March 03, 2015

False Light on Bliss Street

As I walked home from work yesterday afternoon, I was suddenly caught in a flash of ‘vals light’, or ‘strijklicht’, as the official term is in Dutch. I cannot find an adequate English translation for it. It’s translated as ‘flood light’, but that doesn’t even come close to it. It’s the sun light that – at sun set – floods under the cloud covers, and draws really long shadows. The rays are practically parallel to Earth’s surface. It’s often very warm in color, but has an almost fake quality, hence the Dutch word for it; ‘false light’.  It’s related to the amount of dust in the atmosphere, and the angle at which sun rays travel through this. (if you’re interested, and read Dutch, this guy wrote books about it)

The sun sets on Bliss
You don’t often experience this. Either the sun is not at the right angle, the cloud cover not there, or some other reason, but yesterday, it was exactly right. And just as I crossed Bliss Street, the sun set, at the very end of to the street, and for a short time, you could see it, from the beginning to the end of Bliss. Sounds like book title; False Light on Bliss Street’. Bit of an oxymoron too. But it was pretty magical to see the sunset in the middle of an urban setting.
A false light
Magical. I  took some pictures. A police woman stopped next to me and made a picture of it as well. And as I continued my walk, it started raining softly. I like small moments like this. Moments when you realize that beauty is in small things, and happiness doesn’t have to cost a thing.  Well, that’s my two cents of it anyway. Thought I’d share that with you.
And then it rained (on Hamra Street)

March 01, 2015

On Chaos and Order

We’re standing at the entrance to the Lebanese Navy Seal Head Quarters in Amchiit, Aregu’s trainer and I. We’re waiting for Aregu, and her fellow team mates, to begin the race.
Entrance to the Navy Seal Barracks in Amchiit

It is the annual Army Day Run (CISM), a 5K race between the coastal towns of Amchiit and Jbeil (Byblos), organized by the armed forces, and civilians can participate. The military has already taken off, and now the civilians are waiting for the field to clear, so they can take up their positions. But there are still some soldiers hanging around on the track, the road hasn’t been closed off yet and the lead car is not back yet. We’re waiting.
The military contingent taking off
The soldiers at the gate, supposedly navy seals as well, do not look like they could run the race themselves. Pot-bellied and cigarette in their hand; a far cry from the navy seals I know from the movies. The overall ‘relaxed’ atmosphere indicates the runners won’t be leaving any time soon.
What do you want, it’s the military. They can never organize anything on time,” says the trainer.
I indicate that I kind of like this chaos.
How can you like this chaos? I’d love to be able to exchange for the order and law of Holland. Give me Holland anytime, everything is so well organized there,” he replies, “Look at this ‘fauda’.”
Now it's the turn of the civilians; Aregu on her way out
Her trainer is from Lebanon, grew up in chaos and disorder, and longs for law and order. I on the other hand, grew up in law and order, and know that the predictability of life kills all creativity and sense of living; I thrive on chaos.
The lead Jeep has finally made it back into the barracks, the race is about to start, and we need to make our way to the finish line.
And she clears the finish line at 18:29 she's taking her time (although her trainer doubts the accuracy of this board)
At the finish line, I am just in time to see Aregu cross the finish line as the first woman of the civilians. She doesn’t get a medal, but rather a card with the number 1 on it, indicating she’s going to get a podium position. And podium position winners get a cup.
Bit by bit everyone comes in, and the army is organizing the prizes. All the big army generals come out and have their pictures taken with winners, in front of winners, on the podium, in front of the podium, next to the podium, and it is a regular picture-taking-fiesta.
They all want to be in the picture. None of them do any serious running anymore, is my guess.
But the cups on the prize table are rapidly disappearing, one after the other gets called to the podium, but not Aregu. When the generals all gather for their final picture, shake each other’s hand and say ‘bye  bye’ to one another, we understand that there has been some kind of mix-up; they forgot about Aregu.
And indeed, the change of her number at the start line, does not seem to have been communicated to the finish line. Nobody’s fault, just an unfortunate incident. According to their records, she never ran the race, so how can she win it.  
And there she stands, looking rather confused, with the number 1 tag around her neck, as everybody clears the area.
A lovely colonel quickly stops a soldier, strips him of his medal, and says to Aregu, “Come on, we’re going to the podium.” And while she stands, alone, on the first place, he hangs the medal around her neck.
So. Happy now? You got your chaos,” says her trainer.
Well, I did get story to write. What would I write about without chaos?

February 23, 2015

Lost in the Olive Gro(o)ve

Smoke in the olive grove
 Got lost in an olive grove this past Sunday. You see, something in the country side attracted our attention; a little white church, it looked a little like a Spanish mission. We weren’t sure how to get there, but there was this one little road that seemed to lead in its directions. Only, it didn’t. The road stopped, but there were olive trees everywhere, and so we figured that if we’d just walk through the olive grove, we’d get there.

But it has been raining a lot – as you may have noticed – and it was kind of muddy, and of course we weren’t wearing the right shoes, and while avoiding the thick clay and puddles, we sort of lost track of exactly where we were supposed to be going. And this was not just an ordinary olive grove; this one must have had thousands of trees; an olive grove of industrial size. That made sense, as the land around the church is probably owned by the church, and the church has always been a landowner of substantial proportions.
To make a long story short, we found the little white church, which was more like a chapel. (Saydet el Hraiche,  it turns out, at 34° 22' 7.36" N 35° 45' 0.02" E). But that’s not the point. The sheer size of this olive grove was just mesmerizing. Trees upon trees upon trees of olives, and not young trees either. And even though it is winter up in the mountains, and people are skiing up in the mountains, down in the olive grove, it was spring. The ground was covered in yellow flowers, homaida.
The snow capped Cedars in the background
 Workers were trimming the trees, preparing them for the new growth season (olive harvest ends in November) , burning the left-over bits of wood, while placing the larger pieces aside for firewood.

The benefits of olives are well-known. Here in Lebanon we eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner, we have our preferences for black or green, we wash ourselves with olive oil soap and we practically drink the olive oil ‘on the rocks’.
There are an estimated 13 million olive trees in Lebanon, covering around 57,000 hectares (or some 5.4 % of Lebanese territory), most of them which are 150 years or older (according to this document, I am not sure if this is accurate information). With some 170,000 olive farmers, you wonder what we do with all those olives? 70% of the harvest is pressed into olive oil, the rest is sold as olives. Lebanon produced some 20,000 tons of oil in 2011. Apparently we consume it all ourselves. I read somewhere that a Western agricultural expert had commented that the agricultural sector of Lebanon was ‘export averse’, i.e.  not really looking to export.

Fire (olive) wood for the stove

I used to, back in Holland, buy my olive oil in 75cl bottles, which would last me for two months. Here in Lebanon, I think we go through 60 liters a year, but it might be more. It’s like we’re drinking it. Olive oil, although high in fat (it’s called ‘oil’ for a reason), is considered healthy because it contains mainly MUFA.  (monounsaturated fatty acid.) ‘MUFAs have been found to lower your total cholesterol and help normalize blood clotting’, according to the Mayo Clinic. (Here more reasons why you should even fry in olive oil).
Homayda ground cover
And so here we were, lost in the olive grove. I could totally built my future house here. Next time I think I will be planning a picnic there. More to come on olive groves. 

February 21, 2015

Blanc Mais Faisable

 “How’s the road up to Feraya?”
“Blanc mais faisable.”
 Indeed. White, but doable (if you have a 4 x 4).
I don’t think I have ever seen the road up to Feraya this white and pretty. I tried to make some landscape shots while driving, but it turns out to be pretty much impossible because there are massive billboards,  advertising something unnecessary, on either right or left side of the road every 50 meters. Who’s making money from those billboards (other than the billboard company)? The municipality where they are placed? Private people?  It pretty much ruins the landscape; landscape pollution at its best.
The road was doable, but not for many. As a result, they opened only two lifts, and we spent our morning going up and down this one hill. It didn’t matter. It felt a little like a private ski resort, I kept skiing into the same people. The weather was gorgeous. After near Arctic temperatures (according to Lebanese standards), we suddenly were back to sunshine and clear skies.
Not for long though; A new storm is on its way, hitting land on Tuesday, at 11:00 AM. 

February 20, 2015

Good Snow Year

Some years are good wine years. Others are ‘long summer’ years.

I think 2015  is going to be known as a good snow year. I hiked this morning (Friday), at 7 AM, some eight and a half  kilometers (thanks to MapMyHike) in the snow up in the mountains above Beirut.  No one is out at that time because people assume that the roads have not been cleared yet. They have, but let's keep them thinking they haven't.
It has been raining all week in Beirut. Yesterday (Thursday) , hubbie was at home, but he needed to go to someone’s condolences, so he dresses up in a suit. As he leaves the house to get on his bike, it stops raining. He drives to where he needs to be, and once he’s inside, it starts raining again. He pays his respect, and as he leaves, it stops raining. He rides back home again and just as he gets into the house, it starts raining.
Now my scenario. It is dry. I need to walk to my work. I have hardly closed the door behind me or it starts raining and hailing. I get (very wet) to my work and the rain stops. Then I need to walk to another building at work to pick up some paperwork. As I walk out, it starts raining. When I get to the other building it stops. I organize my work, and I need to walk back to my office; it starts raining again. I get into the building, it stops. At the end of the day, as I walk home, it starts raining again.

This global warming thing is working out well for my daughter. We’re on our fourth storm of the season (this one’s called Windy, very appropriate), and schools have closed again. Between the many saints, religious holidays, and storms, there is some school. She’s not complaining.
Snow Dog
Neither am I. As soon as the Ministry of Education announced the students were off, I went up to the mountains. It is snowing as low as 500 meters, and that’s pretty low for Lebanese standards. It even snowed in Beirut last night; wet snow, and it melted as soon as it hit the ground, and it only snowed for like 5 minutes, but still, (wet) snow in Beirut is pretty unusual.
The mountains become absolutely beautiful when it snows, and waking up while it snows is as good as it gets. And tomorrow promises to be beautiful!

February 14, 2015

The horse

Spent most of the day in traffic today. Because of a commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Rafic Harriri’s assassination, downtown was pretty much off limits, and so the entire city tried to weasel its way around it. As a result, everyone was stuck part of the day.
I tried all kinds of intricate short-cuts, none of which were very successful as I am obviously not the only creative mind in town, but I got stuck in some interesting neighborhoods. In one of those neighborhoods, I encountered this scene. Love this town, I tell ya.

It reminded me of a famous Dutch carnival song (Carnival has started in Holland, which is connected to the old tradition of christian fasting), called “There’s a horse in the hallway.” Here is an artistic version of it.

February 11, 2015

Good Storm

How do you know you’ve got a good storm? Count the number of umbrellas you see lying in the gutter. I spotted four in one street alone.

They’ve been telling us already since last week that this really big storm, Yohan, was going to hit us. Saturday  was D-Day. Well, friends of mine went to the beach on Saturday. Sunny, clear skies, 26 degrees Celsius. Maybe Sunday then? Sunday came and went. No storm. And this went on for some days. But the storm finally arrived last night, in true Lebanese fashion: fashionably late.
Several colleagues at work were late; they had to clean up flooded houses. Others were late because of a traffic jam on the Corniche;  part of the railing and sidewalk had ended up on the road.  I think I may have lost bits and pieces of my outdoor furniture. Not sure, will find out in spring, I guess.
It’s not the perfect storm yet, but it came pretty close last night.

February 09, 2015


We're waiting for another storm, but in the mean time the almond trees in the mountains are already blossoming

Visits to official government institutions in Lebanon in order to get paperwork done are always good for an elevation in your blood pressure. Monty Pyton-esque scenarios will unfold right under your eyes.  It still is a surprise to me that people do not go postal here. It must be the olive oil. Or maybe the understanding that nothing will change, no matter how much you rant and rage.

But one of these government institutions however, the famed Amn el Aam, where you renew passports and residency permit, has it all organized. They have a web site that shows exactly when they are open, what paperwork you need to bring with you and how many copies, they have a number line system, so the pushing and shoving in the mob (you could never really speak of a line to begin with) is eliminated, and they even allow you to send it all through the mail. Someone has figured out how to organize things.
3 weeks ago, this was all covered in snow.
That was until a couple of months ago. I should have smelled a rat when I was told I could no longer use LibanPost to do all this work for me; I had to do it in person. “Change in policy,” I was told.

And indeed, when I showed up last Saturday, they were back to square one. Apparently it worked so well, that a change was needed, because we can’t have that; well-organized government establishments. The first thing is that they changed buildings. I did not know that, because the English website is no longer operating. Correction: it is working, but all the necessary information can no longer be found.

 They also changed the number line system; it was back to mob style. For an hour and a half in a mob, with fiercely pushing elderly ladies and smelly hairy men. Woody Allen could have made a movie out of it. You are packed so tightly that instant bonding takes place; by the end of the day, you’re like neighbors. I had a good time, because the gentleman behind me had a good sense of humor, and the man two places ahead of me was dry as ever. I also met acquaintances some seven people further in the mob whom I hadn’t seen in ages, and so we conducted our conversations over the mob. And there we pushed and shoved up to an hour and a half before we even made it to the front desk. Had someone in the middle died, we wouldn’t have noticed it until he’d been pushed all the way to the front desk, which was manned by sometimes one, and sometimes two officers.

A Sunday morning hike at 8:30
At the desk, they would see if the paperwork you were going to submit was in order. Some very sad people found out that they had been in the wrong mob all along. “You want to pick up your residency permit? That’s in another room!” yelled the officer.
Ya haram,” moaned the entire mob in unison, as we watched the poor little lady wiggle her way out of the mob, and into the mob in the other room. At the very end, of course.
Many others were sent out because of having only one copy, instead of two, or because they’d forgotten to make a photo copy of the entry stamp in their passport. “Ya haram,” would the mob groan again in unison, as yet another victim was directed to the copy room, one floor down. Where there was a line as well. Of course.


Once your paperwork was approved, you’d get a number. But the number system did not quite work and so an officer would now and then yell out a series of numbers, upon which you would have to get into a new line, because what if 185 would go before you (184)? Then to the cashier, who would not take dollars, nor a debit card, just cash. Back into a new line, the one in front of the ATM machine.

It took me a total of 4 hours to just submit the papers. And I had (almost) all my paperwork in order.
The kids are trying out H's new bicycle

Back to square one. What a pity. It worked so well.

February 01, 2015

We'll Sort That Out Later

We’ll sort that out later,” he said.
That sentence has kept me laughing all morning. I am sure many of you do not find this funny at all. Especially since it comes from Lebanon’s most controversial man. It's probably not very humorous, but still, it makes me laugh.
The Israelis were not amused, however. 01-02-2015 at 10:39 AM local time above the Mediterranean Sea
Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, tends to “heat the emotions” as we say in Dutch.  While his followers would gladly give their lives for him, there’s a large contingency of Lebanese that would just as gladly drink his blood. I do not know of anyone who feels neutral towards him. (And I promise, this post will draw many insulting comments in both directions).
I feel ambiguous about the man. Although I do not share his political views, I find his wit and intelligence a breath of fresh air in Lebanese politics. If only others politicians were as quick and nimble of the mind as he, we’d be in a different place. Unfortunately, much leaves to be desired in that department.
Some of my friends liken him to Goebbels or Hitler, both charming (although that may be difficult to comprehend in retrospect, but just look at the pictures of rallies when these men spoke; all admiring faces in the crowd), and seemingly smart, but demagogic in the end.  I guess time will tell.
Last Friday he gave a 90 minute speech. Occasion for much ‘shooting-in-the-air’, because this was a speech we had been waiting for. Could we breath, or not? You see, Israel blew up – inadvertently, it seems – a Hezbollah commando in the Golan on January 18th. And everyone here held its breath momentarily.
After all, it was a pretty big catch. Not only did they kill 6 Hezbollah members, but also an Iranian commander. And what was probably the biggest catch was that one of the Hebzollah members was Jihad Mougnieh, the son of Imad Moughniye. Imad Moughniye had been on the American radar for many many years, for attacks such as the American Embassy in Beirut (now the site of million dollar sea-front apartments) and the Beirut Marine Barracks.  For years, Hezbollah had denied that Imad Moughniye was a member, and wouldn’t even confirm whether the man was alive or not, until his death in a car bomb in 2008 in Damascus, when it turned out he’d  been running part of Hezbollah for years. And now Israel had killed his son.
Everyone knew Hezbollah couldn’t let this one slide, but how to retaliate? Too big a loss for the Israelis, and we’d be in a bigger trouble than 2006. Too little a loss for Israel, and Hezbollah would be the laughing stock.

So when they did retaliate, as expected, on Wednesday, January the 28th, we held our breath again. The news was a little confusing at first. There was talk about 17 dead Israelis. That would be too big a loss. Then there was talk of one Israeli soldier kidnapped as well. Way too big a loss. However, clarity soon solved our fears.
Only 2 Israeli dead.
No need to worry, the Israelis couldn’t possibly start a bombing campaign over two dead soldiers.
And then came his 90 minute speech (part of it graciously translated by a blogger here)

 This passage starts at 58:12, for those that comprehend Arabic)

 “What was the result of the operation? First of all, they killed us in the light of day, and so we killed them in the light of day. Their operation was at half past eleven, or a quarter to twelve… Our operation was at half past eleven, give or take five minutes. Two cars destroyed in exchange for two cars, and a grain of musk. Casualties in exchange for martyrs; as for the mismatch in numbers, we’ll sort that out in the future. Rockets in exchange for rockets. We didn’t go bury a bomb… No, in the broad light of day, the boys went into the field with rockets on their shoulders, and executed the operation.”
And there is that one remark: “As for the mismatch in numbers, we’ll sort that out in the future.” (at 58:47)
I do not know why, but what a power in a sentence.
Maybe I should disable the comment section on this post. 

January 25, 2015

Inspire Change

Yesterday I was skiing on the peaks of Mzaar (2,456 meters)

You live in a beautiful country,” a Dutch friend remarked as she saw my latest snow pictures online. Indeed. I do. Yesterday I was skiing on the peaks of Mzaar. Today I hiked around the mountain in the sun. Some of my friends are whatsapping their beach day pictures in Byblos. A beautiful country.

Today I hiked around it (The Mzaar Peak is right under the 'm' of 'meters)

There isn’t much pride in it, though. I was recently with a group of kids in a workshop, and the subject of nationality came up. They all claimed to be non-Lebanese. Quite a few were American, one Australian, a French child, a German child, a few were from the Gulf. But every child was actually Lebanese. With two Lebanese parents. Maybe not born, but most definitely raised in Lebanon for the past 4 to 5 years, if not longer. They had Lebanese names, Lebanese grandparents, Lebanese roots, spoke Lebanese and adhered to the Lebanese culture. Yet not one single child identified itself as being Lebanese. The only one who did identify himself as being from his own country, was a Syrian child. He was Syrian, and proud of it.
The reservoirs are filling up
If I have a Chinese passport, would that make me Chinese?” I asked the children. No, they agreed. That would not make me Chinese. But it isn’t good to be Lebanese, they explained. Lebanon is a ‘bad country’, to use their words. And we are talking about children from the upper regions of society, so for them, life here really isn’t that bad.

View on the Mediterranean Sea (where people were sitting on the beach), . . .
Is there a future for them in Lebanon? Probably not for many, unless they inherit the family’s business, or their parents’ fortune.  Or both. The rest will have to go abroad in order to make a decent living. But does that make it a bad country? No. An unfortunate situation maybe. But a situation that begs for change. However, it is obviously not a change they feel responsible for. And I often hear that. “What difference will it make?” they say. “The same people always run this place. It’s not in our hands. “
. . .  while we hike in the snow.
It is a very fatalistic view on life.
Now if life were like that in Holland, with only 1,550 hours of sunlight (versus some 2,500 in Lebanon), icy winter conditions, rules,  regulations and taxes up to the wazoo, and maybe 30 days of beach weather if you’re lucky, yes, I can understand you wouldn’t care. But we’ve got everything you’d need; from beaches to ski-resorts. You live by the sea, you’ve got a fantastic culture, great food, we’re pretty self-sufficient as far as fruits and vegetables go, a good family network. Isn’t that worth fighting for?
Yet, when 8 soldiers die, and 22 get injured in cross-border skirmishes, we pay as much attention to it as to the death of a 90-something Saudi king. So apparently not.

And yes, I hear you. In order to get to a country with equal chances and social equity, taxes would have to be substantially higher than they currently are in Lebanon. But children are not inspired by their parents to instill change. Parents have given up, and tell their children not to bother either, because indeed, those asking for a change most likely will get blown up. Ghandi was able to inspire change in the Indians for some 18 years before he got assassinated. Our heroes (have we had any?) tend to have a shorter shelf life.  
Possibilities for an ice-skating rink?

I confess, I am guilty too: I have sent my son outside to study because I know that he will not be able to raise his own family here from a salary of a $2,000 a month (If he’s lucky). But I believe we are wrong. We need to built a generation that believes in change and making a difference. Just not sure how to go about it.
Any ideas?

January 23, 2015

A Delineated Horizon

A delineated horizon

The horizon is delineated: the difference between sky and sea is easily visible due to a dark line or a different color. It may not mean much to you; a delineated horizon. I am reminded of the many Friday evenings I spent with friends after work at the Hard Rock Café. We had some fierce conversations there, interesting ones too.
Fishing boats on shore
For instance, that one conversation about how John F. Kennedy Jr, crashed his plane into the sea because the horizon was not delineated. Sea merged into sky, and so he did not know whether he was flying up or down. ‘Spatial disorientation’ they call it. It was down.
The many conversations we had on religion, sects, politics and ‘your guy’ and ‘my guy.’ About the slipper guy, colleagues, and the interesting stories that were shared by those that would join us. We had waiters sit with us, discussing their research project at university, and if they’d go for their masters abroad, what university should they go to. The waiters knew our ‘the usual’. The triple sec Marguerita in a 16 ounce glass on the rocks, the nachos with everything on the side except for the cheese, the burger that had to be grilled down to hockey puck consistency.
Beautiful sea water colors
We’d talk shop, and laugh and complain, and plan a road trip on Route 66, but better hurry, before we;d need walkers. We’d discuss the troubles of taking care of an elderly mother from a distance, the sale of a house in Baghdad and the search for one in Canada, childhood memories, and shared stories. We laughed a lot.
The Corniche

The Hard Rock is gone and so are many of that group. Yet every time I see a delineated horizon, which is usually after a storm, I am reminded of the many Friday evenings we spent after work at the Hard Rock Café.
4 children contemplating life
"Ooops, mom left!"