ROSE AND ZAATAR

A TASTE OF A LIFE IN LEBANON

Month: November, 2013

Through the night

And just like that you did it.

No warning. No tantrums. No fanfare.

Only a few extra bedtime kisses,

for me and the kangaroo,

as if maybe you knew,

you wouldn’t see us for a while,

(a whole nine and a half hours)

and you needed enough, to see you through the night.

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This post is written as a reminder, in case it never happens again, or a least not for a long while, and I end up thinking that maybe I dreamt it, or rather imagined it, as I didn’t dream. You may have slept through the night, but I hardly slept at all. It seems I have forgotten how to.

Babywearing* in Beirut

Recently in the pharmacy the woman behind the counter made the following comment:

Oh you’re carrying your boy like the Africans do. It’s easier like that?

It’s easier like that. She’s right. But she’s wrong about the other things.

First, the baby is a girl. It’s a GIRRRL?! she would have said if I had corrected her, which I didn’t as it’s a mistake that’s been made one time too many (make that 100 times too many!). In Lebanon, it doesn’t matter how your baby looks or dresses, or even how much hair she has, if her ears are not pierced, she must be a boy.

Second, Africans usually carry their babies on their backs, not on their fronts as I was doing. But how was she to know as sadly most of the African women in Lebanon don’t have their children with them and wear maids uniforms instead of their babies.

After more than a year of ‘wearing’ my baby around Beirut, the pharmacist’s remark didn’t surprise me but it reminded me of another one a few months ago which did and made me laugh out loud. It was the start of summer and almost too warm already to carry the baby so close in my Moby Wrap. I was hot and bothered, crossing the road through standstill traffic, when a young man lent out of his open car window and called out to me:

I like your t-shirt!

His comment cut through the exhaust fumes like a breath of fresh air- finally someone who appreciates babywearing, albeit in a fashion-obsessed Beiruti way!

*From Babywearing International: “Babywearing” simply means holding or carrying a baby or young child using a cloth baby carrier. Holding babies is natural and universal; baby carriers make it easier and more comfortable, allowing parents and caregivers to hold or carry their children while attending to the daily tasks of living. 

Back to Beiteddine

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Beiteddine April 2013

In between these two photos, taken almost 8 months apart, is more than half your life.

Then, it was the start of spring and we came by bus to escape the city for a day and have an aperitivo on the hotel terrace, drinking in the view, clear above the clouds. Then, we forgot to take photos of you, entranced by the musicians, waving your arms wild with delight. Then we walked along the tree lined drive and found a perfect picnic spot just down the slope, while you slept, wrapped in the sling the colour your eyes used to be.

Now, it is the start of autumn and we came by taxi to escape the city for a night and wrap ourselves in the hotel bedspread the colour of the yellow leaves. Now you can dance to the musicians and clap on their beat and we manage to capture it on camera.  Now you can walk, although you still love to be carried close in the same sling, while we explore and you drink it all in with your eyes, the colour of the trees. Now our picnic is room service, cosy behind the thick curtains, while you sleep in the walk-in wardrobe, a perfect fit for your travel crib.

In these photos we are sitting on different sides of the same window, looking at the same scene, painted in different colours.

So many things have changed, and so many haven’t.

Beiteddine, November 2012

Beiteddine, November 2013

Happy Independence Day

On 22nd November Lebanon celebrates its independence. Two years ago today when I was a new arrival in the country and still finding my feet, I wrote the following words:

This morning the roads are closed to make way for the sweeping parade of tanks and soldiers celebrating Lebanon’s Independence Day. We don’t join them but I imagine it. There will be flag waving but no feathers, costumes but no sequins unlike the last parade I went to, a Caribbean Carnival on an English day in May, so far away now.

While others are declaring independence I do the same.  I sweep out the covered balcony for the first time, finding a white feather blessing in amongst the dust. I move one of the two small dining tables here from underneath their shared cloth and then two of the four chairs. I sit for a minute, picturing myself here in the mornings when the house is empty, maybe writing. I think about how quickly my centre of gravity shifts. It has only been 10 days and already I am almost perpendicular to myself, leaning on my husband’s shoulders, depending on him to keep me upright.

By the time Independence Day came round in 2012, I had managed to make a new life for myself in Lebanon. But I wasn’t quite upright, spending most of my time reclined, nursing my month-old baby (the other new life I made in Lebanon), struggling to find my independence as a mother after my husband had returned to work and my own mother had flown home to the UK.

And now here we are again. I spend the morning writing and baking and then lunch long into the afternoon with family and friends on our terrace. As I watch my little girl standing upright on her own two feet, in their red slipper socks the colour of the roses, I realise how truly rooted I feel here; how I, like my daughter, have finally found my feet.

Thank you Lebanon, for giving me my independence. Today, and every day, I wish you yours too.

‘We will keep walking!’ Fragments from the other day

Almost half my life ago, I submitted a college essay in an envelope, seven or eight scraps of paper, paragraphs, that I had spent the night arranging and rearranging, cut-and-pasting, trying and failing to organise into an obedient beginning-to-middle-to-end order. But everything connected to everything else. The Earth isn’t flat. And neither are essays. I felt like saying. I wanted to write it on a globe, but I didn’t have one so I used an envelope instead, and left it to my fortunately very patient and eccentric professor to make his own meaning from the fragments of mine.

This blog post is like that. I’m still trying to work out how it put it together, how the pieces of what happened here the other day fit and what it means for life in Lebanon, mine and everyone else’s. I still don’t have a globe. Or even an envelope. But I don’t want to wait any more so I am hoping you will accept these fragments anyway, cut along the dotted lines and make your own meaning as you see fit.

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The story so far…

At around the end of September, America decided not to strike Syria, and Lebanon, who had been holding its breath, let out a long sigh of relief, that lasted all the way to the end of October, and a little bit more.

October in Beirut was beautiful. An easy month full of end-of-season beach days and babies’ first birthdays. It was soft like a pale rose petal, like the late summer light, like a stray cat that wraps itself around your legs and says love me. And I did. I walked along the Corniche one morning, and realised that I was well and truly back in love with Lebanon.

But with such softness comes vulnerability. That same morning I remember saying to a friend how all this ease made me uneasy. How it was only a matter of time before something happened. I’m neither a cynic nor a psychic. But somehow this city has got under my skin, and I can’t quite shake the feeling that there is always something just around the corner, just around the soft bend in the Corniche.

Only last week I wrote a memo to myself, reminding me where I lived. I was talking about everyday things like electricity and water, but in the back of my mind, thought but not written, there was something else, a bomb waiting to go off.

I wish I had been wrong.

But this time I wasn’t, and now Lebanon is holding its breath again.

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In the morning, just as we are about to set off for music group, my husband calls to know where I am.

Why?

There may have been an explosion.We heard something.

He means they heard rumours rumbling through the office but he also means that they heard the sound itself. Very close, just a few kilometres from where he works. We hang up and he says he’ll call me back with more news. For a moment, everything is still normal. I am standing on my street in the sunshine with my friends, waiting for our taxi driver, who is also a friend. Nobody else knows anything. Was that a flash of lightning or not? But then, there is the sound of the thunder, or rather of mobile phones, reverberating around the taxi and text messages from husbands, from the UN,  confirm the earlier newsflash.

Are you scared? someone asks.

This is normal says the taxi driver, in response to a request for reassurance.

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On the way home again after the music group, which takes place in a room from where you could see the smoke but not hear the bang, our taxi driver friend, says:

It doesn’t matter where you are, if today is your day [to die], it does’t matter, even if you are asleep in your bed.

He is right of course, and this idea, that really anything can happen anywhere and anytime, is brought home to me when I check the BBC news headlines later. The top story is about the bombing in Beirut. No surprises. But the second story is about a cyclone in Sardinia, another place where my heart lives, where I always think I will be safe. The tutto ok? emails with family and friends who live there cross in midair. We are all OK. Today wasn’t our day.

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When I’m home my husband says I should stay there. Just in case. But he thinks it’ll be OK if I go to the bakery at the end of the street. As I buy my comfort cakes, to take to a usually unafraid friend later, I want to ask the baker if what happened is a big thing or a small thing, like my husband did many months ago. But I am afraid of his answer.

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On his way home from work (normal time, normal taxi despite what happened in the morning) my husband meets our neighbour outside the building.

We are sad today, he says. We are living by chance. Maybe I will move to Canada.

I am sad too. But I am not shocked. And that fact saddens me even more. Has it only taken two short years of living in Lebanon for this to become a strange kind of ‘normal’?  

What does shock me though, and sicken me to my stomach, are some of the comments people post at the end of articles on Lebanese news sites. It is as though they are living in some warped video game where ‘terrorist scum’ attempt to wipe each other out.  It seems they have lost the ability to be horrified. To be humane. But then, maybe that is what happens after living in Lebanon for a long time, for the length of a civil war and more.

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The title of this post, arrived in my inbox when I was about to go to bed, heavy and numb after reading too much bad news. I got an email from one of the tour groups we used to go hiking with last year. In the subject line was the name of the destination for the weekend and then the words

‘We will keep walking!’

It made me smile and remember my sweet girl who also had a momentous day, standing unsupported and stepping side to side in time to the music, which she’s never done before. Her life seems to be inextricably linked to the life of Beirut, her birth city, and she too will keep walking, or learning to, putting one dancing foot delicately, purposefully in front of the other.

Don’t forget you are living in Lebanon…

Today, with a little help from friends, we finally got to the bottom of the toy basket and the mystery of the missing ostrich piece from the puzzle. Even though it’s made of wood, it obviously has real life ostrich tendencies and an urge to bury its head under the soft toys, in the absence of sand.

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Today, with a little help from friends (and the electricity going off three hours earlier than it was meant to) my own head was gently jolted out of the sand and I remembered where I was- in Lebanon, where not everything goes to plan (even scheduled power cuts that are supposed to go to plan) and where you can’t rely on anything, even water from the taps.

I just don’t understand why the power’s gone off now, it was supposed to be 3’o clock today! I say apologetically to the four mamas with babies and buggies stranded at my 6th floor apartment with no lift.

There is no explanation except for the fact that we’re living in Lebanon as one mama, who’s been here the longest, reminds me.

This is the second time in two weeks I’ve had this reminder. The last time, was from a neighbour one evening when we were discussing the fact that the building, and apparently all of Beirut, had run out of water.

Me: will it be sorted out tomorrow?

Neighbour (shrugs): probably two or three days, maybe the end of the week…

Me (raising eyebrows): Really?

Neighbour (raising eyebrows and whole head, laughing): Don’t forget you are living in Lebanon.

The problem is, sometimes I do forget. Sometimes things go so smoothly, you feel like your life is being valet-parked, or in my case the traffic is being stopped for me by a valet parking guy (my own Lebanese lollipop man). Sometimes you get lulled into thinking it will always be this way, and it is easy to be an ostrich and bury your head in your plans and think that you are actually in control of it all.

But there is no danger of that today, and just in case the early power cut wasn’t enough to keep my head out of the sand, we ran out of water too. Not the building, not Beirut, just us this time. A memo to me.

Look no hands!

When I used to take taxis in Beirut, curious for clues about the real identities of the drivers, I got into the habit of checking the rear-view mirror, or rather what was hanging from it: a crucifix, prayer beads, a charm to ward off the evil eye, an orange shaped air freshener. What did their talisman say about their life beyond the wheel?

These days I am usually too busy entertaining the baby and forget to look. But today on the way home from the supermarket it was the glove compartment I should have kept my eye on, not the mirror, as it was from there that our driver/children’s entertainer/daredevil stuntman, pulled out a blue KFC balloon to blow up when we stopped briefly at a junction. No red light lasts long in Lebanon and before he could tie a knot in it the traffic was on the move again.

Did the driver let the balloon go?

Did he hold it in one hand until the next time we stopped?

Did he, god forbid, keep other cars waiting while he tied it?

No, no and no! He kept driving, with no hands, across a busy intersection until he had safely secured the balloon and passed it proudly to the baby in the back. This is Lebanon after all, where possibly the love of children is stronger than the fear of death.

I hadn’t the heart (or the Arabic) to tell him, that possibly, the baby’s love of the contents of my shopping bag is stronger than her love of balloons.

A journey of 26 miles begins with a single step

Today you took your very first steps, almost running between us, grinning-giggling-giddy with delight. You’ve reached this milestone just in time for the Beirut Marathon tomorrow, which will be the third one I’ve been in Lebanon for. 

In 2011 it was the start of our time in Beirut and we lived in Gemmayze, near the finish line. I remember walking in the wrong direction to the race, in search of a patisserie open on Sunday, and watching the last few runners run the last few miles, then crossing town to Hamra to meet colleagues who had taken part, for a post race lunch. On our way back, trying to navigate the maze of streets down to the sea, exploring with both exhilaration and trepidation,we discovered a quiet flight of stairs that seemed to lead nowhere. Unsure, we turned around, but had we taken just a few more steps we would have found a shortcut to the shore and walked right past the building where we live now. Funny how nowhere can become home.

In 2012 it was the start of our journey as a family of three and we lived in our current apartment in Ain Mreisse, near the start line. You were only three weeks old and we had planned to go to the Corniche, just a short walk from our house, to watch your papa take part in the 10km fun run, a three generational cheer-leading team (me, you and Grandma). It was going to be our first proud outing but the weather had other ideas- rain pounding the streets harder than the runners’ feet- and so did you, staying awake most of the night and falling asleep just in time for the start of the race- teaching me to ‘watch the baby, not the clock’.  

And now it is 2013 and we will be crossing town again back to our old neighbourhood for lunch with friends. Once again we’ll be going in the opposite direction to the runners, watching the race in reverse, but this time we know the way. This time we’ll buy our pastries from always-open Hamade on the corner of our street. And this time you’ll be awake, and may even join in, wanting to run as soon as you’ve learnt to walk.

One to remember: The icing on the (birthday) cake

This is my last ‘one to remember’ post and I’m going to make it as short and sweet as the ingredient list for the incredible icing on your birthday cake that I want to remember forever.

Your birthday cake, an unexpected window box, which you actually ate and enjoyed!

Your banana birthday cake, an unexpected window box, which you actually ate and enjoyed!

This is also my one hundredth post on this blog, which has made me remember another blog I wrote for a hundred days a long time ago when I lived in a fairy castle and was a spring girl, not a summer mamma. It was called 100 di Questi Giorni – an Italian birthday wish for a hundred more to come.

I forgot to say this to you on your birthday my sweet girl, but I will say it now.

100 di questi giorni. 100 of these days. Happy one year. Happy one hundred to come.

One to remember: Sleeping – The Crib Sheet

Is she sleeping through the night yet?

There was a time when I dreaded this question, cringing the way you do when you hear a bad joke for the 100th time, responding only with a hollow laugh, and no punchline.

No one asks us anymore. Those who don’t know us assume that, at one year, you are. Those who know us know better than to ask.

I’m tired (in every way) of talking about your sleep, or lack of it, but it has been such a major part of your first year of life that I can’t leave it out. So I will just tell you two bedtime-related stories that have made me smile, in a hazy, sleep deprived way.

Comfort

One suggestion for helping children to fall asleep on their own is to introduce a comforter. I tried this with a beautiful soft striped rabbit, designed for the purpose, but you were totally uninterested and would rather fall asleep with the AC remote control clutched in your hand than the bunny ears.

Maybe you are more comforted by something substantial and solid.

This idea was reinforced recently when your cot mattress was temporarily on the floor in the corner of your room. Each night as you were trying to fall asleep you would keep getting up on your knees and pressing you forehead and hands against the wall. On a couple of occasions I even caught you licking its cool green surface, like a giant slab of pistachio ice-cream (you must have read my blog post).

Maybe this is what they mean by comfort eating.

The Crib Sheet

We recently visited a Montessori nursery, thinking about possibility of you going there some time next year. It was nap time while we were looking round and we peeped through a door to see a room full of sleeping toddlers, each on their own mattress on the floor. Amazed I asked the teacher how they managed this miracle.

Well, each child has their own crib sheet and we….

For a split second, before I realised that she was, of course, talking about pieces of material for baby mattresses- I thought she meant the other kind of crib sheet*- pieces of paper which tell you how to do something. I had an image of the nursery staff consulting these ‘cheat sheets’ for each child and then following the steps to get them to sleep (rocking, singing, feeding, patting etc).

But in reality this isn’t necessary as apparently, after a few days all the children ‘get it’ and they do sleep.

I went home wondering if you would too and also what I would write if I did have to prepare a crib sheet for you. I thought about it a lot one evening when I was in the process of getting you to sleep and in the end I came up with just a one word answer, my missing punchline:

Relax

* While writing this post I looked up the origin of the expression ‘crib sheet’ and found that ‘to crib’ (in the sense of cheating/stealing) is the same word as the baby’s crib, as once upon a time cribs (baskets) were used to conceal stolen things. Maybe that’s what’s happened to all your missing hours of sleep- they were hidden in your crib all along.