They come from countries as different as France, Sweden and Lebanon, they manage a company for natural cosmetics or work as a photographer, they are 25 or 71. It’s obvious: There is no such thing as the typical expat experience in the city of Tunis. Five people tell their very personal stories.
Jonas, 29, managing director at Oriflame, from Stockholm, Sweden
What inspired me to come to Tunisia was the fact that my mother is Tunisian and my father is Swedish. I always thought that my niche would be doing business in the Arab world for a Swedish or a European company. I believe that I possess an understanding of both cultures, the way of doing business and the people in both regions. So I think I’m quite good at adapting to both worlds.
I came in September 2012. Before that I had already spent two years in Egypt in Cairo for Oriflame. When I was recruited, I actually asked for the opportunity to create this company in Tunisia. So my goal was to come here and to build this company – and here I am today.
Although I have Tunisian roots, I never lived here before and I don’t feel very Tunisian to be honest. I only used to spend the summers here when I was a kid. When my mom decided where we went for holidays we always went to Sousse or Hammamet, played golf, stayed on the beach and enjoyed the sun. But I grew up in central Stockholm. There you have a bigger chance of seeing a Porsche than seeing a black person. The society was Swedish in a very traditional way.
There are pros and cons living in Tunisia. I miss that when you shake somebody’s hand and agree upon something, that it’s a firm deal, as is it is in Sweden. I also miss respect for time. So it’s a rather unreliable culture. Dealing with authorities and governmental bodies is also more complicated here. Moreover, there’s not a big variety of products. It’s a quite protected economy. We don’t even have McDonald’s here. So sometimes I just miss a Big Mac.
But overall, I’m happy to be here: the weather is nice, the people are very friendly and I like that you can get everything organic. All vegetables and greens are way tastier than in Stockholm, because they are picked when they are fresh and ready and not when they are still green and put into a container. I really appreciate this as I like to eat healthy and feed myself with good things. It’s a bit of a contradiction to the Big Mac I mentioned before.
So, regardless of all the aspects I don’t like, I think Tunisia is an excellent country to be an expat in. It’s quite cheap, it’s an open culture, not very traditional or religious when you live in a big city and it’s very close to Europe. Whenever I feel like I need a break it’s never more than a two or three-hour flight. Furthermore, the vibe in Tunisia is really nice. People are more family-oriented. They value small things like having a decent meal together and talking, without having their mobile phones on the table. It’s not always about the job, how much money you make and the next step and the next iPhone. It’s really a different approach to life and being happy. Jonas
Heidrun, 71, retired, formerly a graphic designer; from Berlin, Germany
It was love that brought me to Tunis. In 1962, I had gotten to know a Tunisian student of medicine in Berlin – my eventual husband. In 1965, we got married. For 20 years, we lived together in Berlin. We had children, a little house, my husband found a good job in a hospital and I was sure that we would stay in Berlin forever!
But things got difficult. We had several very rainy summers in a row. My husband became more and more dissatisfied with his job at the hospital. Moreover, his family asked over and over again: You always said you would come back from Germany, when will you return? In 1985, my husband said, I want to go back to Tunisia. After thinking about it for a while I said, okay, let’s give it a try. To me it seemed a little risky, as I was already 42 years old and we had five children. We crammed a huge furniture truck with all our stuff, even things that were broken. My husband explained to me that in Tunisia we wouldn’t find anything so we could fix all these things when we got there.
New to Tunis, I soon contacted other German women living in the city. A little club developed. Once a week we met at one of our homes to chat over coffee. We talked about our troubles adapting to the country, politics, culture, etc. Our younger children were often there, too. Later, this became an officially approved association, the “Association des Femmes Allemandes Résidentes en Tunisie”. Our weekly gatherings still take place and are very nice. You make a good circle of friends there. It’s a place to discuss little and big worries, to give advice, to laugh, to sing and sometimes to mourn.
Unfortunately, I didn’t learn to speak proper Tunisian in my 30 years here. I took some courses and soon after I could write some sentences in Tunisian dialect. But what I learned usually disappeared quickly. Probably because I was a little lazy, as it was always so easy to use my French instead, and my little knowledge of Tunisian was enough for things like shopping, so it sufficed to cope with daily life.
Through my husband’s family I have Tunisian relatives with whom I get along very well, but I don’t have close Tunisian friends except for really nice, friendly and helpful relationships with the other families in the neighborhood. From time to time, I meet really nice people and we have coffee together. But a true friendship with a Tunisian woman has never developed.
For sure, these many years in Tunisia have shaped me: I am not extremely correct and a perfectionist, as Germans are often said to be. Instead, I like the Tunisian way of turning a blind eye sometimes. But it has gotten out of hand within the last years. I also like the markets with all the fresh fruits and vegetables, although I’m not always in the mood for bargaining.
The German language is what I miss the most. And tidiness. Within the last years after the revolution, Tunis has become really dirty. The streets are full of trash now. This disturbs me very much, because it is not only ugly, but also dangerous for the health. On the whole, I would like to move back to Berlin. I also think about making the trip back to Tunis one or two times a year, for example when German “summer” doesn’t take place. Heidrun
Stephen, 33, launching a Lebanese restaurant, from Beirut, Lebanon
I’m about to start my second life in Tunis. The first time I lived here, starting in 2009, was after I got a business proposal to work in a bio-medical company. Coming from Kuwait then, Tunisia was really a different world. I love to experience new cultures and new lifestyles. This is what keeps me moving – and I directly fell in love with this Mediterranean city. I stayed for four years.
This time I’m following my true passion: cooking. I studied culinary arts and took cooking classes in Naples, Toronto and at home in Beirut as well. I decided to come back to Tunis and to set up my own business here. My Lebanese restaurant will open this year and I hope to bring something new to the people here.
The Lebanese cuisine is totally different from the Tunisian: In Lebanon, we like vegetables and salads a lot – it’s quite of a vegetarian paradise! It’s a healthy and light cuisine. What I really like about the Tunisian cuisine is the couscous. I have to admit the Tunisian couscous is the best in the world! But everything has to be spicy and red here. Harissa, tomatoes and spicy green peppers are present in nearly every dish.
There is a big similarity between Tunisians and Lebanese: We share our love for life. But at first it was nevertheless difficult to adjust myself to the Tunisian lifestyle and the Tunisian mentality. For example, in Lebanon people are more straightforward: If I like you, I like you, and if I don’t, I don’t – and I will show you in both cases. I don’t like to generalize, but Tunisians really aren’t that direct.
I definitely feel integrated into Tunisian society. My friends here are all Tunisians. I met most of them through charity work. Normally I don’t get in touch with other expats.
I’m not sure whether I will stay here forever, because I love to discover new places a lot and you never know what happens in the future. But my love for Tunisia is big and I really like to settle down now. So I decided to invest here with my restaurant. Tunisia is now a part of my soul and my second home. Stephen
Perrine, 25, freelance journalist from Nancy, France
I came here for the first in time in 2012 with my journalism school. It was a training for students to do journalism in a country we don’t know well. This was how I discovered Tunisia and I immediately loved it. I felt at home. Moreover, the political situation was really interesting and stimulating. So I decided to come back and kept coming back and coming back until I finally stayed after I finished my studies.
Maybe I fell in love because of the Tunisian lifestyle. It’s less stressful and anxiety-producing than in France. Now I take my time and I drink a lot of coffee, like Tunisians. I also appreciate that people here are very friendly and easy to get to know.
I changed my way of eating, of course, as you don’t have the same food here as in France. For example, I often cook Chorba, a typical Tunisian soup with vegetables and chickpeas. My usual breakfast is now a traditional Tunisian dish called Bsissa. It’s a pulp made out of flour with different spices. You eat it with olive oil and sugar, so it’s pretty nourishing. But I definitely miss French cheese here. That’s really French, I know! I also miss certain freedoms, like smoking in the streets. I smoke a lot, but if you do it here as a woman in the streets, some men think that they don’t have to respect you and are allowed to say rude things to you.
I live in Downtown Tunis and you don’t find a lot of foreigners there, especially French people. I spend most of my time with Tunisians – with the exception of my French roommate Marieau, of course. I’ve also worked a long time for Tunisian media with a Tunisian salary. I understand Arabic and I also speak a little bit.
So I feel like I’m living more or less like a Tunisian by now. Perhaps also because I don’t feel really attached to France it was easy to integrate here. Perrine
Marieau, 28, freelance photographer /photojournalist from Paris, France
I came here in 2013 because I wanted to leave France. I was just beginning to work as a photographer and knew that it would be good to have some new experiences and meet new people. I don’t know why, but I also didn’t feel inspired by France and wasn’t interested in French stories anymore. I wanted to discover something else – and to learn another language.
My life actually didn’t change very much compared to my life in France, as my habits haven’t changed. But this doesn’t mean that I live a typical French lifestyle in Tunisia. For example, I don’t live in a fancy place like La Marsa but in Downtown Tunis. For me as photojournalist, it’s also better and more inspiring to stay in such a place.
It’s really easy to live here. Life is just smooth, stressless, without the everyday pressure that you experience in France. I can be myself here and I feel connected to the people, who are less distant from one another. The only exception is that the streets belong to men. As a woman I don’t feel free there. Sometimes I don’t care and think “Hey, it’s Tunisia”. But sometimes it also makes me angry and I consider going back to France.
Whenever I spend time in Paris, I always bring back an original French Baguette. And a croissant, too! I really miss the bread and French wine, too. Although Tunisian wine is also pretty good. Marieau
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