Chapter Fifty Six December-January 2011

This is our forth year in a Muslim country. Not normally a great way to celebrate Christmas. Unless, of course, you invite the Shrys.

Our niece Rachel, nephew Eric and his brother Sam, their children Ethan and Audrey arrived on Christmas Day. They left the ice and snow behind in Germany and arrived in sunny Tunisia for a week’s stay.   

We kicked the week off with Christmas Dinner in their apartment overlooking our marina. The lasagna was a bit charred and soupy as we struggled with the unfamiliar oven, but no one cared.  We were not going to starve this week.  We discovered beignets.

 56IMG_0349.JPG (90712 bytes)     56P1030903.JPG (252858 bytes)  

On Sunday morning we met Eric’s friend, Amin, his wife, Miriam and his sister, Amira who escorted us on an exquisite tour of nearby Sousse. Amin and Amira are Tunisian but spent their early childhoods in America. Translation: perfect guides! We met at the sensational Sousse market in our 9-person van. Although we had been to Sousse before, we had never driven. Now we were challenged with one-way streets, no street signs, donkeys obstructing traffic, high speed roundabouts and mobs of Sunday pedestrians. But we made it. John was the Official Chauffeur. (No one else had the courage; one Tunisian man told us the signs along the highway are “merely there for decoration.”)

At the Sousse market one can buy anything and everything found in a supermarket, fresh food market, butcher, delicatessen, drug store, Wal-Mart, Home Depot or an interior design center.  And more.  But the trick is to know a) where to find it b) the price to pay for it and c) what it might be disguised as. What do you thing these pieces of bark are for?

56IMG_0276.JPG (142717 bytes) 

Teeth whiteners, of course!  (You knew that, right?)

And there was so much more to see!

56IMG_0280.JPG (142819 bytes)      56IMG_0290.JPG (170391 bytes)     56IMG_0310.JPG (217037 bytes)     56IMG_0319.JPG (103132 bytes)     56IMG_0342.JPG (110175 bytes)     56IMG_0364.JPG (227799 bytes) 

Amira tells us that women love to get together with girlfriends and spend a morning rummaging through the second-hand clothing stalls. There were some pretty exciting looking things there, but we didn’t linger. There was so much more to explore.

 56IMG_0301.JPG (172467 bytes)

We (the group) purchased several carpets, nearly a dozen waffle-weave towels and lots of miscellaneous stuff that morning. But now it was time for lunch.  We were asked to choose either a) a decadent lunch by the sea or b) a no-nonsense “hole-in-the-wall” eatery with home-made local cuisine. We chose the latter. It was sensational!  It was also our first experience at trying things like Mechouia Salad, a green pepper and onion salad sautéed and mixed with hot spicy harissa. There were beef, chicken and lamb dishes in cumin sauces and calamari and meatballs. (I told you we wouldn’t starve!)

We waddled over to the ribat to have a look.  By the way, a ribat is a monastic fortress which sprang up on the North African coastline in the 9th century when the Muslim inhabitants - many of whom were pirates – who were under constant threat from marauding Christians based in Sicily (pirates themselves). They are square forts with a lookout tower on each corner, manned by soldiers who were seen as holy warriors. In times of peace the men lived and studied inside the bare walls around the ribat’s inner courtyard. We enjoyed the sunshine and a fantastic view of the city.

56IMG_0396.JPG (155595 bytes)  

The grand finale was almond tea by the sea and a very fond farewell. The whole group got on like old friends. No one does tours quite like Amira, Amin and Miriam!

 56IMG_0338.JPG (94195 bytes) 

Our first day was marred slightly by a driving incident.  To put it kindly, driving in Tunisia is one big day at the bumper cars.  Tunisian “driving techniques” are unusual and quite tricky to anticipate.  Or avoid.  That initial scrape was long and deep.  (The second one, on the other side of the van, wasn’t nearly so large.)

We spent a day touring Monastir, where we live.  We took the family to what we call “the chicken shack.”  You sit outside and there are three menu choices! Not exactly the Tunisian home-cooking we had experienced the day prior, but at least we knew what we were eating.

Habib Bourguiba was Tunisia’s first president and the hero of their drive for independence from France in 1956.  His tomb is in Monastir and it is stunning.  His marble sarcophagus rests beneath a 30,000-piece Baccarat chandelier.                

 56P1030496.JPG (256853 bytes)    56P1030466.JPG (226328 bytes)     56P1030472.JPG (226501 bytes)   56P1030474.JPG (258405 bytes)

We dragged our visitors to the Roman ruins at El Jem and through the twists and turns of the medina in the holy city of Kairouan.  Kairouan, of course, is also the Carpet Capital of Tunisia.  Need I say more??

56IMG_0623.JPG (185032 bytes)     56IMG_0624.JPG (158519 bytes) 

Audrey and Sharon launched the first of their fashion photography series.

 56IMG_0531.JPG (196647 bytes)  

One morning, shortly after we set out, Audrey became carsick.  We pulled the van over to the side of the road and Sharon hopped out as the rest of us got some fresh air.  Sharon was approached by a woman who asked, “How may I help you?”  They chatted for a few minutes, in perfect English, and the woman invited us all in to tour her family-run olive oil factory.  She sent her daughter to the market to buy some bread so we could sample her product.  Wonderful!!  We came away with 7 liters.  Thanks, Audrey!

 56IMG_0451.JPG (129948 bytes)     56IMG_0455.JPG (153787 bytes)     56IMG_0467.JPG (134020 bytes)

Somewhere along the way a new rap group formed, with Ethan as leader.

 56IMG_0670.JPG (146750 bytes) 

Navigating our way through Tunis, Eric managed to find the Bardo Museum on the very first try!  This is a neat trick when you consider the total lack of road/street signs and major highway construction in the area.  (Friends rented a car to visit the Bardo recently, drove all the way to Tunis and returned without ever finding it.)  The pièce de résistance was Eric’s genius in finding our way from the Bardo to the hotel through the maze of surface streets and frozen traffic.  Let’s be honest here: one highlight of the whole trip was John’s pilotage and Eric’s navigation of our oversized conveyance into spaces designed for much smaller vehicles.

The hotel was centrally located.  That’s about the best we can say for it.  We had done the reconnaissance for the hotel selection the month prior. It suited our needs so we booked it. Except that this time they gave away our third room, couldn’t initially come up with an extra bed and lost all water on New Year’s Eve (although we eventually got it back). The plumber stayed banging on the pipes until 2 AM at Sharon and John’s room. But they wouldn’t have made it to midnight otherwise! Isn’t that what “adventure” is all about?

Speaking of New Years Eve, we spent it at a small restaurant and a short walk from our hotel. (At this point we were trying to minimize the driving!) Our “Special Non-Smoking” room was filled with smokers, we had to wait almost 2 hours for our meal, most of which we left behind as the quality was so bad. We toasted in the New Year and to Eric and Rachel’s 16th wedding anniversary which, to their shock even they forgot, the day before! Let’s hope they don’t forget their Christmas in Tunisia!

The Shrys flew back to Germany, our adventure over. But now we were faced with the van man. How could we anticipate our liability for the dents and scratches when the contract said not a thing about it? We both had a few sleepless nights over it.  Monday morning John met Mohammed with the balance of cash in hand. John was nervous as a cat as they did the traditional sipping of tea together. They walked to the van.  Mohammed circled the van, inspected it carefully, threw out a handshake to John and exclaimed “C’est bon!”  John came running home and we laughed so hard we cried! 

John’s back to work. Fixing the leaky exhaust was this week’s project. A buddy assisted. Two heads are always better than one!

56IMG_0827.JPG (120117 bytes) 

We will exit the country to renew our visas by taking a short hop to visit friends in the south of England mid-January. More work followed by a trip to the desert in February. Stay tuned.

Happy New Year!

 56P1030834.JPG (261577 bytes)