For our second installment of the 3-0 series, a conversation between creative entrepreneurs, fellow travelers, and friends Kate Parfet, Katherine Li Johnson, and Glori Reantaso. After a recent trip to Tunisia, the women sat down to talk about living abroad, traveling alone as a woman, and their thoughts on responsible tourism. The piece is paired with a stunning set of images shot by the trio wearing our in-house line of luxury basics, Roberta.
Photography by Kate Parfet, Katherine Li Johnson, and Glori Reantaso
Early September in Tunisia lends itself to generously sun-soaked summer days and beachy rosé-drunk afternoons at a time when the European coast of the Mediterranean is known to wind down its pouring of aperol spritz. Weekends in Tunis are best spent at beachside bars, road-tripping to secret sunbathing spots, and eating a bounty of Tunisian street food, fresh poisson en papillote, and fruits de mer. In the thick of North Africa’s Indian summer, my friends Kate Parfet and Glori Reantaso came to visit Tunisia for the first time. Taxi drivers blared the Egyptian hit “3 Daqat” and we danced along to Booba’s “DKR” on the drive to the seaside destinations of Raf Raf and Al Huwariyah. We lunched in the palm-lined streets of La Marsa, tasted sticky sweets gifted by Tunisian aunties, and spent late evenings talking about home, work, travel, and wine-induced musings on responsible tourism. ––Katherine
Kate: Katherine, you’ve lived in Tunis for a year now; do you consider yourself a local or a seasoned tourist?
Katherine: Definitely not a local, but not a tourist either. All my friends here are Tunisian, I’m speaking French with taxi drivers, and slowly learning to read Arabic, so I feel somewhat integrated. I know a lot of great street food spots and Tunisian radio bangers are my favorite. But I’m not going to fully grasp the jokes and nuances that a native speaker of French or Arabic will understand, and I’m never going to be held to the same social expectations as an Arab woman. As much as I can be charmed by the environment and embrace my experiences here, I don’t feel inherently and viscerally connected to the culture the way a Tunisian would, and for that reason there will always be a degree of separation between me and Tunisia.
I lived in Japan for six years in my early to mid 20s and it felt exactly the same. I think the simultaneous insider/outsider feeling is just one of those paradoxes that you experience when you live in a country you didn’t grow up in. It’s a feeling that’s so closely related to the cultural insider/outsider paradigm of being biracial, so it’s something I’m used to.
Katherine: Glori, your parents are from the Philippines - while you've been in Tunisia you've made some comparisons to their home country. What about Tunisia reminds you of the Philippines, what is different?
Glori: Tunisian people are incredibly hospitable which reminds me of the people in the Philippines. For instance, we stumbled upon two engagement parties and both times the hosts welcomed us, invited us to come dance with them and offered us food and drinks. I felt at ease. It’s the same in the Philippines especially with the women — their love language is to feed you. On a surface level, I think they’re both empathetic, resilient and vivacious people perhaps because of similarities in having colonial histories.
One difference I noticed is the food scene. In Tunisia we were eating at mostly local spots, but I didn’t see much international influence other than the French and Italian. Not many global franchises or access to a variety of Western products.
Katherine: Kate, we skipped over the tourist beaches in Hammamet and spent a weekend in Raf Raf, which is a more low-key beach destination about an hour and a half away from Tunis. What was your first impression of the town?
Kate: Laid back. Like when we met with some gridlock on our way into town, the guy in front of us left his car in the middle of the street to get out and have a smoke. He grinned at the whole situation and half-chuckled at everyone, including himself, trying to make the best of this gritty small town traffic. Also, I grew up in New York where the nearest body of water is the congested Long Island Sound, so the clear sea and surrounding mountains of Raf Raf melted my mind a bit.
Glori: Katherine, I’m super curious about the youth culture in Tunis and the happenings post-Revolution, which in the West we call the Arab Spring. What have you learned from some of your Tunisian friends?
Katherine: From what I can see and gather, in terms of the creative energy that is happening in the city right now, I think Tunis is a special place for untraditional art and thought in the region. There’s an attention to and focus on women’s rights, there’s a public conversation about LGBTQ+ equality, there are a number of people working on cool projects in different pockets of the city, in a way that’s very of its time and place; it’s somewhat disconnected from other cities that have a brighter, more glamorized spotlight.
The way I like to think of it is like, wow it could have been cool to see the bohemian cognoscenti destinations of decades prior, like Bali in the 70s or 80s, but that Bali doesn’t exist anymore. And I think in 2018 Tunis is one of those places that fosters a mix of bohemian energy and regionally progressive ideas, for a certain group of people that have access to that conversation. And the youth culture, the kids that have grown into adulthood in the years following the Revolution, are part of the vast context in which that energy is manifesting.
Katherine: Glori, every time we were in a restaurant you tried to order food in French or Arabic, which surprised a lot of locals. You didn't seem to have any inhibition when it came to trying to learn new words and attempting to communicate, even if it meant the occasional mispronunciation. Do you feel obligated to try or is it more just for fun?
Glori: Of course it was light-hearted but a conscious choice. This was my first time in North Africa so my intent was to widen my perspective while softening the view of the ‘other’. I didn’t know much about Tunisia except that it was a more progressive Arab country. I think it’s important, when traveling, to learn about the language, history and meaning behind traditions – I want to understand the atmosphere and learn from locals.
For example, we went to this hole-in-the-wall street vendor on Rue D’Espagne, in downtown Tunis, during a super busy lunch hour. It was packed with locals in sweltering heat with zero tourists.
I was in the back of the line, but finally caught the attention of the owner. I blurted out “zoos kafteji brabbi” which means “two kafteji please!” (Kafteji is a popular Tunisian street food that’s eaten during lunchtime.) His eyes opened wide and he babbled out this deep laugh because of my novice and nasally accent; he didn’t expect that from a random Asian-American foreigner. I had an interesting connection with someone I wouldn’t usually cross paths with and I think we’ll both remember the humor in that moment.
Katherine: Kate, for most of your trip in Tunis you had your period and needed access to a bathroom. Tampons aren’t always available at shops and pharmacies; public bathrooms aren't always clean and depending on where you are, sometimes aren't easy to find. How did you handle this?
Kate: I planned ahead by buying feminine products in Barcelona before arriving in Tunis. As an adult woman I’m not generally shy about having a menstrual cycle, but I did feel slightly awkward asking men for napkins when grabbing a bathroom key. Most places didn’t have toilet paper. That said, I do think it was my responsibility to carry paper with me in my bag or deal with a little discomfort. Like one night we had dinner near the big mosque in Gammarth Village and the restaurant didn’t have a public restroom. The owner ended up walking me down a dimly lit street to an elementary school, which had the closest available bathroom. There was a moment before the school came into frame that I thought to myself, “Is this the safest idea?” but it turned out to be fine. I’m not sure many people back home would even go through the trouble, let alone leave their business unattended, to help a stranger.
Kate: Katherine, you’ve traveled through a number of countries - across Europe, Asia, Africa - alone; how do you asses the safety of traveling solo? Does it differ by place or other factors?
Katherine: I mean, I think when we label a place as “safe” or “unsafe” it has more to do with our personal fear of the unknown than it has to do with the actual place we’re passing judgement on. Especially in America we’re brought up to believe that we have safety and freedom, and that others do not. And although that’s somewhat true in extreme cases, it’s just not true as a rule. I feel comfortable going anywhere, barring centers of extreme violence, completely alone, and that feeling is incredibly liberating. So safety for me is more about learning cultural cues, speaking enough of the language to navigate day-to-day life, and knowing when and how to tell aggressive dudes to leave me alone.
Katherine: Glori, you and I cleaned up plastic during our beach trips. Our skipper helped us collect bottles in Raf Raf, and in Al Huwariyah, our skipper brought a large garbage bin to collect plastic with us and our friends. How did you feel about cleaning up the beach a bit?
Glori: It was spontaneous but it felt like the natural thing to do. I just started to clean up and didn’t feel obligated because both places made an impression on me with its natural beauty. Intuitively I wanted to keep it the same. I feel weird as an American tourist telling others to clean up their environment. I’d rather do it without imposing because it can come off as arrogant whether it’s well-intentioned or otherwise. I’m not sure if it phased them but in a subtle way I’d like to think they were thankful for it!
Katherine: Kate, did you feel pressured to dress or act differently than you normally would in order to respect cultural codes?
Kate: I felt pretty comfortable on the beach in a bathing suit. I noticed women in hijab or abaya coming out to the water closer to sunset once the temperature had cooled down a bit. Our Tunisian friend Sarra suggested I change out of my semi-sheer lounge pants for dinner, and into something less see-thru. I didn’t feel pressured, more like, “Oh I missed that, no problem!” similar to times my mom has suggested I put on a bra for family dinner.
Something that felt different and was easy to adjust to was a general openness. We made friends so quickly! On a dance floor or over homemade tabouna (a traditional Tunisian bread made in a clay oven). We were so generously welcomed into the engagement party we stumbled upon in Raf Raf, or when Sarra’s mom gave us a warm and detailed tour of her beautiful home and art collection in Sidi Bou Saïd. When we met new people, we skipped the usual small talk for great conversation - on first loves, political fears, and just listening to each other’s stories. Our regular relationship with social currency seemed so noticeably absent, so there was more room to connect on a human level, as people that were in the same place at the same time, meeting a stranger and sharing an experience.
The 3-0 (three zero) series – In numerology the number 30 is sometimes referred to as the limitless 3 – the highly creative and social energy of the digit 3 followed by the unlimited digit 0. This piece is part of the series, collaborations between Kindred Black and some of the many talented female creatives we’ve met along the way. A collection of lookbooks, interviews, conversations, and more highlighting eco-fashion and the Kindred Black sustainability ethos, 3-0 is our way of creating a space for the imagination and creative expression of the women that inspire us.