Stupid Americans

Stupid Americans

We didn’t have a car for our first two years in Beirut, which I would highly recommend for language learning… I have rarely met a taxi driver who isn’t chatty, and it’s a great way to practice your new language skills.

Even now that we have a car, I still use public transportation fairly often, and the conversations never cease to amuse me. I can only think of once when I was really uncomfortable with the way a conversation went – this particular driver was insistent that I take his phone number and call him if I ever met a blonde woman who would be interested in marrying him. Not because he cares about looks, he was quick to mention multiple times, but because he had a dream when he was young that he would have a blonde child, and so he’s certain his blonde wife is out there somewhere, he just needs help meeting her.

Most conversations revolve around religion, politics and whether the taxi driver should try to immigrate to the US. It’s rare to meet a driver who doesn’t have a relative in the States (“my brother’s wife’s sister is in Dearborn!”), and with the economic situation in Lebanon, many are looking outside of the country to give their children a fighting chance at a good future.

So we talk about the struggles of living cross culturally, what makes life in America easier, and whether Los Angeles or Michigan would be a better place for them to live. More often than not, I’m dispelling myths and combating stereotypes about life in America, and I can’t count the number of times the phrase “every country has it’s beauty and it’s issues” comes rolling off my tongue.

no offense, Michigan, but yeah, NO.

Recently I had an especially chatty driver. We talked a lot about his Italian girlfriend and his mom’s opinion of her and her cooking, why I felt it was important to have a conversation with the children tapping on our window trying to sell us toilet paper, and how superhero movies were definitely the best genre of film ever created. This guy was a real movie buff, which also clearly made him an expert on life in America. So he’d tell me about how it is in the States, I would gently correct or agree, and the conversation moved on to his service in the army.

And then, out of nowhere, he lobbed this one my direction. “Apologies for the strong language, but Americans are pretty stupid.”

Umm…okay….?

“Again, no offense at all, but Americans are pretty dumb. I mean, why, if you live in Tornado Alley, would you build a house out of wood?!? Look at this building,” he continued, pointing to a large concrete structure covered in glass windows, “if a tornado hit this, yes, the glass would break, but at least it would still be standing! But no! In America, you guys are like, ‘yes, my brother and mom both died in a tornado, but we are going to rebuild our house with wood!’ See! Stupid Americans! No offense of course.”

And for the first time in my life, a taxi driver rendered me completely speechless. Thanks, Bill Paxton.




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When your shopping can make a difference

When your shopping can make a difference

‘Bu’ arrived in Lebanon at the age of 19 with a simple dream – to dress nicely.  The chance to work seemed to be the first step to fulfilling that dream.  It got her out from under her alcoholic father’s hand and away from the piece of canvas that was her family’s only shelter from the Sri Lankan elements.

A chance to work.  To support her family.  To break the cycle of poverty.  To fulfill her dreams.

Those dreams were dashed when she arrived in Lebanon.  As with many domestic workers, her passport was confiscated upon arrival.  She was never paid for her work, barely fed, and refused all contact with her family.

For a year she lived like this.  And then one day she picked up a phone to call her neighbors back home, hoping to hear a familiar voice, to pass on a message to her family.  When her “madame” found out, she grabbed a kitchen knife, forced Bu against a wall and stabbed her just below the neck.  Fearing for her life, Bu fought back, and is now serving a life-sentence for murder.  She’s been in prison for 19 years.

Bu’s story doesn’t end in a prison cell.  In the midst of the darkness her newfound faith has given her comfort, peace, and hope.

A friend of mine has also helped give Bu a sense of purpose.  She and some other prisoners (both from Lebanon and abroad) have started making soft soled shoes for babies and small toddlers.  Not only is it a source of income – many of these women still have families depending on them – but the act of working, of creating, of doing something worthwhile is life changing for those whose futures seem hopeless.

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Soft soled shoes are actually the only kinds of shoes my kids have worn until they were about 18 months old.  Barefoot is best for early walkers, and these shoes bend and flex like a bare foot would, while protecting little toes from cold hard floors or dirty sidewalks.

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The shoes come in three sizes. Size 1 comes with felt soles and is perfect for a new baby.  Size 2 and 3 have genuine leather soles and fit pre-walkers and walkers.

Shoes are $15 a pair and come with a gift bag.
Pick up is in Hamra or Mansourieh.
To order, contact Steph at arabkiwi@yahoo.com or WhatsApp 009613242914

TBT: Second English

TBT: Second English

TBT Post!

Because the promise I made to myself to blog once a week is apparently too hard to keep… instead of something new enjoy this randomly selected old post, originally published on March 21, 2014

beautiful feet: the blog version

Even though she was born and raised in Lebanon, Isla’s first and strongest language is English.

Honestly, we expected her to be both fluent in English and Arabic by this time.  We do live, after all, in an Arabic speaking country, and both her Daddy and I speak Arabic (though not fluently… yet! :))

There are two main reasons her English is much stronger.  One, Beirut.  English is so prevalent here, and Isla is clearly a foreigner, so people just assume she doesn’t speak Arabic.  Even though we insist that people use Arabic so that she can learn, they rarely do.  So her Arabic input has never been high enough.  When someone asks her a question in Arabic, she replies in English and they understand her, it just reinforces to her that she doesn’t actually need Arabic.

The second reason is her personality.  She is shy and she’s a perfectionist…

View original post 296 more words

Public Transportation in Beirut

Public Transportation in Beirut

Public transportation is widely available in Lebanon.  It can be really cheap, and once you understand the system and have just a little bit of Arabic, it’s not too hard to navigate.  We didn’t have a car our first two years in Beirut and in all that time, we only rented a car once, to go shopping for baby furniture.

There are lots of options to get you where you need to go, with a wide range of prices as well as levels of convenience.

Bus
At first glance it may seem like there is absolutely no bus system.  There aren’t really bus stops or time tables, and even the bus routes are more like suggestions.  But once you get a general idea of where the different buses pass, it’s a great option for getting around town.

There are two types of buses, big buses and small minibuses.  Both use the same system.  You stand on the side of the road of the route, wait for the bus you need with empty space to slow down, and hop on.

The number of the bus is posted on the front window, and the bus will have a red license plate to let you know it’s officially registered as public transportation.

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To be honest, the bus is my least favorite option for getting around Beirut.  My first big bus ride I was pregnant, car sick, and what should have been a 20 minute ride at most took over an hour.  Not because there was traffic, but because the bus driver was driving at a snail’s pace looking for passengers.  He also took several coffee breaks and pulled over numerous times to chat with friends he saw walking by.  The rest of the passengers were just as fed up as I was with the driver, so I know it wasn’t a typical bus ride, but it ruined the whole big bus experience for me.

As the big bus feels slow and clunky, the minibuses feel a bit like Frogger.  These things are fast.  I learned early on not to sit near the door because it’s often left hanging open and the way these guys dart in and out of traffic leaves me fearing for my life and my belongings.  But they will get you where you need to go, they are plentiful, and they are the cheapest option there is to move around the city.

Choose your minibus wisely.  I for one like to have a driver who at least pretends that traffic laws apply to him.

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Service (prounounced sare-vees)
The service is the form of public transportation that I use the most.  It’s a shared taxi that costs 2,000 LL for short trips.  It has no specific route.  You stand on the side of the road and when a car with a red license plate approaches you (often with a honk), you say you want a service and the name of the neighborhood or street you want to go to.  They will either tip their head back and move on, tell you to get in, or negotiate if the driver thinks your destination is a bit too far.  He may ask you for “servic-ein” meaning 2 services, or 4,000 LL.  You pay per seat, so if you have a child in your lap you only count as one passenger.

The service won’t take you door to door, but will take you to the general area where you want to go.  It may or may not be the most direct route, depending on if he has or picks up other passengers on the way, but I’ve found that service drivers want to be efficient, they want to pick up and drop off the most passengers as possible without going out of their way, so it’s rare that I get taken on a huge tour of Beirut before being dropped off at my destination.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between a service and a taxi, so it’s important to agree with the driver up front that you expect a shared ride.  If there is already someone in the car, you can assume it’s a service, although it doesn’t hurt to double check.  Generally speaking, the nicer looking cars operate only as taxis.  It’s also wise to take a look into the car before hopping in.  I personally don’t get in if there is only one seat left and the car is full of men.  I’m also careful if there is only the driver and one male passenger, although it’s not a hard and fast rule for me.

It’s a rare instance when you can’t find a service willing to take you where you want to go inside Beirut, so it’s usually my go-to when I need to utilize public transportation.

Taxi
Taxis come in all shapes and sizes. As with the other forms of public transport, they will have a red license plate letting you know they are authorized.  Some will not be marked in any other ways, others will have the name of their company and phone number written.  You can order a taxi by phone or by waiting at the side of the street for one to pass.  Most taxis don’t run on a meter, so make sure you agree on the price before you get into the car.  The driver will take into consideration both the distance and the amount of traffic, although some companies will have set rates between certain parts of town.  We generally take taxis to the airport, and it costs us about $20 from Hamra if we call and arrange it ahead of time.

Everyone will have their favorite company to recommend, and we’ve had good and bad experiences with several different companies, as well as good and bad experiences with random taxis who we’ve grabbed as they drove by.  But taxis are a great way to go if you have a group of people, a lot of luggage or need to be at somewhere at a very specific time.

Uber is new and becoming more and more popular in Beirut.  As in other places, you order your car using the app and pay a set fee plus the metered cost of your trip.  I’ve never tried it personally, but have friends who rave about the service.

There’s always Walid.  I’m not sure I’m comfortable with taking a ride with him to eternity, but at least I know he’s an option!

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Personally my favorite way to get around Beirut is by walking, but I’m thankful when I get stuck in a rainstorm or need to go somewhere out of my normal radius to have so many other options for getting where I need to go.  Once you get a feel for things, you really can go almost anywhere for just a few dollars!

And for a whole ‘nother post someday…

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Mourning from the Middle

Mourning from the Middle

On Thursday evening, Beirut was attacked by suicide bombers. Did you know that? 43 dead, hundreds wounded. My Facebook newsfeed was quickly filled with people frantic for news of friends and family, soon followed by the faces and names of those murdered. The father who tackled the third bomber, saving hundreds of lives, but losing his own. The nurse on his way to work. The three year old boy who in a split second was seriously injured and made an orphan.

Mourning and grief. Fear and dread.

Then two days later, Paris. More than 100 dead, even more wounded. My newsfeed fills with people frantic for news of friends and family. Stories of the horrific events start to filter out and posts start popping up, “Pray for Paris.” My newsfeed soon becomes full of my friends and family who have changed their profile picture to the French flag.

Mourning and grief. Fear and dread.

But then there’s another emotion starting to overtake my newsfeed. A new one from my Lebanese friends: Hurt. Anger. A sense of abandonment.

Why is the life of a Parisian worth more in the world’s eyes than a Beiruti? Why is every profile picture now a France flag, and yet we never had that option when tragedy struck our community?

This is not to take anything away from the horror of what happened in Paris. My Lebanese friends would be the first to say that. In fact many of them have also posted their own prayers for Paris. But I feel as someone living in between two cultures in many ways, I might have some insight – for both sides – as to why the imbalance and why it matters.

The Media

When the bombing hit Beirut, it was actually the leading story on CNN’s international page. It was described as a suicide bombing in a Hezbollah stronghold.

My Western friends, what does that make you think of? A war zone. With fighters and guns on every corner. Soldiers, terrorists, guns and bombs. That’s the mental picture conjured up by the words “Hezbollah stronghold.”

But what if I told you the bombs went off in a neighborhood? Homes, shops, cafes. One right outside of a school. It didn’t kill soldiers fighting in a war. It killed children. Moms and dads and sons and daughters, on their way to work, home from school, or out for dinner. Does that change your mental picture at all? Would you pray for us more knowing it is “innocents” going about their daily lives who were ruthlessly and senselessly murdered?

The Frequency

“They are used to bombs in the Middle East. It’s different in Paris.”

No.

Anytime a life is cut short, whether by violence, disaster or disease, it is mourned. Do you know that every 3 minutes, a child is diagnosed with cancer? But does that mean each individual child is not worth fighting for, praying for, grieving for? Of course not.

No matter how often it happens, you do not get used it it. We come up with different ways to cope, yes. But no, we are not used to it.

The Magnitude

There is no question that Paris was an attack of larger magnitude. Simultaneous attacks in multiple parts of the city are a big deal. So many people dead and injured. I read that it’s the day with the most casualties in France since World War 2. Tragic. Huge. Worth all the weeping and mourning that we can give.

This is not intended to take away from the magnitude of the attack in Paris in any way. But does anyone remember, or did you even know that this spring 147 students were murdered by terrorists at a college in Kenya? Why is that so different in the eyes of the world?

Grief is never a competition. We should grieve with all of those who are grieving. Whether in Paris, or Beirut or Kenya or in the house at the end of our street. Every life cuts short deserves our tears.

The Response

When he woke up on Saturday morning, Caleb was browsing through his facebook and had an odd notification. Several friends had marked that they were safe in Paris. That’s how we found out about the terrorist attack. Facebook had enabled a button for people to use to let their friends and family know they were safe when tragedy struck. We don’t have that in Beirut. Add to that the flags, the prayers, the world leaders condemning the bombings in Paris as an attack on humanity, the entire West seemingly standing in solidarity with a city facing it’s darkest hour…. and whether right or wrong, the FEELING is that Parisian lives are more important than Beiruti lives.

This is categorically not true. Every life has value. Death, no matter how or where it comes, is worth grieving. I know that most (I will not say all, because I’ve read your status updates and the articles you’ve shared) of my friends and family in the West would agree with me. Of course, we believe that all life is valuable. I know most would never say that an Arab life is worth less than an American or a European life.

But here’s the thing. If by our actions and our words, a whole community of people FEEL as though their lives aren’t seen as worthwhile, then we, the West, are doing something wrong, and we need to fix that.

The Coping Mechanism

This is a theory I’ve had for a few years now. I think that when faced with tragedy, one of our first coping mechanisms is to tell ourselves that “it could never happen to me.” I suspect this is universal, but I’m no expert and could be wrong about that. I’ve seen it in myself and in many of my friends. A bomb goes off, a shooting happens, a natural disaster hits and we start giving ourselves reasons why it is something we don’t need to fear. There’s a war there. I never go to that neighborhood. I don’t associate with those people who were targeted. Our country has better infrastructure to survive that earthquake, hurricane, tsunami, whatever. While deep down inside we know that tragedy can strike anyone, anywhere, I think this coping mechanism of distancing ourselves however we can helps us move through our daily life without fear.

But for many of us, at some point, tragedy will hit too close to home to rationalize away. For me, it was the December 26 bombing in 2013. It was right around the corner from our house. We felt it and heard it and ran to hide in the bathroom in case there was a second bomb. Had it been another morning, I would have been walking by. There was no rationalizing it away this time. But for the grace of God, my family could have been killed by that car bomb.

I think Paris is that for many Westerners. Those streets have been walked by many. We all go to restaurants and concerts and sporting events, so we can picture ourselves there. The streets look like the streets in our cities, in our neighborhoods. While my Arab friends think Americans grieve for Paris more because the victims look like them, I don’t think that’s true for most. I think what makes Paris so scary for Americans is because it’s a realization that, “that could be me.” Whether right or wrong, intentional or not, the average American can much more easily picture herself sitting at a restaurant with friends in Paris than she can see herself walking the streets of a “Hezbollah stronghold” in Beirut.

So to my Lebanese friends, please, give us some grace. People in the West are scared too and trying to cope with a world that seems to be falling apart all around them, just like we are doing here in Beirut.

But let us all remember that a cafe in Paris is not that much different from a cafe in Beirut. Different languages, yes. The menu isn’t the same and the weather is much warmer here in Lebanon. But the people sitting in the cafe for a break after a busy day, for a coffee and a chat with friends? The same.

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I have a whole head full of more thoughts. But this is getting long for a blog post and I can hear the water running through the pipes that have been empty for the past 24 hours, so I’m gonna get that shower while I can.

Since I started writing this a few days ago in my head, many more people who are much smarter, and certainly more well rested than I am have written a whole host of articles about this…. I don’t necessarily agree with them all, but it’s good and helpful to get other’s perspectives as well. The more we know and can identify with “the other” – whether that be the Westerner or the Arab, the better we can love, the more clearly we can pray, and the more united we can be in the face of those who seek to kill and destroy.

I Run for Peace. For Family. For Community.

I Run for Peace. For Family. For Community.

As we stood crammed together at the starting line for the Beirut Marathon, I actually found myself tearing up as the announcer alternated between two mini-speeches to the thousands of parents and children waiting to run.  “Please, be very, very careful, there are very small children at the front, do not shove, do not push, be patient, be calm.”  And then, “Good morning Peace Runners! Look at us all here, all together, all running for peace, for love, to show the world what our country can be!  We run for Lebanon!  We are here as Lebanese, one people running to show our solidarity and our hope for this land and what we believe it can be!”

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That’s one of the reasons this is one of my favorite days of the year.  Thousands upon thousands all gathered together to enjoy the city, their families and one another.  In many ways, this country is a mess.  Garbage is still piled up under bridges and on the banks of the Beirut river.  There is an infestation of flies.  A teacher checking the underpants of a Syrian child in front of the class to make sure they are clean.  And then this same 6 year old being kicked out of school for being Syrian.  We are surrounded by war, by heartache, by immense need.  And yet on this one day, we all come together to collectively shout to the world that even in the midst of all the mess, we still have hope.  We blast our music, we sing and dance in the streets, and we run.  Some run to break their records, others run to raise money for charity.  Some just for fun, others to rally around a cause.  But the beauty of it is, no matter the reason, we all run.  Together.  Towards one finish line.  Together.

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My girls love the race.  Isla woke up on the first of November bouncing off the walls because it was race month.  This year they were thrilled to find kids’ shirts in their registration packet.

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They were up and dressed bright and early.  Really early.

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We headed downtown to line up for our race.  We got to Martyr’s Square and could see where we needed to be, but couldn’t agree on how to get there.  I thought we should follow the crowd of hundreds which was a huge mistake.  We got stuck in a suffocating mass of people hanging out and had to jump over a few metal barriers to get free and find our gathering area.  I’m not sure why we decided to follow the directions of the one (ahem, me) who once got lost driving home from Ohio and decided to follow a car with a Georgia license plate because surely they were heading to North Carolina.  But I digress.  We finally made it to our meeting point and then headed to the starting line.

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Caleb and Isla ran ahead, and Isla did awesome!  The race was longer this year, 2 km instead of one, which was perfect.  It’s long enough that you can actually enjoy it, but not too long that Isla couldn’t run almost the whole thing.  She had to stop and walk once, but ended up finishing the race in 13 minutes.  Not bad for a 6 year old!

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The new course was really nice.  In the past, the Run with Parents has been in a really quiet part of downtown, away from the rest of the circuits.  But this year it was right in the middle of everything.  It made things feel really fun and festive, although it meant the course was really crowded with other runners waiting for their race to start, hanging out in the middle of the street where we were trying to run, taking pictures and listening to the music.  We never really had an empty stretch of street to run on, which was fine because Ruby was happy to walk most of the way.  Although I do think she was a bit overwhelmed by the crowds and would have run had there been a little more space.  She did take off when we hit the red carpet indicating the finish line was just ahead.

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And Luka clearly enjoyed his first race (first race unless you count last year when he was a week away from being born).

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We made our way through the lines to get our goody bags and came away with handfuls of fruit, juice, granola bars and water.  If Ruby was eh about the race, she was more than happy with her treats.

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Speaking of treats, the girls made bank with their goody bags this year.  Way better than the trail mix and water they got last year.  Although somehow we managed to get a few 10k medals.

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We had planned on meeting friends at the start to run together, but we couldn’t find each other in the crowd so we met up at the finish line so the girls could show off their medals.

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It’s the kind of morning you don’t want to end.  So we headed to our favorite restaurant for a second breakfast and to let the girls rehash their successes on the course.

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As we wandered back home, we walked a bit with the 10 k Fun Runners.  Or Riders as the case may be.

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Only in Lebanon!

Balcony composting

Balcony composting

Recycle, reduce, reuse.  All school children learn it, but until the garbage crisis hit Lebanon, it didn’t seem to be high on the list of priorities for many.  We’ve been recycling plastic and paper for a few years now, although we’ve lost trust in the company we were going through and still searching for a trustworthy alternative that doesn’t charge an arm and a leg and will actually recycle and not just throw it all in the trash.

Another way we’ve tried to be more environmentally friendly is through composting.  Even though we don’t have a yard, we’ve had a compost bin on our balcony for a few years, and it’s been so easy to maintain.  I love that we are cutting down on our waste and the surprise tomato plants that grew out of the soil we created were a fun, added bonus!

To get started with balcony composting, you first need to prepare your bin.  We use a large garbage pail.  Drill holes in the bottom and raise it up on a pallet or bricks.  Put a tray underneath to catch any extra drainage and you are ready to start filling your bin!
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Now you can start collecting your kitchen scraps.  We have a small container on the counter that we toss everything in.  Fruit and veggie peels, seeds and stems, coffee grounds and egg shells are what we most often fill our bin with.  You want to have a good mix of green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon) materials so your compost doesn’t smell and it is able to properly decompose.  Most kitchen scraps are green material, so we also add in cardboard egg cartons, shredded paper, the dried leaves our kids collect while walking and sometimes soil from our balcony plants.  The smaller your scraps, the quicker they will turn into compost.

IMG_8039We try to mix the compost every week or two, which exposes the mixture to air and speeds up the process.  You want your compost to be slightly wet but not a sopping. There will be bugs in your bin, but they are actually helping to speed things up!  In the summer, the process is pretty quick, but we’ve found when it gets cold it nearly stalls.  But keep at it and eventually you’ll have beautiful nutrient rich soil to start your own balcony garden!

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