Beirut, Lebanon Report of what it's like to live there - 09/17/10

Personal Experiences from Beirut, Lebanon

Beirut, Lebanon 09/17/10

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Bruxelles, Harare, Santo Domingo, Mosul, Tunis.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

From Washington it's about a 14-hour journey, connecting through one of the major European hubs (Heathrow, Frankfurt or Paris) because direct flights are still not allowed due to 30-year-old hijacking concerns.

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3. How long have you lived here?

1 year, 2009 to 2010.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

US Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

The US Embassy houses everyone on the compound in either apartments, villas converted to multi-unit housing or two bedroom temporary trailers. Everyone has amazing apartments in the best neighborhoods in Beirut. Even people lower on the economic scale, such as freelance journalists, can find a Washington-quality apartment at a reasonable rent.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Everything is available, though odd shortages (three months without plain Cheerios for examples) do crop up with specific products. Local produce is extremely high quality and seasonal, and it costs half to a third of imported food. The local Whole Foods-lite and Safeway-esque places are priced at Washington levels.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

If going as an American diplomat, bring things to keep one busy, because you will be restricted to the compound most of the time, i.e. books, DVDs, etc. Otherwise, travel light.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Anything and everything, at Washington - even New York - prices.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

None.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Through the diplomatic pouch, though LibanPost has a decent reputation.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Available at prices ranging from 150 to 200 USD/month for weekly cleaning.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

The embassy has its own well-equipped gym. In town there are gyms, tennis/squash clubs, both freestanding and in hotels.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

I used my credit card in nearly every restaurant. There are plentiful ATMs, though sometimes with only one of the two major US ATM networks. HSBC has several branches throughout the country, and your card will always work. Lebanon is a full dollarized economy, and both currencies are accepted from north to south.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Lebanon has a thriving Christian religious scene with several denominations holding weekly or monthly services in English.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

The Daily Star has been publishing daily for over 50 years, but it's not a paragon of journalism. Nilesat has a full range of international and American channels.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

I think Arabic and French greatly expand one's experience in Beirut. That said, 40-75% of the Lebanese, depending on social station, speak good to better-than-native English.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Beirut is not a wheelchair-friendly city.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Again, all transport for the US Embassy is in bodyguard-driven armored cars. Others reported very positive experiences with taxis and intercity buses to the ski slopes, Syria, Jordan, and even Turkey.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

American diplomats cannot have their personal cars. Others drive the full range. Some prefer a rugged SUV, others a beat-up sedan because of the high likelihood of a low-speed fender bender.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Available but expensive and slow.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

Vets are well trained and often board-certified in either the US or France.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Yes, but it can be hard to be fully legal as work permits are difficult to secure.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Formal business attire at work, otherwise there are no special restrictions. At the beach, people go nearly naked.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

The US Embassy still operates as though the Lebanese civil war (1975-1989) were still on, meaning a fortified compound, bodyguards and armored cars. No one else has similar security. Multi-nationals and other Western diplomats all live on the economy and drive normal cars around.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Doctors and dentists are well trained and often board-certified in either the US or France.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Beirut should have worse air than it does due to the massive traffic, but the sea breezes and the mountains help make it about as bad as Washington.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Classic "Mediterranean".Hot but not sweltering summer, perfect fall and spring and slightly chilly winter when it rains. Unless you're in the mountains for a weekend of skiing, nothing more than a sweater is needed.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

The Lebanese go from their international schools to the Ivies, Georgetown and Stanford. But American diplomats aren't allowed to have children at post.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

Again, I've heard preschool quality is great, with either English, French or Arabic as the language of instruction, but Beirut is still unaccompanied for American diplomats.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

The full range. I think one might have trouble finding American football, but there's even a small little league and a rowing club.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Huge, including most of the Lebanese population in Beirut who hold a second passport.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Everything is available. Lebanese like to show off and take Westerners to high end restaurants and clubs with bottle service.

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3. Morale among expats:

Poor at the US Embassy because of security rules restricting people to the compound but among others people seem to have a great time in Lebanon.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Other diplomats with families reported that there is lots to do and the Lebanese are family-friendly. As for American diplomats, singles and couples, the city is an oyster, but it's closed to diplomatic Americans because of our self-imposed security rules.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Beirut is very gay-friendly. Educated Lebanese have very liberal attitudes, and family-based pressures about sexual orientation do not apply to expats, obviously. The party scene is dominated by lesbian DJs, and several of the clubs are "gay".

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

The Lebanese have some class-based racial prejudice. Almost all the blacks in the country are there as imported domestic help, same with South Asians and Filipinos. There is a general dislike of Palestinians due to their involvement in the civil war, and people have limited friendships across the religious divisions that still separate Lebanese society. There is a confluence of Jews and Israelis.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

The people. Beirut is like a little New York. There's something going on every night, from underground theater to music (Western, Arab and Club), to sports and politics (not always so easy to tell apart).

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Culture (theater, music, movies), restaurants, skiing, hiking, beach, boating, shopping, ancient ruins, museums, you name it, Beirut probably has it.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Nothing is really made in Lebanon anymore.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Beirut is still the jewel of the Middle East. A world-class city, it has beaches, mountains, ruins, and skiing. The Lebanese are open and welcoming people, and it is by far the most culturally vibrant city in the Arab world.

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11. Can you save money?

If you try.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

For a year yes, for longer, compound-living wears on you.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Heavy winter clothes.

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3. But don't forget your:

Skis.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Pity the Nation. The Hedonist Guide to Beirut.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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6. Do you have any other comments?

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