The Saturday in London had been a beautiful autumn day – a last shock of sun. The Sunday was cold and raining and when we arrived in Tunisia that night, it was likewise. Sunday in London engineering work had cancelled trains, so we had to catch a replacement bus from Putney to Kew Bridge, then a train to Feltham, and finally another bus to Heathrow. A three-hour wait at Heathrow, a delayed plane, and by nine 'o'clock, local time, we arrived in the rain of Tunis.
M said our hotel was like the movie Cocoon. More like The Shining, I quipped. A thousand shades of pastel, old people ready to die, inedible western buffet food. Coffee like mud, tea like rusted metal. All Tunisian food seems to come with tuna sprinkled on top – which led M to speculate maybe that was the reason Tunisia got its name – because of the tuna. It seemed possible. But then she had made me once believe the Boer War was fought over feather boas.
I woke on my birthday the next morning feeling like shit with flu, cold and cough and eyes that wouldn't open properly. The night before we'd gone to a little cafe round the corner from our hotel to get a coffee and gateau. The first question asked, inevitably, was how many camels I wanted for M. The second inevitable question was whether I wanted some hash. I took out my liquorice Rizlas to make a roll-up. Everyone in the cafe looked at them, then wanted a couple of leaves. I knew I should have bought more packs with me.
So far – we're in Sousse – the buildings are great. Old tumbling down French ones – but lots of new, funky, post-modern ones too. Buildings are going up everywhere, new roads too. Tunisia feels quite affluent, liberal and modern. At least compared to its neighbours Morocco and Egypt.
The hotels are like palaces and (in the tourist area) Sousse feels like a second-rate Vegas. Caribbean casino, restaurants, nightclubs, all neon-lit. Hotels line the beach front. The whole town feels like hotels and hassles.
No dogs but hundreds of skinny little dying cats everywhere. I want to do something to save the cats. As a gesture I take some fish out to the black cat by the pool area – only to be bombarded by about eight cats all screeching and fighting and the fish is gone in less than a second.
I thought I finished a roll of film then realised I hadn't loaded the film. Monday, wake up ill, again. Sousse all day. Tuesday, Kairouan. Wednesday – waiting for a very late bus most of the day. Arrived in El-Jem with ten minutes left to see the impressive amphitheatre – we get in half price but have to make way for a car advert being filmed in the middle of it.
The next day on a first class train carriage to Gabés. Everyone, aside from the shabby tourists, looks so well-groomed, affluent, proper. The landscape remains the same. Half the sky lit by the sun, half by the moon and in the middle, cloud. The lighter the skin, the more affluent the people. On Tunisian TV, everyone has light skin. On the first class carriage, everyone has light skin. Finally approaching Gabés. A two-mile stream of palm trees and industrial factories, chimneys spewing yellow smoke, carrots from the ground a luminous orange. I thought we were going the wrong way on the train for a while.
Taxi to Matmata nouvelle – stalling – going back. Another taxi – Matmata (old town). Pulled over by the police. It feels like a pilgrimage going to where Star Wars was filmed. Star Wars full of Muslim architecture and costume. We chatted and laughed with a restaurant owner then ate in his restaurant. We were overcharged; we didn't say anything but it left a sour taste.
Back at the hotel, the pensioners are dancing to instrumental versions of My Way... When I Fall in Love... John Denver. Pensioners on parade – it's not a bad life.
George Harrison died today: 30th November 2001. I thought I'd given up smoking, but felt light-headed and had to go buy a pack. One shop had sold out of cigarettes – it took me half an hour to buy a pack in all. When I came back his death was there on the news. Yesterday we'd talked about him; one of his songs had been in my head all day (My Sweet Lord). We're half an hour from where The Life of Brian was filmed – George Harrison's Handmade Films produced it.
It being Ramadan, there's a feverish rush about fourish, and by five everything is empty – the medina, the nouvelle ville – because everyone is inside eating. We tuck into our Briks – a thin pastry with a whole fried egg built into it filled with tuna (of course), onion, harissa and parsley – with gusto.
Of course, it's only on our last day that we find in our hotel complex: sauna, shops, table tennis, indoor swimming pool and gym. Not that we would have used any of them anyway. But still.
Sousse, Tunisia, 2001