Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Back from Tunis, and I'm about to nerd hardcore on some language stuff because I thought it was fascinating.

To wit: After my flight was delayed about two hours (or something, I have no idea, I was exhausted from having gone to bed at 6am the previous morning after a late night involving swimming in the inflatable pool of a sketch club along with my newfound Spanish friend Carlos). Anyway. I was paired with an 8-year-old Tunisian seat-mate who was adorable as shit and a Libyan man who was very eager to show us videos on his iPhone of the fountains in Dubai. Now seriously though, this girl had been plopped in between us by the flight attendant and the poor thing sat silently as she switched off looking over at the Libyan man's newspaper in Arabic and my book in Spanish. I wasn't really sure if she understood either one of them so I asked her tentatively in English where she was from (English, the international language, right?), and she proceeded to talk nonstop for the duration of the two hour flight to Tunis. I found out that she wants to be a veterinarian, that a girl at school told her she wasn't pretty, and that the leftover half sandwich that she'd tucked into her seatbelt was on reserve for the pet cat waiting for her at home. I was so impressed by the girl, her English was better than some of my high school students, she spoke fluent French and Arabic, and she was the only girl on her school's Tae Kwon Do team. Booyah.

When I finally got to the airport in Tunis I met my Couch Surfing host Fabien, an expat from
France, and we headed off to a concert in the Acropolium at Carthage. Carthage started out as a Phoenician trading town but was captured by the Romans in 146 BC and about 100 years later under Julius Caesar it rose to being one of the three great Mediterranean ports of the Roman Empire. History, history, history, the economy collapsed when the port fell out of use, and the Arabs captured the city in 698 AC, and now it's on the UNESCO World Heritage list and you can visit it yourself in just an easy tram ride from downtown Tunis! Carthage actually has a lot more interesting tidbits and whatnots but since this isn't a history lesson you can look it up for yourself.

Okay anyway, and then what happened. We didn't actually go into the concert that first night because we were about three or four hours late so instead we stood out in the parking lot. Socialized. Drank directly from the bottle of wine. You know how it is. Everyone I met spoke at least three languages - one spoke Spanish, which he'd picked up after traveling for a month in Mexico, the bitch. It was very impressive and very evident that multilingualism, when it is the norm for a society, makes language acquisition absurdly easy. I think Tunisians also have a huge advantage in that the two languages they know are French and Arabic. So unrelated that future languages become a pieca cake. Should say, though, that I was around a pretty privileged group of people - employed, etc. - and I don't know that the language abilities are the same throughout.

The next day one of Fabien's roommates received a call inviting us to someone's beach home in Hammamet. Mmm, hey look guys, it's Hammamet. This was just exactly what I needed because it meant I could sit on my butt and read for long periods of time and not feel like I was wasting my trip. Pre-trip errands included a trip to the beer place where Fabien very gently told me I must wait outside since it was not a place for women. Who you callin' a woman? Not Fabien's fault but I was a little bit annoyed by this and the next day made sure to bravely walk into the drinks place myself and buy my own can of Diet Coke. That I needed the male bartender to count my Arabic coins since I couldn't read them is irrelevant.

I had two reasons for wanting to go to Tunisia. First, when I went on the flight search engine and typed in "Any Destination," Tunis was the cheapest one to show up that I had not yet visited. Second, I was intrigued by the political revolutions going on in northern Africa, and I wanted to see what it was like for myself. According to the people I was with, the biggest difference now is that people can talk about the government. (???). Marian told me that in the past the culture had always been to - and then she made a sneaky looking around motion as if to check if anyone might be listening. No one voted because the elections were fixed anyway, and it sounds like there wasn't much in the way of holding a political opinion either, because what's the point?

Marian's pretty progressive - as in chain-smoking boozer (in a good way :). Her father's Tunisian and her mother's French, and she told me that when she was a kid the "extremists" tried to kill her dad, who worked for an anti-terrorist organization. He was getting into his car when two men came up and threw acid on his face, and for the next two weeks her family all thought that he was going to die. When I asked her whether the guys had ever been caught she told me they didn't matter, that they were probably just some people without much money, who had been asked to do something "for their country." The guy in charge of the operation, though, was caught.

"He was put in prison? For how long?"
"Well, I don't know, maybe he was disappeared."

She had this smirk on her face which was probably the most disturbing part of the story. I get that a murder attempt was made on her dad. I get that she probably doesn't think too highly of the extremists who had organized this plan, but... hello, who wrote the rules here? No wonder there are problems if each side just makes it up along the way. Don't get me wrong. I think Marian's a super cool woman with a really open-minded perspective on her country's politics, but the concept of a government disappearing someone is, I think, a little bit frightening.

Sunday night we drove back to Tunis just in time for Fabien and I to catch the tram to Carthage for day two of the concert. By tram I mean it reminded me of the tents in M*A*S*H* - green, you're not sure how it's standing up, and with equipment that looks ancient by today's standards. Even by Boston metro standards, and that's saying something. Fabien told me, however, that they'ed been renovated last year; the creaking fans hanging precariously from the ceiling were a new addition.

When we arrived to the Carthage stop Fabien told me we had about a ten minute walk up a.. a.. (his English not so hot).

"A mountain?" I asked, joking.

So we proceeded to climb this mountain which turned out not to be actually so mountainous, but better: half way through he started pointing out abandoned pillars and mosaic tiles and the like. We were sneaking up the back of the UNESCO World Heritage Carthage ruins. It was rough going, especially in my slippy sandles - I stepped on something pokey that I can't see, but still hurts and seems to have permanently embedded itself into the bottom of my foot. I also had to occasionally grab on to a wayward piece of precious world history and I continue to feel bad about the bits of ancient wall and whatnot that crumbled away beneath my fingers. The Carthage ruins, incidentally are not meant for late-night exploring, so when we finally made it to the top Fabien had to jump down a security wall that was probably about 10 feet tall. I was very wary of this but he insisted it would be fine, until he had actually made the drop. "Ooofff! It's farther than it looks. You're turn!" There was about a five second pause during which time I had my hands on the top of the ledge, arms extended, and body hanging down the length of the wall, but I picked up my nerve and Fabien caught me for the final few feet.

From there we just had to pick our way through the rosebushes for my final night in Tunisia. Here again, I ordered my own Diet Coke, thankyouverymuch.

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