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Stranded in Tunisia, an American’s Odyssey in the Times of Coronavirus

The Rome international airport, March 12, 2020, right before it closed and the American, Jeffrey Laurenti, got out of Italy. His journey had only begun as he headed to Africa. 

Jeffrey Laurenti, an American writer who specializes on the United Nations and international affairs, is a contributor to PassBlue. He was in Italy in early March when a cascade of travel restrictions were enacted in Europe and the United States, in response to the rapidly worsening coronavirus outbreak. Trapped in Rome by flight cancellations, he then set out on an unexpected journey across Europe and ultimately to North Africa, where he was again marooned.

What follows are entries in his journal and posted, with his photos, to Facebook as of Sunday, March 22, 2020. As he described the eerie silence of the Rome airport and getting on a flight to Germany on March 14, he writes, “It felt like the last helicopter in Saigon 1975.” — BARBARA CROSSETTE

Fiumicino, Italy, March 10

“Roma, Città Aperta”: Roberto Rossellini’s landmark film about the Eternal City under Nazi lockdown — “Rome, Open City” — came to mind today as Italy struggles to prove an open, democratic society can confront and subdue an even more deadly and capricious invader, the coronavirus.

I’ve taken refuge in the coastal town of Fiumicino, just 4 km from Rome’s sprawling international airport. It’s dusk — just past 6 p.m. By the government’s draconian decree last night, restaurants and coffee-bars throughout all of Italy — including those facing the picturesque canal that cuts through Fiumicino and empties out into the Mediterranean Sea — are all closed, deserted. All over Italy, there will be no place to go for dinner, except in la cucina della Mamma, Mom’s kitchen.

As I did my sunset passeggiata, I saw a plane lifting off from the airport, visible above the marina. Sadly, when I arrived at the airport at noon, I found that my own onward flight out from Italy had been canceled, among many others. I’ve booked with another airline for the next flight two days from now. In the meantime, I am in forced solidarity with Italians in their Resistance to the unseen but potent invader.

Rome, March 12 

Today’s report from the Italian front in the war against the coronavirus:

More countries are banning flights to and from Italy, including European partners. When I stopped at the airport to find a new onward booking, half the flights on the board were canceled. The wait to get to do a re-booking was nearly four hours. My ticket out will be through Germany — unless Germany throws up its wall tomorrow.

I did go into the historic center of Rome for a two-hour walk in late afternoon. (I touched no one and no thing!) I have never seen the city so beautiful, so uncrowded — and never felt it so subdued, or depressed. Rome’s famous sights that draw tourist hordes the way magnets draw iron filaments had nobody there. St. Peter’s Square was utterly empty. The Pantheon, the Piazza Navona . . . also empty. The restaurants and coffee-bars: empty and closing.

The Castel Sant’Angelo, originally the Roman emperor Hadrian’s mausoleum, is surmounted by a statue of Michael the Archangel, whom 7th century pope Gregory claimed to have seen wielding a sword to dispel an earlier pestilence. Rome needs Michael now.

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Tunis, March 14

If anyone thought an unhinged chief executive would make me rush to get home ahead of his latest travel ban, a correction is in order. Yes, I got one of the last flights out of Rome before the airport’s shutdown. Yes, I disembarked in Frankfurt. But Frankfurt was not where I wanted to go — nor London.

Digression: I was spooked by my last minutes in Rome airport: the gauntlet of duty-free luxury shops the air traveler must pass through had become “the valley of the shadow of death”: every shop shuttered, a wall of closed blinds, and no human beings down the long corridor of departure gates except the fortunate few waiting to board the last plane for Germania. It felt like the last helicopter in Saigon 1975. The bustle in the airport shops in Frankfurt was even more jarring as a result.

Anyway, within an hour I had boarded another plane to head right back south again, right back over Rome, until arriving at Tunis’s Carthage airport just past midnight. Tunis, of course, is where an Islamist suicide bomber attacked the U.S. embassy just last week. And some might see some historical irony in fleeing from Rome to Carthage.

The fortress that dominates the port of Tabarka, viewed from Laurenti’s hotel room.

Come morning, I made my way past the ruins of ancient Utica to Tunisia’s one site of natural World Heritage, the Ishkul national park, where fully a quarter of all Europe’s summer waterfowl gather to spend their winters. The snowbirds have already left for their northern trek, but I was taken aback by storks that have set up camp in a nearby town. Some students from Tunis were at Ishkul too, and climbed the same mountain that had me wheezing. Lively conversation all around!

Far from the coronavirus (I think!), I’m parked within sight of the sea for a few days. (All the talk on Tunisian radio, however, is about the coronavirus.) Tunisia is where I was coming in the first place, and was derailed by successive cancellations of my connecting flights. But I’ve made it here now, and have a list of other World Heritage sites to discover. Updates to follow. . .

Tabarka, Tunisia, March 14

The fortress dominating the little port of Tabarka, in Tunisia, close to the Algerian border, was built by the Genoese in the 16th century. It’s the most outstanding landmark in the view from my hotel room balcony. I have been able to enjoy it throughout the day because the Tunisian authorities called the hotel, the Hôtel Les Mimosas, to let me know I should not leave the hotel and must be sure to notify them if I developed a cough or a fever. Let’s see how long it lasts.

Tabarka, March 16

My third morning waking to the views in my splendid place of confinement. As the lone guest (it is off-season after all) I have had the run of the place — though unable to walk no further than the gate. Everyone has been friendly — even the hotel cat, which I have spotted rummaging through my meal tray after I have eaten. He has even left tell-tale evidence of his thievery under the table.

Paradise lost, however: the hotel has this morning asked me to move on to my next destination. I guess that means (certainly as far as the hotel is concerned) that I am not under quarantine after all.

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Tabarka, March 16

After 3 days on the hotel grounds in Tabarka, the gate swung out and I resumed my travel, pausing at the shoreline that I had heretofore only been able to see from on high, then driving up Tunisia’s coastal mountains to two remarkable archaeological sites, prosperous Roman-era cities that suffered under Vandal rule and then disappeared from history after the Arab invasion.

Bulla Regia stands out for its houses built below ground level. Dougga has earned UNESCO designation as a World Heritage site.

Altogether it was five hours of driving time to get to these sites on the way to Kairouan, the jewel of Islam in North Africa. And now, of course, I have to figure a way out of Tunis as soon as possible before the E.U. closes its airports to non-European travelers.

Kairouan, Tunisia, March 17

Exploring the old city (“medina”) of Kairouan today was sobering. Physically, the rabbit’s warren of tangled alleyways looks brighter, cleaner, literally whitewashed than when I was last here 32 years ago. But the air was somber, the souks (markets) had no customers, and all restaurants and cafés were shut by government order in a desperate effort to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Jeffrey Laurenti in Kairoun’s medina.

Even the Great Mosque, the first to be built in North Africa and the fourth holiest in Islam, has been shut down, lest congregants communicate the virus. One of its features, reproduced in buildings around the city, is its cannibalizing of columns from earlier Roman-era buildings in Carthage.

The noose is tightening.

Kairouan, March 18-19

March 19 at 10:24 AM Have been dismayed by an account of Americans visiting Morocco who have felt ignored by the US embassy after Morocco closed its airports, while the British and French embassies worked actively to get their nationals out. It doesn’t help that the current US ambassador in Casablanca is a Trump political appointee — a big-bucks contributor who seems to share the denialist inclinations of the appointing authority.

In Tunisia the travel situation is similar: all flights in and out of the country are shut down, so we’re all effectively stranded. The ferries to Italy and France are of course suspended too. Overland to the west, Algeria has closed the border to vehicles coming from Tunisia. To the east, Libya remains in an active civil war.

I’ve been in touch with US representative Bonnie Watson Coleman and her staff, including Jaimee Gilmartin, about the possibility of getting stranded Americans on a plane or boat at least to nearby Malta, where there is air service still available for us to make our way toward home. I have spoken with someone in the US Citizens Services section of the US embassy in Tunis to leave my name and contact coordinates, and was told that there’s nothing organized yet, but “we’re working on it.” The US ambassador in Tunisia is a career foreign service officer, so he may have experienced evacuations before. (He has served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and Jerusalem.) We’ll see if anything comes of it.

Global pandemic aside, Tunisia is a warm and welcoming place with lots of history and good facilities for the visitor. You just don’t want to get sick here.

Sidi Bou Saïd, Tunisia, March 19

I’ve relocated to a little bed-&-breakfast 15 km east of Tunis, in the whitewashed Mediterranean coastal town of Sidi Bou Saïd, waiting for either Tunis airport to open up or for the US embassy to organize an air- or boat-lift to a nearby country (maybe Malta?) that still has international flights so I can make my way home.

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A panoramic view from the Dar Fatma inn in Sidi Bou Saïd, where Laurenti is right now.

The State Department put out an advisory today declaring the whole world a “no-go” zone, and President Trump was pressed today about US citizens stuck in countries that have been cut off from air or ship service. The New York Times reports the general situation in which I find myself:

“Some tourists or American citizens without long-term living arrangements or support networks abroad have been trying to get back to the United States, but have found that difficult because of border closings or the cutting of flight routes and other transportation shutdowns.

“President Trump, asked during a briefing on Thursday about Americans stranded abroad and trying to re-enter the United States, said that the administration is working with the military to get them home.”

In the meantime, I am inspired by Sidi’s sea views and cobblestone streets, while using my ample waiting time to review old Arabic lessons, write postcards, and get started on an article.

The only downside to this wonderful B&B is that all it has are eggs, and with the restaurants closed (and a strictly enforced curfew from 6 pm to 6 am) having an omelet for every meal can get lame pretty quickly.

Carthage, Tunisia, March 20

It’s a short 5-km drive from sun-kissed Sidi Bou Saïd to the sun-baked ruins of ancient Carthage, another UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a reminder of how belligerent great powers eventually come to a nasty end.

Carthage has a couple layers — the original Phoenician (Punic) city was completely razed by the Romans, and just a few remnants of it have been found — most eerily, the sanctuary of the Punic god Tophet, to whom hundreds of young children were sacrificed, tossed into the flames. Their bones were found here.

Most of today’s site is from the new city that flourished during the Roman period, when it became the go-to metropolis for rising young North Africans looking for a high-powered education, like the future Saint Augustine. (Augustine calls late 4C Carthage “a cauldron of illicit loves,” and as a student he acquired a mistress and begat a son there.) Not much of the city’s steamy side comes through in the ruins. Alas, the Carthage museum, which is supposed to have some more “adult” art, is closed for renovations.

Sidi Bou Saïd, March 21

Back in Sidi Bou Saïd, I searched in vain for a restaurant that might be open for lunch. None was. I did peek past the open door of a beautifully maintained traditional house, but went back to my B&B hungry. This evening, the B&B’s “night crew,” two brothers from Ivory Coast, Chec Back and Ahmed, prepared yet another omelet for me, but added something special: a piece of chicken! I was in seventh heaven.

The “night crew,” brothers from Ivory Coast, Chec Bak and Ahmed, cooks at the inn.  

Sidi Bou Saïd, March 21

The viral noose still continues to tighten. My room in the Dar Fatma inn has bars are over the window to prevent break-ins, I suppose. But at the moment I think they hint at the feeling that many of us, everywhere, have of being “locked up” by this virus. As the only guest at the inn, I fortunately have free rein of the place — and a wonderful place it is!

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I add a photo of lunch today — yes, an omelet again! This evening, however, the night staff — the young men from Ivory Coast — did me a great honor in scrounging different food from markets and trying their hand at cooking a more varied dinner. So life unfolds.

The recurring omelet at the inn: life goes on.

Waiting for the heavens to open and a providential plane to land. . . .

Madrid, March 23 

It was time for my last supper. The landlady of Dar Fatma cooked a “bird’s tongue” pasta soup with a lamb bone for me, and I then embarked on my uncertain escape plan. Saturday evening, my cousin Kelhi Englerth, tinkering on a German airline booking site, excitedly wrote to me that a routing from Tunis to Madrid (with flights onward to London, New York, and a few other cities) had popped up on the flight search engine. It turned out to be exactly the flight out from Tunis I had booked a seat on while I was still in Rome airport, but that had been canceled. What was up?

The Spanish embassy, it turns out, had secured special permission from Tunisia to allow this one flight to operate, only on Monday, so that stranded Spaniards could get home — a “vuelo de repatriación” (repatriation flight). Miraculously, when I called Air Europa’s central office in Spain, my seat was still reserved in my name!

Of course, it would be leaping from the frying pan into the fire, given that Spain is itself a cauldron of viral air. But I promptly booked a seat on the Iberia flight onward to New York, twelve hours after the Tunis flight’s arrival in Madrid. And 10:30 PM Sunday night I tiptoed out the B&B door and trundled my bag up an empty street to my rental car, hoping this was not another mirage.

The drive to the airport was very spooky — there was not a car on the road (at least in my direction) for the entire 16 kilometers. Tunisians are respecting the government’s lockdown decree — and I feared I’d be stopped by police, who would not believe there was a secret flight out of the shuttered airport.
Moreover, the access road to the airport terminal was blocked by concrete barriers. I found a “back way” to the rental-car parking area where I would have to leave the car. At one door of the deserted and mostly dark terminal, I saw 3 men standing, one in a uniform, and I asked in my most formal Arabic, “Is there not a special flight to Spain tonight?” Na’am, he answered: yes. I suppressed too obvious a show of excitement.

Three check-in agents had been called in to service the airport’s one and only flight. Standing in front of the check-in counter were diplomats from the Spanish embassy, shepherding passengers through check-in. What was this US national doing on this flight? I assured them that I had bought this ticket 11 days ago, before the airport closures. But are you an EU resident? one asked. No, I live in New Jersey. (The diplomat’s annoyance was palpable.) You cannot enter Spain now. I am connecting to an Iberia flight to New York. What time is that flight? Show us your ticket! I did.

I added praise for how their embassy was attending to Spain’s citizens, in contrast to the indifference of the US State Department. They were unaware of the growing storm in the US about State’s inaction. (Personally, I suspect that the crazy “nationalist” faction inside the current US administration is happy to stick it to American “globalists” who want to see other countries.)
I was struck that the airport check-in staff were taking their directions from the Spanish diplomats: they could block the non-Spaniard. The diplomats conferred among themselves, before relenting and wishing me “buen viaje.”
This is definitely a “special” flight that was engineered at the diplomatic level, so I was lucky that they respected my ticket — especially because, a week on, US embassies have not been doing anything for US nationals but preach the virtues of self-reliance.

Laurenti at the Madrid airport, March 23, 2020.

I’m writing this post in Madrid airport, where as a non-EU resident I have been denied entry even to pick up my suitcase. I’ve been shuttled off to a distant terminal from which the non-EU flights depart. With Spain under viral lockdown, this vast terminal now has only a dozen flights all day (about as many as Trenton airport!) — and several of those are being canceled. I’m hoping the flight to New York will not be one of them.

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Yuki [Laurenti’s wife] has already warned me she’s putting me under quarantine — she wants to confine me to a 3rd floor guestroom and not see me except on FaceTime for 2 weeks. Did Penelope so welcome her long-lost Odysseus?

Madrid, March 23 (hours later)

Your correspondent preparing his last post before Iberia begins boarding today’s only flight from Madrid to New York. My one editorial comment: this is a threat to all humankind, on which all nations need to work together.
Some belligerents’ insistence on seeking ways to use the pestilence to pursue narrow nationalist advantage (US v. China, US v. Iran, etc.) can only boomerang. Get over it!

Trenton, N.J., March 24

Many thanks for FB friends’ concerns. I did get in last night to a weirdly deserted Kennedy Airport, rode an empty LIRR train to Penn Station, was stunned by the emptiness of the station (save for a desperate dozen seeking alms–for whom I was apparently their only mark), and was one of maybe a dozen people on NJ Transit’s train to Trenton.

An eerie sign of how narrow was my escape: at 4:30 this morning my cellphone rang with a text message: an “Información Importante” from Iberia Airlines: my flight yesterday, “IB6253/23MAR con destino New York, se ha cancelado”–has been CANCELED. If Iberia had gotten that notice out on time yesterday morning, I would have been trapped in the Madrid airport terminal, barred from entering Spain but with no flight to anywhere. (Well, there was a flight at midnight to Mexico City still on the board.)

A very close call.

Nurse Ratched [Jeffrey’s wife, Yuki] has put me in my isolation unit on the third floor of our house. She leaves a breakfast tray with my morning cappuccino, a “cantuccio” biscotto, and prosciutto with figs. (There was no prosciutto in Muslim Tunisia, although I did have a fabulous “jamón ibérico”–Iberian prosciutto–at the one open coffee stand in Madrid airport.)

Now Nurse Ratched (a/k/a Yuki) has returned downstairs to her day job for remote Princeton University. And I have 14 days to prove I didn’t catch anything.

Trenton, N.J., March 26

Sitting in my 3rd day of quarantine, I should report that the US Department of State has, at last, reached out to the 250 American citizens who last week appealed to the US embassy in Tunis for help leaving Tunisia after the airport was shut down. (Friends may know I did manage to get out via “Spanish fly.”)

Thanks are due especially to New Jersey’s Bob Menendez, top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, for his persistence in riding herd on State’s indifferent leadership to do something for Americans stranded in countries that closed their air space to combat the corona virus.

This is what the embassy sent to us who had appealed for help:

“The Department of State and U.S. Embassy Tunis have arranged special chartered flights for U.S. citizens and U.S. Lawful Permanent Residents departing Tunis Carthage International Airport.

“Exact departure time and routing are subject to change. The first flight is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on Friday, March 27 and the second for 16:00 on Saturday, March 28. These flights will be from Tunis to Washington, D.C. (Dulles International Airport), at an estimated cost of $1500 per passenger regardless of passenger age (the final cost will be announced as soon as it is confirmed).

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“All passengers will need to reimburse the U.S. Government for the flight, and a promissory note for approximately $1500 which must be signed before boarding. No cash or credit card payments will be accepted at the U.S. Embassy or the airport.”

Again, I applaud the embassy for having finally gotten authorization from DC to do something. (Until the NY Times story on Americans trapped in Morocco, and Bob Menendez’s public criticism of Pompeo’s torpor, nothing was happening.) The French embassy got authority for French airlines to take its citizens out early last week. The Italian embassy got Alitalia’s two regularly scheduled flights restored for last Friday only to get Italian nationals out. The Spanish embassy got an Air Europa flight to Madrid restored last Monday so stranded Spaniards could slip out. (Luckily for me, this resurrected the canceled flight on which I had bought a seat two weeks ago.)

This photo is of my Iberia flight from Madrid on to New York, in the premium economy cabin. The flight was 80% empty. The one-way economy fare with Iberia was $508; the Air Europa ticket from Tunis to Madrid was $57. Could State find less costly alternatives than a $1500 one-way low-season charter fare? Just sayin’….

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is a contribtor to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and before that its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

2 thoughts on “Stranded in Tunisia, an American’s Odyssey in the Times of Coronavirus”

  1. I loved the journal, it takes your mind off of the coronavirus as you imagine yourself stuck in foreign countries trying to get back home. Yet somehow making the best of a situation you have no control over.

    Reply
  2. Hey
    The total population of Tunisia is 11,659,174 people. People in Tunisia speak the Arabic language. The linguistic diversity of Tunisia is almost homogeneous according to a fractionalization scale which for Tunisia is 0.0124. The median age is approximately 31.4 years. Life expectancy in Tunisia is 76. The female fertility rate in Tunisia is 2.1.
    Thanks

    Reply

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