Monthly Archives: January 2010


I’m sure you’ve all been closely watching the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations. So you already know that Tunisia didn’t make it past the first round. We watched their third match against Cameroon in downtown Tunis in the Hotel Africa lobby last week. We drank local Celtia beer and ate the hors d’oeuvres share of the four or five surrounding tables. If Tunisia had advanced, the country would be celebrating long after we leave. They held the lead twice, at the beginning of each half, but the game was sloppy and Cameroon took the win.

So, Tunisia’s out. No problem, really. Algeria is still in, and hey! They’re our nearest neighbor. It’s as if we are cheering for the home team. Plus, any team that’s up against Egypt will be rooted for by Tunisians. This game was a pretty big deal; the last against Algeria in 2004 was quite controversial.

Much to our disappointment, we were let down again with Egypt’s annihilating performance: a shutout with four goals scored and a new record for 18 consecutive wins. In two days it will be the Black Stars of Ghana vs. the Pharaohs of Egypt for the title. Get ready for riots in the streets.

We miss soccer…

Gabés and Matmâta

Last weekend, Dylan and I traveled to the south of Tunisia for some sightseeing in Gabés and Matmâta. Gabés is known, in Tunisia, for its industrial economy and Matmâta is known, internationally, for Star Wars.

We drove to Gabés on Friday night. Gabés is in an oasis and felt a little more like the Africa one would naïvely expect before visiting. (Tunis has been like an Arabic/French-speaking Portland….rain included for no extra charge!) The oasis, basically a dried up river bed where palm trees grow with extreme density, leads right into a delta of the Mediterranean. Lunch was had at an interesting spot. We went to a fairly large restaurant with lots of outdoor seating and were quite possibly the only patrons. The decor consisted of mostly taxiderm-ified rodents (very strange) but we had the best french fries, so far, in Tunisia. That is quite the compliment, too, if for no other reason than the fact that french fries are served with everything and on everything. (Note: they in no way compare to the french fries made by Megan and DJ, which are works of delicious art.) It was here that Jenna tried her first date. The verdict? Chewy, sweet, tasty, and chewy. Courtship event or fruit? You decide.

Sunday we drove southwest out of Gabés to Matmâta and the drive was incredibly beautiful. We traveled over arid hills with intermittent olive tree patches. Each green space is tended by a local peasant and is likely their only source of income. Matmâta is still home to the Berber people, north African natives, where they live in underground dwellings. Here, we felt more like tourists than we have while in Tunis. The site was used as a film set for Star Wars (Tatooine–which happens to be another place in Tunisia, spelled Tataouine).  The underground dwellings were all hand-dug and very inspiring as we are already interested in various types of earthen architecture.

We returned to Tunis by train. The scenery along the ride was beautiful, at least for the first few hours while there was still daylight. After that, it just felt like the flight from D.C. to Paris only without the in-flight entertainment, beverage cart, and pressure changes.

More stories of day trips and photos are coming up as well as a Tunisia video clip, insha’Allah (Arabic for “God willing”). Stay tuned.

Calvin and Khobz

Thursday, January 21st, 2010, 1200 hours: Jenna’s first solo bread mission.
Departing from: the library, packing 440 millimes.

“Zuz khobz: weyhid tabouna, weyhid hashesa”

Two loaves of bread: one tabouna, one hashesa. These are both round loaves of bread, tabouna has caraway seeds baked in and hashesa has fennel seeds. There are many many small bakeries along all streets in Tunis. They sell fresh bread all day long and there are always several people buying loaves. Bread goes with every meal here and there are special bread-carrying baskets.

La Marsa and the library

We spent our first four nights in Tunis at a hotel and during this time, Karim worked with us to find a host family. Dylan mentioned La Marsa as a place he liked when he was here in 2006. It is a 30 minute train ride from Tunis, right on the Mediterranean, and a beautiful quaint little town. For those of you from Portland, it is sort of the Lake Oswego of Tunis. Our host mom is Dija and she lives in an apartment in La Marsa. We are staying in one of her son’s rooms. Our living situation couldn’t be much better. We have wireless internet, Al Jazeera English to watch, breakfast every day and dinner almost every night. She is very kind and we are lucky to stay with her.

Every morning Dylan and I pay 2.460 TD (Tunisian dinars, about US$2) for round trip train tickets into Tunis. The trains are crowded with commuters and students. They are old and rickety, but charming as well (the trains, not the commuters). We ride the train line from beginning to end, so there is no fear of missing your stop. Once we get into Tunis, it’s a 30 minute walk to where we work, the library, and we walk through the Medina. Sometimes the commute is exciting…for example, this morning, we arrived at the station in La Marsa and a train was there, just ready to leave. We quickly got our tickets (exact change counted out ahead of time of course) and ran to the train. It started to pull away and Jenna was about to give up and wait for the next one when Dylan shouted “RUN!” You see, there aren’t any safety features on the TGM 2000 so the doors were being held open by three young Tunisian men. We ran and jumped onto the train just before it picked up too much speed. Adrenaline shots in the morning work just as well as caffeine, it turns out. This was exactly the behavior we see from the kids running alongside the train and jumping on, hanging out the door while the train is in motion, etc. Hooligans.

We have begun our work at a local library. The current task is to digitally scan film, postcards, photographs, and books to create a searchable database and online archive of Tunisian historical documents. We are often invited to stay for lunch which is usually bread and a cold salad, fruit (oranges are in season right now), and sometimes soup or boiled vegetables.  On Wednesdays, the small library comes alive when many people come over for lunch. A sweet old Tunisian woman cooks an enormous amount of couscous and talk for a few hours.

If we’re lucky, we get a sunset during our commute home. Assuming there are leftovers in the fridge, we heat up a quick dinner and catch up on our international news via Al Jazeera (Haiti, Haiti, Haiti, Isreal, Haiti, etc.). We usually have some “homework” to do in the evenings (like researching, other projects, or studying Arabic). After, it’s off to happy-fun-sleepy-time. For whatever reason, we have been extra tired by the end of our days, so we get pretty excited to go to sleep. Mmmmm, sleep.

Bam! Welcome to Tunis.

After 17 hours of traveling, one missed flight in Paris, a serious lack of sleep and confused circadian rhythms, we arrived at our hotel in Tunis. After getting checked in and settled, we fell asleep almost instantly. Midnight snacking helped us to fall asleep. This habit would continue for the next few nights and we began stashing tuna sandwiches and tuna crepes to try to get some rest. Jet lag is unforgiving.

Dylan played tour guide during our first weekend in Tunis. Each morning we would get our continental breakfast at the hotel (or petit déjeuner) consisting of two croissants, two rolls, apricot jam, coffee and warm milk, and a half a kilo of sugar. Everything is sugary sweet here; you just get used to it.  We spent Saturday and Sunday walking around the city and getting oriented. Avenue Bourguiba (named for the former and first President of Tunisia after gaining independence from France in 1957)  is a happening place in the heart of downtown. Here we found many cafes, hotels, and shops, a large pedestrian walkway in the center of the road, and thousands of ultra-stylish young Tunisians hanging out. The locals constantly drink qahwa (coffee), smoke cigarettes, be unemployed, and stand around looking insanely cool. It can be intimidating at times for several reasons: (a) we don’t have nearly enough fashion sense to fit in around here (b) for Jenna, the guys travel in packs, and they don’t look very friendly and (c) we don’t speak Arabic…or French. We walked through the Medina (old city) where the souks (outdoor markets and shops) are abundant. Trying not to look too much like tourists (impossible to do) we glanced at handicrafts and found the oldest and largest mosque in Tunis.

Did we mention Air France has very tasty meals for international travelers? We recommend the beef bolognese, shrimp salad, and don’t miss the chocolate-coffee cookie bar.