Finding an apartment here in Beirut was not as easy as we thought it was going to be. When my husband was first approached by CNN in February for the position, we came for a long weekend to visit the city and see if it was a place I thought I could live and be on my own up to 70% of the time (that’s the amount they said he could be traveling). We stayed at a stylish Airbnb studio in an up-and-coming neighborhood, eating our way through town and walking everywhere. I told my husband that if I can walk everywhere I need to go, I can live here.
When I imagined myself living in Beirut I always sort of assumed that we’d live in one of the charming traditional Lebanese houses/apartments that are now in various stages of decrepitude around the city. They have gorgeous, often pastel-colored facades featuring triptic windows like Cardinals’ hats and expansive French doors leading to small balconies. The problem is that these buildings have rarely been properly maintained, although I wander through the streets and (like my mother) know I could do very good things to one if I could get my hands on it and a couple million Dollars. Another snag in my imaginary home is the fact that Beirut has daily power cuts for three hours at a time. You have the choice of enduring the cuts, joining the somewhat unreliable and expensive sector generator, or having a generator in the building. See what I mean about it being more difficult (and unromantic) that I thought?
Back in February we even went so far as to meet with a real estate agent to see what apartments were like, what they cost, and what different areas of town felt like. Nadira, the agent, is a friend of a friend, as so often is the case in this part of the world. The first apartment she showed us was in the desirable, fancy Achrafieh area and it’s the one we immediately fell in love with, but it was about twice as big as we needed and more money than we were hoping to spend. We’re talking more than 4000 square feet too big. But it had an enormous terrace overlooking Beirut, lovely built ins everywhere, not one but TWO kitchens with new carrara marble countertops that I’d always coveted.
Achrafieh is a largely Christian neighborhood up on a hill. Here the older ladies of the neighborhood, who I imagine have lived here all of their lives, still match their shoes to their purses and wear sensible skirts with lovely blouses that their maids keep perfectly pressed. Their hair is set once a week at one of the many little hairdressers tucked into the narrow streets and they never leave the house without makeup and perfume – that wafts behind them as they walk. These ladies meet on the sidewalk corners to gossip, large jeweled crosses nestled between their breasts, and it never fails that they shoot me dirty looks as I pass by, often in my workout gear, clearly lowering the neighborhood standards. Here there are little cafes and restaurants and boutiques, large groceries and fancy butchers, and ABC Mall (which is pronounced like the French would “Ah-Beh-Say”). It feels a lot like Europe.
Anyway, we looked at some other apartments on that trip, leaving undecided, and frankly without even a firm offer from CNN. Once the firm offer came though, we made the hour-long plane ride from Amman in April to look once again. This time we had a purpose. Nadira took us around again, but trying to find something less than four bedrooms was almost impossible. There were smaller, but they were substantially smaller and without a large enough kitchen that would allow me to potentially work.
One place she took us had just been painted a jarring rose color in the living areas. The owner of the apartment met us there to show us around her renovated masterpiece, wearing 3” heels with tight acid washed jeans and a fake Hermes belt just below her burgeoning bosom. Her English wasn’t strong and you could tell she thought everyone should really speak French…not even Arabic. She clutched her Chanel quilted purse to her, the chains on various parts of her outfit clinking as we toured her place.
We went into the kitchen and I asked her where the stove would go as there didn’t seem to be a designated spot for it. She strode over to the door to the balcony, opened it and yanked me outside. “Here, you see! Here! Outside. So there is no smell.” She pinched her nose and made an aggrieved expression. “Here in Lebanon we don’t like to smell food.” She bent so her face was near mine and looked me in the eyes, hers narrowing. “DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!?” Then she took me into a windowless 2×4 room just off the kitchen. “This is where your maid lives.” I said nothing. “You have maid, yes??” I didn’t and don’t and if I did I wouldn’t put them in there I wanted to respond, but it was clear that as dreadful as this woman was I didn’t pass muster with her version of the world either. She then took my husband on the balcony where there were giant outdoor curtains to block the sun in the afternoon. He asked if we might possibly take them down. “You need them in Lebanon. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!?” We agreed to disagree and left without renting her oppressive pink apartment.
After much more legwork and even seeing apartments with two other agents, we finally settled on the first one we’d seen way back in February that was much too large but is a joy to live in every day. It’s a 1950s era building and a proper apartment with room for an entire family to live comfortably. I love the views we have of sunset over the sea and the only mosque in the whole area and of course, the church with its mildly tacky neon cross across the street. Monsieur Georges is our building manager. A little man who wears a black cotton jacket no matter how hot the day. And then there’s Andre, our concierge who lives in the building, who doesn’t really do all that much, but I like to know he’s there. “Bonjour Madame!” he cries out every time I come or go from the building. Something goes wrong and I call one of these guys. The electricity cuts off and the generator kicks in immediately. I get a cold and they offer to go to the pharmacy for me. I ask about a butcher and Andre said he’ll take me. I come home and Andre offers me a handful of almonds he’s just peeled. Hot water comes out of the taps all the time. In a city where you don’t know people or even how things really work, these are luxuries.
So here I finally share photos of my two kitchens. Well, they’re not really two, just one that is called a dirty kitchen (where you can shut the door so the horrific smell of food doesn’t offend anyone) and the other is the clean kitchen. I’m still trying to figure out how best to use the two, but I sort of think of the clean kitchen like my butler’s pantry. It’s where I store service ware and have all of the things we use for drinks. I also had room for my professional sized refrigerator in that space so that when I do start cooking for clients we have two fridges. The carrara marble countertops are beautiful, but boy are they a nightmare to use! If any of you have any tips for keeping them pristine, please share. Thankfully, I’ve got room for my stainless steel worktop so I won’t ruin the marble. Just off of the service entrance (I know, it sounds ridiculous) there are two enormous cupboards with deep shelves that have more than enough room to house all of my infrequently used baking equipment, appliances, catering supplies, extra ingredients. In fact there’s so much room there are entire cupboards that are still empty!
I’m working to fill them though, and in anticipation of my husband’s return last week, after more than two weeks away, I made a recipe that I’d spotted online just before we moved back at the end of April. As a lover of sweet granola the idea of savory granola that Green Kitchen Stories blog created was very appealing. I made a batch on Thursday and then played with ingredients to created what turned out to be an excellent vehicle for it – this salad. Somehow, baking batches of granola, the inviting smell that fills the house, and putting them into jars inside those empty cabinets has worked to make our little piece of paradise up here on the 8th floor even better than I could have imagined.
Savory Granola on Kale, Apple, and Puy Lentil Salad
makes 4 cups of granola and enough salad for 4
for the granola:
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons whole grain mustard
1 tablespoon honey
zest of one orange
2 tablespoons chopped thyme
2 tablespoons chopped rosemary
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup rolled rye flakes
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup buckwheat groats
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1/2 cup hazelnuts
for the salad:
100 grams puy lentils
1 cup chicken stock
2 teaspoons whole grain mustard
4 tablespoons cider vinegar
12 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons honey
1 garlic clove, finely minced
salt and pepper
one bunch of kale, stems removed and thinly sliced
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and diced
To make the granola, first preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Make the “sauce” by combining the first six ingredients and stirring well. Add all of the flakes, nuts, seeds, and groats and season the whole thing well with salt and pepper. Make certain all of the dry ingredients are well-coated in the sauce and spread out on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn’t burn. Remove when toasted and allow to cool.
To make the salad, begin with cooking the lentils in a medium saucepan in the stock with the bay leaf. Cook for 12-15 minutes, until tender (but they will retain some bite). While they’re cooking make the vinaigrette by combining the mustard, vinegar, oil, honey, garlic, and salt and pepper in a jam jar. Shake vigorously and as soon as you’ve drained the cooked lentils add about half of the dressing to the hot lentils and coat them well. Stir from time to time as they cool. Make the salad by placing the kale in a serving bowl and pour over the remaining dressing and give the kale a good massage for a couple of minutes (really, this helps to make the kale more digestible and will soften the sometimes bitter green). Now add the apples, cooled lentils, and top with granola.