I was late leaving my hotel room to meet Rabab, who was taking me to Dougga for the day. We hopped in the car and she immediately turned around and asked, smiling: So is Tunisia what you expected? Here’s the gist of what I told her about Tunis, where I lived for a month:
Tunis is inviting and peaceful. It’s surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, so the air is incredible. I never wore a jacket, and the sea breeze kept the hotter days feeling fresh. Everyone told me early May is the best time to be there, as well as the fun summertime after Ramadan.
Tunis is made up of about five neighborhoods, each with their own personalities. I stayed at the Concorde Hotel in Berges du Lac, an affluent neighborhood funded by one of the Arab states along the Gulf. The area is right on the edge of a lake (Lac in French) feeding into the Mediterranean. Due to some agreement, they ban alcohol in that area. The Tunisians I talked with said that people work in the Lac, but go out and have fun elsewhere.
These are just some of the neighborhoods, all a quick cab ride away. And everyone seems to like to go out, even on the weekdays. The restaurants, nightclubs, lounges, etc. fill up all week long!
The hospitality in Tunisia is incredible. Every time I went to a restaurant, the waiters gave me an appetizer (usually bread with harissa and olives), and ended the meal with a free dessert or Arabic tea. Even if I said no thanks.
Something else I didn’t know is that Tunisia houses tons of vineyards, so wine is pretty popular there. As as hookah, which is at just about every café.
I ate fresh fish super often, and the max I ever paid for it was $15 for a whole fish and sides.
Fresh juice is also popular. Strawberry, orange and lemon, are the big ones. They sure do love their smoothies, too. I’ll do another post on typical Tunisian dishes soon!
Speaking of hospitality, the people are so kind. A stranger paid for my taxi when I looked distraught one day, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. A friend who I ate lunch with did the same thing. She said it’s the Tunisian way. And when I asked the hotel if they had a converter, the concierge said no, but that he would go buy me one. I told him please don’t, I’m really fine, but he didn’t listen. The bellboy was upstairs with a converter 10 minutes later.
I never felt unsafe walking around alone, even during the evening. I tried not to be outside alone past dark, which I do in any new city. Quite a few men around my age did approach me, though, asking where I was from or if I wanted a coffee. I said no, that I didn’t want to talk, and they respected that. No catcalling or scary situations.
Flowers also seem to be huge in Tunisia. When boys walk around selling flowers for money in the streets and in restaurants, people actually buy them. Usually the men give them to the women at their tables, and the women hold the flowers and sniff them the whole night. If a man receives one, he usually puts it behind his ear or in the A/C vent in the car. I loved that tradition.
Rabab laughed and said she asks this because she gets a kick out of how most people expect Tunisia to be full of poor, conservative men and women on the streets with a backwards way of life.
The best thing about Tunisia, she said, is that it mixes the historic with the modern, welcoming cultures and religions from around the world.
- Green lights on taxis mean they are full; red means that they’re open.
- Cars don’t wait for you to cross the street. You have to just walk into the street, and the cars will adjust their speed to your gait. I never got used to this, but, if you just stop and wait, it throws off traffic.
- Make sure taxi drivers use the meters so they don’t gyp you. (It’s super cheap either way, though.)
- The main languages are French and Tunisian Arabic, only sometimes English. But many people just whip out Google translate on their phones if you only know English.
- Pay attention to the details. For example, I was impressed by how waiters would rearrange my table, including my cell phone, to have a nice setting.