Wednesday, April 15, 2015

From Rio to Beirut, with a sidestep to Cyprus

I am currently on that elusive Holy Grail of the Foreign Service – the TDY, or a “temporary duty assignment.” TDY means that an officer is posted temporarily to a post other than her permanent one in order to help out said post due to shortage of officers there for whatever reason. Posts that can spare officers at one point or another send them to help out a short-staffed one for 3 to 4 weeks at a time, and after that the wandering soul returns to the warm folds of her permanent assignment. I was lucky enough to be sent to Beirut, Lebanon for 4 weeks, to help out their consular section.

Massaya Winery restaurant
While Beirut may sound very exotic to my reader, I have to tell you that life at Embassy Beirut is not the easiest, mainly because of the many restrictions Embassy folks face due to the security situation in the region. I have been insanely lucky though since I happen to have one of my A100 partners in crime, K-G, serving here and making sure that I am having a fabulous time. I cannot thank her enough. Largely thanks to her, I managed to see ancient Roman ruins, the museum of the famous Khalil Gibran, visited the charming Massaya winery and drank their incredible wine, went shopping for (unreasonably pricey) gorgeous Lebanese antiques and crafts, and even flew to Cyprus for a weekend where the ambitious K-G ran a 5K race, while I cheered on and sat comfortably on the grass. She has also opened her kitchen to me, which means that I get to have home-cooked meals every night, something the rest of the TDY crowd here can only dream of (they tend to eat their meals at the cafeteria).

I live on the Embassy compound, in a so-called hotel, which can be best described as a co-ed college dorm but with a bar and bigger rooms with their own bathrooms and TVs. Because of its size, Embassy Beirut needs a lot of TDY help, which means that the hotel is always full. I am currently the only woman on TDY, which makes everyone hilariously uncomfortable when I go to do laundry in the basement. On the positive side, the room is very comfy and the commute to the consular section is 45 seconds as it is across the street from the hotel.

I left the Diplomat and Son to fend for each other in Rio. Naturally, Son, a very healthy child knock on wood, chose to get quite ill a week after I left. He developed a viral infection, accompanied by 104F degrees fever and strep throat, and entertained the Diplomat with it over the 3-day Easter weekend and a couple of days after that. Apparently, he decided to wake up multiple times per night, as well as have a couple of his infamous nosebleeds (I hear the Turkish carpet took a blow) while testing the Diplomat’s excellent daddy skills. After a short trip to the children’s hospital over the weekend, he was given antibiotics and slowly put on the mending path. I will now take a moment to discuss the immense increase in free communication methods over the past few years. In the past 3 weeks, the Diplomat, Son and I have spoken and seen each other over Viber, Gmail chat, Skype, Facebook voice and chat, and Whatsapp. It is astonishing how much the world has progressed in that respect despite the really bad internet service I get at the hotel here. So, while Son was ill, I would spend an hour daily entertaining him over Gmail chat. I have to say that Skype fails miserably every time the internet connection is not perfect while Gmail chat has always been, if at times grainy, a winner. To pass the time, I’d ask the morose child to dance while I play music for him and dance on my end, after which we would both collapse on each side of the ocean laughing hysterically. God bless technology. I miss my family.

Again thanks to K-G, I also managed to go out to dinner at several fabulous local restaurants. Lebanese cuisine is superb and I can never get tired of it. (OK, I CAN but it will take a while). A particularly exciting night took us to the legendary establishment of Em Sherif, which took over a week to secure reservations. The moment we entered, we instantly knew that we were woefully underdressed and under-make-uped for the restaurant. As we poured out of the Embassy vehicle onto the front steps, a tuxedo-ed guard gave us a stern look, clearly disapproving of my jeans and a sweater (in my defense, I had no idea where we were going and it was a solid 55F outside). With distaste written all over his face, he showed us inside what appeared to be a small banquet hall clearly prepared to host the post-wedding reception of Kate Middleton and Prince William. So many silver plates, so many embroidered napkins, so many sparkling wine glasses. And no other customers – we were the first ones for the night. After we announced that we had a reservation, the maĆ®tre d' reluctantly led us to a spectacularly laden table for four and disappeared for a while. Finally he re-appeared, bent over and intently asked, “You eat?” Sure, why not buddy, since we ARE in a restaurant, after all, might just as well eat. We asked for the menu, and I swear, I heard the entire staff of the place let out a collective gasp. “NO MENU!,” snapped the indignant waiter and stared at us defensively. In case you wonder, we were confused as the “no menu” part was not immediately obvious to us. “We bring food, you eat!” he said menacingly and waited to see if we would object to that. We dared not. We just sat there, blinking, beginning to expect amazing things.

He disappeared again, and a new guy materialized at the table and asked in a high pitched voice, “You drink??” Absolutely, my friend, we drink. Bring it on! Thankfully, this time he brought a menu and stood there, imperiously looking at us to hear our wine choice. We chose and he went away. All of a sudden food dishes began to appear at our table with lightning speed. In under 50 seconds, there were over 20 plates with various scrumptious appetizers (or shall we say, meze) ready to be sampled, with more on the way. I am not going to lie - the food was superb and we ate without a drop of grace!
In the meantime, more people began coming in the restaurant, which was soon quite full with people all seemingly dressed for the imaginary wedding. Now, let me tell you about Lebanese women and fashion. There isn’t a shoe with heels as high in Kim Kardashian’s closet as there are on every gentle Lebanese female foot. Platform pumps 8 inches high are complemented with astoundingly tight dresses and hair so perfectly coifed that any geisha would hide in shame. Lebanese women as quite fashion forward and carry themselves with a respective poise. For example, this weekend, as I was climbing the super steep stairs to a Virgin Mary statue high on a hill, there were at least 6 women in said heels climbing the same steps ahead of me with the grace of mountain goats. But I digress in my fascination.

As I was staring at and oohing and aahing over the fashionistas, suddenly a super famous and quite fetching music star (Ragheb Subhi Alama) walked in the restaurant and all the ladies simply lost it. All ran on those high heels and congregated around him. From who knows where, a paparazzi photographer popped up and began snapping photos of the exquisite ladies and the famous dude. The noise and the chaos were contributing to a happy circus, which combined with the excellent food and the second bottle of Masaya Reserve made our severely underdressed party of four feel a happy part of the fabled nightlife of Beirut. 

Getting back to Lebanese food, I must pronounce it outstanding. It is, in fact, very healthy as it consists of a lot of grilled meat, fresh salads and cooked vegetables with rivers of yogurt and mountains of pita bread. I also had the happy chance to try Armenian food, which, truth be told, resembled Lebanese in a lot of respects apart from the pure Armenian specialties. If I could pack a kilo of hummus, I would, but I can’t. Instead, I have set a goal of eating a kilo of hummus per day on the spot.

I was lucky enough to be here over two Easter weekends – the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox ones – which made for a very festive environment for most of my TDY tour. Beirut has quite a few churches, which coexist happily right next to lovely mosques, thus representing the very diverse religious make of the country (it has a fairly even mix of Shias, Sunis and Christians) and even managed to get myself into the main Greek Orthodox church this past weekend, right in the middle of the Easter service.

Beirut is a city in constant construction. Ruined in the span of several wars, most recently in 2006, the city is constantly rebuilding itself and the landscape includes hundreds of giant cranes and the skeletons of new buildings going up. I would be so curious what it would look like in 10 years. It has the glamorous areas with the obscenely expensive designer boutiques, the streets cluttered with bars, the expensive hotels. But it also has the Corniche, the lovely seaside promenade where people in the evening to jog, get together with friends, smoke a hookah, listen to loud hip hop in Arabic, streaming from the stereos of the cars parked nearby, make out with your date, walk your dog or hang out with your large family while all the kids roll about on bikes. It also has a petrifying Teleferique, or a gondola lift, which takes you 650 from the sea level up to the steep hills towering over Beirut, in a tiny little cabin, within a mere 9 minutes. It does offer stunning views of the city, that is, if you dare open your eyes during the journey. At the top, there is further climbing up to see Our Lady of Lebanon (where I observed the aforementioned high-heeled ladies prancing about the stairs of the monument), from where one can see a spectacular view of the city.

The dizzifying teleferique
Yup, Lebanon is an incredibly versatile city and I loved being here – thank you for making me feel so welcome, Embassy Beirut!