Finding the Familiar… Then Letting It Go

“This is like Messina,” my husband and I said to each other, the night we arrived in Beirut.  We were strolling down a side street near the Corniche, a waterfront walkway in Beirut.  The ribbon of sidewalk lining the narrow, dimly-lit street was broken in spots, and the salty smell of the sea permeated the air, all just like in Messina, my husband’s birthtown in Italy.

Not to mention the aggressive traffic.  I have yet to drive on our family’s annual visits to Sicily, because winding my way between bellicose drivers when I barely know how to drive a stick shift seems, well, reckless.  But a few days after our arrival to Beirut, my husband and a couple other Italians we had met all agreed, it’s really like the traffic in Napoli (Naples), which is, apparently, as lawless as here in Beirut.

An expat I’ve met here lived for years in Moscow, and she compares Beirutis behind the wheel to aggressive Russian drivers.  Having arrived in Beirut from Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, I can’t help but note that Beirut is just like that Central American capital in the disuse of street names (in both cities, locals give directions based on landmarks rather than street names), as well as the way that folks like to helpfully give directions, even when they have no idea where you should be going.

Then there’s Beirut’s urbanity.  In my last post, I compared Beirut with Manhattan, and I’m not the only one evoking New York — I’ve seen buildings called Midtown and Fifth Avenue around town.

Looking at its location, Beirut brings my hometown of Seattle to mind, as both are port cities nestled between sea and mountains.  Lebanon’s tallest peak, Qurnet as Sawda, is “just” 10,131 feet (3,088 m), compared to the 14,411 feet (4,392 m) of my beloved Mt. Rainier which looms over the Seattle cityscape… but Beirutis have the distinct advantage of being able to spend a few hours in the mountains and a few hours at the sea within in the same day.  Like in Vancouver, Canada, come to think of it….

It’s human nature to relate something new to something known, and I think that finding the familiar in the unknown is part of the process of adaptation to a new home.  As the writer Daisann McLane noted in a recent column in the magazine National Geographic Traveler, finding something familiar can serve as a touchstone – a marker of comparison and a tool for decoding the unfamiliar.

The other day, however, a dear friend sent me a philosophical reflection that made me think some more about all my comparing.  The gist of the email was that our own expectations, desires and judgments color how we perceive things.  These biases can work positively, as when parents are convinced that their wrinkled little baby is the most beautiful ever born, or negatively, for example, when nothing can measure up to the things you love back home.  Either way, these biases prevent us from seeing things with clarity, and for what they really are.

Traffic and skyscrapers, sea and mountains.  I’ve found many touchstones in my first six weeks in Beirut.  And indeed, they have helped me to settle in and feel at home in this new (to me) and complex city.  But I think now, I’m ready to take the next step.  It’s time to work on recognizing how my own expectations and preconceptions color my view of this city and its people.  Time to take off the rose-colored glasses, time to take the onion of Beirut and start to peel back the layers.  I want to see Beirut for what she really is.  The first date is over, and I can’t wait to get to know her better.