We’re Famous . . . Again!

When I was dating Tony, one of the interesting things that he told me about himself was that he had lived with his family in Indonesia as a teenager. While living there, they spent a summer visiting family in a little town in Idaho, where their exotic expatriate exploit made them instant celebrities. An article even appeared in the local newspaper about the American family who were living in Southeast Asia, and had now brought their international selves home to grace tiny Aberdeen Idaho.

It became an even better story after the same thing happened to us. In 2008, we moved our little family to Chiusa di Pesio, Italy so that we could reconnect with our Italian roots and claim our long-lost Italian citizenship. It was the first time such a thing had ever occurred in Chiusa, and our very existence there  caused something of a sensation. It seemed that everyone had already told everyone else our story. Still, in due time, we were visited in our home by a local reporter, who wanted to publish an account of us in the weekly paper, just in case someone had missed it.

We were flattered, but a little embarrassed, especially after we read the article, and she gushed so liberally about us. Still, it was quite a novelty to read a story about ourselves in the newspaper in the first place. I mean, how often does it happen that you end up in the paper just for being you?

Well, not as infrequently as I thought, apparently. A few weeks ago I was contacted by a reporter from the Daytona Beach News Journal. He had stumbled upon my blog, and remarked that he thought we didn’t really fit in here in Deltona. In fact, he went on to speculate that we probably weren’t going to be around long. I guess reporters can say anything.

Mark turned out to be very nice, though, and we spent a lovely morning chatting. It’s not every day that a captive audience spends an hour and a half listening to your life story, acting really interested and even taking notes. I found I enjoyed it thoroughly. Yesterday, we bought a paper so we could clip it out for our scrap book. And since our family scrapbook only exists in the form of this blog and our family website, here it is:

If you can’t read the small print, the full article is here. Mark took some liberties with the quotes, and bit more with the facts, so if you know us well you can amuse yourself by spotting errors. But at least when he quoted my mom he got it perfect.

Safe in the United States

I’ll start out this post with a story from when we were living in Ireland a couple of years ago. We had taken the children to the park down the street, and while we were watching them play, we struck up a conversation with a fellow parent. We never did get down the Irish accent, so as always, it came up pretty quickly that we were American. He remarked that he had considered visiting the United States. We smiled and nodded, since most people responded to our nationality with either an account of their visit to America, or an expressed desire for such a visit. But our new acquaintance went on to say that he’d decided against a trip to the United States, because he was worried about how dangerous it was.

We tried not to gape. Our country, dangerous? What could he mean? After all, it’s not like we were talking about Colombia, or Somalia, or Afghanistan. This was the United States of America.  He went on to say something vague about violent crime, and then the conversation drifted to other topics.

Since that day, I’ve mulled that conversation over in my mind quite a few times. For some reason, it made a disproportionate impression on me. It was the very first time in my life that someone had described my home country as dangerous, and it gave me a weird feeling to think about it.

I’d heard plenty on the other side of the question. When I was preparing to go on a study abroad to Syria during college, the news was met with nearly universal shock and concern. Let alone when we moved to Tunisia last year with our two small children. Such places are so far outside most Americans’ experience, and get such awful coverage in the media, that going there struck many of my well-meaning compatriots as some kind of eccentric death-wish.

But America dangerous? No way. Before my Irish friend suggested it, the thought would never have occurred to me. I think we all view home as a safe place. It’s a natural and healthy human tendency. Living in a place that you believe is unsafe plays with your mind. My friend Annie, who recently moved to Kenya with an NGO to work in the largest slum in Africa, just wrote a great account of what it feels like to live in that kind of constant fear. We function much better when we can convince ourselves that even though bad things can happen anywhere, home is an intrinsically safe place.

My Irish conversation was brought back to me yesterday when I read the following passage in Jason Elliot’s travel memoir about Iran, of all places. The author is talking to an Iranian man who spent five years living with his family in the United States and working as an engineer. They have just moved back to Iran. Elliot recounts:

I wondered why he had given up the obvious benefits of life there and come back.

‘For the children,’ he said.

‘You wanted an Iranian education for them.’

‘It wasn’t that,’ he said. ‘Every week, someone would go crazy and start shooting kids in a playground. In LA people shoot each other for fun. At least here you know the worst that will happen in an argument is that someone will punch you in the face.’ He shook his head. ‘We couldn’t live like that.’

Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran, page 90

In the wake of the recent Aurora shooting, I confess that I’ve had some similar thoughts. It was a shocking tragedy. Shocking like the tragedy last year in Norway, where Anders Breivik went on a shooting rampage that killed dozens of teenagers. However, there’s one thing that really sticks out as distinguishing the two. No event even remotely similar has happened in Norway within living memory. In the United States, on the other hand, a similar tragedy happened just last year. And the year before. And the year before that. And so on, back to 1984, according to this report.

When I perused the “International comparison” section of Wikipedia’s article on Crime in the United States, I could see what my Irish friend was talking about. Our homicide rate is among the highest in the developed world, at 4.8 per 100,000. Norway, by comparison, is 0.5. Even more heartbreaking, we also have the developed world’s very highest rate for deaths from child abuse and neglect: 2.4 per 100,000 in the country at large, and 4.05 in the state of Texas. And is it a little frightening that we have the highest incarceration rate in the entire world?

Putting aside all the statistics and the question of why they are so high (except I will include the lovely and eloquent photo above, also courtesy of the state of Texas), I’m interested to know how you, my readers feel. If you live in the United States, do you feel safe? If you’re an international reader, do you think of the United States as a safe or dangerous place?

photo credit

When in Deltona . . .

Do as the Deltonans do. So we did. We went to the 4th of July Parade. It’s been a couple of years since we spent a 4th of July in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Two years ago we were in Ireland, and I was surprised at how much the Irish got into celebrating OUR independence day. They even had special “American” foods (pancakes, maple syrup, and root beer festooned with American flags) on sale at the grocery store. When we went to Church, as the only Americans in the congregation (along with the missionaries) we were wished a happy 4th of July from the pulpit.

I think the Irish excitement had a lot to do with the fact that they’d achieved their own independence from the same colonial power, but much more recently than we. The Irish War of Independence is still within living memory, and they love the chance to celebrate another huge historical embarrassment to their overbearing neighbor.

Last year in Tunisia, the 4th of July passed pretty much without a blip. I don’t think we did anything at all to celebrate, and the Tunisians were mostly preoccupied with their own independence.

This year we’re firmly ensconced in small-town U.S.A., and we were invited to the traditional 4th of July BBQ hosted by a family in the ward who live on the Lake Helen 4th of July Parade route. On the menu were all-you-can-eat giant hot dogs, and a variety of potluck side dishes like baked beans, mac&cheese, frog eye salad, and an abundance of red, white and blue desserts.

The parade was dominated by vehicles like this:

and this:

In the end, the guy we saw on the way in the beat-up pickup truck with the huge confederate flag didn’t make it into the parade (I can’t seem to get used to the confederate flags and racist bumper stickers here). But this did:

Adding to the political overtones, a good portion of the cars (and an even larger portion of the candy) was sponsored by local politicians, some of whom also marched in the parade. I’m not sure if we should consider this bribery of constituents:

There was a snazzy little train,

a lot of horses,

and an obscene amount of candy thrown to the children.

Before the parade, our hosts had passed out grocery bags to the children to hold the candy. I couldn’t imagine enough candy would be thrown to fill a grocery bag per child, but it was.

Happy 4th of July. It’s been a real American holiday.

Welcome Home, Part 7: The Tornado Fun Zone

Yes, we’re currently on tornado watch, due to tropical storm Debby (note to self: find out if they usually get through a whole alphabet of storm names in a season). I didn’t know we had tornados in Florida before we moved here (among other things. This was obviously not the most well-researched move). Someone was killed by a tornado in south Florida yesterday, and when I saw the picture of her house, I freaked out a little. Or a lot.

Fortunately, this was not the first time I had heard of tornados here. Mormons in general are known for being a bit fanatical about disaster preparation. Not only are we enjoined to have a 72-hour-kit full of necessities like high-energy food, flashlights, emergency blankets, solar/hand crank radio, etc., but also a three-month supply of the normal foods we eat, and a full year supply of longer-term food storage like wheat and dried beans.

I don’t know if it’s because this is a high disaster area, or just because people have useful hobbies, but our Ward here is the most disaster-prepared ward I’ve ever encountered. Just a month or two ago, we had a Ward activity centered around preparedness. The lights in the Church building were off, and everyone was supposed to bring an electric lantern to light their family’s table.

We brought a Coleman lantern, since that’s what I found in our camping gear, but I was informed that the fire code proscribed its use, so we sat at a more prepared person’s table. The really hard-core members had been living for the whole week as if a disaster had struck, and refraining from the use of electricity, hot water, and other accoutrements of modern life.

It was a potluck, and everyone was supposed to bring food made out of stuff from their food storage. It was an interesting meal, to say the least, with lots of reconstituted soups and T.V.P. I was not even able to guess what some of the food was made out of. I brought refried beans. Probably the most creative menu item was the fish cakes, made of canned fish rolled in corn flakes. Um . . . yum?

The missionaries turned up late, without any investigators, which was probably a good thing, because sitting around in the dark eating semi-edibles and talking about various calamities of the “last days” might not have been the best introduction to the Church, whatever its ultimate practical value.

After we ate, we sat in the eerie glow of the electric lanterns and people shared their disaster-related expertise. There were presentations on solar cooking, getting water out of sycamore trees (you can get five gallons a day if you tap the tree like a sugar maple), and storm preparedness. I was in charge of talking about how to entertain children without electricity. Most of what my children do all day is not electrically-related, so that wasn’t too difficult.

Somebody had made a little oven out of a cardboard box that would cook a full dinner with just three briquets. Someone else had a ham radio set up. Our Ward has a total of 23 certified ham radio operators, who are organized to keep in touch during a disaster and check up on the various sectors where members live. Even in a church with a culture of disaster preparedness, that’s got to be some kind of record.

And someone else talked about getting your home ready to weather a hurricane. After hearing the talk, Tony and I decided that our method of weathering a hurricane would be to leave town. The presenter also mentioned tornados. My personal experience with tornados is limited to watching The Wizard of Oz, so I raised my hand and asked what we should do if a tornado came through, since we haven’t got a root cellar.

Today when I had my tornado-induced freak-out, I used what I’d learned at the Ward activity to set up our very own storm shelter, aka Tornado Fun Zone.

The first thing we had to do was decide which room of the house would be the safest in case of a tornado. It’s supposed to be an internal room without windows. Our first thought was the children’s bathroom, since it’s technically three walls deep and somebody at the activity told a story about a friend of a friend who ran into the bathroom and grabbed the toilet during a tornado. After the tornado had passed, the only thing left of the house was the toilet and the person clinging to it. I made a mental note to clean my toilet.

But then we remembered that the bathroom has a skylight, and of course I immediately pictured us all getting sucked out through the skylight. Our bathroom is even worse, since it’s on an outside wall with two large windows, and tons of other glass in the room from the shower and mirrors. So yeah. The only room in our house without windows is my walk-in closet. Here’s the entrance, right next to my Mommy Wall in my bedroom. Doesn’t it look so inviting?

Here’s the inside. Excuse the clutter, but it really does spend most of its time functioning as a closet.

Here’s my blanket stash, in case we have to spend the night in it. Not that we would need blankets if the four of us were all snuggled in here together.

Behind the blankets you can just see the back of the mirror that Tony has promised to move to another closet so it doesn’t shatter on top of us.

Here’s our stash of bunny crackers, sardines, and oysters, in case we get hungry while the tornado is passing over us. Below are some books and crayons to amuse us, and a flashlight in case the power goes off.

Here’s the water in case we get thirsty, our 72-hour-kit, and the bicycle helmets that I read on some website that we should wear in case of flying objects (such as all of the containers and boxes stored on shelves above our heads in the closet).

Does it look like we’ll survive the tornado?

First Impressions of Florida

I don’t know that I’ve ever moved somewhere I couldn’t find lots of things to like. But Florida seems to have more than its share of fun and beautiful things. First of all is the scenery. Maybe it’s just that we’re coming straight from tumbleweed country, but Florida feels like a jungle. All I can see out my back window is trees. Out of the front window I see my neighbors across the street, and then more trees.

We spent Axa’s birthday at Daytona Beach, which according to itself is “The Most Famous Beach in the World.” It was certainly the widest beach I’d ever seen–wider even than L.A. They have a parking lot right on the sand (which we were of course too cheap to park in). Then there’s another strip of sand where the ice cream truck drives up and down (I kid you not. This was a little much for me). Then they have the rows of umbrellas and beach chairs for rent, and then there are still yards and yards of sand until the water finally starts to lap up shallowly over more sand, before the waves start in earnest. The kids had a great time, although I forbade them from the water (well, at least past their ankles). We had to have a little lesson in how the Atlantic Ocean is different from the Mediterranean Sea, in which they could swim as if it were a bathtub.

We also made a stop for a free tour at the Angell and Phelps Chocolate factory, where we watched potato chips being dipped in chocolate, as well as the production of other high class confections.

One thing we’ve had to get used to is road tolls. The first time I got on a toll road, it was the kind that only accepts exact change. I dug in my purse and pulled out only a quarter and two pennies, which was 23 cents short of the 50 cent toll. Digging a little deeper, I unearthed a Tunisian dinar. I briefly considered substituting it for the missing quarter, but decided against it, since I’d really hate to lose it, and the Florida Turnpike would probably give me a nasty fine anyway. Then I found a real American 50 cent piece, and thought I had hit the jackpot for “exact change.” Unfortunately, the machine rejected it, despite its being perfectly legal tender. Which turned out to be not such a bad thing. I later discovered that it was Tony’s silver 50 cent piece given to him for his birthday by his best friend from junior high. What it was doing in my purse, I have no idea.

In the end, I had a line of irate Florida drivers behind me. I finally noticed the envelopes you could take to send the Florida Turnpike a 50 cent check if you didn’t have exact change, and thus avoid the exorbitant fine for toll ducking. I sheepishly took an envelope and continued on my way. I now carry several dollars worth of change around, although I have yet to get on another toll road.

I’ve also noticed that everyone here seems unusually nice. Even the employees at Walmart go out of their way to be helpful, and are genuinely friendly. When we went to Church on Sunday, no fewer than a dozen people came up and introduced themselves to us.

Shopping at my local supermarket was also an adventure. When I walked in, it looked a little like my favorite Mexican grocery store in Fallbrook, and the employees cheerfully greeted me in Spanish and English. Like my Fallbrook store, they have great produce at good prices (including unusual things like mangoes, cactus, and gigantic fresh aloe vera spears). It’s not so much Mexican as Central American, though. Rather than fresh tortillas, they have pupusas and empanadas. In the meat section, I found chicken livers and gizzards, goat meat, and pigs’ feet. And the canned food section boasts such delights as canned squid (packed in its own ink). Definitely fertile ground for the imaginative cook. We’ll see how imaginative my family will let me be.

Also fun is the fact that our waking hours now correspond more closely to those of some of our overseas friends. And our house, which I just love, and will probably succumb to the temptation of showing you room by room, even though this is no more of a design blog than it is a fashion blog.

Professor Plum, with the revolver, in the . . .  Florida room?

Running Away to Home, La Bella Lingua, Dune, and the Woman Who Laughed at God

I keep starting more books, and can’t seem to finish many of them. But here are a few reviews to start off the year:

Running Away to HomeRunning Away to Home by Jennifer Wilson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having done a very similar thing myself, I enjoyed reading Jennifer Wilson’s account of how she took her family to the Czech Republic in search of her ancestors. I loved all the little details of their acceptance into her ancestral village, and how she and her suburban American family learned a different way of living and seeing the world. However, the book lacked a certain internal consistency and completeness. At times, Wilson simply rambled. And she kept bringing up interesting themes and then dropping them without warning, never to be revisited. The concluding chapters read a little insincerely, almost as if she’d written them before she ever went, and been planning to write the book all along.



La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting LanguageLa Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language by Dianne Hales

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I certainly enjoyed reading this book, since I’m as weak in the knees over the Italian language as Hales. However, this is more of a light cultural history of Italy than the “love affair with Italian” of the subtitle. She does attempt to tie the narrative together with little incidents in her quest to speak Italian, but much of it just comes off as bragging about how much time she’s spent on her many Italian vacations. Hales’ prose is also sometimes a trifle too sexual for good taste (although one could argue the same about the Italian language), and it’s all a bit too self-conscious. And she will keep making sweeping generalizations about all the languages in the world, even though it’s fairly obvious that Italian is the only one she’s ever tried to learn. Still, I learned a lot of new phrases and interesting etymologies, and my Italian “cultural literacy” was certainly enhanced. This book is definitely worth a read if you have anything more than a passing interest in Italy and Italian.



Dune (Dune Chronicles, #1)Dune by Frank Herbert

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Stunning. Really stunning. I don’t know what’s kept me from reading Dune all these years. I’ve always wondered how George Lucas pulled the genius of Star Wars out of thin air, and now I know he didn’t. The entire feel of the Star Wars movies is there, and several characters and scenes were lifted almost directly out of this book. (I’m a bit annoyed at Lucas now for turning the powerful all-female Bene Gesserit into the male-dominated Jedi. But whatever.) However, Dune stands on its own (as does Star Wars) as a masterpiece. The thematic breadth is epic, the symbolism apt and profound, and the depth and scope of literary allusions quite impressive. It’s a ripping page-turner too. And Frank Herbert knows his Arabic. This book totally made me want to go back to Tunisia and spend some time in the desert looking for sandworms.



Dune MessiahDune Messiah by Frank Herbert

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So, I was warned that there’s a sharp drop-off in the sequels to Dune, but I thought I’d give this one at least a try. It was O.K., but resembled a little too closely the pulp science fiction that kept me from reading Dune for so long in the first place. The main thing I enjoyed, again, was tracing the origins of Star Wars. I can’t say I really liked the plot. Unfortunately, Jessica, my favorite character (and Duke Leto, my second favorite) are both virtually absent from this book. Duncan is just creepy, Alia is . . . strange. Paul is more tragic and haunted than ever, but less likable. And there are no really grand epic vistas here. Herbert puts in some interesting philosophy, but nowhere near the depth of the original Dune. I will probably not be continuing on with the rest of the several books in the series.



The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish PeopleThe Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People by Jonathan Kirsch

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I eventually got bored with this one and dropped it somewhere between “In the Ruined Citadel” and “Abominable Heresies.” Kirsch revels in the sensational. His narrative is liberally peppered with his own scantily supported suppositions, even as he tries to observe the forms of a well-researched, fairly scholarly work. Still, I enjoyed reading some of his clever theses, especially in the chapter “A Goddess of Israel,” in which he advances the idea that women may have written some of the oldest parts of the Bible.



View all my reviews

What are you reading (or planning to read) this year?

Italian Christmas Memories

Well, we’re going on three months now, and cultural acclimation is progressing. I still can’t figure out why I keep seeing people walking around in shirt-sleeves when it’s almost December. My mother-in-law says it’s because all they have to do is walk from warm cars to warm buildings. I (and my children, according to me) can’t survive outside without sweaters, coats, scarves, and hats. I guess this is how the Florentines felt seeing my bare, scarf-less neck in springtime.

The one thing I can’t get used to about Christmas in the United States is the maniacal shopping. Tony convinced me to go to Black Friday once, but I’ll never go again. Even without pepper spray and stampedes, whatever moral quibbles I might entertain about out-of-control consumerism pale in comparison to my utterly visceral aversion to shopping.

I just wasn’t cut out for the whole shopping thing, especially on a huge American scale. The tiny shops in Tunisia that barely had room to turn around in were the perfect size for me. The truth is, there are a lot of things I would rather just go without than shop for. I haven’t even shopped for clothes for myself in years. I would probably be dressed in rags were I not spoiled by a husband and mother-in-law who are kind enough to do it for me.

Yesterday after significant urging by Tony (and with great apprehension and trepidation), I walked into Burlington Coat Factory to get some gloves, and almost had a panic attack on the spot. The Christmas pop music was blaring from above, the checkout line was a dozen shoppers deep, and the place was packed to bursting with what must have been the entire contents of several gigantic Chinese factories. I felt like a mouse in a never-ending maze.

Christmastime may be when I miss Italy the most. It just won’t really be the same without Beatrice helping us roast chestnuts in a long-handled pan over a fire outside,

watching our first snowfall (and getting our car pulled out of it by a tractor),

and visiting a mountain village 100 years ago on Christmas Eve.

And although I don’t miss the stress of a very demanding set of Church callings, I think I might be able to handle the heartwarming insanity of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

I miss Christmas in Italy!

Halloweening, Familia Style

When I was a kid, there was a minister who lived next door to us. He refused to pass out candy to trick-or-treaters. Instead, they got little Christian tracts on how evil and satanic the holiday was. At the time, I just thought he was weird. But I could do without Halloween now.

In fact, not seeing spider webs, creepy masks, and gravestones all over people’s yards and store windows every October was one of the things I loved about living abroad. Not to mention the fact that I didn’t have to either let my kids gorge themselves on candy for the entire first week of November or be the “mean” mom who takes it all away.

Unfortunately, this year we moved back to the U.S. just in time for Halloween. So I am faced with my Halloween dilemma.

I don’t know why this is, but Mormons in the U.S. really love Halloween. Most wards host a “trunk-or-treat” at which people decorate the trunks of their cars, park them in the church parking lot, and hand out candy to costumed children from them. The sugar orgy usually continues inside the church with additional games and treats. I remember being absolutely thrilled one year to win a hideous chocolate spider cake in the cake walk.

The “trunk-or-treat” concept was originally developed in response to all the concerns about Halloween safety. It was felt that it was important to provide a safe place for children to gorge on candy. However, since the church party was typically held a few days before Halloween, I knew many families who went trick-or-treating too, at least to the houses of family and friends. So in my candy-hating mother mind, trunk-or-treat actually makes the situation worse, not better.

We skipped the trunk-or-treat this year, but my kids got plastic gloves full of popcorn and candy corn today at church, and candy at library story hour yesterday. Still, I don’t want them to feel like they’re missing out on Halloween, so I’ve looked around for alternatives.

One of my Protestant friends recommended having a “Reformation party,” since Martin Luther nailed up his 99 theses on All Saints Eve. I love this idea, but I think I’ll wait until we’ve been through the Reformation in our history readings, and the children have some context.

Charlotte, a mom on one of the many homeschooling email lists to which I subscribe described her family’s Halloween tradition like this:

We live out in the country. We meet with two other families on a predetermined evening. The children, (5 in all), exchange gifts, (usually books or craft supplies). One of the moms, (the most organized of us 3), has our route planned. We visit 6 homes. The owners are aware that we are coming in advance. Two homes are widows, two are elderly and two are grandparents of our small group.

The children wear costumes and we spend 15-30 minutes at each stop. Some offer candy, others homemade treats, (safe because we’ve known these people our entire lives). One stop always serves us supper, another always has cake and ice cream for dessert. Sometimes, an activity has been planned at a particular stop. The children often have made drawings/ cards, or have picked bouquets of wildflowers to leave.

This has been a wonderful outreach. One widow in particular looks forward to our visit all year. She lives miles from town and can’t drive and feels isolated I’m sure. Before us, she never had trick-or-treaters because she lives on an untraveled dirt road. She loves decorating her porch and entryway for the children.

I loved her idea of turning Halloween into a service, family, and community outreach evening. Maybe sometime I’ll get that organized.

In the meantime, what we have planned is a family Halloween party with Grammy and Pampa. We’ll carve our pumpkins, bob for apples, decorate (healthy) cookies (with my honey-cream cheese frosting, nuts, dried fruit, etc.), and play games.

Yeah, I’m a spoilsport. At least it only happens once a year.

photo credits:

1. Our newlywed Halloween, back before I had kids and became such a wet blanket. If you look closely, you’ll see that the earring on Tony’s pirate pumpkin is his wedding ring.

2. My awesome brother Samuel, who when his firstborn son arrives in January will most likely be naming him Yoda.

Travel Update #1: I TOLD You So!

If only the world would listen to me. As he mentioned in the comments this morning, Tony did call Tunisair to confirm our flight. They said everything was fine. And when we arrived at the airport, our flight was listed as on-time. In fact, they didn’t get around to changing the flight status until it was already past our 16:35 departure time, and there was no sign of the plane even landing, let alone anyone boarding.

Our first clue about the trouble should have been that while we were standing in line to check in, the Tunisair staff told the front of the line something that caused a massive stampede over to another check-in desk on the other side of the room. Fortunately, Tony and I are old hands at making the most of a Tunisian line (because if you don’t make the most of it, you’ll stay at the back no matter how long you are in line, as everyone else somehow worms or pushes past you). As we normally do in these types of situations, we split up with one child each. He and Axa strategically maneuvered toward a good place in the now amorphous original line, while Dominique and I joined the stampede.

Tony did better than I did. Stampedes are a little intimidating for me, especially when I and every other stampeder is pushing a fully-loaded luggage cart. Fortunately, Tony’s line turned out to be the right line. The stampede line was the people whose flight was supposed to go to Rome this morning. Surprise, surprise for them (and Tunisair too, apparently); there is a general strike in Italy today, and their flight was cancelled. So it looks like our plane will be pretty full. Due to Tony’s maneuvers, we were only three people from the front of the line now. Despite the lady at the desk poring over each passport as if they were written in Chinese, taking multiple breaks to chat with co-workers, and being limited to two-finger typing, it only took us about an hour to finally get checked in.

We made our fastest time ever through airport security, mostly due to not packing as many weird things as normal, and not taking out our laptop, removing our shoes, or having our clandestine yoghurt, water, and toothpaste-in-container-too-large confiscated. Score! Our bags were not even searched. I don’t remember the last time that’s happened. Is this a Tunisian thing, or have regulations just become more lax since I last flew, seven months ago?

We had one tense moment when Dominique had to make an emergency bathroom stop as we were rushing to our gate for our (so we thought) imminently departing flight. We screeched up to the gate with a bare half-hour left before takeoff. I was sure the plane must be at least half-boarded already. So much for the fact that business class tickets had been the cheapest we could find. We weren’t going to get to board early anyway. However, when we screeched up to the gate, we just saw a bunch of bored Tunisians sitting around talking. There was no sign of the plane, or even anyone sitting at the desk, so we sat down and had the snacks we had been promising the children. Then I did another bathroom break, this time with Axa.

After a half hour or so waiting (by this time it was fifteen minutes past the scheduled departure time), people started congregating around the desk. We were sitting right next to it, so we had the luxury of eavesdropping on a half-dozen identical conversations about when the plane was leaving (the woman who was by now sitting at the desk seemed quite annoyed to have the same question of her asked over and over, but it didn’t occur to her to make a loudspeaker announcement about the now-obvious fact that the plane was late). The first people were told it would be an hour late, but this quickly mushroomed to four. It was pretty obvious to me that what had happened was that the plane we were supposed to take couldn’t leave Italy until after the strike was over, and would not be showing up here for two hours after that. Why Tunisair hadn’t foreseen this, especially after the morning flight was cancelled, I don’t know, and will refrain from speculating.

The room was so full of conversations between animated travelers that I couldn’t hear myself think. The children were getting increasingly rambunctious. The next four hours stretched before me like an endless wasteland. Just as I was about to utterly give up hope, the woman at the desk glanced at our tickets, saw they were business class, and told us we could go wait in the “privileged” lounge. Hallelujah! (As you can see, we’re not very experienced posh travelers, or we would have certainly had this idea on our own.)

Plush leather couches, big flat-screen T.V.’s (playing cartoons!), snacks, and free WIFI internet. It was like walking into paradise. Looks like the next few hours might be bearable after all. And somebody in Heaven must be watching over me.


International News in My Backyard

The Tunisian police are holding a sit-in today to protest all the police stations that were burned during the revolution, and make sure the 23 police officers on trial for killing demonstrators during the weeks leading up to President Ali’s exit get a fair trial. They’re considering a general strike if the sit-in fails to produce the results they want. Ben Ali’s power base was largely drawn from the police force, and so the police now feel that they’ve been unfairly blamed for the violence during the protests in January.

Unfortunately, the past few weeks in Tunisia have seen a foiled bombing plot by Qaddafi, and fighting and deaths due to rioting and tribal conflict in the south, as well as a rash of muggings and car break-ins in our own neighborhood. This on top of the fact that many in Tunisia are expecting a further deterioration of the security situation ahead of the democratic elections next month. It’s things like these that make the idea of a police strike a bit unnerving.

But after we fly out of Tunisia this afternoon, I won’t have to check the news for these sorts of events. Or at least I can check my usual news in a more detached way, because it won’t cause me immediate practical consequences. It will be weird to read the news about Libya without wondering if tomorrow I’ll see Qaddafi sunbathing on my beach. Or go to Church every Sunday morning without first checking the the curfew and security state in Tunis. Tunisia has been in an official state of emergency for our entire time here.

And I thought we were completely out of the woods until yesterday, when my Guardian news feed reported that the general strike planned for the entire country of Italy today would be affecting air traffic. Our flight home goes through Rome. In fact, we have an overnight layover there. I could just see being told at the last minute (after we’ve moved out of our house and everything) that our flight from Tunis would not be allowed to land in Rome. Or getting so delayed that we missed our flight the next morning. “Blah,” as Toad would say.

I’d hoped it was an exaggeration, but further investigation revealed that even staff of Alitalia and other Italian airline companies (including pilots) would be participating in the strike. Fortunately, we’re flying Tunisair (a , our flight originates internationally, and we are supposed to land at 6:50 p.m., a couple of hours after the conclusion of the 8-hour strike, all cited by a friend in Italy as good reasons to hope that our flight might be unaffected. Better yet, our hotel has a shuttle service, so we’re not trying to rely on nonexistent public transportation or hopelessly scarce taxis once we get there.

Still, the whole thing just reminds me of the day we arrived in Tunisia. There was a general transportation strike that day, rendering taxis the only viable means of public transportation. And our taxi driver told us that even taxis would be joining the strike on the following day.

Knowing what I know about efficiency and punctuality in both Italy and Tunisia, I am just crossing my fingers that arriving a few hours after the strike won’t subject us to 8-hour lines or whatever might be the rest of the fallout from an entire day of nobody working. Because my curiosity to know what a major international airport looks like after everybody in it has been striking all day is not strong enough for me to want to see it in person.

Can’t I just click my heels together three times and say, “there’s no place like home?”

photo credits: Italian strike, Ruby slippers