Saturday, April 30, 2011

Thank You for Smoking

(Written on 3/28/2011 from Tunis, Tunisia)

There is very little that humbles you like being completely alone in a place where you absolutely don’t speak the language and even the characters in writing are different so there’s no chance in recognizing a word.

There is also very little that thrills you as much as stumbling through a sentence in a foreign language to the point that somebody can understand you.  I only know the waiter understood me because I asked for a cup of tea….and it appeared!  My Arabic was like a magic trick – the equivalent to pulling a rabbit out of a hat. 

On my last night in Tunisia, I sat peacefully sipping my hot tea and watching the sun set over the zoo in Tunis.  Then Sarra came and picked me up from her work meeting and we headed to Sidi Bou Said one more time for an evening that will last in my history books. 
It all started with my search for a bracelet to remember Tunisia.  Because my host forbade me to pay for anything in her country, it was actually my first purchase.  Sarra and I had discussed the intricacies of bargaining and I was shocked to hear that sometimes you should really divide the price by five to start your bargaining. 
So...when the guy at the shop told me my coveted bracelet was 70 dinar, Sarra and I simultaneously interjected with our own numbers.  Unfortunately, they were not the same.  She had said 20 and I had said 10.  She laughed in amusement that I tried to really gouge him.  What ensued was one of the most hilarious banters I’ve ever witnessed.  It went something like this:
Guy: “Okay fine, 60 dinar.”
Sarra: “No…she said 10.”
Guy: “Yeah, but you said 20.”
…more banter, more banter, more banter…
Guy: “Okay, fine…18 dinar.”
I start to pull out my money.
Guy: “Great…that will be 30 dinar.”
Sarra (in disbelief): “What??? You said 18 dinar!”
Guy (ignoring Sarra, to me): “What is your name?  Where are you from?”
Me: “America.”
Guy: “Ahhhhhh….you must be Britney.  I engrave your name in bracelet for free.  It’s a gift.”
Sarra and I bust into hysterics. 
After about 10 minutes of back and forth, the guy finally caves to Sarra’s bargaining talents and I end up paying 15 dinar for a bracelet he swears is coral (and I swear is pink beads).  Even though I know I was still probably “had”….I trot off happy that at least I have a Tunisian bracelet to add to my collection!  We head up the street to a wonderful cafĂ© where we order some Tunisian teas, coffees, and apple shisha (not to be confused with hashish!).

Tunisian tea with mint and pine nuts
Let me just start this by saying that besides maybe puffing on 2 cigars at my brother’s house to prove I could “roll with the big boys”…I haven’t smoked anything in my life.  So Sarra gave me my first lesson in smoking shisha Tunisian style.  I’m not a fan of any type of smoking, but “when in Rome”…

It really wasn’t too bad though.  It had an apple flavor and I quite enjoyed the experience of being a local.  Tunisians commonly go to cafes and sit for hours sipping coffee and smoking shisha.  It’s a communal experience – something you can share with others and come together over.  I was surprised by the number of restaurants and cafes that had shisha.  It was like ordering a basket of bread in the U.S.  Nobody wouldn’t have it.
Taking a lesson from the pro!

Serious concentration...
Got it!  And Tunisian coffee too!
After shisha we stopped for my last food item in Tunisia – Malawi.  This delicious thin bread is topped with whatever you like and then rolled like a wrap.  I was a fan of the soft cheese, omelette, hard boiled egg, harisa, and lettuce.  I will return for the Malawi!

My thought for you today....sometimes while traveling you have to try new things.  If you truly want to immerse yourself in somebody else’s culture I urge you to experience it as they would (within reason).  My motto is “I will eat almost anything at least once.”  And that goes for experiences too.  Go out on a limb and try something different – you never know what you might learn.

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