The truth is, we almost didn’t come. We had booked the ferry from Palermo-Tunis months before, and then our beloved dog died and we were in deep grief, and a boat, traveling from Libya to Italy and then Greece, capsized, with over six hundred passengers aboard, and a Danish friend told me that traveling to Tunisia if we didn’t speak French well was dangerous, and it felt like a weird moment to go on a nice boat from Palermo to Tunis, just because we could. In addition, we had started to review recent events, including the recent attack on a synagogue in Djerba, and we began to feel afraid about how Americans would be perceived in this moment, in North Africa in particular.
So my partner and I gave it a long think. And we did some research, and called our Tunisian Airbnb host to talk it through. And then we put some parameters for ourselves in place. We decided we wouldn’t travel close to the Algerian or Libyan borders, and we’d stay put in Tunis, the capital. We also decided, instead of a “visit and see the sights” sort of trip, that we’d give ourselves permission to simply use the rented space as an artist’s retreat, and relieve ourselves of any obligation to be a tourist in the classic sense. John would bring his watercolors and continue his ‘Camino’ series, and I would bring my ukulele, a journal, and a couple song ideas to work on. We would make art, and be still, and let ourselves rest. Finally, we decided that, in order to not unnecessarily worry our family members, we wouldn’t publicly post photos of our trip while we were here.
And so, a week later, here we are, in ancient Carthage, with ruins from the old city from 900 BC right around the corner, in a long white house with a courtyard filled with fragrant lime trees, a turquoise sea right around the corner. There is an exponential heat (today will be 40 Celsius, or 104 fahrenheit), and fresh lemon-mint drinks to die for, and café au laits that soothe the soul. At our place, there is a fluffy white chow chow, named Batbouta ( “the chubby one,” , بتبوطا), who greets us each morning and sleeps under our dining room table where the AC is, and a cat named Bachkoutou (وصفة البشكوطو التونس, the name of a Tunisian sweet flavored with orange flowers), who boxes Batbouta’s ears when she gets too close. And there are cafés around the corner that serve a breakfast called “La Classique,” which includes a café au lait, a flaky croissant, and a fresh fruit juice of our choice (our favorite is lime and mint, blended with ice!). And there a MaxiFresh grocery store, that sells halva with pistachios (a desert made from tahini), and tangy Tunisian olive oil, and fresh date juice pureed with bananas for when it’s hot outside and you’re dehydrated. And there’s a man at the flower stand in the grocery store parking lot that cut me a bundle of flowers so I could make an altar for our dog Nira while we are here in Carthage, and the cab driver who puts two fingers to his lips and makes small kissy noises when we give him a tip. There’s the young Tunisian expat living in Australia working for a multinational vacuum company who cracks up when he sees us ordering from the local shawarma stand and tells John that he has a good guide as I order in my broken French and wants to know how we ended up in Carthage but seems pleased we did as he drives away in his large white car, taken from the ferry in Marseille all the way to Tunis. And there are the bookstore owners, one Tunisian and one French, who spend hours showing us maps of Tunisian ceramics, and talking of the history of Tunisian cultural mixture, and research bus routes to the beautiful southern cities of Kairouan and Sfax (we keep our promised to ourselves and stay close to home, here), and who show us their latest art show of a Danish artist and the workshops they offer for creative writers in a room with movable bookcases on wheels. And there’s the spicy vegetarian cous cous with harissa and stewed potatoes, carrots and caramelized onions we eat on a terrace in Sidi Bou Saïd, and the tech store owner who sells me a backup battery pack and begins speaking to me in fluent Italian, explaining that Tunisians grew up watching the Italian television channel, RAI, and therefore Tunisians of a certain generation all speak some Italian (or at least understand it); he tells me about “little Sicily,” in the neighborhood called “La Goulette” next door, where an entire Sicilian-Tunisian community was nurtured and born (these are many of the families we saw on the ferry on our way here). And the young mixed-gender groups of Muslim boys and girls that we see walking around in public—something unheard of for Muslim women in Abu Dhabi—who seem completely comfortable interacting with Muslims, Christians, Jews and westerners like ourselves.
Last night, we had a final dinner of Tunisian tajine on a rooftop restaurant, this time with roasted lamb, oven-roasted purple and yellow plumbs, toasted almonds and cous cous; we finished the meal with carafes of mint tea, poured by our server from about 12” above the cup, so that the tea becomes frothy right before you sip it.
It has been humbling, and a beautiful reminder of ‘beginner’s mind,’ or seeing things from the fresh perspective of a child, as if we are seeing them for the first time. It’s also been important because our initial fears were almost entirely unfounded. As our host Omar told me, “no one cares about your nationality. And no one here is thinking about politics.” Carthage, where we are, is one of the safest neighborhoods in all of Tunisia. We are two blocks from the Presidential Palace, and ten kilometers from the American embassy. We walk everywhere on foot, and people have been nothing but curious and welcoming of us as Americans, often wanting to engage and speak in English, when they can. Today, at a the souk in Tunis, a perfume salesman named Mahmood took us under his wing. During our walks through each of the many streets of the souk, he told us that Tunisia’s first President directly after Tunisian independence, Bourguiba(1957-87), was very invested in relations with the US and Europe, and that Tunisian hospitality is part of the fabric of Tunisian culture. And he tells us that the first Prime Minister of Tunisia was Jewish. We were shown into a beautiful rug room, and were offered mint tea and cold water. When we said we only wanted to look at the rugs, and not purchase any, they respected our decision, and showed us to a local and delicious place to eat lunch, where we had skewered chicken on the grill seasoned with saffron and an entire fresh grilled fish, tomato salad and strong coffee for under $10, combined.
The other night, at a café in the seaside town of La Marsa, a young waiter, somewhere in his early twenties, asked us if he could offer us some advice while we were in Tunisia after hearing me ask for the bill in French. We said of course. “While in Tunisia,” he said, “don’t speak French to young people. We don’t like French, and we don’t like France. Speak in English.” We told him we could do that, and, oddly enough, with pleasure.
The travel writer Pico Iyer, quoting the Saxon monk Hugo of St. Victor in his book Global Soul, writes:
“The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beignner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign land” (p. 46). I take this to mean that, when we can see our own homes as a foreign land as much as that we consider to be ‘foreign,’ we have reached a greater sense of awareness and consciousness of ourselves as travelers in this world.
Getting out of my comfort zone reminds that there are many ways to travel, and to make an experience your own, so that it matches your needs at a given moment in time, even when you are grieving and in distress. Places can soothe, and they can offer us pieces of what we need. This experience also reminds me of why many of us travel to begin with: to be woken up anew, to marvel in the little things, and to find ourselves again, amidst all the chaos of our lives.
Thanks to photographer John Parish for permission to use his photos throughout this piece and to our hosts Wiem and Omar for their hospitality. All photos copyright John Parish 2023.