Wednesday, July 15, 2009


And now, a list! Random things about Tunisia that I haven't yet mentioned:

1. For once in my life as a traveler, it’s fun to be an American. People here have so little experience with Americans that I become immediately rare and fascinating as soon as my nationality is announced (this is especially true outside of Tunis). The few Americans that do make it here are not the standout, overweight, white tennis shoe and fanny pack wearing, English-demanding type, so the only bad reputation I have to overcome is the slutty commercialism of pop culture. It’s also fun not being recognized—shopkeepers trying to lure me in usually guess French, German, Czech, Danish, Norwegian, etc…roughly following the order of tourist density. When I finally admit American, they usually repeat it back to me followed with the one or two things that immediately come to mind: “America…Obama!” being the most common, with “America….Las Vegas, Miami, New York!” (what can I say, they watch a lot of CSI here) as a close second, and “America! Ooohhh…Michael Jackson” accompanied by a sorrowful glance and “allah yarahamu” (God rest his soul) being a recent alternative.
2. There are several chickens and a rooster living in the empty lot next door. I never realized that roosters don’t wait until dawn to make noise. They kept me up for the first few nights but now I hardly notice any more. On the days where I happen to wake up in the wee hours, though, I hear our rooster answering the distant calls of neighboring roosters. The echoey effect is rather like a siren. Other night sounds: cat fights. (Cats sound creepily like crying children sometimes). Weddings. Darboukas (Tunisian drums) Mosquitoes buzzing around my ears.
3. We have a weekly lecture about some aspect of Tunisian culture, usually by academics that are accustomed to speaking/reading academic French but who lecture in English. It’s amusing for me to watch them make the same false cognate mistakes in English that I’ve been making for years in French…our lecturer yesterday kept saying that families in the Northwest drink milk from proper cows (propre in French= “[my] own”) and I’ve heard quite a few people talk about “popular” opinions or locales, when what they’re trying to refer to is not the popularity but the working-class that it’s associated with. Others include “actually” instead of “currently,” “history” instead of “story,” and “achieve” to mean “finish”—slight shades of meaning, to be sure, but still an esoteric moment for me when I make the connection between the French and English words in my head and realize why what they’re saying sounds a little off.
4. Even though I spend most of the day cooped up inside, I am turning the nice toasty brown of a better-take-it-off-the-bonfire-or-it’ll-combust marshmallow. My feet are particularly nice, with their Teva tan. The sun really is stronger here.
5. Tunisians handle medicine like the French—with frequent antibiotics and at least five different prescriptions for even the slightest ailment. Since the beginning of the program, my guess is that we’ve had at least 15 people see a doctor who has been brought in to school, for problems ranging from intense stomach issues to ringworm and lice.
6. I have eaten more melon since I’ve been here than during the rest of my life combined. Not only is it better here but they have a Lebanese kind that looks like a larger cantelope on the outside and a yellower honeydew on the inside that is absolutely delicious. Also: when you’re hot and sweaty, melon is the most delectable, re-hydrating dessert you can imagine.
7. Eating has its own interesting culture here. If you ever see a Tunisian eating, you will undoubtedly be asked to join, even if it is obvious to both parties that they don’t have enough to share. You often have to refuse three times before they will reluctantly leave you alone—which also holds true at dinner. Sometimes it’s insulting if you don’t accept at least a little bit—a date, perhaps, or a glass of lemonade. Even after a month and a half of insistent orders to “Kul, kul!” (eat, eat!) and insulted complaints that we’re not eating enough and are going to wither away, I’m still having a hard time accepting these as regular, friendly parts of the meal ceremony (which they are, but to an American they come off as overly aggressive!). Also, something I’ve learned the hard way: if you make the mistake of pronouncing something “benin” (delicious!) at the end of the meal instead of the beginning, you will immediately have your plate seized and re-filled with food, as this is interpreted as a polite request for more.
8. Tunisians have “dumb Libyan” jokes instead of dumb blonde jokes.
9. Black and green olives come from the same tree. And almonds grow Russian doll style inside a brown skin inside a fuzzy green shell. The actual almond itself is white before it oxidizes to become what Americans used to.
10. Jasmine grows everywhere here. I’m usually particularly sensitive to smells, but for some reason I’m not getting tired of its flower/honey scent—it almost seems, at times, that its aroma is just an inherent quality of the quivering summer air and not the result of a plant. For the rest of my life, the smell of Jasmine will always bring me back to this summer. I’m hoping to find some Jasmine perfume or soap before I leave to heighten that nostalgia…


  1. Love all your observations, but especially the one about cats sounding like crying children because I just read an article yesterday that THEY DO THIS ON PURPOSE!!

    I KNEW cats were evil...(particularly my cat)

  2. I saw someone asking on yahoo questions whether she should have an abortion as she didn't want her baby to be born into a world without Micheal Jackson...


    Sounds like you're learning heaps and I'm still jealous. I found a bike for you, for when you get back. It's dolled up like a camel :)also some mistranslated (I hope) arabic... maybe you can help me out. I'm pretty sure the sign isn't supposed to read "shat fresh fish"

  3. The tan lines I got from my Keens in India stayed with me for more than a year...