Thursday, December 06, 2012

Christmas letter from Beirut, 1959

Mini-me and mini-Christmas tree 1959
Christmas time is here.  And I found among family mementos a Christmas newsletter written by my mother in December 1959/January 1960, when our family had moved to Beirut, Lebanon, for a glorious year.   I post it not to detail the minutiae of our family life, but as an archive of life in that era, certainly the early era of the Christmas newsletter.  And also?  Where I first learned French.

Younger readers may scratch their heads at the notion of a mimeo stencil required to make multiple copies of a missive.  These days even photocopying a newsletter -- or a newsletter itself --  seems so outdated, n'est-ce pas?  (And these photos were certainly not a part of the original newsletter.)

When a family with five children ages 5 through 12 picks up and moves half way around the world, I would say that it calls for a newsletter. A chronicle of expat life.  Then I wonder:  is this subtly what gave me the urge to re-live an expat experience?  And to write about it?  

I love the 1960's social norm of not writing about misfortunes (oops --  neglected to mention little Polly's two weeks in the hospital in Rome with pneumonia!?) Oh how times have changed!   Here's the letter.

Dear Friends,

What started out being a Christmas letter has ended up being a belated New Year’s message, and for this we apologize. Actually, we did mimeo a Christmas letter, but yours were the 15 or 20 envelopes we put aside because we wanted to write messages on the letters. In our own inimitable way, before we realized it, the letters were consumed and we didn’t even have a copy to make another stencil. So be it! Enough of apologia. You will get the more up-to-date news anyway.
Dad and Polly on board

The past five months have been the “pinch yourself to make sure it’s true” type. This has been a marvelous experience for us all and certainly one that we’ll never forget. Starting with the boarding of the “Bergensfjord” on August 8th right through Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Italy, Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Jordan we have been wide-eyed and incredulous, all the more so because we never dreamed this could happen to us. We only wish we could bottle all this and bring it home to share with you………..beautiful Scandinavia with its lovely countryside, handsome people, sumptuous meals, and abundance of flowers everywhere; Bavaria with Oberammergau….. the Passion Play anticipation shown on the bearded faces of the townsmen, the delicate woodcarvings, fairy tales painted in bold colors on the houses, and the magnificent rolling countryside; Austria with its unforgettable Tyrols right outside our window, folk dancing, The Achensee 3000 ft. up where we swam in 65 degree water, Peter in his leiderhosen and our girls in Tyrolean dresses………..; Italy, after a glorious trip over the Brenner Pass, with its host of churches, monuments, and fountains… plus the usual tourist attractions…. Not to mention “Chaiou, chaiou Bambino” played nightly outside our pensione windows….. sailing out to see the Straits of Messina go by. Greece was almost the high spot… a cloudless warm day with the Acropolis silhouetted against a deep blue sky…it was all we had anticipated and more…the Olympic Stadium, the King’s palace eve to seeing the changing of the guard….we hated to leave. A brief visit to Alexandria with the inevitable “Gullah-gullah” man on the dock to greet us… the museum, the catacombs, bazaars… and back to the ship.

And here we are in Beirut. Having just put down our roots, we will be loath to leave here in June, and hope to be able to return someday. This is a fascinating city and country…. A real meeting of Eastern and Western cultures. You can walk down any street and in one quick glance take in men in tarbushes and baggy pants…. Goat-herders with their flocks, a Cadillac or Chevrolet, veiled women… men with pushcarts of brioches or vegetables… women in mink stoles… and boys and girls alike dressed in their smocks with big white collars, on their way to school. The Lebanese people are kind, generous to a fault, volatile, argumentative, and the biggest bargainers in the world! The city with its souks (markets), mosques, flea-market, luxurious hotels, poverty, and beggars is one great conglomeration.  Beirut International Airport is the third largest in the world (next to New York and Frankfurt) and it is an exciting excursion to go out there and watch the big jets taking off for spots all over the world. The countryside here is incredibly beautiful! From our balcony we look out over the Mediterranean right across the street, and by turning our heads to the right we can see lovely snow-capped mountains. We haven’t yet been able to be really nonchalant about all this… and will miss it terribly.

Even our “routine” life isn’t routine here. Having to speak French to “Information” to get a telephone number; speaking spotty Arabic with our wonderful maid, Hania; eating new foods; getting the “bukra” attitude toward life (“bukra” means tomorrow!); and living in a wonderful apartment on the sea…. Now does this sound routine? The more mundane things include the children loving the American Community School; L enjoying his teaching and research; A tutoring 4 hours a day; the usual Brownies and Boy Scouts, etc., but life will never be the same again!
Skiing in Lebanon, 1960

We have crossed the mountains into Syria for a wonderful trip to Damascus where we saw so many things we have all read about since we were children… the “Street called Strait”…the window where St. Paul escaped… the Omayed Mosque… and many others. We came home laden with lovely silk [illegible] . We plan another trip In the spring.
Shawl made of Damascus silk, seen in photo at bottom

L has had a fascinating trip to Jordan. He saw Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and Amman, staying in the latter for 4 days with a Christian Arab family which made his trip. He even had an audience with King Hussein and has pictures to prove it! We plan to take the children to Jerusalem at Easter when it is a bit warmer.

We still have much of Lebanon to see. So far we have been to Byblos and to Baalbek, plus many lesser places close by, but are very anxious to get to Tripoli, Sidon, and Tyre. L also plans a trip to Ankarra, Turkey in the very near future. We have the traveling bug but good!

Our best trip so far, though, started on December 19th when we boarded a Viscount for a flight to Cairo. Exactly 1 hour and 15 min. later we landed at the Cairo Airport! We had an unbelievably good time there and could have easily stayed another week. Cairo was very reasonable… we seven stayed at a nice pension hotel for the equivalent of $11 a day, room and board, and the food was excellent and excellently served by a team of Sudanese in their red tarbushes and long white gallebeyas with the red cummerbunds. It was quite an experience. Of course, we had the customary camel rides at the Pyramids of Giza, saw the Sphinx, the Tomb of the Bulls at Sakarrah, the second Sphinx at Memphis, all of the lovely mosques, the Egyptian museum with all the contents of King Tut’s tomb, the Mousky bazaars, a boat trip around Gezirah Island in the Nile, and two visits with Egyptian friends in their homes which was great fun. The children were determined to get home for Christmas so we arrived back in Beirut on Christmas Eve and even had a big Christmas dinner for 14 the next day!
Expat night club life in Beirut, 1960

You can see that we are enjoying ourselves to the fullest. We have made many friends, both Lebanese and American, and it will be hard to leave them, too. We have even done quite a bit of night-clubbing which is most unusual for us… plus seeing an excellent “belly-dancer” just the other night who was a real artist.

All this description has been most inadequate but we hope we have conveyed some of our feeling and impression about this wonderful year. Our only regret is that all of you couldn’t have enjoyed it with us. We will most likely be unbearable to live with when we get back with our many slides and stories! Until then, we send you belated wishes for a very Happy New Year.  Inchallah! (God willing!)

Polly, Peter, Meg, Suzie, Johnny, L and A

. . . .

This post dedicated, with love, to the memory of my mother. (November 1923 - February 2012).  She's the beauty in the foreground of the nightclub photo.

p.s. And I was so glad to be able to re-visit my childhood memories a few years ago.


Sarah said...

Those were the days! What a fantastic experience.

Nora C said...

thank you for taking the time to post this. My family is Lebanese and its really interesting to travel back in time to see what Lebanon was like in 1960. I'm very happy to see that not too much has changed! Hope you and your family got a change to go back and visit. :)

Polly-Vous Francais said...

It was a remarkable experience!

Nora, I am the only one in my family who has returned to Beirut (5 years ago, in 2007), and I would love to live there again some day. A magical, enticing city.

Carrie said...

Polly, it is so lovely to see this, thank you for sharing. You inherited your mother's grace and eloquence with words.

marigami said...

Oh lucky you too! I had the opportunity to actyually leave some years in Beirut as a young child, before the first Civil War (before 1976 oops).And I do cherish the time I had there, to this beautiful country full of life and History. Since then Lebanon has always had a special place in my heart, in my mind and in my studies. Lebanese friends, lebanese food... Unfortunately I only went back for a -too- short journey in the recent years. I can say than before the Civil War Lebanon was really a dream to live in, but I may be biased as I was an expat thus being "protected" in a way. This is where I first started to learn arabic (although Mother refused to hear about it)and improved since then. French is already my mother tongue so... but lebanese accent is unique and so knowledgeable.

Gilbert said...

God, such a small internet world.
I just saw your blog and the night club shot, can you please let me know if you have anymore details on that shot because this is mom the second from the right in the shot.

Thank you


Polly-Vous Francais said...

Dear Gilbert,
There are no notes on the back of the photo, but I imagine our parents were friends. Did you go to ACS? Or did you live in AUB housing? I was so little at the time, and don't remember everyone, but my sisters might. Pettingills, I think? If so, I remember your mom was so beautiful.

Amy E. Robertson said...

I would love to include your skiing picture in a blog post I'm writing about skiing in Lebanon. My site is Of course I would be happy to credit you and link back to this post. Let me know if that would be okay.

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