As luck would have it, I seem to have developed a bit of a cold over last couple of days. Yes, go ahead, crack the standard joke about H1N1 and turn your face away. Being a man, I have reacted to this cold as if it were the bubonic plague. See women, bless their souls, go through the pain of childbirth whereas we men seem to be rendered completely obsolete at the first sign of a throaty cough. The phenomenon is quite mockingly referred to as man-flu.
Why do I bring this up? Well, people sometimes accuse me of being too harsh on Beirut and Lebanon in general. I don’t think I am though, and any criticism I do level at the city, comes from a place of love. I criticize Beirut much as a parent would chastise a child for coming home with a report card that says “can do better”. It’s very frustrating to see that someone you love isn’t fulfilling their potential. Nevertheless there is plenty I’m thankful for in this city.
Which brings me back to my cold. Having a cold in Beirut, is something I’m grateful for, being the perfectly inept specimen of a man that I am. See, as soon my cleaning lady saw this morning that I had the faintest whiff of a runny nose and cough, she launched into the preparation of a wide array of concoctions to appease my growing misery. As I reached for my keys and headed out of the house, she enquired as to why I was leaving the house in such a condition. I told her I was popping down to the pharmacy to get some meds. Once at the counter, I was greeted by the same ear-to-ear smile I always get and the usually annoying questions about the whereabouts and well-being of my family, which seemed oddly comforting today. Then my pharmacist, after I’d filled up two bags with all kinds of exotic pills from the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, told me off for getting dressed and coming all the way down, and told me next time I should call her and she’d bring everything I needed to my door. A few minutes later, I got a call from my Aunt, who seems to be a member of the Illuminati or some other all-pervasive body, since she has mysteriously discovered I have a cold (probably through my mother 3000 miles away) and wants me to know she’s 10 minutes away if I need anything. Panadol, a nice plate of Shish Barak, or an assassination of the Pope. I might have made that last one up.
This is all a very stark contrast to being ill in London. Calls to work fall on deaf ears and arsy comments. No one has the time for you or your ailments, may they range from the sniffles to a broken femur. As you gaze outside, the streets still immersed in pitch black darkness at 8am, slowly dampening with the pitter-patter of the drizzle, you sit and wait. As your bachelor pad is ill-equipped for such occurrences, the only contents of your kitchen being a Tesco sandwich, a bottle of vodka and a carton of orange juice that’s past its sell-by date, you sit and wait for Boots or any other pharmacy to open. You then don layer after layer of clothing, throwing on an extra scarf today because of your condition. You trawl the streets for 10, 15 minutes, a lifetime. You ask around the pharmacy looking for the strongest stuff they have, the pharmacist looks at you as if he needs to call the Suicide Hotline. You politely tell the nonchalant cashier that you don’t have a Nectar card, and don’t really care that collecting loyalty points might get you a bottle of water after 3 years. You go home, and sulk, watching daytime television shows.
So, there are a ton of things I have Beirut to be thankful for. I can be thankful for the fact that eating at Snack al Mathhaf as a high school student has forever made me immune to any food the Third World has to throw at me. I love that I used to ride home from school in a serveece taxi when I finished before the school bus was ready to leave. Serveece taxis with their ancient nature-defying Mercedes’, furry dice and shiny CDs hanging from the rear view mirror, the curmudgeonly driver, sharing a cramped space with four strangers for the time of a cab ride. These were wondrous things for a kid from London.
I love Sunday lunches with what’s left of the extended family. I love Sunday lunches in August when the entire extended family is here from around the world. And I love that every August I feel older, as I see my cousins’ daughters turning into beautiful young women and realize their sons could probably now beat me to a pulp.
I’m appreciative, every single day without fail, that I’m by the Mediterranean all day.
I love sitting on a balcony and hearing the jingle to LBC news coming from the neighbors’ living room, whilst I ignore the country’s goings on and look across the twinkling lights of the city.
I love walking around the city, lost. Asking for directions and being invited in for coffee by random old ladies, who painstakingly keep their little corners of the universe spotless, especially for impromptu guests.
I love, that after years of celebrating my birthday in the freezing rain in London, it’s always sunny on November 12th here in Beirut.
I love that people have lunch breaks, where they actually break for lunch. I once read on the side of a cab in London: “A Sandwich at your desk is not a lunch break”. Truer words have never been spoken.
I love that people work to live, and don’t live to work. I love that we put olive oil on all our food, even though I can’t stand the stuff. I love the warped sense of pride people get when they realize a celebrity has some sort of Lebanese ancestry. I love that even the most competent linguists can’t help but say “eno” and “yaane” in conversations with foreigners. I love that people fight over who pays a dinner bill.
I love happy hour in Gemmayze, walking out of Torino Express slightly buzzed on a few beers while the suns still out.
I love Beirut because you’re never far from thousands of years of civilization, even though it’s usually hiding behind a Dunkin’ Donuts or a Virgin Megastore.
I love Beirut because it cares about you the same way you care about it. Always.