A couple weeks ago we took a tour of the Medina. I was thankful to have a knowledgeable tour guide because the old Medina of Tunis is a maze of narrow streets enclosed in ancient walls holding markets, homes, restaurants, and people busy in daily life. So many twists and turns! I have no clue how anyone would find their way around there. There were old ladies sweeping, families buying armfuls of baguettes, and salesmen chatting outside their shops piled high with jewelry, rugs, and antiques. I found myself falling behind the group over and over again, distracted by archways covered in vines, crumbling buildings, murals, and so many cats- just a rush of sights and sounds I wanted to capture. We hurried through clouds of cigarette smoke, “bonjours” and a blur of ornate Tunsian doors.
At the conclusion of our tour we were encouraged to come back on a day when we had nothing planned and enjoy “getting lost.” Normally this idea would make me nervous. Feeling lost stresses me out. I have vivid memories from highschool onwards, calling my dad or Justin in a panic every time I took a wrong turn driving. But hearing others’ stories of slow wandering adventures sounded appealing. I would love to take my time and walk down those stone paths without an agenda or destination, and with my sense of direction or lack thereof, I would most certainly get lost. That place is a labyrinth!
A few days later, I got up early and joined my friend, Rebecca, on a walk around Sidi Bou Said. “Sidi Bou” is less than 10 minutes from my house. I’ve been there countless times and thought I knew it well enough. I know the touristy routes, familiar and well-trodden, but Rebecca lives in that area and has scoped out the best views and trails, often hiking off the beaten path. By the end of our almost 5 mile trek, walking up hills, through little alleyways, into the woods, and along the beach, I realized how much I’ve been missing! It’s been a while since I’ve had that “pinch me- I can’t believe I live here” feeling. This was a wake up call. I actually get to live by the turquoise Mediteranean Sea with ancient ruins and mountains providing a perfect silhouetted background to sailboats floating by in breezy, sunshiny weather. I’m here every day but “sticking to what I know and what feels comfortable” is preventing me from really seeing it. She found these beautiful vistas through curiosity and stepping away from trails she already knew.
It can be frustrating that things are hard to find here. There are no websites, information, or clear signs, but I’m starting to realize that’s part of the beauty. The lack of information leads to stumbling upon treasures and the opportunity to get lost. It also promotes bonding between fellow expats who share their finds. “This place has chocolate chips!” “Have you been to that restaurant?” “I found this cool store today!” After my walk with Rebecca, I decided our family needs to embrace getting off track a little more.
This weekend we traveled about 2 hours south to the coastal town of Sousse. Our family still feels very new to “traveling.” Our past life in Kansas did not consist of vacations or time to explore new areas. In this new found life, we have a lot to learn about what to do and what not to do when it comes to traveling as a family.
Fortunately, we tagged along on this vacation with friends and picked up a few tips. One of which was to take a 30 minute drive to a little town called Monastir. I wouldn’t have known to do this, but I’m so glad we did.
Touring Fortress Ribat in Monastir was the highlight of our weekend. Fort Ribat is a huge Military fortress, overlooking the Mediteranian Sea, built in 796. (And it also happens to be the set location for Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Now I need to go back and rewatch that movie.) Unlike other ruins we’ve seen, this one was almost fully intact and we could walk through 3 levels of rooms and passageways. Teddy and I climbed to the top of the tallest tower and got a thrill looking out over the city in all directions.
The best part was the size and unique layout. It was the perfect place for us to get that “lost” feeling. There were alcoves and hidden dark stairways into rooms connected to more rooms and corridors, all interconnected, leading to new areas or deadends- an easy place to get turned around. Penelope is still pretty cautious and sticks close to us, but Teddy gets this adventurous spirit and turns into an explorer, rushing ahead to find the best areas to show us. I’m glad he’s learning from a young age that feeling lost can be fun.
Other highlights from our trip to Sousse were:
- Giant bird’s nests along power lines on the trip down, like I’m pretty sure they were some pterodactyl relatives…
- Driving by olive orchards, mountainous views and roadside stands selling strawberries, flat bread, and fried lizards. (In case you’re wondering, we were not brave enough to pull over for a lizard snack.)
- Amazing freshly squeezed orange juice in the mornings and seeing the proud look on Teddy’s face after he ordered an omelet by himself in French!
- Room service playdate picnics and conversations with friends.
- Seeing a flock of flamingos for the first time in nature! (Spoiler- they are white here because of the lack of shrimp in their diet, but still cool to check that one off my Tunisia bucket list.)
- Falling asleep to the sound of waves and waking up to paradise views
Tunisia (and the pandemic) has given me the gift of letting go of control and accepting what’s in front of me. Perfect example: trying to order a margarita this weekend. The waiter repeated the order, confirming that I wanted one margarita pizza. After some charades-style hand gestures and some help from friends, he got the message that I wanted alcohol, not pizza. I received a drink close enough to a margarita. After finishing, I decided that a pizza actually sounded perfect. Our waiter returned, and I told him I now wanted the before-mentioned pizza. He looked a bit puzzled and then explained that they don’t have pizza on the menu. Moral of the story: If you want a margarita, order a pizza. If you want a pizza, cross your fingers that you’ve asked at the right moment because rules/menus/ standards are pretty fluid around here. Another friend tried to order a burger and they told him no. Justin asked for a burger and got a yes. Always be ready with a backup option and a sense of humor.
It seems there’s a fine line between well-planned travel experiences and spontaneity, but living in Tunisia has helped nudge us in the go-with-the-flow spirit. I have a little more room for uncertainty and a willingness to get lost now. Getting lost in a physical place = getting lost in the moment, and with the right attitude, that’s a beautiful thing. We are still working on how this works best with children. Getting “lost” in the Medina or on a nature hike with children who are hungry and have tired legs isn’t quite what I have in mind, but I’m hoping the more practice we get, the more likely we are to find the right balance of flexibility and feeling “lost” for our family.