A Weekend in Cyprus

Along the southern coast of Cyprus

Teachers’  Day is Lebanon is a National Holiday (what a novel idea!), and since it came on a Friday this year, we took the opportunity to get out of town and hop the 30 minute flight to Cyprus for a long weekend break.

This just doesn't feel "right".

When we booked our car on line we did not realize that Cypriots, having been British colonial subjects at one point in their history, drive on the left side of the road, in cars with driving wheels on the right.  This was the first adventure of the trip.  Wisely, the roads leading out of the airport are populated by signs reminding visitors like us to drive on the left.  Sharon assisted as well, always reminding me which side of the road to drive on as I pulled back onto the road.  Fortunately, we were able to rent an automatic.  Fortunately, I didn’t kill us or anyone else.

A lacemaker in Lefkara

One of the highlights of the visit was our stop in Lefkara, a The village of Lefkaratraditional village known for its lace and silverwork, located in the southern foothills.  It is a beautiful little town, with narrow streets and traditional stone houses.  We stopped in several lace shops where we learned how this traditional craft is slowly dying as the young people are not taking up the craft and are moving away on a rapid basis.

Driving...on the left...towards Mt. Olympus

We spent our two nights in the capital of Cyprus, Nicosia.  As a result of the 1974 invasion of Cyprus by Turkey, this island is divided, with the northern half being Turkish and the southern half being Greek.  The “Green Line” that divides the country also runs through the middle of Nicosia, making it the world’s sole divided capital.  We stayed on the Greek side, except for a  5 minute stroll over the line into Turkish Nicosia.  Old Nicosia is enclosed by The Venetian walls, built in the mid 16thcentury and still in excellent shape.  Unfortunately, the old city has little of its old charm left and does not offer much to the foreign tourist.

Enjoying one of the medieval sites in Nicosia

The countryside was beautiful during our visit, with the verdant hues of early spring brightening the fields and hills.  Our drive back to Larnaca on Sunday took us over Mt. Olympus, where Cypriots were enjoying the deep snow.  The highlight of our Sunday drive was our trek up the coast to see Petra to Romiou or Aphrodite’s Rock, the legendary “birthplace” of the Greek goddess Aphrodite.  Cyprus is a Mediterranean island after all, and driving along its coastline on a sunny spring day is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

Aphrodite's birthplace

It was great to get out of Beirut for a few days after a long stretch of school. One more country visited.  One more flag to hang in my office.  We enjoyed the trip but don’t see it as a place we will ever choose to visit again.

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The Buildings of Beirut

The new Beirut skyline is dominating the beauty of Old Beirut

Once described as the “Paris of the Middle East”, Beirut lost that moniker after the city was decimated by the civil war that raged here from 1975-1990.  There are still remnants of the old Beirut found throughout the city, and it is easy to imagine how beautiful it once was.

Not many of these beautiful homes remain in Beirut.

The old stone houses with multiple balconies, triple pointed arched and round windows, topped by pyramid roofs of red tiles are still found throughout the city.  The influences of the French and Ottomans are evident in many of the buildings.  Unfortunately, these reminders of Beirut’s glory days are few and far between.   More common are multi-storied concrete apartment buildings with little if any architectural interest.  Alongside a high-rise might sit the remnant of a once beautiful home, sitting idle as it waits for a long forgotten owner to reclaim it or sell it to a developer.  Many of these still bear the wounds of war; blown out windows and bullet holes covering the walls. The city cannot salvage abandoned buildings, as a still standing law requires the physical presence of the owner for its sale.

Abandoned, bullet ridden relics of the war and pre 1975 Beirut are still common sites.

A few of these continue to house a tenant or two since another antiquated law does not allow for increases in rent beyond the amount paid before the war.  Thus, a tenant might be paying $10 a month rent in the one remaining apartment of an otherwise dilapidated building.   The downtown section of Beirut has been rebuilt with its history in mind, but it continues to struggle to regain its past glory in spite of its attractive architecture.

The old souks, redone

Like the society itself, Beirut’s buildings are a study in contrasts.  Old and new, beautiful and decimated, the multi-faceted personalities of this city and its buildings are somehow able to co-exist and survive.

The price of war

The infamous Holiday Inn, epicenter of the Battle of the Hotels in the early stages of the war. Visible from our balcony.

A few beauties remain.

Balconies hidden by curtains in residential Beirut

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A Day in Tripoli, Lebanon

Looking over the city of Tripoli to the Mediterranean

We needed to get out of Beirut after weeks and weekends of  report cards; Sharon writing them and Mike reading and editing comments from multiple teachers.  We rented a car and headed up the coast to Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city and a place we had yet to visit.

We found our way to El Mina, the old port section of town easily enough.  We drove up and down the seaside Corniche, which compared to Beirut’s Corniche, was empty and unimpressive.  Our goal on this trip was to spend some time in the old souks of Tripoli, and to visit the medieval citadel overlooking the city.  Both of these were inland several kilometers, so we decided to brave it and drive into the heart of old Tripoli to park.  We crawled along for a kilometer or two,  not knowing if we were even going in the right direction,  so we stopped and asked for directions.   Tripoli is a strongly Muslim city, with little English evident  on signs or heard on the streets.  Fortunately, we found a few locals who spoke English, and they were able to point us towards our destination.   After a hair raising drive across five lanes of traffic at a round-a-bout, we got as close as we felt we could with the car and parked on a street, crossed our fingers that the car would still be there upon our return, and started hoofing it.  We were soon in the souks, with their crowds, narrow alleys and endless variety of purchasing options.  Ultimately, we found our way out of the souks and to the citadel.

At the Mamluk gate into the citadel. The inscription over the entrance was placed there by Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century

The citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles dominates the city of Tripoli.   First built in 1100 by Crusader Raymond de Saint-Gilles, it has seen many occupiers and builders, giving it an interesting mix of architectural styles.  These include a moat built by the Crusaders, an Ottoman era gate built by Suleyman the Magnificent, another gate with the distinctive black and white stone of the Mamluks.  The castle is undergoing significant work and with no guides we had to rely on our imaginations to get a sense of the place.

The Lebanon Mountain range in the distance

We found our way back through the souks to our intact car, and headed back down the coast.  We met up with Phil and Josie from ACS at a seaside restaurant in Batroun where we enjoyed a beer and fresh grilled fish as the sun set over the Mediterranean.

Another Mediterranean sunset

Sharon at one of the doors guarding the entrance into the citadel. It sure looked original

 

 

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Homeward Bound

It has been quite a ride!

This most difficult of decisions has been made and we will be heading back to Vermont at the end of this school year. It has been a roller coaster back and forth on this issue. Back in early December, and right up until our girls departed a week ago, we were quite sure we would return to ACS and Beirut for a third year. But the pull of family and friends hit us when the girls left. We missed some important events in the lives of family and friends last year, and we don’t want to experience any potential similar events from the other side of the planet. Learning that our tenant did not want to renew the lease on our house was just another sign that it was time to go home.

We have had…and will continue to have….a great experience here. We will go home with no regrets and will be enriched for the rest of our lives as a result of our time here.

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Christmas 2011

The whole family, finally with us in Beirut

We finally got both our girls here, along with Ben and Victor, all of which made Christmas 2011 a very special one for us.

In the souks of Saida

We enjoyed Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Kate’s birthday, Dec. 26, in Lebanon.   Mike’s Playstation quickly became the entertainment for our time in the apartment.  Thanks to Victor and Ben we were able to play split screen, head-to-head racing games.  The competition was intense, with Ben showing early signs of racing prowess, only to be overtaken, first by Mike and finally by the ultimate champion of the track, Brittany.  You go, girl!

Kate and Ben

Brittany and Victor

We rented a car which allowed us to get around city and country easily.  Well, easy does not really describe the driving in Lebanon, but you know what I mean.  We showed them ACS, we walked the Corniche and the new Marina, as well as the downtown area.  One afternoon we headed down the coast to Saida where we toured the Crusader castle, the souks,  and the soap museum.  We finished the afternoon off with some great falafel sandwiches.

The highlight of the week was four days in Istanbul.  Each couple headed out each day to tour the city on their own.  This allowed Sharon and me to have new adventures in Istanbul.  We took a short boat ride up the Bosphorus, we learned to enjoy the Grand Bazaar as well as the Spice Market, and we made our way up to the old land walls and the Chora Church/Museum.  This place is a true gem and I advise visitors to Istanbul to be sure to visit.  The mosaics, some of which are still in excellent condition given their age, are magnificent.  We spent some time across the Golden Horn in Beyoglu where we visited the Pera Museum, the Pera Palace Hotel and The Istanbul Modern Museum.  Istanbul ranks right up there as one of our favorite cities.

On the Bosphorus, with Istanbul and The Golden Horn in the background

Oh, ya….we even convinced all but Victor to experience a Turkish bath!

We returned to Beirut where we celebrated the week and New Year’s Eve with Sandra and Phil in our apartment.

It was wonderful having the kids here.  Their departure made us realize how much we missed being near family and friends, which led to our decision to come home at the end of this year.

Happy New Year from Beirut! Inshallah

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To Stay or Not to Stay

We are currently in our last year of a two contract with ACS Beirut.  We have known for quite some time that we would need to decide by December 2011 whether we would commit to a third year at the school.  The Head of School has asked for a decision by the beginning of this month and we have been struggling with this decision since returning in August.  What to do?  Stay or go home to retirement?  Here are some of the major points we have to consider.

Stay for Year 3

  • Living Internationally – Living in a foreign city still intrigues us.  Beirut has such an interesting blend of western and Muslim cultures.  We enjoy laying in bed hearing the call to prayer, eating at a different restaurant most weekends, living amongst and working with Muslims, and trying to understand the intricacies of Lebanese culture.
  • Show Us the Money – As two public school educators we were never able to put significant amounts of money aside for retirement.  We have been able to save some money while here, and could continue to do so another year by staying at ACS.
  • Travel – Since coming here we have visited Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and Kenya.  We have seen the pyramids, been on a safari,  swam in the Dead Sea, watched the sunset on a Grecian isle, and visited some incredible sites we hardly knew about before coming here.  We would love another year of this travel.
  • Not yet ready for retirement – This is Sharon’s issue more than Mike’s but we are still young…well, we think we are anyway… Sharon is enjoying being back in the classroom.  Mike can go either way on this one.

Go Home

  • Family and Friends – We miss our family and friends.  Our kids are coming in a few weeks, Brittany came last December, our best buddy Donna visited earlier this fall, and my brother Dave and his wife Deb visited last spring, but otherwise we go for close to a year without being with the people we love.  Last year we missed two important family/friend weddings and my brother’s 70th birthday party.  Might we miss other important family events if we stay another year?
  • Retirement – No 5:30 alarm clock.  No 10 hour work days weeks in a row.  Leisurely mornings, yoga, walks, golf, skiing, cooking and entertaining, and more leisurely travel.  Sounds good.
  • We have done what we set out to do.  We committed for two year and will have done that successfully.
  • Arab Spring gone bad – Will Lebanon stay calm?  Are we pushing our luck by staying another year?  Another bombing of a UN vehicle recently is not a good sign.  Syria is very close by, both geographically and politically.
  • Things we miss –  Our family and friends, fresh air, entertaining, fall foliage, skiing, golf, walking dirt roads….
  • Hard Work – We work damned hard here.  And if Sharon’s class size increases, and knowing that TA support is not going to happen…these might be vital factors in our decision.

A tough call.  Fortunately, we feel we are in a win-win situation as either option is a positive one.  We are nearing a decision, and will post it once we make the decision and tell our bosses, family and friends.

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Cairo

Shopping in the 14th century Khan el-Khalili bazaar

 

We seem to have good timing when we travel.  Last year we visited Damascus, Syria in February, just a month or so before the Arab Spring arrived in that country.  Now, less than two weeks after returning from Cairo, that city is once again experiencing revolts, injuries and killing of protesters.  When I mentioned this to our school counselor today, he called me “The Destroyer”.  It would be funny if this wasn’t such serious business for the people in these countries.

Tahrir Square, site of the January revolution that toppled Mubarek

A small protest in Tahrir Square, viewed from our hotel room

It saddens us to watch the current events in Tahrir Square.  Many of the pictures we see of that site could easily have been taken from the same hotel we stayed in while visiting Cairo and The Pyramids.  We had a bird’s eye view of Tahrir Square, and actually witnessed one very small, short, and peaceful gathering one morning.  We send our prayers  to the people of Egypt.

The National Antiquities Muesum on Tahrir Square

What a city.  It is much easier to romanticize this metropolis of 22 million from a distance and after a visit than it is while there.  We were greeted by many friendly people who loved to welcome us to their country.   We have found to be true in all the Middle Eastern countries  we have visited.  In Cairo this friendliness was, at least in part and at times, a guise to get us to go with them to their relative’s shop to spend, spend, spend.  And once they convinced you to look, the pressure to buy was remarkable.

The Mohammad Ali Mosque

It wasn’t so much the vendors in the Khan el-Kahlili bazaar that got to us.  The pressure from them was to be expected and at times was even humorous.  It was the people on the street who offered to “help” us, AND then brought us to their shop so we could spend money.  We had to work to not have this color our experience while there; not an easy task.  We do understand that given the poverty found in this country, people are just trying to make a buck from the western tourists.

In Coptic Cairo. Coptic Christians make up 10% of Cairo's population

Even with all this, Cairo is a place that was worth visiting.  It is the gateway to the Pyramids which we could visit again anytime.  The city and its museum, bazaars, history, and strong Muslim identity make it a fascinating place to visit.  As we advised in the blog on the Pyramids, having a guide is the best way to tour in this city.  Again, we recommend Hesham.

We ended our visit to Cairo with an evening boat ride on the Nile.  A buffet dinner, belly dancing and whirling dirvish dancing capped a great trip to the land of the Pharoahs.

The Nile with Cairo in the background. The land to the right is an island in the middle of the river.

Dinner show, Egyptian style

At the entrance of a Coptic Christian church

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