Beirut

Something happened to me this weekend. I wanted to come home and upload a hundred pictures and tell you all every detail about my trip to Beirut. But I can’t, because something happened to me, and whatever it is I want to keep it to myself.

I keep staring at pictures of myself wondering who this person is that I’m looking at. I sincerely don’t recognize her. She’s happy and I swear you can practically see love oozing out of her skin. I don’t know her well enough to introduce you to her yet. So I’m keeping her between me and the people I love the most. Because frankly I’m afraid to scare her off.

Beirut was incredible, I can tell you that much. The city is intoxicatingly beautiful  and chaotic and some how fast and slow at once. I fell in love with it at first sight. Its quirky neighborhoods, the mix of old and new, the people who make life move at their own pace. Old men sitting on plastic chairs on rickety balconies or in front of old storefronts. The chatty taxi drivers…even the ones who try to rip you off. Breakfast by the sea, getting lost for hours while wandering through skinny streets. Fishermen with backs permanently bronzed by decades in the sun. Bracing myself as waves rush toward me, holding tightly, hiding my face at the last moment because I’m a chicken. Mosques and churches singing praises to God through prayer and music…the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. Overwhelming. Sunsets and cocktails and the best shawarma I’ve ever tasted. I’m still trying to catch my breath. And that’s all I’m telling you.

Here are a few pictures to enjoy, and don’t forget to check the Facebook page for a couple videos.

Sea, mountains, city. Absolutely breathtaking.

Sea, mountains, city. Absolutely breathtaking.

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Old mosque, new mosque. And right next to this garden...lots of military guys holding serious looking automatic weapons.

Old mosque, new mosque. And right next to this garden…lots of military guys holding serious looking automatic weapons.

Mosque, church, mosque.

Mosque, church, mosque.

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The indescribably beautiful St. George Cathedral

The indescribably beautiful St. George Cathedral

Roman bath ruins and the famous Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque

Roman bath ruins and the famous Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque

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The outside view of the St. George Cathedral

Church right next to the Al-Amin mosque, also beautiful, can't remember the name.

Church right next to the Al-Amin mosque, also beautiful, can’t remember the name.

Martyr's Square

Martyr’s Square

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Got in trouble after taking this because apparently that’s a police station on the left.

And once again, the sea <3

And once again, the sea <3

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More on the Ritz

In my last post about brunch at the Ritz, I was so excited to share all of the details about the food and amazing service that I totally forgot to tell you about their new app!

There is a newly launched application that allows you to design, edit, and create your own travel posters, complete with Instagram-like filters and custom city stickers.

Check out the poster I made!

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The app is available for iPhone and Android users, easy to find, a breeze to use, and best of all…it’s FREE!

I’m headed to Beirut this weekend, but next week when I get back I’ll be headed to the Ritz again for their Customer Appreciation event, so I’m looking forward to sharing more pictures with you soon!

 

Brunch at The Ritz

Let me start this post of by saying something completely shocking. I’m starting to really enjoy life in Riyadh. For real. Every time I hang out with B I tell her how I’m sure that no one else in the world enjoys life to the extent that we do. Somehow in the midst of the most undesirable circumstances, I’ve learned to love my life. And life, it seems, is faithfully loving me back.

This weekend I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh to experience their famous Friday brunch! I’m a pretty down to Earth kind of girl, so the finer things in life usually don’t pique my interest, but having just been told about how fabulous the Ritz is by a reader-friend a couple weeks ago, I couldn’t let this opportunity pass me by. Besides, Riyadh isn’t famous for its things to do, so sign me right up for a visit to the high life for a day! I invited my friend Kelly, soon-to-be sleep-deprived first-time mommy, to join me, arranged a ride, and set off on my way.

I was blown away before we even entered the gates. From the opposite side of the highway, I worried that my GPS was mistaken. That can’t be a hotel…that’s a palace. Even the driver was confused as I guided him down the road to the grand entrance. He parked on the side of the road, confused, until I told him “please drive inside.”

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From the moment we entered the gates, every member of the Ritz-Carlton staff was cheerful, welcoming, and attentive. If this had been my first visit to Saudi Arabia, I would have thought that all those stories about Saudi hospitality were spot-on. Living here in the land of Customer No-Service, being greeted by a staff that was warm and kind was incredibly refreshing.

The lobby was absolutely breathtaking. The decor was tastefully opulent with a Middle Eastern touch. A table in the center of the room included a large display of fresh flowers which filled the massive space with a smell so sweet and reminiscent of summertime back home that I joked with Kelly that I’d probably cry about it.

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After we’d taken in the lobby, Kelly and I were guided to Al Orjouan where the host kindly gave us a tour of the many sections of the buffet before showing us to our table.

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The restaurant offers meals other than Friday brunch. The prices are steep, but the experience is worth it.

As soon as we sat down, we were offered a selection of mocktails. We both chose the pomegranate mojitos because as we’ve learned, if there’s one thing Riyadh does right, it’s mojitos of all kinds. We then discussed a game plan and set off to try the breakfast offerings first. There were dates, fresh fruits, nuts, cereals, yogurt, pancakes, waffles, and cheeses, as well as hot items such as hash browns, sausages, and Eggs Benedict. I found the hot breakfast items to be underwhelming with exception to the foul, or fava beans dip. On the plus side, when Kelly didn’t find the scrambled eggs she was looking for, she let our waiter know and the chef whipped some up for us personally.

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Kelly's such a great model!

Kelly’s such a great model!

After the breakfast portion of our brunch, we got our bellies ready for some serious lunching. We started out with the soup and salad station, the largest and, in my opinion, best section of the entire buffet. There were tons of options available and I liked everything I tried, my favorites being the lentil salad and kidney bean salad. I was convinced for a while that I could indeed accomplish my dream of liking vegetables and even someday being a vegetarian after all.

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We set out next to try some of the made-to-order foods. There was Chinese, complete with Peking duck and sir fry, fresh Sushi, and a pasta bar. Our first stop was at the Chinese station. This was another personal favorite because in addition to offering tasty food, the chefs offered friendly chatter and a personal fire show! If you’ve not seen the video yet, go check it out on my Facebook page.

My exact words to them: "Smile, this is going on the internet!"

My exact words to them: “Smile, this is going on the internet!”

While we waited for our stir fry to cook, Kelly also ordered some sushi. I’d never tried sushi before since the idea of raw fish turns my tummy, but since she ordered an avacado roll, I went for it. I’m here to tell the world once and for all that I don’t care how trendy it is, I do not like sushi. Kelly said it was good, so you’ll have to take her word for it.

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After reminding ourselves and each other that we could NOT fill up on stir fry because we still had so much food to try, we treated ourselves to some spinach and ricotta tortellini with a combo of alfredo and marinara sauces. That was another dish that we both had to pry ourselves away from because you really can’t go wrong when it comes to pasta drenched in creamy, cheesy goodness.

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At this point, an hour and a half into our gastronomical marathon, I doubted my ability to eat anything else. We both took some time to compose ourselves and let our tummies settle before heading off to check out the main course selections. Fish, lamb, beef, and chicken were all served in Middle Eastern and Indian dishes. Although it all looked and smelled delicious, we both decided to skip it and head for the desert tables. There was, after all, a chocolate fountain. And one does not pass up a chocolate fountain in favor of actual food.

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There were three large tables of dessert offerings. From traditional Middle Eastern desserts, to pastries, to the richest and sweetest warm chocolate brownies I’ve ever eaten, there is something for everyone with a sweet tooth. I selected a few items from the displays, got a scoop of pomegranate-passion fruit sorbet, and then headed to the chocolate fountain. Everything was incredible, but that chocolate-covered marshmallow was life changing. Kelly and I were both rendered speechless.

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During our two hours at Al Orjouan, I was surprised to see so many families with children. I had chosen not to bring my daughter along because I didn’t think such a fancy place would be child-friendly, but I’m happy to say I was wrong. Not only did all of the kids we saw enjoy eating in the dining room, they also had the option of hanging out in the Kids’ Club downstairs, which also had a mini buffet set up for the kids to eat from. We did get a personal tour of the Kids’ Club, but I didn’t think to take a picture of it.

On the way out we took some time for more pictures and made a vow to do it again sometime.

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Overall the experience was amazing and it’s something I’ll not soon forget. If you’re lucky enough to be in Riyadh and looking for a place to treat yourself, your friends, or your significant other while also making some great memories, the Ritz is definitely a place you should go!

A New Normal

Most days the fact that I live in Saudi slips my mind. My life here has become normal. A new normal. It’s normal to have to rinse the dust out of my bathtub every morning. It’s normal to wait for a driver or hail a cab. I no longer convert Riyals to Dollars in my mind. And it no longer strikes me as odd to speak to a pair of eyes instead of an entire face. But once in a while something so Saudi will happen that I remember where I live.

On the morning of Eid Al Adha, I set out on the five minute walk from my apartment to The Mr’s house to help with dividing and cleaning the five sheep to be sacrificed. The wind was blowing softly and the sun was comfortably warm. The streets, usually filled with cars honking and engines revving, were empty and quiet. A neighbor ran across the street with his thobe hiked up and folded like a towel around his waist, his pants stained with rusty-colored blood. Streams of blood tinged water flowed from under front gates and into the streets. And then the icing on the cake…about nine grown men wrestling a sheep in the middle of the street.

The butchers never showed up on the first day of Eid, so the sheep lived for an extra day in the back yard and early on the second morning of Eid, I trekked back over to The Mr’s house after an urgent call from my daughter letting me know the sacrifice had begun and there was only ONE auntie there to help out. I hadn’t seen my sister in law in the better part of a year, so we did some much needed catching up over giant trays of internal organs. She talked about her driver drama (someone always has it) and I talked about how well my new job is going. She sliced lungs and I chopped livers. Our hands were bloody.

Soon the kitchen was filled with sisters and their kids. We gave anatomy lessons and there were plenty of jokes about testicles and debate on whether or not sperm were actually still inside the testicles. Kids were squealing from another room as they watched one of the butchers wrangle the final sheep. Soon enough the men brought in the quartered sheep carcasses. Right there on the luxury kitchen island with a stone top lay the still warm bodies of several sheep which we then divided, bagged, and sent off to various family members and friends.

I took a portion of freshly sacrificed lamb for my friend B and walked back to my house, laughing about the normalcy of the oddities of the day. That night I gave her some lamb, she gave me some camel, and we dined on some camel stew her husband had made for his friends before her driver took me home for the night.

Life here is so weird, but so normal now. It’s got to say something about the strength of the human spirit. My life has been completely flipped upside down in the past three years, but I’ve managed to end up right side up and happy here in Saudi, sometimes to the point that it takes the most outrageous things to help me to remember that I’m here. I’m not recommending this place to anyone in my situation, but maybe offering a reminder to those who are in the thick of their own life-flipping crises. It gets better. You might even feel normal again someday. Just wait and see.

Memory Lane

It’s holiday time around here. Holidays are always hard for me, whether they’re American holidays or Saudi holidays. I miss my family terribly. I feel alone and I typically do a lot of crying. So for this particular holiday, since I’m off work and I’m fresh out of family to spend the days with, I’ve been using my time wisely and cleaning. Friday morning I set out to clear the clutter and ended up taking a walk down memory lane.

When I moved from the big house to my teeny apartment, I made an effort to pare down my belongings and only take what was necessary and/or sentimental. I did a great job at the necessary part, but I have boxes of things that were probably sentimental 15 years ago and now need serious purging. Apparently I’m an emotional hoarder, and going through those boxes was like being caught in an emotional rip tide.

I found a note in my Senior memories book that is evidence that I’ve completed all of my major life goals that I had when I was 17.
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I found the ticket stub for my first date with The Boy…in 1998. What?! Movies used to cost $6.50?? I was 15. We saw Psycho. Who keeps a movie ticket stub for 16 years?
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I found the ticket to my Senior Prom!
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I found evidence of the time I didn’t have a costume to wear for Halloween, so I went as a person who just got out of the shower, complete with a loofah (not pictured for drink holding reasons). I still have that blue towel which speaks volumes about my ability to get my money’s worth out of just about anything.
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I found a photo collage of the time my friends and I went stag to a homecoming dance. I’ve never found an old picture where I wasn’t sporting a giant, cheesy smile. Chris is the one in the blue dress…we really have been “Best Friends Forever”
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I found the key to my old apartment, complete with a Kroger Plus Card and a leather key chain that I paid way too much money for at an amusement park with The Mr’s name burned into it.
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I found the CD holder from my old car, complete with a Boyz II Men CD…from 1994.
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I found the paper where The Mr. taught me how to write my name in Arabic just after we first met. And how to say I love you. And something presumably x-rated.
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I even found the boarding passes from our first flight to Riyadh!

I don’t know why I’ve kept all of these things, and I especially don’t know why I felt the need to drag them with me to Saudi Arabia twice, but I’m glad I did. It’s great to look back at the various chapters of my life, and going through all of my old memories reminds me of just how far I’ve come and how much I’ve grown as a person.

I’m keeping pictures, but everything else has gone to the trash. I don’t think I’ll find a use for Christmas cards from 2001 or my membership card to the under 21 dance club I used to frequent as a high school student. My room is much less cluttered now and so is my mind. Now onto my daughter’s room to see what treasures I’ll find!

Best Tuesday Ever

Tuesday I got paid. I finished my first month of work (hard to believe it’s been a month already!) and received my first salary. And Tuesday I paid my first ever rent payment. In cash. The cash I braved a dramatic, tightly packed elevator ride to withdraw. I took that cash, half of my salary, and put it in an envelope and I paid. my. rent. I wish I could adequately describe how amazing that felt. I haven’t paid my own rent  since before I met The Mr. And paying it here after living on his and his family’s generosity feels incredible. I also paid my phone bill, and took my kid out for dinner.

Wanna know what else happened on Tuesday? A few months back I was asked to write a piece for Good Housekeeping Middle East and Tuesday I received an email letting me know that it’s in the October issue. It is officially October and I’m apparently a published writer. I cried at least 3 times in 2 1/2 hours about it. First I cried happy tears, then “I don’t even have anyone to celebrate with” tears a couple times. I’m proud of that piece though so I made the best of it and celebrated with myself and with friends via Whatsapp and Facebook. I’m kind of a writer, you guys. Wow. I’m not saying you should definitely buy a copy and then have this page professionally framed, but that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

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So, so jealous of that typewriter.

 

What’s that? You’d like to hear more about my day? You’re such good listeners! Last week I asked my employer if they would be willing to take over my sponsorship. I explained my situation without crying to HR, she said she’d talk it over with the powers that be, and a few days later I received my answer…yes. Wait…what?! They said yes. Paperwork will be started after the upcoming Eid holiday and if all goes well I could be an official ex-wife soon. It’s outrageous. It’s like I’ve been walking through a dark tunnel for so long that I forgot that there’s supposed to be a light at the end of it…and I’m kind of confused about the light now. I am full of mixed emotions. I am anxious to get on with my life minus a husband, but so nervous about the great big world of unknowns. What if I get fired? Can I get kicked out of the country now? So many new questions, so much uncharted territory and I am freaking out a little bit. Freaking out with a smile though.

Oh, I’m not done yet. After Tuesday there was Wednesday.

On Wednesday an interview I did for Expat Blog was posted because Under the Abaya was chosen as their blog of the month. Yay! In case you didn’t notice the new badge over on the right hand column, check it out!!

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On Wednesday I also booked a plane ticket for Beirut. I’m totally serious. More to come on that soon!

They say when it rains it pours, but most people usually only say that about crappy times. I am beginning to think that it also applies to the good stuff, you guys. What do you think?

Banking and Blogging

I left work an hour early today, at 3 o’clock, in order to have time to make it to the bank before they close for the eid break. I arrive at 3:10 pm, just in time for them to close for prayer. It’s currently 3:40pm, I’ve lost all patience. I always have a running dialogue in my head. Sometimes it even comes out as words and I sit back horrified at myself and my absence of a filter. Anyway, allow me to share my thoughts with you, the world, as I wait in my first attempt at live blogging.
Please stop sighing loudly and saying astaghfirullah.

Sometimes I wonder if women in waiting rooms are in fact in labor with the amount of supplicating to the Creator they do.

Not everyone wants to hear that ridiculous chime every time you get a new whatsapp message. Put that shit on vibrate.

Stop breathing on me. Please.

Could they have crammed any more chairs into this closet we are waiting in?

Pretty sure I’m getting a new bank.

Why does a lab coat allow you to forgo an abaya? I should have been a doctor.

If I hear “ana ta’baana” one more time….

It’s 2014…we cover our coughs.

We are not all fitting in that elevator.

Omg everyone got in. We are for sure over the 9 persons/695kg limit.

Fun fact: elevator etiquette is the same here…get in, don’t talk, look at the floor.

Omg it is stuck. The elevator is stuck and we are hanging in mid air.

Now the girl next to me has started dramatically wailing…

Not kidding. For real stuck in an elevator.

We are out…praise the lawd.

Omg a stampede for the take a number machine.

I may never take another elevator in in my life.

Thankfully the ladies are nice and helpful today.

The banker helping me is rocking the hell out of an embroidered white blazer.

I have a headache now.

55 mins to take out money and change my phone number.

Taking the stairs down and walking home. Not tempting fate.