May 1, 2018
The adventure has officially begun! After struggling through endless paperwork and limited language resources, the plane is ready for take-off!
Through four airports in three countries, 15 hours of traveling should be a breeze! If you know what you’re doing anyway…
I just can’t believe I’m finally here. After all these months of research, proposals, interviews, shuffling bureaucratic paperwork around in circles - here I am, actually on a plane heading to my destination.
I’ve prepared for so long, and yet, there’s no way to really prepare oneself for a journey. You’re never ready for the lines, the confusing airport directions, the entry into the unknown. But, even though I love organization, my soul is ready for something new.
My first flight is about to leave, and I won’t have much time in between layovers for reflection, so I will put my journaling down for the moment. Tunisia, I’m on my way! Bonne chance!
May 5th, 2018
Here we are. I am still alive and well on my 3rd(??) day in Sousse with my host family. I meant to write much earlier than now, as I’ve already seen so much, but the 5 hours of jet lag and the 15 hours of travel hit me harder than expected.
Here are a few things of note thus far:
Food is plentiful, delicious, and available to all. Any visitor who may arrive is almost automatically served something, no matter what time of day. Most meals are eaten with bread, and quite a few include cheese or other dairy; luckily, the family I am staying with has been very accomodating of my inability to consume le fromage or any of le lait, (je suis allergique au lait).
Food is also almost always fresh and available in many locations, such as the gorgeous berry tree in the front yard (which I did not learn the name of, but it tastes somewhat like a raspberry).
2. Family is everywhere!
Though my host family is rather “normal-sized” (two parents, 1 brother, and 1 sister living here) from my perspective, the extended family is extensive and ever-present. Two uncles live on either side of the house, three more down the street, and one set of grandparents a few streets over. Everyone lives and works within the shared space of all of the houses, and it is never an unwelcome surprise to have a family guest. Thus far, I have lost count of how many family members I have met, but they have all been very kind, despite my greatest flaw:
3. My language skills are rather…. lacking
Whoops. I really did try, to be quite fair. Over the past two semesters, I was unable to take my university’s offered French classes due to a schedule conflict, and Arabic is not offered academically at my institution. I have been struggling through some online courses in both since October, with little luck. I understand significantly more of the French than the Arabic but I am not overly confident in either, yet here I am nonetheless.
My new best friend here is a six-year-old girl, who is terribly sweet but only speaks Arabic. We’ve had lots of fun with games and kites, though the concept that I don’t speak the same language is still confusing to her. We’ve gotten by so far with lots of made-up sign language. I haven’t had as much luck, however, with the adult family members.
Each member greets me with some form of Arabic or French, which I’ve picked up a little, but the conversation that follows is a combination of both languages, spoken very, very fast. I will have to start taking lessons again in my free time and see what I can manage.
May 11th, 2018
I really ought to work on my journaling consistency, writing at random times is not helping me reflect! Ah well, I just wanted to note that I made it to Tunis (the capital city) where I will be working for the next few months.
It was a sad day Sunday to leave my lovely host family, but I will hopefully get the chance to visit with them again in a few weeks!
My newfound workplace is located near the center of the city, surrounded by many embassies. There are roughly 10 official employees who work here, though there are many more volunteers who float in and out throughout the day.
My work at the moment is limited to making name tags and activities for the upcoming events in the office, but just being able to observe and meet new people has been a treat!
I look forward to the coming months as I continue to investigate my new international home.
May 15th, 2018
I still have yet to schedule my journaling time, but I had a moment to breathe so I thought I should record my thoughts from the week.
Last Sunday, I left my lovely host family to go to Tunis, where I would be starting work roughly a week earlier than expected. My boss had worked out a temporary housing situation at a hotel not far from the office before I could move into my long term situation.
I arrived Sunday night later than anticipated, but checked in and moved my bags to the room without a problem. I was anxious to contact my boss to apologize for being late but discovered I could not connect to the internet.
Keep in mind, I do not have a phone for this adventure, just a small tablet for internet connection.
Needless to say, I was mildly (meaning extremely) concerned about the fact that I was alone in a hotel with few english speakers and no way to contact anyone I knew.
After doing my fair share of freaking out, I pulled out my small French phrasebook and a picture of my boss’s phone number and mustered the courage to ask the receptionist for help.
He didn’t understand most of my English, but luckily most of the staff was familiar with my workplace since many events are hosted at this particular hotel. With some sign language and a little luck, my boss was contacted and the internet resolved.
After getting myself settled down and comfortable with my new space, I started my regular work. In the past few days, I have noted that time is different to different people, and its always better to go with the flow.
Time, Tunisian time in particular, is always fluctuating. For example, an errand that I was told would take 30 minutes could take up to 2 hours, or when I am supposed to arrive at 9am it might be closer to 10 or 11am.
I am a very time-oriented person, so this ever-changing fluctuation can be a struggle; however, since I have 3 different clocks on 2 different devices at the moment, both of which still require me to calculate the time in my head, I’ve mostly given up on keeping track of the actual time.
Finally, yesterday I moved into my actual housing, which is about a 10-minute walk from the office. The house is an enormous villa, occupied only by a mother and her two-year-old son. They are not from Tunisia originally either, and though my host is mainly a French speaker, her English is much better than my French and we have had no trouble communicating.
Considering I was not able to arrange my own housing and did not even know my host’s name until yesterday, I would have to say this worked out much better than expected. I have to trust that things will work out, even if I don’t have every detail.
That sounds a bit insane coming from me, a detail-oriented individual, but there are many decisions in life that are beyond one’s full power to control. Trust (within reason of course) the people and system with which you work, and be willing to adapt.
June 1, 2018
Work has been in full swing, and at last, I have a moment to journal once more.
My latest discovery while working abroad: Listening without fully understanding what is going on is something one becomes used to while working in an office as the only native English speaker.
I got to participate in a meeting today for planning an upcoming event and utilize a sort of personal translator. At this point, of course, I’m used to having conversations be translated, work that must often be completed by my boss in the office setting. In this case, however, it was a bit different. My supervisors (who are my usual translators) were leading the planning discussion and presentations, so a fellow intern acted as my translator while also being an active participant in the meeting itself. Having conversations translated for you as they are still going on is a unique experience; you receive large portions of content in small doses in rapid succession, which you must be able to comprehend and respond to before the next piece of conversation is presented.
On the topic of language, I have noticed new patterns in myself and how much/often I speak. In the office, I mostly work on the computer alongside the rest of my colleagues, and we discuss work as is necessary, thus, not very frequently; however, they do make a great effort to speak English often and update me regularly on what is going on within the office. Outside of work, my English interactions are minimal and sporadic, as my host has been out of the country for almost two weeks now. Though I do not mind living alone, when I go to social gatherings where there are only one or two English speakers in attendance (often not strong/confident in their English), I find myself remaining silent, or speaking minimally.
Though I am a relatively quiet person normally, I did not realize how much I was not speaking until I met the sibling of one of my coworkers. He is a third-year English major and his English is much clearer and more “American” than some of my other translators. I was struck by the fact that this was the first time in almost a month that I did not have to be constantly aware of my language; was I speaking too fast/slow, was my wording making sense, was I translating parts of their English grammar in my head, did I have to repeat myself to make my message clear. I have met many English speakers thanks to a great deal of coordination from my boss; however, this was the first time I could have a full conversation with someone (other than myself) and not have to take time to consider my words in depth. It is a small thing to miss, but it makes a world of difference.
Amidst all of this work, I have been able to have a little fun. This past Wednesday, I went to a concert with the two girls I work with and several of my boss’s family members.
The concert was by an up and coming traditional Tunisian group, and they were singing and playing a variety of old Arabic songs. Having been here a month now, I’m relatively familiar with common Tunisian music, so I thought I knew what to expect generally.
As usual, my assumptions were wrong.
The music itself was actually almost as I expected. The presentation, however, was something quite different.
The concert was held at a beautiful archaeological site; an amphitheater an hour or so outside of Tunis. Now, normally, how many people do you think of in a music group?
Think about it. 5, maybe 7 or 8. It’s not a choir after all.
The show began with one man singing, which was followed by the entrance of 30-40 people processing and singing and dancing. There were quite a few microphones set up in rows along the stage, so I thought maybe after this procession 10 or so individuals would take their places throughout and the rest would exit.
After the first song, roughly 20 men took their seats at each microphone, and a row of 10 or so more stood behind them with drums in hand. Another dozen or so people who had been part of the procession exited the stage.
They went into the next song and the crowd sang joyfully along. It sounded vaguely familiar, so it must’ve been a popular song I had heard before.
Just as I think the second song is finishing, from behind the curtain come a dozen processioners! This time with large flags and rhythmic feet.
Thirty to forty people, all on the small stage at once, singing and dancing and flag-waving all the way. It was quite a sight, so much so that I didn’t get pictures. Overall, it was a wonderful concert, and a great way to observe people enjoying summer festivities.
July 7, 2018
Today is my last official day in the office, and I honestly have no words to describe how I feel…
…other than the fact that I am not ready to leave.
Physically, of course, I am prepared; I am packed, I have my ticket, and I will finalize the last of my paperwork with my site supervisor today.
Mentally, however, I know I have only touched the tip of the iceberg in understanding Tunisia. Working for 2 ½ months is a hard balance because, on one hand, I have accomplished all of my tasks within the time period, but, on the other hand, I have just now found my place within their office culture, only to leave shortly after. Though I have been dreading my deadline for the past month, my departure seems to have caught many of my coworkers off guard, causing them to scramble to catch me before I leave. I wish I could stay with them a while longer, though I know I can never understand the culture fully.
I bid my goodbyes to my friends and coworkers and enjoyed my last glance at the office before heading out to the airport. All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to a fantastic trip.
Until we meet again, Tunisia.