Sunday, December 18, 2022

Tunisia 2006

I've been reading through old travel journals and had to laugh, remembering this evening. Food was often hit and miss when we were on the road because we didn't always know what we were ordering. Was it tripe or spaghetti? (Italy) Across a cafeteria counter, they look the same. Why did I get a cup of hot coffee with melting ice cubes in it? (Mexico) Was that... icing sugar on the chicken pie? (Morocco) 

In 2006 we went to Tunisia for a month, mostly staying on the coast. Tunis, Sidi Bou Said, Sousse, Mahdia, Hammamet, Nabeul, El Jem, Dougga. 

We were still in Tunis, the big city where I could count on moral corruption and vice, ie a glass of wine with supper which one can't always get in a Muslim country. 

That's fine. I respect the ways of a culture. When in Rome etc. On the other hand, I knew wine was available because I saw empty bottles poked out of the trash.

That afternoon, when we were walking, I noticed a restaurant with a menu in the window that claimed to serve wine. We'd learned that this could be a ruse to get foreigners inside and sitting at a table--with wine glasses on the table--though wine was not and never served. And if there were wine, we'd be having supper in the Canadian equivalent of a smoky bar with other disreputables. 

R can take or leave wine, but he agreed to return to the restaurant that evening because he was curious about the plat du jour: malfoun. We didn't know what that was. 

That's the word as I have it in my journal but when I google it now, there's no result.  

The glass door to the restaurant was covered with a faded poster of an urn propped on seaside rocks, the blue-green Mediterranean in soft focus background. 

Inside the air was thick with smoke. Pretty unappetizing for a non-smoker but... um... yeah... I did want wine. The men--all men, of course--had their eyes trained on a TV screen under the ceiling. A soccer match. 

But they weren't so intent on the game that they didn’t see the two white people who walked in. A few voices hollered and a waiter bounded into the room. A slim man with a charming smile. Black trousers and a white shirt--slightly yellowed in the thick air. 

There were many verbal flourishes to welcome us in different languages. We settled on French.  

R said he was interested in the malfoun. What was it?
It seemed to be a stew or soup that was very spicy. 

Did we want to sit? The waiter pulled out a chair for me. As soon as we sat, he darted off. 

I hoped he wasn't going to bring us two orders of malfoun because I didn’t want a spicy stew or soup. I usually order for myself too. 

The other men in the bar nodded and gestured that we should make ourselves comfortable. One or two pointed at the screen to invite Robert to watch the soccer. 

The waiter returned, slapping a plasticized sheet on his pant legs as if to dust it off. It was a menu but not the same one as in the window.
R said he would like to try the malfoun.

Ah. Sadly there was no malfoun that evening.

So… what is the plat du jour?

Jahil and Shaima 

We didn't know the word the waiter said. When R asked him to describe it, he said it was very good, not too spicy and he would like it. 

Okay, R said. 

I’d been looking at the menu and asked for the merguez. 

The waiter frowned. He said I wouldn't like them. They were extremely spicy. 

I said I knew merguez. Lamb sausage. We had them where I lived.

You have merguez where you live? So we are like cousins, you and I! 

There was more banter, but he still discouraged me from ordering merguez. 

This was still at the beginning of our trip. I would soon learn that when the waitstaff didn't want to bring me what I ordered, I should ask for something else. Better yet--ask what they suggested. 

I said that I really and truly wanted merguez. Even if they were extremely spicy. I'd been forewarned, I wouldn't blame him if they were too spicy. I wanted them anyhow. Quand même.

And wine? the waiter asked. Because he'd guessed why I was ready to have supper in a fug of smoke to the soundtrack of soccer. The menu in the window offered red, white, and rosé wine served in one quarter, one half, and full litres. We asked for a half litre of rosé. He shook his head. He had only 1 litre bottles. We said we couldn’t drink a full litre. 

All the better! he smiled. We could share with him!

We agreed to get the litre bottle, which turned out to be a standard 750 ml bottle of decent, if not overly smooth rosé.

During the wine exchange, the waiter had stopped using vouvoyeing us. The polite form of address. We had become friends. When he set the glasses on the table, he included a third, though he didn't pour himself any. Were we supposed to tell him to have some? We weren't sure of the protocol and I didn't want to tempt him into immoral behaviour. 

We hadn't ordered appetizers, but he brought us several small plates with green olives, carrot sticks, puddles of harissa sauce inside a circle of tuna oil, sliced fennel, and a basket of bread. Before me, he set a plate of what he called tajine. It looked like cubes of fried egg filled with chopped potato. I protested that this was too much but he said it was hardly anything. 

He turned away from our table to talk with some of the men, but he seemed to know exactly when I bit into one of the cubes because he whipped around to ask me if it was good. 

Very good, I said. Potato, egg, and also tuna. 

Exquisite? he asked.

Exquisite, I agreed. 

I’ll bring you more. 

Please don't or I won't be hungry for the merguez. 

He returned with a second plate of egg, potato and tuna cubes. Again I protested. Again he insisted.

And you call this tajine? I asked. Because it's not like what they called tajine in Morocco. In Morocco tajine is a stew that's baked for a very long time.
But this is Tunisia! We are not the same country and we do not eat the same food! He'd drawn himself up as if offended. 

I said, Of course, I understood. But why did they call such different food by the same word? It would be like the Italians calling noodles pasta, and the French calling potatoes pasta. 

He shook his head as if there was something essential I wasn't understanding. 

He hurried off and returned with R's meal. A piece of meat, breaded and fried, topped with an egg and melted cheese, surrounded by puréed tomatoes. R waited for my food to arrive, but as it didn't, I told him to go ahead and eat.  

I was no longer hungry but I wondered what had happened to my meal. The waiter had disappeared. I helped myself to more wine. 

R was almost finished when the waiter returned to say that he was extremely sorry but he couldn’t serve me merguez. He had sent someone out to buy some but the butcher didn’t have any left. It was too late in the day. C'est fini. The boy had run to another butcher in the hope that he might have some, but it wasn't likely. 

That's fine, I said. I already ate too much. 

But do you forgive me? You wanted merguez. 

No, the tajine was very good. And I’m not hungry anymore.

More apologies, more protestation, more insisting. He told us his wife was French. Three years they'd been married. He asked how long we'd been married. Did we like the wine? 

He apologized again for the missing merguez. I asked why he hadn’t simply told me from the start that he didn’t have any. That would have been discourteous, he said. He turned to the men at the nearby tables to translate what I'd said. They stared at me. 

He darted off and returned with yet another plate of egg, potato, and tuna cubes. 

I can’t! I said. I can't eat anymore. I’m not going to! He danced away

We got ready to leave and wanted to pay. The extra glass still stood empty on the table but there was a third of the bottle left, so the waiter would be sharing our wine, if not while we were still there. He refused to charge for what I'd eaten because I hadn’t gotten what I ordered.  

A tip, yes, that would be welcome, but for the tajine I'd eaten, no. 

I don't know what I'm eating here but I'm sure it was excellent.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

urban kindness--it happens

No heroism, no dramatic sopranos, no red capes. Just people being nice. 

I met a friend for an impromptu catch-up-on-news in a pub and we talked and we talked. Although I'd pulled out my shabby wallet that must be 20 years old because the store where I bought it has been reinvented several times since, she paid--very nice!--and we admired her new, chic turquoise wallet from Germany. We hugged and said bye. Our schedules don't often crisscross, so this was fun.   

I was walking toward the metro but there's also a bus that would get me directly home, except it doesn't go by often. But yay! it was coming. I reached into my bag for my bus pass. It wasn't in the little pocket where it should have been. It wasn't in the corners deeper down, the outside pocket, my jeans, my coat. I was rooting through all the different possible pockets, beginning to feel like a Dr. Seuss story. 

I told the driver that I was looking for my bus pass. He said he could see. The only place I hadn't checked was under my clothes. He told me to sit down, it was okay. But it wasn't okay, because where was it? I kept patting my pockets and digging through my bag. At which point I realized that my house key was also gone. The key itself, okay, I have another one at home, but the key fob is a hand-painted ceramic knob a friend gave me.  

I needed to tell someone that I had lost my house key too!! But everyone around me was avoiding looking at this dotty woman who was squishing her pockets and checking for holes and poking her fingers into the corners of her bag. So I went back to the front to tell the driver that I'd lost my house key too. "C'est pas ta journée, Madame." Actually, I'd had a great day, I just happened to have lost my bus pass and my house key on its special gewgaw that I loved. 

I realized that I mustn't have closed the zipper after taking out my wallet in the pub and then upended the bag. I called the pub and left a flustered, crazy-sounding message on the answering machine, asking them if they could please check under the table for my key and metro pass. Have I mentioned this yet? It was Friday evening, a popular bistro/pub downtown, and the place was packed when we left. People were waiting for our table. Did the busy waitstaff have time to go looking under tables for my key and bus pass? I hadn't even given them the right table. I said I was sitting against the west wall. When I got home and was telling R, he asked me to be more specific about where I was sitting. So, okay, I can't tell left from right, east from west. I'm directionally challenged. No news flash there. R said I was sitting on the east side. 

I was too embarrassed to call the pub back and admit that someone who was old enough to be served liquor couldn't even say where she was sitting. R offered to call and this time someone answered and said yes, indeed, they'd found my bus pass and key--no comment as to where it was found. 

It's no big deal but I'm chuffed people care enough. Merci to the bus driver who let me have a free ride and a huge thank you to NYKs with their excellent food and drinks. You can find NYK's on Bleury south of Sainte-Catherine. (I think it's south.)

Sunday, May 29, 2022

snow melt and sunsets galore / gaspésie May 2022

I'll warn you right now. When the sun starts to go down over water, I grab my camera and dash outside, even if only onto the porch with the road between me and the sea. (R groans.) Whether the sky is clear, whether there are clouds--even when it's completely overcast and you don't think there's a slice where colour will get through--there is almost always a sunset of note. 

I was stunned the first time we came to the Gaspé in the winter and I was waiting for the magic over ice, and the sun set HOURS EARLIER BEHIND THE HILLS. It's by coming to the coast where land and sea meet that I've learned more about the way the Earth tilts than any lesson taught in school. I'm a hands-on learner. 

There was extraordinary snowfall in the hills this past winter and when the spring sun melts the snow, water tumbles down down down to the sea. It gushes streams, it carves the sand, it turns our yard into a sodden mat. I sit outside and hear gurgling and chuckling. We lost power for about 12 hours because the snow melt caused a rock slide. We went for a walk and found the path washed out. 

There were so many streams--getting broader and deeper every day--that I didn't do my usual rock-clambering walk along the shore because I couldn't get across them. I walked by the road, and so saw a car parked at the cemetery where there are usually only gravestones. A man was slicing squares of grass with edge of his shovel, putting the chopped pieces aside in a neat mound, making a coffin-shaped rectangle. I assumed he was a cemetery employee, but no, he told me, there is no staff. Family dig each others' graves. He was digging his aunt's grave. He'd already buried six aunts and had two more to go. Next, he said, it's my turn. He laughed. He was very cheerful. 

I do not want my body buried, but I find it fitting that a loved one, whoever that may be, should dig the grave if there is going to be a grave. I asked what happened if there is no family. He said a volunteer would do it. He dug quickly--the experience of six aunts already? he didn't mention his parents--and on my return an hour later, although his car was still there, I didn't see him. Until I noticed the shovelfuls of soil flying out of the hole. He was digging a proper grave.  

I've noticed before--in other cities, in other countries--that the dead always get prime real estate. In Montreal, the large Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish cemeteries are on the mountain. In this small village, the dead have a view on the wide horizon of sea. 

I also had a conversation of sorts with a man whose French I only half understood because he didn't quite form his consonants. They were like shadows around his vowels. In English the way he spoke would have sounded like... 'I on no ut yoooouuu 'ink' for 'I don't know what you think'. We were talking about the environment, by which I thought he meant climate change. He said you had to pay attention to the environment because if not, the environment would come back to haunt you, and what you had to do then was going to be worse than doing the right thing now. It took a while before I realized he meant the Ministry of the Environment and government rules and fines.


Where was R? He'd driven farther northeast, almost to the tip of the peninsula, to work on another old house for a few days. A back addition which we knew was collapsing had collapsed even more and the municipality had asked for it to be fixed or demolished. I haven't visited the house for a couple of years but this is what it looked like then. 

R knocked down the walls and took apart the tin roof. It wasn't easy. The construction was solid. The joints were dovetailed, the nails six inches long.  Each nail in the tin roof had been individually caulked. 28 rows of 10 nails = 280 nails. He counted in the way one counts when a task seems like it might last forever unless you define it. 

The house still contained a lot of the previous owner's abandoned furniture. R carried a lot out to the side of the road for Big Garbage Day. Jour de la collecte des objets volumineux. A washing machine, a double porcelain sink, 1960s style lamps and armchairs. I should say that on Big Garbage Day, it's understood that people driving by will stop and see if there's anything they might like to take--and they do. The sink was soon gone. One fellow began talking to R and asked if he could look through whatever was still in the house. He liked a medicine cabinet. R told him it was his. 

R kept a box of handsome brass drawer handles, spools of 100% wool for weaving, an Omega sewing machine which I'm having cleaned and repaired, an alabaster bust he found wrapped in canvas and tied in twine and wondered if there might be a dead person inside. 

For now the house is boarded up tight again. 

When we arrived in the Gaspé, there was still a bank of snow beside the deck. For the two weeks that we were there, the snow shrunk and melted, and the buds of the trees began to unfurl. Driving 800 k to Montreal was a time-lapse trip into early spring, mid to late spring, and bingo! Summer full on in Montreal. 


Sunday, April 24, 2022

last of the chillies / inner-city gardening

Actually, no. These aren't the last. I still have chilli peppers in glass jars in the freezer, but they don't begin to compare to the fieriness of the ones I hung to dry in the window. 

They seem not to have minded their view onto the neighbours' fire escape. Well, hey, this is the city. 

I grew them in my plot in the community garden next to the train tracks. The grumble/shriek/heave to a stop of the freight trains en route from the Prairies. The VIA train shuttling along the Quebec-Windsor corridor. I also grew chillies with the green beans climbing the fence in the back alley. 

A deeply fond chilli memory is the sriracha a friend made. Delicious green chilli paste too. Hot hot hot! 

After years of trying different simple ways to preserve chillies so they retain maximum heat, I've decided that threading them onto string and hanging them to dry is the best. Next year I will be hanging them in every window.

Monday, March 28, 2022

snow wind tide / gaspésie march 2022

We spent a couple of weeks in the land where wind and snow rule. Except for when the ice starts to break up along the shore and the tide starts to swell again. 

The kitchen window was covered to the top with snow when we arrived and R dug it out, only to have to dig it out again two days later. 

We had wind gusting up to 75k/hr, we had one whole day of no wind to disturb the snow falling on the trees, we had magnificent sunsets. 

In the woods we snowshoed across moose tracks so deep that we couldn't see the bottom of their steps. How long their legs must be! 

I tripped on my snowshoe, fell forward with my pole jabbed up to my wrist in snow, and as I pushed to get up, the pole dug deeper. 

There were chickadees and crows and one robin feeding on a bush of winter-shrivelled berries. There were songbirds trilling about spring that was supposed to be coming if you looked at the light in the sky. There were a lot of last year's nests covered in snow. This one was so small that even heaped with snow it would have fit in my palm. 

We snowshoed a lot. 

Every day? 

Every day. In the woods when it was windy, along the shore when it wasn't too windy. 

Monday, January 10, 2022

knitting lesson

He holds a coffee cup out to drivers stopped at the light. Some roll down their windows and give him money or hand him a half-smoked cigarette, a pastry, a bagel, the pinched end of a joint. I see him most days because he works the crossroad at the head of our street. He's slender with a gentle way of moving between cars. He could be a dancer in baggy clothes. How old is he? Maybe 30? He's from St. Vincent. He has thick dreadlocks.

I know his name, but I won't say it here. When we walk by, R calls out Yaar! which is something he does and there's no discussing it. Once the fellow said to me, I don't know that French word. I told him it wasn't French, just something R liked to say. Pirate talk. So he started saying it back. 

Last fall I wanted to knit R a hat using up different colours of scrap yarn. I didn't have a pattern and it turned out ENORMOUS. Not a hat to fit the head of anyone I knew. I made another one that fit R, but never threw away the ENORMOUS hat away because because because. 

A few days ago R told me the fellow said he really liked the hat. R told him I'd made it. Then I saw him when I was out walking and he said, Oh, how I wish I could have a hat like that, I would be so happy. 

Today when I went out for a walk I grabbed the ENORMOUS hat, because I thought that with his head of hair, it would fit. It's not always you get the chance to make someone really happy. 

He gave a dance step when he saw me coming down the street, waving the hat. I explained how it was I had an extra hat that was ENORMOUS. Except he couldn't pull it over his head, hard as he tried--and I forgot all about distancing in my efforts to help him tug the hat down. A couple of motorists wondered what was going on and didn't move along when the light changed. I didn't know what to say. He still wanted to keep the hat.

Later, when R was returning from his walk, the fellow yelled, Yaar! She come by but the hat don't fit! R told him his hair was probably warmer.