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By Mary Symmes

In 1975, I was studying Arabic at the Foreign Service Institute. The last part of the course was at the American Embassy in Beirut and I duly arrived, age 25, with the rest of the new class of Arabic students.

I had spent a good part of my childhood in the Middle East so I had an idea of what it would be like to live in Beirut. But in August 1975 Beirut was full of unrest and violence and on the verge of civil war. (Fortunately I was immortal at the time).

Shortly after we arrived, old friends of my parents invited me to dinner. I love Arabic food and ate heartily. I knew that uncooked fruits and vegetables would probably make me sick but because these were urban, educated people, I had no qualms in eating whatever was presented to me. Somehow it would be sanitized.

Later that night, I woke up with nausea, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. I walked several blocks to the embassy the next morning so I could see the embassy nurse and prayed with every step that nothing would happen until I was near a toilet. I was lucky.

After another attack, I walked back to the hotel with Paregoric and instructions about what to eat and drink. I really felt ill and weak and I knew the Paregoric would make me sleepy, so I called the wife of one of my fellow students, who was staying in the same hotel, and asked her to call me every day to make sure I was okay.

I spent the next two days mostly asleep, and then arose feeling almost human.

As I was getting dressed to go to the embassy cafeteria, I realized that while I was so sick the maids had cleaned the room and stolen two purse-sized perfume dispensers I had left out of my locked suitcases.

There was nothing I could really do about it so I didn't even tell the management. And I was so lonely and relieved that I was better that I just wanted to be around other people again.

I got to the embassy and was eating dry bread and drinking tea as various people I knew came by, all telling me how awful I looked!

I went back to class that afternoon and eventually moved into my own apartment until all nonessential personnel were evacuated from Beirut that October. But that is another story.

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[EDITORIAL NOTE: This feature, TGB Readers' Stories, appears every Tuesday. Anyone age 50 and older is welcome to submit a story. You can do that by clicking the “Contact” link at the top of every TGB page or at the Guidelines/Submissions page.

Please be sure to read and follow the guidelines before submitting a story. It will save me a lot of time.


How I could identify with your food poisoning and I relived that terrible experience twice. The first time was in Booth Bay Harbor. My children and family were there on vacation and took a boat trip up the coast where we had a shore dinner. I ate a whole lobster (My first time to do so) and had clams for an appetizer. I don't know which one had come from polluted water, but one had. By the time we reached our cabin, I couldn't stay away from the bathroom long enough to get to a hospital. I thought I was going to die.

My second experience was in Mexico when I stupidly ate ice cream. Enough said about the results.

I even identified with being robbed. This time it was all my money and was at a hotel in Morocco. Live and learn.

Same thing happened to me. Three times. All three were in Mexico. I followed every rule in the book but it didn't make any difference. At least I was not alone and did not have to walk several blocks to get help. No robberies, thank goodness.

I loved your reference to when you believed you were immortal. My upset occurred in Las Vegas — ignoring strange taste of cookie, possibly rancid I’d never encountered before, I brought to my room from the buffet. I was so sick all night and the next day, delaying planned departure with couple I had travelled with.

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