“Italienne?” the old man says to me, eyes twinkling.
“Oui!” I answer, relieved to have understood one thing (a stunning improvement).
“Italienne…” he repeats, sizing me up, as though my presence tells him something. If it does, I hope it is something good.
Suddenly he grins with his whole mouth. “Couscous!” he announces to the terrified-looking waiter behind him. “Agnello!” Lamb. I gather that he is the owner, although with all I know, he could be a stranger from the street, coming into the restaurant to give orders. I grin and decide to go with it—I am learning to do this more often, and I suspect that it is good for me.
We’re in La Goulette, the port neighborhood of Tunis, colorful and chaotic. Like other parts of the city, it strikes me that the real heart of Tunis makes itself known where there is less order, where there are stronger hues. Tunis is vibrant; he demands attention. Sitting in the bright, bustling restaurant I am suddenly strongly reminded of the port of San Francisco, though it may only be the scent of the sea, or my need to find something familiar in this strange new place.
“Saha,” my friend says as our food arrives, using the Arabic toast to health.
“Yatik Saha,” I reply, absurdly proud that I have remembered the response.
We eat tomatoey Shorba soup, and while I try to adapt to eating the Tistira, a blend of eggs and something I can’t identify, as per the custom (meaning mostly with the bread provided and my hands), I listen to stories of how this food makes up their culture, their traditions. My friend slips from French to Arabic, Italian back to English, and I laugh as I struggle to keep up. When the couscous arrives, a meal the size of my head, I think to myself that an afternoon run may be in order. We decide to explore the Punic Ports of the ancient city of Carthage instead, trying enthusiastically to visualize how grand it must have been once—a true symbol that power came over the water—and everybody knows that’s better exercise anyway.
The food costs little here, and it is hearty and hot, and I fall asleep at night with my lips burning from the spices in the meat, and the scent of jasmine sold on the street coloring my dreams. And I wish my eyes could grow larger, the better to take it all in.