August 28, 2016

Back Home and In Your Face

Back home, back in Beirut and back in business. And it is good to be back. The summer isn’t over yet, but the holidays are. I have changed jobs, and am super excited about it; this year I should be a more productive writer.

It can take some time to get back into the Beirut mood, for this town can at times be like its heat; repressive, especially after two months in an environment where it does not get above 29C, where there is no humidity, where there are no traffic jams  and where no one really cares what you wear or if you’re wearing anything at all.

However, this time, I was right in the mood even before landing.

My phone broke this summer. And while at the airport in Amsterdam, waiting for my flight to Istanbul, instead of playing Sudoku on my phone or flipping through Instagram images, I really had nothing else to do then to observe my environment.

And it was a quiet environment, almost demure.
People sat around, each in his/her own personal space, doing their own thing. No one was really interacting with others, and conversations that did take place were in very hushed voices. No eye contact. No loud noises. Very quiet. Very peaceful. Very lifeless too.

And then you get to the Beirut gate at Istanbul Airport (which somehow often gets placed right next to the one to Tel Aviv, and so the two peoples are quietly ogling one another with some fear - from one side -, and lots of curious glances from both sides), where things are slightly different.

A profoundly different atmosphere.

Personal space? What personal space? It is loud and ‘in your face’ communication. If you do not know anyone, you make sure you find someone you know, you are either related to, who’s from the same ‘dai’a’, who knows someone you are related to or whatever. You will do whatever it takes to find someone you have some sort of connection with. Any connection.
And then you talk. And laugh. And share your opinions. And you do this very loud so everyone can listen in, whether they like it or not, and join in.
If the flight is late, everyone complains out loud. If there is food, everyone shares. If you need help, everyone will advice.

I was looking at 5 older men, in their late sixties, sitting together, who had absolute laughing fits. One of them was telling either a joke or a story, and you could just see them shaking in their chairs. It was like looking at a couple of teenage boys, you could not help but laugh along.
Maybe it was because the majority was Lebanese going home, or visiting, but it was a good atmosphere. An ‘in your face’ and loud atmosphere. A joyful atmosphere.

And it was fun.  There was this love of life that is so evident in Lebanese. This joy, this feeling that people really make the best of what they have, this ‘Life is short and you may not have been handed a very good deck, but what the heck, you make do with what you have’.

And it was good to realize that. Good to come back to. 

June 23, 2016


Sietske in Beirut is currently on holidays and will return end of August.

May 29, 2016

Beirut For You

As mentioned before, May and June are the months when everyone is organizing fairs, events and happenings in town. It’s not too hot yet, people are still in town (Beirut is sometimes a bit like Paris in August; all the locals are gone), chances of rain are small (although that did not quite pack out like that this weekend with a thunder storm over town), people haven’t quite taken to the beach either, so now’s your chance to gather a maximum amount of visitors. We’ve just had the outdoor fairs of the big universities (LAU and AUB), the schools celebrated their Spring fests as well, Makdissi Street and Sadat Street held their street fairs. The Hamra festival is today, and there is the Beirut Design Week (with a Dutch design studio!), the Garden Show, and the Designer’s Week,  among many (check for more here).

That last event (Designer’s Week )is not related at all to the Beirut Design Week, although the name implies it does. A smart gimmick, and I fell for it. I thought I was going to visit a design exposition in Zaytouni Bay, but instead it was more like those summer markets they stage all over Europe, with summer stuff and faux bijoux and some industrious people trying to sell the fruits of their hobby.   

But the mood was good, the crowd happy, the weather fantastic at sunset and the scenery quite glamorous, so it was all good.  I could post all kinds of lovely pictures, but what really caught my attention was this lady.
 An absolutely stunning looking bride. There was something about her, as she strutted over the boardwalk with her one bridesmaid, and I assume her mother. On her way (I asked) to her engagement party. So she was not even a bride yet; this was just the engagement dress. Can’t wait to see her wedding dress.

 I don’t know where she got this dress, but I am strangely mesmerized by it. Sometimes things are so absolutely out of place and odd that the combination becomes beautiful instead of ugly. The color, almost shocking pink, helped as well. I know that this must have been my dream dress when I was about 8 or so. I bet she has been thinking of this dress since she was that little as well. And she pulled it off. Well done, I’d say. Whoever said you can't be glamorous with a veil? Quite the contrary, it seems.

We tried to locate the groom, wondering whether he had been coaxed into wearing something pink as well. But she was walking the other way, so we never got to see him. I just had to share this lady with you. This is Beirut for you.

May 27, 2016

Destress in the Mountains

It’s been a bit busy lately. That’s a bit of an understatement. Actually, it’s been an extremely stressful year. What am I saying, it’s been two years of stress and utter exhaustion, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Only three more weeks to go, and then there’s a job change on the horizon that I am extremely looking forward to. I think it’s been the reason for my rather spotty posting. Stress does not work in harmony with creativity (in my case. There will be people who claim the opposite).
 Last Wednesday I went up to the mountains to de-stress. It worked well, I think. I did a 7 AM morning hike of 5 kilometers with the dogs through the fields and forest, and came back all invigorated.  Each season has its advantages, so I can’t say that spring is my favorite season, but the abundance of plant life, and the vibrant green colors all around, do inspire.

These dogs of ours are a bit of a ramshackle collection.  None of them were really chosen. They sort of chose us. Two just sort of stuck to my husband as he hiked in the mountains. Actually, they both just installed themselves at our front door and then pretended they were our dogs. Over time they indeed became our dogs.
The small black one was from a pet store. We went to get a hunting dog, and walked out with the puniest little dog that the pet store owner no longer wanted and couldn’t sell. “Here, they take it, people do not like black dogs in this country.”
The white one (not in the picture as he is too old to go on strenuous hikes, he got hit by a car some years ago and is – as  a result – half blind and deaf, has only half a lung)  was found by the side of the road many years ago.
If it weren’t for the price of gas, and the poor traffic condition, I might consider living in the mountains. The birds in the early morning, the settling down of village life at sun set, the simplicity of it all, it’s mighty enticing. The massive spiders, however, are one reason to reconsider that plan. A reall reality check.ber, is the morning traffic. Go drive down from the mountain, in the morning, trying to get to work in time, while everyone around you drives like Nicki Lauda, and that shelves that plan.
I once had a friend, an American, who used to do 60 miles one way commutes in Arizona. She thought nothing of a 60 mile drive in the morning, she did it twice daily, 5 days a week, for many years. When she moved to Lebanon with her Lebanese husband, they thought of buying a house in Deir el-Qammar. Her job was in Beirut. She wanted to live out in the country. “You’ve got to be kidding, right?” we said, when she mentioned that bit. “Oh, that’s nothing,” she said, I am only doing half of what I did in the States. It’s easy,” and they bought the house.

Easy. Yeah right. In the States maybe, where everyone takes over from the left sides, and people stay in their lane, and use their signal light and what not else. Within a year they were looking for an apartment in Beirut. She couldn’t quite explain exactly what the difference was between her 60 mile commute in the Sates versus her 45 kilometer commute in Beirut. But it was enough to consider a house moving. In the end, the stress in Beirut did her in. She ran at the same pace as Beirut, and that’s something even the best amongst us can’t handle for long.

The end of the academic year does levitate the stress levels anyway. It’s the season of goodbyes. Goodbye for good for the expats that move to the nest post. Goodbye for the summer, for those that sent their summers with family abroad. It is a flurry of birthday celebrations (six for my daughter alone these coming two weeks), goodbye dinners, farewell parties, and in between there are the fund raisers, the board meetings, the street and music festivals, the schools’ May fests, the universities outdoor activities and the days on the beach. I am always glad when summer truly starts and everyone is gone, so I can finally get some rest.

May 14, 2016

One Hundred (and going)

in Baalbeck
My dad’s in town. It’s not his first visit. Ever since I’ve moved to Lebanon, he’s been a regular visitor. Actually, he was already visiting Lebanon well before I was even born, starting  way back in 1947 or 48, he does not remember exactly what year. In those days, the KLM was still flying on Beirut. The visits continued until 1965, when he changed jobs, and started again in 1990, when I moved here.
So it is not his first visit.
It might be his last visit though.
He’ll be a 101 this September.
Dad in the middle, somewhere in Lebanon (undated)

He’s well though. Very well even, considering his age. He roamed around Hamra street (came back with eight stitches, but was impressed with the medical care at AUH), walked the entire Corniche and wanted to go sightseeing, so I dragged him to the sea, and the mountains, the ruins and pillars, to the north, the south,  and all over town. He knows most of this country, he’s accompanied me on quite a few of my trips.
And as he sat behind a cold Almaza beer at a café besides the Roman ruins in Baalbeck, he commented on the fact that - when he had sat there in that same spot, with a beer, somewhere in the fifties, at the age of 35, - he could not have imagined that he’d be sitting there again, some 65 years later, at the age of 100. With his daughter no less. He wasn’t even married back then.
I mean, you probably think you won’t make it to a 100. Not many do. Not only does he make it to a 100, he travels back to that same place, and has another beer in the sun.
But he knows that the odds are against him.
 Those that have their lives ahead of them -  if not all, at least long stretches of it - do not walk around with the notion that this might be the last time you see this, or visit that, or walk here.
At 100 however, this is a real thought.
My friends all ask him how he does it; Getting this old.
He doesn’t really have an explanation for that. It is not a matter of genes. Both his parents died at a relatively young age. His mom at 37, his dad at 51.  But his older brother will be 102 this summer. And several of his siblings made it into their nineties. He lived a sober life, but then everyone did in those days. He drinks, smoked when he was young, and eats his eggs with bacon. He survived the Spanish flu (his mom did not), and has seen probably every country that has an airport.
Qurnet esSawda
He doesn’t have many pictures from those very early days here in Beirut. He had a Bolsey back then,  but it had no light meter, the film had to be turned manually and frequently got stuck, and developing pictures was not a cheap affair. You’d take a picture a day, instead of 31 in an hour. Most of those pictures are in slide form, and they’re somewhere in the attic. My brother is in the process of scanning them, but it is a lengthy process.
 He kept a sparse diary; I should dig through that one. I was reading this diary; gives an interesting look of Beirut as well, the way my dad probably experienced it as well.  
But at the age of 100, he remembers a Lebanon that most Lebanese have never seen.


May 06, 2016

The Desk Nazi & Power over the Package

One of my finer moments yesterday.
It took place at the post office. It was a regular standoff.

 While in Holland last month, I ordered an item and had it forwarded to my work place in Lebanon. This should be no problem, I assumed. With the tracking number, I traced the package, and saw that it had arrived to the post office in Beirut on May the 3rd.

 An indeed. While at work yesterday, I got a message, on my desk, that there was a package, with my name on it, waiting for me at the post office. And so after work, I ran to the post office, because they close at 5.

I showed the lady behind the counter the paper. She had brown curly hair.
Do you have your ID,” the lady asked friendly. Of course I have my ID with me, I know the routine. Try to pry anything out of the hands of an official in this country is like digging for gold. Nothing happens without an ID. And so I gave my ID.
The package was addresses to Sietske Noshie.
My (written in Arabic) ID reads Sietske el Naosh. Phonetically, that is.

 My husband’s family, while living overseas,  dropped the ‘a’ in the English version of the name, as the Arabic ‘ain’ ( ﻉ) is basically impossible to pronounce for foreigners.
And somewhere in a government office, someone forgot the ‘notta’ - the two little dots above the letter sh, - turning a ‘shie’ into a ‘sh’. 

Anyone dealing with these office knows that trying to make a change in bureaucratic mistakes is a horrendous endeavor, and so we’ve left it at what it is.

 Oh. But this is Sietske Noshie, and your ID reads Sietske al Naosh. That’s not the same person.”
I am not sure how many frigging Sietskes you have in Beirut, but obviously this was a matter of concern for the lady.
“I need to check this with my supervisor.”
I am all in favor of making sure the right person gets the package, and so I waited patiently.

The lady shows my ID to her supervisor, a rather large and stern-looking woman sitting behind a slightly larger desk. Clearly the boss. Not someone who you’d want to mess with.

She glances at the ID.

"Sietske Jetske Evert Hugo al Naosh. That’s not the same person. The package does not say Sietske Jetske Evert Hugo al Naosh. It says Sietske Noshie,”  I hear the boss say.
Whoever in the whole entire world writes his first, his middle, then his father first name and his father’s middle name on a package? Seriously now?

She came back.
“My supervisor is checking,” she said.

What could the supervisor possible be checking? But as she sat there, counting money, I did not have the impression that she was checking anything. So after 5 minutes, I went up to her, asking her what was happening.

 She did not look up, nor replied to me. She counted her money.
I repeated my question, asking if she had received an answer from whoever she was checking with.

“Can someone come and translate from English,” she said in Arabic to someone in general, not looking at me.

Fair enough. Lebanese post office, we speak Arabic.
I can speak Arabic, but if she was going to pretend not to speak English, then I was going to pretend I did not speak Arabic. The dividing lines were being drawn.

The lady who was helping me spoke perfect English. And she kindly translated it my question. "She says the name is not correct."

 I have my company ID with me,” I suggested.
After all, the package was addressed to me at my work, and my work ID clearly states the name of the company, with the my name, just as the one on the package.

The boss dismisses it. So the kind attendant comes back.
“It is not official. Do you have a passport with you?”

This was not necessary. Logic thinking should have led her to understand that Sietske Noshie working at XXX is indeed the same woman as the Sietske al Naosh working at XXX. It annoyed me. Really? Why so difficult? And who the hell walks around with their passport in their purse if you have your ID?

And so I replied “No, you have my ID.”

Her boss, the desk Nazi must not have approved of the tone in my voice. It set her off.

Fuck her,’ she must have thought, ‘That bitch is not going to get her package. ‘
“Sorry. You must come back with your passport.”

There sometimes is – among employees of certain establishments – this perverse attitude to make it impossible for a client to accomplish a task. It’s like playing quartets. “Oh, do you have A with you? You do? What about B? As well. Hmm. What about C? Ooh, you don’t have C? Well, I am sorry, if you do not have C, I cannot help you.” End of story.

This was obviously such a case.

I sighed. Why does it always have to be this ff-ing  complicated?

But I am prepared. I have all my paperwork on my phone, and so I got my phone out.
Here, I have a picture of my Dutch passport”, as I showed her the document on my phone. “It says Sietske Noshie,” and I gave it to the kind lady, who brought it over to the desk Nazi.

You need the original,” was the reply.

Are you kidding me? This got me upset. Seriously now. Are we going to be really difficult about this?
“No, you do not need the original, you have my ID, that’s original.”
She glanced over it. “It doesn’t say Evert Hugo (my father’s names, which are not placed on official documents in Holland).”

She dug in her heels.

I finally got it. She was not going to give my package!
The desk Nazi did not feel like giving what I wanted!
She was going to make me come back tomorrow for this stupid package for the very simple reason that she had the power over the package, and she did not like me.

But I am creative under duress.

 Here, I also have a picture of my Lebanese passport. It says Sietske Noshie in English, and all the other names in Arabic.” The poor desk attendant brought it over to the desk Nazi again.
 “You see, it says al Naosh,” said the desk Nazi now, pointing to the Arabic name. “There is something wrong with her document. Why is this Naosh, and that Noshie? No, come back tomorrow.”

By now I was totally flabbergasted over the incompetent thinking pattern of this desk Nazi.  Was she seriously criticizing here that the government misspelled my name? Or that my name in English was not spelled the way she though it should be spelled?

Here I had 3 pieces of ID that stated I was Sietske Noshie. Then I had one that stated in Arabic that the Sietske al Naosh was obviously the same as Sietske Noshie, and one stating that I was indeed Sietske al Naosh. 5 pieces of evidence!

I raised my voice. “You are fucking kidding me, right?”

Oh boy, the desk Nazi did not take kindly to that. Her one eye-lid lifted itself slightly higher than the other.  She sat behind that desk like Jabba the Hutt, and gave me a dismissive glance.
 She was now resolved that she would do absolutely everything in her power to make sure this package was not going to be given to me, even though by now all the staff in the post office understood that I obviously was the lady to whom the package was addressed.
No, no mam, I was not going to get it.

 What the desk Nazi demanded now was that I
1) either call Holland and ask the person who had send me the package (which was me) to send a document that this package was actually intended for Sietske Jetske Evert Hugo al Naoush, or that
2) I get my ID re-issued under the name Sietske Noshie (in Arabic, that is). Otherwise, no way on earth was I going to get my package.

 I called Customer Care (1577, in case you ever need them. The word ‘Care’ is rather ambiguous in this case).  
The lady at Customer Care listened carefully, said she understood and asked if I could mail her complaints to an e-mail address.

Now why would I want to e-mail Customer Care if you give a phone number for Customer Care? Then post an e-mail address!!
 I declined to e-mail her. I said I needed her to resolve that right now. Well, she said, I would need to give her copies of the passports, so I could do that tomorrow.
“No, I can do that right now.”
“But we’re closing at 5.”
It is now 6 minutes to 5, and I intend to camp in this post office. Like hell am I going anywhere without that package.
Very reluctantly she gives me the e-mail address, and so I send her the two passport pictures. Of course, no one calls back, nor does the post office get a call. It is now 3 to 5.

“Can you please call Customer Care and ask them if they got my documents?”
No that’s Customer Care for customers, not for us. Besides, we’re closed now. “

I don’t ff-ing think so, lady! You don’t close until I get this package.

It was like a regular standoff at the OK Corral!
There was no way she was going to let this foreign bitch get her package.
I, on the other hand, was determined that I would leave that office with my package in my hand, even if it would mean I’d have to drag this desk Nazi out of her seat and over her desk.

At 3 past 5, just as I was getting into the mode of telling the desk Nazi in no uncertain terms what I thought of her professionalism and her overall intelligence, there came THE call. Someone at Customer Care had done some looking into my paperwork. I could have the package.

The desk Nazi had lost the battle.
But how was she going to get away with this without losing face?

“Fine. If you can tell me what is in the package, you can get it.”
Well honey, I mailed it to myself, so I damn well know what’s in the package.

I got my package.

Battle won.

I hope she didn’t sleep over this one all night. 

May 02, 2016

Museum on a Free Day

We tried. We really tried.

 Today, SIL and I thought it a good idea to take our kids to the museum. After all, they’ve been to the beach, the mountains, they’ve hung around at home, and for the last day of their Easter break, we thought to break the routine and pack them off to a museum.

We chose the Silk Museum in Bsous. It is a museum in an old silk factory, and has actual live silk worms, which is interesting for kids, and they can see the looms in action.

But as we turned into the parking lot, which was empty, a gentleman came our way. “We’re not open yet for the season. We’ll open tomorrow”, he said apologetically.

That’s a good one; opening after the holidays.
Artist here

Fine. Okay. Well, than back to Beirut, to the Wonders of the Sea. It’s also a private museum that’s got a fantastic collection of beautiful shells, aquariums with sea anemones and clown fish and lots of other things that move. Great for kids.

As we turned into this parking lot, we noticed that, again, we were the only car there. And although the sign on the gate indicated that, logically speaking, the museum should have been open, it was in fact very much closed. We couldn’t get into the garden, and the shutters were lowered.
Very well then. There is still the Museum of Minerals. Shiny stones and rocks are on every child’s mind, and on mine as well. We’d gotten wiser though. How about we contact them first? Their Facebook page indicated that they reply to their messages within minutes. And indeed. No sorry, we’re closed today.

We finally ended up in the Sursock Museum. And although beautifully restored only last year, the collection is a bit austere.

When we got home, H. said to her father “We visited four museums today.”
He was quite impressed.
“But only one was open.”

April 23, 2016

Spring Time

It’s spring time, and all over the mountains, the place is breaking out in a myriad of vivid greens.
Go one month earlier, and you get bogged down in mud. Go one month later, and you miss the flowers in bloom.
April is the time of the year to go on long hikes, not sweat to death, and see the colors of this place. I haven’t done any long hikes lately, but I am following a few people that are currently doing the 2016 LMT Thru walk, and so I tag along in spirit. My bucket list grows and grows. The MLT is one of them.
Several researches have come out lately heralding the benefits of long distance hiking, and even short distance are good for your mental health; a 50-minute walk in nature can improve your mood, decrease your anxiety and even improve your memory.
I do my short walks, with dogs, to work, and get into nature and the mountains as often as my work permits me.

This week I was with a group of younger kids, and it dawned on me I knew none of the names of the flowers and plants. I mean, I know them, but only in my language. Plant names and the names of trees is something you will only master in your native language, but something you apparently never pick up again. A colleague laughed at my dilemma. “Who needs to know, you’ve got an app for that.”
And darn right; There is an app for that!  A bit apprehensive at first, because what can a computer really recognize as far as plant life is concerned, and it’s only geared for western Europe, but it seems Lebanese plant life is not that far off from European plant life.
And with my phone in my hand, I am like Lara Croft with a botanist specialization!
There are flower identification guides in Lebanon, but for some mind-boggling reason, they spread the inventory over 3 different books. I will hike with one flower guide in my pocket, but three books is pushing it. The logic of it all.  Why do they not turn it into an app?

And so here I hike, with my phone and app in hand and look what I identified for you on just one hike in the mountains above Beirut? Not even that high, just about 900 meters above sea level.
Some 25 year ago, phones were still stuck to the wall, and the most advanced technology was a fax machine stuck to a land line. We’ve come quite a bit since then.

A centipede (um arba arbaim)

No app for insects though, or snakes. Otherwise I could tell you what you’re seeing here. I think it is an ‘um arba arbaim’ ; a ’44-legged mama’, as they call it here.  In Dutch its name implies it has a 1000 legs (duizendpoot), in English a 100 legs (centipede), but in Arabic it’s got a mere 44. They’ve got a nasty bite, I’ve been told, a bit like a wasp sting, and they claim it is very poisonous, but then people say that about every snake in this place as well, which is not true, so I’ll take it with a grain of sand. Pretty animal though. This one’s got 37 legs though (17 segments).
And a praying mantis that looks like a flower

April 18, 2016


Another beach day. This time I ran into a crab.  Last week I mentioned that the puffer fish, showing up on the coast of Lebanon, is not a native of the Mediterranean Sea. This particular crab is originally not from around here either. The puffer fish came through the Suez Canal. This speckled swimmer crab (looks at his little hind legs, made for swimming) is not a native of the Mediterranean either. It probably arrived here in ballast tanks from ships, and has done quite well for himself. Not sure if we eat them here.

They are unlike the crabs you will find on Lebanese beaches, the ones that dig holes and run like mad sideways over the beach as you walk by. I have a dog who has a wild time trying to catch them, but they’re faster than him.

“Females choose their mate based on claw size and also quality of the waving display” (source)

I made some art (which I stole off another web site). And did nothing else.