Monday, October 12, 2009

Some things are universal...

...like French toast! Which, I am happy to report, my host family made for dessert last night. And the night before, we had this creamy pasta for dinner that, with a little imagining, almost tasted like mac n' cheese. You do want you gotta do to get by here. Not that I am complaining at all. My host mother has kind of adopted me as her own, since she never had children. When someone is over and asks me how my parents in America are or if I talk to them often, she always interjects: "Why would she need to, she has a mom here!" It's very cute and mostly serious. And as if my first private bath weren't enough to win my heart, practically every day she makes some incredible dessert: cake, puddings, juices made from local fruits...She also had these beautiful Senegalese clothes tailor made for me. I am so spoiled here (real parents: take note).

****
I'm handwriting the first draft of this entry sitting outside of our house to the tune of the radio (maana, maana!), Catholics singing hymns next door and one of the biggest games of the football season happening at the stadium across from us. My host family is fluttering around me, moving mattresses and bedding outside to prepare for sleep and avoid the heat of the house, stopping occasionally to attempt to decode these English scribbles over my shoulder. It has been a long time since I've updated: life has been busy with road trips, school work and long walks around every corner of the city. I have had many adventures and many average days performing my all-too-easily made routine. I'll try to recap as best I can.

Two weekends ago, I went with a big group of Toubabs to the Lac Rose, Senegal's premiere tourist attraction: a pink lake about an hour outside of the city. We hired cabs for the day (a flat rate of just 20 CFA or about $40) and went out in a big caravan. To our disappointment, the lake wasn't pink at all! Apparently, it was too soon after l'hivernage (the rainy season that ended in September) for the lake to turn pink. Either way, it was nice to get out of the city. We still got to see the piles of salt they're extracting, take a nice walk along the shore, swim and float on the water, and some students even rode camels over the makeshift sand dunes.
The day before, my host family invited Morgane (the fellow exchange student that lives next door) and his hostbrother to have lunch with our family. My family prepared his favourite--this delicious Senegalese vermicelli with dates and raisins--and then we sat around for the rest of the day eating multiple desserts, drinking atayelle (the traditional super sweet mint green tea) and bissab juice. It was both delicious and painful. Luckily, that afternoon we played some basketball at a neighborhood court and went dancing in the night. It was my first time really going to a club and it was fun, although not my favourite thing. The club felt a little mafia-front esque with a lot of guys in suits and weird light up fuzzy wall paper on the walls, but the air-conditioning made the cover more than worth it.

The day before that, on Friday, I had a day literally worthy of the Amazing Race game show. I had received a package to pick up at the main post and decided to head down there after class, not at all knowing where it was or how to get there, but figuring I could just ask for directions along the way. As it turns out, I was doomed from the start: I miscommunicated with the first person that gave me directions and took the wrong bus. Not realizing it, I kept asking the bus driver to tell me when we reached a stop that wasn’t even on the line. He was really nice though and gave me a list of buses I could take to get there. I, however, disregarded them, because I wanted to walk. My trek then turned into me asking dozens of people. No one knew though, so in turn kept giving me directions to places/ people they thought would know. In an hour, I visited the British embassy, Ministre de L’interior, National Assembly, Musee de Dakar, and was led through the streets by a crippled man, only to find out I had been led to the wrong place: la poste financiere. Someone there offered to give me a ride (don’t worry—I wouldn’t have taken it), but was then informed that, because it was a Friday afternoon, the poste had closed at 1 in the afternoon. Given that it was 4:40, we were a bit too late.
It was probably one of my favorite days here so far though. I spent the rest of the afternoon walking through the Centre Ville. I happened across a beautiful cathedral, its fence lined with women selling Virgin Mary pendants, passed an international school with children of every colour dotting its sidewalk, French gliding off their tongues and totally oblivious to their differences. I even went to the Marche Sandaga (the biggest market in the city) and managed to not be harassed by over eager merchants. Now, you’ll be happy to know, I got my package. On Monday, I set out with a map and walked for about an hour, too stubborn to take a taxi or bus, through one of the liveliest neighborhoods of Dakar I’ve seen so far, the Medina. The sidewalks were crammed with vendors to the point that you had to walk in the streets and every intersection had a memorial for something or statue of someone chipped and missing limbs, a reminder of colonialism. It is also the neighborhood with the Grande Mosquee, an absolutely beautiful green and white mosque that takes up a block.
The weekend prior, I went on my mid-class phase field trip to Toubacouta with the other students in the program. Toubacouta is a small village very close to the Gambian border, so about 9 hours from Dakar. We set out on the unpaved roads in two buses, passing through many of the cities and towns where many of the people in the program will complete their internships. In Toubacouta we stayed at this nice eco-tourism hotel made up of thatched-roof huts, with monkeys climbing in the trees around the hotel and a POOL! We spent the five days we were there traveling around the area, visiting women’s microfinance groups, government officials, a public radio station, local health clinics, and listening to presentations about the environmental problems of the area. We planted mangroves, having to walk through mud up to our knees or higher. We visited a local village in the night and saw a dance and listened to traditional drumming in our honor. It was a great trip and so nice to get out of Dakar and learn that there is so much more to Senegal than the make-up of Dakar.
Oh, I also visited the Gambia!!

Well, considering it’s taken me so long to post this, another weekend has come and gone. I will post more when I have more time and access to the net. Take care!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009



It is a Tuesday afternoon, my first and only day of class this week and the third day of a new moon, an occasion that usually passes without acknowledgement, but that carries special importance this particular time. Sunday was the Muslim holiday Korité, which marked the end of Ramadan. Korité always follows the sighting of a new moon, which was Saturday night. There was a lot of controversy over whether the moon was sighted or not, but most families went ahead and celebrated on Sunday, more than ready for fasting to be through. We students were just as eager, having heard about what an occasion la fete de Korité is and eager to see how city life changes when people aren’t fasting.

Sunday morning, the day of the party, started with a breakfast of Laax (sp?). It is hard to explain exactly what this is and it has been known to make many a Toubab sick, but is pretty much a grain porridge with a curdled milk sauce and sugar mixed in. Yummy! It was also the first time here I got to eat with my host family before sunset. After a big breakfast, I helped cook our lunchtime feast. I spent the morning peeling potatoes and onions, after undergoing a long tutorial from my host aunt about the correct way to peel a potato. I also learned why all the women here are so buff—they prepare all of their spice and garlic mixtures by mashing them by hand in these giant pots, pounding and pounding with all of their upper-body strength. Throughout the morning, men also stopped by to visit the family after having gone to the mosque, because it is a very family-oriented holiday. They would stop in, shake hands and say “Baal ma aq” (forgive me my sins), to which we replied “Baal naa la” (I forgive them). I then changed into my Korité outfit, which was met with a lot of oohing and ahing—everyone here loves, loves, loves when you wear a local outfit. It’s became a great way to boost your self-confidence for all of the students here. We ate lunch—pommes frites, chicken and a cucumber tomato salad—a pretty typical Korité dish and then drank the traditional sweet dark tea served in rounds and went around the neighborhood, because the afternoon was the time for the women to visit family and friends. My host sister and I visited the other exchange student and his family and also the closest siblings of my host mom. When we got to our family’s house, my host mom’s older sister showed me a picture of her mother, my Senegalese namesake, and gave me these beautiful silver bracelets as a sign of her respect for me. It was such a nice moment.

The holiday was relaxing and so much like holidays I celebrate with my own family because of that. I certainly learned a lot this weekend about the importance of family, tradition and hospitality central to Senegalese culture. It was a weekend that involved me having no idea of what the right thing to do at any given moment was, but feeling comforted by how welcoming everyone was, nonetheless. A few days ago, the host father of one of the exchange students passed away. On Saturday, a large group of us gathered to go visit the family and pay our respects. Culturally, it was interesting to observe how people respond to death here: communally (women and men gathered in separate rooms, sitting close together and spending hours on end talking), conservatively (the amount of clothing seemed to matter more than the colour) and, once again, in a very hospitable way, which was what surprised me most. Those that were grieving the most were also the ones playing host, inviting us to return to a dinner they were preparing and passing out sugar and millet balls as a sign of thank you for coming. Personally, visiting the family was an emotional experience and left me reminded of so many of the cultural gaps that exist between me and my own family, how I would not know how to behave or what to expect if I was in Eritrea. Here, however, I always have the excuse of being an exchange student, whereas I am Eritrean and not knowing the many facets of this identity is starting to feel more and more like a betrayal to the cultural I carry.
Monday, I woke up early and went on a walk/run to a neighborhood I hadn’t been to yet, the HLM. Coincidentally, I was there at the time the men (Mourides, who believed the rightful day for Korite was the day after my family and most families celebrated) were beginning to gather at mosques to welcome in their new year. I turned a corner to find nearly a hundred men sitting on their rugs, outside of a mosque. When I looked up, I was greeted with a stream of men and boys dressed in their long robes and neatly pressed pants walking to the mosque, boys carrying mats twice their size across their shoulders and men turning prayer beads in their palms. It was one of the most incredible images I have seen here yet and it completely caught me off-guard—how something so serene and spiritual could be happening on the trash-lined streets made dusty by cars and buses whishing by. For the rest of the walk home, I was thinking about how traveling always leaves me feeling very conscious of how large the world is and how so many things are happening completely separate of each other, but simultaneously. I imagined myself in this place I never dreamed of ever visiting—a back road in a random neighborhood in Dakar, a microcosm on a giant map of a continent whose many intricacies will probably always remain a mystery to me. Somehow, I ended up here, painfully aware of everything I gave up to come and everything I’m gaining by staying, on the Western most tip of a continent accidently drawn in the center of the world: in Africa.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Rambling and Wondering

Bon jour!

I’m sorry that I’m not good at this whole constant updating thing. It’s not that internet is that scarce, but rather that there is a long process of coming to terms with everything here—needing to figure it out for myself before I write it for the world. This process, however, is nowhere near through, but I decided it was about time I sat down to share a little of what I’ve been through these past two weeks.

I’m now in my second week of school, enjoying a light load relative to Macalester. I have four classes—International Development Theory, Country Analysis (including a French language component), Public Health and Social Services, and Wolof. The classes are good, but are scheduled for large chunks of time, which leaves random mornings/afternoons/evenings free. So far, I am enjoying my Wolof class immensely. I didn’t think I would be so interested in learning this language, but it is a fascinating language and contradicts so many facets of language we take to be self-evident coming from a Latin based language background. For example, in Wolof, you don’t conjugate the verb; you conjugate the pronoun for different tenses. They also don’t have adjectives, but rather verbs to describe states of being. Also, it’s really interesting to learn about the influences Senegal has undergone. Like how with technology-terms, most languages share the same word: radio, computer, internet…But in Wolof, even the word “table” was borrowed from French: taabal. Being here has also made improving my French seem like a smaller priority while here: it really isn’t the language of the country, the people or the cultures. So for now, Wolof is where the heart is.

I found out where my internship for the second portion of the semester will be. I will be living in Touba, which is the holiest city in the country and the home to the largest Senegalese Muslim brotherhood, the Mourides. You should google it; because it is a beautiful city from what I can see. I’ll be working with an organization called ASCODE. I don’t know much about what they do yet, but do know that they help refugees abroad in addition to helping to build infrastructure in communities here. I’m really excited to see what it’s like and among all of the students here, there is definitely excitement building about what it will be like to be really immersed in Senegalese culture, away from the other American students, our air-conditioned classrooms and internet access.

Aside from school, I had a very exciting past weekend. On Saturday, I went to the centre-ville with a few friends to visit the largest market in the city. We spent the day wondering around the city feeling totally overwhelmed by all of the vendors shoving things in our faces and trying to guilt us into buying their products. We also visited the oldest market left over from colonial times, where they sold fish, vegetables and Asian foods. It’s strange, but there is actually a large Chinese population here and their foods seem to be integrated into household meals here. After hours of walking, we went to the most beautiful cove on the edge of downtown. Aside from the really dirty water, it was picturesque: canoes lining the shore, kids jumping off of a boulder in the water, women preparing food in front of their houses overlooking the water. It was a good end to the day and then my host family had Indian food for dinner and watched the Indian soap operas that are popular here, which was an even better end to the day.

On Sunday, I visited my host sister’s sister with her. She lives in Grand Dakar, which is the neighborhood bordering my own, but is a neighborhood that has a completely different feel. The streets are unpaved, every woman is carrying baskets on her head and the streets are filled with music streaming in from doorways covered by only a sheet. I felt a little like a kid sitting in on an adult conversation about taxes; only understanding a Wolof word here and there. Then, later that afternoon, I went back with my friend on a three hour walk that uncovered 5 or 6 neighborhoods of the city. We sat in on a church service and passed others as it was a Sunday afternoon, passed what looked like a Chinese mansion, watched basketball and football games…It was a day of discovery and seeing the city from another perspective, one that has existed under my nose for two weeks now.

This morning, Melinda and I went to a market by my house and to a tailor to pick up a dress I had made and drop off fabric she got to have an outfit made. It was a fun experience and the first time I really maneuvered the city on my own, trying to get from one exact location to the next without a local person with me. We managed to meet up in a location we hadn’t been to before, go to a market (any only get called Toubab (white person) by a few kids), find the tailor and the way back to my home with no problems. The whole time, I couldn’t help but think about how just two weeks ago I didn’t imagine ever being able to remember the route to and from school, not to mention how to get around multiple neighborhoods in my vicinity. I still have a long way to go before understanding this city and country, but petit a petit—little by little.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Becoming Maymuna

I am about one paragraph into my first paper of the semester and what better time to write a blog post than when you’re looking for a way to procrastinate, n’est-ce pas? It is Sunday night which means that my journey to Senegal began exactly one week ago. Every day this week (and every hour of each of those days) I would have written a completely different post had I had the time to sit down or the necessary internet. It is true that life in a new culture is a rollercoaster—emotions change at least every hour and what you thought you just figured out is challenged even more often. But one thing remains constant, which is that I am kind of, sort of head over heels for Senegal. As many of you know, I was apprehensive about coming here, wondering why I chose to go to Senegal when I had never once showed any interest in West Africa. But now that I am here, there is something very internal to the Senegalese culture that makes me feel at home. I think a lot it has to do with how being here seems to contradict the fear that people have about moving to the “Third World.” We talk about it as if it is a sacrifice, when in fact the reality of it has taught me that it is a give and take, both in terms of material processions and cultural ways of life. Yes, I don’t have internet at home (gasp), the electricity goes out multiple times a day, my shower faucet is a trickle of cold water, the roads would make a worthy ride at any amusement park and I’m pretty sure there is a colony of beetles living in every corner of my room, but something about the context of being here puts all of these things in perspective: they are small and quite simply, c’est la vie.

I have certainly gained much more out of my week here than the relative comfort I gave up. I will start from the beginning: After arriving in Dakar on Monday morning (at 6 am!), we spent the day (my birthday!) kicking off orientation. The students that had just arrived met up with those that had been here for the month long pre-session. We ate Senegalese food for the first time, danced, talked and got a quick introduction to what to expect in the coming week. The day felt like a few days in one, what with jetlag and sensory overload.

The next day, we moved in with our host families. I was kind of shocked that it was happening so fast, but now I am very thankful to have jumped right in. My host family is composed of a 75-year-old woman who doesn’t look a day over forty (I hope I can age like the Senegalese!). She is a very calm woman, asks you “ca va?” every other sentence and always matches her sunglasses to her scarves, which also match her dresses perfectly. We don’t have the easiest time understanding each other, but we are slowly getting to know one another. I also have a “Tata” (aunt) who works a lot, but whom I see most evenings. Her grandchild is staying with us for a few weeks and he is seriously the most adorable kid I’ve ever seen. He’s four ¼ and considering his age and the fact that neither of us speaks the other’s language, we talk in funny faces and lots of stuck out tongues. My host mom’s brother also lives with us, but he is very sick and stays in his room all the time, so I haven’t really talked with him yet. I would really like to make more of an effort to get to know him, but I don’t know how to go about it. Also, in Senegalese culture, most families have a girl living with them whose job it is to take care of the house and cook, but who also becomes integrated into the family. The girl that lives with my family has been working here for 18 years (she came when she was 11). It’s insane, but taking girls out of villages to support their families at a young age seems to be one of the solutions to rural poverty people have found here.

My family lives in the Liberte 2 neighborhood, which is about a 45 minute walk from school and about the median distance from school as far as where the other students live. Our house is very nice and I have my own room and bathroom (which is quite the luxury I am learning). So far, my daily routine includes being woken up by my host mother who yells my Senegalese name, Maymuna, throughout the house until I yell back loudly enough, eating a breakfast of baguette and tea, then walking to school with another exchange student who lives less than a block from me. Together, we navigate the busy streets, cracked sidewalks and piles of sand, dodge cars (honestly, I will probably get hit before I leave this country), pass the dozens of children begging on the streets and usually run into a few other Americans doing the same thing on their way to school. Last week we had orientation, which was conducted in a very Senegalese way—slowly, very confusing and with a lot of time to relax in between sessions. We took a trip out of the city to Goree Island, which was the largest port for the slave trade. It was a very emotional experience to see the reality of what we had only read about in history textbooks. On this trip, we also visited the women’s history museum and the beach! Our other excursion was a tour of the city, stopping at the most significant sites, like the Presidential Palace, the largest bronze sculpture in the world that is currently being constructed, the most Western point of Africa, the Mosquee de la Divinite and the downtown market, among other sites. Other than these two trips, we spent a lot of time at WARC, which is our host institution.

In the evening I will walk back home in time to break the fast with my family. They are observing Ramadan and the tradition is to drink a sweet beverage and eat a little bread at exactly sunset. After this, they pray and we eat dinner. Dinner is always delicious and always eaten with our hands. There is a real technique to it that involves balling the rice in your palm and scooting into your mouth. I have quite mastered it yet, so they make me eat with a huge napkin over my lap. One day though, I will be good enough at it to teach you all, inshallah!

Well, there are endless things to write, but also a long time to do so. I’m starting to feel guilty for the procrastination, so until next time…

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Sneaky Departure

It's a little after three in the morning and I've reached that pre-departure anxiousness that leaves me unable to sleep or stop wondering what exactly is ahead or if I'm forgetting anything behind. I'm streaming music on-line, listening to the Southern bands whose shows I used to regularly attend, while the drone of my parents' snoring rolls under the melodies. Like the calls to prayer, the honking of taxis and the bicycle tires treading gravel roads in Tunisia, it did not take long for me to grow accustomed to the sounds of Louisville again--the ring of my cell phone when a friend calls, my father's constant listening to CNN and the thumping bass of cars driving down my block, their "pimped out" rims bouncing in the stale Louisville air. Unlike my Tunisian summer, however, Louisville carries with it a certain feeling of nostalgia--of being here, but living in the past every time I go over to a best friend's house or hang out at my favorite coffee shop. And it carries with it a certain feeling of leaving--constantly calling travel agents to organize the complex criss-cross of flights I have taken and will take this year, filling out clearances for a job I will have in 4 years and rehearsing verb conjugations for a language I will speak daily in less than a week. Maybe that, more than anything, is what makes Louisville a home, in the Yohannes family sense of the word--the place you live, come back to and leave again, but a place in which your whole self is never truly settled.

On Sunday I leave for Senegal. I am already dreading the rude alarm clock awakening for my 6 a.m. flight, but I am both excited and curious for my semester in Senegal. To give you all a glimpse of my upcoming year, here is a rough itinerary (to be detailed after the fact):

August 30 to Mid-October: I will be in Dakar (Senegal's capitol), taking classes in French about development, Senegal and the Wolof language. I will live with a host family and study with the thirty-some other MSID (Minnesota Studies in International Development) students.

Mid-October to early December: I move to a rural location in Senegal, where I will spend six weeks completing an internship with a local non-profit. I will live with another host family and will be apart from the other students.

Early December to December 11: Our final week of the program is spent back in Dakar, where we write a paper and wrap up the program.

December 13 to January 2: I will have a real Parisian adventure! Melinda and I are spending about a week in Paris, seeing how our African French holds up. Then, I will head to Germany (I'm so happy to be going back!), where I will spend Christmas with some family friends.

January 2 to June 6: My semester as part of the Macalester Program in Globalization from a Comparative Perspective begins with a month long seminar led by Macalester faculty and staff, during which we will visit the Hague, Brussels and Amsterdam (!!!). Then, I will take classes at the University of Maastricht, live in international student dorms with the other participants (there are six of us together) and work on a big research paper I will have started researching in Senegal.

There is an Arabic word that should follow all of this: Inshallah, or hopefully, God-willing. Until my ultimate road trip of sorts begins, I have a lot to fit in. From the State Fair and visits to my favorite neighborhoods to sharing food with good friends and family to saying good-byes to people and places I only just said hello to, I will try to make the most of my last few days in this city. You probably won't hear from me until I have touched down in Senegal. Like in Tunisia, I will try to post as regularly as I can, but I have no idea what that will mean for this trip.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Many Finals

Today I am writing on my last day in Tunisia—a country that welcomed me two months ago and that has since housed both my frustration and excitement about learning Arabic, countless experiences in every one of its four corners and that has inspired and shaped many friendships across national and state borders. When I moved back to the States after living in Germany, my host family taught me a very useful expression—one eye crying, the other smiling. I think this is a fitting proverb for my departure from Tunisia—I hadn’t admitted how much I liked this country, its people or how very much I appreciated all the individuals in the program until the past few days, when everyone’s voice began to carry this nostalgic tone that induces me to tear up (just a little). The past week has indeed been filled with a lot of in-program reflection, juxtaposed with the nerves of taking a huge final (worth 100 points, compared to our usual 20 point exams) and an oral proficiency interview administered by representatives of the Department of State. I am happy to report that I passed all of the above and pulled out an A in the program (I’ll have proof to put on the fridge). But with the excitement of the academics coming to a much needed close, also comes the reality of good-byes. Yesterday, we had our final banquet and graduation ceremony. Every student brought two members of their host family to a beautiful out-doors event held at a classy hotel in Sidi Bou Said. We ate a buffet (a very fitting mélange of American and Tunisian foods and a reminder of how excited I am to eat some of my favourite American foods again), spent at least an hour taking photos of every combination of students and teachers imaginable and then walked across the “stage” to get our diplomas—cased in a beautiful burgundy folder with a door to Sidi Bou in gold on the cover. It was so much like a graduation—everyone milling around after the last name had been called, not really wanting to say good-bye to all the teachers or close the official door to our summer in Tunisia.

I’m very excited for what comes next though, for me and for everyone. Students on this program are going to be scattered across the globe—one friend is beginning a master’s program in Paris, another is doing missionary work in Niger, one is starting a new job on the Mexico border, one is moving to St. John’s, others are studying abroad or just graduated and are waiting to answer the question of what comes next. As for me, I am going to Senegal on August 30—leaving one day before my birthday and touching down on my actual birthday. I hope Senegal will be as wonderful a host as Tunisia has been and Tunisia has definitely given me advice to take to Senegal with me: from what not wear in a scorching climate (unfortunately, most of what I brought with me/own) to how rewarding it can be to reach out to people and take chances with your language. I will be going into Senegal with more confidence than I had originally anticipated, but stand ready and willing to have all of my expectations turned on their face.

And with this, I officially write the last period on my chapter about Tunisia—although the chapter will never really be closed.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Happenings and Reflections

I'm back in my host family's living room listening to the hum of France24 on the t.v., watching my host mother pray on a tapestry from the corner of my eye and full-heartedly emphathizing with my host sisters that they have to live in this Mediterranean heat 12 months out of the year, whereas me...well, I'll be leaving in 1 week, a fact that blows my mind. Today I returned from my final program excursion (to the Cap Bon), which marked the first official "last" of something from the program. From now on, it is time for going down the hill, picking up pieces and remembering what it is like to leave a place I might never return to and people I might never see again. This weekend, some of us students had talked about things that we've started taking for granted here and what it will be like to be back in the US away from them--will we be startled by the silent absence of the call to prayer? feel lonely away from the friendliness and forwardness of Tunisian culture? And a life away from the beach--I don't even know if I'll be able to cope. The following are some things I've grown accustomed to in Tunisia, but might have neglected to mention:

--Five times a day, I hear the call to prayer—a lulling Muslim prayer sung through a raspy intercom. It echoes throughout Tunisian towns and from my house (where I can see ten mosques from the roof), I hear the prayer loudly and with words easily defined. From school in Sidi Bou Said, however, the prayer is distant and easily mistaken for slight hum of a radio.

--Greetings in Tunisian dialect are very simple: just like the French say Ca vas?, which is both a question and a reply, the Tunisians say La bess? However, these two little words can often lead to a cycle of repeating the phrase over and over again, because Tunisian dialect loves to use repetition, leaving you unaware of whether your question has been answered or if you’ve been asked. This confusion will lead me to keep repeating the phrase and by the end of an interaction, La bess has probably been said 10 times by each of us.
--Cats are everywhere in this country—roaming streets, sleeping under cars, eating out of trash cans…No one seems to own animals here, but the number of homeless cats (and some dogs) is pretty out of this world.

--Tunisians are addicted to sugar. Fruit is always eaten on the very last day it could be edible to ensure it is at its sweetest; tea and coffee is served with equal amounts water and sugar (only a slight exaggeration) and every time I try to buy plain yougurt at any grocery store, the person checking me out warns me that I am about to buy something without sugar as if I should put it back.

--The two most common things you can buy on the street are breadstick crackers (unfortunately pretty tasteless and undelicious for how prevalent they are) and mini flower bouquets. Men and boys walk up and down the sidewalk dressed in red vests selling these little handpicked (from someone’s garden) flower arrangements that other men will buy and hold in their palms all day, bringing the flowers up to their noses every once in a while, or will put them behind their eyes while sitting at cafes.

***

As for the weekend trip--it was everything I needed and put the icing on the cake of my spoiling. We visited the Northwest, the region known for supplying the country with oranges and grapes. Tunisia has a tradtion of every city and town displaying a large statue in it's center to represent what the city is known for. We've seen a coral statue, a saxaphone, a stork...and now we can add a tomatoe, orange and grapevine to our list. On our way to our final destination of Hammemet, a center of tourism in Tunisia, we made a few stops. We visited another city of ancient ruins and an adorable art gallery and restaurant overlooking the Sea for our second stop. From the roof of the restaurant, we had an incredible view of white houses and blue shutters in every direction save for the dock. It was one of those picturesque places you never want ot leave.

We got into Hammamet in the early evening and had free time until today, when we left at 2. We stayed at a 5 star hotel with rooms with ocean front views and I did nothing but swim, shop and eat way too much food at the buffets. It was the kind of vacation I would've never allowed myself to do on my own, but I'm really thankful for it after one of the most stressful weeks in the program. Hammamet completed my picture of Tunisia and showed me how much I've gotten to now this country for what it really is, which is not a resort in an area with more tourists than Tunisians.

And now, it's into the final week. For the rest of our studies, we will not be learning any new material, but rather reviewing. We've completed 15 chapters of my thickest textbook to date in a program that has covered what some colleges consider two year of Arabic instruction. Needless to say, I'm exhausted, but will still try to savour this last week to the best of my ability.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

No news is good news, right?

Sorry about the lack of updates--I've tried multiple times and each attempt ends with my falling asleep and adding random sentences while I nod off, none of which make sense when I wake up. So, take 5...

This has been an eventful week filled with a lot of cultural excursions in the Tunis area. As for the wedding I mentioned in my last post, I ended up attending two of the wedding ceremonies. In Tunisia, weddings are multiple day long parties that include a separate party for both the bride and groom, a party for the signing of the contract, multiple dinners with the entire family and, finally, the actual wedding party. On Sunday night (as in 2 Sundays ago now), I attended the party for the groom a couple of blocks from my house. Practically the entire bunch of us Americans were there as everyone in al Marsa knows each other and they all go to about twenty weddings a week in the summer. The party was mostly just sitting and listening to music blare, but the really neat part was when the groom debuted. He came out appearing frail and unable to walk with his entire family behind him. This was to symbolize the support of the family. The procession walked this way from his home to the party with red and green flags (the colors of weddings) waving and everyone chanting and drumming. Once at the party, the groom got a dot of henna applied to his pinky and everyone gathered around him to give him money and good wishes.

On Tuesday, I attended the actual wedding party. It was pretty similar in that everyone sat and listened to music, except it was held in an ornate wedding hall rather than outside. The bride was also present (of course) and she wore the most elaborately beautiful dress. The two of them sat in thrones in the front of the audience while a cameraman filmed close-ups of them relentlessly that were channeled to a big screen TV in the front of the room. Weddings here follow a complicated traditional process of dancing at certain times, sitting at others, watching the bride dance then the groom, dancing with the couple...I didn't quite get the hang of it, so I just danced, sat and stood awkwardly wondering if I was doing the right thing at the right time, but it was a fun experience.

Thursday, all of the women in the group went to a hammam, which is a Turkish bath. Two of the girls in the program are getting married shortly after we return to the U.S., so this was like a bridal shower for them, because it is customary for women to gather in hammams to begin the wedding ceremony. We entered the hammam banging barbuka drums and singing and, once inside, we lit candles and danced before going into the actual baths. The baths were much different than what I had expected—they were slabs of tile that you could sit on in three different rooms of varying heat. In the central room, you could pay a woman to scrub you down or to get a full body mask or massage. It sounds weird, I know, but in the context of the hammam, it was all very normal. We spent hours in there and then left the baths to have another celebration in the foyer. The two brides-to-be got henna applied and wore some of the traditional wedding accessories, like ornate metal shoes and special gloves while the henna dried.
On Friday we had our weekly test and afterwards I was in need of some major non-Arabic time. So, I had a night out with the girls--very classic summer, but with a Tunisian twist. We “did Bousalsla,” which is the street that most of us live on or off of and it gets kind of hopping on a Friday night. We went to a cafe for pizza and the pizza cost 1 dinar (about 75 cents) for each person to get their own small pizza! Then we went back to one of the girls in the program's house with the intention of baking a cake, except her host family wasn't there and we couldn't figure out how to light the oven. So instead of baking a cake, we fried a cake! Considering that Tunisian cooking has everything slathered in oil, it was very traditional of us--cake pancakes are actually good!

After I got home late that night, I had the most epic conversation with my hostfather about the Congo, his home country. He told me all about the history, the culture, the languages, etc of the country. What was so funny to me was that our entire conversation seemed like a dialogue taken from my French 204 book--using vocab about immigration and assimilation, languages, and foreign aid/globalization and development. At the time we were learning that in school, it seemed useless to know the word for "indigenous language" before I felt truly comfortable holding a basic conversation. What I've learned, however, is that the in-between vocab and comfort starts to come naturally and I'm actually really thankful that we spent so much time learning what felt like impractical vocab. Now, I just hope that my Arabic vocabulary will come in just as handy (although I have a little less hope for our vocab words like humidity and overcrowdedness).

Saturday morning I left early to go on our third program excursion. This time, we visited the Northwest, which is the only area of the country overflowing with trees and other greenery. I hadn’t realized it, but I had really missed foliage. It’s funny how so many of the things we take for granted in the US just don’t exist here. The trip was wonderful and definitely the most relaxing trip we’ve taken so far, what with the weather actually being cool and the scenery homey. Our first stop was Dougga, which is a town known for its Roman ruins that are supposed to be the finest of all of North Africa. The ancient city is especially interesting because it used a Punic city for its foundation, leaving an obvious blend of architecture. We had a tour guide who is an archeologist at this site take us around and show as the coliseum, baths, and temples. At the amphitheatre, we had a talent show. I wasn’t courageous enough to perform anything, but it was neat to sit in a theatre from the year 106 watching friends perform and thinking about how many people had sat in the same seats.

After the talent show and lunch in Dougga, we headed deeper into the Northwest to what is arguably my favorite town in Tunisia, Ain Draham. It is the cutest village nestled in the woods and it reminded me very much of the parts of East Germany known for their woodwork, because the big attraction of the town was its fine woodwork made from olive trees. We only had a short stop here and I think everyone was sad to move on, but it was an especially interesting because the director of our program is from there and she had a lot to tell us about the area, including showing us her old madrasa. This is also the area whose main export is cork. Driving through the forest, we saw tons of trees with the bark half scraped off and we passed the world’s largest cork manufacturing factory—another world’s largest I can cross off my list!

That night, we stayed in Tabarka at a 5 star hotel that definitely deserved the rating. We had a beach front view and could literally throw a stone into the sea from our balcony! The evening was nothing short of relaxing—a delicious buffet dinner and late night chatting with some friends over platefuls of desert. I then spent the morning at the beach. After lunch we began the journey back to Tunis with stops along the way. We passed a town known for its high number of storks and they really were everywhere—nests covering the roofs of houses, flying in swarms over our heads. Apparently in Tunisia storks do not bring children, but rather the Tunisian fable is about an owl that takes children away. Our final stop was Bizerte, often called the “Venice of Tunisia.” It is a town sitting on a channel filled with boats. We were there for the sunset and it was a really nice way to end the mini vacation.


This finally brings me to a more recent time. The theme of this week at school is music. On Monday, a very famous group of classical Tunisian musicians performed for us at our school. The music was absolutely incredible and they played a lot of covers and I was surprised to recognize so many of the songs. Then, yesterday, I attended the International Carthage Music Festival with the program and heard the Moroccan and Tunisian symphony perform. The Carthage Festival is a huge deal and brings people from across the country and the world and it is held in the ancient theatre I saw two weekends ago. They have a very eclectic bunch of performers from Bollywood to orchestras to Tunisian, American and French pop singers. The symphony last night was interesting because it was a classical orchestra, but included traditional North African drumming.

Now, it is bed time for me. To make up for the concert going so late last night (until 12:30) we only had three hours of class today. But tomorrow, it’s back to the gritty 4 hours, so I need my beauty sleep.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Why can't everyday be a weekend?

If there is one thing I've learned, it is that Tunis is overflowing with things to do, new experiences to have and feelings of home while abroad. This weekend was the perfect summer weekend--good friends, late nights, exploring and lots of shopping! Because yesterday was the 4th of July, I really couldn't have imagined a better way to celebrate than with the all-American pasttime of shopping. At 9 in the morning, some friends and I met up to take the train into Tunis, where we spent the morning/afternoon shopping. We walked through the maze of shops for hours, but went with the hostsister of one of the girl's in the program, so we never got lost and always found the best deals thanks to her haggling skills and actually being able to speak Arabic. The best part of our crowded souk adventure was visiting the old palace of the first president of Tunisia. It has now been turned into a mini shopping center, but you can still climb the spiral of stairs up to the top to find the most picturesque view of Tunis. One of the girls I was with studies fashion and was very interested in finding design shops in the area. We ended up stumbling across one where wedding dresses are custom made, embroidered and beaded in the most intricate designs. It was really breathtaking work.


After a picnic in the park overlooking governmental buildings to one side and the souks to the other, we headed back to al Marsa exhausted and dehydrated. I did, however, discover that there is a bus to and From downtown Tunis that stops less than a block from my house. Score! After a much needed shower, I then spent the afternoon at a friend's house, eating fresh almonds and Mars bars that his host mom gave us--we thought it was random, too. That night, we went down to the al Marsa beach and hung out under the stars, amongst the craziness that is al Marsa on a Saturday night. After 1 in the morning, there were still whole families complete with young children out and about. But it was nice to know that we're living in such a bustling place full of life--who needs Tunis when you have al Marsa?!

Today, after my sorry attempt at doing homework in the morning, I went to Carthage. It is a place I didn't know a lot about before visiting (or after visiting due to a lack of signage anywhere--I think I was in Carthage, anyway), but I did know that it was a must-see. I wondered the city for about four hours with a friend. The ruins are scattered around the city and you pay for a pass to access them all. Of course, it is impossible to see it all in one day, but we managed to visit four sites--the museum, the Roman baths, the theatre, and the old villas. Seeing only the crumbling dust-colored ruins of the town, it was hard to imagine a whole different world existed on the same soil. I was lucky enough to be with an archeologist (this program really brings such a sprinkling of people together) who had really interesting things to say about the tombs we were able to see and the artifacts they had excavated. We also accidently walked past the president's palace and had some scary experiences with the guards there, their guns flopping in every direction.

And now, I'm back at home with my family, already nostalgic about the great weekend and looking forward to more adventures (...I think I'm going to my first Tunisian wedding tomorrow!).

Thursday, July 2, 2009

How many camels are you?

Well, the last of the blog posts by my friends about our trip this past weekend have been posted, so it's about time I finish before all of the details become completely blurry...
After a night of lounging by the pool (arguably the first real break I've taken since I got here), I woke up early to go on a tour of the medina of Tozeur. Tozeur is a beautiful city, made up of sand colored walls that criss-cross the city like the maze. There are shops jutting off and sitting under archways, as well as a large central market. Here, I tried date juice for the first time, a super sweet drink sold by old men sitting on street corners. They just have little buckets of water to rinsse the cups out after you've drinken and it's all very communal. After the tour of the medina, I went shopping (again) with the some friends. We went to a berbere shop where I bought traditional pants--they're very cool and I'll show you all back in the US. The shop keeper was this hilarious young guy who was quite smitten with one of the girls. At one point, he asked her, "how many camels are you?" and then went on to say he would pay 30,000 camels and 5 ferraris to marry her. I'm not sure if that many camels even exist in Tunisia, but we got the message. I'm also starting to perfect/better my haggling skillz. The shop keeper said I was just like his people--strong and stubborn, i.e. I got the price I wanted!

After the free time, we continued onward, going to the Dar Cherait, a museum where we learned about the traditional clothing and customs of the South. It was a pretty typical museum, filled with scary manequins, but it also displayed some interesting ocassions--like traditional weddings, hamam visits, etc. We then went to the oasis of Tozeur, where we rode horse-drawn carriages into the center. This was a pretty scary experience--sitting backwards in a rickety cart with no seat belts and barely anything to hold on to, while taken narrow curves...But once we reached the center, we took a tour, looking at pomegranite, banana and date
trees. We also got to sample the fresh dates and see one of the workers climb to the very top of the tree barefoot and without protection to collect the fruit. Impressive. He made it look so easy that some of the Americans tried. Needless to say, their attempts did not turn out as smoothly.

Afterwards, we visited a zoo in Tozeur. It was a mixture of one of the saddest places I've been to before and one of the funniest. Our tour guide was a bit of a comedian. He started the tour by showing us a wall of bones and pointing out which ones came from which tourists--on one side, the American tourists, then the Germans, the French, even Tunisian. He then preceeded to call us "tourists!!" every time he wanted to get our attention during the tour. At the end, he did a show with snakes, lizards, and a scorpian named Janet Jackson, whose cage was a cigarette box called a "garage."
After lunch at the hotel, it was time to head to the place we had all been looking forward to--the Sahara Desert! During the two or so hour ride, we made a few stops. First, we visited one of the locations where Star Wars was filmed! I know it was a scene from the first movie, but I can't exaclty pin which one--something about miles and miles of sand in every direction kind of looks the same. In actuality though, the area is a shrine that sits on top of a huge hill. Getting out was our first experience in the desert and it definitely has a different feel to it--hot, heavy, but unbelievably unbelievable.


We then continued on to the Chott Djerid, a salt marsh that has been split in two by the recent construction of a road, which follows the streams of red, green and purple salt for miles and miles. We got out at a little tourist attraction made on the side of the road. They built a castle and other structures out of the salt, like a cross between sand castles and winter ice sculptures that reminded me of the Winter Carnival in St. Paul. We then visited another tourist hot spot, premature sand stone formations collection like boulders. I didn't really understand the geology behind, although some of the more scientifically minded students tried explaining. The boulders were mostly just fun to climb on and jump off of.

Finally, we reached the Sahara Desert that we were expecting--sand dune after sand dune. We took a camel trek for about a half hour to our campsite. The camel ride was bumpy, a littly painful at first, but very fun. The next day, my legs were throbing, but it was definitely worth it. Our campsite was perhaps too posh to really call camping--we had huge air conditioned tents and comfortably housed 6 in large beds, a bar/ cafe, a tent for lounging, a restuarant and a music tent. There were also showers that I tried to brave the next day, but it was really more of a drizzle that only removed on of the many layers of fine sand covering me. That evening, we were treated to a huge 5 course meal lit by lanterns. We then watched and listened to traditional belly dancing and drumming. Somehow, I was pulled up to the makeshift stage and danced with the belly dancer and two other girls from the group. We were up there for what felt like forever, barely able to keep up with the intricate movements and laughing too much to really try. After a game of mafia, I took off towards the sand dunes and spent hours star gazing. We saw countless shooting stars and could easily recognize constellation after constellation. It was amazing to see the sky so clearly and while laying on beds of sand, nonetheless. One of my friends made an interesting comment about wondering who all had walked on the sand we let fall through our fingers. It's amazing to think about and to have been sitting on one little piece of a region so large and encompassing.

The next morning, we took little carts back to the bus. That is, little horse-drawn carts that had no closure to them--people were falling off at every turn. The day was spent traveling to Djerba, which would be our final stop. Today was mainly devoted to the architecture of the region, with many stops to look at different houses. In the South, it used to be very common for people ot live underground in houses that had courtyards that were deep pits and had rooms coming off under the ground. We stopped at another location where Star Wars was filmed, this scene, however, was a little more familiar. We also had lunch in one of the houses, sitting on mats on the floor and sharing bowls of couscous at a long table of 15. At lunch, two of the people from the group, dressed as a couple in a traditional wedding ceremony.


















We stopped at all sorts of beautiful panarama's overlooking abandoned towns and thriving villages, including the town of Matmata. The city has constructed white "MATMATA" letters in the style of Hollywood and we all gathered around to get our picture taken with them. Our final stop for the day was a granery that has since been abandoned. Like most historical sites in Tunisia, you are allowed to climb all over it and we had a lot of fun taking group photos and eating ice cream in the old storage spaces.

That evening, we crossed the bridge into Djerba, an island off the coast of Tunisia. It is considered one of the must-go-to places of the country and, because of that, very touristy. We stayed at what was probably the nicest hotel I've ever been to. We had huge rooms overlooking a colorful garden, three swimming pools (salt water, fresh water and one with a slide!), were only a short walk from the beach and the buffet was incredible! I spent the evening swimming in the pool, swimming in the sea, stuffing myself silly and then dancing with the other guests to dances led by the staff. If I can imagine what a cruise is like, this is it minus the boat.

The next morning I went shopping in the medina with some friends and then started feeling guilty for having not started my homework, so we spent the rest of the morning at the hotel cramming. We left the hotel after lunch and spent the afternoon making little stops around the island. We visited the Ghriba Synagogue, which has the oldest torah in the world and is well-known throughout the Maghreb. Being there was surreal. As we were leaving we passed people coming in to pray while the call to prayer was sung in the background. Nonetheless, it was a really good example of people living together peacefully and acknowledging similarities despite such varying beliefs.

That afternoon we also visted a beautiful pottery town and a medina. Like all medinas, this town was bustling and full of vendors hassling us. But before we had free time to shop, we stopped at a church that we were supposed to visit. For some reason or another, however, we were not allowed to enter, which was a contradictory ending to the hospitality we'd experienced at the other religious sites. Our final group stop was a hostel in the area that had played an historical role for trade in the region. We then headed to the airport, where we flew back to Tunis and took a bus home to our host families. I must say though, my second pang of culture shock came at the airport, where the security was reminiscent of the 1990's in the U.S. It was unexpected, but very appreciated, because the last thing any of us wanted was to be held back given how exhausted we were.

And now, I am back in al Marsa. I have a test tomorrow that I should be studying for and am looking forward to a nice relaxing weekend filled with both recovery and nostalgia.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Great Excursion

Yesterday night I returned from our four day excursion to the South of Tunisia--the Sahara Dessert! The 32 of us students and about 11 teachers headed down by bus on Friday morning. I had more new experiences that I can even count and will try to tell you all about them. As for a quick synopsis--the trip was full of bus rides, stops at every side of the road attraction and monument that could possibly exist in the South and a huge gourmet buffet for every meal. It was a vacation done right...Oh, and Star Wars was involved!

Leaving Tunis at 8 am, we drove for 2 and 1/2 hours to the town of Kairouan, which is considered to be the holiest city in Islam following Mecca. Every year, a city is named the capital of the Middle East and this year, Kairouan has the honor. I had no idea Tunisia was full of so many historical and important places, such as this city, before our trip. The first stop we made was at the Aghlabid cisterns. Apparently, one way that Islam spread rapidly was by offering water to the inhabitants of communities, such as Kairouan, at times when water was scarce. They did so by using these cisterns. We then visited the Great Mosque, an increadible, beautiful and huge structure that is one of the most important mosques of North Africa. This was my first time visiting a mosque and I was blown away. The building was made from Roman and Byzantine ruins, with columns and tiles taken directly and not changed a bit, as you can see in the photos. Because we were not Muslims, we were not allowed to enter the prayer room, but we could peer in and see the floors covered in mats, and people setting up for the prayer at 12:30, because it was a Friday. All of the women were, of course, asked to wear headscarves. You can see some of us here posing with the entrance to the prayer room in the background.

Following the Great Mosque, we went to a smaller Berbere mosque. You can notice how beautiful the tiles of the mosque were. But once we entered the courtyard, I looked through an open window of the prayer room and saw a little boy being circumsized right in the open. Then, he walked out with his father and all of the Tunisians on the trip wished him Mabrook! (Congratulations) and the father preceeded to lift the little boy's gown and show us all. I have to say, I think that was the first time I've experienced such blunt culture shock.

We then had lunch in Kairouan and went on a tour of the Medina. We learned about this great custom Tunisians have, where you can just walk into a pastry shop and stick your hand into the plates of cookies and sample anything you want--my kind of country! We also passed some incredible shops selling traditional pottery, rugs and shelves and shelves of spices, including harissa, a spicy powder Tunisians put in everything they cook. I'm starting to get tired of it now, but I'm sure I'll miss it when I'm back in the US.

After another 3 hour bus ride away from the "Key to the South," we found ourselves in Tozeur. We had a free evening to relax, swim, eat a huge buffet dinner and, of course, shop! I spent the evening walking the main road with some friends, making friends with the different shop keepers and getting mistaken for Italian tourists.

I'm going to stop here, because I'm at school and we're about to have a lecture on Women and Gender in Tunisia. I'll finish the post later, but as you can already tell--we did a lot! So far, I've only mentioned the details of one day, but by the end of the trip we'd visted 14 of Tunisia's 24 states. Needless to say, today has been a long day at school!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sand storm?

Now, Sunday night, marks the end of the first weekend in as long as I can remember that I was not traveling or moving in some way or another--from coming to Tunisia, to moving in with my host family, then heading to America and back again, I've had many displacements lately. As I sit at home drinking tea and eating homemade biscotti with my family, all I can say is that this was a restful weekend in comparison.

Today was one of those days that was wonderful for its simplicity. I woke up early this morning to meet some of the other CLSers at the La Marsa train station to go to church in Tunis. I know, I know--church (or anything for that matter) on a Sunday morning is a little unusaul for me, but when I travel, I'm always curious to go to a church and witness a community that I wouldn't normally come into contact with. We went to the French Protestant church just off of the main Avenue of Tunis, my former home. The congregation is really interesting, because it is mostly made up of Sub-Saharan Africans and the whole service is conducted in French, with translations available into English on headsets. At least the first half hour of the service was just song, with everyone up on their feet dancing to the music and singing along. I opted to listen to the service in French, which made it very easy for me to zone out--so, unfortunately I can't tell you what the sermon itself consisted of. But, being the language geek that I am, it was really fun to learn a new context for the French I already know.

We took the train back to Tunis after spending a little time in the city. Oh, what an experience the train back to Tunis was! Getting to the city, the train was almost empty, because we were so early. We rode from one end of the area (La Marsa) to the other end of the line (Tunis centrale) admiring the budding flowers and passing the white walls of Carthage...But on the way back, every rowdy teenage boy in the city managed to squeeze into our car. They proped the doors open with their bodies and hung out of the open doors and windows, all the while chanting and singing. I asked some of the more tame people and they said they were singing popular football songs, since the last game was just yesterday. In case you were wondering, Tunisia tied Nigeria 0-0. It was no where near as exciting as the game I went to, apparently. If you haven't already heard about it though--make sure to read about all of the soccer news that happened just this week on my very continent: Egypt became the first African nation to beat Italy in football history and, in bad news, the recent shooting of a player in Nigeria and the threat from the rebel movement to make the upcoming World Cup under 17 a target is jeopardizing Nigeria's plan to host the tournament. Here, there really is no seperating football from politics.
After getting back, I stopped at the local souk that is held down the street from my house every Sunday. Unfortunately, I couldn't stay for long, because the winds picked up so much that that is felt like a dust storm in the city--gritty bits flying into my eyes and attacking my bare legs. I headed back out in the evening though, after the dust had settled, just trying to get better acquinted with my neighborhood on a peaceful walk. I took back roads in random directions and found a whole different world just beyond the busy street that I live on. Teenagers were taking over the streets playing football with half deflated balls, children rode their bikes and tricycles, laundry was left outside to hangdry, signs were only written in Arabic script (as opposed to the usual translations into French and English on the tourist-populated avenues), the streets smelled of fresh bread, there was a whole store that had nothing but watermelon--seriously, watermelons stacked along every wall, old men sitting at cafes with flowers tucked behind their ears, piles of rubble and debris on one side of the street and beautiful white mansions with elaborate doors and decorations on the other side...I also passed a group of people banging drums and making a sort of yodeling noise as they marched through the streets. The noise is something that you make for celebrations and my host family tried to teach me how to do it, but I don't think my American tongue will get the hang of it soon. But there have been a lot of celebrations this weekend, because the results of the Bac just came out. Eager families of graduating high school students have been celebrating with parties and processions through the streets, like the one I saw. I think the best part though, was that I blended in totally--everyone was just so busy and content going about their daily lives that they didn't think to notice someone they might not have seen before. The other cool thing is that I've lived here long enough (although not very long at all) to start recognizing people and running into them as we pass eachother on our daily routines. I ran into a lot of people I usually take the 7:50 52 bus to school with on my walk today.



As for yesterday--after a full day of finishing my homework for the weekend, I went to a party that one of the host families threw for all of us. Let me just say that I hope to one day be as classy as this family. The father is an artist and has decorated their whole house with his art. It is an eclectic mess of colors and designs, but somehow it works perfectly. They had the most interesting chandeliers made of painted tree branches wrapped in fake leaves--very cool. They also had great food, wine and salsa music! Some of the Tunisians there even did traditional dances for us and the family's huge dog loves to dance, too. He would jump his front legs into the arms of different people and literally dance arm in arm with them--so cute!
And now, I'm off to bed--it's a school night, afterall!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Neon wonderland

Yesterday was a day of discovery--learning a new side to the places I'm starting to frequent and being reminded that there is always more than meets the eye. As all Fridays in this program go, yesterday was an intensive test taking day. We have weekly tests on Friday--one in our Tunisian dialect class and one for MSA in the evening. Our Tunisian test was a role play. I had to pretend I was at the market trying to order kilos of this and that, while asking for the price of different foods, their quality, etc. It was the quickest two minutes of my life with a whole lot of nerves leading up to it. The fun thing about it though was that the school brought in a local juice vendor this morning so that we could all practice naming fruits and ordering. I had a delicious banana and date smoothie! The second test was really my first test here, since I missed last week's. The bad thing about having it in the evening is that my brain completely shut off after class ended at 1 today, so, honestly, I spent the rest of the afternoon before the test listening to music and catching up on the news. Still, I had been so discouraged with Arabic for most of the week, but when it came time to put to use what I knew, it wasn't as hard as I'd expected.

As for the day of discovery: After the test, I walked up the hill in Sidi Bou Said to grab some gelato with some friends (you may be sensing a common theme by now—my love of gelato). The walk up uncovered a whole side of Sidi Bou that I had never seen before. The cobble stone street was lined with all sorts of vendors selling jewelry, clothing, post cards, pottery and everything else you would want for your home. It was clearly the touristy area of the city and the reason why so many tourists come to Sidi Bou--it was absolutely picturesque. Apparently there is also a great view overlooking the Mediterranean a little farther up the hill, so I'll have to explore more (and bring my camera). After that, we had a film night at the Center and watched this truly bizarre Tunisian film about a boy coming of age, called Halfouine. It was interesting because, although the bare plot was the same as other American films of its kind, it was intertwined with a lot of cultural significance. For instance, the boy's brother's circumcision was the main event of the film, about half of the setting was a Turkish bath and it was a twist on a Tunisian myth (which will make a great ghost story the next time I go camping).

After the film, I discovered another side of Sidi Bou that stands in stark contrast to the side I mentioned above. We went to the lac, which is an area near the aeroport that used to be a lake until it was cleared and commercialized by the city. The main road through the area was the closest thing I've seen to a highway in Tunisia so far and it was surrounded by an amusement park and hundreds of neon signs. We also found a Chinese restaurant and all sorts of other cuisines you wouldn't expect to see here. We ate leblebi, which is a traditional Tunisian dish of chickpeas and spices and eaten with bread. It is delicious! Afterwards, we had tea in a cafe sitting on what remains of the lake. We only managed to find the area because we were with three of the young Arabic teachers. Although it was all very commercial, it didn't seem like an area that many tourists frequent. The night was just what I needed though! It was a time to forget about being a student and homework--it felt like summer!

Come to think of it, I've spent most of my evenings this week in new places (which, I suppose, isn't that hard to do here). On Thursday, we had our weekly language socialization class and went in groups of four to a market in La Goulette, about 20 minutes from Sidi Bou. We went to this particular market because it is one of the oldest. Fish, fruits and vegetables are sold there, along with spices and random trinkets. Needless to say, the fish market reeked and was full of fishermen shoving fish in our faces. Once I got past the stench and my not regret for not wearing close-toed shoes, it was a great experience. The fruit vendors in particular were very nice and let us sample their different fruits. We also wondered around the city and got a chance to go to the beach.

The day before, I was in Tunis for my weekly pottery class. The class is held in an old building with a giant courtyard in what is now an artist’s colony. Our instructor is a Moroccan man who specializes in tiles. On Wednesday, we just became familiar with the area where we’ll be working and made pinch pots. Middle school came flashing back before my eyes and, unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve improved much since then. I hope to be able to redeem my pot next week when we paint.

And now it is a much needed weekend. I’ve already slept half the day away, well until 10:30. I have some plans to do more exploring--we’ll see how they play out.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Second Monday down!

Hello all! I thought it was time for another post--a report on the lazy (my weekend), the long (my school today) and the hyped (me after three cups of super sweet Tunisian mint tea, yum!). So, I ended up having a wonderful weekend, even though I didn't go on the excursion. On Saturday night my host sisters and I wanted to go walking. I thought it was just going to be a short walk around the neighborhood, so I didn't change out of my sweatpants and t-shirt, but when I got to the living room they were all dolled out in their cutest outfits. Needless to say, I changed after seeing the horrified looks on their faces and we ventured out to downtown La Marsa. La Marsa is actually a much bigger city than I'd thought. I had the impression that we lived on the main road, because it's always bustling with vendors and pedestrians and dozens of different buses. But now I see that it's just a side street. We walked past dozens of cafes, boutiques, through a mall, past an amusement park and thousands of resturants. We stopped and had the most delicious gelato of my life--nutella. Why can't we get this in the U.S.?! And made our way down to the Mediterranean. We sat on a ledge on the beach, eating pop corn and gazing at the stars. I taught my host sisters the "star light, star bright" song and we all made wishes. We also traded stories about watching the August meteor shower and I got to tell them all about my friends at home. The whole night seemed like one of those cliche stories about looking up at the same sky no matter where you go in the world. I think that would be my advice to anyone coming to Tunisia--make sure you look up!

Sunday was purely a boring homework day, so I won't get into that. Today was my first day back in class. Of course, I was super nervous about having missed three days of class (which is equivalent to missing 3 weeks), but I didn't feel behind at all. I think they had done a lot of reviewing of the alphabet, which wasn't hard for me to do on my own, so I didn't miss much new information. The day was the longest class day I've had so far--I got in at 8 in the morning and our last lecture ended at 8 in the evening. The lecture was on the politics of Tunisia, more specifically national security. The professor had a lot of provoking points to make dispelling the notion that Obama's speech in Cairo was revolutionary. He seemed to believe that the majority of the problems in the Middle East would be solved if the world just ignored the region for 5 to 10 years. An interesting point, totally impossible, but it did make me wonder.
And now some random photos I neglected to post earlier...


At the football game--aren't we a cute bunch!


A view down the street from my school. Just so you know, it's really hard to do Sidi Bou Said justice with a camera.



Some houses we passed on our way down to the beach after school the other day.

If you squint, you can see the Mediterranean in the background!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Just a hop, skip and a jump across the pond..times a few.

Bonjour tout le monde! I figured it was about time to update this blog. I just got back to La Marsa after attending the Pickering Fellow orientation in D.C. Going and coming back within 3 days wasn’t as aweful as I thought it would be, although the last few days feel like a whirlwind or a distant dream. But let me start from the beginning of where I left off the last time.
My Tunisian life has officially begun—I moved in with my host family on Sunday and they are absolutely lovely! I live in La Marsa, a suburb of Tunis that is about a fifteen minute bus ride from my school in Sidi Bou Said. There are also a lot of other students with the program in that area, so we can take the bus together and meet up easily. The family is a mother, father and two girls, one 17 and one 22. They are very laid back, which has been the case with most of the host families—they work hard during the day and in the evening just relax, watch television and eat a late dinner (we didn’t eat until 11:30 on Sunday!). The father’s been making the rest of the family suffer through Al-Jazeera English the past few evenings, so that I can make sure to stay up-to-date on the news and understand it all. It’s kind of cute, but puts them all to sleep. And the father comes from the Congo, so he’s actually more comfortable with French—I think he can understand Arabic, but he always responds in French. The program warned us at the start to say that we didn’t speak any French, because that would force us to use our Arabic more. On the first day, my family and I were all trying to just speak Arabic, but after I told them where I’m from and a few sentences about my family, it was obvious that that wasn’t going to get us far and when they all started speaking French, I couldn’t lie and act like I didn’t understand. So, I think my French is improving, or at least I’m starting to become more comfortable with conversational French.
The next day, Monday, my Arabic classes started. The 32 of us are divided into 3 groups and each have two teachers—one in the morning and one in the afternoon. We have two hours of class in the morning (8:30-10:30) followed by a half-hour break and another two hours of lessons. We are mostly learning Modern Standard Arabic, but have 40 minutes of Tunisian dialect every day, too. So far, we’ve studied the alphabet. It’s coming along well, but I think it will take a long time until we can easily see a word and recognize it without having to spend time playing with the sound of each syllable. After class, we’re free to go out to lunch in the area and can come back and work at SIT in the afternoon and the Arabic teachers are available then. In the evenings we’ll have different things to do. This week, we’ve had another Tunisian dialect lesson everyday from 5-6. We’ll also have a Tunisian cultural class every week. People can choose which to take and I’m signed up to take pottery—something I’ve always wanted to learn!
Yesterday, I took advantage of how beautiful Sidi Bou Said is and walked down to the beach with some people in the program after our evening class. We walked past the president’s palace and giant cliffs I didn’t know existed in Sidi Bou Said. Once at the beach, we stumbled across a pier-esque sort of attraction with cafes and souvenir shops. I’m just constantly surprised at how easy Tunisia has been to maneuver. I was so nervous about figuring out how to get home from where we walked to, but then the right bus kept falling into my lap. At one point I even started to run to the bus stop a block away when the bus I needed was coming up behind me, but then it just stopped and allowed me to board even though I was nowhere near the stop. That never happens in Louisville! Aside from their hospitality, Tunisians have also won me over with their food. I thought being a vegetarian would be a total pain, but everywhere I go, people are willing to work around it and it’s not even that hard, because they eat so many fresh fruits and vegetables here. Everything is very spicy though!
So, I left for D.C. on Wednesday morning, arrived Wednesday evening and had orientation on Thursday and Friday before leaving Friday night. I flew AirFrance (which was kind of scary given the recent crash) and the program even flew me first class! I was so caught off guard—somehow I hadn’t noticed the “Affaires” stamped on my tickets, so I had champagne to celebrate and watched this hilarious movie called “New in Town” with Renee Zellwiger. Normally I wouldn’t mention the movie, but the whole thing was practically a roasting of Minnesotans, so I could wholly relate and have had so many of the same experiences when I first moved up to the Great Midwest. The first day of orientation was spent at the Main State office. We had briefings about the contract we were to sign, the different components of the fellowship and were walked through the different clearances we’re going to have to get. We then went on a tour of the “Watch” office, which is a 24-hour office that reports on all the most important late-breaking news stories to different government officials. We were even on the same floor as Hillary Clinton’s office. That evening, there was a big reception for all of the Pickering Fellows (20 undergrad and 20 grad), as well as the Rangel Fellows. It would have been really fun, except I had the worst migraine ever. But still, ambassadors were there and all sorts of interesting people to talk to.
The next day was spent at the Foreign Service Institute in Virginia, where Foreign Service Officers are trained. We learned that for every post we’ll be assigned whose language we don’t speak proficiently, we’ll be taught the language—a 3 month training for average languages, 6 months for world languages and 1 to 2 years for critical languages (like Arabic). One of the Foreign Service language schools for Arabic is actually right here in Tunisia and one of the teachers for this summer program teaches there, too. For most of Friday we had various panels about the different cones of the Foreign Service, which are management, political, econ, public diplomacy and consular. They are just more specific job titles we’ll have to choose once we’re in the Service. I’m leaning towards political, which includes doing research on the political climate of the host country and writing reports. The political officers are the ones that publish the annual human rights reports. We also had lunch with Pickering Fellows who are currently in grad school or in the Foreign Service, so we got to learn more about the actuality of the fellowship and life in the Service.
And now, I'm back in Tunisia. I was worried about how it would be coming back here, whether or not I would regret reboarding the flight to come back after the reminder of what America is like. But as soon as I walked in and kissed my family hello, everything kind of fell into place again. The food at lunch tasted right, the cheesy leopard print sheets on my bed looked right and the lack of air conditioning almost feels right, too.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

C'est gratuie pour les femmes!

I wasn't planning on writing a blog entry today, but then the most amazing thing happened--I went to a World Cup qualifying game! Talk about a dream come true!! It was Tunisia versus Mozambique and we kicked butt, beating Mozambique 2-0. The game was such an experience. We took the almost half hour taxi ride there for less than 6 dollars and had this hilarious taxi driver from Italy who thought honking was a sign of friendship and honked at everyone--fellow drivers, pedestrians, cops...Once we got there, the tickets were actually free for women, which I very much appreciated. I also think it says a lot about the cultural shift in Tunisia, a country that is considered to be one of the most inclusive and publically equal cultures in the Middle East.

About 10 of us went to the game, decked out in mini Tunisian banners tied around our foreheads and waving plastic flags some little kids had handed to us. It was a great time to learn about subtle cultural differences--like how Tunisians dance to their national anthem, while we Americans stand stiffly and how they drink tea at the games, not beer. Everyone sitting around us was also very welcoming. They continuously offered us food, explained the chants, and exchanged high fives when we scored. It was just really fun to watch my favorite sport in a huge stadium with tons of fans, but even more meaningful to share in all of the nationalism and unity that football creates.

This evening has been spent studying Arabic. We have a bunch of homework to complete before Monday's classes and we're, of course, starting with the alphabet. I'm actually learning to write!! It's fun and the whole language seems a little less intimidating now that I'm learning to distinguish the different letters in written Arabic, knowing where one starts and another begins and the different sounds they make. My handwriting is so little-kid big though, taking up a few lines to feel like I've drawn all the details of the letter. The same book with the exercises even has throat exercises we're suppose to do to allow our throat to produce all the glottal stops! It's strenuous and definitely takes some humility to sit for what feels like forever trying to make a sound that just never comes out right.

And tomorrow we move to Sidi Bou Said to live with host families. Today, we had a lecture about family life, expectations and responsibilities in Tunisia. Of course, you can only talk about generalizations in a lecture like that, but it's gotten me anxious about what to expect...