Burkinis, Bikinis, and the Best Family Beach in Lebanon

It’s been a long time since I last posted, mainly because I joined the flood of expat spouses that desert the duty station for the summer. Since we don’t see family most of the year, those golden months are our chance to spend quality time with cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents.

I’m not sorry to miss out on the hottest days (more than the temperatures, it’s the humidity that’s a killer in Beirut mid-August), but for those who stay behind, there is plenty to do. Summer in Lebanon is filled with concert series that take place against the backdrops of millennia-old ruins. This summer, pop superstar Sia sang at Byblos, and the Baalbek Festival was reinstated after a four-year hiatus.

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Carcalla Dance Theater performed at the ruins of Baalbek in July.

But Lebanon’s biggest summer attractions are, of course, its beaches.

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San Stefano resort near Batroun.

I thought a lot about Lebanese beaches this August, as I read about the burkini battle raging in France. I got comfortable wearing bikinis after marrying an Italian and spending time on Mediterranean beaches where few women under the age of sixty wear a one-piece. But growing up in Seattle, I wore one-piece suits, and there are still plenty of days I prefer a swimsuit that covers more as opposed to less. During a visit this summer to a waterslide park in the Seattle area, I noticed that some boys wore sun shirts along with their trunks even though the waterpark was indoors, and while plenty of teenage girls were in bikinis, most younger girls and adult women wore one piece suits. A bit more coverage is our cultural norm in the Pacific Northwest.

When I visited southern Portugal as a teenager, I was surprised by how many women went topless—even grandmothers. In Italy, young girls go topless—most swimsuits for girls under the age of five or so are just bikini bottoms. I don’t have a problem with those choices, but they aren’t ones I would want imposed on myself or my daughter.

Although the ban has been overturned by the French courts, this week’s news of another woman in burkini being forced by angry locals to leave a beach in France made me realize that this story is far from over.

In Lebanon, standard beach attire depends on where you show up to swim. There are a few public beaches, but most are private, with resort establishments set up similar to the lidos of Italy: lounge chairs, sun umbrellas, lifeguards, a restaurant, often a swimming pool (or two), and sometimes a hotel.

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Edde Sands, a posh resort near Byblos.

Lots of these private beaches are quite posh, and entrance fees are priced accordingly. Some are distinctly designed to be a place for Lebanese in the 20-40 age range to see and be seen. High heels, make-up and jewelry with a bikini are just not for me. Other spots are more kid-friendly, but still have entrance fees that can cost up to $40 per adult and $25 per child ($130 for a family of four!). And that’s before you even get into the shish taouk sandwiches, French fries and cold beers that our family tends to order. It feels exorbitant for a day at the beach.

So I was happy when, on a recent weekend, a friend proposed meeting at my personal favorite, Al Jisr beach. It boasts one of the widest swathes of sand that I’ve seen in Lebanon, a huge swimming pool, and entrance fees of a mere $13/ adult and $7/child. And, no one looks at your funny no matter how much (or how little) your swimsuit covers.

Which brings me back to the battle of burkini versus bikini. Even in Lebanon there are places where sporting either may be uncomfortable. I know of one posh beach resort where a few customers complain any time a woman shows up in a burkini. (I’m happy to report that their complaints go nowhere.) And I myself wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing a bikini to Beirut’s public beach Ramlet el Bayda. But this picture taken on a beach near the northern city of Tripoli recently went viral, precisely because it captured the laissez-faire attitude of most Lebanese. (Photo by Jad Ghorayeb, who has lots more great shots of Lebanon on his Instagram feed.)

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His shot is way better than my iPhone snap at Al Jisr:

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I wore a bikini to Al Jisr, and was one of many women there wearing one. There were also plenty of women in one-pieces, and several more in burkinis. Everyone out to enjoy the warm weather and play in the sea with their families.

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You can see one lady swimming in a burkini, in between her two children with red and blue water wings.

It was actually one of the few times this summer that I have worn a bikini. In March, I discovered a cancerous spot on my skin and had it removed. Most of the summer I alternated between tankinis (covering my midriff), or a bikini with a short-sleeve sun shirt over the top.

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Me, ready for a day in the sun.

I’m only in my early 40s, so maybe I’ll need to move to a long-sleeve sun shirt in the future, something like this:

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Sun shirt for sale at swimoutlet.com

I think it´s safe to assume that this sun shirt would pass muster on any beach in France, but who’s say, given that the line drawn in the sand seems to keep moving. After activists (and slacktivists) posted countless pictures of Western women wearing long sleeves and head coverings on beaches across Europe:

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Vildana Maisa/Twitter

the deputy mayor of Nice declared that nuns in habit wouldn´t be allowed on the public beaches either.

What’s next, a wet suit ban?

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These Speedo wetsuits are designed for triathletes.

There are many reasons why I think that Al Jisr is the best family beach in Lebanon. It’s cheap, it’s clean, the swimming pool is big and the lifeguards are alert and, as I discovered after one of the kids suffered a minor injury playing “soap soccer” on our last visit, they even have a doctor on duty.

But Al Jisr is also a place where you can sport a bikini or cover up fully without anyone batting an eye. And after this summer’s burkini brouhaha, I am more grateful than ever for beaches where I can wear whatever I want.

Check out my earlier post on Beirut Beaches.

 

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Is It Safe to Travel to Beirut?

This question has been popping up on my radar recently. Some friends cancelled a plan to visit because of concerns over safety. A US-based reader of my blog contacted me to ask me if I found it safe. On the Facebook page of a fellow expat in Lebanon, I saw the same question posed by one of his friends. Every time I’m back in Seattle, it’s the first question my mother’s friends ask, clucking over me and my family with worry.

Here’s my short answer:

If my posts are still coming from Beirut, I still feel safe here.

The seaside restaurant we ate at our first evening in Beirut. We dined here again last night, to commemorate our arrival to Lebanon.

Yesterday my family celebrated three years of life in Beirut (!!!). To date, the situation felt really dicey only once so far in those three years, back in the fall of 2013, when Obama was threatening Syria with air strikes (everyone was worried what the spillover into Lebanon would be).

The rest of the time, life is surprisingly normal, almost mundane. We go to restaurants and the movies, take hikes in the mountains and swim on the shore. The kids go to school and gymnastics classes, I write, hubby heads to the office. For the most part, incidents that make headlines happen far from central Beirut, where we live.

A friend of mine recently post to Facebook a video of people dancing in the street at a festival in the hipster neighborhood of Mar Mikhael. This was how my friend answered the question:

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While some cities and countries are safer than others (of course!), there is hardly anywhere that is perfectly safe all the time. We’ve seen mass shootings everywhere from a movie theater in Colorado to a youth camp in Norway, terrorist attacks in cities from Mumbai to Nairobi to New York, and “regular” violent crime, well, nearly everywhere.

Beirut’s violence is infrequent, but when it occurs, it is headline-grabbing spectacular. Like airline accidents, a car bomb is incredibly unlikely to occur, but the dramatic and heartbreaking results leave their imprint on us and, as terrorists hope, instill fear.

So is it safe to travel to Beirut?

Here is how the American who found my blog expressed her fears:

“My concern is primarily risks that I would face because I’m American. The crazy stories of kidnappings are the biggest fear factor, though I know those kinds of things are rare, especially in Lebanon.”

And my answer:

“While there are never any guarantees, Beirut is really totally fine, as is much of the country.

Kidnapping of foreigners is not an issue in Lebanon. So don’t stress about that. Not even pickpocketing is an issue. The worst case scenario is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But things are calm enough now that even that is not a reason that I feel is worth getting dissuaded over.

There’s plenty to see in Beirut – the downtown area has a couple of nice mosques, the Robert Mouawad museum and the National Museum are interesting, and you can’t miss a night on the town in Mar Mikhael, the current hipster center of Beirut. Rooftop bars are opening soon too, and those are world-famous. Byblos is a must-see, and not far from Tripoli. As I mentioned, your colleagues would be best suited to tell you how safe Tripoli is. They know their own city well, and would be able to ensure to keep you out of the sketchy neighborhoods. If there is any kind of flare-up in Tripoli, an alternative could be to meet them in Byblos, which is only a 20 minute drive away, but VERY safe at all times.

If you have a day to spare, you may want to consider visiting the Roman ruins of Baalbek. They are absolutely amazing, but a 3-hour drive away. If you’re on your own, you can book a day trip through an agency like Nakhal or Kurban travel.

And if you’re traveling in the next few months, pack a swimsuit, because it’s beach weather here now!”

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Staff prepare a waterfront cocktail bar for the evening guests.

So if you’re thinking about visiting Beirut, here’s my advice: leave your fears behind, and come!

We’ll be here, soldiering on. 😉

Note: No matter where in the globe you find yourself, it pays to seek out and heed local advice on safety questions such as where to go and where to avoid, how late at night to stay out, and how well you need to hide valuables when out and about.

A New Normal

This week our family celebrated our second anniversary of life in Lebanon. We returned to the waterfront restaurant La Plage, the same restaurant we ate the very night we arrived to Beirut.

In French (which many Lebanese speak), the word anniversaire means both anniversary and birthday. Either occasion can nudge us to stop and take stock, and this week’s anniversary was no exception for me.

Some things haven’t changed.

Families stroll the Corniche (waterfront walkway) day and night, enjoying the fresh sea air.

The weather and the food are always wonderful.

Local politics continue to baffle me.

Other things are different. Two years in, and I’m far from conversational in Arabic, which is not what I was anticipating when I arrived. (This list made me realize (1) I’m not alone – see #36; and (2) not understanding the Bedouin desert guide in Jordan wasn’t a reflection on my Arabic skills – see #17). But, this time when the waiter at La Plage asked, in Arabic, if we wanted our wine by the glass or the bottle, we understood. And could even answer. None of us are conversational yet, but we’re getting the important stuff down.

I have some new favorite foods. Many of the dishes that we ordered on that first visit to La Plage have become our favorites of Lebanese cuisine: eggplant raheb, cheese rolls, fried fish. (The French fries were the kids’ pick, and hardly a new favorite.) I now refuse to go a week without a good fattoush (green salad with fresh thyme, mint, sumac and toasted pita chips).

When we arrived to Lebanon, there were almost no beggars and few street vendors. Two years later, with more than a million refugees from Syria, there are some neighborhoods where women sell packs of tissue paper at every stoplight and boys hound to shine your shoes on every block. Tens of thousands of refugees in Beirut alone, just a small fraction of them visible on street corners to remind us of their difficult plight. Hundreds of thousands more hidden away in villages and informal settlements across the country, struggling to survive.

Security has changed too. Concrete barriers have been placed around town to discourage parking and therefore the possibility of car bombs. No bombs in recent months, but many of the barriers are becoming permanent nevertheless, like these exceptionally tall ones that were recently painted with the Lebanese flag.

Perhaps the rise of the concrete barriers is due in part to the discrediting of the bomb detector “wands” that security guards use at the entrances of mall and grocery store parking around the city. At my last visit to City Centre shopping mall in Beirut, I found that they had abandoned the wand in favor of an explosives detector similar to the kind I have seen at airports – the guard first swiped my car door with what looked like a small piece of paper, then put the paper into a handheld reader that can apparently register explosives. So City Centre, at least, is taking its precautions more seriously. On the other hand, the grocery store near my house has simply given up altogether, and gone back to allowing cars into its garage without any kind of check. Somehow both scenarios seem perfectly normal to me now.

I had coffee with three Lebanese friends yesterday. When the waiter came to our table, two ordered in Arabic, one in a mix of Arabic and French (we were in the Francophile coffee shop Paul, after all), and I ordered in English. The waiter didn’t bat an eye, but easily switched between languages as he spoke with each of us. Trilingual waiters and conversations don’t surprise me anymore either.

When we left Honduras two years ago, I found it hard to let go of what I knew before, and to see things here in Lebanon for what they are, rather than constantly comparing and evaluating things for what they are not. But I think I can finally say that I’ve adjusted here, and for better or for worse, the fattoush and fried fish, the refugees and the car bombs, the sunshine and the sea air all come together to make up my new normal. Beirut is like a family member now and I love her, warts and all.

Hiking in Lebanon – Horsh Ehden

Last week Lebanon celebrated Eid-al-Adha, which (according to Wikipedia) honors the willingness of the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his young son as an act of submission to God’s command and his son’s acceptance to being sacrificed, before God intervened to provide Abraham with a lamb to sacrifice instead. It’s one of the most important Muslim holidays of the year. My husband only had one day off from work, but my kids had four (!) off from school, so I was determined to make the most of it.

(Wikipedia also revealed that Eid-al-Adha lasts four days – I guess that’s why the school break stretched out so long.)

Anyway, the official day off for Eid was last Tuesday, so I convinced my husband to leave work early on Monday, and we packed the kids into the car and drove north to the town of Ehden. It’s only about 90 minutes away, but when you live in a postage-stamp country, 90 minutes seems farther than one can manage in a day trip, so we had decided to stay the night.

We turned east off the highway just a few miles before Tripoli – a city we have yet to visit because of the on and off fighting that takes place there as a spillover from the war in Syria. We could see Tripoli from the highway as we drove up into the mountains. From a distance it looked calm and lovely.

We reached Ehden, which could pass for a mountain town in Italy or Croatia – narrow winding streets, little businesses around a main plaza, a chapel reputed to be the oldest Maronite church in Lebanon

St. Mama Chapel, dating from 749 A.D.

There are an inordinate number of hotels for such a tiny town, reflecting its popularity as a summer destination to escape from the heat. It was “only” in the 80s when we left Beirut, but escape from the heat we did – it was downright cold when we reached Ehden, and we were all happy to have taken sweaters along at the last minute.

The hotel seemed outrageously overpriced by American/European standards, but it’s par for the course in Lebanon (apparently dramatically declining numbers of wealthy Gulf tourists over the past year and a half don’t lead hoteliers to lower prices by much). It was charming though, a traditional Lebanese home renovated into a boutique hotel right on the square. (The location wasn’t so fun at 3am when the last of the Eid revelers were shouting to one another across the square, but it was nice when we went for a walk in the evening.)

Because it was now off-season, the hotel’s restaurant was closed. The lovely staff instead walked us over to a tiny, two-table hole-in-the-wall called Abou Simon’s. Abou Simon (Simon’s Father) is a single older guy (widower? divorcée? it seemed impertinent to ask) who makes his own pickles and jams, and barbecues up any number of kebabs over coals lit outside the shop, without ever removing his plaid tweed blazer. We were all slightly strained as the hotel staff dropped us off, because his English was as limited as our French. Then we discovered that he had lived for more than a decade in Venezuela. With relief we all switched to Spanish, and by the end of the meal (comprised of vegetables, cheeses, skewers of chicken, mutton and meatballs, all ultra-fresh and ultra-delicious), we were fast friends.

The next day we headed to Horsh Ehden, a nature reserve, for a hike. Being that we were in the mountains, the first hour or so was tortuously uphill (if you’re thinking about going and won’t be hiking with a reluctant eight-year-old, note that the first part takes half the time to hike). Our efforts were rewarded with beautiful scenery of deciduous trees that had turned golden with the season, with a forest of Lebanon’s famed cedars as the backdrop.


After all that hiking we were famished, but wanted to start towards home. We descended from the mountains to the sea, and got as far as the seaside town of Batroun. At first I wished that I’d packed my kids’ swim suits, but I shouldn’t have worried. My daughter wasn’t about to let anything stop her, and after eating decided to take a dip in the sea just as she was, sneakers and all. Sweaters in the evening, and swimmers the next day. A glorious day.


Syria on My Mind, and a Table at Tawlet

Adapting the words of Ray Charles….

Syria, Syria

The whole day through

Just the threat of strikes

Keeps Syria on my mind

And it’s not just because I live in the Middle East. I can see from the US newspapers I read online, and I can tell from the phone calls that we get from my husband’s family in Italy, that Syria is the talk of the town (or at least of the news) in the US and across Europe as well.

Here in Lebanon…

I go to the park… and talk with other parents about Syria.

I go out with my husband for dinner with friends… and we all talk about Syria.

I stop by a friend’s house… and we pointedly avoid the subject of Syria as we have coffee. But… she leaves her tv on as we sip ‘ahwe, and CNN talks about nothing but Syria.

I can’t keep up on all there is to read about Syria. (But if you’re interested in expanding your own knowledge, here is journalist Bill Moyer’s suggested – and regularly updated – reading list of online articles.) I am, however, reading what I can between dentist appointments and school open house and cooking dinner. Yesterday I came across a phrase that really resonated with me, even if it was published two months ago (in Foreign Affairs):

Las Vegas rules do not apply to Syria: what happens there will not stay there.” *

No need to tell anyone in Lebanon that. With 630,000 registered refugees and at least a few hundred thousand more unregistered Syrians living in Lebanon, we know that what happens there will not stay there. With cross-border kidnappings, some for revenge, others for ransom, on the rise, we know. With two car bombs in Tripoli and one in Beirut last month, we know. And, what we don’t know, we speculate about. Next door in Israel, citizens are stocking up on gas masks in case a US strike might mean that Syria strikes back by unleashing chemical weapons in Israel. Here in Lebanon we worry that a US strike in Syria could, for example, provoke a strike by Lebanese-based Hezbollah against Israel, which in turn would undoubtedly lead to an Israeli strike against Lebanon. (Hezbollah’s last major open conflict against Israel was in 2006, a 34-day war that according to Wikipedia, resulted in 1,191–1,300 Lebanese people, and 165 Israelis dead, and another one million Lebanese and 300,000–500,000 Israelis displaced.) Lebanon is trying to stay out of the Syrian equation through its “disassociation” policy for good reason.

And yet…

What is life without levity? Nour Malas wrote in the Wall Street Journal that there is now even a bridal shop in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, as couples choose to live the moment rather than suffer the maddening incertitude, trading inertia for action.

Likewise, I was determined this past weekend to get out of the concrete jungle, and remind myself of the beauty of Lebanon. With hubby, kids, and a whole another family in tow, I headed back to the Bekaa Valley to check out the restaurant Tawlet Ammiq. A day to enjoy a good meal, a glass of arak, and the company of good friends.

Tawlet (which means table in Arabic) is a community-run organic restaurant on the western edge of the Bekaa Valley, in eastern Lebanon. The menu varies each weekend according to what the village women choose to cook, much of which they do at home and bring to the restaurant already prepared. Young men from the two nearby villages refill your water, lemonade, or arak glass.

The food was fantastic – fresh and citrusy tabbouleh and fattoush salads; creamy eggplant, chickpea and yogurt spreads (mouttabal, hummus and labneh, respectively); kibbeh nayyeh (a raw beef dish similar to beef tartare); grilled chicken and fish. There was shish barek (meat pastries in a yogurt-dill soup), beef with frikke (toasted green wheat), and mulukhiyah (chicken stewed with some kind of leaves). For dessert, ripe nectarines, figs, cantaloupe and watermelon, lemon cookies and knafe, an Arabic dessert of sweet cheese topped with semolina crumbs and sugar syrup.

The setting was as lovely as the food – the restaurant is built onto the slope of a hill that is dotted by trees and ruins, and home to two tiny churches. Most of the tables are outdoors, some on a grass yard, others in a breezeway, all designed to take advantage of the view over the valley.


(If it sounds tempting, details are as follows: $40pp for adults, $20pp for children, reservations recommended, tel. 0300-4481. It’s about a 75–minute drive from Beirut. If you don’t have the time for a trip, there is another branch of Tawlet in the Gemmayze neighborhood of Beirut, which serves a buffet lunch Monday-Saturday for US$30pp.)

The restaurant is a transnational, interreligious effort, modeled after a development project in Jordan, its construction funded by Swiss development aid. While the cooks and waitstaff are from the Christian villages of Ammiq and Niha, the manager and his wife – who as head chef oversees the menu planning and food- are from a Druze village in the Shouf Cedar reserve. A tiny beacon of cooperation and successful co-existence in a region beleaguered by conflict.


The mountains on the far side of the valley form the border with Syria, less than 20 kilometers from where we were having lunch. The green mountain straight up from the water pitcher in the first picture above, and the tiny village on the top of the mountains in the second picture, are part of Syria. According to the restaurant manager, shelling and bombing were a regular part of the auditory landscape until a couple of weeks ago, when one faction or the other (I think he said the rebels, but don’t quote me on it) gained control of a town in the area just on the other side of the mountains. I wondered if the sound of distant shelling affected the appetites of those dining at Tawlet on those earlier weekends. We heard what might have been a few shots off in the distance at a certain point – which in Lebanon could mean we were hearing anything from a celebration of a political speech or a birthday, to actual fighting from the other side of the mountains – and tensed as we waited to see if the noises continued, fully relaxing again only when they did not.

And so we ate and laughed some more, carrying on, as humanity is wont to do, in the face of adversity.

*    *    *

Naturally, things can change in an instant, and even as I was writing this post I heard the news of the latest developments: that a US military strike might be forestalled if Syria’s chemical weapons are turned over to Russia.

The reprieve might be temporary, but we are good at the waiting game here. For now, it feels as if Lebanon has breathed a collective sigh of relief.

*For those who aren’t already familiar with it, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is the smash slogan that Sin City (Las Vegas) created for itself a few years ago. Interestingly, in looking for an online link to the journal article, I stumbled across another article, this one also from July but published in the New Statesman, with nearly the same phrase – credited to former director of policy planning at the US state department Dennis Ross. I don’t know who said it first, but it’s a fantasticsound bite.

Hole in the Wall

In the US, we use “hole in the wall” to describe a small, unpretentious business, usually a bar or a restaurant. There are plenty of “holes in the wall” in Beirut…

Restaurants, the likes of which could fit in anywhere from Beirut to Boston:


Businesses, like this tiny shoe repair shop:


Bars, like this one whose tongue is firmly placed in cheek:


And then there are the holes in the walls that are entirely literal:



And the tragedy is that these far, far outnumber the figurative holes in the walls.

Despite the ongoing restoration of historical buildings and unending construction of sleek new towers, reminders of the ravages of the Lebanese civil war are readily apparent in just about any building in Beirut that existed prior to 1990.

What was life like for those who lived through all that gunfire?

A friend in Honduras, a country that is battling ever-increasing levels of crime, recently commented on Facebook about sociology’s “broken glass” theory, in which researchers found that crime was more likely to occur if a parked car had its window glass broken, than if it were intact.

Social scientists debate whether the broken windows theory is causal or correlated, and the reality in Beirut is that despite the bullet holes and bombed-out buildings, there is very little street crime. But do these unrepaired vestiges of war affect the Lebanese in other ways?

Day in, day out, locals walk or drive by buildings that have been perforated by bullets. What might the psychological impact be, for the people whose days and nights were punctuated by with the clatter of gunfire and the whistle of rockets?

Perhaps there is a visual “tuning out,” that is the only way to move forward. It scares me just the same.

That’s why I was especially heartened to hear about the work of Offre Joie (“the Joy of Giving”), a volunteer group composed mainly of youth, who worked to rebuild Ibrahim Mounzer Street – the street in my neighborhood that was bombed in October.



The third photo shows that repairs are not 100%, but they are pretty darn close. The government may not have been able to provide all the repairs required, but there were those who protested leaving the damages as they were, and were willing to put in enormous efforts to make the necessary repairs. Is there ever any doubt that youth are the hope of the future? No slacktivism here, but people willing to put their hard work where their heart is. (Here is a short video on their work, if you are interested to know more: )

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead

The Scent of Gardenias

The scent of gardenias wafted through my window as I sat working at my computer this morning. Their perfume reminds me of our arrival to Beirut, when there were vendors selling gardenia chains at every stoplight. And in turn, that reminds me that at the end of this month, we will have been here one year.

There has been plenty of tension in Lebanon during that time, with a car bomb in October, and floods of refugees seeking shelter from the war in Syria. But those gardenias remind me of how many good things there have been as well. I hope that it has been clear from my blog posts how much more there is to Lebanon than the headline news.

To that end, I wanted to share with you to a blog post by David Lebovitz, a California pastry chef who is now resident in Paris and was here in Lebanon a couple of weeks ago to explore the country’s food and culture. I hope you have a minute to take a look.

http://www.davidlebovitz.com/2013/04/lebanon/

Relishing the food, marveling at the hospitality, and with photos so fantastic you can almost taste the beautiful food. Or at least you wish you could. In fact, the ice cream shop he mention’s, Hanna’s, is just a few minutes’ walk from my home. Maybe I’ll head there now….