Jack Frost's Cousins
We always thought it was a joke, that people brought the cold with them, but certain events here have led us to believe that it may in fact be true. To begin with the hot water heater in our new apartment died. That wasn’t our fault, it was old and having problems anyway and it needed to be repaired. We spent our evenings unpacking in the cold Tunisian winter weather. Now you Canadians out there who think I’m joking when I say cold and Tunisia in the same sentence, don’t be fooled. It drops to between 0 and 5 degrees in the winter and the buildings here have no insulation, none, not even a couple of sheets of newspaper, so the temperature outside is the temperature inside.
The joked that we brought the cold to the apartment and we joked that we would just eat some blubber and suck it up. It was so cold, though, that we needed to spend a couple more nights at our host’s place basking in the warmth of their hot water heaters.
A couple of days later, for the first time in remembered history, it snowed in Ettadamen (pronounced ‘tadamen) where Enda is headquartered. My coworkers flocked to the window and joked that I had brought them snow from Canada. When the excitement died down they went back to their workstations in their scarves and winter coats to work in the 0 degree offices as best they could.
The next night, though was the final coup. We returned to our host’s place to find one of their interior radiators leaking hot water and the heating tank loosing pressure. They told us it might get cold in the house but that they could have it fixed on the weekend.
That was the last straw. Now we’re wondering if cold runs in the blood of all Canadians or if our auras have a temperature issue.
Yesterday was my first official day of work and if I have learned one thing it is that learning Tunisian is a must. If you have never worked in a foreign organization you may not have any idea of what I am talking about. In the beginning I was told by my supervisors and my co-workers that it surely wouldn't be necessary as everyone was fluent in French and many spoke English too. In fact, when we first arrived, learning Arabic seemed like a good self-improvement activity that we could do just so we wouldn't look like total tourist in the market spaces.
I have since learned a couple of things that I did not know. First, People here don't speak Arabic; they speak Tunisian. Tunisian uses the Arab grammatical structure, shortens many words, and throws in a bunch of French and some old Latin words. It is a hybrid of all the occupations during their history. Tunisian is a dialect, though, not a language, as it has no written form. All writing and reading here is done in Classical Arabic. So if we want to be able to understand people around us, we need to know Tunisian and if we want to be able to read the documents, street signs and literature we need Arabic. Also, if we travel anywhere outside of Tunisia, Tunisian won't be understood. Everyone will understand Arabic, but not if it is spoken...
At first we figured that learning Arabic was our best bet; we could learn to read and write and for everyday communication we could continue speaking French. Yesterday, however, I sat through a 3 hour meeting that was entirely in Tunisian. You see, in one on one conversation everyone is content to speak to me in French, but with a few Tunisians and only one Canadian, they revert to Tunisian. Now I think learning Tunisian will be the great priority and Arabic can come later. If I don't have Tunisian, I'll find myself less involved and less usefull. And bored to tears during 3 hour meetings.
another little thing.
They don't insulate here. Ever. It's like there's some unwritten
builders' code that strictly forbids the use of insulation. This
wouldn't be an issue in tradition Berber or even Arabic construction
where, for the former it's underground and for the latter it's solid
walls. But thin, hollow walls with single-paned windows don't keep in
the heat, nor will they keep it out come the summer...
Well, I wandered about the neighbourhood that is to be our new home
for a little while today to get a feel for the landscape. It's a new
district in Tunis where the oldest building might be 10 years old, and
as I already mentionned, quite bohemian (meaning relatively rich).
The architecture here is strange to me still. All concrete over bick
construction in all sorts of wacky configurations heavily influenced
(not surprisingly) by Arab tradition and the weird building plans of
the old cities (Medinas). Curves are everywhere, as is stone, and as
are arabic accents - detailing but that never has a consistent
presence because that's too expensive. The buildings are all
relatively short - nothing can be built very tall because (or so I've
been told) of the soil composition - clay near the ocean...
But the striking feature through it all is that the buildings are
almost all visually decaying (they look ugly but the structures are
all right). It's truly odd. Our building has huge seams of filler
blotchifying the flaking paint job that adorns its sides. And it's
Anyhow, we're still waiting for our bed and water heater... So it
looks like we'll be imposing on Wifak and Slim some more...
That's it for today - send me emails and I will send replies!
New friends and new insights...
Well, what can I say, it wasn't exactly the warmest weekend to have
spent at Hammamet, but it was a quiet weekend that we got to spend on
our own... We spoke English, revelled in the foreign/familiar sound
of our mother tongue, and wandered the many kilometers long sandy
beach of this "zone touristique" or tourist area on the
Before I continue, I need to be off soon as the dinner preparations
are well underway, so pardon the brief word-bites...
Little things are starting to sort themselves out. We will be moving
into a place shortly - a two bedroom furnished apartment in a
Bourgeois district (ie they gots money and they aren't particularly
fussy about observing Muslim practices - which for two non-muslims
intent on avoiding insult is a good thing) for around 250 Dinars a
month (roughly 250 canadian dollars).
I discovered with some delight that guns are outlawed except for
police and the military; also the police are everywhere (roughly 1
officer for every hundred citizens) so if this place were western we'd
be pretty safe. As it's Arab-Muslim, we're safer. The biggest risk
we run on a day to day basis is being pick-pocketed or insulted
verbally:no being dragged down a dark alley never to resurface... of
which I'll admit I was somewhat concerned when I saw where Tiara was
going to be working. Not a particularly Bourgeois district. In the
But I have to be briefer. We have met a fantastic couple, Slim and
Wifak, who have taken us in while we searched for a place and now wait
for it to be ready and who have answered every silly or politically
charged or religiously charged question that we threw at them without
batting an eye. They've also shown us around the new district to help
us find the basics for living - food, housewares, incredible hot
chocolate. More to come, but dinner bekons...