Beirut Bloopers

CAMP BED FAVELA

So much for momentum – it’s taken me almost a month to get this next post together  because I’ve been busy getting a new job and a new nephew, both very good things that are worth putting off a blog for.

I’ve obviously blogged about everything that happened in Beirut already, but regardless I’m going to start with a bit of a summary for anyone who didn’t read it previously or recap for anyone who has. It is probably a shame that it will not contain the same live hysteria that inspired such a warm fuzzy feeling of schadenfreude amongst my original readership, but I will try to recall it as much as possible. Being far removed from it will however enable me to talk more candidly about certain things without fear of repercussion, specifically my first job at a local magazine in Beirut which really deserves its moment in the sun on account of the experience being extraordinarily mental. To give you an idea of what I mean, not long after I escaped, the company dissolved but not before some armed gunmen came to the office demanding money and on another occasion an actual physical fight broke out and a knife got waved about. I’ll probably crowd-source some anecdotes from other staff members to try to assemble a montage of all of our worst moments; we are forever bonded by having survived it.

Back in 2013 I was living and working in London where I grew up, and was fishing around for some sort of adventure. I began banging on about moving to New York, as so many Londoners do, and then realised were loads of places I could go and easily work, and in fact live visa-free. (As I was to experience, it was possible to evade discovery in Lebanon by by visiting somewhere in the region every three months and then having shifty renewals with the military at immigration where you’d hope they wouldn’t ask you why you had so many Lebanese stamps in your passport and occasionally fielding the odd suspicious phone call. This was aided by the fact that nobody gave a shit anyway.) And so I took my wacky hipster self to Beirut, arriving with big curly hair, long noodly limbs, and a suitcase stuffed full of ostentatious knitwear wholly unsuited to the climate.

I can remember spending my first few days in Beirut absolutely exhausted, which I think was down to sensory overload. But as it turned out, the Lebanese way of life was easy to assimilate into: delicious food, warm weather, beautiful beaches, and a work-to-live lifestyle; at once slow and sleepy city during the day but with a well-known party culture by night, including a reasonably decent gay scene packed to the rafters with outrageously fit Lebanese men. The majority of the population is bilingual or trilingual (Arabic, English, and French) meaning the language barrier wasn’t an issue, and the culture is so hospitable that you would find yourself fending off abnormally generous offers from total strangers, such as the taxi driver who, when half the city was without running water, insisted I come to his house and use his shower. He made me take his number so I could arrange it, I obviously didn’t because it was weird but still, sweet man).

I had close friends there already who put me up for the first few weeks – Oliver, who I had spent a year getting stoned with as neighbours in university halls, and his girlfriend Pip. Oli was now working for Reuters as a foreign correspondent and spent his time getting smuggled to Syria inside a barrel. I slept behind a plastic curtain on a camp bed in their kitchen, stored my belongings below their dried herbs, and lined up my toiletries on a narrow window ledge.

A special mention must go to Pip and Oli’s then-dog Lenny, who is firmly associated with the beginning of this journey. While quite an elegant-looking dog – a black labrador and whippet cross – she had a fixed look of wild-eyed insanity due a tragic backstory that made her anxious and prone to freakish behaviour. She also used to climb into my bed while I was work then later on I was forced to sleep among hundreds of her coarse, pungent black hairs. Lenny now lives in Scotland and spends her time running through mountains and rivers, which I think is a nice heartwarming ending for an emotionally traumatised Lebanese street dog; I on the other hand left my camp bed favela and spent a month living in a house owned by a mad old crone called Sonia, who was permanently smoking in a pink velour dressing gown, and whose son was a Rastafarian who lived on a mezzanine above the kitchen.

After I left Beirut and I began to romanticise it, although my friends were quick to remind me that by the end, I was hating on the city quite a lot – the rubbish infrastructure, the power cuts, even, for my sins, the hummus. I sometimes wondered why I was willing to jump ship from a life that was so fantastically uncomplicated so quickly, but I had been subject to a few unpleasant work situations – unfortunately not uncommon in Lebanon – that contributed to my general feeling of being a bit fed up. While after I left a lot of my friends coupled up, settled down, and probably became a bit more grown-up, aged 25 and living abroad for the first time we were definitely much more low maintenance, living a life that was at once deliciously idyllic and a bit grubby.

Some of my happiest memories are doing yoga on Pip and Oli’s roof at sunset while the neighbour’s flock of doves soared above us and the city below, while the occasional stench of Lenny’s turds wafted around us, which wouldn’t disappear no matter how hard Pip tried to scrub the decaying tarmac with bleach. Good times.

Advertisements

FIVE (AND A HALF) YEARS

I’ve now been back in London for almost two months and am, for the time being, working for myself, so it seems the ideal time to resurrect my blog which I began in Beirut. Former readers may remember some of its important key narratives such as power cuts and water shortages, being drunk then hungover, and an amazing love letter and diary we found in our flat left behind by a former tenant.

As with any kind of diary it is of course funny reading it back with the benefit of hindsight. There’s a paragraph where I slagged London off for being hectic (in comparison with Beirut, it is) unaware of how stressful I would find the pace of life a few years later in Asia. While I gradually became quite cynical about expat life in Hong Kong, I can sense the energy, excitement, and enthusiasm I had for my first couple of years abroad. Certainly I ran out of steam in the end, but then again, after three moves in five years, I think a lot of people may have. Life became much more complicated than when I was keeping my salary inside a cardboard star above my bed in Beirut. It is also worth noting that improbably, I visited somewhere called ‘Love Island’ off the coast of Tripoli in 2013; at least this is what the strange ‘sea captain’ who took us out there claimed although I now can’t find any evidence of it on the internet.

Following 18 months in Lebanon I moved to Shanghai for two years, and after that, Hong Kong for another two. These are five (and a half) years that I would like to eventually turn into some sort of travel memoir, and it begins with putting it all in this blog. I don’t expect to make sense of any of it, or for it to have some kind of point, because, well, I don’t think your own life necessarily works like that even if you are trying to turn it into a bit of creative non-fiction. Maybe it would be nice to have some sort of epiphany, because the truth is, I left Hong Kong under a black cloud. I had just been through a devastating break-up, found myself sinking at work, was generally burnt out, and was without a proper support system to help me deal with everything. Rock bottom was sitting alone, hungover, and weeping in a cat cafe in Seoul; the only cat that deigned to come near me was one of those scary bald sphinxes; it sniffed my finger and then stalked off.

Thankfully that black cloud has for the most part lifted. People keep telling me how well I look and this is because I have spent the past eight weeks basking in the endless sunshine of the most brilliant summer in London – the World Cup, Pride, the anti-Trump protest, my birthday (a national event), and lots of wild swimming in Hampstead Heath ponds and Shadwell Basin, although now it’s the summer holidays there are lots of loud children in the latter, jumping in and shouting things like ‘I fucked your mum!’ and ‘I fisted your grandma!’ constantly at one another which spoils the relaxing atmosphere somewhat. Come to think of it telling someone you fisted their grandma is surely more embarrassing for the person that did it, so maybe I’m remembering it wrong but it was definitely something along those lines. Anyway, in the words of Renee Zelwegger who denied having a facelift despite suddenly looking like a totally different person, ‘I’m living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I’m thrilled that perhaps it shows.’ Oh, and having a tan helps. Even gingers can tan, you know!

Anyway, I stopped writing the blog not long after arriving in Shanghai, so I guess I’ll pick up from where I left off; retrospect may give it a different sort of tone but I am sure that it will still be filled with the kind of complaints, uninformed observations, and SHOCKING indiscretions that previously captured the attention of a few friends and my mum a global audience. Plus I’ll tell you about the time I went to Hello Kitty World and then saw an old man wanking on the side the road. Don’t forget to tune in!