Monday, July 30, 2012

Magical Mundal

Mountains, a glacier, and a fjord
In our quest to get off the beaten path in our travels, we discovered the charming village of Mundal,  (Fjaerland) Norway.  Tucked into a deep mountain valley at the end of the Fjaerland branch of the Sognefjord, this tiny village is the ancestral home to the Mundals- or Mondales, as we say in English. Former Vice President Walter Mondale visited Mundal while in office and returned in 1986 to commemorate the opening of the new (and only) road that allowed for travel by car--- prior to this, boats were what connected Mundal to the rest of Norway.  One of the fellow travelers we met while there was an American Mondale who was making a repeat visit with his grandfather.  Glenn speculated as to how he was connected to Walter......thankfully he didn't ask, but now we'll never know................

Church, circa 1861
Shopping on the honor system
The village of Mundal has just 300 residents who support themselves through a combination of farming and tourism.  For being such an isolated place, Mundal has a surprisingly well developed tourism industry.  In addition to two hotels, a church, a miles of beautiful scenery, Mundal is also home to the Norwegian Glacier Museum and Norwegian Book Town.  In today's high tech age where most of us buy e-books (myself included), I love the idea that there is this three mile stretch of shops, kiosks, and even bus stops where used books published in a variety of languages are sold.  (As we discovered, Internet service is slow and spotty here so maybe paper books are the way to go).  Dodging an evening shower which did little to keep anyone indoors, we wandered through the church grounds (almost all of the headstones had the surname Mundal), threw rocks into the mirror-like water (OK, only two of the three of us did that), joined locals at a bake/book sale (where one of us ate a hotdog), and took in the natural beauty that surrounded us.  The glass like fjord gave way to lush green fields then mountains still covered with pockets of snow.  If you didn't look up at the power lines and ignored the occasional Volvo, the whole experience was as though time had stood still decades ago.

Hotel Mundal from across the fjord
We spent the night at the Hotel Mundal.  Like the rest of the village, it is old, well maintained, and completely charming.  With its squeaky gray floorboards and wide hallways, this family owned inn reminded me of my old four-room elementary school in the rural Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.  The warren of common rooms and hallways were filled with comfortably worn antiques, working fireplaces, photographs, and other village memorabilia (including a plaque commemorating Walter Mondale's visit).  Everything was miss-matched yet it coordinated in a way that would make shabby-chic proud.  Our room was oddly comfortable (once you got past the sink in the bedroom and the single down comforters that seem to be ubiquitous in all Norwegian hotels).  The lack of a television- in both our room and the common rooms- was a welcome reprieve from the noise that seems to fill our lives on a daily basis.  Dinner in the dining room was a set menu of local foods that on our visit, centered around fish.  I loved every bite of it, Glenn was pleasantly surprised that he actually like the cod (he told me that if I could cook fish the way the chef did, he would be willing to eat more of it at home), and Sidney turned his attention to the bowl of fresh strawberries that was brought out to him by the accommodating waitstaff.  I dare say that to date, this was the best meal I have eaten during our travels this summer.

Our all too brief stay in Mundal was a welcome treat. I wish we didn't have jobs to return to since there is just so much we could see and do in this beautiful part of the world.  Just when I think I've seen the best part of Norway, it keeps getting better.  What will we see next and how can it top what we've already seen?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Following in the Footsteps of Vikings

UNESCO World Heritage site- Bergen

Its official; Norway is by far my favorite place I have ever visited.  We haven't made it to Oslo yet- that is next up on our agenda- but from what I've seen so far, this is truly an amazing country.  The combination of spectacular scenery, cool temperatures that require a sweater even in the middle of the summer, and clean ocean air make for a mesmerizing experience.  Add in the friendly people, the abundance of fresh fish, and the fact we are so disconnected from our everyday life and I feel as though I never want to leave.  In many ways, this area reminds me of where I grew up along the coast of Maine.

We flew from Stockholm to Norwegian Fjord Country.  Using Bergen as our home base, we've been exploring the breathtaking scenery that makes up Norway's western coast.  Bergen is simultaneously quaint, off the beaten path, and touristy (although the tourist factor decreased significantly with the departure of a cruise ship).  Bryggen, the old wharf along the waterfront is a UNESCO World Heritage site and we spent time roaming through the alleys that surround these traditional wooden houses. We've wandered through the Torget Fish Market, dined on both local (fresh fish, elk, reindeer and wonderfully fresh berries) and international (Indian, Italian, and American) cuisines and thanks to Sidney, had a walking tour of all of Bergen's many fountains (there really are a lot).  Our time has been spontaneous and lazy and everything a vacation should be.

Fishing village at the end of the road- Hellesoy
As has been the case for most of our vacation so far, daily activities go unplanned.  We have a general sense of what we want to see but are taking each activity moment by moment and exploring as the mood strikes.  (This is a complete departure from the way we used to vacation and I have to say, even my Type A self is enjoying this way of traveling).  In one of my Internet searches I came across Car Walks, a compilation of self guided driving and walking tours for the greater Bergen area.  With numerous options, we chose the one that took us the most off the beaten path and out onto the archipelago to the west of Bergen.  We left the city through a series of tunnels (Bergen is known as the city of seven hills) and out into the fishing villages that make up Norway's rocky coastline.  We followed narrow, yet well maintained roads for miles through fishing villages and along narrow inlets all the way to the end of the archipelago to the village of Hellesoy.  (Much to our surprise, a well traveled paved bike lane mirrored all of the main road and the majority of the side roads).  Without a real plan, we turned down country lanes when curious and stopped to play in coves when the inspiration struck.  With minimal traffic, no restaurants or stores, and acres and acres of rock covered hills, we felt much farther away from civilization than we were.  I loved it.

The long and narrow fjord
Waterfall along the Osterfjorden
And of course there are the fjords.  One can not travel to Norway without experiencing the fjords.  We got our first peek at these magnificent bodies of water on our flight into Bergen.  We got up close and personal with the Osterfjorden during a fjord cruise where we meandered up into the increasingly narrow waterway.  There was so much to take in; from the waterfalls to the salmon farms to the hidden settlements dotting the shoreline, it was all impressive.  Even onboard the ferry surrounded by thirty other tourists from various countries I felt a sense of serenity and isolation from the rest of the world.  We spent a day driving from Bergen to Fjaerland following and (twice) crossing the Sognefjorden, which at 200 km long and 1308 m deep is Norway's longest and deepest fjord, before spending the night in Mundal.   Along the way we traveled through tiny fjord-side farming villages, passed through too many tunnels to count, and saw icy waterfalls plummeting from snow (and glacier) covered mountains.   Pictures and words do not do the scenery justice.  I can only imagine what early settlers must have thought when they first saw the completely unspoiled land.  Even today, looking beyond the paved roads, power lines, and occasional cruise ship, this part of Norway appears to be pristine.

Of course, we have spent our time in Norway in July.  Our days have been long and filled with daylight with the temperatures fluctuating between warm enough for short sleeves and cool enough to need a sweater.  We've had some light rain but mostly sun and a few clouds.  The weather has been, by all accounts, ideal.  I can only imagine how this same area looks during a long, dark Scandinavian winter.  With minimal hours of daylight and even less sun, raw cold temperatures, and continuous snow, I know this is a very different place in the winter.  I'm not sure I would like it as much as I do now (actually, I know I wouldn't) but I'm here now, so I'm going to enjoy it.

Family time in Fjord Country

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

In the Land of Volvos, H & M, and Ikea

Gamla Stan
The first part of our annual Family Moral Leave (aka summer vacation) has brought us to Stockholm, Sweden.  Our primary reason for choosing to spend our vacation in Scandinavia was that it is cooler than Albania-both our friends from Mediterranean countries (who love hot temperatures) and those from cooler climates (who don't understand why we wouldn't want to be in hot sunny places) all thought we were crazy for heading north.  We arrived and immediately felt comfortable when greeted by the cooler, more refreshing temperatures.  At the airport, our fleece wearing, Volvo driving taxi cab driver looked at our short sleeve shirts and asked if we wanted heat or air conditioning for our ride into the City.  We opted for the air conditioning which resulted in his zipping up his jacket.

We've enjoyed every minute of our stay here.  Not only has the weather been perfectly cool but with our fair skin and blond hair, we've blended in better with the locals than we do in Albania.  No one has reached out to touch or kiss Sidney because of his blond hair and bright blue eyes.  As we do whenever we travel outside of Albania, we are relishing being in a more developed part of the world.  Here, sidewalks are complete, traffic laws are obeyed, and it is safe to cross the street when pedestrians have the right of way (cars even stop preemptively when the light turns yellow).  People on the streets are polite, customer service is impeccable, and no one treats you like you are a shoplifter when you browse through the stores.  Yes, it is an expensive city but you get what you pay for.

Like most European cities, Stockholm has a well developed network of pedestrian only areas which make walking and exploring the City easy and enjoyable.  Furthermore, Swedes love children and they are welcomed everywhere.  We've joined the mobs pushing "buggies" (aka baby strollers) through the pedestrian only streets of Gamla Stan where not being accompanied by at least one toddler seems to be the exception.  We spent part of an afternoon browsing through a well stocked grocery store- not because we needed groceries but rather because we could.  We've dined on Swedish meatballs, reindeer, and lingdonberries (and of course pizza) in restaurants where every table has a highchair pushed up to it.  It is a common sight to see buggies parked on the sidewalks outside of restaurants.  Waitstaff here have a relaxed attitude towards children; playing is encouraged and when Sidney broke a glass at the dinner table the waiter simply stated that "these things happen" and focused his concern on whether there were any stray shards of glass on the table.

Paying homage to Absolut
The changing of the guard
In between nap times for the entire family (because that is what vacations are really all about), we've been playing tourist and exploring some of Stockholm's most famous sites.  We watched the changing of the guard at the Swedish Royal Palace, toured the Vasamuseet where we explored the famous Vasa ship that sank twenty minutes into her maiden voyage in 1628, and spent time in the Spirtmuseum, a museum that in my opinion wins the oddest concept award.   After viewing artwork that paid homage to Absolut vodka, we visited interactive displays that alternatively took us through the various stages of drinking.  Want to experience what it feels like to be drunk?  You can do it here.  Want to experience the awful sounds and smells of a hangover?  Yes, you can do that here as well.  You can also learn the science behind alcohol consumption and diminished sexual function.  You can even purchase "supplements" to enhance your museum going experience; we refrained.  Glenn and I were speechless when we left the museum; Sidney said it was "too loud and scary."  We couldn't have said it better.

Stockholm is a city built around the water. Ferries are as vital a part of the City's transportation system as are the trains and buses.  Instead of the ubiquitous Hop on Hop Off bus, we rode a Hop on Hop Off ferry which not only brought us to the watery steps of some of the City's best attractions but also provided us with spectacular views of Stockholm from the water.  On our final full day in Sweden we took a ferry to the island of Fjaderholmarna.  Part of the Stockholm archipelago, this tiny island is both designed for tourism yet a world apart from the hustle and bustle of the cruise ship crowds that flood the streets of Gamla Stan.  In a refreshing departure from everywhere else we have travelled in Europe, nothing was in English and being American garnered us neither special attention nor preferential treatment.  We struggled through ordering lunch from a Swedish only menu (the crepes and fruit were a delightful and tasty surprise) but relished in the fact that as Americans were we just another part of the touristy crowd.  We spent the day chasing Sidney along the island's wooded paths, clambered over rocky outcrops, and took in the beautiful water vistas.  We thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the refreshing air and didn't worry for a moment about the child-friendliness of the people or the environment. It was truly a perfect ending to our stay in Stockholm.

View of Ostermalm from the water

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Life in the 'Burbs of Tirana

On the heels of my wedding post from earlier this week, I've been thinking about another aspect of Albanian life- multi-generational living.  (We are the only true single family house in our neighborhood.  Prior to being leased by the Embassy, several families resided on the upper floors of our house and a family run store operated out of the first level.  This arrangement is typical of Albania; ours is not).  Whether out of tradition or for financial reasons, multiple generations of a single family often reside under one roof.  In high rises you are likely to find extended family living on different floors of the same building.  For those families fortunate enough to own an entire house, different branches of the family may reside in separate apartments in a communal type of setting.  This is the scenario that seems to play out in our neighborhood.

A classic Albanian multifamily home
Take the house directly across the street from us as an example.  From what I can gather, there are at least three generations living in this house.  The extended family lives on either side of this house with all family members traipsing back and forth from the main compound at all hours of the day and night.  (There is also a separate out building adjacent to the house that has been looking lived in as of late). The house itself, like so many in Albania is a sturdy structure made entirely of concrete and brick.  Constructed without the guidance of permits or building codes, walls have gone up and bricks have been laid as time and money have allowed.  The first floor appears to have two finished apartments with an additional apartment on the second floor. The third and fourth floors are unfinished shells that currently serve as open air storage, recreational space, and the laundry area. (Perhaps these spaces will be finished when some "lucky" daughter-in-law joins the clan).  Like just about every house in the neighborhood save ours, this house has neither air conditioning nor a generator.  This means that on most days, they are without power for several hours.  Year around it is not an uncommon sight to look across the street and see the house enveloped in complete darkness.

Last fall in a flurry of activity, concrete stairs were poured between the second and third floors. During a long Albanian weekend the men rose early each morning and went to work.  While two of them used an archaic pulley system to hoist buckets of wet concrete from the yard up to the third floor, the remaining five men supervised and shouted instructions in between gulps of raki and puffs of cigarettes. This activity went on for three days and in a fit of naivety, Glenn and I thought that the house was finally going to be finished.  Alas, we were wrong since come Monday morning work came to a sudden halt.

So who lives in this house?  The grand matriarch is an elderly woman who simultaneously minds the children running through the street; hangs the hand washed laundry out to dry from lines strung on the unfinished third floor; and sprays down the street every night all while knitting brightly colored scarves.  (I have yet to really see her without her knitting needles).  At other times she is the one who carries the trash the quarter of a mile to the neighborhood dumpsters, shakes out the dusty carpets from the balcony each evening, and manually pulls open the front gate whenever a relative drives up and honks their car horn.  On several occasions I've seen her pruning the grape vines, spraying plants with what I imagine is a completely toxic pesticide, or repairing the stone pavers that cover the yard.   The grandmother is definitely the hardest working member of this family. (On New Years Eve she was also the one who climbed up to the fourth floor to shoot off fireworks).

Two brothers also reside in the house with their respective wives and children.  Both brothers are short, portly men who appear to have jobs outside of the home.  One I only see on occasion; the other drives one of those mobile billboard trucks that he somehow manages to squeeze through the gate each night.  Upon his return home each evening he proceeds to strip out of his work clothes and don only a questionably small pair of shorts to parade around his yard.  (On many summer evenings his appearance causes Sidney to start shrieking "naked! naked!").  The two wives are thin, attractive women who get dressed up to walk to the bus stop each morning. They are friendly to us but always have that tired and run down appearance that is so common on the faces of  many Albanian women my age.

Between all of the children scooting in and out of the yard, I've lost track of who actually lives in the house and who is visiting from next door.  The kids range in age from toddler to early teen.  During the summer months they run around more scantily clothed then their father.  I've reached the point where I can't look when the toddler races up and down the twisting concrete staircase that does not have a railing.  Lacking a real yard, the older kids play football (soccer) in the street where more often than not, the ball lands in our yard.  This results in the younger kids being made to lean incessantly on our door bell until one of us comes out to retrieve the offending object.  On particularly hot evenings, the older kids pick fights with the younger kids.  This goes on until the grandmother appears and intervenes.

This house, like so many in Tirana, is pure chaos.  I can't even begin to imagine coming home to this scene or these conditions at the end of every day.  There is a complete lack of privacy and regardless of the weather or the time of day, someone is always coming or going.  But, all of this is truly Albanian. It makes our solid, single family structure look boring and oh, so solidly middle class American.

A final note...............One of the peculiarities I've noticed in this country is the plethora of what appear to be small, family run hotels with names like White Dream and Sweet Sleep or the always popular Amerika.  (For those of you who knew us when we lived down the street from the infamous pink hotel in Norfolk, you know exactly what I mean).  Since there is a dearth of international, big name hotels in Albania, it is always hard for me to distinguish which of these hotels are legitimate and I would be comfortable staying in and which are fronts for other activities.  We were actually invited to a dinner at one such place and although parts of the place were uniquely Albanian (and not in a good way)-- the rest rooms with only partial doors were in the middle of the parking garage-- the remainder of the place was surprisingly clean and well finished.  A friend at the dinner informed me that these hotels typically rent rooms by the hour to young men and women who live at home with their families and need a private place to escape to.  Not feeling the need to test his theory, I'm apt to think that this does make sense.....................after all, can you imagine bringing home a girlfriend or boyfriend to the chaotic scene I described above?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Dashmas (Albanian Weddings)

Traditional dress
Here in Albania, as in many countries, we are at the height of wedding season.  In a country where family is valued above all else and not being married is frowned upon, weddings are big production. Dashmas, as weddings are called here, are four day affairs with all the bells and whistles, or is more often the case as of late, all the Mercedes filled motorcades and fireworks. When we first arrived last summer I was caught off guard and taken aback by their spectacle.  Now I see these celebrations as just another part of a summer weekends in Albania.

Traditional wedding processional
As tacky and ostentatious as I find some aspects of these celebrations, even the most modern Albanian wedding is rooted deep in tradition.  In pre-modern times, traditional weddings began on Thursdays with the viewing of a woman's dowry by female family members and close friends in her father's home. (Even today, men and women tend to live at home with their parents until they marry).  The dowry, which consisted of handmade linens, hand embroidered towels, and other items that were to last the duration of the marriage, were displayed in ornate wooden chests.  Brides would also begin their beauty preparations on this day.  The parade of visitors continued into Friday with male guests toasting with raki in one room and females drinking sweeter, fruit flavored liqueurs in another.  Saturday was much the same with more in-home visiting culminating with the bride's family hosting a dinner for family and friends.  The grooms' family, comprised of an odd number of people, was also included. 

Sunday was the big day.  Travelling by whatever means money and status made available- horse, carriage, or by foot, the groom and his friends and family would caravan to the bride's home to whisk her away to her start her new life, which more often than not, was actually her mother-in-law's home.  En route a church, mosque, or civil ceremony may or may not have taken place.  The processional would wend its way through the village, town, or city until it arrived at the groom's family's home where the festivities would continue with more food and even more raki.  This time the bride's family was charged with providing the odd number of guests.  Many times festivities would end with a bang with guns being fired into the air.  In some regions, however; mock fights between the bride and groom's families would be staged.  This really has to make you wonder.................

Today's weddings are a definite modernized spin on the past.  As is the case in most westernize societies, weddings are big business.  Instead of spending too much money on a dress that will most likely only be worn once (my own designer dress is now preserved in its own box and sitting in a long term storage facility in Northern Virginia never to be worn again), modern Albanian brides rent theirs. It seems as though every city block has at least one dress shop displaying over the top white confections (think My Big Fat Greek Wedding) ready to be borrowed for that very special day.

Celebrations are still spread out over several days with make up preparations, home visits, and lots of raki drinking making for very long weekends.  The traditional Sunday morning processional by  horseback or donkey cart from the groom's house to that of the bride's father has been replaced with a flashy parade of plastic flower and streamer covered cars.  Most often Mercedes, with the occasional furgon or Opel thrown in, these five-plus vehicle caravans weave their way through traffic with horns blaring.  The lead car always has a sunroof with a young (perhaps raki saturated) male hanging out the top with a video camera in hand filming the entire spectacle.  The next vehicle is the most lavishly decorated one as it carries the bride and groom.  Other cars follow behind.  These videos must be the equivalent of an American wedding video but I wonder if Albanians are more apt to watch them than we are.

Wedding processional vehicle circa 2012 
Instead of home cooked feasts, restaurants have jumped on the wedding bandwagon with larger ones offering wedding packages complete with copious amounts of traditional style food that would most likely make granny cringe.  Of course, no wedding celebration would be complete without a fireworks display on Sunday evening.  Without fail, every Sunday night during the summer, the Tirana sky fills with burst of fireworks (despite their questionable safety measures, these explosions have to be safer than the gunfire that marked the finale of the traditional ceremonies of days past).

Yes, weddings traditions are country and even region specific, but they all have one thing in common.  Regardless of where they are held, these festivities celebrate the uniting of two families into one.  In Albania's case, however, the celebratory bang is just louder and brighter than the rest.

Te trashegoheni!

Friday, July 13, 2012

On Being American

What does it mean to be American?  

Is it this?


Or this?

Or even this?

This is the beauty of being American; you can express yourself how you want, when you want, and where you want.  The longer we are living overseas the more I realize that this is a freedom so many of us Americans take for granted.  In many parts of the world such freedom of expression is an alien concept.  As the Arab Spring and other recent uprisings around the world have shown us, what we assume are "inalienable rights" are very much American concepts.  But with our rights there are also privileges. And with privileges come responsibilities.  And the manner in which we undertake and demonstrate these responsiblities is very important.

Glenn and I have spent many evenings discussing the very question of what it means to be American and the responsibilities that go along with this identification. (We spend more time discussing the responsibilities aspect of the question).  America is, and always has been, a cultural melting pot. Unlike many countries where their citizens are immediately recognizable, in America a citizen can be short or tall, brown, black white, yellow, red or more likely some shade in between.  The diversity of languages heard and accents spoken further set us apart as a melting pot. Whether native born, an immigrant, or just visiting, people in America aren't always easily recognizable as being American.  This is one of the things I love about my native country.

As Americans living overseas, we feel as though we are immediately recognized as such.  Maybe it is the fact that we are a mostly English-speaking, fair-haired family living in a Mediterranean country that makes us stick out.  Maybe it is the way we dress that makes us look different.  [Glenn won't  wear brightly colored skinny jeans (a good thing) and I can't convince him to carry one of those "man bags" that are so popular in Europe (a not so good thing since if he did, I wouldn't have to always be the family sherpa)]. Maybe it is the diplomatic plates we have on our car.  In all likelihood, it is a combination of all three things.  And given that we are so easily recognized, we feel even more compelled to uphold the ideals and responsibilities that come with being American.

So I return to the question I originally posed:  what does it mean to be an American?  I suspect there are just as many answers as there are Americans.  And that, is the essence of being American- you can think what you want, when you want, and how you want.  I for one, am proud to be American.

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Season of Goodbyes

Goodbyes are hard but unfortunately, they are a regular part of this transient lifestyle we lead. In military terminology, this is referred to as PCSing- or a permanent change of station.  At any given time it seems as though someone is either transferring in or out of the command, or in our current situation, the Embassy. This is especially true during the busy summer months when families pack up and move on to their next posting before schools restart in the fall.  Sometimes the transfer is welcome- both by the person departing and those being left behind.  Other times, it is bittersweet for all parties involved.  Over time you learn to take the good with the bad since that is the only thing you can do.

This time of year creates a bit of anxiety for me, regardless of whether we are on the transferring end or are the ones that are staying put. If we are the ones moving I'm caught up in the sorting, organizing, and packing process.  What do we need to physically carry with us, what will go into long term storage, and what will be shipped on ahead? Do I really need to hold onto those boxes that haven't been opened since our last move?  Do I have enough time to organize a garage sale so I can purge myself of these unwanted items?  Yes, we may have movers who come in and pack our belongings for us but the prior planning that must take place before the moving van arrives keeps me awake for weeks.  Continually moving never gets easier and with each  move I seem to lose things in the process.  (I blame the massive wads of packing paper and each individually wrapped piece of silverware, knick-knack, and crayon).  When we are moving, I'm never sure what the future holds for us. Will we like the next assignment more than our current one or will we miss what we have left behind?  Will all of our belongings arrive at our new duty station unscathed or will we have to file a claims form for what was broken or lost?  Of course, there is that perpetual worry of what condition our items that we placed in long term storage will be in when we unearth them in two to three years.

If we are staying put- as is our situation this year- I wonder whether will we be as compatible with incoming families as we were with those who have left?  Will Sidney make new friends to replace those who have departed? (Much to my relief, all indications are that the answer to this worry is yes). Will office, neighborhood, and Embassy dynamics change for the better or for the worse?  In the civilian world where people may live in the same town or neighborhood for decades if not their entire lives, the notion of being the old timers after being in one location for just a year is laughable.  After one year in Tirana, we are the old timers.  Such is our life............

The other part of moving is saying goodbye.  Farewells are a big deal at our Embassy.  While a few people slip away as quietly as they spent their time here, others celebrate their departure with numerous parties, farewells, and lunches.  Sometimes they are combined with a welcome for the person replacing you (hence the term "hale and farewell") but other times they are stand alone events.  Perhaps these numerous events speak to the complexity of relationships here- there are office parties, representational events, neighborhood and personal parties, and Embassy-wide events.  If you happen to be invited to all of these events this can make for a very busy social calendar.  (More often than not, however, this socializing is more work than play.  This too is our life).

Thus is the case for us in recent weeks.  This past week we have been saying goodbye to a wonderful Air Force Master Sergeant who is essentially the glue that has kept Glenn's office together.  Upon our arrival Mary, and her trailing-spouse husband Mark, welcomed us with open arms. (Yes, Mary actually met us at the airport, whisked us through Customs and out into our new Albanian reality).  She has kept all aspects of our Albanian lives running as smoothly as they can given our circumstances.  She has simultaneously been no nonsense and efficient; compassionate and selfless; humorous and wise.  Mark has become my daily confidant on all things Tirana.  Mary is an expert at being military in an Embassy environment and she quickly brought both of us up to speed on what we needed to know.  Whether it be making sure all of our calendars were synced, helping me navigate the craziness of overseas medicine, or serving as a (fortunately not needed) power of attorney for Sidney's care, she has given us 110%.   (She is also the only person I will happily bake 250 mini cupcakes for when it is 100 degrees outside). 

There really aren't words that can adequately describe what Mary and Mark have done for us over the past year and how much they will be missed.  As the smallest token of our appreciation we hosted a farewell reception and awards ceremony in their honor and yes, I baked the a fore mentioned cupcakes.  Both of these wonderful people have become true friends. Getting to know Mary and Mark highlights the best and worst of this mobile lifestyle of ours.  Like so many of our other friends, our paths crossed only because of a random set of military orders and at the same time, we all eventually move on because of those very same orders. 

So Mary and Mark, thank you, good luck, and best wishes from all three Albanian Browns.  You will be truly missed.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

An Albanian 4th of July

Last week our Embassy hosted its formal Independence Day celebration.  In true American form, the event was not held on the actual holiday; rather a date of convenience was selected instead.  This date change was confusing for many guests who couldn't understand why we were celebrating the Fourth of July in late June.  (In Albania, holidays are celebrated on the actual day- if that day happens to fall on a weekend, you don't get the following Monday off to celebrate).  For friends who asked, I was unable to provide a good explanation as to why we did this.  All I could say was that this is the way we tend to do things in America.  That, became a good enough answer.

As we have discovered, national days take on a whole new meaning when you are living abroad. For us, American holidays are often met with a void; while our Embassy may be closed, the rest of Albania is open for business.  (Albanians may wish us a happy Fourth of July but holidays such as Columbus Day, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving are unacknowledged.  This results in a strange disconnect between the actual holiday and making it into something other than an unusual day off in the middle of the week.  Personally, we spent the actual day grocery shopping and preparing for an upcoming reception.)  Every country has its share of national days and even here in tiny Tirana, we are regularly invited to a variety of national days, reunification days, and other patriotic celebratory days for the various embassies in the City.  Some months are busier than others but at each event the celebrating country seems to be able to share their traditions while incorporating a uniquely Albanian twist into the celebration.

For the second year in a row Glenn and I were invited by our Ambassador to stand in the receiving line at our celebration to help welcome the 500 plus guests who had been lucky enough to receive a coveted invitation.  We had been in Albania for a little over a week when we attended last year's celebration; as such, much of that event was a hot, jet lagged blur for me.  This year was different. Not only was I involved in the planning and implementation of this event,  but this year I actually knew or at least recognized a fair number of the people who attended.  I was also much more alert and noticed details that I had missed during our first go-around.

First there is the actually greeting of guests as they arrived.  Shaking hands with that many people is not for the faint of heart.  Even if you aren't a germ-a-phobe, by the time the meet and greet portion of the event ends you have the persistent urge to wash your hands (hence the reason I never go any place without a stash of anti-bacterial wipes in my purse).  It wasn't until I had the opportunity to shake that many hands that I actually gave any thought to this simple action.  Whether limp and damp or dry and bone crushing, I've come to realize that handshakes say a lot about the person behind the grip.  Military- especially Eastern European- hand shakes tend to be rapid and knuckle crushing.  (Over the past year I've stopped wearing a ring on my right hand in order to reduce the potential damage to my right hand that comes from these over zealous greetings).  Other handshakes are as lifeless as an overcooked noodle.  If I wasn't looking I wouldn't even be aware that a handshake took place.  By far the worst handshake, however, is the sweaty palm.  Whether it is firm or gentle it leaves me wanting to discretely wipe my hand on my skirt (yet another reason to wear something that does not require dry cleaning).  Finally, there are the people who won't shake my hand. Whether it is a cultural taboo to touch a strange woman or I don't rate high enough on their significance scale, a number of guests blew right past me without slowing their pace.  I don't take it personally; rather I chalk it up to my overall experience.

The other thing I noticed at our reception was what people wore.  Again, military members arrive wearing uniforms.  This makes it easy to both spot and recognize them.  Civilian attire is more open to interpretation. Guests wore everything from skinny jeans and strategically torn tee shirts and micro mini dresses to cocktail attire, business suits and everything in between.  Not everything was seasonally appropriate either:  I spotted at least one fur trimmed outfit. This is outside. In June. In Albania. I was hot and itchy just looking at it; I can't even begin to imagine actually wearing the outfit.  Given that this was an outdoor event on a large grassy lawn, I would have expected more outdoor friendly footwear.  Instead, the number of Manolo Blahniks and cheaper knock offs worn by female guests was astounding.  I would never dream of wearing stiletto heels to an outdoor event but apparently I am in the minority on this.  If nothing else, this fashion parade only added to the evening's entertainment.

The actual reception was nice.  The lawn of the National Gallery was tastefully decorated and the temperatures were significantly cooler than I remember them being last year.  Both the American and Albanian national anthems were impressively sung by a young Albanian singer from Vlore.  A visiting U. S. Navy band provided background music throughout the reception.  Food and drink flowed freely, speeches were made, guests mingled, and the evening was capped off with a short display of fireworks.  Considering the fact we are in Albania and there wasn't any hotdogs, flip flops, or beaches in sight, it was a nice Fourth of July celebration.  It certainly wasn't like the celebrations I remember as a child, but it was a typical national day celebration with a local Albanian twist.

Until we do it again next year, Happy Independence Day America, with love from Albania!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Partaking in a European Pastime

Regardless of where I am living, I'm not a huge spectator sports fan.  When we lived in Norfolk- a city devoid of any professional sports teams- we would occasionally attend a Norfolk Tides game with friends.  This Triple-A baseball team was affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles so Glenn would root for them under the auspices of cheering on his hometown team. In reality, we attended these games as social outings with friends and coworkers since neither of us had a real interest in the game's outcome.  Growing up in New England I was, by default, a Boston Red Sox, Boston Celtics, and New England Patriots fan.  Of course, this was during the time when these teams were in the midst of years long losing streaks.  (It wasn't until after I actually moved away from New England that they all began to have winning seasons.  I were the superstitious type, I would say that my presence in New England brought them bad luck).

Upon moving to Albania, it quickly became clear to us that football, or what we Americans call soccer, is a national obsession throughout Europe.  I knew football was a big deal here but didn't realize how important it was.  Even in Albania, a country whose national team is never a contender for an international title, football is popular.  Regardless of their size, it appears that every city and town in Albania has at least one football stadium (Tirana has two!).  Even more telling, when the rest of the city is shrouded in darkness due to power outages, night games in these stadiums are well lit.  Boys start playing football at a young age here (it always seems to be boys since I have yet to see any girls playing).  Whether it is young boys kicking the ball on our street or older youth playing pick up games in the dirt field in the neighborhood, everyone seems to be playing football.  Those who aren't playing are watching- either in the stands or on television in smoked filled cafes.  Football truly is a national pastime.

In Europe, the Super Bowl of football is the Euro Cup.   Buzz about the Euro Cup had been building in recent weeks as national teams dropped from Cup contention.  In coffee bars and on the street, people have been talking about which team was favored to win.  Much like fall and winter Sundays in the U.S. when Americans plan their activities around their football team's kick off time, Europeans do the same.  Football is such serious business here that the playoff schedule became a part of the discussions when planning the Embassy's Independence Day celebration; if a playoff game or (gasp) the finale coincided with our reception, which event would people chose to attend? (Fortunately there wasn't a conflict as the final game took place two days after our event).  Last week Glenn and I found ourselves in Dubrovnik, Croatia on the evening of a semi-final game.  Every public square and outdoor cafe in the old city was filled with chairs and large screen televisions as Europeans of all nationalities cheered Italy on in their victory over Germany.  I think it was at this moment that I truly realized that this was more than just a game- pride and national bragging rights were at stake.

This past Sunday night we watched the Euro Cup finale between Italy and Spain with a group of our international friends.  In typical Albanian fashion we met at a local restaurant where large screen televisions had been set up on the outside patio which made for optimum viewing.  Much to our own chagrin, but to the delight of our friends, we brought Sidney with us to watch the game that began at 2045.  (Even worse, we had been preparing for this night by delaying and extending his nap time over the course of two days with the hope that he would want to stay awake for the late game- he did).  We happened to be in good company as the playground adjacent the restaurant was filled with toddlers running around long after the hour that should have found them asleep in bed.  Sidney joined in the fray befriending a gaggle of Albanian boys who spent the first half of the game running and climbing as only boys can.  The entire scene was loud, smoky, humid, and classically European.  Italian fans, including our entire group that included two Italians, outnumbered Spain's so the shouting throughout the game was more out of dismay rather than joy as Spain scored four unanswered goals.  

Although the final results weren't what we had hoped they would be it was a fun way to spend a European evening.  Next up- watching a live football game in person.  After all, Tirana has two stadiums for us to chose from.