Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fall into Winter

Ironing Sheets?  Ironing Pajamas? It Must Be Winter
Winter is indeed here.  The mountain has been rainy, cloudy, chilly, thunderous, dark, ominous, windy and almost all of these at the same time.  You may remember that, since coming overseas, I haven't used a clothes dryer.  So, despite racing to pull the sheets off the bed and, with the pajamas, throw them in the washing machine, hang them up, and hope, they are still quite damp at the end of the day.  So, yes.  I've been ironing them all to get them dry.  I can resign myself to months of laundry that take 2 days or more, for each load.  Besides, it's chilly and never seems to be warm as I try to do my part not to raise the fuel bill for my block. No, we do not have individual meters.  All 3 apartments, no matter how many occupants, split the heating bill 3 ways.  And no, they cannot change it.

Down to the Southern Border: I can see Israel from here. 
Two weekends ago I was invited by a colleague to travel with him and another couple to the south.  We needed special permissions to pass a military checkpoint so we could get into a protected area that is just a few miles from the border with Israel/Palestine.  His parents have several olive groves down there and were our hosts for the almost two days we were there.  Lebanon itself, is not very big and this area is quite small but  it's amazing how many thousands of UNIFIL (UN Interim Force in Lebanon) troops can be stationed there from all over the world.  Of course they were very visible, which, in a way, appears to lend an air of safety to the region.  But my colleague would say, "Oops, UN, need to avoid them.  They're targets."  There really was no way to avoid them AND he was joking.

But I found driving around the area was not a joke, nor was it even a place for taking pictures.  There are only 3 below.  I will do my best to describe what I saw.  First, our colleague's father was our "driver" in his very old (the oldest I've ever seen) Mercedes.  We drove around, through his olive groves, and on the way to and from the border areas.  He treats his old car as if it's an off-road jeep with the result that, in the rain, we got stuck as he attempted to turn around in the middle of an olive grove.  We all got out an pushed the car forward, successfully if you don't count the mud baths we all took.  We're too far north of the Dead Sea for it to have had any health value.  We hurried back to our hosts house to get cleaned up, fresh, dry socks.  The little wet wipes I always carry were completely inadequate for this mess.

Each time we got in the car, our host would yell, "To Yisrael!" and drive like a madman for the border. His son, I noticed, became very quiet in the back seat and was much more nervous and frightened than any of the rest of us, including his father but the truth is, as a boy, he and his father, watched the bombs drop around them from the roof of their house.  I am sure he's never felt comfortable there since that time.  It was, "No, no, we can't stop for pictures." "No, don't raise your camera."  "Father, drive out of here now!"  At one point, Sammy, our host, kept driving until a soldier, Lebanese, ran up to the car.  Sammy told  him he thought this was where his nephew, a soldier, was stationed, but I know, he thought nothing of the kind.  In any case, the soldier laughed at him as we turned around, away from the high, coiled, concertina-wired fences.

Passing this or that field, our colleague would say, "Oh, you can't hike there.  That field is still mined" or "that's not safe, to a certain extent."  He seems to add this phrase frequently but in this situation, it seemed particularly out of place.  "Unsafe, to a certain extent?"  What on earth and to which extent is it safe?  After awhile, the minute he'd start with the "to a certain extent" phrase, we would all, including him, laugh.  He started to see how nutty the whole thing was.

And the difference between the highly manicured, irrigated fields of the settlers over the border and the erratic rows of the groves and fields on the Lebanese side was obvious and remarked on by our host.  At one point, close to a village, Sammy looked over the fence and said, "Over there, they have electricity all the time, high-speed internet, whatever they want, and over here, no services."  An advantage of staying in the hotel was the non-stop generators through the night.  It seems to me that the area has been under a kind of siege between wars and battles throughout most of the 20th century.  I hope the 21st can be quieter for everyone on both sides.

For the first time, I experienced extended, unremitting, "aggressive hospitality" as my friends here call it. Fortunately for me, I was staying in a hotel down the road so the last morning, I had breakfast there rather than spend one more meal with Sammy on my left, adding food I didn't want to my plate, every time I wasn't looking.  The constant "no, thank you" in a sweetly, polite voice was exhausting.  "Aggressive" indeed!  I have discovered that when you take what you think you want and can manage and eat it all, that is a deadly mistake.  An empty plate is an invitation for your hosts to make sure you've tried every last dish.  "No" does not mean no.  The kitchen has a central coal heater and the rest of the house was chilly so we all sat in the kitchen/sitting area, leaving a beautiful house untouched, hours on end, while various guests came and went.  By the end of the day, I was tired--not from hiking but from sitting for several hours trying to figure out how to stay mentally alert with Arabic swirling around and nothing else to do, never mind being told all the time not to help.

We 3 guests, rode back to Balamand on the wildest bus ride--probably wilder because we were in the back, but I was really grateful to be unable to see what was going on around us.  It was a military bus and the 3-hour ride cost $3.50.  The men were very respectful, moving to the front of the bus to smoke, opening the windows when they did.  The driver did get yelled at by the guard at one of the many military checkpoints around here.  Who knows what was going on?  I know he didn't see us but whatever it was made the guard really angry.  Nevertheless, we were happy with the speed at which we got through Beirut traffic and back home.  Very slick, I say, even though the bus didn't look too reliable when we got on.  Once settled, it was easy to forget about it.

This week, I was reminded, is Thanksgiving and I'm thankful for all of you.  I enjoy hearing from you and knowing just that you're "there" somewhere.  I will travel to Jordan on Friday-Sunday to see some friends and former students, also friends.

Over Christmas, I will travel to Istanbul for a few days since I cannot get home and back in the time we have and justify the expense.  In looking over the guidebook, I am really pleased, anticipating what I'll be able to see at last.

Love and Hugs to you all,


S. Lebanon, Israeli Border

Saturday, October 01, 2011

XII, Spring and Summer

The  school year seemed very, very long--probably because the breaks between semesters and Christmas are so short it is almost impossible to be prepared for the next term, much less rest.  What brought  special excitement to the Spring semester was the arrival of my second guest, Marty Townsend.  She was also a guest of the university and I'm not sure they believed she would really come.  Of course, it was not an easy decision on her part with Arab Spring popping up all over the Middle East.  Even yet, it is hard to tell what will really happen in Syria and what that will mean for us here in Lebanon.  But Marty's visit was a wonderful time for seeing the sights here again, having a close friend nearby, and great chats.  I think I have already shared almost all the best photos of the university and the country, but I added many more during Marty's visit.  Given the fact that her university lecture/meeting schedule seemed to grow like Topsy after she arrived, it's amazing she had any energy at all for sight-seeing.  The day we attempted to drive up into the mountains was the only day we didn't accomplish all we'd planned.  We had gotten a later start and, I must say, it is not easy to be a passenger.  There is no way to believe that the driver can gauge the distance between herself and the edge of the road and the breathtaking drop below.  I have sat in that seat!  Finally, Marty said, "Is it just gorgeous landscapes and charming villages all the way up?"  I said, "Yes."  She said, "Let's turn around and go back."  She was here more than a week and it was good to laugh and have company.  We spent a couple of days in Beirut before she had to leave.   Two weeks after she left, the semester was over and I went back to the States for a nice, long visit (June 21-Sept. 12th).

Below: Some new pictures, taken when Marty was visiting

Salted, vinegar carrots, street snack

Souks in Tripoli

At the entrance to the Crusader Castle

Tripoli Baby

Altar in Greek Orth. Church, Mina
These were taken on the tour Samir, a colleague, offered to give us of Tripoli.  Just about every other person in Mina, a coastal city adjacent to Tripoli, greeted him personally so that we began calling him the Mayor of Mina.

Here are more pictures of the Monastery and a lovely restaurant we like because of the setting.

The Bell and The Cross, Balamand

Altar in the Monastery Church

Damascene Iconography

Chapel Altar

Monastic Apartment

Balamand Class Marty Taught

Marty, Dinner with Colleagues at Jamil's


Within 24 hours of arriving in the States, I had decided on and signed papers for a car, thanks to the help of a friend who really gets a kick out of shopping for cars.  Can you imagine?  By the time I arrived, she'd parsed the market (not so good for used cars after the "Wreck-the-guzzlers" program, or whatever it was called), had her favorite dealers and salesmen chosen, and was able to show me the best choices within 2 hours or less.  And that, my friends, is how you buy a car!  It has been 7 years since I've had that kind of freedom and independence and I made very good use of it, driving all over the Central States: Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and back to Nebraska.  What fun it was--really!  A stack of good books from the library, good music, and the open road not to mention all the new things I could really appreciate: Drivers who use lanes and signals, who observe the speed limits (mostly), and who stop and start in predictable ways.  Driving up and back to Steamboat in CO helped me understand the huge difference between mountain driving there and here.  Oh my!  No wonder my guests have been scared out of their wits.  In Colorado there are four-lane interstate highways in the mountains! Amazing. My guest last year, Marlene, replied, as I tried to point out scenery, "NO!  I can't look.  I have to look at the road because you're not!"

But, most amazing of all was that I found all my friends, right where they were supposed to me, usually. Even getting lost is not a big deal these days with cell phones.  I must say though that was a bit disconcerting to call my Tulsa friend and say I didn't know where I was and have her tell me she could see me out her front window.  I think a GPS is in order for the future.  After driving with friends to Chicago for a wedding, I am convinced that is better than sheets of Mapquest printouts flying all over the car.  I was fascinated by it and, because they let me program it, I set it with a British accent and started calling it The Road Nanny.  That has a comforting sound to it, doesn't it?  I mean, how far wrong can you go when the Road Nanny is telling you what to do all the time?  Perhaps I should have stapled all those Mapquest papers together in groups for the various destinations, or something.  Anyway, I had a wonderful time and had the bonus of seeing even more people who happened to be around when I arrived.

Other than my Great American Road Trip, I stayed with my sister and her husband Murry, except for a few nights in Lincoln with friends.  Since I don't get to church here, I went to church at least twice and sometimes three times on Sundays. (I know, there's a monastery and church part-way down the mountain but it's all in Arabic and Greek and the monks sing monophonic, off-key chants.  I really don't think God is upset with me for staying home from something I can't understand or appreciate.)   I wasn't really trying to do make-up work but I did enjoy playing and attending.   It was also very good to be with family and friends for several weeks.  Besides the lack of close friends here, I find Balamand to be very isolating in ways that Beirut is not.  One does not "go for coffee" with friends, or to the mall, the movies, or anywhere on the spur of the moment and I can spend consecutive days at home, never seeing another soul, when there is no school.

I have taken up my violin again, almost every night, and so far, the neighbors have not complained.  The truth is, I hope they're not hearing it!  The endless repetitions, the finger-slides, the pitch-adjustments.  Good grief, and the out-of-practice vibrato that is none too reliable.  It can't be good.

Next week classes start in earnest.  No one can really tell me why we have a bogus half-week of classes, no teaching this week except to say that 20 years ago, they did it that way for the sake of their unautomated registration.  Oh well, I discovered that I have a good schedule and a private office so, for the most part, I am and will be ready to go on Monday.

I describe, in the post of August, a couple of incidents from last spring that are unique to this culture.

Blessings and Hugs to all,


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

XI, A Long Time

It has been a long time, it seems, since I updated this blog.  Funny how time slips away--especially for those things we love, like writing, for example.

A Happy Accident
I had checked the rear-view mirrors and even looked back.  Then I carefully put the car in reverse and slowly pulled out of the parking space in front of Bou Khalil, the little shopping center/grocery store...Crunch! Not loudly, nor even very suddenly.  Just, Crunch!  I quickly looked back and there was a lady standing by her car with several other passengers, in and out of the car.  I immediately jumped out of the car and ran over to her, apologizing profusely.  It didn't matter that she pulled up into the pickup lane, right behind me when my back up lights must have been on.  I did all the American things:  Suggest calling the police--She was appalled.  Then I suggested I'd call my insurance company--No, that wasn't any good either.  Finally, I offered to pay for the ding, cash.  She was shocked.  At last, I asked for her name and address and she gave me her business card.  All the while she was smiling and begging me not to be upset about hitting her.  That seemed a bit backwards but I drove off, trying to think about how to thank her, at the very least, for being so kind, so generous.

A couple of days later, my friends and I ended up having a celebration at a restaurant I know people really like here, Punto Alto, Italian, on a mountain with big windows overlooking the sea so I purchased a gift certificate, wrote a note, and started to address an envelope when I noticed that her card only showed the business address of a shipping company in Beirut.  I decided to let her know I was trying to mail something to her, sending her an email; and then I waited a few days.  I was beginning to give up when the phone rang one evening.  It was Natalia, the lady said, the one you hit in Bou Khalil, she added.  Oh yes!  Of course I remembered.  Instead of giving me an address she wanted to meet me for coffee.  She explained that I was a guest in their country and she wanted to be friends.

One morning over a break in classes, we met.  She really did need a friend and told me her story.  Only recently separated, she was a single mother trying to manage on her own. It isn't easy.  Wages are low, costs are high.  Over and over I was thanked (yes, thanked) for meeting her.  When she read the note and saw the gift certificate she almost cried and wanted me to use it with her.

Another accident, sans car, on a sidewalk in Beirut brought this experience home once more.  I had taken a visiting university guest and close friend, Marty Townsend, to Beirut.  As some of you know, the sidewalks in this part of the world are very uneven.  I tripped falling down in front of a sidewalk cafe.  Before I could get all the way up, a chair was brought over, a cold glass of water, wet wipes, tissues, with apologies.  People are generally extremely polite.  Marty said that would never have happened in the States.

Friday, April 01, 2011


April 1, Snakes in the Grass
This is not a joke....

I was delighted to see that all the old, dead grass and weeds and shrubs were being uprooted.  True, the diesel engine of the tiller is annoying but the apparent promise of what would be planted there later was exciting to contemplate. 

Today, I was disappointed and disgusted to discover that this is a snake control tactic.  Large, harmless (huh?--no such thing!) snakes hide in the grass and shrubbery so groundskeepers go through this process every year, never planting anything in the overturned soil.


Friday, March 25, 2011

Part X: Soul Food & Shakespeare Writes Greek

A Concert--Real Soul Food!
Tonight we had the Syrian Chorale on campus.  I was in the mood for choral music.  It felt like a choral music night and for some reason I do not know, there are no classes tomorrow--a national holiday?  I was handed a program, all in Arabic.  When I asked, I was told the songs were all Arabic songs anyway.  Oh well, I thought, I've never heard traditional Arabic songs sung by a choir.  I also thought that I might leave at intermission but there was no intermission and I wouldn't have wanted to leave.

What a choir!  They were excellent, mostly acapella, with a conga drum and tambourine, they sang all sorts of things including liturgical, opera, Orff ("La Fortuna" from Carmina Burana), Arabic songs, of course, a wide variety.  One and a half hours passed so quickly!  I was entranced.  Naturally, the better the group, the scarcer the chances of finding recordings.  Example: One miserable pianist we had on campus last fall had a full table of CDs to sell, I saw as I scrambled out during intermission!  I hope I will be able to find this group on iTunes.  Their conductor was wonderful too, of course.

About Shakespeare
We've had a few problems in my English Majors class, Renaissance-Romantic lit survey.  Well, perhaps I should say I've had problems.  My first mistake was attempting to find affordable and reliable texts with good annotations.  Impossible!  My second mistake was in assuming English majors were ready for Elizabethan, and earlier, English.  Apparently some students have already been to the chair's office to tell her that this class is, without a doubt, the hardest class they will ever take in their entire lives!  The funny thing is that she sent them to the English Learning Center (ELC), not knowing what their teacher was up to. Good luck with that, I say. When she discovered what was going on, she was amused to think that the ELC could help and tried to imagine what they would do if the student showed up.  So, I have since been advised that students need modern-day translations.  Translations?  for English?  But of course! English is often their 3rd language. Then, in one class a student asked if Shakespeare was from Europe "somewhere."  Finally, in my last class two students told me that Shakespeare wrote Greek!  I was gullible enough to believe they'd gotten their hands on a strange translation but no, it was Elizabethan English and just as inscrutable as any Greek translation, as far as they are concerned.  We did watch a filmed version together which helped but I thought, even then, that there were all sorts of innuendos and references being missed.  We will go back through the text carefully next class.  Poor students.  Poorer me.  This is definitely a case of misjudging your audience--completely.

A Correction
I was conducting a workshop for faculty on the Moodle--web-based Course management system.  Things did not go well, to put it mildly.  We kept getting blocked attempting to make various functions work.  Afterwards, commiserating with the IT lab person, he told something that was seemingly unrelated.  Here is what E. said:  The picture, below, is a bell--the one we hear frequently throughout the day, echoing over the Balamand mountain, marking the hours of prayers for the monastery.  It is not the ancient idea of a swing!  He said that after he received my first email, he was curious about me and looked over my blog.  Thank you E. for clearing up this mystery!

Parking Lines
...merely suggestions that this is a parking lot.  The lines have little to do with car placement.  As a matter of fact, sometimes the lines are painted to make it impossible to use them--as a kind challenge to someone like me who thinks she knows their purpose.  Today I found some that were diagonal followed by vertical ones.  Until we all drive triangle-shaped cars, I can't imagine how those are to be used.

Speed Limits
I have decided that these must be warning speeds, i.e. if you drive that speed you will be annihilated by the cars behind you who are going some 20+ km per hour faster.   I feel much better now that I understand the purpose of these signs.  After all, the purpose of government and laws is to create safety for citizens.  Good!

Hugs to all!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Western Analysis from the Washington Post

Part IX: Confined to Quarters

This is a brief update since some of you might think, erroneously, of course, that I know anything at all about what is going on in Lebanese politics these days.  The more I hear, the less I know!  The situation is so complex and when I think I understand, I get completely conflicting information from someone else.  

But because I have heard it twice, from completely different sources, I will tell you:  I have been advised not to leave campus.  Up here, on the Balamand mountain, we are safe but apparently, down in Tripoli, things are not very happy.  Hezbollah has  proposed the new prime minister who is not everyone's favorite (big surprise) and so now people are trying to stay quietly out of the way and out of trouble, well at least some of us are!

It's actually good news, I think, that there is no one person telling the same story. When that happens it will be all good or all bad and I don't expect things to get "all bad."

Tuesday, "A Day of Rage"
Some nut case in this political upheaval declared today "A Day of Rage," which is just what we need right now--more cause to riot, burn, and shoot!  Now I am having my own personal day of rage that someone   in power, with a loud voice could be so very irresponsible.  And, not surprisingly, people have responded appropriately--full of rage.

Our ranks on campus were very thin today, both in the faculty offices and in the classrooms.  In my last class, 4 in attendance, a student received a call which, under the circumstances, I allowed him to leave the room to take.  It turns out that there are no buses or taxis going down into Tripoli, the area of greatest unrest at the moment, and he lives off-campus.  When I asked him if he had a friend in the dorms he said, "I will manage.  I'm Lebanese.  We always manage."  We were told by administration this morning not to mark anyone absent, keep things light and easy.  That was easy to do--there was hardly anyone in class. 

Those of you who laugh at my connectedness will not be surprised to know that I keep Twitter hashtag #Lebanon  on my screen so I know fairly well what is going on moment by moment, even if I don't understand the politics.  Given the fact that the campus is so very quiet, the news and tweets are the only indication, well, not the only indication of trouble.  There are little groups of teachers talking quietly with each other too.  One Twitter account I'm following is  the NOW Lebanon blog, here: NOW Lebanon Bloggers
They post pictures, video, and text.

Do not worry for me.  I am quite safe.  We have a Fulbright family here and they have not been told anything by the embassy.  Furthermore, they have promised not to leave me, whatever they do. 

Love and Hugs,

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Part VIII: Better the Devil you know....

Dear Family and Friends:

 The Classroom
The cryptic title of this edition refers to the numbers of students who are contacting me about what I am teaching next semester.  I am not deluded about what this means because I seriously doubt they understand the meaning of the %s of their online grades.  If they did, they wouldn't be asking about my courses next semester.  But it mean that they want, at all costs, to avoid getting into my sections by mistake!  That is a much more plausible reason for their query.  On the other hand, if the opposite is the case then it is true that they prefer "the devil they know to the hell they don't." Very puzzling.

Today, and all this week, students have been presenting their work on NGOs they formed to deal with national issues.  Of course, every time someone mentions asking a Minister of This or That to participate, or involving the government to help them with an issue, there is laughter because, of course, there is no government at the moment.  (More on that later.)

Most of the time, students talk about how ineffective the government is and how little they can do.  When they talked about road safety this week they said that no one believed there was a new radar system covering the roads and highways of the country, even though the public information  said there was.  Citizens took it into their own hands to find out just what was was going on.  Sure enough, there are only two radar traps in the whole country.  Consequently, my students were quite surprised to discover that I hadn't been in an accident yet.  So am I!  Accidents are standard but no one seems to relate it to driving habits or speed.  Taking some colleagues to a restaurant via the one good highway here I was told to quit using my lane changer and turn indicators so much--it was confusing the other drivers!

Christmas Break
I was given an extra week to stay in the States and took full advantage of it, enjoying playing 5 services, being with and cooking for my family (my sister gets credit for finishing the the recipes I started before rushing off to rehearsals!), drinking more  Barista's, Starbucks, and Scooter's coffee than anyone has a right to, and in general spending a lovely time with so many while regretting those I missed seeing.  Truly, everyone was so gracious, squeezing me into and between family schedules, already packed with holiday activities.  I renewed some long-standing Christmas traditions with my friends and  family that I've missed for the past 6 years.  In other words, I'm so glad I went back this year.  What a true delight it was--every minute of it, until I began to think about my trip back to Lebanon.

At first, it was pretty rough.  My allergies to whatever (the mold?) I found here in September, returned in full force.  The medication, combined with some jet lag,  keep me falling over in a heap on the bed beside my desk (that is NOT a good place for a bed!).  Furthermore, my online grading was not working in the States so I have been tied to my computer since arriving in hopes that I could get the most critical grades posted before Friday, drop day.  I find it strange, to say the least, that with only 2 weeks left in the semester, students still have the privilege of dropping without penalty.  I could have told them weeks ago they weren't going to make it, and saved us both a great deal of trouble.   But now, I'm getting frantic emails about why they cannot drop the course or why they haven't been able to get online to see their grades or about the scourge that must have hit all the relatives of all the students here--a strange sort of terrible disease putting them and all their families in the hospitals.  I'm sure the papers are filled with reports of this plague if only I had  studied my Arabic more diligently and could read them.  

Based on what I have heard from other faculty, I might be hauled into an admin's office to answer for my extreme negligence in babysitting these children through their assignments, forgetting to call them each night to remind them of assignments and exams,  and failing to bring  them printouts of the online grades that have been posted each week since the beginning of the semester. It will be easy to demonstrate   what has (not) happened and why the students are in trouble but really, what a headache and, from what I've heard, administration tends to take sides with the "customer."  Oh goody!  On the other hand, it will be quite difficult to prove that at least once every other class the online web pages were mentioned, the IT help desk was explained, and the importance of both of those things stressed.

A Trip to Baalbek
Several weeks ago I went with friends on a couple of overnights out of town in the Bekaa Valley, yes, that one.  Of course the expected evidence of Hezbollah was there but I only noticed the souvenir T-shirts in Hezbollah Yellow that just about everyone in the Tourist Traps was trying to sell.  What we went to see were the amazing Roman ruins.  Baalbek is one of the best preserved Roman complexes I've ever seen.  I have some pictures posted here: 
Baalbek Trip

The Recent News
Imagine teaching or living in a place where the young people joke that "there will be war tomorrow, Miss."  No, there won't.  The fact that people are very nervous is actually a very good sign.  Their fear of a repeat of the wars and rebellions in the past decade gives them a measure of care about what they say and do that might spark an uprising or demonstrations.  If anything does happen as a result of the collapse of the government this week, it will happen in the south, in and around Beirut.  I have always been amazed at how localized these things can be.  5 years ago, living in Amman, bombs were set off downtown.  I heard about it first from concerned former students in the States.  I had no idea until it came on the English news--the BBC, quite a bit later.  Now, up here on the Balamand mountain, it's hard to believe that "there are tensions in Beirut."  I can assure you I am very safe, have part ownership in a car, have friends here on a Fulbright, and will know before anyone else if it's time to leave.  In the meantime, I have told my students that if there is war their classes will continue as before, online.  That's pure fiction of course.  The first thing I'll do is quit marking papers and pack.  The reality is that their infrastructure will not support the internet during a war.

All the best until next time!
Love and hugs,