We knock on the window of Tiger House, the cheapest hotel in Bisharre where Federico and I are to fulfil the “skiing” part of the film’s title. Bisharre is a small, quiet town in the Qadisha valley, the spiritual homeland of “Lebanon”, home of the legendary cedars, and the heartland of the country’s Maronite community.
It’s dark already, and as I try to peer through the window (no one’s answering) I notice a UN jeep parked outside the front door. The road behind is slick with rain, and it’s cold here at an altitude of around 1000m. Eventually, the door opens and we’re greeted by the sound of a loud party, and by Tony, the hotel’s owner. Tony is a kind, extremely welcoming man in his early 50’s with deep, slightly troubled eyes that seem to betray some past darkness, now hidden away in their somewhere. As we step inside the living room, we see where the noise is coming from: a group of very drunk Polish UN soldiers, posted in Naqorra but here on a few day’s leave.
As soon as we sit down next to the fire to relax, it becomes immediately obvious that the soldiers have something else in mind for us. They want to get us drunk on the same Vodka they’ve been shooting for hours. Tony returns to the kitchen with a welcome glass of whiskey, but as soon as he’s gone Robert – the most vociferous of the soldiers – pours us each a vodka and thrusts the glasses into our hands. I’m not really in the mood for Vodka, but with Robert, it’s impossible to say no.
“Italia! Nasdrovya!” he yells, and holds his shot glass up to cheers. I stare at him, a bit lost. I hold up my glass of whiskey:
“Whiskey. I’m drinking slowly…”
“No!” Robert glares at me, “Vodka! Drink!”
“Oh, I don’t really want-“
I’m actually afraid to say no. Robert seems nice enough, but at this point he seems like he could snap at any moment, and I don’t want to push him.
Federico and I start laughing to each other, slightly nervous, but we’re trying to keep a low profile (hoping Robert will forget about us). The Poles continue drinking. We eat dinner. The Poles drink some more – shot after shot of Finlandia vodka. Robert keeps repeating the only sentence he knows in English which is, for some reason, “Life is brutal…” and he holds up another shot glass, shoots it, screws up his face in distaste and chases it with a sip of cola. You know something’s wrong when your only English sentence is “Life is brutal.”
For the next hour or so, Robert forces another two glasses of vodka on me. “Five minutes!” he yells at me, holding up his hand to tell me how much longer I have to finish the glass before he pours me another.
“No, Robert, I need to drink slowly.”
Before long, one of Robert’s friends is so drunk he keels over on the couch, his head starts lolling and he starts mumbling to himself. The soldier next to him, who seems to be the older and slightly more responsible one, picks him up and drags him to the toilet, then to his bed.
“I can’t believe this,” Federico says to me under his breath. “The are the people in charge of peacekeeping. Imagine, the UN around the world, and these are the people we’re supposed to trust.” I can’t decide whether to laugh or cry.
At midnight, some of Tony’s younger relatives come by the hotel to visit and offer us a lift to a nightclub in the mountains above Bisharre. Luckily, by this point, the Poles are all in bed. Even Robert “Life is Brutal” crashed early. The midnight drive takes us via winding cliff-hugging streets to La Casa nightclub where we watch exhausted, from our seats, as the village’s young Lebanese dance into the night. After around 15 minutes, I’m already regretting the decision to come out tonight and I can hardly keep my eyes open. I’m falling asleep in my chair. For the next two hours we have to wait patiently for our ride back into Bisharre, occasionally turning to each other to mumble, in a fake Polish accent, “Life is brutal…”