In August 1986, myself and 20 other students landed in Tunis. We were a motley crew; there were 10 0f us from the United States, 1 Canadian, 9 Scandinavians and 1 French student-all between the ages of 16-18. The group of students from the United States came together in New York and spent a few days at a pre-arrival orientation. It was nice getting to know each other, before heading into what felt like no man’s land. Looking back with my older eyes, we were quite an interesting, eclectic group of young people.
After one night together in Tunis, we were sent off to our prospective host families. My host brother had just returned from the USA on a yearlong exchange so he knew the ropes. He was waiting for me at the AFS office with a big, welcoming smile on his face. Obviously, this was long before the advent of the internet, so we had made limited connections with each other pre-arrival. I was given my host families information about a month before setting off for Tunisia. I had pictures, occupation, and a bit of biographical information about each member of my new family.
So began my year….my brother, Issam, took me to his, I mean, my family’s home. The rest of my family was waiting for me at the apartment. My family lived in a two room apartment, in a suburb of Tunis-Hammam Lif. My first impression was concerning the size of the apartment; it was very small. But I quickly learned that the apartment was giant, in terms of the love found between the few walls.
A short description of my host family is needed here. My host mom, Faouzia, was a beautiful, energetic, loving mother. She was always ready to have fun. Every day, my mom was busy cleaning, cooking, and taking care of her family. Throughout her busy day, I would often find her with the radio blaring and her singing loudly along to the music and dancing her way through the apartment. My host father, Othman, was a very quiet man. He went to work at the local branch of the post office every morning. As a typical Tunisian man, after work, he would spend his time at his favorite local cafe with his friends. He was quietly aware of everything going on his family unit, but was more of an observer unless a decision had to be made concerning his clan. The oldest child was Issam – 2 years older than me. When I joined this family, Issam had just returned from an exchange year in Montana, so he understood me. He was always ready with explanations, love, and guidance for me. My sister Sara was the same age as me. We had a good, sisterly relationship; she reminded me a lot of my sister here in the United States. While I was living there, Sara was a dedicated student, studying all the time for the big end of the year exam. And then, there was my little sister Sonia – 2 years younger than me. Looking back, it feels as if Sonia and I were always together. We did everything together; from going to the hammam, to having the same friends at school. We shared our teenage secrets, life worries and lots of laughter…..In addition to the nuclear family, my host family consisted of a large, extended family; my grandmother (Oumi), many aunts and uncles, and numerous cousins.
Honestly, the first month was really rough for me. My host family was so loving towards me, but I was overwhelmed by the changes. And it was so hot. A few memories of those first days are so clear to me still. All the food was really hot, spicy hot-even the spaghetti. It felt as if my lips were on fire at the end of every lunch and dinner; my host mom knew that everything was hot and tried to be accommodating to my virgin taste buds, but it was no use. The mosques felt like they were constantly calling out for prayer time; for many weeks, I would wake up sometime between 4 and 5 a.m to the sound of the mosque, calling to the faithful. There was no washer or dryer in our apartment; this was quite a new situation for my spoiled hands – I helped my mom and sisters wash everything by hand. Catcalls, from young Tunisian men, were waiting for me from street corners, every time I left the sanctuary of my apartment. This was particularly difficult for me because I didn’t know what to do with this attention or how to handle it; my Sony Walkman became my “go to” when going anywhere. And there were the the public showers, or hammam, where we went to bathe. We Americans are quite modest when it comes to our bodies; we aren’t used to the public shower tradition. But like everything else on this small list (I could go on and on), I got used to and started to enjoy going to the hammam, usually with my little sister Sonia. And the heat, did I mention the heat?
In addition to the radical changes in my daily life in Tunisia, my paternal grandmother passed away 3 weeks after I arrived in Tunis. As one could imagine, I was devastated and felt so alone. However, this experience was the turning point in the beginning of my year, as far as the beginning of my bonding with my host family. My host mother and I couldn’t communicate very well with each other. She and my father spoke Tunisian and French; my French was limited and my Tunisian was nonexistent. (My brother spoke perfect English and my sisters’ English skills were very good.) My host mother, along with the rest of the family, was right there for me when I needed to feel loved and safe. I remember her holding me while I cried and cried over the loss of my grandmother.
And my year? What did it look like? How did it feel? I can say that every day I felt as Alice did in Wonderland…..“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
And with that, I will let my hands and your eyes rest. Look for a post sometime in the future, for the rest of the story.