In February 1943, the German Afrika Korps occupied Tunisia and was trying to block the advance of the American Army’s II Corps, which was moving from Algeria, eastward across the border. The British were moving from Libya to the west, with the intention of putting an end to the Axis power in North Africa and taking the capital, Tunis.
The Americans and the Germans first confronted each other at the Battle of Kasserine Pass, with the inexperienced US troops suffering heavy losses. Quick changes to the American strategy set the stage for the fall of Tunis three months later. We will have to watch the movie Patton again this summer, because we learned that the opening scene of the film takes place just after this battle.
We laughed when we read in the Lonely Planet that Kasserine could easily win the ‘dullest town in Tunisia’ award, but we stopped anyway to find something to eat for lunch. The one restaurant recommended in our guidebook was only serving tea and coffee that day; boredom must have got the better of the staff there. We drove around and found a small shop selling Tunisian wraps and ordered up one stuffed with chopped lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, hard-boiled eggs; all the ingredients except for tuna.
The Tunisians love tuna, and seem to put it on top of all their salads. As the man was finishing up, he asked if we wanted olives. I asked for a few, but then immediately warned Anil that we would have to be careful when we ate the huge wrap because the olives were not pitted. We grabbed some extra local bread and headed off out of town looking for a place to stop and have a picnic.
We began to notice that the landscape was changing as we headed north of Kasserine. The bare rocky soil that spreads out from Tozeur was gradually becoming more and more covered with a grey-green grass called esparto. This plant is one of the few that can survive in the harsh Tunisian interior, and since ancient times, it has been harvested to be crafted into household items and even ropes, harnesses for animals, and even saddlebags.
Today, the wiry, narrow-bladed grass is collected by the ton and processed in a huge paper factory in Kasserine. It’s hard to believe that nearly 50,000 tons of the grass is turned into paper products each year; it provides employment to local workers who have few opportunities in this otherwise barren part of the country.
At last we spotted a quiet viewpoint near the highway and pulled over to eat our lunch. I opened the packed sandwich and gave half to Anil and then bit into my own. We were chattering on about something or other when I suddenly felt the molar at the back of my mouth crack loudly and crumble, to mix with the ingredients of my wrap. Rats, I had bitten hard on one of the very olives I had warned Anil about. I suspected it was one of my crowns breaking. I had done a similar thing last summer eating a date.
When we checked the damage, we discovered it was the very last molar at the back of the left side of my mouth, one of the few that has not yet been crowned. It had a huge filling in the center, and one of the four remaining corners of the tooth had broken off under the assault from the olive pit. It was the pits for sure. I knew that I would have to have it repaired in Tunis because it is more than a month until our flight home to Canada and I didn’t want to risk having the tooth abscess. I’ve had one root canal in my life and it was a horrible experience, I don’t ever want to have another.
Poor Anil, it seems he always has to deal with me breaking things. If it’s not my arm (twice already) then it’s my teeth. I am gradually developing a most international mouth; I now have crowns from Canada, India, China, Mexico, and now Tunisia will be added to the list. I only hope that I can find a good dentist in Tunis. Our guidebook warns travellers to be wary of substandard sterilization of dental instruments. It would be horrific to get Hepatitis or HIV. I formulated a plan in my mind to call the Canadian Embassy once we are back in the capital, and ask for them to recommend a competent dentist.
There wasn’t much to do but pick out the remaining olives from our wrap, throw them on the roadside and hope they sprout into trees as we set off again northwards towards the Mediterranean. We imagined a pretty uninteresting drive until we approached the mountains just 50km inland. So far, Tunisia had been pretty much what we expected, barren, dry, rocky and dusty with the landscape broken here and there by olive orchards and palm groves. It was never boring, I love desert scenery, and we were content to move through it and explore the whole country.