Reflections From The Airport Terminal: Destination Beirut

15 days have passed by in a blur, and that's no surprise: vacations are always so fleeting. Happily I did what every self-respecting daughter and sister does when she reunites with her doting family. I joined my dad at the gym every morning of my first week (when the jet lag roused me from my slumber at dawn); I shopped passionately with my mom; I accompanied my brother on happy hour outings; and I gorged on homemade comfort food. My cheeks are noticeably ruddier, and I am totally refreshed.

I'm heading back to Beirut two big bags in tote, because nobody comes to the USA and leaves lighter. I'd almost forgotten how convenient life in these states could be. Driving is therapeutic, almost like clockwork with sensor-controlled traffic lights, speed limits, stop signs, and vigilant police officers to enforce them inflexibly. People actually drive cheerfully and passively, and if you're a pedestrian, even before you alight to the street level, all vehicles quickly stop and yield to you. It's hysterically soothing.

You never have to worry about heating water, or better yet, depleting your water supply. Just turn on the faucet, and you'll have hot water running within seconds. Electricity is assured day and night. The garbage trucks pass by every Monday and collect your sorted bins. Streets are swept biweekly. Sidewalks are nicely paved and even. No scooters or motorcycles to compete with pedestrians. People wait their turn in queues at grocery stores, post offices, airport checkin lines--you name it. Internet, you ask? Not only are most outlets--hospitality, retail, and otherwise--equipped with free, fast high-speed access, most cities offer public wifi! Internet is more a right than a privilege in this part of the world.

Almost every store is always on sale, so you can invariably find a good deal on whatever it is you're after (except Apple--their products really aren't that much cheaper than those in Lebanon!). If you're unsatisfied with your purchase, a receipt entitles you to a full cash refund months after your date of transaction! Some places will honor your return with a store voucher if you no longer have the receipt. It's mercy at its finest.

But there are a few catches. No picture is perfect, after all. Virtually everything comes with a price tag. Toll roads abound, often requiring a fee of anywhere between $2 and $10 if you want respite from rush hour, though often these special lanes get reverse backlog. Public parking rates can run up to $25 a day, because you definitely don't want to exceed the two-hour limit at a metered parking space and incur a few hundred dollars in penalty. Sales tax on every purchase in California is a whopping 8%. A minimum tip at a restaurant is double that, so expect to pay at least 25% more than your tab. Medicine is extremely expensive, even if you're insured, and pharmacies mandate a doctor's signature on all prescriptions.

And somehow, even though you have peace of mind as you drive, you're fearful of committing any potential offense like rolling through a stop sign or driving over a solid white line, either of which will land you a $500 ticket and a hike to your insurance premium. Even jaywalkers and bicyclists are vulnerable to traffic violations. There's no leeway.

I can't tell you how frequently I'm asked to compare the USA to Lebanon. Foreigners have this idyllic image of the American utopia, which is true in some ways and seriously flawed in others. Yes, most processes in the United States are streamlined, organized, and efficient, and that's thanks in part to the overarching belief in self-service, be it buying your groceries at self checkout stands, pumping your gas at self-serve stations, checking in your bags at self-checkin kiosks at the airport, or merely seating yourself at the movie theater. Ultimately people are trusted to take care of themselves and their own affairs. There's freedom of self, and that is something you rarely come by anywhere else in the world.

But with this freedom of self comes an exaggerated emphasis on self, and you lose sight of group units. The basic human unit is no longer the family; it is indeed the individual. In Lebanon, we are still about family as a nuclear entity: the means to preserving culture, values, and faith as well as protecting emotional and physical welfare. Sense of family is oftentimes blurred across blood lines, too: you can count on immediate assistance by a passerby if your car fails, and the neighborhood grocer will let you keep a running tab at his shop if you don't have change on you.

The USA is pretty grand, there's no questioning that self-truth. But I have my Lebanon, and despite all its vices and drawbacks, to me it will forever remain the land of warmth and humanness. I'm thrilled to be heading back.

This handmade, leather-bound diary was a gift from my dear friend Jessica Schrader Boctor.


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