Your Name in Arabic, Tunisian Post-Revolution Graffiti, and of course, the requisite social anxiety

Sunday night I returned from my first family holiday as an honorary Brit.  From what I can tell, the Brits are serious about their holidays.   The whole US/UK/European vacation/holiday thing is something I’d like to post about separately, as it’s a loaded issue, but for now I’ll just say that I was a bit nervous about going since I’ve only been on a few vacations in my time that are “proper” holidays.  I’ve gone to other parts of the world for a bit of study, or to visit, but have only done the whole “beach” holiday thing twice, and both of these trips involved activities like snorkeling or Disneyworld so there wasn’t a whole lot of sitting around.

Let me just say this right off the bat:  I am terrible at “relaxing.”   My first reaction to the word is to get nervous and to feel kind of claustrophobic, as what many people find relaxing I find annoying.  I enjoy going to the beach to swim, to have a walk and to hang out for a few hours, but I can’t do it all day.  I get antsy, both physically and mentally.  I once had a huge argument with an ex who swore he’d never go to the beach with me again since I was so bad at sitting there.

The other thing that made me nervous was the whole issue of being around C.’s family for a week.   They’re kind and lovely people, but I’m always worried that I’ll say or do the wrong thing, both as an in-law and as an expat.  I’m usually kind of the odd person out in most groups, unless they’re of my making–a hodge-podge of quirky idealists whose lives don’t happen in a linear fashion.  Like English majors.

C.’s family, and like C. himself, are very task-oriented. Conversely, half the time I don’t even know what planet I’m on.  It’s the classic INFP thing.  (For more on life as an INFP–Meyer’s Briggs type–check out the basic description here and Corin’s blog about being an INFP here.)

But back to Tunisia.  Isn’t that why you’re here?

Being in Northern Africa was fascinating.  I’ve always wanted to go there, especially after reading Paul Bowles books  and the translation of Isabelle Eberhardt‘s bizarre and reckless life.  I loved the call to prayer that started around 4:30 in the morning and happened four other times during the day and evening.  I love the sound of Arabic, especially when sung by the guy walking down the beach I heard on my last day.  Gorgeous and full of longing.  I love the elegance of written Arabic, and Islamic architecture:

Mosque courtyard and steps to prayer tower

Great mosque in Kairouan

Doorway in Sousse near medina

Sorbet-colored building in Sousse 

All the hotels were surrounded by palm trees, and the flora was fun to admire:

I think this is some kind of mimosa.

Two salutes to the sunset

Am dying to know what kind of tree this is.  Was like a rat-tail cactus crossed with a pine.

mystery tree

Loved the combination of modern and ancient:

And weird signage:

This is a Russian pub. Lots of Russians come to Tunisia in the winter months.

Looks like one very long amusement park ride.  Millions of years long.

And of course signs of the recent revolution:

Tunisian flags everywhere

Various young men often approached us as the locals are very friendly and want to know if visitors are enjoying their country, especially after the drop in tourism this winter.  “Tunisia!  You like?”  wasn’t uncommon to hear from while walking down the beach.  It was great to see such pride in one’s country, and the sense of optimism. However, Tunisians do need the tourists to return as it’s their primary source of income.

A few young men offered C. to trade me in for some camels.  It’s a joke, a friendly exchange, one which the men seemed to feel absolutely no self-consciousness in offering.  It seemed like my role in the game was to be flattered, and feigned as much when one man offered a “trillion” camels.    On another evening, though, a different man’s grandmother was offered, to which C. replied, “Well, is she a good cook?”

Very reassuring.

Couldn’t care less who I’m traded for as long as no one’s riding me.  

One of the highlights of the holiday was the morning visit to the Sousse Medina, or marketplace.

C.’s mom, after a number of visits, has gotten good at bantering with the locals.  “I’ve already got some!”  she’d say to the men calling at her about buying some shoes.  She’d shake her bag, indicating the shoes inside.

“How much?” the vendors would instantly reply.

“Ten dinar,” she’d say, and the men would all moan and tell her she’d paid way too much.

C.s mom mid-barter and me

It’s fun to banter but the tour guides instructed us on the latest scams to watch out for.

For example, the hotel where we stayed, Hotel Tour Khalef, was all inclusive.  Upon arrival, one is issued a pink plastic bracelet, like one might get at a fair, or in a hospital.   (Many jokes about having “escaped” ensued.)    Down at Port El Kantoui, men sat by the entrance to the port, and on spying the pink bracelet, would call “Hotel Tour Khalef!  Do you remember me?   I was your waiter last night!”   The hotel is so huge that not remembering one’s waiter is possible.   The men would then lead the clueless off to a “discount” camel ride, or another activity that would cost a lot of money.   You gotta hand it to these guys–in a country where work can be scarce, this is not the typical pickpocket scheme.  In fact, I rarely felt at risk for pickpocketing–less so than Barcelona, or maybe even New York.  In Tunisia, it’s taboo to prey on tourists as they’re so crucial to the economy.

I didn’t get any photos, as I was usually too busy choosing treats, but many markets were full of pistachio nougat, sesame sticks, praline peanuts, Turkish delight, and almonds.  YUM.

I met a woman at the hotel who had been coming to Tunisia for 26 years.  Apparently, one gets bit and keeps coming back.  It’s so inexpensive to visit, especially with a package trip, that some retired folks stay for months.  It’s actually cheaper, food and heat wise, to stay there in the winter months rather than heat one’s home in England.

So will I be back?  If I can help it, oh, yes, please.

The married for almost one year couple. Awww….

Sousse beach at sunset

*Thanks a million, katrillion camels to A.M., C.’s mum, for treating us on this trip.

May you have many more days of sun in Tunisia!*

It’s Midnight at Gatwick: Do You Know Where Your Husband Is?

Two pieces of advice for all those moving to another country:  1) memorize contact numbers like your life depended on it, because it kinda sorta does, and 2) always be clear on where you’re meeting if you’re ever separated in an airport.

Why am I dispensing such sage advice?  Because last night I lost my husband.   At midnight.  At Gatwick airport in London.  Just call him on your cell phone?   Of course, cell phones.  I do have one!  And I’ve managed to finally memorize my own new cell phone number, after making a song and dance out of it.   (No one will ever see, or hear, this dance.  Don’t worry.)   But I’d yet to manage memorizing my husband’s cell phone number.  It was on my list of things to do–a very long list with a lot of exclamation points.

But back to the phone.  The phone had died after two days of our long weekend away on my husband’s off-site work trip, and he had the charger in his conference room.   The last day of the trip was a bit crazy as we checked out in the morning, were in different places all day, and our luggage was moved around by staff.   Packing was haphazard, and we were rearranging all of our liquids/not-allowed stuff into check-in bags and carry-ons on the airport floor minutes before check-in closed.  Needless to say my phone didn’t get charged.  It actually stayed into my weekend bag which got shoved into my check-in stuff.

All this should have been fine, right?   I was with my husband on the flight home.  But we got into separate customs lines since I have a non-EU passport*, and when he got through first, he waved from the other side, which I took to mean that he would head towards baggage claim.  Usually I get through the line first and get the bags, but it was at least twenty minutes before I got through.  I assumed he would have the bags and would be waiting for me, then we would go, both of us tired and we still had to find the shuttle to our parking lot and then drive an hour home.

But he wasn’t anywhere in baggage claim.  All the others from the trip were gone, and I saw a few lone pieces of luggage riding the conveyor belt.   The status for our luggage on the board read “ARRIVED.”   There were only three different carousels, and I was definitely at the right one.  Still, I waited a few minutes thinking he may have just stepped away to the facilities.  After about 5-10 minutes, I decided to head out as we’d met before at a coffee shop right outside.  I figured that I must have misunderstood where we were to meet and as I am absentminded, he probably said something about the coffee shop earlier but I’d forgotten.

But he wasn’t there either, and after I waited about ten more minutes I started to panic.

I realized that without my cell phone, I had no way to get home that night, that I didn’t know where the car was parked since he had the ticket and I had no way to contact my husband and no other memorized numbers of people in this country.  The crowd at the airport was becoming thin, as one would expect for past midnight on a Monday.

No problem.  I’ll find someone on airport staff and see if he or she can announce a page.  “Mr. M., please meet your party at the Costa Coffee Shop.  Paging Mr. M….”   We’d have a little laugh and then be on our way, luggage in tow.   Ha, drama, hee.  Hee.

But I couldn’t find anyone and the Airport Information office was closed.

Finally I asked the Costa workers if they knew where I might find someone to help me with a page.  At this point it had been about an hour since I saw C. wave at me from my line at Customs.  There was no way that he was still in there.   I’d checked the missing luggage office to see if he was there dealing with any missing luggage, but he wasn’t.

Instead of picking up the Magic Airport Phone that I’d imagined, the Costa guys, who looked like they were about twelve and had never had that pre-cell phone feeling of sheer terror when losing someone in a ginormous mall or parking lot, just looked at me like I’d requested their livers.  They waved me in the general direction of Departures, which was completely deserted.  Not one staff person anywhere.  I was afraid to wander too far from the Costa in case C. went there looking for me.   The rational thing to do seemed to stay put, but that was becoming difficult as I imagined that perhaps something bad had happened to C.  Of course I’d read the recent, vague terrorist warnings so immediately began mentally flipping through various possibilities.

This is the point at which having an active imagination is not fun.  Especially if your brain moves very quickly.   About ten really scary scenarios flashed through my mind in less than a minute, and soon I’d convinced myself that my husband had vanished.   Add a little adrenaline habit and you’ve got yourself a film starring Jodie Foster or Franka Potente.

I started planning for the worst.  I would just have to spend the night in the airport, and eventually get in touch with my mother via her cell phone to get my husband’s cell phone number (I was envisioning a collect call, but later realized this was probably impossible due to the lack of pay phones).  The next day I’d take the Gatwick Express train to London and from there go back home to Kent.  At least I had some cash, and I had a key to the house.

Finally I found a maintenance worker who directed me to some secret supply of airport staff all safely hidden behind door #3.  There were about twenty of them all huddled behind a small desk.  Maybe they were having a meeting?   Maybe they were hiding from freaked out expats who couldn’t find their husbands and didn’t have cell phones?  Too bad.  I’d found them.  I explained the situation to a woman who seemed nice, asked about a page, and edged toward the Costa again so I might avoid missing C.

She asked me to tell the story again, in what seemed like an attempt to buy some time. What was the deal with pages?   Was it like declaring a person missing–did you have to wait 24 hours?   Why wasn’t the Queen notified that I COULD NOT FIND THE ONLY PERSON I REALLY KNOW IN THE UK?

After what seemed like an eternity but was probably only about 20 minutes, lo and behold, off in the distance (rapture!  little pink flowers!  bunnies!), there was C., talking to another airport staff person!   He’d put his jacket on so was in beige, while I’d been looking for a blue plaid shirt.   Duh.  And he said he’d thought that I got held up in customs, so had gone back to find out if I was still in there.   It seemed like we were both at baggage claim at the same time and never figured out how we still missed each other.

Oh.

Long moment of appreciation, relief, etc., followed by the inevitable Whaaa??  How could we really have not seen each other?   Then the trek to find the right parking bus stop which took about another hour.

I recited C.’s cell # all the way home, wrote it down before bed, and vowed to keep a list of contact numbers in ten different bags.   No song or dance required.

*Word to the wise:  we just found out that spousal visa couples can legally stand in the non-EU line together.  They allow this to prevent fellow travelers from getting separated.  Great idea….

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