If this post ends up sounding a little woozy and weird, it’s probably just because I’m a little high on secondhand hubbly-bubbly smoke. Our internet is still not functioning, so we make a daily pilgrimage to the “Tea House” (Tunisian/British Tourist-speak for Cafe) around the corner that advertises free wifi. Besides the smoke (an abundant mixture of both regular and hubbly-bubbly kinds), which is par for the course in Tunisia, it’s a pretty nice place. The only other weird thing is that it is full of large flat-screen televisions playing Arab music videos. But the music often doesn’t match up with the video. Sometimes it’s not even in the same language. I’ve noticed this phenomenon at other cafes and restaurants too. Maybe there’s just so much happy hubbly-bubblyness in the air that nobody cares.
The differences between music videos in different countries make an interesting study. Italian videos, for example, are full of cafes, cobblestone streets, and heart-to-heart talks. And just like in real life, the female Italian singers wear subtle and natural-looking makeup. Here in Tunisia the videos feature mostly Roman ruins, spirited horses, and gyrating dancing. And when it comes to makeup, it seems that the darker and more garish the better. The cosmetic color palate appears to focus mainly on fuschia, magenta, and neon aquamarine. It’s a little startling until you get used to it.
When we first arrived at our Tea House last Saturday, I had just commented to Tony how strange it was that everyone had the exact same laptop. A moment later, our waitress brought out an identical laptop for me, since she had noticed we’d only brought one. It turns out they don’t just offer free wifi, they lend out free computers too. This deal was getting better and better. I don’t actually know how the Cafe even makes any money. All around us were small tables with Tunisians crowded round them. Only one or two people from each party had ordered coffee or minted tea. Everyone else just sat around and smoked. I think that’s how Tunisians always fit so many people around their tables. Usually there are at least five, and possibly more chairs around a little round table about the size of a stool. When they serve our family, they often bring in another table because we all order something. It must look weird to the Tunisians to see four people spread out around two whole tables that ought to be accommodating at least ten.
Many Tunisian cafes serve simple food as well as drinks and desserts. This one was no exception. The catch is that there is only ever one condiment included: harissa. (link to adapting to Tunisian food) So Tony and the children had dry panini, and I had a crepe, which wasn’t so dry, because at least my cheese was thoroughly melted. When we lingered after eating to finish our internet business, the waitress brought our children free lemonades. Then she gave them kisses on their way out. We hope our internet gets fixed soon, but in the meantime we’re happy to have an agreeable alternative source.
Rather like Italy, Tunisia is a country that loves children. People can’t resist reaching out to touch Axa’s curls and Dominique’s little blond head. At first, the children were a little shy, but now they love the attention. Every time we go out, they receive multiple gifts of candy, most of which their mean mother confiscates. But there are benefits for me too. It’s not just the foreign children who are indulged. Nobody at restaurants seems to care when the Tunisian children run up and down between tables. Rules are lax and affection is abundant. I can’t tell you how delightfully refreshing it is to suddenly (and with no effort on my part) have the best behaved children around. (Not to say that they’re always the best behaved, even here. It’s just that in general, the cultural standards are easier to meet.)
Now that we’ve been in the neighborhood for several weeks, Axa and Dominique have several “friends” who work at various cafes, hotels, and construction sites in the area. Every day brings a chance to wave, have a little conversation, or exchange shells, drawings, candy, or other gifts. But their best friend is probably our landlord, the Doctor. They love to watch him painting, trimming bushes, or just out chatting with the neighbors. He takes them next door to visit the rabbits and chickens. The other day Tony overheard him asking Axa what she liked to do. She responded confidingly, “I like to jump on beds. But I’m not supposed to.” He laughed indulgently, chucked her on the chin, and responded, “Don’t worry. If you break the bed, I will buy you a new one.”