Friday, February 04, 2005

Café des Chômeurs

Maybe I'm wrong, I've only been working at Enda for five days, but it seems to me that when the Directors are busy (and by that I mean busy elsewhere) the staff sort of takes their time with work. Now I'm not saying that this is bad or good or even all that different from many work environments in Canada. But it is ironic.

Many times so far I've heard people referring to the men who sit in the cafés all day because they can't find work. They call them les chomeurs, the unemployed. There's a touch of condescention I think, a bit of looking down upon others. I'd seen them from the window of the car as we drive to work in the morning, but I'd never been around them directly. It is not appropriate in the poorer districts for women to enter the cafés; this is where the men stay while the women meet at home or go to work cleaning apartments and houses in the wealthier districts. I learned today, though that not appropriate is not the same thing as not allowed.

After lunch while waiting for a meeting to begin a couple of co-workers invited Wifak and me for a tea at one of the local cafés. Wifak raised her eyebrows and shook her head, asking them if they were serious. They were. Women are not restricted from the cafés, they said. So we agreed. It was not the first time Wifak had been in a Cafe de chomeurs, and she looked comfortable enough. I was a little uncomfortable. Besides being very white compared to most people here, I have this very obvious non-arab french pronounciation. Within a few minutes we had drawn everyone's attention.

Most of the men were a lot younger than I imagined. It's not that I thought only older men were unemployed, but rather I though the younger ones would find something more interesting to do than hang around in a cafe all day. They were all lean, with no extra weight on them; perhaps it is a sign of the frugal lifestyles they must live. The tea was brown and sweet and the air was smokey. It struck me as funny that these men didn't act all that differently from my coworkers when the boss is out. The only differences, really, were the snacks and cigarets. I almost think the chomeurs have more to brag about... Today anyway.

An Underground Economy

I was just walking down our main avenue, the avenue de cafés (so nick-named because there are loads of them), and noticed a little something that seems particular to Tunisia.

All over the place there are shops where you can get "Gravures de CD" or cd's burned for all your computing or music or video needs. Need the latest software upgrade? Go get it burned down the street. I suppose that given the high price of the stuff and the rather low incomes earned here, it only makes sense that an alternative supply needed to be found... In any case, there doesn't seem to be any legislative impediment given that there are police everywhere (as an addendum to that, nasty crimes are very uncommon - which is kind of nice).

Actually, what surprised me was not so much the plentiful black market supply (or is it grey if it's not stopped by the authorities?), but to see a video store that offers up VHS, DVD and DivX rentals...

Just a little spot of news for the techno-geeks of the world

Bienvenue Chez Nous!

So I know we haven't managed to get our pictures up and online for everyone to view, but I promise that's comming soon. In the mean time I'd like to give you a tour of our home, as best I can with words and my memory, as I'm writing you from ENDA.

The appartment complex is fenced but not gated. We live on the peak of a small hill in Ennasr 1. When you enter the courtyard from the North (the main entrance) you find yourself in a parking lot with buildings on three sides and a small arched passage at the South leading into a grassy spot and another pedestrian entrance. Our entrance is on the left back corner (South-East). You enter the glass door that is forever propped open and turn up the stairs. Each floor has two doors, one to the left and one to the right, connected to the narrow landing. Our appartment is on the third floor on the left side.

I loved the door the first time I saw it. I call it our hobbit door, as the doorknob is located in the centre of the door and does not turn. There are two bolts a top one that turns one click counterclockwise and a center one that turns two clicks cockwise. To open the door turn the key another half turn and voila, the door is open.

The entrance hall is about two persons wide and the first thing you'll notice about it is that it is white. White walls, white ceilings and a patterened white marble floor that feels very smooth and cold on your feet. A quick left turn shows you our bathroom and kitchen. Open double doors on the right lead into a salon/dining room and at the end of the hall are two more doors leading to the bedroom on the left and the guest room/studio.

The kitchen is small, big enough for one person comfortably and two if you squeeze. Standing in the entrace you see a double window with closed white shutters on the outside; a narrow counter with a scratched, white, double-basin sink in the centre and a drying rack to the right; and three small shutter-cupboards inset in the counter under the sink. To the right is a door that leads into the supply closet/boiler room. That door is almost always closed. A white garbage bag is hanging on the door-lever half full of strawberry yogurt containers, orange peels, date stem sticks and an empty Safia water bottle. To the left is a short gas stove and oven with a white cover leaning against the wall behind it. The burners rest on an obviously home-made tinfoil cover, protecting the white surface from sticky substances. To the left of the cooker is a white fridge that looks bizarely oversized in the small room and on the wall next to the door that you are standing in are shutter-cupboard double doors that open on the only shelves in the kitchen. They go from floor to ceiling, though, and you figure a lot can be stored in there. Also from this angle you must wonder how they can access things on the shelves when the fridge is so close to the doors. The answer, I must say is that you have to open the far one first, and then get in there before you open the second. It's like shutting yourself into a small room and then reappearing with the things you need.

From this position if you turn around (180), back toward the hall, you'll find the bathroom on your left. I'm sure you'll laugh at the comicaly small bathtub in the back left corner and the absurd smiley-face curtain flanking it. On the left is a toilet with no flush handle but a round pull handle at the top of the tank. (I'll explain toilets another time. They have a rant comming.) In the right back corner is the sink with a huge plastered-over crack running down the stand, and a miror hanging over it. This is our ridiculously small bathroom.

Back into the hall, you turn into the double doors (left one closed, right one open) on the right where you see the salon/dining room. Its a good sized space with nothing on the walls. There are two low loveseats with a rather bright, tacky pattern, and a small scratched black-painted coffee table with closed sides to the floor. These take up the back centre and right side of the room. There is a double window with the same white-shutters on the outside at the centre-back over one of the loveseats. At the moment the coffee table is covered in american and french fitness magazines, a french novella, The Time Traveler's Wife (which Loren is reading to me in the evenings), a disertation on the development of the Maghreb (North Africa) and Loren's english lesson plans. In the near right corner is an old, round, wooden patio table wedged into the corner with three blue placemats in the centre and three bowls holding figs (left), oranges (centre), and dates (right). There are two wood and patterned-material chairs in front of them and a total of the spending for the week. In the back on the left is a door that leads to a large balcony with a view of other appartment balconies and some trees below. You probably giggle as you notice the red clothes line running from the patio door to the salon entrance door. It's too cold for clothes to dry on the line outside in the winter so we improvise indoors (Loren is brilliant that way.) And no, there is no washing or drying machines, in fact I don't even think people have heard of a dryer. In the summer here things dry faster on a line than they would with a machine anyway...

Well, I'd love to show you the rest of the house, but the study and the bedroom are a bit messy. How about I show you those next time?

So why don't I fix you an arab coffee and we'll just stay in the salon for a while...

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Where the Sidewalk Ends

I think in previous posts I mentioned that Loren and I are living in the newest district in Tunis, Ennasr 1. Ten years ago there was nothing there at all, just a few hills and some shrubbery. It's in the farthest Northern corner of the urban sprawl, though the city's not that big, so it's still fairly inexpensive to get around. I couldn't help wondering, if the area is so new, why the place looks like its falling apart.

Walking down the streets from Ennasr 1 to Ennasr 2 in the mornings we have to keep our eyes carefully lowered to avoid holes, uneven ground, broken cobbles and bricks. Sidewalks are never level, and since they are usually constructed with brick they jut up at odd angles. I've been surprised more than once by this. In the winter it rains often, and mud sweeps through the culverts built into the sides of the roads. Watch out for those, they're deep and almost a foot wide. You have to step over them to cross the street. And the water sweeps mud across the roads, out of the culverts, and even on to the sidewalk. There is no escape from the mud or the broken bits of things.

The walls are another mystery. Some buildings have only been up for two or three years, and already the white plaster is flaking off in big pieces showing the concrete wall underneath. And walls surrounding some of the bigger houses are not just flaking, but breaking, with big holes in them showing the hollow-looking bricks under the cement and plaster coverings. Nothing is actually made in concrete like it used to be, concrete is only an exterior coating for a much weaker gridwork of bricks.

Everywhere you go in the city you see partially finished housing showing the various layers of its composition. Many of these projects appear to be stalled and are waiting for the salt-wind to take them apart or someone to come tear it down so they can build something new. The State prefers new construction to rennovation and provides financial incentives for those who chose to rebuild. This I think is artificial stimulation for the construction industry, which hires a lot of unskilled labour at a low wage. People here want things fast and cheap and that doesn't make for lasting structures.

I keep wondering to myself, if I walk far enough will I find the place where the sidewalk ends altogether?

Happy shower curtain

Well now,

Newly installed in Tunisia and trying to get settled, I was in a quandary yesterday. I was in the mini-market (there is onesuper-market in Tunis, and it's on the edge of town far far far fromhome, so I don't go there much if at all) and looking at their shower curtain assortment.

We need a shower curtain, that much is certain, since our bath is barely worthy of the name. It's about two thirds regular size and clearly designed for sitting, as one side is raised up halfway to the top. It's atrocious and we almost didn't take the appartment because of it. It's that bad. I'll send photos.

Anyhow, I was looking at the assortment of semi-transparent and ugly vinyl shower curtains - because that's all they had - and faced with a decision. Do I, as an artist with a serious aversion to design culture, where cheap products try to pawn themselves off as luxury products, buy the ghastly curtain with four rows of smilie faces filled with happy-coloured goo, or do I buy the curtain with big ugly squares of faux-artisnal paper in a pseudo-random pattern hidden away in plastic pockets?

Now, I'll admit that the paper-filled one looked a little nicer. But what of consistency? It was crappy trying to look good! That's like playing the spice girls through an expensive sound system, or dressing a barbie in Versace, or getting your MacDonalds meal served by a butler and on a silver platter. It screams wrong! I imagine that two weeks down the road I'd be secretly sticking pins in it so that we'd have to buy a new one sooner. Maybe I'd light a tiny corner on fire. I think I'd crack. I just couldn't do it.

As for the other, well, it was cheap and plastic too. But it kinda fit. I mean, big happy faces certainly don't fit many people's idea of high class, and neither does an ugly vinyl shower curtain. So it was consistent - a seamless union of medium and message - and it had
happy faces all over it. And I've been having a rough time adjusting to the crazy Tunisian world, so happy was also good (plus I have to admit to having gone through the eighties without a happy-face clad anything, and feeling like I was a little left out). Imagine, every morning you wake up in a somewhat cruddy building (they all seem somewhat cruddy, something about the way they're constructed here), you walk across semi-clean stone floor, though a doorway that's been painted quickly but not too carefully, and you see a big smilie-faced curtain. You must admit, it's a perfect fit. That settled it. There was no comparison. The smilie-faces were in!

Then there was the tiny matter of explaining it all to Tiara...

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Mysterious Mornings

After saturation you reach a strange balancing act, swinging from things that you love about the place to things that drive you crazy. There will be plenty of time to tell you about the things that drive me crazy, and I’m sure they’ll keep popping up as I settle in more and more. But I think I’ve figured one of the things I love the most about this place.

Every morning Loren and I get up early for the gym. It’s a 25 minute walk at a fast pace up and down two hills on the north end of Tunis in Ennasr 1 and Ennasr 2. To get to the gym in time to work out and catch a ride with our friends, we need to rise early, before the sun comes up, before people are out. The alarm goes off at ten to six and we have just enough presence of mind to turn it off and sit up on the bed so that we don’t fall asleep. It always takes a few minutes in the morning to get started, but before we manage to get our feet on the floor, the chanting of the Koran from the minaret of the Mosque in Ennasr 1.

It appears to come in through every window in the house, and it floats like a musical spell through our room. The lights are off and we simply sit and listen to the incantation. It is the most magical moment of my day and I feel warm, peaceful and awake. It only lasts a few minutes and then we rise and make coffee or tea before leaving for the gym.


Another short note...

As might be expected, in the arabic world we are likely to find at least a little arabic music on the radio. What we didn't expect to find was the wealth of good old indie music that is played straight up mainstream...

Granted there's nothing way out there, but we were definately surprised at the ecclectisism. To give you an idea, last night I heard Jefferson Airplane, followed by the Dears (out of Canada -yay!), something wonky out of the states (name eludes me) and the Cure - in that order.

Jodes, you'll be happy to know that I've also heard Massive Attack, Gus Gus, Royksopp (that one's for you too Hailey) and the DandyWarhols. All this on the popular radio station. Odd. I mean, it's no surprise to hear a little top twenty stuff - whether arabic, rock, pop or r&b, but to hear that less poppish other stuff mixed in with it as though it belongs is just a little bit trippy.

It leads to weird instances, like yesterday seeing a newer car parked up on the curb in front of a gawdy stall in front of the Medina. And not so much seeing the car as seeing the aged Tunisian fellow who's in it, who's missing a few teeth but otherwise happy, and hearing Tom Jones crooning out Sex Bomb from the radio.


Monday, January 31, 2005

Point of Saturation

It funny, you know, you get along fine for a while, enjoying the world around you, reveling in all that is new and at your own sense of adventure and wonder. Then, like a child after a day at the fair, you reach the point of saturation and it’s too much. It’s not anything in particular, no one horrible mistake, no major catastrophe; just something small is not what you thought it would be, like your schedule gets rearranged, or you realize you forgot to buy shampoo, and you’re ready to cry.

Apparently the saturation point was reached yesterday sometime. Every small thing was emotionally devastating and I felt exhausted every time someone spoke in Arabic. Loren was wonderful; he just kept telling me about what a great day I was going to have tomorrow. That’s something that’s totally invaluable; a partner who know how to make you feel better when you think you can’t be consoled. Bless you Loren!