Tunis - The Cafe Culture Capital

Trip Start Feb 25, 2010
Trip End Mar 11, 2010

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Friday, February 26, 2010

First, you must understand that our trip to Tunisia had nothing to do with any long held desire to visit this Mediterranean nation. Until recently, we probably could not have located Tunisia on a mental map. Our motivation was based solely and exclusively on the fact that we had not seen our daughter for over 8 months and she was in Tunisia. 

In preparation for our trip to Tunisia, I searched for the Rick Steve's book on Tunisia.  It does not exist.  In fact, few travel guides do exist and the ones that do exist are sparse. The fact that the leading tome is a Lonely Plant guide should inform the traveler of the kind of experience they can expect to encounter.  More on this throughout the blog.

Our daughter Kelsey was awarded a Thomas J. Watson fellowship and has been pursuing the topic of her research since June 2009.  One of the many and varied conditions of the Watson fellowship requires that she can not return to the USA for 12 months.  Homesick and lonely, Mom finally had to go to Tunisia and dragged me along to pay the bills and haggle with street vendors.  $550 worth of inoculations later, we boarded an Air France flight connecting in Paris to Tunisia.  Air France has outstanding service for "coach" travel, but lousy seat cushions. 

Arriving in Tunis with a sore derrière, we are greeted by our daughter at the airport.  Thank goodness she speaks enough Arabic to negotiate with the taxis and navigate us to the hotel.  Although I had read about the challenges of obtaining a cost-effective taxi from the airport to a downtown hotel, I did not imagine it would result in verbal altercations between taxi drivers, police presence and moving luggage from one vehicle to another.  We clearly stated we desired a "metered" taxi, but our luggage was placed in a van that wanted $20td for the trip which should be closer to $5td.  Then our cabbie was drawn out of his cab into an altercation on the street from another cabbie who felt he should have received the booty and bounty of the clearly American tourists despite the fact he was already placing the baggage of another customer in his taxi.  The approaching police officer calmed the scene. 

Evidently, certain tourists are easy picking for the cabbie who does not mind taking the long way to the hotel in order to “earn” a few bucks.  My daughter spoke with the driver at length during the trip explaining that she lived in Tunis and was studying the unique Tunisian dialect of the Arabic language.  They soon became fast friends and she became his “sister”.  This happens a lot to her.  The taxi ride was under $4td and my daughter's new brother refused to take a tip.  I believe this is the first time in recent history that a taxi ride from the Tunis airport to a downtown hotel cost under $5td. 

Suffice it to say, that if you do not have a strong command for the French and Arabic languages, Tunisia may not be the place for you.  I possess neither skills and found myself relying entirely on the skills of my 22 year old daughter.  A unique and sometimes frightening concept.

As fate would have it, we arrived on an extremely important holiday – Milad an-Nabi - the birthday of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).  I learned that Kelsey had spent the better part of the prior day assisting one of her local families that she lives with in the preparation of a unique dish called “Asida Zgougou”.  This thick, rich and sweet treat is made from the primary ingredient of crushed pinecones and is topped with pine nuts, crushed pistachios, and walnuts.  It was delicious and I am informed that it contains more calories in a bowl than my diet allows for a week.

The first picture you see is an archway in the capital near the Souk.  This second picture is the entrance to the market which is a labyrinth of narrow, covered, winding passages with merchant stalls on each side often allowing less that a two person wide walkway.  As we approached the archway, we were approached by an elderly man who attempted to talk us up, get to know us and, later we learned, by doing so the plan was to ingratiate himself to us so we would feel obligated to accompany him to his store.  Several of the nearby locals yelled to him to leave us along because Kelsey “was Tunisian”.  This was an excellent first sign for me.  My daughter lived here in the Souk and attended classes for the entire month of December. Her presence as a local was well recognized.

Kelsey introduced us to what she called the “Café Culture”- more on this later.  We enjoyed the much needed strong coffee since we did not sleep much on the overnight flight. Some of the street shots show the Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul which is a Roman Catholic cathedral located in heart of this Islamic nation capital.

On our way to visit one of the local families that have “adopted” and support Kelsey as a “couch surfer”, we met Coco at the local grocery store who escorted us to the home.  Thank goodness for another pair of couch servers (John and his spouse) from Toulouse, France who were present to translate for us with our local hosts.  Their command of French and English were superb and they were a delightful couple.  We were most pleased to have met them. 

Lei Lei and Hosni hosted us in their formal living room with furniture that looked as if it was acquired from the Palace at Versailles.  They served us Asida and refreshments and discussing the history of Tunisia and its relatively recent independence from France.  This loving and generous family has hosted our daughter in their home in a caring and supportive environment.  We could not thank them enough.

We dined on a seafood Ojja which is an Tomato sauce and egg mixture with mussels, Kibbi Kabbab (a lamb sausage), a fantastic Tunisian salad loaded with Fennel, Tuna and diced vegetables, grilled chicken and a lovely harissa sauce which I came to both love and hate.

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