June 19, 2017

Summer Cycles

These are not your regular yellow dandelions, they're way bigger

Summertime in Holland is pretty much like the rest of the year. Sure, school is out and people go on holidays, but after the summer, you see everyone back again, just where they left off. There isn’t much movement in the country.


Summertime in Lebanon is a different story. Summertime sets an entire migration in motion. There are the families that move to the ‘house in the mountains’, often the ancestral home, or one occupied by the grandparents. There are the students abroad, who take a break from college to spend the summer home, and then you have the Lebanese immigrants, who mass to their families in the villages all over Lebanon.


And as Lebanese are flying in, expats fly out. Summer is when most companies and NGO’s - keeping school holidays in mind - make the switch, and right now is the moment when they leave. We lose friends every summer, and although we always promise each other to keep in touch, in general that means we see each other on Facebook and Instagram.

My daughter loses friends. The Dutch community in Lebanon loses members. But that’s how it is, if you live in a country that is perpetually in motion. And so this Sunday, we said goodbye to friends with a hike and a lunch at altitude (1,600 m).


At first we tried hiking through a patch of cedar forest, but the Lebanese army had decided to set up some target practicing that morning down in the valley, and some members in the company deemed it not safe. The machine guns were fine, but once they started with mortars, they did not think the safety record of the army had been investigated sufficiently enough to take that risk, especially since we had small children and dogs with us. So we tried the other side of the mountain.


The other side is rented out each summer to shepherds from Arsal who roam the hillsides with their sheep and Shami goats in spring and summer. And these guys have nasty dogs who, although safe for humans, like to have our city dogs for lunch.  




But the highlands are beautiful, because most of it cannot reached by car and as a result are void of the usual plastic plates, beer bottles, Pepsi cans and other remains of BBQs. By September, the news batch of expats will have all settled in, the Lebanese immigrants and students will have flown back over the oceans, and the cycle begins again.

Lunch tables that do not end

June 05, 2017

Get on the Rail Road

The stretch between Sawfar and Bhamdoun (is paved). The sea looms in the distance (you are looking at clouds here)

If you’re into hiking, then you know that can be a bit of a challenge in Lebanon. There are no hiking maps (other than the LMT), and virtually no trails that are blazed. The GR system is nonexistent, and unless you know your way around , or are adventurous, you are dependent on the outdoor companies (which invariably include long breakfasts or lunches, or you are joined by people who haven’t hiked in 20 years, or who shouldn’t be hiking) or you have to hire your own guide. (The Dutch, by the way, do not like guides).

If you continue this way, you will eventually end up in the Beqaa Valley. Mind the smoke, that is where Hamana burns its garbage :(  Highway on your right, valley on your left.



But I have figured out a way around it; Follow the railroad tracks. 
It’s been a trend for quite some time now in other places, converting old railway tracks into bicycle paths. It’s happening all over in the States and Europe. In Lebanon, we’ve got over 140 kilometers (or so I have read) of abandoned tracks. So far, not one kilometer of it has been allocated for pedestrians of bicyclists, but the tracks are there.
Granted, we’re not much of a bicycling nation, but if you can get an entire town to walk a 10 K on a marathon day, I dare say you can organize a 140 K hiking path through Lebanon. It would be a fantastic trail.

It doesn't look like a rail road track, but it is.

There’s already something like similar - the LMT -  a 470 kilometer hiking trail through the mountains from north to south, with guest houses along the way. But following the railroad has a historical value, it would be a fantastic trail.  There have been talks about reviving the railroad system in Lebanon, and I am all for it, but I think converting it into a bicycle path is just as likely to happen.

Fantastic villas (some old railroad sign in front of it). This one reminds me of Villa Villekulla, the house of Pippi Longstocking.

Anyway, if you know the neighborhood a little, following bits of tracks makes for a fantastic and easy) hike. I walked the track from Dahr el Baidar to Bhamdoun last Sunday morning (at 7 AM no less) It is about 8 K, downhill, and although the rails are gone, and some parts are paved, it does give you some idea of what passengers in the old days must have seen as they were looking out of the windows of the passenger wagons.

Another beauty
and the glimpses of another one

This bit of railroad was the first to open in 1895, a 147 km trip from Beirut to Damascus, passing through Baabda, Araya, Aley, Bhamdoun, Sawfar, and Dahr el Baidar before it descended into the Beqaa Valley and then towards the Syrian border.(source)

The tunnel under Dahr el Baidar is still open, and you can basically walk into the Beqaa Valley, avoiding the highway alltogether. 

I started in Dahr el Baidar, and took the direction to Beirut. The rails are gone, and the army closed up the tunnel before Sawfar, not sure why, but the tracks runs parallel to the main road and follow one of the upper ridges of the Lebanon Mountains.

The Chateau Bernina Hotel has seen better days . . . 

. . .  and so has the Sawfar Train Station .

Walking that railroad gives you’ve got fantastic views across the Beirut River Valley (Lamartine Valley) to the Metn region, until it enters Sawfar. Sawfar was, a long time ago, where the upper class lounged in summer. Their  monumental villas, dating back from the 40’s and 50’s and older, many of them abandoned and in various states of disrepair, lie on both sides of the track. Their architecture remind of the villas around Lac d’Annecy and the lake of Geneva.  They are a sharp contracts with the incredibly ugly monstrosities that the Arabs have built after the civil war.

You walk past the back of houses and you encounter not-so Chien Mechants. This one was really cute

And beautiful flower gardens


There’s the back of the Hotel Bernina, another pre-war icon. The sign above the gate says it is “Under German management.” I have always wondered what that implies. I envision a Von Trapp kind of family. Someone told me that the guests are still received by someone in tuxedo, and that the atmosphere was reminiscent of Basil in Fawlty Towers.
You pass by the old station in Sawfar, past the Grand Hotel, and leave town, along the ridge, and again you have a fantastic view across the Lamartine Valley . This is a paved section, until you reach the outskirts of Bhamdoun.

Leaving Sawfar

Here you pass through the Jewish quarter, past the synagogue, until you reach the highway where Bhamdoun station used to be. You can continue from there, because the track goes all the way down to Beirut, but the hike is along a bit of highway here, and difficult to follow. I’ll try that bit later.

Cut for the train
So if you like hiking on your own, get on the railroad.

Enjoy the views

May 22, 2017

Women's Race

Ladies on the run

I cannot really pinpoint this loss of inspiration. Is it because of a change in jobs, and I feel invigorated to learn new things and try different approaches. Is it because I am more active in Instagram? Or because I am so incredibly busy with life? Is it because hubby likes me to join on his hikes and adventures? Is it because a partner in crime has moved? Is it because I no longer use a camera, just a phone? Or is it because Beirut no longer inspires? I do not know, but for some reason, there is little to write about.

last minute advice from the man who usually is her running partner













I do plenty of things, and then I write a post, and reread it, and I think “Mwwwwaaaa. . . . no.” And then I drop it. Or the post is fine but the pictures are ‘moyenne’, Like this, of course, I’ll never end up posting anything. So let’s just post something.

Team mates


Sunday was the annual 10 K Women’s Race.  I don’t run, but the lady working in our house, Aregu Sisay Abate, does.  She wins quite a few of these races in Lebanon, she’s good on the 10 and 20 K. Last month she ran with another 24,000 people the half marathon in Berlin. And out of the 24,000, she ended up being #39, and 12th in her age category. She ran the 20K in 01:24:46, which was a personal record.




But since running is picking up as a sport in Lebanon, and these events pull in more and more people, the organizers get people from outside to lead the field and bring down the time. And so Aregu is now up against professional runners. But she holds on quite well. Although last weekend she did not win, (She came in 6th, an amateur, with 5 professional runners ahead of her), she did break yet another personal record, 37:43 for 10K. Not bad at.

And what else was memorable last Sunday? The traffic. If only the roads were like this 24/7.


And that’s it for today.

May 14, 2017

Abandoned in Bhamdoun

The war has ended some 26 years, yet the battle scars are still visible in many places.

The railroad tracks are no longer there, but this passage connected Sofar Station to Bhamdoun Station

Reconstruction has been hampered by a lack of economic growth, massive corruption, Israeli bombardments, and internal problems between the political representatives of the different sects caused by their foreign paymasters. The fact that all the war lords are still running this country, this time from a seat in the government or the parliament hasn’t helped either, nor has the looming crisis in Syria.

Stairs guide you up the hill and past these posts that once must have an iron gate

Everyone wants/needs to live in Beirut, and as money is poured into real-estate in Beirut, there is none left for development outside.  Houses that were abandoned during the war remain uninhabited up till now. Their originals owners must, for the most part, be either very old or dead by now, and those that have inherited either do not have the money to restore or do not see the value of restoration. Or they have left the country long ago, and might not even know that they own property here in Lebanon.


I wonder what the laws are on appropriating property that has been abandoned for over 50 year and whose owners cannot be located. Might be an interesting side business; in my years of hiking through towns and villages, I have seen hundreds of them. They are a popular object for photographers, not just in Lebanon, but worldwide.

The hallway

Some of these monumental houses have been taken over by Syrian refugees, but that is more of an exception than a rule. The majority stands empty, some already since 1975, and the looting of fixtures, windows and stones by occupying armies, militias, or entrepreneurial Lebanese has since long been completed. What is left is no longer of value.


But the architecture is. Some of these houses are absolutely fantastic. Roofs are missing, and the interior walls have been stripped to a bare minimum, but even after so many decades, they still exhales grandeur, and allude to a once illustrious past.

The house is so wide, it does not fit in the picture. 

This one property I ran into this morning, is built in the top part of Bhamdoun, between the old road to the Beqaa valley, and the now defunct railroad. Bhamdoun became a popular resort once the railroad came through town, back in the 1890’s. From the former railroad, a steep staircase goes up the hill, terrace by terrace, until a gate that, judging from the hinges, must have had a massive iron gate. There are signs that there was once a fountain in the garden, and water ducts must have watered parts of the garden.



It is an odd building, since it doesn’t have the usual house ground plan. The property must have had Jewish occupant, because of the Hebrew over the door, but since very little is recorded of our history, the cadastral registries are not public (or maybe even not existent anymore) , and I have no ‘wasta’ at the Bhamdoun municipality, there is no way of figuring out what it once was. Unless an old inhabitant of the town, or a (Jewish) historian, can fill me in on this. It looks like it was once a communal building, or it was the house of someone with either a very large family, or with an eccentric taste. I could make a beautiful house of it,  but alas, it is not mine.

The living room?

And so it lies by the side of the road, forgotten - Its inhabitants must be dead, and people with memories of the place are no longer around – until finally it will fall apart, and all that is left is a pile of rubble. Pity.


And to show you how – despite great advancement in technology - our collective taste has in fact regressed, I show you a gate from a property right next to it. What a monstrosity. Now of that would disappear, I don't think anyone would mind.


May 09, 2017

The Hills Are Alive . . .

. . . with asphodels.


Had to look that one up. Asphodelus ramosus (subsp. Rhamnosus) to be exact, according to this source. It seems its roots (or tubers) are quite edible, but since they can also be used for making strong glue used by bookmakers and shoe makers, I have my doubts about its taste.

Asphodels all over the place. Everywhere.
I walk these mountains pretty often, and in spring as well, but cannot remember seeing that many of them. Not sure if that’s a good thing; it might be a little bit like rabbits in Australia.  
Asphodels feature in the Greek underworld. According to Homer (whom I did not read but thank god for the internet), there was a part of the Greek underworld that was covered with asphodels, the so-called Asphodel Meadows, where the souls of normal people would reside.  


So here I am walking, 7:30 AM, through the Asphodel Meadows. Gone are the days when I would be able to sleep without qualms until noon. I am up at the crack of dawn.   

The campers were also out and about at the crack of dawn, probably because they’re not sleeping too well on their thin mats. They come in earlier each and every year. Camping has really taken off since Decathlon has been selling their 2-second pop-up tents here. And although I am an avid camper myself, and totally support this outdoor movement, the fact that you are supposed to keep the place clean and pick up your garbage when you leave, is still an alien notion among most Lebanese campers. And what is with the toilet paper anyway? You really need that much? The places where I hike with my dogs early mornings are – since 2 years – quite popular with campers, and starting June ( although now it has become May) until end of August, they are basically unnavigable due to the shit and the massive piles of Kleenex strewn all over the place. That’s if you’re lucky. Most campers leave their garbage behind as well. This eludes me. You come to the place because it is so nice and pristine, but then you unmake it as you go.


Anyway, for the moment it is still early in the season. Right now, it’s just Asphodels. Hills full of them.

April 20, 2017

Dolphins



It’s not really news worthy, but last Saturday, while I was out at sea off the coast of Beirut, our boat was surrounded for a good half hour with 6 playing dolphins. They were circling the boat, swimming along with it and jumping over the wake. I was thinking, wow, they look just like in real life, until I realized that I only know dolphins from dolphin shows and NatGeo documentaries, so this was – for once – the real ‘real life’.

If you Google it, dolphins in Lebanese waters is not that rare a sight, but you have to have an eye for it, which I don’t, but hubbie is a sailor, and he spots them quite easily. Usually they keep their distance from boats, but we were chugging along at 12 kmph, and it seemed that pleased them quite a bit.

They are common bottle nose dolphins, which populate the entire globe, but they have a hard time in Lebanon because fishermen are not too keen on them, afraid they ‘steal’ their fish and damage their nets. That’s an odd statement as it is the fishermen stealing the dolphins’ fish, but as it is, they tend to end up in the nets now and then and are not set free, but rater towed to shore and exhibited as a trophy, which is very unfortunate, as it is an absolute delight seeing them swim around the boat. 

It gives hope, maybe the shoreline is not that polluted yet (or maybe they have a high tolerance to polluted waters). 

April 01, 2017

Bib #7028 in the Half Marathon of Berlin

An update on our running housekeeper, Aregu Sisay Abate. She is on her way to her first race abroad,the Berlin Half Marathon, this Sunday, April 2.  

For those that do not know her, she is a lady from Ethiopia who started working with our family back in 2011. It turned out she liked running, and so we asked a club, Inter Lebanon, if she could train with them. 
They took her in, began training with her, and ever since then, she’s been running races all over the country, winning many of them. She’s got a preference for the 5, 10 and 21 kilometers. She’s got so many trophies lined up they don’t fit in her room anymore. 
She wants to take them back home, but each trophy is set on a marble base of about a kilo, so I am still hoping someone in Ethiopian Airlines is willing to make an exception so she can bring the 40 something cups back home.

She is phenomenal, and we hope she can make a living out of running, instead of cleaning houses, but she’s got some obstacles to overcome, and one of them is experience. She’s run every possible race in Lebanon about 4 times now. She knows all the courses, be it on the road or off-road, she is familiar with the weather conditions (she hates running in the snow) and the elevations , and she knows her adversaries well. 

Medals of the last two years alone. The previous years she took back home already

Now she needs to get out of the country and run abroad. The Berlin Half Marathon is the first step, and her club has very graciously decided to sponsor her in this endeavor. 

I know that the situation of housekeepers in the Middle East is precarious, to say the least, but there are also success stories. Her running mates in the club, and they are all Lebanese, have been instrumental to her success; they help with transportation to and from races, they get her proper running material and they have provided her with running watches. 

But what has been probably the most important thing is that they have embraced her as an athlete, given her support, advice and love. They remember when it is her birthday, call when she does not show up for training to see if she is alright and invite her for lunches and dinners.


Join her to any race, and you will be absolutely stunned by the number of Lebanese coming up to her, hugging her, asking how she’s been, saying hi, and taking selfies with her. “Hé Aregu, kiffik?” before a race, and “Kief kennet?” after the race.

And so this is her first race abroad. I hope this post will become a reference for the start of her international success later on in her career. Anyone in Germany, and living close to Berlin? Go cheer her on this Sunday; bib number 7028. 

March 25, 2017

On Tupperware and Tragedy

There has been one casualty in this fire. Quite a tragic one.

It’s the aunt’s massive Tupperware collection.

The freezers were stacked and packed with Tupperware, each containing bits and pieces of food. She is a frugal one (thankfully) and believes in buying vegetables in season, when the beans cost 2,000 pounds a kilo instead of 14,000 some month later. 
Yes, I was not aware of these huge price differences either, but apparently, this is a fact. If it were possible, she’d freeze lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes and onions as well.

And she cooks in bulk. Lebanese cooking often requires an extensive amount of preparation time, such as the wrapping of grape leaves, or cabbage leaves, or the cheese things, whatever they are called. And the chickpeas for the hommos, which are consumed in our house in near lethal doses, get cooked by the kilos, otherwise you have to cook small quantities on a daily basis. The kibbeh balls are prepared in the hundreds and then neatly packed in little plastic boxes. She can whip up a dinner of warak ainab (grape leaves) for 20 people in no time, that freezer’s stacked and packed. 
Well, she could. 

Of course, no longer. Gone up in smoke. Literally.

And it is not the food that bothers her, it’s the Tupperware. 
She had them by the thousands. The little labban and labneh containers, the feta cheese, the mozzarella and the kashkawen boxes, every dairy product in a plastic container we ever consumed, all those containers were diligently washed and stored. The Arabic sweets that come in plastic boxes, the ice cream containers, you name it, she had it. 
In multiple versions and by the thousands.

One day, while she was visiting friends in Tripoli, I threw away a whole kitchen cabinet full of them, because I just could not find a spot to store my bread maker. This kept her huffing and puffing loudly for months, every time I entered the kitchen.
And then I haven’t even spoken about the ‘real’ Tupperware, the plastic boxes you buy because that’s what they are there for, to be bought. To store more stuff. 
And if the vegetable oil was on offer with 5 containers stacked on top of each, other taped to the bottle, she’d buy three gallons.

I am not making this up. It seems to be a common thing with Lebanese housewives, this Tupperware hoarding.  Just surf the web for Lebanese moms + Tupperware.

On a post of ‘Top 15 signs your mom is Lebanese’, at #14, it reads “She has a tupperware collection bigger and more valuable than the collection of the Louvre! (Source)

On another blog that highlights the ‘6 Things You Should Never Say To A Lebanese Mom’, on first place:  “I lost your Tupperware.”(Source)  “God knows Lebanese mothers love their Tupperware more than they love their own kids - or just as much. Don’t bother showing up to the house if you can't find her an exact replacement.”

How about this one? Growing Up Arab, reports at #22 of 37 things that show you grew up as an Arab, “Tupperware fights with your mom.”


InkontheSide, a very talented illustrator in town, explains in a drawing that if you want to annoy your Lebanese mom, forget your Tupperware at work.   

Here is another classic, of 365daysofLebanon.


Or this gentleman, who shows that above all, a mom cares about her Tuppeware.



I was going to show you pictures of the remaining Tupperware collection in the kitchen, but the aunt was eye-balling me, so no can do. 

Anyway, two freezers, including plastic containers, gone. She is slowly recovering.
So I leave you with a (belated) idea for a Lebanese Mothers Day Gift from 2015 (From blogbaladi.com).  



March 23, 2017

Fire in the House

Whenever I see a red fire truck worming its way through Beirut traffic, sirens ablaze, I always think “Well, good luck with that. By the time they will actually make it to your place, you’re lucky if there’s anything left to hose down.”
Besides, how are they going to get to the 8th floor with those hoses? It’s not like the building code here actually takes fire hydrants into account. And even if, there will not be enough pressure on the water anyway. The water will leak, rather than burst out of the hose.
 Uhuh. If your house is on fire in Beirut, you’re pretty much screwed.

It burned the chalk right off the wall. My poor freezer.
The aunt is all upset about her Tupperware collection gone up in smoke.

That thought, for a split second, went through my head as I stood in my skimpy pajamas and on my bare feet, at 6 AM, looking at two freezers, fully ablaze, in the hallway of my house, with flames reaching the ceiling, and thick black smoke billowing upwards.

It was the incredible noise, almost a roaring sound, that had caught my attention as I got up. At first I thought it was the washing machine. Seriously now, she (the old aunt in my house) is doing her laundry at 6 AM?  But when I checked the laundry machine, it was empty. I opened the door to the hallway. Sweet mother on Earth! What a dreadful noise! The housekeeper must be vacuum cleaning upstairs. But what’s gotten into her at 6 AM? Why so early? And what’s wrong with that vacuum cleaner anyway? Must be getting old, it sounds as if there is an engine running upstairs.

Try getting that stuff off the wall

But I had to get ready for work so I went to the bathroom. From the bathroom window, I could hear the sound of the vacuum cleaner, as if it was about to disintegrate. Something did not quite sound right.  I looked through the window of the bathroom and could see smoke coming out of the window upstairs. Ahhh, it must be the generator that kicked in. But wait?! Black smoke? Out of the window of the upper floor?

It went pretty fast from there. In my skimpy pajamas and on bare feet. The freezers in the hallway were burning. The floor above it is where the housekeeper lives. I had to get her down but she is a deep sleeper. I yelled and yelled, to warn her. When she opened her door, the black smoke had already completely filled her hallway, so here she is, standing in thick black acrid smoke, and no idea what is going on. She ran through the smoke, downstairs, and past burning freezers and then remembered that her passport with her Schengen visa was still in her room (She is scheduled to run the half marathon in Berlin this April) and had a nervous breakdown.

Now what?

That’s when that picture of the fire truck went through my head.
"By the time these guys get to the 12th floor, hoses in hand, they can help me sweep the cinders of my house together", I am thinking.




I won’t bore you with the details. I didn’t know the number of the fire department. Actually no one in the house knew the number of the fire department. We called the janitor to cut off the electricity, and got the garden hose from the balcony, which – luckily – was long enough to make it to the hallway, an extinguished the fire ourselves.

And now we’re left with an incredible mess.
Two burnt-out freezers. Everything in the upstairs apartment is to be thrown away. Carpet, curtain, mattress, bedcovers, furniture, everything. The entire place needs to be scrubbed clean, before they can even begin painting, and the housekeeper's clothes are now going through the third washing cycle, and still there is a smell of burnt plastic.
And while we were busy spraying the freezers, the water, black and all, ran down the staircase and into the apartment below. 

But we’re alive, and although the housekeeper has yet to recover from her near death experience, her passport is intact, so the Berlin Half marathon is going ahead as scheduled.

And the number for the fire department? It is 175.

But if I were you, get fire detectors and a looooong garden hose.

March 15, 2017

Back to Winter


Grey skies over Beirut

  For a moment I thought we had spring coming, but winter is back in town. Last Sunday was like Sundays I remember back in Holland; Gray, windy, wet and gloomy. Not a soul on the street. And when my daughter went to the art supply store, and it turned out it was (quite unusual) closed, the picture was complete. If ever you are prone to depressions, do not spend wintery Sundays in small villages in Holland. And it has been raining ever since. Not just raining, but entire deluges. It is snowing in the Cedars as I speak (writing this, that is).

Some lost tourist; a group of ladies from Iraq
And so I have put off switching wardrobes, an activity that is alien to Dutch people in general. It can be cold in Holland all year around; putting away your winter clothes for the season is useless, but in Beirut you don’t need winter sweaters for about 8 months of the year. Even longer these days, it seems.
 
Beirut from a different perspective

I was going to say something about global warming, but 1) the weather is obviously behaving as it should, and 2) but that word got me suddenly side tracked by the fact that I have – for reasons unclear to me – somehow ended up on the mailing list of the new White House administration.  I can’t remember, but I doubt that I ever voiced my strong opinion towards any of the American administrations in place, so why they suddenly would have added me – an obscure blogger in Beirut with no cloud, ‘wasta’ or real opinion -  to the White House mailing list is anyone’s guess.  Maybe Donald – or someone in his office - has been secretly a longtime reader of my blog?  Is there anyone in his retinue that is of Lebanese origins? Seems unlikely, but how did I get on that list??? Life’s a mystery.

Fishermen come out as the sun sets

 What I find surprising is that today as I walked home, I noticed our neighbors had a water truck in front of their building, and pumping water into their reservoir. For those readers not aware of the situation in Lebanon, our water supply is rationed.
Simple amenities, such as electricity, water, and internet, do not function properly in this town, but you’d think that - after this incredible amount of water that has come down this winter – the government would be able to at least provide enough water? But a 24/7 water supply is not in the stars anytime soon.  The water authorities blame it partially on the influx of Syrian refugees, but I doubt the accuracy of that. Are we going to blame the pathetic electricity supply of the last 26 years on them as well? And the fact that my phone line stops when it rains? Or my slooooooooooow Internet?

#365gratefulness


But I am not going to complain. I have completed my #365gratefulness project (not exactly in 365 days, though) and am aware of the power of positive thoughts. So I leave you with some uplifting pictures, Beirut from the water. 
Because when you are out on the water, everything gets a different perspective. It changes the way you look at things. Okay, so we don't have water. But if we cannot have it in our pipes, we can at least float on it.