Cultural Disconnects or How Not to Take a Spin Class

Beirut

It seems that all the sudden it’s dark when I come out of my spin class in the evenings. The bats which fluttered overhead, whom I thought of as my escorts home, are already done with their feeding flybys, and alas I’m alone in the dark. I loved my “ghasaak” (what the Arabs call twilight and a word I can never pronounce) walks home. According to legend in this part of the world, it’s the time of day, just moments really, when the sky is inky blue, and those souls who have left us walk among us on earth once again. Maybe I particularly liked this time of day because I used it to contemplate the recent loss of my mother.

Most of the time I write about how wonderful and interesting it is to be a chef and expat living in exotic places with the opportunity to explore incredible sites. And it is absolutely true. In fact, just this past Saturday, we drove up the coast to the seaside village of Batroun and wandered around a little bit, walking out to the ancient Phoenician wall along the Sea. Then we drove up into the mountains to the Ixsir winery for a buffet lunch in among the vineyards…and I thought to myself, how wonderful it is that I’m able to live this life, see these amazing things.

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Lunch among the Ixsir vineyards

That all said, it can be supremely challenging to live away from where you’re from sometimes. I’ll never forget an American friend of mine in London saying to me that she often missed living in the States because she knew, on the most basic, almost primal level, how things work in the US. Her wise words echo through my head regularly (and she moved back to the US last year). I’m not by any means saying I’m looking for a change or a move back to America, but sometimes I miss how easy life can be when you understand the fundamentals.

Take that same said spin class the other night. While most of the time I find the quirks and scene of the class entertaining and fodder for cocktail party chitchat, on this particular evening cultural frustration got the better of me. There is one group of older women who come every Monday night, one arrives early to make sure they all get their bikes together at the front of the class. As these ladies who lunch types arrive one-by-one they gasp and shriek in greeting to one another as if they’re a long-lost cousin they never expected to see again. They kiss cheeks three times, “Keifik Habibte?” (How are you my dear?) Perfume assaults the room and they pull on their cycling gloves (as if they’re riding in the Tour de France) and adjust their bronzed fake boobs and chatter well into the warm up period. Riders come into the room late, leave the room early, sit on their bikes like their bored, apparently checking their Facebook feeds in the middle of class, ring for the desk assistant to bring them fresh bottles of cold water or a tissue, and to top it off, a lady next to me this week took an action photo of herself, full-on duckface, in the mirror during class.

A beautiful little spice shop I've discovered near Saifi

A beautiful little spice shop I’ve discovered near Saifi

Now, I absolutely acknowledge that these are first world problems, and maybe I should just stop going to this particular class, but I think these are metaphors for trying to adapt to a new country, a new culture. I think part of what occasionally makes living abroad trying is the feeling you’re outnumbered by a group of people who have a set of silent cultural agreements that you’re not in on. Some of mine include:  pedestrians have the right of way, 80 degrees is not cold, shops are open when they say they will be, lines make sure everyone gets their turn fairly, no smoking in public buildings, animal prints should be worn in moderation, air conditioning doesn’t cause a cold.

Back in the US I know where to go to buy picture frames or houseplants or a plug for my tub. I know how to rent a car, open a bank account, even just have clarity on what I can and cannot bring onboard an airplane (here it depends on which security officer you get and how enamoured he is by your batting eyelashes). Even after years of living in London I still didn’t know the geography of the different counties surrounding the city or how the leasehold system worked or understand the GCSE program, let alone drive a car!

Quirky egg delivery in my neighborhood

Quirky egg delivery in my neighborhood

Early on here, I had one local restaurateur tell me (unsolicited) that Lebanon will be difficult for me because I’m American and even if we communicate in the same language much will get lost in the translation. Did I understand? Not really, but I nodded and laughed uncomfortably because while I am American fundamentally, I’m actually pretty far from it…and it’s certainly not everything I am. But did I really want to explain that to this boorish character? Similarly, I’ll soon be teaching a cooking class at a local school, and the owner said I should create a menu based on a theme that works with my story. “You’re American, so do something along those lines.” I’m stumped. What is my story? There certainly isn’t a theme to it.

So while the Beirutis go about their lives in what seems to be an amazingly optimistic and open-minded manner, I’m going to continue to watch and be in awe of their self-confidence, their sense of community, their joie de vivre. As aggravated as I was the other night, it was still a unique perspective into a group of people – that’s something I’ll always appreciate. And while I’ll never master their gasp-greeting, I do find myself saying “Keifik?” more often now. I like to think there are little pieces of a culture that I pick up and integrate into myself as I continue to evolve, all of which make me who I am. The fundamentals be damned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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