Sunrise on the Mediterranean

Walking through the resort town of Yasmine Hammamet last week was like stepping into the aftermath of some global disaster in a sci-fi movie. The streets were literally deserted, and there was just a bit of that lonely wind that picks up a few odd pieces of paper and scatters them down the street, just to show how empty and forsaken everything is. Other than the utter absence of people in the streets, it was gorgeous. It looked like the nicest parts of San Diego, but with a flawless beach of bright yellow sand and a brilliantly blue sea under a cloudless sky.

We strolled down the wide paved avenue, past dozens of gleaming hotels with empty windows on one side and long empty beaches on the other. Really, we couldn’t resist. Tony picked the nicest five-star hotel on the block, and popped in just for fun to see what kind of deal he could get for a super-duper off-season stay. It just so happened that the hotel chain’s regional sales manager for Tunisia was present, and Tony came out with a truly irresistible deal. Doubly irresistible, in fact. I’ve told you a little about the apartment we rented sight-unseen in Tunisia. It was indeed an absolutely beautiful apartment, nicer than any apartment I’ve ever stayed in, even my favorite apartment ever in La Jolla. But our downstairs neighbors (and landlords) added quite an interesting element. For one thing, they were truly paranoid about us going out, ever. They said it was because of the recent unrest in Tunisia, but I think it was mostly because they really didn’t think we were capable of doing anything ourselves.

I don’t know that the mother and father really cared that much, but the son seemed to spend all his time keeping tabs on us. Every time he caught us coming back, he demanded where we had gone, and with whom. And when we said that we’d gone by ourselves, he shook his head, rolled his eyes, and cautioned us to never do it again. When Tony went out and actually succeeded in getting himself a haircut, he was floored. He also had a lot of marital advice for Tony, which mostly consisted in admonishing him not to consult his wife when he was making decisions for the family, and certainly not (heaven forbid!) to ever do dishes. The marital advice was even funnier (if it was funny at all, which it actually wasn’t), considering that he told us a long, rambling story about how he had been in the United States and paid some woman $5000 to marry him so he could get a green card, but then she disappeared with the money before his interview with Immigration, and he was eventually deported for gambling too much. Whatever.

You might ask how he knew that Tony does dishes in the first place. Well, that would be because either he or his mother or both came up to our house multiple times a day to check on us, inspect the house, and find things to tell us not to do. At least once a day, they came up for the exclusive purpose of telling us to turn off the lights (I guess they hung around outside watching for us to turn them on so they could catch us). And it wasn’t that we were leaving lights on all over the house. They wanted the lights off in the room where we were sitting. In fact, he came up once while I was in the living room, and explained why each light in the room could not be used (i.e. this one uses too much electricity, this one is imported from Italy and we would have to wait a long time for replacements if the light bulbs were to burn out, etc.). When he had gone through all the lights and explained the reasons I couldn’t use them, I asked which light I was supposed use. He thought for a while, and then told me that I would need to go get the little lamp from the night stand in my bedroom if I wanted to use a light in the living room.

They also admonished us to keep the door of the water heater cupboard slightly ajar, which even they could only accomplish by standing by it with their finger in it. We were shown how to wipe off counters, tut-tutted over when our suitcases were only half unpacked after we had been in the place for less than 24 hours, told that we should really have our son sleep in a different bedroom from the one we’d chosen for him, and asked to wipe our muddy footprints off the stairs outside, even though it was still raining.

In short, it was a full-time relationship to maintain, and not a very rewarding one at that. Add to this the fact that the neighborhood (which our landlord had described as quiet and affluent, with many second homes) was a maze of half-finished and apparently abandoned construction sites, dotted with piles of rubbish and refuse. During the riots, he had told us that if his neighborhood wasn’t safe, nowhere in Tunisia was safe. But when we arrived, we saw more security forces there than in downtown Tunis. And the response of anyone outside the neighborhood when we told them where we were living tended to be either incredulous stares or laughter. In the end, you can picture why clean, calm, empty Yasmine Hammamet appealed to us.

We got home that night, and the next morning told our landlord that we were leaving. He was not sorry to see us go, apparently (he had previously told us that we were the first and last renters he would ever have). But he was more than a little sorry to see our money go, and kept thinking of excuses to keep more of it. In the end, we extracted ourselves, and set off for Yasmine Hammamet. Only, when Tony called the regional sales manager to tell him we were on our way, he said that the hotel was closing that week, and sent us off to a different one also owned by the chain. I grumbled that maybe we had just negotiated too good of a deal. The hotel we ended up at was not quite as nice as the one we’d picked initially (and the included dinners were absolutely atrocious, although breakfast was O.K.), but it was right on the beach, and nice enough, and we figured we could stay there while we looked around for a nice apartment in the area.

So that’s where we’ve been for the past few days, relaxing on the beach between house-hunting trips. The funniest thing is that yesterday at dinner, the hotel manager came and told as that the hotel would be closing the next day, and we were being transferred back to our original choice, which unaccountably is still open. Two of the other ten guests who were transferred with us are on their second transfer from a closed hotel. So now here we are, staying at the nicest 5-star hotel in Yasmine Hammamet for way cheaper than a Motel 6 in Hicktown, USA. The hotel is just happy to still be open. And as I write this, I’m on the balcony watching the sun rise out of the blue Mediterranean into a glory of golden clouds.

It’s been a bit of a crazy week (really, what else is new?), but we are really enjoying ourselves, and happy to be doing our own little part to boost tourism here. And if you’re considering a vacation this year, let me heartily recommend Tunisia. Things are likely to be a bit slow here for a while, although we do hope that they eventually pick up. For Europeans, it’s a no-brainer of a cheap, beautiful beach destination, with some fascinating historical and cultural stuff to add in. Axa and I found camel tracks on the beach yesterday. And even for Americans, you can usually find inexpensive winter or spring flights to Paris, and then catch a Tunisair flight across the Mediterranean. Either way, Tunisia awaits you!

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