Beirut: Travel Essay by Jean Garner

Quiz night in Beirut, Peanut Butter in Prague

I approached the security checkpoint in the middle of the night. My flight was due to leave Beirut in an hour, at roughly 3am. It was the second security checkpoint I went through. The first was simply to get into the building. Everyone I encounter is so unfailingly polite and yet armed to the teeth.

As an experienced traveler, regardless of destination, you always look at airport lines with a weary stratagem in mind. Kids, family, groups, all signs of what you try to avoid. This was just a short visit so it was just me and my slightly overstuffed backpack. (Oh, why did I buy these shoes?)

Ahead of me was a young woman. She was wedged between two very large suitcases and a collection of smaller bags, all had clearly never seen a good day. She was tall and thin and stunning yet looked as bedraggled as her luggage. She was also very much alone. Despite the heat and stuffiness of the airport she was dressed from head to toe in dramatic, possibly tribal garb. As there was a flight before mine going to Ethiopia, I made a guess that that was where she was headed. All the other flights were bound for the north and west, and beyond. All launching into the early morning rush hour traffic that is Europe’s crowded airspace. But maybe I was making one too many assumptions.

As I got closer it was clear that wherever she was going she was not going there anytime soon. She stood there, silent and looking slightly lost. The burden of her luggage at her feet seemed to overwhelm her. But it wasn’t her luggage that had her trip on hold, it was her passport.

For those who travel, and there are more and more of us who do, the world seems to have gotten a great deal smaller. A trip, whether for a weekend or something more, it all feels like it is only a plane ticket away. Grab your passport, your credit card and off you go. This woman reminded me that travel, that freedom of movement, remains a privilege. It was not clear exactly what was wrong, a missing visa, something expired or possibly some geopolitical glitch that meant she could not easily go from here to there. Maybe it meant she could never go from here to there, wherever there is.

A few years ago came the story of the Middle Eastern traveler who was stranded at the airport in Paris. His home country having undergone a regime change while he was in the air. He landed no less up in the air. He was ‘stuck’ for years. It later became a semi-sweet movie starring Tom Hanks. But then aren’t most of his movies semi-sweet? But I digress.

Today these avionically disabled transients are no longer quite as rare. With the abrupt shifts of dastardly rulers and the elliptical loyalties of people in power, you can leave a country as a citizen in good standing and arrive, just hours later, a renegade and relic of yesterday’s man.

As I inched my way through security I thought about all these issues. As I passed this stoic looking woman I thought, ‘There, but for the fragile power of my passport, go I’.

I had come to Lebanon, from my home in Prague, just for the weekend. A good friend was visiting her family and I hadn’t seen her in awhile. Another friend and his new wife were living there and I had not seen him in more than 25 years. It is a city with a reputation, a cool reputation. I figured by going there I too could be cool, by proxy.

Despite enduring 15 years of a bloody civil war, it retains its ‘Paris of the Middle East’ moniker. It has also become a gathering point for wayward media migrants who use it as a base to cover the ever troubled neighborhood. Hamas here, Hezbollah there, ISIS refugees everywhere. Then there are the state players, Iran, Syria, Egypt and so on down the bad boy list.

As a media migrant myself I feel a bit drawn to the city. I was interested to see how this past paragon of a stable Middle East was navigating the rough waters. There are however too many corners occupied by too many young men, all waiting for their lives to change, waiting for something to happen, maybe waiting to make something happen. I found the sidewalks, corner shops, streets and ceaseless traffic all as parables of the complicated cross currents being faced by the country itself.

My home abroad is a very different place. Its days as an edgy, frontier outpost, long since past. Prague is home to Hrabal, Forman, Kafka and Havel, the playwright president. It basks in the legacy of the Velvet Revolution. It has been fifty plus years since Soviet tanks occupied the streets and thirty since protesters threw out their Communist overlords. All giving way to an army of Hop On/Hop Off busses, buzzing scooters and AirBnB invaders.

With its glorious architecture and stunning old world vibe, Prague is a reminder of a very different age. Once a playground of empires, the captured prize of villains. Today, it often serves as a cinematic stand-in for Berlin in World War II, since the Berlin of World War II was all but flattened.

It is a city that reflects the ambitions and aspirations of a young king who is today otherwise lost to history, Charles IV. He pursued art and education as the tent poles of his reign. Mozart escaped here from the pressures of Vienna to write Don Giovanni. Kafka looked around and saw the hellscape of its bureaucracy and turned his creative power to capturing it on paper. The largest migrant population is either Ukrainian or Vietnamese depending on who’s counting. Many nativists prefer to direct their antagonism towards the dozens of Muslims who have managed to make it here.

The President is a not so ex-communist, the Prime Minister, a businessman turned opportunistic populist who has been under investigation since before he was elected to office. It is at the crossroads of a continent facing uncertainty, a burgeoning antipathy paired with a rising tide of nationalism.

It is a destination that reflects its location. It is the center of Central Europe, not quite East, not quite West. Home to fine music and dramatic art, film and literature that have all endured the worst of times, each with a cynical and yet humorous voice spoken in one of the most challenging languages imaginable.

I work at an outpost of the US that serves as lingering reminder of more monochromatic times. For the unknowing, it is an anachronistic throwback of those film noir infused moments when the Soviets taunted our virtue and Communism was a sin we dare not name. To the casual observer, we are the last, lonely soldier on patrol. A spook house fighting a battle that we don’t recognize as being over. The reality, as it so often is, reveals something else altogether.

I work with journalists from nearly 30 nations, most of them from the post Soviet sphere. The lingua franca is Russian with a bit of Persian, Czech and oh yes, English, thrown in for good measure. Yes, they are journalists but for many of them being a journalist is also a bold act of defiance. To speak of facts and truth is to place yourself in front of the proverbial tank. Their life long media diet having been saturated by state sponsored deceptions and propaganda designed to mask chronic corruption, all sanctioned by the dictator du jour.

Even in the more evolved nations, such as Moldova and Kyrgyzstan, practicing journalism is cause for suspicion. My role is to cajole them in pursuing the highest journalistic standards, in other words, the US media standard. Part of the challenge is that that too is now a bit of an anachronism.

The place is a cauldron of different cultures, a stewpot of political molasses. It is described as ‘surrogate’ media, filling the gap where sound journalism cannot otherwise be practiced. In some cases they are in-country, in other cases they must cross the geopolitical divide, digitally. To walk the halls is to tour the vast frontier of ongoing political eruptions in places that, to my mind, are accidental nations. Places that were never quite ready to be on their own. I marvel at those around me, truly diligent in their work, yet daunted by the near insurmountable obstacles to their aspirations for a better tomorrow.

It serves to remind me of the privilege of choice, or at least a deeper respect for the fact that I have a choice. For many, our office is a refuge, the last preserve of a thin but tangible bond to their culture and country. There are those who may never return home again, or cannot easily see their families without placing either themselves or their loved ones at risk. And for those on the ground, many face dangerous choices each day. I am the expat, they are the migrant. Perhaps those terms are also anachronistic?

I think for anyone who calls themselves an expat these days it is likely a comfortable life. No more the vague and vaguely exotic dispatch that has you long separated from home and the life you left behind. Your friends and family merely face mastering time zones and the availability of WiFi in an effort to reach you, or you them.

The tech gods, to whom we all now must pray, have assured us of that, our collective privacy be damned. Whether lounging at a cafe or desperately trying to survive the terror of a deflating rubber raft off the coast of Greece, this reality is one of the great equalizers.

In Beirut, I joined my friends for a lovely dinner. It was one of those dinners where you speak of so many things that you forget to say in front of people you see more often. You slip into a language or frame of reference shared only by people who understand and how it influences your work. The little localized observations, the quirky oddities that have now become the norm, the fact that you are living in a place with such a churning and sometime tragic history. It isn’t your history but it surrounds you and has an impact on your perceptions about a place and the people you come to know. It leaves marks that only in time do you recognize as having changed you.

When I lived in Bosnia, it was just five years after the war. Whether I thought about it consciously or not, I cannot say, but I never asked the people I worked with about ‘their’ war, their experiences during the conflict. That said the war was always present and would pop out unexpectedly. One day while driving with a colleague from Sarajevo to Belgrade, we were driving through the mountains. I turned to him and asked if he knew how to ski. For the next several minutes he told me the most horrific story about surviving the early days of the war as a young boy, alone in a mountain cabin, waiting for his parents to come and find him as the world around him exploded. I still don’t know if he can ski.

Despite my relative sense of ease at mixing into a foreign environment, I also respond to moments that remind me of home. A song on the radio, a particularly good hamburger at an out of the way, hole in the wall or the weekly quiz night. In Prague, during the long, cold winter months, Mondays will find me at the local Irish pub, trying to remember who won the 1984 decathlon in what Northeast city. It is an odd touchstone that, for a few hours, serves to recharge my cultural sense of identity. Not necessarily only as an American but certainly a westerner. In the questions however, you see the kind of disproportionate influence that we, as the US, have had on quiz nights everywhere.

During dinner that last night in Lebanon, I discovered that yes, there are quiz nights in Beirut too. The teams are a bit fluid but that may be due to the somewhat fluid nature of the city’s media transients, freelancers all, their run bag always at the ready, the outburst of conflict representing the next assignment ever calling. Odd, this little tie that binds.

In Prague, as ever EU as it may be, stability is all. There are a few minor lapses in its complete conversion to becoming more Brooklyn than Brooklyn. Yes, the cafes are as hipster as you can get. Car shares, electric bikes and all the other modern detritus that makes for a borderless nomadic life, are all present and accounted for. It is a place both peaceful and stimulating. There is art, music and every place else you might want to travel to in Europe is right next door.

When I announced I was moving to Prague, many of my friends said I was being brave. I was mystified as to what act of bravery I was seemingly committing. I have come to realize that it was not where I was going but my willingness to go at all. In all of this however there is one glaring gap in my remarkable life abroad, I can find no steady supply of my favorite  peanut butter.

Indeed, I must truly be brave.

BIO: I am a journalist working, currently, in Prague. I have worked in television news and documentaries for the whole of my career. Adventure is a tricky word that means different things to different people. To pursue adventure in the modern vernacular is often ascribed to risky sports or going to personal extremes. For me, adventure is leading a life with an open mind about what may come next. This attitude has led me on wanderlust infused journeys, spiked with bouts of adrenaline and rich in random and fulfilling encounters. As a practicing journalist I see the world through the lens of curiosity.

PHOTO: from Wikipedia

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