It’s early evening in Tunis. I sit on my picturesque third floor hotel room balcony, overlooking the massive Habib Bourguiba Avenue, with pen in one hand and a glass of deep red Tunisian wine in the other. It’s fermented by the variety of grape that is so intensely red that in Italy the locals would call it “vino nero,” or black wine. I feel its mellowing effects almost immediately after but a nip or two. Below, on what the French once quaintly called the “Promenade de la Marine,” the customary evening “passeggiata” (to use but another Italian expression) gets unassumedly underway while, overhead, prodigious flocks of wrens further darken the sky with their early evening aeronautic antics.
In such a serene and distant setting, it is difficult for me to appreciate that but a short six months ago, on the verge of terminating a 35 year career in education, I was still standing in front of a classroom of Montreal teenagers in a west end high school. I think of them frequently and wonder how they are progressing in their studies, and in life in general. Nonetheless, for me, it has been a busy day here in Tunisia, one of many I am passing in this most irresistible of countries, pays de senteurs, as it is so often called.
My endeavours today, like most days, started early. After a relaxing breakfast in my hotel and a quick visit to the local cybernet, I headed to the foot of the main street in order to catch the Métro to Carthage, the home of vestiges of the world’s third largest Roman baths and other assorted Punic and Latin ruins.
The twenty minute run from Tunis to the Carthage Amicar station was rapid and uneventful. It being still early morning, the tattered and aging wagons carried an eclectic and colourful mixture of locals to their preferred destination on the seventeen stop above-ground line. Interestingly, I may very well have been the only tourist on the train.
Carthage itself is considerably larger than I had imagined with six of the seventeen stations carrying its name. The Carthage National Museum is a wonder in itself with an extensive and well-documented collection of Phoenician and Roman artifacts found during the excavations which were started in the second half of the nineteenth century by the Pères Blanc of France. As I navigated the sprawling site, I wondered but momentarily if my erstwhile students would have enjoyed such a locale.
Time passed quickly, and after the better part of five or six hours of walking to and fro in a somewhat quasi – deserted environment, I felt that it was probably time to head back to my hotel room in Tunis before darkness set in.
Having worked myself somewhat along the archeological park in my meanderings, this time I ended up boarding the Métro at Carthage Présidence station, located just near the presidential palace.
Most coaches were empty (or next to empty), so I was simply grateful for the opportunity to just sit and “chill out,” as many of my pupils were so fond of saying. Before I knew it, the period train struggled from its stop, slowly gaining speed on its way to the next station. Although not summer, the singularly pleasant weather was such that all windows were open and the sweet ambrosia of the famous Tunisian jasmine flower permeated the entire train. It was around 3:30 and I began to reflect on how agreeable a glass of that exquisite Magon Carthaginian wine (vintage 2003) would prove to be back at the hotel.
In deep reflection, I was altogether distracted as the shuddering wagons collectively wrenched their way into the next station – Carthage Hannibal. My moment of absent-mindedness was short lived, however, as I was suddenly roused from my harmless musing by the abrupt realisation that every inch of the platform in question was crammed with boisterous teens from the nearby Lycée de Carthage, most of whom were also heading back to Tunis now that their school day was over.
The doors slowly creaked open and into the train they streamed, impetuously changing the dynamics of each and every wagon with their unexpected presence. Not all of them could be accommodated; some being left behind at the station as the train – with boys dangling from open doors – chugged its way on to the next stop. One could sense the energy level rise precipitously throughout the Métro cars.
Being both a visitor to the country and a former teacher, I observed them intently. They were clearly from a school without a uniform policy as the boys were invariably in jeans and the girls in pretty, but modest apparel, with only a handful of them wearing the traditional head scarf.
As we all know, one quality all adolescents share is the desire to talk, and these young people were not an exception to that rule. They chattered and chortled with one another, in Arabic, from one station to the next. The boys made good-natured rough house while the girls pondered them with fascination. Most had mobile phones, each with its own unique designer ring, so many of which seemed to resonate at the same moment! All in all, even though it was a cacophony of sound to my aging ears, I was nevertheless happy to see smiling, youthful faces once again in my midst.
In all events, it was such an enjoyable and beautiful day in this far off land that perhaps this evening I just might recompense myself with perhaps a second glass of “vino nero.” After all, I am retired.
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++Mr. Wilkins is a former teacher at Royal Vale School in N.D.G. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org