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.