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".