Postcard from Tunisia: Heaven — I’m in heaven, and my heart beats so…
...that I can hardly blog.
I'm in Tunis, and I've finally yanked out the DSL plug fused directly into my brain, in order to enjoy the past few days of serious R&R, while Marc so ably keeps the Ethicurean home fires burning. (Pelosi, how could you?)
I have so much to report about our trip to Holland, and about the last few days here, that it's daunting. Tunis is a strange mélange of Europe and Middle East, with a dash of African. Everyone speaks French in addition to Arabic, and there are excellent patisseries everywhere, along with coffeehouses full of handsome loafers smoking chicha pipes and sipping Arabic mint tea or tiny cups of strong, sweet coffee. The traffic, however, is unbelievable chaotic and every-man-for-himself (or woman, as both veiled and un- are demonic drivers as well), unlike in Damascus, where it's organized insanity. The service is generally so surly and unhelpful that a waiter who smiles at you seems like a spy for the government.
Our hosts, good friends of ours, have lived here for a year, and are taking exceedingly fine care of us. Since arriving a few days ago, we've drunk mint tea with pine nuts at sunset from a coffeehouse hanging off a cliff in Sidi Bou Said, the "posh" town a few minutes from where we're staying, where we also ate the lightest, most swoon-inducing donuts I've ever experienced. They make Cafe Du Monde's beignets in New Orleans seem like fried sawdust in comparison. We've roamed around Roman ruins so deserted and unprotected we could have made off with whole mosaics if we'd liked. I got to gallop an Arabian horse on a deserted Tunis beach at 7 a.m. Neither the galloping nor the time was entirely by choice, but I'm not complaining about either. We bought camel at the supermarket, grilled it and ate it. (More on that experience later.) I left a year's worth of dead skin behind at the hammam, the traditional steam bath where women don sandpaper mitts to exfoliate you while you scream (from the pain) and giggle (from being tickled). I've had guacamole and chili at a top Tunisian restaurant. Before you laugh at me, we ordered them in addition to the local fish and meat dishes, just to see what they were like: they were both familiar and different, cumin-infused and really damn good.
I feel like I am living someone else's life, in some dream vacation of a novel: I'm off to knock some (olive) wood now. We're having an amazing time, and we're only halfway through it.
Today we ate the best gelato I've had outside of Italy, and I wonder if my memory might be faulty, because truthfully, this ice cream was eyes-rolling-back-in-the-head, phenomenally good. It came from Le Gourmet, a French-style patisserie that my hostess tells me is owned by an Italian. He makes killer pain du chocolats, and almond croissants, but it's the ice-cream sign that caught my eye yesterday morning after the horseback riding.
The guy in the photo is not him, but a refreshingly pleasant salesperson, who not only spoke letter-perfect English but didn't look askance at us for being American, and who professed to think California "the most beautiful place" in the world.
The English translation of the sign, an uncommon sight in the first place, says:
Craft Traditional Ice Cream
Exclusively Made of Natural Products and Seasonal Fruits
Without Chemical Substances
The owner apparently makes the ice cream fresh every day (only in the summers), with whatever looks good at the market. Today, after spending the day walking around in blistering heat at the un-air-conditioned Bardo Museum and the claustrophobic medina, followed by a dip in the swimming pool at the American embassy — our "tax dollars at work," we keep joking — we stopped for pre-dinner ice cream. I had a cone piled high with the nuttiest, most pistachio-y pistachio ever and a fig worth fighting for. I also sampled the Potato Non Grata's pine nut and melon flavors, as well as our friends' peach, chocolate, and lemon-cream scoops.
Every single one of them was so damn fresh tasting, flooding my tastebuds with the complex, many-layered flavors of actual ripe fruit and silky cream, occupying the gelato g-spot of neither too dense nor too airy. Each cone was about $1.50. I guarantee you that if this place were in Berkeley, this guy would have been profiled in Gourmet, two scoops would be $7, and there would still be lines around the block. Deservedly so. I need to meet him.
Le Gourmet is open every day in the summer until 1 a.m., and I've already counted up how many potential visits that means for me, given that we're leaving for Mahdia and Khairouan for four days on Monday: Four. Not nearly enough.
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