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.