I’m writing this whilst sitting on the sun-soaked terrace of a Parisian café. What a f**king cliché, right? But I’m not inclined to mind, despite my deep-seeded hatred of the cliché. It feels great to be sitting here, playing the role of someone with weighty concerns on his mind, furiously jotting down ideas in a battered Moleskine notebook.
I wont lie to you, and you’ve probably noticed form some of the stuff I’ve written recently, Beirut and I have hit a bit of a rough patch over the last couple of months. I’ve been experiencing a sense of cabin fever. The constant maelstrom of political posturing, or to give it its Latin name Bullshittus Politicus, is getting exhausting to watch and is downright unavoidable. However much I want to live in my apolitical, semi-hipster bubble, there will always be a TV screen, a serveece driver or a neighbour, eager to dump upon me the minutiae of the day’s political meandering.
Then there’s the ubiquitous car horn. I really hope someone, some day writes a PhD thesis about the use of the car horn in Lebanese daily life. I’m sure there are a plethora of psychosexual explanations for its permanent use. Freud might have something to say about it. Maybe serveece drivers weren’t hugged enough by their mothers.
But what has been most difficult in recent months, has been seeing the same people day in, day out. Before all my friends unfriend me on Facebook, what I mean by that is I can’t take seeing the same strangers everyday. I’m lucky to have amazing friends, and I never tire of them (although their feelings towards me might not be as enthusiastic). But, even though Beirut is a teeming metropolis of around 2 million people, it feels like a Mediterranean village. Every face looks vaguely familiar. Everyone looks kind of the same. You’re bound to know everyone you come across through a friend of a friend. Man, for my first year in Lebanon everyone seemed to turn out to be a cousin (Note: the Lebanese definition of cousin is quite broad. It could include someone who invited your great uncle for coffee once in 1946).
Looking at any street scene in Beirut, you can make an educated guess about 80% of those around you. “Hmm, that guy looks like he studied Business at AUB, then went to some French business school and he now runs the family cement factory in Zimbabwe, but comes home every other weekend to see his fiancé and his mistress”. Even the expats are predictable “Hmm, I’m guess he works for some obscure UN agency with an acronym that the country manager is still trying to figure out the meaning of. He’s grown a beard to feel “authentic” and only eats at Le Chef in Gemmayze and drinks at Captain’s Cabin in Hamra”.
But as I sit here, being scoffed at by a Parisian waiter, I have absolutely no idea about anyone around me’s life. Everyone walking by is a true stranger. I have no idea who anyone is. And it’s beautiful.
And it’s not because I know nothing of Paris, I come here often enough to consider myself a semi-local. Which means I can draw broad strokes. For example, that kid reclining nonchalantly on a wall by the Metro station, he looks half-emo half-hipster. I’m guessing he’s actually from a well-off family and lives in the 8th arrondissement, Daddy’s probably a manager at Bouyges Telecom or something. The kid just enjoys looking poor and hanging around on pavements, and he probably attends one of the universities in the area. There are clichés everywhere, that’s why they are clichés.
But there is enough diversity here to leave you bewildered. Throngs of people walk past. They are oblivious to the frayed collar on my shirt, to the couple of kilos I’ve put on recently. They couldn’t care less about me. And it feels great.
Is it fair to compare Paris to Beirut? Absolutely not. Is it inevitable whilst I sit here? Probably. It’s great to blend into a puddle of grudging anonymity. It’s healthy. As Samia Serageldin writes in the opening lines to her novel The Cairo House, there’s a beautiful moment of transition from thinking you’re a hometown hotshot to knowing you’re a small fish in a big city pond.
Small towns, with their familiarity and close-knit connections, sometimes give us delusions of grandeur. Everyone in Beirut thinks they’re someone. A city of 2 million superstars.
It’s a great feeling to know you’re nothing. To get elbowed out of the way on the metro. To wait in line for everything, everywhere. It’s a feeling I’ve missed.
But you know what the best thing about swanning around Europe for two weeks is? I get to miss Beirut. I get to miss the familiarity, the friends and the Sunday lunches. I get to miss everything I take for granted.
I’m off to my native London tomorrow, which was my home for 23 years. And I look forward to more anonymous queuing and shoving on the Tube. But I go there in the knowledge, for the first time, that I am lucky to now have two hometowns. Two cities that are a complete contradiction of one another, but that are complementary. I am very lucky indeed.