Friday, June 28, 2013

Tunisia & misc. stuff

There's a whole lotta storytelling that could be done in this week's blog post. I'll do my best not to bore you...

Sunday the 16th saw Jessica and Anna returning to their respective homes (Tennessee and Germany). Jessica left at 3:15am(!), and Anna left around 9am. 

They were sad to leave, but had a great visit with each other. 

Kenz and I spent the morning packing, the afternoon FaceTiming our three fathers (Father's Day), and the evening flying from London to Tunis, Tunisia. 

We bowled a Father's Day turkey! 

[Edit: Below is an unusually acerbic recount of our trip. The tone is somewhat exaggerated in order to approach humor. We had a great time on our trip. I should say that up front. I promise we did. We had fun.]

For the record, I had experienced a significant amount of stress about this trip for weeks. I knew it was my year to plan the anniversary, and I wanted to do something nice for Kenz seeing as how she's just finished her second year of school and would be leaving for the States for five weeks in June/July. We'd both been busy, hadn't had much time to ourselves, so I thought a trip to the beach was something she'd really enjoy. As you may know, I don't care for the beach all that much. I also get uncharacteristically nervous travelling. Moreso when travelling to a country where English isn't the primary language. It's limiting, I know.

I spent several nights searching for the best beaches in Europe, cross referencing them with budgets, looking at AirB'n'B, figuring out my work schedule, dates, etc. All while trying to keep it a secret from Kenz. Also getting increasingly nervous that something was going to go wrong.

I pride myself as a man with a plan, and don't like the uncertainty of travelling to a place I've never been to before. There are too many things that can complicate the 'plan' - especially if I don't have a car. A car represents a 'way out' for me. There's freedom in a car. You can fix things with a car. You're not dependent on others or communication with a car. You can just leave in a car. But, a car we do not have.

I eventually reached a place where I was just watching places get booked by other people because I was too scared to pull the trigger on anything. The fear was paralyzing. Once I realized this, I abandoned all logic and booked a sweet little place right across the street from a beach in the Basque country of Spain. 'Good,' I thought, 'at least we've got a place.' Four nights; short, but sweet. I then went to book travel accommodations.

Turns out you can't get to San Sebastian from London in anything less than eight hours. The best route was flying into Paris, then taking a train to another airport, then flying to the border of France & Spain, and then taking another train to San Sebastian's next-door city. We could then take a bus into San Sebastian itself. Shit. I bet I could get there faster if I had a damn car.

At least I only lost half of my money upon canceling the reservation...

Frustrated, at my wit's end, and down to the wire, I called up Tunisia First. A travel agency. A friend of mine had just returned form Tunisia for the second time in as many years, and I had heard good things from various other people. I figured it was just best to throw up the white flag, surrender, and let someone else do the planning for me. After thirty minutes on the phone (spent asking all sorts of fear-based questions about travel, return travel, and food), I'd booked us a five night stay at a resort-style hotel right on the beach.

I didn't feel much better at the end of the call.

But, there we were, with what seemed like an innocuous plan: hop the plane, get shuttled to our hotel, sit at the beach, and return five days later.


Happy at Heathrow

We arrived at the Tunis airport and were promptly pulled from the immigration line. The person inspecting our passports saw that we were Americans and called her boss over. At first, I thought it was because she didn't speak enough English to communicate with us. While talking to her superior, I realized it was because of our USA passports. Kenz realized this at the same time. After the officer asked us why we would be coming to Tunisia and if this was our first visit and looking at us, bewildered, we responded by saying, 'OH, no, no, no - we live in London! We're not coming from the States.' That pacified him enough to allow us through to baggage. Kenz and I exchanged nervous glances that said, 'what are we in for' as we headed out to pick up our bags.

We found our Tunisia First representative in the lobby of the airport. He was standing among various people waiting to meet friends, family, and guests. I counted at least ten people smoking cigarettes inside the gate. It reminded me of the last time I'd seen people smoking inside a building: the casinos of Tunica, MS.

Our rep collected the shuttle driver and the two of them led us out to the minivan. We were the last to arrive for the day. It was 10pm. The rep and driver carried on a conversation in a blend, from what I could tell, of Arabic and French as we left the airport and headed, first, through downtown Tunis. Kenz and I tried our best to take in the sights of the country's capital city despite the fact that the sun had set hours before.

Then, out of nowhere, the driver stopped and the rep hopped out of the car with a one word goodbye, 'Enjoy!'

Again, Kenz and I exchanged nervous glances, thinking what just happened?

Our driver couldn't speak English. The rep could, but he was gone. An uneasy, silent hour later, we arrived in Hammamet at our hotel. After filling out various carbon-copy documentation forms, exchanging money in order to tip bellmen, and being handed a key attached to a clunky, heavy, metal rectangle with our room number on it, we were released to our room.

Another reason I get nervous about travelling is because I just assume everyone's out to get me. I know it's absurd, but I haven't been able to change this unfortunate predisposition. I don't like feeling or looking like an obvious tourist. The nail that sticks out the furthest is the one that gets hammered, you know...

We got to the room at about 11:30, tired, nervous, and curious what the next day would bring.


We arose and went downstairs to the buffet breakfast. It was the first time we got to see the other clientele. I'd say about 80% of the folks were over fifty years old. Maybe a solid 40% were over sixty. And they were from all over Europe. I wasn't awake enough for this to really mean anything.

We got ready to go out to the beach and returned to the lobby. There, sitting behind a desk, was a nice looking man in charge of reservations for the spa next door. Thinking it would be sweet to get Kenz a massage (and thinking I could do one myself), I convinced her to sit down at the table. Part of it was the language barrier, part of it was the charm of this man, and part of it was the fact that I thought Kenz wanted what this guy was offering while Kenz thought I wanted what this guy was offering...we wound up booking some absurd four day, two hour a day, torture-session in the spa next door ('it's not a spa - it's Thalissimo', our man kept saying).

Before we knew it, we were next door, touring the various rooms, each with their own instrument of relaxation/torture, not realizing that we'd be split up for this entire process each day. One hour, a conversion rate miscalculation, and two signatures later, we'd sealed our fate: we were to return in two hours for our initial 'therapy'.

To her credit, Kenz did say, while we were sitting at the man's desk, that we should maybe go to the beach and think about it first. I was too invested in thinking this was what she really wanted and she was just being nice. I misread the entire situation. She was trying to get us out of it. The road to hell is paved with good intentions...

Our first experience at the spa-not-spa was a cold saltwater swimming pool ('everything we do is with saltwater - it's not a spa, it's Thalissimo). Then we were separated. Apparently, we were doing the same thing - just in different rooms. First, a lady smothered me in seaweed, wrapped me in plastic, and then put an electric-heated sleeping bag around me. Then left me alone, in the room, with only my thoughts. And the heat. Afterward, I was hosed down and taken to the next room, wherein I had to alternate between a cold and hot water foot bath for thirty minutes. Again, alone with only my thoughts. Once finished with that, I passed Kenz in the hall. Nervous glances exchanged, each of us wondering if the other is having a good time, because we both think the other person is the one that wants to do this. After the oiliest massage I've ever had (well, I've only ever had 3 in my life), I was dismissed to the locker room for me to shower and get my regular clothes back on.

So, despite waking up at 8am, Kenz and I finally got to the beach at about 3pm. That is, after we'd put down a deposit and rented beach towels. I fell asleep on the beach and Kenz was approached by a local. Being the nice person she is, she was swiftly swindled out of a bunch of money for a very small amount of fruit. I imagine it was marked up about 400% for her, the American.

By the time we returned to the room, Kenz realized she'd lost her beach towel and, consequently, the deposit we'd had to put down for it.

Confused at the day's happenings, we ate our buffet dinner of various mystery meats and casseroles  among retirees speaking German, and then went to sleep.


Up bright and early for torture session round two, we revisited the buffet breakfast before returning to the spa-not-spa. This time, we were ushered into a sauna and left to sweat for an unknown amount of time. Then, each of us was pulled out individually, doused in mud, and wiped down with an abrasive glove. I think the purpose was exfoliation, but it just felt like sandpaper to me.

Afterward, I was sent to the seaweed room, only this time I had some sort of extra-strength Icy-Hot mixture slathered on my legs and wrapped in plastic again; I very nearly panicked because of the intensity of the gel. Thirty minutes later, the seaweed sleeping bag. Thirty minutes after that, the too-oily massage.

When Kenz and I left, we both admitted that we couldn't do another day of it. Relieved that the other was thinking the same thing, we began to share stories of how absurd we felt in the spa-not-spa. We'd come on vacation - for our anniversary - to spend time with each other, not alone, in some room, wrapped in seaweed, going crazy with our thoughts.

So much for just trying to book a massage. We never returned. We laid out by the pool that afternoon - Kenz didn't want to go back to the beach. At dinner, we both admitted that we weren't sure what we should've expected out of this trip, but whatever this was wasn't it. All we wanted to do was sit in the sun and read books. We resolved to spend the next two days doing just that.

Happy not to return to the spa-not-spa.


Again, pool. The thing about the pool: this being a resort and all, there are employees devoted to entertainment. Translated: one to three men would prowl around the perimeter of the pool, shouting such things as, 'Zumba! Wake up sleepyheads, it's time to shake!' and 'Vollybaaaaall' or 'Dance lessons! Get up and learn the salsa!'

Neither of us was interested in these activities. That didn't stop everyone else. There were speakers blasting mid-80's Hip Hop and early 90's Pop throughout the day.

The water aerobics class. 
We came back that afternoon to find some towel art on our bed. And then we realized we had to make our own bed that night. 

That's the folded sheet at the foot of the bed. 

By Wednesday night, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to face another buffet dinner. I'm usually a great supporter of buffet-style dining. Less wait, more food - I'm all in. However, three days in a row of nothing but buffets wears on one's soul. Dinner was served from 7-9pm each night. A minimum of thirty people would be hovering around the doors to the restaurant at 6:45, waiting for them to open. Like cows to slaughter. It was at dinner that night that we heard the couple next to us tell their server they'd be staying at the hotel for fourteen days. Stunned, Kenz and I just stared at each other.

Each night, from 9:30-11:30, there was something going on downstairs; entertainment. Tunisian dancers (with music), a snake charmer (with music), a magician (with music), etc. We weren't interested in attending the evening's program any of the nights, but, luckily, the internal architecture of the building had fantastic acoustics. The atrium style interior had each and every noise effectively piped into our room. We could even hear it from our balcony, where we were trying to silently read.

Great for noise!

There were two English speaking channels: the BBC news loop, repeating the same five stories every hour, and MBC Action - a channel that cycled the same three movies the entire week (Vantage Point, Brooklyn's Finest, The Covenant). We noted that the Tic Tac commercials stole the classic 'chic-chica-chica' sound from Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Kenz would pester me with her best Tunisian pronunciation of Tic Tac each night. It was wonderfully annoying.


Staying 'half-board' meant we were out of pocket for lunch and drinks. I had assumed, incorrectly, that drinks meant alcoholic drinks. It did not. I kept forgetting to buy bottles of water and was unnaturally dehydrated by this point in the week, what with all the sweating under seaweed, mud, and out by the pool. It was while I was scooping some unrecognizable sausages onto my breakfast buffet plate that morning that I realized, to my surprise, that I was homesick for London. I called the devil and told him to get some pajamas; I was pretty sure hell was going to freeze over that night.

By that night, Kenz 'broke' and admitted this wasn't an 'optimal' trip. She felt guilty because I'd tried to hard to plan something that would be nice for her. We both laughed, saying live and learn.

At least we had four days of warm sunshine, two of which we got to spend outside.

We took full advantage of our balcony.

The pool. Everyone took the best lounge chairs by 8am (and kept them all day).

I had to spend Thursday under the umbrella, burnt.

The view from our balcony

The dance instructor had no customers on Thursday. He danced anyway.


We were picked up at 10am. We arrived at the airport at 11am. Our flight was delayed until 4pm. Laughably punch-drunk from the trip, we read and watched an airport cat, unwilling to fight the reality that was 5 hours in an airport right before a 3 hour return flight (and 1 hour commute home). It's not like we had dinner plans with Owen and Celia we had to cancel as a result (we did).

Maybe we could've gotten out and walked around town, but by the time we felt like we 'knew' the area well enough, we'd already been through the spa-not-spa debacle. All we cared about was spending the last two days sitting by the pool. However, I took a few (bad) pics of stuff on the way back to the airport. I think both of us would be happy to return, not stay in a resort hotel, and tour around Tunis and the Sahara.

That clown is the thing of nightmares.

This reminded me of the Sunsphere in Knoxville, TN. 
On our way to the airport, our driver stopped on the corner of a city block in the middle of downtown Tunis. We didn't know why; we didn't ask, either. We just sat there, watching cars drive by. After ten minutes, the Tunisia First rep hopped in the car, unannounced, just like he left it a few days prior. I laughed at myself for being so nervous that first night.

Kenz's airport Diet Coke

Kenz's airport reading style

Airport cat
 We finally arrived back at Heathrow to a 45 minute line at immigration.

We started at the 45 minute one. It's like a line at Disney, only much less exciting.

All in all, we had a great time. I only isolated the parts that I thought were funny/absurd. I look forward to what sort of nonsense Kenz gets us into next year when it's her turn to plan the anniversary!


Before Kenz got off to America on Monday, we had a few weekend activities.

We further entrenched the idea that we're the aunt & uncle that live in the phone

We went to see The Cripple of Inishmaan, a comedy starring Daniel Radcliffe

Review here.

We enjoyed ourselves.

Owen came by on Sunday for brunch. It was awesome. 

Kenz is now in Knoxville, sending me pictures from the land of milk & honey. I'm here, keeping my head down, nose to the grindstone, trying to meet work deadlines.

She got out to dinner with her BFF, Pauline

I think this was sent just to make me jealous

Lots of dog pictures.

This very nearly made me cry from envy.

Kenz got to meet Lucy before me! She got Lucy the flatcap - we'll see if it makes a reappearance. 

She wakes about the same time I take my lunchbreak. It's nice to have the company while I eat. 

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I'd forgotten the fact that we'd taken pictures with a real camera while in Portsmouth. Well, I went and got them. Here they are:

Soldiers trained paddling small boats here at canoe lake during WWII.

Kenz loves a good swan.

This body of water is landlocked, but several people were crabbing. 

And lots of older men were racing their remote-controlled sailboats.

It looked like a helluva good time

The 'beach'.

The dog at the bottom right of this picture wouldn't stop barking at the pelican on the pole on the left side of the pic. 

Approaching Southsea Castle

The entrance

People were small in the 16th Century. Doors like these never get old for the two of us. 

There were lots of WWI & WWII memorials around town. This was the largest:


The hovercraft!


That's it for this week. Despite being all alone for the next four weeks, I think I'll try and post something each Friday. Congratulations to those of you who have made it to the end of this (massive) post. I hope you have a great weekend!

The house smells like bacon and farts.