July 27, 2014

Holidays Part 5

Playing backgammon (in a suit) in Mar Elias
 
 
I have gone on my annual Trek to the Motherland: I have to replenish my body and soul with energy in order to be able to deal with another year of Lebanon. It is a country of incredible beauty and wonderful people, but the place is a paradox. What you experience in Lebanon in one year, you experience in another country in a life time. The pace of living is so fast, yet so relaxed at the same time, that it drains your energy like no other place. And so I have gone to re-energize.
 
 
In the meantime, I will leave you with a typical Beirut street scene - a different backgammon game - every week. I hope to see you again after the summer holidays.

July 20, 2014

Holidays Part 4

Playing backgammon in front of the butcher in al-Zarif
 
I have gone on my annual Trek to the Motherland: I have to replenish my body and soul with energy in order to be able to deal with another year of Lebanon. It is a country of incredible beauty and wonderful people, but the place is a paradox. What you experience in Lebanon in one year, you experience in another country in a life time. The pace of living is so fast, yet so relaxed at the same time, that it drains your energy like no other place. And so I have gone to re-energize.
 
 
In the meantime, I will leave you with a typical Beirut street scene - a different backgammon game - every week. I hope to see you again after the summer holidays.

July 13, 2014

Holidays Part 3

Playing Backgammon in Caracas , between the manakish vendor and the suitcase salesman
 
I have gone on my annual Trek to the Motherland: I have to replenish my body and soul with energy in order to be able to deal with another year of Lebanon. It is a country of incredible beauty and wonderful people, but the place is a paradox. What you experience in Lebanon in one year, you experience in another country in a life time. The pace of living is so fast, yet so relaxed at the same time, that it drains your energy like no other place. And so I have gone to re-energize.
 
 
In the meantime, I will leave you with a typical Beirut street scene - a different backgammon game - every week. I hope to see you again after the summer holidays.

July 06, 2014

Holidays Part 2

Playing Backgamnmon in Shatila, an old argileh café at the sea shore
 
I have gone on my annual Trek to the Motherland: I have to replenish my body and soul with energy in order to be able to deal with another year of Lebanon. It is a country of incredible beauty and wonderful people, but the place is a paradox. What you experience in Lebanon in one year, you experience in another country in a life time. The pace of living is so fast, yet so relaxed at the same time, that it drains your energy like no other place. And so I have gone to re-energize.
 
In the meantime, I will leave you with a typical Beirut street scene - a different backgammon game - every week. I hope to see you again after the summer holidays.

June 29, 2014

Holidays Part 1

Playing backgammon somewhere in Zokak el-Blatt
 
 
I have gone on my annual Trek to the Motherland: I have to replenish my body and soul with energy in order to be able to deal with another year of Lebanon. It is a country of incredible beauty and wonderful people, but the place is a paradox. What you experience in Lebanon in one year, you experience in another country in a life time. The pace of living is so fast, yet so relaxed at the same time, that it drains your energy like no other place. And so I have gone to re-energize.
 In the meantime, I will leave you with a typical Beirut street scene - a different backgammon game - every week. I hope to see you again after the summer holidays.

June 21, 2014

Abercrombie & Fitch

Hmmm. A change in my son's dress code is in order, I guess. He's fitting the terrorist's profile to a T. Where's my son anyway?


(More here)

June 18, 2014

Summer Season

We start early
 
You know that summer is in town when members of the extended family are flying in from all over the world.  And they all gather around the dining table. At this particular dinner table by the sea last night we’ve got Lebanon, Holland, the US, Greece and  Italy together.

At sunset
 
Sometime this summer members of the French clan will fly in as well and spent some time here. Australia comes in every two or three years, so not this summer. There are more Lebanese living outside Lebanon than inside, although exact numbers are not available. And every summer they come back to re-connect.
 
After sunset

 Like so many families, hubbie’s family is spread over 4 continents. Facebook and Whatsapp have significantly narrowed the communication gap, and so now we know what the others wear on weddings, when they meet with friends or what they do with Father’s Day. But still, the pull of the land is strong, and summer is the time when they all come home.
 
At night
And we all gather around the dining table. We start early, some of us have kids that still need to go to school the next day. Dinners here involve everyone, not just the grown-ups. Kids, grannies and housekeepers; everyone comes along. Night after night after night.
 

June 14, 2014

Smile! We're In!

 
At a Beirut pub, somewhere in downtown Beirut, the Dutch anxiously awaited the verdict; Were we going to meet our demise, just like 4 years ago? Was it going to be an early ending of a World Championship? The Spaniards are an opponent not to be taken for granted. Actually, they’re an opponent we kind of fear. So we went without a lot of hope. After all . . . we hold the record for playing the most World Cup finals without ever winning the tournament.





And indeed. 1:0 for the Spaniards. Well, we sort of expected that.
 
Oh. 1:1. Well, that is at least an honorable defeat.
1:2? Is this possible? Will it last? They just need one goal, and we're back to nothing.
 
1:3. Wait a minute, this is looking better. We actually might win this.
 
1:4 Are you kidding me? We ARE going to win this !
https://vine.co/v/Mj3xU1Mgjre1:5 No way!!! So we really did it!

June 08, 2014

Life's a Beach

SIL (sister in-law) and I are on the beach and talking; what to do when those kids have all left the house and gone off to distant horizons?
We still have a good stretch to go, I have another 7 years, she’s got life (almost: another 15 years to go), but one day, they’ll be all gone. And then what?
Travel with our hubbies? Not 12 months a year. We’ll hike to Santiago de Compostella with a donkey, hopefully from Lebanon if there’s peace in Syria by that time. If not, we’ll ship the beast to Greece and take off from there. The French Revolution lasted  some 25 years before things sort of settled, so the Syrians still have some years to go. But then what are we going to do? Charity work? We’re not the knitting kind. Gardening? We have balconies.
 
 
 
And then we figured it out. We’re going to buy ourselves a piece of land above Batroun, and begin a beach. 3 months of work per year, the rest is all preparation and maintenance.  Life on the beach, sunsets at sea, sunrise behind us over the mountains, sand between your toes, a fridge with ice cream, and wine,  and pondering about the meaning of life. We'll even learn how to play backgammon. We don't have to make any money; just pay for our expenses. And our grandchildren will love to spend time with their grannies. Heck, what child has a granny with a beach club?  
We still have to come up with a good name for our beach though. And a piece of land.
 
What are your retirement plans?

June 07, 2014

Hooligans

 
Bunch of hooligans, my daughter & friends. In most countries you’d get arrested for this. In Holland this would have cost me a 140 euro ticket (not included the price of the spray paint cans).
Here, we pay for our children to be trained in it. They have another session coming up next Saturday.


June 01, 2014

Normal People

Went to the Hamra Festival this afternoon. What a breath of fresh air to see normal people. Normal as in, like me. ;)
 
Normal people
 
For some reason, when I get into town, I tend to be in places that have a homogenous group of citizens.
They’re either all down-and-out despondent refugees, all Hezbollah partisans, all botox inflated ladies, all disheveled teenagers, all athletes, all Filipino housekeepers or all grey-haired Frenchies from the Ahrafiyeh quarters, but for some reason all these different components of this very diverse Lebanese society do not really mingle effectively. And slthough each component in its own right is interesting and have a story to tell, it does get a little boring now and then, always these same faces and same looks.
  
Funky gear for sale
 

But today, on Hamra Street, I saw them all together! And they all mingled, quite nicely as well, and it looked good.
Morose teenagers in black with bad hair cuts and pimples, veiled muhajababes, grey-hair ladies that refuse to dye their hair, the alternative youngsters, the obviously well-to-do and the not-so-well-to-do, dadies in suits and daddies with kids on their necks, men pushing baby strollers, construction workers and housekeepers, bankers and bakers, ladies with short hair, ladies with tattoos and piercings and ladies with filled up lips and cheekbones, it all merged, and it had a very good feel to it. Just walking the street and seeing the crowd was a positive experience in itself. The street had good vibes, we'd say (but I do not know where you'd say that), it just sounded right.
Some good musicians
It was good to see some street musicians, and people selling their home made products, whether it was honey, cookies or woven bracelets. It was also good to see they served alcohol for a change. I feel it is often the heathens like I that have to constantly adapt to the mores of a more conservative society, but it was good to see that this does not always have to be the case.  I ran into several friends, all in the same mind set.
And so overall a good and mellow ‘jauw’, as we say in Arabic. The festival is still on until 11 tonight.
Be a Princess
 

May 31, 2014

Feral House


 
If ever I win the lottery, I am going to buy myself a house. This feral house, (see picture above) to be specific. It takes up about half a city block in Beirut, and is abandoned, neglected and overgrown. Beirut (and Lebanon) has loads of feral houses, but it is a universal phenomenon. I had to photograph it in bits and pieces, and then Photoshop made this out of it, which I thought was quite appropriate.
 
It’s the former house of Takkidine el-Solh, a onetime prime minister, who, like so many, eventually settled abroad and died there. I assume it belongs to the el Solh family, as the last inhabitant was Takkidine el-Solh.
 I would first clean up the garden, trim the trees, and fix the wall from the inside. The outside wall I would keep as is, you couldn’t find a more fitting one. I would subdivide it in small studios, and give a studio to each one of my friends. Downstairs, we’d have a huge communal kitchen, with slouchy couches, a fire place, bookcases against the wall and one long and narrow wooden dining table with chairs that do not fit together, and no TV.
 
Unfortunately, it is not for sale; people like that do not need the money.  Besides, I would first need to win the lottery. And in order to do that, I will have to actually play in the lottery. My friends will have to wait.

May 28, 2014

On Past Civilizations and Marathons

Aregu warming up in front of the temple of Bachus, with the walls of the Great Court on the right.
 
Now that I highlighted a cultural difference, how about pointing out something on civilizations?
Last Sunday I drove to Baalbeck at 4:30 in the morning (best time of the day to drive a car in Lebanon; not a soul on the road) because the housekeeper, Aregu Sisay, was running in the First Half Marathon of Baalbeck that morning.  She had already gone up the day before and I was supposed to join her, but I got stuck on this boat, you see, so I had to drive up there early Sunday morning.
 
And off they went, 7 AM on a Sunday morning in Baalbeck
 
 I got there just in time to see the athletes warming up amidst an absolutely mind-boggling scene; 3,000 year old Roman ruins. Some 3,000 years ago, this town was a bustling hub in a network of trading routes. It must have been big and rich, how otherwise can you engage in a building project of this magnitude? The amount of workers, or slaves, involved in this must have been huge, and they all needed to be housed and fed. Farmers from all around must have been bringing in goods to feed the population of priests and worshipers. The stones and pillars they worked with are absolutely massive. Moving things of this weight without the use of machines is incredible. These people were able to coordinate and finance a project of these incredible dimensions.

 
It was a mixed event; men, women and handicapped all raced at the same time.
  
The Fun Runners also left at the same time. This made for a slightly chaotic start. It reminded me of running with the bulls in Pamplona.
 
And look what’s left? What a contrast between that civilization and our current one. Some 1700 years ago,  the Byzantine emperor Constantine closed the temple officially because his empire had changed religion. And from a region that was economically coherent and intellectually dynamic, we end up with a provincial little town, in the middle of pretty much nowhere, where the local police chief has a big belly, and we built ramshackle houses that won’t make it past the year 2050. From a once majestic metropolis to now; that’s a pretty big change.
 
The northern wall of the Great Court
When you look at the stone walls of the temples, our current civilization is no match for the previous ones. You could argue that we live in a civilization that has bypassed Baalbeck, and that the current one is much more advanced. Yet the town and region are as poor as the dirt they wallow in. Poverty is for me a sign of the demise of a civilization, and when you see the sharp contrast between what people were once capable of, and what they do now, then Baalback drew the short the stick.
 
Temple of Venus, in the middle of town

There were many speeches spoken after the marathon; everybody loves to give a speech in this place, in poetic classical Arabic, no matter that no one was listening, and the athletes waiting for the prize ceremony would rather have gone home and rest.
 
Had I been speaker, I would have  pointed out the interesting fact (I thought) that this marathon was taking place in a town that was once inspired by the very people that invented the marathon.
 
And the winner for the ladies is coming in

Unfortunately, every speaker reiterated ever more convulsively than the previous one on  how very much united we were as a people. The fact that you need to point that out so frequently however, is an indication of how very much we need unity, and how little there is at the moment.
 
 
Don't you love the look on that Chief of Police on the left?
A
nd so it was a sobering thought, to see these two civilizations side by side; one superior to the other. The old and quiet one in stone, the new one in concrete and empty words. And the housekeeper? Well, she won of course!
 
This picture reminded me of the Adventures of Tin Tin; "Aregu Sisay in Baalbeck"


She is getting a little anxious on how she is going to get all her victory cups back to Ethiopia; they take up a suitcase all by themselves. And the weight!! We hope someone at Ethiopian Airlines is going to be comprehensive.
 
More on Baalbeck here.

May 26, 2014

On Cultural Differences

A sail boat on the Mediterranean Sea
An interesting anthropological experiment took place this Saturday. It took place on a sail boat. 
Owning a boat in Lebanon is an expensive business. And the price of the boat is not the most expensive part of it. Due to a sharp imbalance between the number of mooring spaces and boats, the price to moor your boat is ridiculously high. All marinas on the coast around Beirut are full, and have waiting lists. As such, mooring fees are sky-high. Getting a place can cost you as much as the price of a small apartment, and then you still have your yearly rental fees, which can go as high as $2,000 per meter per year  in the more posh marinas. Therefore, many boat owners rent out their yachts in order to help out in the costs.
"Uh, where can I sit?"
So last Saturday, the owner of a sailing yacht gracefully rented his vessel to a few of my Dutch friends and their (mainly) Lebanese spouses.
 
But the boat was a lot (stress on ‘a lot’) smaller than we had anticipated, and so we were packed rather tightly. There was also no wind, and the engine stalled frequently.
 
"Where's the wind?"
Actually, we looked more like a bunch of north African refugees on a floating expedition in front of the coast of Italy, rather than the glamorous jet setters we had envisioned we’d look like.
But all this didn’t really matter, because we were among friends, the sun was shining (something you will always be thankful for when you’re a Dutch), the vessels didn’t sink and we had fun.
But the experience highlighted an interesting cultural difference between Dutch and Lebanese.  
Rather cramped
 You see, the Dutch are in general raised in rather modest financial conditions. Although the European countries have the reputation among the Lebanese as being ‘rich’ countries, this being ‘rich’ should not be translated as ‘living a luxurious life’. We tend to be frugal people who do not spend money frivolously on pleasures that are not tangible. Part of our Calvinistic heritage, I assume.
As such, being stuck for an entire day on a cramped sailboat that throttles along the coast at a snail pace, with no real comfortable place to sit down or lie, is no problem for a Dutch. Heck, we enjoy it.

Lebanon is a country that is infinitely poorer than Holland. Lebanon’s GNP in 2012 was 9,140$ versus $45,960  for Holland (source), and if you look at the Social Progress Index , we do even better. Holland features on the 4th place, whereas Lebanon is somewhere down at the bottom; 83rd (out of a total 126 countries ).
But for some reason, the Lebanese know how to live well. Spending over $150 on a day on the beach or a dinner on a weekday is more of a norm than an exception. You may argue that I am generalizing, but I have seen people who make half of what I make, spent $275 for a pair of summer sandals! I
 have never in my entire life spent $275 on a pair of shoes, let alone flimsy summer sandals.
Almost falling overboard
Give a Dutch the option of a speed boat ride on a Riva for $500 or a Seadoo Sportster for $100, and they will inevitable go for the Sportster. The Lebanese will take the Riva.
 
As such, the Lebanese contingency was not amused by our cramped quarters, the lack of soft and fluffy pillows, the uncomfortable seating arrangements, the excruciatingly slow cruising speed and the fact that our drinks had to be fished out of the cooler.
The coast line
The moment they could get ashore, they arranged for a cab ride back to Beirut, and left us, the hardy Dutch, on our mere wooden refugee boat, on the shores of Jbeil. “I like my comfort,” the Lebanese said, “Just because you paid for it, you are going to suffer all the way back to Beirut, 3 hours long?” And off they were.

And so we had this discussion: Would Dutch men do the same?  Apparently not, because the Dutch men stayed on board. And so did the Lebanese men who had lived in Holland.  What about your husband, I was asked?  Would he have abandoned ship? Well, my hubbie had already decided in advance - when he heard the number of participants and the length of the ship - not to join. You see, he is Lebanese, and he likes his comfort.
And it as getting colder . . .
The difference in culture was clear. We (the Dutch) had paid for our boat, and we were going to stay on our boat! Till the bitter end.  Till the bitter end’ turned out to be pretty accurate. At 9:35 PM, in the dark and in the cold, we were still throttling along the Lebanese coats in search for our port. One of us had invited people for dinner at 9. A bit of a dilemma, as you can imagine.
. . .  and darker (still on that boat)
But I tell you: I’d do it again. 

May 18, 2014

Small World

The beaches south of Beirut (Jiyeh)
 
I’m in an upbeat mood. What did I notice today that I liked so much ? (still in the 100 days of happiness mode).
The fact that everyone knows everybody else. Not necessarily the whole town, but in general, Lebanese tend to grow up with their family and friends around them. From a very young age, cousins see each other on a much more frequent basis than let’s say in Holland. And the kids they grew up with at school and the neighborhood are still the same people they hang out with when they’re adults. I cannot count the times when I meet one of my husband’s friends, and it turns out they’ve known each other since they were like 12.
 
Like these guys. They look like really old friends
They sat in the surf, smoking cigars

Somehow there’s less mobility. When people move, they move to other countries, but otherwise, they kind of stay in the same neighborhoods. This may have to do with religious zoning (whether you like it or not, many neighborhoods are singe religions only), or with the fact that the war made moving around difficult, but there it is. Very often, when my son is hanging out with new friends, it turns out their father or mother knows his father from way back when, from school, from university, or from the beach.
These guys looked like family. They also sat in the surf, all 6 of them. Two of the ladies had their hair dyed the exact same pink
 

 
 
 
And I like that. It creates, as far as I am concerned, a sense of familiarity.  Other people may find it constraining, this small world feeling. Me? It makes me happy. I like small world.
The link to today? When you see Lebanese go to the beach, they do not go in small groups. No, they move in groups of at least 8, 9 10 people; all somehow connected to each other through family ties of friendships. There’s no such thing as a nuclear family here in the European sense; cousins and twice removed cousins and mothers of sisters in-law who are married to your brother in-law, and friends that hang around the house often; it’s all family here.
My nuclear family