February 07, 2016

On Dogs and Clash of Cultures

Ramlet el-Baida on a Sunday morning, 8 AM. Quite a difference from last week photos. It was all summer-like then. Now we're back in winter-mode.

Europe is 'struggling' with its Syrian refugees. Everyone is up in arms about the influx of hundreds of thousand of them. One million crossed into Europe in 2015 alone.  About hundred fifty thousand of them have claimed asylum in Germany. Estimates however are that only half of them have registered. Holland has taken in about 50,000. And the local population is groaning. Voicing your opposition against refugees has become  acceptable .
The population of Holland and Germany is vastly larger than Lebanon’s, so if anyone would have the right to complain, it would be the Lebanese. They have acquired over a million Syrian refugees on a population of some 4 million. (Here’s an interesting clip on where the Syrian refugees are)
 
Dogs on the beach. Two of them are 'local' dogs; they live on that beach.
 
However, I think there are some genuine concerns. For instance, on New Year’s Eve in Germany, there were a number of incidents of sexual harassment that involved refugees. In some places they have banned male asylum seekers from visiting the public swimming pool because of sexual harassment complaints.  It is the behavior of European women, which they are not accustomed to, and their own sudden freedom, which they do not know how to handle well, (according to this Syrian psychiatrist in Holland), which seems to  cause conflict.
A  simple case of clash of cultures. And it is what Europeans struggle with.
 
 
I kind of get that, the clash of cultures thing.
When I just arrived in Lebanon, I noticed that Lebanon women walked with a perpetual scowl on their face, a look of utter contempt. I, on the other hand, would walk with a smile and look people in the eye.
That this would invite complete strangers (always men, though), to turn around and follow me and engage in weird conversations, did not dawn on me, until I walked with a Lebanese friend. I mentioned this constant harassment to her, and blamed it on me being foreign.
No, it’s because you invite it. You smile to them. That’s a sign you wish to communicate. Look at me. I do not smile, I look straight ahead and avoid eye contact. And if they still try, you have to be very strict. Do not be polite, but say “Fuck off right now!” It works.”
 
Remainder of the summer
 
And indeed. It worked.
The eye contact and the smile is - in the more traditional Arab culture - an invitation.
In Europe, it is not.  And so now I also often walk around town with a so-called ‘ bitch face’. When I see foreign women on the street, I can sort of judge, from the smile on their faces, how long they’ve been in Lebanon. It’s not a big issue. It’s a matter of knowing local customs.
Some cities have now started with the familiarizing of refugees with European customs. A carnival committee in Holland, for instance, has handed out pamphlets that remind visitors to the annual carnival celebrations that they need to respect to local rules of engagement. ( Houdt de normaal gangbare fatsoensregels in acht). And so a woman may be dressed (in non-Dutch eyes) provocatively during the carnival festivities, this is by no mean an indication that you are free to touch them (Arabic version here).
 
Lebanese culture is very similar to Syrian culture, at least in the eye of a foreigner. And so the influx of one million and some Syrians should not be an issue of cultural confrontation here. It can create friction because of the shared services (schools, medical care, infra structure), or the perceived competition on the job market (source), but behavior-wise, they’re one people.

 
A scooter that flushed ashore during last night's stormy weather
 
But this morning I walked my dogs on Ramlet el-Baida, Beirut’s public beach.
 The choice of the beach is deliberate, as I - these days – tend to avoid walking my dogs during day hours on the street. Lebanese in general do not care much for dogs, but are not afraid of them.
Syrians, however, seem to greatly fear them, even the puny little mutts that I own. I do not feel comfortable walking my dogs, when entire families deliberately cross the street when they see me coming, having grown men ‘shoe’ them away, or otherwise display behavior that would indicate I am walking around with a rabid wolf or something. And I have them on a leash!
My husband is way worse; he lets them walk freely, and when walking past someone who is clearly afraid, he pretends they’re not his.
It was not always like this.  
 
The life guard's platform
 
You may argue that the dog shit is an obnoxious issue. Absolutely true, but we clean up after them. You may argue that dogs in Arab culture are not favorable viewed. I will disagree with that. This is an issue with the more conservative muslim culture, but Lebanon is a country of religious - and therefore also cultural - diversity.
Last week, when our housekeeper walked with the dog, a man kicked it, saying it was ‘wissig (dirty). He was rather surprised that she lashed back at him.
 
And this morning, when I was at the beach (where several beach chair operators own a number of vicious looking dogs), I meet this lady who walks her dog there as well.  And she tells me how on Saturday, this Syrian gentleman, on the beach, berated her for her dog. “Take the dog away. You should not walk with a dog here, there are people walking.
I would agree with him if it were summer, and people are lying in the sand. But it’s been raining cats and dogs (poor choice of words), so who goes to the beach? She was indignant. “I am in my country, and I am being told by a foreigner how to behave?

 
 
 
With the influx of a different culture, is the influx of different habits. And so it seems we (as in Lebanese) are experiencing a (minor) cultural clash here as well. And as you can see, we 'struggle' with it.

February 03, 2016

Snow


I went skiing this weekend. Didn’t fight with anyone in line. You’d have been proud of me. I only made one nasty comment to a lady who practically flung herself in from the side lines, and only talked aloud to myself a few times about horrendously inappropriate line behavior displayed by people next to me, and maybe a little about people in front and behind me as well, but otherwise, I behaved well.


It did help that there was a notorious absence of long lines. The current economic situation is having an impact on all parts of society, and especially expensive activities such as skiing suffer.  Even the traffic up and down was – by all means – very light. Yet all over Faraya you see these very fancy construction  projects. Somebody must have high hopes for the future.


It is mid-winter, but you wouldn’t think it. The weather has been fantastic this past week. Clear blue skies, warm temperatures during the day, cool/cold at night. Perfect for skiing. Lucky are the ones that are free during the week, when you have entire slopes to yourself. And cheaper lift tickets.

Not much more to say. Enjoy the pictures.

January 30, 2016

Where Will We End Up?

The Corniche in Beirut. A policeman standing by the rail.
 
 A sober post today. A little morbid for your taste, maybe. If it gets too real for you, just look at the pictures. They're not related to the writing, but show Beirut, last Thursday afternoon.

 C. died last week. She had been sick for quite some time now, slowly deteriorating, each day a little bit more. Everyone saw her steady demise, from a once funny and vibrant woman, a little rough on the edges, but warm and compassionate on the inside, to a frail little bird, oblivious to the world around her.
 
Runners on the Coniche (snow is visible way in the back)
It was clear to all, except her husband. With incredible dedication he took care of her, always believing that she would get better, that it was an illness that was curable, and that he was going to visit (yet) another doctor who knew what was wrong with her, because the previous one(s) were useless and incompetent. Next year she’d be back on her feet again, and did I think she would be able to go with him to Paris this Easter?  He resisted pushing her around in a wheel chair, because “once you get into a wheel chair, you never get out again.”Instead, he carried around. She could not have weighed more than 45 kilos in the end. Love is blind.
 
The other side of the Bay of Beirut, with Dbayeh on the other side
 
In the beginning he faithfully brought her to all the Dutch events; the embassy celebrations, Queen’s Day and Sinterklaas. Until she stopped responding to that as well.
 
And so last week we got the message. Her nervous system had finally – wickedly and excruciatingly slow, but mercifully - abandoned her.
 
C. was like me; a Dutch woman married to a Lebanese. There are so many of us here.  She was on of the first wavers; a group of Dutch ladies that married their husbands well before the civil war, and still remember the golden days. They’re pretty special, because they stuck it out, regardless of all the violence. There’s not many of those left, maybe 5 or 6. I am one of the ‘second wavers’; we ended up in Lebanon during the civil war. ‘Third wavers’ came after the year 2000, when the civil war was over and done with, normality had sort of returned, and the impression was that things could only get better. Ignorance is bliss. 
 
Bike lane
 
She’s the 3rd compatriot that died in country, all ‘first wavers’.
Another first waver, some years ago, had opted for a cremation, something that is not very common in Lebanon, as religious laws stipulate you shall be buried according to your religion. And none of the 18 religious communities allows cremation. You need to slash your way through bureaucracy here while you’re well alive, otherwise it is a burial for you, whether you like it or not.
C. was buried. On foreign soil. It gets you thinking. “So what will the end look like for us?”
 
 
The fishermen had taken the boats on shore because of the storm
 The end is inevitable, it’s just about the only certainty you have in life. But where will you end? This may not be something you – as a Lebanese living in Lebanon - ever think about, if you. Or a Dutch in Holland. Or an American in the US.  You are home, and home you will stay. But if you’re a foreigner, it’s something you sometimes wonder about.  
Because as I got the call from C, I was wondering. What about us? What about all those foreign ladies in town. How do they see their end? And where will they be buried?
 
 
Well, enough sober thoughts. I intend to live to a 100 years, just like my dad.

January 23, 2016

Clouds

Clouds over Beirut
 
Beautiful clouds today. A sure sign that another storm is in the making. The Meteorological Department expects ‘Thalassa’, as the snowstorm is called, to hit the country starting Saturday and until Wednesday with snow fall as low as 700 meters. That’s pretty low, for Lebanese standards. The emergency services have announced they’re all ready, and that they’d like you to use snow chains or, better yet, stay at home. My daughter is already preparing for a snow day, and assumes the Minister of Education will announce the closure of all schools on Monday.
 
While driving up, there is still a little bit of sun left
 I am a little bit ambiguous about these snow days. I understand that the children up in the mountains may have difficulties reaching their schools, and that if they safely make it to school, they will most likely freeze to death inside the classroom, due to inadequate government funding of their educational institutes.  
However, they have always had storms and difficult mountains roads and inadequate funding, so why the sudden change of heart? We only started having storm days the last 3 years. Besides, why the whole country, if the storm does not affect students from schools in Beirut?
But the sun was gone while I reached Bhamdoun
And to make it even stranger, if you are so concerned about these students sitting in freezing cold temperatures in their classrooms, why not work on proper funding and make sure the heaters and electricity do work, instead of waiting for a storm and then keeping them al at home, annoying their parents?
Rain in the lower rains, snow starting at 1,200 meters this afternoon. It will snow tomorrow (Sunday) at much lower altitudes, predicts the local weather bureau. As low as 700 meters. That would cover all this in a white blanket. I think I'll go up tomorrow again to see the difference.

And if he’s going to announce a storm day, maybe he can do it a little earlier, so maybe I can organize a night in the snow, instead of having to wait for the 8 o’clock news, when it is too late to pack the whole family in a car and drive up to the mountains.
 
I found a golden jackal on my walk this morning. Beautiful animals.  I took a picture because it lay there so pretty. Not shot or run over. Maybe poisoned. My dogs didn't dare touch him. They're pretty common in the mountains. You hear them howl at night as they hunt in packs.
 
These are, of course, all very much first world problems. Instead I should be grateful for a warm house. I wouldn’t want to be a refugee to start with, but I most definitely would not want to be a refugee now, with this weather.

January 19, 2016

Deception


The winter has seriously started: Beirut is all wet and windy as I write this. This morning at 6:00 AM I got caught in this downpour that was so massive that it was impressive. My little dog almost got swept/washed away into the sewer, good thing I had it leashed. It would have been an inspiration for a blog post though.
And although we haven’t had much snow, there is some. There are not many things I miss from my home country, but I do miss cold weather and snow in winter time. Now and then I need a snow fix.




So I went up for some snow shoeing and skiing this weekend. You in general do not go snow shoeing for your pleasure, at least I do not; it’s a rather cumbersome sport, but you have no other option if you want to hike through the woods in the snow.  And we had snow. However, we had no woods.
It took some figuring out, but we located some trees in the end, and hiked through and around them.
As such, the images give the impression we hiked through an entire forest. You are being utterly deceived here, if there were 50 trees, it was a lot. They were cedar trees though. And a few poplars.
 


The next day, friends who had seen pictures of our snow-shoe adventure, all wanted to know where that fantastic forest was, because they all wanted to go snow-show there. I didn’t dare explain it to them. The deception would have been too great. Sometimes it’s better to leave one with just the impression. Imagination is a beautiful thing.
 
Then I went skiing. I had a wonderful time, but in all honesty, it was windy, icy in some parts, sludge-like in others, and most of the slopes weren’t open. But when I’d meet friends at the bottom of the slopes, and they’d ask “how is the snow,” I’d reply “Fantastic!” I knew there’d be no deception there, it was too late for them to go up anyway, they’d have to wait for next weekend, and by that time, who knows how fantastic the slopes are.
 

And so if you see all these pictures, and you get all envious because everything looks so fantastic, please keep in mind that – although I had a wonderful time this weekend – you shouldn’t get deceived by appearances.
There were not many people up in the mountains this weekend. Either they’re thinking that everybody is going up, and the chance of getting stuck in the mother of all traffic jams is not very appealing, or they are thinking that there is not enough snow to go skiing. Or they are thinking something else.
 


Whatever the reason, it was lovely and quiet up in the snow. I got my snow fix. And you got deceived J

January 10, 2016

Inspiration in Places

Inspiration can be a tricky thing. I used to be inspired all the time. Anything could get me writing. Encounters with people. A trip to the mall. Slow weeks.
 Abandoned gas station with an old Mercedes. You could just be on Route 66 in Arizona.
 
But I’ve been facing writers block lately. Even slow months no longer inspire me. What is this complacency that inhibits me to create with words? Inspiration works different for everyone (example and example).  
I believe my inspiration is related to motion, but I can’t prove that. When I am on the move, I get inspired. Sometimes. If I stay put, this inspiration drains and I become enervated. I am sure some researcher somewhere has identified a link between mobility and motivation. My current job does not allow for much movement lately. As such, time to get on the road.
 
There is the palm-tree lined boulevard, the Corniche in Beirut, that transports me to PCH in Huntington Beach. Sorry about the quality, took it through a dirty car window with my phone
 
What does this remind you of? Not Lebanon.

While on the road this morning, the incredible diversity of this place struck me. The decision of where to go in itself is already an exercise in choosing.  Skiing, a mountain hike, a beach picnic or a bike ride along the coast? A lunch downtown, or a museum visit? Granted, most choices (if not all) cost money, but in a recent discussion with some friends the conclusion was that these days Beirut is a city only to be enjoyed by the affluent. The rest survive, and only barely at that. And it does not look like the current economic depression is going to lighten up any time soon.
Don’t complain. The fact that you (if you’re in Lebanon) are reading this means you’re not only able to pay the ridiculous internet fees, but also that you are doing better than most; internet is a luxury for many.
 
Transported to a coastal road in Italy somewhere?
 
And if you make it out of town, there’s more variety waiting for you, this time in landscapes.  And each landscape reminds me of another place. Talking about inspiration. Some places bring me back to what Lebanon must have looked like in the fifties. Other scenery brings me to other countries.
 
 
Lanes lined with eucalyptus trees that make you feel you’re in South-Africa (not that I’ve ever been there, but the internet does not transports only information).  

Or how about this one? 4236 Sterling Highway, Alaska. Haven’t been there either, but Google Street View is pretty magical too.
 
It’s mind-boggling what possibilities this country provides, and how little we do with it. Or actually how we abuse it.
Some 25 years after the war, and we still do not have 24 hour electricity, proper garbage disposal, a way to preserve and better utilize our fresh water resources or decent free education for all.
25 Years after the war, and we are still ruled by the old war lords, women pay fortunes on operations to make them all look alike,  while next door they’re dying of hunger, we’ve got ISIS at our door steps, the economic situation is shot, and nobody is (well, a few) willing to go to the streets and protests.
 

Not sure what this reminds me of.

 
No wonder I lack inspiration. It's a good thing we have the scenery left.

January 05, 2016

A More Productive 2016

Snow in the mountain


Beirut is grey, cold and drizzly. Not a pretty sight, but a good beginning of the new year. It is becoming a bit of a tradition; a large storm at the beginning of each new year.  We got some snow in the mountains, but it wasn’t cold enough to last. It was lovely though, sitting in front of the fire place, watching the snow flakes fall. And as warm as my mountain house is, my Beirut apartment is the opposite.

Most Beirut houses are – in general – not build for the cold; aluminum window frames, single sheets of glass, and walls of single cinder blocks. I’m on the roof, to top it off, so no cover either. Wind coming in from all sides, lovely in summer, icy cold right now. 
Birch trees

My house does not even have central heating. It may have had at some point in time, but northing is left of it.  You can install AC’s, and use the heating function, but it is annoying to have the humming sound all day, and the moment the electricity cuts, your heat is gone. But I am not complaining. I’ve got electricity, bought two electrical heaters, and will deal with the electricity bill when it gets here.

I have made no new year’s resolution, but I have decided to make a greater effort at blogging. Last year was probably my lowest year ever, and I did not even notice I had passed my silver blogging anniversary (February 2005).  And although the home, family and friends situation is all good, my work has been strenuous and not very inspiring, which seems to have affected my productiveness as a blogger. 

Umbrella pines

But a change is going to come in that department, and I have – after the ‘100 Happy Days’ challenge, decided to undertake the ‘365 Grateful’ project on Instagram, so all in all, I am promising more posts in 2016.

December 10, 2015

The Tree is Up

 
It's that time of the year again. Haven't done any Christmas shopping yet as I spent most of my time at work (or in the mountains), and haven't entered a shopping mall in ages. I guess I better get started.

December 06, 2015

First Kind of Ice

First kind of ice, ready to break

I was going to write this post about how the weather was absolutely stunning, and that it was like summer and that we still had dinners outside on the balcony and that this global warming thing was definitely making its mark.
But then suddenly the wind turned and came in from the northeast, and now magically winter has arrived. Almost like clockwork, it’s not quite December 21st yet. 
I am writing this from the mountains where it is currently 0 C° at 1,000 meters and I am sitting almost in the fireplace.

hoarfrost (bet you didn't know that word)

This morning I went for an 8 o’clock morning hike through the neighborhood, and suddenly it hit me; it’s really winter!
It froze last night, and the first ice was on the ground. The plants in the shade were still covered in hoarfrost, and the shallow puddles and ponds had a thin layer of ice on them. I did what every child does with the first frost; I broke the ice of every single puddle I encountered. There’s something magical about that; breaking that first ice. 

Second ice is like glass.

I just read a book the other day, 12 Kinds of Ice, a memoir of someone’s childhood in winter, about that ‘first kind of ice, a skim so thin it breaks when the children touch it. Second ice is like glass. But third ice doesn’t break.’

It will be some time before we get to the third kind of ice, but it looks like we have a good winter coming.
I know for people in the west it's sometimes difficult to grasp that the Middle East - unanimous with deserts and heat - actually experiences real winters.


The town smelled of firewood; some people heat their houses with wood. We bought an enormous load of cherry and olive wood; a by-product from the orchards in the neighborhood that trimmed their trees this falls. It’s the season to be jolly.

And although Thanksgiving already passed (which we do not celebrate in Holland, btw), there’s so much to be thankful for.  I drove through the Beqaa Valley earlier this week, and the potato harvest was in full swing. Entire Syrian families were picking up potatoes, from grandma to grand child, behind the tractor churning over the soil. I wanted to take pictures, but I had my 13 year old daughter with me, and thought it insensitive to come and ogle 13 year old refugee girls having to work for a living while my 13 year old sits in the car, busy whatsapping her friends. A world of difference is a real thing in this part of the world.

The village, with Jabel Kneisseh in the background







And while I am all happy with my ‘first kind of ice’, and wait in anticipation for the winter season, with my chimney and my stack of firewood, they probably dread the winter, in their tents, maybe with a stove, but no heater fuel. Something to ponder over.

Sunset in the mountains (Jabal Kneisseh again)

November 23, 2015

Rayak on a Monday

Rayak Station today, and in the past
 

I walked around Rayak this weekend. And when you walk through Rayak, a small town in the northern part of the Beqaa Valley, it’s as if you walk in a time capsule. Just like Cuba is forever caught in the fifties, Rayak is caught in the French colonial time, with many of the old houses and monumental buildings originating from the thirties, when money was in abundance.
 
The ticket counter is still intact (I thought the graffiti was rather interesting)
 

Rayak was once a little village with a few houses around a well: an agricultural town. That was until the French decided, in 1895, that when connecting the port of Beirut with Damascus, it should have a station in Rayak, where the line would split with a line going north (Baalbeck and then Syria), and a line east, to Damascus.
 
The train yard
 
Going hobo

Once the town had a railway station, it needed houses for railway officials. Then they built a factory where trains were constructed, so they needed houses for the factory engineers. In 1914, the Germans (The Ottomans were allied with the Germans during WWI) built an airbase. When the French took over, they established had a large army base. They built a huge hospital (with a jail), an officer’s club and barracks for their men. American and Australian troops stayed there as well. The town got restaurants, cinemas and even a casino, and they even had brothels, according to this source.
The place must have been fun.
 
The old French hospital (no longer a hospital)
 
 
It even had a pool with a dive board (no longer operating)

The jail built by the French army. It was later used by the Syrians when they occupied the town.


Nothing is left, of course. The war lords of the civil war plundered just about everything and what could not be stolen was destroyed.
 
It is almost impossible to imagine, but Lebanon was once a real country. Real, in the sense that things functioned, such as electricity, and water. There were proper roads. They built in stone, not cement, and the houses were well designed. When you walk through Rayak, you can actually feel the glory days. The old houses, once built by the railway company, are still inhabited, subdivided to host more families. The train yard is still there, as is the station and the factory. And in the town, many of the more traditional one story houses all have the year 1933 or 32 above the door (in Arabic). There is order in it all.
Then, in 1961, the Lebanese government took over the railway, and that was the beginning of its demise.
 
The cinema (no longer in use)
 
Not much left of it
 
In the tunnel that cuts through the mountain in Dahr el Baidar.

I’m not complaining; I came for the chaos and I stayed for the chaos. But every now and then it is nice to see things as if in a time machine.
So if you have a day off, drive to Rayak (take the main road to Damascus. Once you’ve cleared Shtoura, and passed Tanayel, there’s a sign somewhere to the left.); it’s a visit well worth it.
 
Fields around Rayak
 
 
And as you can see from the links, I am obviously not the first one to go there.