On our Second full day in Tunisia we went to the city of Sousse to see the 8th century medina, (the indoor marketplace) where Tunisians haggle for everything from fish to spices to housewares.
It is a busy and colorful place where merchants sell everything from live snails to pots and earthenware, silks, candies, and dried scorpions of various sizes encased in glass boxes. I will admit to picking one up and thinking it was pretty cool. Then I remembered that I’m not eleven, and what would I do with a dried insect in a box.
I had to keep reminding myself, too, because several shops were selling them.
Instead, my wife and I bought 10 grams of fresh saffron, some harissa and something called 7 spice. This was a much more mature if slightly less satisfying purchase. But the promise of tastier chicken dinners down the line kept me on board.
We went into several other shops. We heard things like, “Two dinar. I like you. Two dinar only. Look only. Is okay. Yes, please.” Even after you’d left it was not uncommon for shopkeepers to walk after you trying to get you back, saying, ‘Yes please.’
‘Yes, please,’ was a familiar phrase. When a waiter said it as you sat down, it meant, ‘What would you like to drink?’ Or, if he said it at the end of dinner, it meant, ‘Thank you.’
When shopkeepers tried to flag you into their shops by saying it, it meant, ‘Take a look.’ When a Taxi driver shouted it at you from across the street, when you clearly weren’t looking for a taxi, it meant, ‘Do you need a cab?’
On the beach, a guy chased after us shouting, ‘Yes, please’ and wouldn’t leave until we took a picture of his pet chameleon on my shoulder and bought a bag of almonds.
So, the phrase can mean quite a few things depending on the context.
And by the way, salespeople ought to be sent here to learn how it’s really done. There were some pretty clever pitches. “You remember me. I work at your hotel. I served you breakfast. Come. Look in my brother’s shop. You like leather jackets? Feel this quality….”
Everything was designed to get you to interact with the merchandise, like getting the fish to take just a small nibble of the bait.
And if you kept walking, you’d hear ‘No buy. Just look! Yes, please!’
My favorite was a kid who came up to us and said, “Excuse me, you speak English?” We both nodded. “How much does a ‘kartett’ cost in your country? I need to know if my price is too high. For my shop.”
“What’s a ‘kartett?’” I asked.
“Right over here,” he started walking toward his shop still looking at us. “You come and look.”
My wife and I leaned back and shook our heads. “I don’t think so,” we said, and laughed. But we had to respect the hustle.
And hustle they did.
In Tunisia they haggle for most things. Some places are fixed price, like the restaurant in the hotel, so you can buy an orange juice or a coffee in the morning without having to argue.
But for most goods and services you have to haggle.
There was a cabstand down the street from us. There were maybe 15 or so taxis lined up at any given time on either side of the street. And get this—they were trying to flag down customers.
We got in one to go to a fixed price shop about ten minutes from the hotel.
“How much to go to Miami?” I said. (That was the name of the shop.)
“5 Dinar,” he said, “for both of you.”
Offering to take both of us was a nice touch. “How ‘bout 3,” I said, smiling.
“Okay, I take you,” he said, looking straight ahead.
Later that night we met a Libyan diplomat in the hotel bar who clutched my hand, a cigarette dangling off his lower lip. He squinted earnestly and demanded that I promise to have at least 5 kids. He explained how important children are. He had several. He also had four wives—one of whom, he confided in me, was even Polish. I had no idea why this was important. I nodded seriously, also squinting.
His associate, a large bald man in a suit with no tie handed the diplomat and I little squares of cheese on toothpicks. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t cheddar, but it could have been carbolic acid, and I would have eaten it and shaken my head in appreciation anyway.
That’s my response to uncomfortable situations. I go all in.
He patted me on the back and shook his head approvingly. My wife, feeling a bit left out of the discussion the diplomat and I were having over how many children she would be required to have, wanted to leave immediately.
Then there were the dune buggies. Yes. Dune buggies. When I heard the words, I imagined a go-cart type contraption—and that there would be a dusty little trail we would amble through taking in the scenery.
I was partly correct. The scenery was in fact nice—what I could see of it through the wake of rocks and sand blasting me in the face from the caravan of fishtailing buggies ahead of us.
I’m not sure how I cleared customs taking out that much of the country with me in my teeth.
But it sure was fun.
You never know what’s in store for you when you travel. In fact, you never know what’s in store for you period.
If someone would have told me when I was 20 that in ten years I’d be married to an Irish girl, living in Scotland and that I would eventually take a vacation where I’d be rambling through Olive groves past camels and ostriches in a dune buggy just north of the Sahara, I would have laughed myself unconscious.
And yet there I was, and here I am. I wonder where I’ll end up next.