cool to see Tunisian women and children cheering alongside the men (I see them much less frequently then men in public here), and curious to see tea and bread vendors instead of beer and hotdogs. Overall, a ton of fun, and I think we're going to try and make the next game in a few weeks.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Hedda Ohrkti

Hedda Ohrkti: this is my sister. Heya esm ha Lina: her name is Lina. This is about the extent of my Arabic at this point, although being only 5, Lina has yet to realize that I don't understand her constant babbling, so I've been enjoying pleasant (if rather one-sided) conversation. I've discovered that if I speak French to her, she understands me about half of the time but responds only in Tunisan (although French is widely heard here, most Tunisians speak Tunisian in the house and begin to learn French formally when they start school). She calls me ta-ta (auntie) and drags me around everywhere by my forearm (eeejuh! eejuh! shoof!) (come, come, look!). This picture was taken when she discovered my laptop and was insistant on playing with it...rather than have her mess up my documents I opened up photobooth and....voila! Instant distraction.

Also in my family: my father, Mustafa, my mother Lubna, and a three-month-old brother, Amenallah. So far, Mustafa speaks to me of politics in bursts of beginner's English, Lubna speaks of religion, education, and womenhood in French (when her husband is not around), and Amenallah...well...he gurgles in universal baby. I share my family with another girl in the program, Kate, although seeing as how she speaks no French and our parents speak very limited English, communication is largely up to me. The house is small, but clean and sufficient. I'm sleeping in what was clearly Lina's room (and which we still sort of still contains all her toys and we each have a half of the closet) and Kate sleeps in what used to be the study and still holds the family computer (and many sci-fi posters...Mustafa is a self-proclaimed sci-fi fanatic and is seemingly obsessed with Jodie Foster).

The family is traditional Muslim, which is the exception rather than the rule in present-day Tunisia and makes me a little more worried about what is expected of me, but it should be an interesting cultural experience nonetheless. Lubna dons a full veil and robe everytime she leaves the house, as well as each of the five times per day that she lays out her mat for her prayers. I've already had a few enlightening conversations with her...but more to come on that later. It's a little awkward right now as we work out the family schedule and negotiate cultural differences (particularly surrounding meals, and when they should be eaten, and how much we're expected to eat), but I'm sure things will feel more comfortable as we settle in.

Today was also our first day of classes. We have Modern Standard Arabic from 8:30 to 1:00, then lunch, then a few hours of "free" time to take advantage of the school's internet as we do our homework. 5pm is Tunisian dialect lessons every day this week, although they'll drop off in frequency in the coming weeks to be replaced with different "cultural excursions" (I have my fingers crossed for a hammam) and culture clubs (I'm in pottery club).

Off to class again! More to come soon, as well as photos and commentary from the national futbol game I got to see on Saturday night....

Friday, June 5, 2009

Behi behi barsha


Here is my first official blog from o'er the Atlantic. So far, Tunisia has been "behi behi barsha," or very very good, which is a phrase I picked up over lunch at a cafe today (except at that point I was talking about my pasta--I'm still not sure exactly what was in it, but it was barsha nonetheless).

Our schedule has been hectic to say the least. I've yet to get a full eight hours of sleep since I arrived (and at this rate, I won't tonight, either) so I'm still a little jet-lagged. The unflagging enthusiasm of all involved sustains me, however, as does my inexplicably strong love of this country. Really, I absolutely adore it. Never in my travels have I ever felt so immediately taken with and comfortable in a country as I do here. Tunisians are incredibly warm, friendly people, all of my preconceived notions about the limitations of life in an Islamic country have been shattered, and I'm in linguistic heaven. Although I'm soon going to make an effort to avoid using it as I learn more Arabic, my French has been serving me well, and I am more comfortable striking up a conversation in French with a stranger here than I have ever been in France. Arabic is an intriguing and I'm playing with the few phrases I know to begin piecing it together (our formal classes start Monday). In the back of my mind, I'm already plotting ways to get back to the Maghreb after this summer is over...Peace Corps? Fullbright?....

And now, to cheat and use bullet points, because I'm tired.

Things I've done in the last not-quite-three days:
-been lost (and then found) in the bazaar-style marketplace (souks)
-been surprised at how much the main street Avenue Bourgiba and the view of the mediterannean reminds me of Nice
-toured the city extensively and loved my Tevas in the process--until today, when I started hating their still-faint-but-probably-going-to-get-worse-quickly smell
-seen many, many more women without veils than with them. My favorite so far is an elderly mother, completely covered, accompanied by her preteen daughter in booty shorts and a skin-tight, gold-lettered spaghetti strap shirt.
-eaten any authentic Tunisian food I can get my hands(mouth?) on, including an eggy pastry called a Brik El Medina, Harissa (a spicy red pepper garnish), Mechouia (spicy pepper/onion/tomato appetizer), Couscous, Schwarma, and, of course, loads of delicious mint tea
-visited the intensely fortified American embassy and resisted attempts to be recruited for the Foreign Service or the State Deparment
-attended a dressy reception at the ambassador's house and gotten my first glimpse of the GOREGOUS neighborhood I'm soon be living in
-had at least one quadralingual conversation (Arabic, English, French and Spanish)
-played a gambling game with some Tunisian teenagers in an alley near our school, using a combination of gestures and bad Arabic to understand the rules
-been laughed at by the ten-year-old son of a shopkeeper for my butchering of "bu Kaddesh" (how much) due to my inability to pronounce the throaty "K" sound (as well as about 5 others...*sigh*)
-exchanged Arabic for English phrases with one of the restaurant workers at the hotel...and made a "date" to do the same tomorrow
-been grateful to the shopkeepers who have helped me count their unfamiliar currency from my outstretched hand--and slightly irked by the few who have already scammed me into paying a few dinar more than I should through whatever tourist trap method (just you WAIT 'enry 'iggens...I'm learning your language and I'll be BACK for revenge)

That's all for now. I'm moving into my homestay on Sunday and am excited to meet the awesome family, inch'allah (god willing), that I'll be living with for the next two months...

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Notes from the hotel lobby (5/31/09)

So I figured that if I'm going to do this thing, I should do it right (write?) and get in the habit of regular entries. Here goes.

As I write, I am sitting in the lobby of the Renaissance M Street hotel enjoying the cheesy smooth jazz piano soundtrack they're playing for the businessmen at the hotel bar. The wireless in my room costs ($13 a day!) so I've settled for the cheap-as-free computer bar area down here. Not too much has happened so far--just a brief orientation session, and the distribution of a number of forms, an insurance card, and our fat little $60 stipend envelope to fund our two days in DC. Considering that the only meals we have to pay for are tonight's dinner (chicken tikki masala...mmm!) and tomorrow's lunch, that left a lot for "ice breakers"--aka hitting a few of the swanky Dupont Circle bars to get to know each other a little better.

So far, I'm incredibly impressed and excited by my group of fellow soon-to-be Arabic whizzes. I was a little worried coming into this that I would either be on the older side of a mostly undergraduate group, or that I would be the only non polisci/conflict resolution person. Turns out that we're an incredibly diverse group geographically and by age--ranging from CO, to KY, to MN, and from age 19 to 28 (at least as far as I've heard)--so I fall comfortably in the middle. And although there are a fair share of political-minded people, the fields we represent are wide spread and fit together in a really interesting way--there's a geological engineer interested in resources and oil in the Middle East, someone interested in sustainable development, someone interested in public and reproductive health, someone interested in health care, etc. Even the polisci people aren't speaking a totally different language, as a lot of what they have to say jives with what I've learned in my own study of Islam and the Maghreb. Everyone's intelligent, but in their own unassuming sorts of ways, and we're all pretty likeminded in terms of cultural curiousity and a passion for travel. It's a stimulating environment to be in, for sure, and though being together in the hotel feels a little like "Arabic camp" as one girl said eariier, the prospect of what we're about to embark on and the high scholarly expectations everyone has also feels appropriately adult for this point in my life.

Tomorrow is going to be long--a full day of conference-style meetings, round table, panels, etc. with guests ranging from Tunisian ambassadors to State Department representatives coming to recruit us for other opportunities (Fullbrights, foreign service, etc.) The question on my mind is whether I'm allowed to reapply for CLS next year (one of the sites for intermediate is Morocco!). I'm also hoping to meet the half of the group that I haven't yet (there are 32 of us in all) and, even more importantly, I'm praying that my mneumonics will work and I'll be able to recall the names of those I met today. I'm not sure if I'll have the opportunity or energy to write tomorrow, but until next time....

and they're off... (6/2/09) a few short hours. We have to check out of our hotel in the next hour, then it's off to the airport, across an ocean and a sea, and on to Africa!

I just read about an Air France flight that got lost over the Atlantic coming from Brazil. eek. Good thing I'm not generally a nervous flyer.

Love you all!

Marhaba! (Welcome!) (5/29/09)

This is my first foray into blogging since my short-lived high school Xanga, and this time around I hope to avoid the pitfalls of emo-ness and dullness that I fell victim to as a teenager. My idea is to keep a sort of travel journal while I'm in Tunisia (and, later, while I'm in France, assuming I'm able to make a habit of writing entries). This can then take the place of annoying mass update emails, and allow you fine people to choose how often (or not) you'd like to check up on what I'm doing.

So as far as the Critical Language Scholarship goes, I'm two days away from my orientation, where I will meet the band of (hopefully cool) people that will accompany me on my Arabic adventure. This puts me four days away from the actual flight. I've gotten all my shots, ordered my shiny new portable Lapple (a mere few days before they started the free iPod promotion, alas!), bought some Teva sandles, dug out my outlet converters, and generally started to feel my typical pre-departure anxiety.

On the to-do list before Sunday: get a haircut. PACK. Go over the Arabic flashcards and typing program that I really should have started before now. PACK. Get my paperwork together for France, so I can send it off before I go. Finish un-packing my college stuff. Pick up prescriptions, and some Immodium (fingers crossed my stomach will react just fine to camel couscous and I won't need it). Get some passport photos taken.

Oh yeah, and PACK.