Tunis, Tunisia Report of what it's like to live there - 07/11/10
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?
Washington, DC - All flights went through Europe, most commonly Rome or Paris. It was a one-hour flight to Rome and two to Paris, then 7-8 from each of those back to DC.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Government (US Dept of State).
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Most embassy housing is in the northern suburbs, although there are some houses downtown and in the newer development of Berges de Lac. Of all embassy houses that I saw, they were plenty big - mostly in attached or some stand alone houses. All are fenced in. We had a 4-bedroom house, with multiple balconies and a pretty yard for which we hired a gardener for about $80/month.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Mostly pretty cheap - especially produce from the local markets. Almost all the fruits and veggies were locally grown, which made them incredibly fresh and tasty. You have to learn to work with the seasons when certain things aren't available. We ate a lot of fennel from Jan-March! Other household supplies are quite affordable as well. The big Carrefour, while a complete mad-house most of the time, was convenient because you could get everything you needed in one shopping trip.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
There's a commissary at the embassy which had most grocery items that we couldn't get at Carrefour or Monoprix - so I don't think we necessarily would have shipped anything.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There are no international chains in Tunisia - it's great. The main form of fast food is a road side shwarma or bowl of lablabli. Restaurants in general were pretty poor, although sometimes they are in a beautiful setting so it's worth going once in a while. Absolutely everything comes with tuna on it, so if you don't like this, get used to saying "without tuna!" in either French or Arabic. In general Tunisians do not tend to eat out, which likely explains the lack of good restaurants.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Plentiful and fairly inexpensive - we paid ~$17/week for a housekeeper to come for a full day and clean our house, do our laundry and ironing.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The embassy gym is excellent. There are other gyms as well that are not bad. We ran outside a lot - especially along the American Cemetery road in La Marsa.
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?
ATM machines are everywhere and easy to use. We used cash otherwise, but some restaurants took credit cards.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
None that we remember. An occasional International Herald Tribune
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Not many people speak English, so it definitely helps to have some French or Arabic. In and around Tunis most people speak at least some French. It's a bit tougher with French when you get out of Tunis. Arabic speakers might be frustrated by how much French they mix into any given sentence.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
It would be quite difficult - the sidewalks are often non-existent, and if they are there, they are not kept up and/or a car will be parked on them. There are definitely no wheelchair ramps anywhere.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis are safe and cheap enough - it's about $5 to get from La Marsa to downtown (~15km).
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?
Tunisian drivers are atrocious, so bring your beater. An SUV is not necessary but couldn't hurt on pot-holed streets (of which there are many) or if you head down south to the desert.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, and it was fairly speedy, although nothing compared to the U.S. We paid about $80/month. Many sites were censored (such as Youtube), so we used a proxy to get around them.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
It's easy to buy a SIM card at Carrefour and be up and running immediately.
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?
There are some international companies that hire expats and the African Devt Bank has some work opportunities depending on your skill set.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Mostly pretty conservative for women, although not stiflingly so.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Some petty theft - I saw a woman get her purse snagged by two guys on a motorbike as she was walking down the sidewalk downtown (she held on until they let go!), muggings in the medina - the usual.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Health care is supposed to be pretty good at some of the private clinics, although luckily we never had firsthand experience with this.
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?
Good in the northern suburbs. A bit polluted downtown, but never a real problem.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Hot and muggy in the summer, cool-ish (50s) and rainy in the winter. A day could change from bright and sunny to raining and then back again within a 10 minute time span.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
We don't have children, but the American School in Tunis appeared to be excellent. There were other international schools as well.
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?
Bigger than one would expect because of the African Development Bank, which temporarily relocated to Tunis in 2003 because of the war in Cote D'Ivoire. It will eventually move back, but as of 2009 the timing for this was unsure.
2. Morale among expats:
So-so - there was a wide range here. We were incredibly happy, but can also admit that it was a fairly boring town. I think the post works great for families for the reasons I've mentioned above. Singles seemed the most disgruntled.
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?
Our social life consisted almost entirely of parties/dinner parties at our friends' houses. We found it incredibly difficult to make Tunisian friends. The culture is very closed in many ways, so the Tunisians really stuck to themselves.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I don't think this would be a great city for singles. Although there is a fairly sizable expat community, largely because of the African Development Bank, there are not tons of places to go out (bars, restaurants, etc) - as mentioned earlier. It's the ideal post for families because of the good schools, numerous outdoor activities, affordable household labor and slower pace of life.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Certainly not - the Tunisians are quite conservative.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Not on the surface, necessarily, but that's because religion is rarely discussed in Tunisia, which is essentially a dictatorship. There is some harassment of women, especially foreign women, but nothing too offensive.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Walk around La Marsa, Sidi Bou Said, Tunis medina, Tunis central market, beaches or old city in Hammamet, the ruins at Dougga, El Jem and Carthage (among many others), visit the south (especially the oasis of Ksar Ghilane), rug shopping in Kairouan, visit Djerba (an island in the south).
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Pottery, rugs, airline tickets to Europe (one hour to Rome!)
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
There are many beautiful parts of Tunis, including where most embassy people live in the northern "suburbs" (formerly summer retreat area from downtown) - especially La Marsa or Sidi Bou Said. The country also has many beautiful towns and natural beauty, including Cap Bon, Hammamet, and the desert in the south - all within a day's drive of Tunis. We took several weekend trips while there and also had many fun times just riding our bikes around our neighborhood in La Marsa, going to the market, walking along the La Marsa corniche, sitting in cafes, etc. One other huge advantage to this post was our ability to save money. Groceries are pretty inexpensive, and unfortunately there are not tons of good restaurants. Food in the markets is excellent - first and foremost the fresh produce - but what happens to it between the markets and the restaurants remains a mystery. So as a result we ended up cooking at home a lot and having friends over, which was a real money saver. This gets to the heart of Tunis in many ways - it was "pleasantly boring" one might say. Not tons of exciting nightlife (restaurants, bars, clubs), but still quite a pleasant lifestyle overall, especially (I imagine) for a family with young children.
11. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, for a short tour - I wouldn't be sad when my 2-3 years was up though.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
sexy going-out clothes, and any desire for a crazy night out on the town.
3. But don't forget your:
ability to embrace all the good things Tunis has to offer, despite its shortcomings (remember: pleasantly boring).
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
La Goulette, the English Patient and Star Wars (both filmed in Tunisia!)