Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Lebanon's Ongoing Crisis

As some of you may have seen on the news, Lebanon is not in a good state. Two posts ago I detailed Lebanon's ongoing political crisis. There have been no developments on the political scene, but there has been an increase in violence.

Last Friday there was a bombing in the Christian suburb of Hazmiyeh, and Capt. Wissam Eid, a senior police intelligence official, was killed along with ten others. Over thirty people were injured. The bombing was relatively close to Alex's workplace, about a mile. According to him and co-workers they could hear and feel the bomb - he managed to get a picture which I have posted.

Only two days later, on Sunday, there were clashes between opposition forces and the army. The protests began against power outages, but turned bloody. The protesters burned tires and blocked the roads, but the army acted quickly to disperse them. Shooting began soon after and seven were killed, more than 30 injured. In another part of town a protester threw a hand grenade and injured several people.

So far there have been no other incidents. Hopefully the situation will remain calm, as we bide out our remaining three weeks. I will certainly keep you updated on the news.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Here's To One Year, Baby

One year ago I had something of an identity crisis. I just officially ended it with my long-time, on-and-off-again boyfriend, was unhappy with the major I had chosen as a senior in high school and didn't know exactly what I was going to do about it all.

I always thought of myself as an "independent" student and woman. I wasn't living at home, was putting myself through college, had a couple of jobs, could provide for myself (most of the time) and was my own person. But after going through a bit of a rough period I wanted to redefine independent. I thought being more successful, in relationships as well as other aspects of my life, meant being self-serving, ultra-casual and detached.

My life was back on track - I was having fun even if I didn't exactly know what I was doing after that semester. I thought about taking a semester off, before transferring to who knows where. I had some ideas, and it was a start.

The force that hit me was totally unexpected. I never saw it coming. Definitely not in the form of a slightly pompous, tan-suit wearing, I-just-graduated, unemployed guy. The last thing I wanted was to complicate my new beginnings with another boyfriend. But this guy made sure I had to put up a fight...and I lost.

The first time we met, he criticized my news sources. That was Tuesday. The second time we hung out he wanted to know if I "pawwed, clawed or took my own" tick-tacks when offered. On Thursday he asked if I was free for a first day the next night. I was flattered!

I should've known the first date he was going to be bad news for me. All he wanted to do was talk...I mean what kind of guy was he? He never made a move, he was intelligent, smart, not awkward, and liked to have fun. More than I could've ever asked for.

The rest is history. We have only spent two days apart since then, so you can imagine that we hit it off pretty well. And now we are getting ready to celebrate our one year anniversary this Saturday. And we have managed to do some pretty unbelieveable stuff in a mere 12 months.

After two months he asked me to accompany him to Lebanon. It was a bit unexpected but it wasn't contrary to the goals I had set for myself. It was more of a chance of a lifetime than a sacrifice. So we worked hard, saved all the money we could, and prepared to travel the Middle East.

My previous blog entries have detailed our trip thus far, so I needn't go into the details of the trip other than it has been a wonderful experience. This blog is about Alex and all the things he has done for me over the past year.

If you talk to him he will tell you that I am the one carrying the weight of the relationship. He brings home the bacon, and I am the one making a home - cooking, cleaning, and contributing in every way that I can. Rarely will he toot his own horn, so I'm going to do it.

My fiance is a great provider, in more ways than one. True, he doesn't cook much, but he really tries to do some of the meals and he always cleans up afterward. He always makes sure we are eating on a clean table and that the room looks nice. True, he likes to save all the money he can almost to the point of being stingy, but he spends so much money on making sure that we travel and really enjoy ourselves. He makes sure that I have everything I need, and more. He is a gracious human being, and doesn't give a second thought to picking up the tab for friends, or getting a nice gift for the ones we care about.

Although i don't like to show it sometimes, just so I keep getting spoiled, he is really considerate of my goals and desires. He is caring, thoughtful, and he loves me so much. This year I have felt so alive. He has helped me think through my concerns, and I know where I want to go in life. And much more, he is respectful of my personal goals. I have retained my independency while being in a healthy relationship. Anything I desire or want to accomplish with my life is something Alex takes personally, and makes sure I have the opportunity to act on it.

So, Alex, here's to us on our one year. You have made me so happy, and I am looking forward to the next year. We are starting to build a life together. We both want good jobs, a nice family, nice things, and just to be happy. I know you will give me all those things and more. Your mother is so proud of you, and your family loves you so much, and I know why. It's not hard to see - you are truly one of the world's finest. Now we just have to work on your etiquette with service drivers. I love you so much. Here's to one year, baby.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

At a Standstill...

Blogging is not in my job description, but as I am reading the news this morning at work, I realize that I have not updated my readers on the situation in Lebanon for a while. I am sad to say that the situation is getting worse, and I am relieved that we are leaving in a month.

Last week there were riots in the southern suburbs of Beirut over a rumored increase in the price of bread. Yesterday protests were staged in various places of Beirut due to increased power shortages. It seems as if the opposition is using basic commodities to incite public opinion. The media alleged that yesterday’s demonstrations were a “practice run” for what may come in the future if the Lebanese crisis is not solved.

Of course, there have been innumerable efforts by Arab and Western countries to solve the Lebanese crisis. Lebanon has been without a president since Nov. 24th, when Emile Lahoud’s term expired. The parliamentary session to elect a president was just postponed this past week for the 13th time, and the parties seem nowhere closer to a compromise than during the first scheduled session on Sept. 25th.

This past week the Arab League's Secretary General Amr Moussa came to Lebanon to try and implement the Arab initative, which up drafted during the Cairo summit on Jan 6th. The initiative calls for the election of a president, an agreement on the number of ministers allotted to each bloc and a new electoral law for the 2009 elections. Moussa left with only a small victory, getting opposition MP Michel Aoun and Majority leader MP Saad Hariri to meet.

Before the New Year there seemed to be hope for Lebanon, as the ruling majority party and the opposition managed to name a compromise candidate, Army Commander General Michel Suleiman. Almost immediately, however, there was contention over how to elect him. Suleiman is a grade one employee, and according to the Lebanese constitution a grade one employee must resign two years before holding the presidential seat. The opposition would not allow Prime Minister Fuad Siniora's govt, who they have labeled illegitimate since all the Shiite ministers resigned his cabinet in 2006, to amend the constitution. The majority maintained there was no other way to elect the general, and there has been no solution to the issue.

The majority made a major concession to their original stance, they okayed Suleiman, whom the opposition originally put forth as a compromise candidate and the majority opposed. Even after the majority conceded a bit, the opposition found ways to further complicate the situation. Not only did the parties have to agree on a compromise candidate, but they also had to agree on the distribution of ministers in the newly formed govt (after a successful presidential election).

This is confusing for you? Don't worry, I'm pretty sure it's not supposed to make sense. Right now the majority and the opposition, led by Hizbullah, are contending over how to interpret the Arab initiative, mentioned earlier. The opposition demands that in any newly formed government, they get a blocking minority (veto power). They want to allot each bloc an equal number of ministers so no party has power over another. So, the opposition, majority and presidential cabinet would get 10 ministers each. The majority, however, rejects this proposal, maintaining their majority status should be represented. They are suggesting a formula like 15 majority ministers, 10 opposition ministers and 5 for the presidential cabinet. This way, the opposition could not single-handedly block parliamentary decisions and topple the government.

Right now it is at a stand-still, and House Speaker Nabih Berri set the next parliamentary election session for after the Arab league Cairo summit in Feb. Any decision seems to be relying on the outcome of the summit. In the meantime it does not seem promising that there will be any major breakthroughs. France just cut off dialogue with Syria, claiming Damascus was only seeking to hamper any compromise and seek its own purposes. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have warned Syria that the Damascus summit scheduled for March could be postponed if they do not take steps to facilitate the implementation of the Arab initiative in Lebanon. Moussa left, basically saying there was lack of political will in Lebanon to solve the crisis.

If I have forgotten anything, it is because there is too much to think about. Right now I am just worrying about a possible escalation in tensions. There have been rumors that the opposition may stage a sit-in in Beirut airport, with the purpose of shutting it down. I received three emails from the US embassy this week - two because of the latest carbomb which targeted a US embassy vehicle, and another warning of a possible attack on a McDonalds and Pizza Hut near Sidon. In the bombing there were three casualties, but none were Americans.

Although Alex and I are having the time of our lives, it is hard to be laid back all the time. With the worsening situation I have been more worried. Sometimes I have a feeling of dread that won't go away. I lived in America for 20 years of my life and didn't have to worry about bombs, or protests, or war. I feel spoiled in a way, but then again, no one should have to live that way. Tell that to the millions of people who are, I guess. It just amazes me how people here go about their daily lives, seemingly unaffected. How does one grow accustomed to living in fear?

Anyway, that's enough about politics. I do read this stuff every morning...maybe I need a personal day!

Alex and I are down to our last month here in Beirut. This past weekend we went to Byblos, also known as Jbeil, and explored that part of Lebanon. We visited the historical ruins which makes the area so famous. We paid for a tour guide and he was extremely intelligent and articulate. The castle and the ruins were the remnants of 17 civilizations. It was full of history and artifacts.

The next three weekends will be our last opportunities to visit the places we haven't been. Not sure where we will go, but they will probably include an excursion to Tyre and visiting the National Museum. They say that this coming week is going to be cold in Beirut – a cold they have never had. That should be interesting. Their winters here are mild, so I wonder what their coldest days are like.

Piece of advice for the day: If you don’t already, listen to Bob Seger at least a couple times a week. He really knows how to calm the nerves.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

When I Grow Up...

Lately I've taken the initiative to really think about what path I want to take with my studies, once I return to America, and explore a few career options. I am, of course, set on completing my undergraduate degree in either Middle Eastern Studies or History, the former being most preferable. As I register for classes this upcoming fall semester, I will be considering which classes will benefit me most for the path I want to take, not to mention the internships that will be available to me.

I am realizing to what extent my choices could limit or broaden my opportunities in life, and how fast the time for me to choose a career path is racing toward me. I observe Alex, the jobs and internships he has taken on, and how his life is evolving now, and I can literally see the path ahead of him, not the end result, but the direction he is going is very clear. I can see, almost like sitting through the whole construction of a ten-story building, how he directs his energies and builds upon his strengths to get to his dreams - a stable job and a family. It's fun to observe, but it makes me realize that I'm only two years behind him and want the same things. Isn't it time for me to start directing my life in such a way?

I will finish my undergraduate degree in approximately two and a half years, if all goes well. Then what? In one of my last posts I think I mentioned that I am considering going to Law School or getting masters in psychology. Both seem practical and enoyable to me, and both open up doors to a very successful career. To be completely honest with myself, every day I find myself wondering what I could do with a psychology major. It is a field I have always been interested in, and find the study of it to be more useful than many other subjects I have invested time in. Actually I considered it as my undergraduate degree.

I realize that now is not the time to limit myself in any way, and I am not looking to put all of my efforts toward one spontaneous idea. In reality time is on my side right now, and I do not have to settle down for a while. Time just seems to go by so fast, and I know that if I do not think about it at all, I will find myself two years from now wondering how I'm going to apply my studies to real life.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Life in the Fast Lane

Go-karting was once an activity that I would boast as my favorite diversion from work and life, and that I was the champion go-kart racer. Last time I went go-karting, in fact, my fiance Alex saw the competitive side of me, and witnessed me mercilessly running my little brother off the track and then get a warning from the staff. Yea, I'm pretty hardcore. What can I say, I just like to go fast.

Well, forget go-karting. That is child's play after my little rendez-vous in the mountains yesterday afternoon. I had an invite to take a day trip up to Faraya, the popular mountainous area near Beirut with quite a few ski resorts, to go snowmobiling. I usually don't like winter sports, simply because the cold really gets to me, but it was so worth it.

Alex, our friend Ahmad and his cousin Mustafa, and I all rented snowmobiles and took a one hour ride in a beautiful area of snow covered mountains. It took about a minute to figure out the strength of the machine, and how to make it run smoothly. But after that minute it was just one adrenaline rush after another. Of course, out of four people, it was the first time three of us had gone snowmobiling so we had to go with a guide and took a planned course, more or less. But just speeding over the bumpy snow and pushing the snowmobile to the max going up big inclines was enough to impress me. Getting a numb face and frosty toes was definitely worth time and the money. I am really looking forward to skiing and snowboarding, which Alex promises to teach me!

Although I have done so much in the short time that Alex and I have been traveling, between Lebanon, Syria, Europe, I realize that I have so much more to do. For the most part I am working and studying during the week, what I would be doing in America as well. Of course there are benefits to studying in Lebanon, most importantly what I learn about the culture and the language, and so I would never trade this time for anything. But there are so many things that I want to accomplish in my youth.

These things are ordinary as well as extraordinary. Like a lot of people with big dreams I want to have a great career, do something important and contribute to intellectual society, and I want to be risky and maybe skydive someday. But I want to accomplish simple things as well. It would be nice to be able to cook without constantly referring to a cookbook. To be able to dance a waltz, a tango and maybe a bit of modern dance. To sew some of my own work clothes, or concoct whatever bar drink my friends might want. I prefer to think of this ordinary feats as life skills - the things that one should be able to do with ease.

For a large part of my life thus far I have just wanted to excel in one thing. Society stresses talent, or The Talent. As long as I can do one thing really well it doesn't matter if I am inadequate in other areas. I never really found that in myself, and spent too many years being disappointed that I couldn't find that one thing. What I really want is to be able. If you ask me to do something I can do it with no problem, or I can learn whatever skills I need to to accomplish it. I have to host a party? No problem, I know how to cook, decorate and host. My boss wants me to type up a briefing for a meeting? Well I have experience in journalism, editing and different styles of writing, so I think I can handle it. My child needs a costume for his/her school play? Good thing I took sewing lessons when I was younger. You want to hear a nice tune on the piano? Well I dabbled a little, so let me entertain you.

Somehow going snowmobiling got me off on a tangent. I realized how much there was to do in life, which led to what was more important to accomplish and finally what kind of life I thought it was best to lead. There are going to be people who really excel at one thing, or multiple things, in life. Undoubtedly they should put all of their efforts into perfecting their skill. But the life that is filled with a balance of life skills can be just as rewarding, as I am learning everyday.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Our Time in Lebanon is Coming to an End...

 After much deliberation the past few months, Alex and I have decided what we are going to do with the rest of our time overseas. We traveled to Syria last year to look into the language programs there, and were more than a bit disappointed. So Alex suggested the intensive language study in Fez, Morocco. We looked into it and decided we would rather spend the money taking 20 hours of classes a week for 12 weeks of Modern Standard Arabic. This is exactly what I was looking for, and Alex has had some experience there before and could attest to the quality of the institute. So we are flying to Morocco on Feb 22.

Also, as I am in the process of applying to universities in America for the fall semester and Alex is applying to graduate schools, we have bought our tickets back to America. We are repatriating on June 3. It’s going to be good to be back in America!

Friday, January 4, 2008

New Year Resolutions

Everyone hates New Year Resolutions. It is fun to think about them and coming up with creative ones, but they are so despised because it is so hard to keep them. So unless you are one of the lucky ones with enough motivation to see it out, they just make you feel bad in the end.

I think I may have a solution to the problem. Instead of just doing one for one year, I’m going to create a rolling list of New Years Resolutions. I have many for this year and if I don’t get around to it then it will go on my list for next year. But I have to accomplish at least one a year. I can begin or work on as many as I want at a time, but one has to be completed before the year is out. I can add to my list when I want, but I can’t remove any unless it is for a very good reason. This way, as long as I am continually working toward something and accomplishing little goals, I will not feel bad about failing at one big one.

This may seem like a cop out, but I actually have some very good small goals I want to address. They include:

1. Stop biting my nails so they can be naturally long and feminine-looking.
2. Broaden my knowledge of music
3. Read more books a month, fiction and non-fiction
4. Take ballroom dance classes
5. Begin the study of another language
6. Learn more about the use of make-up
7. No binge-drinking, at most one or two glasses of wine during a day.
8. Blog more
9. Learn 10 new recipes
10. Waste less food
12. Try to keep lids with their bottle (Alex’s request)
13. Reeducate myself with sign language
14. Wear less frumpy-mom clothes, like my Michigan sweatshirt

So they are all legit things to put on my agenda, and I don’t think I will complete them all. But even if I do five of them I keep them rolling for next year. And now if I ever have some free time during a week I have something I can be doing instead of renting movies and napping all day.

If anyone has any creative New Years Resolutions for this year I would love to hear them! Please leave a comment below and share this year’s resolution!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The End of a Great Vacation

I am exhuasted. I am sitting in yet another airport and I am officially exhausted. And not just nap tired, I mean I’m running on virtually no sleep. Alex and I decided for our last day in Budapest we would not pay the $150 for another night at the Radisson. Instead we walked around all day and then took a late night bus to Budapest airport.

We arrived at Budapest airport around 11:30 and then camped out until we could check in at 5:30 am. You can probably imagine how well I slept on metal benches at the airport. That was another first for me, and quite an experience. We finally boarded our plane at 7:15 am and I managed another one hour of interrupted sleep before we hit Milan, Italy.

I’ll get back to Milan, but I want to finish up the Budapest trip. We finished out the year in style – dancing 2007 away and counting down surrounded by scantily clad Hungarians and downing a bottle of champagne. I also witnessed a small dance off and danced with two Frenchies. But Alex was by far the best dance partner! Oh and I also had my first shot of tequila, which wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I did the salt and lemon thing, and it didn’t taste as bad as it smells.

The morning after wasn’t too bad. Alex and I just felt a bit dehydrated and tired. A couple of glasses of orange juice and a McDonald’s breakfast later we were feeling much better. Unfortunately everything closed down for New Years so there wasn’t much to do in our neighborhood of Pest. Even the area’s biggest and best mall was completely shut down. Except for the cinema, and I did another first!

After much deliberation, really a debate between two movies, Alex and I settled on seeing Beowulf. But it wasn’t a regular candy and popcorn viewing…it was in a 3D cinema. It was really something – the effects were insane. And that was a great movie to see in 3D. The plot itself was interesting. The movie was a lot more thematic than the book reads, and it was very existentialist. I personally liked it, although it was a bit gory. Knowing that John Malkovich starred in it made it good enough for me – I love every movie he is in. Guys – if you are trying to get a girl to see it with you and if she doesn’t think that she will like it just tell her that there is a bit of romance and Beowulf is in a hot naked fighting scene!

Alex and I had dinner afterward at a cute little restaurant/lounge. We had goulash soup, for the hundredth time, and I had a great plate of pasta. They really know how to do their pasta dishes in Vienna and Hungary. I’m going to miss goulash. It reminded me of Grandma’s Beef Stew, and each restaurant we ordered it from seemed to have a better version than the last.

Blah blah blah, fast forward to Milan. We first visited the castle in Milan, which housed several museums and art displays. They had everything from an Egyptian museum to Italian furniture collections. And of course the artwork was beautiful. We saw a room in the castle whose ceiling was done by Leonardo da Vinci.

Afterward we grabbed a bite to eat at a little restaurant. I had a real Italian pizza and it was good. There is definitely a difference between Italian pizza and the Americanized version.

Then it was onto Il Duomo Cathedral. It was a beautiful church and the size of it was unreal. We took pictures and looked at the pretty artwork inside. Then we hauled ourselves up numerous flights of stairs to the top. Everything about the church was grand and beautiful, and the view was just as great. It was interesting to see how all the roads led from and to the Cathedral. Back in the day a cathedral would be build and the city center would revolve around it, hence all the roads surrounding the church and buildings seeming to grow in a pattern around it.

There was not much else to do after seeing the grand church so we walked around the remaining Christmas markets and went cafĂ© hopping. Dinner was our final plan before heading back to the train station, and we ate at a great place. I ordered Lasagna and Alex had the Triplonia with Squash. I mean what else were we going to order? We were in Italy so we had to have their famous foods. On our way to the train station we had gelato…so I would say it was a great day spent in Italy!

Now we are waiting at Malpensa airport for our plane back to Beirut – Alex is napping and I am on carry-on patrol. I’m not feeling so very tired right now, but I’m pretty sure that I am at the stage where I just can’t think anymore. I know if I stop typing I will probably fall asleep, and Alex would not like that very much lol.

Ok so just one last though for the night! Alex said the funniest thing earlier today while we were eating a Margherita pizza in Milan. He suggested that “if pizza were not intended to be folded, then the dough would be made harder.” I really didn’t know how to respond, but one thing was just so apparent about the statement. It was so incredible Jersey. I have eaten pizza in a lot of places but I have only witnessed New Jerseyians folding up their huge slices of pizza and eating it like a taco. It is perhaps the weirdest think I have ever seen. The Italians in New Jersey definitely did not get it from their ancestors in Italy who prefer to eat their pizza with a fork and knife. I’m pretty sure that this concept of folding pizza was not born of some rational thinker who was trying to determine the purpose of dough’s flexibility, rather it came from pure laziness and the American way of bad table manners. Anyway…just a funny thought. I would love to hear thoughts on Alex’s quote from you all back in America…especially New Jersey.

Next blog: New Years Resolutions!