My first Beiruti experience
I arrived at half past four in the morning, into Beirut airport, with an excruciatingly painful left eardrum – I actually thought it had perforated – and with a kind offer of help when we arrived from my neighbour passenger on the plane. Somewhat bizarrely I thought, he is a real estate salesman in Beirut and Berlin…
Anyway, Mohammed the driver from my hostel was there waving my name on a piece of paper so it was all ok. We had a great drive to the hostel in broken English and we came to a deal, my English for his Arabic. Good start at 4.30am I thought.
I couldn’t believe the damp warm air at 4.30am, and sure enough, on waking up around 11, its the same, but with the dry heat of direct sunlight too.
Opening the blue shutters on this beautiful building i’m staying at, called the Saifi Gardens revealed a very close neighouring tall building, and towards the sea, a huge motorway framed by the cranes of an industrial port scene (though I thought Beirut didn’t have a port…) and the blue of the sea through the criss-crossed metal. Leaning over the balcony I could see last night’s plane friend had been right, Beirut is hilly: the view of acres and acres of high rise (modern and older) development all the way up the steep hillsides around the coast confirmed this. From afar it looks impenetrable, and I’m not sure it’ll be any easier on the ground.
Already I am in love with this place. The hostel has a terrace with a bar and cafe serving Lebanese food all day. There were local old men playing what I think might be backgammon, people having leisurely meetings over breakfast, and then ‘tourists’ like myself having our first taste of Lebanese cooking over a French, English or Arabic newspaper (unless you chose the tame looking croissant option). I went for ‘foule’, which anywhere in Britain would be associated with sweet puddings, like Gooseberry foule, but here foule is a bean dish. So from the rather brusque man behind the bar who rang the bell at me several times to go and pick it up, though he hadn’t told me this was the system, I collected a tray with an earthenware bowl of borlotti beans and others I didn’t recognise, in a sort of juice, and a plate of crunchy cucumber, pepper and radish slices with a few olives capable of stripping paint with the strength of their flavour-attributable to what I don’t know.
The beans though, wow. They had been cooked just enough to have a slight bite left in them, in lots of lemon and olive oil, with some of the usually musty tasting bean swamp left in there. There was a hint of warmth indicating a touch of chilli and a little bit of what looked like Za’atar on top. Heaven in a bowl when accompanied by the crisp raw vegetables. That’s a recipe I’ll have to seek out.
Being a responsible foreigner I thought I should attempt to register with the British Embassy while I have time, as I start work on monday. I worked out the route I had to walk, and was happy to be walking and seeing things, rather than being couped up inside a stuffy car with fluffy furnishings. The directions given me by reception I decided against, despite my lack of map, because it meant going through the shady looking multiple storey concrete car park/bus station at the back of the hostel, where at 4.30am I had seen many many homeless people sleeping the night out. According to Mohammed, the bus station can take you lots of places, including Damascus and Homs, “urmmm no thanks!” I replied; though he obviously meant it as a serious point of useful information. This morning it seemed no less occupied and the thought of finding my way through it no more appealing so I went adventuring a different way instead. I hadn’t got that far before I asked a big-framed security guard with a big tummy if he had heard of Armenia Street. He didn’t understand French or English so we didn’t get very far but instead he gestured to a young woman in her thirties perched nearby on her phone. She spoke really good American English, but also couldn’t help, though they both asked every person who went past. She said she knew a travel agent so he’d probably know and she rang him straight away. It was a bit silly given that I knew I was only a few streets off course, but their willingness to help was unstoppable, in the end she said she was waiting for a taxi so we could ask the driver when he got here. As he rightly pointed out when he arrived, it would be closed on a saturday, but I was keen to see what it looked like so I could find it again when I had less time. In the end she just said, “jump in, we’ll drop you off there”.
Well it definitely was closed and after asking lots of people as we drove past, we found the entrance, totally unmarked without a flag or a sign post in sight. Well done Britain, you serve us well. The woman pointed out the reason no one knows where Armenia Street is is because there are no street signs anywhere, so you’re best off asking for the place or the building until you find your way there. Oh god I said. I have been getting lost WITH street signs my whole life, what the hell am I going to do here?! “Ah you’ll get used to it” she laughed. She does not know me.
This fabulous woman, I know not of any better word, was very skinny in fitted jeans that didn’t fit her, with lurid pink toenails poking out of 6inch skyscraper pink heels, cropped hair with a long fringe, a single long pink feather earring, diamante encrusted wraparound sunglasses and neon pink talons to top the lot off. Pauline, as it turned out she is called, is Lebanese but was brought up in Montreal, so that was Canadian English I was hearing, and she is working for a shipping company just where we had met. When I told her why I was here and she heard I didn’t really know anyone here, she immediately gave me her phone number and said, “Isabel you call me anytime you need anything”.
My real god-mother is called Pauline, so looks like I just found the fairy god-mother version of one of my favourite people in the world. I have made my first friend!