In my ‘Learning in Lebanon’ post, I spoke about how I loved Lebanon. One thing I didn’t speak about was how much I loved staying with a Lebanese family. I was so very lucky to have this experience. It taught me so much about the culture, as well as giving me an insight into its legendary warm hospitality.
My childhood friend Yasmin and I have known each other since we were seven years old and have spent a lot of time together (she’s an upcoming DJ in London, listen to her stuff here). I am also close with her family and so I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to travel with them. My mother would not have wanted me to go alone and so encouraged me to take up the invitation when it was made. I myself may not have felt comfortable going somewhere so unknown alone and was so pleased to be asked. I am extremely grateful to the family for giving me a chance I would not normally have had.
I spent two weeks in Yasmin’s extended family’s home in Lebanon; staying with Yasmin’s grandparents and aunt, Ghislaine. They made vegetarian food for me and included me in the process of learning how to make food. But more than that, I liked how natural it all felt. Since I’d spent time in Yasmin’s house as a child and was at ease with her mother and brother, the rest of the family felt familiar too. It felt natural to help with small tasks such as setting the table. There was no effort made to include me in conversations because none was needed at all. It seemed a very organic absorption of me into the family. I did not have to make an effort to ask questions because they came to me naturally, as everyone was so kind and interesting. I really felt at home. ‘Making yourself at home’ is not merely relaxing and not worrying too much about the mess you’ll make, but more blending into the household.
Beyond a warm home, Ghislaine was kind enough to take us all over the country. If I wrote about every kind thing she did for me, this post would be far too long. But I would like to focus mainly on one amazing experience.
We arrived in the evening, rather tired. After a night of sleep, on our first day, Ghislaine asked us if we wanted to come a little outside the city to see a small home she wanted to make into a guesthouse. Yasmin and her brother were tired from the travel. But jetlag isn’t too much of an issue for me and I was eager to get out into Lebanon, even if it wasn’t a tourist attraction first off. In fact, I was all the more excited because my first experience was something slightly off the book.
I got into the car with a lady I’d met the day before but felt relaxed as she treated me just as she would Yasmin, like her own niece. I saw the roads, shops and people going about their day as we spoke a little about ourselves and my relationship with Yasmin. We stopped briefly at an antique seller, walking into a room full of slightly battered, but beautiful antiques. I walked around the room, looking at the vintage furniture, listening to the shouts among the workers and looking at the bright blue sea out of the window. It was like walking into the past, artifacts that had been rescued from hither and tither with stories of their own, I wondered about what some of these may be. As we got back into the car, I found out that the shouts were in a different variant of Arabic to the one I had heard so far; some of the workers it seemed were Egyptian and Syrian.
We continued on the motorway for a little longer, the windows open to combat the heat, our hair streaming behind us. As we became more and more comfortable with each other we had interesting conversations about religion in our lives and how our religions made us view sexuality. While very religious, Ghislaine was not conservative, encouraging me to see Lebanon’s nightlife and embracing the more decadent side of the city if only to view it from afar. She was what she called a ‘modern believer’.
Our conversation turned to nature conservation in Lebanon as the car had to force itself up steep hilly roads. She spoke about new dams being built and how she hopes people start to see the importance of preserving Lebanon’s natural beauty. She was very passionate about this issue and I loved hearing the fervour in her voice. I could really feel her love for her country.
Our last stop before our destination was at a small shop, to buy the workers of her guesthouse snacks and drinks. Even a small store was an interesting sight for me, what are the local snacks, how much do they cost, who runs the shops….
Eventually, we reached the house. It was old and unfurnished but Ghislaine saw its potential and was keen to make it into a beautiful haven of escape from the city for herself and visitors. While she sorted things out, I sat by the house, looking at a great view, enjoying the blue sky, the sun and seeing a panorama I hoped to explore in more detail. Sitting silently, just being, knowing I was around old stories that had made modern Lebanon, made me ponder about how the old connects the new…
On the way back, Ghislaine took me to get some food, a sweet cheesy dessert called knafeh in a beautiful bakery. It was so delicious, so unlike anything I’d ever tried. This stop also had a great view but a more urban one. In the space of a few hours, I had been in varied landscapes, all engaging and exciting to experience. This time we spoke about Lebanese food, and how she and her sisters loved to eat sweets as children. I had never felt so at ease with someone of a different age, background and interest set so quickly. In my experience, having a mutual connection really helps and makes it surprisingly easy to connect, even if you wouldn’t expect it.
Later in our trip, Ghislaine took a great photo of me. She took us to the cedars and so many different restaurants. It was so much fun to learn about her life, and hear about her refreshing honest antics over the years that were filled with every emotion one can experience. I loved how she could enjoy silly slapstick humour with us as well as have serious discussions about her love, politics and career paths. I loved the openness and how I was embraced with so much generosity and ready acceptance in just a few hours.
The whole experience was not as I expected but beautiful. You never know where you’ll go, who you’ll meet and what you’ll learn.
Thank you, Ghislaine, Renata, Yasmin and everyone else that made my trip special!