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! (enneagraminstitute.com) 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.

Riding The Emotional Rollercoaster

About 3 months left till the big move and I can’t quite describe how I feel. I suppose it depends on the day, but often I feel these strong waves of emotion all within the same moment.

I feel like it can’t come soon enough. Just get me to Tunisia and let me start my new life. I don’t care if I leave every possession behind. I’m ready to move on. I’m tired of waiting. I see pictures of our new house and I can’t wait to step inside. I talk to my future co-workers and I can’t wait to meet them in person. I dream about all the amazing trips we will go on.

At the same time, I feel heartbroken over the life I’m leaving behind. I love my friends and family and I can’t believe I’m choosing to move so far away from them. I am well aware that it will change the dynamics of my relationships. My children will see their grandparents less. The people I feel closest to will no longer be a quick drive and a hug away. I’m willingly letting go of a rock-solid support system.

I’ve been looking forward to this summer. I want it to be special. I want to prioritize relationships and spend time doing what’s important. Now that I feel that clock ticking, it’s easier not to take things for granted. I made a “Last Summer in Kansas Bucket List.” (Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, I may not be able to mark everything off my list, but I’ll try.) But here’s the thing. I could make every day count. I could spend every waking moment, living life to the fullest, eating Kansas City barbeque and laughing with friends and visiting my favorite places and planning outings and parties, but it will never be enough. I keep telling Justin I need this summer for closure, but I don’t think I’ll ever really get closure. It’s this unattainable idea in my head.

Of course the Corona Virus Pandemic has thrown a wrench in things, especially when it comes to the elusive “closure” I’m seeking. After Spring Break, I never went back to teaching in my classroom. It was sudden and unexpected. I have spent a decade in that building and without any goodbyes, it’s over. I don’t get the last field day, the last day of school with kids, the last work day with my teammates. It just feels anticlimactic. The summer may be very similar. I had envisioned going-away parties and making sure I see all of my extended family and coffee dates with old friends. Those plans may not be realistic in this climate. In some ways, it’s easier that way. Goodbyes are hard.

How can I feel so sad and so happy at the same time? I’ve had those bittersweet moments before. Everyone has come to those crossroads in life; those moments when you know everything is changing- graduations, new jobs, marriage. You have to leave something behind in order to move forward. It’s just part of life, and that growth is necessary in order to become the best version of yourself.

I know I’ve reached a point here where I am stagnant; in a rut. I have been for a while, even if it took me a long time to recognize it. It’s no longer an option for me to stay in Eudora, Kansas, in the same house, in the same job, doing the same things day after day. Trust me. I’ve tried. I know deep down that this adventure will be positive, even if it’s hard.

No matter how I may feel now or in August, the wheels have already been set in motion. Our house has been sold. Our possessions are slowly being sold off. My resignation letter was turned in months ago and the contract with our new school was signed. Besides the people I love, there’s not much left for me here. Moving forward is the only option. My life is going to change, and that’s a good thing. My hope is that this move will bring my husband and I closer. My children’s worldview will expand and their adaptability and tolerance towards others will increase. I really feel like this opportunity will push us to become better people, and that is a change worth making.

Tips, Advice, and General Hearsay

Beginning the journey towards international teaching feels a little like the journey of starting a family. There is a lot of excitement up front with finding out where you are going, making the big announcement to family and friends, and then lots of preparation before the big move. And just like having a baby, you can read every book, do your research and hear advice from veteran parents, but until you experience it for yourself, there is nothing that can truly prepare you for how your life will change. Even though we have little idea of what we are getting ourselves into, we are excited and we feel that this is going to be positive in so many ways.

With about 3 months left, our packing progress is starting to accumulate in the house.

Besides selling our belongings, packing, and keeping up with emails from the school, another thing we are trying to do is make connections with our future co-workers before we get there. I think it will be nice to see some familiar faces and have some new-formed friendships when we arrive. It is awesome to hear about others’ experiences and ask all the questions we’ve been wondering about. Everyone has a bit of a different perspective. Some people we’ve talked to are new to International teaching and others have taught in 5 different countries and seem to be these worldly, cultural and travel experts.

As soon as we received an offer from our school (as well as another one in Jordan), we had 48 hours to make a huge, life-changing decision. I wanted to talk to someone from the school and ask a million questions before signing anything. Luckily, the international teaching community is amazingly welcoming and everyone is happy to help. They often think back to those who helped them when they started out and reassure us that they are glad to pay it forward. The school gave us the names of teachers we could talk to and within hours we were on Skype talking to our possible future colleagues.

We asked questions about living in Tunisia, the food, the weather, the housing. We asked about the most difficult parts of this lifestyle and mistakes they wish they could have avoided. We asked about the school, the students, the work load, and the social opportunities. After an hour, Justin and I had made our decision. I am someone who makes decisions with my gut. I could have asked them anything. It wouldn’t have mattered. What I was really looking for was, “Do I get a good vibe? Are these our kind of people? Can I imagine myself there?”

Penelope is very excited about her new pink suitcase!

After we accepted the jobs, we continued sending messages to each other, every time we thought of a new question.

Can we get picture frames there?

Do you use Netflix?

What’s the best neighborhood to live in?

Can we find a doctor that speaks English?

Should we bring our own pillows, standard measuring cups, vitamins, birthday candles? (That list could go on and on!)

After a while, we started reaching out to more of our future co-workers. With every video chat, I had more to be excited about, more to think about, more questions, and an ever-growing spreadsheet of what to bring and not to bring. Although I’ve never been to Tunisia, through these conversations, I feel like I’m starting to get a glimpse of what it’s like. Here’s a few of the things we’ve learned:

There are many products we should just bring from the States because they will either be hard to find in Tunisia, too expensive, or the quality will be cheaper. Here’s a few of the items we’ve learned to bring our own:

  • Vitamins
  • Children’s medicine like Tylenol
  • Razors for shaving (apparently waxing is more common there.)
  • Tampons (hard to find there due to religious reasons)
  • Bedding (the quality isn’t as great there.)
  • Garlic salt (and a few other spices that are hard to find)
  • Notebooks (apparently theirs are all grid paper)
  • Halloween costumes and other American holiday items
  • Birthday gifts for our kids (quality toys and books are hard to find)
  • Tupperware and other plastic items
  • Crayola art supplies
  • Kids shoes (and a size up for later in the year)
  • Slippers (our house is almost all marble floors- cold on the feet)
  • Cake mix and Gluten-free pasta
  • Children’s books and games in English (of course the school has a great library, but it’s nice to have your own too.)
Justin stocking up on Gluten-free items to bring.

We also like to ask “What is the hardest part about living in Tunisia?” For the most part, people are very positive and we know there are difficulties in every country. No place is perfect, but it’s nice to have a head’s up on what to expect so it lessens the shock when we arrive. Here’s what we’ve learned:

  • Driving in Tunis is crazy. There are a lot of aggressive, speedy drivers and the traffic laws as well as the traffic lanes feel like more of a suggestion.
  • There’s litter and stray dogs and cats around in many places.
  • It’s a more laid-back culture. You have to relax and be a bit more patient. Things don’t always start on time. Things don’t get done quickly. There is little sense of urgency. (Honestly this one is a positive for me. I’m looking forward to getting out of the go, go, go American mentality!)
  • Sending and receiving mail is iffy. Sending packages is expensive and mail may take a month or two to get to its destination.
  • It may be difficult to find people who speak English compared to some other European countries. (Justin and I are currently using the DuoLingo app to learn French.)

Of course, the most intriguing conversations are when we ask people what they love about living and teaching in Tunisia! From everyone we’ve talked to the pros far out way the cons, not only about Tunisia but about international teaching in general. Many people say they could never go back to teach in the US after experiencing these amazing schools. Here’s a few of the things we have to look forward to:

  • It is a tight-knit community. Everyone is willing to help you out. People are away from their families so you tend to bond quickly with the people you work with out of necessity. (I have definitely found this to be true so far even though I’m not there yet. People bend over backwards to help you and the vibe is so warm and welcoming.)
  • The weather is amazing.
  • The produce, especially the fruit, is the best in the world. (We heard this from a couple who has lived in many countries.)
  • We will be living 10 minutes away from a beach!
  • The Roman Ruins in Tunisia are very similar to the ones you find in Italy, but they are more well preserved, less expensive to see, and when you go you don’t have to battle lines and crowds. There are lots of other historic sites to see and unique places to visit, all a quick distance from our house. One teacher said they found and dug up a Roman Ruin in their backyard- part of a column!
  • Tunisian people are friendly and welcoming. Everyone I’ve talked to said they feel safe there (I suppose excluding the driving!).
  • The cost of living is very low. Our money will go a long way in Tunisia. Food and gas are cheaper. Plus, the school is paying for our housing so we get to pocket most of our salary. Most teachers have a housekeeper/ cook/ nanny or some combination of the three. I hear statements like, “Since moving here, I’ve never done a load of laundry or dishes. My house is spotless and I never clean. Dinner is waiting when we get home.” Having these services is very common, affordable, and helps provide jobs in their economy. (This one I can’t even wrap my brain around! I never thought in a million years, I would have this lifestyle, but since I’ve never been “Miss Suzie Homemaker” I am very much looking forward to this added perk!)
  • The travel opportunities are amazing! Tunisia is so close to Europe. Flights are quick and cheap. People go to Rome for the weekend or Spain or France during short school breaks. We will have the means and proximity to see so many places I’ve only dreamed of!
  • The School is great. My kids will be getting a world class education with opportunities like taking French, swimming, taekwondo, cooking, art, gardening, and more. The campus is beautiful, and as a teacher, the working environment sounds too good to be true. I’ll be sharing a Teacher Assistant with my 5th Grade teacher colleague. Our TA can help with copies, grading papers, putting up bulletin boards, translating when needed, and of course helping students. The class sizes are small. Apparently the upcoming 5th Grade class is especially small and I will probably only have 12 to 15 students! And the kids sound great. From what I’ve heard behavior issues are extremely rare and the kids are used to turnover so they tend to be very inclusive and welcoming of new students. I have only heard wonderful things about the principals and superintendent. There is a strong community feel and they often have American events for the students like a Halloween parade with trick-or-treating. The Sunshine Committee at the school plans outings and events. Recently they visited an olive oil farm to learn how olive oil is made. Fun!
Justin and I having a conversation about the things we are most looking forward to when we move.

So, here’s a shout out to our new friends in Tunisia! Thank you for providing your wisdom and enthusiasm. I appreciate your honesty and willingness to connect. I can’t wait to meet you in person!

And to anyone considering the path of international teaching. I don’t have much advice yet, but I will say, don’t just read the blogs and articles and research the school websites. Talk with as many people as you can. You can learn more in one conversation than you could find anywhere on the internet! Don’t be afraid to ask the silliest, smallest questions. The group of people that make up this community seem to be some of the friendliest most helpful people. You’ll be glad you reached out.

Disclaimer: The advice and descriptions in this post are relayed from others. We are the secondary source. We are excited to see it for ourselves in August! Stay tuned!

Ditch the Road Map

I have recently been thinking about the idea of goals. We are taught from a young age that goals are good. Goals are how you get ahead in life and become successful, but what if having a detailed roadmap of your life is just getting in the way? Having specific goals can be limiting, especially when we are subconsciously influenced by our past, society, and social norms. My new theory (assisted by authors Martha Beck and Wayne Dyer) is that life becomes more peaceful, more “on-purpose” and more efficient when we let go, trust the universe (or God, or whatever you relate to) and follow our instincts.

Never in a million years would I have come up with the goal: “Move to Tunisia.” It’s not something I always wanted to do. In fact, I don’t think I’d ever really heard of that country and I definitely wouldn’t have been able to find it on a map!

But that’s where I’m going and I couldn’t be more excited. It just feels right. Sometimes it’s fun to think about how I got there- the emotional, spiritual journey that lead me to where I am now. (A journey that by no means is complete or ever will be!)

I spent months reflecting, looking inward, and pursuing whatever “felt right.” I sometimes wished I had a crystal ball. I would get frustrated at the far-away, haziness of my future. I knew I needed to make a change, but I had no clue what it was. I looked down many avenues, applied to many jobs, and ended up with many dead-ends. I could never put my finger on a specific goal but I just kept telling myself, “If it’s meant to be, it will be.” Although it was discouraging at times, every rejection just narrowed down my path. I continued to put my trust in the universe and my instincts.

Anything that sounded interesting or fun- I’d explore it. And that wasn’t just in the narrow scope of careers. I auditioned for plays, took dance classes, read books, went on a retreat, and more. I was opening myself up to the universe. I never quite felt in charge- more of a collaborator in my life. I learned to relax and listen and let myself be guided.

The times I tried to be logical and strategic- tried to force my brain into “figuring out” my life- was always unsuccessful. Meditating, sitting in silence, talking with people I love, and trying my best to live in the moment brought me more break-throughs than cold-hard logic ever did. When I followed my gut and made decisions based on how I felt, making an effort to say yes to life as much as possible, I started getting somewhere. I had no idea where I’d end up, but little by little, the haziness started to subside and my future started to fall into place.

My “change” bracelet. A nice little daily reminder that “change is good!”

So I’m going to teach in Tunisia and meet new people and travel and say yes to life, even when it’s scary. If it feels “shackles off”- feels like fun and freedom, I’m doing it! I am ready to live my life to the fullest.

When people ask me how many years we will stay in Tunis, I just smile because I have no idea and a year ago that would have stressed me out, but now it doesn’t. I don’t need or want specific goals. I’m ditching the detailed road map in exchange for going with the flow and waiting to see where the universe takes me. As Wayne Dyer wrote, “You don’t have to know where you are going to get there.” If I’ve learned anything, the universe has grander, more interesting plans than anything I could come up with.