Beirut, Lebanon Report of what it's like to live there - 07/11/10

Personal Experiences from Beirut, Lebanon

Beirut, Lebanon 07/11/10

Background:

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

No, I have lived in Phnom Penh, Jerusalem, Santo Domingo, Mumbai, and 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?

My home base is the eastern seaboard of the U.S. and it takes about 13 hours, including a mandatory stop in Europe. The U.S. does not allow direct flights from Lebanon, so you have to transfer en route. It's a four-hour flight to Paris.

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3. How long have you lived here?

I arrived in July 2009 and will depart in the summer of 2011.

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

I work at 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?

Those not affiliated with the embassy live in urban apartments, the quality of which varies drastically based on price and location. You can go as high as you want. For those on the embassy compound, housing consists of either an apartment or a modular house. Quality is acceptable but not fancy, and you are not allowed to bring personal furniture due to lack of storage space. Most people on the compound have excellent views of the sea. Commute time, of course, is zero.

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

You can get nearly everything here, but it will cost a bit more than in the U.S.Also, things will show up on the shelves and then vanish for long periods. Obviously, imported European items cost more because of the Euro, but the Lebanese pound is tied to the U.S. dollar, so most stores try to import more U.S. goods than you would expect. Produce is excellent, particularly when in season, and cheaper than in the U.S.Fruits are especially amazing. The local wine is pretty good, too.

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

Nothing, really. Everything is available here, and you can always resort to the diplomatic pouch for what you forget.

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

Every conceivable U.S. fast food chain, including some you have never heard of before, is in Lebanon. Prices are similar to the U.S.A far better option is eating the varied and very tasty Lebanese cuisine while smoking a shisha.

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

Nothing notable. Some people on the embassy compound have reported seeing large spiders or small snakes around. There are a few mosquitos at times.

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Daily Life:

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

Diplomatic pouch for embassy employees. I have no idea about everyone else.

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

Most Lebanese contract workers from the Philippines, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, or Madagascar and then underpay them and keep their passport hostage. Lebanese are loathe to work as domestic workers. On the embassy compound, people contract one of several Philipinas to work on an hourly basis for about $10/hour.

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

The city has no shortage of fancy gyms. The embassy compound has a very extensive gym, but running space on the compound is limited. The embassy has an excellent pool overlooking the sea.

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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?

You can use them everywhere. I've never had a problem. You can also use U.S. dollars interchangeably with Lebanese pounds. Most stores will ask you if you want your card to be charged in pounds or dollars.

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

Some people from the embassy go to local churches. There is a complete range, although most churches are from the prominent local Christian denominations, most of which are affiliated with the Catholic Church.

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

The primary English paper is the Daily Star. I don't know what it costs, but its quality relies on the quality of the interns that it is currently relying on for its writing staff. A better option is the online NowLebanon, which covers local and international news on a breaking basis, in addition to printing editorials. Time Out also has a monthly Beirut edition. Cable and satellite channels are similar to the packages available in the rest of the Arab world (i.e. the major English news channels, several channels of English-language entertainment, and a billion Arabic channels),and AFN is provided to all embassy residences free.

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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?

Most people in Beirut speak English and French in addition to Arabic. However, there is a lively press and entertainment scene in Arabic, so it is helpful to speak it. You can definitely get by with English, though.

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

You shouldn't come. Infrastructure is bad in Beirut, and no one thought of the disabled.

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Transportation:

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

There is no train. Buses are used primarily by poor Lebanese and foreign workers and are generally privately owned. Taxis are prevalent in town, but you have to watch out so you don't get car-jacked in the red-plated ones. Embassy employees can't take any of these, so I don't know the cost.

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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?

Traffic is bad in Lebanon, so I would recommend a small vehicle. Lebanese favor the biggest, flashiest car they can find. Embassy employees can't bring cars and are instead ferried around in armored vehicles.

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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?

Internet is slow and very expensive in Lebanon due to state control of the primary provider and poor infrastructure. We pay $75 for a slow connection that is heavily subsidized by the embassy employee association. I just tested the connection, and it was .47 mps download and .12 mps upload. We normally download iTunes programs overnight, if that gives you any idea.

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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?

All Lebanese have one, if not more, cell phones. The networks are GSM.Because of political disputes, the phone companies continue to be state owned and charge very high rates compared to other countries in the region. Service is ok for voice communication, but data coverage can be spotty. The embassy provides a cell phone to each employee, and some sections also provide Blackberries.

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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)?

There is an excellent English-speaking vet in Antelias. I don't know about kennels because most people at the embassy dog-sit for each other.

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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?

Many white collar jobs are restricted to Lebanese. Also, Lebanon suffers from significant unemployment, and it is a net exporter of labor to the Arab world, Europe, and the U.S.Most expats work in education or the NGO field. Embassy spouses cannot work off-compound due to security restrictions.

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

Lebanese, in general, are quite stylish. They tend toward suits for business activities, although they may forgo the tie. The embassy follows this convention. For social events, it's difficult to be too stylishly or too sexily dressed. The Lebanese will always outclass or shock you with their excess. Some parts of the country still hold to traditional values, but your contact with them is likely to be rare.

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Health & Safety:

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

One enormous caveat applies only to U.S. government employees: because of the history of violence directed at the Embassy and the chance that the security situation could degrade rapidly due to regional events, all Embassy employees must live on a guarded compound outside the city and travel only in armored vehicles with bodyguards. While the restrictions have been relaxed recently, you have to book a car 24-36 hours in advance, which reduces your ability to be spontaneous. In addition, due to resource constraints, each person is allowed only two "personal" outings per week, for up to six hours each, but you can accompany co-workers on their outings. All of this being said, we've had an amazing time in Beirut thus far and have been able to do nearly everything we wanted to do. For people not associated with the Embassy, I get the impression that you have the basic concerns associated with living in a major city. One must remember, though, that Lebanon remains in a state of war with Israel and sectarian tensions occasionally flare up. If a war with Israel or a major sectarian clash were to take place, all bets would be off.

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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?

Most Lebanese doctors and dentists have studied in Europe or the U.S.You might get a stomach bug from eating out, but it's not a major concern.

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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?

The air quality varies widely based on how recently it has rained and which direction the wind is blowing. Lebanon has poor public transportation and too many cars. In addition, most people rely on generators to provide electricity for a portion of the day due to rolling blackouts. Furthermore, dust will often blow in from the Syrian desert. The result can be a fairly thick cloud of smog over the city or trapped against the mountain chain that frames the coast. A good breeze or rain normally clears the deck at least once a week, though.

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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?

The weather is mild year round. While hot and humid in the summer, you're on the coast so you normally have a nice breeze. Winters are mild and rainy, but I never needed to wear anything more than a raincoat or a light jacket. Spring and fall are heavenly. In the winter, you can ski in some of the higher mountains, but global climate change has been cutting the ski season shorter and shorter. Last year it was around two weeks long.

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Schools & Children:

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

People seem to be very happy with the American Community School and the International College. Embassy employees are not 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?

I have no idea since no children are allowed at the embassy. If a woman becomes pregnant while at the embassy, she is currently required to give birth in the U.S. and remain there afterward.

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

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Expat Life:

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

There is a significant expat population working in NGOs or affiliated with U.S. educational institutions. There are also plenty of Lebanese who have come back after extended expat experiences in other regions.

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2. Morale among expats:

Excellent, with occasional frustrations with the difficulty of daily logistics in Beirut. Morale among embassy staff is pretty good, but most people are ready to leave after two years because of the movement restrictions and the relatively heavy workload. Life at the embassy is really what you make of it, and we've been having a great time.

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3. 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 Lebanese are extremely social and love to host event either in restaurants or their homes. Unfortunately, because of the difficulty of entering the compound and the relative modesty of embassy residences, it's difficult to reciprocate. Most embassy employees make friend groups either inside or outside the embassy. That being said, it is much more difficult for embassy employees to establish strong friendships with Lebanese not because the Lebanese are not friendly, but just because of the lifestyle restrictions on us.

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

Everyone I know in Beirut is having a great time. As for embassy employees, I would say it is best for couples without children or for single men. There's a complete couple-oriented social scene, and men seem to have excellent luck finding Lebanese women to date, although living on a compound puts in kink in the dating process. American women seem to have a tougher time competing against their Lebanese competition, who have normally had plastic surgery and spend significant resources on looking good.

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

The New York Times recently printed an article about how Beirut is a gay mecca in the Arab world. I think they were exaggerating a bit since it seems that gay people normally live a dual married/gay life, but there are several gay bars. Obviously, once again, being on the compound complicates dating for embassy employees.

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

Sectarian divisions can be stark, but expats live outside of that equation. Racism against Asians or Africans -- who are viewed as domestic workers -- is deep. People treat domestic help like indentured servants.

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

Amazing restaurants, great hiking, yacht outings in the summer, meeting really friendly and hospitable Lebanese, visiting vineyards.

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

It's only three hours door-to-door to Damascus, so you can also explore Syria. With a little creativity, you can also visit Israel via Cyprus or Jordan, but you'll need to use a second passport. Istanbul is an excellent weekend destination at a mere 1.5 hours away.

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

Don't bother buying anything here. It's a modern consumer culture, and few local handicrafts are still in production. Save your money and visit Damascus, instead.

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

Beirut is an amazing amalgam of a city that has something for nearly everyone. The restaurants, clubs, and bars are excellent and varied, and there are a wide range of outdoor activities, as well, including hiking, snow skiing, sailing, and going to the beach. In addition, Lebanon has a large number of archeological sites, many of them not yet restored.

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11. Can you save money?

Yes, because of the high danger and hardship pay. At the same time, things are not cheap here and people spend lots of money going out to eat and drink as a way to get off the compound. Beirut is a place where life can be as nice as you like it, as long as you're willing to pay for it.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Absolutely. However, for embassy staff, it's not for everyone because of the lifestyle restrictions. If you would chafe managing these conditions, you shouldn't come and torture everyone else.

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

Preconceptions about the Arab world. Lebanon is a hybrid composed of everyone from conservative Muslims to the most Francophile Christians, and everything in between. As a result, it's culturally integrated into both the Arab and Western worlds. There's a reason every Gulf Arab wants to buy a summer house here.

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3. But don't forget your:

Ability to entertain yourself. Beirut has a lot to offer, but if you work for the embassy and don't make an effort to get out, you'll never see any of it. If you want, you can sit on the compound all day and watch tv, or you can make friends and go have adventures together.

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

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman. Still his best book. Anything by Elias Khoury. Pity the Nation by Robert Fisk. A House of Many Mansions by Kamal Salibi.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Caramel. Ras Beirut. The Lebanon War documentary series by Al Jazeera.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

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