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In The Known Traveler

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Popcorn and coffee: a Tunisian morning

I watch a man set up his popcorn booth. It is January second, but I barely notice that a new year has started. Between going to the International Airport in Cairo at 23h00 on December 31st, then crossing numerous x-ray machines until finally arriving in Tunis, only to be left with no place to go at 5h in the morning, I barely notice I’m alive.

He pushes the cart down the street and parks it under a tree. I order coffee. He takes five biscuits from a black plastic bag and puts them into smaller ones, counting, but not so much, this looks like something he does every day and doesn’t demand much thought.

They don’t have almond milk. He flips the bag in itself six times to close it and finishes with a knot. I try to read the menu in French. I can understand most of it, the problem is pronouncing, none of these syllables correspond to the sounds I’m used to. Who decides this kind of thing?

He pauses for a cigarette. I wonder if putting the biscuits into bags and making them fly is meditative to him. I can’t make sense of most of the conversations around me, a mix of Arabic, French, and Tunisian. A sounding portrait of colonization.

He yawns even though it is four minutes to eleven o clock. I haven’t been sleeping well or not at all. My standards might be too high regarding silence and hygiene for a world traveler. He manages biscuits, plastic bags, and cigarettes changing between hands and mouth. They play Velvet Underground in the coffee shop and I miss getting high. No, I miss getting high when you’re young and don’t have enough self-worth to feel stupid. Just doesn’t feel as cool when you’re the one that has to clean your own vomit.

He fills up a carton box with perfectly flipped biscuits. I usually look better than I feel. Sounds great but it is not really. No boss can tell by looking at me that I’m sick, I get fewer personal days than most. Just doesn’t look like I need it, you know?! This morning, while I’m sleep deprived, fresh from a meltdown that scared five hotel workers and a guest, and having one of those ‘what am I doing with my life’ kind of moments, I look kind of fantastic. I took a shower with a broken hose in a dirty bathroom and after I looked like I just came out of a spa day.

Two girls buy his biscuits and he doesn’t seem to care at all. 11h11, angel’s numbers. The two girls leave happily with the snacks, they look like good friends. It’s been a while since I’ve seen my good friends in person. Enough to not be so sure of who they are anymore.

People smoke inside here, a disgusting habit. There’s a girl with a long ponytail across from me, the cigarette contrasts with her pink childish sweater. As if a kid stole from her parents. I have to admit though, smoking does make her appear 30% cooler. I don’t know why. Not enough for me to actually think she’s cool, but at least less pathetic. She recognizes another girl, this one actually cool and sort of pretty, they say bonjour and exchange kisses on the cheeks. One on each side, of course. When she stands up I notice her lighter, cell phone, and pen match her pink clothes.

My omelet is cold now. The popcorn guy moves his booth to another tree. Now he’s outside my vision plan. There are five laptops here, I used to love working in this type of place, a way to be alone in public.

The waiter crosses the street and comes back with a popcorn bag. Symbiosis. I had weird dreams last night, in one of them I made the bathroom even dirtier but my host was nice about it. I still don’t understand why people open their houses to strangers. I have benefited from it, of course, and I usually cook or give free therapy sessions as a thank you, but nothing seems to be an appropriate payment to genuine hospitality.

A woman in a black coat walks by holding popcorn. It has been six months since I started Couchsurfing while I was in Greece. I met people that felt like long-lost friends, creepy dudes, brave women, and eventually the disappearing act: someone who seems nice, gives a lot of information, talks a bunch then go radio silent at the time of your arrival. That’s how I ended, on my first day of the year and in Tunisia, completely lost. Then I cried like a baby to the staff of the only hostel with vacant rooms because the constant noise wouldn’t allow me to sleep. Lack of rest makes me feel six years old.

They use a lot of coins here, which makes my wallet heavy. Five dinars is a silver and gold coin. Two dinars are completely silver with a picture of an olive tree. One and a half dinars have hands holding yeast and little balls I assume to be bread. The smaller ones are all gold with big numbers written. The taxi drivers have big black coin organizers. Thriving in the uber forbidding thanks to a disorganized government – there’s also a

deprivation of dairy products, each person is allowed to buy only two units when milk miraculously arrives.

I try to keep up with the people I call friends even from a distance. The thing is, I don’t really enjoy talking about myself. And I get tired of listening pretty fast. I’m built to be a hermit. When I spend long periods alone I feel blissful. Then I get scared I’ll lose my hard-earned people skills and forget how to make small talk.

If I move a little to the left, I can see the popcorn popping. The girl in pink goes out and comes back with a guy dressed in red, it’s like they coordinated. A school nearby ends and a fleet of willing bags passes by.

I should leave, there are too many cigarettes now. I’ll try finding a lake nearby, looking at water makes more sense than at people. Also, this is really bad coffee. I’ll tell you, it’s hard to be Brazilian outside of America. Feels like all the other humans never drank or ate anything with actual taste.

Outside I notice that the popcorn booth is now parked on the school’s exit, good strategy. Children have little self-control making them perfect prey. Not sure if we actually learn late gratification at some point or if we just pretend we do while assaulting the fridge in the middle of the night. We’re just children with better allowances, who wear pink while smoking smelly cigarettes.

The path along the water is dirty and I see sheep and goats digging through the garbage. I buy an overpriced juice, the restaurant overlooks the sea, so technically I also pay for the ambiance. Fair. It’s cold but there’s the sun. And the sea. And I walk. That seems enough for today. Tomorrow, hopefully, I’ll find better coffee.

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