Friday, May 27, 2011

Living In Between

[I’d like to insert a disclaimer here: what follows is strictly my own point of view. Others may have totally different experiences and views. I do my best not to be an “Orientalist” (that is someone describing “others” from the outside looking in, usually in a condescending way), as Tunisians have made me feel at home in their world which has become mine. My intention is not to be critical.]

When I first moved to Tunisia, I found that people were friendly, polite, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and generally well-educated thanks to aggressive government policies concerning education, developed at the time of independence in 1956. A large middle class dominated society and yet people were careful with what they had because one could not count on stores being well-stocked. Behind the serious business of daily life lingered a beach culture that bloomed as soon as the school year ended.
One of the biggest challenges to overcome were differences in mentality. Although Tunis and its satelite towns contain two million inhabitants, a small town mentality dominates Tunisian society. Families remain important and people do not move around very much. To have a job transfer to a city two hundred miles away would be the equivalent of going to the moon. Everyone knows or knows of everyone else, which means they don’t have to introduce others or be introduced. This created problems for me because at every Tunisian family gathering everyone knew me, but I didn’t know them and no one really thought to introduce me. I guess I was supposed to know everyone by osmosis! At first, I found this behavior rude until I understood the reason for the lack of introductions, and with time, I figured out who was who.
Getting used to how to conduct conversations took time. In my direct American manner, I would ask, “Oh, what do you do?” or “What does your father do?” or “Where do you live?” These types of questions would raise eyebrows, and someone might comment “What are you—the CIA?” One must ease into a conversation, however, this presupposes knowledge of the person with whom you are talking. It was a catch-22 situation for me until I gathered enough information by pestering it out of my husband, who is Tunisian and couldn’t quite fathom my difficulties. Genealogy is a safe subject, in fact, a preferred subject. Tolkian’s description of Hobbits always delights me because it fits Tunisians to a T. If two Tunisians who have never met before sit down together, the conversation inevitably leads to genealogy topics, and they will spend a couple of hours in hot discussion until they find a mutual relative—and it would seem that just about everyone is linked to everyone else in Tunisia. For people who know each other, they’ll gladly spend time on the subject, as well. These conversations can be very long, intricate, and boring to the uninitiated, however, I have developed some defense mechanisms: I just laugh and find someone else to talk with, or I participate, because thanks to my research on Tunisian women’s history I have learned something about Tunisian genealogies…maybe not enough to hold down a two-hour conversation, but enough to be polite.
Every society imposes rules upon its members, and Tunisian society is no exception, however, because it is such a small country with a rather sedentary population, one must be even more careful. In a country without freedom of the press (until 14 January 2011), gossip is a national hobby consequently, it would seem that everyone knows everything. One day, a neighbor (meaning someone living within a two-mile radius) went to Tunis and stopped by a shop to get photocopies of ID documents. The woman working in the shop noticed his address and asked “Do you know the American who has bees and sells honey? They say she lives in your town.” 

Well, that would be me, and I might add that I rarely visit that part of town and that I had never been to that shop. He replied that I was a neighbor and since he had to come back, she told him that she would like to buy a bottle of my well-reputed honey (Tunisians worry about getting a watered-down honey and willingly pay a higher price for a good, pure honey), if he could bring it. Which he did…it’s such a small world that it may seem constricting.
And yet, I have a huge advantage. As a militant non-conformist, I would have difficulty fitting in anyplace, but in Tunisia, people make allowances for what they may consider eccentric behavior: “Oh, it’s ok—she’s a foreigner.” And so, I live in-between and have the best of both worlds—and no regrets.

Friday, May 20, 2011

My Tunisian Adventure: Where It All Began

With family in tow, I moved to a small farm in Tunisia many years ago. There was no electricity so we paid for the electric company to install a line from half a mile away. There was no city water, but there was a good well, so we built a water tower (the city water finally came twenty years later). The house was mostly finished except for the painting, which we did ourselves over the next year. Although the plumbing for central heating had been installed, we didn’t get the radiators until the following year, so we used space heaters that first winter. We had blissfully hot water.

There was only a dirt road that could not be used during the rainy season because a car would get mired down in the mud. So we trudged through the mud for half a mile when we had to go out. As soon as the weather improved, we brought in truckloads of gravel and raked it over the road ourselves. And did I mention the lack of garbage service? Until today, I separate garbage into 1) burnable, 2) compost, and 3) all the rest, which gets taken to a garbage pick up a mile away. Despite all the bumps in the road (figuratively and literally) and the fact that we were on a pretty tight budget, we had everything we needed and were content. Home, sweet home.
From the outset I claimed one of the bedrooms as my work room where I set up sewing machine, ironing board, art supplies and table. I made just about everything but the furniture: wall art, kids’ clothes, sweaters, curtains, quilts, pillows, and sheets. Sheets? Yes, I found high quality cotton sheet fabric in lovely prints sold by the meter. They were a bit expensive, but very durable—in fact, I still have most of them and they are so soft to sleep upon during the hot summers. Looking back, the sense of being out in a wide-open space was marvelous, a luxury for someone from the city. A sign of the times, farmers have now put up fences and walls, in part due to rising theft in the region linked to corruption in the government and in law enforcement.

And, of course, animals were part of the menagerie. Sheep, rabbits, turkeys, chickens, and geese paraded through my life. I took up spinning and got my mom into spinning as well because I kept writing to her with questions for her spinner friend. And now I cherish my old spinning wheel (originally painted pink, and it still works) that came out of my grandparents lakeside cottage and that my mother had restored to its original beauty. Although I love to spin, I no longer do it because it is not high on my list of priorities. And because they require a good deal of attention, the animals are gone, except for a few dogs and cats. Sometimes I think about raising chickens again because the eggs and meat are exceptional, but chickens are rough on the garden which is high on my priority list.

Speaking of gardening and in the recycling category: notice the piles of cement irrigation pipes? They probably date from the 1950s. No longer useful because methods of irrigation have changed, some have found their way into my garden and have recently become containers for geraniums, which will fill out more in a couple of months.

         And ever since that monumental day when I moved to a small farm in a distant land, everyday has been an adventure.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

To Blog or Not to Blog

I confess, I’ve resisted blogging for awhile. Who wouldn’t? Don’t we have enough to do? And more technology to learn? But then I came across the “$600 Throwaway House” (“RateMySpace,” HGTV), which led me to “The Dilettante Proprietor” blog. Lisa took a junk heap and has made it into a marvelous home with a gorgeous garden on a limited budget. It all sounded so familiar, to start with almost nothing and a dream, and build it into something—I was hooked. From there I discovered art quilt blogs and home décor blogs and mosaic blogs and the list is endless. I began to see the possibilities.
I played with my blog design, savoring the visual aspect and lingering over the choice of words and photos. Finding a name proved difficult as so many are already taken. “GoneToPieces” was my first choice, but it had been claimed so I tested others. Ultimately, “MulticoloredPieces” expresses well enough the idea of my life as a mosaic of activities about which I am passionate. 
The blog background is a detail of “Improvisation I” (Jan. 1992, 31” x 30”). I couldn’t bear to part with the scraps of velvet, satin, silk, and brocade from a huge project, “Flowers for Abou Jihad” (Nov. 1993, 79”x79”) that took several years to complete. The improv was machine pieced and quilted, and provided a welcome change from “Flowers,” for which I forced myself to use a repeating pattern. 
If you look at it long enough, it begins to move! I intended to send “Flowers” to the International Quilt Festival at Houston, but it ended up several inches over the maximum size. Someone asked me why I didn’t simply cut off the sides to get the correct size. Ouch! 
In the end, a work takes over and has its own voice. "Flowers" is machine pieced, appliquéd, embroidered, and quilted. When viewed together, these two artworks represent a reflection on life: dark and light, order and disorder, discipline and improvisation.