Tag Archives: London

Pimm’s, Parks and Singing Beards.

I had promised myself this trip to London would be different. I had promised myself I wouldn’t do what I always did in London. That I would try new things, meet new people, go to new places. And it would seem I have failed miserably.

I didn’t venture out of Kensington and Chelsea once. I remained within the confines of the royal borough, that bastion of poshness and crassness in equal measure.

I saw them all.

I saw the Russians and the Kazakhs. Stepping out of Rolls Royces with tinted windows, looking like caricatures of themselves. Pencil-thin women decked out in the lifeless skin of every animal. Men with faces that seemed like the product of time and erosion rather than birth. You couldn’t tell the bodyguards from the oligarchs. I saw the Arabs, in their ill-fitting Armani outfits and outdated Ed Hardy caps. I saw them with the earphones to their mobiles wrapped around their face, calling their friends to meet them at Rouge by Harrods. I saw their Swarovski-encrusted matt black Lamborghni Overcompensatos.

I saw the statuesque Norwegian guys with blonde quiffs no one else could pull off. Decked out in outfits that would make the preppiest of New England croquet players hug their trust fund in fear. I actually saw one guy in blue suede loafers, green shorts, a pink polo and a salmon blazer and Wayfarers. And he actually looked cool. “Damn you Scandinavians!”, I thought to myself, as I shook my fist skywards. I could never wear that. I’d look like I’d fallen through the closet at a Ralph Lauren outlet store. And failed to get out.

I saw the Frenchies around South Ken station, which is undoubtedly the most French part of the world outside of Saint Germain. Each one of them impeccably dressed and carrying a scooter helmet under their arm. Their Gallic accents making everyone swoon. The picture ruined only by the fact that they’re all derivatives traders.

I saw the locals. The few remaining Brits who still populate the area…

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Anonymous Anonymous.

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…

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The Quest for the Holy Grill.

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.

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A Bit of Blighty in Beirut

As some of you know, I spent the best part of 22 years living in London. This means that I’m possessed with a sort of permanent wistful melancholy, a penchant for a mug of PG tips and the occasional violent outburst at a football match. You can imagine that the cultural baggage one accumulates in the UK is kind of hard to share with someone who doesn’t understand the culture. The English sense of humour is famously puzzling to anyone who hasn’t spent time on the British Isles.

True, it’s hardly as obscure as say being from Botswana, but when I want to reminisce about watching Newsround and Bananaman, I’ve always felt fellow Brits were few and far between in Beirut. Any Beirutis who grew up in the US have it easy, American culture being so ubiquitous that I’m sure even Massai tribesmen in Kenya are aware that Ross and Rachel were on a break. Anyone who grew up in France is also spoilt for choice when it comes to popular culture. Lebanon is a francophone country, and prides itself, sometimes misguidedly, on its links to our ex-colonizers, something of a prolonged Stockholm syndrome. You even get the full bouquet of French terrestrial and satellite TV stations from your neighborhood pirate cable provider. My provider comes in the form of a diminutive Armenian man who seems to have inherited very little from his ancestors beyond one tooth, a stutter, a sweaty disposition and no understanding of what the BBC is.

I can’t complain too much though, because things are much easier than the last time I moved to Beirut in 1997. Back then I had to rely on memory for any attachment to my native London. I had to dig out old VHS tapes of Have I Got News For You, Fawlty Towers and Blackadder. Oh, by the by, VHS tapes were those big boxy things we used before DVDs, for you kids out there.

Now I download the latest episodes of QI and Mock The Week on YouTube. I download podcasts from BBC Four, and enjoy the surreal prospect of listening to Germaine Greer discuss post-feminism whilst I’m stuck in traffic behind a pimped-out yellow Honda Civic with two of Lebanon’s finest soldiers whistling at everything in a skirt.

And more recently, I’ve actually been meeting Brits, of the proper kind and the Lebanese kind, like myself. And as they say, once it rains it pours. I went from not knowing a single Brit for years to suddenly being surrounded by people from all corners of the UK. I’m overcome with a very un-English sense of joy when I speak to someone who has a proper English accent, never mind if it’s from Godalming, Somerset or Manchester. So in the last few weeks I’ve been remincing about a childhood spent watching Superted, Neighbours and The Bill. I’ve been recounting tales of meeting Jet, Hunter and John Fashinu at a taping of Big Break’s Christmas special with John Virgo and Jim Davidson. This probably means nothing to most people, but it means the world to me.

I’ve been away from Beirut for a couple of weeks now. I spent a few days in London last week, and it was refreshing to walk around aimlessly on pavements under a gentle drizzle. It was nice to wander into Waterstone’s and ask knowledgeable staff for book recommendations. It was nice to walk past my old school, my old university and my old flat. It was nice to walk into a pub with carpets rendered pungent from years of spilt lager. It was nice to have a conversation with a cabbie “bout all these fecking foreigners”, with a delightful sense of irony and self-awareness.

One particularly chilly day I headed to Canary Wharf for an interview. I boarded the Jubilee Line armed with a well-stocked iPod and a copy of the Financial Times. As the train trundled along, I caught a reflection of myself in the window. I was far paler than I was a week ago, especially in the unforgiving neon light. I looked like a caged corporate slave again, my Windsor knot choking any ambitions of creativity I have been harboring for the past year. My lips were chapped. I looked down at my hands clutching the FT, dried and cracked from the subzero temperatures outside. When I got to my interview, I gave it my all. I was even invited back for a second round, which I’ve politely declined.

I’m afraid London isn’t home anymore. I’m afraid there are ambitions I have for myself in Beirut, I want to be part of the generation that comes back and makes a difference. I have role to play in Beirut that surpasses my role as a faceless zombie on the Jubilee Line. Plus its warm in Beirut. And most important of all, I miss it.

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It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home

Here’s a little story I haven’t told many people, because it shines a bright light onto my unbridled geekiness.

So, the year is 1992. The Chicago Bulls are NBA Champions. Andre Agassi is sporting a full head of hair. Kids are sitting around their rooms with Troll dolls attached to their pencils as Kriss Kross’ Jump and Sir Mix-a-lot’s Baby Got Back blare out of the boombox. Home Alone and Sister Act are topping the box office. And I’m a 10 year old kid.

Of all the year’s cinematic offerings, I’m particularly excited about the prospect of watching Aladdin, especially since I’ve discovered that he’s modelled on Tom Cruise and that makes the fat little bespectacled Arab kid in me really proud. It’s going to be cool to be Arab.

I settle into my seat at the Odeon on High Street Ken, and I’m ready for a mystical land full of anthropomorphic cuteness from monkeys and whatnot. Then I sit through 90 minutes of thinly veiled racism, which leaves me crushed. Even Robin William’s psychotic take on the Genie isn’t enough to salvage the film in my eyes.

I go home, and being the nerdy English school kid that I was, embark on a quest to chastise Disney for their insolence through the only means available to me: a strongly worded letter.

The details are a bit fuzzy and haven’t withstood the test of time in my memory, and I have no idea what I wrote. But I remember being particularly vexed by the swashbuckling and monstrous law enforcers. Plus the following lyrics didn’t really sit well with a proud Lebanese kid, who’d never actually seen his parent’s homeland yet:

Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place / Where the caravan camels roam / Where it’s flat and immense / And the heat is intense / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home

So there you have it. I was a ridiculous 10 year old with a warped sense of pride sending a letter to one of the biggest corporations in the world. End of story. Right?

Not exactly. Through some weird combination of events, it would seem Disney thought a fat 10 year old had a point. They thanked me for my letter and forwarded it to the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, of which I’ve been an honorary member ever since.

Moral of the story. Always complain when something just isn’t right, sometimes people listen.

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Cough Medicine and the City that Cared

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.

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