Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Lessons learned from arranging a surprise for someone else

For Christmas, this year, on a whim, I discovered I could travel to the UK to spend the holiday with my parents. We had already agreed that we'd spend Christmas on different continents and that-was-that, so when I found out I could get the ticket to London, I didn't feel the need to inform them of my changed plans. It's a rare treat that such a surprise offers itself so conveniently.

I really didn't put much effort at all into planning the trip which lasted just under four days including travel time. But there was some temptation to soupe up the surprise, add some flair, some extra special moments. I wondered if it would be possible to connive a way to get them to a restaurant in central London where I could be waiting for them. Or perhaps ask my co-conspirator friends to create a diversion that landed them at the train station at the exact same time as I'd be coming off the train. But it was so easy to just make my own way to their house at a time I'd knew they'd be there (because my mother had already shared with me her plans for the holiday weekend, broken down by activity). So that is what I did. Nonetheless, with as little planning as I'd invested, the experience still taught me a thing or two:

- Simpler really is often the best. No tricks or games, just the surprise itself. My mother told the story of my arrival on her doorstep about a dozen times in the three days I was with her. I didn't really need to do any more than that.

- To surprise someone you need to know what they want. To surprise them with your own presence, it sure helps a lot to be absolutely confident of their love. This only really worked because I know my parents love me and are always happy to see me.

- Likewise, it helps to know them well. I could be confident that when my mother said she was serving dinner at 8 p.m. on Friday evening that meant the family would be home on Friday evening, barring a serious emergency. I know I can depend on them that way. (unlike myself – if anyone wants to surprise me, I will certainly be a moving target)

- My mother always says that she dislikes surprises, so I was worried she'd be upset I didn't let her know. But she didn't seem to mind. In fact, having the story to tell seemed compensate nicely for the preparation she normally would have done for my arrival. I don't think I like surprises either, but who knows maybe I actually do

- To get the ticket I used frequent flyer miles and with the miles I had to return business class. There's something about being treated as the elite, a smaller group of people with a curtain binding us together and separating us from everyone else, and knowing that we're the elite... that just added a bit of confidence and spring to my steps yesterday as I dealt with security, immigration and other officers paid to stall us.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

posting thoughts from Christmas Eve

Seeing people
watching people
entire cultures of... people

An hour and a half on the train passes so quickly, especially when there are many other passengers, and especially when it is Christmas Eve and all are travelling in family

A couple of hours in a Beiruti mall are also fascinating times during Christmas season, when everyone has a little bit of a chance to let loose, just a little bit

Yesterday a Beiruti mall
Today an English train

Families out and about, going to and from fun things, similar in so many ways but intimately different

On the surface, the colours. The train is so bright: white, sky blue, red, pink, purple, green and yellow are just a few of the colours in one quick glance about me. The Mall was a rather pure, unquestioning matching up of brown and black. Sure, there were other colours, just not many.

But the lights, oh the lights! In Beirut we saw little Christmas lights everywhere, here and around. Creating shapes of sleighs, angels and bells. The lights were white and blue and yellow. The Christmas lights were contrasted against green and purple spotlights. No effort was spared on a dazzling display of beauty in Beirut. Meanwhile, the Christmas decorations in this Christmasyest of most Christmasy countries are sparse and spare.

What tells me the most, though, are the people. In front of me, an immigrant woman speaking a combination of English and her native tongue, travelling with her university-aged daughter who speaks in a perfect London accent. They are talking about deep issues like inter-family marriage, and also catching up on family gossip and covering many topics in between. Across from them are four women. Or is it three women and a man? I'm really not sure what the gender is of the heavyset figure in white. But he, or she, seems to be a very kind and friendly person, a loving and entertaining mentor to the two young women perhaps better labeled 'girls' travelling with her – or him – and a motherly woman dressed in a blue sweater. Next up is a family of three: silent father, mentorly mother and engaged young-adult son.

In Beirut, there were families, sure. Everyone was there with family. Mothers chasing babies, big sisters taking little sisters shopping, fathers snapping photos of their sons on Santa's lap, couples staring at each other over coffeecups. But it was all staged, and much of it marked by a sense of the need to be a family and get it over with. Because this is what we do.

Perhaps I should have recorded the people more diligently in Beirut. The women's boots, in and of themselves, joined together to tell a fascinating story. Cowboy boots, hipster leather boots, kneehigh socks in plaid under boots, boots with leggings and boots with leg warmers, high high heel boots, flat boots with fuzzy tops and boots that looked like homemade knitting. How much time and energy went into the primping for the average Lebanese woman's afternoon doing some last-minute shopping at the mall? How much time did the women around me prepare for spending a day on the town in London or to take the train down to the south coast to be with family? Is it possible, just possible, that the women here used the time saved to save their love of just being with people? Or is it just because it's Christmas.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Starbucks cutie

As I sat typing away in Starbucks today, in a posture I've taken most days of my vacation this month, I was facing the serving counter.

I looked up to see a boy a little shorter than the counter, say just under three feet tall, walk in from the mall and march up to where the barista was serving a customer. If you are prone to giving Starbucks business, you know that in front of the cash register there is always a selection of candies and chocolates on offer. At this particular Starbucks the selection consisted of a variety of hard candies wrapped in Fall colours (red, orange, yellow), and a few candies wrapped in blue.

The boy reached up and pulled out a pretty blue-wrapped candy. Then we walked back out of the store.

The barista continued serving his grown-up client, never even noticing the boy's existence, much less that he walked up to the counter and shoplifted.

I couldn't bring myself to say anything, after all, the boy was too young to know that what he'd done was against the rules.

Immediately, though, the boy walked back in, ushered by his father. They went up to the barista who was just finishing with the other guy. The father explained what happened and paid, and then walked back out of the store with the little guy in tow.

With this little anecdote, I may be saying farewell for the holidays. Maybe, if I have something I need to say, I'll post. But most likely I'll be gone from here until 2011! Happy Christmas and an even Happier New Year!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Feeling Fear

I'm back in Starbucks across the street from the Sea. I just got cajoled into ordering a ridiculously overpriced Christmas drink: "toffee nut latte". It's nowhere near worth its price, but it does in fact taste Christmasy, somehow. And I suppose that's what one does on vacation - let oneself be cajoled into doing things we might not otherwise feel justified in doing. I often fear being taken advantage of, and fear is never good, so perhaps fighting the fear justifies my overpriced toffee nut latte.

Really, though, that's neither here nor there in the midst of the awe surrounding me. The last two days have seen the first major storm of the winter in Lebanon. The high mountains are now covered in snow. The low mountains where I'm staying were slippery with hail and frozen rain this morning. But I braved that fear to drive down to the city where things are just plain old wet.

And sit in the Starbucks across the street from the sea, which is as fear-inspiring a Biblical tales like Jonah and the Whale, or Paul's shipwreck on Cyprus - which was not far from here. The waves have already calmed down, but they're still spitting several metres into the air and showering the few leisure walkers on the corniche. I know they have calmed down because there's a stretch where the metal grating meant to protect pedestrians has been torn down by the sheer force of the water.

I think fear of the power of water is a healthy fear. It reminds us of the power of God. I want to be wise: for example, drive slowly on wet mountains and avoid swimming in the Mediterranean this week. I want to remember that God keeps me safe and has given me a warm bed and house and a car to drive so I don't get wet in the rain. And he's provided me with the luxury of access to Christmas drinks at Starbucks which make me feel like I'm in a theatre watching God's greatest show of waves yet.

On the horizon I see a brighter light. I think the storm is passing and peace is coming.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Feeling hunger

Lebanon has been a culinary joy. Christmas cookies coming out of my ears, complimented by good coffee, homecooked African food, homecooked Chinese food, labne and other Lebanese delights, and plenty more.

Though the food has been amazing, what has brought me to the next level of heaven has been the contrast with the life I left behind. In Sue Dan, the food is not bad, but it's not exciting either. We have cooks in our guesthouses who make an assortment of dishes, an intriguing combination of Sudanese, West African and East Asian cuisine - all represented to some extent in each dish. The same 5-10 dishes are repeated almost daily. Good food, but after a few months, not very exciting.

Here, the food is exciting and I've been eating as much as I can appropriately stomache. Sometimes my hunger is insatiable, and other times I've burnt out, feeling like the mere thought of food would sicken me.

What's really getting my hunger out of whack though, is the Food Channel! The last few nights, right around midnight, we have been watching the Food Channel. Two nights ago it was a special on the uses of vinegar: roast meat recipes and an intriguing salad in which parmesan is roasted onto a half a head of romaine lettuce then sprinkled on top with shaved frozen red-wine vinegar! (I know, seriously, didn't that make you feel hunger just now?) Last night it was a tour of the kitchens in various southern barbeque joints.

Watching the food channel just empties out my stomach. The hunger hits loud and strong and I just want to eat everything! (Remind me to NOT watch the Food Channel when in the Dar and can't access much of anything.)

As an aside, the other hunger I'm feeling is the hunger for writing. Such a strange feeling, and even stranger is the feeling of utter satisfaction after a productive session typing.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Feeling cold

I'm wearing long warm bottom parts and a cozy sweater. After the gym this afternoon - yes, the gym! complete with hot tub and sauna! - and a shower, my hair was wet. I got very chilled.

I'm sitting warming myself with the computer motor on my lap and barely over the chill after a hot thick-thick cup of hot chocolate.

It's nice feeling cold. That is, the kind of cold expressed in shivers, thick blankets, hot drinks, hot showers, and brittle wind on my cheeks. As opposed to the kind of cold expressed in unheated outdoor showers and brushing my teeth in the morning frost. So, at least for now, it's nice feeling cold.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Feeling beauty

You know your heart is worn down when you can't feel glory in beauty.

When I landed in Beirut, one of the first things I saw was white houses on a green-brown hill set against a sky as blue as a blue sky can be. There was a fire burning and plumes of smoke wafted up the hill.

When I drove out of the airport, I saw billboards and mad Mercedes, but I also saw more blue sky, blue as can be, and dark and deep. The traditional architecture of the older houses quickly came into view, and I whizzed past historical neighbourhoods alternating with metal and glass modernity.

When I came out of the last tunnel I was face-to-face with the Mediterranean. I drove along the seafront for a while, through heavy traffic both vehicular and pedestrian, and then I parked and continued on foot.

When I walked on the corniche, I stared out at rock formations set in the blue-black sea, bright blue sky above and hazy mountains in the distance. I passed a flurry of Beirutis ranging from shorts-and-tanktop gear to full-Muslim-abaya cover. The flurry was speckled with plenty of other nationalities as well.

When I ordered my coffee at Starbucks, I took a sip and felt like I'd returned home. Then I sat in a comfy chair with a view of the sea, sipping and reading and enjoying the blueness all at once.

When I arrived at my destination in the mountains, I took a seat on a bench overlooking the city and the sea beyond. I wrote in my journal and felt the chill of early-winter air on my face. Then I went for a walk and allowed the breeze to refresh my soul.

And only as I neared the end of my walk did I start to feel my the restorative power of beauty, a small hint of the glory of the sea and the sky and the blue and the white and the mountains and the people and the wind. May the beauty grow and overtake my entire being.

Even though my internet access is limited so I don't know if I'll get to read many other Imperfect blogs today, I still decided to link in with Emily's Imperfect Prose community. I'm thinking of you all!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

a really good quote

Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I'll tell you what I'd do. I'd go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep, woods, and I'd look up into the sky--up--up--up--into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I'd just feel a prayer.

Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery
(chapter 7: Anne says her prayers)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

avoiding bad things

A bit of thinking-on-paper today to share with Emily's Imperfect Prose on Thursdays

I'll go to just about any ends to avoid mice. Before I moved to the Dar, I'd heard more than enough horror stories of the little critters that terrorise the house where I live. Among the stories included blackness of droppings on bednets, rats making their home in someone's suitcase, and a bite on the toe of someone when sitting at her desk.

These stories almost convinced me not to come. I suppose it is a phobia, because if those things happened to me, I'm quite sure I'd curl into a little huddle in the corner and never actually do anything. But I was assured things had improved, and I told myself it was a stupid reason to stay away. Then I sucked in my breath, said a prayer, asked everyone I know to pray for me and the mice, then hopped on a plane.

I've been tremendously fortunate and must believe the prayer has done its job, because so far my bed is clean and my feet are in one piece. Nonetheless, I have gone to great lengths to protect myself - obsessively, you might say. My colleagues helped me out by filling a big black garbage bag with sand, which I put up against my door on the floor. This fills in the open crack of space through which little guys might sneak in to my room. One day I woke up and saw a gift left behind by a critter and mobilised more plastic sheeting protection for my room. I keep my blankets high on my bed, always sleep under covers even if it the heat is sweltering, only open my windows when I'm in the room and can monitor what goes in and out, play music so I won't hear any scratching, and wrap my food in plastic, burlap and more plastic before storing it. Yeah, I'm obsessed.

But it's worth it for the sense of security I feel. And that sense of security makes it possible for me to face each day's non-rodent-related challenges with gusto.

And, I'm well aware that if avoiding the rodents were truly my top priority in life, I would not have accepted this job in the first place: this job not only puts me in the line of little puttering feet, but it also subjects me to plenty of other potential awfulnesses that don't even make the news anymore because they've become repetitive.

Meanwhile, I've been thinking a great deal lately about risks that we take, and risks that we seem to think we can fully mitigate. And the price we pay for mitigating them.

I definitely lose time and a little bit of resources minimising the risk of rodent hazards. But I'd be an idiot to think I'm saving myself entirely. I know this, and I feel peace that I've hit my happy balance. My housemates doubtless think I go too far, but in my heart I know this is right for me.

Meanwhile, some of the other risk mitigation rules imposed on me do not feel like they are worth the price. For example, avoiding fraud in the workplace: call me twisted, but some of the fraud-mitigation rules seem to prohibit getting our work done. The only way to really ensure we will have no fraud is to shut down our office. So instead of creating all these inhibiting rules, why don't we just shut down?

Similarly, the several dozen signatures required to do any activity feel a little too obsessive. Lately I feel like I spend more time getting approvals than I spend doing stuff. The reason for this is to ensure that everyone understands and agrees with what we're doing. Fair enough. But if all these signatures mean we can't do it, maybe we should just plan not to do it from the start?

Then again, if I really wanted to avoid the mice, I should have just stayed home, right?