Ashore in Tunesia

In the second half of the fifties we brought kerosene on a Shell tanker to a French Air Force base in northern Tunisia. There was only a small harbor and one jetty, no tugs and it was part of this large military airport. This place didn’t have a name, just the name of the base. The unloading turned out to take a few days because the discharge pipe turned out to be a kind of glorified garden hose. By the way, the French boys were in no rush and the discharge was often stopped for no apparent reason.

There was no sign of any security at the base and that with a Chinese crew. We were allowed to roam freely over the base and soon we went in and out planes, everything was open.

Once we got out of such a military plane when a couple of French officers just passed by. We expected that they would not be unhappy with our presence in the plane, we thought, but no, the gentlemen smiled at us kindly and saluted us. They even came over to have a chat and it turned out that if we wanted we could take a ride on a plane for a couple of hours the next day. We told them that due to the watch system only one of us could attend, providing that the captain permitted this which he did. That person happened to be me, the others would fill in for me.

Early the next morning I was neatly picked up and dropped off at a twin-engine plane that turned out to be a Lockheed Neptune, I thought P-2. We were there, with me, with eight I thought. The thing could drop mines and depth charges and even torpedoes and fly endlessly because every space was used to put fuel in it. I later read that in 1946 one such Neptune flew non-stop from Australia to a base in Ohio, nearly 12,000 miles away. Nothing fasten seatbelts and before I knew it all I saw was water below me. Everyone on board was more or less my age. The Captain was a little older, about 28 years old. Without exception they had a kind of light-hearted ‘never mind’ attitude that I liked. I assumed it was a reconnaissance flight and a French warship was rendezvoused along the way for a low flying radar exercise. The aircraft had to approach the ship as unnoticed as possible. They did this by flying into the ship from behind, skimming as low above the water as possible. That was quite exciting. After a few more laps around the ship and a lot of French chatter over the radio, nothing could be heard, we continued.

After a 1 or 2 hours of flying I asked how long it would take, but they said we were almost there. And indeed the coast came into view again. To starboard in the distance lay a gigantic city that I could not place at all. And suddenly I noticed that everything was much too green, no desert and emptiness. I started to worry a little about the navigation skills of these otherwise very friendly and cheerful guys. When I asked them which city we had just passed, the answer was: “C’était Marseille” I started to feel slightly unwell. What is happening here? There was no time to think because fifteen minutes later we landed on another military base. After leaving the plane we were given an extensive lunch in the officers’ mess. It was a miracle that I could still swallow a bite quite effortlessly, but the generously poured wine probably contributed to that. In order not to look like an asshole and since it wouldn’t help much, I pretended it was all very normal, while inquiring about the return journey. How do you explain something like that on board? About 650 kilometers from the ship to grab a lunch… You don’t.

One purpose of the flight was to transport French provisions back to base. Wine and frozen pork, as well as flour for bread and whatnot were part of the return freight. At a quarter past four five we landed back at the base in Tunisia. "Was it nice playing in the meadow?” was one of the things asked later at the dinner table and I said with a steel face: “Yes, sure. We also went to have lunch on the French Riviera”. Homeric laughter. Once I speak the truth and then I get laughed at…

I realize that this could happen only then in those days. It is a totally different ball game now.


We did an extended maintenance stay in Bizerte about a decade ago, mere weeks after the revolution had died down. Tunisisa is a weird and wonderful place, where traffic rules are nonexistent, machoism entirely unbridled, and the black market for alcohol is operated within a protected military zone. I have mostly fond memories, as it is a wonderful place to explore by motorcycle, and I made sure that we had plenty of free time to do so.

My one serious gripe was that doing business with the locals was extremely frustrating. They simply don’t consider an agreement binding in the same way as Europeans, which is compounded by the very Arab mentality that cheating the out-group is highly honorable. This is founded in fierce tribalism that spills over into the most bare faced, vitriolic racism I’ve seen anywhere. Tunisia remains the one place I’ve been literally driven out of town by an angry mob (because of a restaurant bill dispute), affording me the pleasure of driving a motorcycle through a hail of rocks, going off-road to dodge ad-hoc roadblocks, etc. #AlmostDied, literally.

Strange as it may sound, I didn’t particularly mind that bit so much, seeing it as part of the great adventure of learning about the far reaches of the world. The really bad part was repeatedly diappointing the shipowner (and thus myself), through failing to understand how business is done, and how to follow up on an agreement to ensure that we received our end of the bargain. Having some inkling about what I was getting myself into, I’d read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence before arriving in-country, which I can highly recommend as a primer to living in the Arab world, but it was far from sufficient for learning to deal with business agreements on a practical level.

The situation was partially salvaged by appointing a solid fixer by the name of Othmen, possible only after I’d learned enough French to get by. I still don’t understand how I mismanaged the first guy we took on, but he may just have been a bad apple, seeing as I’d hired him on the merit of being the only German speaker in the crowd. The new guy set me straight on a lot of counter-intuitive employment practices, knew who to contract and who to avoid, and had the confidence to take me aside for a quiet word if I was wading into trouble.

Othmen and I became quite good friends, and before the end of our stay he invited me to stay with his family, in the Algerian border region by Kasserine. This was perhaps the most adventurous part of my stay, since coming into a home of such primitive means (earthen floors, electricity installed the previous year), as the eldest son’s honored employer, is an experience that can’t be bought for money. I got to witness not only life as it has been lived by pastoralists for centuries, but the illegal weapons market (open every Wednesday afternoon), and spent an evening with the operator of an illegal gas station. His life consisted of sitting in a pallet shack with a frighteningly fierce dog, cradling a home made bolt-action 12ga straight out of Fallout, while watching over a few hundred 20 liter plastic drums. In sum this trip provided me with a perspective that I cherish to this day, which has aided me in finding comfort and happiness where none previously existed for a spoiled and jaded European such as myself. In the end, Othmen saved me from becoming irreversibly racist through my experience of Tunisia, and for that alone I’m eternally in his debt.

Weird and wonderfully colorful as it is, North Africa gets awfully drab after enough time has passed. Hearing that the French imported their own food comes as no surprise, because the local grub all tastes of goddamn hariza. Evening entertainment consists of sitting on one of the fishing boats, watching the glow of an old paint bucket of charcoal, and grilling sardines if we were extra lucky. As one of my shipmates put it, “there’s no space for joy here.” Finally, perhaps my strongest memory of Tunisia was the giddy joy of arriving back in Europe after half a year.

Good times, though, 10/10, would recommend.


Cross that off your bucket list.


Doing business in that part of the world, whether it is in Tunesia, Maroc, Algeria, Egypt etc is toxic. You indeed need a local fixer as a buffer, without you end up nowhere. The negotiations of the Ever Given’s ransom is a fine example of how things are done. Start with asking two or three times the amount which would have been reasonable and see how far you can go.

What struck me most was the appalling distrust, not only of foreigners but also between fellow Arabs, that they displayed. Cheating and lying are honorable things. Nobody trusts anybody, except maybe family.


dutchie, klaveness … i really liked the reads you posted. thanks … i didn’t realize you’d been around that long.