First Impressions

It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a first date.

The uncertainty, the hope pinned on first impressions, the current of tension running beneath the surface.

Despite having been married eleven years (and counting), it feels like a first date again. But this time, it’s with a city.

You see, my family and I just moved to Beirut, Lebanon.

Once famed as the Paris (or the Switzerland) of the Middle East. Later notorious for the civil war which raged from 1975 until finally fizzling out around 1989, or 90, or 91, depending on which local is telling you their story. A place where there was a thirty-three day war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, and where unrest is simmering around the edges right now, a spill-over from its neighbor Syria into northern Lebanon. (Talk about a current of tension under the surface.)

You can imagine why I was a little nervous to meet her two and a half weeks ago.

As with any city, there is much more to Beirut than the broad strokes. But perhaps you are like I was—unfamiliar with this exotic-sounding metropolis. She is a city by the sea, home to a booming port that lies shoulder to shoulder with pedestrian waterfront walkways. She is a concrete jungle, her skyline a mess of skyscrapers and building cranes.

A concrete jungle where flowers sprout in the cracks.

When we arrived to our hotel, worn out from a twenty-hour journey to reach Lebanon, we were greeted with a heady scent of flowers: there were several gardenia blossoms floating in a bowl at the hotel reception. Our taxi the next day had gardenias tucked into the air-conditioning vents, sending their perfume along with cool air. Street peddlers hawked gardenia necklaces at stoplights. They were everywhere.

Gardenias appeared even in my bedtime reading: Beirut Blues, a novel by Hanan al-Shaykh, one of Lebanon’s most prominent female writers, about Lebanon during the civil war. Protagonist Asmahan returns to Beirut after time in the mountains.

“Jawad draws my attention to the white gardenias everywhere; even the chewing gum vendors have them, and the beggars hovering around a little table in the middle of the sidewalk where men sit playing backgammon… Drivers have them stuck behind their mirrors and they quiver with each blast of the horn. Street traders’ barrows are decked out with them…”

Even amidst the ravages of war, the city’s inhabitants carried gardenias, reminders of the beauty in the world.

We all know that each flower represents something: red roses – love; yellow roses – friendship; daisies – innocence. I looked up the meaning of gardenias. According to the website “Flowers by Marilyn”, gardenias represent hospitality, grace, and secret love.

I’ve just met Beirut, and she has offered up flowers. Gardenias no less — a tangible emblem of the hospitality the city and its people. A hospitality that I am already experiencing. The first two weeks are indeed like a first date, in that it’s too early to tell what the city holds in store for us. But perhaps one day, as the gardenia alludes, we will love each other. It looks promising so far.


13 thoughts on “First Impressions

  1. gwr25 says:

    First Impression: Wonderful! Well-written. The gardenias are a wonderful surprise, they were Mother’s favorite flower! Do you remember our 1995 Christmas Eve table, adorned with gardenias, as the family gathered less than three short weeks after her memorial service? May Beirut be a place of wonderful memories for each of you.

  2. Nora says:

    What a wonderful story of your “two and half” weeks. My first time to read such an amazing description of my city .. Must admit, had to clear my eye from that happy tear that was about to burst!
    I know that it is inevitable that you face “some” disappointment but hope that your first date turns into a love story. Ahla w sahla .. Sharraftouwa la Beyrouth!!

    • cupcakeamy says:

      I think we can safely say that the high prices are my first disappointment!!! 😉 I am so glad that you liked the description.

  3. Magda says:

    I’m so happy that you are liking it! I was a bit worried because eventhough Jord and I enjoyed the city and Lebanon so much, you might have felt differently. Great righting Amy, looking forward to your next post:)

    • cupcakeamy says:

      We miss Honduras and all our friends, but we are definitely enjoying being here! kisses to Della!

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this new home. What do the kids think? Your writing is a pleasure to take in, like the wafting scent of gardenias. One of my grandmother’s favorites.

    • cupcakeamy says:

      how funny, gardenias were MY grandmother’s favorite as well! the kids are enjoying it so much!

  5. Alexanderia says:

    Great story Amy! You are a great writer. I feel like I am there. I look forward to seeing pictures on your blog. All the best.

  6. Anil Bagri says:

    Beautifully expressed Amy. So happy that you’re falling in love with the city that will be your home for the next couple of years. Its because you are so open to embracing another culture that such opportunities fall in your lap 🙂 Look forward to learning about Lebanon through your writings, and shall also try and visit you there … Honduras was a bit of a distance from here 😉

  7. Janet says:

    Great to know where you’ve landed, Amy. And I hope the love remains strong.

  8. Ann says:

    Wow, Amy your writing is mesmerizing! I will definitely read your blogs. learning about Lebanon through your eyes, ears, nose, etc. Keep ’em coming. I’m sure your Honduras friends miss you, but cool that you have moved to a new culture. Enjoy your summer!
    un abrazo para ti,

  9. Susan says:

    I loved your description of Lebanon in general. But, beneath Lebanon’s gleaming exterior lies a creaky, third world infrastructure that is preventing the country from fully emerging from its war-torn past. I was living in US and I had to came here 2 months ago, and I really want to go back to the states desperately. Unfortunately I have to go back in two years, my husband is Lebanese. Yes, Lebanon has beautiful views but, just take a look how people drive, where I live there is not sufficient water and there are power cuts every 2 hours or so. So sad lebannese ppl they can afford drive Range Rovers and BM’s, costly weddings and plastic surgeries..

    • cupcakeamy says:

      Indeed, there is an enormous dichotomy between the wealth of some people, and the country’s infrastructure. Arriving here from a very poor country (Honduras), I was shocked that power outages are far more frequent here than where I was coming from. I’ve been told that there didn’t use to be any traffic lights in Beirut (and certainly even now on any given day there are plenty that aren’t working), which to me helped explain how people can drive so crazy! Settling in had its ups and downs, but I am finding lots of great things here as well (lower street crime than where I was before as well as most big US cities, beaches, skiing, and plenty of nice people). The situation in the region is difficult now, but I hope you find a way to enjoy your time here – and it may go by faster than you expect!

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