Monday, December 31, 2012

A Year End Wrap Up

Today is the final day of 2012.  And what a year this has been.  It has simultaneously been a good year with amazing opportunities and a hard year where I wasn't sure how much more I could take.  The work has been endless, we've entertained hundreds of people in our home, traveled to some amazing places both far and near, inside of Albania and out and met amazing people along the way.   We've made new friends and said goodbye to dear ones.  We've had visits from relatives here in Albania and I was lucky enough to be able to go back to briefly visit my family and friends in the States.  If my Facebook postings are any indication, 2012 was spent eating, drinking, and traveling through Europe.  (I'm certainly not complaining about this).  Through it all, the year just flew by.  People have always told me that time goes by faster as you get older and I'm afraid that is proving to be true.  Despite the good and the bad it has all been an adventure that I wouldn't trade it for anything.  (If nothing else, the year has provided me with some great blogging opportunities).

So here we are on New Years Eve.  Rumors are flying that this may be a short day at work since tonight is a big night.  While many Americans celebrate Christmas in a big way,  New Years IS the big holiday in Albania.  In fact, it is so big that the Embassy closes not only for New Year's Day on January 1st but Albanian New Year's on January 2nd.  Albanians living abroad return to their mother land for the festivities and families across the country celebrate with feasts and fireworks.  If the firecrackers and other exploding devices that have been going off on our street all weekend are any indication, this year is going to be bigger and better? louder? more festive? (insert adjective of your choice here) than last year. Already the air is heavy with the smell of sulfur and it reminds us of why we are staying home this evening.  We've received numerous invitations for parties this evening but our big plans include family time over a pot of cheese fondue, a bottle of champagne, and an impressive fireworks display at midnight.  This year we will wake Sidney (and maybe me as well) for the midnight fireworks display that is purely Albanian. (Last year's extravaganza included our elderly neighbor throwing lit firecrackers off the roof of her house).  We will get bundled up in our coats and take in the view from our third floor balcony.  We'll be asleep by 00.30 since tomorrow will be another day with a pre-schooler who has no concept of vacation days and be waking in the new year as the east coast of the United States ushers in 2013. 

I am really looking forward to putting 2012 to rest but what will 2013 bring? More adventures for sure. I could make further predictions but only time will tell as to how it all pans out.  Here's to a happy and healthy 2013, and for everyone who will be out tonight, a safe end to 2012.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

We're Just Not Cool Enough

A sleek hotel room at the Louis
During our time in Munich we stayed at the centrally located and uber-cool Louis Hotel.  Usually Glenn picks the hotels when we travel; he will spend hours researching and comparing the amenities, location, and price of numerous hotels in our destination city before finally making a decision.  Although I always love his choices, I've learned that I can't be in the room when he does his research since his painstaking efforts are just too difficult for me to watch.  For a variety of reasons I ended up picking the hotel for this trip and did so with my usual cavalier criteria.  Using Trip Advisor and Expedia as my research tools any hotel I select must be clean, get mostly positive reviews (there are some nuts out there who pan every hotel they stay at), and be in a good location.  Because I love a good deal and I had an Expedia coupon that expired the day I began to look at hotels, my search was rushed.  Much to my surprise, even in September there weren't a whole lot of hotel rooms in central Munich available for the days we would be visiting.  I actually booked our room at the Louis Hotel because it was a deal and one of the few rooms that was located within walking distance of Munich's subway system (I knew we wouldn't be traveling lightly).  I typed in my credit card number, clicked submit, and didn't give the hotel any more thought.

Louis Hotel (with Beluga Chocolate below it!)
Fast forward three months and we find ourselves on the subway headed Marienplatz station.  Little did I know at the time but Marienplatz is the center of Munich's old city and a very cool place to stay.  Filled with traditional beer halls and restaurants,  upscale shops, and Viktualienmarket, a spectacular open air market selling everything from flowers and cheese to wines, meats, and traditional crafts.  My haphazard hotel search had placed us in the perfect location for exploring the city.  And as we found out, our hotel matched the location.  I also realized that I had never looked at any pictures of the place before booking........

My immediate thought upon entering the sleek white with black accented lobby was that we were in over our heads.  We came trudging in pulling our over sized suitcases with a hyperactive child in need of an immediate nap. I half expected the model like women behind the reception desk to turn us away.  From appearance to Sidney's behavior, we just did not fit in with the cool image the hotel projected.  Instead of being turned away they checked us in with German efficiency, gave us a free upgrade to a room large enough to accommodate a roll away bed for Sidney, and ushered us up to our room which was just as modern and streamlined as the reception area.  The room was all polished wood floors accented with modern furniture.  Laying on the pillow was a small vial of "sleeping mist", canvas cubes hid the entertainment center, mini bar, and closets and the large white on white bathroom had a picture window over looking the bedroom (which was actually handy for allowing Sidney to have a bath while we were protected from his copious splashing).  The room was true to its boutiquey design hotel roots.  The room, like the hotel itself with its modern Japanese restaurant and sophisticated lobby bar, was simultaneously not child friendly and surprisingly so.  There wasn't anything that screamed "child friendly" yet the room lacked knick-knacks and other doodads that inevitably attract small children.  A close examination of the hotel guide revealed that they did offer special pricing for children and babysitters could be summoned upon request.  Perhaps the place really was more child friendly that it first appeared.  In another life I would have loved the entire feel of the hotel.  Now it just made me feel like a country bumpkin who fell off of the turnip cart into the land of sophistication.  My friend Marcelle would have fit into the surroundings in a heartbeat; me and my tribe of boys, not so much.

Sidney bathing in a tub with a view

We are so not cool enough to stay here but we loved it just the same.  It was clean, had an endless supply of hot water (with good water pressure), extremely friendly staff and a fabulous location.  The sound of church bells tolling on the hour added to the neighborhood's charm and reminded us that we were really in Europe.  And of course it didn't hurt that there is a chocolate shop located on the street level below the hotel.  Yes, despite my initial skepticism, I loved the hotel.  Heck, if they will have us we will even come back.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Great Meatball Quest

Being a planner by nature, I struggle with not plotting out every detail of our vacations ahead of time.  However, I have been working on being less rigid, so over the past year our vacations have become less planned and more spur of the moment.  Sure we make plane, car, and hotel reservations but everything else we do occurs as the mood strikes us.  (Even traveling like this is a big step for me).  Prior to our arrival we may have a general sense of what we want to see or do but long gone are the days of purchasing and reserving admission tickets in advance.  (An exception is our upcoming trip to Vienna for the opera).  Usually this approach works and much to my surprise, I rather enjoy the carefree, unscheduled feel of our recent trips.  This past week however, I discovered one glitch in this approach.

For our trip to Bavaria we were mostly following our new unplanned vacation schedule.  While I had planned ahead and made Christmas dinner reservations, the rest of our meals were going to be of the moment decisions based on what we felt like eating each day.  Wrong!  Our meals became dictated by what was available at what time and not the other way around.  Over the past week I quickly discovered that dinner reservations are a must in Germany over the holidays.  You would think we would have learned our lesson after our first strike out but no; whether dining at Edelweiss or out in Garmisch, reservations were necessary.  At the resort they made the effort to squeeze us in at odd times but out in town we were repeatedly met with a flat out "no" at each restaurant we inquired at.

No meatballs but a tasty Christmas Eve dinner at Mohrenplatze
Our first mistake was Christmas Eve. We had received mixed messages from resort staff about what was and wasn't open.  As the dinner hour approached we realized that very few restaurants were indeed open for more than drinks and if they were, reservations were a must.  Our hotel scrambled to make us  oh-too early reservations at a local place for the un-mealtime hour of 17.30.  Not wanting to have to eat pizza in our room we decided to go for it only to discover that the restaurant in question was a dive bar that even this permissive parent was not taking her three year old into.  This is what we get for taking dinner recommendations from a twenty year old!

We wandered the streets and somewhere along our search for a more acceptable restaurant I asked Sidney what he wanted for dinner.  I assumed this was a safe question since he had been enjoying sausages at every meal and being in Germany I felt confident that we could deliver.  Much to my surprise he proclaimed "meatballs"!  Yes, meatballs in Germany.  As luck would have it we did find a restaurant whose posted menu promised meatballs and we excitedly assured Sidney that his dinner wish would be granted.  Unfortunately the lights were on in the restaurant but the doors were locked. No meatballs for Sidney.  We did end up at the very nice Mohrenplazte Restaurant where we enjoyed a variety of German food.  We had managed to get a table since it was a little past 17.30 and we promised to be finished before 19.00.  We made it work.  Sidney ate up his noodles with Roquefort sauce and roasted peppers but continued to ask for meatballs.  We promised him that he would eventually get his meatballs.

Some children might forget the simple promise of a favored food but not Sidney.  Christmas morning he awoke asking for meatballs and the plea continued throughout the day.  "Please Mamma.  Meatballs please Mamma." was our Christmas Day refrain.  A traditional American Christmas dinner featuring a variety of other meats didn't cut if for my son.  He still wanted his meatballs.  I swear he was even dreaming about them.  We told Sidney that the night after Christmas he would eat meatballs and he excitedly walked to the restaurant on that promise.  We were all crushed when we were brusquely told that without reservations we wouldn't be dining on meatballs that night.  The disappointment in Sidney's voice was heartbreaking as he asked why he couldn't have meatballs for dinner since we had promised.  Yes we had.  Glenn and I really need to know better about making promises we can't control.  Even after eating a foot long sausage and roll and a chocolate filled crepe from a street vendor---the only place open that didn't require reservations for dinner--- Sidney still wanted his promised meal.

Each time Sidney's wish wasn't fulfilled, he didn't cry or whine. Rather he just asked why in a sad pleading voice.  I tried all of my logic in explaining the situation;  the restaurant was closed, Mamma didn't make reservations, there weren't any tables available, they were out of meatballs.  Apologetically I tried all of these approaches.  Sidney's three year old logic reasoned that we could just wait or they could make more.  He also said that Mamma could go to the store and buy more for them.  How on earth does one counter these arguments?

Some of my earliest memories are of promises my own parents had made to me (probably in an attempt to appease me) but never fulfilled.  To this day I still remember that sad, not understanding feeling and hearing the same tone in Sidney's voice brought it all back to me.   Will he be scarred for life over not getting his meatballs?  Will this be his early lingering memory of Germany?  Am I reading too much into all of this?  Just when I think I have a handle on this parenting thing, Sidney tosses a new challenge my way.  I need to remember that he is a little sponge with a steel trap for a mind that doesn't miss anything.  He also remembers everything. (Just yesterday upon checking into a new hotel and venturing out for the first time, upon our return he remembered which elevator button to push and which door was ours).  I don't want him to remember his Mamma making promises that I couldn't keep.  That certainly is not a childhood memory for him to cherish.

In the new year I'm vowing not to make promises I can't keep.  There is one promise, however, that I can make.  Upon our return to Albania our first dinner at home will be homemade meatballs.  I hope Sidney still wants them; with my luck after a week of asking for meatballs he'll have moved onto wanting pizza.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

On Top of Germany

A snowy family picture from the top of Germany
 On our final day in Garmisch we headed out to visit the Zugspitze, which at 2,962 meters above sea level, is the highest peak in Germany.  Located along the German-Austrian border, which runs over the mountain's western summit,  the mountain is a winter playground that is accessed through a combination of cog train and cable car.  I'm not a fan of heights but we decided to go to the top of the mountain because it is such a destination with spectacular views.  Besides, Sidney wanted to take another train ride and Glenn was still hoping for some real winter weather.

On a clear day visitors to the top of the mountain can see Italy, Austria, and Switzerland (and of course Germany).  We weren't hopeful that we would have this view since the weather was cloudy and overcast as we walked to the train station.  The temperatures were so warm that the lower ski slopes were grassy and once frozen ponds were now slushy pools of water.   We shared the train with skiers, snowboarders, and visitors like us who were going up the mountain for the (hopeful) views and the experience.  The train ride took a little over an hour and carried us through the rolling foothills of the mountains.  Even after we passed through Eibsee and began our steep ascent up the mountain, snow remained scarce. There were traces of it in the forest and it could be seen on the higher craggy peaks but overall the views were far from the winter wonderland we had envisioned.  Don't get me wrong; the scenery was beautiful.  The view of the icy cold Lake Eibsee was particularly stunning with its clear aquamarine water surrounded by snow studded peaks.  Now this is what I had envisioned Bavaria looking like.

A view of Lake Eibsee
The final twenty minutes of our ride carried us through a tunnel.  The audio commentary (provided  in both German and English) over the loudspeaker informed us that this was the most exciting part of the trip.  In reality it was a dark train ride with no scenery but lots of explanations about the safety features of the tunnel.  It reminded me of the pre-flight briefings that are provided before take off on airplanes.  While we had entered the tunnel in one weather zone we exited in another.  Upon our arrival at Sonn Alpin, one of three glaciers on the Zugspitze and one of five in all of Germany, we were in the winter wonderland we had sought.  A storm was rolling in and within a matter of minutes we went from having a small, yet majestic snowy view to standing in a squall with zero visibility.

Despite the snow, or maybe because of it, we loved our time on top of the Zugspitze.  It was cold and windy (which actually closed the cable car that continued on to the very top of the mountain).  To escape the blowing snow we hunkered down in the Glacier Garden Restaurant where we drank gluhwein and dined on what I think has been the best meal we've eaten on this vacation.  Torn between ordering off of the German menu or the poorly translated English menu which provided us with little insight into what would arrive at the table, we randomly picked two dishes off of the list of choices.  (I recognized the word cheese so I figured the dishes couldn't be all that bad).  Our first dish was a giant potato pancake smothered in melted Gruyere which was accompanied by pear slices that had been infused with fresh rosemary.  The second plate was grilled duck breast served with brie and bacon on a giant popover.  Oh my!  Both dishes were so good, that despite our claims that we weren't all that hungry, were quickly eaten with great gusto.  Not feeling adventurous, after nibbling on a piece of bacon, Sidney drank Fanta and ate a giant pretzel.

A chapel on top of the glacier before the storm rolled in
Following lunch we headed back out into the snow where we explored some more before heading back onto the train and down the mountain into more temperate weather.  Having gotten a taste of the Zugspitze, we want to go back on a clearer day.  We want to see the multi-national 360 degree views for ourselves and have an opportunity to go up to the very top.  I guess this just means we'll have to visit Bavaria again!

A view from the top as the storm approaches

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Little Bit Of America in the Heart of Bavaria

View from our hotel
As we did last year we escaped from Albania over Christmas week.  Since Glenn has really been wishing for a white Christmas, we headed to Germany; Garmisch to be exact, with the plan of celebrating a cold and snowy Christmas in the heart of Bavaria.  We had tried to do this last year but although I thought I was planning early in August, I soon realized that late summer was too late to begin planning for a Christmas holiday in a country where winter is the busiest time of year for travel.  This year I got ahead of the game and in June we found out that we were the lucky winners of the room lottery for
Edelweiss Lodge and Resort in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.

Historic Garmisch
One of several U.S. military operated Moral, Welfare, and Recreation resorts around the world, this resort operated by the Army (we had previously stayed in the Navy's resort in Kauai, Hawaii and loved it),  Edelweiss provides us with the best of both worlds-- the Americana we have been missing, the structure of military culture, and easy access to the best of Bavaria.  You don't realize how much you miss American food until you don't have access to it.  After a late check in we dined on real American cheeseburgers.  Who would have thought that a simple piece of chopped meat, when cooked and prepared properly, could make us so happy.  And any meal that is eaten in a truly smoke free environment, not one where no smoking placards are used as ash trays, is guaranteed to be good.  As much as I love being away from the day to day grind of a military community, there are aspects of it that I really do miss.  The law and order, precision in which duties are carried out (with no exceptions), and polite manners are aspects of everyday military life that I truly miss.  Being a resort exclusively for military members and their families,  children and adults of all ages are schooled in "please" and "thank you", everyone holds the elevator doors if they see you coming, and they wait patiently in line until it is their turn.  This is such a stark contrast to what we have been experiencing since our arrival in Albania. And of course we must not forget that at the end of the day we are in Germany.  This means we are easily able to get out and experience the best of Bavarian food, drink, music, and of course the Christmas markets.

Just one of the many mural covered buildings in Garmisch

On the train between Garmisch and Innsbruck

The only thing really missing is the snow.  Yes there is snow on the ground --although due to the 40-50  degree temperatures, it is rapidly melting.  Much to our surprise, the temperatures have been colder in Tirana than here in Germany.  (And people question the validity of global warming).  We do have breathtaking views of the snow covered Alps and Sidney (and Glenn) have been able to stomp around in the small amount of snow that remains on the ground here in Garmisch.  And of course I've been unexpectedly hit with a snowball or two with both of my boys denying that they are the culprits.

We've been loving our lazy vacation here.  Sleeping in, aimless exploring, and afternoon naps for the entire family have become the norm.  We have been enjoying both the American amenities--ample hot water, a safe play area for children, a clean swimming pool, and food from "home" as well as everything Garmisch and the surrounding area has to offer. We've explored the Christmas market, consumed copious amounts of bratwurst, German beer, and gluhwein, and taken in the holiday lights and Bavarian architecture.  A train ride to nearby Innsbruck, Austria provided us with both snow filled mountain vistas and an expansive Christmas market that further filled us with holiday spirit.

Despite the lack of winter weather, this vacation is everything that a Christmas get away should be: festivities, relaxation, and lots of family time.  I'm loving every minute of it.  Merry Christmas!

The mountains looming over Innsbruck, Austria

Friday, December 21, 2012


Today is the day I've been looking forward to for months. After weeks of work and family filled craziness, we are heading off on our long anticipated family vacation to Germany.  Since I've known Glenn he has been pining away for a snow filled Christmas.  The few flakes that may have fallen during previous years did not satisfy him.  Last year's Christmas in Slovenia hinted at the promised snow but instead the storm hit a week after we had returned to Albania.  With  Bavaria already buried in white flakes,  Christmas 2012 WILL be our snow filled year. 

So here's to a week of snow, family fun, Santa, gluhwein, and Christmas markets.  Much to Sidney's delight we'll take a plane and a train to get there and a much talked about and anticipted sleigh ride in his future.  Our only other plans are to do nothing (if that can be considered a plan) but relax and reconnect as a family.  After the past year we've earned this time.  At the same time we will also reflect on how fortunate we are that we are together as a family. 

Did I mention that I can't wait?

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Where Are Our Babies Safe?

Sidney on his first day of day care - April 2010
As a parent my first and foremost concern is keeping my son safe.  I'm not talking about bubble wrapping him to prevent every bump and scrape (although at times this is a tempting option); I know as a little boy he will have his share of scraped knees and bumps on the head.  As sad as it makes me I know that at times he will have his feeling hurt and I will have to explain why things are not always "fair". This I can deal with.  It is Sidney's physical and emotional safety in an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world that really frightens me.  As last week's horrific tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut illustrates, no place is truly immune to violence.  If our children can't be safe in their own schools, surrounded by caring and nurturing  professionals, where are they protected?  In the midst of an already disheartening week I was further disturbed by an article in today's Washington Post discussing child abuse claims at the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Child Development Center (CDC).  For those people who are unfamiliar with military terminology, CDCs are the military provided day care centers that provide safe and affordable child care options to thousands of active duty military personnel around the world.  Or so I always thought it was a safe option.  The report of two caregivers physically assaulting two-year old children under their care and additional staff with backgrounds that should have precluded them from employment around any children is another blow to parents everywhere.  If the military, a place where rules, law, and order are the basic tenants, cannot properly protect our children, I have to wonder whether anyone can.

Sidney spent fifteen months in the CDC at Bolling Air Force Base while we were stationed in Washington preparing for our overseas move.  I will never forget the fear I had as I left my tiny son at the day care facility for the first time.  He just seemed so small and helpless and I wondered whether he would be all right.  (The better question would have been whether I would be all right.  Mostly because Glenn was with me and wouldn't allow me to, I resisted calling the center to check on Sidney during that first day).  The caring staff reassured me that he would be OK and I left thinking that after all this was a military facility so if anyplace was safe, this had to be the place.  I was even more reassured when I was presented with his "schedule" from day one.  In true military precision, even the babies day's were planned out with nap times, meal times, reading, and outdoor activities.  Age appropriate music, arts, and sports activities were incorporated into every day.  Over the next year Sidney was more than OK.  He flourished under the watchful eyes of Ms. Renata and Ms. Amber.  Due to his prematurity he went from being delayed to developmentally caught up in record time.  At eight months he was using ASL to indicate more, please, and thank you.  Peer pressure had him walking at 13 months (which adjusted for his age was actually ten months).  Finger painting and the water table quickly became favorite activities which I welcomed since it saved us from having to deal with the mess at home.  The entire experience was good for me as well.  The experienced teachers taught me a lot about parenting, assured me that he was ready to move onto the next level when I questioned his ability (after all he was still so small), and taught me to let go of the smaller things.  Every bump and bruise that Sidney inevitably received during the day was documented and when he received not one but two bites from a fellow classmate (separate kids on separate days so I guess Sidney really is sweet), we were quickly notified and the issue was addressed.  Yes, I felt like this was a safe environment.   Removing Sidney from the CDC, his little friends, and his teachers was a bittersweet moment.  After that first week I neither regretted nor questioned our decision to place Sidney at the day care center.  Until now.

As parents of infants we child proof our homes, buy the safest car seats on the market, and make sure our kids only eat healthy foods.  Toys are age appropriate, we instruct our kids not to talk to strangers, and do our best to prepare them for the inevitable literal and physical bumps and bruises that lie ahead in life.  But I wonder whether this is really enough.  In the past week I've heard conversations ranging from the need to arm the teachers in our schools and to exclusively home schooling children, to complete assault weapon bans to requiring all gun owners to carry insurance the same way automobile drivers do.  Are these the solutions? Will these actions make our world safer or just make us all paranoid?  How do we move forward as parents if we have to question the safety of our children at every turn?  And what does it say about our society that we have been forced to do this?

Maybe bubble wrap isn't a bad idea after all............................

Sidney on his last day of day care- June 2011

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


A comment in response to my post yesterday has me thinking about my own support network.  My initial reaction upon reading the comment was that, yes, I have a vast and robust support system. Upon deeper reflection, however, I am wondering whether I really do. 

I've never been someone who has a large number of close friends.  Rather, I always seem to have a couple of close personal friends and a larger network of more general acquaintances that together, provide me with a strong support network.  Here in Albania I am fortunate to have developed two close friends who, over the past year, have become confidants.  They are my shoulders to cry on when the going is rough, they are here to share in my joys, and most importantly, they provide me with the much needed in-person girl time that is the number one thing I miss from home.  Because they are also foreigners living in Albania, they understand the frustrations of daily life here and realize that no, I am not making these hard to believe stories up.  I would truly be lost without them here in the wilds of Albania and fear their returning home (which will happen before we depart).  On a daily basis, however, Glenn is the foundation of my support system.  I think that living overseas, separated from the military lifestyle to which we had grown accustomed, has brought us closer together.  Without the ready interference and/or influence of family and friends, we have come to rely on each other more than we ever did in the past.  Whether it be our family time together or our arguments, everything is more intense here.  Working in the same place, we know and work with the same people and are able to share the events of our days with each other at a level that would just not be possible if we weren't operating in such a confined environment.  This mutual support is so important but does not completely fulfill my support needs.

But where is the rest of my support system?  Back in the States I had a ready cadre of casual girlfriends, both military spouses and life long civilian friends, who were a part of my extended support network.  Depending on the need there was always someone within easy reach to provide needed support.  Here in Albania, I am physically much more isolated.  Sure I can still reach out via email or Skype but with unreliable Internet access and a six plus hour time difference my circumstances are just not conducive to picking up the phone to chat.  (Although with my ongoing insomnia, in the middle of the time difference is usually pretty easy to overcome).  As a means of reprieve, I've immersed myself in a variety of activities, from paid work to volunteer organizations to my responsibilities as a mother and an attache spouse, in order to provide a balance in my daily life.  As busy as these activities keep me, they still don't provide me with the emotional support that I (we) all need.

Upon deeper reflection I'm realizing that currently, my steadiest form of emotional support is virtual.  It comes in two forms.  First, I'm a member of numerous online forums--from those exclusively for military officer spouses to general ones for parents and social commentators.  While I often lurk and only cautiously post, these anonymous forums have become my true sounding board and support system.  Whether I am questioning my parenting skills or my own role in my community (and what exactly is my community?), there is always someone out there discussing the same issues and concerns.  Someone else has always been there or done that.  It makes me feel like I'm not alone. I have a strange sense of safety when I read and post in these forms.  They may only be quasi-anonymous but without actually knowing the people out in cyberspace, it feels safer to be honest.  Yes, people may be harshly judgemental but sometimes that is exactly what I need to hear.  And the fact that I know I won't be running into them any time soon makes their judgements easier to handle.  (The exception is a Navy group that I am a part of that started out completely anonymous for me but over time I've come to realize that I actually know or know of most of the women in the group).  These forums serve as my therapy sessions and given their ever growing popularity, I suspect I am not the only one who feels this way.

My second form of support is writing.  My blog is my most public outlet; it is my therapist, my friend, and my personal sounding board.  It helps me put into (most times) clear words my thoughts and ideas of everything from food and travel to family and world issues.  If something is bothering me, I write about it. The clicking of the keyboard followed by the reading of what I wrote puts things into perspective for me.  Sometimes I go back and read what I have written and realize that I am being irrational. Other times I realize that I have valid points.  While I have recently started blogging on a (mostly) daily basis, my writing is much more extensive than what is out there for public consumption.  For every blog entry I post I have at least two more that I'm either not brave enough to publish or I have enough common sense not to put out there for the world to see.  Regardless of where my ramblings end up, sitting down to write is incredibly therapeutic. 

All of this doesn't make up for face to face contacts with real friends but for the time being, these activities provide me with the support system I so desperately need.  We all need support and and sometimes we need to find it in unconventional ways.  That doesn't matter.  If it works for you, go for it. 

So what is your support system?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Baring of the Knives at the Wives Club

Wives clubs, now called spouses clubs to reflect the gender integrated military, are the somewhat antiquated but in my opinion still relevant groups that bring together the spouses of active duty military personnel.  They are traditionally separated by rank with enlisted spouses meeting and socializing separately from officer spouses. In recent years some commands within the Navy have started to merge their separate groups into a single organization with varying results. As with any group, stereotypes abound on both sides.  Pearls and crab dips are the running joke for officer spouses. (I actually do own pearls and make a pretty mean crab dip but I acquired both of these long before I became a military officer spouse).   Yes, the clubs are filled with play groups, coffee get- togethers, bunko games, and dinners out but at the heart of it, they are all about supporting fellow military families.  More senior spouses mentor junior spouses going through their first deployments.  We trade tips on creating portable careers, the best home repairmen, and the most trustworthy property managers.  When a tornado destroyed a Hampton Roads neighborhood while the ship was at sea, it was the spouse group that rallied around the affected families.  When Sidney was born it was members of my spouse group that provided home cooked meals, daily telephone calls, and made visits to the NICU to make sure we were all OK.  Regardless of the composition or stereotypes, these groups serve the same purpose--to offer families support regardless of the need that arises.

Some jokingly (?) refer to these groups as "knives clubs" because of the sometimes hostile, backstabbing atmosphere that can arise whenever you bring together large groups of strong, opinionated (wo)men.  I have witnessed this first hand but the jabs were relatively minor and were quickly forgotten.  On occasion, however, larger, much more serious issues arise.  A prime example is the current controversy brewing amongst the Army Officers Spouse group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  In this southern army enclave, the recently married wife of an active duty Lieutenant Colonel has been denied membership into the base's spouse club.  Although they deny it and are refusing to talk about it, the denial of membership appears to stem from the fact that Lieutenant Colonel and her wife are a same sex couple.  I'm not naive enough to think that homophobia doesn't exist in America.  Unfortunately it is alive and flourishing.  With the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the Department of Defense made a small step towards providing more equality for all soldiers, sailors, and airmen serving their country.  Our troops and their family members deserve all of the support they can get.  It is one thing when those who are not a part of the military family turn against us, but for me it is even  more upsetting when we turn against ourselves.  How can we not support our peers?

The reality is that spouse groups provide an important support system for military families.  To this day some of my closest friends are women I have met through these groups.  Having shared experiences and feelings that only military spouses can understand brings us together regardless of our other demographics.  Until your spouse is gone for weeks or months on end in a war zone you just can't understand what the experience is like.  Regardless of whether your spouse is an officer or enlisted, senior or junior, male or female, we all need the support these groups can provide.  As a military spouse I am embarrassed by the way the Fort Bragg spouse group is treating Ashley Broadway and her wife.  This is not the behavior of the spouse groups I know.  At a time when all of our active duty spouses are willing to put their lives on the line for our country, I implore the spouses at Fort Bragg to open their arms to the Broadway-Mack family.  Because we are currently in Albania I don't have access to a spouse group. If I did, I would readily invite Ms. Broadway to come join my group.

Monday, December 17, 2012

All About Cookies

Cookies and Christmas go hand in hand. Growing up I have memories of my mom baking copious amounts (and varieties) of cookies in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  Every night, long after the rest of the house was asleep, she'd toil away in the kitchen cranking out sheet after sheet of these sweet, buttery treats.  From tree shaped sugar cookies sprinkled with green colored crystals to uniformly sized Mexican wedding cookies, buttery shortbread, and chocolate and vanilla pinwheels whose twirling stripes seemed to go on forever, these are my Christmas memories.  Christmas week involved a flurry of delivering cookies as co-workers, friends, neighbors, the mailman, and even the mechanic at the local garage were all recipients of platters of home baked treats.  Even with all the cookies that were given away, there were always more than enough left at home for us to eat.  Well into January there would still be a few cookies tucked away in tins in the pantry that made for perfect after school treats.

As an adult I still love my cookies and every year I find myself trying to replicate this holiday tradition. Try is the operative word here since making dozens and dozens of cookies of multiple varieties is very time consuming.  I am not blessed with my mother's patience so rolling out perfect quarter inch sheets of buttery dough is always feat.  Regardless of how I try my dough alternates between being too cold and crumbly and so soft that it just sticks to everything.  This is not how I remember my mom's cookies turning out.  My tiny, European sized oven is not conducive to cranking out pan after pan of cookies.  A single batch can take the better part of an afternoon to make.  By the time the real "fun" of decorating is supposed to start I'm worn out.  Each year is a repeat of the previous year's frustrations but I am determined to carry on this family tradition.

Gingerbread Cakelettes ready for their debut
I approached this year with a new strategy.  I paced myself and planned ahead.  Cookies such as Frangelico Crinkles freeze beautifully so I made these ahead of time and stored them until needed.  Coconut-Bourbon Balls are another make ahead cookies whose taste only intensifies with age.  Other cookies, such as orange butter cookies can be made ahead of time then frosted at the last minute.  I quickly gave up visions of Martha Stewart style icings and went simple.  They looked nice and tasted even better which is what really matters.  Good old Meringues are probably the easiest cookie to make but must be made at the last minute. With proper planning--which I some how managed to achieve this year-- these were a quick and stress-free last minute treat.  Not feeling up to rolling out more temperamental cookie dough, I eschewed traditional gingerbread men for Gingerbread Cakelettes.  Yes, when you can only bake them in multiples of six it makes for a time consuming project but to me, the payoff of not having to roll dough is worth it. Plus they are just so darn cute. 

Unlike my mom, I don't give out platters of cookies to everyone I know.  Instead, we host a huge holiday party (or two, as was the case this year), and I serve up the cookies as the desserts.  The verdict?  The cookies were a hit.  By the end of the night my hours and days of baking was reduced to a few crumbs on the empty platters. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Hold Our Babies Close

There aren't words that can adequately describe the sorrow, pain, and sadness I feel right now.  As the tragedy unfolds in Newtown, Connecticut, an every-town U.S.A., I am at a loss as to how we as a society can keep our children safe.  As tragedy after unfortunate tragedy plays out in all too rapid succession, it is clear that none of us are exempt or truly safe from the potential for an unthinkable tragedy striking our community.  Contrary to what we want to believe, violence of all kinds is not the exclusive domain of our poor, inner cities.  In fact, whether it be Aurora, Littleton, Blacksburg, or now Newtown, it is almost as if our suburbs are being targeted.  Being well educated, living in solid, middle class communities, being religious, or not--none of this exempts us from the potential for violence.  How is it that those of us with presumably the most resources are the least able to protect ourselves?

All I know is that right now I am scared and sad.  I don't have the words to explain this tragedy to Sidney who is, fortunately too young to be exposed to or understand this senseless violence. He does know that Mamma is sad.  Someday he will understand the reason behind all those extra hugs and "I love yous".  In fact, I'm going to go give him another hug now.  As a parent, that is the only thing I can really control.

                               "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, 
                               my mother would say to me, "Look for helpers.  You will 
                               always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in 
                               times of "disaster", I remember my mother's words and I am 
                               always comforted by realizing that there are so many helpers
                              --so many caring people in the world."

                                                       ~~~Fred Rogers

Friday, December 14, 2012

I Will Never Hit My Child

I grew up in a physically abusive home.  Fueled by alcohol, my father's outbursts could be triggered by a bad day at work, my not picking up my things, my not picking them up properly, or, as was usually the case,  absolutely nothing at all. I'm not sure when the abuse started but my earliest memories include living in fear of him and needing to tip toe around the house when my father was home.  As a child I assumed my mother was oblivious to his actions yet feared telling her what was going on.  It was only as I got older that I understood that she was aware and lived with the same abuse, fear and dread that I had.  In fact, our entire household, from my grandmother (my father's mother) down to my younger brother, with the exception of my infant sister, lived with a black cloud of doom hanging over our heads.  The cloud never lifted until my father's untimely death- ironically unrelated to alcohol- when I was eleven.  It was only after this event that I felt as though I truly started living.  However, try as I might to block them out, those early memories stay me to this day and in  many respects have shaped the person I am today.

As I got older I vacillated between not wanting children because I feared the type of parent I would be and wanting them so I could raise my children in a happy home. While I knew I would never raise a hand in anger at my child, I wondered what type of parent I would actually be given the environment in which I had spent my early years.  Although my fears subsided when I married Glenn, deep down I always worried about this.  Today, with an active three year old who seems to make a hobby out of trying my patience I still worry at times but I am reassured by the fact that Glenn and I essentially feel the same way in terms of raising our son which does include the need for punishment on ocassion.  And in reality, while Sidney may be all mischievous boy, but he is truly a good, caring kid.

On a recent long and rainy weekend with Glenn away and Sidney and I house bound, things were not going well in the house.  As three year olds are apt to be, Sidney was being particularly defiant and I had spent the better part of the morning chasing him around and cleaning up his messes only to have him undertake new, even messier endeavors as the afternoon wore on.  He just would not nap and both of us were growing increasing agitated; Sidney in the hyper, over tired way and me in an exhausted at wit's end way.  As I was cleaning up (yet another) mess of water, red orange juice, and crushed cheerios from the living room carpet and he was refusing to stand in a time out in the corner (our current method of punishment), I snapped.  I raised my voice in anger and yelled at the poor boy telling him that he was driving me crazy and needed to stop right now.  Instead of his usual sly grin, he looked at me with his big blue eyes wide open and started crying.  I have never raised my voice at him in such a manner and it scared him.  And it scared me.  It scared me to my very core.  My anger quickly turned to fear as I curled myself in a fetal position on the cheerio encrusted carpet and sobbed.  I didn't even come close to hitting Sidney but in that moment I felt nauseous and horrified that perhaps I am more like my father than I ever wanted to admit.  My fear turned to guilt as my sensitive little boy wrapped his arms around me and said, "I'm sorry Mamma. I love you."  He then proceeded to get down on his hands and knees and resume the cleaning task I had been doing.

This is perhaps the hardest post I've ever written.  Even days later I find myself crying as I type this. I am horrified by my actions that day but I am even more scared about what could have happened if I didn't harbor such a deep seeded fear of becoming my father.  Try as we might there is a fine line that we walk as parents.  Most people who know me think I am tough and no nonsense and won't put up with any misbehavior.  I know the truth; my fear of being a bad, too tough parent probably drives me in the opposite direction.  I struggle on how to punish Sidney in constructive ways.  As I mentioned earlier, time outs are the current means of punishment in our house but unfortunately they just don't work when I try to implement them.  One word from Glenn, or even the nanny, and Sidney is in the corner. He may not be happy about it but he is there. With me it is a totally different story; he whines, refuses, and flat out defies me order.  More often than not it becomes a battle of the wills that I just can't win and one that I am tired of fighting. 

So where do I go from here?  The one thing I know for sure is that I will never lay a hand on my child.  I will also never allow anyone else to do it either.  In my experience corporal punishment doesn't do any good and only creates lasting scars.  My goal is to raise a caring, respectful and well behaved son.  We are well on our way with achieving the caring part.  For all of his rough and tough little boyness, he is truly a caring and sensitive child.  I also think we have been making good progress on being respectful.  Unprompted, Sidney regularly says "please", "thank you", and "excuse me" in English, Albanian, and ASL.  A lot of work still needs to be doing on being well behaved.  I'm sure this will be a struggle for many years to come; after all Sidney is a mischievous combination of both of his parents.  I know that through hard work and patience we will prevail. It won't be easy, but we will prevail.  Because we must.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

When the Cheerleader Needs Cheering Up

What happens when the cheerleader-in-chief needs a little boost? One of the many hats I wear in my job as the Community Liaison Officer (CLO) at the Embassy is moral booster.  Keeping the moral up for 130 or so Americans between the ages of 0 and 60  is a much more daunting task than it initially sounds. Many consider the CLO to be a fluff job, the community party planner.  In reality, the office does a whole lot more....but I digress. A large part of keeping morale up is providing recreational, cultural, and social opportunities for the community.  This is a challenging task on many levels.  First, we are in a country that lacks many amenities Americans take for granted and where just getting from point A to point B is often a tedious and time consuming trek.  Additionally, as a community we may be few in numbers but we are a truly diverse group who doesn't necessarily share the same interests, values, or expectations when it comes to morale boosting activities.  I'm not naive enough to think we are going to be one big happy family but I need to at least try to appease the majority of the people here.  And, as if things weren't already difficult enought, we are in the midst of winter which in Albania means overcast and damp on the best of days but more often than not heavy downpours on bone-chilling days.  Even snow, which might give us a semblance of a cheerful winter taunts us; we can see it on the mountains in the distance so it is so close yet so far. 

Then there is the actual logistics involved in planning an event.  As anyone who has ever planned an event knows, it isn't easy. In many respects organizing any event  is like herding cats.  You can never appease everyone.  It is virtually impossible to get all of the people into the same place at the same time.  Whether done intentionally or accidently directions are ignored, and don't even get me started on why it is important to RSVP.  At the end of the day, trying to get all of the details hammered out and people where they need to be is exhausting work.  Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if I could go home at the end of the day and not think about planning or organizing anything. But alas, that is not my situation.  At home I am the chief organizer, planner, online shopper, cook, and toilet paper replacer.  When we host events I handle the logistics of food and service.  When something breaks I make sure it gets fixed.  When we run out of something it is apparently my fault.  As Sidney says, "Mamma must go to the store and buy some more".  Whether it is at work or at home, this apparently is my job.

Its no wonder I'm burned out on all fronts.  I am tired; in fact I am exhausted.  Regardless of how much I get done it seems as though there is always more to do, another event to plan for, and other shopping trip to be made.  There are never enough hours in the day (or night) to get everything done.  Is this just life?  Or is it just my life?  Instead of worrying about cheering others up, I need to be cheered up.  Last week I said all I wanted for Christmas is a bacon cheeseburger.  I now take that back. Maybe I am being greedy but all I want for Christmas now is a true day off.  Just the thought of day without any responsibilities, any cooking, shopping, planning or taking care of anyone other than myself would be a dream come true.  I want to stay in my pajamas, sip endless cups of hot tea (that has been brought to me), and do absolutely nothing.  I don't need computer time, a movie to watch, or even a book to read.  I just want to sit aimlessly without a care in the world.  So Santa, I think I've been good this year; can you please grant me my wish?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Stomping Out The Green Eyed Monster

There is an old adage that says "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence."  Is this true?  Do we think that others always have it easier than we do, their opportunities are more numerous, and in general their lives are easier than our own?   Many people are probably arguably correct in looking at other people's lives and thinking they have it easier than they do.  These people can be viewed as the lucky ones- perhaps they drive fancier cars, have bigger houses in better neighborhoods, children who look and act like they should be in a J. Crew catalog, and of course have more money.  But as an outsider are these "luckier" people's lives really easier or are they too entrenched in their own set of problems that their more fortunate circumstances bring about?  Do these people look at others and feel that other people have better, more fulfilling lives than they do?  Having hope and aspirations for a better life are good but do we develop these feelings of envy as a coping mechanism for getting us through our own rough times? 

I know I am lucky and others perceive me as so.  In a time when so many others are in need, my family has a roof over our heads, Glenn and I both have jobs that allow us to lead comfortable lives, and for the most part, we have our health.  Our current circumstances permit us to take long weekends to European cities that most people can only dream of visiting, experience cultural opportunities unknown to many, and call a broad cadre of well travelled internationals our friends.  Yes, we do have it good.  But, I still long for more--or other, different, whatever you want to call it-- opportunities and experiences. 

To an outsider looking in, I'm sure it looks like we have it all.  While we have a big house with two (count them two!) kitchens and full time help, I'd give it up in a heartbeat for a smaller house with a single well-appointed kitchen and reliable electricity.  Deep soaking tubs in the bathrooms are nice but when the rooms are unheated and you have neither the water pressure nor hot water to fill the said tubs, they don't do you a whole lot of good.  A modicum of privacy would be nice too- I can't even remember the last time I was alone in the house.  As a three year old Sidney has visited many of Europe's great cities; he's dined on pizza and roamed through cobblestone city centers throughout Eastern and Central Europe but as he grows older will he have any memory of these experiences? In the long term would a grassy backyard, a safe preschool,  and little friends from the neighborhood be better for his overall development? Glenn's position and work commitments afford us opportunities to attend numerous receptions with foreign dignitaries and diplomats but Sidney and I would rather have him home every evening for dinner.  A little boy is only small once and really needs his father (and despite my numerous attempts, the train set is still not put together!)

I'm sure our grass is greener than many people's but it is really all relative.  Whenever I post about our latest adventures on Facebook I am met with envious responses from friends.  Rome, Prague, Stockholm, and Budapest are nice but at the end of the day I am just as envious, if not more so, than they are.  Just the thought of being able to roam through a Whole Foods or Target, sip a latte in a smoke-free Starbucks, drive to the local soccer field for an organized children's sports game or join in a neighborhood block party makes me green with envy.  Being able to send Sidney out into the backyard to play would be a dream come true for me (our only yard consists of a generator and fuel tank sandwiched between a water tank all laid atop of tile) as would cooking a nice dinner in a warm house for just the three of us without worrying about power surges and blown circuit breakers.  

In all likelihood, this will be my life in a few years.  I'll probably look back on our time here and reminisce fondly about our quirky house, unique opportunities, and the challenges of daily life.  Sidney will probably find our new sterile suburban environment boring; after growing up surrounded by broken concrete, roaming street dogs, and uncontrolled adoration of children that borders on inappropriate by western standards, his new environment of open green spaces, enforced rules, and cookie cutter houses will be oh so ordinary.  That will be OK.  In the meantime I'm pinning my hopes on Glenn's promise of a house in the 'burbs that requires no maintenance work, a quiet suburban life, and a nine-to-five job.  This is the green grass I long for.

Monday, December 10, 2012

I've Hit A Wall

This is me today:

My weekend was so busy and non-relaxing that it was all I could do to drag my body out of bed this morning.  This week promises to be a busy one with no rest for the weary.

I officially declare that I am on a physical and mental strike.  Despite a messy house, rambunctious preschooler, and hundreds of thing that need to done this week, I'm taking a break.

My hope is that after an evening of doing nothing and a good night's rest, I will awake tomorrow feeling refreshed and energized.

Only then will I be able to carry on.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Fly Me Away

Glenn has been away on an impromptu business trip this week.  While I normally enjoy the down time that ordinarily accompanies his absences, this past week has been anything but quite and relaxing around household Brown.   Christmas preparations are first and foremost on the agenda.  Despite my best intentions, gift wrapping is not my forte yet I've been trying to wrap both Sidney's Christmas gifts plus the numerous gifts we give to Glenn's many contacts.  Progress is slow and painful.  Next weekend we are hosting two Christmas parties for a total of 100 or so guests in our home.  It will be partially catered (a sanity saving concession that I am not completely happy with) but we're providing all of the drinks (which I have yet to buy) and I'm making all of the desserts (which have yet to be baked).  Between now and then we are hosting a small dinner in our home for a visiting out of town couple and attending another one.  And Glenn will again be gone for two days next week.  On the days he will be here, we have commitments for each and every evening.  Plus I'm working every day next week with a schedule that doesn't permit for down time. Despite an amazing nanny who works too many hours for us, I'm not sure how everything is supposed to get done in time.  During our few email snippets while he's been away, Glenn told me about the German Christmas markets he's visited and gluhwein he's been drinking; I've told him about missed dinners, potty training mishaps, and the cold rainy weather that has prevented an energetic toddler from being able to let off steam outside.  The differences between our individual work requirements this week is drastic.  I keep telling myself there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but is there?

Yesterday during at our end of the day Embassy Christmas party I found myself engaged in a conversation with a co-worker about his wife's desire to have a career (a difficult proposition I have chronicled in an earlier post).  He said that when he retired in a few years, it would be her turn to have a career.  This is the very same conversation Glenn and I have had on numerous occasions; when he retires from the military, which is  ---next year?  in three years?  five?  even longer?  ---- it will be my turn to resume my career.  Like our co-worker, Glenn says he will be the soccer dad, the one who will be responsible for coaching baseball and being a Cub Scout leader while I return to work doing what I want.  This sounds great but the reality is that it is far from realistic.  How does a 40 something year old women (re)start a career after an extended absence from the workforce?  Despite the degrees, the impressive volunteer experience, and a very success career ten or so years ago, would it even be possible for me to jump back into the workforce at a level that would allow me to support my family?  At the same time is Glenn really going to be compiling grocery lists and cooking dinners while serving on the PTA and juggling what I'm sure will be Sidney's numerous activities?  Even with the most valiant effort, will he be satisfied doing this?

Last night was particularly trying.  Sidney was reacting negatively to Glenn's absence and in a fit of anger dismantled his 150 + piece train set.  With the wooden tracks scattered through the living room he declared that "Daddy will come home and fix it."  I had to explain yet again that Daddy would not be coming home that night but I would try to put it together.  Close to an hour later the tracks still lay in ruin (for some reason I am unable to get the tracks to connect into a full loop).  Admitting defeat I asked Sidney if he wanted to bake cookies instead.  This I can do!  He weakly said yes but also reiterated that "Daddy needs to fix it."  Back in my comfort zone in the kitchen we set about making cookies.  Two batches later I admitted defeat. In my distracted desire to keep Sidney from falling off of the stool, adding too much salt to the batter, or catching his hand in the mixer, I omitted the eggs from my first recipe and the yeast from the second.  By the time I realized my mistakes it was too late to salvage the ruined dough.

Late at night, after Sidney had finally fallen asleep I returned to the kitchen to remake the cookies.  Without distractions the doughs came together quickly and perfectly.  As I kneaded the soft buttery dough I recalled the events of the day and asked myself how much longer I (and maybe we) can keep this pace up.  A toddler needs and demands the attention of two engaged parents; at the moment Sidney might have half of one at best.  How can Glenn and I re-prioritize our responsibilities to make this happen?  Glenn hasn't had dinner with Sidney since last weekend and with the exception of tomorrow night's dinner --with company none the less- he won't be sharing the table with him until Thursday at the earliest.  That is a long time for a little boy to go without his dad --and a lot attempts at assembling train tracks for this mom.  How do I explain all of this to a three year old so that he understands?  And I need a break.  There I said it.  Right now my "down" time consists of trips to the grocery store (which is never relaxing in Albania) and cooking rushed dinners in an inadequate kitchen.  I've had a total of one girls night out in the eighteen months we've been in Albania.  I try but as is the case with my latest attempt, it got foiled by "a very important meeting" that Glenn had to attend.

In my current sleep deprived, cookie batter splattered haze I'm having a pity party where I fantasize about hopping on a plane and going to a place where I don't have any responsibilities, no one is expecting me to cook or entertain, and and I can do everything or absolutely nothing on my own schedule.  There's a flight to Vienna leaving tomorrow at 04.30 (yes, I've looked) so if I pack a bag now I could be on it. I could be, but I won't be.  Sidney will wake from his nap soon and I'll make another valiant attempt at constructing the train set up to his standards.  Glenn returns late tonight and tomorrow we'll have a family breakfast of bacon and waffles (Sidney's request).  After that  I'll continue with my marathon baking and preparing for our dinner guests while Glenn puts Sidney's train set together property and they both watch football, play and relax in the afternoon.  (That is a typical Sunday in household Brown).  Come Monday the week with start all over again with more baking, working, and holding down the fort in Glenn's absence.  As impossible as it feels at the moment, I know that the cookies will be baked and next week's parties for 100 will be successes.  We'll smile, get compliments, and next weekend will in turn roll back into another busy week where we can do it all over again.  It will happen because it must happen.  There really isn't any other option.  And maybe with enough practice, I'll finally be able to assemble the train tracks and Sidney will start saying that "Mamma will fix it".

Friday, December 7, 2012

Going To Da' Dawgs

My neighborhood has a dog problem.  Like most of Tirana's neighborhoods we have our share of stray street dogs who roam the neighborhood picking through trash bags and generally making nuisances of themselves.  During the hot days they seek out the shady areas of the nearby park where they congregate in packs; colder days find them seeking shelter on the streets, or if we aren't careful and leave our gate open, in our yard.  I don't know if they are especially dangerous but when feasible, I go out of my way to avoid them.  At night they seem to come alive running in packs with their barking, yapping, and occasional disruption of traffic flow.  Since we arrived here we've been instilling in Sidney the mantra that you just do not touch the dogs.  This is hard since little boys love dogs - or qeni as they are called in Albanian- and both Glenn and I grew up in households with dogs.  Not all dogs are bad but that concept is too complex for Sidney to comprehend at the moment and so we are better off avoiding all of them.

When we moved into our house over a year ago, it seemed as though few people in our neighborhood actually owned dogs as pets.  Not counting Robert the mangy German Shepard who serves as a "guard" dog--his bark is louder than his bite-- at the abutting Turkish Embassy, the only pet dog in our neighborhood was the once white terrier living across the street.  Most days the little dog has free reign to run the streets and makes regular attempts to escape into our gated yard when the opportunity arises.  He has also taken a special liking to Glenn and will nip at his heels and latch onto his pant legs whenever he can.  (Fortunately this dog shows no interest in either me or Sidney).

Recently I've noticed a new, not so pleasant phenomenon in our neighborhood; dogs as status symbols.  These are the rough and tough breeds of dogs-- Doberman Pinchers, Rottweilers, and Pitt Bulls-- that have dominated American tough guy culture in recent decades.  I know that these breeds often get an unjust, bad rap but it only takes a few bad examples to spoil the reputation of a breed.  (My brother and sister-in-law had a big Rottweiler who was as sweet as can be and their white Pitt Bull named Pickles is essentially a lap dog who gets dressed up in sweaters to fend off the Maine cold each winter). 

So it would appear that tough-guy dogs have arrived in Albania.  These certainly aren't sweater wearing lap dogs although a couple do sport black leather spiked collars.  During the warmer months slouchy young men congregate on our street with their dogs in tow.  Like their owners, the dogs sniff each other out before the braver ones go in for the attack.  These aren't Michael Vick level dog fights but they certainly aren't PETA approved actions.  All of this goes on under the "watchful" eyes of the guards from the neighboring embassies.  On occasion I've said something to the men in my broken Albanian but my words have done nothing to stop the fights.  Now that the days are shorter and the weather has turned cold, the dogs seem to be hunkered down behind the neighborhood's walls.  Out of sight doesn't mean out of mind, however.  All it takes is one dog, who for whatever reason, breaks into a barking fit, and all of the others soon join in.  The barking and yelping echos through the cold, concrete filled darkness and without seeing what is happening it sounds as though the world's largest dog fight is taking place.  The sounds may be scary but the noise has become so frequent that I am noticing them less and less. 

Don't get me wrong; dogs make great pets and are valued members of many families.  But as family members they need to be taken care of with the same consideration that is shown to all family members.      Pet shops have been popping up all over Tirana and I've seen quite a few dogs that are obviously pampered (can you say matching owner-pet outfits???) but the ones in my neighborhood don't seem to fall into this category.  And that is sad.  I wish there were laws in Albania governing how animals should be treated but I fear that any such laws are years away.  In the meantime, I wish people would move away from dogs as status symbols.  But alas, dogs are status symbols in many American communities and so it makes sense that this unfortunate trend would also migrate half way around the world.  I guess I need to brush up on my dog related Albanian phrases so I can clearly let the men on my street know that this behavior is not acceptable.