Sunday, July 24, 2011


Friday was an exciting day here in Tirana.   Not only did our household goods finally arrive but we also had our internet service connected at the house.  Either of these sounds like simple enough endeavors, and they would be in the United States, but here in Albania, that is just not the case.

First, lets begin with the internet saga.  It seemed like a simple enough request.  We wanted to have internet, satellite television, and phone service connected at the house.  Abcom, the local internet company, had recently expanded its broadband service to our neighborhood and was offering a three-in-one package for internet, phone, and television service.  We decided this was the way to go since we needed a phone line and internet service and having access to local television would allow us to hone up on our Albanian language skills while keeping abreast with what is happening in the country.

The white wire on the right is our cable connection to the house
The first hiccup came about early on when using a translator, Glenn contacted the local Abcom office.  In Albania, instead of receiving a monthly bill for services, you sign either a six or twelve month contract then pay the full amount owed up front before service can be activated.  Sounds simple enough, right?  The previous tenants in our house had paid through October for a slower internet connection.  Abcom tried to convince us that we should just wait until the end of their contract before switching to the new service.  When we insisted that we wanted the new service we entered into a two week long cat and mouse game of waiting to "see if they could a create a new contract", "finding our address" (a street address didn't work but saying we were the house behind the Turkish Embassy did), and "waiting for our payment to clear" ( For some reason an electronic transfer from the bank is hard to track).   Since there is the language barrier, this resulted in a lot of playing phone tag and at least one day of my sitting in the house waiting for the installers to show up.  We've never had such a hard time getting a company to take our money.  Finally, on Friday morning, at the same time as our long awaited household goods were being delivered, two young men in a new Mercedes showed up to install our service.  (The technicians are freelancers who drive their own vehicles and service specific neighborhoods.  If we ever have a connection problem we call the technician directly).  They drilled a few holes in the wall of the house, snipped off old wires and left them hanging, and hung new ones and sure enough we are now reconnected with the world.  The installation methods might be a bit shaky, but this is the fastest connection we have ever had.

While we were being reconnected with the outside world, our household goods finally arrived.  They traveled a long route from DC to Norfolk, VA to Rotterdam, to Malta, and finally to Durres, Albania.  We had initially been told that they would arrive in country a full 10 days earlier than planned so we excitedly began making preparations for their arrival.  It was too good to be true since upon arrival in Durres, the crane in the port broke.  Yes, our household goods sat in the port for close to two weeks waiting for the crane to be fixed.  They were so close but so far and we had visions of our consumable shipment melting and fermenting in the hot Adriatic sun.

In the midst of unpacking 
But at last, the crane was repaired, our worldly goods cleared customs, and arrived via truck at 9:00 am sharp on Friday morning.  The efficient crew of five wasted no time unloading the truck and had all five crates emptied with boxes in the correct rooms within two hours.  This was no small feat since our house is three stories tall.  Glenn and I, with the help of our housekeeper who has the stamina of the Energizer bunny, unpacked, washed, and put away every last item.  We even unpacked boxes that were never unpacked during our Norfolk to DC move.  I had forgotten we had some of the things I found in the boxes.  (Maybe this is a sign that we need to simplify??)  The amount of paper produced would shock even the least environmentally friendly person.  I found that each piece of silverware had been individually wrapped yet my Simon Pearce bowl filled with fake apples was wrapped as a single unit.  (Come to think of it, the last set of movers did the same thing with the centerpiece). The total damage was two broken IKEA champagne glasses which is pretty impressive given the distance they traveled.
So now we are settled in and becoming reacquainted with our belongings.  Sidney is rediscovering toys he has forgotten about and I once again have knives that actually slice through vegetables.  Glenn has acquired two new remote controls and is figuring out the new channel line up on T.V.  Yes, we just might be settled in.  For the next 22 1/2 months that is.  Then we get to pack everything up again and move onto our next adventure!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Utilities Conundrum

Summer is upon us and the intense heat is only one of the issues we must face on a daily basis.  As is the case in cities and towns across the world, when the heat kicks in, the air conditioning gets cranked up.  Rolling brown outs and even the occasional black out (anyone remember the black out of 2003  that affected a large swath of the East Coast?) are common in even the most highly developed parts of the world. 

Big Blue
During the heyday of communism in the 1950s, hydro-electric dams were built throughout Albania to provide electricity to rapidly expanding mines and factories.  Unfortunately, as Albania sunk deeper into her self-imposed isolationism, maintenance on these structures came to a standstill and we are still living with these repercussions today.  In Albania, rolling blackouts and the corresponding power surges are such a common occurrence that visitors are encouraged to “carry a torch” with them at all times.  We have experienced our share of questionable flickering and sparks flying off of power lines since we have arrived.  Prior to our arrival we had heard that the house was equipped with its own generator but no one could prepare us for the sight of big blue.  Yes, our generator, which really is the size of a VW bug, has its own name. 

During the hours I hear Big Blue kicking in at regular intervals.  To date, we haven’t experienced any debilitating power surges but we have all of our electronic equipment plugged into surge protectors to be safe and we are especially glad that we splurged and added a power surge clause to our USAA renter’s insurance policy.   Yes, they offer such a clause which makes me realize that the problem must also be common in places other than Albania.

the main water distiller
The other summer issue we face is the non-potable water supply throughout the country.  Older Albanians refer to it as Hoxha’s revenge, a reference to the Albania’s infamous dictator who ruled Albania with an iron fist from the 1940s until his death in 1985.  A few people will tell you that the tap water is fine to drink and I’m sure that the majority of native Albanians do drink it straight from the tap.  As Americans, we have been warned not to drink it straight from the tap.  Our house has been equipped with not one, but two water distillers (one for each kitchen!) from which we get all of our drinking and cooking water.  (As an added precaution we must soak all of our fruits and vegetables in a distilled water and bleach solution before eating them and we are discouraged from eating any raw fruits and vegetables that we have neither prepared ourselves or completely trust the cooking source.  This includes dining out in most restaurants).  Sidney has always been fascinated with all things water so I am facing the dual struggle of not allowing him to drink any of his bath water (undistilled) and keeping him from exploring the tap on the distiller.  At the moment I’m not having a lot of success on either of these fronts.

The water tank which is all too frequently empty
Before the water even gets into our distillers it must travel a rather indirect path from its source, through the City of Tirana’s Public Works water system and into the water holding tank in our backyard that takes up the majority of our green space.   From there it enters our house and goes into the individual water heaters that supply each of the two kitchens, the laundry room, and five bathrooms or into one of the two water distillers.  This works when there is both electricity coming into the house (hence the generator) and there is actually enough water in the City’s water supply to make this happen. 

As we have already discovered early on a Saturday morning, it is a common occurrence for the water supply to run dry during the summer months.  This is actually a problem for our entire neighborhood but no one told us this.  Of course we only discovered that we didn’t have any water when I went to turn on the shower and no water came out.  When we do run out of water, the Embassy’s water truck will refill our tank but only if we tell them it is necessary.  In the typical Albanian way, there isn’t a gauge on the tank that lets us know when we are running low on water.  Our predecessors had warned us that this could happen and suggested we follow their lead by rigging a fishing pole over the top of the water tank so we can easily gauge how much water we have.  For some reason they took their pole with them when they left and we hadn’t felt a sense of urgency to replace it yet.  We now have water again but have added a fishing rod to the top of our shopping list.  In the mean time, we are on an automatic delivery schedule with the Embassy for twice a week.  There is no word from the City of Tirana as to when the water might start flowing from their taps again.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Cows in Tirana

I had a job interview earlier this week. Since it was a State Department position at the Embassy I put on my best black interview suit for the occasion.  This was in spite of the fact that the temperatures have been unbearable lately.  Albanians say it is “shumĂ« vapĂ«” (very hot) and are aghast that we won’t be taking a “pushime” to the sea this summer.  Since we just arrived here it doesn’t seem right that we would take a vacation so soon regardless of what the weather is and will continue to be for the next two months.  Anyway, I digress………….

So after donning a suit for the first time in over a year and using my shaky Albanian to reassure Sidney’s nanny that it is ok to let him cry and that she does not need to watch him the entire time he is sleeping (I am serious here, she will stand in his room and watch him sleep in case he needs anything. I am trying to reassure her that this just isn’t necessary)—I left the house.  Now our house is in what is considered a nice residential neighborhood in Tirana. Our immediate neighbors include the Turkish and Romanian Embassies and the Russian Ambassador’s residence.  While this isn’t Embassy Row in D.C. it certainly isn’t an undeveloped neighborhood. 

The path up
As I have mentioned before, however, the roads leave a lot to be desired.  Since we are still without a car I set out on foot for the 15 minute walk to the Embassy.  If the roads are bad the sidewalks- where they even exist- are even worse.  Manhole covers are routinely non existent and put a whole new meaning into Shel Silverstein’s ­Where the Sidewalk Ends.  To shorten the time I would actually have to walk along the road, I decided to take the short cut that skirts the American Embassy’s housing compound.  I had heard about this shortcut but when I first saw it my immediate thought was that it was a goat trail.  It is a narrow dirt packed trail that runs up then back down a rather steep hill.  The path is lined with blackberry brambles on one side and an ominous looking barbed wire fence on the other.  Despite these conditions this path is regularly used by Americans and Albanians alike. 

So I’m carefully making my way up and down this path in the 95+ degree heat dressed in my black suit and inappropriate walking shoes.  As I approach the crest of the hill I see a cow coming running straight towards me in an unavoidable collision course. Now some of you may or may not know that I spent my early childhood years living on a dairy farm with lots of cows.  Despite this, or maybe because of this, I have a deathly fear of all things cow.  As it approaches me, all I can focus on is the cow’s long horns.  An old man is fast on the cow’s heels but that doesn’t leave me feeling very reassured.  In a split second I decide that there isn’t room on the path for both of us and I decide that the lesser of the evils is my jumping into the blackberry brambles.  So I did it, suit, heels, and all. 

After the cow had gone charging past me I gracefully pulled myself out of the bushes and continued on my merry way with my heart racing.  I now have friends living in countries all around the world but I doubt any of them have encountered a cow on their way to their Embassies.  I can tell you that while JMAS prepared me for a lot of things, encountering a cow was not one of them.  Welcome to Albania!

P.S.  When I relayed this story to a friend at the Embassy she just laughed and told me that there was not one, but two cows living in our neighborhood.  Apparently they live on a property around the corner from our house and their owner takes them out twice a day.  I’m not sure where they go but they must cross through one of the Embassy housing security gates when they do.  I have not seen that yet and while I’m sure it is a sight to be seen, I’m not going to loiter around waiting for it to happen.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Parku i Madhe (The Big Park)

For a city its size, Tirana has a surprisingly large amount of green space.  I use the term "green" loosely since I have seen more dust and hard packed earth than grass here but regardless of what covers the surface, there are plenty of places to walk throughout the City.

The best maintained road in Tirana and its only for pedestrians.
Sidney and I have discovered the Parku i Madhe, a large park across the street from the Embassy and we have been spending our mornings exploring the area.  As far as I can tell, the park does not have a formal name and is simply known as the large park in both conversation and on the few maps that actually exist.  Like everything in Tirana, the park is eclectic with a mix of walking trails, shaded benches, cafes only accessible by foot, hotels, and even a church.  The park abuts several Tirana neighborhoods which provides easy access for residents throughout the City.  I've heard that the park also has a zoo and a botanical garden but we have yet to explore those areas.  

While the roads in this country are in a notorious state of disrepair, the main pathways of Big Park are well maintained.  I've heard that the pedestrian roads within the park were repaved within the past couple of years and based on their condition I believe it.  The pathways are cleaned daily by women dressed in green Mao-era uniforms who sweep the stamped concrete stones and pick up the ever present trash that litters the park.  Albanians seem to walk everywhere-- this may be due in part to the fact that until 20 years ago most Albanians did not have drivers licenses.  Regardless of the reasons, it is refreshing to see so many people of all ages out walking.  I'm sure this is a contributing factor for my seeing so few overweight people here.

On any given morning the paths are filled with people of all ages.  Baby carriages pushed by grandparents compete for space among young couples walking hand in hand, local military forces completing their daily PT regimes, the ever present stray dogs looking for handouts, recreational runners dressed in coordinated long sleeved jogging suits, and the occasional professional taking a short cut through to the office.   Each group moves at their own pace but they all seem to coexist in a much more respectful manner than they do on the traffic clogged city streets.

Public Art
Commonwealth Cemetery 
Elderly women sit on shaded benches while old men play checkers and other board games on the many tables and benches found along the paths. (Rarely do you see the old men and women together in groups.)  While the main paths are lined with benches, in the morning it is difficult to find one that isn't otherwise occupied.  Other sights in the park are equally as interesting and one never knows what they might see when looking into the woods surrounding the paths.  Large bronze sculptures are intermingled with abandoned shacks, Roma camps, Speedo clad sunbathers, and neatly manicured arbors.  Around every corner there seems to be yet another cafe filled with lounging 20-something-year-old men smoking hand rolled cigarettes and chatting on their cell phones.  In this park we've also discovered an Albanian-American Protestant Church, a stone amphitheater where each seat is made out of individual slabs of granite, and a Commonwealth Cemetery recognizing those soldiers who lost their lives in Albania during World War II.

Lake Tirana
The far edge of the park abuts Lake Tirana, also called the Artificial Lake since it is man made.  This, combined with the Lana Lumi speaks to Tirana's desire to have as much "waterfront" property as possible. The lake is circled by another pedestrian only path and even more cafes and restaurants (In Albania, cafes only serve coffee, juice, and maybe beer with an occasional sweet.  If you want a full meal you must go to a restaurant).  The rapidly expanding sprawl of Tirana has now exploded past what was once the rural far reaches of the shore.  There are even two bicycle rental booths along the lake that rent 1950s era bicycles by the hour. The area surrounding the lake isn't necessarily pretty in the conventional sense of the word, but it does have a certain Balkan charm to it.

Each morning as we set out Sidney and I create quite the spectacle on our walks.  With Sidney strapped into his Kelty backpack we get many stares and comments I have yet to be able to translate.  Who knew that what is a common sight in the rest of Europe would be such a novelty here?  Whether it is old men and women, young girls, or even a member of the  Rrugge Policia (traffic police), it seems as though we can't pass a group without someone cooing "baby, baby" while they point at Sidney.  Whereas in the United States most people would never dream of touching someone's child without permission, Albanians have no qualms about doing so.  At the rate we are going, Sidney is going to have a bald spot on his head from the number of people who have rushed over and rubbed his blond head.