Beirut, Lebanon Report of what it's like to live there - 11/11/14

Personal Experiences from Beirut, Lebanon

Beirut, Lebanon 11/11/14

Background:

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

4th tour.

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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, D.C. frequent flights connect to Beirut via London, Paris, or Frankfurt with a total flight time at approximately 14-hours.

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3. How long have you lived here?

2 years.

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

U.S. Government.

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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 highest-ranking individuals on compound have decent housing. Everyone else is situated in modulars or apartments. If you have recently graduated from college and have been living in a dorm or a New York apartment, then you many find the housing to be generously apportioned. If you have been in the Foreign Service for some time or have previously owned a house, then you are likely to be disappointed. While the modulars are newer and generally larger, they suffer from the fact that they were never meant to be permanent structures: tiles rattle, water heaters explode, and walls melt. The apartments are older, mold-ridden, and smaller but have solid walls. The facilities department tries their best to patch together a 30-year old "temporary" compound. Though they do any amazing job and deserve high praise, things break faster than they can fix them. On a positive note, you will have a very short commute.

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

Most products available in the U.S. can be found in Beirut. Prices are comparable to Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, you can't always choose which grocery store you go to, and not all grocery stores are created equal.

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

Due to the pouch restrictions, if there are any liquids you must have (lotions, shampoo, etc.) be sure to ship them in your HHE. If you have a balcony, a grill is a wonderful accessory for weekends on compound (facilities will kindly fix the adapter for the propane connection). Gourmands should bring any unique spices (chiles, etc.) that may be difficult to find. If you are blessed with a hobby that you can do at home, be sure to ship your materials.

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

The Lebanese food is simply amazingly incomparable to anything I have had in the U.S.! Beirut is an international city, so you can also find French, Italian, and Indian. Additionally, there is every heart-attack inducing U.S. fast food chain imaginable: McDonald's, Burger King, Hardees, Shake Shack, Magnolia Bakery, KFC, P.F. Chang's, etc. Prices range from ridiculously cheap to horrendously expensive depending on the venue. Since opportunities to get out are so limited, there is a tendency to splurge and indulge when you have the chance.

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

Thankfully, most insects are benign if not disturbing. The compound is plagued by strange black millipedes, odoriferous when quashed, which wend their way into your apartment and onto your furniture; large tarantula-like brown spiders, which feature prominently in many a compound tale, usually set in the bathroom; and in some apartments cockroaches, which spray from the air conditioning vents. Now snakes, there's a problem!

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Daily Life:

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

Currently, Beirut is a pouch-only post with the attendant restrictions on liquids (less than 16-ounces). Washington, D.C. is enforcing these rules more and more stringently (even canned pumpkin has been rejected). The time to receive items varies from 2-6 weeks as the pouched is shipped on a space available basis. Be prepared for long waits during the Christmas season. BRASS sells postage for outbound mail, though sending items out can be challenging.

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

The maid mafia will hit you up soon after your arrival. The cost is comparable to the U.S. (US$50) per cleaning, though they work hard and do a good job.

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

There is a gym on compound, which is well equipped, free, and generally uncrowded. It is a wonderful reprieve from the long days at work, and provides a healthy means to reduce stress. There is an amazing personal trainer on compound with prices comparable to the U.S. (~US$50/session). In addition, the Beirut Recreational Association (BRASS) offers evening classes in yoga, Zumba, cross fit, and boxing. There is a pool on compound, which is open during the summer. If you have been planning to get into shape, then Beirut is a great place to do it.

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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?

There is an ATM on compound. I wouldn't recommend using ATMs within the city. Credit cards generally work, and you often have the choice to pay in U.S. dollars, which saves on foreign transaction fees. Every so often credit cards inexplicably stop working so be sure to carry cash. Most businesses accept either Lebanese or U.S. currency.

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

Many services are available, and moves to religious services do not count against your personal move (another source of contention in the community). Do not count on being able to attend the same service at the same location every week.

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

Sadly none. First, you will not have many opportunities to interact with locals. Secondly, most Beiruties speak 2-3 languages. Post has a language program, which offers both French and Arabic. Though space is limited, it is well worth the investment, if only to interact with the amazing instructors.

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

The seemingly infinite stairs, barriers, and hills make the compound difficult to negotiate even for the able-bodied.

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Transportation:

1. 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?

no self drive allowed here.

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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?

BRASS offers two home WiMax Internet plans: a 1Mbs connection with 7 GB of date for ~US$40 or a 2 Mbs connection with 12 GB of data for ~US$60. In practice, you will never realize those speeds and your ability to stream video, Skype, and download movies will be fraught with frustration and despair. A number of people have sought alternative solutions on the local economy, which utilize the 4g cell phone network and have proven to be faster, more reliable though more expensive. In any case, the Internet in Lebanon is well below the U.S. standard so keep your expectations low and you may be pleasantly surprised.

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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?

The Embassy issues phones to both direct-hires and EFMs. If you have a personal smart phone, MTC and Alpha are the big phone companies. You can generally find SIM cards in the stores in the mall.

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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?

There is no requirement for quarantine, and you can find quality vet care, though this will count as a move and your dog will have to be crated in the vehicle. Aside from moves to the vet, your pet is not allowed to join you on personal moves, so they too will be restricted to the compound, which is tougher on the larger breeds than the small ones. During the last draw down, evacuees were not able to bring their pets along with them. With the security situation as it is, consider long and hard whether you would be willing to leave your pet behind.

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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?

If you could find a job that allows you to maybe show up to work on an irregular schedule at a different location for 6-hours a week subject to resources and every-changing restrictions, then sure!

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

The PD and USAID typically advertise volunteer opportunities in the community, which are rewarding and affirming.

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

If you have representational duties and engage with your Lebanese counterparts, then dress is professional. Other sections are business casual. Outside of work, the Lebanese dress to impress, so pretty much anything goes.

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Health & Safety:

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

Yes. Yes. and Yes. There is a long history of terrorism against USG personnel in Lebanon. The RSO is in the impossible position of maintaining complete security in an inherently insecure environment with finite resources: an unenviable situation, which understandably results in a highly risk-adverse restrictive security posture. As a result, personal moves are limited to one per person per week subject to cancellation. As in any situation in which there is a scarcity of resources, this leads to competition for moves. You can invite other people on your move, which naturally lends itself to the creation of cliques. If someone invites you on their move, in turn you are indebted a move to them, resulting in a reciprocal relationship of "move lending," which doesn't easily allow for the newcomer to "break in" easily. Similarly the economy of moves creates "move envy" as any group grieves the ability of another group's access to moves as well as "move jacking" when others hijack your move, populate it with their friends and itinerary.

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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?

As one health practitioner stated, we live in a dirty, dirty environment. Since the compound is small, old, and generally overcrowded, it provides the ideal conditions for the cultivation and spread of disease. Flu, upper respiratory problems, and stomach ailments rage through the compound in two-three month increments like California wildfires. The water quality on compound is highly questionable as it ranges from outright brown to foul smelling. Sometimes you wonder if you are doing more harm than good by taking a shower. The medical care in greater Beirut is fantastic as most doctors are trained and educated in either France or the U.S. Some people are able to eat the local food with no problems, while others suffer chronically from intestinal maladies.

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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?

Overall--good. In spring, there will be the occasional storms which bring thin particulate sand that works its way into your lungs and your house. Many of the residences are infested with mold that causes respiratory ailments.

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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?

Poised on the Mediterranean, Beirut generally has mild winters and warm summers, though summers can be stiflingly humid. Though it never gets cold, the winters are as volatile as the political landscape with weather ranging from lighting storms to mild sunshine (sometimes within the same hour).

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Schools & Children:

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

Beirut is a partially unaccompanied post so children are not allowed.

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Expat Life:

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

According to a recent survey, morale at post is generally abysmal with a few notable exceptions. With the events in Syria and closure of the Embassy in Damascus, every section in the Embassy has absorbed a tremendous amount of work. Due to the limited size of the compound, it is impossible to add positions; as a result, most sections are woefully understaffed. In general, expect to work 12-16 hour days, plus a day a weekend without the commensurate benefits of an AIP post. In theory you are afforded four Rest and Recuperation trips in the course of your 2-year tour, but with the workloads and staffing gaps, these are increasingly hard to schedule. The security restrictions add another dimension to the stress as planning a move takes a lot of time and effort, another reason why it is so disappointing when they are cancelled. Living and working together in such close quarters breeds antipathy beyond what one imagines they are capable of and creates awkward social situations (that colleague you just had an exchange with will invariably be on your grocery move that same night).

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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?

Be prepared to entertain at home. When moves get cancelled, people rally to host events in their houses. If you love to cook, then you will never be short on friends. If you are young and extraverted, you will love the compound community. Older and introverted people have a more challenging time integrating. Certain sections stick together.

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

Since opportunities to get off compound to interact with the Lebanese population are so limited, you are basically in a microcosm of Americana, which is generally quite tolerant of gay and lesbians.

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

There are a few long-standing sectarian issues in this part of the world from which you will be well insulated.

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

The unique constraints of living on a compound provide the occasion for friendships with people in sections and at grades with whom one would otherwise never interact. The local employees are smart, capable, generous, and friendly.

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

There are few secrets on compound but there are many fantastic things to explore in Lebanon. The National Museum has an excellent collection as does the Mouawad (the Sursock Museum is reportedly opening soon). You will likely go to Byblos more times than you can count, but it is always beautiful. Beiteddine Palace makes for a wonderful excursion as does Jeita Grotto and Our Lady of Lebanon (Harissa). There is excellent hiking in Tannourine, the Chouf, and Kadisha Valley. Downtown has wonderful galleries, shopping, as well as clubs and rooftop bars. If you have the opportunity Music Hall is a unique and wonderful experience. There are local wineries and wine tastings. In the summer, there are many beach clubs, which are more akin to bars in a pool. As you will soon discover, it isn't the dearth of activities that is so frustrating, but your inability to do most of them.

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

Not as many as you might think. The artisan and craft industry has been overtaken by the tourism and banking sectors, so unique traditional items are hard to find. Some of the local wines and food products are amazing, and a Syrian furniture dealer occasionally visits the compound. If you see something you like, buy it because you many never have another chance.

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

When you have the opportunity to get off compound, Lebanon is a staggeringly beautiful with something for everyone: swimming, skiing, museums, nightclubs, shopping, antiquities, and restaurants. Beirut is ideally situated for weekend getaways to Europe and the Middle East.

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9. Can you save money?

No. The COLA is not commensurate with the cost of living. You will spend your hardship pay on every opportunity to reduce stress and escape the compound with weekend travel, massages, and indulgent meals.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

They say that location is everything, and the Embassy is poised at a beautiful location overlooking the sea and sparkling downtown. Now I’m more persuaded that timing is everything. Two years ago when Lebanon was more stable and employees had guaranteed two moves a week with less of a workload, this would have been a manageable hardship. As the Syrian civil war has impacted Lebanon, Beirut has been transformed into a truly difficult hardship with restrictions commensurate with AIP posts without the attendant benefits.

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

Thoughts of exploring an amazing country, and hopes for professional development as you will be so overwhelmed with your daily workload that you will not have time or energy for other activities.

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3. But don't forget your:

Patience, forbearance, fortitude, professionalism, and dedication.

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4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Lawrence Of Arabia (Restored Version),
West Beyrouth [Region 2],
Waltz with Bashir, and "Heritages" - Director Philippe Aractingi.

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

The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel,
Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon (Nation Books), and
From Beirut to Jerusalem.

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