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!


  1. I just cracked up at your big "whoops"! Mom

  2. See, THIS is why language is the single most exciting thing ever. I can't believe you're having this adventure, Becca...unbefreakinglievable. Keep reporting!-- katie