Apologies for my recent silence. I hate to leave you all without suitable reading matter (although there are always my voluminous archives). But as usual, I have good reasons. I’m writing this from Tunisia! So, we’re not out manning the barricades or marching in the streets, but still. We’re in Tunisia. Remember last week when I blogged about the Tunisian revolution? Well, my obsession with recent events in Tunisia was more than a little motived by the fact that we had plane tickets to land in Tunis on Saturday, January 15th, less than 24 hours after the President fled the country. Up until the afternoon before our flight, our hosts in a quiet Tunis suburb told us that although the protests were continuing, their neighborhood remained safe, and the government wasn’t going anywhere. Then, at around 5:30 p.m., we received nearly simultaneous calls from our Tunisian landlord, who lives in Chicago, and his brother, who occupies the downstairs of the house we were planning to stay in for the next few months. They told us about the 10,000 protesters in the streets, the departure of the president, and the gunfights between the military and the police. And in case we were still undecided, the airport was also shut down, rendering our imminent flight not just inadvisable but literally impossible.
Now don’t get me wrong. We weren’t going into this blindly. We had been keeping daily tabs on the violence in Tunisia for weeks. On Wednesday when we purchased our plane tickets, there had as of yet been no riots in the capital or any of the major coastal tourist towns. Hours after we bought the tickets, the demonstrations reached Tunis. The next day, angry citizens trashed and looted a mansion owned by the President’s family in Hammamet, the country’s largest resort town. Maybe we’re crazy, but we still planned to go. We spoke with several people we knew in various areas of Tunis. Some were more jittery than others, but most said things weren’t too serious, and their neighborhoods hadn’t been affected much. We felt good about going. We couldn’t wait to be in Tunisia.
When news of the unexpected success of the protests reached us on Friday evening, we shared the joy of our Tunisian friends. What’s not to love about the departure of a hardened dictator and his incorrigibly spendthrift wife? Along with them, we fervently hoped for the installation of a truly democratic government, and the quick apprehension of the sinister leftover presidential security forces. We were elated for Tunisia, although a bit shaken by the dramatic events. Still, when Saturday dawned, rather than feeling relief that we weren’t on that plane to Tunis, we felt gut-wrenching regret. Now, more than ever, we missed being in Tunisia. With our house in boxes, our suitcases ready, and our hearts aready there, what were we to do?
I suppose I should backtrack and explain about the boxes and the suitcases. Tony deposed his own dictator last week when he signed a severence agreement with The Firm. No time to go into details now (I promise I will eventually, and don’t worry, that story is worth waiting for), but Tony’s job had become utterly unworkable. And our Italian landlord was having some outside problems that made it impossible for him to continue to host us in our temporary housing back in Italy. Since our Italian house was furnished (our own household effects still peacefully reside in a San Diego storage unit, waiting for us to find a dream to call home, aka a country to settle down in), there really weren’t that many boxes to leave with our dear friend Beatrice back in Italy. With a severence check in hand and an awesome business idea in mind, we were ready to pack ourselves off to a relaxing house near the beach where we could pull out our laptops, start our new business, and get our life back on track.
And that beach was supposed to be in Tunisia. How can I explain the intensity of our desire to go there? Our family is a sort of geographical Byronic lover. We don’t just move, we fall desperately in love. And we’ve fallen hard for Tunisia. Beautiful, sophisticated, friendly, historic Tunisia, beloved of Hannibal, coveted by Rome, claimed by the Arabs, Europeanized by France, and decided upon by us as what we hoped would be our forever home. Of course we were going to give it a good three or four months to make sure, just like we give everywhere a good three or four months. But we knew we’d love it. I couldn’t wait to speak Arabic again, the children were excited for the beach, and Tony had spent the past several weeks in exhaustive study of the Punic Wars. So when our plans came crashing around our ears two Fridays ago, we eventually just went to bed, hoping that maybe the Trouble in Paradise was just a bad dream, and we could still wake up the next day and fly off into the Tunisian sunset.
Over the next few days, we listlessly started looking at plane tickets and rentals in Turkey, Spain, Morocco, Greece, and even Sicily. Somehow, nothing really seemed right. We couldn’t keep ourselves from constantly going back to refresh those minute-by-minute online updates of the situation in Tunisia. Would the current interim government rearrange itself enough for popular support? Would the people ask the army to stage a coup? Would government response to the daily protests deteriorate again from batons and teargas into bullets? Would the fragmented and exiled opposition manage to fly in from Europe and cobble together some kind of spur-of-the-moment government? Would the police and security forces still loyal to the deposed Ben Ali try to sabotage everything?
Things did start to calm down after a couple of days. Peaceful protests and strikes were replacing angry riots and violence. Then there was a whole day without any teargas at all. Tony and I had told ourselves and each other that we would just wait a few weeks to make sure things had really calmed down. After all, who is flying into Tunisia right now except daredevil journalists and exiled opposition figures ready to hit the streets? Tourists from most countries are still trying to get out. In the end, though, we just couldn’t make it. Seven days almost to the very hour after President Ben Ali took off from Carthage International Aiport, we touched down. Several kilos of tangerines and oranges later, along with a medium-sized bottle of harissa and a long walk along the pristinely beautiful beach, we’re thinking we may have just made the best decision of our lives.