(AKA the Beirut Scooby Doo Gang. Can’t imagine the trip without any one of these people.)
The great friend who collects art and people, the dentist/ friendtist who fixed my tooth. And, our fearless leader. There’s a reason you don’t hear about scaredy-cat leaders. It takes a big, swinging set to wrangle a group of people and say, “Tomorrow, we’re going here and doing this.”
All those personalities and conflicting wants and needs and dislikes and allergies and picky-pickies and “I don’t get up before 9am”-ies. Yeah, that last one is me.
Avo is a hero of hospitality. He picks up the check when he has no reason to and always mixes friends together. If you say let’s go to dinner, he’ll ask if he can invite so-and-so. Which triggers our stranger danger, but then we end up with new friends.
Avo likes nice things, beautiful places, and the best food. He doesn’t settle for crap. He will change his hotel room if he saw a better one. In fact, when we checked in at the hotel, the manager told us, “Avo’s upstairs switching rooms.” And, like all people with great taste, Avo watches Bravo shows. He takes turns laughing at Lisa Rinna with me and whatever artist Gagosian Gallery just acquired with Steven.
Armenian Lebanese, Avo came to the US with his family at age 14 after a bomb went off feet away from him down the block from their apartment in Beirut. He learned English from watching Three’s Company and The Fresh Prince.
A bunch of us were together at his and Manuel’s beautiful house in the Hamptons last summer when he said, “Hey, let’s all go to Beirut for my birthday.” And then he made it happen.
There’s no one way to describe Manuel. He’s Colombian. Brooding. Hilarious. Dark. Unfiltered. Taunting. Moisturized and sunscreened. Dressed in Margiela and carrying Bottega. Self-described schoolboy and housewife. A shape shifter. A button pusher. Scorpio. Confrontational, but not when he’s being “The New Manuel.” The new Manuel is chill. Sometimes he is Old Manuel. He has traveled the world “because I cahn.” He writes plays and poetry. He acts. In his accent reduction class, he learned a technique called “the Pinky Push.” You push your pinky against your tongue while talking. He reports, in an accent that he swears got thicker from the class, “The tongue always wins.”
His other quotable hits include, “Do you want to get arrested to-day?” and “Good bye. Do not invite me to your house and serve me Whole Foods cheecken.”
If you mistakenly sit in the seat behind the front passenger in their Tesla, he will tell you to move over. “That is where the Patrona sits.” He will also keep the car doors open in their Delorean-like wing positions and yell to passersby, “YES THAT’S RIGHT I HAVE A TESLA!”
Pre-Avo, he worked at Starbucks. He could now be running Starbucks, but he resisted being promoted because he just wanted to make cappuccinos. He loathes poor customer service and gets into arguments with staffers at LT Burger in Sag Harbor, Best Buy in Laguna Beach, and security at JFK. He speaks softly. He will compliment you and berate you in the same sentence. He used to be a gymnast and has very good body control. He sings opera. When he sings in public in Beirut, you get fooled every time into thinking it’s the Call to Prayer.
He is equal parts Lisa Vanderpump, Marlon Brando, and Dennis the Menace.
In the van, he took many picture of Steven’s bald spot.
(“Steven, this is what I have had to look at sitting behind you.”)
Bettina is from Alto Adige in Italy. It’s near Austria. She speaks Italian, German, English, and I think French. Probably also Spanish. Portuguese? Probably. She produces fashion and commercial shoots. She works hard. She doesn’t eat meat but she can metabolize anything. Naturally svelte. Likes to do things with people as much as I like to do things alone. Warm and sensitive and curious. #1 phrase on our trip, after “Ugh I ate too much hummus again” was probably “Where’s Bettina?” Answer: “Back there, reading the sign.” Bettina consumes the whole guide book and goes through it with a yellow highlighter. She wanders into every church and mosque. She wants to use the audio-tour headset. She says yes to the lurking “professional guide, ” some rando with a mustache, and ducks with him into a museum nobody noticed, to leave us asking, “Where’s Bettina?”
Meanwhile, I’ve watched every episode of Girls and Vanderpump Rules. So.
(Actually, they go by SaraAndMichelle. But the pic’s in reverse order.) I group them together because they’re always together. A truly married couple. Every time I passed them on the plane, they were holding hands or sleeping on each other’s shoulder even though the flight was empty and they could’ve each taken a whole row.
Sara writes cookbooks for a celebrity I won’t name, because maybe she doesn’t want this to be one of the top posts about her on Google. (As I have a delusional moment about my SEO strength.)
Michelle is a broadway actress. If you meet her, you can immediately picture her on stage. She has a clear voice that’s also perfect for cartoons.
They brought huge bags, even though they’re the types who’d bring small ones. They’re not imposers. But they’re beautiful dressers, which I guess won out. They always look the way I want to look. I wish I were wearing those pants. I wish I could pull off that head wrap.
They’re the perfect travel partners. Fun AF. Game for anything, even if they pretend (to keep me, the complainer, company) that they hate the idea. They can listen enthusiastically to the B&B owner’s life story, or snicker with me in the back of the van. They swing both ways. (In that sense.)
When we were told, “There’s a sea view room and a garden room, you guys decide who gets what,” they raised their hands for the lowly garden room. Their shower was pretty much one with the toilet.
They drink wine and cocktails like they’re in a remake of Leaving Las Vegas, but never seem to get drunk.
He takes the best photos. He’s willing to go along with whatever the group wants, even if it’s not what he wants.
He’s the greatest and the cutest. People ask, “Does he know about everything?” Yes. And he can talk about anything. You always want to be at the end of the table where he’s sitting. Or at least, I do.
(He’s my husband, so I might be biased.)
One travel flaw: he was accused of always being the last one down when we were all meeting up in the lobby at an appointed time. But that was my fault. I hogged the bathroom and left him 10 minutes to shower and dress every night.
I’m a pain in the ass. Traveling with a group doesn’t bring out my best.
On a bike trip after 9th grade, the trip leader, Randy — a 6-foot-7 guy we called “Fig Nuts” either for something he said or because of the fit of his bike shorts, I forget which — said to me, “Laura, you’re always complaining.”
I thought I’d grown out of that but maybe only because I live a life where I get my way.
I have inconvenient phobias. I’m afraid of waking up tired, of being cold and wet, of feeling constricted, and of consuming more daily calories than I burn like some people are afraid of spiders.
I was resisting Avo’s plans from my first glimpse at his spreadsheet. Do we have to leave at 9am? It’s vacation, I need sleep. Do we have to go see Roman ruins? We’ve all seen those. We’ve seen the ones in Rome. Do we have to have a sit-down lunch every day? I’m going to get fat. Can’t we have more downtime? I need to walk around by myself. When’s the part where we just explore the city? Do we have to go see the Famous Cedars of Lebanon? I don’t care about trees. Does anyone else care about trees? Wouldn’t everyone rather see buildings and stores?
At some point, I stopped fighting and decided to enjoy the trip Avo had put together. Partly because Steven told me to. He was right.
Group travel has its ups and downs. You have to do what the group wants to do, and when. On the other hand, you do things you’d never normally have done. And you don’t have to look at maps or do research or make choices or hear from your husband that you’re a terrible navigator and would you get glasses, already.
Arrived at hotel with Steven, Sara and Michelle. On the way from the airport, one of us spotted our hotel from the highway. When you see your hotel by the side of a highway, your heart sinks. But it turned out to be a cute hotel in a pretty great location. You just had to go through a crappy underpass to walk to downtown, which is what I did as soon as we got settled.
I always do that, first thing, while Steven plops on the hotel bed and watches CSI or some other crime show in a foreign language.
Came back in time to join the group for drinks on the 10th floor, where the lounge had a sunset view.
We made our first toast to Avo’s birthday. (Every meal of our trip began with a toast to Avo’s birthday.)
Sara and Michelle had gifts for everyone: group t-shirts.
Michelle gets credit for “WE PUT THE US IN HUMMUS.” She’s a one-liner and wordplay master.
Then, walked to the insanely styled-out home of a friend of a friend’s. Our hostess wore a chic velvet caftan and heels (wish I had a photo) and had put out a whole spread. Her bulldog begged for our meat pies.
Next, Mayrig, an Armenian restaurant which we had an impossible time finding. Our friend Nayla stopped a cabdriver to ask directions. He said in Arabic, “May your mother-in-law drop dead,” which was either supposed to be a curse or a blessing.
First round of way too much food. I never learned my lesson: all the stuff they bring out first — the hummus, the fatoush (salad), the eggplant, the tabouleh — is just the beginning. Every time I’d already eaten my weight in baba ganoush, Avo would say, “You guys, slow down. There’s more.” There’s always more. Duck eggs, kibbe (balls of meat), little pizza things, sauces to put on it all. And it’s always too late to tell me.
[Note: I haven’t figured out the difference between Armenian and Lebanese food, except when Lebanese people hear you ate Armenian food, they say, “Oh. Very heavy/ salty. Drink lots of water.”]
A friend of Avo’s who joined us had arranged a birthday surprise for Avo: a male belly dancer.
After that went on way too long, I was saved by the cake.
At my begging, Avo moved departure time to 10:30. We got in the van for the first of many times (“same seats!”) and drove to Baalbeck, site of the ruins which Avo promised would be worth it. The 1.5-hour drive took us close to Syria and deep into Hezbollah territory. I admit I didn’t know precisely what Hezbollah does, but it felt intimidating and militaristic.
From the van, Steven spotted the first of what would be rows of gun stores. Then, first person we saw at the ruins was a kid with a toy rifle. We also passed a large mural of a bloody, dripping knife but nobody was fast enough to get a picture.
The ruins, BTW, were totally worth it. And very good for selfies.
Turns out ancient stone casts flattering reflective light.
As with any spot, it was also ideal for Manuel to vogue and make the most of his versatile built-in-mullet hat —
Which can go “Infidel…”
or “Disturbed nephew we took out of the home for a day in the fresh air.”
Dinner was at Liza, an ornately hip restaurant in our hotel’s ritzy neighborhood (a block away, you can’t see or hear the highway). When we had trouble finding it, a gent you’d describe as “well to do,” or cast in a movie as the owner of the railroad or the bank, pointed us to the right street. We took a fancy little elevator up to the restaurant.
Every room in Liza was different. The food was incredible.
Best thing about Lebanese food in a group is, they put down two of everything so there’s no fighting over food. (I consistently polished off the eggplant from both sides of the table.) Also, we barely had to look at a menu the whole trip. Avo ordered the greatest hits, which is what we wanted. Though Steven did go rogue and order lamb carpaccio, which only he and I ate. They were missing out.
These desserts win Best of Trip. Besides containing no rosewater — which tainted almost all the desserts we had and made them taste, in Steven’s words, like “licking grandma” — the dome thing, called Ossmaliyeh, was filled with way-too-eatable mascarpone, and the rice pudding came with thick caramel sauce and ground pistachios.
9 am departure so we could have menoushe, these special bread things, for breakfast before seeing a castle, then lunch, then the Famous Cedars. I struggled with this plan. Too early, too much food, no downtime. But it was all pretty worth it. Mostly. (More on the Cedars later.)
At our menoushe stop, we took pics of the pretty town square and bought dried fruits and nuts from the back of a guy’s car. I took home the bag of figs. There was one bag of mystery nuts that smelled like dirty butt. I don’t know who ended up with those. Steven explored a celebrity piano bar.
Then, on to an Ottoman Palace……
Where Steven began a photo study called “Manuel in the Hole.”
Then Deir Al Qamar, a b&b/restaurant started by a restaurant originally in the city. A farm-to-table joint with brightly colored rooms.
And, of course, more food.
Avo and Manuel took a cab back to the city — Avo for business, Manuel for spa — and left us to continue to the Famous Cedars of Lebanon.
We tried to be impressed, but we’d been expecting giant trees we’d need 10 people to circle, and you could get your whole hand around any one of these.
So yeah, we saw some pine trees. They were a-ight.
Steven later googled and reported that the actual Famous Cedars, as compared to just Some Cedars, were up north.
Manuel said, “I knew. I was laughing at you all when I was at the Four Seasons getting my massage.”
Our driver, who liked to tell us obvious things like, “The traffic goes the opposite way on the other side of the road,” kept saying something about there being honey for sale at the gift shop. He didn’t want us to nap on our way home. He blasted the air conditioning and the radio as soon as we’d all dozed off.
Dinner was in Bourj Hammoud, the Armenian ghetto where Avo grew up.
He showed us the building his family still owns, with the sign of his dad’s coffee grinder company, Asco, on the front. He also showed us the spot where he’d been standing at age 14 when a bomb went off feet away from him, seriously injured his friend but not him, and sent his family packing for California.
The restaurant, Varjouj, is one of those gritty places with plastic on the table and 20 seats. It’s impossible to get in, but Avo’s family is royalty there. Avo’s cousins joined us. There were people at the other tables throwing down serious money.
As usual, there was MORE after we’d stuffed our faces with the course I’ll call “hummus and friends.” That more included frogs’ legs and song birds. Tiny birds that you’re supposed to eat in one bite. I couldn’t do it. I’m glad I didn’t, because I could barely choke down the bite I took. A whole bird comes with its organs inside. Mad liver taste. The frogs’ legs were delicious.
Avo went out and got fresh Kenefe, and brought it back to us for breakfast at the hotel. Melted cheese with some sweet breading around it, in more bread, and then you pour honey water over it. It’s the Lebanese version of having cake for breakfast. I snagged this “making of” video from Avo:
This was our one day in the city. Wandering around design shops, that kind of thing.
A delicious, refined 5-course event that included filet mignon and some french fries that were in the form of pillows. I said I’d just have a bite of each thing but it was too good to stop. So much for snack.
We rolled our fat fucking selves back into the van and took off for Batroun (the beach) where we were spending the weekend at a sea-facing b&b up the mountain.
Stopped on the way to see art at the Aishti (pronounced like “iced tea” but with a speech impediment) Foundation.
We got to our b&b, Beit al Batroun, in late afternoon. Bettina, who’d woken up sick that day, was already there resting. The place was adorable and the owner, Colette, was lovely, but I freaked instantly that the heater in our room wasn’t working and there was no shower curtain (as Steven put it, the shower was “not quite articulated”) and that we’d be eating in a dining room that was open to the outside. I was cold. I had to whisper to myself, “It’s glamping. It’s glamping.”
It turned out to be a perfect place to spend a rainy weekend. There was a fire and a swing in the common room, homemade food, and a bulldog named Chloe who spent most of her time snoring. Manuel didn’t like her because she seemed depressed and lacking in ambition.
We’d all spent the night listening to a comically loud thunderstorm. After breakfast, we drove to Tripoli to see the unfinished International Fair by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Construction on it halted in 1975 at the outbreak of the civil war and was never restarted.
We dashed in and out of the rain and hopped down from scary, slippery platforms to get from building to building. Steven made/ helped me jump down from one where he’d just fallen on his back. Not encouraging.
Manuel snapped the winning picture (I’m not in it, I was the last to climb up to the top of that structure):
Lunch (was supposed to be a snack) was at the Ixsir winery. After running in from the downpour escorted by a staffer and Manuel taking turns with umbrellas, we dried off over a bunch of wine and oven-cooked kebabs. The sun came out for a minute. Manuel made a mustache out of halvah.
We were so disgusted with ourselves and sick of food that we kind of skipped dinner. We went to a beer place and shared nachos and wings, which don’t count because we ate with our hands and no one had a plate.
DAY 6 – LAST DAY
More ruins. But they were by the sea, which makes anything worthwhile. Manuel, my fellow non-sightseer, kept grabbing my arm and whispering, “This is so fascinating, I’m so glad we’re here. I can’t get enough.” Bettina, who read all the signs, informed us that Byblos is where they invented the alphabet. Which makes sense.
Steven got a pic of me looking regal (or stoned) and Manuel looking dead.
Then, we took a break at a touristy cafe in the “souk” and use their wifi. We had no 3G in Beirut, so we were always wifi hungry.
Lunch was at Chez Sami, a high-end fish restaurant on the water where you pick and weigh your fish.
Before it came to the table, we did the usual, “We’re not hungry, so we’ll eat a year’s worth of fatoush (salad), hummus, and baba ganoush and then hate ourselves.”
Then Avo made us stop at Sea Sweet, a chain with a name that makes me think of tuna, for ice cream. He made us.
On to the Caves of Jeitta, where I had no desire to go because it was about to pour and they sounded already cold and wet. Also, my stomach was gurgly.
The thunderstorm started as soon as we got in the cable car. Steven and I were in one alone with Manuel, who mooned the other four behind us and rocked the car evilly as I rocked myself like Rain Man saying, “This is not a good idea.” I thought about the moment you know you’re going to die, as the cable car detaches and plummets.
The caves were creepy and primitive and incredible. You see in there where all scifi comes from. The formations are pinkish and slimy. Some look like morel mushrooms. Some look like intestines standing up on end. You hear water dripping and rushing in different places.
They have a strict no-phone policy, probably to prevent people from falling into the abyss while taking a selfie. So the only photo I got was this lousy 7-Up ad.
Our flight was at 5am, which meant leaving the b&b at 2am, which meant late dinner and then a weird nap. We went to another fish place down at the beach. The family who ran it obviously lived there, because when we walked in, we saw a bored teenage girl lounging with her legs wrapped in a purple blanket inside a glass-windowed room jutting into the dining room. Steven thought she was supposed to be a mermaid.
We weren’t hungry and then we ate too much, for the last time in Beirut.
DAY SEVEN – FLY HOME
I have no photos of our trip back, because why take pictures in an airport. But let me paint a picture for you of security connecting in Frankfurt, where the bags on the conveyor belt either ride straight to you – GOOD – or suddenly jerk to the side to be inspected. BAD.
Mine did that, and Manuel, waiting behind me, sighed, “I need to teach you how to pack.” (Then his were jerked to the side. We didn’t see him again for a while. He has a history of being stopped by airport officials.)
The German security guy riffled cruelly through all my belongings. Thimble-sized shampoo samples. Bag of figs. Toothpaste. Tampons. Tampons. Again, back to the tampons. He ran his fingers through them over and over like they were diamonds, or a maiden’s hair. I tried not to cringe too visibly at his voice. For ancestral reasons, I have a hard time with the sound of any German authority, especially one scolding me. He kept holding things up and saying, “Zis needs to be out in za open. Also zeez. Zeez should have been out in za open.” That included a teeny weeny sample tube of acne cream, a solid Sugar lip balm by Fresh, and my Kindle. Who still asks you to take out your Kindle?
Manuel was led off two more times by security officials wearing bright green gloves, including at Global Entry in JFK. When we got in our Uber, Avo was waiting for him to be let out of some curtained area.
And that was our Beirut trip.
I’ll end with a #findmanuel group photo.
Thanks to Sara and Steven for a lot of my photos. I forget which ones, but probably if it’s good, it’s one of theirs. I stole a couple from Avo, too. And Manuel (who has no internet presence) via Avo. And Michelle and Bettina.
And thanks forever to Avo for putting together an unforgettable trip, for showing us where you grew up, and for insisting we see all the things. Oh, and Happy Birthday!