International Educator Interviews: Silvana (and Bruce) in Beirut

Ever wonder what your options for retirement are other than moving to Florida? Silvana and Bruce, like so many teachers on the international circuit, decided to forego the “traditional” retirement options for a “working retirement” traveling the world. They left their native Canada for Beirut a few years ago and never looked back. I got to know Silvana and Bruce during my last (their first) year in Lebanon. I absolutely adore Silvana’s descriptions of life in Beirut. I have to say, reading her interview made me quite nostalgic!

Where are you now and what are you currently teaching?

My husband Bruce and I are at International College in Beirut, Lebanon. I’ve been teaching ESL, French, and working as a teacher-librarian. Next year I’ll be Head Librarian. Bruce is teaching English and Theory of Knowledge in the International Baccalaureate program.

Is this your first international post or is this one in a string of many international posts for you?

This is our first international teaching post. I was always very interested in living abroad since I studied French at university and then spent a year as an assistante d’anglais in Bordeaux, France. It was such a positive, mind-expanding experience. More recently, for ten years, I’d been taking my Canadian students to France on an educational exchange trip each spring. I collaborated with French colleagues, visiting their schools and their homes. These trips were the highlight of our French program.


What made you decide to teach internationally?

Both our children had already left Toronto to study and start their careers. Then both our pets died suddenly. We were then truly empty nesters. That summer we went on a month-long trip to Europe and, although we enjoyed it, I felt disappointed that as tourists we had only been outside observers. That’s when I realized I really wanted to live in a foreign country, not just visit. We still really enjoy teaching and weren’t ready to stop working, so we were both up for a retirement adventure. Several teachers at my school had taught internationally and were able to advise us about which job fairs to attend. We went to both Kingston and Cambridge and chose from several job offers.

What’s challenging about teaching at a new school in a new country?

We were both so established at our schools back home and had administrative positions in addition to teaching. While it was great not to have so many extra responsibilities and just focus on the teaching here in Beirut, it was hard to start over meeting new people, learning new school routines and the whole general culture of the place. There’s so much to learn the first year.

It has taken me time to learn what teenagers are like here. While they watch all the same American TV shows and movies, they’re also very influenced by their own traditions and religion. They seem younger than their North American counterparts and more controlled by their families. Generally, they’re focused on more practical studies like medicine, engineering, commerce and hotel management, rather than the general arts programs.

Hill ViewHazy view of Beirut and the Mediterranean

How is teaching internationally different from teaching in your home country?

Although our school is called international, almost all the students and most of the teachers are Lebanese. I teach in the French Baccalaureate section of the school, where there’s a co-efficient system with a heavy emphasis on maths and sciences. I had to accept that English is not a major subject in this system and re-adjust my teaching expectations. The students stay in one classroom all day and the teachers go in to deliver their lessons. There aren’t as many extra-curricular sports and clubs to interfere with your curriculum.

This is also my first experience in a private school. The students are very pampered. There are more parent demands and there is more accountability, but it’s been nice not to be subject to constant budget cuts. There are computers and Activboards in each class. All teachers at IC have to use MOODLE for their courses. Paper handouts of assignments are minimal; everything is on-line. But problems of Internet connectivity here can be an issue. When the system is down, it complicates what you can do in the classroom.

What’s it like living in Lebanon? What’s your favorite thing about being an expat there?

Beirut, although still showing many scars of the civil war, is a lively, cosmopolitan city. The weather and natural setting are idyllic. The views of the mountains meeting the blue sea remind me of southern France. The pace of life has a gentle flow.

We walk everywhere in our neighbourhood, Hamra, enjoying the traditional flavour. Friday nights we often go to the many restaurants and pubs that enliven the area. I can shop for local fruits and vegetables at the late-night greengrocers or go to several supermarkets in the area. I regularly check out the three main English/French/Arabic bookstores on Hamra Street for books and magazines. For clothes shopping, I go mostly to the large shopping centres like the Souks or ABC Achrafieh with a gamut of international brands. It’s great that I haven’t had to give up my little luxuries.

I’m taking Lebanese Arabic classes twice a week after school at ALPS Language School. There are only three of us in the class and we go at our own speed. We practice speaking, reading and writing. It was a struggle to master the Arabic alphabet, but I’m now able to read and write it. Although most Lebanese speak English or French, this was my special project to keep my brain cells young by learning a new language outside of my comfort zone.

I’ve always liked to do needlework to relax in the evenings. I’ve been lucky to connect with a creative group of ex-pats and locals by taking sewing classes and going to a weekly knitting night at Dar, a vibrant café/ bookstore.

We especially enjoy the opportunity to make new friends, from many different backgrounds. I think ex-pats are a friendlier bunch, more eager to make connections.

Now some negatives. There is a culture shock getting used to the presence of armed military all over the city. There’s hardly any public transportation in the city. It took me a while to learn to negotiate with the local taxi drivers and not have to pay the inflated tourist prices for basic routes. The electricity seems to black out briefly several times a day, but both the school and apartment have back-up generators. The presence of so many destitute refugees in the city is unsettling and there’s increased uncertainty about the future.

What is a myth about your adopted country?

Most of our friends back home hear the word “Beirut” and think of a city at the centre of a civil war. But that was over some twenty-plus years ago, even if some instability still lingers. Today it isn’t as scary as you might think. People here lead normal lives. There aren’t bombs going off all over the place. But we are advised to stay away from certain areas if there’s unrest and anti-western feeling. I regret that I haven’t been able to see many parts of the country because of the political situation.


On holiday in Athens

How do you spend your holidays? How often do you visit home?

Holidays are divided between visits to family and discovering new places. Since our own house is rented out, we’re very lucky to be able to keep some personal stuff at my mother’s place and to stay with her. Last year we went home both at Christmas and for the summer holidays. We went to Istanbul for a few days in the spring. We spent Easter in Nepal visiting Bruce’s sister and brother-in-law, also ex-pats. In the summer, we made a circuit of visits to family in Montreal, Fredericton, New York, Princeton, and also spent some time at a lakeside cottage. This year, we met our daughter and my sister’s whole family in London for the Christmas holidays instead of returning home. That was great fun! We just got back from four days in Athens for our Winter Break. Next, we’ve planned a fabulous trip to Kenya in April, with safari, swimming and sundowners.

I love being so close to so many different countries at the crossroads of three continents. Travel from here has been much more reasonable than going from North America.

Our daughter is now staying with us for a few months to share our adventure and escape the harsh Montreal winter. So far, she’s the only one who’s come to visit us.

When you are looking for a new job, what do you personally look for in a school and country? Has that changed from when you first started teaching?

We wanted a well-established school with solid facilities and resources that would provide interesting opportunities for both of us. We were used to teaching at schools in the city center and didn’t like long commutes. We adore being able to walk to work!

We were flexible about the country but prefer a temperate climate. Originally, I was interested in going somewhere on the Mediterranean, so Beirut felt like a good fit. We may eventually move further east since we were also very attracted to some schools in India and Vietnam at the job fairs.

How do you go about making a new place your own? (That is, both your new accommodation and your new country.)

Although we were given a furnished apartment, I brought a lot of my own personal effects to make it more comfortable. I knew I would feel better with my own sheets and towels but I also had to buy a new duvet and pillows to ensure a good sleep. I’ve decorated with my own curtains, pictures, wall hangings, throws, some from home and some I’ve bought here. We also brought a few boxes of books. They give the apartment a cosy, familiar glow. I was given a Kindle as a retirement gift but I still prefer colorful books.
We discovered that the balcony is an important living space in a warm climate, so we invested in outdoor plants and furniture. Bruce especially enjoys reading the weekend papers out there, lounging on the sofa, drinking a cold beer, smoking his pipe and feeling delighted to be within view of the Mediterranean.

balconyBalcony living on the Mediterranean

apartmentBeirut Apartment

How do you know when it’s time to leave?

Several of the directors/principals I’ve met have been very positive in a personal way about our going international. They predicted that we would like it so much we’d probably stay abroad for a long time and enjoy working much longer than if we’d stayed at home. They shared stories of couples they’ve known who’ve worked internationally into their late sixties/early seventies. Wow!

I don’t feel we’ve explored all the possibilities yet. We may stay in Beirut or look for another post. As long as our health and family situation are alright, I’m hoping there will be more challenges ahead.

What tips or advice would you give to others thinking about making the leap to a career in international teaching?

There are several ways you can do it. One option is to take a two-year leave of absence from your permanent job and then go back and share your international experiences back home. Although my principal was really hoping I would do that, I knew I didn’t want to go back, only forward. My husband and I were both eligible to retire, so it made sense.

We packed up our household belongings and stored them in a reputable rental facility. We now rent out our house through a management company, which handles any issues for us. We declare as non-residents of Canada, so we don’t have to pay taxes on our foreign earnings. It was a relief to discover that because we’re abroad for work reasons, we’re still entitled to Canadian medical coverage when we go home.

Living abroad has brought my husband and me closer together. You have to be very supportive of each other. We now feel freer to experience life day by day.

Find the full series of Interviews with International Educators here.

If you are an international educator and you would like to be featured on The Present Perfect, contact me at thepresentperfectblog {at} gmail {dot} com.

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