Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"P Is for Peloton, The A-Z of Cycling"

There is reason to celebrate any book on cycling, even if its riddled with misinformation and is a clone of other books on the sport, such as is the case with the well-meaning, 160-page compendium of cycling lore and lingo, "P is for Peloton," by Suze Clemitson, an English fan of the sport.  It is always heartening when a publisher deems a book on cycling worthy of putting out there, but disappointing when it disseminates all too much false information.

If nothing else, this book merits attention for its bounty of some seventy keenly insightful illustrations, the best of which may be a field of free wheels masquerading as sunflowers.  Though Clemitson may not venture much beyond the basics in the165 items she defines, including French and Italian terms and many of the legendary climbs in the sport and its foremost figures, being reminded of their significance reinforced my fondness for them and made the book a rewarding read in spite of its inadequacies. 

She manages to find at least one cycling-related item for every letter in the alphabet, from nineteen for the letter P to three for the letters Q and Z to one for the letters X and J.  "Jersey" was an easy one for J, but she had to test her imagination for X, choosing the X in "53 X 11," the most common high gear.  She declined to choose the X that is very often found in the names of the many Basque riders, as there is no noteworthy rider whose name begins with X, unlike other letters.  Her Zs were the riders Zabel and Zoetmelk along with the climb in the Italian Alps--Zoncolan.  One of her Qs was the Colombian Quintana along with Queen Stage and Quick Release.  

A good many of her entries are people, including Didi Senft (The Devil) and Henri Desgrange, the founder of The Tour de France.  Her strong English bias gives Robert Millar one-and-half pages  compared to just half a page for Greg LeMond. Her bias extends to giving credit to Team Sky for popularizing skin suits in time trials, though elsewhere in the book she gives credit to the Ti Raleigh team for being the first team to wear skin suits at the 1980 Tour.  If she were American she would have granted Garmin that distinction.  The book is clearly meant for an English audience as she compares Milan-San Remo to riding from London to Sheffield without offering an American equivalent.

Like many without a doctorate in the sport, whether earned from a fanaticism of growing up with it or from devouring every book and magazine she could get her hands on after developing an interest in it, Clemitson is often wrong or at least not quite right on many an item.  The book is frustratingly rife with misinformation and misunderstanding.  That is not so much an indictment of Clemitson, but rather of her publisher failing to enlist an authority on the sport to edit, or at least scan, the book.

One could go on and on pointing out its many niggling inconsistencies and falsehoods beginning with referring to Bradley Wiggins as Sir, but not Chris Hoy, who was knighted before Wiggins. She also slights The Devil and Desgrange.  She wrote that The Devil was retired.  He did miss the 2014 Tour, but he was back for 2015, allowing me to update my photo with him.

Of Desgrange she wrote that he served in WWII, despite having died in 1940.  That one was no doubt a typo, but that can't be said about several things she got wrong about Bernard Hinault.  She wrote that he was a gentleman farmer.  According to William Fotheringham's recent biography of Hinault he gave up his farm in 2005 when he realized none of his children cared to continue with it. She claims he cried when he gave up the Yellow Jersey to LeMond in the 1986 Tour.  Hinault was a notorious tough man who never gave in to his emotions.  William Fotheringham's recent biography "The Badger," doesn't cite a single incident of him and tears, whether of exaltation or despair.

Clemitson has an affinity for tears and mentions many--riders being scooped up by the Broom Wagon, riders on the snowy stage of the 1988 Giro, Paolo Bettini winning the 2006 Tour of Lombardy days after the death of his brother in a car crash, Felice Gimondi's directeur sportif the year he won the 1965 Tour, Fausto Coppi's domestique taking the Yellow Jersey in the 1952 Tour, Richard Virenque being ejected from the 1998 Tour. These are celebrated incidents and worthy of mention.  She was being fanciful, as she is prone to, to suggest tears from Hinault.

She is inconsistent on Virenque, writing in one place that he is reviled, but then later that he is a popular television commentator.  Like many not fully steeped in the sport she confuses races known as Classics and Monuments.  There are five Monuments and they are all Classics, but not all Classics are Monuments.  On page 72 she lists the riders with the most Classic wins--Eddie Merckx 50, Hinault and Jacques Anquetil 29, Sean Kelly 22.  Seven pages later she writes that Merckx holds the record with 19 Classics, meaning Monuments.  Earlier she wrote that Merckx was one of three, along with his fellow Belgians Roger De Vlaeminck and Rik Van Looy to win all five Monuments in one year.  No one ever achieved that in a single season.  It took a career.  

Many of the entries in the book are accompanied by extra tidbits of information called "bluff facts" or "bluff its," that one drop into a conversation to be taken as more of an expert on the sport than one actually is, much like Clemitson.  Some are absurd such as, "If you were to cycle 3,500 kilometers, which is what the peloton cover during a Grand Tour, you'd produce enough sweat to flush 39 toilets."

She describes being along the road during The Tour and watching the Caravan of Sponsors pass.  She claims, "You could feed yourself for the day on little sausages" that are tossed out.  I've been following The Tour for twelve years and very rarely have I managed to grab even one of the small packs with three bite-sized sausages.  Their sponsor is very parsimonious with them.  Not even an army of fans could collect enough to feed a single person for a day.  She's also wrong stating that Coca-Cola is among the sponsors in the Caravan.  It's been years, well before my time, that Coca-Cola has been a sponsor.  

She must have read somewhere that an early wearer of the Yellow Jersey, before it became an emblem of the sport and its holiest garment, protested having to wear it, complaining that the others riders mockingly called him a canary.  She said it was Philipe Thys, when it was actually Eugene Christophe.  She is also not quite right when she says Americans mispronounce Maillot Jaune as Mellow Johnny.  That was a Lance Armstrong bastardization, not a symptom of Americans.

If this book were a car it would have to be recalled, as it presents a great danger of establishing myths rather than realities. It would be a great tragedy if in its present form it were discovered a thousand years from now after our current civilization has gone the way of the Greeks and Romans, as it would give a less than accurate portrayal of the world of cycling. One can enjoy the book's fanciful illustrations, but to give full credence to its fanciful prose puts one in a state of peril.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Kindliness of the Lebanese

The The State Department may be advising against travel to Lebanon, but Janina and I experienced nothing but kindliness and welcome during our two-week stay.  Annia acknowledged she sensed a stronger air of tension in the country than she has experienced in the dozen years she has made Beirut her base, but it was something Janina and I were oblivious to despite the heavy military presence and occasional beggars and the knowledge that more than two million Syrians refigeess had been absorbed by this country no bigger than Conneticut.  

The Lebanese seemed unphased by the unrest and upheaval in the region.  All seemed normal to us.  Good-will and smiles were our dominant impression of the country, from the neighborhood orange juice salesman to the many random folk we encountered in our travels around the country.

When I took a spill on a patch of oil in a construction zone as Janina and I were biking to Byblos, twenty-five miles up the coast from Beirut, a worker rushed to help me up and pat the dirt off my back.  At Byblos the ticket-taker to the ruins unhesitantly told us it was perfectly fine to leave our bikes at the entry to the ruins and that he would keep an eye on them.  Afterwards he gladly led us to a hotel.  

We were invited into the home of the wife of the creator of a sculpture garden in the small village of Rachana.  Several people came to our assistance when the communal van we took from Baalbek back to Beirut dropped us off in the dark quite a ways from Annia's apartment.  It was easy to see why Annia has been happy to make Beirut her home.  She has a friendly relationship with the many small shop owners of her neighborhood, a refreshing change from her life in the boroughs of New York.

Her work for the Washington Post and Reuters and others, including being interviewed by the BBC during our stay, prevented her from joining us on our three-day ride to Byblos and beyond.  She would have enhanced the experience, but it was still a most enriching outing.  Janina had visited the ruins with Annia on her previous visit to Beirut four years ago, and was delighted to see them again, especially by making a bike ride of it.

Though our route along the coast wasn't particularly scenic, clogged most of the way with the sprawl of factories and businesses and residences, we did have glimpses of the coastline.  We took a break on a beach strewn with plastic bottles in front of a fenced in hotel. 

We were accustomed to seeing litter, as garbage pickup is haphazard throughout the entire country, organized on a local level.  Garbage is dumped randomly anywhere.  It wasn't as severe a problem as it had been during the summer, but the issue hadn't been resolved.

The billboards in the background for a plastic surgery company were a ubiquitous sight.  So too was the cedar tree tattooed on the woman's back.  It is featured on Lebanon's flag, the most prominent tree on any national flag.  Peru and Belize also have a tree, but they blend into a montage of elements.  The mountains of Lebanon were once covered with cedars.  But  like the American buffalo, few remain. 

Our ride to Byblos began most pleasantly when after a couple of miles from Annia's apartment in the heart of the city we joined Seaside Road and became part of a Sunday morning colonnade of cyclists, more than we encountered during our entire stay, including a club that was accompanied by a support vehicle.  We paused at a grotto with a small chapel honoring St. George.  It was speculated that it was at this site around 300 AD, George slayed the dragon that led to his canonization.  A nearby bay is also named for him.

There is no speculation about the history of Byblos.  It is acknowledged to be one of the world's oldest continually inhabited towns dating to the fifth millennium BC.  It is also known as the birthplace of the modern alphabet.  It's name is believed to have derived from the Greek word for papyrus and also to have leant its name to the Bible.  It's ruins, some Roman and others much older, lay along the sea and can be peered at from a towering Crusader castle built in the 12th  century.  There was much history to soak in as we took a couple hour meander among the excavated ruins.

The next day, rather than continuing twenty-five miles to Tripoli, we turned off the coastal road after eight miles for a steep two-mile climb past a smattering of olive trees to the small village of Rachana that was filled with the sculptures of the Basbous, three brothers, all deceased, and a son.  As we wandered amongst the first set of sculptures a vibrant red-haired woman emerged from a fairy-tale house and asked what language we spoke.  She introduced herself as Therese, the widow of Michel, the instigator of this project.  

He died in 1981 at the age of sixty. When she learned we were from Chicago, she said they had been invited there in 1973.  One of the highlights of their visit was seeing the Picasso sculpture. They had traveled the world exhibiting her husband's work.  They particularly enjoyed Japan, where they spent two months.  Two of her husband's sculptures remain there in the Uneo Sculpture Park.  She was delighted to learn Janina was an art critic and was interested in writing about Rachana.  She invited us into her home, a whimsical work of art itself in the spirit of Gaudi that her husband designed and built and gave us a booklet on her son's recent exhibition in Beirut and shared with us several of the books she had written in French.  She couldn't have been more charming.  When a few drops of rain fell, she insisted we stay until it passed, offering us some chocolates and more of her energetic stories. Not too many people venture to this small village.  There were no signs promoting it or leading us to it.  We had to stop several times to ask directions.

We didn't make it back to Byblos until after dark, returning to the same first-class hotel along the Mediterraen we had stayed at the night before.  And once again we seemed to have it all to ourselves. Our ride back into Beirut the next day wasn't as tranquil as our Sunday ride out.  By early afternoon the final few miles of the coastal road had turned one-way leaving the city.  That didn't stop the few motorcycles heading into the city from pushing into traffic on the fringe of the road.  We followed along until it became too harrowing for Janina.  The first three taxis we flagged down didn't care to take her and her bike back to the bike shop where she had rented her bike.  None spoke English, nor did the driver who finally accepted her.  

We showed him on the map where the bike shop was, but it wasn't so easy to reach through the labyrinth of traffic-clogged narrow streets.  It was only three miles away, but it took him an hour-and-a-half to reach it.  I was there in less than half an hour. As I sat waiting, I became concerned that she might have become a victim of a kidnapping, as the State Department had warned.  When she finally showed up, pushing her bike along the sidewalk with a big smile of relief, she said the driver had been frustrated by the one-way streets and had let her off a few blocks back.  She wasn't sorry to be relinquishing the bike.  It had been no fun for her riding in Beirut's dense traffic. We had only two days left and had no more need of the bike.

We had one remaining outing--to the country's premier archeological site and one of the most significant in the world, the Roman ruins of Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley.  It was a two-hour drive from Beirut beginning with a climb over a 5,000 foot pass.  We did it the local way, via a communal van for just a few dollars, picking up and dropping off passengers all the way.  It was most enjoyable other than having to breathe the fumes of the smokers.  There was snow on the mountain ranges framing the valley, Syria on one side and the Mediterranean on the other, and along the side of the road as we reached the summit.

The van deposited us right in front of the ruins in the heart of Baalbek across the street from the legendary Palmyra Hotel that had hosted DeGaulle and many other notables.  We could see the six still standing columns of the Temple of Jupiter, the largest in the Roman Empire.  At seventy-two feet high, they are the tallest known columns built anywhere.  They are nearly two thousand years old.

They face the even grander Temple of Bacchus, surrounded by a nearly complete set of columms.  It is the best preserved building anywhere from the Roman Empire.  It was truly breathtaking.  Janina said, "Now you can understand the concept of monumentality."  As at Byblos, we were swept away by the incredulity of the experience.  We were happy that we had turned down the offerings of several would-be guides at the entrance and didn't have a non-stop patter rattling in our ears and could peaceably commune with our surroundings.

When we exited the ruins we were pounced on by a souvenir salesman just as we had been as we approached the ruins.  We regretted our immediate response of saying no, as the yellow Hezballoh t-shirt he was offering was a one-of-a-kind souvenir that would have been fun to wear in the right circumstances back home.  We didn't see anyone else selling them or any of the yellow Hezballoh flags that we saw flying here and there in this Hezballoh region, just stores selling firearms.

Our drive back was in the dark.  We were fortunate that one of the passengers was headed to the same part of Beirut as we were, so when we were dropped off, not at the congregation point that we had departed from earlier in the day within walking distance of Annia, but far away, we could join him in another communal van that he flagged down.

It was our last night in Beirut.  We bought one last bottle of orange juice squeezed on the spot on our way back to Annia's.  She was as sorry as we were that we hadn't returned with a Hezbollah t-shirt, almost enough so to make the trip to Baalbek the next day herself. Though we saw and did much, there is plenty to return for--Khalil Gibran's tomb, the Cedars of the Gods, the spot where Jeaus turned water into wine.  If Annia remains in Beirut, we'll most certainly be back.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Syrian Refugees and a Palestinian Refugee "Camp"

One of the surprises of Lebanon has been its currency--the US dollar along with the Lebanese lira.  I didn't believe it when Annia told us before we left that there was no need to change money when we arrived at the airport, saying US currency is accepted everywhere.  If we hadn't known and had gone to an ATM machine, we would have seen that we had the option of withdrawing either dollars or lira. Its been 1500 lira to the dollar for years, so even though most prices are listed in lira, it is an easy computation to determine the dollar cost of an item.  So far Annia has been right.  No one has rejected my payment of an item in dollars, though I'm always given lira in change.

When I asked a Syrian refugee if dollars were a dual currency in her country as well, she laughed and said, "If I had a ten dollar bill in my pocket in Syria, I'd be thrown in jail." 

That was her only burst of emotion as she and her husband shared their experiences of life in Damascus until two months ago when they were finally able to escape Syria.  We were sitting in their apartment in Beirut along with two of their four young children and her brother Ahmad, who had preceded them to Beirut two years ago.  Among his many jobs he has worked since arriving was a stint as a bicycle messenger, by far his favorite.  So much so that when he and his family gain visas for Canada to join other members of his family, he plans to work as a bicycle messenger despite his degree in engineering.

Ahmad is a friend of Annia's and occasionally serves as her Arabic tutor.  He was going to join us on our ride to Tripoli.  We had to delay the ride when Janina suffered a case of food poisoning.  While Janina spent a day sleeping and recuperating, Ahmad and I went for a ride of our own.  Before we left the city we stopped off to see his sister and her family.  His sister worked as a pharmacist in Syria and her husband as a dentist and had enough money to afford a $900 a month apartment rather than ending up in a refugee camp.

They were able to slip out of Syria by buying airplane tickets to China for their entire family.  Since there are no flights from Damacus to China, they had to fly out of Beirut, and were allowed out of the country under such a pretence.  Ahmad had gained entry into Lebanon in a similar manner by purchasing a ticket to Thailand, which he likewise never intended to use.  They were able to recover most of the cost of the tickets, but not the money they spent for visas.

The family had had a nice life with a house in a suburb of Damacus up until war broke out.  They had to leave their home two years ago when their suburb lost all electricity and water and it became impossible to buy food.  They had been living in a series of apartments since then.  They matter-of-factly narrated their tale with nary a trace of rancor or bitterness.  Their soft features and gentle voices were accentuated by the smiles that never left their faces.  It wasn't so much the relief they feel to be in Lebanon, as they continue to live in uncertainty while they await authorization to immigrate to Canada, but rather their natural constitution.  Living in limbo is nothing new for them, as they are Palestinians who never had full rights in Syria.

They could only bring along a few of their belongings on their long taxi ride out of the country to Beirut.  It wasn't easy to find someone to drive them, as one can be hung up at the border for twelve hours or more as they await permission to leave.  Among the possessions they had to leave behind was a bike. Ahmad knows the importance of having a bike so was able to purchase a used Trek for $40 for the children.  Ahmad is front and center.

As Ahmad and I prepared to go, the three-hours of electrical blackout that daily blankets Beirut had commenced, so we walked the six floors down back to our bikes.  Our next destination was Sabra, the Palestinaina refuge camp dating to 1949 with the establishment of Israel.  Even though it is an established neighborhood within the city, the Palistinians cling to the term "camp," as something temporary, than what is truly is, s slum or ghetto.  As we approached Sabra, Ahmad pointed out an apartment he had stayed at for $200 a month when he first arrived in Beirut and also the street where Yassar Arafat had once lived.

As I clung to Ahmad's rear wheel as we sped through the traffic-clogged streets weaving from one lane to another, I felt as if I were watching a YouTube messenger video peering over Ahmad's shoulder.  It might have been terrifying and death-defying to some, but I fully trusted Ahmad's instincts and felt exhilarated as we flew through the maelstrom as if we had super-powers or were beings of a superior intelligence.  I clung even closer as we entered Sabra, but it was easier to keep up as automobiles were replaced by motorcycles and pedestrians on the narrow thronged streets.  All around us was a bustling hive of activity people selling things from carts and small stands and shops.  Several blocks in we turned down a smaller alleyway and came to a bike shop where Ahmad was well known.  My fold-up bike was a genuine curiosity.  The conversation was entirely in Arabic, other than Ahmad's translations.  While we were there several of Ahmad's students from a school he had taught at nearby happened by.  Ahmad enlisted one to take our photo.

After we left Ahmad said, "I told them you were Norwegian.  It is better."  Danish would have been more accurate, but Norwegian gave me extra favor as several Norwegian aid organizations serve the Palestinian community and they are accustomed to seeing Norwegians.  Ahmad knows about the use of having alternate nationalities, since he can go by Syrian or Palestinian, though neither carry much favor in Lebanon.

I was tempted by the aroma coming from the food offerings, but Ahmad said it was best just to avail us of bananas in Sabra.  After we left we came upon a food cart with a variety of pastries including a coup,e of types of date cookies.  Annia had already introduced us to the store commercially packaged version.  They were a tasty treat that I make sure to have in my pack.  Annia too never goes out without a handful as that is what she distributes to the beggars.  But these from the cart were an even greater treat.  They provided us with our fuel for the rest of the day.

The traffic at last thinned and we could ride hard and steady as we headed south out of the city past the airport.  We alternated between the bustling six-lane highway with a nice shoulder and the quiet, but rough side road.  On the side road we passed through several military check points.  We were waved on through, assumed to be no threat.  Such has been Ahmad's experience all over Lebanon.  We pushed on for an hour-and-half to shortly before Sayda, about half way to Israel, before we had to turn around to get back to Beirut before dark.  The hillsides weren't as packed with habitations as they were to the north.  We didn't encounter another cyclist all day, but we were told about a Syrian we lived twenty miles south of Beirut who made the commute to his job in Beirut every day and he was an old guy like me.

We had a strong south wind back and flew along at close to twenty miles per hour.  We passed through two tunnels that were a bit perilous.  Ahmad had never experienced them adding to their peril, not knowing if there were any hazardous grates that can pop up anywhere.  Along the way a motorist slowed to wave at us.  It was a messenger friend of Ahmad's who I had also met.  He was sent on s long delivery in the company car.  He was as surprised to see us as we were to see him.  He would have gladly exchanged his car for one of our bikes, but that wasn't going to happen, nor his offer of giving us a lift back.  We were sorry we arrived back at Annia's fifteen minutes before dark and hadn't pushed a little further south before returning.  It was good to learn though that Janina had slept all day and felt recovered and ready to eat.  The forecast calls for clear weather next week, so we will not be denied Tripoli.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Biking Beirut

Lebanon's rainy season commenced the day after Janina and I arrived in Beirut for some biking, but mostly to visit her daughter, Annia.  She has been living here off-and-on since 2003 working as a freelance reporter. Janina hadn't seen her in over two years, the longest stretch since she was born.  Rain, or its threat, limited our biking the first four days of our stay, but we were at least able to gain a healthy knowledge and appreciation of this war-torn city on foot, as Annia led us all over.

All that paled though when the rain broke for a few hours and I was finally able to unleash my Bike Friday for a full-fledged forty-mile ramble all about, and to search for a route out of the city, other than the main highway, for a ride to Tripoli, fifty miles to the north, in a couple of days when the forecast calls for some sunny days.  

I returned wet, but also exhilarated to have finally fully introduced myself to Beirut's much ravaged streets and also to have found a series of streets that lead out of the city and won't cause Janina and Annia too much terror.  It wasn't so easy to find an alternative to the highway, as Beirut is nestled up against the Mediterraen Sea with the mountains right behind and along the coastline for most of Lebanon's 140-mile border with the sea, limiting the number of roadways.

I knew a coastal road hugged the highway beginning shortly before Jounieh, where the country's premier casino resides on a cliffside overlooking the Mediterranean fifteen miles north of Beirut, but the maps I was consulting didn't show a clear way to reach it other than on the highway. But by biking through the port and then on a sidewalk along the highway for spell, I was led to a series of roads that will connect with the highway we want.  It won't be the most blissful of cycling, but there isn't much of that to be found in this car-packed city of few bicyclists.

Lebanon has the highest percentage of cars per capita in the world, largely due to its poor public transit system.  Most people resort to a car to get around, even though it takes for ever to get where one wants to go on the clogged, narrow streets, and then when one reaches their destination they spend almost as long to find a parking place.  People resort to any crevice they can find.  The law of anarchy that prevails in this land allows them to park anywhere.  It also allows them to ignore one-way signs and to slip through red lights and skateboard in supermarkets. But the Lebanese, despite their decades of unrest and war, have a compassionate side and don't recklessly endanger others in their flouting of the law.  When they proceed down those narrow one-way streets the wrong way, they do it with caution.  Of all the perils that one must endure here, speeding cars is not among them, maybe because it is virtually impossible to proceed at much more than a crawl.  Annia, who lived in New York for years and got around on a bike, says she feels much more comfortable biking here and isn't subjected to any of the antagonism inflicted upon her there.

The bicyclist could be the king of the city here, able to wend through all the slow-moving vehicles, but few care about being a king. A story on cycling in Beirut in yesterday's paper quoted a bicycle advocate who started the first bicycle messenger company in Beirut a little over a year ago.  He estimated that there are no more than two hundred active cyclists in this metropolis of two million. As in any cycling community, there are a few who make it their cause to get people out of their cars and on bikes. Someone has stenciled bikes here and there on roadways and on walls.  Imitation stop signs have been mounted urging the masse to give up their car for the bike.

A walkway (corniche) that extends for several miles along the sea past the city's signature Pigeon Rocks and a Ferris wheel and a long public beach and several private beaches is about the lone cycle way in Beirut.  A marked bike lane had been attempted elsewhere, but it quickly became filled with parked cars. Sanayeh, the only significant park in the city, other than the Pine Forest, which is only open on Saturdays, has a quarter mile cycle path around its perimeter, not much good for anyone other than a novice. Sanayeh is near Annia's apartment in Hamra.  Though it doesn't even fill a square block, it does offer a welcome refuge from all the bustle.  It is surrounded by a wall and has just one guarded entrance. It's guards don't carry weapons, as do many others outside of businesses and government offices.

Although there aren't any of those rental bikes in racks that have become ubiquitous in major cities all over the world, several outlets rent bikes.  Beirut By Bike has grown from one shop with sixty rental bikes in 2001 to four shops with 2,000 bikes. Janina was able to easily rent a quality aluminum bike for our two-week stay at a bargain $100 off-season rate.

Even though the sultry weather has limited our biking, it hasn't kept us from walking all over the city.  Even more than a cyclist, Annia is an ardent pedestrian. As the New Year was ushered in, she led us on an hour-long hike across the city from a New Year's Eve Sri Lankan feast back to her apartment down narrow streets without any lights.  Though there may be an air of tension in the city with Syrian refugees pouring into the country and the conflict across the border and heightened unrest in the Middle East, thievery, or at least petty thievery, is not a concern.  The biggest thieves are the government and the mafia.  

Lebanon is presently without a president or any strong government.  Mob lords take cuts on everything.   Electricity goes off for three hours every day.  Those who can afford it have generators that kick in during those three hours.  One has to pay the neighborhood mob for the privilege of having a generator.  As someone told us, "We pay double for everything, one fee to the legitimate supplier and then another to the mob for allowing it to go through."

A security guard in the park asked Janina and I how we liked Lebanon.  We told her we have very much enjoyed our stay with Annia and all she has introduced us to, from the architectural marvels in our wanderings to the wide variety of delicious foods, which is one of her areas of expertise, as she wrote about In her war correspondent memoir "Taste of Honey."  And we have especially enjoyed the many friendly people we have met, beginning with a trio at the Frankfurt airport who were on our flight from Chicago that was delayed by Chicago's first storm of the winter causing us to miss our connecting flying to Beirut.  They were the only other three going on to Lebanon, which we had to do via London. Our extra twelve hours of travel was made worthwhile by the several hours we spent with them giving us a preview of the genuine cordiality of the Lebanese.  

This woman in the park was no different.  She too spoke with warmth and sincerity, as if we were long-time friends.  She was happy to hear that we liked her country, as she made the choice to live here after spending fifteen years in the US.  She returned to her homeland after her three sons had grown up and all went to live in different places.  But she was frank when she asked us, "Do you realize how bad we have it here," and went on to tell us of all the hardships the Lebanese must endure. Among those is staying warm in the winter. Few buildings have central heating.  Everyone must make do with space heaters, as does Annia.  When the temperture plunges, as it did a couple nights ago when snow turned up on the surrounding mountains, all the space heaters go on, and off goes the electricity.  One New Year's Eve she celebrated as bombs were falling on the city.  Many of the damaged buildings still remain.

Another security guard, who only just met the woman, joined the conversation and shared his chagrin with the travails they must endure.  He was astounded that she had returned to Lebanon and hadn't stayed in the US.  Her only explanation was, "This is home."