La Tunisie

This year, during the second week of May France had not just one but two holidays: May 8 is VE Day and May 10, Ascension. The official French name for May 8 is Fête de la Victoire.

The French call the Friday when Thursday is a holiday pont, like the Germans (Brückentag) and not window, like the Austrians. In Upper Austria that kind of day is called a Zwickltag, which I think translates to gusset. My colleagues started calling the week with the Tuesday and Thursday holidays the aqueduct.

Gergö and I had been planning to take the week off and go somewhere warm, but we left it rather late to book anything. In the end we decided on Tunisia and booked a week in Hammamet Yasmine. The travel agent mentioned Carthago and the Souks of Tunis, so we figured there are things to do, should we get bored.

A couple of hours before the flight I realised to my horror that I’d leave the European Union and would have to turn off my phone’s data. But luckily, Orange Tunisia helped out. Before we even had our luggage back, an Orange counter handed out free sim cards, you only had to show your passport for it.  It’s not a bad marketing strategy – I gladly took it and bought credit a few times during the week.

Hammamet Yasmine is a little town 12 km outside of Hammamet proper that consists only of hotels and tourism related businesses. We had read up on that, so we were prepared. We even got a warning about haggling and about various scams that are run on tourists and that 5 stars in Tunisia are not equal to 5 stars in Europe.

The hotel was still pretty fancy and just very big. Large corridors, high ceilings, an enormous lobby, and tiles and mosaics for most surfaces. I’m 37 and still feel completely out of place in settings like that. Surely this is for real adults, not me on holiday?

On our first day we explored the surrounding streets and the little medina. A medina usually is the old town center. It’s just that Yasmine is too new to have an old town, so they created a kitsch tourist version.

There are lots of small shops. Like in most of these places, all of them sell roughly the same things. All of them want you to just come in an look at their stuff, they will make you a very special price.

I learned something surprising that day: Gergö can’t say no and walk away, if somebody holds out their hand and says hello. He never had to learn how to deal with people who think they have a right to your attention. I was so confused by this behaviour that I thought that he actually wants to buy something – why else would he stay and listen to this dude?  He doesn’t usually want to buy things, but who knows. Turns out he doesn’t. By the end of the holiday my role was to play the mean wife who won’t let her husband buy stuff and physically takes his hand and drags him away from guys trying to sell souvenirs.

Gergö had warned me that the mediterranean sea wouldn’t be warm enough to swim in May, but I thought he is always cold, how bad can it be? Holy cow was it freezing. And because of the wind it even was a bit too cool to stay in the shade. I actually spend some time lying in the sun. I was covered in 50 spf sunscreen, but still!

We went on two trips during our stay:

On Thursday we visited Tunis, Carthage and Sidi Bou Said.

The ruins of Carthage are mostly Roman. All the Phoenicians had built was destroyed by the Romans in the punic wars. We visited the site of the ancient roman baths. It’s a large area right next to the president’s palace and you are not allowed to photograph in the direction of the president’s residence.

One touristy thing in Sidi Bou Said and Carthage were people with hawks on leashes for photo opportunities. I thought they were falcons, but our guide said they are “éperviers“. I immediately forgot the word and only now had a look at a wikipedia list of birds of prey to find the it again. Épervier translates to sparrowhawk. To my big surprise an épervier is a Sperber in German. If pressed, I’d have said a Sperber is what Germans call Spatz, but that’s Sperling of course.

I would have loved to pose with a sparrowhawk, but I can’t in good conscience support the kind of business that cuts off the claws of birds of prey and keep them on a rope. It must be a good business though, there were at least 5 people offering photo ops with them at the lookout above the café de delices in Sidi Bou Said.

In Tunis we only visited the souks in the medina. Only when we got on the bus I realised that I had visited them before – in 2003 with my friend V. After finishing our studies, we went on a road trip from Austria via Italy to Malta. We took a boat from Salerno to Malta. On its way it stopped off at Tunis for a few hours and we shared a taxi from the harbour to the souks with an Italian woman and a Maltese men we had met on the boat. I don’t remember a lot about the experience, other than that my passport was expired by a week or so and the border agents didn’t want to let me in and my friend V impressed me with her French/English negotiation skills.

The streets in the souks are named after the product they used to sell – perfume, gold, textiles, etc. Nowadays it’s mostly tourist kitsch and a lot of it is the same. The only souks that largely stayed the same are the ones that are in the wedding business.

After our little trip along the North East coast we did a two-day trip into the South of Tunisia. We wanted to see the desert (that I keep misspelling dessert) and the big salt lake.

Next up we were visiting a Berber family living in caves. It felt about as much like poverty-porn as it sounds. the caves are actually houses hewn into the stone. The tour guide kept calling them troglodytes, which I only knew as an insult but apparently is the correct word for people living in caves. The place we visited is called Matmata and was also a filming location for Star Wars episode IV.

There used to be Berber families with about 2 000 people living in these troglodyte houses. But in 1967 the area was flooded. Flooding can get bad, because the ground is mostly clay, so it doesn’t take up water quickly and in the mountainous areas it can lead to mudflows. The flooding was so bad the roads had to be closed and a lot of the troglodyte houses were destroyed. The Tunisian government built a new village on top of the mountain, that still exists today where most of the families moved to.

The wikipedia article about Matmata explains this pretty well and here’s also an article on the Berber with much nicer photos than I could ever take. Both mention Star Wars and the hotel that was used for scenes in episode IV. We had lunch at a hotel in Matmata but I don’t think that was it. Or maybe I was at the Star Wars hotel and too focussed on the couscous to notice. (I just remembered that I record the location when I take pictures and I took one picture or a sand rose and it was taken at the Marhala hotel, which is not the one from Star Wars.)

We ended the day riding a dromedary and then a quad bike.

As soon as we had stopped somewhere in the desert a couple of guys showed up carrying fennecs – little white desert foxes. It was the same deal as with the falcons – you pay to take photos with them. And their leashes were just some cords around their neck.

After we returned from the two rides someone mentioned seeing ticks crawling in the dromedaries fur. We checked each other for ticks, but didn’t find any. I did have a large insect bite on my face, though. It didn’t hurt and barely itched, it was just distractingly big and I kept wondering how I could have missed being stung in the face. I didn’t google deadly insects of Tunisia though and even though I later got a second enormous bump, this time on my jaw, nothing terrible has happened to me. yet.

We spent the night at a hotel at the edge of the desert, going to sleep at 9 pm, because we would be woken up at 3 am. We left the hotel at 4 to drive onto the great big salt lake to see the sun rise over the salt lake at shortly after 5.

After the little potemkin village, we visited an oasis called Chebika. It’s a place that belongs to several Berber families that grow dates, oranges, and other fruit in the oasis. We were told to brig our bathing suits for the waterfall.

We finished our tour with a visit to the mosque of Kairouan – the one that got its marble from the amphitheatre. We climbed the roof of a souvenir shop that had a great view of the courtyard. Like with the waterfall, I was too hot and tired to appreciate the mosque. Instead we bought Tunisian olive oil and black seed soap like the filthy tourists we are.

Our flight back was the day after. I think only when he checked us in Gergö noticed that we’d be flying business class. We still don’t know if it was an upgrade or a mistake or the only thing left when we booked. Either way, we completely failed a being business class travellers by getting into the long, long queue with the plebs to check in our luggage, instead of the short efficient special people queue. I was extremely grumpy because airport and also because we still had Dinar and all the shops at the airport only accepted Euro. Except for the machine dispensing wifi codes, and that didn’t work. We found the lounge for Tunisair and it was very full and disappointingly dingy. But at least the wifi was working and we got a glass of water while we waited for our flight that was delayed by two hours. We got in line again with the economy class when boarding the plane – we just waited until most people had boarded instead of waltzing right in.

There was enough room to fully recline your seat. Without bothering the row behind you, obviously. As can be expected, i was out of my element and utterly confused and delighted by everything. I even started watching a film, but gave up on it because it was terrible and the flight wouldn’t have been long enough to finish it anyway. We got served food on real plates with metal cutlery. I was digging into the cheese when the air hostess came to ask me if I wanted fish or meat for my main course. I asked “that was only the entrée?” and I could see that she had to bite back a smile at my reaction.


We left Paris for a short weekend in Montpellier on the Friday night in February while snowmargeddon was still in full swing. Montpellier is in the south of France in Occitanie. I thought we’d be delayed, because Paris didn’t seem to be able to figure out how to run the metro with 5 cms of snow. But the TGV left on time!

I had not prepared much for this trip. We only had two days to spend, so we figured we’d walk around town, eat good food and maybe visit a museum. In the last minute I googled markets, because I love visiting flea markets and covered markets and I saw that a monthly market called marché du Lez was going to take place on the Saturday. It was a little outside of Montpellier, but easy to reach with the tram number 4.

So on Saturday we had a short walk around town, enjoying the sun, the good Pokemon situation and life in general before taking a tram to the marché. It wasn’t very warm, but warmer than Paris had been and much, much sunnier.

A view of the Espalanade Charles de Gaulle

The marché de Lez was exactly the kind of market I love – A lot of trash and weird stuff and stalls by private (meaning not-professional) vendors. That way I scored Obelix for 2 Euros and 11 t-shirts for 5 euros). And then, in the courtyard there was a nice mix of hipster food (mother trucker), bobo stores and a market that is more antiques and curiosities than flea market stuff.

We had dinner at a resto avernois. Apparently the traditional thing they do is sausage and aligot. – it’s mashed potatoes with cheese. I had aligot before but I think I can safely say it was the best combination of cheese, sausage and potatoes I ever had.

On Sunday we decided to visit the sea. We took the tram to the final stop and walked about 30 minutes. It was glorious and sunny and cold.

Then we walked to the harbour in search for lunch and a place to heat up again and it turned out that the side with the open restaurants was another good 20 minutes away, because there was no bridge and we had to take the very long way around the sailboat harbour.

When we finally found a place we went for moules frites in moule shaped plates. There was just enough time left to return to town, and visit a bobo café run by Americans. I had a Matcha Latte and regretted the safe choice. They also had the golden latte (milk with turmeric) which I already know. But they also had ruby latte – a drink made with beetroot. I reckon it will take at least three more months until this trend will hit trendy coffee bars in Paris. At least I haven’t found anything, so far.

La vie en rose

People keep giving me advice on how to improve my French. I guess it’s because I speak like a Spanish cow. A colleague tried to suggest French music to me, where the enunciation is clear. I am really picky with my music, though. I mostly worship at the altar of Amanda Palmer. For the first 4 weeks of my commute I have been listening to the same 5 albums over and over again – because they were on my phone and the phone was almost full. After the 4 weeks I dug out my ancient external hard disk where I put the content of my old computer before the move and found maybe 7 more albums by Amanda Palmer, Zoe Boekbinder, Regina Spektor – and that’s all I’ll need for the next 4 weeks, I suppose.

The French food blog I like published a playlist of Paris songs, that I might listen to. It’s just that when I think about it for too long, then I wonder if that’s like someone listening to a playlist of Austrian music like “Schifoarn” and “I am from Austria” and then I want to wash my ears out with soap and return to my usual suspects.

Instead of listening to actual French people speaking/singing French, I watched the video of Iggy Pop singing “La vie en rose” three times today. The tweet called it an “Artfully Animated Video”, but I think he looks like Prince Charming from Shrek 20 years later. I am considering sharing the video with my colleagues as a little troll, because I suspect they’d be horrified by the pronunciation.

Their pronunciation of English isn’t much better, for the most part. But Americans pronouncing French badly is simply a lot less charming than French people insisting on putting the accent of every word on the last syllable, no matter what language.

Anglicisms in French are a story unto itself and really well explained in this video by Sebastian Marx:

It’s not an exaggeration – people at work usually don’t understand me, if I pronounce an English word like I usually would. I’ve actually started pronouncing English words their way and have mostly stopped feeling weird about it.

The rules are a bit random, though: When a colleague brought a comic book to work the other day I learned that it’s batman, pronounced with an /ɑː/ (and not homme chauve-souris), but les Tortues Ninja, and, what surprised me most spider man, pronounced speeder man. Conversely it’s not speeder pig, but speeder cochon. All my colleagues know the text of speeder cochon (“Spider cochon, spider cochon, il peut marcher au plafond.”).

Every two weeks there’s a meeting where we discuss how the last two weeks went. You can write little post-it notes and drop them into a box and during the review everyone draws from the box and reads one. This week somebody drew spider pig and wrote down the lyrics and the person who drew the post it, sang the little song to us without a moment of hesitation. The other post-its were more work related.

The presidential elections are getting closer and the political discussion is heating up in France and even at work, where it’s usually more about football and nerdy stuff. There are even two (!) browser games: one published by camp Mélenchon, called Fiscal Kombat. You have to pick up people in suits and shake them until money falls out of their pocket. The other one is a troll directed at Fillon. It’s called Sauvons Fillon (Let’s save Fillon) and the goal is to help Fillon escaping justice by jumping over judges in his path.

On Friday morning I arrived at the office to find a colleague’s desk wrapped in shrink wrap.

The phone and the keyboard were wrapped individually and a mention of spider man was attached to it all. I was really surprised – it wasn’t any of my colleagues but rather a few people from upstairs.

This weekend is a long one – I don’t have to work on Easter Monday. Then Monday May 1 will be a holiday as well, as is May 8.

Pentecost, on the other hand, is a holiday, but we will be working. I was informed that it’s a day of solidarity for retired people. According to this article it all started in 2003, when a lot of people died in a unprecedented heat wave, most of them senior or handicapped. Since then people work on this day and their income for this day goes to the Caisse nationale de solidarité pour l’autonomie. The money is used to benefit retired and handicapped people. We still get a lot of bank holidays, so I’m not complaining.

France has pretty good social security, I think, but there are things that baffle me: I work 39 hours per week, not 35 and not 40 with 5 additional weeks of comp time, like Gergö does. I get paid for those 4 extra hours every week, though, and I’ve worked 40 hours before. What surprised me though is that in my first year of work I won’t get paid for any sick days if the sick leave is under a week (I think). I didn’t quite understand why at the time it was explained to me. I might still find out, should I catch anything worse than a cold.

I am entitled to 5 weeks of holidays, like in Austria. But two of those weeks will be in August when the whole company shuts down for two weeks. Since I acquire days off at a rate of 2 per month, I can’t take any time off until then – or I won’t have enough holidays for August. In theory I can take unpaid leave, but it’s not recommended. Because if I take unpaid leave I’m not actually employed and in the month concerned I would be employed fewer days and would only be entitled to holidays pro-rata, so fewer than 2 days. And I don’t even want to know what would happen to my insurance.

The company shutting down in August seems to annoy a lot of people, at least 3 people told me when I started letting me know how annoying that is. It doesn’t really bother me – Gergö can take time off whenever he wants. But I haven’t taken a holiday in high season in a long time. I might start complaining once I’ve seen the flight prices for August or when I have to wrestle German tourists for beach chairs.

Le requin citron

It’s 2017 and I still want to write one final post about Guadeloupe. I saved the best for last: our trip to Petite Terre. When I heard about the island I was sold on turtles and lemon sharks. The young ones like to hang out in the shallow water of Petite Terre. They are small and harmless. Even the grown ones that don’t come close to the shore are not considered dangerous. The name comes from their colour – they blend in well with the sand.

As the name suggests Petite Terre is a very small island. Actually it’s two islands: Basse Terre and Haute Terre, again named not after their topography but their position relative to the wind. They have been declared a nature reserve and one of the islands is closed compeltely for visitors. Turtles lay their eggs on the beach and they understandably don’t want tourists walking all over them.

The second island can be visited by up to 200 people per day. Which tour operators go there is well regulated. We went by catamaran and snorkelled onto the island while the dinghi took our bags.

The island is uninhabited. There used to be lighthouse keepers, but that’s all automated now. With the supplies for the lighthouse rats were imported to the island. Other than that, there are no land mammals.

We also saw a big hermit crab, which I learned is called bernard l’hermite in French. And fish, or course, we saw lots of fish. After almost two weeks of avoiding it, I managed to get a sunburn. It was on the back of my legs of course and complemented my mosquito bite scratches nicely. After these two weeks I also finally got to grips with the mask and snorkel, just in time to forget again until the next holiday. Next time, I might just shell out for the full face mask we saw everywhere. It looks ridiculous but apparently it’s easier to deal with. A friend who knows France just nodded and said “Decathlon” knowingly. It’s the Intersport or France, I believe.

We went on the trip on Saturday. Suddenly it was only one day left before we had to return.

We spent our last day on the beach.

Last breakfast on the island. I loved the fresh fruit we got there everyday.

Guadeloupean street food called agoulou. It’s a bit like a burger, but the bun is toasted and crunchy. Plus it’s larger, so often cut into quarters. The other popular street food is called bokit. A bokit is a sandwich made with fried bread, a bit like a filled lángos.

bye bye sandals, hello foot prison

The little prince, the book I love to hate, in créole

I was surprised when I first saw boxed wines in France. It doesn’t have a bad reputation though, because bag within the box protects the wine from oxygen, so it keeps longer.
I see why someone would buy a box of wine. 5 litres of rum though…

Not to worry, you can also get 3 litre bags of rum.

The 9 hour flight certainly felt like pain progress.


Aux pays bas

Last Friday Gergö and I went to the Netherlands. He had a workshop and conference to attend in Eindhoven and I thought I’d come along for the week. Because I’m cheap, I took the bus to Rotterdam and then the train to Eindhoven while Gergö took the Thalys, the Belgian high speed train, first class. It’s really very cheap, so I didn’t even complain much when there was no WIFI on the bus, unlike they promised. At least there was an electrical outlet for every two seats.

Saturday Gergö was giving his talk, while I wandered about Eindhoven.

Because Gergö hadn’t seen much of the city yet, we had to do some more wandering around Eindhoven on Sunday.

The rest of the week I mostly managed to avoid culture in favour of coffee and cake as well.

More pictures next time.

Un week-end à Rennes

We took the TGV to Rennes on Saturday noon. Gergö pointed out that Rennes is not north of Paris at all – it’s west. As I said, my knowledge of geography of France is vague..

It takes about 2 very uneventful hours by train. Gergö excitedly showed me the train’s speed (calculated by his phone’s GPS) during the journey.

Rennes is beautiful. It’s also very young and lively. Lots of students here, three of which sold us toilet paper as a part of their semester “integration”. Shops don’t open before 10 and Many are closed on Monday or only open in the afternoon. Local specialities are galettes (buckwheat crêpes) and cidre. Beer is expensive and Belgian.

While Gergö is at his project meeting I’m in a café trinking chocolat chaud and typing away at my computer. I have just written my first application. I’m not sure i enjoy living the cliché. Then again, there are worse things than living the cliché next to a large selection of viennoiserie.