Wearing a sheer leopard top, Rauda Alaita buzzed around her beauty salon in Damascus. She decided six months ago to open this little shop, paint its walls seafoam green and call it Aloe Vera.
"Everybody told me you are crazy! Starting a business now?" she said. "But I thought I should try, and it worked quite well!"
Alaita's hair fell in gelled tendrils around her cheerful face. Her eyes were done up glamorously in a cat-eye.
Isn't it strange, running a salon in the middle of a war?
"I think life goes on," she replied. "People are tired.
"In the beginning, everyone was so sad, but little by little, everyone got used to it. It's crazy."
For more than a year and a half, the story of Syria has been told in bodies and bombs. An estimated 28,000 people have died since March 2011 when demonstrators, inspired by Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, began rallying for a freer country.
They wanted President Bashar al-Assad, who had essentially inherited power from his long-ruling family, gone.
Al-Assad cracked down on protesters, claiming "terrorists" were attacking the country and blocked most foreign media (or at least made reporting in Syria a life-risking enterprise). The media have depended largely on accounts from rebels fighting al-Assad or al-Assad's own state-run media, the occasional on-the-ground human rights worker or Internet videos Syrians have posted, which are very difficult to vet.
Nearly all of it has been about death and misery.
None of it has looked like Aloe Vera or the surprisingly vibrant scene CNN experienced during a recent and rare visit to Damascus.
The scene in many parts of this city, home to more than 2 million, was far less bloody than expected. People were shopping, walking along crowded streets and going to their jobs. Women were getting their nails done.
"We are trying to have a normal life, to live like we usually do," said Rama Handi as an Aloe Vero manicurist lacquered her nails red.
"But inside us, it's not the same," she said. "It will never be the same."
She and Alaita say the same thing. They feel stuck in the middle.
"I'm not part of any side," the salon owner said. "It makes it very difficult because nowadays you cannot be in the middle."
Before, people would just talk to each other. Now, you can't have a simple conversation without someone asking first, "Are you with the government or against the government?"
"'Are you with or against us?'" Alaita mimicked. "It has become really funny."
Handi wore jeans and crossed her petite legs. A fashionable chunky necklace complemented her casual green button-up. Her full, blond hair framed her face.
She looked sad but smiled as she politely answered a reporter's questions.
How has life changed?
"When we see the people, the people who are living in the streets ... the homes that are gone ... everything makes us unhappy," she said. "Even the jobs, (they are) not like in the past."
She keeps trying to explain.
For instance, she offers, she still goes to restaurants. But now she's mindful to leave well before dusk arrives. You have to go home early, she said, because nobody wants to be outside, just in case. Shells are falling, but where, no one can predict.
Handi moved her children to a school close to home, fearing for their safety on the 30-minute drive to a better school on the edge of Damascus.