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Marriage with altitude: A big fat Lebanese wedding

Minimalists the Lebanese are not, and so when my pilot brother-in-law got married this weekend (previously a confirmed bachelor – we’ve been waiting a looooong time for this!) it was a HUGE and spectacular extravaganza, held in a picturesque village set amid olive groves some 700 metres above the city of Beirut.

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In Beirut, there is no such thing as less is more – it’s a case of the bigger the bolder, and the grander the better! Lebanese weddings are a true celebration of two families becoming one. Here are a few highlights from a crazy, magical night in the Lebanese mountains:

Fireworks: The Lebanese love fireworks. They’ll use any excuse to set them off! It’s traditional to have fireworks at Lebanese weddings and we watched mesmerised as bursts of fiery colour flashed into the clear night. Bright sparks of emerald green, magenta and sapphire blue pirouetted above my in-laws’ home, glittering the darkness like a paint palette exploding into the sky. After all, nothing says extravaganza quite like some good old fashioned fire crackers.

Romance: James and his beautiful Danish bride Theresa said their vows just as the sun was setting in an orangey-pink haze over Beirut. The city, laid out below, stretched alluringly across a headland jutting into the azure-blue, east Mediterranean sea. From above, the capital looks peaceful, almost sleepy. It’s anything but – on the ground, Beirut pulses with life, glamour and hedonism. The full-throated growl of a motorbike revving on the mountain road intruded like a profanity during the sermon, but somehow even this seemed fitting – welcome to Lebanon baby!

The feast: Middle Eastern culture places great emphasis on food, and nowhere is this more apparent than at weddings. The meal was Mezza style, with multiple platters of plentiful delicious food: shawarma on a rotisserie spit, falafel, kebabs, tabbouleh, fattoush, hummus and more, followed by baklava (sweet dessert pastries), ice cream and cake.

J&T wedding1What a cake knife! Another Lebanese tradition common in Middle Eastern cultures is to cut the wedding cake with a sword. Here’s James and Theresa slicing their cake with the sword given as a gift to my mother-in-law at her own wedding.

Dancing: It’s not a Lebanese wedding if there’s no dancing. There was so much dancing on an outdoor patio lit with fairy lights that high heels had to be jettisoned. The bride and groom were lifted onto the shoulders of the stronger guests amid much whooping and pulsing of music; my youngest son, meanwhile, had earlier hid under the table, terrified at the sight of the belly dancer who seductively pulled guests onto the dance floor for a colourful and jiggly whirl around the twinkling terrace.

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Pre-wedding party: A certain degree of stamina was required! Lebanese weddings can go on for a looooong time. The festivities commenced long before the actual wedding, with a pre-wedding party the night before attended by at least 30 guests. The actual wedding went on until 4am, and I believe that, four days later, some of the guests are still staying at the house!

The wedding was a cosmopolitan melting pot of friends and family from all round the world (California, Denmark, Dubai, Kenya, to name just a few), and a remarkable feat that only my mother- and father-in-law-extraordinaire could pull off!

All my congrats to the love birds xxx

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Silent Sunday: Rustic charm

There was an old woman who lived in a …. barrel? I know it should be shoe, but when I saw this photo – taken by my mother-in-law in Lebanon – it really reminded me of the nursery rhyme. Gives a new meaning to the phrase rolling countryside…

Lebanon barrel house

And, in reply to the lovely Ms Caroline in Seoul, who just pointed out that it looks like a hobbit house without grass on top, it is all real-sized. I cropped the photo above – here’s the original, with three cars parked outside!

Satellite dish too, I wonder!
Am wondering if there’s a satellite dish and Wi-Fi too!
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Beirut and beyond

If you’ve been following this blog, you might remember that my in-laws live in Beirut. I may also have mentioned that my mother-in-law (MIL) is an absolute whizz at designing and furnishing houses.

When I was 15 and dating DH, I stepped into their London basement apartment on Gloucester Road and knew immediately that I wanted to live in a house just like it. The Japanese screens, oriental ornaments, Persian carpets, silk cushions and golden Buddhas that adorned their flat conjured up images of far-flung corners of the world that I yearned to travel to.

My MIL’s uncanny talent for interior design has been unleashed on homes all round the globe (places they’ve lived include Kuwait, Thailand, Japan, Hawaii and Washington DC, to name just a few). Most recently, my in-laws have been renovating a property perched high above Beirut – a yellow-stoned, cavernous building that was a crumbling, derelict shell when they bought it.

What they’ve achieved is astonishing.

Next door to their home is a guesthouse that they’ve just finished, and I’m posting it on the blog because it’s available for holiday lets (and no-one knows about it yet!).

From my in-laws’ two-bedroom guesthouse, there are 360-panoramic views of the Mediterranean and surrounding olive groves. Nestled in the mountains just 30 minutes from downtown Beirut and 15 minutes from the airport, it’s a tucked-away retreat, located 700m above the city’s humidity.
From my in-laws’ two-bedroom guesthouse, there are 360-panoramic views of the Mediterranean and surrounding olive groves. Nestled in the mountains just 30 minutes from downtown Beirut and 15 minutes from the airport, Casa Mia Shemlan is a tucked-away village retreat, located 700m above the city’s humidity.

On our first visit, I got a taste of the flair Beirut is known for while leaving the airport. Lebanese drivers were jockeying for position, edging forwards into the smallest of spaces to gain an advantage, and leaning on their horns.

As we climbed up to Shemlan via steep mountain bends, my father-in-law wound down the car window to pluck a fig from a tree and stopped to greet a neighbour in Arabic. There was an air of relaxed friendliness. But it was the panoramic view that stole the show. Beirut, laid out below, stretched alluringly across a headland jutting into the azure-blue, east Mediterranean sea.

A popular destination for Middle Eastern travellers, and a cosmopolitan melting pot of people and influences, Beirut is the most distinct of all Arab cities
A popular destination for Middle Eastern travellers, and a cosmopolitan melting pot of people and influences, Beirut is the most distinct of all Arab cities

From above, the city looked peaceful, almost sleepy. It’s anything but, of course. On the ground, Beirut pulses with life, glamour and hedonism.

Rising optimistically from the war-torn ruins of decades of fighting, Lebanon’s capital is a vibrant metropolis, inhabited by beguiling, beautiful people whose hospitality knows no bounds. Many are fluent in English, French and Arabic. “Bonsoir habibi, how’s it going?” someone asked me, using all three languages in one sentence.

You might spot a tank on the streets of Beirut, rolled out as a show of security, but these days you’re far more likely to see sports cars with their hoods down, or a Ferrari dealer next to a flat bread stall.

In the city, bullet holes stare, like unblinking eyes, and shelled-out buildings punctuate the landscape, but there’s a spirit of resilience that’s helped Beirut dust itself off repeatedly from periods of conflict. Once the self-proclaimed ‘Paris of the Middle East’, there’s still an outdoor cafe culture, and European architecture can be found everywhere. Hamra is full of smart boutiques and the downtown has been rebuilt, exactly as it was, with a series of elegant streets branching off from a central plaza.

Everywhere, the city’s jumble of history is evident. Sitting in front of the huge Blue Mosque is a tiny Maronite chapel, and there’s a perfectly restored Orthodox church next to a Catholic cathedral – all within yards of each other.

My favourite place to be at dusk is the waterfront Corniche, where at sunset it’s as though the entire city is out strutting its stuff along the wide, palm-lined seafront promenade. From here, you can watch the sky turn pink over Pigeon Rock, then head into Hamra to sample the city’s famed, vibrant nightlife.

Beyond Beirut, the scenery is stunning. Lebanon offers every type of recreation, from skiing to swimming, walking, ancient ruins and wineries. A famous, old Lebanese boast is that you can ski and swim in the same day. And don’t get me started about the food, made from the freshest of ingredients. Provided everything is peaceful politically, Lebanon gives the south of France a run for its money.

This post is adapted from a travel column I write for a magazine called The Source (click here). More travel posts coming up!

We drove to the mouth of the Dog River, where there are inscriptions that bear witness to more than 3,000 years of Levantine history
We drove to the mouth of the Dog River, where there are inscriptions that bear witness to more than 3,000 years of Levantine history

 

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Our ‘snow day’ in the Middle East

Within hours of my first son’s birth in Minneapolis, the ground started glistening as though a fairy had sprinkled dust over the entire city.

No, I wasn’t still high on the cocktail of drugs. It was the end of November and a blizzard had set in, covering everything with a blanket of thick white snow and turning the houses, with their undisturbed snowy roofs, into works of art.

We drove BB home from the hospital – very gingerly – in a snow storm and during the first two years of his life in the midwest of America, there was snow and ice on the ground for at least four months each winter.

Yet, of all this, BB remembers nothing! Despite my valiant efforts to bundle a wriggling, obstinate toddler into an all-in-one snow suit (I honestly think it would have been easier to dress an octopus) and drag him along on a sled, he has no recollection of the fluffy, white stuff.

LB has never seen real snow and so it was with great excitement that we set off last week to the top of a mountain range in Lebanon. Our goal was to build LB’s first ever snowman and so carrots were grabbed from the kitchen, jumpers stuffed into the back of the car.

I have to admit I was sceptical: it was so hot in Beirut. How could there possibly still be snow, I wondered? The temperature remained warm even as we climbed higher – our slow ascent through 1850 metres monitored by my DH and his Dad who, being pilots, checked the altitude on the car’s GPS at every opportunity.

Songs were sung, wrong turns taken, then, low and behold, we suddenly saw snowy peaks! Real snow pasted on the already-stunning scenery like icing sugar.

In Lebanon, you can surf the sea and ski all in one day! Snowballs were thrown, of course – despite the lack of gloves

The winding mountain road led us to a ski resort called Faraya, closed now for the season but beautiful nevertheless. Beautiful and cold.

Straight out of the desert in Crocs and with a constitution that means they shiver in the refrigerated section of the supermarket, the boys whined at first – but after wrapping LB in a pashmina and donating DH’s socks to BB (who knew we’d need winter clothes in the Middle East?) we set about building our snowman with cold wet hands.

A glamorous Lebanese lass climbed on a snowmobile – driven to the very edge of the snow so she wouldn’t get her bejewelled black-suede boots wet – and set off at speed clinging to her boyfriend. If she can do it, I can too, I thought – and so I hopped on the back when the boys went for a spin.

Precious memories were made, but I have to admit one of the most memorable moments was a conversation in the car on the way up:

“Have you ever seen snow before?” my mother-in-law asked the boys.

“Yes,” they replied, nodding their heads earnestly.

“Where? In England? America?” she prompted.

“Nooo. Dubai,” corrected BB, as though it was the most obvious answer and you’d be a ninny to think otherwise.

And then, “Will we see penguins on the mountain Grannie Jane?”

Ski Dubai (our ski slope in a shopping mall and home to the most-pampered penguins in the world) has a lot to answer for!

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Why every mum should go to Beirut

I came to the conclusion this weekend that every self-deprecating housewife of a certain age needs to take a trip to Lebanon.

Lebanon combines world-famous cuisine, legendary nightlife and beautiful scenery
If nothing else, the stunning mountainous scenery, views of the sparkling Med, mind-blowing history, laid-back atmosphere – and, I should add, standing in the shadow of buildings peppered with bullet holes – will make any household worries feel a million miles away.

A night out in vibrant Beirut – fast becoming the region’s party central – mingling with friendly Lebanese locals will knock 10 years off your age (until the next morning at least). You might even come away thinking you’ve discovered the Paris of the Orient – enough to put the spring back in anyone’s step.

But there’s more. If, like me, you can’t put your finger on the exact moment, but you know that the wolf whistles started petering out a while ago – probably shortly after taking up the mantle of motherhood and just before you realised you wake up with a crease across your face that’s there till noon. If, like me, you’re a little bit worried about a big birthday just round the corner, then you really need to experience what I did this weekend in south Beirut.

We’d driven there, dodging maniac drivers, from my in-laws’ home in the mountains above Beirut to buy the kids bikes. I knew we were entering Hezbollah-land – a part of Beirut where if there’s a problem, you don’t call the police, you call the militia. And I knew we’d arrived when we spotted a missile by the side of the road.

Which I decided to go and take a photo of for my blog.

Honks from Hezbollah: I'll take my honks where I can!

So, while my father-in-law, DH and the boys looked at bikes, I went a very short way up the road to get a good picture – and realised that the background noise of car honking had suddenly become even louder. Not only that, but the men driving the vehicles were grinning at me, motioning to me and one driver, at the wheel of a tyre truck, even pulled over and tried to catch my eye.

Feeling a little unnerved – and more than a tiny-bit pleased (it’s been a while, as I said!!) – I went back to the bike shop and told DH what had just happened.

“I got honked – at least 10 times! Did you hear?”

“Really?” said DH, looking up from adjusting the handle bars on a Spider-Man bike. “Are you sure they weren’t taxis?” he laughed.

True love, eh!

Okay, so some of them were clapped out, smoke-billowing taxis looking for business, but in a part of town where anything goes – where there’s not much you can do to attract attention – I’m pretty sure I proved that a shapely blonde housewife taking photos of a missile is a traffic stopper!

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Silent Sunday: Boys’ toys

Yes, that's snow, not sand - and that is my 6yo about to go skidding up a mountain on a snowmobile in Lebanon this weekend! The antithesis of many people's image of the Middle East, laid-back Lebanon is mostly mountainous with ski resorts to boot