Month: July, 2014

Four returns: The grass is always greener…

Our dear taxi driver returned from his trip with his first ever passport, and told me how it felt to come back to Lebanon, to pick up his life here, having seen life elsewhere for the very first time, where the streets are clean but where it’s easy to get lost. At first, he almost seems lost himself, as he drives me through the city, his city, on his first morning back at work, as though he is trying to reconcile two realities, wrestling with the pity and pride he feels for his country.

But gradually, the more traffic we meet (even worse than normal- his welcome home gift we joke) and the more we talk, the more he seems to be settling back into Beirut and he comes to the seemingly satisfying conclusion that over there  ‘the people are selfish and anyway, everything is expensive, even a sandwich’. As he says this, I think about how many times I’ve drunk exceedingly expensive coffee in this city, and how often I’ve had to stop myself from beating on the bonnets of cars whose drivers don’t see pedestrians, or perhaps anyone, apart from themselves.

But despite this, and even if the grass genuinely is greener somewhere else, I know what he means. It’s good to be home.




One of your favourite words at the moment is ‘broken’ (or bo-bo, as you say it) and there has been no shortage of occasions for you to use it recently- from the CD player that keeps skipping to the rose that lost its petals when Mamma lent in to smell it, and not forgetting the lift of course, which is bo-bo on a daily basis, according to our scheduled power cuts.

Or unscheduled power cuts like the other day, when the electricity didn’t come back as expected and we spent ages with the concierge’s family while they tried to explain why the generator hadn’t come on either, struggling over the translation of one word in particular, which, surprise surprise, turned out to be ‘broken’- if only you’d known your favourite word in Arabic it would have been so much simpler!


Four returns: ‘Flower-picking’ and other stories

Just over a week ago we saw a friend who left Lebanon last summer, but had returned for a flying visit. The first time we met was on an organised walking tour on my very first weekend in Beirut and we fast became friends, especially his wife and I, who kept each other company (and kept each other’s spirits up) on our own un-organised walking tours of the city and beyond, interspersed with brunches on balconies and teas on terraces, with soups in winter and sparkling water in summer, and on a perpetual search for the perfect espresso and fresh lemonade and for somewhere to stop for nappy-changing and naps.

She couldn’t make it  on this return trip to Lebanon, but she was with us in spirit and I know she would have enjoyed the wine-tasting event where we decided to catch up with her husband. In particular, the wine I fell in love with, or rather, the story behind it. Apparently instead of using pesticides they plant huge red flowers in between the vines to distract the insects, then they send in geese to pluck the pests off the petals- ‘flower-picking’ so to speak. Every time I took a sip I imagined this scene and it made the wine somehow more appealing, or ‘complex’ as perhaps a connoisseur would say!

We went home with a bottle of it and, in honour of my old friend, the telephone number of a new one in need of somebody to show her the city, to share a walk along its shore and  a pause in a place where the espresso is good, the summer lemonade and the winter soup (served in glasses) are even better and the memories are best of all.

Four returns and a farewell

As I may have said before, in Beirut, you sometimes feel like you’re on a big wheel; a constant fairground ride of ups and downs,  hopes and fears, welcomes and farewells. There is lingering sense of déjà vu, or ‘here we go again’.

Last week, I felt it especially, but didn’t have a chance to write about any of it, except the farewell. So I’ll catch up now and record the four ‘returns’ one by one.




Like Mother, Like Daughter

 More lovely friends are leaving Lebanon this week, heading home, half way across the world to Australia.

They will be going from a bright hot summer to a bright cold winter, a season which, thanks to some clever travel plans, they have almost managed to avoid for the four years they’ve been living here.

Although we’ve only known them for a quarter of that it feels longer and we will miss their easy sunny mother-daughter company like we’ve always had it; like a never-ending summer’s day spent eating sweet treats and paddling in the pool.


A goodbye gift: ‘Like mother, like daughter’

An Italian in Beirut

On Sunday we went out for dinner to Nonna pizzeria, while our little one slept soundly at home with her nonna.
As we left the house to look for a taxi, we had our usual debate about how much we were willing to pay: my maximum is 10,000 LL (approx $7), while my husband’s is 8,000 LL when he’s with me, 5,000LL when he’s not.

‘Leave it to me’ said my husband, ever the Italian- haggler.

But after just missing 2 taxis, taken by women going in the opposite direction, we began to wonder whether we would get one at all, at any price, as the sun had just set and it was time for Iftar (breaking the daily Ramadan fast).

Third time lucky I said and let’s pay 10,000.

But in the end we only paid 2,000 as a bus came and we decided to take that as far as downtown and try again with a taxi from there. We sat at the front and my husband made ‘conversation’ with the driver, who was from Syria (‘Syria, no problem!’ he insisted) but also had family in Rome. Once again I was reminded how loved the Italians are in this part of the world, despite their early exit from the World Cup this year.

So loved it seems that they will let us ride for free. When we got off the bus a taxi stopped for us and said he would take us to the end of the street where the restaurant was on his way to the airport. While driving us he proudly shared his 3 Italian words (grazie, buongiorno and…. pause while he tried to remember… prego!), complimented my husband on his 3(ish) Arabic phrases and completely refused to accept any money at all, even though my husband kept offering (we were below even his minimum!). We laughed about our bizarre journey all the way up the hill to the pizzeria, and spent the money (and calories) we’d saved on an enormous panna cotta .

Unfortunately the journey home wasn’t quite so sweet, as despite finding a taxi waiting at the door who was willing to take us for 8,000, we managed to upset the driver when we told him to get to our house from the traffic free road at ‘the top’ rather than the crowded Corniche ‘at the bottom’ and he insisted that we pay a dollar extra.

Maybe our mistake was not telling him about being Italian.




A Rhyming Dictionary (for the under 2s!)

We are engaged in a constant guessing game with my daughter, as she learns new words faster than you can say… any of them!

So because lemon sounds like melon sounds like Miffy (the Rabbit) I’ve put together a little ‘rhyming dictionary’ as a guide. Here is the first installment:

apple, open

big, pink

broken, purple, bubble

door, stone, go

flower, giraffe

more, small

sleeping, baby (oh the irony!)

and, ever the Beiruti baby,

raining, raisins, washing, manoushe!



A week in Beirut: Friday

And finally it’s Friday and we spend the day at a friend’s house, up in the hills to the north of Beirut, with a view of the valley that takes your breath away and a view of the city that breaks your heart, seeing it choking in a cloud of smog.

For awhile now I’ve been wondering whether we should move house, crossing the not-at-all-green line through the heart of Beirut, past the blue mosque and beyond. It’s not a really a security question, or even a pollution question, it’s a ‘time travelling’ question. The hours I spend in taxis to-ing and fro-ing from friends’ houses are adding up and one by one those who live within walking distance are leaving.

But then again, where would we find another terrace like this one, where there’s more than enough room to swing a cat (or for my daughter to swing around and around wearing her favourite cat t-shirt!) and where I’m close enough to the sea to see what colour it is, wrapping its breeze lightly around my shoulders like a summer shawl.






And even though now, most of my friends are not my neighbours, the neighbourhood does have its charms, including, as I discovered today, it’s very own museum, right next door.


A week in Beirut: Thursday

On Wednesday evening, washing finally done, but still waiting for the water delivery, I was standing in the kitchen thinking about my cleaner when the phone rang. To my surprise, it was her. Actually I wasn’t that surprised as I consider her a sort of oracle anyway, and this particular call proved it. She told me about a bomb that had just gone off relatively close to our area and wanted to check all was OK, which it was.

This time the thwarted suicide attack was less that 2km away and I was wide awake but still I heard nothing. We checked the local news sites on the internet and our phones for messages from security- nothing. But then we heard the sirens screaming down the Corniche and the rest of the world caught up with my cleaner (and the TV- where she gets her information from!).

If you had asked me a few years ago what I would do in a situation like this one, I’m not sure what I would have said. But I’m pretty sure my answer wouldn’t have been ‘make watermelon granita‘ which is exactly what I did. This may seem strange but I guess it is just another version of my ‘if in doubt, bake’ philosophy.


Watermelon granita, made with traditional 'pink' and not so traditional 'yellow' watermelon.

Granita in my daughter’s two favourite colours, made with traditional ‘pink’ and not so traditional ‘yellow’ watermelon.

The ‘baking’ was in preparation for a paddling pool play date at our place the next day, which I wondered if I should cancel. But on Thursday morning we received a ‘situation is normal’ text message (and the water finally arrived!) and decided to go ahead. The granita was a big hit with both babies and mamas, despite nearly breaking my freezer in the process and giving me flashbacks to my fridge nightmares this time last year. And seeing five little ones splashing in the pool also gave me flashbacks to last summer, when we spent similar days with different babies (the original famous five-now scattered far and wide), and tried to keep cool, while all around us things were hotting up.

What is it about Beirut that regularly makes you feel like you’ve been here before?