A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Print Shop... (Or, Coffee, Cigarettes, and Miscommunication)

I left work at 1PM, telling my team and the office manager I would be back, likely, by 2PM.  “Likely”… It’s an important qualifier I am finding when running errands in Hamra, my new neighborhood.  Important because…

  1. I am still learning the neighborhood, shop locations, and the maze of streets.
  2. Depending on the errand, the customs of shopping or doing business can be a little more time consuming
  3. It’s Beirut… Meant in the very best of ways

My goal was to simply enlarge three photos to roughly poster size in an effort to bring some color and life to my very white office walls.  There is something about a school counselor’s office being sparse and white-walled that really just seems wrong… (Perhaps too institutional and triggering some latent reactivity to old, throw back psych ward environments…).  Simply… Eventually I think it will be that, but a different sort of simple than what my states-based-Target-Kinkos-tidy experience has been to date.  But I digress…

I knew the street I needed to find, the relevant landmarks (it is fair, and in no way an over generalization, to say that little to no street signage exists here, so navigation comes in the form of shops, eateries, and other such landmarks, which may or may not still exist), and other important aspects of this venture, such as that I would need to go down several flights of stairs into the building’s basement to find Ras Beirut Press.

Destination reached, stairs descended, the adventure only just beginning… He was polite in every possible way, and we muddled along in a mix of broken English and my desperate attempts at Arabic pleasantries (“Marhaba” “Kifak?” Crap… What do I say now??!?), I’m sure an odd looking pair- the 20-something American girl and easily 70+ Lebanese type-setter.  It is truly humbling when you cannot even comment on the weather…

I managed to convey, or so I thought, that I needed three posters, printed from pictures on my USB drive (imagine hand gestures, said object used as a visual reference, etc.).  And in return, he accurately conveyed that I could either wait for his son to return to get a price quote or could leave my contact information and the shop would call me later on with a price quote and pick up time.  His son could return soon, in an hour, or two…  I could see my one hour timeframe slipping into the distance… Would I wait? And did I like coffee? Pleasantries and hospitality extend even in the smallest of interactions.  Yes, coffee, thank you, to which he almost, I dare say, seemed relieved; perhaps something to fill the awkward interaction and silence that was manifesting…  Steps on the stairs, the son is back, and a quick conversation ensues, accompanied by several perplexed looks.  My host retreats to make the coffee and I again explain what I need, this time handing over the USB.  Upon opening the first photo- “Is that it?” No animosity, rather surprise.  Admittedly it was a simple photo but it all come clear as I re-clarified that yes, one poster was what I was after to which the reply was “Not 3000?”  Somehow, three posters morphed to 3000 in the earlier conversation.  Upon several assurances that no, I did not want 3000 prints made, a twist was added.  I needed to go to another shop, it was close, did I want to be shown where it was located?  But please, dear reader, don’t forget that coffee had been made…  So I sat for another few minutes, sipping strong, acidic, Turkish style coffee (my request for no sugar raised an eyebrow) and my host continued to employ common courtesies- Where was I from? Would I like a cigarette?- gestures continuing to be used liberally, the purpose of hospitality thick in the air, along with the smell of cigarettes and printing ink.

Coffee finished and out the door.  The other shop, literally across the street, had once been housed in the basement too, but over the past months had moved to the new location.  Industrial grade Laser-jets lined the back wall, easily five feet in length and complex in design and appearance. And the explanation began again, only this time with greater ease as my new host works in the world of computers, digital imaging and technology. A price is settled, and again the question of would I wait for the prints or return later? How long would it take? Maybe 15 minutes. By this point in time the original hour has passed so I figure why not play the fly on the wall and take in this small, seemingly family owned enterprise?  Yes, I would wait.  Good, would I like coffee? By this point the hilarity of this excursion is causing my internal laughter to come full force, but graciously yes, coffee would be good, no sugar please.  To add to the present picture, the shops graphic designer has arrived, and upon my acceptance of coffee, he assures me that the shop owner makes the best coffee, “Better than Starbucks! Better than Younes!” (local coffee shop) and proceeds to explain that my host also drinks more coffee than a person really should.

Fifteen minutes later, my prints are done, money has changed hands, I have yet again been offered a cigarette in the name of courtesy, and my minute coffee cup has been drained.  How quickly one hour morphed to two, but such is life, especially life here; worth every minute…