October 28, 2014

Abdel Wahab el-Inglezi Street

Went to a street festival this Sunday in Ashrafiya (that’s East Beirut for the uninitialized among you). You can argue that East and West no longer exist when it concerns Beirut but I can give you a 100 examples that it does. Well, maybe not 100. But quite a few.
It was a pleasant event; Abdel Wahab el-Inglezi Street was transformed into a pedestrian zone, and there was food, music, little stands where people sold homemade food, jewelry (also homemade) and lots of other things artistically crafted items. There is an incredible talent out there on the streets (I think), but no real venue where they can market their merchandise. Guys on stilts, a juggler, a band; a good way to pass your Sunday morning (or afternoon, it’s just that I am a morning person).

It was also fun to see the bicycle cops out in force. They’re a new sight in town, they only started operating the beginning of this year. They’re based in Ras Beirut, so I am used to seeing them bike around, but it’s good to see they’re venturing out. I am not sure how successful they are in fighting crime - it would be nice to read about some cases they solved, or prevented – but it is good to see some law enforcement officers that do not have big bellies, or that sit at the wheel of big cars with a cup of coffee in hand.  I hope we get more of those guys. And I am waiting for the first girl cop on a bike. You see more and more women in the ISF force on the street, so maybe it’s time for one on a bike as well.

October 26, 2014

Apparently Not Quite the Last Beach Day


Okay, so yesterday was maybe not quite the ‘last’ beach day yet. SIL and I decided this morning for a picnic on the beach. A ‘picnic on the beach’ is different than ‘going to the beach’; you’d need to live here to understand these finer nuances.
Going to the beach’ implies you are going to be in a swimsuit, and thus you’d need to go to a beach club where you pay, if you want to be left alone while on the beach. A ‘picnic on the beach’ means you’re not going to be in a swimsuit, and so a public beach will do.
Kids don’t really need much; as long as there are waves, water, sun and sand, you’ve covered the entertainment section. Food doesn’t really matter anymore after that.
As long as there are waves, water and sun, you’ve covered the entertainment section
Public beaches are sometimes referred to as ‘St. Balesh; balesh meaning ‘for free’.  We haven’t had any storms yet, which means the beaches are relatively clean. After a serious storm, anything that floats in the sea in front of the Lebanese coast ends up on the beach. Some of it is good stuff (drift wood) but most of it is garbage. In winter, SIL and I come here often to scavenge wood for art projects (wooden mobiles, to be exact. Hopefully one day they’ll become a ‘high in demand’ commodity), and it’s amazing the kind of garbage you find, as if the Great Pacific Garbage Patch washed ashore. We love poking around in it, but many people here frown upon that habit.
The beach (St. Balesh)
I rather frown upon other things. It is odd that we (SIL and I) are always the only women that come to this beach alone. The only other women we see are (heavily veiled), accompanied by men. Or men alone. These men tend to travel in groups of four, five, and sort of post themselves close to our picnic place, and look. That’s all they do. They look. And look. As if we’re in the zoo. And it’s not like we are young, or a size 36, or even wearing anything revealing. It really doesn’t matter. They just sit and watch how we drag wood to a bonfire (a good picnic requires a fire), collect stones with holes, or heart-shaped stones (another art project in the making) or makes plans for the day when we don’t have to work anymore.
This one fits in the category of ‘awkward family pictures’
All this took place in relative peace, as some 50 kilometers further up north, a city is at war. 27 dead so far, in battles between the army and sunni gunman, but I am told there’s  a little more to that story,  things are not necessary what they look like, and no end in sight.
This is a little worrisome, because experience tells us that full-scalestreet battles sometimes carry over to other towns. But you rarely notice anything of battle once you’re more than 5 city block away.  
We had decided for a beach up north instead of the south (of Beirut), because we didn't want to get stuck in the traffic of southerners going back to Beirut. We figured traffic from the north would be slow today. Well, that wasn't quite the fact: it was traffic (jams) as usual. We drove into town under darkness, since we changed back to winter time. And so in general , all was quiet in the west.

October 25, 2014

Last Beach Day

Not much happening these days. After the rain of last weekend, we’re back in sunshine mode. A friend and I decided to enjoy one of the (probably) last beach days. It’s not that the weather isn’t good enough to be on the beach after today, but the beach resorts pack up their furniture, close the bar, and turn off the water. That means that from now on we’ve got to go to the beach Dutch style; on a towel in the sand, bring your own food and go home all salty, sticky and sandy. We’ve become too Lebanese to deal with that. Besides, the olive harvest has began, and the weather is fantastic for hiking, so the coming weeks will probably be spent outside Beirut. But for now, our last beach day.

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.