As of today, we are officially out of olive oil. Whatever our failings, we are at least Italian enough to be unable to cook for even one day without some good extra virgin olive oil. We’ve been trying to buy it for a couple of days now. There’s no chance of getting it in our neighborhood. The abundance of little corner shops where we can get our normal staples (butter, yoghurt, fruits/veggies, fresh bread, etc.) only have various kinds of gross vegetable oil. I haven’t used vegetable oil in years. So it was off to the grocery store in downtown Hammamet, just across the street from the medina. Normally, I am not one of those expats who must shop at Carrefour for peanut butter, chocolate chips, and cheddar cheese. I like to make do with the local ingredients, even if it requires some creativity. But while I have embraced fennel, barley, and lamb as staples (and yes, to a limited extent, harissa), vegetable oil is just going a little too far.
When we turned up at the Hammamet grocery store on Wednesday, we had a couple of other errands, which we didn’t really want to do with our hands full of groceries (especially several bottles of extra virgin olive oil). So we asked someone at the door when the store was closing. Unfortunately, there was a little misunderstanding. I don’t know what he thought we were asking, but he very clearly responded that it was open 24 hours a day. (Why were we not immediately suspicious? Nothing in Tunisia is open 24 hours a day). So we took a little walk, went out to dinner, did our other errands, and ended up back at the grocery store after dark. And after closing time.
On Thursday, we went to central Hammamet again, this time determined to do our shopping early. But the sun was out for the first time in several days, and we couldn’t resist a walk along the waterfront, outside the stone walls of the medina. And then, on our way back, we discovered a gelateria that was open, not shut for the winter like every other gelateria in Hammamet. We peeked in the door, and it had the usual towering artistic creations in every flavor from blackberry to kinder, and even one that was the color of a smurf (I didn’t taste that one, and after preliminary internet research, I decline to speculate on its possible flavor). The various signs inside said all the proper things, like artigianale and produzione proprio. It’s true that the actual sign for the store misspelled it “gelateri,” but perhaps that’s French? In any case, we couldn’t resist giving it a try. The flavors (between the four of us we tried stracciatella, vanilla, nougat, cookies, and blackberry) were delicious, although the consistency was more like regular ice cream. I suspect them of not having a proper gelato machine in the back at all. But anyway, we’ll call it excellent ice cream rather than bad gelato.
After our little gelato fix, we were ready to head back for our errands, which were threefold: withdrawing money from the atm, doing our grocery shopping, and buying an alarm clock. Since it was still early, we thought we’d knock out the first and last and save the grocery shopping for afterward, for the same reason as before. After all, the atm is right next to the grocery store, and how long could it really take to buy an alarm clock? Ahem. How long indeed? We had been looking unsuccessfully for alarm clocks in shop windows for a few blocks and had almost reached the grocery store when we saw a little kiosk that sold watches and something else that looked to me like it just might be the coveted item. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a large quantity of tape recorders (why there’s such a demand for tape recorders, I don’t know. Maybe he just got a good deal on them).
By this time though, we couldn’t avoid attracting the attention of the owner of the kiosk. We usually assiduously try to avoid making eye contact with shop owners, since when they see the only tourists in town they tend to get a little over-optimistic. He shook his head regretfully about the alarm clock. When Tony asked where we might be able to find one, he gesticulated vaguely down the street and muttered something about “200 meters.” Upon Tony’s request for clarification, the speaker (a melancholy man in a long black coat) motioned for us to follow, and began walking down the street. Striding along solemnly with his hands in his pockets, he reminded me of the trench-coated angels in Wings of Desire. But this was no angel. He wound through the crooked streets of Hammamet, leading us a merry chase as we struggled to keep up with two small children in tow.
After we had followed him for several blocks and I expressed some skepticism as to his intentions, Tony made further inquiries. He replied airily that expensive alarm clocks could be had around Hammamet, but he was taking us to the alarm clock factory. Right. That story should have set off alarms itself. But Tony really wanted his alarm clock. So we continued following our “guide,” as he had now designated himself. At this point (perhaps sensing my growing hostility), he began to make remarks to our children like “nice baby,” winding up by saying that we could give him three or five dinar for his “services.” I grumbled some more, and Tony finally stopped dead and accosted him firmly, insisting that he explain the exact whereabouts of this supposed alarm clock store (we’d already followed him for several times the original 200 meters). His story broke down, ranging from telling us that it was just up ahead, to telling us we needed to take a twenty-minute taxi ride or a ten minute walk.
I am sorry to say that our “helper” received no tip at all for leading us on such a clever wild goose chase. Luckily, we found that he’d pretty much led us in a complete circle, leaving us fairly close to the grocery store. We rushed up to it, only to find that they were at that moment finishing locking up. It was 6:09. So now we know that the grocery store closes at 6:00. We’re planning another trip this afternoon. Wish us luck! If we fail again, we may starve from lack of olive oil.