Away For The Holidays

Christmas means time with friends and family. Traditions. Togetherness. But what if you are thousands of miles away?  5,367 miles to be exact (Eudora, Kansas to Tunis, Tunisia). How can you be apart and together?

In a turn of unexpected events, more people find themselves in this situation, even if they live in the same town as their relatives. The Covid-19 pandemic has a lot of people rethinking how to celebrate from a safe distance.

I think framing it in a positive light is key. We may not physically be in the same location, but there are still ways to feel connected. You just have to get creative. Luckily, I have months of practice living in Africa while my family and friends remain in the States. We have all learned how to keep in touch and I’m proud to say that my relationships are just as strong as they were before our move. In fact, there are some people I talk to more consistently now than I did when we lived in the same state. Of course, I would much rather see them in person, but everyone has made a great effort of making us feel included from afar. 

The following are some creative ideas to help people in long-distance (or Covid-related distance) relationships. Some are more intricate than others, requiring more planning. Most of these ideas are targeted towards families with young kids. I hope they inspire you to think about connection in new ways.

Daily Photo Challenge Sharing

This is not a new or unique idea, but it’s traditionally a solo project. There are lots of photo challenges on pinterest and other sites. Basically, for every day in a month, there is a new prompt, such as “morning” and you take a photo of what that prompt means to you. For the prompt “morning” you could take a picture of your coffee cup or the sun rising, etc.

I took this idea and created a calendar with prompts (some personalized) to share with some of my friends back home. I’ll create a seperate chat on WhatsApp just for this so it doesn’t clog up our other conversation threads. I’m hoping that sharing photos with each other each day will help us get little glimpses into each other’s lives and encourage more communication. Who doesn’t love getting nice text messages throughout the day?! I also made a calendar for my kids and their friends as well- less complicated and not daily, but I think they’ll have fun getting a turn as photographers and having the opportunity to connect with their buddies. Plus, it kind of doubles as a countdown till Christmas.

Bedtime Stories

Part of the bedtime routine in our house is cuddling up with a good book and reading to our children, but what if we allowed our far-away family to join us? There are two ways we could do this. We could let grandparents find a book and video call us at a particular time. A live reading just takes a little coordination to schedule. Currently, we are 8 hours ahead of our family so if they call at noon, that’s 8pm in Tunisia. However, If work schedules don’t allow for a reading in real-time, the other option is recording themselves reading a book and sending it for us to watch when we are ready at a later time. 

Now if you want to get really fancy and you enjoy video editing like I do, you could coordinate something really special with everyone involved. Luckily, my family is on-board with my flair for drama. I took the poem Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore and divided it up into parts. My dad and his wife will read part of the story. My mom and her partner will read part of it. My husband’s parents will read a part, and my sister and her kids will record a part. Once they’ve sent me their video clips, I will edit them together into one surprise video to share with my kids on Christmas Eve Night. They will see all of their grandparents and Aunt and cousins sharing a bedtime tale before they fall asleep. I’m so excited to see how it comes together.

Edit: A friend just shared an app called “Caribu”that might be worth looking into. It’s a video chat app, but it’s targeted to kids and relatives. They can play games like memory match or mazes, read books, and other activities during the video call.

A Shared Meal

Part of the joy of the Holiday Season is coming together to share a special meal. This year, I don’t have access to some of my favorite comfort foods and I certainly won’t be sitting across the table from my family. But sometimes you gotta play pretend! One of the ideas we have toyed with is having each household, near or far make the same recipe on a certain day. We’d take pictures and videos to share along the way and check in with each other throughout the process. Then, when everyone is finished cooking, we would set up a video chat and sit at our respective tables to eat the “same” meal. 

A variation of this idea could be sending out a generic recipe, perhaps for something like sugar cookies, and then everyone gets to put their own spin on it. My kids love decorating cookies (usually with disgusting amounts of frosting and candies that should not go together like chocolate chips and red hots, but to each his own, right?). I think they would have even more fun, knowing they have an audience to show them off to afterwards. And ZOOM calls are always better with snacks!

The Little Things

If you are looking for quicker, less complicated ways to connect more often, here are two other things we enjoy:

  • WhatsApp voice messaging– Texting is great but sometimes it’s so nice just to hear someone’s voice. Plus, my kids have an easier time participating in conversations when they can talk rather than type. Sometimes, I’ll just hand them my phone for a bit and they leave short little messages to grandparents or friends telling them about something they did at school that day or just letting them know they are thinking about them. MarcoPolo is another user friendly app for this. And we’ve learned that you can still feel connected even when you aren’t talking in real time. Sometimes we leave messages for people in the middle of their night and vice versa. Everyone just replies on their own time. I’ve woken up to 60+ missed messages (thanks, “girl chat”) and it’s fun to wake up and read, like my personal social news outlet. I have found that I can still have meaningful conversations even when it’s not in real-time and I am so thankful for that!
  • TouchNote App– I discovered this because sending mail is not always fast and reliable over here. This app allows you to create postcards or letters on your phone and then they print and mail your physical card. Sometimes if we go to a cool place, like a Roman Ruins site, our postcard will feature a picture of us there and then we tell our loved ones about where we’ve been. It may not be handwritten, but it’s the next best thing. Since the company is located in the US, our friends receive their cards in their mailbox within days of us creating it. If we were to attempt to send a card from Tunisia, friends would have to wait about a month or more to receive it. We are going to create our Christmas cards through TouchNote this year, and the nice part is, it already has all of the addresses saved and ready to go!

So for all those feeling disconnected, I feel you. It’s hard, especially this time of year when the weather gets cold and the Holidays are feeling not quite the same. Remember, this too shall pass and while you are in it, you might as well make it a Holiday Season to remember. Sometimes the creative part of our brain shuts down when we are in survival mode, but even a simple message or call can go a long way. If that’s all that you have the capacity to do, that is enough.

The Guilt of Escape

November 4, 2020- 10:00 A.M (Tunisia Time)- The day after Election Day

You know that scene in Titanic where the people in the lifeboats are rowing away from the sinking ship? That’s a bit what it felt like waking up this morning. I see the state of the things back home and I feel guilt for leaving behind my family and friends. 

I feel guilty that I wasn’t inundated with political ads daily. 

I feel guilty that I work for a school that is well-funded, where I am respected as an educator. I get supportive, polite emails from parents wanting to know how they can help me and help their child. It’s a nice change from being ignored by administration, yelled at by parents, and physically harmed by students back in the states.

But I digress… This morning, I assumed I would wake up to election results. I could sleep through the stressful news coverage and just hear the good news in the morning. But instead I’m sitting here, writing out my thoughts because it’s currently undetermined and the margins are way too close for comfort.

I am confused and hurt. Why is it this close? Why do close to 50% of Americans think Trump is the best choice to lead and represent our country? I’m not trying to be snarky. I truly don’t get it. He is a sociopath. He thinks women are objects. He makes blatant lies with no apologies. He incites hatred and racism. He is only looking out for himself. Why do you like him?

Do you know that people from other countries feel sorry for us? When people ask me where I’m from, a little part of me is embarrassed to say America. Sometimes, I consider lying and saying I’m from Canada because I don’t want to be associated with the corrupt government, the hatred and violence of white supremisists, and the idiocracy of those who think they know more than scientists and doctors because they read an article on some random website.

Most of us have been indoctrinated to think we live in the “greatest country in the world.” Well, nowhere is perfect, but I can speak from experience that moving to Africa, I feel safer than I did back home. In Tunisia, the rate of gun ownership is 0.1 per 100 residents. (In case you are curious, that rate in the US is 90 guns per 100 residents- a 900% increase.) I don’t really worry about school shootings any more. (I don’t want to come off as naive. I do understand that Tunisia has it’s issues and I happen to live in a bubble here. It is a 3rd World Country and that comes with obstacles.)

Again, I digress… Is it a religious thing? Is that why people I know voted for him? Is it soley for the abortion issue? You realize, despite his tear gas, Bible photo op, that Trump is as far from moral and spiritual as you can get, right? He doesn’t give a shit about unborn babies. And if you are that concerned about the sanctity of life, why aren’t you concerned about lynchings and children locked in cages at the border and people dying from lack of healthcare or the incompetence of how the pandemic has been handled?

He is a monster. Please tell me you see that. He’s not funny or cool or down-to-earth. He’s an infant. He’s ego personified. I feel like I’m in an episode of the Twilight Zone where everyone is seeing something else I don’t see. 

I’m glad I got out. I’m glad I’m not in America right now. I wish I could have brought the people I love with me. And yet, I understand my privilege. I understand that because most of my friends and family are white, middle class, they will be fine. How messed up is it that those two arbitrary factors make or break you in our country? I’m sad for the place I call home. I can’t stand that it is so divided and filled with hatred. And I really hate that, no matter who wins the presidency, we will still have half of the country that stands behind the ideals that put Trump in office the first time around.

Culture Shock

I was warned multiple times before moving overseas that I would succumb to something called “culture shock.” It sounded very dramatic and unpleasant. I saw the roller coaster-looking line graph. I studied the “symptoms” and “coping strategies.” I tried to prepare myself mentally and emotionally.

Culture Shock Chart 1

Well, I’m happy to report that after about 2 months in Tunisia, this “culture shock thing” isn’t as bad as it sounds (at least in my experience). I really think it needs a new name and a new graph. Maybe “culture adjustment” or “culture curve” or “sometimes life sucks no matter where you are, but right now it happens to suck in a new country.”

If you aren’t familiar with the concept of culture shock, here it is in a nutshell:  Honeymoon, Frustration, Adjustment, Acceptance

You go somewhere new and have a “honeymoon” period where everything is new and exciting. This is followed by hostility and irritability. You are frustrated with the differences you experience such as language barriers, different ways of thinking, new foods, and just feel a general longing for home. Eventually, you adjust to the new culture and gain knowledge and tools to help you live in this new world. And finally you adapt. Life feels basically normal. But… that’s not really the end… When you return to your home country, you get to experience all of these stages again with reverse-culture shock. Fun times!

The view from our balcony, watching the kids play in our yard

But like I was saying, the word “shock” feels a little hyperbolic, and in my personal experience it hasn’t been a continual path forward on the “roller coaster chart.” I have definitely moved backwards on that line graph, sometimes gradually and sometimes like I fell off a cliff. (Oops, now who’s being dramatic?)

The “symptoms” can be confusing. Mood swings. Loneliness. Irritation. Feeling critical. Lack of confidence…. Umm, pretty sure that just describes my past year and I definitely hadn’t left the US at that point… None of these things seem that unusual. 

I was talking with my husband, Justin, about this and he had the perfect revision for the culture shock graph. It’s not a line. It’s a circle. Brilliant! You see, for me, I feel like I’ve just been going round and round between good periods and bad periods, but it always seems to cycle back around.

Culture Shock Chart 2

Here’s how I’ve experienced a change in culture: 

The highs are high! Sometimes, I feel like I’m on top of the world here. I am so lucky. This place is gorgeous and fun and interesting. I’m at the beach one weekend and the Roman ruins on the next. Am I on vacation or is this my real life? And being “fake rich” is the BEST! I’m not actually rich. I don’t own this amazing house, but I get to pretend that I do. And because the school is paying the bills, I have extra money. Then if you account for the very cheap cost of living in Tunisia, it all adds up to a pretty cushy lifestyle.

But other times, it does not feel like a fairy tale. I miss my friends and family. I get irritated with myself that I am not brave enough to hop in the car and go to a store on my own. I love feeling independent and confident and I certainly don’t feel like I possess either of those qualities here. I’m snapping at my kids because I’ve just made them their 3rd breakfast and they still haven’t eaten because they don’t like any of this food. I try to video chat with people back home and between crappy internet and lag time, I feel more disconnected from them than I did before I called. Sometimes I feel helpless and stupid when I can’t communicate with people speaking a different language and I have to rely so heavily on others to do very simple things.

My mom and Frank sent us a care package of American food we’ve been missing.

These highs and lows come and go sometimes within a matter of minutes, but other times I can feel the stress or longing gradually building up and I know I’m on a downhill slope. And this up and down thing has happened over and over again like a circle going round and round. Perfect example: Sometimes the traffic here stresses me out and sometimes it makes me laugh. Just depends on the day.

But again, how is this drastically different from the highs and lows I experienced before I moved? On a particularly hard day here, Justin asked, “If you were back in Eudora right now, do you think you would be happier?”  And my answer was no. 

I moved to Tunisia for a reason. I’m pretty sure I’d be miserable if I was still teaching at the same place, doing the same things every day. I knew last year that I had to throw a wrench in my life in order to move forward in a healthier, happier way. I remember someone telling me the thought of moving to a new country sounded scary, but for me, the thought of staying was scarier. I was apathetic, burnt out, frustrated, and sad during my last year in Kansas. I’ll take these “culture shock” lows over that any day. And the bonus is that it comes with the really high “highs” in between.

So, I’ve been around the circle a few times (or more), and I know my triggers. During “quarantine periods” where we are more isolated, I tend to feel more sad. I always do better when we have activities planned. I don’t like sitting at home. Stressful work situations (like switching to distance learning) can also trigger a downward plunge. (Sounds like my issues are Covid related and not Tunisia related…)

Teddy’s “distance learning” set-up

I think along with the honeymoon/frustration cycle, I’ve been moving forward along the chart as well, getting more accustomed to life here. (Oh boy, the chart just got another new revision!) I am not as “shocked” by things I see and hear anymore. I feel more and more comfortable with every passing week. The little successes (bought a lamp today and had sushi delivered to our house!), growing friendships and comfort with work routines make me feel like I’m quickly approaching the “acceptance” phase. I’ve done a lot of adapting and adjusting to this new life and I feel like I’m in this sweet spot at the moment. I do not take this life for granted. I still feel very lucky to be here, but at the same time I’m not quite as wide-eyed and amazed as I was when we first arrived in Tunisia. I’d say 85% of the time I feel comfortable and living here feels “normal.”

Culture Shock Chart 3

Emotional ups and downs happen everywhere. Culture shock just encompasses very specific ups and downs because there are specific challenges that come with adapting to a new culture. I’m sure lots of people could relate to these phases with a new job, new baby, new relationship, new house or city. Honeymoon, Frustration, Adjustment, Acceptance. I think we’ve all felt those with some change in our lives. I’m still dealing with emotions in the same way. I’ve just swapped my Kansas problems for some new, exotic problems and my issues now have fancy charts.

To sum it all up, culture shock sounds scarier than it actually is. I’m getting used to my new life here and most of the time it feels great, but don’t be fooled! Nothing is perfect. The picturesque photographs don’t capture the behind the scenes details. There have been ups and downs and I miss my friends and family terribly, but adjusting to life in Tunisia has been well worth it, culture shock and all.

Two Months in Tunisia

Happy 2 Month Anniversary, Tunisia! It really feels like I’ve been here a lot longer than two months. I am feeling pretty settled and comfortable. And I’ve checked off so many items on my Tunisian “Bucket List.”

Carthage: Antonine Bath Roman Ruins
  • See Roman Ruins
  • Visit Bardo Museum
  • Walk around Sidi Bou Said
  • Take pictures by fancy doors
  • Start decorating our house (buy/make art)
  • Buy authentic Tunisian rugs and pottery
  • Go to the beach
  • Participate in social activities
  • Try traditional Tunisian food
Sidi Bou Said

I’d say I’m still in the honeymoon phase. I feel happy and inspired. Even when I stumble across inconveniences and language barriers, I don’t get overly upset (majority of the time). I’m used to the sights and sounds, but still appreciate the beauty and quirkiness of this place. I’m not shocked when I see a camel head hanging in the butcher shop or when I see a motorcycle driving the wrong way down the highway.

Sidi Bou Said

I’m not surprised when I go to a store during regular business hours and they have a sign on the window saying they will come back in 30 minutes. In fact, I’ve come to expect it. Things that should be quick and easy are not so quick or easy in Tunisia. Two months in and I still don’t have a bank account yet. I’ve tried to hire someone to mow our lawn for over a month and I think (fingers crossed) someone might show up on Wednesday. We called to order takeout a couple weeks ago, and they said they decided not to open. And my finest example of “classic Tunisia” is the fact that my mom mailed a letter to us on August 10th and I just received it yesterday on September 29th. The postal service seems to be close to nonexistent. Living here is a practice in patience.

The exception to this rule is the pharmacy. You can walk into a pharmacy with some hand-written doctor’s note and they start taking things off the shelf. There’s no waiting 30 minutes to get your prescription filled. They give it to you immediately, you pay, and you leave. And half the stuff in there doesn’t even need an official prescription. They will hand you some antibiotics, charge you next to nothing, and you’re on your merry way!

La Marsa Market

It’s hard to explain, but it feels a bit like Tunisia is just making up the rules as they go. If you like strict order and efficiency, this probably isn’t the place for you. But if you can relax, enjoy the pace, and have a sense of humor about it, it’s not so bad. Go ahead and hop that curb, park your car on that sidewalk, and throw your trash in that empty lot! You’re in Tunisia now!

In our 2 months, we’ve learned a few things. If you are an explorer/ detective at heart, you’ll do great here. There are no websites. (Yes, there are a few, but that is not the norm.) If you want to find a place to buy a pool table or a stuffed animal or a patio chair, it’s going to require some serious investigation.

Sometimes you can find things on Facebook, but mostly it’s word of mouth. It’s like these people don’t want you to find them! And after you “discover” the item you seek, good luck finding it. Don’t expect a parking lot, sign above the store, or an accurate address. Directions from friends sound like, “You know that place where you got your haircut. Go past that, around the roundabout and take the 3rd exit. Then go down the 2nd alley on the right until you see a blue awning. Park there and then go in the orange door, up 2 flights of stairs and the place you need is the 3rd door on the left.” 

The interesting part about this is that you discover hidden gems. You can be on a rough street, with litter and stray cats and graffiti on the walls, walk through some sketchy, barely lit hallway, and then you open a door and all of a sudden you are in this posh, upscale little store or a pristine office.

Now, let’s talk food. It’s no secret that getting used to Tunisian food has been a bit of a tough adjustment for our family, but it’s gotten soooo much better!

We like trying new restaurants and we haven’t even scratched the surface. But here’s the thing you need to know about restaurants in Tunisia. 

1) Smoking (cigarettes…. Or hookahs) is allowed… ugh! (Remember, rules are for suckers when you live here, so there are no policies about smoking vs. non-smoking sections.)

La Marsa

2) It would be considered impolite for a server to assume you are finished and leave the check so if you want to go, you are going to have to hunt for your waiter and ask to pay. Otherwise, they will let you sit there all day. I think some people do. There are lots of men who hang out in cafes like it’s their full time job.

3) Bring cash, or rather “dinar.” And this is not just for restaurants. Some places take credit cards, but there are a large percentage that don’t.

Tunisian currency: Dinar

4) Spaghetti is spicy! I have ordered this as a kid-friendly option at multiple places, and every time it sets my mouth on fire. Why, Tunisia, why?? And speaking of tomato-based things, the ketchup here tastes like the sauce from canned Spaghettios– no joke! It took me a while to figure it out. I kept thinking, “Where do I know this flavor from?” and then one day it dawned on me- Chef Boyardee!

5) Mint tea is very sweet (like Southern sweet tea) and often comes with pine nuts floating at the top. I’m not sure if the pine nuts change the flavor of the tea or maybe you are supposed to eat them? They serve this tea in a glass cup even though it’s steaming hot. Get back to me next month. Maybe then I will have solved the mysteries of the mint tea.

mint tea with pine nuts

In conclusion, Tunisia is great. There is so much to see and do. I find the “Tunisian way” charming, if not a bit cumbersome at times. But there’s never a dull moment, and that’s exactly what I was looking for. I may not always find the store or the food I want, but I’ve found something much better: adventure!

Carthage, Tunisia

The Rains in Africa

By April Peavey

Another day in the classroom was wrapping up, and I started to hear mumbles from the students and teachers about rain clouds. I briefly glanced outside and sure enough, it was windy and dark. I guess it’s going to rain. I hadn’t looked at the weather forecast that day so this was news to me. I didn’t think anything of it, dismissed my students, and started checking emails.

Teddy burst into my room in a frenzy, also talking about this storm. I hear more and more commotion from the hallways (which are open to the outdoors). I peek out and it’s coming down. Still at this point, I’m thinking “What’s the big deal?” Now, people are leaving their classrooms in parkas and rain boots, umbrellas open, and there’s an announcement over the intercom that teachers need to leave now. No need to stay until contract time. Now I’m feeling confused. Have I missed something? We are talking about rain, right?

I am from Kansas. I’ve driven in a foot of snow. I’ve driven on roads that were sheets of ice. I’ve driven through blizzards and tornado warnings. A little rain is nothing. 

Teddy and I pack up our things, and head out, unprepared without umbrellas or proper footwear, but again, I’m from Kansas… Rain does not scare me.

A view of our school on a more mild, rainy day.

We step outside, and immediately, I realize that I’ve never been in rain like this before. It’s hard to even describe the amount of water coming down. We weave our way through campus, running from building to building, and after making it to our last underpass, I’m starting to feel worried. Half of the people we pass say they are staying at school to wait it out. Half of the people say if you want to get home, leave now. Soon the roads will be too flooded for driving.

I decide, we are going to leave. At our school, we park about a football field away from the school building. So, I take Teddy by the hand, and we start running through the rain. About halfway to the parking garage, I start doubting my decision, but we keep running. By the time we reach our car, we don’t look like like we’ve been in the rain. We look like we were thrown into a swimming pool. There isn’t’ an inch of me dry. My hair and clothes are soaked. Teddy’s backpack, which was zipped up, is full of rainwater. We bust into our car, and I’m in shock. “What the hell was that?”

I handed Teddy my phone before we started driving and he recorded this gem.

Now it’s one of my first times driving by myself in Tunisia on this particular day. Tunisian driving is already a bit crazy and I’m not used to this car. It took me a few minutes just to find the windshield wipers and caution lights. Again, I second guess my decision as I back out of my parking spot.

I get onto the roads. I can’t see. Places that are normally 2 lanes now have 5. The honking horns are constant and people are just pushing their way through, like a mob of Kindergarteners trying to get out to recess first. It’s a bit of a miracle that the cars aren’t physically bumping into each other.

But the scariest part isn’t the traffic. It’s the flooding. There are sections of road that look like a river. There were multiple times I held my breath and just went for it even though I wasn’t sure my car would make it across the deep water.

This is a “puddle” during a light rain, so you can imagine it’s much worse during heavy rains.

And here’s the kicker- In all of the confusion, blind driving, and tense moments, I somehow took the wrong exit on a roundabout and now I’m completely lost. It took me a while to figure it out. I kept asking Teddy, “Does this look familiar?” He kept reassuring me that, yes, we are going the right way, but at a certain point, I realized that I had no clue where we were. I pulled over and called Justin in a panic. I tried to give him landmarks to look up, but I couldn’t read any signs through the rain. Google maps couldn’t find my location, and for a few minutes there, I wondered if we would ever make it home.

I managed to find the Carrefour (our mega-store- like Walmart, a grocery store, and a mall combined) on a map and slowly drove toward that direction until I got there. I’ve never been so happy to see that awful place! Now that I had my bearings, I got us home.

At one point, a man rolled down his window and flipped me off. I still have no clue what I did, but he was obviously offended by my awful driving. I hoped that when he saw my white knuckles clutching the steering wheel and the look of panic in my eyes, that he forgave me.

Eventually we pulled into our garage and I staggered into the house wide eyed and shaking. I hugged Justin and finally let myself relax.
Later that evening, a few coworkers messaged to see if we made it home okay. I felt like I had passed my initiation, like- You survived your first time driving in a Tunisian rainstorm. Congratulations. You’re one of us now.

The Ultimate Beach Experience

Rafraf, Tunisia

I guess I’m late to the game, but I just discovered that I like going to the beach. I used to trick myself into thinking that I liked beaches. Everybody likes going to the beach, right? But after multiple attempts, I resigned myself into admitting, “I am just not a beach person.”

To give you some context, here’s a previous beach trip, in 4 acts.

Act 1: Preparation

  • We’re going to the beach! This will be fun and relaxing. The kids will love it.
  • Okay, get sunscreen on the kids. “Can you please sit still? Yes, I know you don’t like it on your face!”
  • Did you grab towels? 
  • Ugh, they are going to be hungry as soon as we get there. We need to pack more snacks.
  • Do we have a change of clothes? Water? Umbrella? Hats? Extra sunscreen?

Act 2: Arrive at the beach:

  • Oh god, this stuff is heavy. 
  • Why am I carrying like 20 things and the kids are skipping along with nothing? Punks!
  • Time to set up our spot. How do you get this umbrella thing in the sand? 
  • 10 minutes later- got it!
  • Oops, the umbrella tipped over.

Act 3: Play time:

  • Man, I wish my kids knew how to swim. 
  • Where is Penny?! Whew, there she is. Now where did Teddy go?! Oh, there he is.
  • “Kids, don’t go too far out!”
  • Man, those waves are strong.
  • “No, I can’t relax. I’m making sure our kids don’t drown!”
  • Eek! I just felt something touch my foot.
  • Are there sharks around here?
  • What are you supposed to do if you get stung by a jellyfish?
  • This water is cold. I’m getting out.
  • Wow, this sun is hot. Surely I’m getting burnt.
  • Are we done yet?

Act 4: Time to leave:

  • I’m sooo tired. I can not lift all of this crap back to the car.
  • “Kids, pleeeaase help!” No luck.
  • Welp, now our car is a sandbox. Great.
  • Rinse off the sand. What the heck? How does sand even get there?
  • Clothes, sand, and exhausted, hungry children are scattered around the house.

The End.

Fast Forward to today...

Our school has a “Sunshine Group” that plans outings and social events. They advertised a trip to Rafraf Beach, in the Bizerte region, and we decided to go. As we drove the hour and a half with whiny, fighting children and a few wrong turns along the way, I was doubting our decision. But, we arrived. We found parking, found the group, and my tension immediately lifted. This was not like any beach I’ve ever visited.

We set down our towels and belongings on chairs and tables instead of dropping them in the sand. We walked up to furniture already set up for us. Tents and umbrellas provided plenty of shade, and there were even hammocks! And the best part was, I didn’t do any of the work!

The water was amazing! Crystal clear, not too deep, and not too cold. We bought our children floatation vests as well so there was a little less stressed about drowning. (Yes, I know it’s not a guarantee, but it helps.) Plus, if they go under, I would be able to clearly see them. Most beaches I’m afraid to get in the water and very afraid of children getting in the water, but here, I actually had fun playing with my kids. Teddy showed me what he’s been learning in his swimming lessons. Penny could touch the bottom even when we were a ways out from the shore. Once in a while we saw a little fish swim by. We all had a great time.

Beaches with all of these amenities are usually set up in front of hotels or restaurants. This particular spot was in front of the Langouste restaurant. You still have the option of bringing a picnic lunch, but we treated ourselves to ordering instead. They brought our food out to our beach table when it was ready.

A note to those interested in visiting: The menu is in French and the only options are seafood. (No obligatory chicken option like most places.) You order your fish and it comes with rice, bread, fries, and salad. The fish I ordered was great. This place doesn’t serve alcohol. The drinks we ordered, citronnade and virgin mojitos, weren’t great, but hey, we can’t complain!

Overall, it was a relaxing, fun day. We alternated between playing in the sea and relaxing in the hammocks or under umbrellas. If this were a vacation, I would have been very satisfied. Sometimes, I have to pinch myself when I remember I’m not on vacation. This was just a local activity on a random Saturday. International teaching life is sweet! As teachers in the US, that little beach trip would have taken years to save up for, and I’m not sure we ever could have saved enough to go overseas with a family of 4. But I digress…

10 out of 10 for Rafraf Beach in Tunisia! I’ve seen the light and I won’t be dreading my next family trip to the beach. If a day at the beach is supposed to be relaxing, these little beach spots have the right idea- no lugging heavy gear, no set up, no food to bring, and perfect water conditions. We’ll be back!

Happy One Month Anniversary, Tunisia!

On July 31st we arrived in Tunisia, tired, hungry, lugging 21 suitcases and two exhausted kids. (What a great first impression the director got when he picked us up at the airport!) Well, now it’s August 31st. Here we are a month later, a little wiser, a little more rested, teaching and settled into our house. On one hand, sitting in those airports feels like it happened years ago. On the other hand, I still feel like I have no clue what’s going on here. I spend a lot of time confused by the language, the new routine, the metric system, the money, the roads, and the stores. To be fair, we spent the first 14 days quarantined in our house so we didn’t get the full orientation most newbies get. I’ll continue to milk that excuse for as long as possible because it makes me feel just a teensy bit more justified in my helplessness.

But back to the celebration and away from my expat whining. This post will be my way of reflecting on the positives. (Probably a good thing to reread when I’m over the honeymoon period, crying about the lack of trick-or-treating and Christmas trees in a few months.)

Here is (in no particular order and with the understanding that I have seen very little of Tunisia so far)  my “Top 5 Best Things About Living in Tunisia.”

1. The Plant Life: We have 8 fruit trees in our yard and that is typical. The produce here is crazy good. We’ve got our “fruit guy” down the road from our house and we love taking our little trip to stock up for the week (which inevitably only lasts a few days and we have to go back again). You don’t get a wide variety of fruits and vegetables because they only sell locally grown stuff that is currently in-season. Imagine the best peach you’ve ever had. Well, these are better and they are consistent. I remember never getting it right at the grocery stores back home. They were too mushy, too hard, no flavor, etc. There’s no guesswork here and we are definitely getting more than our daily serving! And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the gorgeous flowers EVERYWHERE! They add color and beauty to every view. Bonus: I haven’t managed to kill them which is kind of a miracle for me!

2. Cost of Living: One dinar is equivalent to about 35 cents in the US. It takes a while to adjust to the look of higher prices, but once you do the math in your head, you realize what a steal you are getting. There are some items that are more expensive here, especially if they are imported, but for the most part, our money goes far. A baguette is .35 dinar, so divide by about 3 and it’s like a US dime for fresh baked bread! We are paying about 20 dinar a month for our cell phone service. That’s less than a hundred dollars a year for our phones. Many services are cheaper too- getting your car cleaned, getting a massage, having a housekeeper. Trust me, I never thought I’d be able to afford to have someone cleaning or cooking for me, but here, it’s pretty standard. I come home to a clean house and dinner multiple times a week, and the crazy thing is, even with that, we are saving more money than we ever would have as teachers in America.

3. The Kindness of Strangers: People we’ve met here are so friendly, especially when you make an effort to communicate. I do not know Tunisian Arabic, but I’ve memorized the greeting: “Aslema!” The serious demeanor instantly changes when we begin a friendly interaction. We’ve had restaurant owners, school staff, and drivers try to teach us more phrases, give us advice for places to visit, and by the end of the conversation we are pals. I do not want to stereotype, but I will say that overall, many of our experiences with locals have been warm, welcoming, and enthusiastic.

4. It’s Not Boring: I do not want to belittle the community I left. In fact, I miss it a lot (99% of that is attributed to the people I love and miss). Eudora, Kansas holds a lot of dear memories and served us well for many years. With that said, we left a lot of beige houses in neat little rows with perfectly manicured lawns and lots of commercial chain stores and restaurants. Tunisia is far from that! The architecture is artistic. There are beaches and mountains and desserts. It’s OLD! We are minutes away from ancient Roman ruins. We pass by camels and butcher shops (sometimes one and the same), graffiti, crumbling buildings and mansions, people walking in the middle of the highway, signs in different languages, locally owned boulangeries (bakeries), and palm trees- and that’s just on the 10 minute drive we take to school each day! Everything is new to us. This place has a rich culture. It’s not always clean or sleek, but it’s charming and beautiful and it is anything but boring! (One of my goals in coming here was to break out of the monotony…. Umm… mission accomplished!)

5. A Laid Back Culture: At times it can be frustrating that some things don’t happen quickly or efficiently here, but, if you ease into it, you realize that it is also one of the reasons this place is so great. The strict rules and processes and red tape of the States are not as much of a concern. The rules (as you see when you drive) are a bit fluid and sometimes made up. (Want to go down that one-way street the wrong way? Go for it, dude!) Even at my new school (which is fabulous by the way!) I had to adjust my teaching style. There are no straight, silent lines of students walking down the hall. The kids here have a little more freedom. They get more time for the arts, more recess, more freedom in how they learn. They choose what they want to read or write about and they are given time to relax and enjoy the process. In my personal life, I’m still getting used to balancing this vacation-feeling with work, but we are encouraged to go home at a decent time and enjoy the city. There are lots of social events, and endless alleyways and markets and sites to explore. Life here is a bit slower and a bit more fun!

There’s a lot to love about Tunisia. There’s also a lot more to learn. It may not always be easy, but I haven’t doubted this decision once. We are so fortunate to have this opportunity to expand our horizons. One month down- many more to come. Stay tuned!

Pottery and Rugs and Doors; Oh My!

After 14 days in true quarantine (not even allowed to go to the store), we are free! We can’t drive yet and we don’t really know where to go or how to get there, but our new coworkers are amazing. They have swooped in with offers to take us out and give us a true Tunisian experience. I was excited about shopping for pottery and I wanted authentic stuff, not just the stuff they sell to tourists. Our new coworkers Bobby and Kaouther offered to take us to Nabeul, about an hour from where we live in the La Marsa area. Nabeul is known for their pottery and we were not disappointed!

Being very new to Tunisia and very new to world travel in general, the smallest things are fascinating to us. The drive to Nabeul was no exception.

Apparently today the traffic wasn’t too bad, but even on a “not bad” day, lanes, speed limits, and turn signals are optional. Helmets on motorcycles, car seats for kids, and seatbelts also don’t seem to be a concern around here either. 

The best part of the trip was the line to the toll booth. I’ve never seen people walking around on the highway, but here, not only are they walking around, they are selling bread, mint tea, and other various snacks. Interesting to say the least, but I’m totally on board! We didn’t have our kids with us today. (Thank you Suzanne and Blake!) But I can’t tell you how many times the kids get hungry during car rides. What a lifesaver it would be to have the snacks come to us in the middle of a trip. Brilliant!

After waiting in the car line for a bit, we reach the toll both, and to my surprise, free of charge, they hand us snacks! What?! I think it’s some kind of marketing ploy, like how they give out free food samples at Costco. We got chicken-flavored corn chips. They were similar to Bugles… but chicken, and I totally dig it. They were actually pretty great. I’m going to look for them at the store tomorrow. (See! Toll booth snack marketing works!)

Finally, we arrive in Nabeul, and Kaouther and Bobby knew exactly which shop to go to for our pottery needs. We turned down an alley and into the shop which was more of an open-air series of rooms and corridors. In every single nook and cranny, from floor to ceiling, were stacks and stacks of hand-painted pottery. I have never seen anything like it. As soon as we walked through the entrance, I was feeling very thankful we didn’t bring our kids! There was barely enough room to walk, and you are literally surrounded by breakable plates, bowls, tiles, lamps, and more. It was fun but a bit overwhelming. So hard to choose! Luckily, it is very inexpensive and I am in no rush to buy everything now. I have a whole year to shop around and collect what I want. Today we got 2 trivets, 2 ice cream bowls, a large serving dish, an appetizer dish, a small tray for holding small items like jewelry, and number placards for the outside of our house. Trust me, I could have gotten so much more, but we are pacing ourselves. It would be very easy to get carried away though. All of the items we bought were around $40 (US equivalency) total. 9 items, some of which were quite large and intricate, all for 120 Dinar. Not too shabby!

We stopped at an old cafe for refreshments and our first taste of Turkish coffee and then we were off to the Medina (market). We wandered around looking at everything from spices to purses and clothing, until we found ourselves in a Tunisian rug shop (and it was air conditioned! Hallelujah!) The salesman in the shop was quick to show us how the rugs are made and then swept us off to a back room where we sat on cushioned benches and were served tea. As we sipped on our tea, rug after rug was rolled out. One rug, the salesman (who was quite the character) told us would bring fertility and if we bought it we’d have twins. (Umm, no thank you! I definitely don’t want that one!) The rugs were gorgeous, but we were ready for lunch and left without buying.

The last leg of our journey ended at Le Petit Pecheur, a little seafood restaurant a few minutes away from the busy shops. The highlight of this meal was Justin ordering fish and then having to walk over to a glass case to pick out which fish he wanted. They weighed it and gave him his price before taking it back to the kitchen. And of course the surprises don’t stop there. When we sit down, there is a basket of bread. After we order from the menu, they also bring out salad and soup. (The soup was amazing- some sort of seafood soup with couscous and spices). Then they bring out a full plate of pasta with spicy red sauce and a plate of seasoned rice. I thought, who ordered this? Well, no one did. This is also just part of the before-meal dishes. These were eaten community style- 2 plates of food, 4 of us. Everyone just eats what they want from the middle of the table. At this point, I didn’t even feel like I needed what I ordered! When all was said and done, the check was around 80 Dinar (so about $30 US) for all 4 of us eating a four-course meal.

It was the perfect first outing with experienced tour-guides/ new friends. Great conversation, lots of little breaks for relaxing, amazing shopping, and lots of new sights to take in, including plenty of those beautiful, iconic Tunisian doors I’ve been excited about finding. Turns out, it’s not much of a hunt. They are everywhere! Thank you to Bobby and Kaouther for a wonderful experience. Looking forward to many more!

I Don’t Think We’re In Kansas Anymore!

Today marks one full week, living in Tunisia, so I thought I’d take some time to reflect on the first-week experience. It’s been full of ups and downs, but mostly ups. I still wake up in the morning a little disoriented like, “Where am I? Whose life is this?”

Here’s a little tour of our new house in Tunisia, provided by the school. It’s so big!

First, to rewind a bit and get a little philosophical, it feels good to finally feel like I have taken steps to author my own life. Going along with the decisions I made for myself in my 20s and assuming my needs and wants would just stay the same for the rest of my life wasn’t working out. In my 30’s, floating through life, doing the same thing day after day didn’t feel good. It’s easy to accept: 

“This is just what it feels like to be an adult.”

“No one is completely satisfied with their job.”

“Life doesn’t have to be fun or exciting.” 

But, in reality, you always have choices. Taking an inventory of what I liked and didn’t like in my life and what I wanted more of has led me here. It wasn’t an easy journey, but I do not regret it for a second, and in many ways it’s just beginning.

Now back to the topic! The first couple days in the house were busy and exciting! We were all in awe of this place that we get to call home. I took hundreds of pictures. We unpacked. The kids hadn’t seen their toys for weeks, so that in itself was a highlight for them. We got a kick out of everything:

  • Our house key is this huge skeleton key.
  • We found a gecko and a tortoise! (And of course we had to name them: Larry and TicTac if you were wondering)
  • We opened every window and gawked at the views. There are flowers everywhere. The sky is insanely blue, and the architecture is truly a work of art, especially the doors which they are famous for.)
  • We picked fruit from our trees and put flowers in our hair. The yard is full of treasures!
  • We aren’t getting eaten alive by mosquitos when we go outside!
  • It’s fun looking at the food labels in different languages. The money (Dinar) is also interesting to look at- different colors and designs. We used to collect foreign money and now we are using it!
  • Sitting on our balcony feels surreal; like a dream. Having a soak in our giant bathtub and taking in the views afterwards has to be the most relaxing way to end the day that I’ve ever experienced.

In a few weeks, these things will feel familiar and blend in with our everyday life. But, for now, the honeymoon-everything-is-exciting phase is really fun.

Penelope checking out the view from our balcony

The things we enjoy with our kids have changed too. In Eudora, I loved to take walks around our neighborhood. I loved getting out of the house, getting some sunshine, and taking walks always lead to great conversation for Justin and I. However, asking my kids to go on a walk with us was like pulling teeth. They would whine and complain. It was boring. It was hot. They would rather stay home and play with toys or watch TV. The list goes on and on. But here, we ask, “Wanna go on an ADVENTURE walk?!” and they are running to get their shoes on. Walks here are not leisurely, conversational walks. Here, we are wide-eyed, holding each others’ hands, seeing the world for the first time. We see stray cats and puppies. We marvel at the giant houses and tropical-looking plants. We hear different languages and music. It’s exciting and I love that it’s bringing us together as a family.

These doors are works of art and they seem to be around every corner!

However, I wouldn’t be painting a full picture if I didn’t talk about the struggles as well. So far they are minor and the benefits far outweigh the negatives, but they are part of the story nonetheless. One of the biggest issues is that we moved across the world during a global pandemic and that brings some unique challenges.

We were fortunate to even get into the country. The school worked their tails off getting special documentation from the Tunisian and American Embassy. Part of the agreement was that we quarantine for 14 days. I’ve been doing some version of quarantine since March! 14 days is nothing, right? That’s what I thought, but being stuck in our house here has felt different. We feel helpless- completely dependent on others. Our neighbors, Suzanne and Blake, have gone grocery shopping for us multiple times. They’ve had multiple late-night runs to our house to help with our phone, bring us shampoo, sign paperwork, or help us interpret new money or food labels. They have been our lifeline, and thank goodness they have been so gracious about the whole situation. They have never made us feel bad and have accommodated every little request. We’ve also had a power outage, air conditioning issues, and furniture requests, and people from the school are at our house in an instant making sure we are taken care of. The people here are above and beyond friendly and helpful, but it will feel good when we can start taking care of ourselves a bit more.

As for the job itself, starting at a new school with virtual orientation meetings is not ideal. In past years, the school takes the new recruits out to fancy dinners, takes them out shopping and shows them all around the city. We are missing out on that, but the main thing I miss is the social interaction. Being in a new place, so far away from friends and family can be hard and quarantine is just exacerbating that.

And then we have the typical new-expat issues, regardless of COVID-19.

  • Exhaustion and jet-lag
  • Finding food your picky eaters will eat when all of it is just a bit different
  • Getting used to communicating in a different time zone. When we wake up, it’s the middle of the night in Kansas. When we go to bed, they are just starting their afternoon.
  • Missing the comforts of home and being in the same room as the people you love and miss.
Taking the trash out has never been this exciting!

With all that said, this is still the experience of a lifetime, and after we bust out of quarantine next week, we have at least 2 years to do all the things we are itching to do. I can’t wait to go to a restaurant, and the market, and Sidi Bou Said (a gorgeous coastal area- do a google search!), and shop for an authentic Tunisian rug and pottery. And of course, I want to see my classroom and meet my coworkers. The kids can’t wait to go to the beach and eat a “bambalouni” (like a donut- a common street food around here). And we have a short list of weekend trips we want to take, like going to Tatooine (as in the place in Star Wars, but it’s a real place too and it’s in Tunisia).

There is so much to see and do, but for now, we are content in our amazing house, playing in our yard, and venturing out on walks, a few blocks at a time. We are here. We are safe. We are happy and this is beyond our wildest dreams! Thanks for “virtually” holding our hand through this journey and cheering us on.

Packing With A Partner

I’ve moved a total of 5 times in my entire life and didn’t make my first move until I was 18 years old. My husband has moved, well, a LOT more than that, but I think we can both agree that preparing to move to Africa has been a whole new ballgame. Packing up our entire life into 20 suitcases is like the SuperBowl of moving and I’m pretty sure we skipped training season. (For those who know me personally, I’m also confused as to why I’m making sports references…)

So, I could bore you with the details of our packing system, the numbered luggage tags, the spreadsheets, the things we stored, sold, trashed, or literally jammed and shrink-wrapped into every square inch of luggage, but instead I’d like to share a little glimpse into our life as a married couple with two kids preparing to move to a new continent (during a global pandemic) without killing each other. (And if you just want to hear about our tips for packing, feel free to skip to the bottom of this post!)

To begin, let me just preface this by saying, I love my husband. I genuinely enjoy spending time with him. I think he is intelligent, level-headed (and not to mention a total babe!) BUT I think we have learned throughout this process that we are two fundamentally different people in just about every way we plan, think, and feel.

Have you ever heard of the Enneagram Test? It’s a pretty spot-on personality test with lots of useful information about why you behave the way you do and how to work towards being the best version of yourself. If you’ve never taken it, you should! ( Fascinating stuff!

Justin and I took the test. He is type 6- The Loyalist. I am type 7- The Enthusiast. To sum it up for you, Justin is security-oriented, responsible, anxious, practical, and values predictability and procedures. I, on the other hand, value spontaneity, new experiences, excitement, and freedom. I think big-picture and seek happiness above all else.

You would think we’d be at each other’s throats, but for some reason, it works. I generate the big ideas and he swoops in with the practical steps to make it happen. I bring energy and a sense of adventure. He keeps me grounded.

A typical conversation sounds like:

Justin: Hey, this cassette tape player- Are we keeping it or getting rid of it?

Me: Umm…..

Justin: You never use it.

Me: Yeah, but I’ve had that since I was a kid. It’s vintage. I used to love that thing. 

(Que trip down memory lane and looking up Alanis Morisette albums and starting a dance party in the living room)

An hour later….

Justin: So are we storing it? Pitching it?

Me: (Makes a face like that grimacing emoji) I just can’t make that decision right now.

I’m not sure how he puts up with it, honestly! I am well aware of my flaws and the fact that if I were doing this alone, I would be procrastinating like crazy, enjoying my summer, and then stressfully packing the week before I leave. Thank goodness, I’m not alone! Justin was doing “trial” packing before we even started real packing. He has been making lists and donating items since the day we signed our contract to move overseas (and that was in December). He’s a planner. Sometimes I roll my eyes at how over the top he is with his prep work. “Can’t you just relax for a minute! You are being such a 6!” He tells the kids they get one bag each for toys, and it’s not the kids complaining about that rule. I’m the one sneaking extra kids’ books into suitcases and prodding him to let me bring other non-essential items. I can’t help it. I’m a 7.

Almost daily, he finds the motivation to sort through things we no longer need, pack bags, and get us organized. And even with that persistence and focus, it has taken months to get us to the place we are today. Our house is slowly feeling more and more empty. We have about 15 out of 20 bags packed. The house and car have been sold. We are sleeping on the floor and eating dinner at a card table. All of our possessions that haven’t been packed are in piles because we sold all of our dressers and bookshelves. It feels like living in limbo, but through it all we still manage to laugh and have fun.

For anyone who may be looking for real advice about packing for relocation, here you go:

From Justin:

  • Roll clothes.
  • Use vacuum seal bags, but be careful. They only stay shrunk for about 7 days and they will save space but not weight.
  • Use a digital scale to measure bags.
  • Research airline baggage rules and fees.
  • Number your luggage tags and keep a document with what is in each suitcase so you can easily find your things and if a bag gets lost, you know what you are missing.
  • Try to do a little bit each day instead of waiting until the last minute.
  • Kiss your spouse for putting up with you.

From April:

  • Whether it’s essential or not, I think we will value things that remind us of home when we are so far away. I’ve made special photo albums for both of the kids and ordered photo magnets for the fridge (a tip from my friend, Hannah). The refrigerator is a place we will look every day and seeing familiar faces will be a nice presence. Plus, these are much smaller and easier to pack than framed photos.
  • For the carry-on bags, I’ve asked family members to write notes to the kids along with fun things to do on the airplane like coloring books and card games. Every hour or so through the long flights, the kids will get an encouraging note from their loved ones and something new to keep their spirits up. (Shhh! This one is a surprise!)
  • Luggage is expensive. We have bought quite a few new suitcases, but recently when we figured out that we needed a few more, before ordering from Amazon, I decided to send out a request on Facebook. I said I was in search of luggage and if anyone had some they wanted to get rid of, I’d love to buy it from them. Almost immediately, I had suitcases at my door and offers of free bags people had been meaning to toss out. One person told us, they wanted to do something nice for us as a going away gift but didn’t know what to do until they saw that post. Sometimes, I don’t like asking for help, but this reminded me that people want to help. It never hurts to ask. About 30% of our luggage are hand-me-downs from family and friends which has saved us a lot of money.
  • Packing is important, but don’t get too sucked into thinking about the future so much that you forget to enjoy the present. I’ve tried to be intentional, checking off my summer bucket list and spending quality time with the people I love before we go. At this point, memories are a lot more valuable than things.