Travelling Circus, Tunisia
House & Garden, March 2000
I sat on the sun-warmed seats in the amphitheatre of Carthage, playing 'I-Spy' with Molly. 'H', I mused, could stand for the heifer that had gored St Perpetua in this arena, for the hoopoe that flitted out of the surrounding pine woods or for Hannibal who sailed into exile from the nearby port. In fact it stood for Hannah, who was sucking a watch on her mother's lap.
It was our last day in a long-weekend break, though it seemed as if we had been travelling for months. On the way out there had been no time to feel the limbo-like ennui of the lone-traveller. I was now part of a travelling circus, that began with a plethora of bags and folding cots being squeezed into a minicab at dawn, followed by the heady excitement of a train journey complete with a real ticket collector and paper bags full of croissant crumbs. I looked around at my fellow passengers and felt sorry for them. They had no one with whom to look out of the window and spot cows, dogs and horses on the run into Gatwick. In the airport they looked even more bored, while we made a chariot from a trolley and pretended to be the blue team at the Carthago circus track. At the security check, we made certain Molly's bright yellow suitcase was given the right degree of attention. The guard sweetly sent it back through the scanner and tried to identify all the stickers, felt pens, comics and sweets that we had amassed to ensure a smooth flight.
The first morning had been a disaster, what with one spilt hot chocolate, two broken fruit juice glasses and a smashed plate. Neither the children nor the waiters seemed nearly as concerned as the guests at neighbouring tables. By this morning we had breakfast down to a fine art, with plastic mugs and the early arrival of a linen clad breakfast trolley which trundled along the long corridor to our room at the Abou Nawas Gammarth. No one needed to dress or to be told to behave in the dining room. In fact my wife had contrived to continue sleeping under a pillow. Later on we swapped roles, and Rose (looking resplendent in my blue-green Ikat kaftan from Samarkand) took them off for a swim in the pool. It was mid-morning before any of us had to discard a dressing gown.
From a beach hotel at Gammarth, the excuses for escaping the intense disorder of a bedroom are enormous. All of ruined Carthage and medieval Tunis are less than an hour away. I had my usual hidden agenda tucked up my sleeve, half a dozen minor archaeological sites that must be seen. This notion was promptly squashed. Over the following days I gradually became less resentful. Indeed I almost appreciated the fact that my children were making me focus my attention on just one thing a day. Aided by my daughter I at last found time to wriggle into the old Roman cisterns at La Magla. We dispossessed a stream of goats, seemingly identical to those depicted in the tapestries made to celebrate Charles V's conquest of Tunis.
In the narrow alleys of the covered souk in Tunis the children were a great asset in bargaining. They hid behind great bales of goods in carpet bazzars, slid down piles of killims and made towers from the cushions. The bazaar-keepers for their part fed them with sweets just as we were plyed with cups of coffee. I wanted to encourage the children to love the souks as much as I do, and asked them to pick out their own presents. I was longing for them to fall in love with the ancient gilt embroidered velvet suits that are worn for traditional circumcisions. Instead they showed commendable economy by picking out a selection of hair grips and a pink plastic telephone.
We lunched well, if rather late, despite the best of intentions of keeping to the children's familiar schedule at home. L'Amphitrite, a scruffy looking place just to the north of the ruins of Carthage, became our second home. The bill, enviably small by London standards, got cheaper and cheaper with each successive meal. As well as serving up harissa spiced briks and salads of roasted vegetables they produced bland plates of pasta, bread and chips for the children. The plain charcoal grilled fish was devoured by all four of us in as near to silent appreciation as we will ever manage.
Although the shaded terrace of L'Amphitrite directly overlooks a small sandy beach we only paddled in the sea. It looked clean enough though with the modern city of Tunis so close at hand we decided not to risk multiple upset stomachs. Our second swim of the day was back at the hotel pool. In the late afternoon we left the hotel again for a short trip out to either the breathtakingly pretty village of Sidi Bou Said or the faded charms of the old Beylical coastal resort of La Marsa. We joined in the evening passeo, a joyful, picturesque promenade filled with a swirling riot of women and children. Tunisian girls, quite unprompted by their parents, would rush up and plant a kiss on a daughter.
By the time we got the girls to bed we were exhausted. We never even contemplated booking a babysitter or making a date with the friends. The evening was the time to lap up the luxury of silence. The latest carpet aquisition was spread out on the balcony, a bottle opened and bowls filled with olives, casse-croutes, pastries and fruit. Looking out over the star flecked night, the sickle moon reflected in the sea, the night air drenched with jasmine and choisya, you realise there can be no sweeter sound than the even breathing of a child asleep.
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by Barnaby Rogerson