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.
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?
Teeth whiteners, of course! (You
knew that, right?)
And there was so much more to see!
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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??
Audrey and Sharon launched the first of their fashion photography
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,
Somewhere along the way a new rap group formed, with Ethan as
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!
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!