Last Day

My Arabic lessons have ended. Term's over. I'm going to miss it even though honestly, I'm ready for a break.

These missmatched panes of obscured glass are to be found in the stairwell at school. I like them.



It's so common here that eventually you quit noticing it; the plants that spontaneously spring up out of rocks. Remarkable, even if it isn't rare.

Plants are survivors, just like we are. They get the job done with what they've got to work with. I'll bet there's a lesson in there for me . . .


Shoe Shop

I'd like to share this picture because there's some arabic in it and I can read that stuff now.

Except that I actually can't read this stuff--not the black sign. I absolutely can't tell what it says even though I've been able to recognize and name all the letters for weeks now. I'm actually kind of good at the alphabet. But I can't read the sign because learning the letters and being able to sound things out does not make me literate. Literacy is something else entirely, a distinction I didn't know mattered so much until now.


Before it Got Cold

Before it got cold Matthew took the girls out to sea in a little inflatable boat. That's my shadow in the foreground, on the rocks where I was able to take as many pictures as pleased me and stay perfectly dry.

It's been a week and a half since the picture was taken. It's strange to think that it was decent swimming-weather so recently. Winter had to come eventually.


I Guess We'll Have to Go Through It

Bear hunts; they're a kind of chant-along activity that you do with kids. Here's how it works. Everyone sits crisscross-applesauce in a circle. The grown up is the leader and talks the kids through tracking a bear. There are hand gestures involved, and there are obstacles along the way, tall grass, a river, etc. For each such obstacle, the leader of the hunt announces, "we can't go over it . . . we can't go under it . . . I guess we'll have to go through it!"

This doorway, with that great big hole drilled through the left-side post, reminds me of the bear hunt. Who was it who decided that it was a good idea to drill right through? It makes me wonder if they really couldn't wire up the building any other way. Or maybe it could have been done differently, by less conspicuous means, but there wasn't a compelling reason to leave the stone post alone.


Tea Cups and Top Hats

Christmas decorations in City Mall. I'm not sure what tea cups and top hats have to do with the holidays, but so what.



I don't post pictures of the kids often enough. They do exist, they are in fact here with us, and they're happy.

See? Merrily scampering down the street.



It's something I always feel conflicted about--photographing people who don't know me and don't know they've been caught in a frame of mine.

Catching strangers like this never fails to remind me of a daydream that my mind replays evey so often. It goes like this: I move to a far-off place and start meeting new people and making friends. One of them has traveled to some of the places I've traveled to, maybe Vienna, Yellowstone, or LA. It doesn't matter where. This new acquaintence starts showing me their travel photos. Typical tourist snapshots of monuments, architecture, notable places. And then, shockingly, unbelievably, there I am. In a snapshot of the Washington Monument or the Trevi Fountain or near a pillar at Baalbek, I'm recognizably present; a stranger caught in the background of someone else's life.


A Castle by the Sea

While we were in Sidon we climbed to the top of the Sea Castle. It's a crusader ruin, situated on a small island just off shore. It is so lovely, a perfect spot to go exploring with the kids.


In Sidon

Produce markets are so eye-popping. I took this picture in Sidon when we were there recently. I'll post a few more Sidon pictures over the next few days.

What wasn't so eye-popping was the mosque. I'd be tempted to call it a hidden mosque, but there's a brown 'historical building' sign that identifies it. The brown sign is by the open door just to the produce vendor's right.


Haj Decorations

Here in Beirut we recently had several days of vacation for Adha, a holiday that I know nothing about. I do know that it coincides with Haj, the pilgrimage to mecca that every able-bodied muslim is expected to make at least once in their life. Anyway, all over town, people have returned and decorated to celebrate the completion of this significant religious journey.

There's a pretty big variety in the decorations around town. Multi-colored streamers are common, so are banners that picture Mecca and include text about the pilgrimage. You'll also see lots of palm fronds adorning doorways where recently-returned pilgrims live. These decorations are my favorite.

They feature miniature Saudi flags (Mecca is in Saudi Arabia) and mini Mecca cubes folded out of paper.


The Marathon

Beirut hosts a marathon annually at about this time of year. The race took place yesterday. This is the first time that I've been a spectator--and it was really something to watch the elite runners zoom past, followed up by the 'fit' crowd. They were trailed by the 'still trying to run' folks, and after them in a seemingly unending chain, the walkers carrying balloons and banners, wearing jeans.

I was very surprised to see a runner on two artificial legs. I'd never seen legs like his before (the runner wearing the British flag on the lower right), and I couldn't help noticing how different his gait was from the other runners. I was socks-knocked-off impressed by it, that he could do it . . . that he was doing it.


Closed Door

Back in 2004, our first apartment in Beirut had a metal outer door to guard or block the actual apartment door for extra security. I believe we never actually closed (much less locked) that 'extra' security door the whole time we lived there, but anyway . . . these metal outer-doors are common throughout the city, and though you'll find them everywhere you'll notice that there are very few alike. There must be some creative metal-workers in town.

I liked the symmetry, right angles, and repetition in this door. And I'm feeling a bit gray as I write this, so it fits.


Soap Charms

Soap originated in this part of the world many centuries ago. It's still made the old-fashioned way in Tripoli and Sidon. The Audi Foundation maintains a lovely, informative museum in Sidon that shows the complete soap-making process.

Throughout Beirut it isn't too hard to find soaps just like these.

Here they are, all dressed up for a special occasion. You can buy the same soap in an unadorned box too, but these photogaphed better.


On the way to School

This is one of my favorite houses along the walk to my kids' school.

I'm an American Mid-westerner, accustomed to long, cold winters. It is with that legacy in mind that the second-story windows thrown wide fill me with a deep sense of contentment.



I took this picture at ABC, a big shopping mall in Ashrafieh. It's hard for me to imagine what this picture would look like without the red and purple holiday decorations.

Poor kid, sitting there with two old dudes. He seems bored, lost. Or maybe that's just a trick of the picture.


Is it Love?

I can't decide if I love stores like this or not.

Koko in Bourj Hammoud

The first glance gets me every time; the thrill of the visual overload. Wow, I think to myself. Look at it all! And, looking at it all I initially feel sure that in there somewhere, there's something perfect for me. But then I take a closer look, I examine their products. And wouldn't you know, it turns out that I don't need a hat or an umbrella. I've got too many scarves already. And I'm way too picky about purses to commit on-the-spot. So, yeah, I never end up buying anything at places like these. That can't be love can it?

But then, I do LOVE the air conditioners overhead, the mess of wires, the retro mannequin heads. I love that everything is jammed together, spilling out of the shop onto the street. And I'll never get over the landscape of grime and grit from which this bouquet of colorful consumer possibilities has emerged pure like a lotus flower.

Maybe it's love after all.



While shopping, I caught a glimpse of this lone cart. It tugged at me, waiting so patiently there.

Happy December.

This photo is part of a theme day for City Daily Photo. Click here to view thumbnails for all participants


In Bourj Hammoud

We recently went to Bourj Hammoud, the Armenian section of Beirut, to do some shopping. This was our first time back to that neighborhood since we left in 2007.

I took this picture along a street that is (as far as I know) always closed to traffic, which is probably my favorite thing about it. There are dozens of shoe stores along this road, and while we were there we picked up some new shoes for our kids. They needed it.



Sunset, the road home. Just a few of my favorite things.


Corn on the Corniche at Night

To the well-known and oft belabored divisions within Lebanese society we can add the following: there are those who eat corn on the Corniche, and then there are the others who roll their eyes as they issue repeated protests. That stuff is germ-ridden, sure to make you sick, filthy, they tell you. Don't eat anything those people have touched.

The other night when we were out, the kids were terribly disappointed that I didn't have any money at all. They wanted to buy an ear of corn. They've eaten the stuff more than a few times and they love it. And no, it never has made them sick.



Here, for your viewing pleasure, is a wad of electrical cables that you can expect to see on just about any old, semi-old, or not at all posh building in Beirut. They pretty much all have an electrica hub like this one.

I love this--having the guts of the electrical system visible. When the kids ask why the lights work (or don't, as the case may be), no matter where we are I can point to one of these.


Andalos Street, Raoucheh

I recently walked by this doorway on Andalos Street in Raoucheh. I love the tiles, the awsome (though typical) font--the colors and lines--all of it.

The light was fading fast as a took this photo. A better photographer would have waited, would have come back for better light. But I'm glad I took the photo anyway. Who knows when I'll wander by again?

Oh, and happy Thanksgiving to all our friends and family in America. I hope you have a great celebration and eat a piece of pie for me, would you?


And They Come in Threes

One of the architectural features of traditional Lebanese homes is the triple arch--seen here on three levels of an older house on Bliss Street.

Although the triple arch is a typical feature, these old houses are becoming atypical in Beirut--they're evermore likely to be torn down and replaced by high-rise flats that can house 20 families instead of three.

Anyway, back to the picture--I love how each level has it's own style. And those Art Deco ones up on the third floor? Coolest arches ever.


Toward Gemmayze

Have I mentioned that I'm learning Arabic?

This is the view from my classroom, taken early, before the lesson started.



Windows are just so . . . practical.

I mean, really, why poke a hole in a wall when you've already got a hole in the wall?


Flag Waving

There are many beautiful buildings in Beirut--especially downtown. So many, in fact, that as you walk around you have to quit noticing how wonderful they are. For your own sake. So you can get on with your life. This building is one of them.

I took this picture because they had flags out in numbers, so patriotic. It was only later, at home, that I really took a good look at the facade. What great detail, variation, rhythm. I like it, flags or not.


No Joke

Just another moment of absolute serendipity.


The New Beirut

Downtown there are all of these handy information signs, with maps. Nice. I like maps. Behind the sign, another sign. It's a wall & sign in one--the wall surrounds a construction site and advertises the development company, Greenline, at work behind the wall.

Nobody who is actually from Beirut uses maps. Street addresses exist but aren't remotely helpful. I'm having a couch delivered tomorrow, and the way they'll know where to bring it is by landmarks within 10 meters of my building. When you show locals a map of the city, they'll usually stare at it in amazement for a while. Of course, they know more about the city and how to navigate it than a map could ever teach, but I never get tired of the look on their faces as their eyes race over the map's spider web.

So anyway, there's no question that the maps downtown are for people like me, people who need maps. They're a part of a new Beirut, a town where Greenline is a real estate firm and all the streets have names.


I Thought I'd Lost You

Fabric stores. There's just something about them, for me anyway, because I sew. All that variety, so many possibilities. Walking through a fabric store isn't too different from browsing stacks in a good research library. There's the allure of hidden treasure.

Farrah, on Hamra Street.

I went looking for this store right after we arrived, and my heart sank. The place was completely shuttered--no sign of any life (or business) there at all. On a lark I went back the other day, and as you can tell from the picture, they were there after all. I'm not working on any projects right now, nothing on the horizon either, but if I want to, it's good to know they're here.


In the Cathedral

On Thursday we went to a concert here in the Saint George Maronite Cathedral, Downtown Beirut.

I took the picture before it started while we were all waiting . . . and it was worth the wait. A group of musicians from Austria, Germany, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria played a fascinating arrangement of music by J.S. Bach, what Art Director Vladimir Ivanoff called an "Arabian Passion". The musicians gave a spirited, memorable performance. I'm glad we went.



Across the street from my favorite junk shop, they're digging out a basement for a new highrise.

I liked how it looked, the power shovels and their newly created void.


Dress Rehersal

Yesterday, as we were driving all over town, we were stopped to allow a military convoy to pass.

I took this picture through our very dirty windshield. Dress Rehersal, I figured. Lebanon celebrates Independence Day in a week, on the 22nd. They've already started assembling huge banks of bleachers for the crowds that will surely turn out to view the military parade.


Before This

Graffiti near the AUB campus.

For more (a free, downloadable ebook of pictures of local graffiti) follow this link.


Toward Sin-el-Fil

I took this picture looking toward Sin-el-Fil from Sioufi Garden, the public park that my kids like so much.

If you want to visit the Sioufi Garden you might find this map helpful. The park is south of Achrafieh, marked by the red oval and the red arrow shows where the entrance is. You can get to the park lots of different ways, and I've tried to indicate where the major roads in the map will take you.

The garden seems to be open from sun up to sun down, no entrance fee since it's a public park. There are a couple pools of water, ideal habitats for tadpoles and minnows and geese. Sioufi Garden also features many sculptures. Visitors to the park are free to touch and climb on these pieces of art. There are lots of benches throughout the park and a lot of play equipment (slides, swings, etc.) but it isn't all in good repair, so you've been warned.

This park isn't ideal for biking--paths are uneven. The whole park is situated on a hillside, so only really small-scale ball-play would be workable.


The City Rises

When we left Beirut in 2007, Downtown was something of a mess. For starters, progress on architectural developments basically halted with the 2005 Hariri assassination. It changed everything. Downtown developments halted or made depressingly little progress in the aftermath. Then, in December 2006, Hezbollah set up camp in the heart of downtown, threatening to overthrow the government. For obvious reasons, their presence hurt real estate investment, not to mention the few restaurants and shops that had opened in the area. The central district became a ghost town. No one wanted to be there. Downtown looked and felt like a failed experiment.

During those years, Matthew and I deliberately chose downtown restaurants for our dates. They were quiet, parking was ample, and we usually had the place to ourselves. I felt an odd mix of courage and anxiety going to the edge of enemy territory to eat, drink, and laugh. I felt like I was calling a bluff.

Hezbollah eventually left and the luxury-shopping, restaurant-going crowds returned. Perhaps they brought the builders, developers, and investors with them, or maybe it was the other way around.

These days, this is what you'll find Downtown. Cranes, construction, completed structures and bustling shops and restaurants. The city rising.


Colors of the Sea

In all the places we've lived in Beirut, we've always had a view of the sea. It constantly changes. If it's smooth like glass during breakfast it will likely be shimmering by mid-morning and tumbling and rolling by noon. It changes color with the weather or time of day, transitioning from aquamarine to a deep blue and then on to a milky grey.

Sometimes it has stripes.

Usually when I look out at the sea I feel like it couldn't possibly really be there--that massive expanse of water constantly churning and changing. I'd more easily believe that it's some kind of optical illusion or an elaborate camera trick, computer generated.


Where Buses Go To Die

There's a funny little graveyard for busses, trucks, and trains not far from the Beirut River.

There's a wonderful public park in the Sioufi neighborhood overlooking this graveyard. Our kids loved playing there, our six-year-old even remembered it from when we lived here before.


Blue Danube

When we returned to Beirut a few weeks ago I could hardly stop myself from noticing all the things that have changed. New this, completed that. Improvement here, progress there. The city is rising, and it's an impressive sight.

But then again, I've also found myself pulled toward the things in the city that haven't changed. I was delighted to find this building the other day, just as I remembered it.

I felt something both comforting and sustaining when I found it: my most favorite run down, time-worn, decrepit building, still standing. I know there's no sense hoping that it will always be here. Even if a miracle saves it from demolition someone sooner or later will renovate it, and that would be just as bad because I like it just the way it is.


Square Park

In Beirut there are a fair number of private parks. We went to one of them over the weekend where the kids played happily for at least a few hours. We got there early; the first to arrive, so we had the run of the place at first. The way it works is you pay a small fee to get in, and once you do you'll find (among other things) coin operated rides like this one:

The little huts just behind the kids were almost certainly the living quarters for the non-lebanese gardening/cleaning staff. I'm too much of a firmly-entrenched middle class American for this to not make me extremely uncomfortable, even though I can name a hundred reasons why (maybe) it shouldn't.

Update: April 2010
For those of you who want to visit Square Park, here's what you need to know.

Monday 4-6pm
Tues-Friday 10am-6pm
Weekends and Holidays 10am-7pm

6,000 per child, another fee applies if you want to bring your maid along to watch the kids for you, but since we don't have one I didn't bother remember how much they charge.

Location: Square Park is east of Beirut, one major intersection east of the Metropolitan Hotel and Le Mall. I've outlined it in red on the map. It's just south of the roundabout that you come to if you drive toward the mountains from Le Mall. Drive straight through this roundabout (toward the mountains) and take the first right, which will pull you into a kind of hairpin turn. The entrance to Square park is down this road on the left. You can park on this street. The red arrow shows the park entrance.

There is a restaurant inside the park that serves a variety of drinks, desserts and fast-food items. The food isn't fantastic, but if you're hungry it will do.

Please let me know if this information is helpful or if it needs clarification. It's current and correct as far as I know.


On Rue Clemenceau

The other day I was walking along Rue Clemenceau and noticed a doorway with a lovely little courtyard inside.

Doorways, courtyards, blue skies. Not exactly rare commodities in Beirut. I don't know why but I sure am a sucker for scenes like this one. Makes me want to settle down and stay forever.


Little Bit of Wilderness

I happened upon this little bit of urban wilderness yesterday.

It's basically a vacant lot gone very green thanks to the temperate climate. There aren't too many places like this in the city, which means it's probably a pretty crowded habitat for the critters that run wild here. I expect to find cats and lizards at least, and bugs. Matthew and I will just have to take the kids exploring in there. Don't worry. We'll wear boots.



One of the cool things about Beirut is that, throughout the city, you can find recycling receptacles. They're the green and white dome-like things next to the fellow on the bench. You can bring all your old glass, metal, plastic, paper, etc. and throw it in. Heaven only knows what they do with it all--do they process it in Lebanon or ship it abroad? Do they actually recycle it? Even in Germany there were rumors that the recycling was just thrown in a landfill with everything else, so anything's possible.

When I went out to take this picture, I originally was only interested in the recycling containers. But these ones have a uniquely wonderful location, and I had to include some of that. Behind them, a historic mosque. In front of them, the Corniche and the wide open Mediterranean Sea.



If you've seen my St. Louis blog, you know that for the past two years, our family lived in a house with a big yard, surrounded by more houses situated in their own big yards. That's what our corner of St. Louis was like for miles in every direction. Houses, yards, space, stuff spread out. Walking is completely impractical in that kind of an environment. Why would I walk my kid to preschool? I can drive there and back in 7 minutes (YES I timed it) and walking there and back would have taken half an hour.

Beirut is another story entirely. Because of traffic jams it is often much faster to go on foot and when you do you find the most lovely shortcuts.

I found this stairway the other day. Wouldn't work for cars or scooters, but perfect for me.


My Favorite Junk Shop

Before I even get started with this, there are few things you have to know. First Beirut is a city of boutiques. It's easy to find artisanal, luxury anything. Harder to find general day-to-day stuff. I'm talking about things like that springy thing that keeps the toilette paper in the holder, screws, or binder clips. They can be really hard to find unless you go to my favorite junk shop.

Junk, because none of what they sell is a really great quality. My favorite because sometimes quality is NOT necessary and this store has nearly everything. Inside there are three floors packed with mundane (and marvelous) household what not. Their things are inexpensive (prices start at 500 LL ~ $0.35 USD, and that's rounding up), so when I need something for the house I always check here first.



Remember the new sidewalk? Here's the sign marking the street where the men were working.

Bilingual streetsigns are, mercifully, all over the city. Since I don't understand, speak, or read Arabic, this is a big help--even though hardly anybody uses street addresses. License plates also feature both western numerals and the Arabic equivalent. I've come to view both as mini pop-quizes on the numbers. I find myself looking at the Arabic half, changing it over in my mind to the numbers I grew up with in the US and then checking against what they have posted in western numerals. It's a great way to learn the numbers.



Fresh squeezed juice: one of the perks of wandering the streets of Beirut. As with the produce markets, there are permanent juice shops and then there are those operating out of more mobile venues. In the juice shops, you can buy the most amazing concoctions potentially including: carrot, avocado, pineapple, mango, coconut, you name it. Street vendors lack that kind of variety, but their product is undeniably fresh and produced right before your eyes.

Here's a shot of a very nice juice vendor with a workstation on wheels, who I found in a little alleyway in Hamra. For $2 he made me an orange/pomegranate cocktail--completely delicious. It took him about half a minute to make it, a great business model with a great product. It's too bad the rainy season is picking up now because that won't be good for business. Good thing it doesn't last forever.



I've always loved this view along the waterfront.