Sunday, March 14, 2010

Balcony Garden

The Lebanese are shocked if someone builds a dwelling place without a balcony. In warm weather, most of the year, people live on their balcony, and all year round they leave their plants out. Many buildings in Beirut have deep dirt-filled planters built into the balconies. The result is thick vines of purple bougainvillea, jasmine and verbena grown all over the city.
Our daughter Sonya’s apartment in Beirut, where we camped out on her life for two weeks, has two balconies. The “big one,” with its wide, dense, busy viewspace offering close perspectives on several construction projects and lots of smaller, older Mediterranean style buildings, is also home to a dozen or so flowering plants. Planted in large pots from which vines emerge, climb walls on homemade lattices and twist around one another, bougainvillea and jasmine offer the biggest shows. Since it was February when we were there, the bougainvillea was beginning to offer a few cheerful blossoms. Herbs, annuals and other perennials were still awaiting their hour.
The neighbors in the lower house across a narrow street but more or less in front and center from the balcony where we sat and watched the world were already preparing for the new growing season. Their garden occupied much of a broad, flat rooftop, consisting of maybe thirty large pots and a few small trees. Many of the pots had severely pruned rootstock with short stems of what could only be rose bushes protruding above the soil. We watch them walk among their plants, conferring.
They see us.
Both parties wave.
A day later a huge conical pile of yellowish dirt appears on an unoccupied piece of the fourth-story roof. Since we were not out of bed early enough to be in good balcony-spying position whenever this dirt arrived, we can only speculate on its source and means of arrival. Helicopter? Considerable huffing and puffing up the stairs by poorly paid sherpas? Family members from “the village” (all Beruitis have a village, where growing is practiced) arriving with a truckful of this precious ultimate source of new life? Magic?
Howsoever it got there, the appearance of the yellow dirt ushered in a new era of re-potting, the shaking of old dirt off old roots, the summary disposal of unwanted plant material and other stuff over the side of the building, and the reinstallation of the fortunate neighbors’ balcony garden in its new soil.
Inspired, some days later we took action on our own front.
Owning to an unfortunate water shortage last summer (when you leave home in August you are relying on a substitute plant attendant, who in this instance did not attend well or faithfully), one of Sonya’s large, many-branched plants had died. So it was that Anne and I were pressed into service as visiting workers. We tracked down the dead branches, disentangled them from the living neighbors, and cut off about two garbage bags worth of dead vines.
The neighboring climbing plants shed a lot of deadwood also. The jasmine lost most of its upper stories, and I put in some time tying up and styling the low, new-growth green shoots, borrowing twine from the lattice work to wrap up these young branches and encourage them upward. Onward and upward with the art of balcony gardening!
Many other potted plants – from old ferns to new sweet alyssum – need repotting. Later that day, then, we tackled the challenge of finding garden soil in a densely built city. The obstacles: we didn’t have a car. Friends having a car were too far away, or had valid excuses: jobs, babies, lives of their own. We wanted to sight-see around the city on foot, but not carry bags of dirt while we did it. Nobody in the neighborhood sold dirt. In fact even by Lebanese standards, it was too early to sell plants.
Nevertheless, at the end of the day, we took a cab ride to a “department store,” an usual establishment in a distant neighborhood, whose Dubai owners had recently taken over from local owners, meaning that the store’s fabulous French food service had been replaced by an American fast-food franchise (people in Dubai apparently not knowing any better). Just as in a Wal-Mart there was a gardening section, where we bought a couple of manageable bags of potting soil, a bottle of water soluble fertilizer, and a metal fork for poking at compacted soil in the pots of balcony gardens. We took them home in a taxi. Taxi fare in Beirut is sixty-seven cents per person. Bags of soil ride free.
We held our own little happy, messy re-potting party a few days later. Sonya’s housecleaner cleaned up. Anne and I await news updates on the success of our efforts.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Walking Shoes

Bring your walking shoes to Beirut. The city is better than a movie. All of the natives walk the Corniche, the seaside promenade that runs from commercial port downtown all along the harbor, past cafes, yacht clubs, military posts, an amusement park, beach clubs built into rocks, and the gigantic weather-carved boulders known as the Pigeon Rocks. Locals climb out on the rocks to fish or swim. Visitors are wise to stay on the broad pavement of the Corniche and watch the action. Cyclists, couples, women in loose headscarfs, girls who wear the more fully covering “conservative” head-and-neck scarf over form-fitting sheath dresses and jeans. Men exulting over fast-played backgammon contests. One evening’s two-minute Hezbollah vehicle caravan demonstration – people drive slowly, wave flags and yell out of car windows. (This in response to the recent memorial for Rafik Harriri.) Pushcart food sellers, including some selling roasted ears of corn on sticks – an outdoor treat here the way pretzels are in America.
Beirut is bustling with a building boom, but below the yellow construction cranes people still live the Mediterranean lifestyle on the sidewalks, the cafes and the restaurants. A personal, highly interactive, down-to-earth city with busy streets, steady pedestrian traffic, and an endless variety of little stores, fashion boutiques, and upscale galleries. In Lebanon, the owners of the mom and pop groceries want to meet your mother, and your daughter’s Palestinian refugee friend brings you a “welcome” gift. In Lebanon, your boss invites your parents to her home for dinner, and in this country there is no such thing as a quick, easy (or early) dinner. In Lebanon, the bus always waits for you. In fact drivers stop on the odd chance that pedestrians might want to hop on and go back to Beirut. You don’t have to look for a taxi, taxis look for you, prowling the busy streets and beeping at people who look like foreigners. Somehow they can tell.
Attractions that might be hard to get close to, too crowded or expensive in other countries are cheap and accessible – probably too accessible – in Lebanon. Spectacular Roman and Byzantine ruins can be visited in the coastal cities of Tyre and Byblos. Touch the columns, sit on the stones, climb through the weathered remains of amphitheatres and extensive Roman baths. No fences keep you from climbing down into the burial caverns. When you walk the battlements and towers of the Crusader fortresses in Sidon and Tripoli no railings tell you how far to go. Nothing keeps you from climbing out to stare at the spectacular rooftop views of the hillsides of Tripoli where every inch has been built on. In Lebanon, they’ve never heard of liability.
In Beirut, neighborhood store owners without much English go out of their way to serve you. People stop you in the street if you’re looking at a map: “Do you want Hamra?” Gathering point for the city’s intellectuals in the years before the civil war, Hamra has become newly fashionably – the hot district for clubs, bars and late night life. The bars serve freshly squeezed blood orange juice and vodka cocktails.
There are no morality police in Lebanon.
The high standards of food preparation in restaurants and shops – even the fast food is good – is based on fresh produce picked that morning in the country’s fertile regions and trucked to the cities. An array of citrus varieties (six kinds of oranges) were ripe in February; also bananas grown along the coastal road south to Tyre; avocadoes, mangoes, snap beans, egg plant, zucchinis with their blossoms still one them, potatoes, tomatoes.
In Lebanon there are lots of cars, everyone drives as fast as they can, honks frequently, pulls into traffic without a second thought, and yet somehow watches out for all the other drivers, knowing they operate by the same rules, which are no rules by American standards.
I have vowed never to get behind the wheel of a car in Lebanon. Besides, walking is too much fun.