Monday, September 10, 2007
There was not a soul around the Utique site. The parking lot was empty. Zied said he'd sit in the car as he had at the beach and I could go walk in and wander around on my own. I liked that idea a lot
A chance to walk around, full still from a great lunch, in silence, in a beautiful field of poplars and ancient stone ruins completely alone except for some cows and sheep. It was like a page from a Romantic era poem.
I was inching my way to the edge of a pit that separated the excavated old city from the higher ground of the field when a man appeared from nowhere far on the other side of the ruins and began hailing me: Madame, Madame! He was pointing the way to the stairs that led into the pit.
Shit, I thought, another hustling would-be guide. I hadn't bought a tour ticket. I hadn't bought a camera pass. I just wanted to walk around in a pretty place with a past alone. In peace.
That was not to be.
The hustle began.
Just come this way. I will show you something. You like mosaics?
He was not to be ignored. He took my arm and, in addition to worrying about being hustled I now worried about something else. There was no one else around within easy screaming distance. He didn't want to go far as we walked through the piled stone foundations but when he got there he wanted me to do something.
Adding to the annoyance was the pressure of communication accomplished through a few words of English, a few words of French, touch and lots of charades. By pointing downward and pressing on my shoulder, he made me see he wanted me to get on the ground. Shit. He got down too and pulled aside a warped old piece of wood I hadn't noticed.
Under it was a patch of dull, dusty mosaic. I looked closer at what was a boat afloat in a sea of fish and my assaultive guide pulled out a squirt bottle and doused the tiles. They lit up when wit and the turquoises and reds and greens sparkled.
Wow. So I followed him into the next ring of foundation stones and he did the pointing down and shoulder press again so I sat again. But this time he muttered no no and pressed more and simulated sleeping. Eventually I got it and reclined on the tile floor of an ancient Roman (Romans took over here as well in Carthage and were replaced by Byzantine conquerers) home on one arm. He showed me how in this dining room the residents would have relaxed so with a bowl in front of them misted by water from -- he showed me the traces -- the fountain behind and entertained by dancers performing on -- he pirouetted on a circular marble slab.
To make a long story short, this turned out to be the best tour I've ever had. At his instigation I climbed into a hot tub and sprawled out like a hot-tubbing Roman. He lifted me out. I climbed atop what looked like a pile of rocks to see it was actually a fountain fashioned in the shape of two turtles. He lifted me off the pedestal.
I mean it was 80 degrees and I am not at my thinnest.
I worshipped in the temple.
I looked into wells and cisterns and privies and down a plain old hole -- where the treasury was once stored.
Where's all the money, I asked?
In France, he promptly answered. Comedy with his history and knowledge of the place.
I would never have found on my own the little hooks for horses' reins in what was once a stable or the spot where Phoenician, Roman and Byzantine tiling all ran together and I certainly would not have seen the skeleton.
We were looking into old Phoenician tombs and he goes, wanna see the skeleton? And he dramatically pulls out a key to a ratty old shack. Inside is a tiny skeleton in one of the same tombs, its skull caved in so the forehead is next to the neck bone. I thought it had been buried upside down at first because of that. No, my private guide goes, and he lifts the skull to show me.
I found out later that this skeleton has never been verified as Roman or Phoenician which made me wonder if he made up other stuff he told me.
Then it doesnt' matter. Ruins are like constellations. You don't really see what's there or what might have been there without a lot of imagination. And he provided it during that sweaty hour that he pantomined, pulled and lifted me, pattered and joked.
I gladly gave him the equivalent of $15, a big sum. He gave me an aromatic bouquet of citron, basil and other herbs and a carnation that smells like cinnamon. My hotel room is scented still.