Posts Tagged 'Lebanon'

The rest of the good-bad-good sandwich

On the other side of the world, in faraway Bangladesh, another illusion of safety got shattered. I know Gulshan, where the hostage standoff and then massacre occurred, a bit. I have spent many days and nights there, going back decades. We have a project in Dhaka and friends from long ago. The tape that plays through my head is familiar. It played through my head when La Taverna in Lebanon got blown up, only three days after I ate there. The contrast between the quiet and genteel ‘before’ and the violent ‘after’ is hard to accept.

Sometimes people ask me, “Aren’t you afraid? The places you go could be targets!” Yes, they could, and in the moment I do have this sense of vulnerability, and the thought ‘I could have been there,’ crosses my mind. But I also have a statistician in my head who says (in Dutch): ‘kullekoek,” which means something like ‘nonsense.’

When things like this happen and we are once again reminded that ours is a dangerous world, I have to remember that today it is not more dangerous than any time in the past, probably even less so. People who want to go back to the olden days do not know what they are asking for. The olden days may have been good for some but for most people they were not good, only old.

When Axel and I lived in Lebanon during those turbulent times, we had a Palestinian friend who was an official in the Palestinian resistance. He gave me a keychain with a small wooden vase dangling on it, “from an old Palestinian olive tree,” he told me; although I don’t know where the physical object is anymore, the image is engraved in my memory and reminds me of him.

His people were being targeted and blown up regularly. I asked him once, “Aren’t you afraid you will be next?” I will never forget his answer: “as long as I live it is not my time yet and I have work to do. When my task in this world is completed, not for me to know, then I will go.” It’s a kind of comforting philosophy and I have adopted it. I have combined it with a Nigerian saying, a colleague taught me decades ago: “When you worry you go die. When you don’t worry you go die. Why worry?” And, as Mark Rylance playing Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies says, “if I worry, would it make any difference?” I am not done yet with my task and see no point in worrying.

And finally, to complete the good-bad-good sandwich, something wonderful happened in between the other side of the world and this side of the world, not so faraway Tilburg: my niece brought a hefty little boy into the world, promoting my youngest brother to being a grandfather (opa), which is of course the best possible role one could ever aspire to play.

Rested and refreshed?

Our departure day was as glorious as the day we arrived. We spent the remaining hours, not with a massage as planned, but by walking one last time around Hamra, and sitting down for a latte in the sun at a sidewalk café. We sms-ed with the kids who were playing checkers at Frankfurt airport, who were also whiling away the hours before the last leg of their flight home to Boston. We made our last purchase, cardamon-laced Arabic coffee, to remember this week and then headed home.

The flight to Dubai was crowded and hot and by the time we left the plane I felt the opposite of the refreshed and rested self I was supposed to be and not at all ready to resume work tomorrow.

We had found the Nihal hotel on the internet. It appears to be in the Chinese-Indian section of town, if there is such a thing. It would explain the planeloads of Chinese we had seen at the airport. Not just Chinese but also Philippinos, Bangladeshis and others who, we assumed, come here to work. The economy must be picking up again.

After checking in we walked around the neighborhood and had an 11 PM meal at the authentic Chinese restaurant; this as opposed to the Chinese-Indian restaurant that is in our hotel. Remembering our large ice-cold draft beer on our way in, a week ago, we ordered beers. One of the young waiters whispered something in Axel’s ear he pretended to understand. Soon we did, when the waitress brought a plastic juice jug and two small teacups in which she poured something foamy. Beer was, once again, forbidding, at leas in this restaurant.

We had a great meal of sizzling hot beef and a mystery ‘special seafood’ soup with all sorts of unrecognizable things floating in it but it tasted great. The wait staff was young, and, as they told us in broken English, from all over China, and ‘no, they were not all part of the same family.’ The place was rather well staffed and the kitchen was full of cooks cooking amidst much steam and huge flames dancing around the giant woks. Yet there were very few people in the restaurant actually eating. That it was authentic was obvious since most of the patrons were Chinese.

And now we are at the airport for the last leg home. At check-in we heard that captain Courtney is taking us there so we feel in good hands, especially knowing that the weather forecast for Kabul is ‘very heavy rains’ for the next four days.

Meeting the dress

Before this momentous event we drove up with Monsieur Joseph at the wheel to one of the few remaining spots with cedars in Lebanon. The road was winding and scary at times and made Tessa sick. I am sure the sickness was exacerbated by Monsieur Joseph’s broken French and English and the way his thumbs drummed on the steering wheel. We also had to ask him not to light up, a bad Lebanese habit that, although slightly diminished in the last 30 years, still kept astounding us: drivers behind the wheel, salesladies behind the cash register and tough looking guys in places that say ‘No Smoking.’

When we finally arrived at the Cedars National park we found it covered in snow and locked – no one there. Shivering (wrong clothes) and with snow falling on our heads, we hiked up the road to find an opening in the rusty barbed wire fence. Only Sita, Jim and I ventured through the hole and worked our way down a slippery hill to the oldest cedar in Lebanon, one that was somehow overlooked when the Great Temple was built in Jerusalem.

According to the small sign that that Rotarians of the Chouf put up it was 3000 years old (or 10000 or 1000 or 30000 – someone had altered the printed plate); old, in any case, with a circumference of 16 meters.

Eventually the main gate was opened when a lady of some import arrived with her South American visitors and called the right guy. We sent Monsieur Joseph to retrieve Tessa and Axel who were already walking down the road so that they too could see the old cedar. Everyone hugged the tree to catch some of its life force for longevity and then everyone went inside the small hut and hovered around the, for us familiar, diesel stove with a cup of hot mint tea, complements of the Lebanese Park Service.

To the great disappointment of Monsieur Joseph we declined to see the palaces on the way down to the coast. One of those, Beiteddine, used to be an obligatory stop when people came to visit us here all these years ago. When I left Lebanon I swore I would never stop at the place again. Sita had already seen it during her short visit to Lebanon last year it and the rest was OK skipping the sight as the hours towards departure ticked away; there was some last minute shopping to do. ‘Oh,’ sighed Monsieur Joseph, ‘shopping, why?’

We had him drop us off at our place, unloaded our picnic implements (we had had this fantasy of spreading a blanket under one of the cedars and have our French bread with Camembert and white wine while looking out over the faraway Mediterranean Sea); instead we ‘picnicked’ in the car on the way home.

Just around the corner from Bliss Street it happened: Sita met her wedding dress. It stood in the window of a store called Elissar and Other Stories and was made from fabric from Central Asia: Uzbek, Chinese and Turkman. It cost more than my entire collection of dresses ever owned but the two had fallen in love. She tried it on and the battle was lost. It’s on its way to Haydenville now and we all agreed it was spectacular; one of a kind and, most importantly, Jim liked it.

Tessa bought a narguileh (shisha, hubbly-bubbly, water pipe) that was not made in China – not easy to find – for her Steve and everyone carried at least one shopping bag with stuff to take away from Lebanon. We went back to the Wellington bar in the Mayflower Hotel to toast to the best family vacation ever, and to three couples, us celebrating our 30th anniversary in a few weeks, Sita and Jim to their upcoming wedding and Steve and Tessa to many more good years to come and a more understanding employer.

We had our last dinner with Birgit and Alistair who were all packed to go on their ski vacation in France. And then we said goodbye to the kids, all teary and sad. They should be in Frankfurt now drinking large steins of beer and eating sausages while looking wistfully at the photos and the dress.

For us, the vacation isn’t quite over yet. We have one more morning in Beirut that may include a massage to relax our muscles that are sore from walking so much. After that, we too will hop in a taxi and head for the airport to fly in the opposite direction from Haydenville.

By car and foot

We sent the progeny off by car to see the southern coastline and visit Tyr while we spent the day by foot in West Beirut.

We picked up the CD with the results of my MRI at the American University Hospital. It came with a diagnosis from Dr.El Merhi who mentions a gap filled with fluid, signal intensity, atrophy and shoulder joint effusion. I don’t understand what it means but it sounds a little ominous. We are sending it off to Boston with Tessa and wait for instructions on what next.

We walked around for hours in the city, looking for things that cannot be easily found in Kabul, or can only be found in places that are off limits, like the bazaar. This included buttons, espresso cups, a map of the region we live in and a cookbook to teach our cook how to reproduce the fantastic Lebanese meals we have had here.

We also each had a haircut. I had the fastest haircut ever. In the 15 minutes I was in the salon I never got to find out whether my coiffeur was indeed named Jacques (I assume all male hairdressers go by the name of Jacques). He complimented me on my hair. I told him it was my father’s and sent a quick thank you to the heavens.

Axel went to the barbershop around the corner. It was the same he frequented 30 years ago. It had not changed a bit. Only Jack, the then barber had gone and now lives in Torrence, CA. It was Mr. Philippe who cut his hair. And not only his hair, also his beard, eyebrows, nose hair, neck hair, everything!

At the end of the day all of us, including Alistair and Birgit, went out for Sushi in Achrafiyeh and enjoyed a great meal together. I paid the bill out of the pot of money that is replenished every week I am in Kabul with ‘danger pay.’ That’s what it is for.

Tourist-3

If our trip to the Jeita grottos was about nature’s ingenuity, yesterday’s trip to Baalbeck was about man’s ingenuity and what you can do with free labor.

We walked around the massive stones and pillars for hours; first with our guide who looked liked uncle Paul, or, with his sunglasses on, like our Manchester neighbor Bill. Then, after lunch and on our own pace, now more knowledgeable, we went back and toured the site once more.

Just as I remembered from my last visit there, some 33 years ago, we were practically the only tourists. The only other flock we spotted was a busload with Japanese but they were in a hurry and disappeared quickly to their next destination.

In English that took some getting used to our guide explained both the socio-cultural and architectural context of what we were seeing. We marveled at the 1000+ ton stones that were sitting in places that nowadays would require enormous cranes.

The whole complex is a study in patience: the large temple complex took several 100s of years to complete and by the time the last pagan decorations were to be carved Christianity arrived with its own symbols and so the carving stopped. New images and symbols were called for.

Some of the granite pillars had come all the way from Upper Egypt: again, all this is possible with patience and lots of free labor.

For lunch we went easy and chose from a series of prepared dishes in an unassuming local place. There was no wine as we were in a predominantly Moslem region of Lebanon with many of the outward appearances of conservative Islam.

We talked Sita out of buying a Hizbollah tea shirt but she did manage to get a laminate plate with the image of the disappeared Moussa Sadr who never got off the plane he took to Trablous in 1977. In that part of the Beqaa Valley he is still very much present.

On our dizzying ride back over the Lebanon mountain range we stopped at the Ksara Winery that produces the wines we have been drinking. We were too late for the wine tasting and tour but not too late for buying. We bought a few bottles to replace the ones we had consumed at Alistair’s with maybe an extra to take back to Kabul and sneak through customs. We did buy a small bottle of arak because we have this fantasy of sitting on the terrace of our house in Kabul on a warm spring evening in the near future, recalling memories of our Lebanon trip.

The culinary highlight of the day was our visit to La Creperie, a restaurant that is perched on a rock overlooking Jounieh’s harbor in Kaslik. The restaurant is owned and run by Fadi who is the father of my MSH colleague Mayssa. Mayssa and I share a love of Lebanon and so I was introduced to the restaurant some time ago and a visit was on the program. But each day our lunches were so enormous that we did not need an evening meal.

After our simple and small lunch yesterday the timing for dinner at La Creperie was right. We were chided a little to have waited so long (4 evenings) for our meal there. But our explanation was accepted and our reasoning had been right, one should fast most of the day before going to La Creperie.

We were given the royal treatment in every which way as Fadi pulled out all the stops to give us a ‘taste’ of what his restaurant has to offer. We stretched our visit to over 3 hours munching on this then that galette, this then that crepe, liberally accompanied by Bretagne’s best Cidre. The meal was completed with fruit and coffee accompanied by a small glass of a local triple sec called Orangealina that is produced by another fine Lebanese wine estate, les Tourelles.

It was Lebanese hospitality at its best. We were treated as family. This also meant that there was no check at the end and an exhortation to visit again soon. We happily agreed to do so. It is one other reason to bring us back here. Last night’s was probably the most extraordinary eating experience we have ever had here or anywhere else.

Tourist-2

Monsieur Eli came to pick us up at 8:30 and after an hour of dodging traffic and being stuck dropped us off at the National Museum. Much of what we saw there had come from Byblos, which didn’t get to keep its treasures.

The museum is an imposing ode to all the major civilizations that at one time or another dominated the Mediterranean Sea coast. But given how much happened here in the millennia before and after Christ the paucity of the displays is surprising. Not just in numbers but also in the explanations for uninformed visitors like us.

The museum has no toilet. I could just hear the builder say, when all was done, ‘oops.’ A container is installed near the gate for that purpose. It is surrounded by antique debris such as sarcophagi, pillars, mosaics, lying all jumbled together in the triangle that is formed by the museum, the street and the toilet container.

We decided to forego the American-Palestinian artist’ installation that Birgit was reviewing for a story. We were too hungry and instructed Monsieur Eli to find us a place in the mountains for our 3rd fantasy lunch.

This took some work on our side as Monsieur Eli seemed to ignore the major spec: a view. He tried a few other spots that had that one element missing, no view. Eventually we all agreed he had found the place, The Balcony, perched several thousands feet above the Mediterranean and serving everything that Lebanon is famous for.

We were treated like royalty. This included the assumption that cost was not an issue. Or maybe it was because the tourist season has not started yet and the Maitre d’ wanted to try out his new line: he served us everything he had and more, hauling in new beer and wine bottles as soon as the bottom was in sight. For the third day in a row lunch was enough to see me through the night without dinner. Once again our lunch also served as dinner. Once again it was a fantasy lunch.

Finally we went to our day’s destination: the Jeita grottos. First by teleferique, then by foot, then by miniature train, then by boat we explored several layers of the gigantic grotto with its high ceilings and invisible depths. In between we saw an organic extravaganza of things rising and dripping and falling, gravity defying Mother Nature installations that made you believe in God as an accomplished Artist.

On our way back we took the Jounieh teleferiqie that whisks you quickly from sea level to the commanding base of the statue of Our Lady of Lebanon. It wasn’t quite Jim’s cup of tea as he doesn’t like heights but he’s a trooper and came along anyways.

Back in Beirut we walked on Bliss Street, in honor of Jim who still doesn’t know whether this Mr. Bliss is a relation, had crepes, explored the Hamra area and then celebrated our being together this week with a pint in the Mayflower Hotel bar, where I arrived as a young bride 33 years ago.

Tourist-1

Our first outing was by taxi, driven by Eli Adam who used to be a salesman but has been driving a taxi the last 11 years. That he was a salesman is obvious; he likes to talk. Since Axel also likes to talk he got to ride shotgun. I tucked myself way in the back of the family van and looked sideways rather than to the front. Beirut traffic is scary, hence the taxi. Renting a car was only a brief fantasy until we experienced being in traffic on our first day here.

We are hiring Eli for most of the week to take us places. We speak a mixture of French and English with him, in true Lebanese fashion. Yesterday he took us to Byblos , or Jbeil, the place where we are told the alphabet was born.

We had another fantasy lunch, overlooking Byblos’s tiny harbor, eating fried fish, and drinking the wonderful house wine at Pepe Abed’s. The remaining open spots on the table were occupied by the small plates with the famous Lebanese mezze that have become Tessa’s staple.

The restaurant was one we knew from way back. Pepe has died in the meantime and now his son Roger runs the place. The street leading to the restaurant is named after his famous dad.

The restaurant is decorated with photos of Pepe with famous personalities who have come here over the decades; it included a whole series of posed photos with various Eastern European beauty queens. Brigitte Bardo is prominently featured in the famous people gallery amidst sundry local and not so local politicians and world leaders.

After lunch we hired a guide to show us around the excavations of some 17 different archaeological sites, built on top of each other over thousands of years. Everyone was deeply awed walking amidst so much history. The guide then wrote our names in Arabic, in Phoenician and backwards in English.

Eli dropped us off at the kids’ apartment (our progeny as they are referred to by Alistair) where everyone flopped on the beds. Being a full time tourist is tiresome. Eventually we pulled ourselves up and walked around their neighborhood to check out what was for dinner.

We ended up in a street full of bars, still empty at 7 PM. Clearly our eating habits are out of sync with the Lebanese, who enter restaurants just about when we are done. The waiters happily served us beer and wine when they found out we came from a dry place, and asked as, like everyone else does, why the hell do you live in Afghanistan?


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