I know things will never go back to the way they were, and those specific moments I spent in Lebanon were magical as such. Untouched. I am afraid that as time goes by and my memories fade away, I will forget the amazing year I had in Beirut, 2014/2015. So I thought… why not journal it? I love remembering our team’s lifestyle, our jokes, the routine… and what better manner to preserve it than write it down?
So here I go. My year in Lebanon and mostly Beirut, part 1.
I want to mention briefly the reason I went there — because I will not repeat it afterwards. I was National VicePresident for Marketing & International Internships in AIESEC in Lebanon starting 1st of June 2014 till end of June 2015. I was still a volunteer, but I had emoluments for food and other expenses, while our housing was assured. That’s it — from now on, I want to focus on my lifestyle there, and on the team I was part of.
I landed on the 1st of June 2014 (Bucharest-Beirut, Tarom airlines) without any expectations. I don’t exactly remember what was in my head — one year away from my family, friends, everything- in a foreign country, with foreign people who I didn’t want to get attached to? I just wanted to work, bring a contribution and make a change for myself. Yeah, and that worked exactly th way I wanted. Not. :P The one picking me up from the airport was Mark, my President and future helping, caring companion, intelligent, solution oriented guy for the year to be. Our first hug was weird, as all our hugs would be — because fluffiness worked a bit differently for us.
I lived in three apartments in Beirut, and on that day we arrived at the first one. It was superhot and I slept like a baby in a room with a ceiling vent. Which I hadn’t seen since childhood-so I found it funny. On Sunday, the 1st of June, they took me to eat my first shawarma! That’s the moment I fell in love with their irreplaceable, sweet loving, smooth garlic sauce. Also, something people would make fun of until the end of my stay. :) On the road, I noticed the dusty palm trees, sun-bathed buildings and flats with cotton-covered balconies, the long roads and the arts on the walls, overlooked by blocks of military forts, with 2–3 soldiers from place to place.
There was a street festival occurring on that day, “Hamra Street Festival”, which consisted of Hamra street (one of the most important, central streets in Beirut) being closed down and have boutiques and stands and stages with concerts for entertainment, booze and food. So we walked a bit around the tents, just looking and finally, at the end of the night, we went to have dinner. My first dinner in Lebanon! I was supposed to meet other people there, hence expanding my network of contacts. I don’t think I properly remember who was there to welcome me, because I was focused on the food. Pasty, oily hummus, coriander seasoned golden potatoes, spicy marinated chicken breast (tawouk), refreshing tomato and dill salads and GARLIC SAUCE! What else could I have asked for? I decided then: if something’s not gonna be alright, food’s going to make it up for me (as wrong as this sounds, though). But it wasn’t the case. People were very friendly and nice, they all wanted to know about my Romanian roots and how come I’ve chosen Lebanon, this forsaken, hopeless place. I told them our team’s gonna restore the hope. :)
The next day I met José, my Mexican colleague, who arrived one day later. We played an innocent prank on the poor guy when we saw him and I felt a bit mean back then, but now it’s funny to remember. In this story, Jose ends up being my confessional, my supporter and critique, whilst a very good friend. :D And then I also met Abed, the fourth team mate we worked with, a very ambitious, hard-working, smart and kind human being, as well a very good friend of mine.
Abed was living in his own flat, and Mark was also living with his parents, so it was just Jose and I in that three rooms flat. We used to have team transition sessions from the previous team for us, during the day, and have lunch together, cook, go out and so on. I slept in the same room with Azmat, an Indian colleague from the previous team (so it was Jose, Azmat and I for a while). He was superfunny and a very spiritual guy, I enjoyed his company, although it was short. So in the end it was just me and Jose living together.
The days were extremely hot and I remember vividly how we were literally melting and sliding down the couches as we were napping or trying to read something. I didn’t even dry my hair, because it used to dry naturally. And also we didn’t have electricity, but that’s to be told some other time maybe. At night we used to go outside on the balcony, have some beers and smoke shisha. We tried having guests, but it didn’t always work out. I felt odd because I don’t usually have guests in my house here in Romania, but hey, roles changed.
I’m also not a great cook, I’m still learning stuff, so while I was spending money on ordering food (delicious, finger-licking good food), I was trying to prepare something for my own as well. My first french potatoes didn’t come out well because I didn’t have cream. Yep, you won’t find sour cream in Lebanon. Don’t ask me why. You can find whatever else, all sorts of dairy, but cream. That was a disappointment but then I made pasta bolognese and it wasn’t so bad. Over the year, I perfected myself. :))
The pinnacle of me eating mouth-watering food was when I had money — pardon me, when Jose and I had money. And in the rest of the days well, we just grabbed what we could from “Le Charcutier Aoun”, the local supermarket. Jose and I were both foodies, but you couldn’t see that on him. So in order to get our bodies moving, I was looking for a gym to subscribe for Zumba and he wanted to sign up for Parkour classes. He was successful, I wasn’t. Turns out Zumba is not the most loved fitness activity in Beirut.
I didn’t know where to introduce the cockroaches part, but what the heck, I’ll just drop it here: I’m terrified by cockroaches. And in this apartment (or in Beirut, for the matter) it’s not like they were small. So I always relied on Jose to kill them. I was away one time so Jose showed me how he killed one in the bath tub, he sent a picture in our Whatsapp group. :)) Funny.
We lived in the suburbs of the city, so we could only go around our blocks. Jose was a bit more the exploring type, so I was happy to have him on my side when we went out to see the neighbourhood. Our quarters were far from Beirut, and Mark used to drive us with his BMW all the time. We were like kids — didn’t know how to get around, so until we learned, we either took very expensive cabs or Mark used to take us on his way to AUB (American University of Beirut), the sacred place of our work. More on the cabs later.
We had an improvised office in the apartment too, but the internet was suuuuperslow, slower than a sloth, so we couldn’t work properly. And anyway we had to move at some point, so we went to the University and connected to the wireless there using our friends’ IDs (shhhh). I could have passed like a student, but often times they stopped Jose at the entrance because of his beard, maybe, and we always had fun on this. :)) Nothing happened, the security just wanted him to pass as a visitor. This campus is amazing and it is one of my favourite places in Beirut because it has a wonderful view over the Mediterranean Sea and it’s spacious, has a lot of green parks and it looks honoured by time, and not very modern. Except for one building that doesn’t fit at all with the scenery, (the building is called the Spaceship, for its grey, concrete structure), everything looked wondrous, a perfect place for being a student.
I want to go back to the car thing — Beirut is a rather large city, very sinuous, and everyone uses a car. The traffic is a bit horrible for this reason, especially at peak hours and at high temperatures particularly— and there’re less traffic lights than we’d want normally. So I learnt how to cross the street just by stretching my arm like “talk to the hand” and the cars would stop so I can pass. Crazy, right? At first it was unusual, I didn’t have the courage to do it, and I was wasting time just waiting for cars to “allow” me to pass. But I got the hang of it pretty soon. So as Mark would drive us to the University almost every day, Jose and I used to always play the shotgun seat — most of the times it was me next to Mark. :D I told you, we were like kids.
We used to listen to Virgin Radio Lebanon, and Radio One Lebanon, and at some point, the game became more complicated: Mark proposed that we have to learn a tough lesson — you can’t always get what you want + you have to live up with your decision and the consequences of it. Thus, we played in turns with the radio’s tuning — from 1 to 6 buttons — to choose a station. The choice was permanent until the song finished. You could have hated that song (there were some cheap, crappy songs like Nicky Minaj’s Anaconda or J. Lo’s Big Big Booty) or everyone in the car could have hated it, but we had to stick with the decision. And then the next one would choose and so on. That’s how we got from hating Hozier — Take me to church, to actually appreciating it. :))
Oh, there were some good times driving and listening to music, or to Virgin Radio’s morning shows. :) If Jose was too sleepy in the morning, he slept on the backseat and Mark and I were discussing all kinds of stuff, or nothing. Silence was a good friend at some point.
Wow, did I write a lot or what? So I’ll stop here, and I’ll get back with part 2, when I went to the beach and how we had fun with some Dutch guests for a few days. :)