I think it was Joni Mitchell who said something like you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Words to live by; and indeed, in the two years since my family left Lebanon and took up residence in the south-east of England, I admit missing the addictive insanity that Lebanon has made its stock-in-trade.
Not the Lebanon of power cuts, security scares, rubbish crises, incompetent leaders (memo to the British: you really should be grateful for what you have) and a broken economy (see previous comment), but the ill-starred country that infects you with its life-affirming virus. The Lebanon of nothing is impossible and, despite everyone’s best efforts, the Lebanon of coexistence.
This yearning hit me on the solar plexus the other day when I received an email from the letting agents that manage my new apartment in Hove telling me, and I quote, “it has been brought to our attention that there have been several complaints from local residents over excessive noise within the property. We ask that you keep any noise to a level which is not audible outside your property and respect your neighbours”.
My crime? Talking until 1.30am apparently. “Welcome to flats,” said a friend who lives in nearby Eastbourne. “At least you are renting. You can easily move if you get fed up. I own my home and I still get letters from my nightmare neighbours.”
Many, if not most, apartments here in the UK are leasehold, an arrangement that obliges tenants to abide by the rules and regulations laid down by the freeholders, and which are usually enforced through a managing agent. They include keeping the inside of the flat in good order, sharing in the costs of maintaining and running the building, making unauthorised alterations to the property and behaving in a neighbourly manner, which by “talking” after midnight I clearly hadn’t done.
The lease contract which, given the language, was drawn up generations ago, warns tenants that they may not “make any noise or play or permit the playing of any radio, television set (sic), gramophone [“gramophone”?] or musical instrument in or about the property between the hours of 11pm and 7am so as to be audible outside the property or to the adjoining occupiers”.
My former neighbours in Beirut would be rolling with laughter if they knew about my transgression. In the building in which we lived for 13 years, it was I who was cast as the resident Grinch, never shy to complain about any drilling or banging (the Lebanese love home improvements, especially on a Sunday) after 6pm and after 12pm on weekends.
My crabbiness would reach its apotheosis whenever the family on the top floor threw one of their legendary biannual parties, catered by a platoon of dickie-bowed waiters and hosted by a DJ with an amp that could have played the O2 Arena and a strong penchant for the Bee Gees. As the entire street shook, I would stomp on to the balcony; crane my head skywards and stare as best I could at the roof, as if my irritation might send everyone home.
Moving to a regulated country will more often than not short-circuit the hard wiring of those used to the cut and thrust of the Third World, where problems are solved by a can-do attitude and money – more often the latter – and where human relations, rather than twitching curtains, achieves resolution.
When we “landed” in August 2014, it dawned on me that I had no credit history in the UK, so even though I had no debts and hadn’t for over 20 years, no one would rent me a property unless I paid a year’s rent upfront, and no one would give my family members a full-on phone contract until my credit rating improved. My problem? I didn’t owe anyone anything. I was lucky to get a line of credit for electricity or gas as I have subsequently met people, professionals, who have to feed a meter because they are self-employed and their accounts didn’t satisfy the credit check.
“Get a credit card and spend,” said the helpful adviser at EE mobile. “Don’t default and your credit rating will slowly improve.” All of this would confound the typical Lebanese who are historically cautious about getting into debt. It did me.
Still, as a wise person once said, it may also have been Joni Mitchell; who knows, “it is what it is”. So I guess I’ll have to talk quietly after 11pm.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.
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