Sunday, February 27, 2011

Julie's Walk

I had in mind writing something really clever about exploring my own backyard, a 100-yard radius of my house.  I went out with my camera on a Sunday morning and started photographing all of the daily street and sea scenes that are common sights.  I was having a wonderful time, but kept batting away the cartoonish feeling that I was reenacting the children’s book, Rosie’s Walk.  So let’s just get it out of the way.  Here is Rosie’s Walk and then I’ll take you on the tour of my neighborhood.

Julie took a walk out her front gate and to the corner where shops sell fruit, meat, prepared take away foods, and staples, meaning eggs, cheese, pastas, olives, harissa (a hot, roasted pepper paste), preserved lemons, and spices in bulk.  Just the stuff you need for everyday cooking.  She bought some lamb to try a tagine she is planning to make when her friends come to visit in two weeks.

On the way back by her house, she admired the Islamic architecture and some budding flowers. Notice yet another photo of a Rosemary plant.

 She walked past ex-president Ben Ali’s exwife’s house to the Punic Ports where fishermen and families were enjoying the sea.


Then she walked to the main street where there are several smart restaurants and boutiques.

On the way home, she peeked through one of the alleyways at each block that have stairways down to the sea to watch a fisherman wrestling with his nets.

Finally, she walked through her own gate and into her real backyard where she photographed a couple of the new plants that are waiting to be planted.  These are olives and a lemon tree that is no more than a whip, but has already born a few lemons this season and is putting on new buds for next year.  What did she tell you about lemon trees?

She made it back inside her own house just in time to make dinner, “Fragrant Lamb with Prunes and Almonds”, recipe by David Tanis.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


            Allan began the transaction of buying a friend’s motorcycle last October.  He took possession today.   Official paperwork takes some time in Tunisia, but one day, it does come through.  Today was the day.
  If you have followed Allan and his motorcycles over the years, you have seen him ride Yamahas, Hondas,  Harley Davidsons, and most recently in Nepal, a Royal Enfield, built just like the 1950s original, with no springs in the seats.  My spine took some jolts on that bike.  The bike he got today is a sweet 650 BMW, with lovely shock absorbers.  This is going to be a “See Tunisia” motorcycle. 

We took an inaugural ride to the archeological site of Utica, about 30 km north of Carthage.  Following some early spring rains this week, the countryside was lush.  Lush was our word in the fifth grade yesterday.  It came up in some context and my Ivorian student asked, “What is lush?”  I tried luxurious, which is also what the dictionary used as a synonym, but he just gave me a “what’s that” look.  I told him we would use it in context so he could get the idea.  A couple of kids used lush in their writing that morning and I interjected it into every context that worked, like the lush fur of a bat.  I should have taken them on a trip to the countryside because it is lush.  Shepherds, in their wool cloaks with pointed hoods, were tending flocks, grazing the neon green grass,  all along the route.  Artichokes and jonquils were the crops of the day and they were being sold from donkey-pulled carts and by children, along the roadside. 

Utica was one of the first Phoenician cities of North Africa.  It became an ally of Carthage during the first two Punic wars, and then scurried to the side of Rome for the third Punic war. As a result, Rome created a new province of Africa, and Utica became its capital.

Excavations have uncovered remains from all three periods: Phoenician, Punic, and Roman.  We enjoyed primitive terra-cotta mosaics up through formalized marble Roman mosaics.  But the best sensory experience for me was to enjoy these antiquities in the setting of the olive trees and herbs they have tended at the site.  The caretakers have maintained creative herb gardens with rosemary hedges and scented geraniums, among other herbs.  Our guide plucked off some rose geranium starts for me to take home.  The plants brought the architecture to life and on a late-winter afternoon, it was an inspiring motivator to look toward spring.

These tourist sites are desperate at the moment.  Our guide asked hopefully where we were from, wanting to hear somewhere foreign.  When we told him we live in Carthage, he spilled the truth that they are getting no tourists right now.  We gave him a generous 10 dinar tip for his 30 minutes of guiding, primarily in French, and some more for the entrance employees who watched our bike and helmets for us while we were in the site.  I don’t think it will take so long for tourism to pick up again, but they are going to be off for a little while until it turns around.  I’m sure there will be some great values in Tunisian tourism in the months to come.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Watch this Space

            We’re spring-cleaning in Tunis.  There was definitely some work to be done after the revolution and then some warm afternoons and a couple of glorious weekends have driven people outdoors to take up painting, clipping, and sweeping.  It’s cheerful and it has given us the spring in our steps to take on the final design challenge at our house in Carthage.  We’ve renovated the kitchen and bathrooms, changed out light fixtures, and generally upgraded whatever looked pretty worn out, and through all of this interior work, the yard has devolved further and further into just looking like a vacant lot.  It was actually badly over grown and needed massive removal of plants that were rangy or were much too close together.  There was also an outdated, unuseful concrete pad in one corner and some hodge-podge brick and concrete flower bed edgings that made the yard feel old-fashioned and hemmed in.
            But it had to get even worse before it could get better.  We had the unwanted concrete and brick work removed and hauled away two truck loads of debris, spent plants, prunings, and patches of mismatched grass.  There was a cypress stump, near one wall, with about 15 feet of trunk attached, the tree part long ago dead.  We hired a couple of gardeners to help us on a Saturday and the two of them and finally also Allan chopped, and levered, and kicked, and pulled at that trunk for about two hours before they could even get it to give up a pop.  When it finally came down, the density of the wood was astounding.  You could hardly detect rings.
            So we got what we worked to achieve: a blank slate.  The next step is multiple loads of topsoil to fill in the beds and build some berms.  Things are moving along quickly so we went to a nursery on Sunday and picked out plants.  Going to make a purchase at a store here requires some mental preparation.  Usually, we front-load ourselves with a little French vocabulary that can at least help us point and name what we need.  If the transaction will involve asking questions about products or prices, an agreement has to be made between us and the salesperson about whose mother tongue will be used.  “Parlez-vous anglais?” we ask hopefully. 
“Parlez-vous francais?” he shoots right back, looking a little panicked.
“Un peu,” we confess, motioning about an inch with our fingers.
“Je ne parle pas anglais!” he finalizes.
Oh no, he’s not even going to meet us halfway.  We’re going to have to use our French, though the linguicentrist in me does harbor the belief that there’s English deep down inside of everyone if only they would just allow it to come out.   We did very well with the nurseryman, mostly only needing to ask how much something costs, possibly what color the flower would be, and then telling him how many we wanted to buy.  I never bought more than 10 of any one thing so that was easy.   The salesman was thrilled with our purchases, which may have made him salesman of the month.  He congratulated me with several, “Bien choisi, Madam,” compliments which made me feel… flattered.
Now come all of the decisions about beds, paths, and plant placement.  Here’s what we’re working with.    Do you get any inspiration?  Keep watching for the after pictures.   

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Swimming in Citrus

It began as a trickle in late November, the Satsuma oranges one hopes for and associates with the Christmas holidays along with lots of perky lemons.  My neighbor rang the bell one Sunday afternoon, carting around a basket of each to share with all of the school friends who live in Carthage.  She didn’t have to go to the gym that day.  I took what seemed like a piggish amount, partly to lighten her baskets, and we ate them as snacks, squeezed them into salad dressings, and stuffed them into chicken carcasses to roast all through December.  
But, upon returning from the winter break, we've found ourselves in a citrus avalanche.   The color orange, in particular, dominates every produce stand.  Truck farmers come in for the day with an entire load of just oranges and sit at a street corner by their orange mountain with a scale, hoping to go home with less than they came with.  I can’t imagine who is buying them, besides Allan and me, because every home has a small citrus orchard in the yard.  I can see those yellow and orange balls everywhere I turn. And the long-suffering truth about citrus trees is that they put on blossoms while they are still bearing last year’s fruit.  As a woman who gave birth to two sons, fairly close together, (two years and 4 days), that thought makes me groan.
We’re past the point of peeling and eating.  We bought a slick juicer and our morning ritual is to juice up about 16 oz. of whatever combination we have at hand.  We have grapefruits, tangerines, blood and navel oranges, and then, the mystery citrus.  At first I thought it was a miniature lemon, like a Satsuma orange.  But our produce vendor, who just had a few, told me, “Bergamot orange, Madame,” (you have to say “ber gay mote, oh-ronge” to get the proper effect).  When I finally tasted one, I knew immediately what it was: the haunting flavor in Earl Gray tea.  I never knew where that essence came from. It’s from a dwarf variety of the Seville orange tree (I researched that).
So there is the metaphor behind my blog title.  It’s the surprising essence, discovered, appreciated, and then gone.  There was a pile of citrus on the bench beside me as I was writing and I thought, why not?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Color is Back in our World

Even though scenes of destruction in Tunisia have come to television screens around the world recently, this is actually an excellent time to dedicate writing to the vibrancy and determined growth that are part of the energy of this country.  I have chosen to focus on the rhythmic joys of the changing seasons here, but nothing marks those changes more clearly than the evolving scenes at the produce stands.  Every few weeks it is like a set change.  Certain fruits and vegetables we were just working into our cooking are gone, replaced by many new interesting subjects.  I have never lived anywhere that truly subsists on its local production like this country does.  After all, it was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire and farming goes way back in their genealogy.  Still I continue to be surprised by it.  The wine is local, so is the cheese, the olives, the wheat and it turns out…everything.  When we go to a restaurant, they are using the same ingredients that are available to me in the market and nothing more.  We had turnips available in January and I used them in a way or two at home and then we were having lunch at a restaurant and they brought out a dish of house-made pickled turnips as an appetizer and I exclaimed, “Oh, look how they’ve used the turnips!”
Our spoon-feeding from the local farms suddenly dried up for more than a week during the revolution.  There was nothing to buy and nowhere to buy it.  It was a consciousness raising experience to suddenly realize that what you have in the fridge at this moment may be all you have for some period of time.  Friends and neighbors began to share what they had in stock.  Our neighbors gave us a head of garlic and some lemons from their trees.  Someone else found us some eggs.  We cooked strategically and wasted nothing.  Even after the military took over the city, shops remained shuttered for many days and I thought that this could be the reason that might cause us to evacuate after all.  And then, as if cued, and I think they were, the trucks began to come in.  Only now, because many of the large supermarkets had been burned and looted, farmers supplied the produce shops dotted all over the neighborhoods and set up their own truck stands on street corners.  It was like color reentered our worlds.  It really was moving to me to think about the farmers in the countryside who continued to farm and keep the food supply in order while their countrymen were protesting, and then waited for permission to bring it in and provide relief.  It reminded me of the time in Tunisia’s history when foreign armies were using their country as a battleground.  World War II has a major chapter that took place here and the foreign cemeteries dotted all over the country are reminders of the young men who came to this gentle place and lost their lives.  We were given a book last fall, written by Lillian Craig Harris, called Cemeteries and Memories, The Second World War in Tunisia. A paragraph from her preface came to mind for me at this time. 
“I dedicate this book to the Tunisian farmers who, motivated by the basic need to feed their families, bravely drove their mules before the plough in the spring of 1943 as battles raged around them.”
            Being from a farm, I find enormous dignity and intelligence in the growing of food and I am certain that while I will have many memorable experiences in Tunisia, I won’t have enough seasons to exhaust my interest in this country’s food.