Monday, August 29, 2011


Now that we have settled into our new Albanian routine, we're trying to get out and explore the country by taking a day trip each weekend.  We've been to the mountains a couple of times so this past weekend we decided to head south and explore the southern Adriatic coast.  For this week's excursion we picked Vlore, a medium sized city (by Albanian standards) that is located along the "Albanian Rivera" and had recently been profiled in the Frugal Traveler section of the New York Times.

Road trips here are fun. You never know what you will see or encounter along the way but an adventure is always guaranteed.  With this in mind, we set out with a bag of snacks (a necessity with a 21 month old), and a map.  When Glenn told me that it would take about three hours to get there I laughed since we were traveling just over 70 miles.  Albania is not a large country- roughly the size of Maryland- yet due to its road conditions, going even the shortest distance can take some time.  The distance is made even greater since there are so few roads in the country.  An updated road map of Albania shows four major roads in the country and a handful of "unimproved" roads.  Since we would be traveling on an improved road- the main north-south through fare for the country I thought we'd be able to zip right along.

Yes, this is a mule in the median of the improved main highway
Not so.   While portions of the highway resembled a four lane, paved interstate without lane markings, a median, or shoulder, other sections were gravel and dirt.  On the improved sections of the road we were continually speeding up then slowing down as we approached an underpass where the pavement mysteriously ended.  Entire lanes of the highway were closed for no apparent reason.  Along rougher sections, the road narrowed to pothole filled lanes.  In better marked areas the potholes were surrounded by caution cones but this wasn't always the case. I quickly figured out why the trip would take three hours.

We also had to slow down to keep from hitting the numerous donkeys and cows that meandered into our travel lanes.  (A fun fact for you Jeopardy fans out there - Albania has more donkeys per capita than any other country in the Balkans or Europe).  We did have one very close call when a cow literally walked right into the road in front of us (I don't know what it is about me and cows in this country), but fortunately for us and the cow, we were already going slow so the crisis was adverted.  

The drive wasn't scenic in the conventional sense of the word but it did provide us with a broad overview of the varied geography that makes up Albania.  Leaving Tirana we headed due west towards Durres passing strip malls, car lots and the Albanian version of suburban sprawl.  In Durres we headed south, not along the Adriatic but inland through the plains.  We passed olive groves and what could have been fertile fields had the land not been so dry that dust permeated the air around us.  Along the road we saw farmers selling their harvests, families awaiting the furgon (Albania's answer to public transportation- local mini buses that travel from city to city and stop where ever people happen to be standing along the roadside), and donkeys. Did we ever see donkeys.  Some were pulling carts while others were laden down with packs and a few lucky ones were grazing on the remnants of the parched August grass.

At last we arrived in Vlore and we finally saw the scenic vistas I had imagined.  With a local Albanian family who had spent time in America serving as our guides, we had coffee (a pre-requisit before any event in Albania- including lunch) overlooking the city then had lunch at a little restaurant by the beach where a platter of fresh, whole fish was brought to the table so we could select which ones we wanted to eat.  

As the afternoon drew to a close we retraced our path (and I do mean path) glad that we had explored a new part of Albania and eager to come back and further explore what the southern part of Albania has to offer.

The scenic part of the drive

Monday, August 15, 2011

Ferrying the Adriatic

Summer is rapidly drawing to a close.  I start my new job this week and September will mark the beginning of the attache entertaining season.  With this in mind, this past weekend we decided to undertake what has become a tradition for military families stationed in Tirana.  We hopped the ferry and took off for a quick trip to the navy base in Naples, Italy.  Several times a year families will compile shopping lists and head off the the commissary and exchange for a whirlwind weekend of stocking up on all things familiar.

Waiting to disembark in Bari, Italy
Loaded down with as many coolers as we could fit in our car, we set off on a Thursday evening for the overnight car ferry from Durres, Albania to Bari, Italy.  We naively that we would all sleep the night away and arrive in Italy refreshed and ready to face the day.  Our "luxury" cabin might have had room for Sidney's pack 'n play but that didn't mean he was willing to sleep in it. Much to our chagrin, the 7 hour trip was all too reminiscent of our flight from the States to Albania.  Instead of gently rocking him to sleep, the sway of the boat only agitated Sidney into a state of exhausted crankiness.  (Always the naval officer, Glenn was a tad put out about the fact that his son likes neither airplanes nor ships).  

In our sleepless daze we navigated our way across the boot of Italy to Naples where we indulged in all things American.  I would never eat Taco Bell in the United States but it had a strangely comforting taste when eaten in the mall food court.  We marveled in the cleanliness of the base roads and parking lots and wandered aimlessly through the wide, well stocked aisles of the commissary.  It is amazing how quickly one becomes accustomed to their surroundings.  

We shopped from multiple lists- our own for personal use, items needed for entertaining (Albanians love to eat "American" foods and expect to be served them when dining in our home), and those from various friends who had asked us to pick up items that just cannot but found in Albania.  Always a list shopper I found myself throwing things into the cart just because there were available and I could.  I have a new found understanding of the hoarding mentality- who knows when I might have the opportunity to purchase these things again.

Our little 20 car ferry
The next morning we picked up our coolers of frozen items from the deep freezer at the commissary and hurried back across Italy to make our return ferry.  In the interest of keeping things from melting in the August heat, we opted for the high speed hydrofoil to reduce our ferry time to 3 1/2 hours.  Our return ferry was small, loud, and filled with hoards of vacationing Italians and Albanians.  Despite departing 1 1/2 hours late (my mind kept focusing on the many pounds of frozen meat we had packed in our coolers), with the exception of the mid-sea evacuation drill sirens that woke a finally sleeping Sidney, the trip was uneventful.

(Too???) soon we found ourselves back in the dirt parking lot that is the customs area for the port of Durres.  We quickly returned to reality as we joined the teeming hoards of people and cars dodging the Roma beggars being pursued by port police.   We had reentered a world that could not be more different than the orderly one we had just left behind yet we kept thinking hat at least we were almost home.

A full freezer

Filling the pantry shelves
It was such a blur of trip that Sunday morning we found ourselves wondering if we had really been to Italy and back over the course of a couple of short days.  One look at our full freezer and pantry reassured us that we had.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


One of my favorite things about our time in Albania is the abundance of fresh produce.  And when I say fresh, I mean picked that morning fresh.  Here tomatoes taste the way tomatoes should taste and cucumbers, summer squash, peppers, and other garden delights have flavors that set them miles apart from those I was buying at the grocery store back home.

I was recently gifted with a very generous amount of fresh figs.  They were the sweetest, best tasting figs I have ever eaten and I was told that they are a "special type of fig that is only grown in Tirana".  They were at their peak when I received them so I immediately set about finding as many fig recipes as I could.  I quickly whipped up a batch of fig preserves and tried my hand at fig ice cream (both were successful!).  

Fig Ice Cream

Fig Preserves

I also made several loaves of sherry-fig bread which reminded me of warm fig newtons.

Sidney enjoying Sherry-Fig Bread

Figs with brie and prosciutto

I drizzled honey on some figs and grilled them and used some of the syrup that was left over from my preserves to make a glaze for pork chops.  I sliced the last of the figs and served them on top of slices of bread, prosciutto, and brie cheese that had been run under the broiler.

Whew!  After two days I think I am officially figged out.  We will have a short reprieve since another batch of fresh figs will be coming our way in a few weeks.  I'm told that these figs will be bigger but not as special since they can be grown throughout Albania and not just in Tirana.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Love Bunkers

When I was going through JMAS and preparing for this adventure, spouses were strongly encouraged to undertake a cultural study project of their new, if temporary, homes.  Like the nerdy academic I am, I undertook this project with great gusto and put together a spiffy Powerpoint presentation that highlighted the history and culture of Albania.  It was during my research that I first came across references to "bunkers" and was immediately intrigued.

The introduction of these pillbox shaped concrete structures was the brainchild of Enver Hoxha, the longtime Albanian dictator who ushered the country into her decades long period of self-imposed isolationism.  Fearing a foreign invasion- this was, after all the heart of the Cold War- Hoxha had bunkers built throughout Albania.  They were constructed in urban centers and in the countryside, in the mountains and even on beaches.  Over 700,000 one-man concrete bunkers were built at an astounding expense to such a poverty stricken country.  According to a popular story, (I've seen it referenced in several different locations so I'm not sure if it is the truth or an urban bunker-legend), the engineer who designed the bunkers once sat in one while an artillery tank rolled overhead so he could prove the strength of his design.

My first bunker spotting
The Cold War is long over and Albania has emerged from isolationism, but evidence of bunkers still exists.  This is to be expected since these concrete structures were built to withstand all forms of potential destruction, both natural and man made.  Some people have gotten pretty innovative with bunkers turning them into planters, guest "houses", and Albania's own form of public art.  In a country where men and women continue to live at home with their parents until they are married, the bunkers are said to be the location for lovers' trysts.

Bunker hidden in the center of Tirana
You can imagine my excitement when I spotted my first "real live" bunker last week.  We were heading to Kruja for the day and Glenn was navigating our way up a winding mountain road when I spotted one along the roadside.  Of course I made him stop so I could take a picture.  Shortly after this first sighting I saw my second bunker, on a busy Tirana street corner near Mother Theresa Square.  I had walked by the location several times but never noticed it.  I am quickly realizing that these bunkers are truly hiding in plain sight.

Now that I've had my first real taste of bunker spotting, I'm making it my mission to keep track of all of the bunkers I see over the next two years.  I doubt I'll be able to see all 700,000 of them but I'm sure going to try.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Water, Water Everywhere??????

It seems like water is to be found everywhere except our house these days.  We have been in our house for over three weeks and we still can't connect into Tirana’s public water supply.  Someone from GSO stops by the house every day to check on the water levels in our storage tank, and as needed, drives over the pumper truck  to refill it.  I have no idea where the Embassy gets their water but I suspect they are filling our tank from the Embassy’s own water supply.  (I seriously doubt Tirana officials would allow the U.S. Embassy to be cut off from water!). 

Despite the ongoing drought at the Brown house, water seems plentiful in the rest of the city.  Our neighborhood might not be officially connected to the water system but Albanians are resourceful when it comes to getting their needs met. Case in point was the “construction” that occurred in front of our gate last Sunday night.  Two men were chipping away at the concrete and for a brief moment I thought it might be the water company coming to investigate the water problem.  (Since no one seems to wear uniforms or carry identification badges here, it is virtually impossible to tell who is with the City or local utility company).  I thought the men looked vaguely familiar and I soon realized that it was our next door neighbors that were hacking away at the pavement under the cover of darkness.  Within a few minutes I heard the unmistakable sound of water splashing from a hose.  Yes, you guessed it.  Our neighborhoods had hacked into the water system to meet their own needs.  By the next morning the only evidence that something out of the ordinary had taken place was the freshly poured bed of concrete that sat at the scene of the crime.

Our landlord has his very own pumper truck and stops by at least once a week to water our garden.  Actually, he stands in the driveway and tells me in broken English that he "is the best landlord in all of Tirana" while his wife, dressed in her Sunday best, sprays down our entire front yard, garden, and driveway.  While I understand his desire to keep his property looking nice, the sensible part of me says it is just wrong to waste so much water on keeping the driveway clean.  He is not alone in this, since all of our neighbors spray down their driveways and patios on a nightly basis.

A car wash abutting a neighborhood cafe
Many mornings, while I contemplate whether or not I should run a load of laundry, I see streams of water flowing by our house.  The source is yet another Albanian phenomenon.  Car washes are to Albanians what 7-11s are to Americans.  Signs advertising "lavazh" adorn billboards, sides of buildings, and  tent-like structures that serve as car washes.   It seems to me that there are several car washes on every block in this country.  This is true in both the city and the countryside.  A few look like established businesses that are readily recognizable as car washes.  Most, however, seem to be pop-up endeavors that appear on the side of roads, attached to houses, or most commonly, attached to the ubiquitous cafes that fill every street and neighborhood.  (How convenient is it to have your afternoon coffee and have your car washed at the same location?)  Young boys and old men alike stand in the blazing sun hand washing cars with rags and garden hoses attached to water tanks while listening to American pop music blasting on their radios.  

Two neighboring car washes.    
In this post-Communism country that seems to have more late-model Mercedes and BMWs than the Northern Virginia suburbs, people love their cars and take great pride in keeping them spotless.  Yes, there are older jalopies, whining mopeds, and unexciting American models that were sold by departing Americans, but the majority of cars on the roads are German imports that shine as though they were just driven off of the new car lot.  In a country where the average annual household income is just under $5,000, one has to wonder how families can afford such luxuries.  Or maybe we shouldn't think about it too much.....  

Regardless of how people have come into possession of these automobiles, they take great pride in maintaining their appearance and this isn't an easy feat in a country where everything is perpetually covered in a layer of fine dust.  One could argue that car washes are the type of small business that keeps the Albanian economy running. I wonder two things.  One is where do all of these businesses get their seemingly endless supply of water and who is footing the water bill.  The second is whether or not we have enough water so I can wash my clothes.