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Out in Lebanon
by Matt French
2010-01-01

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After about a month and a half of settling in to my new life in the Middle East, I thought it might be a good idea to give little vignette of my day-to-day routine in Beirut. I hope that it will shatter any preconceived notions that the majority of my friends and relatives ( and, perhaps, Windy City Times readers ) have about this great city.

—08:00: My alarm goes off, but it's just an act. In fact, I won't actually wake up until 9 or 9:30 ( and on those Monday mornings after a particularly rough weekend of partying, I won't even consider moving until 11 ) . Even if the Lebanese are horrible at making appointments on time, they do have one thing down: understanding the importance of "flex hours." In other words, you get to work when you get to work, and you don't even have to deal with anyone's sideways glances.

—09:00: As I am in the shower, I am plunged into darkness; the government-mandated power outage has caught me off-guard again. In my defense, the three-hour blocks where the government cuts power to various parts of Beirut are hard to keep track of; outages are scheduled for 6 a.m.-9 a.m., 9 a.m.-12 p.m., 12 p.m.-3 p.m. and 3 p.m.-6 p.m., but change every day. This "power-saving" initiative is supposedly helping the environment, but the fact that almost everyone has a gas-guzzling generator to keep the lights on even during the outages kind of defeats the whole purpose. Unfortunately, I have no generator, forcing me to finish my shower in the dark. Looks like I won't be shaving today! I finish the rest of my morning routine sans power, get dressed ( and no, I do not wear a flak jacket ) , and head out the door.

—10:00: I roll into work with a strong coffee and start to check my e-mails. Unfortunately, Internet in Lebanon is almost always subpar ( unless you're my friend Hicham, who works for the United Nations; surprise surprise—the UN has no problem footing the ridiculous bill for a decent DSL connection ) . I spend the next hour trying to send/receive messages, send responses and, perhaps, peruse a little on Facebook ( and, yes, the Lebanese do use Facebook as much as the overly addicted Americans do ) .

—14:00: After putting in some quality hours working for the LGBT cause, it's time for lunch. Beirut is great when it comes to eating out, and the Lebanese really take advantage of all the great caf├ęs, restaurants, bistros and other eateries at their disposal. In fact, when I first arrived in Lebanon, TimeOut Beirut had just published its "Eating" issue. I have taken it upon myself to try and make it to the majority of the places listed in the magazine, but soon after I started the endeavor, it has become apparent just how daunting that task is; every new restaurant I go to always turns out to be my "new favorite" and I find myself going back again, and again, and again. But back to lunch. Usually I stick pretty close to the office; just down the street, there is a juice stand, where I can get fresh juice from almost every type of fruit, and from a wide variety of vegetables as well. After I've got my juice, I usually stop at Barbar. Barbar is somewhat of an institution here, but also happens to be one of the less health-conscious eating establishments. It's cheap, though; my lunch of a pita baked with cheese and tomato usually costs around $1.30 U.S. I also am aware that my dinner will probably be extremely healthful; a lot of Lebanese food is actually pretty good for you. I pay the cashier in U.S. dollars, which is another great thing for Americans in Lebanon: the exchange rate is fixed between Lebanese lira and U.S. dollars, and both currencies are accepted everywhere.

—15:00: Back to work, but the office ( which is connected to the only LGBT community center in Lebanon ) is starting to get a little loud with all the university students dropping by now that their classes are done. It always amazes me how, in a country that criminalizes "unnatural intercourses" ( i.e., gay sex ) , there is a sizeable amount of social space for LGBT individuals to live their lives as they want. In fact, the community center is pretty visible. ( People, including the government, know about it, making it a pretty popular hang-out ) . On days when I really have to focus, I grab my laptop and head to a nearby coffee shop for some alone time, but usually I love having all the noise. ( In Chicago, a lot of the time I was one of the only staff members in the International Programs office, which tends to get a little lonely. ) The uniquely confusing part of all the conversations going on around me is that almost every Lebanese is trilingual. ( Arabic is the official language of the country, but French and English are spoken a good part of the time. ) With conversations jumping between all three languages, I'll be extremely focused until I'll catch something interesting in English. Then all bets are off, and it's time for socializing. So for the rest of my day, it's a mix of socializing, working, drinking coffee, socializing, working, working, coffee, working, socializing … I think you get the picture.

—21:00: I pack up my bag and head to dinner. Depending on the day ( and who's at the office ) I head out with friends to a restaurant nearby. Again, dinner usually consists of something affordable, but still really fresh and healthy. After a glass of wine or two after dinner, I'll walk home to my apartment. This act alone defines me as a foreigner; shared taxis are extremely cheap in Beirut ( about $2 US Dollars for a ride from West Beirut to East Beirut or vice versa ) and everyone uses them…or drives their car. But with the weather being as nice as it is, I enjoy my walk. Just watch out when crossing the street for reckless drivers ( basically every Lebanese driver ) and mopeds zooming up and down every street and almost every time of day in a city where traffic lights are a mere suggestion of who should have the right of way, and where one-way streets are only a theoretical concept.

—00:00: After catching up with my roommate, I'll get ready for bed ( no fear of power outages this late at night ) . After a chapter or two of whatever book I'm reading, I'm knocked out cold. That is, until my alarm wakes me for another day in the city dubbed the "Elizabeth Taylor of the Middle East." Personally, I don't think there's a better description out there. But perhaps more on that in my next article…


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