Every office around the world shares a certain set of dynamics. For example, walk into any neon-lit place of corporate endeavor at 11am and you will find an army of morose humanoids stirring their second cup of coffee of the morning, staring blankly into the hypnotic swirls created at the surface of the mug by the unwashed teaspoon. Jump thousands of miles away to another office, in Sao Paolo lets say, and you’ll find two disgruntled employees arguing over whose turn it is to load the A4 paper into the printer. Oh, and while they’re at it, someone should take care of that paper jam. Now hop over to London, and you’ll find an IT technician crouched behind someone’s desk, staring at the rotting carcass of a Jurassic machine, asking if anyone’s tried rebooting it.
What I’m trying to say is that there are constants in office life around the world. There’s something about being shepherded into the same building everyday at the same time with the same people that brings out certain characteristics in people. A sort of protracted cabin fever, that brings to the forefront a series of basic human responses. Fantasizing about your next holiday the instant you get back to the office from your latest one, staring defeated at your inbox. 500 unread emails. Ouch. Alternatively, shove three people by a watercooler, and they’ll invariably discuss either last night’s sports event or that girl from accounts’ shapely behind.
However, the most universal obsession shared by office employees the world over remains that of sustenance. As soon as the clock hits 11:30am, the stomachs start grumbling and the mind pondering the options that lie ahead. When I was in London, the options weren’t immense. At my first job, in Holborn, the usual course of action was to head down to the nearest Sainsbury’s local, buy some godawful microwavable meal and a Muller Light yogurt. Collect some Nectar points, and then let the despair and decay of Western civilization wash over you. Trundle back to the vacant conference room, glance politely at a colleague munching away at an avocado, and pick up a battered copy of the Guardian. On Fridays we’d go absolutely nuts, and maybe two or three of us would head over to Nandos in Soho. If we were feeling like rockstars, we’d throw some peri peri sauce on our chips and get two refills of Diet Coke.
In my second job, in Mayfair, the options weren’t any more plentiful, but at least the walk was pleasant. The people were prettier, and the odd smattering of bemused and lost American tourists was always satisfying. Seeing as I was a banker, and that part of the job description was to chain yourself to your desk, I’d usually venture to the Crussh branch in my own damn building, and grab whatever seemed edible. Which wasn’t much. I’d throw in a soup in the depths of winter; deluding myself into thinking it might provide some respite from the ambient germs and drizzly misery.
When I had 3 minutes to spare, I’d walk over to Berkeley Square to the twin temples of British Shite Food: Pret-A-Manager and Eat. I would already know what Eat’s soup of the day was, because I would get emails at 11am from a friend who checked their website religiously in her mission to plan out the lunch hour. Inbox: Butternut Squash at Eat today! Yay! When we wanted to treat ourselves, we’d head down the regally named Sandwich Alley, and get a little box of supposedly Thai food. The real treat came when we’d gather four or five people to go to a Lebanese restaurant down the street and feast on some falafel and hummus. The closer I got to resigning, the more Arak got involved in the meal.
Now in Beirut, the culinary landscape open to the employee is altogether different. I’ve been reintroduced to the concept of the Tupperware, the overwhelming majority of my colleagues coming to work armed with box upon box, ready to be heated in the over-exploited microwave. The paraphernalia is really quite fascinating, with boxes of different shapes and sizes, and Thermos bags to ensure the freshness of the produce. The dishes themselves run a wide gamut from the humble thyme manoucheh to the most elaborate of concoctions, recipes passed down through the generations. For those of us who don’t have large Mediterranean families residing in Lebanon, or matronly great aunts, and can’t cook to save our lives, there’s always the city’s army of delivery boys. I have colleagues who have indexed every delivery menu known to man in folders like chapters in the holy book of the hungry.
Battalions of sweaty deliverymen show up around 1pm, bearing everything from pizzas to vine leaves to fruit cocktails, their trusty scooters littering the pavement outside the building. I’m also lucky enough to have a European-style supermarket nearby, the local equivalent of a Waitrose or M&S but twice as poncy. I often feel underdressed heading down to buy a 4pm snack, and that’s saying a lot considering I’m usually decked out like I’m expecting a visit from the Queen. Every fashionista in downtown Beirut and her best friend stroll through the shiny surroundings as if strutting their stuff down a Milan catwalk looking for gluten-free, wheat-free, sugar-free, taste-free edibles of every sort in the sort of spectacle that makes you lose your appetite.
Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s my turn to load the A4 paper and buy everyone Diet Coke’s and crisps.