Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Paradox of Plenty

I just returned from a fabulous solo weekend in Torino, Italy attending Mount Holyoke College's biannual European Alumnae Symposium.  I debated whether or not I should go but with Glenn's persistent encouragement I decided to just do it.  After all, a weekend spent discussing good food in Italy is my idea of a dream vacation.  I spent the weekend surrounded by smart women, participating in intellectually stimulating conversations, and consuming copious amounts of delicious food and wine.

I participated in a gorgeous walking tour of the central city, over indulged in a decadent chocolate tasting at Guido Gobino Chocolates, shopped at Eataly, and ate all of the delicacies the Piedmont region of Italy is known for.  (As a mother away from her young child, I also luxuriated in reading in bed in the morning, giving myself my first pedicure in months, and eating a meal without having to cut up someone else’s food).

Over the course of two and a half days, I was intellectually stimulated in a way that only happens when I am in the presence of other Mount Holyoke alumnae.  We listened to panel discussions and lectures given by esteemed alumnae, professors, and international experts in the field of sustainability, consumption, and the slow food movement on a global level.  Ever the diligent Mount Holyokers, we asked thought provoking questions and debated the issues amongst ourselves.   I returned home feeling both intellectually and gastronomically satisfied.

Throughout it all I kept coming back to the theme of the weekend:  The Paradox of Plenty:  Redefining La Dolce Vita.  We discussed global food distribution and consumption, the availability of energy and renewable resources and the freedom to make individual choices as to what we eat and where our food comes from.   How is it that there are just as many starving people as obese people in the world?  In the United States alone $147 billion a year is spent on obesity related health issues.  It saddens me to think that in many communities around the globe it is cheaper and easier to buy pre-packaged convenience foods with little nutritional value than it is to purchase nutritious food to make a home cooked meal.

We live in a society where seasons no longer determine which foods we can eat.  Fresh strawberries in New England for Christmas?  No problem.  Fresh seafood in a landlocked country?  Completely doable.  All of these food choices are options if we are willing to pay the price.  What we don't think about is the total cost of our decisions.  The cost is more than the money we hand over in the checkout line.  What are the costs to society when we ship food half way around the world? How do our decisions effect the larger world around us?

Of course, the very notion of making a decision to buy locally grown organic meats and produce instead of food grown or mass produced in some far away land or factory is dependent upon our ability to afford the monetary price being asked.

As I sat in Torino this past weekend I looked around a room filled with people like me.  While our ages spanned the decades our racial and socio-economic status was very similar.  We were all privileged to have attended an elite women's college where we received outstanding educations.  We all currently have the financial means to travel to a foreign country to debate the issues at hand.  Yes, we were a privileged group who can most likely afford to buy food locally or imported goods out of season.   We have been empowered, both educationally and financially to make these choices.

In true Mount Holyoke fashion we were reminded of this. We were reminded that while we are privileged to have these opportunities and to be able to make these decisions, many people are not afforded this luxury.  Millions of people are more focused on having food to feed their families than they are on the source of the food on their dinner table.  Yes, it is easy to discuss these issues on an intellectual level before retreating to fancy cocktail parties and multi-course dinners filled with enough food options to feed a family for a week.  It is harder to think about the fact that it is because of our privileged status that we have these choices available to us.

So where do I go from here?  For me, this past weekend raised more questions than it answered.  I am now thinking about the choices I have made and how those choices may change in the future.  I feel as though I have a responsibility to do something- whether it is here in Albania or back in the U.S.- but I'm not sure what that something should be.   I don't know where to go from here, but this weekend has provided me with a lot of food for thought.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


I drove for the first time this past weekend.  The last time I drove was during a final rush hour trip to National Airport back in June. Not since I first got my license back in 1988 have I gone this long without driving.  My not driving was a conscious decision.  I've spent the past 2 1/2 months walking where I needed to go (which is actually quite easy to do here) and relying on Glenn, friends or GSO to bring me to more distant destinations.  I decided that it was finally time to conquer my fear.

I've always gotten a certain charge from driving in traffic.  Rush hour on the Beltway?  Bring it on.  Navigating Boston's streets during the height of the Big Dig construction?  An adrenaline rush.  There is nothing like being alone in a car on an open- or not so open- road to get away from it all.

So what was it about Albanian traffic that prevented me from getting behind the wheel?  Its not my driving skills that worry me; its the other drivers.  Glenn has been reminding me since we arrived that I have been driving far longer than most Albanians.  That is all fine and dandy but it doesn't make me feel any safer.  Despite the plethora of driving schools in Tirana, the majority of Albanian drivers seem to have a complete disregard for traffic laws.  (I have no idea what is actually taught in these schools but I doubt the curriculum resembles that of the school I attended way back when).

Most roads don't have lines or lane markings.  Those that are marked are so faded that they are practically unrecognizable.  This results in drivers speeding towards whatever open space is available.  Its not uncommon to see three rows of cars coming your way on what should be a two lane road.  Playing chicken with on-coming traffic seems to be the rule rather than the exception.   Cars will speed around you, passing on the right, only to immediately cut you off. Legal on street parking is practically non-existent so drivers will just stop their cars and double or triple park in front of their desired destinations.

I've noticed that the majority of intersections in Tirana have both stop signs and traffic lights.  This DOES NOT actually stop traffic however. Instead of traffic lights being situated over or in front of intersections, they tend to be located off to the far right of the driving lane causing the driver to have to crane their neck backwards to see the light color.  And that is if the lights are working. On any given day it seems as though half of the lights simply aren't working.  I naively thought that the stop signs were a contingency plan for when the lights aren't working.  That apparently isn't the case since people don't stop for them either.

Traffic circles, of which there are many in Albania, are equally scary. Yes, most traffic does move to the right but without lane markings traffic is a chaotic mess reminiscent of a scene from Richard Scary's BusyTown.  It a driver is in the far left "lane" but wants to immediately exit the circle on the right, they do so by cutting across four, six, or eight lanes of traffic.  Why?  Because they want to.

A pedestrian crosswalk with a traffic light was recently installed in front of the U.S. Embassy.  Most American drivers seem to stop for the red light but very few other drivers do.  In some ways this safety measure that should make it easier for pedestrians is actually more dangerous since one car will stop and a variety of cars, trucks, and mopeds will zip around the stopped car.  The first time I tried to cross the road I felt as though I was taking my life into my own hands.  No wonder I was so afraid of driving.

I found out that driving is like riding a bicycle. Once you get back in the driver's seat you pick up where you left off.  I turned up the radio- albeit to an Albanian station- and carefully took off down the street.  I dodged the crater-sized pothole at the end of our road and relished in my regained freedom.  I didn't tackle any traffic circles but I did pass through several busy intersections with malfunctioning traffic lights.  Watch out Albania, there's another driver on the road and this one will stop for red lights.