“Culture is like salt.”
It is with these words that Aleya says goodbye to us, from the door of his souvenir shop at number 2, Imp. Thameur of Sidi Bou Said, in Tunisia.
What was meant to be a relaxing yet trivial afternoon of shopping with my friend – if ever there can be anything trivial in this gorgeous bit of Tunisia – quickly turns into an interesting and unexpected chat accompanied by literature quotes, during the course of which an elderly Tunisian shop owner gives us a fantastic lecture of Italian literature, the kind I would have liked to have when I attended high school in Italy. Who would have ever thought so?
It is our last day in Tunisia. We have arrived earlier on from Djerba. It must be 40 degrees Celsius outside but we decide, regardless of the heat, to go to Sidi Bou Said, one of the best known tourist posts of Tunisia and that faces the bay of Tunis. Those I know who have visited before tell me of a gorgeous little city, with white buildings and blue windows and doors, perched on a hill and with breathtaking views of the sea.
Read more about Djerba on my post “Ten Reasons to visit Djerba.”
The taxi leaves us at the bottom of the hill. I look around and I understand that I am already, helplessly in love with Sidi Bou Said. We start walking along the cobbled streets. The white and blue of the houses are interrupted by the bright colors of bouganville flowers which from the gardens pour onto the streets.
We arrive at Café Sidi Chebaane, also known as Café des Délices, and sit on one of the terraces to sip a typical tea with mint and pine nuts. We admire the view, as the temperatures finally start dropping, thanks to the mistral that has started blowing, relentless.
We continue our walk and that is when we notice, in a tiny alley, a souvenir shop. Curious, we walk in and say hello in our best French to the elderly owner. He welcomes us with a shy smile, and follows us with the corner of his eye as we browse through the shop, looking for the ultimate souvenir to take home to our family and friends.
We chat about this and that, nothing really important and without following any line of thought.
“This would look good in my sister’s home,” I say.
“Look at these gorgeous ceramic bowls,” my friend answers.
And so on, until the moment we talk to the owner in our tentative French and he answers in perfect Italian. He surely understood what we have been talking about so far. I wonder what he thinks of our empty tourist chats.
We ask where he learned to speak Italian so fluently.
“Here and there,” he says vaguely. “I like reading,” he continues.
We figure he must read newspapers, magazines and listen to what little Italian tv and radio reaches Tunisia. But he starts impressing us quoting some of the most well known Italian authors: Moravia, Pavese, Cassola and even Umberto Eco – his favorites. The same one I started enjoying years ago when, living in England, I felt the urge to feel closer to Italy and read anything I could get my hands on in the university library.
“Do you also know more contemporary authors?,” I ask. And I quote Ammaniti, remembering how in a somewhat comic way he describes the brutalization and coarsening of Italian society (and that of the rest of the world, really), a world made of appearances, desire of fame and material wealth.
He doesn’t, so I promise him to let him have a book, as soon as possible – perhaps more interested that he doesn’t forget me, because surely I’ll never be able to forget this surreal literary talk in a tiny shop of Sidi Bou Said.
We keep talking, of this and that. My friend, who had already been to Sidi Bou Said, comments that she finds it incredibly quiet and empty compared to the past. The terrorist attacks at the Bardo Museum in March 2015 and that on the beach of Susa in June of the same year caused a significant decrease in the presence of tourists in Tunisia. But this proud country is slowly getting back on its feet, strong in its multiculturalism, acknowledging its beauty now more than ever.
It’s getting late, and we are meant to meet another friend. We need to go. Aleya – that’s the name of our new friend – walks us outside of his shop and he waves goodbye muttering a few, simple words: “Culture is like salt.”
Aleya is wise, and right. Culture gives that extra touch that flavors an otherwise plain life. With these words in mind, we walk to our meeting point, the beautiful Café des Nattes, where we sip a delicious strawberry juice and observe the buzzing life of young Tunisians that drink mint tea, and talk, carefree. And we start recollecting our surreal afternoon to the friend we have just met.
I say goodbye to Sidi Bou Said and Tunisia with the desire to get back as soon as possible, to stay longer and get to know its people – Aleya in the first place – and reveal more of its hidden treasures.
Legal Disclaimer: This article was written in partnership with the National Authority for Tourism of Tunisia as part of the #discovertunisia campaign. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.