A Trip to Tunisia Is All Kiss Kiss and Couscous
The thought of November in Tunisia sounded appealing. Escaping the frights of Halloween, the cacophony of Bonfire Night and the onset of British winter was enough to tempt me, even though I would be travelling with two infants. With just a 22kg baggage allowance which had to be shared with one of them, there was no room for unnecessary items in my case and as a grandmother, I was still aware of how many essentials kids require. I would be accompanying my daughter to visit her husband’s family in Hammamet so they could see her new baby for the first time. Her husband was already in Tunisia, seeking work. We weren’t expecting any active adventures that the warmer summer months provide but it would be a chance to get to know the Tunisian way of life better.
Sunday, 31st Oct 2010
The clocks are changing from British Summer Time to Greenwich Mean Time, complicating things concerning our taxi pick up which is scheduled for 2 am – the very minute the clocks are set to change. The worst that could happen would be us arriving an hour early at the airport. Our flight is on time despite almost universal confusion over the clocks and then the gained hour is only to be lost again on arrival in Tunisia.
Flights to Tunisia from the UK are less than three hours duration but the presence of two infants makes it far more tedious than it would have been otherwise though thankfully the plane from Manchester is not full and we can spread ourselves out comfortably. On arrival at Monastir’s Habib Bourguiba Airport, we are able to jump the immigration queue due to the officials recognising that my daughter’s toddler and baby are of Arabic appearance. She explains that she is married to a Tunisian and they immediately wave us through as if we are VIP’S. I’m tempted to shout out to the queue: ‘It’s because we know the president!’ but think better of it. Of course, we still have to wait patiently for our suitcases before they appear on the carousel and by the time we’ve collected buggies, car seats and other paraphernalia we are no better off than anyone else on the same flight.
Staying in a foreign country in a residential area is a completely different scenario than staying in a hotel environment. Being part of the general populous provides its own opportunities for adventures. Living as the locals do, you soon get a keen glimpse into the way life in a foreign country really is. Hotels, wherever they are in the world, are an artificial environment in which the tourist is often too cosseted and protected from the real world outside the hotel grounds.
It is only when you begin to see things from the point of view of a local that you come to realise that the price a tourist is happy to pay for a certain item is far above that which someone who lives there all the time will be prepared to pay. As a general rule of thumb, the nearer a shop is to the beach or the main tourist areas the higher the prices but find a little corner shop a few streets away and you can purchase the very same everyday items for a fraction of the cost.
The family house is a typical North African flat-roofed abode. Similar houses with white-washed walls cascade down the hillside to the Gulf of Hammamet and the Mediterranean just a kilometre away. There is a wonderful view from the roof terrace overlooking the resort and the mountains which is quite spectacular at sunset and through the open shutters of the kitchen window I can even enjoy doing the dishes with a postage stamp of sea in sight.
Tunisian houses usually start out as a sort of flat-roofed bungalow and as the family grows, up to two more levels can be added later, providing the foundations have been made strong enough initially. My son-in-law’s family have achieved this and have recently succeeded in creating two apartments above their own home, one of which we are staying in now. The apartments can then be rented when we leave and the income be saved towards construction of the next level.
Our first day is spent shopping and buying all the things we will need for a fortnight’s stay. Baby sitters are easy to find in such a large family containing two doting aunties who are more than willing to coo at their new little nephew. For 200 Tunisian Dinars – the equivalent of 100 GB pounds we are able to purchase twelve light fittings. Buying a cooker proves more difficult as many retailers are reluctant to accept credit cards and as usual I have not brought enough cash with me from England. Perhaps some helpful soul back home will pay some money to my account in the next ten days.
My knowledge of the Arabic language is now slightly better than my last visit to Tunisia in July. Along with my two-year-old grandson I now know my alphabet and numbers up to ten thanks to You Tube’s kids’ learning videos. 'Wahad…ethnan…thelatta…' we can both count now as we climb the steps to the apartment together. Neon signs in Arabic are no longer as alien to me as they were just a few months ago now that I recognise the letters themselves but I have a long way to go before I develop a basic understanding of the language itself. Thankfully my Tunisian in-laws all speak excellent English and my daughter’s Mother-in-law is more than happy to help us negotiate with the prices of our purchases.
Hammamet in November is not as bustling as it is in the summer; many tourist-oriented shops are closed or are only open for a short time. The perpetual seasonal calls of: 'You come my shop… I make you special price,' are no longer apparent.
The second day of November is as good as any summer’s day in England and we are able to spend some time on the beach. The Mediterranean is still warm enough but too rough to swim in and the red flag is flying. Without the intense summer sun, many visitors to Tunisia can take an opportunity to explore the more remote areas of the country. For instance, a two-day trek into The Sahara Desert can be far more enjoyable during the winter months and you will not need to drink half as much water! In the heat of the summer it can be difficult for tourists to drag themselves away from the cool comforts of the hotel pool but from September onwards the chance to become adventurous and discover more of the region increases as the weather grows cooler. Other places of interest such as sites of antiquity at Carthage and Roman remains at Dougga are better to visit during the cooler months. Many canny tourists from the UK decide to spend an entire winter in Tunisia – and not only manage to benefit from an inexpensive taste of winter sun but avoid paying costly heating bills too.
The Bel Azur Hotel where my daughter originally met her husband is undergoing some upgrading over the winter and as we sit on the sands we are aware of the building work but it does not affect our enjoyment of the place. I remember the very first time we came to Hammamet over five years ago. Our minibus driver dropped us off at the Azur complex which consists of three hotels and said: ‘Sol Azur, Bel Azur, Royal Azur – three Azur.’ I would never have thought back then that our stay here would lead to her marrying a Tunisian.
The cooler months mean I don’t have to chase so many cockroaches around the apartment and the milk stays fresher for longer. It’s refreshing to be able to move from place to place with relative ease rather than jumping from one shady patch to another with the largest bottle of water in tow. Summer encounters with obnoxious creatures such as flies and jellyfish are less of a problem now. I won’t forget that day back in July when I flushed an offending cockroach down the loo only to be stung by a jellyfish later that same afternoon – there’s karma in that somewhere. The rain outside on the balcony is just as persistent as in England but not to worry; I am away from the horrendous rundown to Christmas – temporarily at least.
A wedding party drives past the window on Thursday morning honking their horns as loudly as possible - better than any alarm clock. The rain has gone and it’s a fine day. The toddler is running around on the flat roof while I hang out the washing; it’s perfect for his sit-and-ride trike. It’s just as good as his garden back in England but with no flowers to pull up or earth to fling. Very practical, that. Why don’t we have flat roofs in England, I wonder – too much rain I suppose – you would have a fair sized swimming pool on your roof before it had time to drain away.
A walk up the street where the house is located towards the mountain gives a wonderful view over the resort of Hammamet. I walk around our block with toddler in tow and I’m surprised he manages it without wanting to be carried. Many houses seem well kept and a few are luxurious villas with outstanding views. Most seem to be undergoing some improvement or other although there is a definite problem with rubbish disposal. The children play happily in the streets of the residential area and all are well dressed. There isn’t much poverty here and the majority of residents maintain a reasonable standard of living.
The people are friendly and hospitable but you can spend an inordinate amount of time just greeting people. Two kisses on each cheek are the norm and this can be hard for the more reserved British to deal with initially. ‘It’s all kiss kiss and couscous, this country,’ I often comment to my daughter.
A lady in the corner shop buys one nappy and three eggs when we are there; it seems people purchase what they need for the day and nothing more. There are no frozen ready meals packed with additives and everything is bought as freshly as possible for immediate use. As we have no cooker yet, Mum in law brings us beautifully prepared Tunisian meals each day. There is tajine which is similar to quiche without the pastry casing. Plenty of freshly picked herbs are on hand to bring out the flavour of any meal without the liberal use of spices. Couscous with lamb is also a popular dish. Fresh fruit and vegetables taste far better than in England; either this is due to all the Mediterranean sunshine here or we British import the inferior produce no one else wants.
It's Thursday evening and the lights are being put up after a further trip to the shops to buy another one but still no cooker. A friend from England texts me and is amazed when I say we have only been to the beach once so far; there are other activities that are just as memorable. We have another ten days here yet and I'm sure we will use our time productively beach or not. Our adventures in Tunisia may not be as active this time as on some of our family holidays in the past but those beach based pursuits we have all done before and this time we are quite happy not to be normal tourists.