Saturday, September 29, 2007

On the Street

Small businesses thrive--there are so many little stores. You find some rather odd pairings of goods. Recent sightings in shop display windows were: cheese and cooking gas, yarn and pets (cats), flower seeds and hair coloring, plants and espresso, cigarettes and baked goods. On the next block from us are four, count ‘em four, florists in a row. All four are reportedly brothers, who were left plots of land by their father. Apparently they don’t get along well enough to join forces. One specializes in cut flowers and another potted plants. Our first dinner guest brought us our first Beirut plant (yay!) from one of the stores. It’s a star jasmine, and we have it on the balcony.

One of the larger stores, a gaudy department store call El Dorado with multiple floors and half floors that appear surprise! at the end of a row of clothes, has the most marvelous window display: a bevy of naked mannequins dressed only in large-sized El Dorado bags, females with the bags tied under the armpits and males around the waist…

Security is evident all over town. Various buildings where members of parliament live have permanent army patrols stationed out front—usually several soldiers in grey camouflage toting automatic weapons. They will smile and say hello if you meet their eyes as you pass by. Concrete barriers with metal chains or sometimes rope laced between them prevent parking and also make it interesting for pedestrians and vehicles to navigate. We haven’t seen a single accident and only a few dented fenders despite the lack of traffic lights or stop signs, creative double parking, and the very narrow space commonly employed between drivers. The underside of cars entering Tom’s school and other places are inspected before they are allowed to enter. What they use is a large—2 foot square--mirror on a rolling base with a long handle—think huge dentist mirror. They slide it under the car and check for bombs… And periodically there are roadblocks at various points of town, and traffic is frequently diverted for both security and construction. Everyone is used to it and life goes on.

There is a lot of construction; concrete, sign of hope. Not so much along the Corniche (seaside), which one would expect to house more upscale hotels and restaurants if tourism was booming. But in the neighborhoods and commercial areas. You can always hear a jackhammer, a dumptruck, a hammer.

Men from Sudan and maybe Ethiopia, dressed in green jumpsuits, sweep the streets daily and pick up trash. Westerners find the lack of recycling painful. One small shopping trip—small because you have to carry everything you buy and because stores are everywhere—yields 4 – 6 plastic bags. Water is purchased in plastic bottles, large and small, that are not recycled. Paper, newspapers and cardboard are thrown out. I’ve seen two recycling bins, for glass bottles, but they are about 8 and 10 blocks away. The only two in town and so close together! With last summer’s Israeli invasion/bombing, the regular assassinations of elected officials, and recent political impasse, not to mention the daily power outages, I suppose it’s easy to see how the environment slips down the priority list.

So this morning, a Saturday, we decided an omelette with feta cheese sounded nice. We had a couple of tiny eggplants in the fridge. Ah, a tomato would be nice. So Tom slipped on his sandals and hit the elevator button. Seven minutes later he returned with two ripe tomatoes, a cantaloupe and a bunch of baby bananas, for less than 3$. City life!

--photo is from our balcony. Can you see the lady in the middle on the right on her baclony? She is taking in her laundry. On the left a man keeps pigeons on the roof--fun to watch at feeding time

Friday, September 21, 2007


“Lifestyles” is the name of the health club we have joined. Lavish, well-equipped, and expensive, wealthy Beirutis and expats alike descend the elevator two floors below the underground parking in a high rise building overlooking the Mediterranean to mingle in the 20 meter pool, the weightroom, the Pilates classes and more. Spa services run the gamut from massage to pedicure. The library makes it a “club” in the British sense, with overstuffed furniture, magazines in three languages, and TV. There is a slate pool table (happy Tom), internet station (unfortunately as slow as ours at home) squash courts, jacuzzi, saunas (men’s and women’s—huge) and, my personal fave: the laconium. I had to look it up, too. It’s a kind of Roman sweat lodge, a small, round room with heated, benches made with hundreds of small tiles and set at a comfortably reclining angle. There is a small fountain in the middle coming out of an urn, fake Doric columns adorning the walls and the air smells subtly of menthol. It isn’t nearly as hot as a sauna. The floors are heated as well, and around the fountain is a tiled ledge where you can prop your feet. After 15 minutes there you repair to the outer room, with more heated, tiled recliners but cooler air to bring you back to the present. Wow. I am also a fan of “Oriental Dancing” class, which would be thought of as belly-dancing in the U.S. I managed to follow reasonably well and it’s quite a good workout. All this for three times what the Y cost in Tacoma, but it is good we joined—it’s hard for us to get exercise any other way—except for all the walking we do = lots, and it gives K something to do besides Arabic class…

Ah, but this is Beirut and everyone--even pedestrians--must enter Lifestyles through the parking garage because of security; like many streets there are barricades on either side to prevent people parking, so the fancy main entrance sits unused.

The photo above is the view approaching the club and also Tom’s school, which lies beyond it a couple of minutes’ walk. It’s an extra bonus of club membership for me—I wouldn’t see the Mediterranean every day otherwise.

Lifestyles, for most people, means work hours of 8 am – 6 pm Monday – Friday and 8 – 1 Saturday. Most small businesses are open 12 hours a day. People work hard, even in the heat of the day. And now, during Ramadan—a whole month--Moslems can’t eat or even drink water from sun-up to sundown. The call to evening prayer reverberates extra sweetly these days. Restaurants, while open during the day to serve other customers (hard to imagine cooking when you can’t eat!), offer special, large evening meals during Ramadan. I’m not sure at what age children join the fast, but they do. The water deprivation in this heat seems especially difficult.

But the weather is cooling down: instead of breaking a sweat at 7:00 a.m. it’s more like 8:00 or 9:00 now. And often there is a lovely breeze. It is easy to see why so many people move to “summer” homes in the hills above the city from April to November. The views of city and sea up there are beautiful as well.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Another assassination

There was a car bomb in a suburb of Beirut early this evening. [Several miles away—we are fine.] The target was a pro-government Christian member of Parliament, and it is assumed the assassins were pro-Syrian. A barbaric attempt to reduce the pro-government majority in Parliament. Syria has never accepted that Lebanon is a separate country. In 1920 France drew a line separating the two. Sigh. This is only the latest in a line of assassinations of MPs.
We like to be hopeful that it might bring people together more quickly.

More: school was cancelled for two days, and may have to made up on Saturdays later. Why two days, I asked. One for mourning and one for the funeral.
People are nervous, and traffic is light as some people stay off the streets.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

New mantra…

Tom says his 16 years in the Tacoma School District prepared him well for Lebanon: everything’s a process, and there’s one more step.

Ah, the inefficiencies. But you can’t get mad—everyone is used to it and they are so kind. Things will happen insha’Allah, if God wills it. The ATM cards we ordered when we set up an account at a local bank finally came (had to pick them up at the bank; the only other option was to have them delivered to our apartment, but then we would have had to give (not just show) the delivery person a copy of our passports as proof of identity). We tried to use the cards but the PIN numbers they had sent us weren’t for the cards, they were for on-line banking, so we had to order ATM PIN numbers, which took another 2 days and another trip to the bank, which is only open from 8:15 – 1:00. On Sunday I spent 2 ½ hours locating and riding 2 buses to get to the Friends Meeting up in the hills outside Beirut. Overshot it by a kilometer or two, but would have been nearly an hour late anyway; the return trip was only an hour. Next week I’ll get there! We haven’t gotten mail in over a week and consequently the credit card bill wasn’t paid in time. I finally had to call overseas to an 800 number [not] and wait on hold to get the billing address. Similar problems with the mortgage surfaced today.

On the upside: One remarkable irony is how safe we feel. Women walk alone, in tight T-shirts, low cut capris, heels and lots of jewelry, even late at night—no lewd remarks and no fear. You have to reach over to the bus driver to hand him money as you leave the bus, which has two open doors for people to come and go at will. The driver carries a huge wad of bills. Sidewalks are small and home to numerous obstacles like posts, chains, holes, chunks of concrete, signs, motorbikes, cars (!), holes, plastic jugs collecting runoff, steps, etc. So when you pass by someone coming from the other direction, you often come very close. I don’t even bother to clutch my handbag anymore. We rarely count our change. The local produce seller (Mr. Haj—not his real name but a term of respect because he has been to Mecca) regularly throws in an extra pear or handful of plums to the kilo of fruit we buy. We do look both ways crossing a street, especially a one-way street… But we are completely at ease where valuables, money and personal safety are concerned.

I started Arabic classes this week, thankfully. It is so good to have even a few words, and people are so thrilled when you try to use them I have no qualms about asking a shopkeeper to help me recite the numbers, or conjugate a verb. I have a good teacher, Nada, and I keep thinking about and appreciating the great ladies—the very talented and experienced teachers--I worked with in Tacoma. They had to teach English completely in English; my teacher (Nada is her name/Ishma Nada) liberally uses English and French (for the French-speaking students) when teaching Arabic. It certainly makes it easier for me, especially learning the alphabet. There are 28 letters, which take different forms depending on whether they are at the beginning (right to left!), middle or end of a word, and whether they are handwritten or printed by a machine… Like French, nouns are masculine or feminine. Fortunately, there seem to be consistent word endings that work for male and female pronouns as well as verbs and nouns, so that helps.! I have 3 2-hour classes a week, and homework. It is really good to be doing something

I’ll leave you with a couple of curious sightings:

  • an advertisement for Desperate Housewives on the Al Jazeera English TV station
  • a Moslem lady with a full brown headscarf and hip length tunic, wearing camouflage capris and high heels below

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Glimpses of apartment life in Beirut

Since there are no formal addresses, when you give someone directions you give area and landmarks. For our apartment you say its in Hamra (district), on rue Basra (Basra Street), across from the Mayflower Hotel, Chatila building (no sign--how do they know??), third floor. People seem to know all the landmarks—and it’s a big city. Our apartment is on a quiet block, with the Mayflower, its Duke of Wellington Pub, apartment buildings and an office building. There are trees in pots in front of the Mayflower, and several in the ground in front of our building and another apartment building. You notice the trees because there aren’t a whole lot of them. The Mayflower sports flags from Canada, China, Japan, Britain, Germany, Norway, France, the UN, Lebanon (in the middle, over the entrance), EU, Jordan, Australia, USA, Bahrain, Italy, Iraq and Kuwait, in that order. We got our DSL Internet connection by approaching the hotel, as we found we were reading their signal. Lots faster than applying through the phone company. We had to sit the computer desk on top of a sheet of wood because the wires aren’t properly grounded and we kept getting shocked when touching the back of the computer… Our building has seven floors, with two apartments on each floor.

On the adjacent street is a bookstore, a seamstress, women’s nightgown and undergarment store, barber shop, apartments, another hotel (The Napoleon, catering to a mostly middle eastern clientele), a flower shop, and the occasional feral cat. They are small and gentle; some people feed them. On the other side of the street is an upscale bakery and chocolatier, with the best croissants in town, so they say. Next to it is a snack shop selling spinach or meat filled pastries like samosas, and flat bread with spices or olives. And a man or his wife, in a tiny place selling Arabic coffee, Nescafe or herb tea—for 30 cents. Several other stores offer a wide variety of things—the other day I went into a store with jewelry and watches in the window and found a cheap Chinese telephone, then thought to ask for a 110-220 volt transformer and they had that too! Stores are small and crowded, and occasionally dark when the power goes out.

We have three large-ish food/department stores within a 6 block radius: Smith’s, catering to expats and carrying Lebanese wines from the Bekaa Valley (not bad!), the Co-op, which is not a co-op, and Idriss, which won’t accept any paper bills if they are torn or taped (found out hard way). All three go on and on—you have to peer round corners to locate hidden aisles with more goods and whole floors you might have missed. I was so fortunate to have the wife of the Assistant Principal, also a “trailing spouse,” who has been here for 6 years, to show me around these places. Let’s see, at the store, there are dozens of yummy cheeses to choose from, pastas, canned goods, several varieties of pita bread, laundry soaps, locally made foil and plastic wrap, unrefrigerated eggs--products from Lebanon, Egypt, China and France most often. Some things you’d think might be cheap, like olive oil and almonds, bear prices similar to the US.

At a pharmacy, as in many countries you can go in and tell the pharmacist your symptoms and they will discuss options with you and give you medicines. Thankfully the local ones seem to offer multiple brands of 50 SPF sunscreen (I chose the cheapest French-made one)—I didn’t know it came in 50.

I have arranged to have one 19 liter water bottle delivered each week, for $3. Looks like it won’t be enough—we’re four days into the week and running low. But you can buy water at every store, so I’ll supplement with smaller bottles when needed. We are not sure if we should be brushing our teeth or washing vegetables with the tap water…so far so good.

Today I washed and hung out the sheets. Out the kitchen window of our fourth floor apartment, after wiping the lines clean of city dirt. For one as leery of heights as me, and as clumsy, it was an experience. But things dried better there than on the drying rack on the balcony, and I didn’t lose anything to the alley below--hurrah.

The kitchen sink (granite?) is quite flat—no, I think the drain is actually a little higher than the sides.

Tom makes coffee in a small pot on the stove (alot), mixing powdered beans with sugar and water, letting it come to a boil three times and then settle. See photo of Tom is his native habitat.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Surprised by hibiscus, or bougainvillea on cedars*

* see photo, um, sideways

Lebanese people are known for their generosity and their survival skills. This makes it so easy to be a visitor here, and to make deep connections with people.

Fireworks, celebratory gunfire, and numerous roadblocks accompanied the Lebanese Army's victory over a militant group that had taken over a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. Apparently 12 fighters escaped, hence the roadblocks.

Elections are planned for September 17. Can this country with people from 17 different religious sects form an effective government?

Assorted wonderments of life in Beirut:

  • Hibiscus around every corner, in a wide range of colors
  • Ditto, oleander bushes and jasmine (mmmmm…)
  • Arabic numerals: the sixes look like western sevens and the four is a backwards three
  • Internet providers that are not “illegal,” but rather “unknown to the government”
  • The Beirut Health Food Store, catering to macrobiotics
  • Houses have no numbers, streets no signs
  • The occasional banyan tree, massive and draped with what look like hanging roots
  • Cable TV with 70 stations, in Arabic (from Lebanon, Egypt and ??), French, English (BBC, CNN, MSNBC), German, Spanish—for $25/month
  • The Turkish concierge of our building, who greets me by kissing me three times on the cheek (left, right left), several times a day, and gives me fresh figs and grapes