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Caught In Between (Part III)

This is the third installment in a multi-part series narrating Beirutista's upbringing abroad and her wrestling between different cultures.
See other posts in this series here: Part I, Part II, Part IV

At UC Irvine, I was vigilant for any scent of Lebanese life. I scouted Ring Road, the campus perimeter, during club week and discovered the Lebanese Social Club as well as the Society of Arab Students, both of which I quickly signed up for.

In classes, too, if I overheard anyone speaking Arabic or if their appearance seemed mildly Mediterranean, I'd summon the courage to introduce myself. There were two--cousins, in fact--in my sophomore engineering statics class who, coincidentally, hailed from the same city where we live in Lebanon. But having freshly arrived from Lebanon, they were anxious to mask their roots and blend in with American mainstream society, a stark contrast to my pride in my heritage. I had shed the self-consciousness from my days in grade school, and now when…

Snowhead?

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They're called snowmen for a reason. Personally, the snowhead resting on the ledge strikes me as eerie.

Scam Slam

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I confess: Gustav's pastries are decadent. The Hamra patisserie has catapulted into fame for its red velvet cake balls, and it's no wonder because the small spherical bites pack a dense, doughy richness that can't be found anywhere else in Lebanon.

3,500LL ($2.33) seems a bit steep for something so small, but Gustav can get away with it--it's a monopoly, after all. But when a chain coffee shop just a few blocks down from the distributor charges 8,000LL ($5.33) per ball, that's a criminal offense. Second Cup features a selection of cakes, viennoiseries, and muffins in addition to its specialty coffees. Half of those pastries come from Gustav, and what drove me wild last week as I sat inside Second Cup watching customer after customer fork over one form of dough for another was the cafe's selling strategy. Brilliant but felonious.

None of the pastries have a price displayed. And everyone knows Lebanese people wouldn't be caught dead asking for the price on a…

Wet and wild

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Lebanon's wet season is well underway, and it hasn't been merciful. Gusty winds knocked over this soda cooler down by St. Georges Bay.

West Coast Wrap Up

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My last week in the US was celebrated with a Carnival cruise to Avalon and Ensenada, in Baja California. Days were spent lounging, sunbathing, and eyeing the extensive buffet with temptation and angst; nights were filled with comedy shows, Las Vegas style performances, and fancy four-course meals. But this trip brought me to one startling realization: how fat America has become.

If you ever want to fully understand the meaning of "morbidly obese," board one of these ships and see for yourself. I'd venture to say that a good three-fourths of the passengers were easily overweight, and to my surprise and grief, they exercised no restraint at mealtimes (and every minute in between). One main dish at dinner simply wasn't enough; they required multiple to be satiated. Food was available around the clock: the pizza parlor and frozen yogurt bar never shut down. Lunch could be had as soon as 11 am and lasted so long, it ran into dinner.

But what really shook me up is the ab…

Welcome to the US of A

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It has been two years since I set foot in the US, and I must confess, either a lot has changed or my tolerance has waned in the interim.

Gripes:

No matter how close to the front my seat assignment on a plane is, I always (and I mean always) manage to fall in the last boarding group. This generally means my carry-on gets confiscated, dumped in the stow away, and is the last to be pulled off the plane and conveyed to the baggage carousel. So much for a quick airport exit. Domestic flights do not offer on-board food service, and entertainment is limited to one movie displayed on the tiny main screens.Southern California feels like it's exclusively minorities. I'm all for the melting pot, but what happened to the fair skinned folk?Public transportation in Boston needs a serious face lift: it's unpredictable, inconsistent, and so pathetically slow compared to its European counterparts'. Only now have they started posting times of the next trains in some major stations.Yes, o…

My culinary adventure in Boston

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I hadn't been back to Boston since I graduated in June 2009. I'd always smiled upon my memories of the city, as it marked my first brush with urban life, a taste of Europe in America, and the appreciation of four distinct seasons.

As a student, I hadn't had the time to indulge in Boston's food scene, so coming back, I had a few items on my list that I was keen on trying. John Paul, my brother, also added his contributions to my local food tour, and in all it was a happy medley of comfort food.

The night I arrived, John Paul took me to Amsterdam Falafel, a fast food joint where you self-assemble the toppings of your falafel sandwich. The falafel balls are true to the Lebanese variety I'm familiar with, but the assortment of dips and veggies were rather unusual of a falafel sandwich. You could of course choose the traditional tahini sauce, along with pickled horseradish and chopped parsley, but there was also hummus, pureed eggplant, sauerkraut, tzatziki, pickles, o…

"Homeward" Bound

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It's been 22 months since I arrived to Beirut, earnest, energetic, and overflowing with optimism. On a mission, I'd been dispatched by MIT to recruit the region's finest, but in so doing, I myself was recruited for a job in strategy management at a leading local bank.

I've finally accumulated enough vacation days to go "home," to my country of birth, to my childhood house, to the world I first awoke to. Riverside County is stop #1, where I'll linger a little less than a week before I fly east to Boston to visit my younger brother at Tufts. Boston is my second home: I spent a good two years there pursuing my graduate degree, academic glory, and New England's finest: clam chowder. I can't wait to be back: I've already devised a plan of alimentary adventures!

Thanksgiving will be celebrated in Riverside, where Mom will cook her oriental take on the classic stuffed turkey. The following week, we'll be setting sail on a cruise to Mexico, and …

Birthday Blessing

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My birthday was a few days ago, on the 1st of November, and I was moved beyond words by the flurry of warm wishes of friends and loved ones from all around the world. I was especially touched by those who mentioned the blog and how earnestly they enjoy reading it. One friend and former MIT hallmate composed this beautiful poem for the occasion (thank you, Ibon!):


Worldly Beirutista,
You were born a bridge between
The paradise gardens of the East
And the silicon valleys of the West.
Salt of land, perfume of sea,
Music of the Beirut breeze.

How lucky, those who are from anywhere
and nowhere.
They fly over bushes and waves,
Not caught in between.
Alas, cannot take care of what they love.

I like peanut butter with pita bread.

You hear America singing,
But write sweet songs in Beirut,
And see Lebanon smiling.

Happy Birthday, Danielle.


I vow to continue the adventure, be it sweet or bittersweet! Thank you, dear readers, for your love, support, and loyalty. It is an honor serving you.

Happy Halloween!

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One of the iconic American holidays I miss most here in Beirut is Halloween. Growing up, the day meant costume competitions at school, plastic Jack-O-Lantern buckets brimming with candy, and of course, eerie music for the occasion. Our teachers, too, would dress up in classic witch outfits, parade around campus with us as we strutted our festive garb, and throw a classroom party complete with black-and-orange cupcakes and a cauldron of black punch for drinking. Though my costumes were terribly unoriginal and sometimes unrecognizable--my ninja suit one year puzzled a lot of neighbors--the day always found me animated.

My father would buy a pumpkin in mid-October, and together we'd sketch an ominous face using a Sharpie pen, incise along the markings, and then hollow out the pumpkin from the mush and seeds it contained. My mother would hang Halloween-inspired masks with streamers on the front porch to greet trick-or-treaters making their rounds. And eagerly we'd beckon the dusk…

Bhar

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Last week, I finally had the opportunity to try downtown Beirut's latest hotspot and cafe, Bhar (or spice in Arabic), a few steps past pub row on Uruguay Street. I popped in around mid-morning and noticed a breakfast buffet, evocative of the ones you see at hotels, featuring jams, cheeses, deli meats, veggies, and dried fruit. Not really fancying breakfast, I made my way to the dessert display, three racks of dainty French treats, upon which my eyes beheld an enticing French-Lebanese fusion: circular disks of Turkish delight (or Lebanese lokum) adorned with crumbs of crushed cashew and delicately arranged on a bed of sweetened cheese inside a buttery sablet tart. The pastry was as delicious as it appeared, so rich and delectable that I cut it up like pie and enjoyed each exquisite triangle.
The American coffee I ordered came in a ceramic cup molded in the form of a flimsy polystyrene plastic cup, the kind you use at water dispensers, that had warped from the hot liquid it contain…

Caught in Between (Part II)

This is the second installment in a multi-part series narrating Beirutista's upbringing abroad and her wrestling between different cultures.
See also Parts IIII, and IV of this series.

In 1992 and again in 1994, my parents attempted to transplant us to Lebanon for good, enrolling us at the only American school at the time--Sagesse High in Ain Saadeh--and buying a house in nearby Mansourieh. Student life in Lebanon was nothing like that in California: students were more critical, judgmental, and devoutly conformist. A few hissed at me the first few days, when I was still without a school uniform: for my delinquency, I risked severe "danger." Teachers were stern, immune to doling out physical discipline in the form of a slap or a tug at the ear. My brothers and I suffered miserably in French class and had to enroll in remedial Arabic classes. But we were kids, and kids are resilient.

We quickly learned to embrace our new world. We'd buy chips at lunch, not for the ju…

Carrot Twist

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We're all familiar with the iconic Carrot Top, but could this be the long lost Carrot Bottom?

Caught in Between (Part I)

This is the first installment in a multi-part memoir narrating Beirutista's upbringing abroad and her wrestling between different cultures. Please also visit Parts II, III, and IV.

Sometimes I wish I weren't Lebanese. It's true: I didn't grow up in Lebanon. I was born in California to Lebanese parents who had only briefly met, fallen in love, and married as the civil war in Lebanon raged on. My father had already been living in the US, having established a home and livelihood there, and without any hesitation, my newlywed mother left her native country to embark on a new life with him. No amount of foresight or planning could have prepared her for what awaited in California, and as my brothers and I were growing, we witnessed how arduous Mom's assimilation and adaptation to the American culture were.

Mom constantly reminisced about her large family in Lebanon--her mother a widow at 29, her two brothers and four sisters--how closely-knit and loving they were, each …

Only in Lebanon: Part II

A while back, I published an entry about my pet peeves in Lebanon. I think it's only fair that I present the other side to the coin, the stuff I love about this country. Naturally, as a gourmet, I'll start with la nourriture:
The French culinary influence which grants us decadent gateaux, les baguettes, and des bons fromages The ubiquity of an international range of restaurants serving top-notch nosh: Peninsula, Julia's, Braai, Mandaloun, Cocteau, and Mondo are a few of my favoritesThe popularity of happy hour, and thus, the certain presence of a good cocktailOpen-air cafes, restaurants, lounges, and pubs: think Zaituna Bay and Uruguay StreetCheap street grub when times call for it: manakish, falafel, shawerma, taouk, basterma, and kafta wrapsElastic Arabic ice creamSweetened ketchupPickled anything: cucumbers, carrots, horseradish, stuffed eggplantsStarbuck's double chocolate muffin, grace à Le Meilleur caterersThe availability of anything and everything in the local …

A Taste of France in Beirut

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I have always adored grocery shopping. More like worshiped it. Scouring the aisles for new products, poring over the nutrition facts, curiously examining delicacies from abroad...the epicurean adventures are limitless!

Now that I work in the financial district in downtown Beirut, I am just a few steps away from Beirut Souks and the TSC Signature gourmet supermarket. It's my go-to at least 2-3 times a day when I'm looking for a break from the office or a simple alimentary pleasure.

Several months ago, I discovered fine French yogurt and dessert products in the refrigerated aisle. Their packaging caught my attention: some came in colored ramequins, others in glass cups and bowls, still others in reusable jars with plastic lids. Their reusability and novelty intrigued me, but the diversity of the yogurt flavors really did me over: prune, chestnut, café, caramel, lemon. And how about the mixed flavors like raspberry-lychee, apple-kiwi, mango-passion fruit, and strawberry-lime? The…

Festival Fun

Last week, Lebanon hosted a variety of festivals, from the well-received Vinifest featuring Lebanese winemakers; Oktoberfest, a sad attempt at the famous Bavarian shindig; and the Beirut International Film Festival, a showcase of new talent on the Lebanese scene. For better or worse, I attended all three.

Vinifest, in its fifth year, was a smashing success. I could hardly contain my excitement when I arrived to the Hippodrome, an outdoor equestrian arena that had been transformed into lovely picnic grounds. Arranged in a vast semi-circle were at least 30 tents, each exhibiting a different winery with the full range of its products. And let me tell you, several had more than simply wine! One of my favorites was Chateau Najm, from the Chabtine valley in Batroun, which offered tasters red wine, the anise-flavored potion arak (similar to French Pastis and Greek Ouzo), and olive oil. I was surprised to see a Syrian winery, Bargylus, among the mix, as I had no idea Syria was fruitful in vi…

Beirut Souks Spectacle

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What's the story behind the dummy lying face down beneath a bench in Beirut Souks? At first I thought she was a human making a statement of some sort, as even up close, the body seems real. But yesterday, as I stopped to study the spectacle after work, a fellow bystander explained she was just a dummy, and noticing my disbelief, he walked up to her and nudged her with his foot. The body easily gave.
Bizarre and creepy. What's the scoop?

Restaurant Review: Latest Version Diner

Saturday night we headed over to Latest Version Diner (LVD), pumped up in anticipation for their premium burgers. Anytime a restaurant has to remind you that their fare is "premium," you can bank on the fact that it won't be. If you're a leader, do you have to spew it to the world? Certainly not. But we ignored the obvious, because we were desperate for a real burger in a country where the frankfurter is deemed bliss in a bun.

The roasted shelled peanuts offered upon our arrival were promising. Even the napkin that was covered with print descriptions of Angus versus Wagyu, marbled meat, and the merits of each was enlightening. But the rapture ended there. We ordered 6oz. Angus beef burgers, expressly asking for no mayonnaise on any, along with sides of potato wedges and a green salad. The waiter tried to convince us that the wedges would be divinity incarnate if topped with chili con carne, but we politely declined. A burger without the frills, please.

After a reaso…

Plastic Chair City

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In the wake of Pope Benedict VI's visit this past weekend to Lebanon and the massive open-air mass held at the Biel seaside, thousands of chairs--stacked or sprawled about--continue to adorn the Beirut skyline. A reported 350,000 spectators made it out on Sunday to the Pope's special service.


Restaurants: Past & Present

Dining out has never been so popular in Lebanon as it is today. New restaurants open every week, striving to differentiate their service or cuisine with a unique flair (does "Lebanese with a twist" ring a bell?). But with competition so fierce, many are finding themselves in the red, unable to make ends meet, and they're closing their doors to diners.

Strangely enough, since I moved here nearly 20 months ago, several hamburger joints have gone out of business. Anyone remember Burger N Booze, the tiny burger shack on a street corner along Monot that resembled an outdoor sports bar? Their rib eye burgers were truly some of the juiciest and tastiest I've sunk my teeth into, both here and abroad. The prices were a bargain too, at about 15,000LL ($10) per burger. But B&B rarely had volume--underdogs don't stand a chance against hyped up eateries in Lebanon--and the last time I was there earlier this year, I could sense that the quality of the food had severely de…

The Price is NOT Right

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I used to think basic pricing strategies were common sense. For example, if there are multiple sizes of a particular product, say 100g and 200g of Haribo Happy Cola candy, you'd expect the 200g bag to cost relatively less than the 100g bag. First, companies like to reward customers who shop big, hence the slight discount for the larger product; and second, convenience costs money. A small bag is more desirable to an individual shopper, so pricing it at a premium is an infallible tactic retailers use to make an easy penny.
This was not the case at TSC Signature store in the downtown Beirut Souks, where I found myself yesterday afternoon wiling away in the candy aisle. The 100g bag of Haribo Happy Cola is priced at 1,450LL ($0.97), whereas double the size will set you back 3,150LL ($2.10). It may be a mere 16-cent mark up, but I think they meant to reverse the sign: -0.16, not +0.16. Go figure.


Another rule that almost goes without saying is that store brands are cheaper than name …

The Spectrum of Hired Help

A couple weeks ago, we trekked up to the mountains of Faraya to seek escape from the intense heat plaguing Beirut. The climate is remarkably cooler, and the clean, pristine air revitalizing. We made our way to Faqra, a beautiful resort village studded with mansions, gated communities, a golf course, and ski slopes. We arrived to the hustle and bustle of a street circus that had drawn out throngs of kids and their parents.

But these weren't village kids per se. These were the privileged children of wealthy families who own swanky villas in Faqra and vacation there exclusively in the summer and winter. They sport fashionable wear, wile their summers in day camp, and are vigilantly tended to by live-in maids. In fact, many families have more than one maid, depending on the number of kids they have in tote.

This scene got me thinking about so-called domestic servitude in Lebanon. With the growing number of mothers in the workforce, many families rely on paid help to maintain the ho…

Marching On

None of us crave moving on. There's comfort in the familiar, a natural inclination to plod along with the status quo. We've all found ourselves in that situation, the anxiety we felt when we plunged into a new reality. The embellished memories of the past we created with our rosy-tinted glasses. The longing to go back to what once was, even when we knew full well that it would never quite be as we remember it.

After finishing my one-year MBA in Paris, I moved to Abu Dhabi to begin work as a strategic consultant. I caught myself daydreaming constantly about my time in the City of Lights, replaying memorable occasions over and over in my head. I would log on to Facebook and Skype to strike up conversations with old classmates and peers. I even spent hours poring over job listings in Paris, hoping to find an impossible fit for a heavy-tongued French speaker and foreigner like myself.

I tried to envision myself back in Paris, when I had actually been a resident, and suddenly a s…

A Tribute to LivingSocial (née GoNabit)

LivingSocial is pulling out of the Middle East, citing unprofitable operations. The daily deals company, a giant in the US, faces stiff competition in the UAE, Egypt, and Lebanon from copycat groups who are undercutting one another to win merchants' business.

I remember when I first discovered LivingSocial, then GoNabit, a little over two years ago. I was in Paris finishing my MBA and scouring Bayt's job listings for opportunities in Lebanon, having decided that the time was ripe for settlement in the motherland. I came across GoNabit, a small start-up advertising a concept they called "assured marketing." First, they aimed to revolutionize the way businesses in the region market and advertise their products and services. Second, they wanted to make the use of credit cards mainstream, fostered through online transactions. While GoNabit's job postings--community managers, sales specialists, and copy writers--weren't really up my alley, I expressed interest in…

Froyo Felony

Move over Pinkberry, there's a bigger thief in town!

Yogen Fruz, a do-it-yourself frozen yogurt bar, recently opened inside the new Le Mall Dbayeh, and they're charging an arm and a leg for their frosty treats. Upon entering, you are greeted by a friendly waiter, who ushers you over to the froyo machines, where you can choose amid a vast array of flavors. You proceed to the toppings bar, piling on fruits, nuts, granola, and other goodies, before you make it to the cashier. You're so mesmerized and distracted by the opportunity you had to participate in the making of your own bowl that you forgot to glance at the prices--oh, wait, they're not even posted! The cashier smiles at you, utters the words "Pay and Weigh," and places your bowl on a scale. Weight and price suddenly appear, and your heart sinks.

25,000LL ($17)?! You start fumbling in your purse, fishing for cash, as you stammer out, "How much is it by the kg?" Unabashedly, the waiter says 44…