Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Hammam (Public Baths)

When I first came to Tunisia many years ago, not all households had bathrooms. Yes, they had indoor plumbing, with toilets and sinks, but not an official bathing space with a bathtub. The reason was simple: people went to the hammam (public baths), men in the morning, women in the afternoon. Today, private homes have bathrooms, however, the hammam remains popular. In home décor magazines, I’ve even seen bathrooms in extravagant homes designed like a mini-hammam with lots of marble, built in benches and large sunken tubs—very lovely.
         I went only once to the hammam. I found it a bit too public for my personal taste, however, I like the idea and if I had been raised in Tunisia I would have probably gone regularly. You see, the hammam is not just about getting clean. It’s a place where people meet, and there is a leveling factor, it’s rather democratic: everyone is in some state of undress. You can’t show off or hide behind your clothing. Plus, it’s a total experience that takes at least a couple of hours: there are several stages in several rooms: the steamy sauna, the cool water area and, of course, there is the masseuse (masseur for men). You stretch out on a cement slab and she works you over with a rough wash cloth. She charges about a dollar and a half for a full body scrub, about five dollars for a full body sugar waxing, which is traditional for married women. After further washing and rinsing, you come out with a new skin, sparkling clean.
         What I find the most interesting about the hammam is that it serves as a social space. (There are those who argue that there is an actual hammam culture that overflows into other social gatherings, but that is the subject of a lengthy article.) People meet there, everyone meets there: the young, the old, the middle aged—as I said, it is a rather democratic space. Even mothers with their small children come so no one is left out. The hammam includes a casual café: cool drinks are served at the end, if desired, in the “cooling off room” (one does not immediately exit after bathing—do you want to die?). People may also bring a snack to restore their strength after such an exhausting experience.
         During the colonial period (which ended in 1956), the French would throw accusations at Tunisians about their women being “cloistered,” “veiled,” and “sequestered” because Frenchmen couldn’t penetrate the social spaces and see (with a connotation of possess) Tunisian women. However, women participated in a commmunity that exists at the hammam, at marriages (frequent summer events), at the mosque, etc. In fact, they had a better social life than I do!
         So my thoughts on the hammam lead to my bathroom renovation. The gutting process of the bathrooms was dramatic.

In the main bathroom an interior wall came down because of a leak. The floating light switch should be in the middle of a wall. We wanted to keep the fixtures because of their quality, but that dark green seems to be out of style in Tunisia. Tile-hunting was tedious. We settled on white tiles that cover the walls to the ceiling and we chanced upon a green tile that was cut for the horizontal lines. I wanted more of those green tiles for mosaic flower pots, but they’re not produced anymore, drat.

The macramé ceiling light remained. I like it too much and I remember all the work.

Under the category of smaller is better: the mini-bathroom/shower stall. Originally just a toilet and sink, it was never really used much, maybe it seemed too dark and cramped.

White tiles set on the diagonal made all the difference and the mason cussed a blue streak for having to work in such a cramped space with such small tiles. 

The toilet does double duty as a seat under the showerhead and the shower curtain is clear with pockets. 

Minimalism at its best, just the strict necessities, but exactly what I wanted. White anything usually gets dusty and dirty so fast, but a quick swipe of the walls with a squeegee after showers keeps it impeccably clean and white. So easy.
      And obviously, I prefer showers, so I suppose that my hammam experience will remain limited to one visit.

Friday, June 24, 2011

More Renovating

Continuing the renovation tour: the dining area is with the living room. During the gutting process, the head mason always took a short nap. Can’t blame him; his job is physically demanding and it was very hot. Besides sinking floors, large cracks in the walls required repair as well (the diagonal gray streak).

On the wall, Color Theme & Variations I (Oct. 1997, 50”x60”, machine appliquéd, pieced & quilted) has the same blue and green fabrics as Shells V, which hangs on the other side of the room.

The irregularity of the colored strips contrasts with the checkerboard, which brings order. Order and disorder, organization and serendipity, discipline and mayhem—can’t resist the binary oppositions that make up life. Or do we live in the middle and art allows for the expression of the oppositions and contradictions?

The light fixture is one of the most intricate macramé shades I’ve made and has held up well over the years. It must be over 25 years old.

The effect at night is lovely, like a Moroccan lantern or a carved Halloween pumpkin. I have played with the idea of hanging a more sophisticated modern contraption, but, the light shining through the design makes this piece irreplaceable in my eyes. 

Maybe I should hang some antique prisms (they’re sitting on a shelf in my studio waiting to be put to use) off the bottom edge, but, they’re such dust-catchers. 

Covering a small table, this black, white and gray quilt with hand painted fabric used to cover a couch. It's seen better days. The quilting still isn't finished--a functional UFO. Is that an oxymoron? Someday I'll get to it....

Friday, June 17, 2011

Happy Eating

Being a “happy eater” and not picky, I found it easy to adapt to Tunisian eating habits. Tunisian cuisine is healthy and very good, in part because it is seasonal, although some items, like tomatoes, can now be bought year round thanks to greenhouses. Obviously, the best tasting fruits and vegetables must be bought when in season. And the taste of local fruits and vegetables is one of the things that I, and other visitors to Tunisia, marvel about. Take the humble turnip, for example—how often do you eat turnips in the States? I remember them as being lifeless. Ahh, but in Tunisia, they’re delicious, with lots of taste and there are a couple of good Tunisian dishes with turnips as the main ingredient. Or they can be sliced and put in a spicy salt brine to make a sort of pickled turnip, eaten raw, called “Torshi,” an addition to the salad menu.  Just writing about it has made me put turnips on my shopping list for today.
However, there’s a catch: everything has to be cooked from scratch, and as everyone who I know sits down to three meals a day (well, maybe they cheat on breakfast because they’re in a hurry), that means a good deal of time spent in the kitchen, mostly by the mother of the family. In Tunisia, food = love: expect ot be stuffed. When I first arrived in Tunisia, my mother-in-law served me a large plate of couscous, which I polished off. You’re supposed to clean your plate, right? Well, no. Although my mother-in-law was impressed that I did honor to her cooking (she was an excellent cook) and tried to serve me a second helping, everyone else at the table was astonished. It didn’t take me long to figure out that you’re supposed to leave a little bit uneaten on your plate to show that you’re full or else the cook will fill up your plate again, and again and again. An empty plate signals hunger.
Consequently, with all the this cooking on a daily basis, a kitchen with a door that separates it from the rest of the house is desirable. I like the idea of a kitchen that opens onto the dining area and/or living room, but, between the heat factor and the smells of cooking it simply isn’t practical. My kitchen has a particular smell of olive oil (which I use daily) that I only notice when I come home after travelling—not unpleasant, but I try to keep it in the kitchen.
         This kitchen might be classified as a country kitchen. It has evolved over time, so the design isn’t perfect, but it’s a good work area for me. The gutting process: 
The lower cupboards were built in so they stayed. The tiles had a purplish tint to them. I'm wondering what happened to them as they'd be useful for mosaics, but I wasn't mosaicking at the time so I didn't pay attention (drat). 
The same white tiles with green horizontal stripes as the main bathroom were used on the walls.
I wanted to keep the cabinet doors that had taken three weeks to paint some 30 years ago. But when I examined them carefully, I once again found shabby without the chic. It took two weeks to restore them.
On the kitchen door, the bread sack is an absolute necessity as bread is the major staple and is bought daily. The sack’s placement on the door may appear odd, but this is just the right height for me to pop in and fish out the large loaves, which may be as many as six per day. I nearly tore my hair out until I figured out this solution--I mean, where to put all that bread? Once, however, a couple of kittens found the sack to be the perfect place to sleep at night, and nibble on the bread when they felt like a little snack. So I had to wash it and pin the top closed until they outgrew it. They were disappointed.

The fabrics (from my stash) match the colors of the cabinet doors and I played with buttons across the top, using different colored threads to attach them. The edges unravel a bit more with each washing for a shaggy look. This was a fun and fast project, a nice change from the weeks or months that most projects usually take.

Friday, June 10, 2011

More Shabby Than Chic

A few years ago, I said wistfully to my husband, “I wish I could renovate a cute, little ol’ house, a fixer-upper.” He replied even more wistfully, “And what about our house?”
            That made me open my eyes. Although it seemed like just yesterday that we finished building our home, it had indeed aged, and not gracefully. You know those lovely old Italian villas with peeling paint, rusty wrought iron and broken masonry? Sort of shabby chic types of places? Well, Italy isn’t that far away, and the construction in Tunisia is with lots of masonry—brick, cement, and tiles—but my house was on the shabby side without the chic, more rundown than anything else. The worst were the sinking floors—we didn’t have one flat floor in the house, not even in the bathrooms and the doors didn’t quite close right anymore. And then, there were large cracks in the walls to repair as well. We had been dragging our feet because of the huge task of putting in new floors, which meant moving everything out and gutting the house. This was hardly a DIY project.
         Once the masons got started, the pounding was infernal because the tile floors rested on a cement base that had to be broken and redone. Thick dust settled everywhere and piles of broken tiles, cement, and bricks accumulated in the yard—the sidewalk disappeared and the grass took a beating. When the masons finished a room, we followed right behind and painted it and moved back the furniture, which required attention as well. On the positive side, the masons finished in three months, a feat, I’m told, for such a huge job.
         There’s nothing like before and after pictures to add drama. Well, these are during and after pictures, but they’ll do.
The living room was a soft green that had yellowed over the years. We chose a marble-design floor tile that lightened the room. Note the old-fashioned radiator. Yes, they work very well for Tunisian winters. The windows may appear odd because we need permanent screens. I could write an entire post on my battles with bugs.

I wanted a slightly warmer, neutral wall color and I decided to hang some of my art quilts. I gave up on curtains for the living room. With exterior shutters on the windows that are closed at night, curtains become superfluous. From a practical point of view, curtains require monthly washing (at least) because of the dusty environment (oh, p-l-e-a-s-e). The cushion covers and flat-weave rug (Klim) are hand woven--one of the advantages of living in a country with a weaving tradition. The "coffee table" is made up of two bed-side tables that I painted many years ago. The side tables by the couch were actually the drawers of a very large desk. I love having drawers (so useful for hiding stuff), but who needs a huge desk these days? I've got it all on my laptop. I added marble tops to the drawers. Yes, my style is purely eclectic...
A reminder of the Mediterranean beach culture, Sea Shells V (Dec. 1998, machine appliquéd, embroidered, pieced and quilted) was inspired by a small shell and the blues of sea and sky.

The dining area buffet was so horribly boring, I wanted to junk it. Instead I repurposed it. Painted black and sporting new pulls, it now hides TV technology and miscellaneous items.  
The plate deserves a mention in passing. A gift from a Mexican exchange student to my parents forty years ago, it's made of pigskin that has a coat of glass--maybe the correct term is "glassified"? Not visible in the photo, the border undulates and the back is ochre. This plate with its intense blues and vivid design was the most unconventional object in my parents' home (besides me, some would argue). It never fails to catch my eye and I've never seen anything like it.
         So much for the living area...more to come.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Pandora's Box

Remember Pandora of Greek mythology, maybe from a high school literature or history class? The one who opened the box (or jar) that contained the world’s evils? That’s right: a woman was responsible for all of humanity’s woes—pretty misogynous, isn’t it? However, the idea of a box that suddenly opens and releases evils that wreck havoc on the planet intrigues me.

Possibly, living abroad makes Pandora’s box a naggingly persistent idea.
“Living in between” means looking at one’s country of origin from a different perspective, from the outside, in my case, from Tunis. The Tunisian government has made few efforts to decentralize; the major activities of government—political, military, diplomatic, etc.—and commerce take place in the Tunis region. Because of such a concentrated center of national and international activity and because Tunisia is such a small country making it difficult to hide much, Tunis is a microcosm of the international diplomatic walse. Having observed over a lengthy period of time, I remain fascinated, curious, and puzzled—no, baffled—by events as they unfold in the Mediterranean region and the Arab world.
Take the Gulf Wars, for example. The first Gulf War (1991) pushed me to do several pieces, including one titled Pandora’s Box, no. 91 (34.5”x29.5”, machine embroidered, pieced & quilted, some hand painted fabrics).

The jagged shape of this piece represents the rip in the fabric of civilization when the contents of the box spew forth. Today, this piece appears lopsided to me; I would add “Saddam” and “dictator,” etc., to the mix of words. The question remains of how to deal with the arbitrary violence of armed conflict. Creative expression can give voice to concern, n'est-ce pas?

A child’s drawings inspired War Games I: A Study in Contradiction (December 1995, 57”x79”, machine pieced, appliquéd, & embroidered). Smiles, open hands, floating guns: to this day, the term “war games” sounds sinister to me.

However, those khaki/military colors provided a challenge to expand my palate.

Taking a slice of War Games I, I created a circular design that blurred the images into a pattern in War Games II (Nov. 1995, 79”x79”, machine pieced, appliqued, embroidered).
And so, I erased war…