The Schengen visa arrangement under which we are able to travel without any prior visa-seeking — which is a brilliant thing to be able to do — has the caveat that we’re only allowed within the Schengen area (most of the EU) for 3 months out of every 6. For the rest of time, we must be elsewhere.
Three months sounded like such a long time, but on the ground, it’s actually very short! So, our time was up and we had to disappear ourselves for a while. This was always going to be Morocco — French-speaking (good for us to practice!), motorhome-friendly and warm during the winter. Then, when plans changed and we were headed to Italy, it was going to be Croatia. Finally, after we decided Croatia may be on the challenging side for now — not being especially motorhome-friendly, or at least so we’ve been told, plus the cold factor, and the distance from Sicily — we cast around for other ideas.
It turns out, Tunisia is surprisingly close to Sicily — a comparatively short ferry ride away — and it’s French-speaking, has a nice warm winter, some nice sights to see, and is quite modern. Quite a change in plans, but it fit perfectly.
So, Katherine had done the hard work of finding and booking us a ferry trip there from Palermo.
We took the quite pleasant inland motorway route from Linguaglossa — southwards, then cutting inland across the middle and up to Palermo in the north-west. We stayed in the ‘caravan park’ (glorified car park, really) in the city’s outer limits for a couple of days, setting ourselves up; mostly, downloading stuff to watch, using up the last of our 3G account, and further researching Tunisia. We also replaced our water pump, which was on the weary side — this was a €12 revelation, and suddenly we had awesome pressure for showers again.
So the time came to catch the ferry — we drove carefully through nutty Palermo traffic to the docks, parked, and lined up with a bunch of very middle-eastern looking folks until one of them kindly indicated we were in the wrong line entirely. Corrected, we found a door with a man behind a screen and give him some pieces of paper; he gave us some different pieces of paper and pointed to the other door, with another man. We lined up again and eventually got to the police-y dude, who didn’t like our fancy-shmancy printed-out online tickets but gave us some stamps or something on stuff anyway, after a little conferring. Then waved us off…Uh, okay…
We wandered back to Nettle, obviously looking quite lost, because a fellow traveller pointed us in the right direction — a queue of vehicles lined up along the dock. Almost every vehicle (banged up utes, most of them) were stacked high (I mean seriously stacked high) with…well, just about anything. Mostly whitegoods, bicycles, mattresses, that sort of thing. The undersides of many of the cars were all but scraping along the ground. And yeah, that is a kitchen sink in the photo. Two of them, actually.
So, we settled down to wait in the queue of bizarrely-adorned vehicles until a deep rumble signified the arrival of the ferry. A very, very long time later, we started inching forward and into the ferry’s belly: Absolute freaking chaos. Because having a system is for wimps! Somehow we made it on board in one piece and were ushered into something vaguely resembling a row of vehicles.
We would’ve loved to have spent the journey in Nettle, but ’tis not the Done Thing, apparently, so up we went onto the main deck, and found a table at which to sit for the 12 hour ride. Pretty much the moment the ferry pulled into the dock, a dense fog rolled in, and the ferry was forced to go at a crawl for the first five hours or so.
We were joined by an older couple, a Sicilian man and a Tunisian woman who lived together in Sicily. We got “chatting” with her, in French — it started out fairly well, Katherine and I working together to augment each other’s understanding as best we could. Then our table-mate started using more and more Italian (possibly led to believe that we spoke better Italian than French, as we kept accidentally using Italian words instead of French ones), until she was completely incomprehensible. We tried to remind her that we had almost no Italian, and we could understand French better, but to no avail…Eventually the conversation lapsed and we settled down to reading and passing the time.
We noticed the occupants of the ferry were 99.9% males, which we found bizarre until we realised they were contract workers in Sicily, returning home. Some folks had mats out on the floor, preying at the appropriate times, which was all very exciting and foreign.
We arrived in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, at about midnight and very slowly inched our way down to the car deck and hopped back into Nettle — Aah, home again. A quite long wait while chaos again reigned on the car deck: The every-man-for-himself system was in action, which always works well.
What followed, once we exited the ferry, defies sanity, and I’d rather not recall it in too much detail. It took us three hours to get out of the port: There was the surprise of finding out that the visa situation was entirely different to that which our prior research had turned up — I still don’t entirely understand how it works, honestly — and there was our first encounter with the Arabic sense of humour, when, returning to the visa office with payment for the visas, we were stopped at the door by an officer who, when I explained why we were there (in French, of course), gestured that he couldn’t hear me. Over, and over he repeated it after each re-phrasing of mine, until he grinned and let us through.
Then, there was the strange mute man who escorted me through the Nettle-importing paperwork, gesturing frantically the whole time and getting more and more worked up, dragging me from office to office, some several times, collecting a bit of paperwork here, a stamp there, a nothing-at-all over there… It was entirely baffling. During the whole process, our passports were demanded about five to ten times. Then he asked for a tip, and because we had almost no change, only massive notes from the currency transfer, I had little to give him — He kept grunting and holding out his hand, then when I bid him goodnight, he came up to the drivers-side window and made “sad face” at me until I drove off! Freaky.
So, eventually we made it out, driving through the port’s gates hearts-in-mouth lest someone else come by to take us through further hours of bureaucracy. Exhausted, we parked in a brightly-lit truck stop just outside the docks and fell into bed.
Let us never speak of it again.