Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.
Where we are: Seoul, South Korea
The Everyday Madness
One of the greatest benefits of our five years of travel has been the shattering of my one-dimensional mental images of the rest of the world. Seeing a place in person is the best way—for me, at least; I can only speak for myself—to understand, on a visceral level, that there is no community, city, state, country that can be summed up in any kind of simplicity.
Lebanon is one of my favorite examples of this inherent human complexity (as well as one of my favorite places, period). I thought it would be one way, and it was, but it was forty-seven other ways as well.
I spent Wednesday reading all the news I could find about the explosions in Beirut, and reliving a jumble of treasured memories of our time there. Lee and I spent three weeks in Lebanon in the fall of 2018, and that time was jam-packed with contradictions and surprises that upended all my preconceived notions (after five years of travel, you’d think I’d stop having preconceived notions, but they’re a hard habit to break) about the country.
Because they’re random and totally idiosyncratic, I’m going to share a few of my memories with you, in list form.
Forthwith, the human face of Lebanon, as I experienced it.
—We went on a food tour, guided by a woman about my age. She was (is!) smart, highly educated, very well-traveled, and passionate about food. Needless to say, we hit it off, and got together with her and her husband several times before we left. She had us over to their apartment for tea one morning, and that was one of the surprise moments—it was unquestionably the most beautiful private dwelling I’ve ever been in, period. All white and turquoise, full of beautiful art, every detail perfectly curated—but human, livable. I’ve never been anywhere that made me feel so serene, and just happy.
—We went on another tour, of the Bekaa Valley, with a young man named Robin. His most treasured possession is a parrot that he smuggled in from Nigeria in a backpack. It does tricks, and gets upset when Robin and his girlfriend bicker. Apparently the parrot has quite the Facebook following.
—I got an excellent haircut at a salon on the same block as our hotel. The stylist was a young man who spoke very little English, but just enough to tell me that he had fled from Syria. For the rest of our time in Beirut, whenever I walked past the salon, he would wave to me.
—One of the most memorable meals of my life was at Em Sherif, another stunningly beautiful space, all glass and crystal and filigree. You don’t make any choices: they just bring out thirty-two small dishes, and refill any that you manage to finish. We finished only one—the hummus. It was like velvet. I still get a little light-headed thinking about it.
—Another memorable meal was at Tawlet, part of an organization of ‘social entrepreneurs.’ They do a number of different things, all promoting community and sustainable foodways, but at Tawlet, the focus is on preserving Lebanon’s incredible culinary traditions. Each week they bring in a group of women from different parts of the country; the week’s buffet menu is created and prepared by these women. The concept is both brilliant and admirable. The food was delicious.
—You know those pictures you sometimes see of starving children in a famine? I saw a refugee child who looked like that, with a distended belly and stick-thin legs, lying on a blanket while its mother begged. A few minutes later another mother held out a bottle filled with water, clutching her baby to her chest, begging me to buy her some formula. I was out on my afternoon walk, by myself, and by the time I got back to our hotel, I was a little broken inside. The refugee crisis is real, and one of the more difficult things I’ve ever seen.
—Downtown Beirut is peppered with Roman ruins. There’s an office building on top of a Roman bath; the floor on the ground level is made of plexiglass, so you can look down at the hypocaust under your feet.
—Downtown Beirut is also peppered with the scars of war. Some scars have been deliberately preserved; others just haven’t yet been repaired. The understanding of those scars is complex; they are reminders of horror and hardship, but also of endurance and strength.
—Chocolate shops are everywhere in Beirut (I guess it’s unsurprising that I felt like I had found my people); in one particularly memorable one, the owner sat us down and spent ninety minutes telling us all about chocolate, politics, and his business, and his city. The hospitality, everywhere we turned, made a deep impression. As did the passionate political conversations, which were equally ubiquitous.
—We saw landmarks that we recognized from a lifetime of reading the news: the American Embassy, the Holiday Inn, the green line.
—We visited the final resting place of the poet Kahlil Gibran, up in the mountains in a former monastery. The peace and beauty of the spot seemed appropriate, and a world away from the chaos of Beirut.
—There’s a beautiful, high-end shopping complex in Beirut, built like a Parisian arcade, that is filled with luxury stores. When we were there, it was devoid of shoppers. We were told that it used to be filled with wealthy people from Arab countries, but that they had stopped coming. The shopping center was a weird combination of comforting, in its familiarity, and eerie, in its emptiness (especially in contrast to the rest of the city, which is a teeming mass of urban density).
—One of Lee’s favorite restaurants has a branch in Beirut. It’s called Eggslut. It started in Los Angeles; we first discovered it in Las Vegas. The Beirut outpost was a welcome surprise, at the edge of the American University campus, alongside hipster coffee shops and used book shops.
—The yachts in the marina are sleek and beautiful. I had no idea there would be yachts.
—In the Bekaa Valley, we saw makeshift homes, cobbled together from strips of Tyvek pulled down from old billboards, along with anything else the refugees living there could scrounge. That’s a hard way to raise a family.
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