Totally Frenched Out

From the blogger formerly known as Samdebretagne

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The one in which I almost end up in a Tunisian jail

So enough of my relationship freak-outs. M co-worker and I met up at the airport in Paris yesterday morning and hopped on our flight to Tunis. As usual, while filling out the customs forms, we decided to check “tourists” – we both look young and could easily pass for a couple traveling together, and it’s just easier that way. But he had a bunch of parts for work in his suitcase, so the airline had stuck a big “fragile” sign on it. Which of course caught the eye of the Tunisian customs officials, who flagged him down and said “Monsieur, ouvrez votre valise s’il vous plait”. He tried to just open the one that had all of his clothes in it, and they said “No sir, not that one –your other suitcase”.

As a background note, the Tunisian government basically charges for anything and everything here. Import, export, invoices – you name, they take a percentage of the total. So even if we send our client something that’s included in their contract, they still have to pay import taxes on it. Which usually amounts to a minimum of 500€. So we’ve taken to bringing stuff for them in our suitcases, in order to save them this money. And up until now, it hasn’t been a problem. But not this time….

So back to my co-worker opening his bags. Of course he opens and it’s all electronic and mechanical items wrapped in bubble wrap. So much for our cover of being tourists. They start questioning him in French, but since he doesn’t speak French, things weren’t going very well. I finally step in and start translating, and then they turn on me.

“Et vous – vous êtes qui mademoiselle ??”

So I say I am French (since I was traveling on my brand-spanking new French passport!!) and that I also work for The Company. They ask for my passport and are suspicious because 1) it is brand-new and 2) my birthplace is shown as Minnesota. So then they spend several minutes questioning us as to why we both have the same birthplace but are of two different nationalities.

I am starting to panic, thinking they are either going to refuse us entry or make us pay a boatload in import fees. Or sell us on the black market. So I tell a teensy, tiny white lie, and I say that it is all stuff that we need in order to test the equipment. That none of it will be staying in Tunisia. And the man guy says somewhat incredulously “You’re 100% sure that none of it will stay here??” To which I reply “Normalement everything will go back with my co-worker”. But it was the normalement that got me. “Wrong answer” he says. “Please step into my office”.

We then spend the next 30 minutes explaining why we have no official documentation showing 1) that we work for The Company or 2) that our client has asked us to come. I try to explain over and over that this is our 4th trip here and that we’ve never had to provide this info before, but it falls on deaf ears.

I finally remember that my client’s company is owned by the largest company in Tunisia, so I bust out that name – Poulina – and they all look at each other. See, the owner of this massive company is all buddy-buddy with the Tunisian President. So you don’t really want to piss anyone there off. They ask us for proof that our client is part of Poulina, and I’ve got nothing – all of the emails I have on my blackberry are in their own company’s name. But then I remember the call my client made to me on Saturday – the call that so annoyed me at the time because it was a weekend and I was celebrating a friend’s birthday. I didn’t pick it up, so he forwarded an email containing some hotel info (also owned by the big head honcho) on to me – and in that email was a Poulina address. And that my friends was our key to freedom! Once they saw that, we were free and clear.

We exited customs, only to discover that my colleague hadn’t printed out the car rental reservation (the one thing I asked him to do, btw), so we then spent the next 30 minutes going from agency to agency, asking if anyone had a rental in the name of Mr X. It was terrible – there are so many agencies in the airport and they will all lie and pretend they know you, just to get your money. But we finally found the one who had our *real* reservation and we got our car. As we’re driving away from the airport, we realize the tank is almost empty. Some of you may remember how my last trip to Tunisia involved us practically getting kidnapped by the Tunisian mafia because we tried to fill up at a station that only wanted cash….of which we had none. So after all our troubles at the airport, we decided to leave it to tomorrow and just get to the hotel.

Except on the way to the hotel, we got pulled over by the Tunisian police for speeding…I’m still not actually sure if we got a ticket or not, but we were eventually allowed to go on our merry way. (ie. We were allowed to continue dodging the various goats, sheep and humans that cross the freeways here). Sometimes I feel like this country is just one giant game of leapfrog.

So that was my Monday – how was yours?

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Blogger IUP said...


March 9, 2010 at 10:20 PM  
Blogger Alisa said...

ha. that is *awesome*. and i'm very glad you didn't end up in a tunisian jail :)

March 10, 2010 at 1:59 AM  
Blogger Nikita said...

Hot damn, girl! Glad you're not languishing in a Tunisian cell... :-)

March 10, 2010 at 6:42 AM  
Blogger meredith said...

Wow, my Monday was much more easy going! Just a sore knee from the gym.

March 10, 2010 at 10:16 AM  
Blogger La Fauxvaisienne said...

WOW! My Monday involved going to school to turn in paperwork and finding out that my classes were canceled. Not very exciting. But your Monday was almost TOO exciting!

March 10, 2010 at 10:35 AM  
Blogger Animesh said...

Wow! You, my friend, have an awesomely interesting life :).

On the bright side, I am pretty certain you'll do very well in India :).

March 10, 2010 at 11:14 AM  
Blogger Nicole said...

Yikes- you must LOVE this job is you are willing to risk jail to save them/their clients a few dollars!

March 10, 2010 at 11:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! Sounds so exciting but kinda freaky at the same time I imagine.

My Monday was Lycée and Uni....

March 10, 2010 at 6:52 PM  
Blogger L said...

We have a term for that: fun in retrospect. Those crazy times that become great stories once they're over, but are pretty hairy while you're in them.

March 11, 2010 at 8:18 PM  
Blogger MISS YURI said...

that may very well be the first time i've heard of someone's blackberry saving them from prison! glad to hear you wriggled your way out of it.

March 11, 2010 at 9:57 PM  
Blogger Starman said...

Ah, what a web we weave when.....

March 12, 2010 at 8:57 PM  
Blogger Leesa said...

WOW!! What a story..
This should go in a book or something!!! Glad it all turned out "semi" okay... Well, at least the part that you didn't go to prison in Tunesie!! Whew!!!

March 28, 2010 at 9:13 PM  

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