I’m not often seen as a gracious or obliging man. And yet, year on year, the evidence stacks up.
The annual spousal exodus was on us once again. While her indoors departed for a bonus week in Hawaii before the usual California get-together of badge-collecting nerds she inexplicably adores so, I steeled myself for three days in Tunis. Beach-based cocktails in pineapples with the tops cut off versus dubious lager in men-only bars.
Seems proportional. Not jealous at all. Enjoy your mimosas.
Following last year’s vaguely hair-raising solo trip to Ukraine, I’d enlisted the services of a fellow of good standing to join me in North Africa. Our ostensible goal was to visit the famous old city of Carthage, and it’s fair to say beyond that we’d done little planning of note.
One thing we knew is that Tunisia is a reasonably liberal Muslim country, which means alcohol isn’t banned but you won’t be seeing four packs of Carling at five dinars a pop in the window of every other newsagent. Two English men on holiday will find their thoughts turn to an ice-cold beer the moment they step off the plane, no matter how travelled and, er, urbane they might be. I knew there was a place to drink at the top of a hotel near ours on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Tunis’s central thoroughfare, and a rickety elevator ride to the 10th floor duly deposited us at ‘Bar Jamaica’.
Celtia is the local tipple, and it’s decent without threatening Special Brew as the king of lagers. Of course, one won’t do in a place as baking and baked as Africa. Not for the last time we noticed the waiter’s sceptical disapproval as we attempted to finagle encore deux out of him. He punished us by depositing a small bowl of ageing olives on the table and, as we all know, olives are filthy and must be stopped.
Language was instantly an issue, just not quite how you might think. My French is adequate but every attempt to deploy it was met with a patient response in adequate English, putting me back in my box. But almost every interaction with a Tunisian went something like this:
“Encore deux s’il vous plait.”
“Yes, thank you, two more.”
Our way of speaking is such that, when we’re asked a second time to confirm what we want, we’ll say it slightly differently to the first. More words equals more clarity. But different words imply a different response to the Tunisian, to whom double-checking everything is the norm. Bafflement ensues as three people wave V-signs at each other, and one starts to walk off leaving the remaining pair in utter terror that they may not be getting more beer.
Our next surprise was that Tunisians apparently don’t eat. There’s no restaurant culture to speak of, simply cafe after cafe packed all day long with people sipping coffee, not eating so much as a bowl of filthy olives and presumably starving. We found somewhere in the end, but that was a long moment picturing dinner as a packet of M&Ms I’d picked up in the airport to get some change for a cab.
The next morning began early with a half-day trip to Carthage. Our guide was an ageing gobshite who spoke the Tunisian dialect of part-French-part-Arabic with unnecessary haste. He had a habit of dropping every sentence’s last word like a depth charge; as that word was often key to the previous collection we were frequently left oblivious. “What some people don’t know about the Punics is that every third day they’d ___?___. No other civilisation had so many ___?___. It’s the reason they became at that time the world’s most important ___?___. Even their ships were ___?___.”
But he was a friendly enough fellow and Carthage proved a pleasing collection of statues, ruins and decorated burial grounds. This was not a peaceful land in the second and third centuries BC. The Romans eventually succeeded in destroying the city to put an end to the ancient Punic civilisation for good. Typical bloody Romans, you think. Then you’re told that a favourite Punic custom was to burn their infant children alive as sacrifice to their gods, and you realise that one thing the Romans gave to us was non-flammable offspring and maybe they weren’t so bad after all.
The Romans rebuilt the city, though that too was eventually destroyed; the ruins are a mix of Punic and Roman Carthage and it’s a pleasure to have trod where the famous Hannibal once knocked about before he went off to kick heads across Europe.
We ended our short tour with a trip to the nearby town of Shitty Bou Said, to give it its new and thoroughly deserved name, for it was here that I was royally rinsed by a pair of chancers in a shop our guide had manoeuvred us into. While some grasping bastard tried to flog us a locally made bowl in filthy olive green, my alleged friend offered up the information that I was married, then ran from the shop. Cue cries of “Oh you must buy her something!” and hands waved at their dubious jewellery laid all about.
There are no prices anywhere, of course. I’m thinking they’ll take me for a fiver, so fine, a nice blue pendant. He looks at me, types 405 into a calculator, gallantly subtracts 30 and proudly stands back expecting me to PAY HIM 375 DINARS. SOMETHING LIKE 100 QUID. WHAT?
I’m not proud of what happened next. Blocked from leaving by two large Tunisians, me telling them I didn’t want it while they haggled themselves down and down with comedy expressions of “Mate, we’re doing you a massive favour here”, I got so sick of it I said “Fine, 100 dinars.” Knowing they had me, they haggled me to 130, about 35 quid. I paid and left in the full shame that the person I now have to give the thing to won’t want it because of how I got tucked right up to get hold of it.
(Happily though, my cowardly companion left his mobile data on like a bellend, and got bent over by BT for roughly the same amount, returning some balance to the world.)
That afternoon we headed into the second most-famous tourist attraction Tunis has to offer: the Medina. This is a collection of narrow alleyways lined with a staggering number of shops selling a wide array of useless tat. A pattern emerges.
How so many of these places can survive on virtually zero punters is a mystery. Outside of Carthage we saw next to no tourists, other than the odd Spaniard wandering through the Medina with his backpack on his front. Perhaps Tunis is still suffering from the terrorist attacks of 2015, when 60 people were killed here and in Sousse down the coast. Security is fairly tight now, and it feels very safe. But anywhere you don’t see buses full of Chinese tourists in bucket hats clearly needs to work on its brochures.
In the Medina we took a bowel-threatening punt on a Tunisia shawarma, a toasted bun holding meat, salad, sauce and chips – not so many steps removed from a normal kebab, of which there were also plenty about. There were also stray cats roaming the streets. All quite young. I may have mentioned that after telling you about the kebabs but the connections are all of your own making.
Tunisian cuisine didn’t really throw itself at us given the lack of obvious places to sit and eat it. One night we were reduced to eating in a pizza place while listening to a saxophone rendition of Boyz II Men’s ‘End of the Road’ on repeat. Sadly, they didn’t have the Quatre Fromage. Quelle fromage! And if you don’t think that’s funny you have no soul.
We explored the city a little on our last full day, encountering trees shaped like massive kebab spits, fruit shaped like beached puffer fish and a park playing the always sinister recorded sounds of children singing. And some of the architecture was, well, see for yourself.
And then, miraculously, we found what amounted to an actual pub, and proceeded to drink in it like the good tourists we are.
While my poor old pal recuperated in his room from his afternoon drinking, I snuck out for an ice cream. I can neither confirm or deny I made my selection based on the French word for mango being ‘mong’. I stood by the road watching Tunisians going about their business – seemingly hundreds of them, milling about, strolling, sitting and contemplating. It’s not clear how they make a living given so many of them seem content to simply while away the hours being Tunisian, and not much else.
Friday evening went a bit daft. As the sun went down, for no reason I could fathom there were hundreds of small birds chirping like crazy in the trees lining Avenue Habib Bourguiba. It’s a football-mad town and there’s always a game on somewhere – choose from the delights of Shabab Al-Ahli v Sharjah or Arsenal v FC Vorskla Poltava – and it seemed like there’d been a match on in Tunis as bellowing fans in yellow and red stripes joined the milling masses, and hung out of the windows of constantly beeping cars. We watched and listened from our old haunt Bar Jamaica, which boasts some fine views, especially at night.
The cab back to the airport gave us a taste of Tunisian queuing – they can’t and they don’t, in cars or on foot, shoving and barging and sneaking in like the French probably do, the savages. Generally their driving is a bit crackers but there’s a curious relationship between driver and pedestrian that you don’t see in a place like London – simply, that the driver doesn’t seem intent on running over the pedestrian then blaming them for it. A man will stroll down the centre of a busy road without fear of a raging, red-necked motorist screaming obscenities.
And with that our trip was more or less at and end. Now, I’m not one to use these pieces to bemoan the state of air travel but I’m going to make an exception in the case of Tunis–Carthage International Airport. We’d already checked in online, only to be told by a man with a gun that that wouldn’t wash and we’d have to ‘Tunisian queue’ for a paper one. The flight was then delayed by an hour or so with information in the form of a woman wordlessly pointing at a screen. The only saving grace was that the flight to Paris was delayed by even longer, as it should be to give people plenty of time to rethink their appalling travel choices.
We also needed to change back the dinars into something spendable. Tunisia has a closed currency that’s not allowed to leave its borders, but none of the little banks scattered throughout the airport were having it. It seems we needed a receipt when we got the cash in the first place but no bugger told us that. And the woman at the information desk?
“Go to the bank.”
“We’ve tried that.”
“Don’t know then.”
The irony is if I’d not been tucked up for that necklace I’d have had to take the money it cost me back to London, never to be spent. Instead my wife gets a lovely necklace and monkey boy still has to pay his phone bill, heh heh heh.
Three days in Tunis had been plenty. It’s hard to recommend it as a destination to anyone hoping to find bars to drop into when gasping, or somewhere to sit and eat when Hank; we knew it wasn’t a drinking town but the lack of restaurants was just weird (though in fairness maybe we didn’t explore enough). Tunisians have a reputation for being friendly and welcoming, though to me they seemed largely indifferent to our presence.
That’s not to say it wasn’t a good trip – it was. Carthage is well worth a look, and Tunis has the relaxed atmosphere of a liberal Muslim city, where women wear headscarves or not as they choose and nobody frowns while picturing your decadent, sinful western life, barmen excepted.
But it’s hard not to come away with the image of a nation of hagglers and hustlers. Nothing can’t be bought or sold, and every shopkeeper sees you as a potential mark. Walking down the road wearing a watch will guarantee a Tunisian will ask you the time, proceed to talk to you about his city then offer to show you something or other in exchange for cash. They can’t even resist one final shafting at the airport on your way out.
Beware a land without price labels, for it is a land of Del Boys.