Monday, September 27, 2010

Beirut is not a bike (stroller) tire friendly city...

We’ve been in Beirut for two weeks now, and I’ve already had three flats on our stroller. As nice as it is, my wonderful-so-easy-to-navigate jogging stroller, we’ve concluded its tires were not made for usage outside, or at least not in Beirut. I keep finding little prickly things stuck in the tire – from a tree that grows on campus, and although not very long or hard thorns, most of them have made holes in the tube. We’ve concluded we need tube guards, but the only bike shop we’ve found (so far) around here doesn’t carry any. In fact, the shop doesn’t even carry fixing kits, but will only sell us new tubes (which are expensive). Today, the guy said he would see if he could order guards. I hope he can. Sigh.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

An afternoon at Beirut's public beach

We walked down to Ramlet Al Baida today, Beirut's public beach. It was about a 45 minute hike through town. The beach is nicely maintained, the sand and the water clean, but it was absolutely packed! Men were definitely in the majority, and most women I saw wore the full body suits; between me in a bathing suit and our blond boys, our family definitely drew a lot of attention. However, did I stop caring a long time ago about people staring at me? Yes. Also, the stares didn't seem hostile as I have experienced elsewhere. So we had a good time. The water was really warm, and after a good swim the boys played in the sand for a long time. We had snacks, another swim and sand play, and then we walked home in time for dinner. We'll definitely do this again soon!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

One of our first encounters with Lebanese food

Tonight we went to CafĂ© Blanc a second time. It’s a modern Lebanese restaurant on Hamra Street next to the Crown Plaza. We liked the food very much the first time we went last week, and felt there were many different dishes yet to try after our first positive experience. The only drawback is that the service is awful. The waiters are slow, inattentive, and obviously annoyed with Abraham, who keeps spilling. They have a high chair though, and if you ignore the service, it’s a good place to go with a family: not only is the food fun and interesting (lots of different 'dip-like dishes, warm and cold), but also, we can eat five or so mezze items with bread (which is plenty for our family, and we all like to eat a lot) and a large water for under $30.

Friday, September 24, 2010

On shipping our personal belongings to Lebanon

Between all the paperwork, administration, errands and orientation sessions, we’ve been working on receiving our shipment. Every day Courtney calls the poor man in charge, and every day since the end of last week he has been telling us “You shipment will probably be delivered today.” Now, I have experience with difficult administration, and Middle Eastern administration in particular. I’ve done waiting, yelling, making friends, threatening, sobbing, bribes; the whole shabiel. If somebody tells me, “It is a complicated process,” I can understand it is going to take time (or money), and if someone uses the term, “Insha Alllah” in *that* tone, I get it; it may be a while. Here however, we’ve continuously heard nothing but “No problem, it will be today.”

Not only is it the hope thing that has got me either. It’s the fact that things we really need – things we count on in our daily life – are in that shipment, and I just want my freaking forks! I want the baby high chair, because I’m tired of Abraham trying to have his meal sitting in a normal chair and turning our dining room into a food sprayed disaster zone. I want our baby bed because my neck is killing me from having to share a small double bed with Courtney AND all-over-sprawling Abraham. I want my comforter, dammit, because well, I like wearing a blanket while I sleep. I want the colander so that we can have spaghetti. I want my other kitchen utensils, the kids’ school books, and their toys. And you know what? It’s not even the hope OR the fact that we need these things; it’s the combination. If I knew we weren’t getting our colander any time soon, I might consider buying one in the meantime. But buying spaghetti in the store, expecting to have my colander in the morning, and then not getting it; this is just really annoying. [Please note that the colander plays a representative part here.]

Well; it’s weekend now, and we cannot expect anything at least until Monday. Sigh. I get two days off, not having to hope and get disappointed. On Monday, Courtney starts work.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Moving out of hotels and suitcases, and into our new home

After a full week at two different hotels in Beirut - Le Cavalier, which was simple, small, but good quality and excellent personal service (except for that one waiter in the breakfast room, who would sigh and roll his eyes every time he saw Abraham, because he – God forbid – spilled while eating!), and Gefinor Rotana, which was just pure luxury; a world class five star hotel - I was very happy to move into our apartment at the end of last week. We moved our bags to the house in the morning, excited; it was big and empty, except for the sparse collection of furniture our employer had supplied us with the day before: beds, bed tables, two dressers, two couches and a chair, a coffee table, a dinner table and chairs, a side table, a desk, and a washer, there was nothing. We spent the rest of the day hunting down the bare necessities we would need to pass our first night in our new apartment; sheets, pillows, cups, plates, spoons, towels, cereal and milk. We ended up finding much of what we needed at a larger store called TSC, just a few blocks away.

We passed the weekend doing laundry, visiting campus and the beach (as well as the tennis courts), and filling up cupboards and the fridge with food. On Saturday evening we had acquired pots, pans, and supplies enough that we were able to prepare a meal in our new home. It was so great to cook for ourselves. It may sound strange, but after months of living out of a suitcase and eating mostly cheap fast food, we had so been looking forward to it. We had a drink before dinner, and Lebanese red wine with our meal; chili con carne with a large salad, corn chips, and hamburgers. Yum!

Live-in maid's room

Having seen a handful apartments here in Beirut, I’ve learned that a maid’s room with a private bathroom and a closet is a standard feature in most larger Lebanese homes. We have one in our apartment, adjacent to the kitchen.

Since we certainly will not have a live-in maid however, and probably can’t afford one at all, I have no idea what to do with this special, extra room. It even has a custom-made bed in it. What do you think?

On generators: a must in Beirut

The apartment we settled on renting this year is very nice; three bedrooms, spacious and in the heart of Hamra, close to the university. All costs are included in the rent (in our experience, this will help avoid a lot of misunderstandings), there’s a dishwasher, and the house has a generator. I have to admit that at first, this fact did not have a huge impact on our decision to settle for this apartment, but from what we have found out later, it’s a life saver. Our Housing Department guide told us the electricity goes out on average 3/24 hours in downtown Beirut, which apparently is much better than in the suburbs, where it goes out on average 12/24 hours. We almost didn't believe him. Having lived here for less than a week however, we have learned to appreciate this subtle but important perk. The light in the hallway that indicates that the generator is running seems to be lit every time we go out, and we’ve been coming and going a lot, running errands. Three hours/day seems like an underestimate.

Who in the world can afford to live in Beirut?

On the Monday after the Eid, we went around Beirut with a Housing Department representative to look at off-campus apartments. On-campus apartments are in short supply, and we were told we would not be able to get an apartment on campus until next year. Bad news for us, as it turns out, because not only is off-campus housing further away from campus (obviously, duh!), but it’s also very expensive; extremely so, in fact, I wonder how anyone can afford to live in Beirut at all. If the university was not sponsoring our rent, I know we certainly wouldn’t!

Here's another note on the high rents in Beirut.

Back online in Beirut

Although I have continuously been writing since we first got here, it has been a week and a half since I last posted. It turns out, internet at hotels is very expensive, and getting internet into a newly acquired home in Beirut is nearly impossible, or at least an extremely slow process. We have now however managed to find ourselves an interim solution of sorts, and I can resume my narration of our experiences here. I will post these first notes thematically.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

What is Beirut like? A first impression

Is Beirut what I had imagined? Courtney asked me yesterday as we went for yet another walk, this time with the sole purpose of keeping ourselves awake (yes, we're jet-lagged!). Not quite. I had actually imagined it to be less developed; more bullet holes, torn down buildings, and misery. Instead, Beirut is the very definition of potential. It’s like a giant construction site with plenty of vision and investment. Everywhere you look, if there isn’t a new or newly restored building in place, it’s a construction site. They’re not like Egyptian construction sites either, with make-do scaffolds and projects that drag on for years, probably even decades. What I like about it compared to Cairo, is that there’s less traffic and much less garbage in the streets. You’ll even see recycling stations around, and the streets have plenty of trashcans that seem to be used AND emptied on a regular basis; recycling trashcans, at that.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

We're going to live by the sea!

Yesterday we walked downtown to Place D’Etoile. We descended from our hotel down towards the water, to walk along the Cornishe. I could smell it before I saw it; the air had that salty, fishy, and sunny odor. As we came down behind a building, I spotted the blue water; an endless open splash of color and freshness. That first view of the Mediterranean was breathtaking. Not so much because of what it is or because it’s so beautiful – I have seen the Mediterranean more times than I can count, most recently in Greece - no, I drew a breath of excitement because it struck me right then and there, that I was here to stay. That right there was going to be my view for the next coming X years. This was my home now; right by the Mediterranean. That’s pretty amazing.

Our hotel in Beirut

While we are still homeless, our employer has set us up in a hotel in Hamra in Beirut, not far from our new work. Hotel Cavalier is located right off Hamra Street, it’s smaller, a little less modern than what we are used to, but really great so far. Everybody is very friendly and accommodating, the rooms are clean and spacious, the showers are nice with large bathtubs (great for little kids), the internet is sufficient, and the breakfast is good. The selection is not endless, but everything is good. One of the signs it’s a high quality hotel, I find, is the juice. Here, the juice is freshly squeezed, nothing added, and made from high quality oranges. The fresh fruit salad is wonderful, and there’s plenty of other things to eat; something for everyone. We had one of the best experiences at this hotel so far though, yesterday. After a long walk downtown we got back and noticed one of the stroller tires was flat and that the top for the air plug was missing. Oh no! We absolutely depend on the stroller, and how and where on earth would we find an open bike shop, and would they even be able to repair the tire? The mere thought of having to venture out to try to solve this problem our first day was overwhelming. As we entered the hotel, we asked the manager if he knew where we could find help. Not only did he know of a place, but he offered to take the wheel over there himself and have it repaired. Within the hour, the tire was delivered to our room, all pumped up again. Now, that there is personal service! In my world, that kind of thing beats a hairdryer in the bathroom any day.

Friday, September 10, 2010

We've arrived in Lebanon

This is my first blog post written in Lebanon. We arrived late last night: a family of five, a stroller, and nine suitcases. Our new employer had arranged for someone to pick us up and take us to our hotel, where we will spend a few days until we find an apartment. After 31 hours of travel, we all showered and crashed, exhausted, relieved that the trip had gone so well, and happy to finally be here.

The night before we were leaving Indiana, I went to K-mart with Courtney and my mother-in-law. I’m not sure what our initial errand entailed, but as I entered I got that panicky feeling I’ve learned I always get when I’m about to leave a home. Did I miss something? Did I say all the things I wanted to? Did I do all the things I had planned? Did I buy everything I wanted to bring with me when I leave? Of course, we never manage to see everyone, do all the things we plan to, and there’s always something I forget to buy. Even if I did though, this feeling always overwhelms me. Our few weeks in the US had gone by so quickly, and now it was time for us to go; leave for our new home and life.

We left the house in the morning, drove to the bus stop in Highland, IN, said sad good-byes to our family, took Coach USA to Chicago O’Hare, and got checked in. After we got through security, we looked at each other and around, trying to figure out where to get something to eat. As we stood there in the busy terminal, a man – some random guy – handed us a list of food places and where to find them. I said to Courtney, “this is almost going too well!” A couple of Quiznos subs later, we found ourselves getting on our first flight to London Heathrow. We learned that the man at the check-in desk had bumped us to Economy Plus where there’s more leg room, and shortly after take-off, Abraham was sound asleep in my arms. I can’t sleep with him on my lap, but at least he’s still and happy, so that I can relax during the flight. The rest of the trip went just as great. When Abraham was not sleeping, he was either reading a book, or drawing on his doodle pad. It was like one of those Mastercard commercials: “Doodle pad, $8.99. A quiet and happy toddler on a full, cross-Atlantic flight, priceless.”

Heathrow has no kids area, which is a bummer, but we somehow managed to pass a couple of hours without incidence. Our flight to Cairo was on time, and once in Cairo, even though our transfer was anything but ordinary and took hours, it went smoothly. The last flight to Beirut was pleasantly short. I dozed off a bit – I guess +-30 hours without sleep is about all I can master. By the time we landed we were all so tired, tears were coming down our cheeks, but we had made it! Against all odds we got all our luggage, and passport control, transfer to our hotel, and everything else went beyond expectation. We even, in our hazed state, picked up a couple of bottles at the duty free shop.

Because of the Eid holiday, we have a couple of days to recover from the trip and get over our jet-lag, before dealing with all that is entailed in moving to a new country; finding an apartment, getting all our paper work in order, acquiring IDs, bank accounts, locating and receiving our shipment, setting up a household, and moving in. Although we are eager to get started on all that, I’m glad we have a couple of days to rest and recharge.