Welcome back!

29 02 2012

Whew! Well, it has been a long time. I’m sure many of you have had this same experience in your communication with an old friend, for example. The longer I’ve waited, the more reluctant I’ve become, and then the longer I wait. I wait, hoping for a momentous event to intervene and provide the impetus to write and interesting material to write about.

No momentous event has occurred, just life going on its merry way. Some think my life is exotic, but it really consists mostly of doing the mundane in exotic places.

On the teaching side, my military cadets have taken their tests and the results were as expected. Now we are awaiting the results of the acceptance process to see who, if anyone, will get a spot at a military academy in the States.

I have a different group of teens now. They are lower in their language level and seem to come from more difficult circumstances. The class has its own distinctive personality. We are getting along quite well for now.

I’m also teaching two adult courses at the same level in the late afternoon and evening. Since they are the same level, in the same book, and at relatively the same place, there is far less planning pressure. However, it is a trifle confusing at times.

Just the two of us!

On the home side of things, we are contemplating a move. We want to live closer to the sea. Through a curious coincidence, we were able to view a nearly perfect apartment with a Mediterranean view while out for a walk. Although it would mean a quantum leap in our monthly rent, it’s not out of reach. We’re seriously considering it and will begin planning the money end of it soon-ish.

The sound of the surf is like a drug. It’s a drug that let’s you refresh your soul and body without kicking the crap out of you the next morning. The worst part of the surf –sound hangover is the stiff muscles from walking and walking.

Anyway, if we made a “practical” decision on this, I expect many of you would be secretly disappointed.

I am including here some shots taken on the beach behind the aforementioned apartment. We took a walk on the beach after our second meeting with our prospective future landlord. It was a magnificent day.

Call “Bones!” No, wait … she’s on pregnancy leave. Call CSI!

I enjoy the play of late afternoon light and shadows, textures and sparkles.


The sea casts up random objects, both natural and man-made, after shaping them and cleaning them a bit.

Decoration, naturally added.

Security on a budget, folks frequently eschew the expense of barbed wire to keep out unwanted visitors and opt for a bit of mortar and repurposing.

This baby looks fast standing still!

As always, some visitors are more welcome than others. I wish my spammers would get that message!

I promise another post soon!



Chronic Dysrhythmia and Christmas

24 12 2011

I’ve been complaining that I just can’t find my rhythm. I feel that I am leaping from one thing to another without any rhyme or reason. My days don’t seem to have any flow to them. and my working life is fraught with bumps and jolts. Much of this makes perfect sense when I think about it. In three months, I have joined a new school, taken on Aviation English, and leapt headfirst into TOEFL preparation, with a side order of SAT prep thrown into the mix. I am also teaching teenagers. Yes, I know that I have done this before, but this is full-on teens with seventeen of them in the classroom at once, while in the past I have had individual teens in adult classes and one group of four thirteen-year-olds. We add all that to a healthy dose of the usual things that come up while teaching, but have managed to appear all in the same three months instead of being spread over a year or even a semester, and you get chronic dysrhythmia of the head!

Those of you who have been following me for a while know that I rarely blog about work. This habit stems from a minor but somewhat ugly incident that occurred while we were living in Poland. Paula was writing about our experiences there and a friend was republishing the tales for all to read and enjoy, when someone from one of the companies where she was teaching took umbrage over the mention of the company on the internet. There was nothing negative, mind you, or even a personal reference in the post, but Paula’s boss had a bit of a hissy fit. Apparently there are laws and blah, blah, blah … So, I refrain from posting

most of the time

except for now!

My seventeen teenagers are all part of a program funded by the State Department to help less advantaged kids have a shot at earning a place in a program that sends kids to the U.S. They must have a pretty high level of English to qualify for these programs and here that usually means they need private tutors. My kids are part of a group of 45 students who have qualified for a year-long program of English instruction and cultural enrichment that will help some of them qualify for U.S. bound placements, or at least give them a hand up in their English studies to help pave the way to better employment prospects and greater cultural awareness.

I have to say that I am really enjoying my group. They are boisterous and enthusiastic students. They participate eagerly and have so much energy I can barely control the class. Recently we decorated the classroom for Christmas. This resulted in two days of near-total chaos, which I love. The room looks great and they did it all themselves! We won the room decorating contest, too!

Well, okay, I did help with the ornaments.

My other class is a group of cadets who are preparing for both the TOEFL and the SAT, in the hope that they will get one of just two possible opportunities to go to a U.S. military academy. We are working four or five hours a day, six days a week, on grammar, reading and writing skills. They’re on their own with the math!

The combined workload is about 34 hours of face-time per week with the students, plus the inevitable preparation time. Fortunately, I’m off between Christmas and New Years. I should also note that the cadets take the TOEFL test on January 14th and the SAT on January 28th. In February I should have a “normal” schedule.

Well, I started this post some time ago, but never got back to finishing it. Now, it’s Christmas Eve and I’m hanging out, waiting for an early morning (3:30 a.m.) train to an early morning plane to Vienna. We are holiday-ing with our great good friends Peter and Helene and retrieving a couple suitcases of stuff we left in Europe before the move here.

I spent this morning dealing, or should I say “not dealing”, with Tunisia’s draconian currency laws that prevent us converting dinars to euros for our trip unless we have umpteen receipts for every cash withdrawal and money exchange we have made. We are fortunate to have some really good friends who are willing to look after us innocents abroad, or we might well be stranded here. On the upside, we are on our way with renewed glow in our hearts and a few shekels to spend.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to go to an indoor ice-skating facility with our teenagers. Picture, if you will, three teachers and two staff with 47 teens who have never ice-skated. EVER. It was amazing!

That’s my group at the rink waiting to leave.

Well, have a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year, everyone!

If you get the chance to visit Tunisia, drop us a line and we’ll have some fun!

The Eids of November

28 11 2011

As you may recall from my previous post, the word “eid” is Arabic for feast. Indeed this is a month of feasts. We have already celebrated Eid Al Ad’ha, as referenced above and this is Thanksgiving weekend, the quintessential American “eid.” This weekend also marks the turn of the year in the Islamic calendar, so Friday was a holiday here.

Thanksgiving’s arrival entitles me to a four-day weekend, one of the benefits of working for an American NGO. It is a timely break, as I am coming out of a week-long intensive with my air traffic controllers in Djerba and about to go into a two-month intensive test prep session with a group of military cadets. As if that weren’t enough, we also received funding for a yearlong project with economically disadvantaged young people and are starting almost immediately with them.

Just in time, we have finally put all the hints and clues together and finally located the liquor store! Well, okay, it wasn’t such a mystery, but on our last attempt the place was closed, so we didn’t see it.

The Magasin Generale has a pretty good selection of Tunisian wines and a rather poor selection of beer. The quality booze that is available is astronomically priced. Therefore, we stuck with the wine.

We selected a cross section of wines by price. They were 3.600TD, 4.750TD, 6.250TD, 7.750TD and 11.600TD respectively from left to right. (1 dinar = $.68) They are all reds, as is our preference generally.

We enjoyed the Haut Mornag at 4.750TD with our grilled lamb feast for Thanksgiving. While the cork was dry and the wine had a bit of bite, it was an acceptable table wine. I have had older, mellower vintages of the same wine.

For those of you who read my previous post about our Gratitude Garland, we have indeed continued to add four links per day. Now, the thing measures in over of 9 meters. (9.84251 yd)

We have a lot to be grateful for!

As I said earlier, I have just returned from doing another weeks intensive refresher with a group of air traffic controllers who must maintain a tested level of English to continue working. Last time I was a bit more of a sightseer. This trip, my hotel was much further from the sights, but a much better accommodation in every way. Since I was located on the beach this time, that’s where I did my strolling and the bulk of my photo taking.

Here’s a view from my balcony.

This greeted me on returning to the room after teaching. The housekeeping staff seemed to have a thing about this decorative motif.

The place was home to several cats.

Pretty swanky pool area, no?

There’s a golf course next door and this beauty was just behind the 6th green.

It’s really post-season, so there wasn’t much activity, but there were groups of Northern Europeans coming for the remains of the fine weather.

This adorable young lady was helping Grandpa fish.

Did I mention cats? This kitten wanted to share my lunch.

Enterprising entrepreneurs offer a range of services to the tourists, including horseback riding.

This guy insisted I needed my picture taken with his horse.

The photo cost me 3TD, down from his original bid of 10TD. They all think travelers are rich. Hey! I get paid in dinars, not euros!!

With temperatures in the mid-twenties Celsius (around 75 degrees F), some were certainly stocking up on vitamin D. I was in a jacket, having spent the summer in Greece. I’m well-acclimated at this point.

Camel rides are also available, or you could have your photo taken for a fee.

It was a lovely sunset.

I thought it was a spider at first, but then realized it was running sideways.

While the trip had its pleasures, it was still a week away from home and Paula!

I’m glad to be home!

Eid Al Ad’ha

14 11 2011

This past weekend we celebrated the Eid Al Ad’ha, or Kurban Bayram in Turkish. It is perhaps the most important feast day in the Muslim calendar. This eid, or feast, commemorates the story of Abraham and Isaac, in which God called upon Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, to Him. At the point of cutting the boy’s throat, God relented and stayed Abraham’s hand, seeing that the old man was willing to do whatever He asked. A sheep appeared and father and son sacrificed the animal in thanksgiving.

In the Muslim world, all who can are called upon to sacrifice a sheep, goat, or even a cow or camel. A portion of the meat must be given to those who cannot afford a feast on this day. There are traditional foods that are eaten on this day and lamb is featured, grilled lamb being the hands-down favorite.

Around the area, we could hear the bleating of sheep awaiting the feast. On virtually every vacant lot in town you could see shepherds with their small flocks, selling the required sheep to families looking for just the right one. Live sheep were selling for between 370 and 700 TD each and the news reported that sheep production was up 15% over last year.

Men came through our neighborhood wielding knives, offering their services as butchers door-to-door and later you could see men collecting sheep hides for tanning. Some of the traditional foods of the day use the internal organs and some even cook the head, so nothing goes to waste.

Paula and I celebrated the three-day weekend with a bit of feasting of our own. We did a bit of shopping on Saturday and purchased some lamb for our new grill.

Our first course was harira, which is a Moroccan soup made with lamb stock, chickpeas, lentils and tomato puree. I seasoned it with Ras el Hanout and lots of fresh parsley. There’s plenty left over, but it’s so good that I wouldn’t wait more than a couple days to drop by.

Fortified with a good hearty soup, we moved on to preparing the main event, which was grilled lamb, salad and garlic mashed potatoes. The salad was a mix of tomatoes, fennel bulb, onion, parsley and garlic all diced and tossed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

As you see, our grill is an interesting device. At a paltry 2.500 TD, it certainly is affordable. It is made of misprinted sheet metal and pop rivets. Simple and effective! If you’ve ever used one of those disposable grill and charcoal packets, this little guy beats the heck out of that in cool factor alone!!

I was a bit concerned about getting the thing lit, but the former tenant of our abode left us a bottle of paraffin oil (!?!),  so I used it as charcoal lighter. Needless to say, it smelled like burning wax and smoked a bit, but, after a fashion, it did do the trick!

On Sunday we took advantage of the beautiful weather and went out to Port Kantoui.

Port El Kantaoui is an upscale area of tourist traps, pubs and rather nice restaurants, laced with hotels and anchored by a pleasure craft marina. It’s a pleasant place to spend a beautiful late autumn day, wandering through the over-priced shops and strolling around the marina. You can get a bite to eat and have a drink with your meal, as the restaurants cater to foreign tourists and locals alike.

There are plenty of faux priates.

These sherbet-colored boats offer a view under the sea.

It was Paula’s turn to make a new friend.

The breakwater is the place for strollers and fishermen to mingle.

With this cat on the job, the sign was superfluous! Keep out!!

After buying some soap at the Olive Musee stand, the man offered us a gift. He hand-lettered a card with our names transliterated into Arabic with a profession of our love. Sweet!

These fellows were headed to sea for a bit of fishing … the hard way!

This is a harbor marker. Stay between the lights, and  I don’t mean the white one in the sky!

And finally, what can I say? There’s a zoo at Port El Kantaoui and on the street side there’s an enclosure for Guinea pigs. Curiously, they have more furniture than we have at the moment. Here they are at table for their own Eid feast.


Mixed Salad

5 11 2011

This edition of my blog will live up to its name. It’s a real mix of random stuff and photos I have accumulated over the last several weeks.

Around our neighborhood, there’s a lot of construction. Fortunately, the building isn’t impacting us too much as the noise seems to dissipate. That just leaves the dust blowing on the wind.

The photo above isn’t from the desert. Its just sand for making concrete, piled at a local construction site.

I can’t explain this, really. There seems to be an affection here for this kind of  “folly”, for lack of a better term. Everyone has a stairway to the roof. While on our building the roof access is a simple affair, others are more elaborate as in the photo above. Perhaps it harkens back to fabled palaces of yore.

Lest we forget we live in a resort town in the north of Africa, here’s a shot of the beach that borders the downtown area. I shot this on October 19th, so you can compare your mid-October weather with ours.


There are many adjustments one has to make when living the ex-pat life. One of them is that the rest of the world has different ways to cope with things we often take for granted. In your neighborhood, you might separate your recyclables into nifty color-coded tubs and set them out at the curb on the appropriate day for collection. Here in Tunisia, private entrepreneurs undertake the separation and recycling tasks.

This guy and his friend collect plastic. In fact, they often empty the trash that is bagged in plastic into the dumpsters so they can collect them too! This is a boon to the cats in the area who then have a crack at any tasty morsels that might turn up.

Since we’re in another non-Euro country, there’s the matter of money. Just what is all this metal in my pocket?

Well, from the upper right, the big bi-metal coin is five dinars. On its left is the one dinar coin. Completing the top row is the 500 millime coin. Then, left to right, you have 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 millimes. One dinar is equal to 1,000 millimes.

I was on the roof today and couldn’t help noticing the satellite dishes. They seemed to look to the sky like a field of minimalist sunflowers. Each building has sprouted several of them. There are three on our roof as well.

Finally, we have a man on a bike!

Cue the Steely Dan track and fade to black.



24 10 2011

It’s election time in Tunisia. That’s a simple statement that doesn’t begin to describe a historic event in this country. It has been many years since there has been anything like a free ballot here and, coming so soon after the revolution, there’s a great deal of uncertainty regarding the outcome. There may even be a spot of trouble. This vote is important, as the delegates who are chosen will be charged with writing the country’s new constitution.

As a precaution, our State Department has asked Americans not to travel to Tunisia. In typical fashion, our school’s administration in Tunis is gathering addresses and other contact information in case the Marines have to come out and find us. While I see none of the kind of anger that would spawn violence among my students or in my neighborhood, that’s no guarantee that it doesn’t exist here. Personally, I don’t expect that any political turmoil will affect us directly.

The general air of uncertainty has affected our enrollment as well. Numbers are down from last year and there’s a sense of breath holding that hopefully will be released after this weekend’s vote.

At this point, we have heavily invested our meager resources into staying here. We’ve had to adjust our expectations. Needless to say, this has all had an impact on our mental state.

So, how do you cope with a situation like this?

Well, for one thing we have begun a gratitude garland.

A gratitude garland is similar to the decorative chains we made in preschool and early primary classes to dress our Christmas trees. It’s constructed from strips of paper, glued end to end to form links.

The purposeful part of the exercise is to add a decorative element on one side of each strip and, on the reverse, add a statement of gratitude or an affirmation. For example, “I am grateful for all my teachers.”, which expresses my thankfulness for everyone who taught me something along the way. Today’s affirmation was  “I can discover something new every day.”

In this way, we are focusing on the positive and looking forward. The garland is a visible reminder to shift our thinking.

Another thing we’re doing … well, actually, I’m doing, … is cooking. I find that cooking is both a therapeutic exercise and a constructive money-saver. I am delving into legumes in a big way.

It would be appropriate to give a nod here to our pal John Sparrow and his song “A Day in the Working Class.”


I made a lentil and carrot soup yesterday that came out pretty well. I’ll post the recipe later.

A while back, we were exploring Souk Sibt, or the Saturday market. The cognoscenti of Sousse know to hit the Saturday Market on Friday morning for the best selection, so we did. (I promise to blog about the market later. When we have gone, it’s been to shop and I’ve been a little nervous about photographing there.)

While snaking our way through the semi-chaos of the market stalls, throngs of people and hawkers hawking, we came across a spice merchant who had what appeared at first to be nutmeg. Since the stuff was labeled in Arabic, it was hard to tell. We bought six of the black nuts and the seller shook each one to produce a satisfying rattle. The purpose of this ritual is a bit mysterious.

Later, we looked at our purchase and, well, we’d never seen nutmeg that looked like this. It was some sort of nut in a hard shell somewhat like a filbert. Hmmm.

Finally, after looking at the things for a couple weeks, Paula whacked one with the handle of my chef’s knife and cracked the shell open.

Sho’ nuff! It’s nutmeg! Jokes on us.

This was a much better result than the “cheese” I bought while we were in Turkey that turned out to be salty butter.


Houmt-Souk Souk

12 10 2011

“There is no such thing as a seasoned traveler, because travel is an ongoing experience of the unfamiliar. Regardless of how many stamps you have in your passport, you eventually find yourself in a place … hopelessly trying to deal with people who see you as nothing more than a consumer and haplessly walking in concentric circles until you can find something that resembles your hotel.” Rolf Potts’ words are some comfort to me as I digest the events of the other day, when I got snookered, not once but twice, while trying to explore the souk here in Houmt-Souk.

I took a taxi to the souk from my hotel. It’s not far and if I had been able to acquire a map, I would probably have known to walk. Nonetheless, I didn’t really know where I was going and the driver dropped me at a taxi stand in the center of town and pointed me in the direction of the market.

To my surprise, I was almost immediately buttonholed by Saleh, who works at my hotel, and asked if I was going to see “the festival.” Gee, um … what festival?

I try at all times to be open and friendly. Good things often come to me when I do. I went with him.

He rapidly babbled a bit about native crafts, spices and seeing carpets being made. He invited me to come along and soon we were in a spice shop owned by his brother or some such. The proprietor then proceeded to push scoops of various spices under my nose to smell, while identifying most of them in passable English. He also demonstrated that the saffron on offer, when rubbed on paper, gave a lovely saffron color.

After a bit of fast-talking I was nearly arm-twisted into selecting some spices for purchase and, since I cook, I saw no harm in this. I asked how much the spices were and was flashed a pricelist in Arabic.

Next came a bit of weighing and some poking at a calculator. The result was, well, astronomical. I sputtered something. He reduced the price a bit, explaining that these were “Arab” prices, not “Tourist” prices. 110 dinar!  Salah intervened and the price went down to 70 dinar and in a moment of extraordinarily bad judgment, I relented. Hoping to sniff out a cheat in all this I pulled 40 dinar from my pocket, claiming it was all I had. All this accomplished was making me endebted to Salah, who covered my bet.

“Saffron is expensive,” they pointed out to me several times.

Later, I had to drag the 30 dinar out of my wallet stash. Nice try.

Well, yes saffron is expensive. Actually, there is a wide variety in the quality of saffron and powdered saffron is often adulterated in a number of ways, from mixing in inferior quality saffron to adding turmeric and other spices.

Besides, this is probably more saffron than I would use in a long time, although my sale-happy friend told me the spices would last five years!

Reeling from this experience, I was whisked off by Salah to a “government store” to look at some carpets. There was a woman there who was working at the loom, for me to photograph. Then the proprietor and his henchmen showed me countless examples of hand-made carpets and quoted me ridiculous prices with shipping, C.O.D. Cash or credit accepted. I don’t have to pay until I get the rug brought to my door. After today they will close for the season, so better buy now!!

Really, you couldn’t ship the damn things for the prices they were offering me, so the whole thing was pretty smelly.

I managed to wriggle away from the rug vendor and narrowly dodge the souvenir lady, diving for the door and the safety of the street outside. Whew.

Okay. Where was I? Oh, yeah, taking pictures!

These are tagines, a traditional type of cookware in North Africa. They are used to make stew-like dishes that bear the same name. Eventually, I plan to have one and then I’ll tell you all about it!

Bon! The gate to the central market!

Typical market fare.

I think I mentioned that square minarets are the norm here.

I don’t know what this is, but domes are ubiquitous here.

I wandered some more and, in front of a mosque, I was chatted up by a young local. “Where you from?” Ali is a taxi driver and a student. Come. Let me show you something.

Yeah. Here we go again.

Okay, I didn’t spend any money this time, but my time was taken. I was robbed of my good mood. I came away with a very negative impression quite unlike our encounter with Hatem at the souk in Sousse.

Ultimately, I am hurting because I know better. I didn’t use my judgment or my intuition. While their motives were suspect, I didn’t make good choices.

Shame on me.

Back at the hotel, I found that they’d installed flowerboxes.

By the way, this was my hotel.

It was another blissfully calm day.

Okay, I am guilty here of one of the most heinous travel photographer crimes; the “spot in the distance” offence. However, this guy was about 100 meters out, so you can see how shallow the water is here. In the morning, I would often see people digging clams, well out there, wading in the water.

One going in, one going out!

I think this is a lovely, intimate moment for this couple, on the pier across the street from my hotel.

This was Thursday. On Sunday, I returned to Sousse and the comforts of my new home.