Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Christmas Road Trip Through the Former Yugoslav Republic

For Christmas we decided to get out of Albania and get out we did.  After consulting our master destination wish list, maps, and the weather we decided to head to Ljubljana, Slovenia.  Logistics (i.e. a small child with lots of paraphernalia) made it easier to drive so we planned a route that meandered up the Adriatic Coast from Albania to Slovenia via Montenegro, Croatia, and for a very brief time, Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

Covering just over 600 miles each way, the trip proved to be an amazing contrast of geography, western development, and cultures and was just what we needed to unwind.  Highlights included:

·         The Albania-Montenegro border crossings.  One lane dirt roads manned by chain smoking border police made us feel like we had gone back in time to old Eastern European stereotypes.  These roads (both of them!) are the main north-south routes through the Balkans and drive home just how inaccessible Albania still is.  If one doesn't want to feel welcome in a country, trying to drive across the Albanian border from the north is the way to go.
·         The breath taking views of the snow covered mountains as we drove the hairpin turns from Budva to Podgorica.  The Albanian translation for “Montenegro” is “black mountains” and the views left us speechless.
·         The rocky and rough landscapes that seemed to perfectly illustrate the country’s history.
·         Taking the car ferry across the Bay of Kotor.  A quick, 4 € trip saved us over an hour of driving time and provided Sidney with the opportunity to gaze at his beloved uji (water).

·         An overnight in each direction in Dubrovnik where we chased Sidney through kilometers of pedestrian only marbled streets and alleyways in the City’s  walled Old Town.
·         The Pucić Palace Hotel, the only hotel located in the Old Town and in the heart of all of Dubrovnik’s action.
·         Dinner at an Italian restaurant where we had a lively conversation with a Canadian and an Australian who were in law school in Paris (now that’s international).
·         Driving along the Dalmatian Coast.  The pictures I took just don’t do it justice.  Between the cloudless blue sky and the translucent water I think this is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. 
·         The numerous tunnels along the interstate.  Not only was the new highway perfectly maintained and traffic free (maybe I’ve been living in Albania too long), but the tunnels carved through the mountains transported us from one weather zone and into another.
·         Croatia’s varied geography.   The shape of Croatia results in numerous topographic and weather zones with each being more impressive than the last.

·         We blinked and we almost missed it.  We were there such a short period of time that we never received stamps in our passports.  Once you looked past the tacky tourist hotels clustered around the beach town of Neum, the short stretch of coastline is classically beautiful.

·         The old European feel of Ljubljana that couldn’t be farther from what we had experienced along the Adriatic Coast.  It is hard to believe that just twenty years ago all of these countries had co-existed under the single identity of Yugoslavia. 
·         The magical lights and festive atmosphere that continued past Christmas day.
·         The street musicians, Christmas markets, and food vendors that lined the pedestrian zoned Ljubljanica River.   Every evening brought about a live musical performance along the river.  Traditional Slovenian folk music, church choirs, American cover bands, Sidney enjoyed dancing to them all.
·         Our suite at the Antiq Palace Hotel.  Our temporary living space was larger, and better appointed, than our apartment back in D.C.
·         Eating street food (Slovenian sausages with red pepper relish were a favorite) and drinking lots of Kuhino Vino (mulled wine).
·         A smoke free atmosphere that was truly smoke free.  It was so nice to sit in a restaurant and not be surrounded by toxic clouds of tobacco.
·         Hiking up to the frosty Ljubljana Castle then taking the tram down.
·         Food, food, and more food.  Our taste buds were reawakened as we ate Mexican, Indian (some of the best I have ever had), and Slovenian foods.  You don’t realize what you are missing until it is gone. 
·         The family friendly atmosphere that was pervasive throughout the entire City.  Restaurants provided high chairs - in Albania we are so used to them not being available that we now travel with our own booster seat in the back of the car.  Every evening children of all ages were out and about on the streets with their families.

The best thing about the entire trip, however, was that we got to spend time together as a nuclear family.  For the first time since we’ve been married, we were able to spend the holidays together without being pulled between conflicting family obligations.  Phone calls and texts from the Embassy were kept to a minimum and we spent several blissful days without any buzzing from Glenn’s Blackberry.  I loved it.  Glenn loved it.  And Sidney loved it- or so he told us in his two-year old ‘s vocabulary.  And that is what the Christmas season should be about.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Twas the Week Before Christmas

Twas the week before Christmas and at the house Brown
We were busy settling into the first holiday season in our new town.
Our tree was imported and decorated with many a light
But the stockings seem to have gone missing during the long overseas flight.

Along Bulevardi Deshmoret e Kombit and Skenderbeau Square the lights are all a flair
Making me wonder why those in residential areas are so rare.
The weather is warm, humid and very wet
But Glenn is hoping that the snow we see in the mountains will get here yet.

Tirana’s first try at a Christmas market is impressive
The overall atmosphere is quite festive.
Food, wine, and craft vendors are numerous
But  I find a lingerie booth and a lack of reliable electricity there humorous.

An unreliable internet connection initially made gift buying a flop
But in the end Abcom and Amazon came through and allowed me to shop.
Presents were then purchased and arrived via mail pouch
Proving that even in Albania, Santa is no slouch.

A last minute Embassy decision temporarily lifted the restrictions on outgoing mail
So local shopping ensued and family at home will now receive Albanian trinkets without fail.
Everything is now here but gifts have yet to be assembled and wrapped  
And of course this cannot always take place while Sidney takes his nap.

Our holiday parties and dinners are in full swing
Numerous turkeys have been cooked yet there is still fighting over the wings.
Pans and dishes left over from cookie baking fill the sink
And we’ve been gifted with more “special” Albanian raki than we would ever want to drink.

At night the boys sleep soundly in their flannel lined beds
While Mama sits at the computer typing out all of the lists that run through her head.
Cards have been mailed and reservations made
But there is still the fear that additional plans must be laid.

Did I cook enough food to feed the crowds
Did the job I do make Glenn proud?
Will our guests feel like they are treated as kings and queens
Should we buy more toys to donate to the Marines?

These are the things that at night keep me awake
I should go to bed but alas, there is yet another list to make.
Whether I'm ready or not Christmas will arrive
And that is the same regardless whether we are in Albania or stateside.

I'm the only one who will know that gifts remain hidden
I'm the only one who cares that the red in the centerpiece does not match my linen.
I'm the only one who notices that the tree is off balance
I'm the only one who sees the speck of dust on the valance.

Each year I vow to reduce my stress
But another holiday season arrives with  more to-do lists hot off of the press.
So in this Christmas week I have one wish to all of our family and friends
May the holidays and new year bring health, happiness and good will to all (wo)men.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Old Meets New........An Albanian Folk Music Concert

Last week Glenn and I attended a concert sponsored by the Albanian Ministry of Defense.  I wasn't sure what to expect since the only details on the invitation were those discussing the dress code (which in Albania, is always loosely interpreted and this concert proved to be no exception).  Because the concert was sponsored by the military I think I expected to see a program filled with patriotic, Souza-type music.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that we would be spending our evening listening to "masterpieces of the Albanian spiritual heritage."

Regardless of its cultural origins, I have never been a fan of folk music.  While I can appreciate all genres of music for their artistic and perhaps historical significance, I tend to find folk music to be scratchy and hard on the ears.  Albanian folk music proved to be no exception.

The evening's program consisted of 18 pieces of Albanian folk music- some accompanied by traditional instruments- including the cifteli, sharki, and zumare, others accompanied by traditionally dressed dancers, and several songs sung a capella.  All of the performances were presented on stage in front of impressive, and ever changing visual images of Albania's natural beauty.  (Of course the ubiquitous double-headed black eagle- the national symbol- was present for several of the pieces.)  The musical and dance numbers represented traditions from both the north and south of Albania and were performed by men and of all ages.  I have to say that overall, the concert was impressive in both its scope and professionalism.

The entire production reminded me once again that despite Albania's dark and often painful past, her national pride and spirit remain strong.  While the country is barreling ahead and attempting to modernize at breakneck speed, she continues to celebrate and honor her traditional past.  Much to the delight of the audience, young boys danced the dances of their forefathers with pride. Their performance received just a much applause as did that of the old Albanian man performing solo on the stage.  Just this man's performing in front of a crowd of thousands would have been unimaginable to him when he was a boy.

Out of all of the things I have witnessed about Albania and Albanians over the past six months, it is their enduring love of country and sense of tradition that I find the most endearing.  Yes, new roads, high rise buildings and shopping malls are being built each year. Albania continues to strive towards gaining EU membership and recognition as a western, first-world country.  In looking around Tirana on a daily basis I see how new and modern are the current ideal.  Despite all this, however, Albania continues to honor and hold onto her cultural traditions.  And this, in my opinion, is the most important thing of all.  We may know where we are now and where we want to be tomorrow but all is lost if we forget where we came from.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bring on the Rain

The rain has arrived and in Albania, that means winter is here.  I've been a bit out of sorts since the calendar tells me it is December and we are a mere 2 1/2 weeks away from Christmas, yet the weather has felt more like a New England September day.  For over a month now, people have been telling me that the rainy season could start at any time.  Prior to this week I could count the number of times it had rained since June on one hand (and half of those were rain incidents that barely qualified as such).

We desperately need the rain.  It seems as though the entire country is covered in a thick layer of dust.  Tree leaves and plants having been looking gray, not from a change of the seasons, but from an ever growing dusty film.  More importantly, Albania is a country predominantly powered by hydro-electric power.  No water means no electricity.  Even during the best of times, electricity in Albania is notoriously unreliable.  Six plus months without any measurable rain only adds to the problem.  In the past couple of weeks I've noticed that our generator has been running more than usual and the neighborhoods surrounding our house have been suspiciously dark at night.  We may be inconvenienced by the flickering electricity but for most Albanians, unreliable electricity is a true problem.

So what does the rainy season mean in Albania?  Well, if you live in a concrete house like we do, it means it is loud.  Sometimes the rain sounds like bombs are going off.  This is especially true when the heavy rain is accompanied by thunder.  After a heavy rain what had been dry dust becomes gloppy mud.  The regular piles of litter are even more pronounced since they get washed downhill and collect in low lying areas.  Navigating the Embassy compound becomes a challenge as I must now dodge raindrops and puddles as well as traffic.  I must find new ways to entertain Sidney since outdoor play is not an option.  When it rains, it is damp, raw, and just plain gray.

The weather changes quickly here.  What starts off as a beautiful morning- like today- quickly turns dark and ominous as the day progresses.  Or the opposite could be true. Yesterday morning was gray and drab but the sun peaked out at noon and the afternoon was beautiful (well, compared to the gray rain, that is).  For a brief time the air actually smelled clean and refreshing.  Some days are just dark and gray with the cloud bank never lifting off of the mountains.  There is a constant drizzle that makes the drabness of Tirana even more pronounced.

If nothing else, now that the rain has arrived the weather is just plain unpredictable. After months of bright, hot sunshine I don't know what to expect.  I'm quickly learning to carry an umbrella in my purse at all times.  I have a couple stashed in our car, several at home, and one in my office.  (Somehow I still seem to get caught in the rain). After ruining two pairs of good shoes- even the pavement is muddy here- I've broken out my rain boots. If I don't wear them to work I at least bring them with me since the chances are good that I'll be needing them before my day is over.

Yes, the rain is a messy yet necessary inconvenience and it appears as though it is here to stay.  I'm already tiring of it and am looking forward to spring. I'm told that by April, the rains will stop and the sun will once again come out on a regular basis.  I know its too soon, but I'm already counting down the days.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sometimes You Just Need to Get Away

That’s how I felt following the craziness that was our Thanksgiving week.  In looking at our schedules I realized that we actually had a “free” weekend before the Christmas rush began.  Instead of staying home we decided a quick weekend get away to Greece was in order.  (Actually, I decided that I needed to stock up on a few items from IKEA and the Ioannina, Greece store was the closest and easiest one to get to). 

Having left the hotel details up to Glenn, we piled into the car on Friday afternoon and headed south on a “new and improved” Albanian highway.  The weekend was a whirlwind but one of the highlights was our hotel (Grand Serai Congress & Spa )complete with a balconied suite, an unlimited supply of hot water with amazing water pressure in the shower, and a buffet filled with baklava and cheeses from all over Europe (no Albanian white cheese for me this weekend!).  Christmas decorations and music filled the lobby and helped me get into the holiday spirit. 

Exploring the ruins
We spent Saturday exploring Ioannina’s walled Citadel, shopping at IKEA, and just spending time as a family.  It was exactly what I needed to recharge my batteries.  Despite the economic crisis plaguing Greece, we saw little evidence of the country’s problems.  Families were out and about in the city and money was being spent.  We have been enjoying our time in Albania but we also relished the fact that the streets were free of litter, traffic laws were obeyed and we had “western” amenities at our disposal.  There are so many things that you take for granted until they aren't readily available.

Sunday we meandered our way back towards Tirana taking a slightly different route.  The topography of northern Greece is almost identical to that of southern Albania (after all, they do share a border and the actual border had been disputed for years) but it was immediately noticeable when we had left one country and entered into another (and I’m not just talking about having passed through Customs).  The roads on the Albanian side of the border were noticeably narrower and littered with trash.  Rows of old bunkers lined the hillsides with their observation holes pointed south towards Greece.  Policia Rruga (traffic police) were randomly (or so it seemed) pulling cars over and questioning the drivers.  Yes, we were definitely back in Albania and on our way home.

Yielding to the locals
Our homeward trek took us up the Ionian Coast through SarandaHimare, and Vlore.  Quaint seaside villages hugged the craggy mountains.  Herds of sheep and goats grazed on the hills- and occasionally crossed our path.  The road was surprisingly well maintained but the hairpin turns and switchbacks made it slow going.    We stopped in Porto Palermo to visit Palermo Castle.  This well preserved castle sat on a beautiful  isthmus sporting views of both Corfu to the south and the Bay of Palermo to the north.  We spent time exploring  cavernous rooms and dark nooks that seemed like they belonged in a Nancy Drew mystery.  I think this castle has to be one of the best kept secrets in Albania.

By the time we arrived back in Tirana we were all simultaneously tired and rejuvenated.  We covered a lot of area in three short days and listened to more Christmas music than is healthy but it was worth it.  As much as I’m loving our life in Tirana it can get quite exhausting.  These quick get aways are  just the solution. So much so, that I’m planning our next one now.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Two Years of Giving Thanks

Two years ago the 26th was Thanksgiving Day. I remember it distinctly because I was almost seven months pregnant and we had driven from Norfolk, VA to Maine for Thanksgiving.  After consulting with my doctor we decided it was fine to travel since, to date, my pregnancy had been uneventful.   I had spent the day before Thanksgiving baking pies for the big day.  I didn't feel well that day but I figured it was because I had been traveling and I was pregnant. I mean, what pregnant woman ever feels well when she is bloated and cranky all the time?

As I went to bed the night of the 25th I suspected something really wasn't right. After a flurry of phone calls back to my doctor in Virginia, Glenn piled me into the car and drove at break neck speed the 1 1/2 hours to the hospital in Portland.  Glenn told me that my doctor was saying it was only a precaution (I was to later find out that she in fact told him that it was critical that we get there).  I grew up driving the route from my mom's house to Portland but I never remember it taking such a long time.  I kid you not when I say it was a dark and foggy night.

Sidney at one week
Three hours later we had a healthy, albeit tiny son who weighed in at 2 lbs 12 oz (or 1.25 kilograms).  We found ourselves as the newest members of a club no one wants membership in- that belonging to the parents of premature babies.  As someone who researches, plans, then executes the most minute event, I was in over my head with the task before me.  We were blessed with the good fortune of being at the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital at Maine Medical Center.  Little did we know but this hospital has one of the best NICUs in the country. The nurses and doctors helped us through the first few hours, days, then weeks as we sat vigil at Sidney's bedside.  They patiently explained each procedure and became an integral part of our lives over the next four weeks.

Thanks to modern technology- i.e. Facebook, friends from around the globe offered their encouragement and support.  Within hours of Sidney's birth- as Glenn and I sat in a dumbfounded stupor in my hospital room, we received phone calls from my sister in Switzerland and our dear friends Chris and Catherine.  Although they were in Japan, they had already heard the news and were offering their support.  Our USS Theodore Roosevelt "family" back in Norfolk began working the phones to make sure we had the support we needed.  Glenn's leave was immediately extended thus allowing him to spend additional time in the hospital with his new family of three.  My friend Victoria, a.k.a. as the Tricare guru, gave me a crash course in advocacy and making the cumbersome military health care system work for us instead of against us.  Back in Norfolk our friends Eric and Gail supervised contractors who were called in at the last minute to speed up the on-going renovations in our home.

After a week Glenn returned to Norfolk and my friends Diane and Lexi put the TR wives to work making sure he was fed in my absence.  My brother and sister-in-law, along with my parents, made regular treks to the hospital to make sure I wasn't alone.  My in-laws flew up from Maryland and friends who couldn't be with me checked in on a daily basis offering me the love and support I needed to get through those difficult first weeks.  

Sidney continued to surpass the doctors' expectations and within a month, and only a few days shy of Christmas, we learned that Sidney was medically stable and could be transferred to a hospital closer to home.  Glenn's CO made sure we would all be together in Virginia by Christmas and on Christmas Eve Sidney was medi-flighted to Portsmouth Naval Medical Center.  

We went through our share of ups and downs over the next seven weeks but found our savior in a wonderful nurse named Rebecca who became Sidney's fiercest advocate.  Our TR family came through once again with hot meals and manual labor to make sure our house was ready for Sidney's homecoming after 11 weeks in two different NICUs in two different states.  Throughout it all Sidney defied expectations and proved to be a little trooper.

The birthday boy with his new ride
Today Sidney is a strong willed little boy who has both the best and worst traits of both of his parents.  Today we celebrate Sidney's second birthday with birthday French toast, qofta (Albanian hotdogs), gifts, and a low key trip to Blur (the Albanian version of Chuckee Cheese).  I wish my dear little boy the happiest of birthdays.  But today, I also extend an enormous thank you to everyone who has provided us with love, support, and guidance over the past two years. We wouldn't be here without you and for that, I invite all of you to share in today's celebration.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving American (?) Style

Today is American Thanksgiving.  In recent years Thanksgiving has become the eve of Black Friday, an all out sale extravaganza that marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season.  Traditionally, however,  it is a day to give thanks for all we are grateful for.  There are so many things I am thankful for- my family, friends, and as I age, my health- these are just a few of the things I must not take for granted.

Living overseas, Thanksgiving has snuck up on me this year.  When Glenn and I were first talking about this year's impending holiday, we realized that it would be the first one since we have known each other where we weren't doing the multi-family shuffle up and down Interstate 95 (another thing we are thankful for- not having to spend hours upon hours stuck in traffic).

For me, Thanksgiving has always been about family, friends, and friends that are like family.  Since we will be without our blood family this year, we decided share our American Thanksgiving with our adopted Albanian family- those people we see on a daily basis who make our lives possible.  What started out as an invitation the the Americans and Albanians in both of our offices has morphed into a dining extravaganza for 25.  We've included our housekeeper and our nanny and their respective families since none of what we do would be possible without their dedication and hard work.  Our two "adopted"  Marines from the Embassy's Marine Security Guard contingent were invited along with their co-workers and a smattering of girlfriends.

So how did we do this?  With the support of GSO and the previously mentioned housekeeper we crammed three dining room tables into our representational space.  The intermittent, and notoriously unreliable mail pouch came through with my "last minute" linens order.  Glenn discovered his crafty side as he went to work (under my supervision) putting together homemade turkey, wheat sheaf,  and pumpkin shaped place cards to keep the seating under control and eliminate any language barriers.

I began crafting my menu a month ago with an execution strategy that would put military planning to shame.  Turkeys and ham were purloined from the military commissary in Kosovo while sweet potatoes were brought back from Naples, Italy by traveling friends.  A lack of pecans and fresh cranberries in Albania resulted in the traditional pumpkin pie becoming a maple-walnut pie (Walnuts must be bought whole here then shelled)  and imported cranberry sauce from a can.  Pumpkin pie was made from my precious stash of canned pumpkin that I had packed into our consumable goods.  To accommodate all tastes and dietary restrictions, new dishes were added and some seasonings toned down.  Traditional recipes from both my family and Glenn's were included on the menu.   I added a few new dishes that will become part of our little family's tradition.  My mother spent one day of her visit making seven pie crusts which greatly expedited the production and baking of desserts.  The entire family learned the best techniques for roasting and shelling pounds (or kilograms) of fresh chestnuts.  A borrowed turkey roaster and my trusty crockpot allowed all the items to be cooked and served hot.

I began the actual cooking process a week ago, freezing and storing things as I went.  On more than one occasion I questioned my sanity at the wisdom of this whole event.  In the end, however, I believe it was worth it.  Our guests came and ate and shared our holiday with us. Yes, it was crazy and a bit chaotic but isn't that what the holidays are really about?  What better way to introduce such an American holiday to Albanians.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The History of Rozafa Castle

At a very windy Rozafa Castle.  Additional pictures can be found here.
My parents have been visiting and as is true anytime we have visitors, we provide them with a whirlwind tour of the best sites our current home has to offer.  This past Saturday, that meant a trek to the northern Albanian city of Shkoder.  Shkoder sits on the southern edge of Lake Shkoder, the largest lake in the Balkans.  A highlight of any trip to Shkoder is a visit to Rozafa Castle.

To change things up a bit, below you will find a story of Rozafa Castle that I'm borrowing from Mitrush Kuteli's Old Albanian Tales.  I first read the tale in Albanian, but I've included the English version here.

There is a beautiful but bitter legend about the building of Rozafa Castle, which has come down to us from olden times.  Here is what that legend says:

On the summit of Valdanuz Hill, three brothers were working.  They were building a castle.  The wall they built during the day collapsed at night, and so they could never get it any higher.

Along there came a nice old man, who greeted them. "All the best to you too, you kind old man." the brothers said.  "But as for day we work, by night it collapses.  Can you give us any advice?  How can we keep the walls standing?"

"I know," said the old man, "but it is a sin to tell you."

"On our heads be the sin, because we want this castle to stay up."

The nice old man thought about it, and then he asked:  "Are you married, brave lads? Do you have three lasses at home?"

"We are married," they said.  "All three of us have lasses.  So tell us what to do to keep this castle standing!"

"If you want to keep it, swear this to each other on your honor: don't tell your lasses, don't speak at home about what I will say.  Whichever of your wives brings your lunch tomorrow, take her and wall her up alive in the wall of the castle.  Then you will see that the wall will stay in place and remain for ever and a day."

This is what the old  man said, and he left.  One  moment he was there, and the next he was gone.

Alas!  The eldest brother broke his word of honor.  He spoke at home, told his lass, just like that, and he told her not to go there the next day.  The middle one too, broke his word of honor, he told everything to his lass. Only the youngest kept his word of honor.  He did not speak at home, he did not tell his lass.

In the morning, the three of them got up early and went to work.  Hammers struck, rocks broke, hearts beat, the walls grew higher.

At home, the lads' mother knew nothing.  She said to the eldest"  "Daughter-in-law, the workers want bread and water; they want a gourd of wine."

The eldest daughter-in-law answered her: "Upon my word, mother.  I can't go today because I am ill."

She turned and said to the middle one:  "Daughter-in-law, the workers want bread and water; they want a gourd of wine."

"Upon my word mother, I can't possibly go today; I'm going to my parents' house the night."

The lads' mother turned and said to the youngest daughter-in-law:  "Daughter-in-law."

The youngest daughter-in-law jumped to her feet, "Yes, mother?"

"The workers want bread and water; they want a gourd of wine."

"Upon my word mother, I would go but for my little boy.  I am afraid he will want the breast and he will cry."

"Oh you go, we'll look after the boy, we won't let him cry," said her sisters-in-law. 

The youngest stood up, the good girl; she took bread and water, she took the wine-gourd, she kissed her son on both cheeks and set off; she climbed up Valdanuz Hill and drew near the place where the three men- her two brothers-in-law and her husband- were working.

"May your work go well!"

But what was this?  Their hammers stopped striking, but their hearts beat faster and faster.  Their faces grew pale.  When the youngest saw his wife, he threw the hammer from his hand, he cursed the stone and the wall.  His wife said:

"What is the matter, my lord? Why do you curse the stone and the wall?"

The eldest brother-in-law broke in, "It was a black day when you were born, our dear sister-in-law.  We have sworn to wall you up alive in the castle wall."

"And all the best to you, my brothers-in-law.  But I have one request for you.  When you wall me up, leave my right eye uncovered , leave my right hand uncovered, leave my right foot uncovered, and leave my right breast uncovered.  Because I have a little boy.  When he starts to cry, with one eye I will see him, with one hand I will stroke him, with one foot I will rock his cradle, and with one breast I will feed him.  May my breast turn to stone, may the castle stay firm, may my son grow up brave, and may he become king and rule!"

They took the youngest wife and they walled her up in the foundations of the castle.  And the walls rose, they grew high, they did not collapse as they had before.  But at their base the stones are damp and mossy to this day, because of the mother's tears still fall for her son.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Every country seems to have a national drink and in Albania that drink is raki.  For those who have never tried it, raki is akin to good old American moonshine and the process for making it is similar.  (A more in depth history of raki can be found here).  I was first served raki on a rooftop deck in Arlington by Albanian friends of ours. I knew I was in trouble when I could smell the drink coming my way before I could see it.  I disliked it immediately and even Glenn only managed to drink a sip or two out of politeness. To me, raki tastes like rubbing alcohol with an after burn that just stays with you.  

When we arrived in Albania we were "fortunate" enough to find several bottles of raki that had been left in our house by the previous tenants and we have already been gifted with more bottles than we will ever drink.  (Being frugal, raki makers often store their potion in recycled water bottles.  If you see a water bottle with a broken seal in an Albanian refrigerator, be suspicious of its contents!).

Albanians are serious about their raki.  People will have grapes growing in their yards for the express purpose of distilling raki.  Men brag about the quality and taste of the raki they produce and insist that you try theirs since it is "the best there is".  (Fortunately for me, women aren't expected to part take in the tastings and I'm quick to opt out when the opportunity arises).  Meetings start with raki (regardless of the time of day), meals end with raki and for good measure, raki chasers accompany coffee.  In restaurants, raki may be brought to the table before or after meals (or if you are really lucky, both) by owners eager to share their version of this national drink.

To be fair, I have tried an occasional sip or two- usually out of Glenn's glass since I don't want to "waste" a whole glass on me. Some of the raki has been better than others but that is to say that the after burn doesn't last as long.

Fall is prime raki making season.  This past weekend we were invited to an Albanian family's house to watch the raki burning process. Yes, that is what they call it and I find it a wee bit ironic since that is what the raki does to you.  

The cauldron is sealed with a flour and water mixture
I'm not sure what I expected but the scene was everything I had imagined  a stereotypical Albanian experience would be.  An assortment of friends, neighbors and relatives were standing around in the backyard of a half finished house.  A makeshift still was perched over a fire.  The grapes had already been fermenting for some time so their mash was ready to distill.  The cauldron was sealed with a mixture of flour and water .  Once everything was in place a fire was lit and under the watchful eye of the adults, the children fed the fire with twigs, leaves, and the occasional tree limb.  All there was to do was wait.  And wait.  Actually, the wait was only an hour- during which time cups of raki were passed around.  After an hour a trickle of raki ran into the cup that had been placed at the bottom of the distiller.  

Here comes the raki
The trickle was slow but it kept coming.  It flowed on for several hours after which the process was repeated to ensure that the raki was "extra smooth".  Fortunately we didn't stick around to watch the  raki drip into the cup all afternoon.  We went out to a neighborhood "restaurant" where we had an Albanian lunch that lasted for hours.  Upon arrival at the restaurant we were taken on a tour of the chicken coop.  The meaning of the tour escaped me until our lunch arrived and it was fresh roasted chicken. The meal was delicious and accompanied by all of the traditional Albanian foods that seem to be a part of every dining experience in this country.  And yes, there was raki involved for those who chose to partake.  And we even got to take a water bottle filled with raki home with us.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Due to a variety of circumstances, we were recently offered the opportunity to extend our orders from two years to three. Everyone has told us that two years isn't enough time to really get to know the country and that four years is too much.  Three years is the ideal and it looks like it is now ours.  Glenn and I had talked about staying longer in hypothetical terms when we had been told that our replacements had already been selected and June 2013 would be our departure date.  Knowing this, we had decided that if given the opportunity to stay longer, we would. So when the opportunity arose, we jumped at the chance and through a flurry of emails and text messages, said yes, we'll stay for another year.

So we are staying and the reality is sinking in.  This will mean a total of three years in Albania.  Another year of deciding whether "berry" "raspberry" or "cranberry" is the right lipstick color and then waiting 6-8 weeks for the unreliable pouch to deliver it.  Another year without my own furniture and personal belongings. Another summer of unbearable heat and an unreliable water supply.  A year is probably another 100 or so dinners and receptions we will attend and host.  We'll have another year of Glenn's long unpredictable hours and middle of the night Blackberry messages.  Another year without our close friends and family near by.  We'll have another year of AFN infomercials.  By the time we return to the States, every show on HGTV will be a new episode for us.  Maybe House Hunters International will finally be house hunting in Albania?

Sidney will now be 4 1/2 when we leave instead of 3 1/2.  He'll probably be fluent in Albanian by that time.  Hopefully his English skills will be half as strong.  We'll be able to fly back to the United States without a diaper bag in hand.  Heck, he'll be able to carry his own bag this time.  (Maybe this plan isn't half bad after all.........).

Another year here means a one year reprieve from having to pack up the house and relocate yet again.  After another year we might even be able to feel as though we have a small amount of stability in our lives.  Another year here means I will be able to prolong starting the torturous job search process.  We'll have another year to explore the Balkans and beyond.  I'll have another year to learn the lay of the land and fine tune my Albanian driving skills. (Although Virginia may revoke my license when they see what those skills have become). We'll have longer to cement our current friendships.  Maybe I'll also figure out which berry color is the right lipstick shade for me.

We're staying..........and we're so excited to be doing it!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Let the Holidays Begin

Elmo and the Count ready to go
Today is Halloween.  For most people it means costumes and candy.  Here in Tirana we've had two Halloween events- one last Friday on the Embassy compound and the other tonight on the Ridge.  Both of my boys were decked out in matching costumes and collected an amount of candy that is totally out of proportion to the number of spots where they trick-or-treated. I didn't dress up and I don't plan to eat any candy.  No matter how much I try, and despite trowing a rocking Halloween party last week, I just can't get into the spirit of the holiday.  Maybe it was growing up in a rural area where trick-or-treating was not feasible.  Maybe it was the case of chicken pox on the Halloween when I was in fourth grade.   I don't know and I can't explain it.  I am just relieved that the whole Halloween thing is behind me for this year.

Halloween does have significance though.  Tomorrow ushers in my favorite time of year.  With Halloween behind me I can focus on the holidays that matters the most to me- Thanksgiving and then Christmas.   To me, these two holidays have a festive air that I wish I could experience all year long.  I have looked forward to these holidays since I was a child and like fine wine, they only improve with age.  Glenn and I met during the holiday season.  Two years ago we were blessed with the early arrival of Sidney on Thanksgiving Day.  I took his birth on my favorite holiday- plus the fact he was born after I had finished baking the Thanksgiving pies- as a sign that he too will love this holiday season.

I love the food, friends, and family that go along with this time of year.  Ok, more than this I might like the organization that goes along with these events.  The holidays are a great time for us Type A's to have our skills shine.  Starting tomorrow I can begin obsessing about my menus, guest lists, and seating charts for the multiple holiday dinners we will host.  Yes I know I will serve turkey but what will I do for sides?  Will I be able to find sweet potatoes and pecans or will I have to find Albanian substitutes?  Will my place cards be miniature turkeys, pumpkins, or both?  How will I get the timing right to get a dinner for 26 on the table at precisely at 1600?  These are the details I wait all year to ponder and for the next 24 days I can work and rework the countless possibilities for executing the perfect day.  After that I will have another 31 days to determine my strategy for Christmas.  Yes, I am a bit obsessed but isn't admitting you have a problem the first step?

Before I begin any of this, however, the Halloween costumes and my lone decoration- a glitter covered jack o'lantern- must be packed away.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

What Happened to Your Hair?

I had heard that when it comes to asking personal questions- or even questions that most Americans would tactfully shy away from- Albanians lack filters.  Many think nothing about commenting on someones weight, appearance, or mannerisms and dismiss their actions as curiosity about others instead of behavior that would make Miss Manners shudder.  I knew this but I think I had filed this away in the back of my head or at least figured that my grasp of Albanian had me misunderstanding the few comments I had heard. Oh, I found that this is not necessarily so..............

It had been over four months since I got a haircut and I finally decided to take the plunge and do something about my hair since it had been bothering me on an increasingly more frequent basis. Following the advice of others at the Embassy I booked an appointment at a local salon where "the owner had spent eight years working in London and knows how to actually have your hair come out the color you request".  (Judging by the scarily large number of women walking around Albania with orange hair, I decided this was the salon to go to).

Now I've never been a high maintenance person and my number one criteria for a haircut is one where I don't have to spend more than two minutes styling it.  That may explain why I have a tendency to look like I just rolled out of bed but I have other priorities and just don't want to deal with it.  My new stylist is a perky lady who speaks impeccable English (thanks to her years in London) and herself has nice hair. (I've always been leery of a hairdresser whose hair scares me!).

She quickly set to work shampooing and conditioning my hair while keeping up a constant stream of chatter about all of her American Embassy clients (apparently we all do really go there), her daughter, and the ever pervasive dust in Albania.  She was quick to quiz me about the status of my hair- when was my last haircut (four months prior), why was it so dry (I have no idea), what happened to the missing piece around my face (I had never noticed it being uneven but apparently it was).  She informed me that my current "style" - if you could call it that- was all wrong and bad for me.  She didn't mince words and as forward as it was, I had to agree.  Her bold statements were refreshing to someone whose previous hair stylists had always agreed with everything I suggested and never contradicted my requests, however wrong they may have been.  She told me what style she thought would look good and I quickly agreed.  After all, who am I to argue with a woman with scissors?

After a few snips she turned to me and asked excitedly "What happened to your hair?"  I was confused since I thought we had already covered that.  I didn't know.  What she was really asking was what was going on with my color.  I'll be the first to agree that I had some roots but she declared that I had three different colors going on in a none-to-flattering way.  Again, I had to agree but her approach was a world away from the comments of previous stylists who had actually recommended my hair color.  She tsk -tsked for the remainder of the appointment but worked magic with the scissors.  I have to admit that when she was done, despite the bad hair color that I was now noticing, I did look a lot better.  Before I left she assured me that we would fix the color at my appointment next week. Who was I to argue?

The appointment for the coloring started with my being told again that my hair was "mousy" and all wrong for me.  I tentatively selected possible colors out of the big book of swatches she laid before me only to have  all of my choices shot down.  "They are all wrong for you" she declared.  (Actually the only time she agreed with me was when I pointed to the dreaded orange swatch and said I didn't want that one).  She declared that I needed a combination of two of the colors and set about mixing the solution before I could disagree.

As I sat back in the chair waiting for my chemicals to process I noticed her looking at me with a critical eye.  I had thought I was off the hook for further scrutiny but apparently I was wrong again.  "What's going on with your eyebrows?" she demanded.  I felt like a small child caught doing something wrong.  All of her comments, while brash, had been right on but I started to wonder what else she would find lacking about me in my remaining minutes in the salon.

A couple of hours later I left the salon with the best haircut and color I had ever received. My eyebrows looked pretty darn good too!  And it all cost less then what I left for a tip back in D.C.  She also took it upon herself to schedule another appointment for me for the afternoon of the Marine Ball.  "We will shampoo and blow out your hair so it looks good" she declared suspecting that I would do nothing in terms of hair preparation for the event.  "After all, this is a big American event."  Its scary how quickly she figured me out.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Scheduling Chaos

You know your life is out of control when you spend your Friday night coordinating schedules with your husband.  Yes, Glenn and I spent a recent Friday with calendars in hand trying to plan out our next few months. Sure, a glass or two of wine was involved, but it made me realize how much things have changed. It wasn't that long ago that a weekend night involved getting dressed up and going out either with friends or alone for a date.  More often than not, Friday nights were semi-spontaneous affairs (I can't completely wing it) coordinated via email in the waning hours of the work week.  Now we find ourselves sitting at home and dodging flying toys and the ever present requests for more Elmo while planning meetings, receptions, the nanny's schedule and yes, family time.

First come the pomp and circumstance events  that are scheduled for us- receptions at various embassies in honor national days, armed forces days, and other assorted international recognition days.  Considering the relatively small size of the diplomatic corps in Tirana, we find ourselves attending a large number of events.  Next up are scheduled Embassy events- both command performances and social activities that we may want to attend.  My "little part time job" comes with a surprisingly large number of after hour events for which I am often the coordinator. We debate about what is necessary for both of us to be present at and what can we get away with skipping althogether.

The next item on our scheduling agenda are the required representational events that we must host in our home.  Mid-week dinners and receptions are the norm but with the plethora of American and Albanian holidays this fall, our potential days are limited.  We finally settle on a mixture of family style sit-down dinners in our upstairs dining room, formal dinners in our representational space, and a couple of larger receptions.  In the middle of all of this chaos is the Marine Corps Ball- a must attend event that while fun, kills a weekend that could have otherwise been a get-away weekend or a much needed reprieve from doing anything.  I realize my parents will be visiting mid-month so a couple of day trips to the requisite historical sites in Albania are a must.  Looking at the schedule I see a blank space after a required reception.  Taking advantage of the built in babysitting that comes with a visit from the grandparents, I pencil in a post-reception dinner date with my husband.

Just when I think we are done I realize that Thanksgiving and Sidney's second birthday are right around the corner.  I add a sit down dinner for 24 and an Elmo-themed child's birthday party to the schedule.  Since we actually got to the end of November on our calendars we decide to forge ahead with the craziness that will be December.  Another dinner or two and a large, staggered holiday open house fill in what little white space is left.  We decide that our reward for surviving the next eight weeks of craziness will be a Christmas week away for just the three of us. Slovenia is high on our list of possible locations but I need to check and see about vacancies at family friendly places.

Whew-  I haven't even begun to plan the menus, selected the outfits to wear, to schedule the nanny, or decide on venues and caterers for these events and I'm already exhausted.  Instead of a family vacation I think I need a nice long nap- or maybe another glass of wine...............

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Goodbye Summer

Autumn has arrived with a bang here in Tirana- literally.  Friday night a series of thunderstorms rolled through.  I can now attest to the fact that when you live in a concrete house, thunder sounds like an explosion.  I thought living under the flight path of National Airport was loud but the sound of the thunder rolling off of the mountains was even more unsettling.  Friday night's thunderstorms evolved into a Saturday filled with soaking rain.  Yes, we need the rain since there has only been one rainy afternoon since we arrived in June but why did it have to fall on a Saturday that had been filled with outdoor plans?

September had been filled with cooler mornings and evenings that turned into the typical hot, sun filled afternoons.  The calendar may have said fall but the weather certainly didn't feel that way.  I spent the month looking longingly at pictures of apple picking and hayrides posted by friends on Facebook and wondered when my favorite season would arrive in Tirana.  Yes, the daylight was disappearing-  mornings and evenings were darker but the weather remained deceptively summer like.  I wondered if, or when, I would be able to break out my sweaters.

I no longer have to wonder about this.  The sun rose on Sunday morning and the air had a definite chill to it.  A chill that did not disappear as noon approached.  Actually, I dare say it is now cool. The air lacks that New England fall crispness but the seasons have definitely changed.  (I think the air is different since we don't have the changing leaves).   To celebrate, I conducted my semi-annual clothing switch-out.  It has become a tradition for Glenn to roll his eyes as I put away my light and airy summer tops and replace them with my wool sweaters that I have lugged out of the basement. Men just don't seem to understand this ritual.  (I've told Glenn that if he builds me a bigger closet I might not need to do this).  Because of the clothing switch I get to pretend that I have an all new wardrobe! This year amidst the switch-out I even found my stash of cocktail napkins and a wine opener at the bottom of a tub of sweaters! Those sneaky packers must have been trying to make use of every inch of space.  Their thriftiness had left me thinking I was going crazy.  

We're also succumbed to turning on the heat in the house.  Another joy of living in a concrete and marble house is that when it is cool outside, it becomes very cold in the house.  Yes, I know it is only October and the frugal New Englander in me shudders at the thought of turning on the heat this early in the year, but I just couldn't take it. The floors seem to conduct a cold that socks do not stop. Without central heat we've had to adjust the heater in each and every room (except the bathrooms which do not have any heat!) to take the chill off and we are now in the process of figuring out the right temperature setting for each room. We've even hauled out the space heater for the bathroom that I scoffed at buying back in June.

Everything seems to be colder all of a sudden.  What had seemed like an endless supply of hot water (when we had water) has now diminished into doses so small we can't take two consecutive showers.  Since our water is stored in a big tank in our backyard, the sun had been pre-heating it all summer long. Now that the strength of the sun has faded, so has our hot water supply.  Let me just say that cold showers in a cold bathroom are  now a fun way to start one's day.

So, yes, fall is finally here in Tirana and I am excited.  I'm determined to enjoy a much of it as I can since I know the true rainy season will soon be upon us.  To celebrate fall, I'm going to find myself my a pumpkin (harder to do than one would think) and start baking up a storm....that's my other autumn ritual.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Celebrating 20 Years of Renewed Diplomacy

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the reopening of the U.S. Embassy here in Tirana.  The week has been filled with events ranging from a simple flag raising ceremony and numerous speeches to an all day American style street fair and everything in between. For those of us who work at the Embassy it has translated into a lot of extra work but as the week draws to a close, I am realizing that the real significance of this time will last long after we have all caught up on lost sleep.

The United States reestablished diplomatic ties with Albania in 1991 after a 52 year hiatus during which time Albania, under communist leadership, entered into a period of self-imposed isolationism.  Albania spent so long being isolated from the rest of the world that many of today's westerners grew up with no knowledge of Albania or her rich cultural heritage.  (Even today when people hear I am living in Albania I get asked questions whether westerners can even enter the country.  More "enlightened" people inform me that not only do they know where Albania is but they have cruised along her coast on their way to visit northern Adriatic ports.)  As communist regimes slowly began to crumble across Eastern Europe during the Velvet Revolution, Albania finally opened her doors to the outside world and westerners got their first peak into a completely isolated society.

From what I have been told the first American diplomats who re-opened the Embassy in Tirana did not have an easy go of it.  Stories of limited electricity, heat, and water make current conditions seem luxurious and extravagant in comparison.  Luckier diplomats lived in hotels that actually had generators and on a good night, Tirana's one public restaurant had both heat and electricity.  It wasn't until recent years that families were even allowed to accompany their sponsors to post.

I would imagine that the easiest part of reestablishing diplomatic ties with Albania was the Albanian people themselves.  As a whole Albanians seem to love America and Americans.  I had been told of this prior to our arrival but I didn't imagine that people would be yelling "I love America" from the street corners.  The Ambassador is treated like a rock star with people fighting to have their pictures taken with him.  Yes, both of these things did happen several times at Sunday's street fair.  Heck, in America we would never hear people professing their love of country from the sidewalks but in Tirana, and the rest of Albania, this seems to be a common occurrence.

Albanians have a long history and institutional memory and for this reason, Albania's love for America dates back decades.  In recent years, the United States' involvement in Kosovo's problems in the 1990s has not been forgotten.  (A large percentage of Kosovo's population is of Albanian heritage).  Whether it be Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barak Obama, Albanians express their love for these American presidents. While Americans argue amongst themselves over the individual values and decisions of each man, American party lines do not matter to Albanians who see these men as representing the country that "saved" and helped them.

With very few exceptions, the Albanians we have met have all gone out of their way to help us and answer our questions.  While eager to learn about us and our lives, they are equally concerned with our happiness in their country.  We may be living thousands of miles away from our families but it feels as though we have been adopted many times over by Albanian families here.  Of the couple of hundred Albanians who work at the Embassy a surprisingly high percentage of them have been there since the day the doors first reopened.  The pride and ownership the local hires take in the Embassy makes me think that we Americans could learn a few things about loyalty and dedication from them.

I am grateful that we are living in a country where the mere fact we are American helps keep us safe.  I do not share the same fears of American friends who are living in countries where the fact they are American puts them in danger and makes them a target.   Yes, we may be missing the daily conveniences of life in America, but we are surrounded by people who are appreciative of and thankful for the relative riches that American has bestowed upon them.  That kind of appreciation is rare and in return, I want to thank the Albanian people for being gracious hosts while we are visitors in their country.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Flying the Friendly (Albanian) Skies

Despite the fact we are in Europe, flying to other European countries is not as easy as you would think (or hope).  Albania has one airport- Tirana International Airport- or depending upon who you ask Mother Theresa Airport or simply Rinas, after the small village where the airport is actually located.  Located just outside of Tirana the trip to the airport could take 20 minutes or an hour and 20 minutes depending upon the time of day.

The airport is served by a handful of airlines, with Alitalia being the largest "name brand" carrier and the other flights being provided by smaller regional airlines.  Albania has yet to experience the influx of budget airlines so not only are options limited but they are also expensive.  The majority of flights seem to leave in the pre-dawn hours and arrive close to midnight. Yes, there are flights at other times but scheduling them isn't always easy.  Flights to one destination might only fly on Wednesdays and Saturdays while others might fly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  I don't understand the reasoning but I do know that it makes it difficult to book a round trip ticket on the same airline.  Due to the lack of direct flights to Tirana- Albania has yet to become the tourist destination it aspires to be- most trips, including those to neighboring Italy require at least one connecting flight.

In planning last weekend's excursion to Turino, Italy, I had to be creative and flexible in choosing my flights.  I reluctantly booked the 0615 Alitalia flight to Rome connecting to Turino.  I didn't have a burning desire to be at the airport at 0430 but I did want to arrive at my destination before noon.  Choosing the later flight would have resulted in my arriving after 2200.  Despite the initial debacle of Alitalia's insistence on boarding the 737 simultaneously from the front and back, (why oh why do people think they should board from the rear of the plane when their seats are in the front few rows??), the flight left on time and I arrived in Turino before lunch.

My options for the return flight were more interesting.  It turns out that despite the 500 or so mile distance between them, people have only two options for getting from Turino to Tirana on a Sunday.  The first option involves flying Alitalia from Turino to Rome to Pisa then onto Tirana.  Yes, you read that correctly.  I could have spent the day hopping up and down the length of Italy before arriving back home just before midnight.  I chose my other option- the locally based Albanian Airlines since the schedule had a direct flight from Turino to Tirana and had me arriving back home at 1215.

When I mentioned my itinerary to a friend her response was "you are going to die".  Apparently Albanian Airlines doesn't have the best track record for safety.  I did do some checking before booking my flight and saw that the airline has never experienced a crash.  Rather their problems seem to stem from mechanical issues that prevent the planes from taking off in the first place.  With the idea of arriving home at a decent hour, I decided to take my chances.

As is common with many flights in and out of parts of Europe, the notion of standing in a line is alien. As I stood in the Customs line in Turino, I realized that Albanians approach boarding planes the same way they do driving....lines and rules do not apply to them. If they see an opening or just want to get someplace, they push their way through.  I don't know if people thought the flight would leave without them but they pushed and shoved their way past the few of us who were patiently waiting our turn to pass through Customs then the ticket line to board the plane.

I don't know what everyone's rush to board the plane was since the minute I stepped into the cabin I was greeted with the pungent smell of unwashed bodies.  Yes, the plane smelled worse than a locker room.  As I made my way to my seat I began to question the wisdom of my desire to return home at an early hour.  I questioned my decision again when swarms of house flies suddenly appeared in the cabin mid-flight.  Unlike Southwest Airlines' open seating policy, Albanian Airlines does assign seats.  For some reason, no one seemed to understand that the little number and letter on their boarding cards are actually seat assignments.  People plopped themselves down where ever they saw fit.  Families tried to sit four or even five people into a three seat row.  I have to say that the two flight attendants certainly earned their lek on this flight.

Despite the chaos over boarding, the flight only left 45 minutes late.  The plane did make some rather strange noises once it was in the air but I was able to block them out by the yelling into the cell phone of the person seated across the aisle from me.  Yes, this young woman whipped out her phone and made a call in the middle of the flight.  (From what my shaky Albanian could understand, she was arguing with her boyfriend).  No amount of persuasion from the harried flight attendant could get her to hang up before her conversation was complete.

Two hours later we had barely touched down in Tirana when people started pulling bags out of the overhead compartment.  As we taxied across the runway towards the terminal people were already pushing their way up the aisle to disembark.  Much to the chagrin of the elderly lady sitting in the window seat next to me, I did not join this mad rush and actually waited until the plane ha stopped and there was a space in the aisle in which I could step.  Seriously people, I don't know where you think you are going to go when the door to the airplane is still shut.  Out the emergency exit?  No wait, there were't any on the plane so that wasn't even an option.  (The exterior of the plane did have a dotted line painted around a window with a notice - in English- that said "In an emergency cut here").

As people who have flown in and out of the Tirana Airport know, planes do not pull up to the terminal; rather all passengers must ride shuttle busses from the terminal out to their planes.  So even after everyone rushed out of the plane, they only packed themselves onto the single shuttle bus that waited until all of the passengers had disembarked before driving to the terminal.  By this point I had placed myself out of harms way and not in the direct path of the opening door.  Once again, the shuttle bus had barely stopped when the crowd stormed into the customs terminal.  Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, I was the only non-Albanian on the flight so I was able to proceed directly into the "Foreigners and Diplomats" Customs line where I quickly received my entry stamp.

Along with everyone else who had been in such a rush to disembark, I had to wait for my luggage to arrive but once I saw it, I quickly grabbed it and made my way out into the terminal when Glenn and Sidney were waiting for me.  We wanted to get out of there fast.  If people were behaving in such a crazy and rushed manner on the airplane, we didn't want to be any where near them when they were behind the wheels of their cars.