Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Talking Politics

At a recent dinner I found myself seated with an Albanian, a German, and an Italian.  All were fluent in English and after the usual niceties about family, health, and the weather the conversation quickly turned to politics.  Now this is a topic I generally try to avoid;  its hard enough to discuss these topics in a neutral tone in English, but add in the possibility of having to do it in Albanian and it is just too much for me to handle.  But the conversation was in English and it not only provided me with a quick refresher on the American political system (what is the purpose of the Electoral College again?) but my lack of solid knowledge about out own system proved to be quite eye opening.

2012 is a big election year for the United States.  Here in Albania we don't have access to regular American television but thanks to AFN, we do have the opportunity to watch select network news broadcasts and the occasional Republican primary debate which is aired after the fact at odd hours.  Most of our election news comes from what we read on the internet and from BBC and CNN Europe satellite broadcasts.  We hear the ugly rehashes and sound bites but are thankfully spared what I can only imagine is the incessant sniping, bickering, and finger pointing of the Pac and Super Pac ads.  I can't say I'm blissfully unaware of what is happening in the American political arena but I am thankfully much more sheltered than your average, stateside American.

So as I was picking my way through yet another uninspiring Albanian meal I was asked point blank what I thought about Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.  The question was posed by the Albanian, a man who had been involved in Albanian elections for many years.  I wasn't sure whether he was joking or not so I carefully crafted a non-committal response about the importance of having choices in an election.  I was quizzed by both the German and the Albanian as to why, when the world was in the midst of an economic crisis, that social issues were at the forefront of campaign discussions.  Are social issues really the most pressing issue for Americans today?

There was great interest among all of our table mates as to the purpose of primaries and caucuses, elections, and the voting process.  They were surprised that not only could Glenn and I vote by absentee ballot in the primaries and the general election but by the fact we voted in different states- Florida and Virginia respectively, with each state having their own set of rules for voting in primary elections.  In a country where election fraud is rampant, voting by mail seems unimaginable to Albanians.

My explanation of the US electoral process from primaries to the general election tested everything I had learned years ago in my high school civics class.  As I described the three major political parties (I included Independents but I think their inclusion just confused my explanation) and the role each party played in the primary process I found myself questioning the very process I was describing.  When pressed as to why each state had their own set of eligibility rules- Independents can vote in either primary in some states (i.e. Michigan allows it) but not others; you may change your party affiliation at any time in other states - I found myself at a loss of a clear explanation as to why.  My only concrete response was simply "states rights trumping those of the federal government."  This explanation seemed to confuse everyone at the table.  I must admit that I was a bit confused myself.

The concept that votes are truly anonymous and that voters are not obligated to vote for the candidate from their registered party seemed foreign to our dinner companions.  Repeated explanations that yes, you can vote for a Republican in the primary then a Democrat in the general election were met with blank stares.  The explanation of the Electoral College only added to the confusion.  Yes, every vote counts but as some recent elections have shown, they might not.  In today's day and age, is the Electoral College even relevant? 

Later that evening I found myself questioning my own knowledge of the entire process.  The evening's conversation had me thinking about American politics and our political system.  Was I correct in my explanations of how things work or did I only assume I was since voting has been second nature to me since I filled out my first absentee ballot at the age of 18.  What role do primaries and caucuses play in shaping the general election and are these roles still relevant today?  And probably my  most pressing question of all, who are these people who make up the Electoral College and do they truly represent the voice of "the people".

Overall I feel as though I did an unsatisfactory job in explaining our political system and as an American History major I should have done better.  With eight months until the general election in November I have time to hone my knowledge and I suspect I should since I'm sure to be quizzed more about American politics in the coming months.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Cheating on the Nanny

When our nanny was suddenly out of commission two weeks ago, we panicked.  We had come to rely- too much so—on Shpresa’s reliability and 24-7 availability.  We had never considered the reality that we might need  a back-up option so when we were faced with this reality late on a Wednesday night, we didn’t know what to do.

I only work part time and have pretty flexible hours but of course my Thursday was packed with meetings and deadlines not to mention the fact that one of my staff had recently left and the other was on leave.  Glenn had his usual day of meetings.  Somehow we managed to balance out our day- I went in super early and then came home. Glenn went to work and returned early and I went back to the office.  Not knowing how long Shpresa would be out we asked our housekeeper to come in on Friday morning to stay with Sidney. 

My goal had been to get through the week then come up with an alternative plan over the weekend.  Frantic phone calls and emails to other Americans within the community netted several options that we had never considered.  Offers of “borrowing” a nanny, hiring a new one, or enrolling Sidney in an Albanian day care/pre-school all became options. 

Still not knowing Shpresa’s long term prognosis, I interviewed a new nanny- again someone who spoke no English but loved children, could start work immediately, and had been vetted by the Embassy.  I liked her, Sidney liked her, and she could work the two evenings that very week when we required assistance.  That sealed deal and I asked her to come back later that week to stay with Sidney.  Thinking we might need a longer term solution I visited the local Albanian day care facility that is adjacent to the Embassy but decided that it just wasn’t right for us. (Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the rule and regulation order of American military day cares but I just couldn’t see Sidney in this environment).  It was just too Albanian.

Much to my surprise, and Sidney’s delight, Shpresa returned on Monday morning insisting she was fine and crediting her rapid recovery to a homemade concoction involving raki (of course!).  We had still committed to using the other nanny two nights that week and I justified this with the thought that Shpresa needed time to fully recover. 

Having the conversation with her on Wednesday afternoon about not needing her that evening was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and I’m not just talking about my lack of Albanian fluency.   I immediately felt guilty and spent the entire evening feeling like I was cheating on our nanny.  I was panicking that I hadn’t been clear in my explanation of not needing her services and had visions of some other American family scooping up her services (yes, she is that in demand).  First thing Thursday morning found me in Glenn’s translator’s office with him on the phone with Shpresa explaining how important she was to us.  (Her response was that she knew that and that my Albanian was so clear that she fully understood what I had said.)  Not for one moment do I believe that my Albanian is that good!

Friday, evening two of using the pirate-nanny, brought on a whole new level of anxiety.  I had a late day in the office and needed to hurry home to get Shpresa out of the house before the new nanny arrived.  Imagine my surprise when I entered the house and heard Sidney repeating the new nanny’s name to Shpresa. The rest of the Albanian conversation was lost to me but I let my imagination run wild. 

I spent the evening number two also feeling horribly guilty.  Not even having a full drink spilled all over me took my mind off of the fact that someone other than Shpresa was watching Sidney.  Yes, Shpresa is a household employee who we have known for just over 8 months but she is charged with taking care of the single person who is most precious to us.  Sidney  loves his “nene” and misses her when she isn’t there.  I never imagined I could feel this level of guilt over a simple action.  I have no idea how people who commit affairs can live with themselves. 

We struggled with how we could let Shpresa know how much we value her and we finally found a way that might seem strange to people who don’t know her or Albanian culture.  Shpresa has been begging us to leave Sidney with her when we travel on weekends.  Glenn and I have both been hesitant but decided that in April, in honor of our anniversary, we would take a trip and leave Sidney in Shpresa’s care for the weekend.  You would have thought we were giving her the world when I told her of our plans.  Her tears were those of joy and she quickly informed us that we could call Sidney once a day while we were away to talk to him (in Albanian of course!).

Monday, February 20, 2012

Thinking Outside of the Box

The attache world has its share of predictability and routine.  Each month we attend a ridiculous number of receptions.  The venues tend to be the same two or three Tirana hotels that have adequate space to hold large numbers of guests.  Regardless of the host country, the menu is predictably the same.  Albanian food rules with the more creative hosts attempting to infuse their own ethnic food into the mix. (The only country where this seems to really work is Italy).  National drinks are always on the menu but then again, with the exception of Italy, to me they all taste suspiciously like raki.

One of our standing monthly events is a cultural event hosted a different member of the attache corp posted here in Tirana.  Prior to our arrival in Albania, we were assigned the month of January. January in Albania is not a pleasant time with a plentiful amount of gray skies and rain.  The weather is definitely  not conducive to hosting outdoor events.  Even when the weather is nice, the usual venue for these cultural events is a restaurant or event space that resembles the numerous receptions we already attend.  Glenn and I were determined not to host such a typical event but we had a hard time coming up with something that was both inside and American-themed.

Now most of the entertaining Glenn and I have done so far has been very formal so we decided to go in the opposite direction for our cultural event. After putting much thought into it and getting some discouraging comments from both Albanians and Americans alike, we decided to host an American themed bowling night. We rented a local bowling alley and had American finger foods (or as close as they can get here in Albania), American music, and all the bowling you wanted. 

I too was a bit skeptical at first but caved to my persuasive husband (who happened to own his own bowling ball when we first met).  I am happy to say that the event exceeded my expectations.  In fact, it was such a success that we had every attache, their assistants, and families participating. Everyone had a blast and people immediately began asking when we could it again. Best of all, people really started mingling and talking and I saw a whole new side of people. After all, its hard to be serious when you are wearing rented shoes! I don't think I'll be able to look at some of these generals the same way again.....

We've decided that our next traditional, American-style event will be a Fourth of July pool party.  Our one caveat is that speedos must be left at home.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Accident? What Accident?

After close to 8 months in the country yesterday we had our first Albanian car accident.  I say first since I know that because we are in Albania, more are sure to follow.  It was just a fender bender and Glenn and I as well as the car escaped injury.

We were heading the short 1/2 mile home from the Embassy. With blinker on we turned left onto our road behind a yellow furgon masquerading as a school bus.  Suddenly the furgon driver stopped, put the van into reverse and proceeded to back into us.  He obviously wasn't using his mirrors and Glenn's insistent honking of the horn did nothing to stop his movements.  All of this took place within sight of our gate and on the corner with cameras and guards from both the Turkish and American Embassies looking on.

While Glenn and the furgon driver spoke I asked our Embassy guard to call the mobile patrol unit.  It seemed that within a matter of seconds a swarm of police, guards, and interested neighbors swarmed the scene. Each offered their opinion of what happened and insisted that our vehicle was o.k. It was in fact o.k. and we were o.k. as well but that wasn't the point.  Last time I looked, drivers are supposed to pay attention to where they are going and not back willl-nilly down the street.  It doesn't matter if you were working (shouldn't you be more careful if you are a school bus driver?) or if you always turned around at that intersection (how are we supposed to know that?).

Upon the mobile patrol unit's arrival the driver admitted he was in the wrong but insisted that we were just making problems because we were Americans.  Yes Mr. Furgon Driver, I do understand enough Albanian to know that's what you and the cadre of police were saying.  Amazingly enough, the commentary stopped once I told you in Albanian that I understood what you were saying and yes the accident was a problem, and no we we were not trying to create problems for you because we are American.  To me, its the principle of the matter.

Principle or not, there is a moral to this story.  Apparently it is legal for a school bus driver who admits he was at fault, to back into a vehicle without looking and walk away free of any changes.  We were advised that we should always blast our horn before taking any corner......just to let people know we are there.......Since the term accident insinuates that a mistake was made maybe this wasn't an accident after all.  Yes my friends, these appear to be the traffic laws in Albania.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Down the Man Hole

That's where our nanny went.  Walking home one evening last week she fell into an open manhole.  She's ok,  battered and bruised since this manhole opened into a deeper abyss than one normally finds on Tirana streets, but she is ok.

People unfamiliar with Albania's streets and haphazard infrastructure are probably thinking this is a joke.  For those of us who have spent any time navigating the streets and roadways of Albania's cities, we can understand how this might happen.

Open manholes are a common sight on all of Tirana's streets.  Rruga Elbasanit, one of the main city through fares that passes by the U.S. Embassy, regularly has open manholes.  (How these manhole covers disappear in broad day light on one of Tirana's busiest streets under the "watchful" eyes of the Tirana police who patrol the area is a story for another time).  On any given day, in addition to dodging pedestrians and speeding traffic, drivers must keep a watchful eye out of gaping holes in the road. But back to our nanny.........

While she doesn't live far from our house as the crow flies, driving, or as is the case for her most of the time, walking, is a trek.  Tirana's lack of connecting though streets means you must navigate through a maze to get from Point A to Point B.  Getting to Shpresa's house isn't for the faint of heart and I've had my share of near misses with pedestrians, cars, and yes, holes in the road when I've been bringing her home at night.  Even when the electricity is working there isn't any street lighting so the area is very dark.  When guidebooks recommend that travellers carry a "torch" with them at all times, they aren't kidding.  Travelling any place in Albania, whether by car, furgon, airplane, foot, or mule, is a dangerous business.

Despite our protests, Shpresa returned to work this morning looking pretty healthy.  As she told me, or as my shaky Albanian allowed me to understand it, she fell into the hole as she stepped out of the way of a speeding car.  She fell straight down and only her extended arms kept her from falling further.  In a country where the elderly are still deeply respected, the sight of a 60 year old women hanging by her arm pits in a manhole must have been a horrifying shock.  Apparently two young men lifted her out and helped her home. 

In her typical stubbon fashion, she didn't go to the doctor but rather, rested and relied on a homemade Albanian medicinal cure.  Shpresa attributed her rapid recovery to a concoction of raki, olive oil, and crushed asprin that was rubbed all over her body.  When she told me the recipe I had to ask her to repeat it twice since I wasn't believing what I was hearing. 

Rake?  Olive oil?  Asprin?  I'm skeptical and want to think it was simply rest and time that allowed her body to heal.  However, after last week's Albanian punch incident, a small part of me may be a believer.  Not so much of a believer that I want to test the concoction on my own body.  From here on in I'll need to make sure I am extra careful as I walk Tirana's streets and I will definitely keep all complaints about body aches out of Shpresa's hearing.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Old Wives Tales

Every culture has them-- stories and medicinal cure-alls that are passed down from one generation to the next. Each one seems to be more grandiose and outrageous than the next but the mysteries behind them are spoken as though they are gospel. I call these stories old wives tales. 

I remember my own Polish Nana sharing her own tales.  She'd hiss at my brother that he shouldn't cross his eyes otherwise they would "snap" and stay that way.  When questioned she insisted it was true because when she was a child this happened to a boy in her block.  She also warned of the perils of having a red headed child- they were the spawn of the devil (Nana did not live to meet my red-headed husband or my strawberry-blond son) and she insisted that a glass of wine every night cured and even prevented all possible ills.  These were but a few of her beliefs.

As I got older I forgot about most of these stories- after all, one doesn't often hear tales from the old country when living in a cosmopolitan city.  Two years ago when we started our Albanian language classes, these old wives tales came rushing back to the forefront of my thoughts. 

It was late spring and Sidney had been spiking a raging fever for several days.  The Children's Tylenol that had been prescribe by his pediatrician was helping in bringing down his temperature but once the dosage wore off, the fever was returning. My Albanian language instructor- a college educated woman who I considered my contemporary insisted that I soak his socks in vinegar then put them on his feet.  She told me that this was the only way to break the fever.  I was skeptical. After all, I didn't see the correlation between my son smelling like a pickle and his fever dissipating.  I didn't take Manushaqe's advice and Sidney's fever disappeared and as I packed up our consumable goods for our overseas move I made sure I had plenty of pediatric medicine on hand.

Fast forward two years and we're now living in Albania.  To date I've heard my share old wives tales for what some might deem holistic remedies for common ailments but I've been able to dismiss them.  Our nanny regularly sips a tea that smells like a cross between wet dog and dirty feet but I stick to my teabags filled with peppermint leaves and green tea.

And then I got sick. Really sick.  The cold, or as Albanians call it gripe, that had been making its way through the Embassy community, hit me hard. My OTC cold medicines imported from the United States did nothing to diminish the awful symptoms I was feeling.  If anything, they just resurfaced in another form.  I kept up a brave front and insisted to those who inquired that I was "me mire" or getting better.  The people closest to me weren't convinced and offers for special teas started coming in.

As week one of being sick moved into week two, the number of Albanian cures that were sent my way increased.  Each offer of tea promised to be better than the last.  I steadfastly refused all of them since I couldn't get past the smell.  A few people told me a shot of raki would do the trick but I dismissed those as jokes.

Yesterday, as I struggled to finish my work in the office before rushing home to cater an evening reception my Albanian office assistant told me I needed to drink Albanian punch, a concoction comprised of raki and sugar.  I gave her a vague promise to think about it as I dashed out the door.  At home our Albanian nanny suggested the same thing- she said I would be cured if I drank this potion. Or at least that's what I think she said since my foggy brain couldn't couldn't fully comprehend what she was saying to me in rapid-fire Albanian.  The housekeeper- a woman two generations younger than my nanny- echoed the same suggestion.  Albanian punch would make me feel better. 

Later that evening, having struggled through preparing copious amounts of food I staggered back into the kitchen and finally succumbed to what I had been hearing for close to two weeks.  Albanian punch would cure my ills.  Under the watchful eye of my nanny I prepared the punch using the "right raki" (apparently most of the raki in the house was deemed unfit by her standards). I slowly simmered the raki and sugar combination then allowed it to cool to a drinkable temperature.  Just before slipping into bed, and much to Glenn's amusement, I hesitantly sipped the concoction. 

I admit, it wasn't bad. It certainly wasn't good but it wasn't nearly as bad as I had imagined.  I think I cooked off most of the pungent alcohol and the sugar did temper the drink's bite.  As I lay in bed I felt the good old raki burn penetrate through my chest and up into my sinuses.  Somewhere along the line I fell into a deep sleep that was only disturbed by occasional night sweats (no one warned me of this but then again maybe they did and the language barrier kept me from fully understanding).

I awoke this morning feeling so much better.  I had a healthy color on my face and a slight bounce in my steps.  I'd like to think that after two plus weeks the cold had finally run its course and I was naturally on the mend.  Maybe my OTC cold remedies were finally working their magic.  Or I could give credit to the Albanian punch.  Maybe old wives tales aren't so outlandish after all.  Whatever the case, I won't be throwing out my Nyquil just yet. I might, however, keep a stash of raki close at hand.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Show Me the Money

One of my recent posts discussed the trials and tribulations of being a trailing spouse.  In it I pondered the realities of giving up a career to follow my spouse around the world as he furthers his career.  I wondered how, if ever, I would be able to reenter the workforce in a meaningful way and how I would be able to take my considerable experiences and market them in a society that attaches a concrete dollar value to work.  I just may have found one of the answers to my question.

One of the blogs I regularly follow is that of Jane D'Arcy, who pens the On Parenting  column in the Washington Post.  I don't always agree with D'Arcy's point of view but her columns never fail to make me think about parenting, society, and life in a new light.  For me, her February 2, 1012 column entitled A Homemaker's Real Salary spoke to the very heart of the trailing spouse issue and puts a starting dollar figure on what I am worth.  At first glance the figures she presents look inflated but upon closer contemplation, I do believe they are fair.  After all, I do perform all of these tasks and like a mailman, I do them through snow, sleet, and falling rain.  I don't get sick days (as evidenced by the fact I am now on day 13 of my cold and I'm still plugging away) and vacations are actually more work than staying home. 

I remember our financial planner urging us to take out additional life insurance on me since he claimed that the value of my contributions to the Brown house outweighed those of Glenn.  I was skeptical but after reading D'Arcy's column, I am reconsidering my position.  A part of me wants to shout to those cynics who poo-poo my homemaker status as not being real work.  I have the urge to point out to them that if I was receiving a paycheck for my efforts, I'd probably be out earning them. 

I'm going to resist- for the moment anyway.  However, I just may have to ask Glenn for a raise. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Winter in Tirana

Prior to moving to Albania all of my research told me that Tirana had a Mediterranean climate, namely hot dry summers and mild wet winters. While sweltering through June and July visions of mild winters filled my head.  Hot summer days gave way to comfortable autumn weather that on some days, even reminded me of New England falls.  When the calendar page turned to November and the "rainy season" that so many people talked about wasn't as bad as I had anticipated, I was pleasantly surprised.  In my mind, the Albanian weather was turning out to be rather nice.

I may be from New England but that doesn't mean I like winter.  Our Christmas sojourn to Slovenia was cold but I comforted myself by saying we had headed "north" and after all, it was Christmas.  Upon our return to Tirana I was to be greeted by a mild Mediterranean winter.  Or so I thought.

Not so. January, and now February, have been cold.  Even Albanians are saying it is cold and this winter is proving to be colder than usual (For some reason, this phrase "colder than usual" seems to follow me wherever I go).  Last Friday morning was so cold that our front gate froze shut.  I know I have friends in The U.S., Russia, and northern Europe who are laughing at this right now.  That's OK, go ahead and laugh because this New England girl laughed too when the 30 F temperatures were cited as the reason for the gate's malfunctioning.

Throughout the past few cold weeks, I've comforted myself with the idea that at least there wasn't snow.  We can see snow in the mountains to the east of Tirana.  Since early December snow has been gracing the silhouette of Mt. Dajti and the surrounding peaks. On colder days the snow line creeps lower and closer to the City but by midday it has receded back towards the peak.  From afar, its pretty but perhaps I feel this way since I don't have to deal with it.

All of this started to change yesterday.  Our bi-weekly staff meeting was abuzz with talk of snow and contingency plans for dealing with it. The northerners among us listened skeptically to the worry while those from south of the Mason-Dixon Line sounded excited at the prospect of a white blanket on the ground (I told them that once they have spent an entire season dealing with snow on a daily basis, they would rethink their enthusiasm about Mother Nature's cold fury.  But I digress........).

As the day progressed the temperatures dropped and the air smelled increasingly like snow.  By nightfall a wet mess was falling and when Glenn returned home he gleefully informed me that it was snowing.  Sure enough a few large wet flakes were floating to the ground.  Unlike the other two-thirds of the Brown household, I wasn't amused.  I asked myself, "is this really Mediterranean weather?"

Fortunately, for me at least, the "snow" stopped and turned to a heavy blowing rain that fell throughout the night.  Our drive to work was wet with rain and the nearby mountains were shrouded with low lying clouds.  I was sure snow was falling somewhere behind the gray mass.  By noon, when the clouds had lifted and the sun had come out, I could see the very low lying snow line on the mountains. For the first time this winter it dipped to the very outskirts of Tirana.  Close, but still not in the city proper.

If yesterday was the only snow I will experience here in Albania I'll be happy.  After all, it is so much more enjoyable to look at the snowy vistas from our balconies than it is to commute through it on Tirana's already treacherous sidewalks and roadways.