Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Our little man!

Time flies! Time changes things! Wow, are these statements true of our last few months. It seems like it was such a short time ago that our family was walking the sandy streets of our town in North Africa. Our daily view encompassed olive trees and white, domed buildings. Our shoes and clothes were all faded to a dull grey/ brown from the intensity of the sun and sand. Our bellies were full of spicy couscous and chwarma sandwiches. Now…..such a short time later and our days look forever different. How can we simply board a plane and after a few short hours, emerge into a completely different world that somehow is found on the same planet???
Here, in the vibrant green of the Canadian prairies, our family has forever changed and welcomed our third little boy and fourth child! A beautifully chubby, always moving and pumping his legs, bright blue-eyed, healthy baby boy! We are blessed and bubbling over with thankfulness that we could be surrounded by friends and family who would love on this little guy and us at this time!

SO, welcome to our little blessing, Levi Simeon, who made our family complete on August 13th, 2013! He made his entrance into this world in the wee hours of the morning at 7 pounds 10 ounces! His proud daddy, Darnell Epp, and thankful momma, Christy Epp, cuddled him with joy and his three older siblings have showered him with love….almost a bit too much love! And now, we continue on this journey with FOUR little ones by our side!

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Walking with Gladiators

The drive towards El Jem seems fairly unassuming. We had rented a car and after a number of harrowing hours on the road (and only one negative encounter between our car and a donkey's head!), we pulled off the modern, four-lane freeway towards El Jem. The view from my passenger's side window was quite typical to the rest of the trip; row upon row of olive trees, reddish/brownish earth speckled with the occasional cactus, and the familiar Tunisian white stone houses sporting bright blue shutters. And then the town of El Jem comes into view. Is this the place where Roman history comes alive??!!! Is this where gladiators would have swung their swords, exotic animals from all over Africa fought, and prisoners would have met their cruel deaths?!? And yet....

As you drive into El Jem, you can't help but marvel at how noooormal, and sleepy, and familiar this place feels to all the other little towns of rural Tunisia. Yup, we pass the many vegetable and fruit hanuts (shops), the cafe full of chatting, coffee-drinking neighbors, the tile shops, the beautiful arched doorways, the recently slaughtered camel head..... and then, suddenly the skyline doesn't seem so familiar. Above the general bustle of the local streets looms the towering arches of the ampitheatre!

We raced through the gates and began to climb the steep steps that took us to the second level. Our littlest one had to climb up with her hands and knees to prevent her from tumbling back down. A blustering wind welcomed us as we stepped out, in full view of the imposing remains of the amphitheatre floor!

(Four thumbs up! We all agree the gladiator should live!)

The benefit of exploring a place like El Jem in Africa is that nothing is roped off; it’s an explorers paradise. Our children had endless pillars to ascend as proud gladiators-to-be, and dark tunnels to disappear within. We tread the path of the fighters, down below in the belly of the amphitheatre. We imagined the snarl of a lion from one cage and perhaps the cries from a prisoner in another. And then, we came upon the spot that would have led each man and woman up towards their fate on the theater floor. What would it have been like to stand there and hear the animals, the thunder of the blood-thirsty crowd, and the thumping of your own heart? It is easy for little boys to naively glamorize the life of a gladiator…. but I found it hard to imagine anything but paralyzing fear in a moment like that.
                                          (Peering up towards the amphitheatre floor above!)

Overall, it is a surreal feeling to walk the tunnels of history dating all the way back to third century, to watch our children happily scurry about among the stones that have witnessed so many violent deaths. Some of those deaths may have been gladiators who chose their path, and even more deaths would have been those who had no choice....

And then we step back outside and back to 'modern life'. My hope is that somehow these experiences will impact us all beyond a good story and pictures. 

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

A Journey for the "Buds"!

Let's face it! We all see the world through a certain lens; we all have a certain way that we feel the earth must turn. No matter how openminded and adventurous one might be, it is inevitable to encounter those points of clashing when coming into a new culture. Suddenly,  comments about 'the normal way .... is done" or "well, we do it .... way!" can be found spilling out of your mouth. GULP! Was that me making those ethnocentric comments??!! Really, these moments of clashing can happen on many different subjects, but as the point of this blog is to be a light glimpse into our lives here, we'll take a look at the subject of food!

What a journey this country provides for the 'buds'! By that, I am meaning the tastebuds. For my Canadian mouth, these past few months have provided an exotic culinary journey of tastes... occasionally clashing with my idea of what tastes should work well together. I envision myself perched up on the counter as a young girl, taking in every instruction from my mom on how to make a good sauce, or bake a cookie, or... the list goes on. My Canadian tastebuds began to develop an idea of which taste works with which taste, but never that! Well, welcome to a tour of a deliciously different menu of foods that we enjoy here on a regular basis. And please remember to put out of your mind 'the normal way'!

No McDonalds, Burger Kings, Subways in our town. In fact, I am not sure there is a burger to be found! But, we have found a nice option for those nights when mom just doesn't feel like cooking and it's called "Brick"! Let the journey begin. First, imagine a thin crepe-like shell with mashed potato spread throughout the center. Next, add a little harissa (the delight of our North African home - a paste made from hot chilies), tuna, parsley... and then, crack an egg into the mix. Fold over the edges, deep fry, and you have yourself an explosion of flavour called Brick. This truly has become a family favourite!

Next on our tour of cuisine, we'll take a look at, what seems to me, is the pride of cooking here - couscous! My favorite part about this dish is the community bowl. There is something unique and bonding to all gather around a bowl of couscous, spoon-in-hand, tasting each morsel of couscous and spicy sauce. From what I have experienced, the sauce is a tomato, onion, chili, and garlic-based sauce simmered with meat (often goat), and various options of pumpkin, potato, carrot, green peppers, and chili peppers. What a treat to be invited into a home to share in a bowl of steamy couscous!

Esa has recently been taking great delight in being the family's cup-bearer. He scans the menu, unable to read French and Arabic, and confidently points to an item, exclaiming, "I haven't tried that one! I want that one! What's in it?" His last attempt was quite a discovery for us all. Our next menu item for exploration is called 'Ojja'. Again, a tomato-based sauce is simmered with onions, garlic, harissa, green peppers and then the final touch is added: eggs are cracked into the bubbling mixture! What an aromatic  meal, especially when eaten with bread dipped into the pungent sauce.
And, in honor of my husband, I must pay tribute to his personal favorite, Frikasi (don't know the spelling of that one!) In Darnell's own descriptive words, picture a roll with a slight donut-like taste. Into the sweetness of that roll is added tuna, harissa, olives (oh olives! How delicious you are!), and an egg. And viola, Frikasi! Darnell is happy! 

Of course, this is a short guide through the carte de jour to be found on any given day in a bustling restaurant in this quiet little city. I haven't taken the time to explain the addiction my husband has to chwarma and bread and fresh olives. I haven't told you of the wonderful flavor that toasted almonds add to a cup of sugary mint tea. We haven't even delved into the world of fresh olive oil, straight from the tree and press. Oh what a taste difference you find! You'll have to wait to hear about all the other tastes that await your buds in North Africa....or just come discover yourself!

(And as a funny side-note and confession, I wrote this blog post while eating a plate of fries dipped in good ol' Heinz ketchup. The funny part of this story is that I carried my own ketchup to the restaurant because fries 'should' be eaten with ketchup. The waiter had a good chuckle and I had to shake my head at myself!) 

Sunday, 18 November 2012

This thing called 'homeschooling'!?

I will be honest... this whole homeschooling thing has been a bit of an adjustment for us all! I have had a few moments of missing that friendly yellow school bus that used to faithfully pull up to the end of our street to whisk our kids to school...to a place where people knew what they were doing to educate our children. To a place where they could interact with other kids their age, feeling the anticipation of battling their Bey Blades at recess. To a place that afforded them the chance to learn from other adults who may not be quite so easy to argue with about assigned work. "Awww MOM, do I have to read THAT much?!?" But at the end of the day, when the latest language lesson is reviewed, the neighbors have been visited, the mess of dinner has been cleaned up (somewhat), the next day's lessons are prepared, and these three happy children have been snuggled into bed after a full 14 hours together, I can see the gift that I am given through this thing we call 'homeschooling'!

I have many moments when I love what I am seeing beginning to develop in our kids. I am thankful that there is no standard of 'cool' at the school in the garage as the two crazy teachers dance around to teach the latest memory verse. I love that we can stop any lesson to follow that random thought and 'why' question (well, sometimes!). And, I am thrilled to watch our kids learn to care for the littlest members of our school, even if that means having to play some games a different way. These are the things I remind myself of when I am a little unsure of this new role of teacher that I play!

So, here is a glimpse of our latest week at the school in the garage... under the grapevine... amidst the swarms of flies... soaking in the smells of the horses just over the fence. Yes, this is not a typical place to find a school, but check out the learning it provides. I must admit that not every week is quite as full as this one turned out to be! But let's savour the victories!

And welcome Kodo, our class pet! The garage can feel small with 6 energetic and stir-crazy children. So, the solution is to run laps around the house. This lap run was interrupted by a skinny and terrified chameleon, frozen stiffly up against the grapevine pole in our yard. We observed him for a good 15 minutes, his little round eyes spinning wildly in every direction, convinced we wouldn't notice him if he didn't move a muscle. Suddenly science was on the timetable and we had enthusiastic children discussing 'habitats' and 'adaption' and we smiled, knowing science was DONE for the day!

Each Thursday, the center of town gets invaded by a travelling market and taken over by little shops of colorful, sparkling rugs, knock-off Adidas shoes, fragrant spices, seasonal clothing, silver jewellery, and just about anything else found at Dollarama. School moved to the market place this Thursday and the kids were given a scavenger hunt. It was just about impossible to decide on one thing to fill categories like 'find something smelly' or 'find something sparkly'. But, in the end, this street musician won the 'most unique' category with his bag pipe that was a goat's belly when filled with air. What adventures to be had in the market!


We live within two hours of the largest desert in the world, the Sahara Desert. We visited a town in the Sahara in summer and saw the thermostat reach 54C. Imagine swallowing a blow dryer... yeah, that's kind of the same thing. We were delighted to experience the beauty of the desert in much cooler temperatures this weekend. The shoes and socks were off instantly, despite the many droppings of the camels who called the sand home, and we dug our feet into the orange, flour-like sand. Amazing! The boys sported their Arabian turbans and we each climbed up onto the back of a camel for a short loop around the camp. 

Next stop, the Kzar's of Tataouine. For you Star Wars nuts, you may recognize these ancient buildings from an episode of the Star Wars movies. Free tour to anyone who can tell me which episode it was in... Southern Tunisia boasts a number filming sights. Up until 40 years ago, each darkened room provided a cool place to save oils and grains for times of famine or distress in the desert. Our friend laughed and said, "This would be like tourists coming to see the Pioneer Grain Elevator in Winkler!" We were so amazed to find out that we could freely explore and climb; no roped off areas here!

The last stop on our day in the desert turned out to be the unexpected highlight of the day! We wound along the bumpy roads until we came upon some towering rock cliffs. Climbing and winding its way up the side of two adjacent mountains is an ancient Berber village called Shanini. At first glance, it can be difficult to make out, as the buildings, fences, and walkways are the color of the cliffs. But as you make your way up the paths, you discover a a labyrinth of homes and shops dating all the way back to the twelfth century. What a hands-on experience with history as lively discussions on 'the different ways people used to live' cannot help but take center stage. The most fascinating part of this all? Shanini is still inhabited and we were warmly greeted by a few of the residents.

We soon realized that our kids had not eaten anything since breakfast that morning and it was definitely time to get some food in our bellies. We had so much to take in with our eyes and minds all day that we had not noticed that our tummies had not taken anything in. So, it was time to say good-bye. What a gift to our children and to us to experience a little piece of this place called Southern Tunisia. This was a day when I truly felt like our kids had received some fine 'educating'. Let's just hope we can remember to fit in some math in there somewhere too.....

Saturday, 3 November 2012

At home in the sandbox!

I remember my first attempt at making a sandbox! I so proudly hammered together a 8x8 box and filled it with clean, grainy sand so that our kids could dig and explore the wonders of sand! Well... that 8x8 box now seems a little unimpressive as we are now surrounded by an entire world of sand! Our daily view includes a whole lotta sand, olive trees, cactus, and even some garbage in the mix. What is it like to live in a sandbox??

First, it can be a bit tricky riding your bike up the trails to your house. I have now had a few good wipe-outs on my bike. Don't worry, it was only my pride that showed any bruising. I am now officially the lady who sounds funny when she tries to speak the language and the lady who can't stay on her bike!

                                                               (a view of our street)

Secondly, we realize you have to quite faithfully water the trees as the sand loves to suck every droplet of water that falls (which is basically nothing!). Darnell is frequently reminded by a local lady that our orange trees are dying because of HIM. It's the man's job! He finally took that job seriously this week, so let's hope we have some juicy mandarin oranges to eat by Christmas time.

(the front of our house, with the thirsty trees all around)

Thirdly, you need a spade to shovel out the sand from your house each day... or hour. My broom is getting a full work-out!

                                 (the yard, looking towards the street and the trees the kids climb)

                    (our favorite part of the house, the gazebo off the back. We can often be found here, eating our meals on cushions)

Overall, this home in the sandbox is treating us quite well. It may look different, the sound may boom through the stone walls and tile, and we may break 5 glasses a week on the tile floors, but it is becoming home! So here are a few pictures of this new sandy world we call home!

(To tempt you pottery lovers, here is a picture of just one of the many hand-made pottery markets)

                         (The main roundabout in town! Anyone looking to start a scooter gang?
                                                                      You'd do well here!)

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Mary had a little lamb....

.... and so did all of our neighbours! Sadly, the sheep on our little island did not share the same fate as the soft, fleecy lamb of Mary's happy tune!

This weekend has marked the biggest celebration for our friends and neighbours. It is a time to remember Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son in submission to God and God's offer to provide a ram in his stead. Each family buys and slaughters a sheep in remembrance of this event. We have had many reminders of the up and coming holiday as sheep have seemed to take over the island. An instant sheep market was erected and make-shift stalls and hay took over one of the main roundabout's in our little city. I had to wrestle my bike through the crowd on the sidewalk, as men poked sheep and bartered for just the perfect one.

Each morning this past week, we have woken up to the chorus of bleating sheep coming from all corners of the street. I have had many moments when I have literally laughed out loud as I have sat outside under the pomegranate trees, listening to the call and answer from the various sheep tied up in each neighbour's yard. It was almost as if they knew what awaited them!
And then Friday morning arrived. Our boys were up bright and early, eager to witness their first slaughtering of an animal. I was a little hesitant to let them observe the death of an animal, as we are used to finding our meat in the meat department of the local Superstore... but this is a normal part of life here, and something all the local children are apart of. So, each Epp kid found a perch on the fence and awaited the big event! We met some new neighbours (I guess it helps when your kids are literally hanging over the stone fence into their yard!) and were invited to come be apart of the festivities first-hand. Darnell learned some new techniques for effectively separating the animal fat from the skin using a bike air compressor. Yes, its that simple! We enjoyed the generosity of other neighbours as they shared some spicy, greasy sheep's meat with us. And we got a good laugh at Darnell's sheep friend that he made over the fence. Another set of neighours had hung up the head and legs over our fence, making it appear as though the sheep was making its last attempt to escape...into our yard! Gave Darnell a jump when he looked up to see it 'eyeing' him below! Overall, it has been a very interesting weekend for this family from the Prairies of Southern Manitoba! We have met many new people and have been blessed by the hospitality and warmth we have been shown by those around us!