by Peg Clement (Tunisia 1975–77)
This essay was first published in the November 2003 issue of PeaceCorpsWriters.org,
and won Peace Corps Writers’ 2004 Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award.
PEACE CORPS WAS two years of my young life, half my life ago. A time of long blonde braids, still-chubby cheeks, a hardy body withstanding weeks of tummy rumbles, pinkened skin before sunscreen became de rigueur. Quick reflexes, and a back hardened to floor sleeping. Easy laughs.
Peace Corps was unexpected, and unplanned for, fun. Many times, it just happened — someone arrives descending feet-first from the louage, at the doorstep, or someone shows up at a beach disco. Instant friends, mix and stir. A prepackaged community, insurance premium against the loneliness of the Sahelian plains.
Peace Corps was earnestness. Adults used the word altruistic. We tried to do good, and reached for change, big change — winds of change, like the sandstorm Khamseen winds. After supper, I concentrated hard on my lesson plans — taking each one seriously, debating its worthiness with roommates, substituting a different reading passage, reciting lines aloud in preparation by candlelight.
Peace Corps was giddy love, or illusions of it (mirages, salt puddles shimmering as goats wander by), usually across cultures. American slept with Italian, American went with Tunisian, French were waiting in the wings, we tried them all. Anyone was possible and people were buff and looking good. I had three foreign boyfriends in two years. Two overlapped; it was heady and flattering and confusing stuff.
Peace Corps was plump olives and squishy dates and juicy tangerines, Mediterranean food of colors and hot stings, pits and juices, warm tomatoes and lemons, big bread you ripped, layers of things, and the convivial brik à l’oeuf. I learned to eat bread, not drink water, when food is too spicy.
Peace Corps was about men. Afterwards, I explained my hypersensitivity away, saying I had been a libber, fresh from a women-only ivy college — headstrong, principled, and consequently, immediately indignant. I stayed mad at Tunsis for both two years. There were always eyes, always leers, always hands, always them. I wonder why I am still single, 30 years on. I still feel eyes.
Peace Corps was simple rooms. Here was the smoothness of the blue/white striped blanket on my double mattress, here was a pillow. No more, no less. There was a small icon sitting on a plank serving as a tabletop. Here were a few of my things puddled on the floor or on boards and bricks against the wall. There was a round low wooden table set between two thin floor mattresses as a living room. Simple was good.
Peace Corps was marriages. Twosomes separated off and got hitched; maybe five or six couples. I was floored; so young? Some of our women stayed there in-country. The nurse married the Arabic teacher. Haffouz married Kairouan. Tunis Bourguiba married Tunis Bourguiba and are still together. They said PC was hard on marriages. Was it really?
Peace Corps was a slower time. Each day was a bookmark, in hammocks, sofas, on floors. There was lots to write in journals and diaries. Lots, and nothing, happened each day.
Peace Corps was Aimée’s roof-top apartment in Sousse — a weekend refuge. The pall of ocean humidity hung like sheets through the white-washed couple of tiny rooms. I fasted up there for three days, but gave up and went downstairs to the beach.
Peace Corps was Arabic, with a vengeance (see Men, above). Heaves and swallows, gutteral gasps an throaty coughs, vowels from bowels, ballistic combinations of consonants, straining lips, mouth, tongue, stomach, throat. “Bara idfin rowhic high,” I hissed on the busses. Kelb came in very handy in the souks. I get calls even now for Iraq, for Oman — “Titkallim il-Arabi?”
Peace Corps was hammems, vaguely fungoid and slick, creepy with old women blobbing on top of each other, slamming hands into backs, scraping camel mitts over each others’ arms and legs, like frogs, squatting in running water, hot drops clinging to blue tiled walls, chipped and broken, steam everywhere. Leering eyes, private parts everywhere. I was bait, marriageable bait, for these crones, and they trolled —
Peace Corps was being looked at. Jane Kuntz said she turned it off, walking as if with clappers and earplugs, oblivious. But my antenna quivered expectantly, dreading it, hating it, ready for it. Always noticed, under scrutiny, appraised like store goods or bartered horses. Comments on the bus, from the café on the corner, from within holes of souk shops, around from the teacher’s room. On display, in the public eye for two whole years. I can’t shake it all these years later.
Peace Corps was the welcome mat over the threshold into a career — a teaching career — and seemed an answer for me. It would do for another decade.
Peace Corps was finding Americana relief together on small R&Rs of chocolate chip cookies and outdated Time magazines and NY Times crossword puzzles, shared — English, our food, our ways, references only we knew, banana bread. We would sit on each other’s mattresses and reveal pasts, brief though they still were.
Peace Corps was a stand-alone time, a dyad of years wrapped up in plastic and stored on the shelf. A 3-day repeat visit in 1981 rendered no further meaning; was too fast and people looked too different. A few letters over the years, a Saturday spent reorganizing slides, faded prints in albums, mainly of goofy 23 year olds in goofy poses. (I am smiling in every one of those pictures, I think.) Recent random emails, now a reunion 26 years on. Are the years atrophied, petrified, or are they resuscitable?
Peace Corps was a gallery of types I can detail even now, down to the freckle, the lip mole, the calf shape, the chuckle, the broodiness, the breastbones, the contact lens, the frowns, the chubby bodies, their clothes, red toenails. I know their names by heart – after all, he was the first Robbie I knew, she was the first Melinda, the other one the first of many Franks I’ve known. First Lily, first Ken, first Edith — and every Edith I’ve met since then has made me think of that Edith. They will remember me as Peggy, I think, even though I matured long into Peg.
Peace Corps was three lofty goals; but the third one is best. Return home and share what you learned. We talk fast and remember, and hope Peace Corps never goes belly-up. We wear the stripes.
And Peace Corps was cliques — we remember them: the pack of future dropouts who hung unhappily together during training, the in-crowd in Sousse, the well-diggers, the nurses, the last-year veterans like the Funks (they knew so much), the Tunis gang, the twos and threes stuck together. There is a black and white photo of all of us that first summer, a family of 50 (missing only Sweater Man), backed up against a crumbly schoolyard wall. I made them my friends, one by one, two by two. A webbed ball of close people I have somehow let bounce away from me. Have they all reunited in pairs at grad school, making dates in their late 40s, eating cous-cous together in Houston or DC? Have they gotten together, hauling out photo albums over beers in apartments? Where have I been?
Peg Clement works now at the State University of New York in Albany, NY on democracy and governance projects in developing countries, but following her Peace Corps tour lived in six African countries for fifteen years. Her creative non-fiction has been published on-line at the expatriate website, Tales from a Small Planet and recently in Worldview Magazine. She wrote “Peace Corps Was” in anticipation of her group’s first reunion last August in Washington DC. There were fifty Trainees in her group and they trained in in northwestern Tunisia, high in the Atlas Mountains in a village called Ain Draham. She read her recollections to the group on the banks of the Potomac.