We awoke on our final day in Tunisia (and also our fourth anniversary!) with a feeling of great anticipation. Italy, baby!
We finished up our final tasks, which including emptying the black water cassette into the nasty pit supplied, which was a particularly unpleasant experience when a splashback from the poorly-designed emptying facility hit me in the face!!! Freaking hell! Much washing of my face followed. (It was to become one of the more pleasant experiences of the day!)
We hit the road, marvelling for the last time at the antics of the other drivers; our favourite was taking a shortcut, going around a roundabout the wrong way, and even one car doing a U-turn at a roundabout rather than going around, nearly running into an oncoming car in the process. Please don’t run into our motorhome, I kept repeating in my head. We both had that nervous feeling, the same we get before an international flight, about something going wrong and missing the ferry.
But we made it unscathed to our favourite town in the world, La Goulette. We were met by an attendant who helped us through the check-in procedure and directed us to the queue of cars waiting to enter the port.
That was a mercy — trying to navigate that would’ve been very difficult. Then, he asked for a tip, putting on an unpleasant sooky-puppy-dog face; I gave him the few coins we had left, then he indicated it wasn’t enough, or wasn’t in the right currency or something. He tried to get us to exchange our money though him, telling us the banks are closed and they are greedy. Right.
He said a bunch of other stuff that passed us by, and simply wouldn’t let up. Katherine later observed how, when we indicated that we didn’t understand him, he would simply talk louder and louder, rather than slowing down or breaking it down into more easily understood portions. Funny being on the other side of that, given that English speakers tend to do that to foreigners all the time.
Having got outside Nettle with him, I just walked away from him, and luckily, wasn’t followed. I asked a security guard at the gate if I could exchange currency once we got inside, and after being told we could, headed back to Nettle for the wait.
The tip guy returned and badgered us for a little longer. We couldn’t wait to get away from Tunisia and its plentitude of creeps, that’s for sure. For the purposes of peace I offered a five-dinar coin, which he just sniffed at, and asked for a note. The small change we’d given him earlier, plus the five dinar coin come to about seven dinars, so, he wants a note, let him have a tenner; I asked him for our change back, telling him I’d then give him a note. He put about half a dinar in my hand. Um. The tool wasn’t going to get away with that. I told him we’d given him about seven dinars, and he finally capitulated and handed over the rest. Then I gave him the tenner, and — big surprise — the guy sniffed at that too. “Un billet rouge“, he said, meaning a 20 DT note. This prompted some delicious aggression in very good French from Katherine. I shut the window.
After about an hour, some cars started shuffling around in front of us; Not trusting anyone to tell us when it was time to board, I sought out someone official-looking to ask if it was time. Yes, it was. We headed forward in Nettle, and as we approached the gate, were instead sent off to one side and not through. It turns out it wasn’t time after all. Okay.
The ferry’s departure time came and went, as cars and trucks streamed through the gate beside us, and we got increasingly anxious. Had they forgotten us? Did our greedy new friend have some buddies working the gates who were getting revenge? I headed back out on foot to again ask one of the staff if everything was fine. They nodded — “Oui, attendez.”.
Our worries weren’t entirely assuaged, having seen something like an hour pass already since the ferry was meant to depart, but we were eventually waved through the gate.
We pulled over and I jumped out with passports in hand, with little idea of what to expect next. We had a great deal of confusion with our visa in the first month here, first being told that we could get a 3 month visa at the border, then upon arrival being told no such thing was possible, and that we had to get visas one month at a time, at the local police station. Finally, we were told that we needed no visa at all, and instead paid 10 dinars per week we were in-country. The latter came from the visa desk at the Tunis airport, so we stuck with that.
Upon presenting our passports to an official at the dock, he vaguely beckoned me to follow, and handed over to a police officer at the visa bureau. I told him about the ten-dinar-per-week thing, and he sought out his superior and showed him our visas. The superior, an arrogant, self-important-looking guy, said something in curt Arabic, which the other guy translated: “Why have you overstayed your visa?”. Brilliant.
Again, I recounted what we had been told at the airport visa office, and was berated with “Why didn’t you visit a police station?”. Calmly, I explained that we had visited several police stations, including the one at the airport who had led us to the visa office. Incomprehensible muttering followed, until I brought out the 160 dinars I had determined was the fee, and their eyes lit up: “Ah, trés bien”.
The younger officer directed me to wait while our passports were stamped. He told me “You should give the boss a big present!”. I laughed it off uncomfortably and waited. He returned a few minutes later, showed me into his superior’s office, and said again, “Okay, a present for the boss, now”. Big joke, laugh it off; I sat down in the foyer again. One last time, he tried it — “A present, for the boss”; I put a vague expression on my face, and managed to successfully avoid the situation; the superior gave the passports to another officer for processing, while I went and exchanged our money into Euros.
Finally, it was done — I had our passports in hand, with all the appropriate stamps and a great sigh of relief.
Back to Nettle for another half hour or so; another foray out to make sure everything was still okay — I could barely get a word out of the curt staff member I actually found to ask, but I gathered that the ferry was still loading, and we were in the correct place.
The few of cars that were strewn around in front of us shuffled forward, and we moved forward too. We finally reached the concourse along the waterfront, two ferries tied up further down the dock, and an official asked for our paperwork, which we presented. “Un petit probléme,” he said, slightly apologetically. We needed an export stamp for Nettle. Nice of them to let us know, at the last minute.
Feeling panicky, watching the last few cars progress along the dock towards the ferry, we swung around in a U-turn, and I ran out to find another official to do whatever needed to be done. I found one in a dockside café, waved the offending piece of paper at him, and he joined me outside and took a quick look inside Nettle and underneath, presumably checking for stowaways. He scribbled something on the piece of paper, then pointed vaguely back through the docks the way we had originally come, and told me to find “un petit bureau” (a little office).
All of the booths beside the entranceway were closed, and not a person was in sight; I asked an official outside the police office where to go, and he pointed vaguely ahead. I remembered our rather uncomfortable entrance to Tunisia, and the set of offices we passed through to get Nettle’s paperwork done, and I headed back there. While I was running, I noticed the obnoxious mute man that had taken us though the entrance bureaucracy when we first arrived, and steadfastly pretended I hadn’t seen him; I think he recognised me, as he grunted as I ran past and thumped the side of a building to try to get my attention.
The first official I waved my piece of paper at unhelpfully tapped his shoulder and indicated I should find the captain. No such individual was in sight, so I tried again, and asked another official. He showed me into a smoky office, where the official behind the desk took the piece of paper, put a stamp in my passport, and waved me off. I guess that’s it.
A sprint back to Nettle. Katherine told me later that while I was gone, the official who had stopped us on the waterfront concourse had attempted to hit on her in my absence, asking if she was married, and was she travelling with her brother?
We joined the end of a line of cars, and I verified that we were in the correct place — a big sigh of relief when we found all was well, and the ferry was still being loaded. Another couple of passport checks, a quick search again (these people love double-handling), and we were waved onto the ship.
We locked up and headed up onto the passenger deck, feeling light-headed and a bit shaky with relief, hunger, and the toll the stresses of the evening had taken. Thankfully, the onboard restaurant was open, and we found ourselves a surprisingly inexpensive and decent meal.
Exhausted, we sought out the “pullman seats” we had booked. An attendant showed us to them, and we stared in disbelief — they were either side of the aisle; one had a sleeping man sprawled at it’s foot.
We found the attendant again and asked if there were any other seats free that we could claim — no such luck. There were shelves for baggage at the front of the room; I eyed one alcove speculatively, and thought I could curl up there for the night. Katherine had a better idea; the two seats beside her were claimed with some stray items of clothing, but I moved the jumper on the seat beside her over, and sat down there, just for now. We leaned against each other and tried to shut our eyes against the glare of the room’s lighting.
Then our luck found us — the prior occupant of the seat I was in returned; I excused myself and offered the seat back, and he smiled and shook his head, taking the clothing off the seat and the one beside, freeing up all three seats for us! Hoorah!
So, we lay back and slept fitfully, taking turns to shift around, waking when people opened the door right in front of us (but enjoying the breeze through the door which briefly mitigated the stifling heat of the room). But at least we had somewhere to be!
We gave up around 9am, and ventured back to the deck for a coffee and croissant. Soon after, land appeared outside the window, and we walked out to lean against the railing in the warm breeze and watch as the ferry was ushered into the docks of Palermo. Ah, Palermo, our old friend. We felt wonderful, gazing out at Sicily, flooded with happy memories. We wondered how Mount Etna was looking, covered in snow.
We found a table inside again and watched some old So You Think You Can Dance episodes for a while. Every now and then there were high-volume announcements made in Italian, and after the third, I thought we best find out what they were about, and headed towards reception to find someone to ask in English/French. The staff member I found said it was a call for all passengers to passport control, and to hurry because they wanted to leave! I ran back to get Katherine and our passports, and just as we were returning, an announcement was made calling for something-something-Tai-Sono-é-something-Hai-rah-mahn — they were calling us! So, we were the last to have our passports stamped, as the officials joked with us about my name (Mike Tyson, that old chestnut). I recognised one of the officials from our departure from Sicily, months ago.
It was a very long day; we both felt pretty rough from the poor sleep we’d had. The deck was almost empty of people now, and we claimed a choice spot on a bench in the corner, where we could spread out and lie down. A group of loud Arabic men were playing an unfamiliar but entertaining-looking card game for most of the day; we became a little irritated with them towards the end, with their periodic loud shouting. Quiet down, you lot!
Arrival time came and went. Eventually, around midnight, lights appeared out the window, and we had arrived! After a bit of a wait, we found our way back to the car deck, and wearily but delightedly returned “home”. We drove down the ramp, to the inspection area. An ununiformed Italian women asked us something about cigarettes, and made a smoking gesture — was she asking us for cigarettes?? Nope — she was just asking if we were importing any, or any alcohol. We were relieved and happy to be clear of begging, clutching Tunisian dock staff!
A quick stop in to the office to make sure we were all sorted with our Schengen visas, and we were done. 10 minutes tops.
A little giddy, we drove out of the dock and through familiar-looking Salerno — Italy! I spotted the area sosta I’d researched, and we pulled in, a little surprised to find it a run-down looking car park littered with dead cars, but a little too tired to care. It’s fine! We sank gratefully into our own bed and fell asleep.