Tunis, Tunisia Report of what it's like to live there - 10/28/11
Personal Experiences from Tunis, Tunisia
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
USA - depends on connections, but generally a couple of hours flight to Europe and then home from there.
3. How long have you lived here?
Lived there in 2008-09 for approximately one year.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
La Marsa is probably the best all-round place to live. Nice amenities, schools, shopping, a decent beach, and still close to the rest of metropolitan Tunis. Carthage and Sidi Bou Said are of course wonderful, but even more expensive. Maybe some parts of Le Kram and La Goulette too. And of course Tunis itself ...
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Locally grown or produced food items are cheap, whether you go to the local markets or to Carrefour and the other big supermarkets. Imported stuff is very expensive, and many items are simply not available. Imported items are predominately French and Italian.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Tunisian food is not bad, but the food served in most restaurants can be repetitive and mediocre. To make matters worse, there non-Tunisian restaurants (at least those serving decent food) are few and far between. You can get sick of the endless succession of chorba, tagine, couscous and brik pretty quickly. That said, there are a few restaurant gems in and around Tunis, though, as well as a handful of decent French places. Fast food/street food is mixed. The basics such as roast chicken and shwarma don't hold a candle to those in the Levant. But there are some nice surprises like lablabi, ojja, etc. One exception: The roadside barbecue places selling chunks of lamb that they cook up for you, usually with salad mechouia and some fries. Best fast food in Tunisia! Don't be scared off by the flies and the hanging carcasses! And don't be afraid to get your hands dirty. The little home-cooked food we had the privilege of eating was excellent. There are no major fast-food chains to speak of. If you like sweets, don't miss the pastries -- they are excellent, and go well with a mint tea with pine nuts.
5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?
6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Some mosquitoes, but nothing too bad.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Regular post worked fairly well, though it sometimes took forever for packages to get through. They were held at the post office, and they often forgot to send out notices saying we had a package.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
They work fine. Best option for getting cash.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
English is useless outside of a few tourist areas (and even in a few tourist areas). But you can get by with French. I'm embarrassed to say I learned very little Tunisian/Arabic. But I did pick up a good deal of French.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Train network is limited. Long-distance buses and louages go everywhere, and are relatively cheap if there's just one or two of you. We had two kids, though, and there's no child discount. Because of that, it was sometimes cheaper (or just marginally more expensive) to rent a car. Safety is generally fine. The local yellow buses in Tunis get very crowded, making them an easy target for pickpockets. The danger was not such that I was ever scared to ride them (even if I was actually pick-pocketed once! It was my own stupid mistake). The green buses cost more, require that passengers be seated, and are thus safer.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
If you're coming from Europe, it's advisable to bring a car over on the ferry. It makes things a lot easier, both for getting around Tunis and for doing vacations and weekend breaks. A lot of tourists and expense-account expats seem to lug over big 4x4s, but in all of our travels, we saw perhaps one road where 4WD would have come in handy. Any old car will get you on 99.9% of the roads here. The 4x4 is only necessary if you want to go frolic in the dunes. Driving is somewhat chaotic, but far from the worse I've seen. After a little practice, you'll be fine. We had several visitors who rented cars and had no problems driving.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Available, but rather expensive when we were there. We also had those pesky censorship rules that the Ben-Ali regime imposed. No You Tube and weekly outages of sites like Yahoo Mail and Hotmail. That's obviously changed ...
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Cheap pre-paid plans available.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
I didn't find any, though fluent French or Arabic would probably improve your chances a great deal.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
It was fairly safe at the time, under the iron-fisted rule of Ben Ali. Not sure how it is now. Police were everywhere, and on a long drive is was not uncommon to be stopped a few times. But 99 times out of 100, they would let you go as soon as they realized you were not Tunisian. This even happened once or twice when I was speeding or had broken some traffic rule. We had foreign plates, and the police obviously had specific instructions to leave foreigners (i.e., tourists) alone. This may have changed ...
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
No specific health concerns. If you need medical care, go to the private clinics. There are a few in La Marsa that are pretty good. Our limited experience with them was fairly good. Dental work was also decent and cheap.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Expected it to be hot and dry, but it ended up being a pretty wet year! Once October rolled around, things cooled down quite a bit and the rain was quite heavy (2008-09 was apparently an especially wet year). Beach season ended early and started late. Down south it can get hot -- very hot.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The French expat community seems enormous, but the US expats probably number under 200. Brits are possibly the biggest English-speaking group here. There seem to be a fair number who retire and/or vacation here, as well as some who have married Tunisians.
2. Morale among expats:
Mixed. It was not very good in our group, due to a poor working environment, lack of employment opportunities for non-working spouses, and lack of any social scene or nightlife.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Not much. There are a handful of bars, but they tend to be male-dominated and rather expensive. Most entertaining was in people's homes.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Singles and couples might get bored, as there is little to no nightlife and it can be hard to get to know people. Many Tunisians seemed guarded in their public lives. This was a contrast to what we found in some other Arab-Muslim countries we had visited. Things are slightly better for families, we still did feel somewhat socially isolated.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Visiting all the Roman ruins, taking the ferry to Sicily, being close to family and friends in Europe, wine tasting, weekend drives to secluded beaches, trips to the desert, seeing the ksars and ruined villages.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Fantastic opportunity to see magnificent Roman ruins in a setting relatively unspoiled by mass tourism. There are also plenty of minor ruins which don't seem to see many tourists at all. Beaches are decent, though the beach season was shorter than expected. Europe is a short hop away, with short flights to Italy and France. Sicily can be reached by a 9-10 hour ferry, and there are boats onward from there. Ferries go to France as well. Unfortunately, connections to the rest of Africa were not quite as easy or cheap. Flights are limited and expensive. Overland to Algeria and Libya were both possible, but somewhat difficult and far. Not sure what the situation is like now.
11. Can you save money?
Depends on your situation. We traveled a lot, including a trip to Europe (albeit mostly in budget mode) and still saved some money despite only one modest salary.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
No. Tunisia is a relatively easy and pleasant place to live, but we also found it somewhat boring after a year. It's a small country, and there's a certain sense of having "been there, done that." In one year, we managed to see virtually every major ruin, beach and tourist attraction in the country. Also, the lack of work opportunities for me, as the trailing spouse, makes returning here unlikely.