Here and There

First, yes, we are still safe and sound and happy in Lebanon.

Today we decided that October will be our last month together in Lebanon; we will be moving back to the States together to celebrate our long awaited honeymoon and then Christmas with the family. After that. I will have to spend one more month in Lebanon for my requirement to be finally done.

As for now and since we have not been posting for a while, a few updates and some of the ideas that come to mind and wash away quickly before we got the chance to mark on paper.

Tomorrow will be our 5 month anniversary; I know, I know. Only kids use months when they are asked about their age and so I believe that we are still kids in this marriage, therefore 5 months IS something for me, at least.

Josh keeps feeling dazzled by the fact that my grandma is 92 and is healthy, happy and very much alive. It is as if he learns this for the first time every time. His gratitude for this is precious. My grandma used to be a butcher, yeah that’s right, for years and years. She is also a small scale farmer; she has an orchard that she takes care of with the help of my father and she picks mulberries from her tree and sells them for a living during season. She does not butcher  anymore, unless you give her a hard time (she is a pretty strong lady) and she lives off her family’s help and her orchard. My grandma is the mother of 6 and the grandma of 24 grand kids the last time we counted, which is now a couple’s goal for Josh (wonder who’s going to give birth to those original 6!). If she were to visit some of her kids and grandchildren most of whom live close by or merely think of them, her day would be full. There is no fear of boredom kicking in.

The other interesting fact about LEBANON as a culture and a community is that family stays together; i am not talking about the nuclear family but the extended one. When my grandfather built his house, he and his children built houses adjacent or just next to for his sons. When the sons marry, their families stay close and the sons stay together, and the whole family stays one big family. Now this is great for the kids, imagine that I did not have to work on my social skills to make friends when i was little.I instantaneously had around 40 cousins from both sides of the family as friends. There is no chance of not finding somebody to share with when you are young and you are neighbors and are blood-related. If you do not,then you need to change something drastic. These cousins/friends are for life, whenever and wherever they leave, once we get back together, it is like taking off where we left off and that is simply priceless.

As for the grownups, i am not sure how successful this norm is. It is a hit or miss. When you live with so many people and everybody’s business is everybody’s business, you feel less stressed against breaches of privacy or personal space which is countered in the States. My bubble has been stumbled upon and trodden too many times that now i do not care. i have more patience and am more able and happy to share than a lot of people; and i am happy to say it is a skill i use in my marriage as well.

I think this is one of the things that you get to hate for a long time while you are at it but later you appreciate like no other. Also, when fathers build their houses, they have to start at least with the foundation for a new house of their son(s). My father built an apartment above ours for my brother when he gets married. My brother is 36 and single; therefore, the apartment is being used as my father’s painting workshop and will be Josh’s and mine for three months coming soon. All is good.

More insights coming soon…

 

 

 

City of the Sun

**Baalbek is the destination where you should not go, it is notorious for drugs and harboring fugitives and renegades. It is where tourists are more likely to be kidnapped and sold, for a lot of money.

Let’s disregard that and go with the reality of our experience instead:

When Jessika said we were going to Baalbek and that I should not google it before we go, I could not help but take a sneak peak. Still, that did not fully prepare me for the beauty and the regality of the place. This site is also known as Heliopolis, city of the sun, where the Romans worshiped Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus. I had my eye on Baalbek for some time, however, Jessika insisted that we wait until we can go with her old friend Jad from her reporter days. Wikipedia figures that Baalbek as a “Hizbollah stronghold.” I can’t help but note that there was a presence. As we entered the region we were offered Hizbollah pamphlets along the smaller parts of the highway. You have to go through two military checkpoints along the way; we passed with ease.  Not all of the checkpoints have tanks, this one does, naturally. The region borders Syria. I must say that the highway to Baalbek is probably the best I’ve seen in Lebanon, no doubt this has something to do with the movement.

Our instructions are to call Jad when we enter the town for directions to his house. We make our way his place and are welcomed into his home by his new wife Hala and their 1 year old daughter Tia. They live in a big one story house along with Jad’smotner, this is where he grew up. Three generations living under roof is not an anomaly in Lebanon, its normal, usual. We talk for a while, mostly about our recent weddings and news. Tia is a ball of energy; she bounced around the room playing with anything she could get her hands on. We gave her a subtle drum beat at one point, and she immediately began dancing. Jad loves to laugh and smile, he sees and finds the subtle humor in life. It was written on the whole family’s faces and we could feel it as soon as we walked in the door.

First we stopped by the old train station to take pictures. It is a quant station from a different time. The rail system was shut down during the civil war and has since remained closed. Then we passed through the city itself, just for a quick look before we make our way to the ruins. The streets are bustling with life, as they are in Zahle. The biggest difference at first glance are the hijabs, this is a predominately Shia area. It is full of small markets, kitchen stores, heater stores, clothes shops, jewelry stores, nothing out of the ordinary.

The ruins are simply majestic. You really get a feel for the area because you get to climb and explore to your hearts content. There are very few ropes or closed off areas, and not a single tour guide running around telling you not to touch anything. In this instance, we will have to let the photos do what justice they can.

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After the more than satisfactory intake of beauty from the ruins, we headed back to Jad’s place after spending some time at the park. People were sunbathing, smoking hookah on the green freshly cut grass and kids were running around after each other, two girls clinging to their mom’s long skirt pleading her to buy them some cotton candy in blue, pink and green. The place is spacious, not too crowded for a holiday, just right. It was past lunch time and our stomachs were growling. There is one thing that you should not miss when in Baalbek and it is the “SfeehaBaalbekiyeh”, which is not to be confused with any other Sfeeha. Sfeeha is half-open pillow-shaped dough stuffed with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, lemon juice and spices. You go first to the butcher and get the meat then take it to the baker after you prepared the stuffing. Of course, the baker is running late but it is all good when the three big boxes of Sfeeha come with two bottles of fresh yogurt. Jad’s mom prepares the table and adds extra lemon pieces. The grease is what makes the Sfeeha so addictive and delicious, and because the little pillows are just the right size to fit as a nibble, one goes through a box not knowing how much he has ate, just like they say in Lebanon: he who drinks should not count how many glasses he has had. The same goes here.

We leave with one full box, the Baalbekies are not any less hospitable or generous than the rest of the Lebanese and as we drive the 30 minutes back to Zahle, the sun beams from the few clouds here and there saying goodbye to the visitors of the sun.

-Cowritten by the Valentines

On the Importance of Play

IMG_2089IMG_7002.JPGThe importance of play and being playful are both essential in all domains of life, but more so to relationships. And although we, Josh and I, have our moments of utter and sensible logical or philosophical discussions to the big notions of life, where we stop and ponder, sometimes our excitement gets the best of us and we break the “social etiquette” of not interrupting each other while we fuss about the perfect terminology to describe what we mean, because God forbid, we are ever wrong… despite all of that, we play, a lot.

What I mean by play is simply letting loose, something you can do with no needed additives (if you know what I mean). It is the ability to be comfortable in your own skin and as you crawl on the other person’s skin and patience, to be able to be free and easy. This we have been able to achieve really quickly, I may say, and should go into our “appreciation book” .

Other than the silliness aspect of play, the tiring laughter that takes its toll on my breathing sometimes, as I start to emit here and there little shrieks of gasping air, it is really good for the heart and the soul; and for our togetherness.

The other facet of play to me is spontaneity, and that is gravely important. Yes, we plan. Most of our adventures are planned, but not way before and not wholly. Seeking to do new things in new places is easy, for everything is new in that formula and commonality takes time and grows a habit. But the ability to be new in all too common place is more difficult and I think it reaps more merits. This we were able to achieve during the Christmas break we had in Tallahassee, Josh’s hometown and my second home for more than three years.

So, and in the spirit of more play and less seriousness- unless we are discussing existentialism- we have started our own Valentine’s tradition. Last year, we visited Thomasville together for Valentine’s day, a place we both have been before but not together. I experienced the place differently and now see it from a new angle. I am sure Josh concurs. This time, we are doing it double fold. We are going to experience two new places: Jezzine and Tyre; only the first I have been to and the second will be our new temporary playground before we retire back to what we now call “HOME”.

On the Road Again

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Here in Lebanon, you are a pilot, not a driver. Driving is crazy, you have to be 100% all the time, no exceptions, no questions asked. In Zahle where we live, there are no lanes, no traffic lights, very few street signs, minimal traffic police and huge potholes. There seems to be two speeds, way too fast or way too slow. It is commonplace to see people going anywhere from 10 to 100 miles per hour on the “highway” that we live on. Not only that, but when you pull out, you better check both ways because people often go the wrong way, albeit slowly, if they find it more convenient for themselves. Speed bumps are plentiful and never painted, I can’t fathom the reason why this is the case. It seems that people here have a very strong memory for bumps, cracks and potholes the size of craters (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit,) don’t even get me started on the roundabouts.

It is not uncommon to see an entire family on a scooter. The other day we saw a man, woman, young child, and infant packed onto a scooter big enough for one, maybe two people cruising down the highway in light rain and 40 degree weather. Seeing three guys packed onto a motorcycle is both hilarious and more common than you might think. I regretfully haven’t managed to capture a photo of this phenomenon yet, but stay tuned, the time will come. Trucks are often in poor repair and spewing huge plumes of diesel smoke behind them. Then of course there are the Mercedes semi trucks from who knows how long ago, the 70s or maybe even 60s? These trucks are massive, they remind me more of tanks. They have a flat front, huge brush guards and tires that I can’t even see over from the seat of our little VW hatchback.

If you don’t use your horn every time you drive, you are doing it wrong. There is a honk for everything here: get out of the way, your going to0 slow or too fast, make sure you see me, your lights are off, give a signal man (although nobody does), you have a flat tire, crash imminent and a diversity of other meanings. It was very overwhelming at first, but once I started using my horn and getting used to it, it seems only natural.

Driving to Beirut can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours, depending on traffic. Jessika’s brother made it in less than 45 once, but I was holding on to the ‘oh-shit’ handle in the back of her sisters’ Mercedes the whole way. We have to pass through two military checkpoints during the journey. Occasionally the stops are backed up because they are searching for someone, but most of the time you just have to roll down the window, turn off the music and give a simple ‘Marhaba’ (hello in Arabic.) You actually don’t even have to come to a complete stop, truth be told. It seems that they are much more likely to stop people in trucks.

All this being said, we really don’t’ have to drive very far. AUST where Jessika and I work is just 3 minutes from our apartment, and her parents’ house is just 5 minutes from there. You can drive from one end of Zahle to another in about 10 minutes, so although driving is crazy, we really don’t have to go very far. It feels like we are flying along, but we rarely actually exceed 50 miles an hour. Several days ago, Jessika decided to revoke my driving privileges for reasons unknown (or unapproved.) It seems today I’ve earned them back, mostly because I started teaching at ALLC (the American Lebanese Language Center) and she can’t possibly give me a ride because it’s during her workday. Pilot or passenger, let’s just say we always buckle up and never skip the morning coffee before we hit the road.

-Joshua Valentine

Food Glorious Food

Food here is glorious, not because it is very tasty, fresh, organic, locally-grown and healthy; that’s all old news, but because we eat as gods.

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Gods eat breakfast, lunch and dinner and nothing about those is dry, boxed, processed or from a counter at a filling station or a supermarket . We have a certain infatuation with our bread, which is referred to as Pita bread in the United States . We can have that with nearly anything because it is super light, very basic and cheap ( a bag of 11 double loafs costs 1$, that’s why it is difficult to die from famine in Lebanon). This bread is also great for sandwiches, and keeps a long time. You can also fry it and add it to salads or simply roast it and use it to make meals or simply as crackers that can go with soup or other meals.

“Eat lunch and nap but dine and take a walk” is another   proverb from the daily life in Lebanon. Bear in mind that lunches here last around three to four hours. We start with a salad dish or  tabbouli or fatouch, which are basically different forms and kinds of vegetables and then we have the maza plates, basically appetizers and we can have up to 40 different kinds at once. The maza rotates around the table and comes in turns to stay fresh and hot. If you like Baba Ghanouj and Humus, then this post is definitely for you. Then comes the actual main dish/dishes, then Turkish coffee, then fruits, then sweets. In this culture, it is not rude to exchange conversation but necessary and a lot of times you will see people being entertained while being fed, so music and dance are natural companions to our meals, especially if you have people over, which is always the case. There are a few breaks here and there, usually to sip slowly on your Arak (our local alcoholic beverage that is 40%alcohol, or simply because your digestive system needs some help).

So yes, lunch is the main meal, not dinner and we spent a lot of time making it: getting the ingredients which many times includes bargaining, preparing the food fresh or a day before (this is a family affair and many times neighbors participate too), then there are the final touches (frying, mixing, cooking, preparing the sauces, etc) and presentation. Colorful, flavor-rich, spiced and aromatic dishes adorn the table. However, it is not all the result of yesterday’s work, for we spend portions of the summer making food that keeps well and that tastes better after being canned properly for a while: mixed pickled vegetables for example, jars of meat with its fat, tomato juice, tomato paste, canned sweetened fruits, dried fruits with nuts to name a few and these foods require a long but fun process that the whole family participates in. Therefore, food is a family affair and a cause for pride that waters both the eye and the mouth.

Here and now, Josh and I get to enjoy the delicacy of eating at my parents’. My mom calls us every time she has prepared something special, which is every day but sometimes we turn her down just because I want to cook something myself.  We still get our portion in Tupperware and pots ready to be warmed up and we top that with my cooked food, leftovers, extra vegetables on the side, mixed pickled vegetables, bread and olives. There is also the grocery shopping experience, which I always enjoy, because there is always something new that is in season and there are always some fruits and vegetables that stay in simply because of the diversity of the land and the moderate weather. And then there is the amount of food to get, which is always tricky. Josh says that I shop for an army, not a small family of two. But that’s a hard habit to overcome; I get it from my mom, whose fear of an imminent war always pushed her to get more than enough sugar, rice and flour and I blame myself on my sworn vow not to allow Josh to starve, not even for an hour.  There is also the price element, which serves as a silent encouragement. We nibble on slightly salted and roasted mixed nuts, fruits, sweetened chickpeas and greens (actual green tomatoes from the mountains, dried fruits, or a bowl of fresh and uniquely shaped fruits).

Sahtein (bon appetite in Lebanese)

-Jessika Valentine

Marital Cohabitation #1

I do not want to start the cheesy way, with “great lessons start from failure” and such, for this is not failure but continuous and rigorous trial and error until a certain level of satisfaction is attained. It seems that our married cohabitation has been giving us some spanking, of the wrong type or maybe the right type. Anyway, we are growing, that’s what I am trying to say.

The heating system for one was a huge undertaking. We started with an electric heater, which would have been heavy for our monthly bill but did not satisfy us anyway. Then Josh suggested we use that along with the stove running and having it open for warmth. Needless to say I objected, for aesthetic reasons above others. Then came shopping for more options, which in Lebanese we call shoffing- to elevate the act of seeing over the act of buying (Lebanese people are more into checking things out than in actually getting things done). So we finally and after much deliberation and consultation, bought a diesel heater, which can also be used as a cooker, looks vintage  and adds a certain old soul to our home, something we both appreciate.

So we have a heater and we get some days of warmth and others of patience-testing which we usually fail  at and then I get to hear and see Josh scoff and do weird faces and noises, mainly to hinder whatever cursing words he has in his repertoire. And with each cold morning, we get a brain exercise, maybe we should use the “choker” (not a sex toy  but some air pulling/hindering thingy in the heater) or maybe it is because we have a lot of gas in, maybe it is the wind, maybe, maybe, maybe…

And today we got ourselves another patience tester, also known as an internet connection. We got the average speed, which is not speedy Gonzales to say the least. So , we shall update you on that.

On a brighter note, there are a lot of funny and silly moments here and there. But the striking thing to me as a person who is readjusting to Lebanon is seeing somebody else going through the same challenge unarmed. It adds a certain depth to matters, especially that I am getting the joy of reencountering things I had forgotten, or forgotten I was blessed to have and a certain added appreciation, for Josh, since this was a choice of his- though emotional.

Now you will have to excuse me for I have business to attend to, for the tea kettle cannot muffle its pain anymore and the potatoes and onion are crispy enough for our liking.

Good night and good luck to you all.

Stay tuned

-Jessika Valentine

 

Lebanese Confessionals

 

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We had visions of starting this blog upon arrival, but alas, visions do not always become a reality. We have been living in Lebanon for 9 days now and we have been settled into our new apartment for 7. Jessika has been working hard every day as she is teaching five classes and had to go back to work immediately upon our arrival. I have been a stay at home husband for the last week, I can say with confidence that it doesn’t suit me. We drove to Beirut on Wednesday to meet with the president of AUST (the American University of Science and Technology) to discuss a job opportunity for me. More details to come later, It will be officially announced whence I have signed on the dotted line.

Jessika’s family has been welcoming and wonderful. They prepared a feast for us on arrival and were all but heartbroken when we didn’t stay with them for more than two days. However, we felt it was time to strike off on our own and break in the new apartment. The two pictures inside the apartment are of Jessika’s parents, our second guests at the new place. Although her mother, Virgine, looks like a complete drunkard, I assure you that she is not. Truth be told, her father, Jamil, drank more than his fair share of the bottle of wine.

The latter picture is of midtown Zahle, the city in which Jessika was born and the city in which we have chosen to begin our journey of marital cohabitation. Let it be known that Jessika does not approve of this label, she would prefer it read simply: our journey of marriage. Compromise is a beautiful thing. Zahle won the award for best Christmas decorations in Lebanon this year; this is merely a taste. People here are very proud, they are mountain people, unlike those around them, but not because of the mountain part.

In a nutshell, Lebanon consists of three types of terrain, coastline, mountains, and the Bekaa Valley. Although our readers may find this disappointing, there is no desert here in Lebanon. In fact, I would say it is almost the opposite. The Bekaa valley, from what I’ve seen so far, must be one of the most fertile and rich farming areas on planet earth. An archaeologist would classify this area as part of the Levant, the part of the planet in which farming first emerged. This region includes Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Palestine. As near as I can tell, the word organic doesn’t exist here, much like Spain. In Lebanon, they call it food. There is a saying, nobody dies of hunger in Lebanon, I’m starting to understand why.

Lebanon is one of the few places on earth where you can go skiing and see the ocean as your backdrop (or Mediterranean sea, for those yearning for geographical correctness.) Here in Zahle, as long as the day is clear, you can see snow capped mountains in every direction. It has rained nearly every day since we arrived and I can only hope that soon it will turn to snow. There is a lot of speculation among the locals, but Wunderground says it is happening on Monday so I’ll go with that. More to come soon, stay tuned for Jessika’s take.

– By Joshua Valentine