Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Beirut: Five Pros, Five Cons

It's that time of year again! Time to start doing post research in eager anticipation of bidding season. I am thankful I am on my second year of not having to bid but have already started considering the projected vacancies list for next summer...

I have two posts to write about for the annual FS blogger 5 pro/5 con roundup headed by The New Diplomat's Wife this year. First up, a post I haven't written about too much yet, although I've been here slightly more than three months: Beirut!

This list comes with a caveat: I haven't been at post very long, and I have yet to get out for a break yet. So if I come across as either/both a bit cranky or overenthusiastic, keep those facts in mind.

First, the pros:

1. It's Lebanon! Not many people get to experience this amazing, tiny little country with a gorgeous location right on the Mediterranean. From the famous cedars in the mountains to the beaches of Batroun to the layers of history in Byblos, this country packs a lot into its small area. Beirut is a rapidly developing city with modern shopping malls, pedestrian promenades, and all the shopping anybody could ever want. You can find something to suit any interest here. And the weather is pretty great most of the year.

2. Food. Do I really even need to explain? Lebanese food is famous around the world, for good reason. And if you ever tire of heaping tables of mezze and grilled meats, there are plenty of French bistros and familiar chains to make sure nobody goes hungry (or loses weight). Plus, the grocery stores are well-stocked, and I don't need to be quite the hoarder I was in Uganda. I do miss being able to buy things like corned beef (for reubens) or whole spiral hams or Italian sausage, but these are minor things. And the bread. Oh, the bread. French baguettes and perfect pitas are just the tip of the iceberg.

3. Work. Whatever your portfolio, the work is fascinating and challenging. You work on issues that are absolutely relevant in Washington and have the attention of the world as well. I am lucky to work in a section staffed by some phenomenal local and U.S. employees, and even on the toughest days we can laugh together and I know I'm surrounded by competent, smart people who love their job.  

4. People. When I was in Jeddah I worked with some amazing Lebanese women, and I am happy to report it wasn't just a fluke. The Lebanese are friendly, hospitable, outgoing, and many other great adjectives, and it's absolutely a pleasure to meet and spend time with people here.

5. Travel. We get four R&Rs in a two year tour, and Beirut has direct flights to some amazing locations for shorter getaways. Cyprus is a twenty minute flight away, and Turkey is a popular weekend destination. I can't wait to explore some of the regional opportunities.

And now, the cons:

1. Security restrictions. The security situation dictates life here. You live and work on a small compound. Everybody remembers the Embassy and Marine barracks bombings in the 1980s, and the security situation in Lebanon and the region has been turbulent ever since. You can't self drive, your off-compound moves are limited, and things can and do change in an instant. If you're considering bidding Beirut, you need to know what you're in for. That said, we have an awesome CLO office, and between CLO and the employee association there's almost always something to do. I am never bored and am often spoiled for choice of things to do or see or (often) eat. In a place like this, people come together to make their own fun.

2. Work. There are always two sides to everything. The work is intense and never-ending, and the hours can be long. Infrastructure and resource deficiencies mean we are always operating with fewer people than we need, and so you're usually covering for colleagues who are out on (well deserved and much needed) leave. The stakes are high here, and you can't easily get away from work. This is the first time in a couple weeks I've left by six pm. I'm lucky, though, that I don't have to work weekends unless there's a crisis or I choose to.

3. Creepy crawlies. My biggest fear coming here was about finding a tarantula in my house. Particularly in my bedroom or shower. I still live in fear of this, especially after a close (outside) encounter with one of these nasty creatures a few weeks ago. Tarantulas, scorpions, and poisonous snakes are endemic on the compound, and everybody has a story. I hope I already have my one and only story.

4. War/crisis overload. Lebanon. Syria. Iraq. ISIL. Israel/Palestine. You name the conflict, we've got it represented. Lebanon - a country of four million people - has accepted and UNHCR has registered over 1.4 million Syrian refugees, on top of 500,000 Palestinian refugees who have been here for decades and the thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of undocumented Syrian refugees who are currently here. This permeates all aspects of life here and, particularly for those who work with refugee populations, can be overwhelming as the humanitarian crisis grows with every day the Syrian conflict continues. And this is all while Lebanon keeps a fragile political system aloft without a President for the last year and a political sphere overwhelmed by complicated history and numerous political, religious, and sectarian issues at play.

5. Smoke. I am pretty sure this was one of my cons when I wrote about Jeddah a few years ago. I am very sensitive to smoke of all kinds, and people here love their cigarettes, cigars, and hookah. Everywhere. Even the token non-smoking sections at restaurants. I go out far fewer places than I might just because of this issue.

Anyway, that's a glimpse at life in Beirut! I definitely recommend people bid here, but please make sure you do your research before doing so. Having people who know what their reality will be and are prepared for the ups and downs of compound life makes a huge difference to overall post morale.

Coming soon, Kampala. Previously: Jeddah.