Beirut, Lebanon Report of what it's like to live there - 10/07/20

Personal Experiences from Beirut, Lebanon

Beirut, Lebanon 10/07/20

Background:

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

Prior experience both in hardship and developed posts.

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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?

Washington, DC. Flights were normally in the 12 to 16 hour range, although 2020 can mean extended travel times, limited availability, and indirect routes.

Previously there were decent opportunities to travel to nearby countries (Jordan, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece) at a reasonable budget, but flights to Europe and beyond could start to become pricey.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Recently left after a two year assignment.

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

I came on assignment to the U.S. 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?

There are a handful of good apartments that mostly go to section heads and those with representational duties. The rest of the housing pool is split between modular homes and apartments. There's a shortage of housing and it's reflected in the size and quality of the housing pool. Compared to other posts, the housing here is significantly below average. It also feels even smaller when the cabin fever sets in from the long-term movement restrictions.

The one positive of Beirut is the commute time, which for most people is about 2-3 minutes.

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

This varied a lot while I was there, with hyperinflation setting in around early 2020. The quality and availability of the food seemed below expectations, but there are certainly worse places in the world by those metrics. If you can exchange money at the black market rate, grocery prices are reasonable, but if you're stuck with official or bank rates then you'll pay a fortune. Additionally, the selection of imported foods (chips, cereal, frozen foods) dropped considerably.

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

The pouch has been reasonable for getting things that aren't easily available.

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

The USG community has been on restrictions for most of the past year that don't allow going out to restaurants. In 2018/2019 it was possible to go out for the occasional dinner with friends or colleagues and Beirut had a bountiful and eclectic restaurant scene. Whether you wanted a hole in the wall shawarma or high-end Indian, there was no shortage of options. Since then groceries and the compound restaurant are the standard food options.

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

Nothing too bad.

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Daily Life:

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

This is a pouch only post and the local mail is not reliable enough to receive things here. The pouch could take anywhere from two weeks to a month.

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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 Community Liaison Office (CLO) has a list of vetted housekeepers. I believe they all just clean but it's possible some do additional tasks like gardening, dog walking, or cooking.

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

The compound has a main gym with weights and some cardio equipment as well as a smaller gym more in line with what you'd find for fitness classes or boxing. There's also a pool that can be quite popular when the weather is nice. All the fitness facilities are free and run by the employee association/CLO.

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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?

Credit cards used to be widely accepted, but with the collapse of the Lebanese Pound the government has refused to adjust the official exchange rate for electronic transactions. As a result, everything is handled with cash and there's the added problem of dealing with exchange rates. I've heard there are almost a dozen different exchange rates in Lebanon, leaving visitors with the unfortunate burden of navigating either the black market or losing most of the value of their dollars. The employee association was offering exchange services at the bank rate, which got you about 40% of the black market rate.

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

A few people used to go to a variety of Christian religious services, possibly Catholic and Orthodox. With the restrictions over the past year I didn't know anyone who was able to continue attending religious services.

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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?

The Embassy offers both French and Arabic classes at no cost to the employee. If you're in an outward facing role you would certainly benefit from Arabic, but with everyone else mostly staying on compound there's really no need for it.

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

Absolutely. The compound is not handicap accessible at all nor is most of the city. Given the layout of the compound and all the stairs, this would certainly fall into the category of least accessible.

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Transportation:

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

USG personnel are limited to using the transportation methods provided to them, additionally movement has been very restricted beyond normal levels over the past year. There are limited opportunities to briefly leave the compound.

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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?

See above, personal vehicles are not permitted and movement is restricted.

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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?

The internet situation was abysmal when I showed up but the employee association switched to a new plan a few months ago. Everything is done on hotspot style routers, which makes for high data costs but aside from short periods it has been usable.

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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?

In the past there were a handful of people who brought pets, but with the recent OD situation and stresses from that it seems like a less than ideal choice for Beirut. I'm not sure if access to veterinarians has been impacted by the stricter movement restrictions.

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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?

All spouses who work work at the embassy. The job pool for EFMs has been rather good, but timing is everything. If you're not picky there will almost certainly be at least some type of job available for anyone who wants one.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

None because of the movement restrictions.

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

I would say it's slightly less formal than average, but the standard suit and tie sections still require that attire.

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Health & Safety:

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

The world always seems like it going to end here. The security situation dominates everyone's life at post, between the movement restrictions that control your personal life to the workload of constantly dealing with crises.

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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?

Lebanon escaped a bad COVID situation early on only to get hit with it full force in the late summer. Between COVID, the economy, and the port blast the healthcare system looks to be in a dire position. I would not count on being able to get any health care here outside on the local economy.

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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?

Air quality was an unfortunate surprise. It gets very bad here from time to time and I was completely unaware upon arrival.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Nuts are everywhere, but besides that I think other allergies are easy enough to manage.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

This seems to be the most widely expressed concern among friends and colleagues. The blurred line between work and home, the long hours, and the inability to get out and enjoy the nearby amenities has a noticeable effect on morale and mental health. Even before the stricter security restrictions kicked in a year ago, this was already a very high stress post. Since then there have been major issues with resiliency and community morale.

If you're at all uncertain about your mental health or ability to handle stress, I would strongly recommend reconsidering taking an assignment here.

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

Beirut has everything. You have cool winters along with snow in the mountains, to non-stop rainy season, and right back to hot and humid summers.

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Schools & Children:

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

There are no children at the U.S. mission, but my colleagues at other diplomatic missions remarked that Beirut had fantastic schools. I am unsure if they are all still operating fine with the economic situation, which has affected nearly everything in the country.

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Expat Life:

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

The security (and now health) restrictions make it difficult to engage with the expat community, but my colleagues at other embassies in the past have said that in their circles Beirut is considered a very high quality of life city for expats. This may have changed significantly with the economic and health situation.

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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?

The risks associated with a small compound have limited opportunities for socializing in the context of COVID. I wouldn't be able to speak of clubs or groups that are good for socializing. Even before COVID the security situation and work demands made Beirut a harder spot to go out.

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

Beirut has unique challenges in this context. For singles, I imagine it would be ideal as long as you're not interested in dating. It could be good for couples if the spouse can find a job they will enjoy at the embassy. In my opinion, this would not be a good place to bring a spouse if they are still adjusting to the foreign service lifestyle or have never lived in a hardship location before.

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4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?

I did not make any local friends during my tour, the movement restrictions and work demands make it very difficult.

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

There doesn't seem to be much of an LGBT community here and Lebanon is still somewhat conservative in their views on the subject.

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

It would take a few hundred pages to describe all of the sectarian and gender issues going on in Lebanon.

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

There has never been a more liberating experience in my life than when I went on my first R&R from Beirut.

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

Batroun is lovely and a great place to spend a few hours if the restrictions ever get eased. There are beautiful beaches, nice restaurants, and friendly people.

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

For all of the tradeoffs, living here does avail you to some excellent work opportunities where you get to really grow professionally.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

The difficulties and challenges are very real and not for everyone. You should make sure you're fully prepared for the lifestyle if you're considering taking an assignment here.

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

I think I would love to spend time in Beirut some years down the line when I'm retired and things have hopefully recovered from the events of the past year. Lebanon has so much to offer, but with how things are now I would not make the same decision to move to Beirut.

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

I would leave behind pets. It would kill me to have to make the hard decisions that would come with another evacuation here.

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4. But don't forget your:

Bring lots of books, movies, music, and games. Two years is a very long time when you have to stay in the same area 99% of the time.

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