Sunday, January 15, 2012

Ain't No Shelter Under This Sky

The absurdity of it: a 56 year-old man backpacking around Tunisia like some college kid.

But I was there. I saw it. I saw that old guy dragging himself around North Africa.

You see, I was that old guy.

How dead-to-the-world have I been since the 2008 general election in the United States? (That was when I "pulled the plug" and swore I'd never watch the news again. Or read a paper. Or vote. And I haven't.)

This is how: when I announced my plans to join my co-worker Jason Fazzio on a trip to Tunis this month, some people warned me about visiting Tunisia. "They had political upheaval there recently," I was told. "Are you sure you want to go there?"

It was the first I'd heard of it. The political upheaval, I mean.

Oh, yeah, I'd heard something about an uprising in Egypt, one of Tunisia's geographic neighbors. Hosni Mubarak was tossed out (arrested, in fact) as president of Egypt after 30 years. Somehow I knew about that, don't ask me how. Maybe something on the Internet reached my eyeballs.

But I knew nothing about Tunisia outside of the fact that the early scenes of the movie Patton took place at Kasserine Pass, in the southwestern part of that country.  Surely I knew nothing about any "revolution" there, certainly not that it was actually "revolution" in Tunisia, a year ago this month in fact, which fomented the "copycat" events in Egypt that we all read about. When the Egyptians caught up with Mubarak, they were imitating the nearby Tunisians, who had just tossed out President Zine El Abidine Ben, who in turn had been dictator in Tunisia for 23 years. 

The Grand Mosque in Tunis. We got close to it,
but never actually got inside.
I had no idea. I'd never heard of Zine El Abidine Ben, or the "revolution" that ousted him. Nor would I have cared if I had. Stay away from Tunisia? For my safety? Why? I'm at an age where I don't especially care what happens to me anymore. I have no family. What's to be gained from being "cautious" at my age?

Besides, the Tunisian "revolution" was a year ago. The old man is gone. Everyone's still poor, but satisfied that they "won,"  so the mood on the streets is generally good. What's the big deal? Let's go.

And by the way, I must say that I do not understand these dictator-guys at all. Someone I met on this trip told me that Egypt's Mubarak, for example, had stolen 80 billion dollars. That's more than Egypt's GNP.

He didn't steal it all overnight, of course; he had plenty of leisure time for embezzlement. Mubarak had been president of Egypt since 1981, when Anwar Sadat was assassinated by the Libyans.

But my point is, if I had stolen that much swag, I wouldn't wait around to get caught; I'd stick it in a Swiss bank and abscond for some neutral country where they couldn't touch me. But world leaders just don't seem to have my level of common sense, for some reason. Hubris makes you greedy for more than just money, I guess, but I'll never understand it. I don't even understand why Jerry Brown wanted to be governor of California again after 30-some years. If I were his age and had his money, I'd retire and go enjoy it.

This is where Tunisia is: in North Africa, between Algeria
and Libya.

Anyway, off Jason and I went, backpacks our only luggage, as I say, like a couple of fraternity boys.

My timing is so bad that I have written poems about it. Combine my bad timing with my natural tendency to lose things, and you have in me the traveling companion from hell.

Our Turkish Airlines flight to Tunis, with a five-hour wait in Istanbul, left Tbilisi at 5: 40 a.m. Jason didn't want to spend the money it would have cost to take a cab to the airport, so we took the bus, then sat in the terminal all night. I managed to take a nap between Tbilisi and Istanbul. Can't get in much trouble there. But when we reached the airport in Tunis that afternoon, fatigue combined with my natural absent-mindedness, and I went off and left my jacket in customs. My jacket had my wallet in it. I had to go through a bureaucratic gauntlet to get back into the terminal and retrieve it. Jason wasn't pleased, having to stand out in the freezing wind waiting for me to retrieve these items.

"Don't fuckin' lose it again," he growled.

"Don't fuckin'  lose it again?" I repeated, incredulous that this 36 year-old punk would take such a tone with me, 20 years his elder. "Okay, Mom."

It wasn't the last time Jason would speak sharply or disrespectfully to me during this trip, and goes to show that if you want to find out what someone is really like, go on a trip with them.

But more of that later. I came close to slugging Jason a couple of times for the way he talked to me. But I didn't, and as far as I know we're still friends.

This was North Africa, the desert, right? One expects the desert to be warm. We found pretty quickly that it ain't necessarily so. As we stood waiting for the bus to take us into town, a wind was blowing that could charitably be described as "arctic." Howling. We zipped up our jackets and shivered. Jason had told me on the plane that he had packed swimming trunks in case the opportunity to jump into the Mediterranean should arise.

"It'd be like jumping into the White Sea at this point," I told him.

And in fact that night Tunis had its first hailstorm in years. See what I mean about my timing?

We got into central Tunis on the bus at last, and hiked to our "quarters." Jason had found a place on the Internet where we could stay. We had agreed that, again to save money (we're a couple of poor teachers, Jason and I) that we would stay in the cheapest dump we could find.

Oh, Jason found us a cheap dump, all right. A "youth hostel" in the Medina quarter of the city, where the souks are. We had to walk through maybe half a mile's worth of narrow, cramped, crowded cobblestone streets lined with pesky, hawking vendors to get to our digs.

The Medina section of Tunis. We had to run a gauntlet
of streets just like this one to get to our "hostel."
 As for the hostel itself, "horrid" would be putting it mildly. For about 25 Tunisian denarii a night (around $14) we got to share a room with three other guys, four wooden bunk beds stacked right on top of each other. It was like spending a weekend at Stalag 17. The place had no hot water, provided no towels or toilet paper, and it was completely unheated. A shower was available, but if you used it any time other than 0730-0830, there was an extra denari charge for it. I didn't use it at all. Even if I had brought a towel, and I didn't, I wasn't about to undress in that frozen food locker and walk around on those cold marble floors. I decided to just stay dirty for the time being.

Jason was hungry; he wanted to go find some dinner. I was not; I was merely exhausted and wanted only to go to bed. So Jason went off in search of a cafe, and I closed the window, put on two sweaters, crawled underneath two blankets and lay there, shivering. One of our roommates came in. He spoke only French. No chance for conversation there. It was while I was trying to sleep that I heard the great roar outside. That was the hailstorm, as Jason informed me later. He'd gotten caught in it.

Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Tunis' version of the Champs-Elysees.
Jason and I strolled along this avenue, dining in some of
its cafes. What this picture doesn't show is the French embassy,
with razor-wire, tanks and machine gun-toting soldiers in front of it.

The next day was Saturday. The storm had passed. It was still a little chilly, but we no longer felt like members of Admiral Peary's expedition. We found a cafe and had an American-style breakfast of omelets, toast and coffee. After breakfast we wandered into a bookstore, where Jason shopped for a tour guide but couldn't find exactly what he wanted, so we pushed on, discussing what particular sights we might want to see that day. Strolling along Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Tunis' central boulevard, we wandered into Tunis Cathedral, which faces the street just across and up a short distance from the French embassy (which, by the way, is still surrounded by razor-wire, troop carriers and guys with machine guns in the wake of last year's upheaval.)

Tunis Cathedral. Built in 1896, it's in a mixture
of architectural styles that did not appeal to me.

The cathedral in Tunis, completed in 1896, is one of the ugliest buildings I've ever seen. But that's just me. It's typical of the late 19th century in that it couldn't make up its mind what style it wanted to be. It's sort of a queasy concatenation of romanesque, byzantine and I don't know what-all else. It's far too ornate for my taste as far as architecture goes. But there are some interesting things about it. For example, I read that when they were building it, they found the ground beneath to be too soft and swampy to support the cathedral's weight, so they hammered 2,377 trunks of Norwegian fir trees into the ground to make a firmer foundation.

The cathedral has some nice modern stained glass inside, and (my timing being "on" for once) when we went inside to look around, someone was playing the organ. Built in 1921, the organ has 42 registers and 2,400 pipes. The organ was playing softly, a few of the faithful were praying, and it was a pleasant, quiet moment on the verge of a long, wandering day.

We had decided -- actually, Jason had decided, (remember this was his trip and I was just tagging along) -- that we would devote Saturday to visiting the ruins of ancient Carthage, about a 20-minute train ride from downtown Tunis.

This was fine with me. I'm a history buff; in fact I majored in history at San Diego State University when I was a kid, and I wouldn't have dreamed of visiting Tunis without visiting Carthage, the city whose army, under Hannibal, scared the daylights out of the Romans when it defeated them at the Battle of Cannae during the Second Punic War, around 200 B.C.

Rome and Carthage fought a series of wars, and at the end of the Third Punic War ("Punic" being a Roman designation for "Carthaginian" -- wars are always named by the winners) Rome finally razed and destroyed Carthage in 146 B.C. The expression "Carthago delenda est," ("Carthage must be destroyed") has been credited to Cato the Elder, but actually it was a slogan commonly heard around Rome in those days, like "America, Love It Or Leave It."

Once the Romans had destroyed Carthage, they rebuilt it and made it the administrative center of their North African empire for centuries. So you have three Carthages: "Punic" Carthage, which pre-dates Rome's conquest; "Roman" Carthage, roughly 146 B.C. -- 500 A.D. and then "Byzantine" Carthage, that which survived for a few centuries after the Roman Empire fell. "To Carthage then I came," is one of St. Augustine's most famous lines from his Confessions, circa 400 A.D., and T.S. Eliot echoed it in The Waste Land 1,600 years later.

The Romans destroyed Carthage. More recently,
weeds, litterbugs and graffiti-sprayers have had their shot at
I wasn't going to miss this. Jason and I hopped on the train.

When we got there, I was appalled. Carthage is a cultural treasure to Tunisia -- a link to its ancient past. You would think that such a "cultural treasure" would be well-preserved.

Well, it isn't. It's been allowed to go completely to seed. Yes, there is a museum there, atop Mount Byrsa, where a few Carthaginians made their "last stand" against the Romans in 146 B.C. But by and large the ruins of ancient Carthage are in miserable condition. The Antonine Thermal Baths (second century A.D.) are a central tourist attraction. There is an archaeological "park" on the site. But the site is a complete mess. Overgrown with weeds, strewn with trash, covered with would think that a country with such a high unemployment rate as Tunisia would at least hire somebody to come in and pull the weeds. But no; at the Antonine Thermal Baths the only official presences are the ticket-takers, the guy guarding the toilet, and the usual guys with machine guns, guarding the presidential palace when they aren't talking on their cellphones.

We wandered around Carthage most of Saturday. As well as the Antonine Baths, we visited the museum on Mount Byrsa, which commands a wonderful view of the Gulf of Tunis, with its endless water-caravan of freighters in the distance, plying back and forth between North Africa and Sicily. And it was there, in the courtyard of the museum, where I saw a Muslim with his prayer rug, barefoot, facing Mecca and saying his afternoon prayers. Tunisia is a predominantly Muslim country, and every city and town has at least one mosque, but during our entire visit, this was the only time I saw a Muslim actually praying. Three times a day the loudspeakers atop the mosque towers issue the call to prayer, but most Tunisians simply ignore them.

"This is a Muslim country," I remarked. "Why do most of these people ignore the calls to prayer?"

"I think most of them are secular," Jason said.

Maybe, but for a "secular" country I saw an awful lot of women keeping their heads covered with scarves. And on that subject, Tunis does not crawl with "supermodels" as Tbilisi does. No evidence here of women in skin-tight jeans and three-inch heels. Secular or not, a standard of modesty seems to prevail in Tunisia that does not in Georgia. Women wear flat heels in Tunis, and they do not wear skin-tight jeans.

Roman amphitheater in Carthage, 3rd century A.D. It's being
refurbished, and was not, to my relief, as trash-strewn and
weed-choked as the Antonine Baths, which date from the
same period.

On Sunday we wandered about the Medina, the section of town where our youth hostel was located. We wanted to visit the Grand Mosque, which is located in the Medina, but this being Sunday it was closed. However while we were roaming the narrow back streets looking for the entrance to the mosque, we let ourselves get steered into a "government store" by a local character who promised us a spectacular view from the terrace on the roof.

There was a spectacular view all right, and Jason took lots of pictures. (Jason was the only one of us with a camera.) But this "spectacular view" was not to be free; the moment we came back down from the roof, the guy who ran the "government store" was all over both of us: buy rugs, buy jewelry, buy this, buy that. buy, buy, buy. I kept saying "No" "No" "No" "No" and "No." Finally, exasperated, he said, "You don't want to spend money?" "That's right, I don't want to spend money," I said. Jason looked at a few items, but he didn't buy anything either. This guy seemed genuinely puzzled that Jason and I didn't start throwing hundred-dollar bills at him. The world thinks all Americans are rich.

Jason and I each make about $300 a month.

And I've been around the world a bit, but have never encountered vendors as aggressive as I found in Tunis. They're like sharks in a feeding frenzy. One guy even waved a pair of sunglasses at me when he could see clearly that I was already wearing a pair. Their standard opening is to try and find out what your native language is. "Francais? Italiano? English? Deutsch?" Jason speaks French, and he was too polite not to answer them, so the vendors were all over him everywhere we went. I ignored them when they tried to talk to me. I just kept on walking like they weren't there. I can look surly when I want to, so that deterred them as well.  But they pursued Jason, the moment they realized he spoke French, with a vengeance.
All modern mosques come equipped with loudspeakers.
"A hundred years ago that would have been some guy up
there yelling," Jason observed.

We took a tour of the Tourbet El Bey mausoleum in the Medina, which dates from the 18th century. Our tour guide was a seedy little old guy with bad teeth and a raggedy sportcoat. He spoke only French, so the whole tour was lost on me. In any case there was nothing to look at there but the sarcophagi of a lot of people I never heard of. We pushed on.

"Hey, look!" I said when we were back on the street. "Up there, at the top of the mosque tower. See the loudspeakers?"

All the mosques, big and small, are equipped with loudspeakers. Before our visit was concluded, I began referring to the thrice-daily call to prayers as "the air-raid siren."

 "A hundred years ago that would have been some guy up there yelling," Jason said.

Once again, Jason had decided our next move. He was set upon seeing the ancient Roman colisseum at El Jem ("Thyrsdrus" to the Romans.) According to the tour guides, this was the third-largest colisseum in the Roman Empire, and it's located right there in Tunisia, amidst...well, not much. El Jem is about 90 minutes south of Sousse, the next city of any size that you come to south of the capital. Logic would have dictated that we take the train to Sousse, perhaps stay overnight there and then proceed on to El Jem.

But Jason was following a peculiar logic of his own. We had X number of hours to kill, he reasoned, and Sousse, by itself, wouldn't kill enough of them. So he proposed (insisted) that we take the overnight train all the way down to the port of Gabes, about two hours further south than Sousse on the Mediterranean coast, and proceed to El Jem from there. Gabes is about 300 miles south of Tunis. The idea of the overnight train made me blanch. I'm the world's greatest insomniac, and I was already tired.

"I can't sleep on a train," I said.

"You can't sleep in a bed, either," Jason replied.
A Tunisian train - how Jason and I got from Tunis to Gabes,
There was no arguing with his merciless logic. The night train for Gabes left Tunis at 10:30 p.m. At 5 p.m. we checked out of Stalag 17, shouldered our backpacks and headed for the train station to buy tickets.

We still had several hours to kill, so we went to an Internet cafe. Jason wanted to check his e-mail. There we met "Mark," an American who currently works in Moscow. Mark was friendly enough, but tiresome. He repeated his stories, and couldn't get enough of telling us how much he hates Russia and the Russians. He invited us for a beer; we went with him, but I was already getting tired of Mark by the time we reached the cafe, and incidentally, fatigue had me so firmly in its grip that I was starting to "phase:" it felt almost like I'd been smoking a joint.

For some reason the one beer I had cleared my head a bit. But while we were sitting in this smoky cafe with Mark, a drunk came weaving up to our table.

It was our tour guide from the mausoleum earlier that day. He wanted to be friendly. He was as plowed as a beanfield -- babbling in French and unsteady on his legs. Jason bought him a beer to get rid of him. He left, all right, but then he stood out on the sidewalk, waving at us through the window.

The overnight train from Tunis delivered us to Gabes at 4:30 a.m. It was freezing cold, and of course, everything was closed. We had to wait around the train station for so much as a cafe to open. There was a little "geedunk" there in the train station, and we managed to get coffee. We watched a French-language documentary on the TV monitor about the building of the tunnel under the English Channel.

Gabes is a little city on the Mediterranean coast of
southeastern Tunisia. I still don't know why we went there.

Jason finally proposed "Let's walk," and we did. We walked around Gabes in the dark, freezing pre-dawn. What were we doing there? I still don't know. Gradually the sun came up. We wandered down to the ocean. Jason took some pictures of derelict fishing boats, and then we wandered back. The zipper on my jacket was broken; we found a tailor (open at that hour!) who agreed to fix it and have it ready by 10 a.m. But other than getting my broken zipper fixed, we accomplished nothing in Gabes. I still don't know why Jason insisted that we take this horrible detour. We walked and walked, all over Gabes -- our train for El Jem was scheduled to leave at 11:15 a.m.

We were hungry, but coffee and croissants were all we were able to get. None of the cafes had food ready yet. It was too early. After getting shakes-of-the-head at a few places, we were finally steered toward a little hole-in-the-wall cafe that did, in fact, have food ready. Chickens were roasting on a spit out front, and they were already cooked! At 10 a.m.!  "Want to split a chicken?" Jason asked me. "Sure," I said.

We had a lucullan breakfast. Roast chicken, and the trimmings included couscous, tomato salad, cold potatoes, French fries, fried eggs and bread, all washed down with Coca-Cola.

As we sat there, a roach began crawling up the wall next to me. No shock there; I'd be surprised not to see a roach in a place like that. Initially I was inclined to just let him go his way and live. But he smelled the food, turned south and started heading toward the table. I will suffer a roach to live, but I will not share my lunch with him. I took a napkin and squashed the little bastard, not without a certain sigh. The older I get, the more reluctant I am to destroy nature's little creatures. But I'm not going to dine with a roach.

Well,  this is how they often look, but our Tunisian bus, which took us
to El Jem, didn't look quite this bad, despite long delays.

Leaving the cafe, Jason and I got turned around. We were going away from the train station, not toward it. By the time we realized our mistake, got turned around the right way and made it back to the gare, our train for El Jem was pulling out. Bye-bye. Jason gave it the finger.

What to do? We decided to take the bus to Sfax, then pick up the train to El Jem from there. So we got a taxi to the bus station and boarded the bus for Sfax.

But the bus took so long to get to Sfax that we knew were not going to catch the train there, so we just stayed on the bus all the way to El Jem.

On the bus to El Jem, punchy with the delicious cocktail of fatigue and boredom, I blurted out to Jason what I had been thinking for hours.

"Your French is too good," I said.  "I think you're CIA."

Jason smirked. "I'll never tell," he said.

I doubled over, laughing. It sounded so much like something you might have heard many years ago on Get Smart. And it convinced me that Jason was probably honest and clean. No real CIA operative would give such a risible response to such a statement. Having been for years a State Department employee, I've known my share of CIA people, and they are more noteworthy for their bug-eyed, hysterical paranoia than they are for any trace of a sense of humor.

My traveling luck continued to hold: when we reached El Jem (keep in mind, this is the middle of the desert) a cold rain was starting up. I mean a cold rain. We bald guys hate cold rain, especially when we aren't wearing hats, and I wasn't.

The Roman colisseum at El Jem, Tunisia (circa A.D. 238). The
proud olive merchants of Thyrsdrus (what the Romans called
El Jem) wanted to show what they could do. So they built this,
reportedly the third-largest colisseum in the Empire.
But we had spent the better part of a day just getting to this place, so, rain or no rain, Jason was going to reach that coveted pile of rocks, the colisseum that the Romans built here in the third century.

Once we found the colisseum, Jason proceeded to climb all over it like a mountain goat, taking pictures. But he didn't have much time. It was late in the day, starting to get dark in fact, and the colisseum closes to tourists at 5:30 p.m. It was 5:00 when we bought our tickets to go in.

I looked around a bit. Of course I was interested; fatigue or no, I'm a history buff, and this was History, in my face! I wondered why in the world the Romans would build a colisseum in El Jem, anyone's definition of the middle of nowhere.

The answer turned out to lie in the miles and miles of olive groves that Jason and I had observed on the bus coming in. According to the tour guides, Thyrsdrus in the third century A.D. was as big an olive-growing region as it is now. The proud and prosperous Roman olive merchants of ancient Tunisia wanted to show the world their ... well, their prosperity. So they built themselves a big colisseum, in which they could rival Rome itself in such entertainments as butchery and sadism, you know, the usual wholesome Roman family stuff: gladiator combat, wild-animal fights and the slaughter of Christians. Roman baseball.

But I was too tired to explore much, in fact, with my backpack on my back, I had to lower my head a couple of times to get the blood flowing back to my brain -- I was getting faint. Finally I decided to hell with this; Jason can take all the pictures he wants, but I need a break. I left the colisseum by myself and went to get a Snickers bar while Jason continued to snap away.

Jason finally came out of the colisseum (it was getting dark and the place was closing.)

He'd already decided on our next move: we would take the train to Sousse and find accomodations there. I was for that, let's go. The train was delayed, of course, and we went to a pizza place, one of those spots you see many of in Tunisia, where the counter faces the street and there is no inside seating, only a couple of tables outside. That would have been okay were it not for the fact that it was windy and chilly. But we zipped up our jackets, ate pizza, had more Coca-Cola with it, and then we walked down to the train station to catch the train back up to Sousse.

Why had we not just gone to Sousse in the first place, then proceeded to El Jem from there? You'd have to ask Jason. Going from Tunis to El Jem by way of Gabes is kind of like going from San Diego to Los Angeles by way of San Francisco. But this was Jason's trip; I was just tagging along.

On the train to Sousse, a fat old old Arab guy in the seat in front of mine, robes, turban and all, had his iPhone tuned to Arab television and would not turn it off, even when he was dozing. So I listened to Arab TV all the way to Sousse. At one point I mimicked that I was going to smack him, and a pretty little Tunisian girl, sitting on the other side of the aisle, saw me and smiled.

In Sousse we decided to splurge. After two nights in that horrible "youth hostel" and then another night on a train, Jason and I opted for a one-star hotel about a block from the train station.

We got separate rooms, after learning that two rooms would cost the same as sharing one. 24 Tunisian denarii for the two of us, or about $8 apiece.

Sousse, about two hours south of Tunis, where Jason and I
spent our last night in Tunisia.
It's worthy of note, how quickly a one-star hotel can seem luxurious if you've been sleeping, first at Stalag 17, and then on a train. It was now Monday night, and I had not had a shower since Thursday. Never mind that this was a warm shower, not a hot one. Any kind of shower would have been a luxury at that point. And after the shower? ... A clean bed. In my own room. Heaven. It took me a long time to fall asleep, since neither alcohol nor sleeping pills were available, but when I did fall asleep, I slept well.

On Tuesday morning I was up long before Jason, and pleasantly surprised to find that this one-star hotel served breakfast, although it was breakfast on the Arab model: coffee and stale bread with some butter and jam. But that was okay; good, strong coffee was all I really wanted. With hot milk (oh, yes!) I had my coffee and then went about getting my things together. Jason finally began to stir. He went downstairs to have his breakfast. I joined him just to visit, but the hotel staff noticed me sitting there and ... served me again. So I had some more coffee, which was welcome.

We wandered around Sousse all day. Jason let himself be talked into buying a tiny gold trinket. I got a haircut. Yes, I was long overdue for one. I was beginning to look like the office manager in the Dilbert comic strip. So I let a Tunisian barber work me over for 10 denarii. The only part of the process I didn't like was when he tore loose a strip of what looked like dental floss, wrapped one end of it around his fingers and clenched the other end of it in his teeth, then proceeded to remove hair from my face using this dental floss as scissors. When he went after the hair on my ears in this fashion, it hurt, and I told him so at the top of my lungs.

We had lunch at a terrace-top resaurant in Sousse which promised a great view of the Mediterranean,but mostly offered a great view of TV dishes and solar panels. Still, the food was good: broiled fish, couscous and potato salad with onions and olives. The lunch cost 50 denarii, twice what we were paying for our rooms.

We spent the remainder of Tuesday afternoon wandering around Sousse. Late in the afternoon we lingered over coffee at a cafe facing the Mediterranean.

I had had just about enough of Jason at that point. He continued to be very froward, and I wanted to get rid of him.

We spent Tuesday night in Sousse. Our flight back to Tbilisi, by way of Istanbul, was scheduled for the next afternoon. That meant we had to get up very early (5:30 a.m. or so) and catch the train to Tunis. Being the world's champion insomniac, I knew that I was not going to sleep in Sousse that night, not knowing that I had to get up at 5:30 a.m. And I didn't. I was awake all night.

But I was ready to go at 6 a.m. And we took the train back to Tunis.

We had, once again, several hours to kill before "plane time." We had a fine breakfast at a cafe, then proceeded to the souk, where Jason shopped but neither of us bought anything. In front of the Interior Ministry there was a political demonstration going on. Maybe 2,000 people. But it wasn't a "protest" demonstration; it was an "encouragement" demonstration. The crowd was chanting, chanting ...

I approached a guy and asked. "Do you speak English?"

"A bit."

"What's this about?"

"We are encouraging the minister to ... rid the ministry of ... those elements of ... of..."

"The old government?" I prompted him.

"Yes. The old government. Those elements of the old government, which..."

"I understand. A kind of a purge."

I thought I understood. The crowd was encouraging the regime which had replaced that of Zine El Abidine Ben, to rid itself of all remnants of El Abindine Ben's influence, the last of his cronies. Some in the crowd were waving brooms, as in " a new broom sweeps clean."

Jason and I passed a group of young scarved Tunisian women who were holding up placards. Jason took some video. They all looked so grim. "Smile!" I yelled, and a couple of them did.

A man who was obviously with them said to me, "We Tunisians always smile."

And with that, Jason and I were off to catch the bus to the airport.

Our flight departed Tunis at 1:30 p.m. I had some Tunisian denarii left in my pocket which I had not managed to spend in the souk because I didn't want any of their tourist junk. and even if I had, I wouldn't have been able to fit it into my backpack. Still, while Jason was doing some last-minute shopping for souvenirs, and I was waiting for him to get his ass in gear so we could head for the airport, some of the souk vendors started in on me: "Italiano? Francais? English? Deutsch?" I answered each question with a curt "No," and then finally, after the fourth one, rolled my eyeballs heavenward.

"Oh!" One of them said. "Mars!"

I had staked Jason and myself to a good breakfast at the  Le Grand Cafe du Theater on the main drag upon our return from Sousse, just to get rid of some of my extra denarii: coffee, orange juice, eggs, toast, cheese and turkey slices, croissants. But I still had plenty of denarii left. Treated Jason to a beer at the airport, and a Turkish coffee. But then, trying to unload the rest of the denari at the duty-free shop, I was informed that the duty-free did not accept Tunisian denarii, only Euros.

"Well, I'm stuck with 50 denarii," I said.

"Keep 'em," Jason said. "I'm coming back to Tunis later. I'll buy them from you."

Attatul Airport in Istanbul, Turkey. Flying Turkish Airlines,
with its long waits here, I've gotten to know it well. Ask me
where Popeye's and Burger King are; I can tell you right away.

Tunis back to Istanbul. Another two and a half hours, and Istanbul is an hour ahead of Tunis, so it was 5:30 p.m. when we got back to Istanbul. We had six hours until our connecting flight to Tbilisi. We had talked about getting a cab and going to see the Hagia Sophia and other sights of central Istanbul rather than hanging around the airport. But the cab would have been forty minutes each way, and we would have had to get $20 visas to go, and in general it just seemed like more rush and trouble than it would have been worth. We decided to make a special visit to Istanbul some weekend and just spend a day and a half seeing Istanbul. For now, we would stay in the airport.

That we did, for six hours. Sat for a long time in an airport cafe. I had declined the meal on the plane from Tunis, so I bought myself a meal of chicken tenders, French fries and beer. Jason, who had eaten on the plane, got a Turkish coffee. He had picked up copies of an English-language Turkish newspaper and the French Le Monde, and he sat there for a long time reading the papers. I was so bored that I even read through the Turkish paper...and Le Monde, although in the latter I could only read the pictures. We shopped in the airport bookstore. I came close to buying a cheap Nikon digital camera. But the computer rejected my American debit card, so to tell hell with it, I walked away. I don't want anything that badly.

Our flight to Tbilisi from Istanbul took off at at 1 a.m. Tunis time, 3 a.m.Tbilisi time. I almost did fall asleep on this flight, about 40 minutes before landing. I read Proust, and to my surprise givn the late hour, they served us a snack: smoked salmon and potatoes, sandwiches, crackers and little cakes. I never expected to be served food in the middle of the night. But it was quite good; Turkish Airlines ranks second, I would say, to Air France in serving good food.

We got back to Tbilisi at 4:30 a.m. local time. Of course public transportation hadn't started running that early, and neither nor Jason and I was inclined to spend 35 Lari (about $20) for a taxi ride into town. So we plunked our selves down in the airport cafe, Jason ordered a Turkish coffee and again, read the papers. I ordered a Kasris (Georgian) beer, and napped in m chair.

A 7 a.m. the buses started running. We got on one, got off it at the Samgouri Metro station, and took the Metro back to Rustaveli, my stop, Marjhineshveli, Jason's stop, was next.

"Well, we had an adventure," I said, shaking his hand.

I got off the Metro and walked back to my studio. Jason went God-knows-where. And I don't know what he did, but I'll tell you what I did: It was 8 a.m. when I came back through my door. I stayed up until 11 a .m., then took three Optimal tablets ..;.and slept until six O'clock the next morning. This despite the fact that my landlord and his buddy were trying to fix my front door, hammering, drilling and sawing. I wasn't getting up for anything. I stayed in bed for 19 hours. That's how draining the Tunisia trip was. But it was worth it. Oh, it was worth every denarii.

Now that I've seen Tunisia, bring on Morocco. I just gotta see that souk where the guy chased Ingrid Bergman down the street, waving a piace of lace that he was trying to sell her, while Humphrey Bogart was trying to have a serious conversation with her. I've seen how that works, now.

And I know what I'd say when he turned on me: "English?" "No." "Francais?" "No."