November 13, 2010

Losing Tunisia

It's been nine months since I returned from Tunisia on Valentine's Day.

My tube of harissa that I transported back in a quart-sized Ziploc bag is nearly empty, as I scrape its mouth for any remaining bits of hot, sweet pepper paste.

Though I haven't washed it, my gray glittery scarf no longer smells of the hotel soap whose scent prevailed throughout my trip. It broke my heart to launder my light gray waffle-knit top that I wore to keep warm in Tunisia's unseasonably cold weather, but I'd already stretched it for a couple weeks and it really needed to be washed.

I try eating hummus, eggplant, tabil spice, and eggs, but in the context of Queens, even in a very Middle Eastern neighborhood just off of Steinway Street, I'm losing my reminders, the authenticity of the experience I had for only eight days nine months ago.

I'm not one to buy trinkets or other souvenirs, and I managed to resist even the cage des oiseaux that I admired in Monastir and whose white-and-blue versions were so prevalent in Sidi Bou Said. So all that I have now are my memories, jogged by my photos, and the diary entries that have contributed to a travel memoir I hope to one day publish.

When I returned from Tunisia in February, I couldn't wait to go back. I thought I would have gone back by now, perhaps during the summer music festival season in August. Surely I would have had a job by now in order to afford another trip. Surely I would have gotten a job in Tunisia that would have relocated me there. Surely someone would have found a way to bring me back, to see me again, to complete the transformation and absorption that began when I was 35 pounds heavier and dozens of dates lonelier.

There's a cafe down 30th Avenue from me called Harissa whose chalkboard menu lists some Tunisian (and Moroccan) specialties for lunch and dinner like brik, the fried triangle of dough that contains egg and tuna. I'm drawn to it every time I walk by, but I'm afraid to go, afraid the yolk won't be as runny, the pepper not as hot, and the coffee not as bitter.

But I wonder whether it's better to let my memories evolve on their own, as the distance between my past and my present grows ever wider, or to try to continue to reintroduce similar tastes and smells to my senses which approximate my past experience, but create a whole new context. Is it better to recreate Tunisia in New York in a manner that's close enough but not quite right, or to gradually lose Tunisia altogether?

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