Eight Things to Know Before Moving to Beirut

by MacKenzie Lewis

Mine is a classic love story, really: girl meets boy in bar. Girl and boy spend a few nights together. Girl moves to Beirut.

It’s been three years since that fateful, beer-fueled weekend, and almost as long since I packed up and moved from New York City to Lebanon. While these 36 months have been mostly rainbows and butterflies, there was admittedly a steep learning curve. Now I’m finally settled in and the dirty work is done (you’re welcome).

So here’s what you need to know before you shack up with that tall, dark, and handsome stranger halfway around the world:

1. Get used to being a prostitute.

Or at least being treated like one. One of the few places you see groups of non-Lebanese women in Lebanon is in “Super Nightclubs.” One guess at what makes them so super. So if you’re blond, fair, light-eyed, brown-eyed, brunette, big busted, small busted, or just not Lebanese, you will probably at some point be mistaken for a call girl. And even if you clarify to your taxi driver that no, you don’t take your clothes off for cash, don’t be surprised by his unavoidable follow-up: “So now we go to my house for sex?” Because you’re foreign, you’re easy.

2. Redefine your notion of “put together.”

Dressing down doesn’t exist here. I’ve worked with women who put on false eyelashes for work each morning and know others who get blowouts before happy hour. The sidewalk is a catwalk, and the general public is made up of hundreds of Tyras and Miss Js — get used to constructive criticism. That chip in your nail polish and the five pounds you gained over the holidays will inevitably come up when you run into so-and-so’s sister’s cousin at the grocery store. I know I said it was constructive, but I was just trying to make you feel better. Which leads me to…

3. Don’t take things personally.

The concept of tact that Americans are familiar with is in its somewhat early stages in Lebanon. People here are well-meaning and want to help you, so dancing around someone’s feelings is a waste of time. For example, male coworkers thoughtfully informed me that I’d never hold onto a man if I don’t start wearing a padded bra. And just yesterday, a taxi driver demanded to know why, at 30 years old, I still don’t have children. After I defended my life choices for a good five minutes, he got in the last word as I stepped out of the car: “I wish twins for you! Twins for you tomorrow!”

4. Say “Hello!” to your social life.

I’m aware that not every American is a slave to her job, but I never thought twice about leaving my office at 8 p.m. or sleeping next to my Blackberry when expecting an urgent email. In Beirut, the only time you’d sleep with a Blackberry is if you developed narcolepsy while BBMing about the party tonight. The Lebanese are passionate about their work, but they aren’t — for the most part — defined by it. Once the office clock strikes 6:01 p.m., be prepared for a lingering colleague to ask “why are you still heeere?” with a genuinely pained expression on her face. Beirut is known for its great food and even better nightlife, and you’re expected to enjoy both. (Also, people will assume you’re clinically depressed if you don’t.)

5. Loosen up your buttons.

And when I say buttons I mean pants, shirts, and anything else that needs to be let out when your gut starts to expand. Sure you’ve tried hummus and tabbouleh, but that’s just the tip of this gastronomic iceberg. The best part? As you stuff your face with the most delicious grape leaves known to man, your own personal pep rally (made up primarily of men and old women) will be chanting, “Eat! Eat! Eat!” I encourage anyone who’s ever had body issues to spend a week in this mythical land where all body shapes — and healthy appetites — are celebrated.

6. Be flexible (i.e. grocery shop with an open mind).

Oranges are laymoun and lemons are hammoud, and neither will be labeled at the grocery store. Cucumbers will be smaller than you’re used to, lemons will be greener, and did you know there’s a sickeningly sweet fruit that looks exactly like a tomato? Celery comes with feet of leaves on top. The produce may look like a John Tenniel illustration, but it will be shockingly cheap. What won’t be cheap? Anything else you want. You can forget about sour cream and black beans for Tuesday night burritos, unless you want to pay black market prices. So white beans and yogurt it is. It’s all about being flexible (and having local beer on hand to wash down a yogurt-topped burrito).

7. On second thought, don’t grocery shop at all.

Forget what I said about buying food, because if you play your cards right you’ll never have to cook again. The lady next door with the cats? Dinner at her place on Monday night. The guy from the shop down the street? His family’s got Tuesday covered. There’s a reason the Middle East is known for its hospitality: people will invite you over any chance they get. Locals take great pride in making strangers feel welcome. I’ve lived in my current neighborhood for less than a year, yet I’m still greeted with waves and “good mornings” my entire walk to work — 20 minutes away. It’s a nice feeling that fades only when you go to buy condoms and the gray-haired pharmacist knows you by name.

8. Be patient.

No, Grandma, there are no camels. No, Grandpa, I’m not worried about being kidnapped. Despite what you see on CNN, I live across from Starbucks and next to a church, and everyone in my neighborhood speaks French. Try to be understanding of concerned but misguided Skype calls or emails (“Subject: Protests in Egypt — ARE YOU OK????”) as friends and family come to terms with you living in an unfamiliar place.

And it’s not just loved ones who deserve patience: give it to yourself, too. Whenever you move somewhere new, it’s hard to feel settled when your friends are far away, you don’t know your way around, and you don’t speak the language. Getting your bearings is frustrating, but keep at it. You were brave enough to follow your heart, and soon enough you’ll know how to say “you couldn’t afford a night with me” in Arabic.

MacKenzie Lewis lives and writes in Lebanon, where she’s Managing Editor of Time Out Beirut. She swears she only watches hours of Lebanese pop music videos to improve her Arabic.