ROSE AND ZAATAR

A TASTE OF A LIFE IN LEBANON

Category: Lebanon

Are you happy?

I started this post just over 2 weeks ago, on our last day in Lebanon before travelling to Europe for a month. Its title comes from a taxi trip we took across town that morning for a farewell coffee with friends. I spent the journey thinking back over the summer trying to decide which petal I was up to on my ‘love you, love you not’ Lebanon daisy.

My taxi driver, who that day was a lovely older man, a father but not yet a grandfather (I know this from normal-taxi-questions) must also have been a mind reader as he interrupted my train of thought with the not-so-normal-taxi-question:

Are you happy in Lebanon? (Subtly but powerfully different from the standard: do you like Lebanon?)

Yes! I replied instantly, knowing as I said it that it was true.

It is the same question that friends have been asking me here in the UK, when I tell them that we will be staying in Lebanon either a lot longer, or not so long at all. And every time I answer, the yes which caught me almost by surprise in the taxi, gets stronger and clearer in my heart. And it’s not just because, as the taxi driver went on to say that day, I have my husband and my baby with me.  It’s more that that, so much more. Even if sometimes I can’t quite explain it, even to myself.

And on that note I will say farewell, not forever, but for awhile. Other things are tugging on my heart strings and I need to put the blog to bed. But given my track record, I’m sure it won’t ‘sleep through the night’ and I’ll be back again soon.

Sweet dreams until then x

 

 

 

Four returns: she’ll be coming round the mountain…

The fourth and final return was ours. We went back to the Shouf Cedar Reserve, where we haven’t been since I was 7 months pregnant and unable to follow any of the footpaths for fear of falling forward onto my belly.

This time we were part of the Vamos Todos hiking group and even though I was still a little afraid of falling forward with my 22 month old daughter strapped to my front, they encouraged us to take the 8km trail rather than sitting on the bench by the entrance (where I sat the last time).

I asked the guide, who held my arm firmly and picked flowers for my daughter delicately, how long he’d being doing outdoor activities like this one:

Since ever!

His answer made me smile and reflect on the fact that my daughter has also been ‘hiking’ since ever, as the very first time we took a trip with this group, snowshoeing in Faraya, I was pregnant without even knowing it.

Another part of the return was remembering a song that I haven’t sung since our daughter was a few months old. When she was born the only childhood tune I could remember was ‘She’ll be coming round the mountain’. which I sang to her endlessly, inventing verses beyond the ones I knew about wearing pink pyjamas and riding six white horses. Fortunately (for us both) I soon replaced it as I remembered other old favourites.

But as we rounded our own mountain at the end of the hike, it came back to me again and since then we have been singing it every night at bedtime, with the old verses, and some new ones inspired by our day amongst the Cedars:

She’ll be wearing mama’s socks (over her sandals, because it’s so unexpectedly cold, and I forgot to bring any for her!)

She’ll be singing all the songs that she knows (trying to keep her busy and distracted from the cold)

She’ll be looking for the bus (which finally appears as we come down from the clouds)

and finally she’ll be drinking lemonade, fresh and cold (homemade by another guide and offered in plastic espresso cups to congratulate us on completing the hike).

 

Waste not, Want not, Why not

Waste management is not one of Lebanon’s strong points, and neither is gardening, but last week we witnessed an enterprising example of both.

It was a public holiday Monday morning and we were sitting in an almost empty Byblos bar, sipping lemonade and watching a waiter with fascination as he delicately arranged shards of ice in a flower bed. We wondered why he was using it instead of water, and speculated on its potential botanical benefits, until finally my friend asked him outright.

Turns out that the ice was surplus from the night before and he didn’t know what else to do with it, so why not ‘water’ the plants with it?

Why not indeed?

Well actually, if you search the internet, you’ll find a lot of opinions on the matter, and not all favourable. But I liked the waiter’s creative thinking and the longer I live here, the more I see it as one of Lebanon’s strong points.

A week in Beirut: Sunday

A bright-eyed Lebanese friend came for lunch, wearing sunglasses and bearing gifts of cherries and stories to share. Among other things, I learnt that:

-If you have blue eyes (like he does and I do) and live in hot countries (like this one) it’s very important that you wear sunglasses all the time you are outside to prevent damage from the sun.  He said it was (more than 70 years) too late for him, but not for me.

-If your cherry tree isn’t bearing fruit (like his isn’t) you can cure it  by planting  ‘pills that prevent pregnancy’ around its base in the winter and then, according to his car mechanic (and a surprising number of other people in Lebanon) it will produce abundant cherries the following summer. He said he was too embarrassed to buy the pills, but I promised to do it for him if we’re still here in winter.

And last, but not at all least

-If you are Lebanese, you have a ‘war story’, whether you were living next door or on the other side of the world from it. A story that can make you turn your face away, like when you try to look directly at the sun, light years away but still unbearable.

 

Oh Lebanon, how I wish there was a cure as quick as planting pills, for the horror in the hearts of your people.

And how I wish that it was as simple as wearing sunglasses to prevent it from ever happening again.

 

Patisserie door to patisserie door

In the words of Now Lebanon, a local news website, ‘Friday’s suicide bombing marks an end to a 12-week lull in such attacks in Lebanon’. 

I had been well and truly lulled, as just yesterday I was considering that it might be OK to go back to the Bekaa Valley (where the bomb was) when my mum visits in July. As I’ve said before, living here for a while, you let yourself be lulled, but at the same time you know it won’t last. You let yourself be rocked to sleep by the rolls of thunder and fireworks in the distance, because you can’t keep your eyes open any longer, but you know you will wake up, sooner or later.

This time we were woken, on a sunny June afternoon, by the alarm bells of text messages telling of an explosion outside Beirut on  the Damascus Highway, and raids and roadblocks closer to home (in the very next neighbourhood to ours). At the time, we were on the other side of town, sharing an almost midsummer’s day with lovely mama friends,  story-swapping, cherry-popping, paddling pool splashing. My friend whose house we were at thanked us for coming and said she ‘felt at home‘, which may seem a strange thing for a host to say, but somehow in Beirut it makes sense.

My own sense of feeling at home came a few hours later, when I needed to take a taxi back across town.At this point the text messages were still coming but they were more like traffic updates than news headlines, warning of nightmarish  jams and the city at a standstill. We called a local taxi company because my friend assured me they knew where her building was (near a patisserie) which is half the battle in Beirut, but it turned out it was the other half of the battle that mattered, as when I told them where I wanted to go (near another patisserie) they said ‘no taxi‘ and could give me no explanation.  I started to feel a bit nervous, wandering how I would get home, imagining myself walking all the way as no one would drive me ‘to the other side of town’! But then I called ‘my’ taxi company who I use when my taxi driver friend is unavailable, like today. Miraculously they knew where I was (seems the patisserie is more famous than I thought!) and even better they knew exactly where I wanted to go:

Taxi: And where are you going?

Me: Ain Mreisseh

Taxi: You want to go home

Me: Yes!!! ( I could have hugged him through the phone!)

It turned out that I didn’t even have to tell the driver about my own landmark patisserie as when we approached my street, he already knew the name of my building! What may have seemed slightly disturbing (‘I know where you live….’) on another day, in another city, today in Beirut was infinitely comforting and made me feel so at home.

Learning your colours in Lebanon

My current technique for distracting my daughter in taxis is to get her to look out of the window and tell me what she can see (usually cars, occasionally cats, and if we are very lucky, like yesterday, cows on the back of a truck- or bus as she called it!)

This activity has  got a little more exciting since we added a few colours to our repertoire and we were trying it out in our friend’s taxi the other day:

Me: Look! Look! What can you see? Can you see blue? (pointing at the roof of a Mosque)

Her: Yellow! Yellow! (Pointing at a digger on a construction site- another favourite thing)

Me: She loves yellow! (‘translating’ for the taxi driver in case he didn’t catch her pronunciation ‘yay-ho’)

Him: Really? She loves yellow? (chuckling to himself and sounding surprised)

When I don’t respond he explains that in Lebanon yellow is attached to a particular political party- not his.

Me: Oh yes… she also likes green, but that’s another party isn’t it?

Him: Yes! And blue is for….

And he goes on to explain that in Lebanon ‘all the colours are taken’. Except maybe purple.

But as she can’t say that one yet, maybe it’s better if we keep quiet in the back of taxis for now- we wouldn’t want to offend anyone by mistake!

 

 

 

Happy Mother’s Day

Today is Mother’s Day in Lebanon, coinciding with the beginning of Spring, as it does every year. I discussed this yesterday with the Lebanese woman who runs the playroom at the Planet Discovery Science Museum, explaining that in the UK mothers are celebrated on a different date each year, depending on when Easter falls:

Me:For example, this year in the UK it’s on the 30th March but I like that in Lebanon it’s always the 21st March, the same as the beginning of Spring- it’s a nice thing!

Her: Yes…. at least we have something nice in Lebanon, hahaha… and it’s something that doesn’t change and is the same every year… 

…no matter what else is happening in the country, I finish her sentence in my head, and laugh along with her but feel the weight of her words in my heart and I wonder how much they weigh in hers.

So Happy Mother’s Day to the country where I became a mother, I wish you the certainty of Spring coming, with all its bravery and hope, even if it only snowed a week before.

Happy Valentine’s Day

In Lebanon Valentine’s Day is a public holiday, but not for the reasons you might think. Nine years ago, this day, which should belong to lovers, was stolen, hijacked, or to be more precise, car bombed. And ever since, the 14th February has been associated with assassination, instead of love.

Today, some other mamas and I reclaimed the day and decorated heart shaped cookies for the ones we love and are loved by, even if they don’t celebrate Valentine’s day either (for other less drastic reasons than assassination).

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Happy Valentine’s Day Lebanon, 

these hearts are for you,

sweet and unbroken.

Rocky Road

Last week, my journey down the rocky road of sleep deprivation was sweetened with another kind of rocky road- the edible one! Two playdates, one involving a crock pot of hot chocolate and one involving my vegan friend, meant that I found myself dreaming up recipes while trying to get my baby to sleep and have dreams all of her own.

When she finally did, I researched Rocky Road and discovered on Wikipedia that it originated in Australia but there are also British and American versions and the only ingredients common to all three are chocolate (dark or milk) and marshmallows. But as my Australian friend said, with Rocky Road ‘anything goes!’

So I went with that and came up with a vegan and gluten free version, which to my surprise, turned out to be one of my favourite things I’ve ever made. I don’t normally like chocolately things for breakfast (apart from Nutella) but I made an exception for this as I couldn’t wait until mid-morning to try it!

Here is the recipe, adapted from The Cookie Book’s Rocky Road Wedges:

Make 25g popping corn in 15ml of vegetable oil. Leave to cool for about 5 minutes then coat with a tablespoon of maple syrup. When completely cool put into a plastic bag and tap with a rolling pin to break into small pieces.

Stirring frequently, melt 150g dark chocolate with 25g coconut oil in a heatproof bowl over a simmering pan of water. Leave to cool for 2 minutes. Stir in popcorn and 75g dried cranberries (or other dried fruit).

Put mixture into a greased and lined 20cm square tin, and press down firmly into an even layer. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes until set. Take out of tin, remove paper and cut into squares, as big or small as you like!

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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