Goodbye, Tunisia

Face masks, social distancing, PCR tests, passenger locator forms, quarantine measures… All a veritable potpourri of stressful activities. In the middle of all this, the eye of the storm, I’m currently sat at gate 27, terminal K in Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. If you are reading this, and in transit, come over and say, hi! I’m wearing a blue shirt.

This week, I packed up all my worldly possessions, got a COVID PCR test (the first of three), gave the keys back to my landlord and left Tunisia yesterday evening. Paris is a pit stop, not my end destination, and marks the first time I have stayed in an airside hotel. As a younger man, I would have been happy to kip on the floor, however, I’m no longer young and COVID-19 restrictions probably forbid anyone from finding a sleeping pitch somewhere in the corner of a departures lounge. Anyway, given the stress of moving country during a pandemic, having a good night’s sleep seems to have taken the edge off things.

It goes flat at the press of a button.

As I said, I’m in the eye of the storm, and there is something about airport departure lounges that allow me to ponder. I arrived in Tunis at the very end of August 2020. It was late at night and an airport transfer swiftly moved us to a ground floor AirBnB, where we would quarantine for the next 9 days. Another COVID PCR test later and we were free.

With the newly acquired freedom to move around, the beach was one of the first things I saw and probably the biggest draw. Being afforded an opportunity to live within spitting distance of the Mediterranean coast is a privilege. Having a daily cup of coffee with a sea view is a dream come true.

But Tunisia is not just fun in the sun, it’s historically significant, holds treasures of antiquity and has landscapes ranging from woodlands to the desert. I hasten to add that most of which I have not had the privilege of seeing; COVID-19 continues to limit our movements. It’s a shame, yes, but understandable given we are still battling a global pandemic. My contribution to the effort was to stay local.

Can you spot the island?

La Marsa 4

From September, I worked with a dedicated team of people. We have all strived to keep our teaching centre face-to-face and when necessary, made sure the mechanism that moves the operation to virtual delivery is as well-oiled as can be. This has not been without challenges, but if anything, it has hammered home that we cannot work in a vacuum. Effective working is a collaborative process that requires us to plan, delegate, review and adjust as we go along.

Naturally, all working behaviours have been framed around COVID-19 and institutional policies to mitigate risks by ensuring everyone: wears a face mask, maintains a social distance, enters and exits in an orderly way, and when applicable, works from home. We should not underestimate the responsibility we all have to play our part. Very early on, I realised that any measures put in place cannot just be top-down, there has to buy-in from students, teachers, administrative staff and managers; it’s not something to we can just pay lip service to, we do it even when nobody is around.

Given the measures we are all experiencing, bonding and forming relationships with colleagues is difficult, especially when face-to-face interaction is limited, our faces are always covered with a mask, and any ideas of staff social events were taken off the agenda a long time ago. And here’s me thinking it’s just about having fun, drinks and nibbles…

I mention relationships because it’s very easy to lose sight of the individual in the melee of dealing with a pandemic. Having discussed this with a friend of mine recently who works in mainland Europe, it’s true that many of us in ELT have lost much of the social interaction we usually take for granted. That call someone receives from a colleague who wants to find out what they did when they covered their last lesson, might just be the only social interaction they have had that day. It’s something to keep in mind, even for your own mental wellbeing.

This reminds me of a situation I experienced when I was a much younger man, while working as a night security guard. I worked from 6pm to 6am in a factory, alone with my thoughts, cycled there and back regardless of the weather, went to bed before anyone woke up and left again before anyone got back home. In the winter months, I rarely saw daylight. Not the healthiest of jobs, but what made it tolerable was the call I would make every hour to the controller, the person sat in the central control room. We called it a check call; its purpose being to check you were okay and, although not explicitly stated as such, that you weren’t sleeping. I would call and probably spend a minute or two talking about stuff, life, anything, the more trivial it was, the better. At some point, the management automated the process by getting us to call a number where a computer-generated voice asked for your company ID number, before thanking you and hanging up. Needless to say, many complained, and rightly so. As much as the management where helping the controller, they were alienating their staff by cutting off the only human interaction many of us would have in our daily lives.

There has been a concerted effort to raise awareness of mental health issues and how to cope with the strains of working through a pandemic. Some have suffered worse than others, but none of us have come out unscathed. I don’t want in any way suggest I have the answer, but it probably helps to talk to people, chew the fat, tête-à-tête, call it what you will. It’s not the solution, but just like my acceptance that sleeping in a comfy bed, and not on the floor of a departures lounge with my legs poking out the bottom of my jacket/makeshift blanket, will probably make my journey more tolerable, the same could be said with checking in with people who haven’t left their home for a few days. Also, if I’m honest, the benefits are probably reciprocal; it’s as good for you as it is for them.

My flight beckons. Final thoughts: thank you to everyone in Tunis who has made me feel welcome. You’re all lovely and I’m going to miss you very much.

Thank you for reading.

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