February 07, 2018

Shortest Ski Season Ever



The season started late because the snow was late this year. But better late than never. Usually, we ski beginning January, but this year we had to wait until then end of the month. And when there finally was snow, we got fog as well. And although I love skiing while the snowflakes are coming down, it was more of an exercise to find your way around.
But last Saturday, finally, it was a fantastic day for skiing. Clear and sunny skies, no traffic, well-groomed and quiet slopes, they’d even thrown in a new lift somewhere way up high, so no competition from the newbies, and crispy snow. Almost too good to be true.
Too good to be true, in fact.  
Because it looks like that was indeed the one and only ski day of the year 2018.  It’s been an average of 12 degrees and over on the slopes the entire week. I think I might as well pack up my gear again.


One good day. This must have been the shortest season ever. 

It was, in other aspects, also a memorable season, as it was my first time going solo after some 20 years. A rude awakening, I might add. For as long as I ski, I have skied with my kids. First I taught my son, and so we always skied together. My son actually enjoyed skiing. He eventually switched to snowboarding, and as his friends were all on the slopes of Feraya every weekend, in the end all I would see of him was during the car ride up and the ride down. By that time, I had taught my daughter, and I would ski with her. She hated skiing, but when she  switched to boarding, she became an avid fan, and so I always had a skiing buddy.



But this is of the past. She knows these slopes like I knew the back alleys in my neighborhood. She knows how to get from one end of the resort to the other, knows what lifts have lines and which have not, which slopes are good in the morning and which in the afternoon, and where they sell the best manakis zaatar.  The friends she grew up with all ski, and they’ve roamed the slopes with us, the parents for the past years..
But last Thursday,  as we were discussing the plans for the weekend, and I mentioned what time we would be going up to Feraya, she said: “Oh, but I am not going with you.” 

She had it all planned. She didn’t even need a ride. Her whole weekend was laid out. She’d be boarding with so and so, and this friends was joining, and that friend would come too, and they would meet X there, and Y and Z would catch up with them later.  
And here I was, all dressed up and nowhere to go.




For a fleeting moment, I thought about not going myself. But hey, it’s not like next weekend was going to be any different. And so I went.
And it was lovely.


But that was it. One good day.  This was definitely my shortest season ever. Time to get the picnic basket out of the closet, and get ready for spring.


January 26, 2018

The Ministry of Mystery

Not sure if you’re familiar with John Cleese and the Ministry of Funny Walks, but every time I have business at the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (what? No department for Highest Education?), John Cleese comes to mind.

The Ministry of Education and Higher Education at 7:40 AM. It is January 23, but the tree is still up

I have had to be there - in my experience - quite a few times, either to exempt children from Arabic state exams (entirely my own fault) or to baseline foreign university degrees. And it has always been an ordeal. Today went smoothly, but still I hope - with all my heart – that this will be my last visit ever.
The workings of this ministry are strange and unusual, and the Ministry of Mystery might be a better name. Let me show you how that goes.

Back in December, I applied for an exemption for my daughter from the Lebanese State Exam. Although the program in itself is of an excellent level, most of the subjects are given in classical Arabic, a language which is Chinese for my daughter. She has struggled since grade 1, and has reached the point where she can actually read Arabic relatively fluently, but as she does not know what the words mean, it is still Chinese to her. I will not point any fingers as to whose fault this is.



When you ask for the Arabic State Exam Exemption, you come with your paperwork (it’s in Arabic so I am not able to tell you exactly what papers they are, and the English web site of the ministry does not work), two black & white copies of each (color not allowed) to this famous Ministry of Education in Beirut and you present yourself to a man behind a desk at the 2nd  floor.

This '2nd  floor' in itself turned out to be already quite a feat for me, entirely my own fault, but as you walk into the front door of the Ministry, you do not realize that the back entry is actually one floor lower. As such, the entrance is not on the ground floor but already the 1st floor. If you take the elevator, you do not notice this dilemma, but when you take the stairs, as I tend to do, and think you are at the ground floor, you obviously walk two floors to get to the 2nd  floor. However, you have actually reached the 3rd  floor, but since there is an absolute absence of any sign whatsoever in English, you have no clue as to where the offices are that you need to visit. It is all in Arabic.


Anyway, once that hurdle is conquered, and they direct you back to the 2nd  floor, there is a man that gives you a ticket with a number (grateful for that, no pushing and shoving here) and tells you to get a stamp from the 1st  floor (entrance floor, in this case). 
You go down and get your stamp. Back up to the 2nd  floor.

Now they need you to go to the 3rd  floor, to get these papers, with the stamps, certified by someone on that floor.  
Behind a little window on the 3rd  floor is a friendly lady who tells you that you need stamps for that too.

So you walk down to the 1st  floor, buy your stamps, and back to the 3rd
The friendly lady then quite vigorously stamps everything, than on top of that stamps the date and then signs over the stamps. 
Back to the 2nd floor now. 
Note the pen, attached with scotch tape and a little rope.
There you wait in line until you are ushered in a little office where another lady takes your paper work, checks it for irregularities, and provides you with a slip of acceptance and the exact date it can be picked up, which is about 3 weeks later.

 Today I could pick the paperwork up. I thought I’d be early since I am supposed to be at work. So 7:30 and I am at the door. After all, my job, also in education, starts at 7:30. 
But I am the first one. 
“We open at 8.”
No problem


At 8 I may go to the 2nd floor.  But when I enter the hallway, it is empty. The guard has just walked in and is turning on the lights. This is clearly not a non-smoking ministry as there is a very strong odor of tobacco.

“They come at 8:30,” says the guard. But he’s helpful. “Do you have the stamps?”
Stamps?”
“Yes, you need 35,000 LBP pounds in stamps.”
No problem, I walk down to the 1st  floor where I bought my stamps last time. 
“No, these stamps you have to buy at the post office.

 As in a symbiotic relationship, the post office is very conveniently placed facing the ministry. I assume people must be walking in the whole day for stamps so I go to the front desk to buy my stamps.
“No, those stamps are on the 1st  floor,” and via a very narrow stair case I get to a more unofficial part of the post office for the stamps.
With my newly acquired stamps I go back to the ministry’s 2nd floor.
There I get a ticket from an in the meantime arrived employee, who sits down with his first coffee and cigarette for the day. The cancer rate must be high in this office. It reads number 1. I am the first customer of the day!

The link on this paper is the link I had been looking for on the Internet, but could't find. The English part of their website does not work. So how you are supposed to find this information is a mystery to me, unless you actually come to this office. The tie stamp is not accurate, I notice.

 And indeed, at 8:30 sharp, I get called in. I give my stamps, get the original paperwork, stamped to a T, and then get a copy certified in another office.

By 8:45 I am out again.
It was by all means a smooth morning. The staff was on time, they were friendly and helpful, no complaints.

But I cannot get this Ministry of Funny Walks out of my head.


January 21, 2018

A Hippie Van in Lebanon

  


I think my son was 4 when I first went on a holiday in a van. It was a Volkswagen Van (a T3, for the insiders) my brother owned, grass green, with flowers on the side. 

You just need one summer trip to get hooked on van life, and hooked I was. I soon bought my own van, a not too hip looking brown thing, with the very fitting letters BFG in the license plate.  
Since then I have had a succession of vans, getting slightly larger and more equipped each time. But my children, maybe out of nostalgia for their youth, always insist I go back to the old model, the Volkswagen van.


Future Lebanese Van Fans (Hippies)

In Europe, the old Volkswagen vans are hard to come by as they have become a collector’s item; you’ve got to pay top dollars to get a good one, and even more if it is equipped as a camper van. Here in Lebanon, it is a bit of a Cuban situation. Volkswagen vans are still very much in use as school buses. You see them navigating traffic at 7:00 AM with some 20 kids in them, all with school bags, and often in school uniform. I understand the uniform bit, but some schools have the odd habit to require the younger students to wear a ‘maryoul’, a type of apron, boys and girl alike.  Volkswagen Vans here are not yet the hip-thing to have, there is still a bit of a stigma attached to it. I am sure this will eventually come, as there are already a few Lebanese hipsters that have discovered the benefits of a camper van.

This is what the dashboard looked like when we bought it. It still looks this way.

Anyway, we were driving through the Beqaa Valley one day, and stopped at a local dikkaneh (small mini-market), when my daughter and I saw this one Volkswagen van somewhere in the back, next to a pile of pallets, a discarded fridge and bits and pieces of scrap metal. Actually, it was hard to figure out it was a van. Or even a Volkswagen. There just wasn’t much left of it, but just like an old Coca Cola bottle, their design is so peculiar, you can recognize these vans from bits and pieces. 
Ooooh,” says the daughter (who aspires to become a hippie. Whatever happened to ‘doctor’, or ‘neuro surgeon’?) “That’s the van I want.” She saw obvious potential in this wreck.

The front seats :) 

Her father, being the typical Lebanese father of a daughter, uttered the famous words “I will get it for you,” and off he went, to investigate and negotiate. One hour later, the van was hers. It was a 1969 T2, an early model. On a good day, they look like this

Now she wouldn’t turn 18 until another 4 years, so you may think this to be a little premature, but from the state of the van, it was quite clear that it was not going to run anytime soon. If ever.

Well. He’s been dragging it (since it did not really run, it had to be transported on a tow-truck for most of the time) around from one dark and suspicious garage to another. It got stripped off everything, which was probably the easiest part as there was nothing in it anymore.

 

One guy did the gear box, another one knew about plate work, a third one had the spare parts for a T2 from 1969, the fourth knew about radiators and engines, the fifth had ‘some’ knowledge about upholstery and the sixth did the paint job.  

Getting a license plate was an equally arduous affair, as we had changed the engine. The original engine, a T2, is air-cooled, which in our summer climate, when she is supposedly going to drive it around, will result in an overcooked engine, and – so we were told – it’s easier to replace it with a Polo engine, easier to drive, easier to maintain, better performance and no problems with overheating. However, now the number of the car and the number of the engine did not match, and so getting it through car registration also took its toll on her father’s mood. So when he finally delivered it, this month, he was totally done with this car. It ended up being more expensive than a brand new KIA.
I do not want to hear anything anymore ever again about this car.”



This Saturday (daughter and some friends and I, the designated driver) took it on its maiden voyage. It took some effort to get it out of the parking garage, since I haven’t driven a stick shift in ages.  The seat belts in the front, once fastened, would not unfasten anymore, and we had to wiggle our way out of them. Pretty soon, actually, at the first corner, we figured out that the upholstery guy had failed to bolt the benches to the floor. I question this rather suspiciously. Seriously now, why would you not secure a car seat? The next thing we found out is that all the in-door handles were basically inoperable. The windows wouldn’t roll down because we did not have those roll-down thingies, doors didn’t close properly, and if they closed, they most definitely did not lock. Essentially, the car has no locks. Driving around school children here obviously does not require a ‘proof-of-safety’ permit. But it did drive.

Lovely new upholstery. Unfortunately, the seats were not bolted to the floor. Seat belts are absent as well.

So the first stop was Bourj Hammoud, where the car part dealers live. I learned something new in Arabic. There are two type of car parts; the basic ones that are required to keep the engine running, which are called ‘parts’, or ‘ottah’, in Arabic. And then there are the not so basic ones, the pimp-your-car ones, so to speak, which are the called ‘aksesuare’, coming from the French ‘accessoires’.  So the roll-up handles for the window are ‘ottah’, but the car radio is an ‘aksesuare’. And shops that sell ottah do no sell aksesuare. We got a truckers knob, because power steering had not yet been invented in 1969 (also an ‘aksesuare’).

And then we lost a door.
Bourj Hammoud, a small neighborhood with tiny tiny streets, dead-end alleyways, no parking space and traffic jams,  is a great way for a quick lesson on changing gears, and how to get the van in reverse. Somehow the gear box shifts position now and then. 
We quickly noticed that the exhaust fumes ended up in the car instead of the outside, but we fixed that problem once we discovered where the engine was and noticed that some hoses had come loose.

Eventually everything that was not loose, rattled loose, and what was loose, came off. In the end, we lost the entire sliding door, and with the help of some parking attendants, placed it in the back seat and drove home without a side door. I am eternally grateful for the rather lenient traffic rules in this country.

Okay, we'll drive without a door. Long live the Lebanese traffic laws
But we are going back to the drawing board. Since her father has pulled his hands off this project, I will continue this labor and will pimp up this van so that by the time my daughter is actually 18, this will be a reliable and safe car. I am driving it up this afternoon to a guy in the mountains who knows about doors. They say. I will be wearing my Artic gear, as one door is missing, and the knobs to get the heater on are gone as well. I will keep you updated on the van adventures in Lebanon.

January 07, 2018

New Year Resolution

Ras Beirut at sun set, Sunday afternoon, 16:29 PM

Another year has gone by.
2017 has been a good year for me. At first it was an ‘okay’ year, but while spending time back home, in Holland, my father read aloud the Christmas cards he had received from friends and family (back home they still send real cards, written by hand), and 2017 was not a good year for many, it seems. People got fired, divorced, lost a car, were at home with a burn-out, had to deal with a bedbug plague, got sick, died or lost children.

Both east (left) and west (right) Beirut

And in the light of other people’s misfortune, my year turned out to be pretty good. But even without the misfortune of others, I count my blessings.

And my new year’s resolution? I will try to be a more productive blogger (She said, seven days into the new year), and will work on enjoying Beirut more. I should start by thanking everyone still reading me. May your new year be as good as my old year was.


The cargo cranes at the port

After spending Christmas and New Year’s in Holland, it is good to be back again. I do understand that Europe, or the west in general, is appealing to many people in Lebanon, and I get the economic attraction, but life outside of Lebanon really isn’t everything. I am aware that this is an easy statement to make from my position, as I, the owner of a ‘lucky’ passport which allows me to venture just about everywhere and work in many countries, don’t share the bleak outlook many Lebanese young people have. I actually have a job that allows me to live in Lebanon.


But when I look at the pictures I made in Holland, the first thing that I notice are the colors. The constant overcast skies and darkness (there were days when it seemed like the sun rose at 11 AM and the sun set at 1 PM) cast a gloomy atmosphere over everything.  And you can photoshop all you like, gloomy is as gloomy does. And then I get back to Beirut, and even in the rain, there’s bright and vibrant colors. That’s free vitamin D for you (Vitamin D fight’s diseases, reduces depression and (they say) boost weight loss) .

Boats waiting for their place in the port

Yes, I realize Lebanon is difficult for young people who need to build their own a future, but I went on a little boat ride this afternoon, and I am thinking, this is a good place, and it is going to be a good year,


December 17, 2017

Regenerating

This was the site of Saturday's early morning hike

Still very much alive, but recovering from an eye operation and so the adventuring, photo editing and typing goes at half speed. It seems to be the season; about half the staff at work is either on crutches, in slings, limping, on pills or otherwise incapacitated. And although I seem to have arrived at an age where I should no longer be surprised at the untimely death of people  my own generation, it still surprises and shocks me.  But ‘the first one’ passed away not long ago, and the awareness of one’s own mortality is present after a few near-brushes with death of friends and family. 

A break at an old shepherd's shed
This past year I received messages from four (!) childhood friends that one of their parents has died. These are moms and dads I grew up with and had conversations with. These are people I remember guiding us while we moved from childhood into adults. I am currently doing this with my children. It is a clear indication that my friends and I are now in the process of becoming the older generation. It is a humbling thought.

Beirut seems to have lost a bit of its glamour for me. Maybe it is because times are changing, and this extra one point five million people is starting to have an effect on the society as a whole.


The city is very congested, and I have come to a point where I no longer venture to certain neighborhoods because of the traffic. I feel sorry for the retail industry; I am certain that they must feel it too. A lot of my decisions on going places is now related to the traffic. If it requires more than 40 minutes in traffic, I drop the idea, or I move at ungodly hours. I am lucky that I live in a neighborhood where everything can be done on foot, but I am becoming a neighborhood hermit.

  There are some sparks, now and then, when the people here come together. Last month I did the marathon (notice how I very craftily avoid the word ‘walk’, as if giving the impression I might have run it, which I of course most definitely did not) , and the mood was good; upbeat and friendly.

But life occurs in cycles, and I feel I have ‘seen’ this cycle; it is time for a change. There are quite a few projects I have on the (back) burner, but time constraints prevent me from execution right now. Just a few more years, and then I intend to radically change course. I need to discover different parts and aspects of this country. I am looking forward to that.


In the meantime, I get inspired by hikes in the mountains. It is regenerating. One of my projects – in the years to come - is to develop some type of hiking guide in Lebanon, without guide. There’s plenty of outfits that will take you on the weekend, but you are stuck to someone else’s schedule, time, pace and route. I’d like to develop something where you can go on your own in your own time. Different hikes, with or without small kids, hikes that are good with dogs, hikes that are good for picnics and so on. I doubt it will make money, because the only people I ever meet on the mountain top are a specific kind, but money is not the issue. It’d be great to share parts of Lebanon that are still great, and pristine and ‘off-the-grid’ so the speak. And there are so many of them.
 
This one made me laugh. Some idiot probably went 'off-roading' with his girlfriend in her new sneakers. I wonder how he got her out of it. The car was stuck.  

This weekend I hiked quite a bit, so I share those images with you; a reminder that Lebanon is really a beautiful place. Something that needs to be preserved and passed on to the next generation. 

We've had to resort to 'dressing up' this one dog of ours. He looks a bit too much like a wild thing apparently, and one hunter - for lack of birds - nearly took him out because he thought it was 'a wolf'. 

November 26, 2017

Sunday Morning Walk in the Mountains above Beirut


I am sharing pictures of this morning (Sunday morning) walk through the mountains above Beirut. A friend decided to join us at 8 AM, quire courageously I might say, but the weather has been lovely lately. Temperatures are dropping (finally), fall will slowly merge into winter, and although the first winter storms will not occur until the beginning of January, the first snow has settled in the higher regions.
If it stays this way, we’ll have a wonderful ski season.

The mountains are a respite from busy Beirut. Beirut is becoming nasty these days. Last Friday I had an argument with a man in a parking lot. Actually, I had the argument. He couldn’t have cared less. To be more precise, he couldn’t give a shit.


You see, I had to buy a chair, but there was no parking to be found anywhere. It was a Friday, noon time, and around a mosque, so parking spots can be a problem then. I ended up giving my car to a valet parking guy, who parked it in a parking lot.
 A certain Issam M. was also looking for a parking spot. Issam M. was in a hurry. He wanted to go and pray but he was late. He had a Mercedes and a mobile phone, but apparently not the 2,000 LBP needed to pay for the parking lot. So he decided to just park in the parking lot entrance, and go and pray. Fuck everyone else in the parking lot. His business came first. He did not think it might inconvenience anyone that they would not be able to leave that parking lot anymore, because his business was more important than everyone else’s, they would just have to wait.


He did not leave his car open so it could be moved just in case. He did not leave his keys with a guard in case someone needed to leave. No. Issam did not do any of that. He had his number on this window, but he turned off his phone while praying.
And so here I am, stuck in a parking lot. For 37 minutes. 
What is 37 minutes in the life span of a human? Nothing.

And although it did bother me, that I should sit in a car in a parking lot, planning to do things but unable to execute them because Issam M. had to do his thing first, I would have been okay with it if, while coming back to his car, he would have looked at me, addressed me, and somehow apologized for his unthoughtfulness. Something like, ‘oh, so sorry, I paid no attention’. Or ‘sorry, I was not aware I was gone for that long’. Or just a plain ‘sorry’.
But no, Issam M. did not do any of that.  He let me wait for 37 minutes, and when he came back, he just got into his car, did not even acknowledge the fact he had let me wait, and decided to drive off. 


Me videotaping him did bother him quite a bit. He was even willing to get out of his car for that. Who had given me the permission to film him? Ahhhh, yes, indeed. Which reminded me; who gave him the permission to block me?  “I was in a hurry”, he replied. And, he said to the parking attendant, he’d been gone for only 15 minutes.  I mean really, what was my problem?  Well. It wasn’t 15 minutes. It was 37 .
I guess time flies when you pray. 
I hope he prayed for forgiveness.

Well, got that off my chest. Maybe I should post that video. Naaah, I am nice. 



And I bet your bottom dollar that I will receive comments that will insinuate I do not respect the muslim faith, to which I will reply - in advance - that I respect every religion equally. 
I also predict that there will be commenters, always anonymous ones, or ones with fake profiles, who will insult me for insulting islam, to which I will reply, I insult the christians that triple park their cars in front of the church in Kahale on the road to the mountains, thus creating traffic jams that go one for kilometers  because they cannot be bothered to walk 100 meters to church as their Sunday duty is so infinitely more important than people trying to drive somewhere else, with equal vehemence.
And for everyone who is offended enough to leave a comment, seriously, why do you bother to read me in the first place?

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.