Just before I depart from Tunisia, I thought I would compile a list of the nine worst things about living in its capital city. But don’t fret, Tunis lovers – in my next blog entry, I will provide some balance by listing the nine best things about the place.
Airport taxi drivers
Tunisia’s taxi drivers are like taxi drivers everywhere – there are some honest ones and some slippery ones. However, the bunch that hover vulture-like in front of the exit doors at Carthage International Airport are, to a man, opportunistic crooks. On the single occasion that I had to use one of these drivers, the fare was at least six times what it would’ve been travelling the same distance with an ordinary taxi – and I’ve heard plenty of horror stories from other travellers. If the Tunisian tourist authorities were serious about polishing up their country’s image and making holidaymakers want to return following the upheaval of the revolution, the first measure they could take would be to bust these guys’ asses.
If you’ve just alighted from a plane at Carthage Airport, don’t go straight out of the terminal building from arrivals. Instead, go upstairs to the departures area and try to catch an ordinary – metered – cab there, one that’s just come from the city and dropped somebody off in front of the entry doors.
Celtia is Tunisia’s national beer and in some venues it’s the only beer on the menu. It is, alas, rather grim. Tasting more of chemicals than of hops, it can leave your head feeling mangy even when you’ve drank only a couple of bottles. Beer-lovers may find this sacrilegious, but I actually prefer drinking Celestia, which is the non-alcoholic version of Celtia.
Another measure that Tunisia’s tourist authorities could take to improve the country’s somewhat tarnished reputation as a holiday destination would be to clean up their beaches. Even at the likes of Carthage or La Marsa, where on a sunny day the coast looks incredibly appealing from a distance, that appeal lessens when you approach the water’s edge and discover how much detritus lies on the sand. And even in front of the fancy seaside hotels, where you’d expect the beaches to be pristine, the efforts to keep them tidy are perfunctory at best – the debris seems to be brushed into the corners but not actually picked up. Walk to the fringes of the beaches, a few yards past the last sunbathers, and you’ll still find cigarette butts, plastic bags, plastic bottles and even broken glass. (Plus, if some local entrepreneur is offering the tourists camel-rides along the sea-front, there’ll be the added horribleness of camel-dung).
One of the downsides of the revolution is the state of anarchy that, during the past two years, has befallen the TGM, the suburban railway line connecting central Tunis with La Goulette, Carthage, Sidi Bou Said and finally La Marsa. Board a TGM train nowadays and you will likely have to contend with shrieking obnoxious kids who dangle out of the doors, dangle out of the windows and even clamber up onto the carriage-roofs in imitation of those ‘train-surfers’ in South America. To be honest, the TGM is one place where I’d like to see a bit of blatant old-style Ben Ali-era police brutality re-introduced.
Supermarket etiquette (lack of)
I accept it’s unrealistic to expect countries like Tunisia to conform to Western styles of customer service. Nonetheless, the scowly, occasionally growly visages of the checkout staff can make shopping in supermarkets like Monoprix or Carrefour a dispiriting experience.
The customers sometimes aren’t much better, mind you. There seems to be an unspoken rule that shoppers should only start to pack their groceries after everything has been scanned, after everything has accumulated in a mountainous heap beyond the register, and after everything has been paid for – which leads to monstrous tailbacks and congestion as the groceries of the next customer and then the next start coming through. Also, I’ve seen old men, when presented with their bill, attempt to haggle with the checkout staff. And also, I don’t like how folk in the checkout queues start munching on their loaves of bread before they’ve paid for them. (I don’t know why – I just find it annoying.)
I enjoy a bit of night-life but unfortunately a large section of Tunis’s night-life consists of venues like the Lodge, the Villa and the Plaza, which try to be something more than bars. They try to be a little more upmarket – like, you know, clubs. In reality, this means that the menus are overpriced, the service is delivered at a snail’s pace, the music is of Celine Dion / Phil Collins-level quality and is played loud, and the clientele consist mainly of suited, would-be Tunisian playboys in their early middle-age, swelling around their waists and receding on top. (I suspect that after another few years, when these guys decide that they’ve grown too old to enjoy themselves, they’ll turn ultra-religious and try to stop other people enjoying themselves.)
And talking of ultra-religious types determined to stop other people enjoying themselves…
One thing about the Salafists whom I’ve seen prowling around Tunis is that they always seem to wear crap socks. Jutting out of their sneakers, below the hems of their smocks, their ankles are almost always clad in a wan, unattractive shade of grey. I’d have thought their mothers – I assume they all still live with their mothers – would try to enliven the palette of their wardrobe by buying them socks that were adorned with bright, multi-coloured checks or stripes.
Well. Just saying.
Rubbish on streets
I shouldn’t complain about a city where there’s a rubbish-collection service every 24 hours. Around 10 o’clock each night, a truck rumbles past my flat and its crew load it with the bags of refuse that householders and shopkeepers have put out on the pavements during the day. Unfortunately, these trucks miss a lot of stuff. Even more unfortunately, during the daytime, the bags get knocked over and ripped open, with the consequence that rubbish can be scattered across the length and breadth of the streets. During wet weather, the debris gets washed into the gutters, blocks them up and causes mini-floods. During hot weather, it reeks and the flies become rampant.
And the chief culprits for eviscerating those bags and spreading their smelly contents are, of course, Tunis’s huge population of feral cats. Not only do the cats diminish the city’s cleanliness, but, darting out of the rubbish-piles and from under the parked cars, they can also be a considerable hazard to pedestrians. I’m still psychologically scarred by the morning when I attempted to go jogging and tripped over a feline who suddenly shot from amid some rubbish bags, across the pavement in front of me – I fell onto a broken sheet of glass that’d been left out too for the rubbish collectors. In fact, I very nearly emulated the fourth set-piece freak accident (also involving a sheet of glass) in the original Omen movie.