November 20, 2017

My Mountain House

So this would be the road to my house

I’ve got this plan. I am going to win the lottery, and then I am going to buy a wonderful Lebanese mountain house from the fifties, restore it, move into it, and spend my days reading, gardening, making marmalade and sell it for a good cause, and wearing outrageously unfashionable clothes.
I have yet to win the lottery (I am working on it), but this weekend I found my mountain house from the fifties.

And here is the house. Build right at the edge of a cliff. You see only the two tops floors. there is a bottom floor, but not visible from this level. But this would be the actual house you live in, below is just work space.

Sunday morning, as I walked the dogs along the boulevard of Sofar, I stumbled upon an open gate. That does not happen often in Sofar. The entire village, in the old days a popular summer resort, connected by railroad to both Beirut and the Beqaa Valley,  is either shot to pieces, or seems to have been bought up by Gulf Arabs. In particular one Kuwaiti family, the Kharafis. The entire row of Sursock villas, overlooking the Lamartine valley, belong to the sons of Nasser Kharifi, who died some 6 years ago. 

Quite spectacular view. Need to get some windows back in there.

With the current situation, I have doubts that any of them is ever going to visit their home any time soon. That row of villas from the thirties and forties, with red tiled roofs resting on wooden rafters, have all been restored, a little too ostentatiously for my taste, but there is one on the side that probably was evacuated in the late seventies, never to be inhabited again. And that house is waiting for me to win the lottery.

I walk here quite often, and the gate, usually closed, was open last Sunday. So I am taking you on a tour of the old Lebanon, when Beirut was – for a short while – the Paris of the Middle East.

This would be the library. I will have a fire place installed.

The 3 floor house – quite a demure dwelling from the outside - is built on two different levels. The main entrance is on the first floor, whereas at the back of the house, the service entrance is one floor lower.

The house obviously was built with a staff in mind. The kitchen is on the bottom floor, together with storage rooms, the ‘chaudière’, and some small bedrooms with tiny and basic bathrooms.  Clearly the lady of the house was not into cooking, because on the first floor, there is the living and dining room, and what I think may have been the den, with a very tiny little kitchen, more like a pantry.

I think I will even keep the original bathrooms. They are fantastic! Just some scrubbing is needed.

There are two large bedrooms, each with walk in closets, and wonderfully fancy bathrooms. You can see from the shape of the bath tubs, that these were not simple build-in tubs, but nicely shaped ones.

The second floor has more bedrooms under the slanted wooden roof, all with their own bathrooms. The windows are made of wood, and so are the banisters. The doors, unfortunately, all have disappeared. 

I love the wooden windows.

The house, or should I say, my house, has obviously never been occupied by the Syrian army, who practically occupied just about everything up on that ridge there, because it still has the original mirrors, tubs, toilets and sinks. I have seen houses in Bois de Boulogne, for instance, way up above Bikfaya, that had been totally gutted, from the wall tiles to the wall sockets, even the copper pipes in the walls had been ‘extracted’. This one is pretty intact, apart from the doors.

And the trees and the grass. I will have to buy a lawn mower. But maybe I get a donkey, he will keep it short too. Although he might end up decimating my vegetable garden as well. As yo can see, this project needs some planning. 

It needs minor constructural repairs, but other than that, it is all about redecorating the place. Okay, maybe we need to work on that kitchen, because there is no way on Earth I am dragging dinner from down to the first floor on a daily basis and back again. Heating the place will cost a pretty penny, from the looks of the massive ‘chaudieres’ that are in place everywhere, but hey, when I win the lottery, that will not be an issue.

It's got a garage as well.

The grounds are fantastic as well. It has a fountain, and massive cedar trees all around, which need some trimming. There is a garage for the cars. My dogs will be able to roam freely, although I am not sure how that will go with the chickens and the peacocks I intend to keep as well. 
Anyway, these are all details. 
Right now I am working on that winning lottery ticket. And then I need to find the owner of that house way up in Sofar.

The house from the side. You can see the bottom floor as well here.

November 06, 2017

More Road Trippin’

The little alley ways of the Saida Souq

Saturday, I took my father to visit a friend down south in Kfar Tibnit. She was still busy with trimming the olive trees, and so on our way we decided to stop at the old souq in Saida, which is probably the only souq in the country that is still authentic and working. 
The little alley ways have been paved not that long ago, and some of the alleys have been obviously restored, but the previous owners and business did not have to make place for fancy shops and business. You can’t enter with a car, and everything has to be brought in by handcar, or little electric scooters. Trades are still organized by quarters. 

You’ve got the gold souq, the vegetable souq, there are alleys where all the woodworkers and carpenters are clustered, the upholstery guys are in one street together, the mattress makers and blanket sellers in another, there are the spice sellers, the butchers, the head scarves and bra sellers, and in between you have your pastry shops and bakeries, the mosques and the schools, and in between that, you have tiny little alleys and stair cases that lead to even tinier little court yards and houses; a veritable labyrinth. Hollywood could film an entire series on the middle ages here without ever having to change a thing of the scenery.

Remove the wires and the blue bin, and you are in 1455 AD

After that, we spent the afternoon in Kfar Tibnit.  When the evening was approaching, it was time to go home. As I had gotten stuck in a nasty traffic jam in Sidon, and I do not like take the same road twice, I wondered if I could go from Kfar Tibnit straight to the small mountain village in the Shouf where we were sleeping that night. Google Maps showed that this was very well possible. Granted, it would take some time (2:19 minutes), but we were not in a hurry. And armed with Google maps, we went on our way.

The bait shop. No idea how this guy is going to get something from the back of his shop

But the night fell quite rapidly, Google maps kept shifting its path from one road to another, seemingly unsure of what road it should take, and for some strange reason, there seemed to be a massive black-out in the entire region; not one silly street light worked. Or maybe there weren’t any.

Traffic became sparser and sparser, while road constructions seemed to be on the rise. Entire stretches of tarmac just dissipated as we drove along.
Every now and then I consulted Google maps again, but the app had change to night vision mode, and in black, the map of Lebanon looked quite unfamiliar to me. I tried to get on the road alongside the Qaroun Lake, because once there, I know how to get home, but it seemed a lot easier than it was in reality in the pitch dark.

Coffee on its way

Somewhere, I knew, I had to go to the right, otherwise I’d end up in the mountains of Jezzine, and then it would be tiny little hairpin roads for hours and hours.  And so when Google maps suddenly indicates that I should turn right, off the main road into a rather narrow wooded road, but into the Beqaa Valley, I thought that be a good idea.

And so here we drive, along this tiny little road, and not a village, house or light in sight. It’s a good thing my father doesn’t see too well; he’s 102 and has only one eye. I do not see much either, for that matter. I am constantly driving with big lights, blinding anyone coming from the opposite direction, but no one is coming from the opposite direction. We are clearly the only ones. 
But I do see the flags in drums suddenly appear on both sides of the road. The logo of Hezbollah, even in the dark, is like that of Coca Cola; recognizable even when only partly visible. And then a large metal barrier, with a young man in front of it.
A road block, but not an army one. 
No gun, but the baseball cap and that typical blue parka are an open book: I have stumbled upon a gate with a Hezbollah guard in front of it.

More medieval scenes. The should organize some Air BNB's here. "Sleep in an authetic souq."

In the middle of nowhere, in the dark, on an unmarked road, with a phone in my hand.  Uhhh. How is this going to look? Hezbollah guards are notoriously suspicious, even when you have a credible story.

Saad Harriri just resigned blaming Hezbollah and the Iranians for threatening his life, and here are two foreigners in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, at some sort of Hezbollah base, claiming to be driving to a little obscure town in the Shouf which is like very very far away, while using Google maps. No Lebanese would ever be doing this.

"Where are you going?”

“Well, that way,” I point to the barrier, showing the road on my phone.
“But where do you need to go?

Naming the little town to where I intend to drive is not going to help much; he probably never heard of it. So I try “Shtoura”. Not quite where I need to be, but it’s on the way. ”And my map says I need to drive here.
Yes,” he replies, and then pauses for while, “But this road is closed.”
So how do I get to Shtoura?
“You need to go back to the main road, and then to the right. Ask at the army check point down the road.”

Yes, about that army check point.
You see, I am not really supposed to drive through this region with a foreigner (my dad) without permission from the army headquarters in Saida. Not sure why, but that’s the rule. I sort of had banked on the fact that in the dark, the soldiers don’t really check who is in the car, they just wave you through, so I am sure as heck not going to stop at that check point and ask for directions.

Anyway. Like a good little obedient citizen, I, very nicely and very meekly, turn quietly around, go back on the main road, do not ask for directions at the army check point, and decide to just go along with the hairpin mountain roads. 

When we do get home, some three hours later, my father says, "Wonderful trip.” 

November 04, 2017

On the Road

Willows in rows

My dad is in town again. For those that read me regularly, yes, he is 102 now. And going strong.
It’s a family thing. His older brother died last year, and a few of his siblings have made it into their nineties. He does not believe in afternoon naps and he likes to go road tripping. The curvier the roads, the happier he gets.

A little bench to contemplate life on

He walks about 5 kilometers a day back home in Holland, but here he has had to adapt; he doesn’t get beyond 3 km.  He’s got a type of walker which helps him with his stability when he walks, but he complains about the sidewalks here in town. He wanted to walk from my house to the Corniche, but the pavement is so irregular, that he ended up carrying his stroller most of the way. I think all the ‘walkers’ in Beirut can relate to that. A stroll through Beirut is more like an obstacle course.  Yesterday we walked from Dar in Wardieh (beginning of Hamra) all the way to Caracas (end of Hamra). And that was after he had been walking for about 3 hours on his own. He tells me that when he was young (twenties) he’d bike home for the weekend,  and that was some 150 kilometers one way. I took him to the Tanaayel Monastery in the Beqaa Valley over the weekend, because he likes cows and farms, and the walking is smooth there.

The duck pond

I’ve written before about the monastery, but because I doubt any of you remember, I am going to unceremoniously cut and paste that bit.

Taanayel, a Jesuit Monastery with farmland and a small lake, is right along the road to Damascus, halfway between Beirut to Damascus. The land, some 200 hectares, was given to the Jesuit fathers in 1860 by Napoleon III. Originally it was a swamp (nice guy, this Napoleon, handing out crummy land for free), but the monks, with their proverbial patience of a monk (That’s a saying in Dutch; ‘monnikengeduld’), transformed the area into agricultural land. They established a large farm, a school, a seminary and a church.

It is nice to walk there, because the way it is set up is very European, and thus feels like home. The Jesuit monks planted poplars and willows, and dug irrigation ditches to help dry the marsh lands. Everything is in neat rows, and with little tree-lined lanes in between the fields and the orchards and the vines.
These days they have some 75 milk cows and a herd of goats. They produce milk and cheese, and cultivate wine, nuts and honey as well. The farm also serves as a teaching facility for the Faculty of Agriculture at the Saint Joseph University in Beirut.

Getting ready to feed the cows

There is an interesting story about how these Jesuits ended up with the land. Apparently, in 1857, they discovered that the Bekaa Valley is an ideal place for growing grapes and producing wine. Business was good, but somewhere at the end of the 19th century, a number of French priests were killed. The Ottomans, the rulers at that time, did not any problems with France, so they compensated for the death of the priests and offered the Taanayel property. (source)

The farm is still in Jesuit hands, and as such, nothing has changed much in the lay-out of the land. No trees have been cut during the war, no ugly buildings went up, and it was not used as garbage a dump. These Jesuits are old school, and very much into the ecological side of agriculture. A Dutch priest, Father Brouwers, was part of the agricultural team on the farm for a long time.

A field of Merlot grapes

The farm has seen its fair share of sadness during the war. I remember visiting them one December, and was told that over Christmas someone had stolen the major bull. “It’s probably someone’s Christmas dinner now,” said Father Brouwers, “but I doubt it’s very tasty. The beast was old. Why would you want to steal an old bull? It’s clear the thieves do not know much about the meat business.” 

Another year they got stuck up with a small trainings camp of young Palestinians which the PLO had set up on the domain. There was nothing they could do about it. It wasn’t anything really serious, more like a Boy Scout venture, but the Israelis didn’t want any of it, and dropped an airplane bomb on the 4 some ram shackle tents which housed the boys. This saddened the priest greatly. “They were just young boys; it wasn’t worth an airplane bomb.” An even sadder event was when another Dutch Jesuit priest from Taanayel, Father Kluiters, was shot twice, hanged and impaled during the war, in 1985. He’d been in Lebanon since 1974. 

On the road

These days are more joyful however, and the farm is open to visitors. You can rent bikes on the farm (go through the gate, park your car near the church and walk to the milk farm (laiterie), where they rent them in the courtyard), and bike all around the farmland. If you are around the milk installation around 4:30, you can see them milk the cows.

October 22, 2017

Heading Home

A lovely couple, somewhere in their sixties (?), on their way, or maybe coming from,  to what seems to be a social occasion.

Now that it is finally starting to cool off in town (some three weeks later than normal), Beirut is slowly becoming more pleasant. It is ‘walkable’ again. For people is cooler climates, who have never been in Beirut, this may sounds incomprehensible, but this town is practically ‘unwalkable’ in summer. Unwalkable in the sense that it is so hot and humid, that the place resembles a green house. Just walking to the post office or the supermarket becomes a feat, and you basically feel like taking a shower and changing all your clothes after every errant into town.

Four colorful ladies (my guess Syrian as their dress is a little too colorful/uncoordinated /conservative for the neighborhood) on their way home.

But now it is (almost) pleasant again. Two more weeks and it will be perfect.
On Friday evenings, after work, I gather with a few friends somewhere in Beirut for drinks, as we discuss current events, our experiences that week or reflect on life in general. We’ve been doing this for almost 15 years now, I believe, if not longer. 

Two ladies on their way from the gym (and the supermarket)

I cannot remember when we started with it, but apart from the summer hiatus, it’s a regular thing. Our partners and kids even know that this time is pretty much non-negotiable for family events. When they plan something, it’d be like “Oh no we can’t, it’s Friday and you’re with your friends.” There’s thousands of those inspirational quotes floating around the web, imploring the importance of a few good friends above wealth, a career and whatever else there’s to be had in the world, and it is quite true.

On their way from work, obviously.

And after our gathering, we split, each going her way. I usually walk back home, through town, and Beirut at dusk is at its loveliest. The temperature is cool, the light is soft and demure, and the people are all heading home (I am always reminded of this Christmas song, with goes ‘As the shoppers rush home with their treasures’.) , or to some other place to gather with family or friends. It’s this medieval feeling, of people getting back to the town, draw bridge goes up, gates close, and we’re safe and snug tight for the night.
Here are your 'shoppers heading home with their treasures' What I found so endearing is that the two gentlemen on the right (in blue turbans, so not Lebanese. My guess either migrant workers from Asia, or Unifil soldiers on leave from the south) re holding hands. In Europe this wold have a different connotations. Here it's just friends.

As I was walking, I saw all these lovely people in front of me, and felt like a regular Vivian Maier, and kept taking pictures. It’s been like two years since I have actually held a real camera; my phone does the job quite well.  So here you are, some scenes from Beirut on a Friday at dusk. 
And my apogees for the over-processed images. You can't see too well on a small phone screen.

These guys are obviously not going home yet. Your male version of the 'sitat el-Ashrafiyeh'

October 15, 2017

Embrace Change (of Seasons)

While Beirut is still hot and balmy, fall has definitely set in in the mountains above Beirut. The Virginia creeper color the walls red, and although the parasol pines will stay green all winter, the others trees are slowly turning yellowish. Not exactly an Indian summer, but still quite lovely.

I like fall, but then I like the beginning of every season. I think I embrace the change. The sun rises later (winter time is not until the end of this month), the mist hangs a little longer in the valley in the mornings, it is cooler, and the dust washes away.

 My tortoises in the mountains feels the change too. They are getting ready for their hibernation. They get out in the early morning sun, and place themselves sideways against the wall, like Russian grandmothers catching much needed sun in the long Siberian winter.  By 12 they’re back in their den, and you will not see them anymore the rest for the day. Not much longer, and they will stay in until March. They’ve had a productive year; 24 baby tortoises. Next year I will have to think of some type of ‘into the wild’ program for them, to re-populate the neighborhood.

And so for Sunday morning’s hike, I walked straight out of the back door and into the forest. Usually it is way too hot to hike there, and dry. For good hikes, you need to go up higher into the mountain. But yesterday night it rained hard and long, and this morning everything was clean and fresh. The plan was to hike to my cemetery, but I got side tracked and ended up somewhere else interesting.

I took those strange stairs down. Someone, a long time ago, went to great length to build this very long stair case in the middle of the forest. It starts at an old and long abandoned villa, and descends into the village in the valley, but not quite. There’s still a stretch where you have to work your way through the brush and thorns.

The house used to belong to a doctor, but he died, and so did his wife. His children do not live in Lebanon anymore, except for one, somewhere in Beirut, and no one has the money, or the desire, to rebuild this monumental place. The stairs remain, but I may never find out why they were built. I do use them though, when I climb down into the village below.

Out of the door and into the forest. What a luxury. The forest was lovely and quiet. And so I share some pictures with you of my walk.

October 08, 2017

The State of Arabic

I walked into a little street I had never walked before and right away, treasures left and right

My daughter, like quite a few of her classmates, hardly ever speaks Arabic. The home environment is English, and outside with friends or family, it is either English, or French. TV and radio is in English, books, the Internet, sports activities and what else, all English here in our neighborhood, and very little Arabic is ever spoken around her. It just shows how cosmopolitan this town is. Or how pathetic the integration of my family is. 

Anyway, as a result, the classical Arabic taught at school, pretty much Chinese to even Arabic speaking students, has held little interest for my daughter. Combined with the fact that the program is not the most modern in the world, and parents (that be us)  that do not really emphasize or help out her with her studies, we now have a child that can read Arabic, but has no clue as to what she is reading. It is literally Chinese to her. 

Since this year is the official exam year for the Arabic Brevet, I have to move her officially out of the Arabic program and into the American program. Apparently it is something I was supposed to do when she entered school, but apparently I had not done this, according to her school.
I was pretty sure I HAD done this, but it turned out this was for my son. So I will have to do this again. 

Railroad tracks in the middle of town

In order to accomplish this, I have a number of papers that I need to submit to the Ministry of Education. Exactly what I need, is not quite clear, because the English button on the homepage of the ministry does not work.
This does not altogether surprise me, as I have quite a lot of experience with the workings of this particular ministry
I asked around, and a friend supplied me with another link of this ministry, which you cannot find on the home page itself. On this page is a link to ‘documents needed’, but when you click on it, you get this, so that speaks for itself.

Anyway, I asked around, and I thought I had pretty much everything I needed to make this a one-time trip in order to organize the paperwork.

So, this morning, all prepared and ready, I drove to the ministry of Higher Education.

And then they were closed. 

Arabic language lessons

It seems they do not work on Saturdays anymore. They work Mondays to Fridays,  8:30 to 3:30.  Which is when I am working too. 

The saga will have to be continued at a later date. 

October 02, 2017


Some dog walkers up in Dahr el-Baidar

Aren’t you off today?” asks the old aunt in my house as I was about to leave last week.
What? Is it Sunday? I could have sworn it was Monday, I am thinking.
No, there is a strike. Everything is closed.”

6:37 AM in the mountains

How I got to be from a journalist who was subscribed to just about every news service in town to a person who hasn’t watched the news in over two weeks is slightly befuddling. But there it is. I seriously haven’t read a newspaper or watched the news in over two weeks. What I pick up from the news is when Facebook friends start sharing ‘I am safe’ messages.
I have an employer who does not believe in strikes, and so off to work I was. I don’t even know what the strike was for. I am politically fatigued.

Pine trees

Back in journalism school I was taught that every society and civilization goes through cycles, and that it is not realistic to assume that once a society is on a high,  it will remain like that. What goes up, must come down, according to my professor. Change is inevitable and continuous. And not always for the better. There were some philosophers he quoted, by I missed that bit of information. It is not the politicians that cause the mood of society, but they represent the mood of the people. From what we’ve got in power these days around the globe, I’d say I am not alone in this politically fatigued-mood.

A view from something very old to something rather new

I used to scour blogs for one political analysis after the other. Bloggers would dissect the comments of politicians, put them in a different light and provide background info that newspapers wouldn’t bother with. But the blog sphere in Lebanon these days is taken over by fashionistas, movie critics, restaurant reviewers and those that are plugging products for freebees. There is one blogger that still actively promotes road trips through Lebanon, but that’s about it.
Everyone is politically fatigued.

An abandoned house

Everybody I know is busy with surviving. Even the streets are tired. My street used to be nice and clean, but the Sokleen guys no longer sweep every morning. The influx of people into the neighborhood has led to more garbage, but it does not get cleaned up anymore. At night, there are people that spend time in the tiny space that used to be a little park, but no longer, and now the park is slowly filling itself with carton boxed they use to sit on, beer bottles and cigarette packs, and the hoses of the irrigation system got disconnected, and now the plants are dying.
The whole town is fatigued.
There is art in everything

It is all cyclical, and I am sure there will be an uplift, and it seems that currently we are riding the bottom of the wheel.
But it is all good, because I spent a lot of time outside Beirut. I count my newborn turtles (I am at 20 right now and another 2 hatching), I go on long walks through the mountains with the dogs, I enjoy the views, see friends now and then, and that’s about it.
And this too, shall pass.