I need to preface this post by stating truthfully that I have really tried to like Tunisia. Honestly, I have tried. I have been here for two nights and 1.5 days and usually by that time, a place is at least manageable. I don’t feel that way here. Nuh uh.
I arrived very late on 5 July, as you may have read, and made it to my hotel. The driver was nice. No problems. I went upstairs and tried to sleep but I was too awake still so I stayed up late and consequently slept until 9:30. I stayed in the hotel and just rested for the day, editing photos and attending to correspondence. Finally, in the evening, I went out to get dinner. That’s when things got more interesting.
First Problem: the Tunisian Gigolo.
These are men who want to keep foreigners company, either women or men, in exchange for a lavish buffet, a hotel room, whatever. I had read about these men. I was ready to avoid them. But I was fooled. I encountered several more of these guys the next day and had to walk away from them while they were still talking since they wouldn’t take no for an answer. I feel very stupid now, but I am going to tell you the story anyway, in the interest of reasonable disclosure. Besides, you may need this information someday. One never knows. (I am setting my dignity aside now.)
As soon as I left the hotel, I was approached by a man who started immediately speaking English to me and seemed to recognize me. It’s uncanny. He said “don’t you remember, I carried your bag up last night?” and he didn’t look too different from the man who did, really, except for the lack of a tie. I thought it was the same man. (Note the others I met later used a similar approach and guessed wrong, which tipped me to how common this scam is.) He began to chat with me, saying how it’s nice to practice some English and did I want to have a coffee with him? I was on my way to eat and I said so, and said he could join me if he wanted. He took that to mean that it was on my tab, too, but I didn’t realize that at the time. Not that it would have mattered what I said beyond “no thank you – please leave me alone”. He asked me what kind of food I wanted and I said “fish” since Tunis is next to the sea and famous for it. He immediately steered me over to Café De Paris, which is acceptable, but ordered for me in Arabic and with no menu, which I did not like, and ordered two beers for himself. Good God. Who needs two beers immediately? This was starting to feel like a problem, but I was hungry and now on the hook for the food, and the waiter was suddenly missing. I had a sinking feeling I was buying all the beer. It continued this way, with two more beers (!) and some stilted conversation. He was obviously feeling a lack of connection since I was clearly uncomfortable. Why I cannot get up and leave at moments like that when my instincts are screaming at me I don’t know. The fish arrived, finally, and it was dry (overcooked) and served with some greasy, cold fries and a salad that I wouldn’t touch on general principals after getting sick in Zanzibar.
Perhaps in trying to revive the flagging conversation, he asked how old I was. This was the only saving grace of the entire evening. I told him was 40 (I had to say “quarante” in French just so he knew he was hearing the right number) and he looked positively sick. He tried to smile and put a good face on it, but I could tell he was horrified. It was hilarious. At least I wasn’t the only one being taken for a ride. I asked him if he was, what, 35, and he looked offended and said he was 25! But with all the smoking and drinking he was doing, I can see why he looked older. He told me he had guessed I was 32 at most. Hah! (I am taking my vindictive enjoyment where I can get it.)
The bill arrived not much later because I asked for it as soon as I was done with the fish, and also because he was ready to leave now that he knew I was forty. Unfortunately, the figure relayed to me was over $50. But of course, this figure was given verbally, in Arabic, so who knows if it was really that much or if he and the waiter were in it together? I believe it was the latter. I was feeling very ripped off at this point and was glad to part with him, though he said he was working from 2 to 9 PM tomorrow and would surely see me (yeah, right – that didn’t happen…). So far, this is the only and most expensive compliment I’ve ever paid for. But hey, at least it was sincere.
Second problem: bad news.
Day two arrived and I hid in bed, generally feeling crappy after being ripped off. I killed some time on the internet since at least that is already paid for with the room, and thought to look up my old friend Gary. He was a boyfriend of mine in high school and we had since remained friends, having been through a lot together back then. I had not heard from him in maybe two years which seemed odd since he usually wrote me on my birthday or at the New Year. In doing a Google search, I found out that he died in late 2008. He was two years older than me, and my friend. On top of grief, I felt guilty for not finding out sooner. I was shocked. I tried to just keep going and get outside, at least, but I could not. I had to call my husband because by this point, I was pretty lost. I felt so bad I was happy to pay $2.50/ minute just to hear a friendly voice. I missed breakfast and I didn’t care. As usual, talking to him helped me feel a little better. I was finally out the door by 2:00 PM. The nearby supermarket sold me bananas and water for a dollar. Later I got a still-warm chocolate croissant at the pastry counter for thirty cents. Given all that happened last night, I needed the money. After the croissant, I visited the cathedral for a while. I knew it was safe in there, and I felt like I needed a spiritual place. I lit a candle for my friend and prayed for him for a while.
Third problem: the Middleman and all his Friends.
After about 30 minutes in the cathedral, I went into the souks to look around. I thought it might take my mind off things, or at least cross some errands off my list. I must report that Marrakech is much better for shopping and the quality of goods is poor or machine-manufactured in Tunis, with a few exceptions. Despite moving at a brisk pace and not stopping much, everyone treated me like I was a money tree ready for harvest. I hate that. It is the hallmark of this city so far and it’s too much for me to bear. So many people have ripped me off or tried to. I bargained hard, but overpaid by a lot anyway, and I hate it that they would even have the freaking nerve to start so high. I hate it that they see me as such a pigeon that they start at $100 for a silver ring. You have got to be kidding me – it wouldn’t cost that much at the Stanford University Art Museum shop! And when I am shocked by the price and offer something at 1/10th, they get all upset. Come on, people. There is only so much insult I can take. Seriously! I was never treated this badly anywhere in Morocco – never. Well, wait, once in Zagora it got bad, but that was ONE time out of a hundred transactions. The worst parts are the grafters who appear to be shopkeepers but are not and just end up being extra middlemen in your transaction. They are difficult to spot, and they promise they are legit and point to signs to imply they are when they simply are not. One even had the nerve to ask for baksheesh afterward. These people have no shame –none.
Conclusion: I don’t deserve this.
My hotel is dingy and overpriced, though the actual staff is very kind (as opposed to the fake staff!). The people at the grocery shop and the patisserie were also nice. The waiter gave me some jasmine blossoms tonight at the restaurant. So I know that my Tunisian experience has been overly influenced by the bad apples. But given how many of them I seem to have encountered, and how it’s not stopping, it’s not worth it! I have had enough. I am leaving. I depart Tunisia the day after tomorrow, because I do still want to see Carthage and the Bardo museum. If I could have, I would have gone to Morocco, but the airfare from here was over $500 on short notice, and there would be accommodation during the high season on top of that to consider. Instead, I bought a ticket for Florence, Italy that finishes with my proper route to Madrid for just over $200. My cousin Eric, bless him, invited me to stay with him in his place near Torino, which will more than pay for the airfare.
This city has made an angry, untrusting woman of me. Even if I don’t want to be, it is necessary to appear that way. I have walk at night to dinner with my back straight, my head high, my gaze imperious, and not making eye contact or smiling at all because otherwise I just get accosted. That’s no way to live, not for eleven more days.