Good Muslims!

December 12, 2008 in Africa, Travelogue, Tunisia

Family Travel Tunisia

Six o’clock came early this morning.

Especially since we went to bed at midnight and Ezra woke up at two, ready to go.

The sun was just coming up over the Med when Ezra and I hastened out into the cold, dark to head for the train station in Sousse. The kids were all crying when we left… sad that they’d lost the coin toss to accompany Mom to the airport in Tunis. I could only take one child and still get all of us into one taxi when we headed home. Ez, however, was a chipper lark, bouncing down the road, thermos of coffee for Gramps in hand, talking the ears off of the side of my head.

The train ride to Tunis is a little over two hours long. There isn’t much to see out the window: the usual collection of clay block houses covered with peeling plaster, olive and clementine trees in every direction, speckled with herds of sheep and goats. I spent the time knitting, and visiting with the old Berber in the seat in front of us. He was determined to show us all of the pictures on his cell phone: Grandson. Grandson playing with cute sheep. Sheep pre-slaughter. Sheep skinned out and hanging, all drippy and red, from a swing set…

“Ahh! Votre mouton pour Eid al-Kebir!” I observed.

He was happy I’d noticed, yes, the sheep they’d slaughtered for the festival, “Wasn’t it a fine one? Had we slaughtered one?” Not so much.

It was easier to talk sheep carnage with him than avoid the persistent gaze from the younger Arab seated across the aisle, who eventually asked if I was married… and then if I was happily married, or separating. There’s one in every crowd… which is why Tony sends at least one child with me on every outing. Nothing says “Get lost!” quite like a line of duckling quacking in my wake. Evidently Ezra was not enough of a deterrent.
Should you ever fly to Tunisia on a whim, be assured of the efficiency and cleanliness of the Tunis-Carthage Airport. We waited for an hour for a tearfully joyful reunion with Grammy and Gramps, who gallantly spent 24 hours on the road, from door to door, to join us in North Africa. A valiant effort for two sexagenarians.

Family Travel
No one who has met my Dad wonders where I get my gypsy spirit.

He and Mom walked across North Africa thirty six or so years ago and stepped of the plane as though they’d not missed a beat. The only difficulty Dad has is that he speaks no french.

Well, not NO french, as he pointed out to our cabbie (with me translating) he knows one word: fromage. Cheese.

Even so, he’s not about to give up. Just because he can’t speak french doesn’t mean that spanish might not work. He immediately set about speaking to those in line at the ATM, and the cabbie, and the baggage handler in spanish… which necessitated my translation from my third into my second language, while trying to chat with my Mom in my first language. Did I mention I’m on day three of a migraine?

The cab ride back to the train was an adventure.

We got shafted on the price. 15 dinar for the same trip I paid 7 dinar for an hour and a half earlier…

“More for the extra people and the baggage Madam…” “This is the tourist price! NOT the real price. I just paid seven, we’re not paying fifteen!” I hollered, as he quietly kept loading the baggage. In the background my Dad is trying to negotiate the price in Spanish, which is not helping. The baggage assistant started stuffing Grammy and Ez into the back seat with his hand out for a tip from my Dad, who didn’t have change and didn’t know what he was talking about anyway. I handed him 200 millime, loaded my Dad and accepted defeat in the price. These cabbies are slick.

The ride, at break neck speed, through narrow streets of the old town made Grammy gasp and close her eyes more than once. Gramps, undaunted by the language barrier and happy to get his money’s worth out of my education in french, which he paid for, continued with the cabbie. He managed to learn three words of Arabic, “Thank You” (sounds like show-cron… roll your R), “Lord Willing” (Insha-Allah-emphasis on the end of the first syllable and beginning of the second) and the Muslim Arabic greeting: “Salaam Alekum” to which one responds, “Alekum Salaam.” He was pleased with himself.

“Good Muslim!” says the cabbie, in English, and slaps his own chest. “Good Muslim!” he says again and points at my Dad.

“He wants to know if you’re muslim…” I interject. “What? Oh… uh… no… well… maybe, actually…” rambles my Dad. Don’t even get him started on theology.

Family Travel Tunisia
By the time we reached the station Dad and the cabbie were good buddies. They traded Dad’s three arabic words, clasped shoulders and pronounced each other “Good Muslims!” before my Dad slipped the guy twenty dinar.

Why did I bother negotiating the price? It’s not like I didn’t KNOW how this would go and that Dad would tip like the loaded North American stereotype he is.

He gives budget travelers, like his daughter, a bad name. The worst part: I learned the fine art of working cabbies and shop keepers down to the “base price” at his knee… and here he goes, setting a bad example for the grandchildren!

Of course he’s absolutely right. We do the same thing… talk ‘em way down, so they know we aren’t stupid, and then tip heavy, because it is the right thing to do.

Anyone could see Dad was fairly clucking with joy to be back in a world where negotiation and heavy tipping are both signs of an honorable person. He’s a third worlder in his heart. The hardest part of the next three weeks will be having to constantly work in THREE languages at once, instead of what has become my usual two… and to convince my Dad that Tunisians are in fact NOT Mexicans and his street Spanish isn’t going to help.