Thursday, April 14, 2005

a moment...

Today I saw a little boy standing outside of our appartment bloc. He must have been all of six years old, if that. He had a tiny backpack, he stood maybe two and a half feet high, and he was leaning back on his heels looking up at the apartments.

Strange. For a moment I looked at him, freckled pale face, curly red hair, blocky stature, and he seemed as foreign to this place as me. He called out, then, "mom!" Insistent as only a little kid can be - voice laced with indignation, demand, pleading and frustration all at once. I paused at the bottom of the stairs...

A string of unintelligible arabic followed. What a crazy little world. I hadn't really expected any different, but for some unknown reason I had hoped.

Fifty Cent Signature

Remember the story about heading to the Police office for our Carte de Sejour? Remeber he said we could go back and get it on Wednesday? Well the story continues.

Wednesday we arrived nice and early to meet with the officer in charge of our portfolio. We arrived earlier, in fact, than he did. It was about a 15 minute wait so we strolled around for a while and returned to find him working and attended by a small line up of foreigners, from where we couldn't guess.

Once we made it in to his office, he flipped through his stack of files and pulled out ours. Mine was fine and he said "ca va, ca va". Loren's however, had a little note attached to it.

Here I have to interrupt with a little background. When we applied for the cartes we only had my work contract, and since one person working is enough to get the procedure done, we didn't bother to bring in Loren's contract, we just stated that I would be taking care of both our financial responsibility. That was an adventure in itself. It took them a good five minutes of cross questioning to understand that Loren had come here with me, and that he, like most spouses moving to an African nation, would not necessarily be working. They kept asking "Mais qu'est-ce que tu fais?" But what do you do? Loren and I both laughed at how patriarchal the Tunisian authorities were. And, in the end, it wasn't a problem, once they adjusted their paradigms.

What we forgot, was that there are several levels of buraucracy and they didn't all get a paradigm adjustment.

That little note on Loren's paper said that they wanted tangible proof that this man would be supported by his wife, a concept I'm sure they had a very hard time understanding.

"You'll have to write a letter that says you'll "prendre en charge" (a term meaning: take under your care or manage) your husband." That means they want a letter that says I wont leave him in the street bumming for change. "You have to get it signed at the municipality and bring me the original and a photocopy." We contemplated just turning in Loren's contract with AMIDEast, but in light of all the signatures and attestations that we have to have signed, we decided it would just be faster to write the letter and have it signed. I couldn't do it then because I had a meeting to attend at work, so I determined to do it the next day.

Let me explain what it means to have a document "signed". You see, I write the letter, by hand because we don't have a working printer at the office, and I leave a space for me to sign and write the date. I travel in a taxi the 10 minutes to the Municiapal Office, where even at 8:30 in the morning there is a line-up. I take a number and sit there for about an hour and a half. Lots of time for meditation and new insight into the Tunisian system.

When my number is called I go up to the glass both, hand the administrator my handwritten letter. He reads it and asks for my and Loren's passports to make sure I got the number right. He passes it back to me and asks me to sign it. I sign it. He takes it makes a stamp on it and he signs it (proof that he saw me sign it). He then takes out a ledger, writes my name in it passes it to me to initial, and charges me 500 millimes.

For what? FOR WHAT? I paid 500 millimes to wait an hour and a half so he could officially watch me sign my own handwritten letter! I paid 500 millimes for a stamp and a recipt that says I paid.

I meditated on patience in the cab to the police station.

There was a line at the station too. I talked with a nice young student from Gabon in Africa, who was experiencing the same problems as me.

"Why don't they just give you a list at the beginning? Why don't they post a list on the wall? I've never seen a system like this. Not even in Gabon!"

He entered before me and left. He was told he had to make another photocopy, again.

I entered, handed in my certified handwritten letter and a photocopy. He frowned at my choice of words, and asked me if I couldn't have made it a little more clear. I was not NOT going back to the municipality to pay another 500 millimes and to wait to have the cashier watch me sign another letter, so I haggled with him. Finally he accepted it, and told me with a grunt "ca va".

"Now what?" I asked him.

He shrugged. "Come back in two or three days." And he ushered in the next person and ushered me out.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

A Storm in Ettadhamen

Yesterday I left work a little late, close to 18:30, and it was raining outside. The few times that this has happened in the past, it has been a sure sign that I will have to wait a long while for a taxi.

I decided with the bit of time that that would afford me, that I could brave the rain drops and head for the fruit stands to buy some groceries. Maybe, I though, the rain would let up by then.

The fruit vendor that I usually visit was not there today. He is young, about the same age as me, and works with his brother, or maybe cousin. His booth is one of the closest to the traffic circle and to the metro station, so it gets a lot of traffic. I know that the fruit he sells will always be fresh because he sells out most days. But, alas, the boy who replaced him didn't speak enough french and didn't know enough about his wares to be able to point out the Thompson oranges to me, so I thanked him and decided to look elsewhere.

The fruit stands are located between the traffic circle, the metro station (terminus) and the bus station. There is always traffic there and always a lot of people. Moving between stands is taxing when it's busy, as you have a lot to think about. You need to keep one hand on your wallet, one ear tuned in for busses, an arm over your bag and an eye open for traffic of all kinds around you. And through all this you need to find fruit that looks good enough to buy.

I stopped at the nearest vendor with a wide variety of oranges, made my formal hello and asked for Thompsons, 1 kilo. I took him a minute to get to it, as the rain was starting to come down harder and he needed to cover the back part of his stand. I didn't mind waiting.

As I waited I noticed a group of people converging in the street behind the bus station. There must have been 50 people collected together, moving like a flock of birds, all shifting direction this way and that, but not moving very far in any one direction. Then, out of the mass of people, two figures broke away, wrestling with each other. They were young, and it appeared to be a fight.

People here don't fight well. I'm sure there are some martial arts and boxing clubs, but for the most part fighting is strictly forbiden. Participating in a street fight can get you heavily fined and jailed, so it's not something that people are often willing to risk. These two men had a good hold on each other and were throwing each other around and shaking each other. I don't think they ever got their fists free. It seemed more like a wrestling match than a street fight.

I paid for my oranges and moved away, closer to the traffic circle and further from the fight. I had no interest in being around a mob of poor, frustrated Tunisians when the fight broke-up or was disolved by the police. Foreigners can move around in relative safety in high-traffic areas, but I wouldn't want to push my luck.

I waited just North of the circle and waived my hand at every cab that came along. The were all full.

It started to pour.

I didn't have an umbrella and the few buildings with overhang were too far from the road for me to be able to hail a taxi. I figured I might be there a while, but the rain wasn't too cold so I didn't mind. I was hungry however.

I jogged over to a candy vendor who was finishing a batch of candied peanuts and I paid him 200 millimes for a small bag. Then I moved back into the rain, happily eating my candy and getting soaked under the grey-blue twilight clouds. I must have been quite a site in my salmon rain coat snacking on candy. But a taxi stopped soon, and I was on the highway home in no time, with my empty bag of candy and a kilo of oranges. Wet but content.

Crazy packed.

Well, only a very little note today.

I just wanted to mention that ever since Jodie left us, it has been raining. Pretty much solid, too, which is not so cool.

Also, yesterday I took a crazy ride on the Metro. Crazy meaning packed. Packed packed. So packed that people couldn't shove their way through the human mass to get in. So packed that schoolkids were riding on the rear clasp (train connector bit - don't know what it's called) of the last car. So packed that the close but never touching policy between men and woman was totally ignored. So packed that there wasn't room on the overhead rails for more hands. Crazy packed.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Ride II

For those of you who missed the first installation:
Check out the lead-up

And now...

Within seconds, the van spluttered its way to life and with groans from the engine we shimmied out of the warehouse and into the hazy, humid tunisian night. And the settling and the odd ride began.

Several things settle when you are crammed into a small space, in the heat, with coats and such. You don't. For the next hour and a half, I was seated forward, unable to fit my shoulders between the two first-commers. Within fifteen minutes I had begun to sweat, and so, apparently had the others. Each one had their own reason, but the result was a not-so-pleasent tangy aroma that quickly consumed the cab. Great, I thought. And then I heard my phone go off.

Slim sent me a lovely little message:
Remember, it's 7,100 dinars - and mind your wallet.


And then I noticed the fellow to my left rummaging around in his briefcase. Out came a small mp3 player, and a pair of headphones. He noticed me watching, and so, the polite canadian, I turned away to stare at the road a while. I felt a fumbling in around my ear - he was trying to offer me an earbud. I grinned, nodded my thanks and slipped it into place. Hygene was far from my mind on this trip - so it goes.

And I was listening to orchestral work some composer whose name starts with H. I think Haydn - beautiful, soaring orchestral work with the resonance of a resplendant concert hall, and a sharp contrast to the chaos and cramped world so very with us at that moment. I breathed in, someone up front had opened a window, and I could just make out the night air past the cigarette tang. I closed my eyes.

When I opened them, my new friend was looking at me in askance. I guess he didn't expect my reception. C'est magnifique, I informed him. Merci beaucoup! He smiled, then; he was content, I think, to have some of his own illusions about the youth of today broken. I listened for a half an hour or so, before I began to feel guilty for stealing his bubble. I returned his earpiece, thanked him again, and struggled to get at the player in my pocket. Cramped really seems insufficient.

And then on to Greenday's American Idiot. Ah. Appropriate, if not a little jarring. For anyone who hasn't heard the album, I thoroughly endorse it. The most complete that I've heard from them. For those who can't stand punk, or who think their punk is too tame, probably not worth the bother, eh?

And then I endured.

As for Sousse and the retreat, Tiara can chat about that if she likes, but I had a wonderful time. Sun, plus 30 weather, beach, ocean, club-med-style luxury - couldn't complain, and certainly won't start now.

Bye for today!

Loren mentioned that we had a little bit of trouble changing our plane tickets. I'd like to expand on that a bit.

First I'd like to say that we're not lazy or forgetful. We waited until the last minute to try to see if we would be granted our "carte de sejour", that lovely little card that allows us to stay legally. As it turned out we still don't know, though we might hear more about that tomorrow.

We knew that we had to change our tickets before the clock showed April 11, 2005 in Britain, as we were dealing with British Airways. So Sunday morning, Loren and I decided that we would risk it and push the tickets all the way back to Christmas time.

We picked up the yellow pages and looked up British Airways. This, by the way, is a very posh thing to do, as the yellow pages were issued for the first time in Tunisia this year. You can find everything in there from chicken slaughterers to tile vendors and more. We found B.A. and gave them a call, and guess what? They are closed on Sundays. They don't even leave a forwarding number or international number. They just say "If you'd like to leave a message please dial 0 and we'll get back to you during regular office hours."

That's Tunisia for you.

So what did we do? We got dressed up nice, and booted our little buns to the airport, that's what. B.A. has a service booth there to help customers. We'd seen it when we dropped Jodie off just the day before. We ran straight to the booth and found that there was no one there. How odd. It took us about an hour of being directed from one person to another, none of whom knew anything about how to get ahold of B.A. until we found out from the information desk that all the representatives were gone for the day since the last flight left at 10:30 AM. And no they wouldn't be back.

Why did we not check with information first? Well we did. In fact we checked with them about seven times, and yes, it was always the same person we dealt with.

So now what? Our ticket had two international numbers listed on it. One toll-free number in Britain and one in the USA. The office in the USA wasn't open yet and we were not permitted to access the British one from our Tunisian lines. Go figure.

So we waited.

When the office was open in the USA we called to change the tickets, but realized that our credit card, issued in 2005, had not yet been activated. Since the mail it had come in had all been opened and thouroughly perused, I was reluctant to activate it in case some Postal employee tried to use it online. I guess I had waited too late.

Thank god for family. Loren called home and asked his mom if she could do it (thanks mom!). Unfortunetly her name was not on the ticket, so she couldn't change it for us. We called my mother for a credit card number, and (thanks mom!) with credit card number in hand we were ready.

We put 25 Dinars on our phone card so that we would have plenty of money to last the long wait with the campy music, and then when we got through to Aaron, our operator, we learned we didn't need to have a credit card after all!

Imagine that! All that panic for what? Well, at least we're coming home for Christmas.

Monday, April 11, 2005

A little thought to let you know I'm still kicking...

And a promise to finish that half-drafted story from last last week

Not finishing things has got to be bad karma - sorry for the absence, I'm back on track, back to school (teaching), a backwards kid, backsliding forwards, back for better (not sure that I'm back for good, but I'm shooting for it).

And with that two little thoughts -
British Airways isn't open anywhere in Tunisia on Sundays, and on Sunday we had until the end of Sunday to make arrangements with them so as to not be no-shows on a flight back home... So one long long long call to the US, after several calls to very helpful and patient family, we got through to Aaron, who fixed it all up for us. Gack. Now the flight has been pushed forward to december, though we still have to confirm with Paula in Vernon apparently.

And thought number two -
AMIDEast is not the most organised of institutions. They are making me lesson plan from an ugly book that goes too fast... 'sigh' The good news is that I only have to lesson plan once, because they always use the same books. If I'll be working from them in the future is a question I'm going to ignore, for now.

Hope all is well, and bye for now!

The Hotel is Empty!

What a whirlwind adventure! Jodie has just left us after two weeks of renewed exploration of the city of Tunis.

We covered a lot of adventures: strolls down Avenue Habib Bourguiba, pizza and shawarma in Hay Ettadhamen, real (you've never tasted it like this) hot chocolates at Melody on the Avenue des Cafes, pain au chocolat (croissants with chocolate in them) before workouts at the gym in the early morning, thompson oranges from the vendor by the station, and real-time bartering in the Medina. We are proud to report that after just a bit of coaching Jodie was out there getting good prices on the local goods. She even managed to get a bracelet going for $130 down to only $30. Now how's that for a bargainer?

And there were plenty of midnight talks about the future and the world. A little bit of politics, a little bit of sport, lots of hard questions like "what exactly are you planning to do with your life?" And the questions went both ways. What a stimulating two weeks! And how exhausting!

But the sleeplessnights are paying off now, as we all have a renewed sense of the goals in our lives. What things we really want to do, and the simple steps to do them. That is what friendship is all about, supporting, pushing, reminding you of how good you are and what you can do.

And just like all good conversations, it had to end sometime. So on Saturday, Jodie got on a plane and zipped away back to grimey, shivvery London, where she became outraged at the price of eggs. (See what a little third world can do to your sense of economy?)

The Hotel Letourneau is now empty.

Until Friday.

That gives us enough time to work, wash the laundry, restock the cupboards and reorganize our house before Jason arrives.

But we're not complaining. It's good to have our people around anytime.

Missing you all! (K) MUAH!