A Travellerspoint blog

French Immersion

...Tunisian Style

sunny 15 °C

Jan 18-19


We landed in Tunis yesterday, and found ourselves immersed in a French-speaking culture. This was quite a shock, because we've been coasting on English, and a few simple phrases since China (where there was really no English). So how much will we remember of our high-school French? A couple of times, when people have found out we're Canadians, they've asked "why aren't you speakng French all the time?" Alas, we're not from the French-speakng part of Canada!

Tunis, and the area we've seen around it, represents quite a change from Jordan. Especially considering both Jordan and Tunisia are 99% Arab-Muslim. Tunisia, though, is far more Meditterean-looking than it is Middle-Eastern. The French influence is so obvious, not just in language, but in the look of our hotel's neighborhood. There's a grid of streets, centered on a long avenue with a ficus-lined pedestrian mall running down the middle. To our eyes, it's Paris! It's amazing how reinvigorating a change of scenery can be. We've been pretty busy on the Egypt tour and then in Jordan with Jenn's Dad, but our first impression of Tunis has us itching to explore.

View looking the balcony of our room, Carlton Hotel, Tunis

The Carlton Hotel we were not as thrilled with initially, but we're warming to it. Breakfast helped. Again, the French influence: good pastry, good baguette, good coffee (not Nescafe!).

Today, we decided to head out to Carthage and Sidi Bou Said on the commuter train. Buying and asking for everything in French has worked out so far, but this was more ambitious. It turned out to be a great day, though the amount we walked was also ambitious.

Carthage is a beautiful, wealthy suburb of white-washed villas now, and dotted among these are the ruins. From the ruins of Roman Carthage, high on a hilltop, we could see the Punic ruins (i.e. Carthage) below. Rome had completely destroyed Carthage in 146 B.C., yet chose the same location to build an ambitious new town in during the time of Julius Caesar. The groundskeeper (since we were the only ones there) showed us how they're still discovering human bones from the Roman destruction, and - he claims - you can still smell the smoke from when the city burned. He even showed us part of a child's skull: Alas, poor Yorrick! I knew him!

Anica climbed to the top of her sixth Roman amphitheatre in Carthage, too. From the top, we got a good view of the huge new mosque, built in honour of Ben Ali, the president since 1987. It holds 12,000 people, and has a lovely minaret quite unlike what we'd seen at other mosques.

Roman bath complex at Carthage, now a suburb of Tunis

A highlight of the Roman ruins at Carthage are the baths. It's a huge complex. Only the basement level remains, but that's enough to show how the largest bath would be bigger than an Olympic-size swimming pool. Even the basement required impressive vaulted ceilings. From these baths, you can look out over the sea and to mountains in the distance.

We hopped back on the TGM train, and got off three stops later at Sidi Bou Said. We'd already walked all over Carthage, with its hills, but Sidi Bou Said is also built on a hillside (cliff, practically), so we were just getting started! It's a beautiful, affluent community, that has strictly maintained its "blue doors and white walls" building code to give it an instantly recognizable look. Anica even noticed the exact door (out of hundreds) that is on the "Rough Guide to Tunisia" cover!

After walking along the main shopping road at the top of the hill, we took stairs down to the marina, then climbed back up again. Anica definitely keeps up the pace on these hikes, I must admit. She doesn't whine any more than we do!
For dinner, we had some quintessential Tunisian fare. Jenn and/ I had cous-cous; hers was with merguez (spicy sausage). Anica had "brik," which is a greasy kind of egg and pastry thing. When the waiter brought bread, I asked: "harissa?" and he seemed pleased. Harissa is a spicy red paste that we read is usually not offered to tourists, but that Tunisians spread on everything. We had it on our bread, and it is spicy, but we like spicy food, so yum! Prices for food seem pretty cheap so far in Tunisia, and they were here even in flashy Sidi Bou Said. It's a gorgeous town in a spectacular cliffside-seaside setting, and it was a great way to end our first full day in Tunisia.

Jan 20


After breakfast this morning we set out for the Bardo Museum by Metro Train. The Metro is like a subway system that somebody forgot to put underground. When I first saw it suddenly rocketing around corners in the downtown, I actually looked down to check that it was on tracks! We asked the ticket-seller (in French, of course) which platform was the one for the Bardo. He pointed us across the way, and we thanked him. A couple of minutes later, he came running over. "It's number four, mister," he told us. Since more than one train came by at the same platform, he left his booth and found us just to make sure we didn't get on the wrong one! It's the small kindnesses like that, far beyond what could possibly be expected, that have helped sustain our positive feelings about travelling. Something like that has happened in every country. What a wonderful world.

The Bardo has an incredible collection of Roman mosiacs as its major claim to fame. The museum includes what was once palatial quarters for the "Bey," or nominal ruler of pre-independence Tunisia. We bought a guidebook, and followed it, expecting the English labelling to be hit-and-miss.

Inside the Bardo Museum

The mosaics, in particular, were truly impressive. It makes you realize how extensively and beautifully the Romans built in North Africa. In the "Virgil Room," part of the Bey's old apartment, there's the oldest-known artistic representation of the poet Virgil, shown in mosiac flanked by the muses of History (Clio, one of my two favourites) and Tragedy. It's almost completely intact, and showcased well in a room with a white, stucco, vaulted ceiling. Except I've never seen stucco like this! It's carved in delicate, filigree-like Islamic patterns.

Other mosiacs were impressive by their sheer size or by the surprising nature of the subject matter (like blood dripping in red tiles from a lion being gutted by a gladiator). A 5th century AD mosiac called the "Julius" depicts all sorts of aspects of his estate and the events of a typical year, a lovely primary source of history.

Aside from mosiacs, there's an extensive collection of artifacts recovered from a ship that wrecked in the first century. There's statues of dancing dwarfs, candelabras, beds, and marble statues.

A couple of school groups were visiting the museum today. One time, while we were sitting on a bench, looking at our guidebook, a group of three girls, perhaps twelve years old, slowly and nervously approached Anica, with big smies on their faces. "Bonjour," they each said. One by one, they kissed her on the cheek, as if it was some kind of tweener Papal audience. "So nice...pretty" they said, and left. ,

After several hours at the museum, we enjoyed a late lunch at a street-side patio cafe. Sunday seems to be the day a lot of stores are closed in Tunis, so we took it easy, too, today.

Jan 21

The part of Tunis are hotel's in, is the "new city," laid out by the colonizing French in a simple grid, dominated by a Champs-Elysses style boulevard. At the end of that street, sitting at an odd angle, is an archway with Arab inscriptions that signals an entrance to "The Medina," the old city. No grid here, just a spiderwebbing of narrow lanes. It's like entering a dense forest. Fanghorn! So we took it in that spirit: we put the map away and just decided to wander the Medina, with its many souks and mosques, for a few hours. As we walked deeper in, I could see the stalls becoming less touristry and more devoted to the traditional trades. There were the goldsmiths, the fez-makers, the bon-bon makers, or even just a street name that was a reminder of the Medina in the past, like "rue des teincturiers." We were content to just photograph doorways. Nobody has to tell you they're famous; they draw the eye intrinsically. Anica loved choosing her favourites to photograph. There was no traffic other than pedestrian traffic. Oh, and the occasional baby-stroller, filled with candy and cigarettes. You shouldn't take candy from a baby, but here you can buy it from a man wheeling it around in a pram.

"There must be some kinda way outta here.." Deep in the Tunis Medina

After about an hour of wandering, our aimlessness caught up with us and we were hi-jacked by an enthusiastic elderly gentleman who wanted to show us the "real, hidden, old Medina," or words to that effect in French. As he hurriedly pointed out sight after sight, all three of us started murmuring "he's going to ask for money." But it was interesting enough, and I asked him what his profession was (hint, hint) and he said "textiles." After he showed us a couple of mosques, a synagogue, a "hand of Fatima" door-knocker, and many other photo-worthy curiousities, he deftly said "as for the tip, if varies. Some give 15, some 20. It's up to you." I played dumb, citing friendliness, mentioning his job was in textiles, not tourism, and finally emptied my change pocket in order to end the charade: it amounted to less than one dinar. Well, we knew if was coming! Too bad he proved us right, because, unlike the random act of kindness yesterday, he's the kind of man who makes it difficult to trust others.

Back on our own, we bought new shoes for Anica, a process that included extensive conversation, entirely in French. It's not good French on our part, especially the verb tenses, but we're definitely getting by. One of the hardest things is the Tunisian money. It takes a thousand millimes to make a diinar, like an extra place column. I've been getting confused when I hear a price spoken (in French, mind you) like "eleven and eight hundred." Huh? Well, that would be 11.800 or eleven dinars and eight hundred millimes. Seeing it written is better, because you just drop a zero, but most of the prices aren't labelled.

A little bit about lunch: once again great shwarma sandwiches. These had all sorts of diced things, such as radishes, tomatoes and onions, mixed in, and had a complement of french fries spilling out of the bun and across the plate. Much better than the "fries hidden within the sandwich" style we've seen. Anica's a huge shwarma fan now; she wanted it again for dinner!

We also took the Metro today to Belvedere Park, which on the map looks like Tunis' answer the Hyde Park or Central Park. Tunis must be parkially-challenged, however. Belvedere Park is big, but its "lake" has dried up to what would better be described as a puddle, and they're aren't a lot of wide open spaces otherwise. We did come nose-to-nose with some reindeer, in what might have been a outside fence of the zoo. They were quite used to people, pushing their mouths through the chain links, expecting us to feed them.

What made the park special for Anica, though, was a huge banyan tree, great for climbing. Three of its thickest branches drooped way down so that couples could just walk up and sit on them, with a slight bouncing give like giant, natural rocking chairs. On the other side of the tree, its thick wooden vines converged in a tangle that you could climb up inside. Can you tell I enjoyed climbing the tree, too?

Jenn spent the time talking with three young women, who heard us speaking English and wanted some practice. Their first language was Arabic, and second French, but they'd taken English at university. They were very interested in our travel, lifestyle, and options for employment. Jenn changing careers was something they envied. All three would be qualified teachers in a year, but if that didn't suit them, there was little chance of retraining.

Anica said today that her favourite "activity" on the trip has been visiting the churches, mosques, and temples. She said it's just so fascinating to see how people pray, and who they pray to, and how the places are decorated. She likes Islam the best, if she had to choose, because they don't show God, so it doesn't ruin what you imagine. She likes how they fast during Ramadan, to know how poor people feel when they're hungry. She likes the mosques because of the minarets. How do you become a Muslim, Dad? I said it's really easy, but wait until we've seen some of the great cathedrals in Europe!

Jan 22

More Medina today, including an overpriced peek at the Great Mosque (you only get to see the courtyard), and a narrow escape from being "guided." We did manage to find the Museum of Popular Tradition, housed in an old palace, at the far side of the Medina. Anica, in particular, likes seeing these kind of museums, with lots of mannequins in costumes, and decorated period rooms. This one depicted life in the Tunis Medina at the end of the 19th century.

We've enjoyed Tunis, with its wide sidealks and street cafe culture in the New Town, and its labyrinthine souks in the Old Town. We've even browsed in all the French bookstores, bibliophiles that we are, and have been tempted to get something to try reading in French. The price for books, however, is too high here. We'll be on our way by train at noon tomorrow; our ticket's already been (painstakingly) purchased using our broken French.

Jan 19


Today we went to Carthage. MORE ROMAN RUINS!! But it was pretty, nice, big, and tireing. We saw and climbed my sixth amphitheatre! I'm very proud. And we saw a section of baths bigger than a Olympic pool! We also saw homes! Went to Cidy Bo Said (a place/city/town with white buildings and blue doors), had dinner. rode home on a train. G.N.
P.S. We saw the same door on the front of our guide (proud)

The quintessential blue-and-white doorway style of Sidi Bou Said

Jan 20


"Bardo's Mosiacs or Mosques?"

Today again we had a delicous, yummy breakfst. Today we also rode the Tunis metro down to Bardo Museum. When we got to Bardo, we saw many mosaics. We saw one with people doing ploughing, sowing, brinig home the livestock, olive picking and hunting. We also saw one with the gods of the week: Luna (Monday), Mar (Tuesday), Mercury (Wednesday), Jupiter (Thursday), Venus (Friday), Sol (Saturday) and Satrun (Saturday). We also saw sirens in a mosiac. Neat. Had another exicting (but busy) ride. Had dinner. G.N.

Jan 21


"The Madina or Mahdia Day?!"

Today we walked threw the Madina of Tunis. The gate was very pretty. This guy also kept on finding us (which wa very annoying) and saying "go to the Great Mosque." "We-are-just-looking around. O.K!?" Diden't stop then! The half bazzarish/townish-like Medina was so busy! One time this guy took us all over the plae (without permisson from Mom) and asked for 16 Canadin doller tip?! Dad ave him less than a doller! Good, old, smart Dad! We also stormed off! Yay! Thenwe had a very delicius lunch of swamrha sandwhiches and fries. We als went to Belvedere park and climbed on a big Banyon tree! Fun. Went home for a very long time, talking about the day, playing, reading, sleeping, and lots more! Such as listening to a 1000 birds outside and taking a video.

Jan 22


"Back in the Medina!"

Today we went back through the pretty gate to the Madina. We also went to a pretty neat, old and not ruined Mousqe. We also went to a mueseam with a boys, girls, herbs and kids sectoins with tools, jewelarry and clothes. It was so neat! They also had school diorama (with a techer with a whip). Went home, rested, had dinner. G.N.

Posted by jennrob 08:35 Archived in Tunisia

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents


Oh the life history lesson I get from reading your blogs! Anica this experience, and the time with our parents is a treasure for you. The mosaics sound fascinating. How long do you think it took to make one? Consider a building. Just think of looking at a ruin and flashing back to a grand event in the building, to the building process and the architect who had the "vision" to build. I look at run down bungalows and think of the proud man carrying his bride in to their castle years ago. We are going to start hiking to get in shape to keep up with Anica!

by Mum 2

Paris is a favourite of mine, so Tunis sounds lovely. You've been quite busy. As to the guides, remind yourselves that even they have to make a living. Just pay what you wish and thank them. Just sometimes they add to the memories of a wonderful day by offering a viewpoint that would have been missed otherwise. I remember an older gentleman in Istanbul that "adopted" us one afternoon. We knew there would be a price to pay but decided to chance it. We were lucky and his information made our vist much more enjoyable. Interestly enough Rob, he was a history teacher who couldn't make enough to support his family without this additional income. Of course, it doesn't always work out that way and there are days when you just want to be on your own. Then you have to put your foot down and make sure they understand that you are not going to pay them. At that point they will usually go off and find someone else.

Anica, I love shwarma! It's delicious and very inexpensive. I'm glad to hear you love it too. It seems you are gathering some admirers along the way. What sweet young girls!

by Mom-Momma

Hi guys!
Chris and I went to Tunisia on our very first trip together 15 years ago! Doesn't sound like it's changed at all - we took that very train across to Carthage and SBS. We then went south to El Jem amphitheatre and the underground homes of Matmata, and the whole camel trek for sunset and bedouin camp thing too. Interesting that Anica would pick Islam - our girls are definately Buddist! Keeping having fun, all love CRFS xxxx


Dear Anica,
You certainly have seen many museums, mosques & mosaics, but they must be wonderful. We saw a banyan tree in the South Pacific & they are quite interesting, and I bet fun to climb.
Those shwarma sandwiches really sound yummy! What other foods have you enjoyed the most? Tunisia seems to be a beautiful place. Have fun!

Love & Hugs,
N&G xxxooo

by hdbutters

Thanks for your comments everyone. Sherry, you always give us something more to think about. Helen, you're right; that's the best attitude to take. Mom, Anica has enjoyed most of the middle east food, like hummus, falafel, and the sausages here in Tunisia. Rachel, we plan to go to El Jem, and we did a Bedouin camping trip in Jordan. I bet not a lot has changed; it's timeless here, except for cellphones... -Rob

by jennrob

How nice you get to practice French....you will need more of it as you get into Europe.
Anica, it is always nice to be close to God and a community that comes together in worship. But as your father says, wait till the cathedrals in Europe! They are something to behold.
Bruce and I have just returned from "French speaking" Canada and are quite glad to be speaking in our mother tongue. Don't know how you guys are doing it. My mind is still spinning from figuring out correct pronunciation, verb use and inflection. Good on ya!
Love to all.

by JBRobinson

Jean, Verb use? I think your French, and especially Bruce, conducting business in French, is much more advanced than ours. We're just trying to get by...survival French. I hope the event went well in Quebec! - Rob

by jennrob

This blog requires you to be a logged in member of Travellerspoint to place comments.