Monday, September 27, 2010

Just your average Christening

Yes, I would put on a nice summery dress for a baby's Christening, but I sure as heck wouldn't bring out the big guns with a ball gown like this lady did for the Christening luncheon taking place at the restaurant in Roumiyeh where we had lunch on Sunday. Cerise with a bit of a trail, flashing some big-time bling on the bust. Very a la libanaise, taking dressing up to the max! The lady in purple, with the dress that would lift up with every lift of the newly Christened baby is the mother of the blessed child.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Hamra by night

Art for a better life

Luxury and Degradation is the latest collective art exhibition at Kettaneh Kunigk in Hamra. I went to the opening night on Thursday especially to see the work of Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons and... Frances Goodman (all the way from SA!).

Unfortunately, they all disappointed me in their over simplicity. Even Murakami's soccer ball decorated with his signature smiley flowers did not live up to the excitement I had of seeing his work in Tokyo. There's a big, white, porcelain dog-tuned-vase by Jeff Koons that may have redeemed the lineup had it not been filled with real, colourful roses - fake yellow ones would have been so much more apt.

There was, however, an installation that made me think, and introduced me to a new artist from Switzerland: Frisbees by Urs Luthi (1947-). Red, yellow and green frisbees mounted on the wall all carrying a little sentence geared to make you reassess your usual behavioural patterns. I particularly liked 'Waste your feelings', 'Take a five-minute walk in slow motion', 'Imagine a movie trailer about your own life' and 'Take a walk, notice something and decide how you would describe it', all inscribed with the slogan 'Art for a Better Life'.

I thought of Stotterjie when I read 'Imagine yourself being an actor in a play while doing your daily business.' That cookery show from our kitchen window in Stellenbosch sure would have made Urs Luthi proud!

'Frisbees' by Urs Luthi.

Flower Ball by Takashi Murakami.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Chef of the day

Although many may think that I came to Lebanon to find a husband (with fat neighbour actually verbalising his wish for me to marry here so that his new best friend, Dad, has a reason to come every year!), I am, in fact, here for a very different reason. Three reasons, to be exact:

1) to better my spoken Lebanese language
2) to learn to belly dance
3) to become a Lebanese cook

I guess you could see the mastering of these three objectives as a good starting point from which to find a Lebanese husband, but let's not dwell on fat neighbour's fantasies...

1) Hum ehkeh ahsan be kteer min wa-it wa-sulit ha Lubnan.
2) Last night I felt that I could belly dance freestyle on my own for the first time without inhibitions.
3) Well, let's just say other people have been feeding me enough for me not to have to make my own Lebanese cuisine.

Something had to be done about task number three. It finally took shape today in the creation of my first Lebanese dish made in Lebanon. Shish barack, my favourite local meal, was the star of my table-top performance, held in the presence of some invited family members (including neat-and-tidy aunt, who hadn't come down to Beirut in five years. Talk about an occasion!).

Thanks to saintly neighbour's recipe, I managed to nail this time-consuming dish, all the while cursing parsley and coriander leaves for not coming ready picked, and realising more and more why ladies head to Spinneys to purchase the sombreros ready-made! If I add up the two hours of prepping last night, and hour of cooking this morning, I realise why they call food-making a labour of love.

But love sure does taste good!

Sombreros in the making.

Here's how it's done. (This makes 40 sombreros, enough to feed eight people.)

Ingredients for dough
2 cups cake flour
1/4 cup oil
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
water as per judgement

Mix everything together, adding water a little at a time until you have a non-sticky dough consistency (rather too little than too much, as there's no going back!)

Ingredients for meat
400g minced meat
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped
salt & pepper to taste

Mix everything together and form little balls, the size of a Pritt cap.

To make the sombreros, roll out the dough and cut out circles the size of the bottom of a 500ml bottle of water. Place the meat balls in the centre and fold in half, pressing together the edges of the dough and joining the two pointy ends at the back to form a complete circle of dough around the meat - just like a Mexican sombrero. Place these on a greased baking tray and bake in an oven at 180' for 10 minutes before turning them around and baking them for another 10 minutes.

Ingredients for laban
2 litres Greek-style yoghurt
1 heaped Tbs cornflour
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 cup coriander, chopped

Fry the garlic and coriander and set aside. Bring the yoghurt and cornflour to the boil. Reduce the heat and add the fried garlic and coriander and baked sombreros and allow to cook together for 15 minutes.

Serve on top of rice. Sahtein!

Cooking tip If you're in the mood to work all night long, make lots more sombreros (as they're the most time-consming part of the recipe) and freeze them so that all you have to do when you want to make the dish again is defrost and bake them before tossing them in the easy-to-make laban mixture. I made and baked my sombreros last night, let them cool down completely, and left them in the fridge overnight so that I only had to make the laban this morning.

Art lives forever

On Monday night I attended a mini exhibition and talk by Lebanese metal sculptor Boulos Richa at the awesomely intimate RectoVerso art-book space. Yes, his work is quirky and cool, but what impressed me the most is that he's still working - at the age of 82!!! And if I tell you that the man is passionate about what he does, I'm underplaying his zeal. Once called the Picasso of Lebanon, Amo Boulos sure taught me a thing or two about loving what you do, and doing what you love. His career, which started with him making metal window frames and doors, has progressed to such a degree over the years, that he's even exhibiting his metal sculptures (some made with car parts) in Qatar next year. Go Amo!

Boulos Richa tells us about his artistic journey on the sidewalk of RectoVerso in Monot.

One of his creative metal sculptures.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sunday means... lunch!!! It's been a while since I've shown off the foods that are keeping me happy (and flourishing), so I thought I'd share a bit of today's Sunday family lunch. This is going to make you hungry, so only scroll down if you've already eaten.

Hriese, a soup mixture of shredded mutton, wheat and spices (mainly cinnamon), sprinkled with cinnamon. Ata made it especially for me because she knows it's one of my favourite local dishes. Guess who has a Tupperware of the leftovers to take down home to Beirut tomorrow...

Fattouche, a Lebanese salad with toasted Lebanese bread. Bride cousin made today's salad, but here's Dad's recipe (his speciality back home):

Ingredients for salad
4 tomatoes
2 cucumbers
2 onions
2 green peppers
1 cup chopped mint
1 cup chopped parsley
4 slices toast (this is the South African version)

Ingredients for dressing
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
salt & pepper to taste

Slice and mix all the vegetables together (the mint and parsley are a bit of a schlep because of all the leaf-picking). Fifteen minutes before serving, add the toast and pour over the dressing and mix it all together. Sahtein!

The true Lebanese version includes sumac and purslane (not always the easiest things to find back in South Africa).

Mahshe malfouf: mince and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves. Ata always puts the perfect amount of garlic and lemon juice in her pot, creating a divine taste in these cabbage rolls that are served with laban (Greek-style yoghurt).

It's time for Africa

I miss Jabu. In fact, I miss hearing the names Ayanda, Mpho, Dineo, Sechaba... I miss the smiling faces of African people. Black skin here is covered by a street-cleaner's green Sukleen overall or housekeeper's aproned, light-blue outfit. It's silly how I feel connected to these people I don't even know just because they've come from the same continent as me; but at the same time I'm so disconnected because they're never out in the places I frequent in Beirut. That's why, when I heard the sounds of the Ethiopian band playing at the opening of the new Gemmayzeh rooftop bar Coop D'Etat, I couldn't stop myself from joining the African ladies showing off their sway on the dancefloor... to reconnect with my continent. What a refreshing night out, seeing fifty-year-olds next to twenty-year-olds - from Lebanese and Ethiopian to Dutch, Danish, American, British, Irish and South African.

Waka waka yeah yeah!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Fashioning my mood

Lebanon loves hitting me with a surprise when I'm feeling down. She (and I know she's a she because she has just as many ups and down as any girl I know) knows how to give me a lift when I'm sick of public transport, ogling men, rude shop keepers, lousy waiters, loud hooters, queue skippers, old-school thinkers, pay-for beaches and littering taxi keepers.

Take yesterday for example. I was on checking out prices for a ticket back home - back to Ava, men who don't even know I exist, chatty kafee tannies, Knead's energetic waiters, robots that serve a purpose, diligent queues in Home Affairs, way-out radical ideas, Muizenburg's ever-long beach and dustbins on every street corner.

But then Lebanon threw two incredible things my way. They both happen to be fashion related (and you still think she's not a she?!) and they both rocked my world, clothing me in happiness.

The first came in the form of Botox. The kind Lebanese ladies love injecting into their faces. But yesterday's Botox came in a bag. My interview with Mauro Orietti-Carella, creative director and CEO of Zagliani, an Italian handbag brand established in 1947, had us exchanging 'oh it's so fab' comments about each other's handbags - mine from Tokyo (which he loved because he grew up there, and has also designed a bag in the same shape); his a croc-skin tote bag injected with his signature silicone Botox concoction, in a colour he created to resemble the moon. Soft to the touch, yet durable when you rub them up the wrong way, his python- and crocodile-skin bags (all injected by him and his dad) can be seen strutting down Rodeo Drive, dangling on the arms of J-Lo, Cindy Crawford, Rihanna, Janet Jackson and Kylie. They're up for grabs at Aishti too, making Lebanese women more Botox-obsessed than ever before.

The second fashionable encounter happened by chance. Beirut Souks are having their official opening this week, and I happened to be taking a wander through them after my Botox-bag interview. A huge grandstand was being erected down at the end of one corridor, and the journalist in me just had to investigate. A security guard informed me it was for Elie Saab's fashion show last night (apparently his first show in his home country in 18 years!).

'Ooooh, how exciting!' I squealed. 'Yes, that's him there,' said the security guard, pointing to a black-suited back five metres away from me, happy to have made my day. Of course the camera was swiftly hauled out of the Tokyo bag to take a shot of this international fashion designer's back and shiny grey hair. But the security guard, keen to make my day even better, insisted I go closer and get a photo with Elie (did I mention that I was not loving Lebanese people three hours before this star-struck incident?!). I moved in for the kill but, being the queuing South African that I am, did not have the guts to bring out the Lebanese in me and interrupt his conversation.

I waited patiently (well, as patiently as a person who's about to meet a designer whose dresses always feature on top of her designer list) next to a very handsome, slickly suited man, who, it turned out, was his assistant who travels up and down with him between Paris and Beirut (and everywhere else in between, like, um, Cannes). He called Elie up to us (yes, Elie Saab came up to me!) and took a photo of the two of us. It may not have been the red carpet, and there was no evening gown in sight, but it turns out Elie Saab thinks I'm quite a starlet - I mean, he didn't take his sunglasses off!

I got the purest taste of Elie Saab, the man behind many of Angelina Jolie's gowns. A gentle, welcoming and friendly man, whose hands (the same ones that draw sketches that become creations such as Halle Berry's 2002 Oscar-winning dress) touched mine - twice!

Elie and I. Just your average day in Beirut!

Rachel McAdams at the 2010 Oscars in her uber-feminine, pastel-coloured Elie Saab gown.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Finding peace

Buzzing generators were the only sound heard in the village streets on Wednesday. Dekens stopped selling 7Up, the ice-cream shop shut its doors, builders downed their tools and even fat neighbour's voice was silenced. The moghtar had died and was being buried.

Kholso zeiteto as they say up here. His oil has burned up.

That, I understood. The message about his death, however, was less comprehensive.

Tuesday morning, 7am, same wake up call as always in our village warsheh. Construction works at their peak. It's tiling time, and it seems the best time of day to razorblade through these tiles is early in the morning. Must be something about the way the sun reflects from the angle grinder... Either way, it's a resounding noise that takes us right up to lunchtime. Except that Tuesday was different. By 10am the noise had vanished. I thought nothing of it - must have been ahwe time - and silently stepped outside to reset the Internet box on the roof (the joys of Lebanon's slow connections), only to be accosted by the only worker left on our property.

'Did you hear what happened?' he asked solemnly. No, I hadn't. What had happened?

'Blah, blah, blah twafa...' Which I understood as 'blah, blah, blah taffa'.

twafa = he passed away
taffa = it went out (as in electricity or a candle)

'No, no, there is electricity,' I say, smiling widely and nodding my head. 'The fan's still on.'

'La ya hammeh, twafa!'

'No, don't worry, it's just the Internet that's not working.'

'La ya hammeh!!! Met el moghtar!' (The moghtar died!)

Women and men left the cool comfort of their stayghas on Wednesday afternoon to bid farewell to the 51-year-old man who died in his bed after watering his garden two houses up from us on Tuesday morning. Villagers dressed in black congregated in the village sala to pay their respects to the moghtar's family.

The church bells rang solemnly that afternoon, just as they'd rung on Tuesday morning to announce the death of a villager. Ahwe was poured for all those visiting the moghtar's family in the sala where they sit to receive condolences. Some people stay all day - for three days - drinking ahwe with long, sad faces.

The dead leader of the village now has posters of his face tacked onto every tree. Villagers who were not home to hear the bells ring and listen to the public-speaker announcement of his death, or those who didn't receive an SMS of the news, will know that he is no longer their leader by the picture of the mustachioed man haunting every street.

The moghtar's brother was busy tiling our staygha when he received Tuesday's news. He dropped everything and ran to the home where his mother had discovered the lifeless body of his eldest brother. Our staygha will always remind him of the day he lost his brother. The day his brother, our moghtar, found his peace.

deken = convenience store
moghtar = elected village elder
warsheh = building site
staygha = patio
sala = hall
ahwe = Turkish coffee

Eids and fires

Two things the Lebanese cannot do without: eids (feasts) and fire or fireworks. There's always some kind of eid going on somewhere in the country - be it a religious celebration, someone's birthday, pre-marriage festivity or celebration of a child's first tooth. No occasion goes by without having the word eid preceding it. And nothing, as in nothing (not even a tray of shooters) goes by without some form of firework attached to it. Fireworks for weddings, candles for shrines and fires for religious days such as yesterday's Eid el Saleeb (Feast of the Cross).

Fat neighbour came up with the clever idea that, seeing as yesterday was Eid el Saleeb, we might as well make use of the massive pile of dead leaves and pruned branches that were collecting in our back garden (thanks to Dad's big, ongoing garden clean-up project) and cast them into flames in celebration of the eid.

And so the aboulleh was ignited, reminding me of the Eid el Saideh celebrations celebrated in Lebanon during our childhood, where we'd go to Jeddo's brother so catch the spectacular aboulleh show before heading back to Jeddo's staygha for the magical fireworks' performance.

The interesting thing about this eid, is that the 12 days leading from Eid el Saleeb will supposedly indicate what kind of weather we can expect for the upcoming 12 months of the year. Yesterday was very cloudy and it rained in some parts of Lebanon (so September will be that way - which i don't understand if the rest of the month is going to be an indicator...) and today is sunny with a bit of cloud (so October will still offer us some sun).

Tomorrow will tell what kind of November we can expect. Whatever the weather, we can definitely be sure the month will be accompanied by hundreds of fireworks and many eids.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Beit essentials

A Lebanese beit (home) requires a few essentials. I will highlight three of these. Please feel free to add what you think makes a home a beit.

The arguileh. Best enjoyed on the patio or balcony. Hence the construction of the new staygha in our village home. I mean, we need a visible spot to be seen looking relaxed with a pipe dangling from our mouths when guests arrive or villagers drive by. Cough cough.

The brie. A glass water jug found in every kitchen. It allows residents and guests to drink from the same vessel without allowing it to touch their mouths. Lift it by its handle and tip it above your reclined head to let a stream of water enter your ridiculous-looking open mouth from the nozzle. The water streams down nonstop for as long as you can glug. People here have become so accustomed to the brie that they even drink like this from their plastic water bottles - even when no one else is sharing the 500ml bottle!

The Almaza. Lebanese Pilsner beer since 1933. Nuf said.

Yesteryear's Hamra

I spent a morning with the folks in Beirut's Hamra Street, passing by some old joints they remember. Well, places Mom remembers at least. Dad couldn't seem to locate the pubs and clubs he used to frequent ;) I love seeing things through their eyes, and noting how Beirut has changed since the war.

The Saroulla Center that Mom remembers was a much larger space where her aunt Pruni had a burger joint called Saddle Sore - the first American diner of its kind in the city. The lemon meringue was baked in her home and was a hit in Beirut.

During the year in which Mom and Dad were corresponding by mail (they met while Dad was on holiday in Lebanon and wrote letters to each other for a year before he returned to propose and fly her off to the wider streets of South Africa), Dad's cousin took Mom to the Piccadilly Theatre to see Fairouz live. Mom remembers being rather embarrassed by her escort singing along to every tune by Lebanon's most famous singer.

Way In is where Mom used to purchase all her books for varsity when studying at BUC (Beirut University College), now LAU (Lebanese American University. With LAU on one side and AUB on the other, this is a Hamra institution that will never close down.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Eid Mubarak

Eid Mubarak to all the Muslims out there!

I'm proud to say that Greek sista and I finally made it into the big, blue-domed mosque in Downtown after two previous failed attempts. One involved us being chased away before setting foot on the first outdoor step leading up to the mosque, with hand gestures indicating that our clothing was too revealing and that we should come back the following day. Because I'd entered the mosque before (where I was provided with an abaya to cover up), I'd assumed we'd follow the same protocol this time, and figured our chase-off was due to it being a Friday during Ramadan.

So we returned the next day; me in a skirt covering the knees, Greek sista wrapped in a sarong to hide her short shorts, and we made it to the top of the staircase and right up to the entrance. There we were greeted by a different man to the previous day's hand gestures, who was just about to explain something to us when the previous day's man arrived.

'Were you two not here yesterday?' he asked indignantly. Yes. 'And did I not tell you to come back last night?' No, he'd indicated for us to come back the following day. 'No, my hand gesture was showing that you should return in the evening after prayers.' Oops. Round two failed.

Our third attempt involved a little more clever, pre-emptive thinking. We forgot about the heat and squeezed into jeans, covered up with long-sleeve jerseys and tops and wrapped our heads in scarves. We were mosque-ready and marched up the steps with the greatest we're-so-Muslim confidence.

Even that fashion statement didn't gain us entry through the front door! Seems the women's entrance is through the back. Much less fancy but far more welcoming. The ladies welcomed us with great smiles and open arms - arms outstretched to offer us black abayas (the white ones are for those coming to pray). Covered up and barefoot, we made our way up the lift to the ladies' section of the mosque - where children play while their mothers pray - and caught the last of the evening prayers, following the women's movements as they stood and kneeled and bowed on the beautifully carpeted floor overlooking the men doing the same below, under elaborately sparkling chandeliers.

Greek sista and I walked out with an incredible feeling of peace and unity. Eid definitely is mubarak.

After the failure of round one, Greek sista performed a quick sarong transformation to cover up.

While trying to figure out how best to cover up for round three, Greek sista tried the total cover-up, but then she passed out from lack of oxygen and we went back to the drawing board.

The final product. Round three saw us completely transformed into mosque-ready women, complete with long-sleeved jerseys and jeans underneath our abayas.

The moral of this story is that you have to sweat in the clothes of someone else if you really wish to know how they find their peace.

Pepe and his ladies

Pepe Abed, a man who even has a port-side street named after him, was quite the ladies' man - and he has the pictures to prove it! They're all lining the walls of his outdoor restaurant in Jbeil, overlooking the ancient Phoenician water entrance to the city. Like my grandmother's family, he and his close ones found themselves in Mexico after the First World War, where he spent 20 years before returning to Lebanon in 1948. The ladies must have been running to welcome him back, as he appears to have been quite the casanova. Which girl wouldn't fall in love with a jeweller/ restauranteur/ decorator/ nightclub owner/ diver/ archeology-lover/ beach resort and hotel owner and actor?!

Pepe's Fishing Club restaurant, started in 1962, is the only survivor of his dynasty that included six touristic establishments in his heyday. Pepe has now passed away, and his son Roger has taken over the famous restaurant. When Mom told him that she was her Mexican-born uncles' niece, Roger's face lit up, recalling the times his father used to welcome the uncles to the restaurant, happy to have Spanish-speaking friends eat with him.

After having our fill of deep-fried fish (with skin and head still on) with fried bread and tahini on the colourful balcony overlooking old fishing and tourist boats, I'm not sure whether the uncles used to come to converse with Pepe in their home language or to indulge in the fresh fish. Oh, I know - they probably came for the ladies!

A wall dedicated solely to much-loved Pepe Abed.

One of the many walls dedicated to Pepe and the celebrities who have visited his restaurant.

View from our table onto the ancient Phoenician harbour.

With Pepe Adeb's son Roger.

Ruining the ruins

In the words of Greek sista: 'We have ruined the ruins!'

Walking - nay, performing - through the ruins of Byblos this week (said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, with proof of life dating back to 5 000BC!), we managed to entertain ourselves so much that the other tourists must have thought we were paid performers, re-enacting scenes from days long past, and that it was part of the Byblos experience they had paid for. Next time we'll leave a hat on the ground for tips.

Greek sista 'carries' a sarcophagus of one of the Phoenician city's important dead men. (Note that our performances did not come with any historical information. Maybe that's why the tourists returned to their guide.)

Showing a modern-day Lebanese woman's collagen lips while the olden-day Lebanese woman's 12th-century Crusader castle demonstrates how au naturel is much longer-lasting.

Romeo and Juliet fall in love once again in the Roman amphitheatre. This time they'll kill themselves by drowning in the Mediterranean. Tragedy with a splash!

Unfortunately our onlookers (which actually only turned out to be one young chap from Osaka, Japan) were not giving us a standing ovation, so Greek sista quickly assumed the role of rooting audience.

Trying to imagine what the pillar standing on this post could have looked like in who knows when... The old house in the background is apparently a World Heritage Site, but more than that we do not know - except that it has a great view of the Edde Sands beach resort from its top step.

From Neolithic cavemen to the first city of the Phoenicians and then home to the Crusaders, Byblos (which used to be known for its papyrus trade that resulted in the Bible being named after the city, and also as the birthplace of the first alphabetic phonetic script), is a good place to find an excellent rock to perch on and shim el hawa.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Village show

Sunday was the first time I've taken a friend to the village. And boy did the village put on a sterling performance. It was on a high, ready to welcome Greek sista with the most spectacular, clear view all the way to Beirut (a rare afternoon sight - a scene it usually only acts out first thing in the morning before a haze of mist and pollution covers it up). It went on to end the day with a sunset finale worthy of a standing ovation, before the lights came on and everyone went home with smiley, happy hearts.

Photos courtesy of Greek sista. Shukran!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How not to make friends

I ask a 30-something guy waiting for the same bus as me about a certain location in Beirut today. Big mistake.

Him: What do you want to do there?
Me: Just go there.
Him: Where are you from?
Me: South Africa.
Him: South Africa, as in the country?
Me: Yes.
Him: The place where they had the World Cup?
Me: Yes.
Him: What are you doing here?
Me: Hum shim el hawa (thanks for that, Greek sista!).
Him: How long are you staying?
Me: A month.
Him: When did you arrive?
Me: Last month.
Him: So you're here for the summer?
Me: Yes.
Him: You've been going to the beach?
Me: Yes.
Him: Are you here alone?
Me: No.
Him: So you're here with family?
Me: Yes.
Him: With your children?
Me: No (I hide my empty wedding-ring finger).
Him: Where are you staying?
Me: Beirut.
Him: Do you have Lebanese origins?
Me: No.
Him: So who's Lebanese in your family?
Me: My aunt.
Him: What's your name?
Me: Alice.
Him: I'm Hisham. Tsharafna (he extends his hand to shake mine). Alice, do you have a contact number.
Me: Yes, but I don't give it out.
Him: Oh, okay. So are you on Facebook?
Me: Yes, but I don't give it out.
Him: That doesn't matter. I'll just look up Alice.

The bus finally arrives and there's no avoiding sitting next to him, thanks to the strategic empty seats. He hands me his business card and I jump off at the next stop. I'd rather walk in the midday heat than make this new friend.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Sunday equals family day up in the village. A mountain-top village that I had forgotten was connected to the coast by a cable car. Greek sista and I had become so accustomed to our fun bus rides that we weren't too sure about taking the teleferique up to Harissa to meet the fandam. Would it provide sufficient entertainment? There'd be no old men playing with her hair from the seat behind; no greasy La Pebras hairdos offering us Pepsi; no drivers in shirts that match their seat covers; no music that could be turned up...

But step into the teleferique in Jounieh (for only 5 500LL one way) and the need for entertainment slowly disappears as you are transported uphill, via a series of mountainside cables, over magnificent pine trees, looking over a spectacular Mediterranean scene. And then, upon arrival, you're greeted by Mother Mary stretching her arms out to welcome you.

Ahla wa sahla!

Behind the Green Door

There's a place in Mar Mikhael where I love to dance. It's got a green door. Behind this green door are some fun, fun people, friendly barmen, a pole, and a lot and lot of carpeting. But more than that I cannot tell you... You'll have to knock and go Behind the Green Door to see it for yourself. Pity Greek sista won't be there to welcome you with her signature move.

Greece has talent

Just when I thought that Greek sista could no longer surprise me (she'd already latched onto an entire vocabulary of Lebanese words - enough to string together a sentence!), she whips out her most seductive tool yet: the no-hands arguile.

An expert at making Lebanese men fall in love with her by simply walking past them with her gorgeous green eyes, she has now added extra artillery to her ammunition. After paying attention to a fellow restaurant patron smoking opposite her, Greek sista elegantly placed the pipe of our mint and lemon arguile in her mouth, positioned it with great precision towards the side of her face, inhaled and puffed a cloud of sophisticated-looking smoke - while using both hands to handle the menu.

There's not much more to teach her. The girl's got talent!

Jelly belly

Upon entering my belly dancing class just now, I heard the following words: 'Ooh, you've also put on weight.' Nice. I'll admit, I did feel rather sluggish on the 15-minute walk down to class; my thighs were wobbling more than usual while the belly bounced along. But I thought I'd covered up the flab rather well - squeezed it into tight leggings that should have held in the wobble, and covered up with a long-length T so that the bum jump wasn't as visible. Trust the belly dancing teacher - the one who was encouraging us last week to rather have a belly than not have one when performing oriental dance moves - to be the one to point out that the tummy has expanded, poking it where it spurts most.

It was the first time dancing with my new foulard, and the weight definitely made the golden beads shake! I thank you Lebanon for filling me to the brim - and beyond!

Shimmy shimmy shake!

One million dollars...

Remember the little dude in Austin Powers who puts his little finger to his mouth and says, 'one miiiiillion dollars...'? Well imagine if he'd had a finger nail such as this one. It would have made the million dollars seem that much more of a big number, non?

This long-nail-on-pinky-finger thing is very popular among older men in Lebanon. I always thought it was for opening raw almonds but I was informed this weekend, after yet another close (gross) encounter, that it's actually an ear-cleaning device.

Greek sista managed to capture this shot on the bus after I made a big deal about how nice this guy's ring was so that he'd show it to my friend. 'Oh, yes!' she exclaimed, stifling a giggle at the third stalagmite fingernail she'd seen since landing, 'I have to get a photo of your beautiful ring.'

He jumped off the bus proud of his sterling accessory, wiggling his finger in his ear in excitement.

Sales in Saida

No, Greek sista was not selling herself in Saida (as some of the very covered women must have thought as they stared at her trotting past in her short shorts!), but rather she and I were visiting the ancient town (Sidon in English) to see what its people have to sell in their streets. It seems they have a lot of food to offer. Which got us in a bit of a fix. You see, it's Ramadan. The time when Muslims fast during the day. But we're not Muslim. And everything looked so good. We just had to try. Yummy pastries made especially for this season in the Muslim calendar - all filled with deliciously decadent ashta. We ate and ate. Until we were told that it's not the done thing to eat in the streets during Ramadan. Then we were thirsty. Muslims fast from drinking water too. So we hid ourselves behind a corner and drank off the sugar sweetness. Then a street vendor offered us to try his sweets. We obliged him after he showed us how he was eating in the middle of the sidewalk too. But then again, he is the same guy who seemed to follow us all the way to our bus - so maybe he doesn't follow any rules!

Grape leaves for cooking one of Lebanon's specialities: wara hareesh - grape leaves rolled around a mince meat and rice mixture.

Chocolates sold in the heat of the day are cooled by a whirring fan and soothed by the sounds of Arabic music.

Lebanese nougat in every form - some topped with pistachio nuts, others enclosed in dried peach.

While the CD-selling boy stares at me, everyone else checks out Greek sista.

Ramadan treats filled with ashta.

Another ashta delicacy that's sold in pieces cut from this big, round pan.

Pyjamas and slippers sold from an enterprising bonnet.

The younger generation were much more at ease with Greek sista's revealing getup. Maybe because she was wearing their favourite colour!