Throughout the year that I spent in Tunisia, I called my host mother “mom”, not maman (French) or oumi (Tunisian). One day, towards the end of my stay with my family, my host mom and I were spending time together, as usual. She had noticed that I never used the French or Tunisian term to address her and she wanted to know why. In her mind, using the English word kept me emotionally separate from her, as if I didn’t think of her as my mom. Additionally, she didn’t (and still doesn’t) speak English. So the English term really had no emotional meaning for her. I explained to her that calling her maman or oumi had no meaning for me too. It was like using some random word to address her. I really felt (and still feel) that she is my second mother. By my using the English word, I was conveying how I truly came to feel about her. She quickly understood my perspective and started crying, with happiness.
Fast forward 26 years….As a 44 year old woman, I went to visit my Tunisian family for 2 1/2 weeks, for the first time in 24 years; I had visited for 8 days when I was a university student. My family has moved to a different apartment; the new apartment is bigger than the small apartment I had lived in with them. My two sisters live at home and my brother is married, with two children, and lives overseas.
And how did it feel visiting after so many years? It felt as if my seat at their dinner table was still warm. I arrived at their home and immediately settled in, almost like I had never left. It was quite a surreal feeling actually. My host sisters speak perfect English, so it was not a problem communicating with them. My host parents, on the other hand, do not speak any English. They speak Arabic and French. So the first few days were not easy, as far as communicating is concerned. Now, let me clarify some things here. When I lived with my family as an exchange student, I arrived in the country with 4 years of high school French under my belt and I had never heard a word of Tunisian . So, my French was not great but I could get by. When I left the country to return to the United States, I was dreaming in Tunisian and French; I had come a long way in my language skills. Again, fast forward 26 years, and I felt like I was back at ground zero in the language department. However, the lack of language did not in any way impede in my feelings of being ‘home’.
While visiting in 2013, I shared my host sister’s bed. When I got into bed with her, I felt as if I were 18 again. It was like a teenage slumber party revisited. We stayed up late, talking, laughing, and sharing. The rest of the visit felt the same way. I spent time hanging out with my host mom in the kitchen, cooking with her and learning how to make a few things. Slowly, my Arabic brain came back to life and we began to talk about more and more things. It felt so comforting being back in the kitchen with her. When I lived with my host family, I spent a lot of time helping my mom in the kitchen. I do not love cooking, never have, but the kitchen was where we formed a lot of our bond. And my host father? He was the same man; he was kind of behind the scenes in the family. He is a quiet observer, never very outspoken. When I visited, we didn’t have too many exchanges, but we shared space-eating or watching TV together. However, as in the past, he noticed everything. For example, I visited in the Winter, and I hadn’t brought a robe or slippers; my host father noticed right away and (in Tunisian, and I happily understood) told my host mother to get me a robe and slippers….always keeping an eye on his brood, including me.
In the summer of 2014, I had the pleasure of introducing my husband and daughter to Tunisia and my Tunisian family and friends. We stayed in the Medina at an amazing guest house-Dar Ben Gacem. We had an unforgettable 10 days. We spent time wandering through the Medina. We visited many cultural and historical sites-Sidi Bou Said, Carthage, El Bardo Museum, Hammamet, Kairouan, El Jem Coliseum. Most importantly, we spent invaluable time with my Tunisian family and friends. It felt as if Mom and Baba were finally getting to meet their son-in-law and granddaughter.
And my feelings being back in the country of Tunisia? I felt as if I had come home. I have been fortunate enough to travel to many different countries, but there is something very special about Tunisia. The Tunisian people have an especially warm, comforting way about them. Being tall, blonde, and blue eyed, I will never fit in in Tunisia; I will always look different. At first glance, Tunisians generally make the assumption that I am a tourist and they want to try and get something from me (a sale or two). However, once they realize that I am not a tourist and that I can speak (ok, maybe not that well) Tunisian, everything changes. It is not what they can get from me anymore, but what they can give me or do for me. It is the most amazing experience really. Their language and culture is so important to them. Tunisians feel that their language is very very difficult. As a result, anyone who takes the time to learn the language and culture is deemed a “daughter or son” of Tunisia.
I guess I have become a daughter of Tunisia. I am definitely a daughter to my host family. It seems that time doesn’t change all things…..mom is still “mom” to me.
As for Alice in Wonderland, I can completely understand how she felt when asked, “Who ARE You?” Her response, “I–I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” My experience in Tunisia changed me; the experience has had an immeasurable effect on my path in life and who I have become…..
Update: Since working on this blog post, my host father has sadly passed away. I will always remember him as a very kind and loving man.
For a special experience in the Medina: