When I described my itinerary to friends and family in May, the final destination of Lebanon raised the most eyebrows. From an American perspective, I begrudgingly understand this; before I worked in an international NGO I had never met a Lebanese person, I knew “Beirut” as a drinking game rather than a destination, and I didn’t understand that all the delicious Mediterranean cuisine I loved so much came from their region. Three summers in Caux, however, found me itching to see the sights all my Lebanese friends described so lovingly.
My initial impression of Beirut was mixed. While the young man in passport control had told me I was beautiful, should get a job in Lebanon, and didn’t charge me for a tourist visa that the website claims they demand, I found the city overwhelming – as if LA and New York had been pushed onto the island of Manhattan, plus Arabic, heat and humidity, minus street signs and traffic laws. Half an hour after putting my suitcase down in the apartment and taking a service (French pronunciation – ser-VICE – a taxi that takes you anywhere within Beirut for 2000 L.L) to Hamra and digging into my first ever authentic Lebanese meal, I was completely won over. Seriously. The food alone is enough to make me a convert.
We had a late lunch in Hamra before meeting up with Joanne’s college friends in Zaituna Bay, a grouping of pubs and restaurants on the water, for drinks and desserts. Like all the Lebanese I have encountered, Joanne’s friends speak flawless English (and usually French, as well) and have advanced degrees, from places like Cambridge and Cornell. (no big deal) As it was getting pretty late, we headed north to Byblos, where Joanne’s family lives, to spend a few days on the water.
Byblos is one of the oldest cities in the world, and is the root of “Bible” and latin words for “book” because of its papyrus production. It is home to ruins galore – from the Romans to the Crusaders. We spent the days wandering the ruins, and the nights in the bars and souks. Joanne’s mom introduced me to the kind of home-cooked splendor you wouldn’t find in restaurants, and her sister introduced me to the infamous “doudou shot” – a shot of vodka with lemon juice, tabasco and an olive. Try as I might, I still despise olives, though the shot itself won me over instantly – refreshing and invigorating.
After a few days in Byblos, we made our way back down to Beirut, before another one of our Caux friends, Hady, rescued us from the heat and escorted us to a gorgeous party in the mountains. On Friday, I was introduced to even more culinary delights at Barometre, a hole-in-the-wall leftist restaurant in Hamra which makes some of the most delicious fattoush (my favorite salad ever), spiced potatoes, sausages and chicken livers I have ever had. I guess I’ve also never had chicken livers before, but they are shockingly delicious – all soaked in a thick, sweet sauce, eaten scooped up in a pita, washed down with a cold glass of arak, an anise-flavored Lebanese specialty similar to ouzo. Saturday was a day of rest, followed by a visit to Centrale, a beautiful bar/restaurant in Gemmayze. It was built inside a tube made to look something like a military bunker, I’ve been told, and was designed by Bernard Khoury, one of the most famous architects in Lebanon, who also designed BO18, one of the best-known nightclubs in the world, inside a refurbished bomb shelter.
More updates and adventures to come – for now we’re off for a day in the city, and are planning our final adventures before my departure, Sunday morning.