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

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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.

Maza blog

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