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Several nights in Tunisia

TUNISIA: HOME OF THE SQUABBIT

TUNISIA | Tuesday, 31 March 2009 | Views [526]

We're working our way through the broad human river that is ultimately to sluice it's way through security at O'Hare when we're faced with two very sad sights.

To our left, a crying baby reaching desperately for its mother who is soon to leave it behind. It seems kind of torturous for both mother and child, and finally the grandmother holding the child comes to the same conclusion and the baby is whisked away wailing.

To our right, an even sadder sight. A man seated, picking an acoustic guitar plaintively and working his way through a cheeseball version of "Blackbird." In the duty free shop. His gig is the duty free shop at O'Hare. Hello indifferent audience! Are you ready to rock light?!! Now that's pathos.

This is my first experience with Air France and I'm liking it. There's lots of food and, perhaps not surprisingly, it's quite edible. There's bread and wine. Shocking. And movies on command. Lots of movies. I distract myself with second viewings of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Billy Elliot and bit of Quantum of Solace. Vive la France!

God, I hate the French. Two French women in front of us obliviously jack their seats back right after dinner, putting our viewing screens about two inches away from our eyes. While our minimal legroom has been cut in half, our two friends proceed to fall asleep straight away and sleep like babies...who have not been rent from their mothers at O'Hare.

I had forgotten how De Gaulle Airport tries so very hard, in its late 60's/early 70's way, to look modern. Here it works, and there...not so much. What really doesn't work is the shuttle bus system. Virtually our entire flight from Chicago is forced on a bus after disembarking so we can be driven to the terminal. The young woman herding outside the bus says something very quickly, probably something like "get on the bus you dreary Americans," while indicating with annoying gesticulation that we are to defy the laws of physics. Same routine when we board our flight to Tunis. Damn French.

The flight to Tusis both begins and ends, strangely, with the Smiths "Half A Person" playing on the airplane's soundsystem. 44 clumsy and shy/I went to Tunis and I/checked myself in at the...well, the passport checkin area, a predominantly turqoise affair at the Tunis/Carthage airport.

Not ten steps out of the airport and we walk into a scam. Our weariness and disorientation coming across like neon letters on our foreheads saying PLEASE, TAKE OUR MONEY, we're approached by a non-licensed taxi driver. He'll get us to Sidi Bou Said for trente dinars. Thirty. Gosh, doesn't the guide book say that it should be a seven or eight dinar ride? Well, we're quickly in the car and it's too late. At least its a nice car. How far did he say it was to Sidi Bou Said? 60 kilometers? 90 kilometers? Yes, that's fine, this big old metric system is awfully confusing. We'll believe anything.

One of my first sights in Tunisia, as we pull out of the airport and head toward our destination is the statue of a large rabbit-like creature, standing on two legs, with preternaturally large ears extending out from its head. Later in the trip, Lee will correct me and say that the mysterious creature looks more half rabbit/half squirrel. A squabbit, she says. The squabbit. Lee McLain, copyright 2009. It seems to be some sort of environmental movement icon or mascot, but we never get a satisfying explanation for the creepy squabbit.

Also, early on, proceeding toward Sidi Bou Said, we see men pouring across the roadway from the right. It occurs to me that they have probably just finished the 4:00 prayers at the large mosque nearby. The rhythms of the Muslim day, particularly the call to prayer at daybreak, will be a very pleasant backdrop, sonic and otherwise, to our fortnight in the country.

Before long, well before the 60 or 90 kilometer mark, we're heading up the hill into whitewashed, lovely Sidi Bou Said, past the presidential palace - "Ben Ali?" "Qui" - and to a narrow street above our hotel. We work our way through a group of German tourists in the narrow "street" outside the door to Hotel Bou Fares. This is slightly disturbing, as Lee and I had seen an exceedingly cheesy travel video some weeks before our departure which gave one the idea that Tunisia is positively crawling with Germans sunning, cavorting and riding horses quite suggestively. Nothing against the Germans, but we were hoping for something a bit more beyond our experience than a racy, Teutonic Club Med.

The hotel, like the village, is every bit as pretty as we thought it would be. But the mere temptation to be able to extend our bodies horizontally after so much flying is just too strong, so we crash a little while before heading out to explore and get dinner.

While it's hard to make sense of the town map in my travel book, it turns out we're just down a winding set of stairs from the the center of the action. The main street is fairly swarming, mainly with Tunisians who appear to have come up for the day from Tunis. The famous Cafe des Nattes is right at the base of street down from the hotel. Actually, the cafe itself sits atop its own set of stairs on which many people sit, as they do in the cafe's outdoor seating area at the top.

We work our way down toward the tram station and back up to the centre ville. In addition to the many souvenir sellers, one gentleman assures us that he's not trying to sell us anything, but he wants us to take a tour of one of the area's famous homes. I say something to the effect that we will be back, a promise of which he will remind me everything we pass in the next few days.  I come to think of him as the "I want my two dollars" guy, as his dogged memory and persistence remind me of the paperboy from hell from Better Off Dead.

Although we are walking around in that cloud of unreality which is typical of the first day in a foreign country after a long journey, our stomachs assert themselves enough to encourage us to find some dinner. Eschewing the fancier places this first night, we wander into the modest Restaurant Chergui, where we get very plentiful orders of couscous, mine of the merguez (a spicyy sausage) variety, all of which we eat in the open air. 

We explore more of the town after dinner. Its many alleys and winding streets would seem to lend themselves to a good pursuit scene in a movie. It's interesting to see all the subtle expressions of the blue and white color scheme in doors, shutters and window boxes. We stop to enjoy the formal scenic overlook that presents of a vista toward Tunis and the Cap Bon peninsula beyond. Even better is the view we happen upon near the lighthouse and small cemetery. This one is straight out to the Mediterranean. Although my senses feel a bit dulled from weariness and excess, it's hard not to feel the serenity of this spot and the power of the sea beneath us.  

To cap off our first, brief evening in Sidi Bou Said, we venture up the imposing steps of the Cafe des Nattes for a cup of tea. Unlike the vast majority of cafes we will see around the country, the Cafe des Nattes is not a male bastion. The crowd is actually pretty mixed, both in sex and age. While we are seated on a raised cement area in the middle of the cafe, our legs dangling, a family is seated opposite us. Generally, it seems to be a young, hip crowd. Many people order chichas, hookah-like water pipes, but we opt for large glasses of tea with pine nuts and a small plate of patisserie.

And that is quite enough. We're back in our charming little room with it's high, bricked barrel vault of a ceiling and not-quite-adequate reading light. But there's not much reading on the agenda this evening. We're out quickly and sleep like the dead.

Tags: tunisia

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