25 August 2015

Sousse, Tunisia (2)

Another day: We repeat like homing pigeons, into the medina past the marble camel. We wanted to climb the ribat, the fortress base for soldiers who lived like monks.
The ribat is built around a square with crenellated walls, and the entire place was empty at that hour. The cells of the "soldier-monks" open off the upper corridor. Because the Grand Mosque across the way does not have a minaret, the ribat's watch tower serves as such (although today, the call to prayer is often a recording). From the tower, a different view of the medina and the seafront.
Below, our coffee time again, striking up conversation when we could because we were still determined to find Dar Essid. Again receiving various opinions on directions, it took the rest of the morning to find it. I had read of a red light district – yes, of all things – somewhere near the kasbah; apparently it's a rather tightly sealed area with only one entrance. Not that we wanted to go there, but didn't want to stumble into it!

Success came after exiting the medina at one gate, walking the outside circumference of the wall, and entering again at another. Lo – signs for Dar Essid Museum! It was uphill close to the wall's interior, actually not that far from the ribat, so we had made a semi-circuit of half the medina area. But uh-oh. A small delivery truck was stuck halfway up the street (did I ever mention narrow?). Furthermore, he was totally blocking pedestrian traffic. He tried to drive down. He tried to back up. For a while we watched the proceedings with bystanders encouraging him.
Where the truck was stuck
 So there had to be a way around him in the warren of tiny streets to the side (did I ever mention logic?) to approach the street from the opposite way. One helpful man seemed to understand our goal, chattering away in Franglais-Arabic, maybe intending to guide us, or sell us something. Sure we could do this without any help we forged off. That only took another half hour, eventually emerging onto the right street ... where the wretched truck was still jockeying back and forth, exactly blocking Dar Essid's doorstep.

Finally, access. In the entrance reception a supremely disinterested woman took our fee, engaged with her cell phone. A typed sheet in English gave a bit of description about the rooms. This was the house of a wealthy Ottoman family, parts of it dating back to the tenth century. Gorgeous ceramic tiles decorate the walls and floors in traditional Tunisian style. Photographs, antiques, and family memorabilia were everywhere. We seemed to be alone except for occasional distant voices of other visitors. 

The late nineteenth century owner had two wives – separate bedrooms for each, of course. We saw the ancient Roman lamp displayed in one wife's bedroom, the famous lamp that signals the husband must not climax until it burns out. Husband in a hurry might slyly distract his wife so he could secretly extinguish the flame. A seven-hundred-year-old marriage contract was framed on one wall.
Other bedrooms were allocated for children under and over a certain age. These rooms are all off the main courtyard; the fabrics here were in better condition than those at Dar Baba ― but the pittance of an entry fee would hardly begin to pay for maintenance.
There were two kitchens, small and large, as we progressed multiple levels. Extensive and fascinating. We were aware that there was much more to the house, not open to the public, where the owner dwells. Although Ottoman rule in Tunisia ended with French occupation, a considerable population of Turkish origin remains.
The bathroom was a marvel with a marble tub and marble urinal proudly claimed as a precursor of the French pissoir. We had no idea when or how the tub was installed on this upper level. Good thing it was near the main kitchen for heating the water!
Then we ascended the final storey that led to the well-furnished servants' quarters. From there we had a splendid view of the medina down to the sea and its walls on another side. Oh no the promised roof-top café was a deserted little bar and we were dying of thirst. But suddenly out of nowhere a youngish caretaker guy appeared to find us some cold pop, thank you! Eager to practice English, he spoke of a friend studying engineering in Montreal. For some time we were a captive audience to tales of his depressing love life with a Spanish girlfriend; marriage is not a good idea without being able to afford or locate their own separate place to live (he wants Tunisia; she wants Spain). It didn't seem to occur to him that their disagreements about having children (he: yes; she: no) were just as fundamental. I was thinking get a new girlfriend! Or maybe I said it aloud.

Ultimately we headed out again toward the mosque and the medina entrance, "capturing" doorways as we went. We found ourselves in another local market area where piles of clothing and shoes were being sold. Second hand? Doing a rush business, anyway. Time for a relaxing café au lait, watching people come and go. The day ended with serious souvenir shopping on my part while friend the photog sought local scenes and portraits. She reported crossing a questionable area where some dubious men were gathered; eye contact to be avoided. She always manages well, superb photographs.

Part of a day was spent checking out the Port el-Kantaoui marina area, although I can't say the stretch of beach we saw was particularly inviting. Maybe the tourists sunbathing and strolling here had no clue about, or interest in, the historic medina ― the beaches do attract vacation people from all over Europe.
One day, rainy and cool after an evening display of spectacular lightning, we went by tram to the nearby town of Monastir. Next to the huge Sidi el Mazeri cemetery is the mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba; he is revered as the father of modern Tunisia from 1957 to 1987. The very wide area surrounding the structure is marble and was treacherously slippery in the drizzle. His impressive coffin rests in a rotunda, contrasting sharply with the plain rooms and simple slabs set in the floor for family members.
Altogether, Sousse was a highlight in a country where every new town and countryside scene manifested one awesome delight after another.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

09 August 2015

Sousse, Tunisia 2012 (1)

A small city whose claim to fame has been its UNESCO World Heritage Site the centuries-old, walled medina became notorious for the recent (26 June 2015) abhorrent slaughter of tourists in its resort area of Port el-Kantaoui. It's incomprehensible and infuriating that terrorists will target unsuspecting innocents anywhere. The same horror intruded a few months earlier this year in the city of Tunis. Three years ago I spent four days in Sousse, and prefer to remember its MAGIC.

Our hotel was located in the same resort area, set back a street or so from the beach itself. But we were not there for sunbathing. The wonderful medina was our destination, more than enough to fill days of exploration. It's a renowned example of a medieval Arab sea fort with well-preserved walls facing the Mediterranean, including the ribat fortress and watch tower, the Great Mosque, and kasbah, most of them built in the ninth and tenth centuries A.D.

We set out early each morning before it was too crowded. The only camel I encountered at Sousse was this marble creature resting by the main medina gate. We could peek into the women's entrance of the mosque, but non-Muslims are not allowed beyond the courtyard. The medina is a community unto itself: shops, crafts, food markets, bakeries, cafes, restaurants, and homes, all set into a confusion of narrow, twisting streets.

No map available, we simply joined one stream of shoppers into the open-air food market area, seeking a way to reach the top of the wall for a view. Photography is my travel buddy's speciality. We were obvious tourists, packing cameras and water bottles.

With the help of an enthusiastic volunteer guide we climbed a torturous series of stairways into, around, and through what appeared to be someone's house, though no-one paid us any mind. We emerged by a small tower on the top of the wall. Volunteer guide then, as expected, requested a large tip for his service but grinned cheerfully when we forked over ten percent of what he suggested.

Our agenda included seeing the archaeological museum and a home museum called a dar they are family enterprises here and there to draw a few tourist dollars, and why not, because all the homes are centuries old, filled with history. Receiving a number of potentially helpful directions (French is known much more than English but the prevalent Arabic reduces us to wild sign language) took us by sacks of spices, fragrant bakeries, butchers, jewellery stalls, leather products, ceramics and pottery factories, carpets, even modern clothing shops, until it occurred we were passing the same places twice.

Striking off into the covered byways, we were waylaid in protracted negotiations for Tuareg-design earrings. Then we lucked into a MUSÉE sign for Dar Baba, not the house we sought but a small-ish, seemingly middle-class home, not in any guidebooks. But we could smell coffee in the lovely courtyard.

The caretaker showed us the interesting bedrooms (ornate bed clothing) colour and patterns galore, everything nicely exhibited but looking a bit dusty. A small kitchen was on this level. He made a point of showing us the tap for well water, "potable" he said.

Then down we went into what he called the catacombs, very old underground rooms where the family barricaded in times of invasion or war. The equivalent of a bomb shelter. Such low ceilings, but everything necessary for survival!

Coffee and orange slices were brought to us in the lovely courtyard. The coffee was unexpectedly Turkish, not to everyone's taste, so I bravely consumed part of my friend's too, not wanting to offend our kindly host.

 Our next plan was to follow the wall because logically it would sooner or later take us to the archaeological museum in the kasbah section of the wall. Alas, the interior side of the medina wall does not know logic. Inadvertently passing the same ceramics souk several times destined us to buy some from the bemused vendor. Finally, more directions and steadily uphill to the highest point of the medina, we located the kasbah, an imposing residence built originally for the local administrator / military commander.

Housed there now is the Sousse Archaeological Museum, at the furthest corner of the medina from where we entered. Oh boy, was that museum worth it! To say we were mesmerized is a huge understatement. I described it in an earlier post.

Knowing more or less where we were within the medina, heading back was not a problem. Friendly locals showed us the top of the main street – when I say street, you understand narrow. Luckily for our weary bones it was all downhill. A long way downhill. Parts of the street were quite dark although it was still afternoon; other parts were covered. Some shopkeepers were beginning to close up. At one shop a young woman, Layla, indicated the cameras, eager to pose for several shots. It was surprising to me how many residents asked to be photographed even though they only ever see the picture momentarily on the camera screen. Traditionally dressed women, though, are off limits.

When we neared the Great Mosque and recognized some landmarks, aaaahh, a cafe across from the mosque entrance for our favourite café au lait. We speculate why a rack of robes stands outside the mosque, monitored by a large burly man. Probably for men to don for prayers if their street clothing is inappropriate. It's dark by the time we reach our hotel. Did we remember to eat that day?

Well, that was only the first day.
The full stay in Sousse would be far too long for a blog post (and so many photos!).
Part Two to follow, compressing the rest.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

01 August 2015

Queen of the Desert

You heard it here. Release date September 15th.

The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2015. That's how long I've been waiting.

Official blurb:
Queen of the Desert is a 2015 epic biographical drama film written and directed by Werner Herzog and is based on the life of British traveller, writer, archaeologist, explorer and cartographer Gertrude Bell.

Starring Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Robert Pattinson, Damian Lewis.

So why is his head bigger than hers in the poster, eh? Eh?!

Early reviews of the movie are mixed although all seem to agree it's stunningly filmed in grand proportions.

Some say Kidman "completely embodies" Gertrude Bell.[1] 

Others are underwhelmed by some "regrettable dialogue" finding it all "the tiniest dull."[2] 

"What drives her is never really illuminated."[3]

Not to denigrate Kidman's acting skills, but she seems miscast to me. Apparently she replaced Herzog's first choice, Naomi Watts. What? Who? (How about someone not conventionally beautiful? Laura Dern? Tilda Swinton?) There was talk for some time of Angelina Jolie producing and starring in a Gertrude Bell movie but perhaps she came to her senses.

I would not be surprised if the magnificent scenery of Jordan and Morocco overpowers Gertrude's extraordinary career. Hoping they don't overdo the T.E. Lawrence association.

[1] Justin Harp, 8 July 2015,"Nicole Kidman journeys across the Middle East in breathtaking Queen of the Desert trailer," Digital Spy (http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/movies/news/a657019/nicole-kidman-journeys-across-the-middle-east-in-breathtaking-queen-of-the-desert-trailer.html#~pjc4LBUoPvGUJQ). 
[2] Peter Bradshaw, 7 February 2015, "Berlin 2015: Queen of the Desert review – a towering Nicole Kidman goes there and back again," the guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/feb/06/queen-of-the-desert-film-review-berlin-nicole-kidman-werner-herzog).
[3] "'Queen of the Desert,' Berlin Film Review," 6 February 2015, The Hollywood Reporter (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/nicole-kidman-werner-herzogs-queen-770806).

22 July 2015

Friends Send Me ... camel things (3)

Well yes, there are more.
How about this cushion from Judy?

Or this treasured camel bell from Jackie?

Thanks, Anne. I'm still trying to memorize that one.

Irrepressible Kim found this (gasp!) ad. Whatever were the publishers thinking? But you have to admit, can't beat a grin like that. Camels have dentists too. Believe it.

Cathy and Kim, you should know you preempted a blog post about this ... Mr. Dashdondog Jamba delivers home library service Mongolian style.

 Possibly the source of the much-maligned cigarette. I have personally witnessed a camel inhaling.

Fred spotted THIS. JFK airport is world class, no question. Just the perfect arrival point for a mate for my Rahmi.

And if anyone remembers who sent me this, remind me? I think it's called anthropomorphism.

Facebook camel friends (yes, hear us roar) are an endless source of gifts. Some friends have sent photos or news clippings of such magnitude they deserve their own posts. We're not done here yet.

P.S. You can all stop sending me the fabulous National Geographic (Steinmetz) photo of camels and their shadows in the desert. Thank you.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

11 July 2015

Rockies ... Nostalgia

Throwback nostalgia time ... travel to and from Alberta. For three summers I stayed at the Banff School of Fine Arts. Sweet times! Now the complex is called simply the Banff Centre, much expanded to include literary arts, conference facilities, and "leadership training." Today I hardly recognize the buildings and the programs ...
Postcard ca.1955
In hindsight, all the programs then were somewhat limited in scope, facilities, and the number of participants that could be accommodated. But all programs were full every year. The artists, the singers and musicians, the dancers, the actors, all thrilled to the collegiality and the highest quality of faculty instructors. A rather uninformative video about early days: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmXMLZj-bjw   

When I first went in the late 1950s, my mother and two friends were signed up for an art course. The four of us crammed into her car and drove from the Lakehead to Banff. The 1,000-mile trip involved a fully packed car short on comfort and temper for people with long legs but the blurting of bad language was kept to a minimum. Our stay was a tiny rented suite in someone's house on the town outskirts, everyone uneasy with the lack of privacy, but mostly we were away all day doing lovely artistic things and absorbing a great deal of Banff. Ballet classes were in the town hall auditorium on Banff Avenue; Gweneth Lloyd introduced us to her Greek Rhythmics.

Fun during Banff's "Indian Days" to see Chief Walking Buffalo leading my mother in a dance. Once we went for tea with portraitist extraordinaire and friend Nicky de Grandmaison at his vintage log home.

Honestly, girls and boys: we really did have coloured film in those days. (Didn't we?)

Betty and Gweneth
The next time I went out west on my own. Changes had been made. There were residential chalets and a gigantic dance studio space on the side of Tunnel Mountain. Betty Farrally from my (Winnipeg) home dance school had joined the faculty. Every program presented a performance or exhibit at the end of the courses. And because we all more or less lived on top of one another, we all showed up to applaud our peers.  

So exotic it seemed, meeting all those Albertans and western Canadians! To be sure, Toronto and the east were often represented. I recall John Arab and Arlene Meadows as stars in the vocal program; Andy Dawes and Ken Perkins were there, later to found the Orford Quartet. Ken's sister Marnie was our piano accompanist for the dance classes. I had a huge crush on Marek the shy pianist, accidentally lingering outside his practice room, perfecting my knowledge of Rachmaninoff. The hills echoed joyfully with the sound of music.

Dress rehearsal, Walton's Facade Suite
In those days we seldom thought of capturing great moments with our cameras. We were kept so busy with classes because rehearsals for the grand finale performance began almost immediately. Our programs naturally featured Gweneth Lloyd choreographic works.

It's a wonder we had any time to explore. But we did manage to ride horses in the Hoodoos; we met visiting international dance stars; we climbed Sulphur Mountain. As far as we were concerned, the best attraction of the main street was the corner coffee shop where Iand a few others ‒ first encountered the seductive butterhorn. A flaky pastry, I recall, served after a quick sauté in (more) butter. The melt-in-your-mouth result was addictive. No cholesterol problems at that age!

In my last summer there, what fun rooming with my good buddy Ginny, and double-dating. How did we get time for that? Gweneth's "Finishing School" was an ironic lark because both of us were on summer reprieve from boarding school. Ginny later became a Vegas showgirl and Mary Tyler Moore's body double.

DeeDee and Virginia went on to join ballet companies in the U.K.; Dalton joined the Moulin Rouge troupe in Paris where I spotted him in the chorus a few years later so late-night drinks and catch-up were on the menu. 

Does it still hold magic for young people, this town?

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman