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.