Given the events of the past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about both Paris and Beirut. As well as Brussels, which currently has its terror alert raised to the maximum, and it’s another place that’s close to my heart. It’s been an emotionally exhausting week, to say nothing of the actual tragic events in both cities and elsewhere. In terms of capturing our initial collective reactions online, I appreciated what First Dog on the Moon drew and what writer Tara Moss said on Facebook:
Please, let’s try to take it easy on each other in our personal grief. It’s natural that individuals are more emotionally impacted by horrors that unfold in places they have spent their lives in, that they personally know, and where they have friends, family members or other loved ones. I became engaged to my beautiful husband in Paris, a city where he studied as a university student, and I was in Beirut this year with UNICEF. I have friends in both cities, and loved ones with family in both cities, and I feel connected with both. But if someone has no connection to one place, but connection to another, I won’t judge them for their profile photo or their personal focus – their personal grief.
The attacks that happened in Paris feel a lot scarier to me for many reasons, not least of which is that I have a longer standing personal connection. However, like Tara Moss, I also feel connected to Beirut. At the very least I wanted to recall both places here on my blog though less about Paris which I’ve written often about and focus more on my time in Beirut which I’ve been meaning to recap for a while.
Our impromptu trip to Paris in January last year was a cheap and quick bus ride from Brussels, not far from where we were living in Leuven. We had a great room in an apartment in the Marais around the corner from the Pompidou Centre; wined and dined; explored a series of old-world passages inspired by a magazine article I read, and caught up with friends. I had to study for my philosophy exam so read some Jean-Paul Sartre, which was fitting. Visiting during winter was marvellous because the city has less tourists and people just go about their day-to-day business. However, I did get a small dose of summer in Paris with a brief stopover towards the end of my travels, catching up with some friends from Australia who were in town and we had a wonderful time drinking cherry beers on a warm night in Montparnasse.
Almost straight after Paris I headed to Beirut (via a half day in Warsaw) and it almost goes without saying that Lebanon was the perfect way to cap off my 12 months abroad.
Spending so much time in Western Europe, I was eager to shake things up and wanted to visit somewhere new on the way home in August. South Africa was the front runner for a while, and I’ve long had a yen to go there, but somehow one thing led to another and my classmate from Beirut said she’d be happy to show me around if I wanted to swing by her hometown. I jumped at the chance because one of my big travel regrets was not visiting Beirut back in 2006 when I was nearby. At the time I really wanted to go but had left luggage behind in a town in Turkey so needed to leave Syria and go back to collect it — I still don’t know why leaving my backpack in that Turkish hotel seemed like a good idea at the time!
Beirut is known for its great bars, restaurants and nightclubs, all of which I got to experience first hand. A cultural highlight was going to the ancient town of Byblos where we saw Belgian superstar Stromae perform at an outdoor concert. I’ve been a fan of his ever since discovering his music while in Belgium and hearing him speak and sing in French reminded me that Lebanon is a part of the Francophone world of which Paris is the epicentre.
In any case, what surprised me overall was just how beautiful the country is. Before visiting I had the vague expectation that I’d encounter friendly people, warm weather and incredible food — all true — but there turned out to be so much more to the small nation. Being inside the Jeita Grotto was awe-inspiring, and it was very peaceful to be among the cedar trees up in the mountains. There were spots all along the coast to go for a dip and it was wonderful to have so many different views of the sea. The historical sites ranged from Arabian palaces to ancient Roman baths to an even more ancient Phoenician sea wall.
Even though it’s been more than a year since my visit, I’m still thinking a lot about what I experienced in Lebanon, and particularly how it relates to the Lebanese population here in Australia.
I’ve said this elsewhere on this blog but one of the best things about living away from home is being able to connect with people from other parts of the world. Over the years, as I’ve sharpened my interest in multiculturalism, it’s been enriching to visit the countries where (Australian) migrants come from. It helps me understand the unique melting pot we have, which feels different to the way it happens in other multicultural societies. I hope so anyway.