I'm living in Tunisia this summer for 3 months working with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), completing the human rights concentration of my McGill University law degree. I'll discuss the work I'm doing in another post, so stay tuned because it's been phenomenal. In this post I want to discuss what it's been like so far living in Tunis. I'll cover where I live, what my favorite foods have been, activities in Tunis, my walks to work, people I've met, and exciting weekend adventures.
Living in the Medina
For starters, I live in the Medina, which translates to "old town." We're not talking "old" as in old Quebec founded in the 17th century, but we're talking about a city founded in the year 698, which is approximately 1500 years ago. For somebody who lives in Canada, a (settlor) country that recently celebrated its 200 years, that's a lot to wrap my head around. Tunisia has been colonized 7 times, by the Carthaginians, the Romans, a stint by the Vandals and the Byzantine Empire, then the Arabs, the Ottoman Empire, and the French. Amazingly, bits of each of these historical epochs can still be seen as you walk through Tunis, from Roman ruins, to European ceramics, to French pastry shops. I live between the Zitouna mosque - the second oldest mosque in the Maghreb region - and the Kasbah - which literally translates to fortress but in this case refers to the administrative capital of the country. Considering the Medina's streets are too narrow to be driven in, I have to walk about 5 minutes to get out and onto Beb Jedid road where I can hail a cab.
Living in the Medina means I live in a UNESCO world heritage site. There are some 700 historic monuments in the Medina, distributed in 7 areas, among which the most remarkable are the Zitouna Mosque, the Kasbah Mosque, the Youssef Dey Mosque, Bab Jedid Gate, Bab Bhar Gate, the Souq el-Attarine, the Dar el-Bey, Souqs ech-Chaouachia, the Tourbet el Bey, and noble houses such as Dar Hussein, Dar Ben Abdallah, Dar Lasram, the Medrasa Es-Slimanya and El-Mouradia, the El Attarine military barracks and the Zaouia of Sidi Mehrez.
I live in one of the historical houses (scroll through the slideshow below) right near Tourbet el Bey. In Arabic, "Tourbet" means cemetary, and "Bey" means "king," so I live right near the tomb of the kings who once reigned here. The house is a treasure. The ceramic tiles in the house are hand painted and the doors are made of carved wood. Believe it or not, found the house I'm living on Facebook in a group for people searching for housemates. (Shoutout to Martin for commenting on my post!) My guess is that the king used to live here, but note that's not backed up by any kind of actual historical knowledge. I just want to believe I'm living in a royal palace.
Each of my housemates is so lovely I could write a blog about all of them. Jeanne is a down-to-earth woman who lives in the moment with cool shoes and a laugh that just fills your heart because it comes from her soul. Martin somehow knows everyone in Tunis, has a phenomenal fashion sense, and takes the time to let people know he cares. Matthieu has slick shades, witty humour, and makes Tunisia's best Omek Houria (spicy carrot salad) despite not being Tunisian at all. Chloe is an enthusiastic social butterfly who makes everyone in a group comfortable simply by being herself. Amani is a badass Tunisian activist who will one day publish her book that will change lives. Just briefly, I want to emphasize how grateful I am to them for including me in their social circles and inviting me to share moments of their lives. From eating dinner together to having deep chats over coffee, I don't need to explain myself to be understood, which doesn't happen so easily so often. My heart is full in this house.
It would be downright rude for me to write about my house without mentioning our pet, Batman. Batman is a cat whose name was decided before her sex was obvious. We love Batman, our gender-defying cat who is as social as a dog. (For a picture scroll to Week 3.)
The house is nestled between winding roads just wide enough for a donkey cart, with mosques and birds visible from the roof, and cats around every corner. In the afternoons after work, I've picked up the habit of taking a snack in the little courtyard before heading to the roof terrace to exercise, sometimes hearing the mosque prayers in the background of the cardio video on my phone. It's calming up there because hardly anyone goes onto their roofs, so I'm in the middle of the busy city but can't hear traffic (no traffic since cars don't fit in the Medina) and I feel alone, away from the hustle and bustle of the day despite being right above it. I'm lucky enough to catch the sunset most days with the birds circling in the dozens above my head.
A useful traveller tip for wifi: To get internet, I have a small internet box from the Orange phone store with 100 GB I paid $40 CAD for. It means that instead of using data, I can flip on the switch of the handheld box and have internet whenever I need it. I'm still grateful to Jeanne for taking me there on day 2 when I still couldn't figure my way outside the maze of the Medina.
Tourist Suggestion - Rue Jamaa El Zitouna: If you want a Medina experience, take a spin on Rue Jamaa El Zitouna and get ready for packed streets, souvenirs and teashops, like in the photos above.
A useful traveller tip for backpacks: I swear by keeping my backpack on my front at most times so that I can always see what's going on. I also highly recommend the brand "Pacsafe" (which I promise I'm not sponsored for) because it allows you to clip the zippers into the side of the bag so no pick-pocketers will open your bag and snatch anything, because you can't simply zip it open. Plus, they're slashproof and RFID protected, meaning people can't take your credit card info through the bag. I've got a backpack - one that I "borrowed" from my mom years ago without looking back - and a little travellers purse.
It's only been a month, but I've tried so many delicious foods. I love the street food here, because it's hella cheap and super tasty. You can get a makloub, which is a sandwich-giro filled with tuna and vegetables and spicy harissa, for about $2 CAD. Although makloubs are good, I enjoy mlawi more. Mlawi is a super thin bread with the consistency between a crepe and Indian naan, filled with meat and veggies and spicy harissa (harissa is everywhere) rolled up so you can eat it on the go. Another funny thing here is a fricase, which is a small sandwich made out of a donut commonly eaten as a snack. The best part is this donut sandwich isn't even considered a dessert.
It would be silly to mention all of this without recognizing that the cous-cous here is divine. Amani made some for us the other night, with squid and veggies on top. I've never had such flavorful cous cous.
There are olives and dates sold on every street corner, and nuts sold in every tiny convenience store area. (Although I say convenience store, instead picture a wall where a man or woman sells practical things - like coffee, sweets, cigarettes, toilet paper - behind a small counter).
I'll name just a few culinary experiences so far. In the northern town of Bizerte about an hour from Tunis (see below for Bizerte adventures), apart from the beach, one of my highlights was drinking sweet hazelnut tea and eating freshly grilled fish I bought from a fish market. In the Medina of Tunis I ate at a fancy restaurant called Fondouk el Attarine complete with two appetizers, a salade and an entree (I chose cous cous), and dessert for $16 CAD (see below for pictures). Of course, going to the local market is also quite the experience, and cheap. As for desserts I've eaten way too many baklavas (layered pastry dessert made of filo pastry filled with chopped nut), a kaak warka (marzipan rosewater cookies that are white in color and shaped like rings), samsa (triangle pastries stuffed with roasted nuts), bambalouni (fried dough ring doughnuts), ghraiba homs (chickpea cookies apparently dating from the Ottoman empire), makroudh (semolina dough with date filling inside doused with honey), Kaber ellouz (almond balls colored to look like sugary peaches), and assida boufriwa (hazelnut creme in a cup).
A useful traveller tip for transport: Getting around is easiest on foot, because public transportation isn't easily accessible from where I live. Using Bolt, an Uber-like application, is quickest, but most expensive. Hailing down cabs so that they use their taxi meter costs half the price as Bolts, so that's my go-to. I live a bit far from where I work (ie. the Medina is about 30 minutes from Lac 1, the fancy schmancy region where the UNHCR is found, where many embassies and international organizations are.) Instead of paying for a taxi each time, which costs about 7-8 dinars ($3-4 CAD) each morning and evening, I posted in the facebook group "Co-voiturage grande Tunis," a carpool group. I now pay 5 dinars ($2 CAD) each day, there and back. Now that's a deal! Another option is to take shared taxis. For trips outside the city, "louages" are shared, cheap vans with parking lot stations.
Before the film we went to grab a bite to eat at the food court, and I found it so funny that the American chain Chiles was there, with a drinks page in the menu with "Sprite" instead of gin or vodka. Turns out Azur City is non-alcoholic.
We had trouble finding a Bolt to go back home, but eventually made it. One tip might be arranging transportation beforehand for a late night film.
Week 2: Conference of Coincidence, Queer Play & Yuka
After a rapid change in plans concerning my prior internship, I emailed the Canadian embassy for guidance on legal organizations doing good work in and around Tunis with whom I could work with. I honestly wasn't expecting a response. Within 30 minutes, I got an email from who I now consider a friend, Lara, from the International Bureau for Children's Rights. Believe it or not, she was contacted by somebody from the embassy and happened to be sitting in a cab with my professor, Dr. Francois Crepeau, who taught me refugee and immigration law last semester. (Aside: Dr. Crepeau used to be the United Nations special rapporteur on migration, so he's kind of a big deal but also one of the most laid back profs I know). Turns out my prof from Montreal was here in Tunis to help lead a conference on the child rights of migrants. WHAAT?! Considering I just finished writing a 30-page research paper about Mediterranean migration routes and EU policy, and a few months ago wrote another 30-pager about child labour for my human rights class, Lara invited me to attend the conference.
Sometimes when you least expect things to go smoothly, life defies your expectations and you oggle at the way things work out.
The two-day conference at the Hotel Berge du Lac was phenomenal both in terms of agenda but also in terms of getting me back on my feet. I met Lara's lovely co-workers including bubbly Marie-Soleil, a Québécoise woman whose accent made me feel right at home, and young Ivorian and Congolese friends passionate about refugee rights. I learned about unaccompanied child migrants in Tunisia and enjoyed a cocktail casually meeting the Canadian ambassador, representatives from the IOM (International Organization for Migration), UNICEF (UN agency for children's rights), and UNHCR (UN agency for refugees). Although normal people want to meet Lady Gaga, for me meeting people working at the UN was a *pinch me* day. With no time to waste, I bolstered my confidence and spoke to all these reps explaining my situation and proposing internships. Usually nailing down a UN internship is a year-long process. I don't know why or how, but by Monday, these three organizations had offered me internships. It was a serendipitous, confidence-boosting week as I started my time with the UNHCR.
Sometimes, the toughest thing to do is to make a decision for your mental health that you're unsure will end well. This is one of those examples where being courageous enough to put a quick end to a plan couldn't have had a better turn of events.
Rooftop Party: Like I mentioned above, my roommates are pretty cool. This week, they decided to host an apero at our house on Thursday. With great weather and great people, the gathering was a perfectly timed opportunity to make pals.
Have I mentioned I'm grateful to be living with these lovely human beings?
I've found that Tunisians are like that. They want you to feel welcome, and they'll invite you wherever they're going. One time, a taxi driver eating a sandwich even offered me a bite of his sandwich! I politely declined.
Tourist Suggestion - Fonduk El Attarine: This is a definite must-see in the Medina. For a 3 course meal, plus a shared appetizer of bread and olives, the cost is 38 dinars, or $16 CAD. Apparently there's a similar restaurant that serves the same food for double the price nearby, but let me assure you that you're not missing anything if you come here. The chef is the same person.
I had the generous salad du chef, which pleasantly had strawberries and nuts, followed by the couscous poisson aia karkenaise, which was DIVINE, and finally the zriga assida or hazelnut chocolate mousse. With cold water and coffee, this is the slam dunk deal of the Medina. To be clear, this is quite an expensive meal for here, considering a filling streetfood meal is about $2-$4. The experience was worth the cost. We stayed for around 3 hours talking and laughing.
It's important to recognize that Myriam didn't need to invite me to this lunch, but she did. Not only that, but her and her cousin and aunt included me in conversation, sharing other secret gems in the Medina. It's always a privilege to be invited into the intimate family spaces of strangers.
Queer Activist Play, Flagrant Delit: There might be nothing I like better than queer activism in a country that penalizes sexual intercourse between people of the same sex. (See my blog post about anti-homosexuality laws in Kenya, here.) Let's just say Article 230 of the Tunisian Penal Code of 1913 is not a friendly law for queer people.
On Saturday night, I went to see the play called "Flagrant Delit," organized by the local grassroots NGO called Mawjoudin We Exist. This NGO took the lead from Damj, a queer organization in Tunisia that hosted the first queer play a few years ago in all of the Arab world. That's a big deal. These people are trailblazers in terms of human rights. Flagrant Delit, the play I saw, was an edge of your seat, heart-wrenching, humanizing, utterly raw play about being a trans person in Tunisia. Amani, who I live with, works at L'Art Rue, who was in partnership with Mawjoudin on this project, and provided me with a ticket. The play took place at Rio Theatre in downtown Tunis. There were french subtitles dancing across the top of the screen as the scenes unfolded. Even though I didn't understand everything, I understood enough to get shivers. The play was mindful of the heavy subject, and somehow included both humorous moments and education about the legal context in Tunisia.
Le Muret : That evening I went to a resto/bar called "Le Muret" near Place D'Afrique with friends from the Canadian embassy I had made during the conference earlier in the week, namely Joelle and Khawla, two lovely people who like to have a good time. The music was delightful because the woman singing had such a powerful voice. (At first we thought it was a CD, she was so good! And in English as well as in Arabic.) It was a great evening. We laughed, we danced, we ate good pizza, and all fought over the little crunchy appetizers we couldn't decide were peanuts or chickpeas (they were peanuts; I lost that fight). It was the night I started picturing myself actually living in Tunisia for more than just a 3 month internship. Who knows, maybe I'll be back for longer.
A useful traveller tip for nightlife: The eastern suburbs, including Gammarth, the Marsa, and the Goulette, are the places to be if you want some life at night. For a classic evening out, head to Yuka, which is actually only one of about 5 bars in the complex. I went back to Yuka at night the next weekend with Jeanne and Chloe and it was bumpin' at night.
Week 3: UNHCR, Martin's Goodbye, Beach Day
UNHCR: Week 3 was my first *full* week with the UNHCR, and boy can I say it I enjoyed it. Everyone in the office is extremely friendly, well intentioned, and hardworking. I'll check on the confidentiality permissions before writing a more detailed explanation of my work there so far, but let it suffice to say I'm academically and intellectually satisfied with what I'm learning. Beyond researching relevant legal questions the team is working on, I went to a conference this week about protecting the rights of child migrants in Tunisia at the Golden Tulip Hotel. It was great to see Lara, Marie Soleil, and Joelle again from the International Bureau for Children's Rights and the Canadian embassy.
Another *wild* thing about the conference was the simultaneous translation happening from French to Arabic and back. I took a silly picture of myself with the headset, with no intention of sharing it in the future, but include it here just to share how neat this headset was. I'll admit that I let myself close my eyes for a moment and pretend like I was at the UN General Assembly, switching into my language of choice.
As for the office environment at the UNHCR, let me just say that my supervisor and co-workers are lovely. Rihem is a kind-hearted person who drove me to work once, shared with me her love of music. Mariem is an activist with fun hair who jokes around sometimes but is a fierce leader with refugees and asylum seekers when she needs to be. Both are young Tunisian women working in human rights and killing it. Michael is from Saskatchewan and always recognizes the work of interns on emails, which is appreciated. Lilia, Mouna, and Ghita are all distinct personalities who jive together. It's a great team.
Martin's Farewell: To celebrate Martin's departure to Italy, we had a gathering at Majestic on Wednesday. I couldn't be happier that my path and Martin's crossed when they did. Cheers to Martin's new chapter and his stylin outfit!
A useful traveller tip for shopping: You think thrift shops are cool? You've never been to Tunisian streets, where pop-up clothing stands on plastic tables are the things of dreams. Going to the "Fripe" means going to a thrift shop where you'll find $200 brand name boots for $20 like Jeanne did last week, t-shirts for 50 cents, and beautiful flowy yet elegant new work pants (because it's too hot to wear anything tighter!) for $7, which is considered expensive.
Beach Day: Sunday I went to eat a big bowl of salad with Jeanne in the Marsa and then went to the beach to soak up some sun. Apart from some good chats with Jeanne, my highlight of the day was definitely playing soccer with local boys on the beach, who just about went ballistic when I scored.
Week 4: Morning Italian, Paddleboard, Beach Paradise
After playing soccer with the paddleboard crew, I meet up with friends at Le Pirate, a restaurant bar near the Sidi Bou Said beach. I ordered an enormous salad and was so happy to be eating a salad (considering my veggie intake hasn't been great).
After a few hours of laughs with Jeanne and Florine, I got a text from my pottery pal Daly who invited me to Wet Flamingo, another bar in the Goulette I had been to the week before. I head over there and he introduced me to his friends. I'm usually not one to stay out late, but it's not the first time in Tunisia I got home after midnight.
Capitaine El Bounta in Raf Raf : The next day was one of those summer adventures I'll remember for a long time. After falling in love with a tiny kitten we found near Chloe's grandparent's house, Chloe and Jeanne and I spent the day driving to Raf Raf, which is near Bizerte but hidden away in a little cove.
I actually could not believe the color of the water. I didn't edit any of these photos. I've never used the word "aquamarine" to describe a color in a better place than here.
The place was really neat. We had a little table on stilts and spent the whole afternoon there. The cost for the day at Capitaine was 70 dinars per person, or $29 CAD, which included the boat ride, the whole day at the place, a delicious lunch comprised of freshly grilled fish, salad, bread, fries, water, and an afternoon watermelon snack, and the boat ride back. It doesn't look like Capitaine is the only place like this, as we boated past another place called Lovina, which had a similar setup.
We went back to the Yuka bar (I had gone there with the Canadian embassy people during the day, remember?) but this time at night. The vibe was neat and fun and different. The lights were on, the atmosphere was club-like and the people were all much more nicely dressed than us. We grabbed a table and chatted about life before heading home way too late but happy in our hearts.
Wow Laurence! It seems like you've adopted so well to Tunis and its surroundings. All your pictures are beautiful. I find it is so generous of you to share your experiences....but then you are one of the most generous people I know.
This made me sooo happy to read, Laurence! Thank you for making us travel with your words ❤️
I enjoyed reading this blog so much! The adventures and stories made me want to get up and get active!
How amazing to see a trip through your eyes ! 🌺
Such a joy to read this, Laurence, to see Tunis through your eyes and how you're navigating life there so well. I'm glad you've found friends and colleagues, and am looking forward to hearing about your work at the UNHCR.
Laurence! This was an absolute pleasure to read. Ah, this makes me want to travel the world! Bravo. I can’t wait to click into the next installment :)
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- My 3 month internship in Kenya where I had some interesting culture shocks, traveled, and saw beautiful things like Naivasha's Hell's Gate National Park, Nairobi National Park, and Mt. Longonot
- Moving to Montreal to start my MA program
- Going to Stockholm, Sweden
- Working at Kingdom Trails and mountain biking on the daily
- Being a ski instructor in Vermont
- A glimpse at what I did in France for 2 months
- 2 intensive French classes in Sherbrooke, Canada and Grenoble respectively
- my month-long visit back to Ecuador (where I climbed a snowy volcano, performed a rap, ate bomb ice cream, and soaked up the sun with blue-footed boobies)
- an impromptu trip to Toronto to see the activist Vandana Shiva, and to Quebec to see my lovely grandmother
- & adventures in Vermont last summer (including an owl visitor and a hike)
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