Wherever you decide to study abroad, it is up to you to make that city feel like home. One of the reasons I decided to study abroad, again (I spent a semester and a summer abroad during undergrad), was because I felt like I hadn’t done a good job of making the cities where I studied abroad my home. As a study abroad student, I wasn’t a tourist, but I didn’t really live there either. My memories of my semester abroad are more about the travels around the country rather than the actual place where I lived for three months. If I were to go back and visit, I’m not even sure what I would do or who I would see.
So, before I packed up and left the city and apartment that I had called home for the past four years, I thought to myself, “Do it right this time. Make Beirut your home. Otherwise, why are you studying abroad?”
Fast forward six months: I’d like to think that I’ve done a pretty good job of making Beirut feel like home for me. Of course, I am working hard on my coursework, but I’m also being thoughtful about how I spend my free time as an international student in Beirut. I’m making an effort to do things that I love to do and getting to know people who share those interests. I’m always exploring and taking advantage of new opportunities to get to know the city. I’m slowing down and absorbing the experiences, knowledge, and friendships I’m gaining to make sure that they take hold and contribute to this new home I’m building.
To help you avoid my mistakes during your study abroad program in Beirut, here’s some ways I’ve made Beirut my home and how I’ve chosen to spend my time:
1. Ask Questions
Spend time getting to know not just the people in the apartment next to you, but your local vegetable guy, the woman in the spice shop down the road, or the recent graduate working at the new art gallery in your neighborhood. You'll be asked by most people that you meet what you are doing in Lebanon, and why you chose to study abroad in Beirut. It's easy to answer the questions and talk about yourself, but the real fun comes when you start asking your own questions (hopefully in Arabic!). Asking questions helps you become part of the community and hear interesting stories from other Beirutis. Next thing you know, the local barber will be helping you find a new apartment, you'll get the inside scoop on an indie music festival, or you'll get free bananas when you do your weekly shopping!
2. Practice Speaking Arabic
Many international students study abroad in Lebanon with the goal of improving their Arabic (including yours truly). Even if that's not a primary goal, it's great to learn some key words and phrases in Arabic if you'll be living in Beirut for an extended (or short) period.
I spend at least a few hours a week practicing my Arabic. Whether it's hanging out with my language partner, attending a conversation hour, or chatting with people in the community, I try not to use any English. I’ve also made it a habit to start every day with an Arabic podcast on my commute to school to get my brain working.
3. Be Active
I'm always on the move, and I wasn't sure if I'd be able to keep that up when I moved to Beirut; but after my first semester, I'm more active here than I was back home! In my first six months, I joined a sports team, tried out my first ever yoga class, went on my first Hash House Harriers run, hiked two cedar reserves, biked around Beirut, skied, ran a 10 kilometer run at the Beirut Marathon, swam and snorkeled in the Mediterranean, took advantage of the gym on campus, and went on weekly runs with friends along the corniche and throughout my neighborhood. Even so, I still have a long list of things I still want to do while studying in Beirut, and it's great knowing there are many options here for international students who love staying active. I have friends who go rock climbing, mountain biking, white water rafting, snowshoeing, and the list goes on.
4. Study With Friends
With all the fun I'm having while studying in Beirut, sometimes I forget that I came here for graduate school! I quickly remember when I realize I have to work on a paper or finish up an assignment; that's when I buzz my friends and gather a crew to head over to a coffee shop for the day. A lot of trial and error has led me to find my personal favorite cup of coffee and cafe (shout out to Memory Lane in Mar Mikhayel). It's also nice to read for class lying in the sun at the beach (yes, Beirut has a beach). I love spending the day with my books sprawled out next to a friend. Sure, I'm guilty of a lot of procrastinating when I have friends around or I'm at the beach, but it definitely makes the work much more enjoyable.
5. Walk, Walk, Walk
Beirut is a small city, the city proper is only eight square miles, so you can and should walk. Some of my best days in Beirut have been just walking around and exploring different areas. If you don't take the time to walk around, you won't discover the amazing views of the mountains in Ghabi, the beautiful abandoned train tracks and station in Mar Mikhayel/Qobiyat, the restaurant with the most amazing chicken in Karakas, or the ancient ruins scattered throughout Downtown, not to mention varied and interesting architecture and graffiti around town.
Walking is also very useful, because Lebanon doesn't really use addresses the way the U.S. does. Some places have them, but many don't, so you'll often be receiving or giving directions using landmarks. As a result, it's important to keep your head up and notice what's around you; keep an eye on the ground too though, because sidewalks in Beirut aren't always well maintained, so you might be dodging obstacles along the way. Thankfully, walking around any city is fun when there is always something new to discover!
6. Sit Down & Enjoy the View
Tired of listening to me talk about walking, studying, and exploring? Thankfully, most university campuses in Beirut offer the perfect places to take a seat and just relax. I often grab lunch to-go from the cafeteria, or nearby on Bliss Street, and take it to one of the many benches around my campus to eat, overlooking the sea and the lush, green campus. I'm also lucky enough to have amazing views of the mountains from my apartment, and at the end of a busy day I like sitting on my balcony and unwinding while taking in the view. It's pretty wonderful during winter to look out and see the snowcapped mountains just north of the city while it's still warm enough to wear a t-shirt in Beirut.
7. Gather Around the Table
I already liked the Americanized version of Lebanese food before I moved to Beirut, but the real thing is so much better. As you might imagine, food in Lebanon is unbelievably tasty; fresh ingredients, great flavors and lots of love make it irresistible. I love gathering a group together to go out for a big Lebanese or Armenian dinner; it's a communal event where everyone shares food, instead of ordering their own dishes, which makes eating something that you do together.
It has also been fun to try out the local shops that sell manakish (a kind of Lebanese flatbread typically eaten for breakfast), my favorite is zaatar and cheese, or farooj (mouthwatering rotisserie chicken you can get in sandwich form or as a whole roaster to take home for food for the week). I've also discovered that everything is better with lots of thoum (garlic paste), whether I'm cooking at home or going out to eat. I am of the mindset that you should try everything once, so I've been slowly testing different Lebanese and Armenian delicacies, and so far I haven't been disappointed.
I'm hoping to do more traveling around Lebanon to try more local dishes as well. If I'm cooking at home, it's a delight to have a plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables for really cheap available at multiple stands near my apartment. I smile every time I buy a huge load of veggies for the week for about $2 total and remember that I was paying $3 for just one avocado in the U.S.!
8. Pour a Glass
Try the local wine, beer, and arak, and visit the breweries and wineries around the country. I don't mean the stereotypical idea of drinking and partying for a semester abroad, but tasting the local products and seeing where they come from. The Colonel brewery in Batroun is a favorite destination for international students who want to get out of Beirut for a day; they often have live music, food trucks, and beers that you can't find in the store or at bars at this hip brewery.
Visiting wineries is also a great way to spend the day, as many of the chateaus have lovely grounds and offer tours. After hiking in the Cedars one day, a group of friends stopped at a winery to do a tasting. Before we knew it they had set up our group on their gazebo with a free bottle of wine, bread, and tapenade. If you don't feel like making the trip, you can always attend the annual Vinifest held at the Beirut hippodrome (which is cool in itself), which features wine from every Lebanese vineyard and isheld every fall.
As for arak, I personally haven't visited a distillery, but I have friends who have been invited to help make arak with families or small distilleries. It's on my list of things to do. Even if you don't drink, visiting the breweries and wineries is fun for everyone.
9. Get on Facebook (no, really!)
There is always something cool happening around Beirut or outside the city, so the biggest problem is deciding what to actually make it to. The best way to keep up to date with events on campus and around town seems to be social media.
Facebook has become the main way I get updates about what's happening by following pages of different venues and organizations, such as restaurants, concert venues, hiking groups, bands, bars, etc. Then, it's just a matter of choosing! Next week I'm thinking about going to a Tedx event, and maybe stopping by my favorite art gallery's newly opened space and checking out my roommate's band at their debut show. I recently found out on Facebook that Souk el Tayeb, which runs weekly farmers markets downtown, opened a new location right by campus on Wednesdays. I passed by and got some delicious homemade lunch and fresh veggies to take home. Thanks for the heads up, social media! If I hadn’t tried searching Facebook for things to do and events, I never would have known about many of these awesome opportunities!
10. Say eh, n3m, oui, yes!
When an opportunity presents itself, my philosophy is to just say yes (or eh, or n3m, or oui)! Beirut and Lebanon are full of amazing opportunities, and part of the learning experience as an international student is taking advantage of them, so don’t miss out on anything!
The article was contributed by the American University of Beirut (AUB). Home to 8,000 students from around the globe, AUB opens the door to a transformative educational experience. The year 2016 marks the celebration of AUB’s 150th year as a pioneer and leader of education in the Middle East. AUB currently offers more than 120 programs leading to bachelor's, master's, MD, and PhD degrees.