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Au Revoir for Now

February 3, 2010 3 comments

My last days in Tunisia felt like nothing more than a blur of fun. No emotional elaborations, no final closure. This form of departure could be either good…or very very bad when the reality of good-bye finally hits me.  I’ve been heavily preoccupied with dreaming of visiting my news friends in new places and perhaps that’s delaying all associated emotions. In fact, I’m with my favorite Fati right now in Morocco, enjoying  North African hospitality and modernity and will soon be with Constantina, roaming the streets of London.

I’ve had no real desire to travel in the traditional sense and this will, no doubt, make good-bye more difficult than imagined. To explain, each page of my travel journal has a quote expounding on exploration. One that I remember distinctly said something to the effect that we best engage in travel when we learn everyone travels differently. There is no set criteria or definition for travel. For many it’s  sightseeing. For others, it’s relaxing with a pina colada. For me it’s getting to know people and myself. (At any rate, I hate sightseeing unless I’m doing it on a bike or in fresh air.) My attachment to my Tunisian home and family is so strong, I can’t fathom not seeing them within the week.

So how did I relish my last days of travel? I don’t quite remember! A blur, like I said. I went to Villa Didon for an event where splendor and corporate drunkeness was almost as fantastical as the view from the balcony. I hosted an Indian dinner party where Omar’s hilarity was the only thing that topped my chicken curry. I went to a soccer game where the lack of an announcer and sunshine made me almost as confused as the flying SOS sparklers and foreign cheers. And of course, I went to Kourbous where the breathtaking beauty of the ocean against the mountains made me break out into yoga.

Kourbous was a last minute plan, that as usual, ended being a gem of a day (especially when in contrast to the crappy weather of that whole week. I’m going to have to say God made Sunday January 31st for me to go to Kourbous.)

I went with Lavinia, Constantina, Mona and Meriem. Kourbous is known for it’s mineral springs and so we all went together to spend the day at the Hammam. The extreme beauty of Kourbous prompted us to make a detour from our spa plan and we went climbing a mountainy hill to get a better view of the scenery.

After a proper workout, we went into the Hammam, the Arab beauty salons. Here, you immerse yourself in a giant sauna and have a “hazra” scrub the bejesus off of your body. While I initially thought the roughness of this Middle Eastern exfoliation technique would probably leave scars, I saw 70 year old women with backs of a 17 year old teenagers. Ancient wisdom is wisdom no?

Soft and clean, I decided I needed a beer upon return to Tunis. Constantina Omar and I went to Hotel International where you can sit outdoors and see a full panorama of Tunis. We drank pale ales, ate olives and talked of love late into the night.

The next day was my last day. I spent it packing and preparing for my goodbye party where I had my most intimate friends come over for a dinner party. It was an absolutely amazing night but not at all an good-bye. I felt certain that I would see each and everyone the next day.

But no, in fact, it was just me , Constantina and Lavi- soon to be just me. They helped me do last -minuters and get out the door with my 30 kilo suitcase. Lavi then went to work and Consty and I bought Patisserie Magenta for a final coffee with Omar at the airport. After paying an arm and a leg for my suitcase, we sat together relishing the famous sweets and each other’s laughter.

I held Omar and Constantine for 20 minutes outside the gates, hugging them and in effect, hugging all my memories of Tunisia, before I walked through the doors and away from my home away from home. My travels here have been to build roots in pots of new cultures, and I will keep them growing strong for a long time to come.

Sidestepping the Football Culture

January 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Yesterday I had an interview with a possible replacement for my position at Sybel. When I finally came out of it to discuss with my boss,  I found the entire place empty except for me and Hager. The Tunisia vs Cameroon soccer game was on. 

I didn’t realize that work stops for soccer and once I learned of this fabulous cultural norm, I obviously followed suit. My initial plan was to meet up with Anna, Thameur and Karim at a cafe to watch the game ( remember the “multipurposed cafe” post? a cafe here can also be a sports bar!) but I eventually decided I’d rather get in an early workout so that I can go out for the night earlier than usual.

And anyhow, I remember all too well the night I was in France during the Euro Cup and Turkey won a match. So not interested in being in the middle of such “football hooligan” debauchery again. 

So I got to the gym ahead of schedule and ooph,  just the eeriest thing. I had the entire place to myself. The lights were a little dim. The distant buzz of the soccer game floated into the cardio room. Creaks from the wind kept making themselves known. I had a fleeting thoughts that I am in the middle of ideal raping conditions… but then I realized, how ridiculous! I’m the one with the dumbells in my hand. 

I switched off the game- what do I care about soccer?- put up the music and had an awesome workout. After the game, people started trickling in so I mingled for a bit at the bar with them. Once I had my fill of senseless soccer banter, the manager dropped me home so that I don’t have to walk along the street laced with ideal raping conditions. (I’m evidently getting a little paranoid) 

I got dressed as quick as can be and went out for dinner with Hicham in Lac. We decided to go to Phukets where one of my friends has redone the menu to include healthy dining and juices. I was worried the menu wouldn’t be out just yet we we would be stuck with cheesy crepes.( the cooks have been apparently learning pretty slow). However, when we got there and the waiter saw our dissappointed face and he brought out the real deal. It’s funny because the food actually tasted like a combo of Panera’s and Tropical Smoothie Cafe but I was so excited at the thought of having something American-ish, I didn’t care. I had a mozzarella, tomatoe, pesto panini and a peach, melon, strawberry smoothie. Divine! 

(Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder. The little things I miss have become too many to ennumerate!) 

I got home, nearly froze to death upon entrance because my chauffage had been off, and hopped into bed with a cup of fresh lavender tea and my yoga sutra translations (with commentary by desikachar). I love those aphorisms, there is so much power in their simplicity. 

The next morning I got up early for my usual yoga/pranayama meditation routine, and had a chat with my landlord. I have loved living here with this family. He needed my last months rent and I added a little extra because I broke a light ( I slapped it thinking that makes broken electronics work. woops!) 

He totally started my day off right. He told me how I am nothing like him the students who come and go in all his other apartments. He said I have been a little sister to his family and  that every one of them loves me very much. He praised my parents for the way they raised me and praised me for giving so much affection to them at all times. I was so touched I cannot tell you! So sweet! 

It’s now 10:30 here and I haven’t started to work. I’m leaving at 12 pm to get prepared for a  radio show I’m going to be on for TounesBledi. This show is called “Building Bridges” . I met a bunch of Americans learning Arabic at a bar one night and the Tunisian in charge of this program has been doing some really great things to fortify American/Arab relations (in conjunction with Hilary Clinton). He invited me to be on his radio show, did some minor Tunisian things that really aggravated me, I think a taxi driver had gotten on my nerves earlier because I was in prime flip out mode and I tore him a new butthole. But he didn’t retract the invite so maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought. At any rate, Ill be on the radio at 2 pm Tunisian time so tune in if you can!

Blending Work with Personal

January 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Last night after work I went over to Hager’s for a sleep over. Hager is my boss #2 and she takes amazing care of me. I am so thankful for having had her since day one of my Tunisian travels.

Hager has had me over sleep over many times before and we’ve stepped into a routine. Once we walk through the front door, she turns up the Mosaique FM and heats up the baby food, I put on pyjamas and feed the babies, we cook and chat some, Lobna (her sister) comes homes from work and makes a loud scene about her presence, Belhassen (Hager’s husband) brings us patisseries then leaves to go out with his friends, us girls eat dinner together then we watch TV and play with the kids till it’s time for bed. 

Yesterday, Hager made a full Tunisian dinner for me since it’s probably the last time I’ll be spending the night at hers. I saw how Kafteji is made from scratch, I discovered that Tangine is actually very delicious when fresh, and I nearly hurled when Hager informed me that the lamb in the soup is from Eid (which took place in November). 

Below are some pictures of Hager and her family. They’ve given me some of my best memories of an authentic Tunisia!

Rainy Intrusions

January 20, 2010 2 comments

The walls at Sybel are shaking because the techies are testing music. I have a office filled with cigarette smoke from my coworkers and clients. I’m sipping on a toy cup of instant cappucino. My feet are propped up on the chauffage. I’m drafting my travel plans for Morocco. I’m talking to a friend on Skype video. I’m blogging. I’m tweeting. I’m definitely not working.

I’ve perfected the art of feigned work too well actually and I get slight bursts of anxiety each time I start to wonder how I will manage once back in the good ol land of opportunity. I have transformed into the world’s worst worker after being the world’s most anal worker. Tant mieux.  

 But I’m kind of edgy these days. Slight bursts of anxiety also hit when I think about how I have less than two weeks left in Tunisia but so much left to explore! This weather certainly isn’t helping my efforts to venture into the unknown. While we aren’t getting the snow blizzards of Europe, it’s pretty darn cold and rainy these days, which means you’re constantly cold to the bone and reluctant to move from the warm spots electric heater generates. 

It’s actually quite the debbie downer. Anna, Lavi and I had been planning to make a trip to Sousse and Kairouan for over a week. We decide Friday that if the weather stays bad, we won’t go anywhere. I guess we all had it in our head that bad weather was a guarantee. Friday night I go out salsa dancing, come home late, and wake up late to sunlight streaming in my studio. The first thing I think is “Oh crap. I’m now committed to travel.” I call Anna, turn up the tired voice, and say, “Anna, it’s sunny”. She say, “Preeti, I know.” In an instant, we both realized neither one feels like getting out of bed. 

We cancelled all plans and chose to go to Sidi Bou Said instead where we could sit high above the ocean, smoking a sheesha and drinking tea. I met up with Omar, Marion, Lavi, and Anna at the train station and from there, we took a leisurely hour strolling to the Cafe des Delices. We walked up the streets lined with orange trees, poked our noses in trinket laden side stores, and posed before every blue & white painted door for a picture. Much better than being jostled in a louage, the reckless private mini-buses of Tunisia. 

Actually, this was one of my favorite times at Sidi Bou Said, and the change is plan was welcome. After everyone had had their fill of sheesha, I stayed behind for a few extra minute to relish the ocean dotted with fishing boats and mountains layered with the cream colored Tunisian homes. 

When  I got home around 4, I found myself exhausted. I’m like a sun-powered vehicle: take away my sunshine and I turn off. I cuddled into my warm blankets with book, a hot water bottle and a mug of black tea with rose petals. A few pages into my book, I dozed off and woke up to the heavy drizzle of rain. Merde. I was definitely not interested in going anywhere in the rain because here, when it’s cold here, central heating will not find you and thick sweaters will not save you. 

So I stayed in and cooked a spicy jambalaya, aubergine tapenade and stewed fruit which I topped off with cream. After eating, I turned my phone off, did some journaling, a gentle dynamic yoga routine and went to bed.

The next morning I woke up at 7 am and it was still raining. Merde! I refused to budge from my bed and instead slipped in and out of sleep till 11:30 am. I finally realized this is a ridiculous way to spend a Sunday so I decided to see the famed Bardo Museum. I bought some stuffed dates and met up with Omar at Tunisia’s Eiffel Tower. Together we went to explore the best preserved Roman mosaics … and the worst preserved Roman statues.

The architecture of the museum itself was just as incredible as the mosaics themselves. I had never imagined a mosaiic could boast such fine detail! Omar and I were as usual those most obnoxious pre-pubscent teen wannabe’s in the area and kept touching all the mosaics that dated 5 BC and laughing at the big bootied statues. 

I popped over to Anna’s apartment afterwards and then went back to Soukra where I had fresh juices made my company’s partner’s girlfriend (mouthful!) She owns a juicebar and restaurant in Ibiza and is at last, bringing an ounce of healthy mindfulness to Tunisian restaurants. We talked for ages on the difference between bee pollen and royal jelly and the best ways to get enough chlorophyll.

But come Monday, healthy mindfulness was out the window (and so were travel ambitions). Thameur came over for dinner and I made him french fries and he made me omelets doused in full fat cheese. We stayed up late watching movies, sharing our latest designs for work and thoughts about his upcoming exhibition on a 3-D interpretations of Kandinsky. I waltzed into Sybel the next day one and a half hours late, shook my umbrella out in the foyer, and sat down at my desk as if nothing at all was out of the ordinary. I need a time-out with a dunce cap on.

The Multipurposed Tunisian Cafe

January 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Cafe des Delices, captured in all it’s beauty by Patrick Bruel here, is a famed Cafe in Tunisia. I went there for the first time during Ramadan. Each time I visit a Tunisian cafe, I can relive that incredible evening teetering high above the coast, smoking a sheesha and sipping tea with the boys of @.

But this weekend, I got to attach new meaning to my generic idea of the Tunisia cafe. One would think, that with my final month in Tunisia, I would seek out something new, exciting and unexplored. Truth be told, a Tunisian cafe is a wonderful way to get to know the country and its people. 

While the initial  weekend plan was to go to Bardo Museum on Saturday, by the time I reached Passage after work, we were a tad too late to capitalize on the museum’s tomes. We decided that we would go to La Goulette for a walk and dinner instead. La Goulette is a beautiful port of tunisia with delicious but pricey restaurants. Before making our way over there, Anna realized she desperately needed a coffee. Going for a coffee in Tunisia is no Starbucks ordeal: you sit, wait for your order, and  then with the tiniest little cup of coffee, you spend one hour sipping it. I actually quite enjoy the pace of this proper break in the day- even though I always finish my coffee in 10 seconds flat. 

We spent 2 hours at the cafe before taking a taxi to La Goulette. We walked up the beach but then as the sun slid behind the buildings, it got too cold to go any further. We went into another cafe and this time, had tea and a sheesha. Anna and I took an apple flavored sheesh while Houssem took the real deal, a flavor slightly worse than a cheap cigar. 

Omar came by to join us later and as per usual, his presence cranked up the laugh factor. Soon though, it got too cold to stay even in the cafe so we moved on out to search for dinner. As we walked together aimlessly, we saw bright lights and found a restaurant titled Restaurant Cafe The Vert. 

We went inside and were met by an inviting wall of warmth. The place was beautiful, with peach table cloths, candles and flowers. The boys decided to have a feast and ordered the special 3 course meal of assorted Tunisian salads, seafood tapas and a giant grilled fish with white chardonnay. 

I have never before seen how my food goes from the backroom to the frontroom so this restaurant had a surprise in store for me. The waiter took us to the kitchen to chose our fish and I of course went camera happy ( and kept singing that McDonald’s commercial for a fish burger “Give me that little fish, give me that fish!”. )

Filled to the brim such that our ears turned bright red, we decided to head home. On our way to the train station, we ran into Malek, Melissa’s boyfriend. He had heard rowdy crowd of English speakers and came out into the streets to see who it was ( there are only a few English speakers in Tunisia so there’s a large chance if you know one, you are two degrees away from knowing them all!)

“Malek! What are you doing here?” 

“I was in the mosque studying the Koran with my friends”

All of us say , “Oohhhhh” with a nod in appreciation/reverence.

He stares at our solemn faces for a millisecond then bursts out laughing “HAHAHAHA!! Studying the Koran?! Me?! My friend has an apartment attached to the mosque and a bunch of us are drinking there  together.” 

Shocked faces replace our somber ones, “Aren’t you supposed to be studying for exams?!”

“We’re doing that too. Definitely more drinking than studying though. Its better for your brain you see.”

Children will be children.  After chatting with Malek, we wound up huddled one on top of the other, waiting for a train. Once back in Tunis, we met up with the rest of the gang at the Hotel International. There, we had drinks at the bar with a bunch of Austrian travellers before we went  into town.

It was truly freezing that night and we quickly dipped into the first known watering hole. From being a slab of gray wall, the moment the door opened, it was as though I had been pushed into a new world. An authentic Arabic band was beating away at drums and violins as a young girl danced. The chandeliers were on low and candles lay scattered over tables with ancient cigarette burns coloring the table cloths. Men and women sat together, closer than I had ever seen at any cafe, and waiters kept going around refilling glasses. A sole bartender worked his area with spouts and bottles crammed together into one neat corner that could be easily hidden with a drop of a curtain. I almost felt as though I had walked into a 1920’s bootlegger joint.

The following day we woke early to go to Dougga, a set of Roman ruins in the mountains. Constantina, the Greek intern, and I talked the whole way up as Anna snoozed and Houssem studied. Once we debarked, I was stunned with the tranquility. Far from Tunis, we were in blown away by the crispness of the air and the lustrous greenery of the rolling farms that surrounded the Dougga ruins. I think I found the landscape to be more beautiful than the ruins themselves! We were in a perfectly preserved part of Tunisia where you could see every ounce of its Mediterranean connection to Spain, Italy and Croatia.

We meandered the mazes of the Roman leftovers, raced up the colosseum for photos, walked through the country side where a herd of cows nearly mowed us down, soaked up some sun lying in the grass, and then we went for a coffee at the Cafe. 

The Cafe at Dougga is situated right on the side of the mountain, with long leaves from trees draped artfully across the terrace and a small stone wall being our only safety net lest we get too giddy. Incredible is all I can think of. Purely incredible. This cafe was nestled in the most ideal of locations where we could see the mountains, fields, small huts, ancient runs, and olive orchards while we listened to Arabic music and the far away calls of sheep to master.

 Thus, in one weekend, I experienced Tunisia by Cafe….and I would gladly do it again!

The Real Value of Holidays

January 4, 2010 Leave a comment

This Christmas holiday, it was Punjabi family time everyday. Dinner parties, like the legendary. Parantha Fest where my grandma and masi make 3 different types of Indian latkas and we all get together to competively eat as many as possible. Pub nights, like our Christmas Eve drink fest at Woodlands where we enjoyed both the beer and running into my aunt’s heavily hair gelled ex-students, all brown of course. Can’t forget general down time, where we battled it out over ‘Articulate’ and drank cappucinno’s while watching Singh is King. Topping it all of with a cherry is the gloriously golden turkey we had for Christmas dinner that had…. a thurka masala stuffing. 

Normally, my family does this almost eerie Pleasantville Christmas where we do a grand tree, a special dinner, open presents at a precise time, crank up christmas carols and eat a special brunch at a precise time, clean up then start cooking the main event altogether, then we eat at precisely 4:30, then we drink/desert/chat. Then it’s over. Just like that!

 I think that’s what I forgot though. It’s not about the exterior actions of Christmas, but the closeness it facilitates. I’m not Christian and so this holiday carves out a spécial time for me that is far beyond the Santa Clause or the birthday boy or lavish meals. It’s about having the luxury of time and using that to be with those near and dear to me. Shame I didn’t get to see my puppy 😦 I did a skype chat with my family and my baby Leo had already forgotten me. Stupid Cavalier King Charles’. They have no loyalties, as suggested by that happy go lucky name.

But in addition to family far away, I also got to reconnect with old friends all around London and I loved being able to tell my cousins, “Ok, I’m off to London Bridge! Hope it doesn’t fall down”. I’m such a christmas sweater wearing looser. 

Despite all the endless shopping, cuddles, and amazing food, I must admit, I was quite happy to come back to Tunisia. I have a new appreciation for it after being away. Omar was there waiting for me and his warm silliness made me so glad to be back. After I unloaded my duty free purchases of flavored Absolute, we went off for a sea side lunch outdoors, and then a walk along the beach in Lac where an amusement park with a ferris wheel slowly turns and techno heavily pumps.I saw the police reprimand a cute couple because they were getting a little too snuggly and the holy ghost couldn’t fit in between. I laughed for ages. I love this place. I love the surprises. And God, I love the weather. England sucks in that department! 

And that’s the other thing the holidays did for me, it made me appreciate what I have before me each day. I have exactly one month left in Tunisia and I think that’s the greatest Christmas present of all. Another chance to live what I love.

The Privellege of Proximity

January 1, 2010 Leave a comment

When I was younger, I would always lament that my cousins are boring. No longer the case! With us being older, wiser and merrier ( aka of age) family time is now always a good time and I sincerely look forward to every visit.

My Christmas holidays in London are exemplary of this. It’s only been over the past two years that I’ve been visiting England quite frequently and one of my favorite parts is how everything is compact. The physical closeness of family, friends, restaurants, temples, grocers, tailors, schools etc provides a diferent level of intimacy that I haven’t yet seen in the US.

An instance of this is when I got a watch rash on my wrist and my grandma insisted on taking me to the doctor. I did not want to sit for an eternity in a socialized health system’s waiting room. but if you know my grandma, you know that arguing with her is senseless. So early-ish one morning, we crossed the street and passed about 5 houses before we were at the doctors. Big surprise. I always thought thèse things weren’t conveniently located in such a system. Next surprise : all the signs were all written in English and Punjabi. My grandma’s little neighborhood is 95% Indian and this is level of personalization I also didn’t realize existed in socialized health systems. but then, the jaw-hit-the-floor suprise: my grandma knew everyone in the office on a personal level and the secretary fudged the books so that I could be admitted as a British Citizen. Finally, near-conniption-level surprise : I waited a total of 30 seconds before the doctor admitted me. Being in England has convinced me small is better and I’m on my way to becoming a fully fledged Libertarian.

Point being, I love visiting England because I love the pleasant surprises that come with compactness. Time, love, and connection are all augmented.