A discussion of the nuances and entertainment of living in Tunisia
Most things are cheap in comparison to America and after 6 months here, it still amazes me. I walk away from shopping feeling like I got a steal and would have gladly paid 5 times as much. A quick estimated conversion in my head, dividing by 3, gives me a rough estimate of how much it would cost in US dollars. That 10 dinar pizza is really like 3 and a half bucks! And this isn’t really a tipping culture so when I give the delivery guy a few extra dinar, he looks a bit stunned.
Clothing shopping is an interesting experience, one that I found entertaining at first, but now find a bit annoying. The first time I walked into Zara, I took a shirt off the rack and it was immediately scooped up, out of my hands by an overly helpful sales associate. I tried on a coat and was literally helped into it. The sales guy, always about 2 feet away, followed me everywhere I went, held my stuff, complimented my choices, and eventually whisked me off to the “personal shopper” dressing room. Amusing, until the day that you just want to shop in peace.
I’ve had someone take me by the hand and put a bracelet on my wrist (and I was even looking at bracelets). I’ve had sales people hold up product after product and ask if I want this or that (and repeat that sales technique about 20 times). Once we had an unsolicited tour guide highjack our walk and then we had to pay for the unwanted “tour.” I’ve also been in stores where they aren’t quite as aggressive, but nevertheless, I am followed, always watched. Last time I was in a department store, buying shoes for Penny, I looked around at one point and realized there were about 10 employees just staring at us, like something out of a horror movie. Surely we can’t be THAT interesting! When I finally checked out, the man behind the counter asked if I spoke French. When I said no, he immediately started talking with two other employees in French and was not discrete in the fact that I was the topic of conversation.
But… I have “sucker” written on my forehead. I have purchased one too many items in Tunisia simply because it was easier to go along with the sale than repeatedly decline in a language I don’t know.
I should mention that I’ve also found the exact opposite situation here as well. There are some places that make it so hard to buy from them. Won’t answer the phone, no location or hours listed, not searchable, and completely disinterested in helping you. It’s like you have to beg them to take your money.
One thing I haven’t gotten used to are the 3 decimal places and lack of decimal point. Sometimes a comma is used in place of the decimal point and sometimes there’s nothing at all to distinguish place value. So a 35 dinar purchase looks like 35,000 on the cash register and receipt. I about had a heart attack the first few times I saw that!
After an unfortunate gory nightmare that led to a sleepless night for Teddy, we now give advance warning before turning down the street with the butcher shop so he can close his eyes. Penny tells us it’s “gross” but she still looks. I’m kind of with her on that. I hate seeing blood, but my morbid curiosity gets the best of me and every day I can’t help but take a peek at the decapitated cow head hanging from a chain, eyes open, tongue sticking out- the same cow I saw pacing across the street earlier in the morning- now in pieces and almost fake looking. Apologies if that description was too much. I’ve been desensitized.
The local cats are familiar now. There’s “car cat” who sits on the warm hoods of cars in the school’s parking garage. He’s fluffy and dirty and always looks pissed off. There are the playful kitten siblings that are brave enough to roam the hallways of the school. Bob makes an appearance once in a while. He doesn’t have a tail. Around our house we see Gus. He hops the wall into the yard and sits on our patio furniture. He can barely open his eyes. He’s usually limping or showing off a new battle scar from a recent fight. When we don’t see him in our yard, he’s usually found dumpster diving. He’s afraid of us, but I’m afraid for him- afraid he’s going to croak in our garden and my kids will get yet another lesson on the circle of life. At one point we had a litter of neighborhood kittens. It was tempting to want to take one of them home. Actually, we did take one home for a playdate, but we returned him to his brothers and sisters after a couple of hours. These cats have generations of street cats in their bloodline and surely they are more feral than domesticated. I won’t get to find out because being a pet owner doesn’t work out well with traveling the world on a whim.
And finally- this random animal story: One day, we came home to find a man standing outside of our gate looking perplexed. When he saw us drive up, he told us in broken bits of English his bird was in our house. Ummm…. Say what? He asks if he can get it, and when we realized he meant yard rather than house, we invited him inside the gate. I went into the house to retrieve a basket or something helpful for catching a bird. By the time I got back outside, there was a small group of people looking at our olive tree. I soon found out the basket was unnecessary as the man reached into the tree and pulled out a small hawk with his bare hands and then they all left. Just another day in Tunisia…
I’m writing this on the last day of January, and despite the fact that the locals are wearing heavy winter coats, the climate is mild enough that the flowers have never stopped blooming. There are fruit trees and palm trees and a tangle of colorful flowers almost everywhere you go. We were lucky enough to get rosemary plants and plenty of fruit trees in our own backyard. We have a Charlie Brown-looking apple tree that is literally being held together with tape. We have a beautiful olive tree and a lemon tree that is always producing. But the most common tree in our yard are the orange trees. We have 3 of them. Very exciting! However, as soon as they were ripe, we discovered that they taste awful and no amount of sugar or marmalade-making will make them edible. So now, on a windy day they just fall off the tree and we have orange balls all over our lawn. They are good for juggling so there’s that…
We don’t own any equipment to take care of our yard so we hired a gardener to come out occasionally for mowing and such. He does most of his work while we are away at school and he’s very self sufficient and always comes up with a to-do list, mostly of things I would never even think of doing. A couple of weeks ago, I came home to new plants… but not just any plants! Now, proudly displayed in the front lawn are 4 of the biggest, most phallic-looking cactus plants. Just what I’ve always wanted…
For your viewing pleasure: the manly cacti and a couple other exotic, bizarre looking specimens we’ve come across:
The Metric System
After 6 months, I am no longer phased when my GPS system tells me to turn in two kilometers or when the directions on a box mix call for 500 ml of milk or ask me to preheat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius. I don’t naturally have these conversions in my head so I have to look them up every time… or I don’t. I have found that you can get through life fairly easily without knowing what’s going on. Sure it was uncomfortable at first, but now I’m just used to living in a bit of confusion. I smile and nod or guess or say, “Oui!” and 9 times out of 10 it works out.
Getting a parking ticket in Kansas is an unfortunate but quick and painless procedure, but here in Tunisia, they aren’t messing around. Park illegally here (which is very easy to accidentally do) and they will tow your car away or put a lock on the front wheel. My time is worth more than my money so the inconvenience of calling and waiting and hoping you can communicate is a huge pain! They come and unlock your car and you pay anywhere from 15 to 50 dinar (I think depending on how they are feeling that day). If deterrence is the goal, it works. My car has been booted twice, and now I am so careful about where I park and will gladly use paid parking lots just to avoid the hassle.
When we moved into our house and I saw all of the radiators against the walls I was nervous. I’ve never been in a house that uses radiators for heating. I was afraid one of the kids would bump into it and burn themselves. Some of the radiators are directly below towel racks or curtains and I was sure we would burn our towels and curtains or cause a fire. But oh my goodness, was I wrong. I never want to go back to centralized heating. The radiators are perfectly warm and not too hot to touch. They work great and not only do they warm up the house, they warm towels and robes and clothes and blankets and even stuffed animals! On cold mornings, Penny now insists that her clothes be laid on the radiator before she gets dressed. You know that feeling of warm clothes right out of the dryer? We have that, in an instant, all the time! It’s magical. When I write in my gratitude journal, I almost always include the radiators. I hope my tone isn’t coming across as sarcastic because I am 100% serious. I love my radiators!
There are probably so many other quirky things about life here that I’m not even thinking of because I’m just used to them now. Lord help me with my reverse culture shock when I go back to the States and roll through stop signs, use commas instead of decimal points, and become insecure because no one is staring at me.