paris of the east

Ejo #120 – Drunk In….. Beirut (or How We Joined The Revolution)

I was in Tbilisi, Georgia, sleeping off a serious hangover when my Mum died. David and I had hit the city hard over three days; boots on the ground, party hats on, elbows bent – all in the name of researching my next Drunk In installment. But “Drunk In….. Tbilisi” is an ejo that will never see the light of day. It would be impossible for me to celebrate, let alone reconcile, the drunken revelry that David and I indulged in over those three days, with the fact that they were my Mum’s last days alive. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write another Drunk In post ever again. It’s not that I stopped drinking after Mum died, far from it. And it’s not that I haven’t experienced moments of joy or frivolity either. Those moments have co-existed with my grief, and they still do. I actually just thought I would never be able to write about anything ever again. I wasn’t even sure that I could continue with these monthly ejos. But, here we are.

There is something that happens to you when a loved one dies. When the shadowy concept of death becomes a forcible reality, something you have to look at in the eye and face every day, the value of life is actually somehow reasserted. Yes, I am still sometimes crippled with the pain of losing my Mum. But yes, I can also still genuinely experience happiness, I can still laugh and have fun. This is known as living. My Mum would have wanted it, and I want it. Anything less would be an affront to this beautiful gift each of us has been given. When you wake up one morning, and learn that someone you love is gone forever, it brings into very sharp relief how truly precious (and shockingly short) life actually is. Eleven years ago, I made a choice to live in Dubai, away from my Mum and my family and my friends and my home. I did that, not because I love Dubai so much. I did it because it was an opportunity to see the world. I sacrificed one thing, for another. And I ask myself sometimes if that choice was worth it – though it really doesn’t bear much thinking about. I’ll never be able to answer. The only thing I am able to do now is to honour the decision I made all those years ago. To make that sacrifice count. I have to travel, I have to see the world. I have to do it for myself, and I also have to do it for my Mum.

Our first vacation since Tbilisi was in November. Our friend Cath (whom you might remember from our drunken adventures in Hoi An a couple of years ago) was taking a well-deserved break from her award winning work as a newspaper photographer, and when she flipped through the atlas to decide her destination, her finger landed on Beirut, Lebanon. David and I were thrilled, as we’ve always wanted to go to Beirut. And being so close to Dubai, it was the perfect destination for us to join Cath for a three day Drunk In adventure.

Three weeks before our trip, startling reports began surfacing of demonstrations and rioting in the country. The three of us monitored the situation carefully, reading up about the protests and decided that, despite several travel warnings, including advice to “exercise a high degree of caution” from the Australian government and a suggestion from the US government to “reconsider Lebanon due to crime, terrorism, armed conflict and civil unrest”, we would stick to our plan and go. Of course this was exactly the kind of thing that would have made my Mum extremely anxious. But because she’s no longer here to worry about me, in my mind I no longer have any reason to be cautious. I can throw caution to the wind, because it no longer matters if something bad happens to me. Twisted logic, right? Who said grief isn’t fun?

ENAB

So we landed in Beirut after a night shift, and a four hour flight, ready to hit the town. We were staying in a vibrant and gritty part of town called Mar Mikhael because that’s just how we do. It’s a lively area known for its many restaurants and bars and that’s exactly what we’d come for. After reuniting with Cath over a bottle of duty free Champagne on our balcony, we ambled a leisurely six minute walk from our Airbnb over to Enab, a well known restaurant specialising in local cuisine and wine. We ordered a bunch of different plates to share and delighted in the fresh flavours of what arrived on the table: hummus (of course), flatbreads, beef kibbeh and roast potatoes. The pièces de résistance for me though were the most delicious and tender char-grilled lamb chops I’ve ever eaten. They were perfection!!! All of this was washed down with three bottles of Beqaa Valley rosé. To say it was easy drinking would be an understatement, and to say we were on a mission would be the same. It was the perfect start to our night.

INFO:
Armenia Street, Mar Mikhael
1200-0000
CLICK FOR MAP

CHAPLIN

Bellies full, we pranced out of Enab and down the street, looking for the next hotspot.  We found it less than a four minute walk away at Bar Chaplin, a (you guessed it) Charlie Chaplin themed bar.  The place was absolutely heaving on a Friday night and we were lucky that a group of people sitting at an outside table moved over and made room for the three of us to be seated.  This is something that completely characterises Lebanese people.  They are bloody lovely.  They are friendly, and warm, and they will smile at you for no reason at all, which makes it ludicrously easy to flirt with them.  I absolutely loved almost every interaction I had with the people of Beirut.  After ordering drinks from the lovely waiter, we got into a conversation with our neighbours and spent the next three drinks talking about the issues consuming Lebanon.  They were thrilled that we would visit Beirut, despite the trouble brewing in the city.  We were very drunk so I can’t remember what we drank but it was pretty damn good.  You can trust me.

INFO:
Alexander Fleming Street, Mar Mikhael
1600-0400
CLICK FOR MAP

THE LEBANESE BAKERY

So, after Chaplin we decided we’d had enough and went home.  Sounds like a good idea, right?  But that’s not where the shenanigans ended, oh no.  We sat on the balcony for a couple more hours and caught up over many “sips” of Cognac and arak, a Lebanese aniseed based spirit.  It felt like a good idea at the time.  OMG though, the hangover the next day was epic.  I can’t even.  I don’t remember flopping on the bed around 4am, fully clothed, but I do remember stumbling down the stairs at around 8am to join David on the couch in the air-conditioned living room.  Sometime around 1pm we pulled ourselves together enough to jump into an Uber and head straight to The Lebanese Bakery for espressos and a bite to eat.  Regular readers of this ejo will know that I have a huge soft spot for flatbreads of the world.  Turkish pide, Jordanian manaqish, Hungarian lángos.  I love my flatbreads!!!  And now I can add Lebanese manousheh to that list. Baked fresh to order, you can choose from a variety of toppings to satisfy any craving.  We decided to share, and settled on halloumi cheese, basil and pine nuts for Cath, minced meat, onions and bulgur for David and free range eggs with kashkawan cheese for me.  BEST HANGOVER FOOD EVER.

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The mince beef manousheh.

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The free range egg version.  Looking at this gives me food orgasms.  They are a thing and if you don’t have them I feel sorry for you.

INFO:
Salim Bustros Street, Tabaris, Ashrafiyeh
0730-1530
CLICK FOR MAP

After eating we took a really long walk around town and ended up at Martyr Square, where the biggest demonstrations had been held.  On this Saturday afternoon it was deserted, but we somehow found ourselves accosted by a news crew wanting to know what we thought about the protests.  I was more than happy to share that we were fully supportive of the Lebanese people and that we weren’t frightened to be there at all.  That we wanted to be there.  I was broadcast on some Lebanese TV station, no doubt.  Listen, when you’re Drunk In a city, you get right in there, you get involved.  You don’t skirt around the edges.

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Martyr’s monument.

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I love being interviewed when I’m hungover as fuck.

AL FALAMANKI RAOUCHE

The reporter told us that there would be a major demonstration the next day so we popped that into our itinerary before taking off in an Uber for some beers.  Cath had already visited Al Falamanki and reckoned we needed to get there in time for sunset.  And boy, was she right.  This restaurant/bar is perfectly situated on a cliff-face overlooking the Mediterranean and has incredible views of the setting sun and the famous Raouche Rocks.  Also, ice-cold beers and wonderful wait staff.

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We turned up in time for this view.

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After a really hard day of…. recovering, we needed these beers.  Don’t look at me like that.

INFO:
General De Gaulle Road, Kraytem
0900-0200
CLICK FOR MAP

ANISE

So we had dinner at one of the hottest restaurants in Beirut that night, but to be honest it was nothing to write home about, so I won’t.  What I will mention is that after dinner we were ready to kick on.  We walked to Anise, a bar featured in the World’s 50 Best Bars list.  Again, people went out of their way to make room for us, this time right at the bar.  Honestly, I’ve never felt so genuinely welcome and accommodated anywhere else in the world.  Lebanese hospitality is second to none.  We settled in and attempted to read the cocktail menu, somewhat thwarted by the dim lighting (oh, the vagaries of old age).  In the end a cocktail we watched being constructed in front of us proved too tempting and we just said, “We’ll have what she’s having”.  It turned out to be a sage margarita, and it turned out to be very fucking tasty.  While our drinks were being made, a guy next to me was served a yummy looking snack.  I was curious, so I asked him what it was and… seriously people, he offered me a bite.  And then he offered some to David and Cath too.  And we tried it.  And it was delicious.  And I can’t, for the life of me remember what it was, because… drunk.  But where else does that happen??   How wonderful.

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The lovely bartenders at Anise.  And the toaster oven (to the right) where the tasty snacks were being heated up.

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Sage margaritas.  Yum!

INFO:
Alexander Fleming Street, Mar Mikhael
1800-0130
CLICK FOR MAP

EM SHERIF 

Em Sherif restaurant is a Beirut institution.  Everyone from our Airbnb host, to our taxi driver, to Tripadvisor (#1 don’t lie) said it was a must do dining experience.  And so we did.  And it was…. everything.  And when I say everything, I mean that literally.  Thirty six dishes were laid out before us, one after the other in a constant (CONSTANT) procession.  And I will admit to making the rookie mistake of eating too much too soon, because I simply couldn’t finish everything that was served (which really sucks).  It’s kinda too much.  But at the same time, it’s kinda amazing.  So many feelings.  I think it’s definitely something everyone needs to experience at least once in their life.  If nothing else, to taste the silkiest, most incredible hummus ever created.

PS.  You need to make a reservation here.  Our table of three was the smallest table by far.  And we were the only non-Lebanese folks in the joint.  Just sayin’.

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We were amongst the first ones to arrive, but by the time we left the place was loaded with joyful Lebanese families celebrating life.

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But a small sample of the Lebanese delicacies that streamed out of the kitchen.

INFO:
Yesouiyeh Street, Ashrafieh
1200-0200
CLICK FOR MAP

THE REVOLUTION

Warnings

Avoid demonstrations, they said.  Ha!!!!

All day long we’d been joking about “dropping in on the revolution”.  Little did we know that’s exactly what we were going to do.  We made our way back to Martyr Square at sunset just as the demonstrations were kicking off.  Thousands of people had gathered in solidarity to protest their corrupt government and a mismanaged economy.  Despite paying high taxes, the city hasn’t had reliable electricity or running water since the 70s.  When the government recently announced that they would be introducing a tax on WhatsApp usage the people said, “OH NO YOU DIDN’T!!!”.  It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and it brought Lebanon, a country made up of 18 different religions, together.  It was incredible to be swept up in this feeling of unity on this night.  It was intoxicating.  Everyone gathered, regardless of their spiritual beliefs or religious identities, and they sang the national anthem and they danced and they waved their flags and they announced that, together, they were the people of Lebanon and that they’d had enough.  And we were right there.  It’s not often you get to be part of an historic event.  Despite being scared for me, I think my Mum would have been pretty proud that I was there.

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Photo courtesy of Cath Grey (award winning photojournalist).

 

TORINO EXPRESS

Revolutions are pretty thirsty work, so when things looked like they were winding down we set off in search of some drinks.  We happened upon Torino Express, which during the day disguises itself as a café, but morphs into a very cool bar in the evenings, complete with someone’s grandad, decked out in his best tracksuit, spinning tunes on a record player in the corner.  And let me tell you, grandad has some pretty good taste in music.  We all decided to start with a classic margarita, and they were so good we just kept ordering more.  Paying the bill I got confused with the currencies (both Lebanese pounds and US dollars are universally accepted), but the guy behind the bar was kind enough to point out that I was leaving a ridiculous tip.  He could have just pocketed it and I wouldn’t have been any the wiser, so huge props for honesty.  Just another reason to love Beirut.

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Torino Express

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Simply.  Perfect.  Margaritas.

INFO:
Gouraud Street, Gemmayzeh
1100-0200
CLICK FOR MAP

DRAGONFLY

Right next door to Torino Express is Dragonfly.  I’d read about their incredible cocktails online, and we were not let down.  The guys behind the bar are like cute, happy scientists, carefully measuring and concocting delicious libations with a smile.  Seriously, everyone in Beirut seems so chilled out and happy, despite the massive problems they face.  I want to know their secret.  I guess I’ll just have to go back and do some more research.  Come here if you’re passionate about cocktails.

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Such a sweety.  We asked if we could take a photo and he happily obliged.

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Three different versions of yum!

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The bartender obviously enjoyed all the love we were throwing his way because he threw these shots of arak our way.

INFO:
Gouraud Street, Gemmayzeh
1600-0130
CLICK FOR MAP

GRAYSCALE BAR

Opposite the front door of our Airbnb was a very lowkey bar called Grayscale.  It was so lowkey, and so hidden from sight, that we weren’t even sure it was open, so of course we had to go and find out.  And yes it was!  Post-revolution, we used this bar as a rendezvous point because Cath and I wanted to hit the streets and check out the action, while David was feeling a more chilled out kind of vibe and hung out at the bar while we went exploring.  I was extremely fucking drunk by this point, wandering around the streets, making friends, bringing them back to Grayscale (much to David’s bemusement).  Cath and I got separated but I never once felt unsafe.  So much for travel warnings.  You know you’ve reached the upper echelon of Drunk In when they name a cocktail after you.  Life goals people.

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Grayscale Bar

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I present to you the cocktail known as…. 40 Shades of Grey.

INFO:
Opposite Galerie Tanit, Armenia Street
CLICK FOR MAP

POST REVOLUTION

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The people.    © Cath Grey

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The future.  © Cath Grey

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Peacefully protesting.  © Cath Grey.

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Standing together.  © Cath Grey.

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Resistance.

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These guys were amazing.  They were so peaceful, and above all, human.  They didn’t want me to take their photo but I drunkenly snuck this one in.  We chatted about what they were doing and what I gleaned is that they are simply young men forced into a position of authority.  They don’t want any drama.  They don’t want to be there.  While we were there, the protests were not only peaceful, but friendly.  Sadly, after we left a protestor was shot and killed by a young officer. Things have taken a darker turn since and that makes me really sad.