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The Journey Begins

This is the second in a series of blog posts from Rebecca Christianson, an Associate Professor of Applied Physics at Olin College who is in Tunisia as a Fulbright Specialist. She is blogging about her experiences while she is away.

The TSA didn’t bat an eye at the suitcase full of robots I took through security.  Packing for this trip has been quite the adventure in and of itself.  While in Tunis, I will not only be doing professional development workshops for the faculty, I will also be teaching some mini classes for students.  And, as I far prefer to teach with hands on materials, teaching classes means bringing equipment.  Hence the suitcase full of robots as my carry-on and the checked bag packed with magnets and wires and various other things that I’m sure looked very strange going through the x-ray machine.

My red-eye flight to Rome was uneventful. I even managed to sleep some.  In the morning, we flew right over the dramatically beautiful snow-covered Alps just as the sun was rising.  It was so spectacular that it almost made up for the sun rising at 12:30 AM Boston time and being confronted with the most insufficient cup of tea in the world: tea is not meant to be served in espresso cups, Alitalia!

In Rome, unfortunately, airport security did care about the robots and made me completely unpack my carry-on right there on the x-ray machine belt, much to the amusement of a couple of young kids watching and much to the consternation of the long line of people behind me.  I then set out on a quest for a decent cup of tea and gelato for breakfast (why not?) before my flight to Tunisia.

The flight to Tunis was also uneventful except that when boarding the plane, they insisted on checking my suitcase full of robots for ‘security reasons.” The flight was short, taking a route across the sparkling Mediterranean Sea and then curving around to approach Tunis from the south over beautiful picturesque olive groves.

Once in Tunis, I had to wait in a long line for passport control before I got to the baggage carousel.  At the baggage carousel, my large checked bag was there but the suitcase containing the robots was nowhere to be seen.  As there were very few bags left on the carousel from my flight, and no new bags appearing, I went to the lost luggage desk.  There, I was unhelpfully told there was no record, so I should just go back to the carousel and wait.  Surprisingly, when I did that, my bag finally appeared!

To my shock, the robots had made it!  Ok, they still had to make it through customs, but other than entertaining the customs officer a bit I had no trouble making it through.  I acquired a local sim card for my phone, changed a bit of money to Tunisian dinars and headed out to meet my hosts.

By this point, my host Salah and his assistant Asma had been waiting for me for nearly two hours and were frantic that something had happened to me. Salah had gone out of the airport to see if I had somehow gotten by them, but Asma spotted me instantly when I walked out of customs (I kind of stick out in a crowd here).  I explained about the delay and they understood completely. 

The afternoon passed pleasantly with settling into my apartment and having a lovely lunch of home-cooked traditional Tunisian food with Salah and his family.  None of Salah’s family spoke English, but Asma, who speaks perfect English and is acting as my translator with Salah, told me I should relax and eat, and so didn’t translate most of the conversation.  It was friendly and companionable, and the food was delicious.  I felt bad about being such an inert guest, but with only a couple hours of sleep, even if the conversation had been in English, I wouldn’t have been all that articulate.  Asma, Salah and his family were all kind and gracious hosts.

Back at my apartment, I established that neither my original sim card, nor the one I picked up at the airport would work to connect my phone for cellular service.  This left me feeling surprisingly adrift:  all alone in a foreign country without even the ability to call my family.  And unable to search the web for solutions to the sim card issue because I didn’t have a functioning sim card.  It was like the Shel Silverstein poem about the boy who (literally) loses his head and can’t even think about how to find it because he’s lost his head.  Thankfully, when I finally decided to quit sulking about it and step outside my apartment, I was immediately greeted by my next-door neighbor with the name and password of a wifi network I could use:  Salah or Asma must have realized this was likely the only way to get me the information with my cell phone not connecting.  So, connectivity to the outside world restored, I chatted briefly with my family, took a short walk outside in the sun to see the stunning mosque just down the street from my apartment, and am now just about ready to call it a night.  

I have many more thoughts to share on food, headscarves, and how it (already) feels to be a woman walking alone on the streets here, but these will have to wait for future posts.  The evening call for prayer is drifting down the street from the mosque.  I am very tired and ready for some sleep. 

Tomorrow the real adventure begins as I will meet the faculty and students of Esprit for the first time.