WEDNESDAY-THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 13-14, 1978
The Journey to Monastir, in which I am immersed in all things Tunisian
I ARRIVED AT THE AIRPORT IN Tunis in the middle of the afternoon after nearly eighteen hours of nonstop flying. Since there was no direct flight from Chicago to Tunis, I had a brief layover in the morning in Amsterdam. It was too brief for any sightseeing, but there was plenty of time for a Heineken. It seemed like it should taste better in its motherland, but I didn't notice much difference.As I boarded my flight, I said a silent good-bye to Western civilization as I knew it. The KLM plane was only half full but seemed to be carrying a most varied assortment of passengers. There were Arab mothers with screaming babies, Frenchmen arguing with each other, excited English tourists, and businessmen of varying nationalities who seemed to regard the flight as an inconvenient if necessary part of the job.
The biggest adjustment for me was the lack of a common language, though everyone else on the plane seemed to take it all in stride. The pilot bravely attempted to struggle through the flight announcements in Arabic, French, Dutch, and English, and from the looks of the other passengers, he was barely understandable in any of them. "Le Alps is above us," he announced, prompting some of the English passengers to glance outside nervously.
No announcement was needed, however, when we reached the coastline of Africa. The sky and the sea were both perfect shades of blue, and there wasn't a cloud in sight. The sand along the shore was speckled with a few droppings of green. It was oppressively hot down there, no doubt, but from our vantage point there wasn't a photo in the world that could do it justice. We continued inland, and it wasn't long before we reached Tunis. In fact, we were nearly on top of it before anyone spotted it, largely due to the lack of skyscrapers and modern buildings. We circled the city once before touching down at the airport, which was a few miles from the city itself.
Tunis is the capital and largest city in Tunisia, located right on the Mediterranean across from Italy, and is, like most Tunisian cities, a curious mixture of the old and new. According to what I had read on the subject, Tunisia is considered to be the most modern of the North African countries, and its major industry is tourism.
Most of the Python filming would be done in the city of Monastir, about a four-hour drive along the coast south from Tunis. The Pythons were already down there preparing. I had arranged for a ride with a group flying in from London, but they would not be arriving until the next day, so it meant spending the night in Tunis.
I briefly contemplated spending the night in the airport until the next group arrived, deciding against it when it appeared the place would probably close up completely around nine that night.
The airport was far from any hotel, so I stopped at an office designated "Tunisian Tourist Information," a rather shabby room with three somewhat disheveled Tunisian men in it. After a bit of gesturing, one of them wrote out "Bus 35" and "Hotel Capitole". When the bus arrived, it was packed with Tunisians, and I felt slightly intimidated. Arabic is a harsh, guttural language, which sounds aggressive no matter what is being said, and it sounded a bit like everyone on the bus was arguing with someone else.
Thanks to the help of two boys who spoke English, I got off at the right stop for the Hotel Capitole, which was a couple of blocks ahead. I had still not noticed many tall buildings. Nearly all of the structures seemed to be either stone or cement, and the exterior of nearly every building was painted white or off-white, which I vaguely recalled as having a religious connotation. The outskirts of the city had been sparsely populated, but here in the center of town, more and more people crowded the streets. They made for an interesting picture; some were in traditional dress with white robes. Most of the older women still wore veils across their faces, but I occasionally spotted a younger girl in blue jeans and a sweater.
The Hotel Capitole was a small doorway hidden between larger buildings, which led into an old, run-down lobby badly in need of a coat of paint. I was so tired by that time, however, that if there hadn't been an open room, I would have gone outside and napped in the alley. I pried the desk clerk away from his card game, and he showed me into an ancient, creaking elevator that was nevertheless bigger than the lobby. He left, and I collapsed onto the bed for fourteen straight hours of sleep.
I rose around nine o'clock and found I had to fight the cockroaches for the shower, which was one of the filthiest I had ever seen. I was glad to pack my bags and wait for a bus to the airport.
As I walked down the street to the bus stop, I passed vendors and street peddlers pushing their wares. I was tempted by the smell of freshly baked bread and bits of fried dough, displayed appetizingly but unsanitarily on cracked Formica counters. Other merchants carried fruit, while another local businessman pushed along a cart full of fish that had undoubtedly been pulled from the sea this morning. I was a little leery of the health standards that were undoubtedly in effect, but out of necessity, I became a little more liberal, though I drew a line at drinking the water.
The bus pulled up shortly. It was much less crowded than yesterday, which made for a more relaxing ride to the airport. As the flight from London wasn't scheduled to arrive until midafternoon, I decided to sit back and read while I waited. I opened my pack and found The Gulag Archipelago sitting on top. I found the rather graphic descriptions of the Soviet police cells a little too unsettling, though, and decided to write a few postcards instead.
As the time of arrival drew closer, I wandered over to the gate. As I waited, a young, apparently European girl asked me a question in French; when I indicated my ignorance, she broke into a smile. "Oh, you speak English! I'm sorry, but I couldn't tell," she said in a distinctively American voice, the first I had heard in the past twenty-four hours. Her name was Carol, and she was originally from Connecticut. Now with the Peace Corps, she had been living in Tunis as an American teacher, but her two-year stint was almost up, and she would be returning to the States soon. Since the London plane was delayed, we had a nice chat in which she gave me a few helpful hints about living in Tunisia.
The plane touched down exactly an hour behind schedule, which seemed to be the accepted norm with Tunisair, so I began watching for arrivals. I had been informed to watch for a driver holding a MONTY PYTHON sign. The only person I knew who would be arriving was Bernard McKenna, a friend and writing partner of Graham Chapman, whom I had met the previous month in London. He had cowritten The Odd Job, a film Graham had produced and starred in. I had first encountered him in a pub where he was meeting with Graham about the film. At the time, Bernard explained that he had just returned from visiting his mother in Scotland.
"I had to go up and tell her about my divorce," explained Bernard. "My mother is a bit old-fashioned, and it didn't sit very well with her. Fortunately, though, I think I've probably dropped all the big bombshells on her that are possible by now." He went on to explain that his brother, a policeman, met him at the airport. "He offered to carry one of my bags, and as we were walking along, I asked him if it was illegal for a policeman to possess contraband. He said, 'Certainly.' We walked along farther, and then I stopped him and said, 'You're breaking the law,' and nodded to my bag. My brother, who is a bit nervous anyway, looked pale but carried on. Pretty soon he stopped and said, 'Yes, but I wasn't knowingly possessing contraband.' We started walking again, and as he was starting to calm down, I said, 'You are now knowingly possessing contraband.'"
A couple of days after that, Bernard had to stop by Graham's house for a bit of doctoring, as he had injured his arm when he slipped and fell in a public lavatory. I saw some of the passengers lining up at check-in from the London flight and spotted Bernard's bandaged arm, clutching a bag of duty-free cigarette cartons and bottles.
I heard a sound behind me and turned. One of the Tunisian drivers was holding up a sign reading MUNTY PYTON GRUP. It made an interesting sight in the midst of all the robes and veils, an incongruity grand enough to deserve a place on the Python TV series.
Bernard seemed startled to see me but quickly recovered and introduced me to Tania, a tanned, attractive brunette. I recalled that Anne Henshaw had mentioned that Eric Idle's girlfriend would be with the group. Tania told me she was originally from a suburb of Chicago, not terribly far from my own hometown. Small world indeed.
We wandered over to the rest of the group, where I was assigned to the Hotel Ruspina. The others headed downstairs to pick up luggage and equipment, and then we all stood waiting for the cars and van that would transport us to Monastir. As I introduced myself, I learned that most of the dozen or so people with the group were either crew members or makeup girls, though Bernard was one of the actors. I was assigned to the van, which was loaded with everyone who couldn't squeeze into the cars, and we started on the ride south.
I was talking with Kenteas, one of the makeup ladies, who was describing her work the previous week on the Sex Pistols film, when someone behind me called out, "Camels! Camels!" Another of the makeup crew, Susie Frear, visibly excited, pointed out a pair of camels in a field alongside the road, the first ones we had seen since our arrival. I was sure they wouldn't be the last, though deep down, I had to admit I was a little excited to see them. "Do you think there'll be lots of them down there?" Susie asked excitedly. Everyone shrugged, and she kept a vigil at the window.
We drove on past miles and miles of date trees, barren fields with the occasional donkey or camel, and even a few vineyards. Even though Tunisia is a Muslim country, it apparently has a fairly healthy wine industry.
As we continued, a few voices in the back began to urge our Tunisian driver to stop for tea. Even though we were seemingly in the middle of nowhere, he indicated that he knew of a place. A few minutes later, he pulled off the main highway and onto a dusty gravel road, which led to the only building in sight for miles. It was reminiscent of the kind of small gas station-general store usually found only in a rustic backwater town, but we all piled out and sat at some tables in front of the building while the driver ordered for us. There was no tea, so we had to settle for Tunisian coffee with goat's milk in place of cream. We sat outside as the sun fell and the temperature began to drop. In the distance we could see an occasional car or truck on the main road. "I wonder if we'll get to see any camels close up?" asked Susie.
The remainder of the drive was uneventful, and most of us either slept or tried to sleep. The bumpy roads and our driver's habits behind the wheel stopped me from dozing off, however. Our driver was fearless, passing cars casually and barely making it back to our lane in time. From what I have observed so far, Tunisian drivers seem to be a bit mad behind the wheel, and I find it amazing that the streets and highways aren't littered with casualties. The near-constant honking of horns is also unsettling. The natives seem to like the noise and lay on their horns at every opportunity. If a car is passing them, they honk. If they want a car to pass them, they honk. They honk when they're angry, but they also honk just to say hello.
At last we pulled up to the Hotel Ruspina, which would be my home for the next few weeks. A few of the other crew members who were also staying there piled out along with me, and I found out my luggage had been put on the other van, the one that had gone on into town. I received a halfhearted promise that it would be brought over from the other hotel, so I went in to register.
At the front desk, two of the unit electricians were trying to change rooms. The desk clerk was trying to explain in his broken English that he'd like them to share a room for the night until he could find another single. The two seemed strongly opposed to this suggestion, so he was attempting to pacify them at the same time he was trying to find the manager, who allegedly spoke much better English.
The Ruspina itself was a nice, modern hotel, and except for the staff of natives and local souvenirs, it looked much like any modern resort inAmerica. The lobby was small but still very nice, and at the moment it was populated by a group of older German tourists, animatedly chattering away on some topic of grave concern.
I was able to register without any problem, and wasn't asked to share my room, so I headed to the end of the hallway to room 145. I unlocked the door and found a closet full of clothes and a half-eaten watermelon. When I tried to explain to the allegedly English-speaking manager, things grew even more confusing. Through the protests of some of the crew members and some sort of minor miracle, they were able to realize that I needed another room. This time I was assigned to room 153, which was safely uninhabited. There was another plate of watermelon, this one uneaten, waiting for me, so I ate a little and started preparing for bed.
Suddenly the phone rang. Who could be calling me here? Nobody even knew which room I was in. I answered and was immediately hit with an onslaught of French.
"Uh--could you say it in English, please? English?" I asked innocently.
"Ah, oui, monsieur," the voice replied, then hung up. As I tried to figure out what had just occurred, there was a knock on my door. I opened it somewhat cautiously, only to find a short, plump bellboy with a silly grin on his face and my bags under his arms. Amazed and relieved at their prompt arrival, I didn't ask any questions. I took them from the bellboy, and he remained there with the same sappy grin. With no comprehension of Tunisian currency, I handed him a few coins. He took on a rather pained expression, so I handed him a few more and indicated that that was all. He pasted on the grin again, thanked me, and left.
MONTY PYTHON'S TUNISIAN HOLIDAY. Copyright © 2008 by Kim "Howard" Johnson. Foreword, copyright © 2008 by Michael Palin; Foreword, copyright © 2008 by John Cleese; Foreword, copyright © 2008 by Eric Idle; Foreword, copyright © 2008 by Terry Jones. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.