October 19, 2014

Wet Enough for You?

Lest we ever complain that it didn’t rain enough; I think it just did. So much in fact that the drainage system couldn't handle it; the manhole covers got shoved aside by the force of the water. Got a video of it too, but that one takes too long to load (rain slows down the internet in my house too; don't ask me why)

October 12, 2014

Humans of Beirut

Cinderella on the run
I am waiting for someone to start a Humans of Beirut site, like its New York counterpart. This girl should feature in it. She came strutting down Hamra Street, all confident, while her dad was busy on his cell phone.
On another note, my housekeeper, Aregu Sisay Abata, ran a half marathon this morning in Jounieh, crossing the finish line of the 21.1 kilometers as the first woman in 1 hour,  29 minutes and 15 seconds. That’s pretty impressive. No podium place for her (as this was a Lebanese championship), but it was a good exercise for her first full marathon, this November 9th in Beirut. She’s been winning pretty much everything lately (Half Marathon of Baalbeck and the Beirut 10 K this year)

October 11, 2014

A Walk in the Park

I had a lovely walk in the park this evening. It brought me back ‘home’.

They say that the first 15 years of someone’s life are instrumental to the formation of a person’s identity. After that, it doesn’t really matter anymore where you live or grow up; your comfort zone has been established, and you will forever feel most at ease in that society. 

You can move, and grow and live all your life somewhere else; but that very early beginning will always feel like ‘home’. Your (cultural) identity is set for life. The sounds and scent of a season, a particular way light falls at a certain time of day, the color of the environment, the taste of food and candy; it all becomes part of you.

That doesn’t mean you do not learn to adopt or even appreciate a new environment and/or culture; quite the contrary. I – for instance – much prefer the Lebanese thunderstorms. They are much more impressive than the Dutch ones. Food and the weather (most of the time) are also acquired tastes (in my case). It just means that sometimes you encounter situations that bring you back ‘home’, because they are so similar to what you grew up in.

A friend of mine in Holland is contemplating moving back to the small village he grew up in, on account of the smell in the evenings. It’s the musty smell of decomposing leaves, black soil and cold air that he grew up with that formed him; now, in his forties, he wants it back in his life. This is what ‘home’ constitutes for him.

Lebanon is as different from Holland as you could possibly imagine. The lack of water (although you wouldn’t say so right now with the rain) and the color green is probably the starkest difference, but small details like the dissimilarity of humidity, and weather, also make this country so unlike the one I grew up in. Lebanon is my acquired home, but it is not ‘home’ (if you know what I mean).

But sometimes, even after 20-something years in Lebanon, now and then I encounter moments that are totally Dutch to me. Fall, for instance, especially when experienced in the mountains, is probably what most often reminds me of ‘home’.

This evening I went for a walk in my favorite (and secret) park up in the mountains. It was dark, it was foggy and wet, I walked beneath the dripping trees, through piles of leaves, and the orange light of street lights lit the path. There were no sounds of cars, generators or people, and for the brief moment of my walk, it was as if I was walking in Holland. It is not that I was homesick, not in the least bit, but I find it powerful that the first fifteen years of a person’s life can make such a lasting impression, that after so many years in a country, a situation can transport you back so vividly.

In my case, my exile was a self chosen one. Holland is my ‘home’, but I much prefer my acquired home. Yet going back ‘home’ for a brief moment, is always nice.

On another note, this summer I experienced a most unusual thunderstorm in Holland: so violent and long-lasting that for a moment, I felt like I was in Lebanon. And that felt good too.

October 08, 2014

Silence before the Storm

No no, not some metaphor of the current political situation (although that'd be pretty accurate); we have an actual thunder storm heading our way, and the sounds and feeling of impending doom is just overwhelmingly beautiful.

Just saw one of the most amazing sun sets; but I was stuck in traffic, and had left my camera at home. It’s the sunsets right before an impending thunder storm when clouds are at their best. All that was left for me was a lousy picture from the balcony, blocked by crummy buildings, one of which survived an attempt to be blown up last June.
The storm isn’t here yet; it’s hanging somewhere above the Mediterranean Sea, just off the coast of Egypt, and it isn’t very windy, so it’s not making much progress, but the fat raindrops have started falling. Amazing how you can track thunderstorms these days. For all those people that planned an outdoor wedding in Beirut tonight; so sorry, I’m afraid your table arrangements just got ruined, and the flowers are probably floating in the pool by now.  
This was a rather impromptu post.

October 05, 2014


I went for a walk in the park this morning. I am not going to tell you where it is; I'd like to keep this park to myself in the mornings. It's not in Taanayel, in case you are wondering. (The pictures in this post are not related to the text, btw)

October is when Beirut is at its best. This is the time when the city reverts to its old self. Schools and universities have started again, mountain residences have been closed up, visiting family members have flown back to their adopted countries, and temperatures have dropped to a level that a walk to the supermarket no longer is a sweating exercise. The recent rains have cleaned up the town a little, there’s a freshness in the air. 

It's a 'real' park; it's got benches and grass, and garbage cans, and lanes you can walk on. 

I like fall, although I cannot really pinpoint the reason why. Beirut's inhabitants go back to their daily lives; it’s our town again. We gather at birthdays where we compare generator prices for 5 and 10 ampere (for those unaware of the finer workings of the neighborhood generator; you buy your additional electricity – when government fails to provide – in clusters of 5 amperes. The prices vary according to the neighborhood you live in, and this is not a question of supply and demand, but rather a generator operator who knows how to squeeze his customers), and discuss if there will be a war, and if so, who will be on whose side. 

It's fall, as you can see.

It’s odd how in the light of somehow impending doom, we carry on as if nothing is happening. Biking events have been planned (here and here) , book markets are organized, and we try to be a normal town with all our might. 

It's used for races, now and then.

We know deep inside that it is never going to happen, but we happily ignore that and we cling to the memories of those short periods of normalcy we have experienced, and carry on like the little chamber orchestra on the Titanic that – rumor has it – diligently kept on playing even as the ship was sinking. I think the recent vice article is an excellent example of that. 
'This disregard for the violence that surrounds Beirut is not apathy. . . . It can be very surreal at times, but we can't let ourselves get paralyzed by these incidents. We have to continue living, and trying to live well.’ (from that article) 

In the early morning, there's still dew on the grass. 

We don't have the spiders that build the traditional cart wheel type of web, it's more like a funnel web type of thing. In the early morning it catches the dew drops.

It isn't ignorance that makes is ignore what is happening around us, as some people claim. It's the fact that we cannot (seem to) change it, we're part of a bigger picture and once you're on that wave, you'll have to ride it to the end. You might as well ride it as best as you can. 
How true that is.

October 03, 2014

Travel Advice

The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent me a message last week; a travel advice, or rather a change in the travel advice. I cannot quite remember what the previous one was, but I assume the current one is a little more stringent than the last one. And as you can see, there aren't a whole lot of places I can go to these days, according to my government.

Green indicates it is safe. Yellow is warning that there are ‘security issues’, orange areas should be avoided, unless absolutely necessary, and red areas should not be entered.
I went to buy some things for the dog yesterday, and ventured into the red area in southern Beirut. As you can see, I am still ere. The reason why they’ve published this (I assume) is in case of a problem in those areas, the Dutch government (and in this case, the Dutch embassy) is not going to save your save your sorry ass, because you have been warned.
Through my work, I also receive the American travel advisories.
'The Department of State urges U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to Lebanon because of ongoing safety and security concerns.'
They're either more careful with their citizens, or their citizens have more to fear than the peaceful Dutch (If you want to know why the Dutch are so peaceful, it is because we chocolate sprinkles on bread every morning, among other things). For those who want a dose of that, it's for sale in the TSC Ashrafieh. Mind you, I am convinced that it is safer in Lebanon  than in Stockton, California.
There is no real purpose to this post, other than that I hope you will enjoy your holiday.

September 30, 2014

On Religion

The rains have come (by the way)
For months on end I diligently post my thoughts on odds and ends, yet never seem to elicit many comments. I get the occasional compliments, which I value tremendously, although I am rather lax when it comes to replying to them (but be advised, I do appreciate it!! .
But in general, it is quiet in the comment section: this silence is fine with me: I write for me, and not for others. Thus I can write that all dogs stink, that lasagna is the best food in the world or that Chinese is an impossible language to learn, and no one is bothered by it.
Talking about intolerance

But lo and behold when I mention religion, and boy, does the comment section get busy. Everyone suddenly gets offended! Which is my point. Religion is by definition an inherently intolerant concept. When “I believe” becomes a fact, rather than an opinion, that says as much. The inability to accept criticism is another sign.
But rest assured, I (dis)like all religions equally.
Just a happy photo (baby gets no helmet, nor does mom. Son wears a toy helmet. Dad's the only one with a 'real' helmet)

September 23, 2014

In Hamra

 To all those nay-sayers that argue the Daash won’t stand a chance in Lebanon as nobody supports this kind of life-style, even the sunni muslims, I tell you: you’d be surprised.
Even in Hamra, which is probably the most non-religion affiliated neighborhood in town, you’ve got them. New posters that have appeared on walls in Hamra  basically call for you to go halal (follow the muslim dietary rules) or otherwise get the hell out of here.
I, as an agnostic entity, interpret that as pretty insulting. This is my part of town, has been so for the past 24 years, and I will be darned if someone tells me what I can and cannot eat.
So Daash doesn’t stand a chance? Just wait till the barbarians are at your doorstep, and suddenly you will see their supporters crawling out of little holes and from under stones, plastic slippers and all.
'You get what you pray for,' and 'Go Halal or Go Home.'
I call on Ahraf Rifi, our Minister of Justice, for an investigation. He’s good at these things. That’s what his job description is these days: call for an investigation because one or other religious group is being insulted. That is if he’s not banning  pornographic sites. I am not sure under what law that move falls, but we’re no longer allowed to watch porn. Beheadings are okay, though. (Here's how to get around it, by the way)
These particular posters come from a club called ‘deen-over-dunya’, I am not sure who they are, cannot find them on the web.  The ‘Go Hallal or Go Home’ phrase comes from a muslim conference somewhere in Canada in 2011 (according to Google). It's getting closer to home, and they seem to feel the warmth of their fellow bearded brethren.
'Pray now and play later' (And may all the virgins in heaven be shriveled up old ladies)
So I will leave you with a more practical tip:  How to burn Islamic flags without upsetting muslims, now that we can still publish this kind of stuff without getting beheaded.

September 21, 2014

Waiting for Fall

On the flanks of Mnt. Kniesseh . . . .

Not inspired. Beirut is not at its best these days. The end of the summer usually leaves everyone in a flat mood. Tomorrow is the beginning of fall, and it’s time we get on with our lives, but after a long summer, many wonder if ‘getting on with things’ is what they really want to be doing for another year. After all, life is so short.
. . .  we run into a little pond, fed by a water 'trickle', . . .
Beirut is not doing well. Too many people, it seems. A lot of them are not doing well either. A lot of them are Syrian refugees, and quite a few of those have hit rock-bottom. No income, their savings spent, no framework in place to help them all, and so they beg for a living. Quite a few have replaced the Bedouins that used to beg at stop lights.  
It makes driving through Beirut quite disheartening; there’s four places in my part of town where they swarm the cars that stop for a red light with boxes of tissue paper or cheap gum. They’re not begging outright; they’re trying to sell you something that you invariable don’t want (gum) or don’t need (tissue paper).
You can see the cars that slow down at the stop light; suddenly all electric windows go up. They will knock on your window, but if you pretend to be on the phone, you can pretend not to notice them. I feel bad not giving them anything, as I sit in my fancy SUV, the price of which would probably feed them till the end of a life time.
But if you give, you’ll end up doling out 15,000 LBP on a regular day (I counted it once). So I give to the very elderly. Or the handicapped. But sometimes I don’t. I try to avoid those places where I know they will be, in order not to feel bad.
. . .  and like an oasis, it gives life . 
Avoiding, though, does not always work, as yet as another part of Beirut’s infra-structure has been appropriated by a warlord in fear of his life. So they should be. I am not quite sure who he thinks will blow him up. I should think that by now the collective Beirut thought is that they should all be blown up, all of them, regardless of what side they are on.
In my neighborhood, a political party has now resorted – after blocking off one street and appropriating another's sidewalks with their flags stuck in oil drums – to posting one of their guards with a kalashnikoff on a plastic garden chair in front of their door.
No police in sight to question this maneuver; I wonder what would happen if we’d all arm the janitors of our buildings with machine guns.
Making snow with cattail fuzz
Another part of this city block has been cordoned off already since 2005; we’re not even questioning that one anymore.
 It is a situation that of course cannot last. Or maybe that is from a Dutch perspective. Maybe the elasticity of this town is much greater than I think it is.
. . .  very green frogs, . . .
And so I find my peace in the mountains where it is empty and quiet and real. I like this particular mountain  because it has innumerable spots where water just oozes out of the flanks. Lebanon is situated in a Mediterranean biome; a biome ‘characterized  by hot and dry summers, while winters tend to be cool and moist. Most precipitation arrives during these months.’ (Source) Basically it is dry 9 months of the year.
But even at the end of summer, there’s water coming out of that mountain because inside this mountain is a huge reservoir that holds a massive amount of water collected over the years. “Lebanese aquifer-bearing formations are exceptionally extensive and are generally located underneath extremely permeable and karst formations. These formations have great storage  capacities due to intense fractures, fissures and karst networks. Water in these layers often reappears as surface water in the form of springs.” (Source) What I wouldn’t give to be able to look inside this mountain.
. . .  and cattails (we still need to teach these kids about conservationist practices, it seems) . . .
SIL and I, while hiking with the kids last week, ran into a very small pond, fed by one of those streams. People have dug a great number of narrow tunnels into this mountain to collect water, and the run-off creates little oasis in the dry mountains. This particular one had a pond filled with green frogs and cattail, which is a wetland plant. Part of this area lies along the MLT, a 440 km long trail that runs all across Lebanon.
 Cattails are common in Holland, but I’d never seen them in Lebanon. My SIL even knew their name in French, but had never seen them in real life.
The kids had a ball making it snow with cattail fuzz, until they noticed there were green frogs everywhere.
The day was spent in a mini swamp, while hunting fossils, looking at frogs, making cattail snow, discovering tunnels into the mountain with water, studying fox skulls, and practicing the perfect trajectory for a stoy to hit the water (red neck habit), while waiting for Beirut to turns to its old self again. Whatever that may be.  


September 16, 2014

More Mountains

On top of Mount Kniesseh. It's not the highest point in Lebanon, but I find it by far the best looking one.

Work has been particularly stressful since I have been back. New management, difficult work place circumstances and many after-hours meetings. Getting back in the routine after two months off doesn’t help much either. Apart from that, the mood in town isn't great. The current Daash crisis (ISIS in the western media) is not exactly uplifting. People are anxious, and waiting for what seems to be inevitable; these guys are going to come knocking on our doors pretty soon too. Their flags are already flying in some parts of Tripoli. Granted, these are isolated cases, but still.

So this is facing Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea.(which you can see)

America threatening to bomb them to smithereens is hardly comforting. Large bombing campaigns have never amounted to much (ask the Israelis and the Americans); it only results in more refugees. My SIL had a hard time getting her son into a school this fall; all schools were fully-booked due to the increase in pupils from Syria. They can't help it. But it doesn't help us either.

And so I have spent more time than usual in the mountain house; it is a great stress reliever, as there is absolutely nothing to do there except stare into the forest and the mountains.

This one is into the Beqaa Valley and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains behind it (and Syria behind that)

We take the dogs way up in the mountains, and explore the neighborhood. Way up high, on top of the Mnt. Kniesseh (Jabal el-Kniesseh, highest point on the Highway between Beirut and Damascus), nobody is afraid of dogs; the only people we see are shepherds, and they have dogs themselves. Sometimes we get caught in troops of goats; their dogs are fierce, but they do notmind us as long as we stay away from the goats.

No clue why he scares the living day lights out of people. He's looks like a raccoon and he's absolutely gentle.

The war in Syria has brought other small changed in the country. Dogs are not greatly appreciated in Arab society to start with, but the influx of an in general more conservative population has made it difficult at times to walk the dogs in town. Entire families change sidewalks and cross over to the other side of the street when I come by. I understand why, but it is not exactly relaxing. Up here in the mountains they run free and don’t scare the living daylights out of anybody.
A horse and fowl we suddenly ran into

From the top, you can see the Mediterranean Sea, the Beqaa Valley, and far in the distance the mountain range that separates us from Syria. It is odd to realize that less than75 kilometers from here lies Damascus, where a full-scale war is being fought. We used to go there on holidays. Drove the car all the way over the country, from Aleppo in the north, Bosra in the south, Palmyra in the desert and the Euphrates River in the east. All of that is now destroyed by war. A war that is going to last another 5 years for sure, but most likely many more years, and more and more areas are going to be dragged into this conflict.

Can't think of a caption. You figure it out yourself.
Only one mountain ridge, and not such a big one at that, separates us physically from the conflict. Emotionally, it has drawn us in already. Uncertain times are on the horizon.


September 09, 2014

Supermoon over Beirut

Supermoon over Beirut
Tonight (Monday night)  will show the third and final supermoon of 2014. A moon is a supermoon when it’s full and makes it closest approach to Earth in its orbit. This month’s moon is also known as the Harvest Moon since it falls closest to the autumn equinox. (source)
So I thought I'd make a picture of it. For those that forgot to look at it. It almost looks like the sun, so bright.
I am pretty impressed with my close-up of the moon, especially since I am the proud owner of a tiny pocket camera; no special lenses or intricate gadgets for me.

September 08, 2014

Summer is Running at its End

Walking the dogs in the mountains above Beirut

The weather is slowly cooling off, and way up in the mountains, early in the morning or late in the afternoon, you get caught in swirling fog. It is nice cold in the fog. When I just moved here, I thought that the grey clouds in the mountains meant it was going to rain any minute, but it never does.
Summer is running on its end. People who spent the summer in the mountain villages are packing up to go back to Beirut; most schools are starting this week. The villages empty again, and houses close the shutters.   

The new dog on the block, which turns out to be an English shepherd
A troupe of some 15 howling jackals pass my mountain house every night around one, I wonder where they go in winter time. Snow won’t come in for another 3 months at least, and the place is teeming with field mice right now. The shepherds in the mountains, many of them from the other side of the Beqaa Valley, are preparing to truck their sheep and goats back to their villages; another month and a half and it will be too cold at night to stay here.
A Lebanese mountain village at sunset
I count in summers, and so another year has gone by. Saturday, another Lebanese soldier got decapitated by ISIS. Tensions ran high in certain neighborhoods that night. The situation got diffused at the last minute, but that’s been the case for the past year; last minute diffusions of situations that potentially could turn into full-scale battles. The situation used to be easier. There were enemies, and there were friends. It was easy to identify the good and the bad guys. But now good guys hang out with bad guys, while bad guys that beat up other bad guys become, as a result, somehow good guys. And suddenly it is not so easy to explain the situation anymore to someone in Holland when the baddest guy of all becomes a good guy in retrospect, if you compare him to the new bad guys on the block. The mood in town is not an optimistic one.

But up in the mountains, you do not notice any of that.

September 07, 2014

On a Shoe, and Not Much Else

One of the tiny waterfalls
When I was pregnant with my son, I didn’t know what name to give him. And then I went for a walk on the beach with a Lebanese couple and their children. They had a son named Adrian, about 11 years old. And he was playing in the surf. With his new basketball shoes, brought in from the States by his dad who had been on a business trip. The dad must have warned the child a hundred times about those shoes. ‘Be careful, those are expensive shoes. Be careful, those are new shoes. Be careful, those shoes are from the States, you cannot get them here. Be careful, the water will ruin them.’  Well, water didn’t ruin them, it just made one disappear. Suddenly, the boy had only one shoe. The dad went ballistic. "I warned you and warned you and warned you. Look what you have done now. You will go to school tomorrow with one shoe." And Adrian replied stoically "Fine, one shoe will do." I was thinking, “Man, get a life, it is only a shoe.” And I named my son Adrian.
Waterfall at 3 levels (difficult to see though)
Fast forward some 20 years. I went up to the mountains to escape the oppressive heat. I said I would not ever again complain about the heat in Lebanon, after a particularly cold and wet August in Holland, and so I won't, but I wonder how people without AC survive this. It is manageable during the day; you try to stay out of the sun, find some type of wind flow, any wind flow (can't call it a breeze), relax, and just hope it will be October soon, when the temperatures drop. But at night, it is unbearable.
The shoes were both still there in this picture (up, in red)
Anyway, to escape the heat, I took my daughter and a friend up to a waterfall in the mountains. Waterfall may be a little misleading. It is a waterfall in wintertime. In summer time it is a small stream of water trickling down the mountain with little puddles at intervals. It's difficult to find natural places with water in summer (apart from the beach), but this river always runs. It is difficult to reach by car, so relatively clean. People still have a tendency to go out and have a full-scale picnic, and then get up and leave. Plastic plates, plastic cups, aluminum foil, chips bags, Pepsi cans and tissue paper, everything gets left behind. But this place is pretty clean.
and then it was gone
The kids played in the water for a while, until it was noticed that one of my daughter's shoes was missing. One of the dogs had apparently dropped it down the waterfall into the next pool. And then it was gone. We poked around a bit, but no trace of the shoe. Apart from the fact that hiking down the mountain with one shoe was going to be difficult, I was going to let it go. Okay, so we lost a shoe. Big deal. After all, I had named my son after a child that lost his shoe.
Terrible monsters live at the bottom of the pool
And we sat some more. But somehow it didn’t sit well with me. After all, they were relatively new, those shoes. And she still fit them. Having a daughter who goes through a pair of new shoes every three months, a good pair of shoes that still fits is a commodity. It also dawned on me that this was one shoe of a 120,000 LBP pair of shoes. It’s not like it’s a $10 slipper. Darn, these shoes are expensive! For a Dutchie, at least. I wanted that shoe back!
Yeah, and then there were two
But the plunge pool was a lot deeper than I expected, and the imaginary water monsters at the bottom of the puddle a lot bigger, and so we spent the rest of the afternoon poking around in the pool, trying to retrieve a shoe. With success, I might add. The end result is not that great though; the prolonged presence in the water sort of unglued the shoe. Will need to pass by the shoemaker to get it back in shape.
Hard to wear wet shoes on dry land, and so she wore them in the water
And you are now thinking, “Get a life, it is only a shoe.”