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Swiping through the Arab world #3: le premier rendez-vous

Feb. 21, 2018

Back in the bar, I sat tall, letting the confidence wash over me in the soft, smoky limelight. I was already so satisfied by the sweet success of having lured him over in the first place. Do I have pheromones? Does my hair look sexy pushed back? I had to press onward and seal the deal: the hunt was on, and the plan—foolproof! Perhaps I was even a little power drunk off the shift in traditional gender roles where “the big man” traditionally attracts the woman with his fertility and ability to provide. But I was the one showing my bright tail feathers, and my melon-eater had to be wooed.

I’d like to say I understood exactly what Nikora first said when he sauntered up to my barstool with the beer I’d sent him, but since the words came flowing out en français, my wishful thinking imagines something along the lines of: “Lurk no further, my beer-thirsting goddess. I, too, have seen you and must make you mine.” 

Alas, I had to break it to him that I didn’t speak French—which is rare here in Tunisia, where the majority of the population can due to their recent independence from France in 1956. Tunisia still functions very much like a French country, and because of that, the majority of expats are still, in fact, Frenchies!

We proceeded to introduce ourselves in English, his thick accent and the background noise causing me to not get his name quite right the first time. He moved towards me with a hand gently brushing my ear. “I’m Nikora,” he said with a cheeky little smile.

Melon-eater had a name!

“Maybe I’d remember it better if I took your number,” I squawked nervously.

I whipped out my 1995 Nokia phone—my iPhone was stolen during week 2, when I was still a naïve American—and punched the numbers into the stubborn little brick. He laughed at the artifact and added me to his contacts as well. We agreed to get together the following week and cheek-kissed as the French do; then he returned to his friends, who soon sent over a round of tequila shots.

One week later, Nikora and I planned to have tea and smoke shisha (hookah) together near the language school where I’d once spotted him. I put some effort into my appearance that night, sporting a fitted teacher-esque blazer, oxford boots, and a smoky eye—an ensemble befitting a witch out for tricks and treats. 

I click-clacked down the avenue to meet for our first organized date. He was there before me, prompt in nature, leaning against a tree in one of his tailored suits and uncomfortable-looking black leather shoes (which I now refer to as his sad leprechaun shoes). His face seemed even more abundant with paint-splattered freckles than before, crowned by dark-springing ringlets popping out in all directions. His eyes grew thin as he grinned and greeted me with two kisses, ever so slowly, as if to ease the American girl into his “Euro” culture. 

We started off down the road together, spotting un salon de thé, a mixed-gender café, and turning inside. “Après toi, mademoiselle,” he said as he gestured ahead of him with an outstretched hand and mini-bow, his French and Chinese customs displaying themselves simultaneously. My senses were overpowered by low-hanging clouds of shisha smoke as I stepped carefully around seated groups in intimate conversation. As we passed deeper into the thicket of the café, I came across an empty table dimly lit by a hanging multicolored lamp. Instrumental Arabic music filled the space, reminding us of our geographical location as we sat down and took off our shoes for the sake of the woven carpets.

We ordered sweet mint tea and shisha to share and began discussing our jobs and how we both ended up living in Tunis, both of us taking turns smoking the mint-flavored water pipe while the other told their story. I’ve never liked having to “present myself” on dates, finding it awkward to look introspectively and describe my passions to a stranger whom I probably won’t end up seeing again. And as a serial nomad, there’s no concealing that you’ll never be down for this concept of commitment. You’ll always value educational travel opportunities more than long, prosperous relationships where you meet each other’s families, celebrate anniversaries, plan out your lives together, and other scary things. (More like “I do not do,” am I right?)

Nikora did surprise me a bit, though. He was rather petite in size but carried himself well, with lively character. He was intelligent and confident, but not arrogant, and—my favorite—full of witty, slightly off-color remarks. After all, nothing gets my blood pumping like a match of playful jesting! He was working as an architect for the French embassy, traveling around North Africa to oversee building projects for them.

I learned we lived in opposite neighborhoods: he resided in the “French Riviera” of Tunis, with its seaside-hugging, Santorini-styled white villas and its access to “first world” amenities like recycling bins and shops that sold fancy alcohol and pork products. And then there was me, further inland, next to the Old City in a rustic French-colonial apartment where it was more common to see protests, cat fights, or even a trashcan on fire than another Westerner.

After the date concluded, I walked home in good spirits. It takes some big ol’ ovaries to hit on a stranger and ask them out on a date, especially in a foreign country. I had seen something shiny, and I’d grabbed it.

And as it turns out, it wasn’t just a mirage in the Tunisian desert.