martes, 28 de diciembre de 2010

Clapping on landings

For the past couple of months, I have been describing some of the similarities between Mexicans and Lebanese, but this weekend I literally felt at home. Which is weird, since I was flying from Istanbul to Beirut, but home is where one feels it, right?

There are some "realities" in airports about my fellow Mexicans, that I must say, I get a bit embarrassed about. Call me a snob, but when you are boarding a direct flight from JFK to Mexico City a week before Christmas, you will know exactly what I am talking about.

Well, guess what? The Lebanese flying from Istanbul are exactly the same. It made me feel slightly relieved to see that Mexicans are not the only ones beautifully rude on airplanes.

Some of the commonalities I see are:

1. The fly attendant calls people in zone 1 to board the plane. Everyone is trying to get ahead in 2 or 3 lines (one official, 2 unofficial), or stands very close to the gate entrance, no matter what zone they are in.

2. The number of packs that people are carrying is definitely more than one. And they clearly do not fit in the little "see if your carry-on fits in here" sign.

3. When you get to your aisle seat, there will inevitably be someone seating already there. The person will a) look at you and then offer a million apologies or b) pretend s/he doesn't understand why you have the same seat, and then "realize" s/he is actually in the middle seat or c) act lost and disoriented.

4. The seatbelt sign is completely optional during take off, landing and taxi.

5. If there isn't any room on your overhead compartment, then you can fit one bag on your side, one in front, and one two rows behind you.

6. If you need something from your overhead compartment, you take it, right when you need it. It doesn't matter if the attendant is coming with the meals cart or the person below is asleep (and gets your belly in his/her face).

7. When the plane stops, you run forward, even if that means just advancing a couple of steps, and end all crammed up in awkward positions between two people, one of whom has an arm trapped in the back row.

8. My absolutely favourite one: If the pilot landed the plane, you clap and cheer!!!

Two things I had never seen in a plane before though:

9. The smoking ban apparently doesn't apply to everyone in Lebanon (and you get into a fight with the flight attendant if s/he calls you on it).

10. Flying nannies and body guards come too and must exit before everyone (it must have been a big shot flying on the plane, since 2 rows in economy class were dedicated to the entourage).

miércoles, 22 de diciembre de 2010

The Paris of the Middle East? It’s more like Switzerland!

I was seriously getting resigned to the fact that winter in Beirut was just going to be an extension of the Fall. I mean it was cool-ish the other day, but after Boston’s harsh winters, I was like “OK, Lebanon, is this all you’ve got?”

A Lebanese friend who lives abroad was in town last weekend and she told me about this great restaurant in the mountains where you can see the snow and eat fondue, one hour away from Beirut. We decided to check it out. But in the back of my mind, I was asking myself, “C’mon, how cold can it actually get an hour from here??” (it was like 60F/15C in Beirut that day).

How wrong I was! After an hour drive on a seriously steep road (I wonder if the Lebanese pray for their life when they drive here on the mountain roads. I most certainly do) we got to this breathtaking area near the mountaintops. Seriously, it was ridiculously beautiful. Snow everywhere (Talj in Arabic), and a gorgeous view of the ocean. Can it get any better?

The restaurant, Le Montaignou, looks like a Swiss chalet, with a cozy atmosphere, wooden tables, laid back service and delicious mountain food (i.e. French onion soup, fondue, sausages and mash potatoes…). And there are windows in all walls, so you can enjoy the view while eating your meal and relaxing. The views are perfect for corny pictures to send back to your parents, the ones that say “Look how happy I am, Ma!”

After our meal we decided to sneak-a-pick at Faraya, the famous sky resort that all trendy people go to. Again, after seeing the ski slopes in the States or France, I wasn’t expecting much. Again... wrong! These ski slopes look not bad at all and the day passes are not too expensive. The Lebanese do not shy away from showing off their snowboarding skills or their expensive gear. I guess I’ll have to ditch my good old red fleece and trade it for something a little fancier…

Anyways, it looks like some serious skiing awaits us this season after all!!

lunes, 13 de diciembre de 2010

Winter in Beirut

Winter finally arrived to Lebanon this weekend. And it literally went from 26 degrees and sunny on Wednesday to 10 degrees and rainy on Sunday. The rain and thunderstorms have been crazy as well (and with the pre-Christmas shoppers out on the weekend, the traffic has been out of this world).

Fun fact: in Arabic, the word for “rain” sounds like the word “shitty”. So when it is “shitty” out, there’s “shitty” in Lebanon !

In English there’s this expression “It’s raining cats and dogs”, which makes me smile. Imagine the visual! But there is some truth to it in Beirut, since in my part of town, I can hear the street cats’ terrified meows every time lighting strikes.

The sewage system in Lebanon isn’t great to begin with, so during rainy times, it’s beautiful to see small rivers form everywhere in the Achrafieh hills, with some pretty ponds forming spontaneously at the bottom of the street. But unfortunately, you won’t see any fish in those; only a couple of floating bottles is you get lucky.

I thought the garbage hadn’t been collected by mistake (or lack of resources) and this was the cause of this hydraulic mess, but my Lebanese friend confirmed that trash was collected only after the first rain, since it will all be gathered on the sewage at the bottom of the hill anyways. Why the double effort? This is a perfect example of Man and Nature working hand in hand (isn’t that just brilliant?).

Since last weekend, the Lebanese ladies have been showing off their winter outfits, stylish as ever, with an elegance equal to any Parisian’s walking down the Champs Elyses. However it is only 10 degrees here, not -5, so the hats and gloves look a bit out of place. Mind you, in Mexico it isn’t any different. The slightest cold front is an excellent excuse to bring out the fur.

After spending 6 years in Boston, I must say that I sort of welcome this slight change of season. After all, it feels weird to do your Christmas shopping wearing a tank top. So I raise my (premature?) mug of hot cocoa to Beirut’s cool weather.

sábado, 4 de diciembre de 2010

Survival driving

As a person coming from "DF", as Mexico City is called in Mexico, I have always been proud of my driving skills. You can put me in a traffic jam, with 1 million other cars trying all to get in a one way street, and I will manage to wiggle my room in, without a scratch.

I also have other great skills when I drive, such as eating a full meal (including cereal) without spilling anything or crashing my car, having meaningful conversations (with eye contact on crucial moments so you feel heard), and putting make up on (although there seems to be an indirect correlation between the number of red lights you get and the urgency you have to put your make up on).

But the thing I have always boasted about was my ability to keep my cool. No, no, road rage is for others, not for me. I have always told myself in the car catchy lines such as "We all need to get to the same place", "I am in a hurry because I was late", or "The car in front of me is a reminder to slow down". Breath in, breath out, mantra CD, all is well, I am a happy driver.

Not in Beirut.

I have discovered this merciless beast in me in the streets of Beirut. While facing mopeds that come on the left, on the right, from the back AND on opposite directions (sometimes in highways), and trying to fight my way into a one way street at the same time than the car that is coming towards me, I find myself insulting drivers and their mothers, advancing bumper to bumper so cars won't pass, saying "Yeah, right, in your dreams", and avoiding eye contact with fellow drivers in shared guilt. I don't recognize myself.

But what I can't get over is the fact that the smile DOESN'T WORK in Beirut. In Mexico, I always make eye contact with the driver I want to pass and smile. It always works!! In Beirut, the driver smiles back, sustains eye contact while s/he jams on the accelerator not to let you pass. It's priceless.

So to all my fellows "defenios", all of us who smile to foreigners and say "If you drive in DF you can drive anywhere", allow me to correct you: nope, it's far worst in Beirut. No traffic jams in DF compares the craziness of the streets of Beirut. No DF driver will have the guts to do the tricks I have seen drivers do in Beirut. The rule here is "if there's space, I go in first".

martes, 16 de noviembre de 2010

Night life

Something I didn't know about Beirut when I got here was how active and exciting nightlife actually is in the city.

My husband and I have gone out again as if we were 25 (but unfortunately the following morning is much rougher than back then...) and discovered some of the great clubs of the city.

I must say that going out in Beirut is similar to the Mexican nightlife from the late 80s and 90s in the sense that what is cool is to go to the club, reserve a table, order a bottle (not a glass) of your spirit of choice and people-watch.

The ladies in Lebanon are insanely done up, with beautifully revealing clothing, lots of jewelry and make up and a totally jet setter attitude. Guys are definitely into jet-setting too, displaying some insanely big watches, and driving cars that you only see in James Bond movies.

My jeans and I usually get a bit self conscious at some point during the night...

Something I had only seen in Acapulco (one of Mexico's party centrals) is the whole sparkler show followed by a line of waiters when someone orders a bottle of champagne for the whole club to see. You gotta love it.

Following, a brief review of some of the places that I have been to, but that do not constitute an exhaustive list, since I haven't gotten the chance, nor the energy to visit all the nightclubs yet.

B018 comes to mind as the coolest place I have visited. Built by the famous architect Bernard Khoury, this place was built on the site of a massacre, so it is shaped like a coffin. This is a rather underground scene, where people go after hours. The 80s night on Thursdays is a-ma-zing. And the ceiling opens so you can party under the stars. Really cool.

White is a place where DJs like Paul Oakenfold have played. This is a place to go to over the summer, as it is open air. The ambiance is rather chic, but people definitely let themselves go to the very good electronic music.

Fly is owned by our friend, and is also a cool summer bar to go to have a drink and enjoy the open air night life in Beirut. The music is more laid back, playing pop and rock and the volume refreshingly lower, which is rare in bars in Beirut where you usually can't hear what other people are saying (OK, did I sound too old there?).

Myu is a cool bar in the Gemmayzeh district, that my friend calls the fishbowl, since the whole front is a giant glass, so you can look at the people inside from the street. Excellent cocktails, laid back music, with some napking-throwing at some points during the night to the great excitement of patrons.

And the Sky Bar, where everyone wants to go, the place to be in Beirut. I must confess that the view of the Mediterranean is quite spectacular and the fireworks at midnight are mind blowing. This is a place where you have to be dressed to the nines to get in, that is if you get in. The sound is pretty monstrous although the resident DJ is not as good as DJs I have heard in other places. And rumor has it that the Saudis fly for the night to Beirut just to spend it at the Sky Bar.

This doesn't count all the amazing restaurants we have visited. I will leave those for another time. Plus there are the clubs that only open during the winter that I haven't been to.

But for the time being, I hope this review encourages you to visit us. Let the party begin!

lunes, 15 de noviembre de 2010

Going the distance

If you live in Lebanon for a while you start getting used to the metal barriers.

These metal barriers are the ones that you see for "crowd control" I guess in other parts of the world, but in Lebanon there is usually a guard with some sort of rifle (I am sure it's more like a machine gun) standing next to them.

These barriers are at the entrance of official buildings, all over the place in downtown, in some roads when you drive, on sidewalks, in military posts on highways...

When I just got here I remember not knowing what to do with them: Do you stop? Do you avoid them? Does it mean it's dangerous? Do you ignore them?

After being here for a while, I have gotten used to them, they are just there, dividing areas, separating people, stopping traffic and pedestrians, or keeping "undesirable" people at bay.

Last week, I ran a 10 K race that was part of Beirut's International Marathon. There were thousands of people in this event, and lots of barriers directing the race. The difference this time was that we were all inside of the barriers. It was crowded, believe me. But for the first time I witnessed a true mix of Beirutis of all ages, genders, income levels and religious backgrounds.

That day I realized how separated I had been from everyone. How enclosed life has been since I arrived here. How exclusive I turned these metal barriers, and as a result how I have built mental barriers to justify my separation from the others, to be safe.

That day at the race I was squeezed and pushed, but I also got to see, feel, and laugh with everyone around me. I was uncomfortable, yes, but I wasn't unsafe. It was just a bunch of people standing there, hanging out on a Sunday morning. And the only distance that day was the one we had to run. We were cheering one another, drinking water under the scorching sun, suffering on the uphill together...

I really understood that Beirut is just a city like any other, where a bunch of people live, work, get together, die. This place is not unsafe. I make it unsafe with this distance I place between me and others, with all these barriers in my head.

I think it's time to see beyond them

sábado, 30 de octubre de 2010


One of the benefits of learning a new language is that you gain the ability to view the world differenty. I was in my Arabic (Lebanese) class last week, and I learnt some interesting things about family and succession.

The first thing is that everyone has their Dad’s first name as their middle’s name. Like my Dad’ s name is Guillermo, so in Lebanon I am Maria Guillermo Ortiz.

Another thing I thought was interesting was that if you ask someone about their neighbor Joe you wouldn’t say: “Hey, how’s your neighbor Joe doing?”. This is considered disrespectful. You would actually say “Hey’ how your neighbor, Jack’s Dad doing?”, since Joe has a son named Jack.

Also, there are 3 ways of saying “man”: Rajol, Zalame and Rijjel. And one way to say woman: Mara. And a girl and a daughter is the same word: bent. But a boy is sabi and a son is ibn.

Language is a reflection of the culture, and the emphasis on fatherhood, and “sonhood” is very clear in Lebanese Arabic. But what really blew me away was when I learned that women cannot pass their nationality to their kids or spouses in Lebanon. Only men can do that. So if you are born from a Lebanese man or you marry him, you can be Lebanese, but if your Mum is Lebanese and your Dad isn’t, then you are not Lebanese.

One interpretation of this can be political, since this is a way to control religious “proportions” of the population. Lebanon is managed through a very complex system, called a confessional system, where each religious group has control over certain parts of government and decision-making, depending on their numbers. So in this context, not making foreign men Lebanese would make sense.

But some women are opposing this tradition and starting a movement in Lebanon to change it. International Organizations are supporting them. Check out these links to learn more about the issue:

domingo, 24 de octubre de 2010

Sorry, this table is reserved

Dinner in Lebanon doesn’t start till 9pm. For those of us who like to eat a bit earlier, it is common to enter a restaurant at 7:30 and find it empty.

However, do not be fooled: an empty restaurant doesn’t mean there are open seats. An empty restaurant means that some very specific people haven’t arrived yet.

Let me explain this a bit further: you come to a restaurant, no one is there. You ask for the table in the corner (I love corners) and they tell you it’s reserved. You then get a table in the middle (ugh), and after 2 hours of a lovely meal, you realize that the table in the corner is still empty.

I have 2 theories on this: a) The person who reserved the table didn’t show up or b) you can reserve a table and get to the restaurant eventually.

Option b) would be the most appropriate since the Lebanese (as the Mexicans, I’m not singling out anyone here) are not particularly punctual. But from a business perspective, this makes no sense. How can you have a table open for 2 hours, and not give it to someone else?

The best is when you get to a restaurant, and it is completely empty. You get the crappy table and when you leave, the restaurant is still completely empty. I am clearly missing something here.

PS: I would be very interested in hearing a Lebanese explain this point. This affair of reserved seating remains a mystery to me to this date.

domingo, 10 de octubre de 2010

Lebanese Yumminess

I can't believe I have been here for 2 months and I haven't written anything about food!

I must say that Lebanese cuisine is varied, absolutely delicious and on the healthy side. The incredibly fresh vegetables that are used, combined with olive oil and spices are a much needed break for me from the butter/salt combo from the States.

Besides the well known falafel and hummus that are pretty much the same as you would find all over the world, I have discovered slight differences from what I knew before, for instance, that in Lebanon tabouleh has no bulgur and baba ganoush is also called "mutabbal".

I must confess I had love at first bite with mankoushe which some call the Lebanese pizza, which is a think crust of oven-baked dough with za'atar and cheese, or lamb meat on it, that is sold for 1,750 L.L ($1.25 USD) at the corner of my street and makes for a delicious breakfast or snack.

I also absolutely love Fatoush (which doesn't make you fat by the way), a simple but super tasty salad.

And one can't forget the delicious Shawarma, which is a pitta bread sandwich made of lamb, beef or chicken grilled on a spit (like "al pastor", for Mexicans) with garlic mayo and french fries inside. Perfect after a night out.

But Lebanese cuisine goes far more than these rather simple dishes, and I have tasted very interesting combination of ingredients such as Shishbarak (meat pastries in yogurt soup) or Djaj mah Ruz (chicken over rice with pine nuts and a ton of spices, often served with laban, or yogurt).

For the desserts... forget it. I could write pages and pages about them. They are absolutely delicious. Baklava is the one that almost everyone knows, but there are many others.

There are tons of other amazing dishes I have tasted, but to be honest, I don't remember their names... So next time you go to a Lebanese restaurant, try some of these more elaborate dishes. You will not regret it!

Or maybe, if you are feeling adventurous, you can try cooking? A friend got me in the States a book that is pretty close to the real deal, called "A taste of Lebanon" by Mary Salloum.

Sahtayn! To your good health!

domingo, 3 de octubre de 2010

Hi! Kifik, tu vas bien?

Living in Beirut is listening to multiple languages everyday, French and Lebanese (Arabic) being the most common ones, although a lot of people know English as well.

What is fascinating is that the all people you encounter will speak a different combination of languages, depending on where you are in the city, or where they come from.

In Hamra, you'll hear Arabic, and English the closer you get to AUB (the American University of Beirut)

I Ashrafieh, you'll hear Arabic and French, and English the closer you get to ABC (the mall).

What I love about the Lebanese is that they use all the languages they know interchangeably when speaking, because the person they are talking to also understands perfectly well, so there is no need to make an effort to stick to one. And the more languages they know the more they'll use.

So if you have the good fortune of knowing one or maybe 2 of the languages they speak, conversations sound like this:

At a party 2 girlfriends are talking, "Yesterday, blah, blah, blah, blah, black leather, blah, blah, blah, blah, I told him, blah, blah, blah, blah, I like it very much." (turns out they were talking about a new car)

At the office, "Hi dear, blah, blah, blah, no way, blah, blah, blah OK, blah blah, khalas. Thank you. Yalla bye"

At the Yoga studio. "Hi!!! Blah blah blah?" Very cute! Blah blah blah blah blah in ABC, blah blah blah blah, half price."

There are some words like Mabrouk! (Congratulations), Sukran (Thank you) or Marhaba (Hi!) that you'll start using as a foreigner, as a way to integrate yourself and not sound absolutely clueless.

And inevitably all Lebanese will sprinkle their conversations with the following 3 absolutely transferable words, no matter what language they are speaking in or who they are talking to: "Yalla" (very similar to the Spanish "Vamos"), Ya3ni (Very similar to the English "I mean") and Khalas (that can mean "That's it", or "stop", or "finished", or "allow me").

So... shukran for reading. A bientot. Yalla, bye

sábado, 25 de septiembre de 2010


This morning I was woken up by a crazy thunderstorm. I didn't quite understand what those loud bangs were at first. Were those fireworks? At 7 am??

Nope, just the beginning of the rainy season.

I must say that Lebanon is a very "explosive" country. I have heard more fire works in the past two months than in my entire life.

Also, I have heard gun shots for the first time in my life, which by the way, sound a lot like fireworks, except there is - quoting my Lebanese friend- a different rythm to them (isn't this just a totally poetic view of life?).

Fire works go bang (count 1,2,3) bang (1,2,3), bang (1,2,3).

Gun shots go bang-bang-bang-bang-bang (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8) bang-bang-bang (silence) bang.

But the most common explosions are not the auditory, but the human ones.
Laughter, loud, sincere, unashamed laughter.
Anger, loud, aggressive, impulsive shouting, pushing, banging.
Kisses (3 loud ones each time to say hello and bye).
Loss, so deeply rooted and concelaed it is obvious, especially when vivid memories are recounted with hollow eyes, and a hole in the middle of your chest when you hear them
Pleasure, with eating, drinking and smoking, a lot and often

I am sometimes surrounded, engulfed, by these explosions of emotion, left sometimes a little disoriented, in my head and also in my heart. Such intensity of feelings. I need time to get my bearings. And then another wave comes.

In Lebanon people have seen horrors I can't even imagine. And their resilience is incredible. Someone was explaining to me the meaning of the Lebanese flag: red for the blood shed, white for the snow on the mountains, and a beautiful cedar tree, to symbolize resilience.

Sometimes I feel like a winy little kid who needs to get tough, so I get to play with the older kids. Or a naive little girl, who hasn't lived. My sorrows seems small. My concerns sometimes petty. What do you say when someone shares an experience? I haven't found the words. I just listen.

I have encountered in Lebanon a pride I have not seen often. A desire to survive and prosper, no matter what. And all these feelings too, on the surface, ready to explode, with just a scratch...

How do you keep your sanity, how do you cope? With explosions. Explosions of fireworks, parties, love, food, abundance, joie de vivre, intensity, intensity, intensity. To feel alive. To feel something.

martes, 21 de septiembre de 2010

The "right kind"

I am very pleased to find out that some Lebanese people are reading my blog. I even found out that one of my blog posts inspired another blogger to write something about kindness and how some think Lebanese are only kind to the right kind of people.

The "right kind" is a fascinating (not to say delusional) concept that human beings have developed to refer to the people that a) look like them or b) they wish they looked like them (i.e. we all agree Cristiano Ronaldo and Angelina Jolie are the right kind no matter what we look like).

Jokes aside, I have heard from my Lebanese friends and also from expats that there is a widespread racism among Lebanese against the "wrong kind": domestic workers, people who from South East Asia and people from African descent. Like a cast system. You look a certain way, you are not allowed some places, you are discriminated upon, you are treated like a second class citizen.

To comment on the topic, I want to highlight that in Mexico we have the same thing for anyone who isn't fair skinned, so the Lebanese are not really innovating here. And to be fair, this racism is not particular to the Lebanese or to Mexicans. Just ask a Muslim woman in France how she is feeling right now...

What I want to point out to in this blog is how ridiculous, subjective, and completely detached from reality the whole "right" and "wrong" kind is. To me, these categories are just the visible symptoms of the absolute insecurity and sense of worthlessness of the ones who made them (i.e. I make you little because I feel little). Plus, this putting people in categories business can make anyone go bananas, just by travelling across the world... No matter where I go, there will always be a wrong kind... But I was actually very surprised when I moved to Lebanon and suddenly became the "right kind" after living in the United States and being the wrong kind for years (I am a dark-haired-darkish-skinned Mexican).

What changed? I kept asking... Did I loose weight?? Is it my new haircut?? I am still wondering...

On a personal note, I can only say that this was a lesson for me to stop thinking about what people think of me. Who cares if they think I am the right or wrong kind anyways??

And on a humankind note, I would like to add that we, as people, should stop being so effing shallow. People look the way they look. I can't certainly help looking the way I look. Can you?
I invite us to just get over ourselves and focus on far more productive discussions. Such as: if you see someone being discriminated upon in Lebanon, or elsewhere, don't keep your mouth shut. It could be you next time...

miércoles, 15 de septiembre de 2010

Random Acts of Kindness

There is something very intriguing about hospitality in Lebanon. I mean hospitality here is taken to a whole different level.

I am sure I could do a historical, sociological, or psychological analysis of the whole thing, but I really don't feel like it. I have been doing way too much reading today. So I will just stick to my experience this time.

Since I got to Lebanon I have been surrounded my random acts of kindness. Here are some examples:
I am sitting outside of the building where my yoga class takes place. I am reading a book, standing by the door. The concierge approaches me and offers me to come in and seat on his chair. When I do this, he brings me a coffee. Then he leaves (this is without words, I don’t speak his language, he doesn’t speak mine).

Other examples: I am in a taxi; the driver doesn't have any change. He tells me I can leave, without paying (impossible scenario in NYC!). I am in another taxi, the driver asks me if I am comfortable, and whether I prefer window or AC (yeah right Boston cabs). I am out with friends, someone pays for my whole meal without me even knowing the person that well. When I offer to pay the person categorically refuses. I am in the street, waiting for a cab, next to a guy who is waiting for a cab too. A cab comes, he doesn’t take it but lets me go instead and helps me negotiate a price… I can go on.

The most interesting part is my reaction to the whole thing: first mistrust kicks in ("what do you want from me?"). Second, paranoia ("Am I about to get robbed?"). Third comes skepticism ('yeah, how much is THAT going to cost?"). Then comes doubt ("Naaaah, this is not right. Am I being too naive?"). Finally, vanity ("Is this guy hitting on me?")

When I think about it, I realize that I have become so accustomed to look out for myself that I find it difficult to accept with an open heart these random acts of kindness. Could it be that people are just being kind? Could it be that I could just stop "being careful" without fearing for my life?

I feel the barrier dissolve and me accepting this kindness. Then I get scared and I put it right back up. Then I relax, then it comes up...

But I can't simply ignore the fact that in Lebanon people are just incredibly welcoming and warm, regardless of what goes on in my head.

jueves, 9 de septiembre de 2010


I have found that as I get older, my ability to tolerate uncertainty diminishes. I want to know what the plan is, how long the trip will take, the time when we are having lunch, exactly how much is left in the bank account, stuff like that (my lovely husband made a little song for me called "OCD" recently).

In Lebanon, there is a high degree of tolerance for uncertainty, though. Or so it seems for someone who lived in boston for 6 years. There is a "we'll know when we get there" kind of mentality. In Mexico, this is called the "alli se va" or the "cuando lleguemos a ese puente lo cruzamos" mindset.

Recenlty, this was perfectly exemplified for me around a particular holiday. I was happily PLANNING my week on Monday, when a colleague brought to my attention that we would have a free day either Thursday or Friday. When I asked her what this depended on she answered with a perfectly serious face "it depends on the moon".
I wasn't expecting that one.

So, on Wednedsay night, around 9 pm, I get a text from my buddy from HR telling me that the free day was Friday, not Thursday. The message was appended with a "PS: pass the message along".

A gazillion questions came to mind such as how can you plan a vacation?, what happenes if you didn't get the text? If you show up and the office is closed? etc.

But now when I think about it (and as I prepare to take my long weekend!), ultimately this "uncertainty" didn't matter. No natural disaster. No tragedy. No major loss of any kind. I just couldn't plan my week. I just had to show up to work on Thursday...

On a side note: I must confess my absolute and total ignorance on the determination of muslim holidays, that do depend on moon cycles. Thanks to my knowledgeable colleague from work, I am better prepared for this next time. Here is a link if you want to find out more about this:

domingo, 5 de septiembre de 2010


I had never lived in a place where religion was so ever present. For example, I was walking in the mall the other day, and when I looked at the store directory, I noticed there was a Praying Room. In the mall. From my office you can see the blue dome of a gorgeous mosque. In Hamra, men seating in the street corners gently pass their beads through their fingers. And when I walk around Achrafieh, on the Christian side, I see churches all over, cemeteries with huge marble angels, schools and parks named after saints and all this to the sound of bells ringing…

This is the month of Ramadan. During the scorching sun and heat of August some colleagues choose not to eat and drink the whole day. To be reminded of what’s sacred for them. Stores close, people take leave from work… It creates a very special atmosphere.

I must say my absolute favorite is the Call to Prayer. Every day, 5 times a day, the beautiful voice of the muezzin (the man whose voice leads the call) reminds you to pray.

Fajr, between dawn and sunrise.

Zuhr, just after the height of the midday sun.

Asr in the afternoon.

Maghrib, just after sunset.

Isha during the evening.

In Beirut, I am reminded of where the sun is everyday, and also, I am reminded that there is something much bigger than me and my mundane activities. And I can’t help but feeling grateful for being here and being reminded. It definitely puts things in perspective.

Where the streets have no name

After having lived in and visited cities around the world, I can argue that the layout of a city is a good representation of not only the personality of the place, but also the personality of the people who live in it.

And to find your way around Beirut, you just can’t use the same strategy you would use in any other city in the world. Way finding in Beirut is an art that requires observation, memory and creativity. It is spontaneous. Unpredictable.

A sign on the street corner will give you absolutely no clue as of where you are (unless you have memorized the numbers of the city sectors). And many times, the streets have no name at all. And houses sometimes have no numbers either.

“How do you find your way around Beirut?” you might ask yourself.

Through landmarks.

So naturally, streets have no name, but buildings do. In a system where you find your way through landmarks, this makes perfect sense.

“Take a right at Chilli’s, then go down, in the corner you will see a hair salon, then take a left and I am in the So and So building, next to the pharmacy” told me a friend when he invited me to his place.

“Drop me by the Starbucks in Hamra” you will tell the cab driver.

When I first got here, I was quite puzzled. “This can’t work, this is a mess!” I told myself. But then in conversation with a very wise Lebanese friend, everything became clear.

She said “ You see, in America, you are in your car, you have your map, you find your way by yourself. In Beirut, you have to ask people. So we have to talk to others, because we need each other. It forces us to talk”.

A place that forces you to talk to others. How beautiful is that?

lunes, 23 de agosto de 2010

You got a good number I hope?

My husband and I were shopping for mobile phones at the store the other day. When we were about to activate them, the seller asked me if I wanted a $200 number or a $25 one. When I asked what the difference was, he looked at me with an “Are you kidding me?” look and said “Well the $200 one is a good number, the other one is a bad number”.

To his surprise, I chose the bad number. “Who cares?”, I told myself. “It is just a number after all. “

A couple of days later, I was hanging out with my new Lebanese friends, and announced triumphantly that I had gotten a new phone. To this, my friend says, “You got a good number, I hope? The 71 numbers are crap”.

Sight… I got a 71 number.

A couple of days later, I start getting calls from a number I don’t recognize. It starts with 01 (a good one). After the third call, I pick up the phone. A man asks me “Do you want to buy this good number?”

And now, when I look at my cellphone, I can’t help but asking myself “Did I just commit social suicide by getting a bad number? Have I fallen down the echelons of good respectable people together with my 71 number??”

Note: when you get a Black Berry here, you can only get a good number. When I was told this, I refused out of principle to fall into the scam and got an LG instead. I should have thought about this twice…

viernes, 20 de agosto de 2010

“It’s 10,000 during Ramadhan”

I would like to open this blog on a topic that most new comers have to confront from the time they step out of the airport: taxis. Cab drivers in Beirut have an acute sense for recognizing people who are not from around here (although sometimes it is so evident you are not from here that the driver doesn’t need any particular talent to know you are totally clueless).

The key to taxi success in Beirut is to understand that a regular cab can either be a “taxi” or a “service” (pronounced sehrveece). “Taxi” means basically that you have the cab for yourself. “Service” means that once you get in the car, you eventually get to your destination, but the driver will slow down at every intersection and emit a discrete “beep-beep” to collect other fellow passengers until they fill all 5 seats.

Now, what is very important to know is that in Beirut, your “taxi” ride can cost pretty much anything the driver feels like charging you (if they take out a printed “official” rate, it’s still baloney).

However, there is a happy consensus that “service” will cost regularly 2,000 LL (about a $1.50). So, as a foreigner, you are stuck with $10 rides, telling yourself “Boy, this is expensive.”, till you discover “Service”. And by the way, service and taxi is exactly the same car.

On a side note, one of my favourite things is that when a taxi stops and you a) ask for service or b) are going to a place they are not going to, they will either turn their head without a word and drive off, or insult you a little bit.

But coming back to my initial point about the driver’s 6th sense on foreigners… Unfortunately, knowing the real taxi or service rates will not save you from some skillful techniques to rip you off anyways. Some of my favorite examples:

“It’s 10,000 during Ramadhan”

“Hey, Bibi, can you give me $10 for gas?”

“No, not 10,000, it’s 10 dollars”

“10 dollars, with leather seats and A/C”