I have definitely grown a food baby since I’ve been here. This week, my daily food intake has been the equivalent of a tapas meal for 10, including portions of fattoush, tabbouleh, houmous, moutabbal (an aubergine tahini dip that I’m pretty sure is sold to us ignorant Europeans as baba ghanoush a lot of the time), shawarma, chicken shish, to name only a few better known dishes. All in the name of ‘evaluating’, i.e. standing around trying to make informed comments, like ‘needs more lemon, oh yass’, ‘maybe more salt, hn hm’. Highly specialist stuff. And usually it is met by a reply from the chef along the lines of ‘NON. We never put salt in zis’ (French face for extra drama). So also highly useful.
It seems that I have not made a complete break from my past occupation (but oh is evaluating food way more fun than evaluating development projects). Evaluation inevitably involves comparing what we are experiencing to some expectation or other. An expectation either based on what we are familiar with,-someone described the houmous as ‘honest’, which I presume means authentic.
Actually she said it in French, which sounds way more sophisticated, so I might say ‘il faut mettre plus sel’ next time-, or on some ideal to which we are aspiring. Comparison is the death of joy’ according to Mark Twain. Or according to Theodore Roosevelt, who apparently said it was the thief of joy. Hard to know who said it first, since they both lived around the same time, or whether it really matters anyway. After all, innovation –another delightful concept from which I cannot escape- is just moving ideas from one field to the next, isn’t it? Which is slightly better than academic research, which a friend once told me is about moving bones from one graveyard to the next.
When you arrive in a new place it’s hard not to make -no doubt superficial- comparisons to other places you’ve been. Walking through the streets near my house, in the more upscale parts of the Gemmayze and Ashrafieh neighbourhoods, it feels like wandering through a Spanish or Portuguese town with its small cobbled footpaths, grocery shops filled with alluring fruit and vegetables, and tall colonial apartment buildings full of old world charm.
Then you pass by a few decaying and vacant blocks of flats, and it starts to look less like Europe now, and more like what parts of it might look like in a few years ;). Even the bustlier (yes, invented word), poorer parts of the city, which admittedly I’ve only glimpsed in passing so far, remind me a bit of some areas of Athens. And then you come across a building covered with bullet holes, pass a checkpoint manned by what seems to be both the army and civilian Hezbollah security, or catch a glimpse of the Palestinian ‘camps’ behind a façade of roadside shops and hotels, and you are reminded you are certainly not in Europe.
And then there’s the driving. During the first few days, when my outings were mainly with the half-Lebanese friends who drive with Northern European responsibility, I thought the road behaviour was not THAT much crazier than southern Europe. But this week (avert your eyes worrying family) I’ve experienced true Formula 1 style driving, giving life to the Italian colloquialism of ‘vai sotto’ (literally ‘go under’ the car in front of you). I’m talking overtaking at high speed on winding mountain roads. Thankfully, I have St Christopher looking out for me (and hopefully someone higher up than him too).
The Mediterranean Sea, though, blue and sparkling in the sun, is the same beautiful sea shared by all the Med countries, a place of which has now become associated as much with tragedy as with beauty. And the mountains and trees of the Chouf nature reserve, which I have the privilege of calling my current daily workplace, well they are ‘more than beautiful’ as one of my pseudo-colleagues said to me today. They are indeed beyond comparison.
As I self-consciously write this post, I am aware that I am unlikely to be the first person to make these observations. But I might be the first person to tell YOU- dear reader(s-maybe, if someone other than my Mum is reading)- them! Indeed, being here I am coming to learn that my shy hopes of doing something original, individual, unique, which I tried unsuccessfully to quell and which were nurtured by admiring comments from friends and family about being brave and such, were, well, a little ingenuous. I came back to a house party last Friday night where half of the people were also in Lebanon for a couple of months to try something different, usually something like learning Arabic so we can adapt to the new world order etc etc. But aha! At least I’ve bought an original guidebook to Beirut, I thought (very cool and described here, if you still have your eyes open). Of course any guidebook that is on sale in the Virgin Megastore downtown is unlikely to be that exclusive and naturally, most people there had that also. But wait…surely no-one has come to ‘intern/volunteer/eat endless food’ in a Lebanese restaurant…?? Yesterday my pseudo-colleague says: ‘We had another Irish volunteer here before. She taught us ‘Conas ata tu?’’ What?! Not only another food volunteer but also Irish….Ah, I hang up my hat.
So I suppose I’ve only one last truth to rely on (quiet postmodernists!): I am the only ‘me’ doing this, right here, right now. Wherever you go, there YOU are, according to classic mindfulness wisdom. Or according to Chanel No. 5 advertising:
(Perhaps only funny if you watch the original)
I know that people are hanging on the edges of their seats waiting for the fruits of some of my kitchen stalking: an actual recipe. Stay tuned.