After watching Stranger Than Fiction today, I was reminded of something I often forget – even though the title of my first blog and Tumblr is “Ordinary Life Illuminated.”
I was reminded of was the beauty of nuance. The importance of the simple things. They don’t seem to matter much, but actually are the things that make our lives…real.
At the end of Stranger Than Fiction, the narrator says over a beautiful sequence of scenes, “As Harold took a bite of Bavarian sugar cookie, he finally felt as if everything was going to be ok. Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies. And, fortunately, when there aren’t any cookies, we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind and loving gesture, or subtle encouragement, or a loving embrace, or an offer of comfort, not to mention hospital gurneys and nose plugs, an uneaten Danish, soft-spoken secrets, and Fender Stratocasters, and maybe the occasional piece of fiction. And we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorize our days, are effective for a much larger and nobler cause. They are here to save our lives. I know the idea seems strange, but I also know that it just so happens to be true. And, so it was, a wristwatch saved Harold Crick. “
How true. From my rooftop, I see a maid in a loose blue cotton outfit, attaching damp shirts and pants with wooden clothespins to a line hung from the balcony. I see a family sitting on a couch swing, moving slowly back and forth. I see a young man eating breakfast at a small table in a patch of shade on his rooftop, a bowl of hummus lined up beside his laptop. A man several buildings away is wearing a tight white tank top and smoking a cigarette, hanging halfway out his window with his left forearm resting on the sill.
I look behind me, where there are black and white photos of complete strangers taped to my wall that I bought at a souk. Isn’t that why people are driven to collect photographs of people’s lives that they have no attachment to? To connect with humanity’s idiosyncrasies, to recognize yourself in others? It helps us realize how much we have in common with people we’ve never met.
A friend of mine wrote something to me once that I’ve just stumbled upon that helps explain why we need to connect to other people, and how it helps us understand who we are. Though he was writing in regards to fiction, I believe the same holds true for non-fiction – our lives.
He said, “In his novel, The Lazarus Project, Aleksandar Hemon writes, ‘All the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is what the world is.’ Fiction allows us to explore people, places and times not our own. Moreover, it puts us into those people, places and times and lets us find the little bit of ourselves that exists in them –‘what the world is.’ It makes us realize that only by sheer luck or misfortune are we born into this family or that religion, this country or that ability. Things could all be different.”
A dance practice, a cigarette clutched between the fingers of an old man as he reads, a woman looking into the distance on a rooftop. Life.
Orthodox Easter, which was celebrated last week and into the weekend, is one of the most important days of the year for Orthodox Christians. I didn’t attend any of the events leading up to Easter (Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday), where many interesting things happen. The washing of the feet, the funeral of Christ where people mark the death of Jesus (Jinez El Massih) and the traditional Sunday morning mass (Hijmeh).
Thanks to my friend Paul, I’ve learned the “hijmeh” means “to attack.” It’s a tradition where congregants pray outside their church, then rush in or “attack,” the church, which signifies triumph over evil. I wish I could’ve seen this, but I got lost in a cab Sunday morning. I guess there’s always next year.
I did manage to see the celebrations on Saturday evening though, as the tradition of bringing the “Holy fire” from Jerusalem, which is then flown to Orthodox communities throughout the world, commenced in Beirut. I waited by the Mar Mitr church in Ashrafieh for two hours, waiting for the fire to be brought from Sassine, another area of the city.
Below is a video of the priests coming and the crowd of people following, along with a van playing religious chants from multiple loudspeakers. You can hear the fireworks going off, both behind the crowd and by the church to my left – it was so loud, it felt like we were in the middle of a war zone. A church patron told me that they were setting off $4000 worth.
“It’s a very special church, this one. It’s really something special,” he said as he followed me (and the crush of people) into the area outside the church, urging me to take photos of the interior of “the most beautiful church” he had attended since he was a child.
Of course, while everyone was crowding in through the gates, someone set off a firework directly behind the crowd, sending black burnt debris into the air. Whoops.
Many people were emotional as they lit their candles from the two priests, crying and kissing their hands and cheeks. One woman repeatedly put her hand on the flame in the priest’s hand then ran it across her face, tears coursing down. I feared a bit for one of the priests, as he disappeared under the crush of arms frantically fighting to get to the flame in his hand. Sweat poured down his face as he coughed from the smoke from the flame and yelled for people to relax.
The strangest thing that I saw though was the area set up with cardboard cutout of Jesus Christ floating above a man passed out with a bottle of alcohol in his hand. I guess a reminder that He is always watching?
All in all, it was a very interesting experience to see how a holiday is celebrated with ancient traditions that conversely I grew up celebrating with Easter baskets, eggs with coins in them and excruciatingly long masses wearing scratchy dresses.
Learning something new every day.
Cyprus is a beautiful island, just a 20-minute plane ride away from Beirut. When Omar and I left Lebanon for a long weekend, I hadn’t done much research on the place. I knew that about a month ago, there had been a terrible economic collapse when two major Cyprus banks closed. That it was a small island where Brits like to get trashed. And that it had lots of natural beauty.
A Lebanese woman who had been living in Cyprus for many years gave us some traveling tips in the airport while we waited for our delayed (of course) plane. She was a saleswoman on her grind, successful but unsure about the future. She had lost her savings in one of the two domestic Cypriot banks that failed and was worried about how she would pay for her youngest child’s education. She also told us she feared that Cyprus was only just beginning to feel the effects of their two biggest banks failing.
We landed after nine. After paying for an overpriced taxi to our hotel, we pulled up to an empty, dark Cactus Hotel, where we’d had reservations. We’d been scammed!
No, not really. The hotel motel across the street was taking in those who had made reservations at the Cactus. It was a bit seedy, with a neon “Bar” light shining over the empty pool, but it was clean and had sheets, which is certainly better than some of the other places I’ve stayed.
(Click on the photos to view them in a carousel!)
In the four days we were in Cyprus, we didn’t travel as much as planned, mostly because we ended up meeting an incredible family on our second day in Nicosia. After wandering down the deserted street that ran alongside the Green Line — a border that marks the buffer zone between Cyprus and Northern Cyprus, an area that has been occupied by the Turkish Republic since 1974 — we stumbled upon a café that look almost abandoned, save for four young men sitting inside drinking coffee.
This café, the Cafe de Flore of Nicosia, is an informal meeting place for people who like to talk politics, drink coffee, be tolerant of different ideologies and roll their cigarettes. This is where we met this lovely family, and ended up talking so long that we missed the bus back to our hotel in Larnaca.
Over the next two days, we traveled to back to Nicosia, as well as to Limassol, a city that is known for its bustle and “cosmopolitan” scene. When we got there, it was completely dead. Partly from the rain and partly from the economy, the scene was completely dry. Limassol is a city in Cyprus where there are many Russians – you can even find signs in Russian! Russian businessmen have built huge, beautiful houses on the outskirts of town and there are schools specifically for Russians in the city. People we spoke to while we were visiting feared that with the bank closures in Cyprus, the Russians would leave, creating a vacuum for investment, helping plunge Cyprus into a situation similar to their neighbor, Greece.
The rest of our trip was spent with our adopted Cypriot family, who we spent hours over CYPRIOT (Not Turkish, this is very important) coffee, listening to them tell stories of Cypriot history, politics and serving in the national forces during the 1974 invasion. We spent an afternoon on the Turkish-occupied side – I could feel a palpable difference as soon as we crossed. The people were more closed in the bordering area, more suspicious, warily watching us as we walked along the border on the other side. The occupied side wasn’t very beautiful, but I heard and read about the rest of the area, outside of old Nicosia. Gorgeous, best beaches in the world. Some of the best nature, too.
The night I spent in Nicosia, I watched the Turkish flag light up on the mountainside north of the city, from the occupied side. Blinking, one part of the flag at a time, over and over. I wondered how people who were driven out of their homes by the Turks must feel when they watch. One of friends said most people had gotten used to it. While others, though it’s been relatively peaceful in the years since the invasion, still hold onto their anger.
Much more to discover, for another trip, I suppose. A reason to return.
In an effort to catch up on blogging and save some time, I decided to smush all of my tourist weekend excursions in Lebanon into one post. From argiles and kabobs on the beach to boating through massive caves, I’ve seen a lot of beauty but not nearly enough in this country.
Amchit, a Maronite seaside town outside Beirut, is beautiful. But strange. Walking down the hill to the coastline, to the left is the glittering Mediterranean…but turn to the right and a grey factory monstrosity looms. Don’t let it ruin your view though, just turn towards the water and breathe deep.
Sunday afternoons on the beach. Note to anyone beaching it in Lebanon, in Byblos particularly. Bring your water shoes and watch out for the medical waste. There is a small island off the shore that you can get to. But first you must pick your way over piles of rocks, littered with trash. Syringes. X-rays. Plastic bottles. Etcetera. The path to the island is rife with sharp rocks and moss and in bare feet can be pretty painful. So, after a failed attempt to reach that island, we settled for kabobs on the beach. Perfect afternoons only slightly marred by finding a patch of black oil on the bottom of your foot at the end of the day. Step carefully!
Jeita Grotto – Paleolithic stalactites, mites, underground rivers, oh my! The grotto is made up of two separate and connected caves that span more than 5 and half miles. The lower cave has an underground lake that a guide takes you through on a boat. So long as there aren’t any children on your boat, the ride is incredibly peaceful. The upper grotto can be explored on foot and is massive. Light glances off millions of year-old glittering rocks.
I don’t have photos to illustrate the depth and the beauty of these enormous, sparkling, silent and damp caves (no cameras allowed!), so I included an old postcard I found in box at a souk of the inside of the underground. But I can write that the immense space feels like you are a tiny piece of the world, swallowed up this prehistoric cavern.
I have to say that the best light so far has been on my rooftop though. I’m lucky enough to live on the top floor of a building with access to a huge terrace. (Don’t get too jealous, I live in a closet). Many nights, the sunset spreads across the tiles in warm oranges and pinks.
The sunny side of Lebanon.
Last night I was woken up by a phone call. There’s been an explosion at the Boston Marathon.
I immediately grabbed my computer. Social media is a savior when something like this happens, Facebook allowing people from Boston to let friends and family know that they were safe. A gratefulness I’ve never felt for the world’s biggest time-waster. I followed Twitter feeds, reading eyewitness accounts and reactions in 140 characters. I stayed up for hours watching the news unfold on TV.
I couldn’t sleep last night. I kept thinking of how scared my friends were in Boston. How terrifying it was for those closest to the bombing. And the sense of safety and elation that so many people had at the beginning of yesterday’s race that was shattered in a moment.
Whenever something terrible happens and I’m so far away from the people I care about, I start to wonder why I live on the other side of the world, when it’s impossible to hug my family. But I can still remind myself of how lucky that I still have what others lost yesterday.
I’m with you, all my friends in Boston, and the strangers there yesterday I never got to meet while I lived in the city too. President Obama said, ”Boston is a tough and resilient town. So are its people.” I know this to be true. Stay strong, all.
Long time, no blog! I have been traveling nearly every weekend and haven’t found the time to blog about the interesting places I’ve seen. Apologies for the lack of timeliness, but I have to go back a few weeks to put up all of my pending posts.
Easter Sunday, a holiday back in the states where I usually found myself devouring the contents of a basket filled with Reese’s peanut butter eggs while being guilted to attend mass, is a big deal here, more of an event than Christmas even. This particular Sunday in the streets, in typical Lebanese style, men, women and their children were all beautifully outfitted in suits and fancy dresses as they hurried to mass.
Church bells rang out over my neighborhood through a scratchy loudspeaker. Omar and I passed through the throngs of suits, slacks and dresses headed to pray, to meet a friend at an abandoned house across the city. (Click on the photos!)
Beirut is full of abandoned buildings, but this one was interesting, because it was nearly abandoned. After I walked past a faded sign advertising what the apartment complex would look when finished, I entered an open foyer – a finished lobby of sorts, with dark marble floors. The first two stories of the 22-story building were attractively finished. As I kept climbing the stairs, the next floor, still occupied, was reminiscent of a slum dwelling. Albeit two other random occupied floors of the 22, the rest were abandoned and unfinished. Some of the empty tiers and stairway held forgotten remnants of life. A soiled mattress. Piles of broken furniture and trash. A child’s filthy Boston Red Sox cap (Go Yankees!). Scattered pages ripped from coloring books.
We spent the rest of the afternoon overlooking the city of Beirut, enjoying the light and breeze streaming through the dusty space. An unconventional Easter not to forget for sure.
It’s been quite a week in Beirut, at least from a foreigner’s perspective. The border was bombed by Syrian warplanes. The recent clashes in Tripoli have left six dead, a Lebanese army solider among them. Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s Cabinet resigned yesterday.
But for many Beiruti’s, it was business as usual. As I followed news streams on Twitter yesterday morning through the afternoon, a Lebanese friend of mine was unaffected by my constant updates. “It’s normal…we party.” Indeed, out in the streets, it looked like any other night, with people spilling out of bars up and down Gemmayzeh Street.
So, when in Rome…
I went to UNESCO Palace for a swanky exhibition opening last night. Titled “One Blood,” the photographer took portraits of blood donors around the world. The idea with blood is that it’s the essence of life, the ultimate entity that connects humanity.
The curator of the exhibit wrote, “His idea was to uncover the mystery of blood, to let blood speak for itself, defending its own arguments and thereby convincing skeptics. His own mixed blood, with his own experience of the pain of being different during civil strife in Beirut – the city that has suffered so, and which epitomes all conflict in the world – he has shown that our blood, are different bodies, are one…the intention was not to reveal times of despair, but to show times of hope, not times when life was taken away, but times when life is given so generously.”
A simple idea with beautiful black and white (and occasionally with a splash of red) portraits, the photos were placed back-to-back with their matching blood bags or drops. People from everywhere, professions of everything, beliefs ranging and blood types varying.
Plus the best spread of hors d’oeuvres and drink choices I have seen at an event since I left the States. And free! Party on…