As it turns out, my friend’s brother and I were on the same flight. Thanks to technology, we learned this and Wafa (my friend, the bride) said she would pick me up at the airport since she would already be there for her brother.
I landed in Tunis and was hit by heat and humidity as soon as I stepped off the airplane. However, I was quickly cooled by the airport’s marble and tiled walls and floors.
I tried to exchange money but of course the two change bureaus were closed but the lovely security guards told me I could exchange my money after customs.
Airports make me emotional, the tug on the heartstrings of watching people say goodbye or be reunited is deep for me. I have spent my life bidding farewell to family with the hope of seeing them again the following year, or the year after, or my current state of unknowing.
As I walked out of customs and searched the crowds awaiting for their own arriving loved ones, I heard, in a California accent none the less, “Sally!” I turned my head to the voice and found Wafa waving and running towards me. I dropped my suitcase and hugged her and immediately burst into tears. It’s not that I haven’t seen her in too long, I guess it’s been about a year or two since she moved to Tunisia but now she’s a bride and a lawyer and I had been traveling for over 20 hours. And I don’t need to justify my emotions, I feel and I’m happy for feeling. When I pulled it together, I said hello to her mother, her littlest brother, and her cousin. Now we went to exchange money as we waited for her other brother–the one that was on my flight.
We walked out to the sweltering heat and loaded our bags in her car, then we wove our way around the labyrinth of the airport parking lot. I was told that the barricades and barriers in the lanes were not there even a year ago but security has increased with the rise of terrorism.
We drove to her flat, piled in the elevator which took us two trips between the 5 people and 4 suitcases. As soon as we were inside we all got comfortable, shoes off, covers off, air conditioning on, everybody wash your face and drink some water. Like I said, I haven’t seen Wafa in a year or two so we, needless to say, had a lot to talk about. We talked and talked and then decided to make coffee and have a sweet, over which we talked some more.
Eventually we decided we should take me to my bed and breakfast. So we drove to the kasbah (city center and place of government), Wafa parked and the two of us dragged my suitcase and my handbag; sometimes we would park the handbag on the side of the walkway and carry, from either side, my behemoth of a suitcase down some stairs or across some particularly unpatched cobblestone.
We wove through the allies of the old medina stopping where we deemed fit. We popped into Dar el Jeld, a restaurant and hotel that Wafa really wanted to show me. It was beautiful, in the style of old Arabic houses, mosaic tiles and an open air courtyard, a gentleman was playing a qanun (lap guitar) in the courtyard and the scene was just perfect. Wafa stopped me on our way out to spray jasmine perfume on my wrist and we both reveled in the amazing floral scents of the mediterranean. On our way out, the bell boy who had been watching our bags, handed us each a machmoum, a cluster of flowers (ward el full, or in English, jasmine of the east) tightly wrapped with red string. If you like the smell of jasmine, wait until you smell this.
We continued walking and talking, observing on our way the stray cats in the alleys and the children playing. As we were walking, Wafa suddenly stopped and said “wait, this is where I take book binding classes!” So naturally, we stopped in to say hello to her instructor. He was so thrilled to see her and she gave him a wedding invitation. His workshop was amazing, hand bound books everywhere, paper everywhere, a press. Wow!
Onwards. Finally we got to the junction that we thought was my street and so we turned under the archway, as the B&B owner had instructed me and there it was, #24. We rang the bell, heard footsteps and the door opened by a beautiful petite woman, Sondos. She had a full head of grey and white curls and the body of a dancer, she was wearing a small, flowered summer dress and welcomed us in. We chatted, she showed me my room, the house, and offered us lemonade. We drank in one of the open-aired sitting rooms and after all of the logistics had been covered, she invited me to her friend’s house for an aperitif, only if I didn’t already have plans.
I did not and on we went. The house we had been invited to was also an old house in the medina, not a two minute walk from Sondos’s and had been recently renovated by Salim, an architect and the owner. We knocked on the door and as soon as he opened the door, a cat greeted our legs. “Come in, come in!” We were ushered in and then out to the courtyard at the center of the house where a lemon tree took up half of the space. A jasmine vine was crawling up the stark white of one of the walls. There was a table in the middle of the courtyard where I joined the already happening discussion: Salim’s wife (I feel terrible for not recalling her name), two Italian researchers: Esther and Emmanuela, and a Colombian researcher, Andreas, on sabbatical at Rutgers but in Tunisia for a month to study Arabic.
I had a celtia, a Tunisian beer and nibbled on super salty black olives with leaves of rosemary stuck to them while we talked and Salim prepared pasta. We discussed all of our backgrounds and research and the current state of affairs in Tunisia, the United States, Europe, and Colombia. The languages being spoken were Spanish, French, Arabic–both Levantine and Tunisian, and English. Salim and his wife’s two little girls paraded in and out of the living room to the courtyard, one dressed in a long blue princess dress and the other in just her underwear. When the little princess went to sleep, the one parading around half naked brought us all flowers to smell and helped Andreas with his Arabic.
Eventually we were all exhausted and parted ways, Sondos and I walking back to La Chambre Bleue, the B&B. What a day, like I said, travel with an open heart. Or come to think of it, we ought to live life with an open heart, not only when we are traveling outside of our element. We should always welcome what life throws our way with open arms and heart.