Sunday, April 29, 2012

Slow Food Albania

Welcome to Slow Food Albania

I love good food.  You might call me a foodie or a food snob but that doesn't bother me.  Salty, sweet, or savory; from the most complex flavor profile to the simplest, if the food is made with good quality products I enjoy it. I can be as equally satisfied with a creative salad as I am with a platter of meat.  I prefer local and organic products but do eat carefully selected imported items.  I would rather taste a single bite of a quality food item than have heaping plates of food of an inferior quality.  In my opinion, when it comes to food, more isn't always better.

Mezes of tapanade, cream, and pesto
A couple of years ago I became aware of, and interested in the Slow Food movement.  Slow foods is a grassroots effort that aims to grow and produce food locally while taking into consideration the larger environment.  It considers the entire "cost" of the end product.  Are the farmers and food producers treated fairly?  How much of an environmental impact does the production of the food have?  Does the food enjoyable to eat and taste good?  Slow food's  mission statement resonates with me: the organization seeks to  "envision a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, good for those who grow it and good for the planet".  How can one argue with that?

Last fall I was fortunate enough to spend a weekend in Turino, Italy with a group of European alumnae from my Alma Mater discussing these very issues.  That weekend was thought provoking and filled with culinary delights.  I blogged about the experience here.  The weekend further spurred my gastronomic interest and I returned home thinking even more about eating locally and the opportunities that existed in Albania.

Slow Foods International and Slow Europe have helped to take the movement global.  What started small has grown into an epic scale project with members in 150 countries.  Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that Albania had its very own slow food chapter.  This past weekend I had the opportunity to discover just what Slow Food Albania is all about.

Garlic shoots, cheese, and bean byrek

Mrizi i Zanave did not disappoint.   Because we went as part of a group, we were served a set menu.  In true Albanian fashion, once the food started arriving it didn't stop.  We started with a trio of spreads- pesto, olive tapanade, and cream that were slathered on top of homemade toasts.  Next came platters of lightly grilled spring vegetables and creative spins on traditional Albanian dishes.  I had never tried fresh garlic shoots before and I found them to be  surprisingly tasty.  I'm not a fan of traditional byrek which usually arrives heavy and drenched in oils.  Both the bean and the nettle filled byrek were delicious.  So much so, that Glenn, who doesn't eat beans, cleaned his plate.

A duo of pastas
Next came the pasta course- a duo of individually plated homemade pastas.  The noodles with spring vegetables in a light sauce were tasty but I preferred the ravioli stuffed with foraged greens.  The servers explained each dish to us as it was presented and went through the ingredient list.  Even the Albanians at the table weren't able to translate some of the filling ingredients into English. Foraged greens?  I'm not sure what that means but I had visions of dandelions growing on the side of the road.  It didn't matter since they just tasted so good.  (I do not think I will be going out to forage for my own greens however).

Chicken in a pot
The entree consisted of two meats, a traditional lamb that was grilled to a tender perfection that I had yet to experience in Albania and a roast chicken which was served in a copper pot on top of a polenta like grain.  Again we couldn't get a clear Albanian-English translation but it was good just the same.  The final course consisted of four mini desserts served in individual dishes.  A blueberry cordial accompanied a fruit sorbet, a minted fruit salad, and a dish of stewed fruits that roughly translated means "cranberry".  Even after all of the earlier dishes the desserts were delicious.  Of course everything was washed down with house made red wine.

We were told that the menu changes seasonally with whatever is fresh and in season being brought to the table.  Spring is the season of fresh fruits and vegetables but I'm sure that the meals produced during the other seasons are just as flavorful.  The restaurant is a bit of a drive from Tirana but I know we'll be going back to sample the in-season foods from the rest of the year.


Friday, April 27, 2012

Spring Has Sprung

When you move on a regular basis you never know what each season will bring.  Chances are that summer and winter in your old location will not look or feel the same in your new home.  Locals, or at least those people who have experienced a seasonal cycle or two will tell you that this year's weather isn't normal, rather it is colder, wetter, hotter, drier, etc. than normal.  What does this really mean?  I mean what is normal weather like any way?

Greening Tirana foothills
Mother Albania surrounded by green
We're approaching the one year mark in Albania and with each new season have been told that the weather isn't what is used to be (can you say global warming????).  Summer was supposedly hotter than usual and this past winter was colder.  I don't know if this is true but summer did feel very hot and this past winter was a lot colder than I had expected.  I don't know what to anticipate in terms of weather any more.

Garden plants
Spring has officially been here for over a month but I think the weather is finally catching on.  Overnight the weather has turned from cold, gray, and rainy to bright, clear and sunny.  It feels as thought the entire country is undergoing an awakening after a long sleep.  Flowers in our yard are in full bloom (as are my allergies) and the mountains outside of Tirana are once again turning green.  The sky is a brilliant shade of azure blue and the air is crisp and clean.  The days are growing longer with sunlight filling both our early morning and late evening hours.  The sidewalk cafes are once again filled with lounging coffee drinkers and we've returned to our late afternoon ritual of going to the playground. 

And container gardening
I love the weather and am taking every opportunity I can to get out and enjoy it. And I must. Because before I know it summer will be upon us again with her stifling hot temperatures and smog filled air.  But like I said, in the mean time I'm going to enjoy it and get out and play.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Taking A Turkish Hamam

Looking across the rooftop of the Suleymaniye Hamam
Istanbul is known for many things.  As the point where the East meets the West it is a giant cultural mixing bowl.  It brings together christian churches and grand old mosques while masterfully blending the old world with the modern and new. Ottoman, Turkish and Asian cuisines combine to grace tables with some of the best food combinations I have ever tasted.  Istanbul is also known for its hamams, or Turkish baths.  Because of this, Glenn and I decided that our own Turkish vacation wouldn't be complete without partaking in this tradition ourselves.

On the recommendation of our hotel, we made reservations at the Suleymaniye Hamam and set off not knowing exactly what to expect.  Truly traditional hamams are separated by gender but the Suleymaniye billed itself as a hamam for couples and families so we were immediately skeptical of its level of traditionalism. A check of online reviews of the hamam revealed mainly positive comments and we did like the idea that we could experience this together so we decided that this was the right choice for us.

Save the impressive domed rooftop, the outside of the building was non-descript, so much so that it was almost sketchy.  What we found inside was a totally different story.  (I would have taken pictures but didn't bother to bring my camera since the only place cameras were allowed was in the lobby area.  Besides, I'm not one to post pictures of myself in a bikini).  The lobby had a rustic feel with its wooden beams but it was also welcoming with lush greenery and lounge chairs scattered throughout the cavernous room.  More importantly, it looked immaculately clean. 

Our money was collected and the entire hamam experience was explained to us.  After being handed traditional wraps (pestemals) and wooden slippers (takunya) we were escorted into private changing areas. Once changed we were then lead through a series of marble lined hallways into an even more cavernous steam room where we were told to sit, or lay if we chose, on a marble slab for approximately 40 minutes.   This is supposedly where the Sultan took his baths.  The hamam is heated with a wood fed fire and kept at a temperature between 40 and 60 degrees Celsius.  There were a handful of other couples in the room so we found our own little spot and settled in. 

We were informed that this steam session would allow the impurities to escape from our bodies.  All I can say is yikes was it hot.  So hot that it made hot flashes feel like nothing.  It was a dry heat though so periodically we would make our way over to a water basin where we could cool down by dousing ourselves with either tepid water that was sitting in stone basins or more brisk water that flowed from the taps.  Over and over again I found myself opting for the later.  After my body adjusted to the new atmosphere I started to really enjoy the intense heat.

The scrubbing
When our 40 minutes of impurity purging were over, two towel-clad young men ushered us into the semi-private soaping and scrubbing room where we were instructed to lay down on marble slabs that were slightly smaller in size than  twin beds.  We were alternately doused with warm then freezing cold water before being slapped with hot sudsy loofah-like towels.  My body was soon enveloped in copious amounts of olive oil soap.  No one ever told me that a Turkish bath was relaxing and as my masseur set to work I felt as though my body was being scrubbed, prodded, and poked to within mere inches of my breaking point.  I think I was in sensory overload.  There were moments when the entire process hurt but those were quickly replaced with a sense of comfort.  The soapy massage touched on muscles I never knew I had and soon the aches I had developed from our long walks throughout the hilly city were massaged away.  The intense scrubbing and massaging was followed by a dousing of very cold water that rinsed away all of the suds. The brisk water quickly brought me back to  my senses and left my entire body with a tingling sensation.

Post rinse we once again sat in the steam room before being swathed in a new set of dry wraps and relaxing over cups of hot apple tea.  I now know where the expression squeaky clean comes from.  The combination of intense heat and even intenser scrubbing must have removed every dead skin cell from my body. 

This hamam was an experience and I can now cross it off of the list of things to try.  Will I do it again?  Maybe.  But not before I regrow my lost layer of skin.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Grandest Bazaar of All

One of the long halls

While in Istanbul we succumbed to what all first time visitors do and visited the Grand Bazaar.  Having visited sauks in Dubai I thought I knew what to expect but nothing could have prepared me for the epic scale of Istanbul's great bazaar.  There are numerous smaller shopping areas throughout the city and we inadvertently wandered through several of those during our stay.   The Grand Bazaar, however, is the granddaddy of them all.

The bazaar itself dates back to 1461.  It was originally designed to be a local shopping market and in some cases it still is today.  However, I doubt any of its original architects would recognize it as such.  Today's bazaar encompasses over 60 streets and 5,000 shops and attracts upwards of 350,000 visitors a day.  Fortunately we visited on a "quiet" Monday but I still found the crows overwhelming.

That's a lot of silver
So what did we find?  A mix of locals and fanny pack wearing tourists wandered the catacomb of hallways lined with everything from spice, leather, and carpet vendors to suave looking young men hawking fake Levis, perfumes, and knick-knacks with unidentifiable purposes.  It was loud, chaotic, and truly an experience.

Bright lights
We could hardly walk a few feet without someone calling out a sales pitch to us.  We were undeniably recognizable as Americans; so much so that when people asked us where we were from we started answering with "Albania".   That would usually throw them off long enough for us to make a hasty escape.  Carpet salesmen were the worst.  It was hard to admire the beautiful Turkish carpets on display in windows without being pestered by pushy salesmen.  The more aggressive ones chased us down the hallways using sales pitches that made me want to run rather than linger.  Salesmen at silver and diamond stores looked more distinguished but used equally cheesy pick up lines.

Some body's watching you
It seemed as though the infamous "evil eye" was sold in every other booth.  Those salesmen appeared particularly desperate.  My favorite sales pitch started with the words "I've been waiting for you."  Really?  Do people really fall for this?  I felt an incredible urge to go back to the hotel to shower after some of these come-ons.  Unfortunately when I browsed at a local soap vendor I was so turned off from the sales pitch that I just couldn't bring myself to purchase any of the olive oil soap.

We did walk away with a few small sales. It turns out that Glenn is a haggler.  Who knew?  I knew I wanted to purchase some saffron from one of the spice vendors.  Glenn stepped up to the plate and haggled our way into a significant purchase that would have broken the bank had I ordered it from my regular on-line spice store.  I also scored a kilogram of delicious apple tea.  We had tried it on several occasions and I wanted to recreate our Istanbul experience back in Tirana.  We also bought a few other items which I will refrain from discussing since the lucky recipients just might be reading this.

We think we roamed most of the hallways of the bazaar but after a while everything began to look the same and we had reached our saturation point.  It was a truly Istanbul experience which I'm glad we braved.  Will I return on our next trip to Istanbul?  I just might.
Spices, spices, spices

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Magic Carpet Ride

The "big" one
Some people collect art work, beanie babies, antiques or stamps. We collect carpets.   With this in mind, Glenn and I went to Istanbul with an extra suitcase and the idea of buying a new Turkish carpet.  Glenn owned two rugs when I met him and during his last deployment I flew to Dubai to meet the ship for Christmas.  As a Christmas present to ourselves we bought a carpet together and then he returned from his deployment with another one as a gift for me.  We both love our carpets and against the advise we received, we brought ours  with us to Albania.  After all, what is the point of having nice things if you don't use them?

While we knew we wanted to add to our collection we had never discussed the specifics of what we were looking for.  A specific size, color, and design were all up for grabs.  We figured that we would know the right carpet when we saw it.  Having a full four days to find the perfect carpet, we set out on our first morning in Istanbul to play tourist at the local sites.  During the short walk between our hotel and the Ayasofya we saw several carpet stores displaying their wares.  We looked but out of the fear of being accosted by aggressive salesmen, we didn't linger.

Outside of the Ayasofya we were approached by a local man offering to serve as our guide in the museum. The enticement of being able to bypass the long line led us to accept the proposal that we would normally decline.  The guide was surprisingly well spoken and as our tour wound down he offered to take us to a "special place" for tea since we were friends. We were not one hundred percent sure what we were getting ourselves into as we followed the guide down increasingly narrow streets in Istanbul's Suleyaniye neighborhood. When we abruptly stopped in front of an unmarked storefront I had my doubts but I quickly understood our destination when I saw the rugs lining all of the surface areas.  Small and large, silk and wool, brightly colored or subtly abstract the place was filled with nothing but carpets.

Following some rapid fire Turkish, an entourage of well dressed men escorted us into an elevator which swept us up three floors where we were led into a discrete, but well appointed showroom.  Offers of drinks quickly ensued and we opted for Turkey's famous apple tea.  As we sipped our first cups of tea we braced ourselves for the sales pitch that we knew was coming.  The pitch was delivered as one part sales and one part education with repeated reassurances that we were under no obligation to buy.  The differences between knotted and woven rugs, and wool, cotton, silk or a combination of materials was demonstrated and even the most untrained eye could notice the difference. 

Under the direction of the store's manager, carpets were rolled out on the floor by a series of silent men. Our most subtle actions were observed and reacted to.  I'm a horrible poker player and the minute I had the slightest negative reaction to a rug the carpet was whisked away and replaced with a new one.  The quality and size of the carpets increased with each new one that was rolled out before us.   As the time wore on the whole experience became increasingly overwhelming with beautiful colors, ornate patterns, and materials becoming an unrecognizable blur.

By the time we were drinking our second cup of apple tea, we had narrowed down our selections to a few beautiful carpets.  They were unlike any of the rugs we currently owned and I was surprised that I found myself really liking them.  Up to this time there had been no mention of cost.  (Discussing it later, Glenn and I both knew that we had narrowed our choices down to some of the most expensive carpets in the store). At this point the rug buying dance became more interesting.  Glenn first broached the subject of cost and a number for our preferred rug was thrown out.  We knew it was just an opening offer and Glenn quickly counter offered with a question of currency.  We were talking Turkish Lira, Euro, or American dollars? All were accepted as was cash or credit.

The "little" one
I never realized what a haggler I had married but Glenn's back and forth offers were impressive. With each new rug came a reassurance of how special it was.  Offers became counter offers that were met with polite refusals and explanations that they too needed to make money.   We knew they would be making plenty of money so the dance continued.  At one point the rug rollers brought out a carpet that we were told was in our price range.  It was one of the ugliest things I had ever seen and with just a raised eyebrow on my part it quickly disappeared. 

Our proposal to pay in cash with Euro and take the carpet with us reduced the cost slightly but not enough to satisfy us.  And so the danced continued with more back and forth on both of our parts.  When it appeared that we had reached a standstill the manager's "uncle" was brought in and with feigned reluctance he proposed a slightly lower offer for the one rug we were looking at.  Glenn said we'd take it if they also included a second, smaller, but even more beautiful rug.  (Two for the price of one!  How I love a great deal).  It was now the uncle's turn to act insulted and to reassure us that they were already offering us a great deal since it was "before the cruise ship season" and after all, we were friends. (Before our trip to Istanbul I never knew we had so many friends).  More polite counter offers ensued before the entire deal reached a rapid conclusion. 

For a few additional Euro our offer for both rugs was accepted.  Within minutes hands were shook, the carpets were rolled up and packed into their own carrying bags, and we were whisked into another room to complete the paperwork.  Glasses of raki were brought out for the men and I was offered my third cup of apple tea.  Soon we were back on the sidewalk with our museum guide lugging our carpets down the street. The sight of our new purchases made us prime fodder for even more aggressive carpet salesmen who shouted to us from their storefronts telling us that we needed to see their even better carpets.  After all, they told us, we were friends and they would give us a great deal.  No, even for us carpet lovers, two new carpets are enough for a single trip.  Besides, we need to save up for our return trip to Istanbul.  We already have several carpets in mind but need to figure out where we will put them.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

An Istanbul Mini-Moon

We finally did it.  This past weekend Glenn and I left Sidney in the very capable hands of the best nanny in Albania and flew off to Istanbul, Turkey.  We went under the auspices of an early anniversary gift to ourselves but in reality it was so much more.  This was the first time we both left Sidney and took a mini-vacation for just the two of us. (OK, for full disclosure, when he was just over a year we did leave him with my parents for a week while we went to a mandatory training.  I don't count that as a true get away since spending a week in the western Pennsylvania woods in December is not my idea of a good time).  So after 2 1/2 years we took the plunge and went on our first couples vacation since our Kauai baby-moon back in 2009.

Playing tourist in Istanbul
We chose Istanbul since it is one of the few places that is close by, we wanted to visit, and more importantly, we could fly to directly.  Packing for the trip was heaven since I didn't need to count out diapers, snacks, and travel toys.  Not having to carry matchbox cars, wet wipes and crayons with me, I was able to downsize to a cute purse of non-mommy-size proportions.  Away went my mommy clothes and out came my slightly more fashionable pre-pregnancy clothes that surprisingly enough, still fit.

So what did we do?  We had no schedule and it was heaven.  We stayed at an amazing boutique hotel that shared a wall with the Ayasofya.  We slept in, ate our meals when we wanted to, and strolled at a leisurely pace.  We chose restaurants based on their interesting cuisine rather than their child-friendly atmosphere.  We went to dinner late and my only responsibility during dinner was to feed myself.  We had that extra glass of wine after dinner since we didn't have a babysitter waiting up for us.  We were able to be a part of the vibrant city after dark instead of looking out at it from our dark hotel room window.  We visited many of Istanbul's top sights- the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Galata Tower. We partook in a traditional Turkish hamam, discovered just how cool the Yerebatan Cistern is, and browsed the Grand Bazaar.  I had my first cup of Starbucks coffee in ten months.

Most importantly, Glenn and I were able to reconnect.  We could carry on entire conversations without being interrupted.  (OK, there was the occasional call on Glenn's Blackberry but even those were kept to a minimum). There wasn't any talk of dinner menus, to-do lists or impending receptions.  We were silly and spontaneous and remembered why we had fallen in love in the first place. We were reminded that before we became three we were two.  Unfortunately, these are the simple things in life that so often escape us when we are caught up in the day-to-day activity of living our lives.

I'm now back in my Albanian reality.  I missed Sidney terribly while I was away but realize that taking the trip was the best thing we could have done.  Glenn and I have reconnected and I returned home to Sidney feeling refreshed.  Our next few trips will definitely be geared towards family time but Glenn and I must do more, non work related things as a couple.  In fact, we're already planning a Paris trip for our next anniversary.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Little Whine and a Lot of Cheese

We entertain a lot and some weeks, it feels like we entertain a lot more than we really do.  Only ten months into our Albanian gig, I'm feeling like we are in a rut when it comes to hosting receptions. It seems like each one has the same menu and same guest list.  So, to kick things up a notch, we decided that for our first April event we would host a wine and cheese themed reception.

It sounded simple enough- or in Glenn's words, we just had to put a bunch of cheese on the table and open a few bottles of wine.  Um, sorry honey. Even the simplest of ideas takes a little more effort.  First, our little shin-dig for 40 was to be held the day after Glenn returned to Albania after being out of the country for a week.  This wouldn't be a big deal if it wasn't for the fact that my only prep time for this event was after Sidney the night owl went down to sleep well after 2100 each evening. 

If I was back in the U.S.- or in any other country in Europe for that matter- putting together a menu would have been a simple enough proposition.  As I should know by now, putting together any event here is a lot more work than it should be.  Albania is the land of "white cheese" - a.k.a. feta with various levels of pungency and two types of wine- vere e bardhe (white) and vere e kuqe (red). That's all folks- those are your local choices. 

People often tell me that I obsess about details but as I always do, I was determined to find just the right combination of food and drink to serve to our guests.  Some of you may have read my post from earlier this week bemoaning the difficulties I encountered when shopping in our local, not-so-friendly Carrefour.  Sticking to my boycott of the store I set about finding the perfect wines to go with the perfect cheeses for our event.  I struck silver- not gold because I couldn't find everything I needed- at Bote e Veres, a local wine warehouse where they know us by name-- or more like they know Sidney by name and recognize Glenn and I as Sidney's parents.  Most of their wines are imported from Italy with a smattering from Chile, the U.S. of A. and South Africa thrown.  With the exception of port  I was able to find everything I needed. (The port was later picked up by my globe trotting husband in a duty-free shop during his layover in Munich).

Part of the cheese spread
A variety of cheeses was harder to come by but in the end I think I did pretty well and didn't serve a single "Albanian white cheese."  I ended up pairing fresh mozzarella and tomato skewers with Chianti, a Gorgonzola and mascarpone torte with port, phyllo wrapped brie with a crisp chardonnay and a Swiss fondue with a Macedonian Riesling.  I paired green olives from Berat with a hard goat cheese Glenn brought back from Vienna and served it with a Sicilian Merlot.  I rounded out the table with a few more wines and simple fruit, crackers, and cheese presentations.  I even dipped into my precious stash of cheddar and pepper jack that had been "imported" from a Maryland Wegman's and the U.S. Embassy in Budapest.

I was a bit nervous going into the evening since after the difficulties I encountered in buying these items, everything suddenly seemed too easy.  I wasn't sure how a simple wine and cheese presentation would be received since this type of event is apparently unheard of in Eastern Europe.  To our surprise, once people got over the fact they could chose between several white and red wines, they really enjoyed themselves.  They enjoyed themselves so much that they ate me out of cheese.  Yes, that's right, for the first time ever there weren't any leftovers and the visions I had had of eating cheese and crackers this weekend was reduced to the cheese crumbles left on picked-clean platters.  That's OK though- within the next month both Glenn and I will be traveling through several countries and we'll be on the lookout for more cheese.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Ancient Orikum

One of the many advantages of living overseas is the opportunity to explore new places.  Being affiliated with an Embassy is an added advantage since we are often provided with the opportunity to visit sites that are normally restricted or have limited access to the general public.  A recent trip to the ancient city of Orikum in the southern part of Albania was one such opportunity.

The majority of the ruins lay under the water
 Orikum is an ancient city at the south end of the Bay of VlorĂ«. The city, said to have been founded by Euboeans, was originally on an island, but already in ancient times it was connected to the mainland. It was well situated for communication with Corfu, Greece and was only 40 miles across the sea from Otranto, making it a convenient stopping point on the journey between Greece and Italy. Ancient sources described it as a  harbor, but eventually it achieved the status of a polis, and from around 230 to 168 BC it issued its own coins. More pictures of the ruins can be found here.
Remains of the amphitheater 
It had military importance under Roman rule, serving as a base during Rome's wars with the Illyrians and with Macedonia (which occupied it for a time); it was also the first city taken by Julius Caesar during his invasion of Epirus. Later the Ottomans renamed Orikum Pashaliman, “the Pasha's harbor”, and the lagoon still bears this name, as does the nearby Albanian navy base.

In the 1950 Pashaliman was the only Soviet base in the Mediterranean. It was the hot spot of conflict between the Russians and the Albanians in 1961 when Albania pulled out of the Warsaw Pact.  The base is still operating with a small fleet of ships.

As a group we were able to tour the ancient Orikum ruins (not as vast or well preserved as other sites but impressive just the same).  As an added bonus we were able to tour parts of the navy base and board an Albanian naval vessel.  Now given my navy background, I didn't find this particularly exciting but for just about everyone else in our group, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. 

The rich history of Albania never ceases to amaze me.  In a single day we were able to visit a site whose historical significance and current relevance spans thousands of years.  Now it is time for me to plan our next adventure.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Your Cheese Selection Just Isn't Worth It

Earlier this week I was in Carrefour shopping for one of our upcoming receptions.  I generally dislike grocery shopping and find shopping in Albania tedious at best.  I find grocery stores here to be poorly laid out, selections minimal, and store employees to be unhelpful at best and downright rude at their worst.  But what's a girl to do when she needs to feed her family?  That day I had a long list of foods to purchase, and on that list were several cheese dishes with corresponding wine needs.  Being unsure as to whether or not I would be able to find the exact pairing of wine and cheese, I was meandering through the empty aisles browsing their selections and making notes.  Granted, their selection of both items was not vast but in this town, it is most comprehensive around. 

As I jotted notes in front of the white wine section I was approached by a man who stopped a mere inches away from me and stared.  He was so close that I could smell both his breath and even more pungent body odor. I took a step back and he lunged forward to take my piece of paper from my hand.  If I understood him correctly, he was telling me that I wasn't allowed to write in the store.  In Albanian I told him I was shopping for a large purchase and proceeded to ignore him.  He started yelling something but eventually walked away.

I went about my business making my way over to the cheese case via the meat counter where I made several selections.  As I was looking critically at the cheese selection- which really isn't that impressive- I was approached by another man who stood even closer to me.  This one showed me a store identification badge and proceeded to rudely tell me that I wasn't allowed to write anything down while I was in the store.  At this point I was merely holding my piece of paper and no longer had a pen in my hand.  In Albanian, I told him that I was planning a large party and needed to make sure they had all of the ingredients I was looking for. Inside I was fuming and wondering about the level of "customer service" in the store but I put my best diplomatic skills to the test throughout this conversation. He told me it didn't matter and that he would have to take my paper from me.  Out of principal I refused.  I mean, what harm was my paper that listed possible food combinations for the coming week?  

I usually avoid using the "American" card - and usually I don't have to since I look so obviously American- but the man was persisting.  This time I started by explaining that I was a diplomat with the American Embassy and I was simply shopping.  His whole attitude immediately changed and he switched to a mix of rapid fire Albanian and Italian and told me everything was o.k. or as the Albanians say "shume mire."  He quickly scurried away but in my mind, everything wasn't shume mire.

I was left with a horrible feeling.  In our nine months here, this was the first time I was treated like this.  But my issue isn't just with the way I was treated; rather it is the way customers are treated in general.  I don't know what made me angrier, my initial treatment or the about face change in attitude once he learned that I was an American.  My initial reaction was to abandon my shopping cart right there and leave the store.  The more practical part of me realized that our dinner was in there and Sidney's appetite wouldn't be sated by his mother standing on her principles.  I quickly made my way to the check out with my mind racing.  As I paid for my few groceries I made the decision that I will not be returning to Carrefour anytime soon.  It doesn't matter if it is the most convenient and best stocked grocery store.  In my opinion, a store who treats their customers so rudely doesn't deserve my business.  I will stand by my principles and not give that company any more of my business.  Even if this means I'm regulated to eating nothing but "white cheese" for the next two years.