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Monday, 2 February 2015

LOST IN THE DESERT


London December 2002

In December my home was finally ready and as a prize for my hard work, I booked a five-day trip to Istanbul to spend with my family over New Year’s Eve and a week in Gran Canaria with my buddy Ricky for February. Three days before flying to the Turkish city, where I was supposed to meet my parents, I got sick and I was stuck in bed. Jørn, a half Italian half Danish guy, who I had got to know through the Internet, insisted so much to have our first date before my departure and eventually I asked him to come to my place. The tall Scandinavian guy rang my bell late in the night of the 28th of December. Jørn was so kind to take care of me and cook tea and hot soups for me for the two following days until the morning of the 30th of December. That day he took me to Heathrow and I flow to Istanbul Atatürk International Airport, where my parents were waiting for me at the arrivals.

Istanbul December 2002, January 2003.

Once past the Gümrük, the Turkish customs checkpoint, I met my parents, who were waiting on the other side of the glass door. We took a cab to the district of Karaköy, where we reached our hotel about half an hour later. The sun was shining in the blue sky and the temperature was mild, a much warmer location compared to Paris the year before. After unpacking our luggage, we had a Türk kahvesi, the Turkish strong coffee and we planned our sightseeing tour for the evening.
I could not believe it: I was in the Bosporus metropolis! Istanbul had it all, the sea, the hills, history, good food and a Middle East and European flair at the same time. When we left the café in Galata the sun was setting, the darker silhouette of minarets and domes marked a clear line on the red sky and that fascinating inlet called “the Golden Horn” took me away. My thoughts went to the “Hamam – the Turkish Bath” the film directed by Ferzan Ozpetek, about an Italian married man who feels powerful new emotions for another man. I remembered of that time when I was 14, on the deck of a cruise boat moored in Luxor on the Nile river, the sunset, the men on the minarets calling the devotees to pray and the good looking French guy a few years older than me, who had talked with me. I never saw him again, as the day after my parents and I flow to Cairo. There was energy in the air in Istanbul, an energy that I can never forget. My thoughts were pleasantly interrupted by an S.M.S. from Jørn. ”I miss you!” He wrote.

On the morning of the 29th of December we visited Sultanahmet Camii, the Blue Mosque built at the beginning of the 17th century, adorned with blue tiles on its interior walls and the former patriarchal basilica, later Mosque and now museum of Hagia Sophia. The majestic building was built in the 6th century and it was originally named in Greek: Ναός τῆς Ἁγίας τοῦ Θεοῦ Σοφίας. In the afternoon we reached in Kapalı Çarşı, Istanbul Grand Bazaar, the covered market with tens of streets and thousands of shops. We entered from the Beyazit Gate and we soon realized that it was almost impossible to walk a few meters without being called by some carpet sellers, who claimed to have a deal for us. As the third seller asked us to visit his shop, we follow him, just to satisfy our curiosity and see how one of the carpet shops looked like from the inside. The carpet seller showed us marvellous hand made rugs of several colours. “Sir, that one is 400 Euro, please” He told me, pointing at the carpet I was looking at. “No, Thanks.” I replied. “300 hundred Sir, 300 and it’s yours!” He insisted. “I am not really here to buy…” I confirmed. “200 Euro, but I can’t go lower…” The seller did not seem to give up easily and when he reached the 100 Euro price I accepted to have it packed and sent to London. My mother also bought herself a small Aladdin-style Lamp and some incense, which she paid a few millions Turkish Liras. After she left the shop, the seller came after us running and he gave my mother the change she had forgotten. In the evening we walked through Taksim Square, where I saw men holding hands, which I later found out, in Istanbul is a mere expression of friendship.


The 31st of December came and my parents invited me for dinner to a typical Turkish Fish restaurant in Üsküdar, the Asian suburb of the city and later at night, we partied with millions of Turks in Taksim Square, watching the amazing fireworks which welcomed the new year. 2003 had started.

Las Palmas. Las Palmas & Maspalomas – Canaries February 2003

On the 2nd week of February, Ricky and I took a taxi to Gatwick from Ricky’s place in Beckenham and in a matter of few hours we were from rainy London to sunny Las Palmas. Once outside the airport of our destination, we took a direct bus to Playa del Ingles, where we had booked a 2-room accommodation not far from the famous dunes of Maspalomas, where everything that moves happens to be gay. Ricky had been there before and he had fallen in love with the place, I personally enjoyed more the cultural sightseeing, but I did not mind having a relaxing week, lying on the beach with a Cosmopolitan and being surrounded by handsome naked men. Most of the times we went to the beach, we did not have to pay for the beach beds and the sunshade as the guys of the hotel gave them to us for free, we also got a few free Cosmopolitans from the cute bar tender who seemed to have interest in one or both of us.

The second day on the beach, an ugly man from Turin probably on his 80s called Tiziano, tried unsuccessfully to pick us up and he started stalking us for the whole week both at the beach and in the bars of the Yumbo Center. Luckily the 3rd day brought us, Åke, a pure Danish handsome guy, who came to talk to us and joined us to the bars. Åke was totally my type, but I did not feel right trying having something with him, after all, he lived thousands kilometres away from me in Copenhagen and I had a half Danish guy who was waiting for me in London. If only I had know that that half Danish guy was already cheating on me, I would have probably opted for a carpe diem with Åke. When the day after Jørn called me, he showed some unjustified jealousy, which made me think, I had found the right guy for me, after all, we Italians are jealous by nature. Åke, Ricky and I spent the rest of the week sun tanning on the beach and commenting the swim trunks of the guys who happened to have some, about all the others, no discussion was needed. Every evening we had to find smarter ways to get rid of our Italian stalker and how to get Cosmopolitans and Sex On The Beach cocktails for free. On Saturday morning we said goodbye to Åke, who was staying another week on the island and we took our flight back to the United Kingdom.


London, March 2008

In London I finally had the time to go out with Jørn more often. As an apology for my long absence, I managed to get another week off to spend with him in Tunisia. My employer took the chance to assign me a work appointment in Tunis and in exchange I got to save some lieu days, which considering my many travels in the initial part of the year, would have come handy. Jørn and I flew to Monastir on the 31st of March 2003: exactly 11 days after the Iraq invasion had started.


Monastir, Tunis, El Jem, March, April 2003

The bus took us from مطار الحبيب بورقيبة الدولي Monastir’s Habib Bourguiba International Airport to the hotel in مرسى القنطاوي,  Port El Kantaoui under a hot sun. We did not have any water with us, so we left the luggage in the room and we walked to a café not far from the hotel, where we ordered two one-liter bottles of water and two cokes without ice. We were told not to drink tap water and not to use unpacked ice to avoid diarrhea and stomachaches. Port El Kantaoui was a tourist complex about ten kilometers north of the historical city of سوسة Sousse. Jørn and I did not intend to spend the whole week in a trap for tourists and that soulless marina, built in the late 70s, lacked of the Tunisian real flair and the historical background we were looking for. After a day by the pool, as the Mediterranean sea was still too cold for us to bathe, we decided that we should spend the week traveling around the country and we gathered so much information we could get, at the local tourist information centre.

On the 1st of April, Jørn and I decided to go to المهدية, Mahdia for a day trip. Unfortunately when we arrived to the station in Sousse, we found out that we had just missed the only daily SNCFT train to our destination and our plan had to be revised. A Tunisian man, who had heard our discussion, gave us the tip to skip the main trains of the SNCFT, the Tunisian Railway Company, take the more frequent metro-type trains to Monastir instead and change there to Mahdia. We paid two Tunisian Dinars and got our tickets to Monastir. About five minutes after the train had left, three Tunisian girls sat next to us and offered us some chewing gum. We refused their kind offer and we asked them if they knew about a train connection from Monastir to Madhia. The girls told us not to worry and insisted that we should get off the train with them in a place, where there should have been a direct bus to Madhia. About half an hour later, before we reached the city of Monastir, we all got off the train as agreed. Once outside the station, one of the girls spoke to a local man and eventually she informed us that they had mistaken and there was no bus to Madhia. With or without guilty feelings the Tunisian girls left us there and Jørn and I found ourselves in an unknown village somewhere between Sousse and Monastir with no idea about what to do. Eventually we noticed a taxi and we called quickly the attention of the driver. We got in the car and asked him to take us to Madhia. “Five Dinars, and I’ll take you not far from Madhia, where you can find another taxi. I am not allowed to drive the whole way to Madhia” Apparently taxi drivers in Tunisia had some restricted area where they can drive. I looked into my wallet and I realized I only had eight Dinars left. Jørn had about four and with a total of twelve Dinars we should have been able to pay our way down to Madhia and get some cash from a bank once there. During our journey the taxi driver stopped the car several times and without asking us, he picked up and drove a couple of other people to their destinations. After 20 minutes we had the feeling that we were driving the same way over and over again and we started feeling a little bit nervous. “Voulez Vous du chocolat?” Asked us one of the passengers, showing us a bar of chocolate. Once again we refused the offer and we tried to keep us from laughing about the weird situation into which we had ended up. “Please, get off here! Seven Dinars please, another taxi is behind that dune!” indicated the taxi driver. We left the car and found ourselves in the middle of the desert and with six Dinars in the pocket. We walked towards the dune, hoping to see a taxi waiting on the other side and we started thinking that the day trip to Madhia had not been a good idea after all.

Once on the other side of the dune, we saw a car waiting and we were pleasantly relieved. This time the driver took us to our final destination, where we spent about two hours to find a functioning cash machine and get some money. Once we found one, we had to rush and get the only daily train back to Sousse.  “So much for a day trip!” Said Jørn.

On the 2nd of April, we opted to stay in the surroundings and we chose to visit Sousse. The third largest city of Tunisia had lots to offer, its medieval narrow twisted streets in the Medina took us from the Ribat fortress with its dominating tower to the Kasbah museum and its archeological collection. There was tension in the street. We stopped at a local bar, where some men watching the CNN were expressing their opinion in French against the American invasion of Iraq.  

In the evening once we were back in Port El Kantaoui a Tunisian man approached us and asked us, if we wanted to buy Hashish. I asked the man to leave, but Jørn, who enjoyed smoking joints, followed him and came back a few minutes later smiling like a child. I was furious, how could he even think to put our safety at risk for his stupid transgression. We went home without talking one another and when Jørn started burning his drug, he realized that he had been tricked and he had just bought a sort of perfumed leaf. I laughed at him and I told him that, that was what he had deserved.

The day after the conversation between us was still difficult, but we decided to go to El Djem, just as planned. The city had a spectacular amphitheatre, built by the Romans and most likely used for gladiator shows and chariot races. After visiting the ruins, Jørn decided to buy himself some kind of souvenir and we went into the local market. It was getting late, so I asked my partner to hurry up, as we had a bus to catch, but he ignored me and when we were back to the main square, we saw our bus leaving. We were totally upset, I told him that he was a stupid and I smashed a diet coke bottle at his feet, then I throw the broken glasses in a rubbish bin and I sat on the white stone in the middle of the square. There was no free shadow available and our next bus was due in 4 hours. We spent at least one hour arguing until we saw a Tunisian old man, half hidden behind a palm, who was looking at us, masturbating with his hand in his dress and showing his penis from time to time.

On the 3rd of April while the Americans reached Saddam International Airport, I was in the Tunisian branch of my company in Tunis and my colleagues made it clear. “You are lucky not to be American, it might have been a problem at this time!” They showed me the routers and the machines and I took note of everything I needed to know for my presentation in London. In a matter of 4 hours I was ready and I met Jørn in front of the main gate of the سوق the Souk Market.

On Friday, we spent the day by the pool at the hotel and we flew back to London on Saturday 5th of April.