Somehow almost 10 months have gone by since I moved to Lebanon. In that time my driving has taken a nosedive, my taste for Arak has matured and my understanding of the Arabic language has improved an embarrassingly miniscule amount.
I have been taken aback by the amazing hospitality, the incredible mix of religions and cultures and the sometimes absolute craziness that is Lebanon to an outsider.
Below are some of the things that I have wondered at, been amazed or confused by and just generally amused with:
- I have never been in a country so in to its seasonal fruit. In fact the majority of my Arabic vocabulary revolves around the names of seasonal fruit and some warehousing terms!
There is a subtle change each time you go in the fruit and veg shop – something new that won’t be there in 2 week’s time so you’d better buy it now….Lebanese Bananas are replaced by strawberries then cherries, peaches, plums, watermelons, corn, cactus fruit, apples, pears and grapes. It is currently pomegranate season which is highly exciting! I usually end up with several bags of the ‘fruit of the week’ on my desk from one of the drivers who have grown them – and whatever it happens to be is absolutely everywhere – it’s like the day of the flying ants! One day everyone is eating raw almonds with salt (not my favourite) and the next day they’ve gone, as quickly as they appeared! What I love even more is that these aren’t your supermarket perfect, no imperfections kind of stuff; just tasty, pip-filled, slightly wonky good old fashioned fruit and veg. It’s sad to think that at home we have forgotten just how much amusement can be had from a misshapen vegetable.
That being said, in the big city of Beirut they don’t care about delicious locally grown stuff it is all about the bragging rights to which supermarket has flown their vegetables the furthest!
2. Lebanon is the world’s second biggest market for cosmetic surgery! (After Brazil apparently)
Lebanon is a very image conscious place. Even before I landed in Beirut for the first time I was being bombarded with cosmetic surgery adverts on the plane! A hospital advertising it’s best suites as a hotel would and then a lady that comes out looking like she has been shocked and stretched right back into the 80s.
A colleague told me shortly after arriving that you can tell exactly who has had a nose job as there are only 2 popular styles in Lebanon! You can usually just as easily tell who has had one because they walk around proudly with the bandages covering half their faces in the days following the operation! At home I am pretty sure people would take a week off and stay at home not wanting anyone to see. Here, they are out in public as much as possible! There are also terrifying adverts everywhere for all sorts of seemingly random and unnecessary procedures – don’t want to botox your armpits to stop sweat patches? – Don’t worry there is a new treatment for you! I didn’t even know you could or would ever want to botox your armpits!!
- Shisha or Arguile pipes as they are known here are absolutely EVERYWHERE!!! There is not a single social event, be it a meal at a restaurant, concert, wedding, afternoon by the pool side or picnic on a cliff top in the middle of nowhere that is complete without one (or 6). You can even get them delivered and I have almost been knocked sideways a couple of times by delivery guys riding past on mopeds swinging red hot coals by their side. This is why this sign is so shocking! And probably ignored most of the time!
- During the World Cup, Lebanon went into overdrive. Despite the fact that the Lebanese team was not in the competition that did not stop some of the most hard core fans I have ever seen get stirred up into a World Cup frenzy. There were flags everywhere, hanging from rooftops, 5m of fabric suspended somehow from a motorbike, flag poles planted into the top of massive rock formations in the sea! Brazil, Germany and Spain had the most supporters. I thought perhaps that the Brazil fans at least were supporting them because they had family links to Brazil (apparently Brazil has the largest Lebanese population outside of Lebanon) but no, they all just picked the team they thought was the most likely to win! Probably explained why I only saw about 2 England flags! As soon as Spain was out of the competition they were immediately removing the flags and car stickers and replacing them with German or Brazilian ones! Turns out they are all just massive glory hunters – and will freely admit it!
- There are also times when they are very proudly Lebanese too though:
- Living in a small rural town in the mountains you expect to come across the odd animal or two. Lebanon just seems to have the most random selection from Tortoises and Gekkos to Snakes and Wolves.
The one animal I have probably seen the most of though is the humble goat! One day I answered the front door to a Shepherd (or Goatherd I should say). He had no English and I had no Arabic and despite attempts at sign language I wasn’t really getting what he was saying until he showed me round the side of the house and I realized that he was asking if he could walk past the house with his 300 goats in tow! He was so delighted when I said yes that he tried to pay us in goat’s milk which I politely declined.
- It is quite normal in Lebanon for people to keep guns. Whether it is legal or not is beside the point. I have seen men carry them in their belts at restaurants, shoot them in celebration and use them for seasonal hunting. My landlord has proudly shown us a whole assortment of weapons. In this area they mainly keep them for hunting birds. Now that hunting season has begun in earnest you have to be careful even driving down the road as nowhere is out of bounds to take a pop at the odd bird or two. One of the craziest things I have seen is a young boy, no older than six, aiming a massive shot gun out the top of a sunroof whilst the the car zig-zagged at speed up a winding mountain road! Every time we went round a bend it would be pointing back in our direction!
- The age at which you are allowed to drive legally in Lebanon is probably the same as in the UK but they age at which people actually start driving seems to be much much younger! I have seen kids as young as 2 sitting on Grandparent’s knees steering vehicles and boys probably not much older than 8 driving massive tractors and pick-up trucks! Still shocks me every time!
Even as I start to get used to these things there is still something new most weeks that pops up that fascinates or terrifies me. When I quiz my colleagues about it I usually always just get the same knowing reply “Welcome to Lebanon”!