The first thing we noticed about Monastir when we rolled in this morning were the numerous soccer games being played by all the local boys. As Tyler found out when he joined in on one of them, they are all on vacation from school because of the upcoming Eid al-Adha festival. While Tyler snapped photos and kicked the ball around with the boys for a few minutes, I chatted with a friendly French couple, in Monastir for their three-week winter holiday.
Just outside the heart of Monastir's medina we decided to take a break for lunch. Relaxing together in the shade, almost hot outdoors on a late-November day, eating our meal surrounded by absolute chaos, we exchanged several excited: "We are in Tunisia!"s. I ordered couscous for the first time and it was great! It could have been a touch spicier though.
Sitting next to us at our restaurant was a very staunch looking French tourist who seemed to be enjoying her seafood pizza immensely. Behind us, traffic passed in a colorful clogged mess of insanity. While we ate, a scarf seller came by to showcase his wares. Our feathers didn't even ruffle when he decked Tyler's head in full regalia. Our waiter came out and told the guy off in Arabic; apparently he didn't want his patrons bothered.
As we sat there enjoying ourselves, we realized Tunisia is starting to win us over. When we went to see the Ribat (used as the town of Jerusalem in movies like "Monty Python's Life of Brian" and "Jesus of Nazareth") we encountered several friendly people who just wanted to chat, and nothing more. Slowly we're lowering our guards. It feels good both to trust again and to have overcome our culture shock with the near-constant hard selling.
After a few hours in Monastir, we made a swift dash over flat coastal roads (it is really flat in Tunisia so far and we love it!) to the town of Mahdia. We were eager to find the youth hostel and settle in with a good internet connection so we could Skype with our gathered families. As usual, things didn't really turn out the way we had planned.
When we managed, after much circling and backtracking, to find the hostel, we were greeted by a talkative man who checked us in for two nights. We filled out paperwork and were informed we'd have to wait for a man named Hazim to show up for his shift to receive our keys. In the meantime we got a short tour, complete with a beautiful rooftop view of Mahdia. Before the man left he told us repeatedly that tomorrow was a holiday and that we should talk with Hazim about the details—when the door would be open, when it would be locked, etc.
When Hazim arrived an hour later, he was not happy. Unbeknown to us, Hazim was the boss, and the hostel was actually supposed to be closed completely (like everything else) for the festival tomorrow. By booking us for two nights and taking our money the other man had basically signed his boss up to work on his holiday. The man in charge of the hostel's computer center came to help with the situation and waited with us, embarrassed by the fury of his colleague who was now on the phone with the man who booked us in.
Hazim hurled a bevy of enraged Arabic into his cell phone, his arms waving around with all the furor of an angry Italian. At one point he shook his hands at the sky, as if asking Allah what he'd done to deserve this. The conversation ended with a massive, football spike of his cellphone into wall/floor. The computer guy immediately picked it up to see if he could fix it, looking very sheepish. Hazim paced back and forth outside, no doubt feeling calmer but plenty foolish as well.
Trying to be helpful, we told them it was no problem, we'd stay for one night and leave first thing in the morning—as long as they refunded the money we'd already paid for the extra night. They explained they felt bad because we weren't the problem at all—under normal circumstances they would love to welcome us for as long as we wanted. Eventually after much talking, we got everything worked out. The boss simply gave us a key to the place and told us to make ourselves at home. By this time we were all feeling very chummy, laughing and talking about the upcoming holiday.
They explained how each family slaughters a sheep to commemorate Ibrahim's (Abraham) willingness to sacrifice his son to God. Like Thanksgiving, different families can be more, or less spiritual/intentional about the holiday. It can be anything from a sacred event to a raucous food-fest. They also explained that Tunisian mutton is, in their opinion, far superior to its French counterpart because they slit the throats letting the blood drain instead of the "unskilled" method of shooting them in the head.
Then, they asked us how we slaughter our sheep in America! It was difficult to explain that in America we don't have sheep roaming the streets like they do here, and that individual people and families don't generally slaughter their own. I tried to describe how meat is usually purchased at the supermarket: it sits in the refrigerated case, cleaned, sterilized, pumped full of tenderizers, resting on a styrofoam tray wrapped with cellophane.
They didn't really understand until I explained further how separated we are from the killing of our food, saying that the actual slaughtering goes on behind closed doors and that most Americans don't want to know how it happens. Finally the computer guy piped up and asked "is it like how milk comes in boxes and not from the cow?" Pretty much!
We wished each other happy holidays, and they left us to our own devices for the next two days. Unfortunately they closed the computer center before they left so we couldn't talk with our families for Thanksgiving. Tomorrow hopefully we'll find a place with internet, and wander around town snapping photos of the festivities!