Seeing the Beauty within the “Bad”

Seeing the Beauty within the “Bad”

Kef Abed near Binzerte, Tunisia.

Most people don’t exactly consider Tunisia as “the place” to be these days. A decade of political struggle has cracked the bright and sunny Mediterranean beach facade, which once served as Tunisia’s profile picture. 

Now the image of a messy house comes to mind, leaving a bulk of its inhabitants with a strong desire to leave (50 percent of young people) and deterring many of its visitors from knocking on the door as tourism, a major source of income for the country, continues to fluctuate

However, not all Tunisians choose to view their country as a lost cause. Recently I’ve had the chance to catch up with environmentalist, painter, and my friend Camy Mathlouthi. Camy is the Founder of pour une tunisie propre et verte (For a Clean and Green Tunisia–PTPV), a Tunisian movement (previously an association) that strives to empower youth to protect oceans and seas by addressing plastic pollution through an artistic lens. 

Seeing Beauty within the “Bad”

If you visit PTPV’s Facebook page, you’ll notice a sharp contrast between the photos of documented plastic pollution and the pictures celebrating a clean beach, spring flowers, or trashart. This excellently demonstrates Camy’s wise approach to not only plastic pollution–but life–in Tunisia.

World Ocean Day
PTPV World Ocean Day event, 2019.

Camy refuses to ignore environmental issues faced by Tunisia. But rather than solely focusing on the problem of trash that can seem like never ending piles in our streets and on our beaches, she redirects the attention to possibilities through trash-to-art workshops, beach cleanups, and poetic performances carried out through PTPV.

In sum, when it comes to the trash problem and the more or less corrupted state of politics, Camy won’t sugar coat the problem, but she won’t spend too much time complaining either because she is committed to finding the beauty within the “bad”.

Adapting to Make the Difference

At the start, PTPV’s activities included more work at the political level hoping to influence local authorities. However, Camy realized early on, After many experiences, I understood that they will never enforce the law to end trash in the public spaces.” 

Instead she noted, “I am dwelling on my commitment because I am convinced that I can convince young people around me. And that’s enough for now.” In many ways, this signaled a return to the organization’s roots, as PTPV grew out of Camy’s work with her German students, which began in 2008 with an Environmental Awareness Week.

Permission granted by Camy Mathlouthi.

Between 2012 and 2019, PPTV has organized and implemented more than 23 awareness campaigns and beach clean-ups involving local youth, and has taken action with organizations like GreenPeace, The United Nations, and Break Free From Plastic to spread awareness in Tunisia. 

PTPV’s Digital Quarantine Events (April 20th- May 20th)

In line with the movement’s approach of finding beauty within the “bad”, PTPV is working to create community online for some nature therapy and appreciation during lockdown.

PTPV's event page
PTPV’s event page.

Through “Elle sont jolies les fleurs de mon pays” PTPV invites everyone around the world to get out, snap photos of the spring flowers, and share them on the event page. The event is daily and runs until May 20th so get out and post your pictures here!

Tunisia may not be “the place” to be, but it sure is one of my favorite places nonetheless. Public transportation might be slower than a pet turtle, customer service is humorously nonexistent, and the struggling economy makes the lives of many extremely difficult (especially with COVID19). But, a radically beautiful charm can be found if you look for the amazing beaches, spring flowers, and most of all the people who refuse to give-up on meeting the needs of the community while seeing this country’s full potential.

 A big thanks to all who are out there (like Camy!) actively working to see the beauty within the “bad”!

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Ramadan with Covid, Christmas without Snow

Ramadan with Covid, Christmas without Snow

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Ramadan like Christmas
Made with Canva. Food credit goes to Besma–Ramadan 2018 was lit.

Last Friday I jumped into a Zoom call with steaming-hot coffee. Steaming-hot coffee not even in a mug (I don’t have any of those), but in a glass cup that amplified the steam and pronounced the dark-chocolatey color to the other mini zoom boxes on the call. The other mini boxes holding approximately thirty people… most of whom were fasting. Two minutes later the coffee kicked in:

“OMG I’m so sorry and embarrassed! It’s the first day of Ramadan and here I am with my coffee. Please forgive me. Ramadan mabrouk to all who are celebrating!”- my Zoom message to the group.

work 5 minutes
Swap cereal for coffee, and that’s pretty much how it went down. P.C. goes to MEME.

A few smiled, giggled a bit, and nearly everyone replied, “No problem. Thank you! Happy Ramadan!” And I slowly pushed the steaming-hot coffee out of the frame. Karma served me stale coffee an hour later. It was well-deserved.

Although I’m continually impressed with anyone who eschews coffee, water, food, and cursing (!!) during daylight hours in Ramadan, I would not be half as gracious myself. My eyes would be cursing for me if I was in one of those mini boxes without morning coffee.

P.C. Goes to ABC.

It’s no secret as to why I would be so oblivious. I mean I have a hard time paying attention in the first place, and on top of that Covid19 has created a weird bubble that is my apartment. In previous years, I have gone to great lengths to participate in the holy month that transforms cities. In 2017 I fasted for the entire month (that’s my metaphorical Ramadan badge of honor). But Covid has me cooped up inside thinking it’s still February.

Actual footage of me attempting to fast. P.C. goes to Step Feed.

Yes Ramadan has arrived, but its magic needs to be declared as lost baggage for now. No breaking the fast with family and friends, no coffee with friends nor cultural events around the city leaves many people feeling robbed–and has got me feeling like I did back in December of 2016 and 2018 when I didn’t go home for Christmas.

And yes, many people recognize that everything I mentioned above is frivolous when it comes to the real meaning of Ramadan, but this is going to be that one annoying post that says Covid makes Ramadan a lot less magical.

I’ll own that as my perspective, and you can blame it on me being a non-Muslim foreigner if you would like. That being said, I’ve started to take baby steps to reclaim some magic. This afternoon while taking the trash out, I shouted Ramadan greetings to anyone who looked my way. Bechir–local store owner–laughed as usual. A “Chehia Tayeba” for you, and one for you, and one for you!

I throw open windows around 7pm to hear the cacophony of call to prayers, and have started scheduling virtual coffee dates for some Zoom-sponsored nightlife. My favorite strategy is eating copious amounts of brik. By the way, how much brik is too much brik? Asking for a friend.

Anyways, I said it was less magical– not unmagical. This lost baggage can be recovered.

The Ramadan dinner bell.

So before closing, join me in one big Ramadan mubarek saied!! For those celebrating, may you find the magic of Ramadan like Harry Potter discovering Hogwarts. For those who are not, but know someone who is, join me in another Ramadan karim!

Stay hydrated, friends!

Sign Off

How are you celebrating Ramadan during the times of Covid19? Let me know in the comments!

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Packing for the Trip (and on the Pounds)

Packing for the Trip (and on the Pounds)

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Chips Feature

My life usually follows the cycle of moving to a new country in the fall, hunkering down to work through the winter, and then emerging for damage control in the spring. Whether it be moving to Tunisia (again), setting up for grad school in Budapest, or attending Carleton back in the day–this pattern prevails.

Winter, for me, means moving mountains while not caring how many cookies or slices of pizza it takes to get the work done. Perhaps not the healthiest approach, but if you’ve ever tried to successfully complete a Master’s degree in 10 months… you know it’s one of very few options. 

Spring. Spring! Now that is my season to breath. Tunisian Arabic has a lovely expression for this: riguel omourek (Ree-gal oo-mour-ik). If Google offered a translation it would be, “take time to figure your shit out”. 

Hiking in Houaria, 2017
Spring hiking in Haouaria, 2017. P.C. goes to the fabulous Annie!

In Spring I usually ree-gal oo-mour-ee by counting the cookies and slices, swapping them for fruits and veggies, and taking walks to see the green. However, this year marks the second in a row in which my shit has not been properly sorted. I conceded 2019 to my thesis research, and Covid-19 swiped 2020’s window of opportunity. 

Long story short: I’m carrying 10 pounds from last year, 10 from this year, and in true overachieving fashion, working on the “Quarantine 15” for bonus points. My current solution to this body clutter is not buying an air conditioning unit in hopes of sweating the weight out this summer. Yalla!

Alright, I do realize that solution maybe far fetched and I just want you to know I really do have a plan that involves more salad, Yoga with Adriene, and  The Fitness Marshall. See below.

But that plan takes time and patience just like any shift, and Covid-19 isn’t going anywhere soon. I know this. I’m able to write it. However, I don’t always feel it. So when we all emerge from quarantine I know there will be times when I am teaching a class, or at a cafe with friends thinking, “Oh god! Do they know my pants are a little tight? Do my arms look too big in this shirt??”. 

This is my problem, and it’s not my problem. I am guilty for the extra cookies, but I’m not responsible for the social pressure that makes gaining two pounds feel like forty. I mentally fight this lack of wiggle room now, and I’ve always fought it. And if this is how judgements about a person continue to be made… perhaps I need to tattoo my CV across my forehead–because I will add and drop a few pounds to learn and explore.

Lizzo's Tiny Purse
Lizzo’s tiny purse “big enough to fit all the f@$!s” she gives. P.C. Insider.

Society and the media have become aware of this body image thing, yet we’ve still got a long way to go. Just like me and my grad school/winter/corona weight. So in the meantime, remember only make enough space in our mind for these worries as there is in Lizzo’s tiny purse. Focus on being healthy, not on meeting  expectations set by the media and industries. And by the way, following Celeste Barber on IG is a great way to start doing just that.

Stay safe and strong, friends!

barber corona
#Celestechallengeaccepted. P.C. goes to the Daily Mail.

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Your Covid19 Escape Plan

Your Covid19 Escape Plan


“But I wanna gooooooooooo!” 11 year-old Celeste complained to Grandma Kris. 

We were on a walk, and from her perspective probably killing many birds with one stone: 1.) getting her 5 foot, 140 pound grandkid to exercise and 2.) away from grandpa. Back then Gpa drove the getaway car to and from the donut shop, and was my partner in crime when eating bowls of Cheetos. 

“You’re mother would be worried sick!”, she, the best worry-er in town, explained. She nicely broke the news that I would not go on an overpriced trip to Australia that summer. I struggled to get through one week of summer camp, let alone an international trip with a group of strangers.

I didn’t physically leave the United States until 10 years later, and during that time I mastered the art of traveling through books (I also took up running to make room for Cheetos). So as promised, your escape plan is below. And if you really do need a getaway car… I’ll call grandpa up. He will be the guy waiting in a HAZMAT suit.


Americanah: we are going to start off Twister-style here. Right foot goes on Nigeria, left on The States, and reach your right hand up to London. Now spin the wheel for Ngozi Adichie’s acute observations on what it’s like to move from Nigeria to the U.S. or U.K. in search of college and careers. This story gave me a book hangover–so much to think about and in need of more.

Istanbul by Pamuk
P.C. goes to Mr. Holroyd’s blog.

Istanbul: I never thought I could be moved by descriptions of furniture. But it happened, and I’m offering you this ticket to an earlier Istanbul. When my  trip to Turkey fell prey to cancelation in 2016 I bawled in my mom’s car all the way from Minnesota to Missouri. I blame Pamuk for the ugly cry-face I carried across state lines. His memoir of the city earned its place in my suitcase for many years, until I finally gifted it (perhaps grudgingly) away to a friend.

Winnie The Pooh

Winnie The Pooh: “I knew when I met you an adventure was going to happen.” Not one of us is too old to explore The One Hundred Acre Woods. So do yourself a favor and attend story time here before you sleep tonight.

At Home in the World
P.C. goes to The Book Castle.

At Home in the World: I have a great amount of respect for this book. She and her husband took their three kids on a world trip. So if you ever feel like “travel” is not for you because of the solo, young and privileged stereotype, pick up Oxenreider’s book. She tells us how to eat cheap in Hong Kong and the best way to react to your child vomiting on a crowded train.

Educated by Tara Westover

Educated: friends, Westover was able to sum up the essence of my history degree in one book. It’s a no brainer why this woman has a bucket of awards from this memoir. So if you’ve ever wondered about growing up in a Mormon fundamentalist family, or how to find the willpower to get your ass to the Ivy Leagues, then you know what to do.

Kristen Newman's Memoir
P.C. goes to The EveryGirl.

What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding: if the French dude near you on the plane isn’t asking, “Ca va?” while you laugh-cry your way through a book, then try again with this memoir. Newman, a writer for “That 70’s Show” and “How I Met Your Mother”, shares her off-season scandals and adventures had in South America, Europe, and New Zealand with the same zesty humor of our favorite T.V. shows. Needless to say, I burned through this book before I reached my destination.

FINAL STEP: go get these (e)books! You are welcome to order from my online shop. And don’t share amongst yourselves because I don’t want to be responsible for your coughs 😉

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For Reals

Stay safe friends!

I Triple Dog Dare You

I Triple Dog Dare You

Imagine this: you are sitting on your couch or floor cushion (holla that’s me!), and you are plugged into your phone using an app to learn–wait a minute–a different language! Ok, for me I don’t have to imagine because I’ve been just that. My French pronunciation is going to be off the charts.

Christmas Story
The most epic dare of all time. P.C. A Christmas Story.

ELLE avait UNE MAISON a PARIS!”, I bark enthusiastically to my bedroom walls.

Youssef’s concerned reply, “Umm love, is everything ok in there?”.


He comes over to find me studying on Duolingo, shakes his head, and leaves.  I smirk and then bellow:


So yeah, I triple dog dare YOU–my finger is pointing now–to start learning a language during lock down. It’s ok if you are in the process of learning one. In that case, I’m daring you to practice.

Step 1. Download DuoLingo on your phone or visit the site.

Step 2. Choose your language. Apparently Duo offers 94 languages. I recommend listening to a few on YouTube, or pick one based on where you want to travel (post Corona of course).

Step 3. Start doing the exercises on Duo, repeating everything ALOUD. ALL OF IT. Like the howling dog I dared you with. This is key if you want to actually capture a few words here.

Step 4. Do this everyday for the next month, 15 minutes per day. Make that brain do some push-ups.

Step 5. Find a friend to practice with. Compete with them to see who can get the most points on Duo each week, or challenge me! My username is Celeste531107. I suggest creating a prize for the weekly winner.

Step 6. Rinse and Repeat.

Last tip before I go back to some barking myself: Language learning is all about trying things out. I learned this best from a classmate, who while on a field trip, rolled down his window and proceeded to yell out phrases instructed by our professor to pedestrians on the street. He was like a happy dog with his head and tongue hanging out.

He taught me that you gotta look silly and take a crack at sounding the words out. You’re going to sound like a toddler, and you’re going to be wrong most of the time. But after a bit you’ll be impressed by how many household items you can name in Russian.

So be like the happy dog. Learn a new language.

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All Dressed Up & No Place to Go

All Dressed Up & No Place to Go

Last Friday I looked around the mess that is my room–let’s not lie it was laundry day– and finally settled on a professional dress, black boots, and some nice earnings (to step it up a bit). That day I had three different classes in three different places. It was GO TIME.

I didn’t get far. I got my taxi, headed towards the highway… and then after seeing the ridiculous traffic my driver asked, “Where exactly are you going?”. After I told him he said suspiciously, “Alright lets try an alternative route”.

Then he turned on the radio and we both quickly realized we weren’t going anywhere. “Two suicide bombers outside the U.S. Embassy”, Mosaique FM told us. “Four officers injured and one in critical condition,” the report went on.

La Marsa, Tunis 2018.

No, we would not be headed directly towards the neighborhood that houses both the U.S. Embassy and my destination. Instead we spent the next half of an hour fighting traffic so he could drop me in the exact spot we started. With all classes cancelled I stayed home the rest of the day and felt a bit disoriented by the free time. I changed back into pajamas and became a sponge, soaking up the slight chaos created by the attack.

Coincidentally, my first class was supposed to be about counter terrorism strategies–the topic that consumed most of my life last year in grad school (I’m a big fan of security studies and am just waiting for a call from The Dog to join his bounty hunting team).

Lets get one thing straight here: Tunisia is not the land of terrorism. The Middle East isn’t either. It’s not a swamp to be drained and hardcore statistics can show us that. In fact, according to the NY Times white supremacists have outpaced Jihadis. I know, shocking, not all Muslims are terrorists and apparently white supremacists are better haters anyways.

During the rise of ISIS I was in Jordan and our very religious roommate felt compelled to explain regularly that the alleged Islamic State was not interpreting the Quran correctly, that we– non Muslims–were welcome in Amman. Since then I’ve heard from many Jordanians, Moroccans, Tunisians that the main beef they have with the U.S. is not religion but aggressive foreign policy. I mean, I’m not talking to ISIS members, but I do like to befriend everyday people and have these discussions.

As it turns out, many Tunisians are actually boggled by our gun situation and the number of school shootings. They view this American phenomenon with the same level of alarm that Westerners assign to terrorism overseas. Which is perhaps more logical considering that The Gun Violence Archive reports 419 mass shootings for 2019. So, how do we explain this? I’m usually at a loss of words when I try.

Our lovely swamp, otherwise known as the Mediterranean Sea.

The next day I looked around the mess that is my room–let’s not lie I didn’t actually get to the laundry–and continued to have a normal day like the rest of Tunis. Well, except for the injured officers and the friends and family of the one who passed away. My thoughts go out to them.

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Owning My Identity in a Taxi

Owning My Identity in a Taxi


Because I can’t pronounce French, and because Taxi drivers in Tunis don’t really speak English, I usually slide into a cab while frantically giving directions in Tunisian Arabic. (The frantic part comes from the fact that I have this problem with being late. ALMOST ALWAYS.)

How do drivers respond? I assume in their head it’s something like, “Dude why is this white girl speaking our language?? Like not even formal Arabic, but the Tunisian dialect?”

A few moments later they are polite enough to inquire by asking, “Are you French?” And I say, “No.”
Just no.
Not, “No sir I’m American.”
Or, “Actually I come from the U.S.”
It’s just a straight-up NO.

The really curious ones will run the list. “So you’re German?”
“What’s your first language?”
This is the point at which I have to admit I’m American–because there just aren’t enough Australians or South Africans to go around these days.

My younger self refused to be associated with a cheeto head.
Okay, name calling is NOT okay and there is more to the story so:
I refused to be grouped into the lump of people who supposedly elected a president who has said and done an array of racist, sexist, and classicist things. That is not me. Therefore, I’m not American today.

And thus, I spent many a days trying to blend in with hair ten shades lighter than the average person on the street and eyes that are about one in a million here. It went so well.


I grew up a bit watching this president continue to offend and harm individuals nationally and internationally. I also grew up A LOT living the majority of the last five years outside of the U.S., and it turns out that spending time abroad also means spending a considerable amount of time explaining the thought process behind the American lifestyle and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

And every time I explain I grow up a little more. Now I’m so grown up that the beginning of my taxi ride sounds a little something like this:
“Are you French?”
“I’m American and I come from this small little town that’s only a few hours from Canada–you got it it’s in the north but the middle of the country so not close to any (in)famous places you know like California or New York and it’s super cold but do you know the Timberwolves or Vikings because yeah that’s my state and it’s called Minnesota and it’s in AMERICA!! And I LOVE McDonalds!!”

That’s 100% true by the way, and loving those double cheeseburgers is probably the thing that I should be ashamed of.

And after I catch my breath, I think to myself:
“Yes, I’m an American and I care enough to learn your language.”


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