I was standing in my kitchen in November, cooking something from my beloved Jerusalem book, and as I was looking at the photos I thought ‘Bloody hell, I used to travel loads and now I only go to bits of Spain full of British people’. Then I finished cooking some chicken and watched some Scandinavian drama. But the seed was sown.
My husband and I lived in Damascus, Syria and then Doha, Qatar from 2007-9. Our golden rule for enjoying life in dusty Doha was to leave frequently, if only briefly. During those years we travelled at least every two months and spent time in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Cyprus, Egypt, Sudan, Oman, India. Many of them we visited more than once. We were determined that once we had kids they would be forced to travel around with us and be those cool kids who slept anywhere, ate everything, and thought nothing of new places and strange people. Then we had our first child and everything was extremely complicated, so we moved back to London unexpectedly and largely stayed put.
After my little moment in the kitchen, I thought about how many people we knew in Beirut and realised we could stay with friends. My ever-dependable mother said she would happily look after our oldest son; our youngest, E, would come with us. My husband was up for adventure, on the condition that E (who is not exactly at the bottom of the growth charts) had his own plane seat.
In mid-December we flew to Lebanon for four days and it was brilliant. Our 1 year old was totally up for the challenge and had read the memo that he was meant to sleep, eat, thrive in new environments. We stayed with dear friends from our Damascus days – a British-Lebanese couple who dote on other people’s kids almost as much as their own, who fed us delicious lentil soup and whose daughter let E monopolise her toys. We reminisced about the days when we drove from Damascus to Beirut for the weekend. The cloud of Syrian troubles is ever present – in the numerous Syrian children begging for food or money, in the stories of our friends who have left the danger of Damascus for the relative stability of Beirut.
Achrafieh, where we stayed, is full of large old houses with balconies that survived the Civil War and are now being demolished to make way for blocks of flats that could be anywhere in the world, but there are enough battle-scarred, elegant buildings left to make you nostalgic for Beirut in its prime. We pottered around and soaked up the Arabic and French. Everyone called E the Lebanese version of his name which he was totally unperturbed by, and he shovelled hummus in to his mouth by the fist-load.
We went to a childrens’ Christmas party at the residence of the British Ambassador, where E had some kind of brain-freeze at being giving free rein on such a large marble floor and ran around in circles for an hour, occasionally being (literally) picked up by small Lebanese girls. Then we drove up higher in to the hills overlooking Beirut through Druze villages and, with snow on the ground, were shown around the ruins of MECAS, the language school that taught British diplomats and spies Arabic until the 1970s. It looks out over the city and if you climb over the broken tiles and under the collapsing beams, you see right out to the sea and across to snow-capped mountains.
So, there it is. The world is still out there and I can still be the person I was, if only for 4 days. Our youngest son will happily travel, given enough snacks and an ipad; our eldest son forgives us when we are replaced by doting grandparents. But wow, my Arabic is shit these days.